Monday, March 15, 2010

Deathday: H.P. Lovecraft 1890-1937 RIP

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) was an American author of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, known then simply as weird fiction.

Lovecraft's major inspiration and invention was cosmic horror, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with sanity. Lovecraft has developed a cult following for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely interconnected fiction featuring a pantheon of human-nullifying entities, as well as the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore. His works were deeply pessimistic and cynical, challenging the values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Christian humanism. Lovecraft's protagonists usually achieve the mirror-opposite of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality.

Although Lovecraft's readership was limited during his life, his reputation has grown over the decades, and he is now commonly regarded as one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. Lovecraft, as did Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century, exerts "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction". Stephen King has called Lovecraft "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."


Early life

Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, at 9:00 a.m. in his family home at 194 (later 454) Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. (The house was torn down in 1961.) He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman of jewelry and precious metals, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, who could trace her ancestry in America back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. His parents married, the first marriage for both, when they were in their thirties, unusually late in life given the time period. In 1893, when Lovecraft was three, his father became acutely psychotic in a Chicago hotel room while on a business trip. The elder Lovecraft was taken back to Providence and placed in Butler Hospital, where he remained until his death in 1898. Lovecraft maintained throughout his life that his father had died in a condition of paralysis brought on by "nervous exhaustion" due to over-work, but it is now almost certain that the actual cause was general paresis of the insane.[6] It is unknown whether the younger Lovecraft was ever aware of the actual nature of his father's illness or its cause (syphilis), although his mother likely was, possibly having even received tincture of arsenic as "preventive medication."

After his father's hospitalization, Lovecraft was raised by his mother, his two aunts (Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips), and his maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, an American businessman. All five resided together in the family home. Lovecraft was a prodigy, reciting poetry at the age of three and writing complete poems by six. His grandfather encouraged his reading, providing him with classics such as The Arabian Nights, Bulfinch's Age of Fable, and children's versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey. His grandfather also stirred the boy's interest in the weird by telling him his own original tales of Gothic horror. His mother, on the other hand, worried that these stories would upset him.

Lovecraft was frequently ill as a child, at least some of which was certainly psychosomatic, although he attributed his various ailments to physical causes only. Early speculation that he may have been congenitally disabled by syphilis passed on from father to mother to fetus has been ruled out. Due to his sickly condition and his undisciplined, argumentative nature, he barely attended school until he was eight years old, and then was withdrawn after a year. He read voraciously during this period and became especially enamored of chemistry and astronomy. He produced several hectographed publications with a limited circulation beginning in 1899 with The Scientific Gazette. Four years later, he returned to public school at Hope Street High School. Beginning in his early life, Lovecraft is believed to have suffered from night terrors, a rare parasomnia disorder; he believed himself to be assaulted at night by horrific "night gaunts." Much of his later work is thought to have been directly inspired by these terrors.

His grandfather's death in 1904 greatly affected Lovecraft's life. Mismanagement of his grandfather's estate left his family in such a poor financial situation they were forced to move into much smaller accommodations at 598 (now a duplex at 598-600) Angell Street. Lovecraft was so deeply affected by the loss of his home and birthplace that he contemplated suicide for a time. In 1908, prior to his high school graduation, he himself claimed to have suffered what he later described as a "nervous breakdown", and consequently never received his high school diploma (although he maintained for most of his life that he did graduate). S. T. Joshi suggests in his biography of Lovecraft that a primary cause for this breakdown was his difficulty in higher mathematics, a subject he needed to master to become a professional astronomer. This failure to complete his education (he wished to study at Brown University) was a source of disappointment and shame even late into his life.

Lovecraft wrote some fiction as a youth but, from 1908 until 1913, his output was primarily poetry. During that time, he lived a hermit's existence, having almost no contact with anyone but his mother. This changed when he wrote a letter to The Argosy, a pulp magazine, complaining about the insipidness of the love stories of one of the publication's popular writers. The ensuing debate in the magazine's letters column caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, President of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who invited Lovecraft to join them in 1914. The UAPA reinvigorated Lovecraft and incited him to contribute many poems and essays. In 1917, at the prodding of correspondents, he returned to fiction with more polished stories, such as "The Tomb" and "Dagon". The latter was his first professionally-published work, appearing in W. Paul Cook's The Vagrant (November, 1919) and Weird Tales in 1923. Around that time, he began to build up a huge network of correspondents. His lengthy and frequent missives would make him one of the great letter writers of the century. Among his correspondents were Robert Bloch (Psycho), Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian series).

In 1919, after suffering from hysteria and depression for a long period of time, Lovecraft's mother was committed to Butler Hospital just like her husband before her. Nevertheless, she wrote frequent letters to Lovecraft, and they remained very close until her death on May 21, 1921, the result of complications from gall bladder surgery. Lovecraft was devastated by the loss.

Marriage and New York

Lovecraft and Sonia GreeneA few weeks after his mother's death, Lovecraft attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston, Massachusetts, where he met Sonia Greene. Born in 1883, she was of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry and seven years older than Lovecraft. They married in 1924, and the couple moved to Brooklyn. Lovecraft's aunts may have been unhappy with this arrangement, as they were not fond of Lovecraft being married to a tradeswoman (Greene owned a hat shop). Initially, Lovecraft was enthralled by New York, but soon the couple was facing financial difficulties. Greene lost her hat shop and suffered poor health. Lovecraft could not find work to support them both, so his wife moved to Cleveland for employment. Lovecraft lived by himself in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn and came to dislike New York life intensely.[7] Indeed, this daunting reality of failure to secure any work in the midst of a large immigrant population—especially irreconcilable with his opinion of himself as a privileged Anglo-Saxon—has been theorized as galvanizing his racism to the point of fear, a sentiment he sublimated in the short story "The Horror at Red Hook".[8]

A few years later, Lovecraft and his wife, still living separately, agreed to an amicable divorce, which was never fully completed. He returned to Providence to live with his aunts during their remaining years.

Return to Providence

Back in Providence, Lovecraft lived in a "spacious brown Victorian wooden house" at 10 Barnes Street until 1933. The same address is given as the home of Dr. Willett in Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The period after his return to Providence — the last decade of his life — was Lovecraft's most prolific. In that time he produced almost all of his best-known short stories for the leading pulp publications of the day (primarily Weird Tales), as well as longer efforts, such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. He frequently revised work for other authors and did a large amount of ghost-writing, including "The Mound", "Winged Death", and "Under the Pyramids" (also known as "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs") (for Harry Houdini) and "The Diary of Alonzo Typer."

Lovecraft, on the surface, seemed like a traditional American conservative, but he considered himself a "New Deal Democrat", and was an ardent supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[9]

Despite his best writing efforts, however, he grew ever poorer. He was forced to move to smaller and meaner lodgings with his surviving aunt. He was also deeply affected by Robert E. Howard's suicide. In 1936, Lovecraft was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine, and he also suffered from malnutrition. He lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937, in Providence.

Lovecraft was listed along with his parents on the Phillips family monument. That was not enough for his fans, so in 1977 a group of individuals raised the money to buy him a headstone of his own in Swan Point cemetery, on which they had inscribed Lovecraft's name, the dates of his birth and death, and the phrase "I AM PROVIDENCE," a line from one of his personal letters.

H. P. Lovecraft's name is synonymous with horror fiction; his writing, particularly the "Cthulhu Mythos," has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements may be found in novels, movies, music, comic books and cartoons. Many modern horror writers, including Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, Junji Ito, F. Paul Wilson, and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.

Lovecraft himself, though, was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories appeared in the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (often eliciting letters of outrage from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He did, however, correspond regularly with other contemporary writers, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even though they never met in person. This group of correspondents became known as the "Lovecraft Circle", since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft's stories – the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien gods, such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places, such as the New England town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University – for use in their own works (with Lovecraft's blessing and encouragement).

After Lovecraft's death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth was probably the most prolific of these writers, having added to and expanded on Lovecraft's vision. Derleth's contributions have been controversial to say the least; while Lovecraft never considered his pantheon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire cosmology, complete with a war between the 'good' "Elder Gods" and the 'evil' "Outer Gods" (such as Cthulhu and his ilk), which the 'good' Gods were supposed to have won, locking Cthulhu and others up beneath the earth, in the ocean etc., and went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements.

Lovecraft's fiction has been grouped into three categories by some critics. While Lovecraft did not refer to these categories himself, he did once write, "There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are my Lovecraft pieces?"[10]

Macabre stories (approximately 1905–1920)

Dream Cycle stories (approximately 1920–1927)

Cthulhu Mythos/Lovecraft Mythos stories (approximately 1925–1935)

Some critics see little difference between the Dream Cycle and the Mythos, often pointing to the recurring Necronomicon and subsequent "gods". A frequently given explanation is that the Dream Cycle belongs more to the genre of fantasy, while the Mythos is science fiction. Also, many of the supernatural elements of the Dream Cycle take place in its own sphere or mythological dimension, separated from our own level of existence. The Mythos on the other hand, is placed within the same reality and cosmos as the humans live in.

Much of Lovecraft's work was directly inspired by his night terrors, and it is perhaps this direct insight into the unconscious and its symbolism that helps to account for their continuing resonance and popularity.

All these interests naturally led to his deep affection for the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who heavily influenced his earliest macabre stories and writing style known for its creepy atmosphere and lurking fears.[11]

Lovecraft's discovery of the stories of Lord Dunsany with their gallery of mighty gods existing in dreamlike outer realms, moved his writing in a new direction, resulting in a series of imitative fantasies in a 'Dreamlands' setting.

Another inspiration came from a totally different kind of source; the scientific progresses at the time in such wide areas as biology, astronomy, geology and physics, all contributed to make the human race seem even more insignificant, powerless and doomed in a materialistic and mechanical universe, and was a major contributor to the ideas that later would be known as cosmicism, and which gave further support to his atheism.

It was probably the influence of Arthur Machen, with his carefully constructed tales concerning the survival of ancient evil into modern times in an otherwise realistic world and his mystic beliefs in hidden mysteries which lay behind reality, that added the last ingredient and finally helped inspire Lovecraft to find his own voice from 1923 onwards.

This took on a dark tone with the creation of what is today often called the Cthulhu Mythos, a pantheon of alien extra-dimensional deities and horrors which predate humanity, and which are hinted at in aeon-old myths and legends. The term "Cthulhu Mythos" was coined by Lovecraft's correspondent and fellow author, August Derleth, after Lovecraft's death; Lovecraft jocularly referred to his artificial mythology as "Yog-Sothothery".[12]

His stories created one of the most influential plot devices in all of horror: the Necronomicon, the secret grimoire written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. The resonance and strength of the Mythos concept have led some to incorrectly conclude that Lovecraft had based it on pre-existing myths or occult beliefs. Faux editions of the Necronomicon have also been published over the years.

His prose is somewhat antiquarian. Often he employed archaic vocabulary or spelling which had already by his time been replaced by contemporary coinages; examples including Esquimau, and Comanchian. He was given to heavy use of an esoteric lexicon including such words as "eldritch", "rugose", "noisome", "squamous", "ichor", and "cyclopean", and of attempts to transcribe dialect speech which have been criticized as clumsy, imprecise, and condescending. His works also featured British English such as "colour" and "honour" (he was an admitted Anglophile), and he sometimes made use of anachronistic spellings, such as "compleat" (for "complete"), "shew" ("show"), "lanthorn" ("lantern"), "phantasy" ("fantasy"; also appearing as "phantastic"), and "Buenos Ayres" (for Buenos Aires).

Lovecraft was influenced by such authors as Gertrude Barrows Bennett (who, writing as Francis Stevens, impressed Lovecraft enough that he publicly praised her stories[28] and eventually "emulated Bennett's earlier style and themes"[29]), Oswald Spengler, Robert W. Chambers (writer of The King in Yellow, of whom H. P. Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith: "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans — equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them"), Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan), Lord Dunsany (The Gods of Pegana and other Dunsany works), Edgar Allan Poe, A. Merritt (The Moon Pool, later a great liking and admiration of the original version of The Metal Monster) and Lovecraft's friends Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft considered himself a man best suited to the early 18th century. His writing style, especially in his many letters, owes much to Augustan British writers of the Enlightenment like Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift. Lovecraft even went so far as to write using the antiquated grammatical peculiarities of that literary era. While Lovecraft's fiction radically inverted the Enlightenment belief in mankind being able to comprehend the universe, his personal outlook as revealed in his letters shows Lovecraft largely agreeing with rationalist contemporaries like Bertrand Russell.

He also cited Algernon Blackwood as an influence, quoting The Centaur in the head paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu. He also declares Blackwood's "The Willows" to be the single best piece of weird fiction ever written.[30]

Among the books found in his library (as evidenced in Lovecraft's Library by S.T. Joshi) was "The seven who were hanged" by Leonid Andreyev and "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder" by James De Mille.

Beyond direct adaptation, Lovecraft and his stories have had a profound impact on popular culture and have been praised by many modern writers. Some influence was direct, as he was a friend, inspiration, and correspondent to many of his contemporaries, such as August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. Many later figures were influenced by Lovecraft's works, including author and artist Clive Barker, prolific horror writer Stephen King, comics writers Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, film directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo Del Toro, horror manga artist Junji Ito, and artist H. R. Giger. In 2007, writer Grant Cogswell, director Daniel Gildark and a cast including Jason Cottle and Tori Spelling created the movie Cthulhu, a "reinvention" of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" set in the Pacific Northwest. H. P. Lovecraft's writing, particularly his so-called "Cthulhu Mythos", has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, films, comic books (e.g. the use of Arkham Insane Asylum in The Batman comic book series), music, games, and even cartoons.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote his short story "There Are More Things" in memory of Lovecraft. Contemporary French writer Michel Houellebecq wrote a literary biography of Lovecraft called H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote an introduction for a collection of Lovecraft stories. The Library of America published a volume of Lovecraft's work in 2005, essentially declaring him a canonical American writer.[31][32][33]

In music, three examples of the widespread Lovecraftian influence include the psychedelic rock band called H. P. Lovecraft (later shortened to just Lovecraft) who released four albums in the 1960s and 1970s, the thrash metal band Metallica, devoted readers of Lovecraft's work, who recorded a song inspired by The Call of Cthulhu, titled The Call of Ktulu, a song based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, titled The Thing That Should Not Be and a song based on H.P.'s Hounds of Tindalos titled All Nightmare Long off of Metallica's 2008 album Death Magnetic, as well as the Black Sabbath song Behind The Wall Of Sleep, from their 1970 debut album, based on Lovecraft's short story Beyond The Wall Of Sleep.

The British anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni released the LP album Cacophony in 1987, which was heavily influenced by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Punk Band The Marshes also had a number of Lovecraft-themed songs on their 1996 album Fledgling.

The Lovecraftian world has also made its mark on gaming. Cthulhu and its company has been brought to life in a variety of hobby game formats such as role playing games and collectible card games. The board game, Arkham Horror, is enjoying its fourth edition and a steady stream of expansions 22 years since its initial release. Chaosium first made its mark as a publisher of games based on Lovecraft's Mythos.

1.^ Wilson, Colin. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. p. 8. ISBN 1600250203. "He hated modern civilization, particularly its confident belief in progress and science."
2.^ H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture by Don G. Smith, 2005, ISBN 078642091X,page 85, "Lovecraft never had much good to say about families either"
3.^ Joyce Carol Oates (October 31, 1996). "The King of Weird". The New York Review of Books 43 (17). Retrieved 2009-02-15.
4.^ King quoted on front cover of 1982 paperback edition of The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre published by Del Rey Books with introduction by Robert Bloch. Other sources quote King as calling this judgement of Lovecraft "undeniable"[1] or "beyond doubt."[2]
5.^ Wohleber, Curt (December 1995). The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King. American Heritage Magazine.
6.^ Luc Sante, "The Heroic Nerd", in The New York Review of Books, October 10, 2006
7.^ This situation is closely paralleled in the semi-autobiographical "He", as noted by Michel Houellebecq in 'H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
8.^ H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Michel Houellebecq
9.^ [3]
10.^ Letter to Elizabeth Toldridge, March 8, 1929, quoted in Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos
11.^ Out of Space, Out of Time: The Influence of Poe
13.^ S. T. Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: Decline of the West, (Starmont Studies in Literary Criticism, No. 37), Borgo Pr, 1991, ISBN-13: 978-1557422088.
14.^ See, for example, his poem "An American to Mother England"
15.^ "Beyond the Wall of Sleep", 1919
16.^ "S.T. Joshi Interview — Acid Logic e-zine".
17.^ Michael Gurnow. "Black Christ and His Invisible Brother on the Cross: Race and Religion in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror"".
18.^ See letter to Lillian D. Clark, 6 January 1926, No. 60, H.P. Lovecraft Letters From New York, S.T. Joshi, ed. San Francisco:Night Shade.
19.^ See letter to J. Vernon Shea, September 25, 1933, No. 648, Selected Letters IV, Arkham House.
20.^ H. P. Lovecraft, "Herbert West — Reanimator", Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, p. 146.
21.^ H. P. Lovecraft, "The Horror at Red Hook", Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, p. 258.
22.^ "Medusa's Coil", Zealia Bishop with H. P. Lovecraft, The Horror in the Museum, p, 200.
23.^ Joshi, p. 35.
24.^ "The Rats in the Walls", H. P. Lovecraft, "Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre", p, 8.
25.^ Quoted in Lovecraft, Carter, p. 45.
26.^ Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", p. 151.
27.^ H.P. Lovecraft Letter to Robert E. Howard (August 16, 1932), in Selected Letters 1932-1934 (Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1976), p.57.
28.^ "The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary C. Hoppenstand from Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, page xiv. ISBN 0803292988
29.^ Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 by Eric Leif Davin, Lexington Books, 2005, pages 409-10.
30.^ In this essay Lovecraft calls W.H. Hodgeson the second best writer of weird fictions behind Blackwood. Later, he says Blackwood's best work is "The Willows".
31.^ Giger, Hansruedi (2005): Necronomicon I & II. Erftstadt: Area.
32.^ H.P Lovecraft: Tales (The Library of America)
33.^ The Horror, the Horror! | The Weekly Standard
34.^ The Library of America scares up a collection of Lovecraft's local lore - The Boston Globe
35.^ How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work- U.S. Copyright Office
36.^ Copyright Basics by Terry Carroll 1994
37.^ William Johns, 'Lovecraft Copyright', archived at


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