Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Aug. 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) was an New England writer of weird pulp fiction and is considered the father of modern horror fiction.
Lovecraft’s work is frighteningly monstrous and otherworldly and frequently features terrifyingly unnatural anatomy. In reading his work, one doesn’t have to wait long before he hits you between the eyes, which no doubt works with the short attention spans of the current generation. He is popular in the current zeitgeist.
There is enormous energy in the culture devoted to slicing and dicing Lovecraft, so we felt a post could at least give readers an idea of what the fuss is all about.
Lovecraft most likely had borderline personality disorder combined with high focus Ausperger’s. Typical of these Van Gogh personality types, Lovecraft was never able to support himself from earnings as an author and editor.
He was virtually unknown during his lifetime and was almost exclusively published in pulp magazines before he died of stomach cancer and in poverty at the age of 46. His photograph is a virtual caricature of a weird sci-fi writer.
The death in 1896 of his grandmother Robie had a profound effect on Lovecraft. By his own account, it sent his family into “a gloom from which it never fully recovered.” His mother’s and aunts’ wearing of black mourning dresses “terrified” him, and it’s at this time that Lovecraft — approximately 5-and-a-half years old at the time — started having nightmares that would influence his later writings. Specifically, he began to have recurring nightmares of beings he termed “night-gaunts.” Nearly every Lovecraft story involves nightmares and visions.
H.P.’s father, Winfield, in April 1893, after a psychotic episode in a Chicago hotel, was committed to Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Medical records indicate that he had been “doing and saying strange things at times” for a year before his commitment. Winfield spent five years in Butler before dying in 1898. His death certificate listed the cause of death as general paresis, a term synonymous with late-stage syphilis.
From Wikipedia we learn that his grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips was a well-off American businessman from Providence. He owned much of the land in and around the town of Greene, Rhode Island. There, he founded Freemason Ionic Lodge No. 28 in 1870.
He encouraged the young Lovecraft to have an appreciation of literature. Lovecraft by the age of 3 was already proficient at reading and writing. In his old age, Whipple helped raise young H.P. and educated him not only in the classics but also in original weird tales of “winged horrors” and “deep, low, moaning sounds,” which he created for his grandchild’s entertainment. The exact sources of Phillips’ weird tales have not been identified.
On March 27, 1904, Whipple was seized by a “paralytic shock” (likely a stroke). He died the following day at his home at 454 Angell Street.
After the death of his grandfather, H.P. was under the care of his doting and by all accounts nuts mother, Susie, and his crazy aunts. Lovecraft as an adolescent — although a good student — was the proto-typical nerdy loner and suffered from depression and, it would seem, hallucinations. Fortunately this was not an era for readily available street drugs, which probably kept H.P. in the game for posterity.
An account from a high school classmate described Lovecraft as exhibiting “terrible tics.” At times “he’d be sitting in his seat and he’d suddenly up and jump.” In another letter concerning the events of 1908, Lovecraft stated that he “could hardly bear to see or speak to anyone, and liked to shut out the world by pulling down dark shades and using artificial light.”
H.P. also had a firm grasp of occultism. Lovecraft’s fiction tends to elevate the cosmos to a level of mysticism that’s a darkly revered constant that cannot possibly be explained, let alone harnessed, by humanity.
Lovecraft has said that as a child he was enamored of the Roman pantheon of gods, accepting them as genuine expressions of divinity and foregoing his Christian upbringing. He recalled, at 5 years old, being told Santa Claus did not exist and retorting by asking why “God is not equally a myth.”
Lovecraft’s first poem appeared in a local newspaper in 1912. Called “Providence in 2000 A.D.,” the poem envisioned a gloomy future where people of English heritage were displaced by immigrants. Surviving unpublished poems from this period, most notoriously “On the Creation of Niggers,” were also emblematic influences on much of Lovecraft’s later work.
At age 14, Lovecraft produced the first of the types of fiction he would later be known for, namely “The Beast in the Cave” and “The Alchemist.”
Lovecraft was a fervent “anti-semite,” although further demonstrating his contrary oddness, he was married between 1924 and 1926 to a New York Jewess, Sonia Greene, who supported and helped him with his writing career. Although still struggling, Lovecraft refused to take other work.
Sonia stated that they had a great sex life in which she was the aggressor and he was the sub.
Lovecraft’s weight ballooned to 200 pounds on his wife’s home cooking. They split because H.P. wished to return to Providence. Back home, Lovecraft lost the excess weight, turned it up a notch and entered his most prolific period of writing.
Lovecraft had a continual and rather eugenic character theme around bad karma and bad seed. These traits would come back to haunt his protagonists as seen in an almost risible Lovecraft favorite of mine “The Rats in the Walls.”
He was an advocate for amateurism versus commercialism in writing. He was appointed chairman of the Department of Public Criticism of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). Emblematic of the Anglophile opinions that he maintained throughout his life, he openly criticized other UAPA contributors for their “Americanisms” and “slang.” Often these criticisms were couched in arguments bemoaning the “bastardization” of the “national language” by immigrants.
Virtually all his writings include vivid nightmares and excursions into dark places, caves, dank forests and old abandoned places. Past, present and future become blurry, almost interchangeable terms in Lovecraft’s world.
He definitely wasn’t, however, a “man as God” proponent. In fact, there is no God as protector. In his view, humanity was an unimportant part of an uncaring cosmos that could be swept away at any moment.
In the stories, you are an armchair time-traveler. Curtains that separate past from present and present from future are literally torn away. There are portals to the past and the future. Why does time even need to exist for humans? The answer is obvious: horror.
In his story “He,” H.P. described one of his nocturnal walks in New York City, where he lived for a few years in 1920s and hated. “He” views pastoral scenes of New York City prior to industrialization and settlement and then horrifies with a vision of the future.
“I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces and impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon.”
Humankind, outmatched by horrific forces and holding no special place in the grand scheme of existence, may appear impotent to defend itself against ever-impending doom and disaster.
But this is not entirely the case. Lovecraft’s stories utilize temporality, whereby the protagonists is looking in but can hide behind the walls of the present and shield themselves from these lurking horrific entities. The protagonist physically survives these experiences but gets rattled or get their feathers ruffled. Kind of like reading Winter Watch, except we expose a non-cartoon world of nonfiction horror. No doubt, if truth be known, most people would by far prefer the fiction of Lovecraft.
Another one of my favorites is “The Shadow Out of Time.” The character Dr. Nathaniel Peaslee is repeated in other stories. Out of the blue Peaslee’s mind is ripped from his body by a race of time-traveling alien beings who have no physical form. These beings have taken residence as a race of sentient mollusk-like creatures that populated the earth millions of years ago, and through “the power of their keener minds to project themselves into the past or future. Thus they learned all things that ever were known or ever would be known.”
Peaslee’s mind was placed in one of the alien bodies of the long forgotten past. Peaslee, however, is far from a prisoner and is allowed to interact with other individuals who have had their minds and transferred into something of a trans-temporal commune of intellectual exchange. Eventually, Peaslee’s mind is returned to his body, and he attempts to resume his life. He is, however, psychologically disturbed by his experience.
During his time in the body of the alien, Peaslee mind is distorted in order to understand that the past, the present and the future can become one vast panorama without discrete junctures. Sounds like grist for a three-hour conversation topic among pot heads.
Winter Watch Takeaway
Although amazed by his non-stop verbiage and huge vocabulary, this writer finds Lovecraft’s longer writings to be tedious. But short reads set to animation are revealing and entertaining and even funny in a mad bump-in-the-night kind of way.
I also believe one of Lovecraft’s themes is “merciful ignorance,” or suggestions that it is best to remain a pajama person. In this state, humans can continue living mundane existences in their constructed present and turn blind eyes toward impending annihilation. That said, I don’t think Lovecraft is a dark triad discordian who presents clear and present danger to his readers or the culture.
Like alcohol and cheesecake, you can (and should) enjoy Lovecraft in small doses. Don’t get carried away, and be aware of the implant messaging. There’s no doubt that he’s a genius with words.