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H. P. LOVECRAFT: Dreamer on the Nightside

October 1999 by Paula Guran

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. [In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.]

They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. These Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first man, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him." -- From the short story, "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft (1928)

Despite his ornate archaic style that was outdated long before the 1926-1932 period in which he did his best writing, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is considered the father of "modern horror."

As Stephen King wrote in his DANSE MACABRE, Lovecraft "...opened the way for me, as he had done for others before me, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Fritz Leiber, and Ray Bradbury among them...[T]he reader would do well to remember that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which underlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since."

H.P. Lovecraft Lovecraft was little known to the general public while alive, never saw a book published professionally, made virtually no money from his work and never won an award. Yet he influenced (either directly or indirectly) virtually all horror writers today and has become something of a cult figure. Dozens of versions of his works, books about him, and stories based on his mythos in print. About a score of his stories have been made into movies. An incredible number of games and game-related items are available based on HPL's ideas. Lovecraft has crept into many other areas of entertainment, including television shows, radio, art, music, and comic books. There are millions of words of scholarly research on Lovecraft, periodicals devoted either exclusively or primarily to Lovecraft, and an entire convention, NecronomiCon, that honors Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos,

According to Joyce Carol Oates' introduction to her anthology of Lovecraft, "Lovecraft [is credited] with the fusion of the gothic tale and what would come to be defined as science fiction, and with the development of a species of horror fantasy set in meticulously described, historically grounded places...in which a seemingly normal, intelligent scholar or professor, usually a celibate bachelor, pursues a mystery it would wiser for him to flee...Lovecraft's most evocative stories are set in regions that seem real enough at the outset, like photographs just perceptibly blurred. Lovecraft's mystical identification with his settings in rural Massachusetts and colonial-antiquarian towns like Salem, Marblehead, and Providence suggests a mock transcendentalism in which 'spirit' resides everywhere except possibly in human beings."
The Cthulhu Mythos

Fritz Leiber once called H. P. Lovecraft "a literary Copernicus." Darrell Schweitzer later explained the allusion: "While virtually all mainstream writing and early fantasy could just as well be set in a pre-Copernican universe," in his writings, Lovecraft is "aware of the whole cosmos and man's place in it." In the twentieth century, when many have lost their belief in both both God and the supernatural, Lovecraft wrote horror that affected readers on both subconscious and mythic levels. His terrors from deep space and warped dimensions confronted scientific rationality with the "booga-booga" of the primal nightmare.

And he was something of an odd duck to boot.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, the son of Windfield Scott Lovecraft and Susan Phillips in Providence, RI. Lovecraft's father, a victim of untreated syphilis, went mad before his son reached age three. The elder Lovecraft was confined in an insane until his death in 1898.

Young Howard's mother was evidently emotionally unstable herself. An over-protective, domineering parent who spoiled and coddled him, she was also highly critical of her son. She told the quite normal-looking young Howard, for example, that he was so hideous that he should not leave the house as he might scare the neighbors.

Precocious, the child could recite lengthy poetry at three, and at age five, Lovecraft discovered THE ARABIAN NIGHTS and declared his name to be Abdul Alhazred (later "author" of the fictional NECRONOMICON.) A year or so later, HPL then developed an intense interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome. He also discovered weird fiction at this early age as his grandfather often told weird tales in the Gothic mode. Lovecraft began writing at six "published" magazines and collections of his works as a child

Lovecraft started school in 1889 school, but attended erratically due to ill health. after his grandfather's death in his adolescence money became a problem, and private instruction an impossibility. He began attending a public high school and became interested in Latin and continued writing.

He read Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and pulp magazines like The Argosy, The Cavalier and All-Story Magazine that published Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A physical and mental breakdown kept him from college and he became reclusive, rarely venturing out during the day. At night, he walked the streets of Providence, drinking in its atmosphere. He read, studied astronomy, and in his early 20s began writing poetry, essay, short stories, and eventually longer works.

Lovecraft was saved from his hermitage when he became involved in amateur writing and publishing. As, HPL himself wrote, "In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be..." His fiction began appearing in pulp magazines like Weird Tales in 1917. Lovecraft also began prolific letter-writing with a continuously broadening group of corespondents -- eventually numbering about 1,000 during his lifetime.
The Necronomicon

Lovecraft's mother suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919 and was admitted to the same hospital in which her husband had died. Her death, in 1921, was the result of a bungled gall bladder operation. Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian Jew seven years his senior, shortly thereafter at a writers convention and they married in 1924. As THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY puts it, "...the marriage lasted only until 1926, breaking up largely because HPL disliked sex; the fact that she was Jewish and he was prone to antisemitic rants cannot have helped." After two years of married life in New York City (which he abhorred and where he became even more intolerantly racist) he returned to his beloved Providence

In the next decade, he traveled widely around the eastern seaboard, wrote what is considered to be his finest fiction, and continued his vast correspondence (estimated at several million words) through which he nurtured young writers like August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber. His complete works eventually totaled fifty-odd short stories, four short novels, about two dozen collaborations or ghost-written pieces, and countless poems. Lovecraft's legacy also includes the essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," which, in the opinion of many authorities in the field, remains one of the finest historical discussions of supernatural fiction and is now intrinsic to the study of horror fiction.

Lovecraft never really managed to make a living. Most of his small livelihood coming from re-writing or ghostwriting for others. He died, alone and broke, of intestinal cancer in 1937 and was buried at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. Forty years later, a stone was erected to mark the spot by his admirers. It reads: "I am Providence."

His friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House expressly to publish Lovecraft's work and to bring it to the attention of the public They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939 and followed with many other volumes. Eventually Lovecraft's work was translated into a dozen languages and is widely available in many editions

For an excellent Web site on Lovecraft with links to many others, try The H. P. Lovecraft Archive.


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Copyright © 1999 by Universal Studios (original). Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran (this version), All Rights Reserved.