On the morning of March 15, 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft succumbed to intestinal cancer, dying in a manner similar to the way he had lived most of his short life of forty-six and a half years, quietly and alone. He was buried several days later in the family plot at Swan Point Cemetery. His funeral was sparsely attended – an elderly aunt who would join him a few weeks later, a cousin, and a couple of friends. By every standard imaginable, Lovecraft died a failure. His life could be best described as an almost self-destructive melodrama of escapism and delusion.
It should have ended there, yet, like one of his literary idols, Edgar Allan Poe, it was in death that his greatness, barely acknowledged by a few friends in life, would gradually become renowned worldwide. Some of today’s best known horror writers claim him as an inspiration, including Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Brian Lumley
Lovecraft accepted the finality of death, and I often muse that if there is such a thing as an afterlife he must chuckling away merrily. Now his name is almost a household word. The adjective “Lovecraftian” describes a fantastic horror story full of madness, supernatural beings, death and destruction where if you are fortunate you die brutally and fiendishly, and if not you go insane and remain locked away in some lonely asylum, a gibbering idiot haunted by what you have witnessed.
This is the world of H.P. Lovecraft, modeled on his sad and troubled life. He was a rationalist and atheist. Physically he cut an outstanding figure at five feet, eleven inches, lean and sinewy, with a lantern jaw, sharp features, large ears, and a loping gait. He truly believed himself to be abominably ugly. He had a very measured way of speaking, never raising his voice, with a slight New England accent.
Lovecraft’s appeal to Goth culture becomes apparent when you understand that this staunch, quiet son of New England, was, like all of us who choose an alternative lifestyle, at heart a romantic dreamer, though he would never admit it. His stories reflect his inner sorrows, his fears, his longing, his alienation – emotions that most of us know too well.
He was a troubled youth, an eternally trapped Peter Pan whose greatest fears of being alone would eventually become the reality he knew. He is someone for whom I have felt not just a fan’s admiration but a friendship and in some way a mentorship, even though he died twenty years before I was born.
As a child, he was afraid of the dark but as an adult he turned into a nictophile. He would rise late in the day, draw the curtains to his room, and under lamplight he would write his stories by hand. He had few actual friends but corresponded extensively with other authors such as Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian; Zelia Bishop, one of the few female horror writers of the era, and Robert Bloch who wrote the script for the film Psycho. Lovecraft would often proofread, edit, and even ghostwrite some of his friends’ works.
As for me, I’ve been a fan of horror for over fifty years. I watched every film and read every story I could see or get. The classic Universal monster movies, the works of Poe, television shows like Boris Karloff’s Thriller or Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone – I still cherish all these wonderfully terrifying memories. But what does all this have to do with Lovecraft?
This nexus is the one word, which I have already used – loneliness. Many of these monsters were trapped in horrible situations that they did not cause. Larry Talbot bravely goes out to rescue a young woman from an attack by a wolf only to find that he himself is bitten and must bear the curse of the werewolf. Frankenstein’s monster was created by a scientist who wanted to force open the doors of life and death by galvanizing a creature composed of the parts of dead men to satisfy his own ego, thus creating a being that has no place in this world but cannot return to the one it came from.
Dracula and the Mummy were two victims of their passion. Dracula sold his soul to the Devil to gain power to drive the Turks from his homeland, and the Mummy was buried alive for attempting to restore his deceased beloved. These stories had pathos, and the monsters were surprisingly relatable. In many ways they reminded me of the tales of ghosts, witches and faeries that got me to sit still and listen to my Polish grandmother, tales which also connected me to a land far across the ocean but was as real as the one I lived in. Those stories shaped my love of the supernatural, and in many ways I felt more akin to those beings then the flesh and blood ones i lived with.
Lovecraft was a living anachronism and an Anglophile, feeling more at home in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than in the America of his day. His work was based on his own life. He was the only child of Winfield Scott and Sarah Susan Lovecraft, an upper middle class family in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was the son of recent immigrants, and his mother was old New England blood. Initially he enjoyed a privileged life, but that did not last.
When Lovecraft was about two years old, his father was committed to an insane asylum where he would spend the remainder of his days. The elder Lovecraft suffered from what was then called the paresis of the brain, and some speculated that he had contracted syphilis from his days as a traveling silver salesman. But his has never been verified.
Lovecraft and his mother returned to live with her family, the patriarch Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a successful Victorian businessman. He cherished art and literature, and his personal library contained books that were centuries old, as well as original prints. Imported art from Italy graced the home, and Whipple was an indulgent grandfather.
This love of Italian art influenced young Lovecraft. As a child he felt drawn to classical Greek mythology and actually constructed altars to the ancient gods and goddesses. Though raised nominally Christian, Lovecraft was removed from bible study when he said that agreed with the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. By the time he reached his teens, he was an atheist.
In his youth Lovecraft’s precocious nature began to materialize. He virtually taught himself to read, and his first love was the fantastic stories of the Arabian Nights. Whipple had Sir Richard Burton’s translation in his library, where the young Lovecraft soon made himself a nest of an oriental carpet in a small pile of cushions. He insisted on being called “Abdul Alhazrad.”
This idyllic childhood soon came crashing down. Several failed business ventures bankrupted Whipple, and Lovecraft saw his precious heirlooms being auctioned off. When his beloved grandfather died of a stroke, the family mansion itself had to be sold.
Lovecraft, his mother, and his aunts had to move to smaller accommodations. Lovecraft himself suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to finish high school, which prevented him from attending college. This aborted formal education was not unique among men of his time, but it was a major blow to him, without that diploma, he could never attain a college degree, which pained him throughout the rest of his life.
Early in his life, he discovered his passion for writing. We have no samples of his childhood endeavors, for he destroyed them later in life, calling them “trite juvenalia.” Perhaps he was trying to destroy his own past in doing so.
His personal experiences provided the model for his tales. A kitten lost in childhood became the basis for his story “The Cats of Ulthar.” Getting lost in a carnival mirror maze inspired his own true science fiction story, “In the Walls of Eryx.” When he was in his twenties, his mother followed her husband into the same asylum, and and his character of Lavinia Whately in “The Dunwich Horror” was modeled on her.
From 1920-1935 Lovecraft produced 70 short stories, a novel, and a play, which to the best of anyone’s knowledge was never performed. His literary brilliance was in the development of a genre which was unlike any other in imagination. He created a lore for the twentieth century, the infamous “Cthullu mythos,” though he never used that term. He regarded religion as nothing more than socially acceptable superstition, and mysticism and the supernatural were even below that.
Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones are actually aliens who obtain their power through the use of skilled technologies which seem supernatural, almost foreshadowing Arthur C. Clarke’s adage “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” These “gods” were beings unlike anything we had previously imagined. They were powerful, terrifying and amoral, seeking only their own desires. Humans to them were like ants to us. Yet in these stories humans often seek to dwell with them and suffer horrible consequences in the end.
One of his first pieces, “Dagon,” appears to be referencing an ancient Philistine fish god but is actually the testimonial of a morphine addict who plans to commit suicide after a nightmarish sea journey. Lovecraft later wrote, “I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down!” Interestingly for a New Englander, Lovecraft was said to become easily nauseous at the sight and smell of sea food. That is probably why he chose sea creatures for his most horrific creations.
Cthulhu is the most prominent of these aquatic beings. Debuting in the 1928 tale “The Call of Cthulhu,” he is gigantic, with a bloated humanoid body, an octopoid head and great leathery dragon-like wings. He lies in suspended animation in the sunken city of R’lyeh, somewhere in the Pacific, where he is guarded by strange ichthyoid beings known as the Deep Ones.
Not all of Lovecraft’s monstrosities are from the ocean. Yog Sothoth, an iridescent collection of spheres in constant motion, is the gate between our world and the trans-dimensional world of the Old Ones. Shub Nuggerath personifies chaos, a bubbling mass of eyes, mouths, and tentacles continually appearing and disappearing across itself. The most human looking is Nyarlathotep, sometimes called the Black Pharaoh, personified as a tall, slender, ebony-skinned man.
Lovecraft’s other entities include the Mi-Go, bizarre crustacean beings from the frozen planet of Yuggoth (our Pluto) who steal human brains to power their equipment, and the faceless, black, winged skeletal Night Gaunts from young Lovecraft’s childhood nightmares. These fiends would grab a young child, carry him to their rocky peaks and there tear open his stomach and devour his entrails. Ironically, Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer.
Along with these monsters, Lovecraft created his own community, setting his tales in dark, desolate Arkham County in Massachusetts, home of the town of Dunwich and the infamous Miskatonic University. Perhaps his most famous literary creation is a book he never wrote, the vile Necronomicon, an imaginary opus which is said to help bring the Great Old Ones from their dimension into ours.
Many of his fans are involved in the occult, myself included. Years ago I used to work at Manhattan’s best known magical emporium, Enchantments. One day a very High Goth couple came into the store. The man was dressed in dark purple velvet, a tall black top hat, purple octagonal sunglasses, a skull-topped walking stick and a full-length black cape. His partner wore a Vampira dress, with the classic white makeup and deep red lipstick, but her long black hair was showing some brown roots. The man approached me and, in a staged British accent, declared, “I am in need of assistance.”
“Sure, whatddya need” I replied in my indigenous Jersey City speech.
“I am in search of the tome of most evil and blasphemous magic.” he said “I seek the Necronomicon”
I told them that we didn’t have it but that it could be obtained at Barnes and Noble for the princely sum of $3.99. He said he was aware of that one, but he wanted the actual Necronomicon. When I told him that it was purely fictitious, he accused me of making fun of him, and with a very theatrical flourish of his cape, he and his friend departed. At that moment I had a vision of H.P. Lovecraft and P.T. Barnum sharing a good laugh.
Many of Lovecraft’s stories have been made into film, though usually the titles were changed. “The Colour Out of Space” became Die, Monster, Die with Boris Karloff and Nick Adams in 1965, and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” turned into The Haunted Palace with Vincent Price, Debra Paget, and Lon Cheney. The first twenty-first century film inspired by Lovecraft was Dagon, based on “The Shadow over Innesmouth,” and more are on the way.
Lovecraft felt, lived and expressed a loneliness and isolation which he carried in him almost all his life. For all his failings and idiosyncrasies, Lovecraft was at heart a gentle, giving person who would often sacrifice for those he cared for, going more than the extra mile. While visiting a friend, a kitten fell asleep in Lovecraft’s lap. He sat perfectly still throughout the night so as not to disturb the sleeping kitten. Some today say he could have used medication and therapy to repair his mental state, but if he had, then we would not have had his beautifully crafted horror stories.
August 20, 2015 was the 125th anniversary of his birth. This tribute is my belated birthday present to someone who has been with me longer than most living people I know. To take a line from one of my many-loved songs “Drift Away,” I say, “thanks for the joy you’ve given me,” and I’m more than certain that this is the feeling anyone who has come to know him feels about Lovecraft and his stories.