[This is a slightly revised reprint of a column which originally appeared in the October 28, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
One of the most influential of the Old Masters is H.P. Lovecraft. Though denigrated by some critics for purple prose and tortuous passages, he is one of the most widely read and imitated writers of weird fiction.
H.P. (Howard Phillips) Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. Lovecraft was seven when his father died, and he was reared by his mother, two aunts, and grandfather. A precocious lad, Lovecraft started reciting poetry when he was two years old and reading when he was three, with his earliest reading passions being Arabian Nights and Greek mythology. He began writing around age six or seven. His earliest surviving literary work is “The Poem of Ulysses” (1897), which was based on The Odyssey. He already had an interest in weird fiction, thanks to his grandfather’s telling him impromptu weird stories, and his first story, which is lost, was “The Noble Eavesdropper” (1896?).
Because of frequent illness, the young Lovecraft was often absent from elementary school, but he learned much through independent reading, and he developed an early interest in science. This led to his producing two homemade scientific journals, The Scientific Gazette (1899-1907) and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (1903-1907), which he gave to his friends.
Lovecraft’s first appearance in print was a letter on an astronomical matter to The Providence Sunday Journal (1906). He then began writing a monthly astronomy column for The Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner. He also wrote columns for The Providence Tribune (1906-08), The Providence Evening News (1914-18), and The Asheville (N.C.) Gazette-News (1915).
In 1904, Lovecraft’s grandfather died. His death caused the family great financial hardship, and they had to move from their Victorian mansion to a much smaller house. Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908, which prevented his graduation from high school and his later attempt to enroll at Brown University. For the next five years, Lovecraft lived as a recluse.
His seclusion was broken in 1913 when he wrote a letter in verse to Argosy magazine, attacking a writer of love stories in that magazine. A battle-of-letters ensued, with Lovecraft writing most of his in verse. These letters attracted the attention of the United Amateur Press Association, an organization of amateur writers who published their own magazines. Lovecraft accepted the invitation of the president of the UAPA to join. Subsequently, he published 13 issues of his own magazine, The Conservative (1915-1923), and he contributed many poems and essays to other amateur journals. He later joined the National Amateur Press Association. It was his experiences with these organizations and the amateur journals under their umbrellas that saved his artistic life.
In 1917, at the urging of others, Lovecraft resumed writing fiction, which he had abandoned in 1908. He wrote “The Tomb” and “Dagon” in 1917, and a steady stream of other stories followed, though his main output for the next several years continued to be poetry and essays. He also became involved in writing letters to various regular correspondents, making him one of the most prolific letter-writers of the century.
In 1919, Lovecraft’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and she died two years later. Her death shattered Lovecraft, but he recovered after a few years. On the Fourth of July in 1921, he attended an amateur journalism convention in Boston, where he met Sonia Haft Greene, whom he would marry on March 3, 1924. After the wedding, they lived in her Brooklyn apartment. Sonia had a successful shop in Manhattan, and Lovecraft started seeing the possibility of a promising career as a writer through his sale of stories to Weird Tales.
The pulp magazine Weird Tales first hit the newsstands in 1923 (and is still published). Lovecraft was an early and frequent contributor to the magazine, firmly establishing him as a professional writer. In his stories, he combined ancient demonology with the then-recent theories of space, time, and relativity to create a new kind of horror. In the process, he created the well known Cthulhu mythos, Cthulhu being a fourth-dimension monster. The Cthulhu mythos remains popular to this day, with magazines and anthologies of Cthulhu-inspired fiction and even a role-playing game.
The couple’s success did not last long. Sonia’s shop went bankrupt, and her health failed. Lovecraft turned down the chance to edit a companion magazine to Weird Tales because he would have had to move to Chicago. The couple separated in 1925 when Sonia moved to Cleveland to take a job. Lovecraft was forced to move to the seedy Red Hook section of Brooklyn. In 1926, he moved back to Providence. His aunts were successful in thwarting Sonia’s move there, and the marriage failed. Lovecraft and Sonia were divorced in 1929.
In November 1925, W. Paul Cook invited Lovecraft to submit an essay on weird fiction to The Recluse, Cook’s amateur journal. Thus began “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), which is regarded as the finest critical analysis of then-modern weird fiction. To prepare for writing this essay, Lovecraft embarked on an exhaustive and systematic reading of horror fiction.
In the ten years that Lovecraft lived in Providence before his death, he flourished. He traveled widely, continued his prolific correspondence, and published his greatest fiction, including “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), “The Colour out of Space” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), At the Mountains of Madness (1931), “The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), and many others.
During this period, Lovecraft was a mentor for many writers who eventually found success. These included Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth, all of whom were important contributors to Weird Tales, as well as Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei, and Fritz Leiber.
The last two or three years of his life were difficult for Lovecraft. His one aunt died, and he moved in with his other aunt. His stories during this period became increasingly complex and lengthy, and proved difficult to sell. He was forced to resort to ghost-writing stories, poems, and non-fiction.
In early 1937, after being sick and in pain for some time, Lovecraft was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine. At this point, nothing could be done about it, and he died of the disease on March 10, 1937.
As he saw his death approaching, Lovecraft also saw what he considered the coming oblivion of his work. The only real book of his that was published during his lifetime was the crudely printed The Shadow Over Innsmouth. But his works would not be lost, thanks to Derleth and Wandrei, who were determined to preserve their mentor’s stories. They founded Arkham House for the purpose of publishing the works of Lovecraft. Their first publication was The Outsider and Others (1939). Many other volumes of Lovecraft works followed, and Arkham continues publishing to this day. Eventually, Lovecraft’s works became available in paperback and were translated into many languages.
Besides Arkham House, other publishers issued Lovecraft’s works and books about him. Hippocampus Press has many Lovecraft books available, including an annotated edition of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and it publishes the journals Lovecraft Studies and Lovecraft Annual. Wildside Press and Necronomicon Press also have many books about Lovecraft. Chaosium, Inc., publishes the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game based upon Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.