Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Inducted: 1992
Born: 1890
Died: 1937

Howard P. Lovecraft was an American writer of weird, science, fantasy, and horror fiction. If a writing career is evaluated in dollars, he was a failure. He was to writing what Vincent Van Gogh was to painting. Van Gogh never sold a single painting during his lifetime, even though his brother ran an art gallery. He took his own life at age 36. Lovecraft flirted with suicide his whole life, beginning as a teenager, even though he died of cancer at age 47. Lovecraft was relatively unknown during his lifetime. While his stories appeared in prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, not many people knew his name. He was never able to support himself through his writings, living off his grandfather, his mother, and finally, his wife. Meanwhile, Lovecraft was increasingly producing work that brought him no remuneration. Affecting a calm indifference to the reception of his works, Lovecraft was extremely sensitive to criticism. He was known to give up trying to sell a story after it was rejected once. Sometimes, as with The Shadow over Innsmouth, he wrote a story that might have been commercially viable but did not try to sell it. Lovecraft even ignored interested publishers. He failed to reply when one publisher inquired about any novel Lovecraft might have ready. He had completed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but it was never typed up or submitted.

In late 1936, he published The Shadow over Innsmouth as a paperback book. Four hundred copies were printed, and the work was advertised in Weird Tales and several fan magazines. However, Lovecraft was displeased, as this book was riddled with errors that required extensive editing. It sold slowly, and only 200 copies were bound. The remaining 200 copies were destroyed after the publisher went out of business seven years later. By this point, Lovecraft’s literary career was reaching its end. Shortly after having written his last original short story, “The Haunter of the Dark”, he stated that the hostile reception of “At the Mountains of Madness” had done “more than anything to end my effective fictional career.” His declining psychological and physical states made it impossible for him to continue writing fiction, he wrote in his diary. 

Van Gogh and Lovecraft had some serious character flaws. Lovecraft was an avowed racist, supportive of Hitler’s white supremacy beliefs. He wrote many hurtful articles about the alleged mental deficiencies of African Americans. Like Van Gogh, whose paintings now sell in the millions, Lovecraft’s legacy has proven to be invaluable to writers like Stephen King. Horror author King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” King stated in his semi-autobiographical non-fiction book Danse Macabre that Lovecraft was responsible for his fascination with horror and macabre and was the largest influence on his writing. As a child in the 1960s, King came across a volume of Lovecraft’s works which inspired him to write his fiction.

One of Lovecraft’s most significant literary influences was Edgar Allan Poe, whom he described as his “God of Fiction.” Poe’s fiction was introduced to Lovecraft when the latter was eight years old. Poe’s prose and writing style significantly influenced Lovecraft’s writing. In 1919, Lovecraft’s discovery of the stories of Lord Dunsany moved his writing in a new direction, resulting in a series of fantasies. Throughout his life, Lovecraft referred to Dunsany as the author with the greatest impact on his literary career. The initial result of this influence was the Dream Cycle, a series of fantasies that originally took place in prehistory but later shifted to a dreamworld setting.

Howard P. Lovecraft was born in his family home on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan (Phillips) Lovecraft. His mother’s family was of substantial means at the time of their marriage, as her father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, was involved in many business ventures. In April 1893, after a psychotic episode in a Chicago hotel, Winfield Lovecraft was committed to Butler Hospital in Providence. His medical records state that he was “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. Throughout his life, Lovecraft maintained that his father fell into a paralytic state due to insomnia and overwork and remained that way until his death. It is not known whether Lovecraft was simply kept ignorant of his father’s illness or whether his later statements were intentionally misleading. After his father’s death, Lovecraft resided in the family home with his mother, his maternal aunts Lillian and Annie, and his maternal grandparents Whipple and Robie.

According to family friends, Susie doted on the young Lovecraft excessively, pampering him and never letting him out of her sight. Lovecraft later recollected that his mother was “permanently stricken with grief” after his father’s illness. Whipple became a father figure to Lovecraft in this time, Lovecraft later noted that his grandfather became the “center of my entire universe.” Whipple, who often traveled to manage his business, maintained correspondence by letter with the young Lovecraft, who, by the age of three, was already proficient at reading and writing. Whipple encouraged the young Lovecraft to have an appreciation of literature, especially classical literature, and English poetry. In his old age, he helped raise the young H. P. Lovecraft 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 sources of Phillips’ weird tales are unidentified. Lovecraft himself guessed that they originated from Gothic novelists like Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Maturin. It was during this period that Lovecraft was introduced to some of his earliest literary influences, such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” illustrated by Gustave Doré, “One Thousand and One Nights,” Thomas Bulfinch’s “Age of Fable,” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

Lovecraft’s earliest known literary works were written at the age of seven and were poems restyling the Odyssey and other Greco-Roman mythological stories. Lovecraft later wrote that during his childhood, he was fixated on the Greco-Roman pantheon and briefly accepted them as genuine expressions of divinity, foregoing his Christian upbringing. He recalled, at five years old, being told Santa Claus did not exist and retorted by asking why “God is not equally a myth?” At the age of eight, he took a keen interest in the sciences, particularly astronomy and chemistry. He also examined the anatomical books that were held in the family library, which taught him the specifics of human reproduction that were not yet explained to him. As a result, he found that it “virtually killed my interest in the subject”. In 1902, according to Lovecraft’s later correspondence, astronomy became a guiding influence on his worldview. He began publishing the periodical Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, using the hectograph printing method. Lovecraft went in and out of elementary school repeatedly, oftentimes with home tutors making up for the lost years, missing time due to health concerns that have not been determined. In their written recollections, his peers described him as withdrawn but welcoming to those who shared his then-current fascination with astronomy, inviting them to look through his prized telescope.  

By 1900, Whipple’s various business concerns were suffering a downturn, which resulted in the slow erosion of his family’s wealth. He was forced to let his family’s hired servants go, leaving Lovecraft, Whipple, and Susie alone in the family home. In the spring of 1904, Whipple’s largest business venture suffered a catastrophic failure. Within months, he died at age 70 of a stroke. After Whipple’s death, Susie was unable to financially support the upkeep of the expansive family home on what remained of the Phillips’ estate. Later that year, she was forced to move to a small duplex with her son. Lovecraft called this time one of the darkest of his life, remarking in a 1934 letter that he saw no point in living anymore; he considered the possibility of committing suicide. His scientific curiosity and desire to know more about the world prevented him from doing so. He entered high school but was periodically removed for long periods for what he termed “near breakdowns.” Lovecraft also performed well academically, excelling at chemistry and physics. Aside from a pause in 1904, he also resumed publishing the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy as well as starting the Scientific Gazette, which dealt mostly with chemistry It was also during this period that Lovecraft produced the first of the fictional works that he was later known for, namely “The Beast in the Cave” and “The Alchemist.”

In 1908, before what would have been his high school graduation, Lovecraft suffered another unidentified health crisis, though this instance was more severe than his prior illnesses. The exact circumstances and causes remain unknown. The only direct records are Lovecraft’s correspondence wherein he retrospectively described it variously as a “nervous collapse” and “a sort of breakdown.” Although Lovecraft maintained that he was going to attend Brown University after high school, he never graduated and never attended school again.  Lovecraft described the steady continuation of their financial decline highlighted by his uncle’s failed business that cost Susie a large portion of their already dwindling wealth. During this period, Lovecraft revived his earlier scientific periodicals. He endeavored to commit himself to the study of organic chemistry, Susie buying the expensive glass chemistry assemblage he wanted. Lovecraft found his studies were stymied by the mathematics involved, which he found boring and caused headaches that incapacitated him for the remainder of the day. Lovecraft’s first non-self-published poem appeared in a local newspaper in 1912. Called Providence in 2000 A.D., it envisioned a future where Americans of English descent were displaced by Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Jewish immigrants. In this period, he also wrote racist poetry, including “New-England Fallen” and “On the Creation of Nigger,” but there is no indication that either was published during his lifetime. In 1911, Lovecraft’s letters to editors began appearing in pulp and weird-fiction magazines, most notably Argosy. A 1913 letter critical of Fred Jackson, one of Argosy’s more prominent writers, started Lovecraft down a path that defined the remainder of his career as a writer.

Lovecraft immersed himself in the world of amateur journalism for most of the following decade. During this period, he advocated for amateurism’s superiority to commercialism. Lovecraft defined commercialism as writing for what he considered low-brow publications for pay. This was contrasted with his view of “professional publication”, which was what he called writing for what he considered respectable journals and publishers. He thought of amateur journalism as serving as practice for a professional career. Another significant event of this time was the beginning of World War I. Lovecraft published multiple criticisms of the American government and the public’s reluctance to join the war to protect England, which he viewed as America’s ancestral homeland.

In 1916, Lovecraft published his first short story, “The Alchemist”, in the main UAPA journal, which was a departure from his usual verse. Lovecraft began writing and publishing more prose fiction. Soon afterward, he wrote “The Tomb” and “Dagon”. The Tomb,” by Lovecraft’s admission, was greatly influenced by the style and structure of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. Meanwhile, “Dagon” is considered Lovecraft’s first work that displays the concepts and themes that his writings later became known for. Lovecraft published another short story, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” in 1919, which was his first science fiction story.

Lovecraft and Sonia Greene married on March 3, 1924, and relocated to her Brooklyn apartment at 259 Parkside Avenue. Not long after the marriage, Greene lost her business and her assets disappeared in a bank failure. Lovecraft made efforts to support his wife through regular jobs, but his lack of previous work experience meant he lacked proven marketable skills. In August 1925, he wrote “He,” in which the narrator says, “My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.” It was at around this time he wrote the outline for “The Call of Cthulhu,” with its theme of the insignificance of all humanity. Lovecraft also wrote “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which became one of the most influential essays on supernatural horror. He left New York, moved to Providence, and lived with his aunts in a “spacious brown Victorian wooden house” at 10 Barnes Street until 1933. He then moved to 66 Prospect Street, which became his final home. The period beginning after his return to Providence contains some of his most prominent works, including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Call of Cthulhu, and The Shadow over Innsmouth.

Lovecraft’s physical health was deteriorating, as he suffered from an affliction that he referred to as “grippe.” Due to his fear of doctors, Lovecraft was not examined until a month before his death. After seeing a doctor, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the small intestine. He was hospitalized in the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital and lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937, in Providence. After a small funeral, Lovecraft was buried in Swan Point Cemetery and was listed alongside his parents on the Phillips family monument. In 1977, fans erected a headstone in the same cemetery on which they inscribed his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the phrase “I AM PROVIDENCE”—a line from one of his personal letters.

Lovecraft’s improving literary reputation has caused his works to receive increased attention from both classic publishers and scholarly fans. His works have been published in several different series of literary classics. Penguin Classics published three volumes of Lovecraft’s works between 1999 and 2004. S. T. Joshi edited these volumes. Barnes & Noble published their volume of Lovecraft’s complete fiction in 2008. The Library of America published a volume of Lovecraft’s works in 2005. Meanwhile, the biannual Necronomicon Providence convention was first held in 2013. Its purpose is to serve as a fan and scholarly convention that discusses both Lovecraft and the wider field of weird fiction. It is organized by the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences organization and is held on the weekend of Lovecraft’s birth. In July 2013, the Providence City Council designated the “H. P. Lovecraft Memorial Square” and installed a commemorative sign at the intersection of Angell and Prospect streets, near the author’s former residences.

H. P. Lovecraft was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2016.

For additional reading:

  1. I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, Jan. 31, 2012.
  2. H. P. Lovecraft Against the World, Michael Houelleberg, Cerunna Publishing, Sep. 3, 2019.
  3. Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft, Gollancy Press, March 27, 2008.
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