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H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft

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Although largely overlooked during his lifetime, within the pantheon of American horror and fantasy fiction, author H.P. Lovecraft arguably fell directly between acknowledged masters Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. Sickly, emotionally frail, and reclusive for most of his life, he was, nonetheless, a tenaciously prolific writer who produced a vast body of work that would live on well past its creator’s brief 47 years. With his short stories and novellas, Lovecraft created mythologies of gothic horror with "The Tomb" (1917), otherworldly dimensions in "The Colour Out of Space (1927), and ancient, mad gods bent on the destruction of mankind with "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931). His literary shadow touched an amazingly diverse range of mediums and their practitioners. Arkham Asylum, the prison for the criminally insane in the world of comic book superhero Batman, was a direct reference to Lovecraft’s fictional New England town. Surrealist "biomechanical" artist H.R. Giger – concept designer for Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film "Alien" (1979) – often cited the author’s literary visions as a major influence on his work. Director John Carpenter’s gory masterpiece of paranoia and terror, "The...

Although largely overlooked during his lifetime, within the pantheon of American horror and fantasy fiction, author H.P. Lovecraft arguably fell directly between acknowledged masters Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. Sickly, emotionally frail, and reclusive for most of his life, he was, nonetheless, a tenaciously prolific writer who produced a vast body of work that would live on well past its creator’s brief 47 years. With his short stories and novellas, Lovecraft created mythologies of gothic horror with "The Tomb" (1917), otherworldly dimensions in "The Colour Out of Space (1927), and ancient, mad gods bent on the destruction of mankind with "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931). His literary shadow touched an amazingly diverse range of mediums and their practitioners. Arkham Asylum, the prison for the criminally insane in the world of comic book superhero Batman, was a direct reference to Lovecraft’s fictional New England town. Surrealist "biomechanical" artist H.R. Giger – concept designer for Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film "Alien" (1979) – often cited the author’s literary visions as a major influence on his work. Director John Carpenter’s gory masterpiece of paranoia and terror, "The Thing" (1982), also bore the unmistakable imprint of Lovecraft’s influence. As the genres of fantasy and horror grew in stature throughout popular culture and art in the 20th Century, so too did the macabre literary legacy of H.P. Lovecraft.

Born Howard Phillips Lovecraft on Aug. 20, 1890 in Providence, RI, he was the only son of Sarah Susan Phillips and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman for a silversmith company. While on a business trip in 1893, his father suffered what was described as a nervous breakdown and was consequently admitted to Providence’s Butler Hospital, where he remained until he died of complications from syphilis five years later. From the age of eight onward, Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two-aunts, and his maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a prominent local businessman. He was described as a precocious child, who learned to read and write from an early age. Lovecraft’s literary tastes were greatly influence by his grandfather, who enjoyed telling his own tales of gothic horror to the young boy. Although a voracious reader – early favorites included The Odyssey and The Arabian Nights – poor health prevented him from attending school with any regularity until his early teens. Fascinated by science and astronomy, Lovecraft produced his own journal publications on the subjects, which he distributed to friends and family. In 1903, he finally returned to school fulltime at Hope High School. Tragedy once again struck the family when Lovecraft’s beloved grandfather died in 1904. A short time later, due to financial mismanagement, he and his mother were forced to vacate the ornate Victorian home where Lovecraft had been born and move to much more modest accommodations. It was a traumatic time for the young boy, and in 1908 he suffered an emotional breakdown of his own, which prevented him from graduating high school.

Over the next five years, Lovecraft would live a hermetic existence with his mother, rarely leaving the house or socializing with anyone outside the family. During this period he wrote extensively – mostly poetry and essays, with the occasional foray into fiction. A fan of the early "pulp" magazines, Lovecraft drew attention to himself in 1913 with the publication of his scathing letter of criticism of a story he had read in The Argosy magazine. The ensuing debate that played out in the magazine’s letters column eventually prompted the president of the United Amateur Press Association to invite the opinionated young man to join the organization in 1914. It was in this way that Lovecraft broke out of his shell, and he soon began making regular contributions in the form of poems and the occasional short story, such as "The Tomb" and "Dagon" – both in 1917. It was also during this time that he began corresponding with several other young authors working in the genre termed "weird fiction" – among them, Robert E. Howard, who would later create Conan the Barbarian. By the end of his life, Lovecraft would be considered one of the most prolific letter writers in history. Never having fully recovered from the death of her husband, Lovecraft’s mother was committed to Butler Hospital for depression and hysteria in 1919, and would die of complications from gall bladder surgery two years later. The event proved devastating to an already emotionally fragile and isolated Lovecraft.

Circumstances began to change for him, however, when he met Sonia Greene, a woman seven years his senior, at a journalism convention in 1921. They soon began an extended, long-distance courtship, and after their marriage in 1924, Lovecraft moved to Brooklyn, NY to join her. At first it appeared as though Lovecraft’s fortunes were about to take a turn for the better. Greene owned her own hat shop, and he was beginning to sell stories to Weird Tales with some regularity. Circumstances changed quickly, however, after his wife’s business failed, necessitating her move to Cleveland, OH to secure steady work. Alone in New York and forced to move into a tiny single-room apartment, the professionally inexperienced Lovecraft was unable to find a job of his own. Also around this time, he became increasingly intolerant of the vast immigrant population he felt surrounded by in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook. This growing xenophobia – a byproduct of his sheltered Anglo-Saxon upbringing – soon worked its way into Lovecraft’s fiction, as evidenced by the short story "The Horror of Red Hook" (1924). Bitter and defeated, he returned to Providence, where he moved in with his aunts, Lillian and Annie. Sonia remained in Cleveland, unwelcome by Lovecraft’s aunts, who had always vehemently disapproved of their nephew marrying a common "tradeswoman." Within three years time, he and Sonia were divorced.

Ironically, the years following his return to Providence were by far Lovecraft’s most prolific and fruitful, both creatively and personally. He traveled widely throughout the eastern seaboard, visiting sites of historic antiquity such as Quebec, New England, and Philadelphia. He also expanded the growing circle of friends and fellow writers with whom he corresponded. One such pen pal was a young writer named Robert Bloch, to whom Lovecraft became a literary mentor. Years later, Robert Bloch would go on to write the classic novel of murder and insanity Psycho, which would ultimately be adapted into cinema’s first slasher film by director Alfred Hitchcock. It was around this time that Lovecraft created some of his greatest works of literature, including The Call of Cthulhu (1926) and At the Mountains of Madness (1931) – two seminal works that further established his growing fictional mythology of ancient deities and sinister cults. Despite his modest gains as a writer, financial hardship was never far off. With the death of his Aunt Annie, Lovecraft was forced to move to even smaller quarters with his remaining relative, Lillian. Supporting himself became even more problematic as his stories became increasingly long and complex, making them difficult to sell. To compensate, Lovecraft began ghost-writing for various publications and authors in order to pay the bills. When friend and contemporary Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936, it left Lovecraft bewildered, depressed, and facing his own deteriorating health with a grim certainty. Wracked with tremendous pain from the intestinal cancer he had been diagnosed with, Lovecraft continued to write until he at last consented to enter the hospital, where he died five days later on March 15, 1937.

Other than an amateur printing of The Shadow Over Innsmouth in the year prior to his death, Lovecraft had never professionally published a full-length novel during his lifetime. Fortunately, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei – another pair of young writers and admirers who Lovecraft had mentored – dedicated themselves to preserving and publishing the late author’s writings. Named after one of Lovecraft’s oft-used fictional locales, the publishing firm Arkham House was established, releasing the anthology The Outsiders and Others in 1939. Since that time, Lovecraft’s legacy grew and expanded beyond anything the writer could have imagined. Generations of writers, artists, and filmmakers were influenced by the master of the macabre. Horror writers Stephen King and Clive Barker, comic book creators Alan Moore and Mike Mignola, and film directors John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro all readily acknowledged the debt of gratitude they owed Lovecraft. Even rock bands such as Black Sabbath and Metallica recorded songs directly referencing his writings. Lovecraft’s body of work was adapted – frequently in the loosest sense of the word – into nearly 100 film, television and video game projects. A small sampling included: "The Haunted Place" (1963), "Die, Monster, Die!" (1967), "Re-Animator" (1985), "From Beyond" (1986), and "Dreams of the Witch House" (Showtime, 2005). For years, director Guillermo del Toro stated that his dream project would be to write and direct an epic adaptation of "At the Mountains of Madness" – an ambition that nearly came to pass, until concerns over the required massive budget caused Universal to withdraw its support in 2011.

By Bryce P. Coleman

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