He’s American literature’s titan of terror. The writer who created some of the most iconic names in sci-fi. In his 46 short years of life, H.P. Lovecraft was responsible for the alien god Cthulhu, the Necronomicon book of the dead, and the haunted town of Arkham where things always go bump in the night. He inspired everyone from Stephen King, to Jorge Luis Borges, to the writers of Batman. His work has so penetrated pop culture that you can even buy plush toys of his creepiest monsters.
Yet H.P. Lovecraft was a man virtually unknown in his lifetime. Living as a recluse in Rhode Island, he created a sprawling fictional universe that fused traditional horror with cutting-edge science in new and revolutionary ways… then died before more than a handful of people could read it. In this video, we explore how this virtual hermit overcame sickness, isolation and his own foul prejudices to become the 20th Century’s master of horror.
Birth: The Shadow Over Providence
One of the recurring themes in Lovecraft’s work is ordinary families hiding dark secrets in their lineage. You don’t have to look too hard to find the inspiration for this.
On August 20, 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born into the stately ancestral home of one of the oddest families in Providence. His mother’s side were wealthy aristocrats with rumors of inbreeding in their backgrounds, while his father was a travelling salesman already suffering from undiagnosed syphilis. Before young Howard was even three, dad had a nervous breakdown brought on by his disease and was confined to a lunatic asylum. Although the old man lived another five years, Lovecraft would never see him again.
Despite this obvious setback, Lovecraft’s mother Sarah tried to give her child a relatively normal life. The two moved in with her father, the incredibly wealthy, gloriously mustachioed Whipple van Buren Phillips.
It was here that Lovecraft got his first taste for the uncanny. One of Whipple’s party tricks was to invent chilling ghost stories off the cuff, much to the delight of his grandson.
Still, Whipple couldn’t make up for the obvious hole in young Lovecraft’s life. From almost the day his father collapsed, Lovecraft was paralyzed by psychological maladies. At the age of six he began having night terrors of faceless men that were so acute he could be left trembling for days. Perhaps it’s no surprise he barely attended school.
Not that Sarah was raising a dum-dum. Whipple’s house was stacked with books. Even as he missed school, Lovecraft was reading his way through the Arabian Nights, through Edgar Allen Poe, through scientific journals.
By 1898, Lovecraft was a self-declared atheist scientist producing his own homemade magazines on geology. Strange as his childhood was, it was at least stable.
Sadly, that wouldn’t last.
On March 27, 1904, Whipple suffered a massive stroke. He died the next day. Immediately, Lovecraft’s life was turned upside down.
It turned out Whipple’s finances had been badly mismanaged. Within days of his death, Lovecraft and his mother Sarah were evicted from the house and forced to move into a cramped apartment. The shock was so great that Lovecraft – by now a boy of fourteen – contemplated drowning himself in the Barrington River.
Although it wouldn’t come out into the open for another few years, the day Whipple died is effectively the day Sarah and her son both went mad. In 1908, Lovecraft would suffer a catastrophic breakdown related to the tragedy. Unable to finish high school, unable to attend university, he locked himself away with his mother, cutting off all contact with society. Over the next five years, the pair’s relationship turned toxic.
If Whipple’s death had damaged Lovecraft, it had twisted Sarah. She became verbally abusive toward her teenage son, calling him “grotesque” and telling him to never leave her side.
By 1913, the two were living as codependent recluses. Lovecraft never left home before sunset, and spent his endless free time doing nothing but reading pulp magazines. It’s at this time he seems to have developed both a crippling social anxiety, and his abnormal fear of the cold.
In short, Lovecraft’s life was painfully depressing. Poor, lacking in friends and goals, he was in danger of simply vanishing from history.
But his life was about to be saved by the unlikeliest of heroes. A romance novelist.
1913 – 1922: The Outsider
You’ve probably never heard of Fred Jackson. Had you mentioned his name to H.P. Lovecraft in 1913, though, the Rhode Island recluse would have vomited up blood. A shameless trash merchant par excellence, Jackson’s insipid tales of cliched love stuffed the pages of The Argosy, a magazine Lovecraft – perhaps somewhat masochistically – often read.
Finally fed up with this hack, Lovecraft did exactly what any angry weirdo living alone with his mom would do. He trolled him. Through 1913, Lovecraft sent a sea of letters to The Argosy, attacking Jackson’s lack of talent. And each time, he did it rhyme.
It was a bizarre thing to do. Almost childish. It was also the thing that made Lovecraft’s career.
By 1914, this weird letter writer had reached the attention of Edward F. Daas, President of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). Intrigued, Daas read some of Lovecraft’s anti-Jackson poems. Apparently he like them, because he offered Lovecraft a job.
And so began one of the unlikeliest literary careers in history. Perhaps flattered by Daas’ attention, the 24-year old Lovecraft took to amateur press work like an unspeakable sea demon to water. He wrote essays. Published magazines. Composed poems. He even finally left his mother’s stifling embrace and made some friends.
Good job, too, because it was those friends who convinced him to try his hand at fiction. Lovecraft had written stories as a child before, but never anything serious, until summer 1917. That was when the now 27-year old Lovecraft sat down and wrote Dagon.
The story of a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself trapped on a mysterious island filled with the ruins of some hideous civilization, Dagon is a short, creepy piece that already contained the seeds of Lovecraft’s greatest works. It’s free to read online, if you fancy some homework, but the important point is that this is the moment. The moment when Lovecraft the weird, lonely recluse vanished, and Lovecraft the weird, lonely writer arrived.
Not that this transition came without tragedy.
In 1919, Lovecraft’s mother Sarah had a total breakdown. Confined to the same lunatic asylum her husband had died in, she spent two more years raving before dying herself in May 1921. Suddenly orphaned, still too strange to fend for himself, Lovecraft was taken in by his snobbish aunts Lillian D. Clark and Annie E. Phillips Gamwell. It would not be a happy relationship.
But before we dive into that, it’s time we introduced the last significant character in the life of H.P. Lovecraft: Sonia Haft Greene.
A Russian Jew seven years Lovecraft’s senior, Sonia was a known face on the amateur press scene. Independently wealthy from her successful hat store, she bankrolled several low budget magazines.
Barely two weeks after Sarah’s death, Sonia was visiting a UAPA convention in Boston when she was introduced to the newly orphaned Lovecraft. Somehow, the two hit it off.
What followed wasn’t exactly a Fred Jackson-style romance. Lovecraft was so disinterested in sex that Sonia had to cajole him into making love by giving him textbooks on romance to study. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she would later claim Lovecraft was a virgin when they met.
Still, the two really did like one another. On March 3, 1924 they wed in a secret ceremony, only informing Lovecraft’s disapproving aunts by letter.
Not long after, Lovecraft left Rhode Island and moved in with Sonia in New York. It was spring, 1924, and life was good. Lovecraft was having his first stories professionally published in Weird Tales and Sonia’s hat business was booming. Things were finally getting on track!
New York: The Horror at Red Hook
Except, of course, it couldn’t last. Sonia was unwell. By the end of 1924, her illness was eating up so much of her time that the hat shop had gone bust. Lovecraft had meanwhile bungled his one shot at a stable income by turning down the opportunity to edit a rival pulp magazine to Weird Tales. Come Christmas, 1924, the two were broke.
On January 1, 1925, Sonia moved alone to Cleveland to take up a job. Left behind in New York, Lovecraft rented a tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s notorious Red Hook. It was a mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft hated Red Hook. HATED it. Surrounded by immigrants, suddenly alone and broke again, he descended into a twisted bitterness that found its expression in the worst kind of racism.
Yep, it’s time for us to talk about the demonic Elder God in the room. Lovecraft was a bounding racist, the sort of person it’s hard to believe exists outside Daily Stormer message boards.
In 1912, for example, aged 22, he’d written a poem called On the Creation of Niggers, referring to black people as “beasts” and “semi-human figure(s)”. He was also a raging anti-Semite. He once wrote of New York City:
“The population is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight.”
Lest we be accused of unfair treatment, we should note here that Lovecraft’s racism was more complex than it at first appears.
You probably remember from two whole minutes ago that his wife Sonia was herself Jewish. Well, she wasn’t the only Jewish friend Lovecraft had. Tablet magazine notes the pulp writer Robert Bloch – who would pen the novel Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based on – was a friend of Lovecraft’s, as was poet Samuel Loveman.
Lovecraft, then, was a man who was openly racist, but only in the abstract sense. Faced with people he personally liked who weren’t white protestants, Lovecraft seems to have had no problems discarding his racial beliefs.
Not that there were many people Lovecraft liked in Red Hook. As 1925 dragged on, the reclusive writer’s feelings towards foreigners turned into something close to horror, the dread he felt surrounded by a sea of non-white faces into a genuine phobia.
It’s since been argued that this phobia influence Lovecraft’s work itself. With his tales of nameless forces and unknowable aliens, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Lovecraft was simply channeling his inner feelings toward New York’s multicultural population. If that’s the case, at least something good came of his poisonous thoughts.
By early 1926, Lovecraft had had enough. He wrote to his aunts, Lilian and Annie, begging for help. The two agreed to engineer his return to Providence, but at a price. Sonia would never move to Rhode Island or see her husband again.
Exhausted, desperate to get away from the city he hated so much, Lovecraft agreed. Although he still claimed to love Sonia, he moved back to Providence on April 17, 1926. He would never see his wife again.
The Call of Cthulhu
In summer 1926, a hideous creature rose out the waters of the South Pacific.
“A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind”, the monster towered not just over all who saw it, but over horror fiction itself.
Its name was Cthulhu. And it was to become the most important of all of Lovecraft’s creations.
The star of short story The Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu was Lovecraft’s first creation after returning to Providence. An Elder God biding his time in the depths of the sea, waiting for the moment humanity will awaken him and destroy the world, Cthulhu has gripped our imaginations ever since. There’s even a region on Pluto named Cthulhu Macula.
Yet, at the moment he first raised his unspeakable head from the waves, Cthulhu seemed destined for obscurity. Newly arrived back from New York, Lovecraft had little hope for his latest monster beyond a small paycheck and some fleeting recognition.
Luckily, his friends had other ideas.
So, remember how we talked about Lovecraft finally making some real friends after joining UAPA, way back in 1914? Well, over the years, they’d evolved into quite the little circle of pen pals. Among their number were Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame; Robert E Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian; and writer August Derleth, who’s gonna become really, really important in about five minutes’ time. When these guys read Cthulhu, they went nuts.
Cthulhu was something new. It encouraged everyone in Lovecraft’s circle to start writing their own tales set in the same universe. Over the next decade, the group would build up something called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” It’s the reason we still remember the character of Cthulhu today.
At the same time as the Cthulhu Mythos was growing, Lovecraft went through his most productive streak as a writer. Something about moving back to Rhode Island had energized him. In a handful of years, he wrote some of his greatest hits: The Color Out of Space. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The Shadow Over Innsmouth. At the Mountains of Madness.
If you’re not a Lovecraft fan, just know this is like the Beatles knocking out Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, Yellow Submarine, and Abbey Road one after the other. It was a master working at his peak, conjuring vistas of cyclopean alien cities and eldritch horrors unlike anything readers had ever experienced before.
Lovecraft may have been living in semi-poverty with two domineering aunts and no access to the woman he loved, but it was clearly doing wonders for his productivity. Even the bruising Wall St. Crash of 1929 failed to dent his newfound enthusiasm. As the 1930s got underway, he was even scraping together enough funds to take long jaunts along the coast of his beloved New England.
But, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Lovecraft’s life so far, it’s that all good things must come to a terrible end. And soon enough, they did.
Last Years: The Haunter of the Dark
In 1932, Lovecraft’s aunt Lilian Clark died. Despite her overbearing personality, Lovecraft was devastated. He and his surviving aunt, Annie, were forced to move into a tiny apartment. It was the beginning of a long slide into grinding poverty.
Lovecraft may have been writing his greatest work at this point, but his greatest work was long, complex stuff with no mass appeal. What he and Annie needed were short, punchy tales he could sell regularly, not something like the Antarctic horror of At the Mountains of Madness, which took five years to find a buyer.
But Lovecraft had too much integrity, or perhaps too much stupidity, to lower his standards. He took on ghostwriting work to survive. Way back in 1924 he’d ghostwritten a tale for Harry Houdini and the two had become friends, so maybe this would be just as rewarding?
Sadly, it was not to be. The ghostwriting of Lovecraft’s final years took up all of his time and left him drained and as poor as he’d ever been. He took to eating tins of expired food to survive, when he could afford to eat at all.
Perhaps the one positive achievement Lovecraft made in these gloomy years was to keep up his letter writing. From the days of his trolling letters to The Argosy, Lovecraft had composed letters with a commitment rarely seen before or since. It’s estimated he sent 100,000 letters in his lifetime, second only to the great French philosopher Voltaire.
By spring 1936, Lovecraft had almost given up on his fiction. His only stories since 1933 had been The Shadow Out of Time, now considered a late classic, and the creepy but short Haunter of the Dark.
Why this sudden lack of interest in alien worlds? It may be because Lovecraft had found something else to write about. In the cold New England winter of 1935-36, Lovecraft had begun documenting an illness he was suffering that he named the “grippe.”
In fact it was cancer. As 1936 wore on, it ate away at his intestines until his insides were riddled with tumors. Like the recluse he was, Lovecraft refused to see a doctor.
That summer, more bad news came. Robert E. Howard, the Conan writer and friend of Lovecraft, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The death of his pen pal sent Lovecraft spiraling into a depression of his own from which he never really recovered.
By spring, 1937, it was all too clear that something was deeply wrong. Lovecraft had written nothing but four poems in over a year. He was in constant agony and consumed by black thoughts. Often he would sit alone at night in the cold and gloomy apartment, haunting the darkened room like one of his own creations.
On March 10, 1937, the pain finally became too much. Lovecraft checked himself into Jane Brown Memorial Hospital, but by now the cancer was too far gone for any form of treatment.
Five days later, on March 15, 1937, H.P. Lovecraft passed away. In his last moments, it’s possible he wondered what would become of his work after he had died. If he did, we can only assume he thought his writings – scattered across cheap pulp magazines – would soon be forgotten.
He hadn’t counted on August Derleth.
After Death: The Writer Out of Time
Remember we mentioned that August Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s writer friends, and was gonna become really, really important to this story at some point? Well, this is that point.
After Lovecraft died, Derleth decided to give the old master the literary send-off he deserved. In August 1939, Derleth founded Arkham House publishers specifically to put out hardback editions of Lovecraft’s stories. The Outsider and Others appeared the same year and was resoundingly… not a success. Its advance orders came to a mere 150 copies. When one wound up at the New Yorker’s offices, they gave it a dreadful review.
But here’s the thing about Derleth. He may have been a hack writer who utterly failed to grasp what Lovecraft was trying to do with his fiction, but he was a loyal friend. A loyal friend who just happened to have very deep pockets.
Over the next few years, Derleth kept Arkham House afloat, putting out volume after volume of Lovecraft’s tales. He even had them translated into foreign languages.
This turned out to be an excellent move.
Over in postwar France, the French translations of Lovecraft’s work became hugely popular. It helped that Paris intellectuals already considered Edgar Allen Poe a literary titan, and Lovecraft was clearly Poe’s 20th Century successor.
By the 1960s, Lovecraft was so popular abroad that it made financial sense for Arkham House to rerelease his stories stateside. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Lovecraft reappeared on the scene just as a new wave of films was making horror popular again. Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, not to mention the first US releases of Britain’s Hammer Horror films sparked a surge of interest in weird fiction. Legions of people who’d never read horror or sci-fi before flocked to Lovecraft. By the 1970s, the gentleman from Providence had a serious fanbase.
What followed was a dizzying embrace of an author who’d only ever written for pulp magazines. In 1974, Batman’s writers borrowed the idea of Arkham Asylum from Lovecraft. In 1977, super-fan Stephen King exploded onto the literary scene with Carrie, and spent the rest of his career encouraging others to read Lovecraft.
That same year, a group of American fans cobbled together enough cash to replace Lovecraft’s small tombstone with a gigantic, stately one bearing the legend “I am Providence”. The cult of Lovecraft, like the cults that gather around Great Cthulhu in his stories, could no longer be ignored.
In the years since, the myth of Lovecraft has only grown. Today, his stories have entered the canon of American fiction. Both Penguin Classics and Library of America have released volumes. People as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Guillermo Del Toro have been influenced by him. He’s arguably the best known horror writer whose name isn’t Edgar Allen Poe.
But perhaps the best way to explain the enduring appeal of H.P. Lovecraft is through the words of Erica Henderson, the Marvel artist responsible for Squirrel Girl. Speaking to The Guardian in 2013, she said:
“Lovecraft made a world where humans are alone, floating on a rock in a terrifying larger universe that we cannot possibly comprehend because our time in it has been so short and we are so insignificant compared to the horrors from the Cthulhu Mythos. So much of modern horror is based on that idea. We wouldn’t have Ghostbusters if it weren’t for Lovecraft – and that’s the best argument I can think of for his work.”
He may have been a weirdo, he may have held despicable beliefs, but Lovecraft was an artist who would come to influence the very way we think about horror. From his twisted mind he brought us nightmares we’d never even dreamed of before, nightmares that still haunt us to this very day.
Biography by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi: http://www.hplovecraft.com/life/biograph.aspx
(writing and publication dates): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft_bibliography
(details on the Cthulhu mythos and related writers): https://medium.com/@AurochDigital/the-mainstreaming-of-cthulhu-how-a-fringe-horror-creation-became-popular-5598dcb7795e
(How HPL went mainstream): https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/hp-lovecraft-125/401471/
An essay on HPL and anti-Semitism: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/257169/my-favorite-anti-semite-h-p-lovecraft
Erica Henderson on HPL: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/03/hp-lovecraft-writer-out-time
(some additional facts not found elsewhere, including abusive mother): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/20/ten-things-you-should-know-about-hp-lovecraft
Inbreeding in HPL’s maternal line: (http://alangullette.com/lit/hpl/gent.htm)
Letter attacking Fred Jackson: https://thelovecraftarchives.wordpress.com/tag/fred-jackson/
Dagon full story: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/d.aspx
On the Creation of Niggers: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Creation_of_Niggers