Jan 09, 2022
5 mins read
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor. Unfortunately, and all too common for geniuses in their own time, H. P. Lovecraft is far more well-known and respected posthumously than he ever was in life. In fact, many today consider Lovecraft as the true patriarch of modern horror and, arguably, that his influence is prevalent in much of our popular horror and gothic fiction works of today.
Birth and Early Years
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born August 20th, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, to father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, and mother, Sarah Susan Phillips. His father, a traveling salesman, took ill when Lovecraft was three and subsequently placed in a psychiatric hospital until his death in 1898. His mother was the daughter of Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a successful businessman in his day.
Along with being an impressively intelligent youth, we can now look back and see three major factors that would also have a profound impact on the man Lovecraft would later become. First, he was an only child raised almost exclusively by his mother and her two sisters. This, in and of itself, would not have had such an impact, except that his mother is noted as being emotionless, affectionless, puritanical, mean, and abusive. For example, she is known to have continually referred to her child as “hideous,” and other such egregious terms. Lovecraft himself later told his wife that the way his mother raised him left him feeling constantly devastated.
Second, Lovecraft was frequently ill. These physical bouts played into his mother’s continued isolation of the boy from people and the world, and further fed his growing insecurities. These constant attacks of physical illnesses, as well as continued mental breakdowns, plagued Lovecraft throughout his life.
Third, the only man in his life was his maternal grandfather, who had a passion for reading and telling ghost stories. This relationship led to two notable outcomes: Lovecraft could read well above his age level, recite known works, and compose original poetry by the age of 6. On the other hand, he also developed a great fear of what was lurking in the dark. This early rooted angst followed him all the days of his life and featured prominently in his works.
Lovecraft held a lifelong fascination with science, and was intent on becoming an astronomer. However, his struggles with advanced mathematics and his continued poor health kept him from further schooling and completing his astronomy pursuits. To add insult to injury, his families’ fortune had been squandered on poor investments, forcing Lovecraft to remain most of his early life in seclusion and poverty at home under his mother’s thumb. It was under these conditions, where his battered self-esteem only allowed him to work as a ghostwriter and rewrite editor. If his life had continued on that trajectory, it is highly doubtful that any of us would have heard the name H. P. Lovecraft. However, three significant events coalesce to change the course of his life.
In 1913, Edward F. Daas, the president of the United Amateur Press Association, took a personal interest in Lovecraft and encouraged him to become a member. This backing seemed to give him the courage to release his own work. He began contributing essays, poems, and by 1916, Lovecraft had published his first story. By 1922, he was finally consistently getting paid for work under his own name.
The next two course-changing events in the life of Lovecraft occurred in tandem. In the early 1920s, he started building a serious circle of literary friends which, by 1924, he gave the name ‘Kalem Club.’ It was this group that was instrumental in pushing Lovecraft to submit his work, under his own name, to the pulp magazine ‘Weird Tales.’ It was this magazine that would publish the vast majority of Lovecraft’s work through what remained of his brief life.
During that same period, Lovecraft was in Boston attending a convention for amateur journalists when he met Sonia Greene. The two began a courtship that culminated on March 3rd 1924, when Lovecraft found the courage to stand against his family’s wishes by marrying Sonia. The newlywed couple followed their nuptials with a move to Brooklyn. However, cohabitation would be short-lived for the pair as continued financial and health issues soon found his bride relocating to Cleveland. Lovecraft himself remained behind, financed by a small allowance from his wife.
Even after his mother’s death and breaking away from what remained of his family, Lovecraft could never get over the scars he carried. This damage featured not only prominently in his work but also in his personal life. He lived his days in extreme poverty and self-imposed exile as a recluse, publishing his work almost exclusively in pulp magazines.
Along with his short story works, totaling over 70, Lovecraft wrote several short novels. Among them, ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,’ ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth,’ are still considered his best works.
Most of his pulp works and novels focused on the themes of the uncontrollable nature of fate, the dark decline of man, and the destructive outcomes of pursuing knowledge. His work was so unique that many still use the term “Lovecraftian Horror” to describe the sub-genre “Cosmic Horror,” found under the classification of horror fiction. We often use interchangeably these sub-genre terms to describe horror fiction that focuses on the unknowable and incomprehensible.
Interesting and Notables
Although Lovecraft spent most of his life in seclusion from direct contact, he spent nearly as much time writing letters as he did works of fiction. A few of his most notable mentorship by correspondence were writers Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho), and Robert E. Howard (the creator of the Conan the Barbarian series).
Throughout his lifetime, Lovecraft held several interesting ghostwriting clients, including the great Harry Houdini.
Death and Impact
In 1936, at the age of 46, Lovecraft was diagnosed with small intestinal cancer. His lifelong love of science, writing, and fascination with the macabre drove him to keep a detailed diary of his illness right up to the moment of his death.
On March 15th, 1937, Lovecraft died as he lived—a reclusive, marginally known person in abject poverty. At that time, only a minor cult following noted and mourned his passing. However, after his death, Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s genius went on to be recognized and to influence later generations of writers, filmmakers, artists, poets, and even video game designers. Today, many consider H. P. Lovecraft to be the single most significant author of his genre in the 20th century.