“…the strangest and maddest of myths are often merely symbols or allegories based upon truth…”
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931)
This August 20 marks the 132nd anniversary of the birth of H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror fiction writers. During his lifetime his work was either ignored or underappreciated by critics, only to be recognized as an important contribution to the genre decades after his death. Who was H. P. Lovecraft, and why is he important?
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft spent his entire life in New England – a part of the U. S. that looms large in his writings. His early years were marred by a personal tragedy: his father Winfield was committed to a mental hospital in 1893, possibly due to complications caused by syphilis. He died there in 1898 when Lovecraft was only 8. Raised by his mother, his aunt and maternal grandparents, already by the age of 3 he was able to read and write, with his grandfather Whipple strongly encouraging him to explore the world of classical literature. He started writing his first stories already by the age of 7, showing an early interest in mythology which over the subsequent years expanded to a study of natural sciences, including anatomy, chemistry and astronomy. All of these early influences can be easily recognised in his writings.
As a child, he was in constant poor health. Unable to attend school regularly, he was educated by private tutors. Misfortune followed him well into his teenage years: in the early 1900s his grandfather’s business ventures collapsed leaving the family in a dire predicament: after his grandfather’s death in 1903, Lovecraft and his mother had to move to a much more modest accommodation. To add to the financial woes, throughout that period Lovecraft experienced a range of unusual ailments, both physical and mental, which prevented him from finishing high school and enrolling into college. Severe bouts of depression, as he would later write, would even make him suicidal. In spite of these troubles, he did continue his personal studies, but more importantly, it was at this point in his life that he started writing for publication. Sickly, reserved and withdrawn from much of social life as he was, entering the literary world provided him with a renewed will to live.
The 1910s and 1920s were the time of his greatest literary output, which included numerous novellas, among them the first of the Cthulhu Mythos stories that he is now most famous for. He married Sonia Greene, also an amateur fiction writer, in 1924, but the marriage was fraught with financial and health problems they both suffered from. Most of their married life they lived separately, their marriage ultimately ending in 1933. After a series of personal tragedies and a severe illness, he died in Providence in 1937. His headstone carries the inscription “I AM PROVIDENCE” – a phrase taken from one of his letters, chosen by his fans in 1977 when the gravestone was erected. Rich in meaning, it is usually interpreted to refer to his attachment to that New England city, so prominent in his stories. (Interestingly, he wasn’t buried at that location at all, but that’s a story for another time.)
Throughout his writing career he was seen as an amateur, publishing mostly in cheap pulp and weird-fiction magazines. While very popular, they had a bad reputation when it came to their literary quality and artistic value – sometimes unjustifiably. Additionally, Lovecraft was known for a number of controversial ideas that haven’t aged well; namely, for most of his life he was reportedly a white supremacist, believing in the overall superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon” culture; his political views are commonly described as nativist and racist, and he’s also been qualified as a sexist (notably, there are no female characters of much relevance in his works). While each of these labels may be open to discussion in the context of Lovecraft’s ideological positions, it was factors such as these that contributed to his name becoming almost forgotten in the years and decades after his death. It was only in the 1970s that he got rediscovered by a wider, global audience, with literary critics showing a much more favourable view of the character and significance of his prose. Today he is internationally recognized as one of the most important writers in the genres of horror and weird fiction, his influence clearly seen in the works of many contemporary authors and across popular culture in general.
In fact, his influence has been so profound, that an entire literary subgenre has been named after him: “Lovecraftian horror” now refers to horror / weird fiction writing that is strongly focused on the fear of the unknown, mysterious and incomprehensible (also known as “cosmic horror”). Some of the additional elements of a typical Lovecraftian narrative are mythological themes, presence of the occult, and more than anything, the horrifying realization of man’s insignificance and helplessness in relation both to the “old gods” – the ancient, monstrous forces – and cosmos at large. Lovecraftian fiction tends to be deeply philosophical and based on existential horror rather than physical terror, gore, and lurid details typical for conventional horror writing and film-making.
Given the total number of his works, it might seem challenging to start exploring Lovecraft’s world. To someone who’s never read any of his writings, I’d recommend one of his later novellas, in many ways emblematic of his writing: “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. Written in the winter of 1931, it is part of the Cthulhu Mythos and contains all of the recognizably Lovecraftian elements: a small-town New England setting, the sense of dread and at the same time relief that comes with the acceptance of truth, as revealed in Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy.
SUGGESTED RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING AND LISTENING
How to Find the Spirit of H. P. Lovecraft in Providence (a New York Times article)
Lovecraftian Horror – and the racism at its core – explained (a Vox article)
The H. P. Lovecraft Archive (electronic library of Lovecraft’s works)
The Rise of H. P. Lovecraft (an episode of the Ideas programme, CBC Radio)
We Can’t Ignore Lovecraft’s White Supremacy (a LitHub article)
You can also have a look at other articles and images featured on the Lovecraft board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile.
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