Funeral services for Howard Phillips Lovecraft, student and writer of fiction, who died yesterday at Jane Brown Memorial Hospital, will be held Thursday at 12 o’clock in the chapel of Horace B. Knowles’s Sons. 187 Benefit street. Burial will be in the family plot in Swan Point Cemetery. He was 46.
On March 15, 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in his hometown of Providence, R.I., the city in which, save a brief stint in New York, he lived his entire life. The obituary that ran the following day described him as a writer, though was perhaps overgenerous in heralding him as an “author” in its headline.
H.P. Lovecraft certainly wrote, of this there is no doubt. Writing was his hobby and his passion and his mania; he wrote short stories and novels and epistles by the ream. But on the date of his death Lovecraft was not known as an “author,” except perhaps in small, literary circles. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, his first true novel, wouldn’t be published for another six years; the scores of short stories that had appeared in Weird Tales and other pulps seemed destined to be forgotten. And the some-30,000 letters he had written over the years were uncollected, tucked away in the dresser drawers and desktop nooks of his many correspondents.
Lovecraft had some staunch champions, foremost among them one August Derleth. In 1939, Derleth co-founded Arkham House, a publisher devoted to keeping Lovecraft’s work extant. But over the coming decades, even as Arkham House published dozens of Lovecraft’s stories and novellas, as well as original fiction written in the Lovecraftian style, HPL’s flame was guttering at best. It seemed unlikely that Lovecraft’s legacy would persist into the 21st century.
Yet 75 years after his death, H.P. Lovecraft is more widely known than ever. While far from a household name, interest in Lovecraft and his “Cthulhu Mythos” has burgeoned in the last 30 years, with new books, films, games, graphic novels, and even albums based on the writer’s work released annually. And curiously, enthusiasm for a man who wrote of eldritch gods and antediluvian cults has found fertile ground in that pinnacle of modern technology, the internet.
Born in this city, Aug. 20, 1890, the only child of the late Winfield S. and Sarah P. Lovecraft, Mr. Lovecraft from early life was handicapped by poor health. Essentially a student and omnivercus [sic] reader, he was able to take place only from time to time in regular school classroom with children of his own age but graduated from Hope street high school and secured the equivalent of a college education from private tutors.
Nearly every aspect of Lovecraft’s weird writing has some antecedent in his childhood. In 1893 his father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, suffered a psychotic breakdown of a type and severity comparable to those that beset so many of HPL’s characters. The man was committed to an institution for the brief remainder of his life, and H.P. was thereafter raised by his mother, two aunts, and a grandfather, Whipple V. Phillips.
Phillips recognized in Howard a gift for the literary, and encouraged the boy to partake of his library, a collection that included tomes of fantasy and mythology. But even as the grandfather was urging H.P. to broaden his horizons, the sheltering and overprotective mother was instilling in her child a fear of everything. Lovecraft began suffering from a variety of ailments, many of which are presumed to have been psychosomatic, that inhibited his ability to attend school and socialize with his peers.
When the grandfather passed in 1904, the family was left in such dire financial straits that they were forced from H.P.’s childhood home. HPL moved into lodging with his mother, who then became his sole guardian. Within four years the teen would endure a nervous breakdown, withdraw from high school, and become a scholarly recluse whose primary form of interaction with others was via post. Sequestered from the world at large, Lovecraft took a keen interest in astronomy, and at the age of 16 began writing a column on the subject for the Providence Tribune.
Insanity, fantasy, death, hermitage, and a drive to explore the universe: The seeds of the Lovecraftian horror were sown. Along with his seemingly inexhaustible well of fears—fears of the sea and of sex and of madness—Lovecraft had ample raw material with which to craft his tales of terror. And with his unusual background, personality, and idiosyncrasies, Lovecraft seemed like nothing so much as a character from one of his own stories.
The 90-minute film “Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown” documents the writer and his lasting legacy.
His early recourse to the library of his grandfather, Whipple V. Phillips, at 454 Angell street in which he has turned loose to browse at will gave him the bend toward weird writing which was his hobby.
In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft’s signature story, the narrator discovers a statuette of a grotesque entity:
It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.
The narrator soon learns of an unthinkable horror dwelling on the ocean floor inside a city of “Cyclopean masonry.” Further research unearths a manuscript, written by a ship captain who had the great misfortune to see this Great Cthulhu, with its “shining eyes and a mountainous white bulk,” as it rose from the sea. Although the captain escaped the encounter with his life, he is left a broken man, unable to comprehend a world in which such terrors reside. (The captain’s more fortunate shipmate goes insane the moment he beholds the horror.) Having unearthed the full story, the narrator laments his investigation, as he agonizes over his ill-begotten knowledge of Cthulhu. “Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men,” he says. “A time will come—but I must not and cannot think!”
The Lovecraft universe is a drear and inhospitable place. Eschewing the vampires and other supernatural horrors that were standard villains in the pulps of his age, HPL instead created his own brand of horror, a genre that has come to be known as “Cosmicism.”
With each passing year, Lovecraft and his cthulhoid creations snake their tentacles deeper into public consciousness.
The defining feature of Cosmicism is not evil, as is the case with Gothic horror, but the utter insignificance of man. As the current trend of “sexy supernatural” fiction demonstrates, there is an allure to being desired, even when your suitor is of a supernatural, even malevolent ilk. But Lovecraft gave his readers no such solace. His existential universe is one in which no one and nothing cares about us one way or the other, where the only “gods” are beings of a scale we mortals cannot readily process. Cthulhu rises from the deep not to attack the ship but for reasons unfathomable to the minds of men, and the captain is little more than an innocent bystander, able to neither control nor assimilate his fate.
The pantheon of indifferent gods created by HPL and others eventually became known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Members of “The Lovecraft Circle,” a group of HPL contemporaries that included Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and the poet and writer Clark Ashton Smith, jointly developed this canon, writing tales set in this shared universe well beyond Lovecraft’s death.
Although the Cthulhu Mythos is considered Lovecraft’s creation, many of the stories, creatures, and ideas found therein were contributed by others. But it was Lovecraft who codified the essential features of this shared universe, one in which mankind is inconsequential to cosmic forces of unfathomable power.
In his autobiographies, which he wrote up to the day before he was admitted to the hospital last month, he related the importance to his life of the fairy tales and classical tales he read when but six years of age.
I was introduced to H.P. Lovecraft in the late 1989, when a friend loaned me his tattered copy of Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. I found it nearly impossible to read, with its antiquated language and eddying plots, but was eventually able to complete “The Rats in the Walls,” one of the shorter and more straightforward stories. I read a few more entries in the volume before devouring “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in a single sitting, a story that remains a favorite to this day.
I did not realize it at the time, but public interest in the author had been steadily building over the course of the decade. After 40 years of being virtually ignored, a confluence of events and trends served to increase awareness of H.P.’s writings in the ’80s, and spawned a new generation of devotees to the his distinctive brand of cosmic horror.
As explained to me by S.T. Joshi, author of I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft and a preeminent scholar on the life and works of the writer, the stage for this revival of interest was set by a growing critical recognition of Lovecraft’s work: “In the 1970s, Lovecraft scholars began addressing his work with unprecedented insight. A number of books about HPL came out around this time; in 1984-86, Arkham House published three volumes of my corrected editions of HPL’s tales, based on my examination of his manuscripts and early printed texts. This led eventually to the publication of my three annotated editions with Penguin Classics (1999-2004), which led directly to the publication of HPL’s Tales (2005) by the Library of America, officially establishing Lovecraft in the canon of American literature.”
Meanwhile, horror was taking off in popular books and movies; 1986 saw the publication of the 1,000-plus-page It by Stephen King, who attributed much of his interest in the macabre to Lovecraft. While the Cthulhu Mythos never featured prominently in King’s novels, It is generally regarded as his most Lovecraftian work. King’s declaration of Lovecraft as “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale” is found on the jacket of nearly every compendium of Lovecraft “best of” volumes.
Around this same time religious groups, the Moral Majority among them, were whipping the nation into a frenzy over the insidious influence of Satanism, which was supposedly poisoning every element of civic life. Though there is a chicken-and-egg argument to be made here: Were the hysterical warnings of rampant occultism a response to, or a cause of, the growing interest in the supernatural? Either way, interest in the Dark Arts had found a home in the Me Decade. In 1985, HPL hit the big screen with the Re-Animator, loosely based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator.” Two years later, Infocom, makers of the game Zork, even released a Lovecraftian text adventure called “The Lurking Horror.”
Though nothing in the ’80s made more people aware of Lovecraft than the “The Call of Cthulhu” role-playing game.
In 1979 a company called Chaosium began internal development on a RPG set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. When the project began to founder, they called in game designer—and lifelong Lovecraft devotee—Sandy Petersen to finish the job. With Petersen’s involvement in Call of Cthulhu, several aspects of the game were radically changed. For one, the action was shifted from the Dreamlands to the real world, Massachusetts of the 1920s, the setting for most of Lovecraft’s own stories. For another, in stark contrast to the heroics found in other roleplaying games of the time, Petersen made CoC a dismal affair, with players routinely being devoured or going insane.
The result was a roleplaying game that is routinely cited as one of the best ever designed, and one that perfectly evokes the hopelessness of the source material.
As Petersen told me, “When the game first came out, most of the people I met at conventions thanked me for finally publishing a game about their favorite author. But from about 1985 onward, almost ALL of the people I have met at conventions thanked me for introducing them to Lovecraft via my game. So it’s clear that the game has spread knowledge of HPL worldwide. Last year I was in Italy for a convention and was swamped with Italians who would clearly never have heard of HPL without the game.”
Fewer than 100,000 copies of the game have been sold. But they’ve been purchased by nerds, avid readers, and other technologically-savvy people, who helped spread the Cthulhu meme on the internet and other cultural sources.
But of course, the ultimate credit for Lovecraft’s success lies with Lovecraft. No matter how good a game is, it won’t convert people into reading an author unless the author himself holds up to scrutiny. I might have had a hand in publicizing HPL, but it is still HPL who must make his case before the people.
Besides his interest in the supernatural, he was a constant student of geneology and astronomy, and at one time, wrote a newspaper column on the latter subject.
Now, 30 years after the Lovecraftian boom, the cult of Cthulhu continues to propagate thanks to the web’s fertile ground.
“The internet has been a tremendous vehicle for people to be exposed to artists like Lovecraft whose works might otherwise have not reached them,” says Sean Branney, of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. “The bleak nihilism that runs thematically through his works seem more relevant than ever. As institutions which were once monolithic in society such as the church crumble around us, even capitalist bastions such as corporations are not enduring institutions that outlive man—rather, they’re transitory, vulnerable, and fragile. When our practical life has little in it that’s more enduring than ourselves, the notion of us inhabiting a speck of dust swirling in an inconceivable vast universe rings especially true. This makes Lovecraft’s themes of man’s utter insignificance in the face of the cosmos ring more true than it ever has.”
And then there is the subtext of so many of Lovecraft’s stories: that the quest for knowledge invariably leads to remorse. The sense among many that technology is spinning out of control, that bioengineering and medical science will lead to grotesques, feels as if we as a society are routinely uncovering That Which Man Was Not Mean to Know. “We hunger for more information and a deeper understanding of the world we live in,” says Branney. “But I think there’s something perversely titillating about the notion that learning too much is the gateway to madness. What better bogeyman can there be in an information-driven society than the notion that genuine understanding of the universe and the forces at work in it are will push our petty human minds over the brink?”
S.T. Joshi expresses the sentiment similarly. “Lovecraft didn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of the daily life of his characters. The people in his stories face ‘big’ issues of identity, humanity’s place in the universe, and the psychological effects of knowledge in ways that are not tied to the time period in which the stories written, so that they can speak across the generations.”
Even the manner in which the Cthulhu Mythos was created mirrors the ethos of the internet. Lovecraft and his contemporaries freely appropriated characters, settings, gods, and ideas from one another, in much the same way that creating remixes and mashups is so common on the web.
Adds Branney. “The internet makes it quite easy to create a community for people with similar interests and have them find each other. Because the bar for sharing information is quite low, lots of people easily can create sites, share information and creations such as artwork, music and films. People who find such things interesting can get involved without regard to geography or cost.
“Back in the ’80s, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society counted itself lucky to have a couple of hundred members worldwide. In the current era, our website will see that many visitors in an hour. They find us, we find them. Everyone is happy, well, as happy as one can be in this dark Lovecraftian universe.”
His days and nights for years were spent in writing in the library at 66 College street, where he lived, in recent years, with his aunt, Mrs. Phillips Gamwell, his sole survivor. As he neared the end of his life, he turned his scholarly interests to a study of his own physical condition and daily write minutely of his case for his physician’s assistance. His clinical notes ended only when he could no longer hold a pencil.
With each passing year, Lovecraft and his cthulhoid creations snake their tentacles deeper into the public consciousness. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has produced and released several movies (with The Call of Cthulhu available via Netflix Streaming), and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival is now in its 17th year. Fantasy Flight Games is creating new and lavishly produced Lovecraftian games such as Arkham Horror, indoctrinating a new generation of players into the fold. Books and comics and graphic novels based on the Mythos are flourishing. There was even an episode of South Park devoted to the “mountainous white bulk” of Cthulhu.
With more people than every are aware of the writer, his works, and his legacy, that pivotal word in the headline of his obituary is finally acknowledged as accurate and just. H.P. Lovecraft, author, is dead.