A Week to Remember: H. P. Lovecraft

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
H. P. Lovecraft and his sketch of his Cthulhu

H. P. Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890. While he was not well-known during his lifetime, Lovecraft developed a strong following after his death and is now recognized as one of America’s most important writers of horror fiction.

Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he spent most of his life. He was a sickly child, and illnesses of various sorts seem to have plagued his family. His father was committed to a mental hospital when Lovecraft was 3 and died when he was 8, probably from late-stage syphilis. He was raised by his mother, her sisters, and her parents, with his grandfather becoming the primary father figure in his life. Lovecraft learned to read and write very early, and was reportedly corresponding by letter with his grandfather (who was frequently away on business trips) by the age of four. Lovecraft’s grandmother died when he was five, and he was so terrified by the black mourning dresses that his mother and aunts wore that he began to have nightmares of being visited by terrible creatures.

As a child, Lovecraft had a variety of health problems of his own and spent as much time being tutored at home as he spent in school. In 1908, shortly before he was to graduate from high school, he suffered a major health crisis. He would later describe it as a “sort of breakdown” or “nervous collapse.” The evidence we have from Lovecraft’s friends at the time suggests that it may have been some sort of neurological disorder, perhaps a rare post-adolescence case of St. Vitus’ dance. Whatever the problem was, it was serious enough to prevent Lovecraft from completing his final year of high school.

Lovecraft’s first publication came at the age of 22 when a local newspaper published a poem he had written. He frequently wrote letters to the editors of several "pulp" and “weird fiction” magazines, as a result of those letters, he was invited to join the United Amateur Press Association. Amateur press associations produced what might be called the forerunner to today’s zines; members submitted their writing to the association, which collated it into an inexpensively published booklet and distributed it to the members. Lovecraft began publishing stories in poems in UAPA publications in the mid-1910s and was elected president of the group in 1917.

In the mid-1920s, Lovecraft began writing the stories for which he is best known today, a series of loosely linked stories set in a universe that came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos. These stories imagine a race of beings called the Great Old Ones, aliens with god-like powers who once ruled Earth, but have long since become indifferent to our world. The Old Ones mostly sleep now, but on occasion, one is awakened and becomes involved in human affairs, usually with horrific consequences.

Lovecraft’s horror was usually not the horror of gore and guts; it was a more psychological horror, marked by a sense that something indefinable has gone very wrong in the world. Sanity and reality are thin veils for many of Lovecraft’s characters, and the former can easily be destroyed when they discover the terrible truth that lies beneath the world we see each day. Had the notion of “things man was not meant to know” not existed before Lovecraft, it would have had to be invented for him. Other common themes in Lovecraft’s writing are the impossibility of escaping one’s fate, the belief that we are likely to be punished for the sins of our fathers, and the folly of becoming too reliant on science and assuming that we know everything.

Most difficult for today’s reader is Lovecraft’s extreme xenophobia and racism. He mellowed on this subject somewhat during his life. As a young man, he believed that only those of English descent were genuinely worthy; by the end of his life, he was grudgingly willing to accept others of northern European ancestry and even married a Jewish woman. But his writing is filled with disparaging comments about those of other races, and even some of his aliens can easily be read as allegorical vehicles for similar opinions. (Matt Ruff’s horror/historical fiction novel Lovecraft Country (e-book | e-audio | print) uses that aspect of Lovecraft’s writing as a springboard, suggesting that for black families in 1954, otherworldly alien gods might not be nearly as frightening as daily life under Jim Crow.)

4 book covers from Lovecraft

Some of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories were published in the then-new pulp magazine Weird Tales, where Lovecraft was offered the job of editor in 1924. He turned down the job, as it would have required him to move to Chicago. “Think of the tragedy of such a move for an aged antiquarian,” the 34-year-old wrote to a friend.

Also in 1924, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene. He moved to New York, where she had an apartment. Shortly thereafter, she fell ill—yet another mysterious illness in Lovecraft’s life—and even after she recovered, she was rarely at home, as she frequently traveled for business. In 1926, Lovecraft returned to Providence. After several years of a long-distance marriage, Lovecraft and Sonia agreed to a divorce. She remarried in 1936, not knowing that he had never actually signed their divorce papers.

Lovecraft was never able to support himself financially as a writer. Much of his work was published in amateur press association publications, which weren’t widely read beyond their members, and even when he was published professionally, it was in pulp magazines that had a relatively small audience and certainly weren’t taken seriously in literary circles. In addition, Lovecraft was very sensitive to rejection, and often gave up on a story if a single publisher turned it down, rather than submitting it to other possible markets.

He survived by living very frugally; his grandfather had been a successful businessman and left some money for the family. But the illnesses of Lovecraft’s parents had eaten away at that inheritance, and Lovecraft was barely above poverty at the end of his life. He died on March 15, 1937, of cancer of the small intestine, which had left him in great pain and malnutrition in his final months.

Lovecraft’s reputation grew after his death. Other writers in his circle had begun writing their own stories in the Cthulhu Mythos universe while Lovecraft was still alive, most notably his friend August Derleth, who in 1939 founded the publishing house Arkham House (named for the fictional Massachusetts town that appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories) to publish Lovecraft’s stories. Arkham House became a respected publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and their volumes of Lovecraft’s writing became popular with the 1960s counterculture movement. Authors continue to write stories set in Lovecraft’s world, and several collections of new Cthulhu stories are available as e-books from OverDrive.

As for Lovecraft’s own writing, he wrote mostly short stories. There are a few short novels, of which the best known are The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (e-book), At the Mountains of Madness (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (e-book); the latter was the only one of his works to be published in book form during his lifetime. There are several options for approaching his writing; there’s a complete Lovecraft edition (e-book), containing all of his stories; for a more selective approach, the Library of America acknowledged his place in the literary canon with a volume of his best stories (e-book | print).

W. Scott Poole’s biography of Lovecraft is called In the Mountains of Madness (e-book | e-audio | print).