Living in New England, it's hard to escape the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The northeast corner of the United States is well known for its horror and fantasy authors: Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and the many contemporaries they inspired. Some have speculated that it's the climate and geography of New England and New York; others have noted that our deep colonial roots and folklore puts us at an advantage. Regardless of the reasons, autumn in New England is the perfect backdrop to look at Lovecraft's life and works.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20th, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. His family moved to Dorchester and Auburndale, Massachusetts early on, before returning to Providence when Lovecraft was three after his father was committed to the city’s Butler Hospital, an insane asylum. As a child, he had a difficult relationship with his mother, who was emotionally distant but overly protective, especially following the death of her husband in 1898. It was amidst this difficult family life that Lovecraft was introduced early on to books such as Arabian Nights, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and stories from authors such as H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe.
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As a young adult, Lovecraft was a prolific amateur journalist, author and ghostwriter, publishing short stories in amateur magazines. His first professional work was a poem, ‘The Marshes of Ipswich,’ published in The National Magazine in 1918 and he continued to write a wide range of short stories, influenced by other notable authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lord Dunsany. He was also enamored of New England’s environment, which became a major influence on his fiction.
By the 1920s, Lovecraft had begun to solidify his writing into dark horror / weird fiction, with a number of stories focusing on otherworldly terrors and the macabre. In 1927, he wrote an essay titled 'Supernatural Horror in Literature,' which begins: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." This proves to be one of the better descriptions of his stories.
Frustrated with the overwhelming presence of ‘human-like’ aliens in science fiction, Lovecraft set out to write something very different. Now known principally for his overarching mythos, beginning with ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ written in 1926 and later published in the magazine Weird Tales; these stories focus on humanity’s encounters with an ancient race of horrifying, incomprehensible beings that inhabited the world long ago. The story was followed by ‘The Dunwich Horror,’ ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’ and several others, all of which are set in the same universe. These background elements have since become a subgenre of their own, with authors such as Robert E. Howard to Stephen King incorporating them in their own works.
Lovecraft is notable for his use of the other, which seems at odds with his own social and political convictions. At the age of 22, he published a poem, 'Providence in 2000 AD,' which harbored anti-immigrant sentiments, along with a number of other pieces expressing similar opinions. His biographer, L. Sprague de Camp, noted that "Until the last few years of his life, Lovecraft was ethnocentric to the point of mania. In the abstract, he hated all foreigners, immigrants and ethnics, calling them ' twisted ratlike vermin from the ghetto' and 'rat-faced, beady-eyed oriental mongrels.'" His views were extreme until just before his death, when he reversed course and recanted his statements. His biographers have been apologetic, often pointing out that Lovecraft was uncomfortable with change of any sort, and that it took him a long time to get used to something. His reluctance to accept the present is likely behind his appreciation of the past.
Lovecraft lived a short life: in 1937, at the age of 47, he was stricken with intestinal cancer in January and entered the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on March 10th, where he died just five days later. With his death, he left behind a troubled legacy and a rich bibliography of stories that have proven to be heavily influential and terrifying for readers and authors alike.