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H.P. Lovecraft is considered by many to be the twentieth century’s premier writer of supernatural horror. He holds a prominent place in a line of authors that originated with the Gothic novelists of the eighteenth century, was perpetuated by such nineteenth century masters of the macabre as Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, and proliferates today in the work of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and many other writers, artists, and filmmakers. Lovecraft’s ”weird tales,” combining horror, fantasy, and science-fiction elements, were published almost entirely in pulp magazines during his lifetime. Subsequently, however, his work developed a devoted following and made a deep imprint on popular culture.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Isolated Youth
Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20,1890. His father, a traveling salesman, became psychotic in 1893 due to syphilis and was committed to a sanitarium until his death in 1898. Lovecraft grew up in a Victorian home owned by his maternal grandfather, Whipple V. Phillips, a prosperous industrialist who was the dominant intellectual influence on his grandson’s early life. A precocious child whose delicate health allowed him only sporadic attendance at school, Lovecraft flourished in a world of cultured adults who fostered his interest in Greco-Roman antiquity, astronomy, eighteenth-century literature, and Gothic tales of horror.
Lovecraft’s grandfather died in 1904, and poor management of his estate forced Sarah Phillips Lovecraft and her only child into reduced circumstances. An intensely fearful and overprotective parent, Lovecraft’s mother kept him isolated from other children and instilled in him a sense that he was different from other people. He had terrifying nightmares, which would become the source of much of the fiendish material in his writings. Attending high school furthered his interest in science, but in 1908, he suffered a nervous breakdown that prevented him from graduating. Unable to go to Brown University, to his great shame, he instead spent the next five years as a semi-invalid and recluse and continued his self-education.
In this claustrophobic existence, Lovecraft took to writing. He supported himself by ghostwriting, as he would throughout his life, and wrote to newspapers and magazines. In 1914 his isolation was alleviated when he joined the United Amateur Press Association, a group of writers who produced several publications and exchanged letters. The group offered Lovecraft a network of correspondence that provided a major outlet for personal and artistic expression. He also produced his own occasional periodical, The Conservative, starting in 1915.
In his teens, Lovecraft had written some stories modeled after Edgar Allan Poe. Now, encouraged by his fellow writers, he tried short fiction again. His first mature effort, ”The Tomb” (1917), was printed in an amateur magazine called The Vagrant. Next came “Dagon,” which brought Lovecraft a step beyond the amateur world in 1923 when it was printed in Weird Tales. This popular pulp magazine became the principal publisher of Lovecraft’s fiction during his lifetime. “Dagon” marks the first of the author’s many stories concerning ancient gods of his own invention. These gods reflect his own early fascination with classical mythology and other ancient literature.
Beginning around 1919—at about the time his mother was committed to an insane asylum, where she died two years later—Lovecraft began to explore the outside world and traveled in order to socialize with other amateur journalists. In 1921 he met Sonia Greene, a Russian-Jewish businesswoman from New York City. They married in 1924 and Lovecraft went to live with his wife in Brooklyn. However, he was unable to find gainful employment in the city and found metropolitan life disagreeable. When Greene moved to Cleveland for work, the marriage ended cordially and Lovecraft returned to Providence for good.
”The Call of Cthulhu”
Back at home, Lovecraft began to pen the works on which his reputation now rests. ”The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) introduces the elements of his most sustained and spectacular fantasy: an ancient race of beings banished from the Earth for practicing black magic, but that remains in mysterious and sinister forms, and seeks to return. Lovecraft based many stories around this legend, which later came to be called the ”Cthulhu mythos.” These stories chart Lovecraft’s unique position between the horror and science fiction genres.
Philosophically, Lovecraft was a strict scientific materialist who saw the universe as completely mechanical. In his view, humanity lacked any special dimension of soul or spirit to distinguish it from other forms of matter. At the same time, Lovecraft wrote that his strongest feelings were connected with a sense of unknown realms outside human experience. This tension between scientific sterility and mystic imagination—whose contradictory relationship Lovecraft recognized and relished—accounts for the originality of his work.
Lovecraft published his first longer works, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, in 1927. Also that year, his story ”The Colour Out of Space” appeared in Amazing Stories. lt was his first and only submission to a strictly science-fiction magazine, for which he received twenty-five dollars. The following year, ”The Dunwich Horror” earned him $240 from Weird Tales, the largest payment he had received to date.
Later Writing and Posthumous Fame
In the 1930s, Lovecraft traveled a bit more widely, up to Quebec and down into the deep American South. As his horizons broadened, his social outlook changed: his conservatism turned into support for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also softened his racial prejudices; according to biographer L. Sprague de Camp, he was disgusted to hear about anti-Semitic violence in Germany during the Nazi period. His writing also showed a modest increase in nuance and complexity. The novella At the Mountains of Madness and the short novel The Shadow over Innsmouth were both published in 1936; the latter was his only work published in book form during his lifetime. His last important story was ”The Shadow out of Time” (1936), in which a professor gradually realizes that he has been abducted by aliens from the ancient past; on an archaeological dig, he finds a document millions of years old, in his own handwriting.
In addition to his ”weird tales,” Lovecraft wrote essays (including an influential work on Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1945), poetry, and a large body of letters to his many correspondents. He collaborated with and mentored several writers, including August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert Bloch, who collectively formed the ”Lovecraft Circle.” When Lovecraft died painfully of intestinal cancer in 1937, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. Derleth and Donald Wandrei started a publishing company, Arkham House, to collect and preserve the master’s scattered writings and many unpublished works. Their efforts are mostly responsible for bringing Lovecraft posthumously to the world’s attention. It was Derleth who coined the term ”Cthulhu mythos.” He also wrote numerous stories based on Lovecraft’s imaginative constructions and aroused controversy by listing Lovecraft as his co-author.
Works in Literary Context
Lovecraft was a precocious child and began reading, and absorbing the influence of, literature such as the Arabian Nights and Greek and Roman mythology from a very early age. His grandfather also entertained him in his youth with improvised horror stories on the Gothic model. When he discovered the works of Edgar Allan Poe at the age of eight, he was inspired to write his own macabre tales. Poe remained a formative influence on his literary efforts, as did the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, who wrote of mighty beings in enchanted realms, and Arthur Machen, a supernatural-horror writer who imagined the presence of ancient, sinister forces. In addition to identifying these influences on Lovecraft’s vision, it is also possible to trace the influences on his unusual writing style—modeled after eighteenth-century stylists Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele—and his social views, which followed the theories of Oswald Spengler and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Lovecraft’s influence on literature and popular culture has been enormous. His first direct impact was on the younger writers he encouraged, who formed the ”Lovecraft Circle” and borrowed elements of his fiction in their own writing. August Derleth went furthest of all, concocting a whole cosmology out of the ”Cthulhu mythos.” Beyond his immediate associates, Lovecraft’s impact has made itself felt on the genres of horror, science fiction, and other ”weird” fiction. Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King are among the many who have cited Lovecraft as a key influence. King, the preeminent horror writer of his generation, graced a book jacket of Lovecraft’s stories by calling him ”the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”
Supernatural New England
Lovecraft’s stories are commonly divided into three types: those influenced by Dunsany; a group of horror narratives in realistic settings, reminiscent of Poe; and tales sharing the cosmic legend of Lovecraft’s own invention (the Cthulhu mythos). The Dunsanian narratives are related to a tradition of fairy tales and are typified by wholly imaginary settings. The early story ”Dagon” (1923) and the novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) are in this vein. Contrasting with these dreamlike romances are tales in which the central element of supernatural horror originates in a realistic New England setting. Lovecraft was captivated by the architecture and landscape of New England, but also depicted a darker side of his native region: one that incorporated degeneracy and superstition in secluded locales, as in ”The Picture in the House” (1921) and ”The Unnameable” (1925); unearthly rituals practiced in quaint little towns, as in ”The Festival” (1925); and ghouls inhabiting modern Boston, in ”Pickman’s Model” (1927).
Madness and the Insignificance of Humankind
The Cthulhu stories are set in a fictionalized New England dreamscape, in places named Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth, a world possessed by ancient alien entities whose nonhuman nature violates conventional concepts of reality. Again and again in these stories, human beings confront unseen forces that lead ultimately to unspeakable knowledge. Madness or death comes to those who attain full awareness of the mysterious powers lurking in the shadows of ordinary existence. Lovecraft’s supernatural beings, alien to the human sphere and blind to the welfare or harm of humankind, reveal the author’s belief that human civilization is insignificant in the universal scheme.
Works in Critical Context
Aside from the devoted readers of Weird Tales, very few people were aware of the work of Lovecraft during his lifetime. Beginning with the efforts of August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, posthumous publications of Lovecraft’s stories have reached an ever-growing audience, attracting considerable critical attention. Critical reception to Love-craft displays an unusual diversity, from exasperated attacks to reverent celebrations. The uneven quality of his work and his eccentric, old-fashioned prose style have led his severest detractors to regard him as an isolated neurotic. For example, the noted science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, in the Times Literary Supplement, called Lovecraft ”an exceptionally, almost impeccably, bad writer.” On the other hand, his many aficionados applaud his ability to make readers’ flesh creep by invoking unseen, unearthly powers.
Beyond Victorian Horror
An important controversy in Lovecraft criticism regards how to classify his work in terms of genre. Various labels have been employed, from the broad designations of ”horror” and ”Gothic” to terms such as ”mechanistic supernatural.” While his works clearly belong to the tradition of Gothic literature, Lovecraft did not depend on the common mythic concepts associated with the tradition, such as ghosts, vampires, witches, and other figures of folklore. Instead of such hobgoblins, Lovecraft substituted a philosophical viewpoint aligned with modern science, but pulled, as if by gravity, toward the irrational. Donald Burleson writes in H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study:
The horror, ultimately, in a Lovecraft tale is not some gelatinous lurker in dark places, but rather the realization, by the characters involved, of their helplessness and their insignificance in the scheme of things . . . their own mote like unimportance in a blind and chaotic universe which neither loves them nor even finds them worthy of notice.
- Burleson, Donald. H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
- Carter, Lin. Lovecraft: A Look behind the ”Cthulhu Mythos.” New York: Ballantine, 1972.
- Davis, Sonia H. The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft. West Warwick, R.I.: Necronomicon Press, 1985.
- Derleth, August. H. P. L.: A Memoir. Chicago: Ben Abramson, 1945.
- Joshi, S. T. H. P. Lovecraft; A Life. West Warwick, R.I.: Necronomicon Press, 1996.
- –, ed. H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980.
- Levy, Maurice. Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (translated by S. T. Joshi). Detroit.: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
- Price, Robert M., ed. H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos: Essays on America’s Classic Writer of Horror Fiction. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
- Schweitzer, Darrell. The Dream Quest of H. P. Lovecraft. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1978.
- Turner, Jim, ed. Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of HPL in Popular Culture. Collinsville, Ill.: Golden Gryphon Press, 1998.
- Wilson, Colin. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
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