Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) was an American author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, who is now widely recognized as one of the most influential and widely-read authors of popular fiction of all time. Although Lovecraft's readership was limited during his life, since his death he has gained a massive and devoted following of readers who have been captivated by his gripping tales of the supernatural. Amongst scholars, Lovecraft is considered to be an exemplar of a uniquely American strain of gothic fiction, tracing its roots back to Edgar Allen Poe. Deeply influenced by Poe, as well as by Hawthorne, Lovecraft, like his forebears, created an entirely alternate world of sheer imagination that remains one of the most engaging oeuvres of fiction ever created.
Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman of jewelry and precious metals, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, a woman who could trace her ancestry in America back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. His parents married later in life, when they were both in their thirties, unusual for the era. In 1893, when Lovecraft was three, his father became acutely psychotic in a Chicago hotel room while on a business trip. He was brought back to Providence and placed in Butler Hospital, where he remained until his death in 1898.
Lovecraft thereafter was raised by his mother, his two aunts, and his grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. All resided together in the family home. Lovecraft was a child prodigy, reciting poetry at age two and writing complete poems by six. His grandfather encouraged his reading, providing him with classics such as The Arabian Nights, Bulfinch's Age of Fable, and children's versions of Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey. His grandfather also stirred young Howard's interest in what Lovecraft later referred to as "the weird," by telling him his own original tales of Gothic horror.
Lovecraft was frequently ill as a child, both physically and psychologically. Due to his sickly condition and his undisciplined, argumentative nature he barely attended school until he was eight and then was withdrawn after a year. He read voraciously during this period, becoming especially enamored with chemistry and astronomy. Four years later, he returned to public school at Hope Street High School.
In 1908, prior to his high school graduation, Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown and consequently never received his high school diploma. This failure to complete his education (he wished to study at Brown University), was a source of disappointment, and even shame, late into his life.
Lovecraft wrote some fiction as a youth, but from 1908 until 1913, his output was primarily poetry he wrote while living a hermit's existence, having almost no contact with anybody but his mother. This changed when he wrote a letter to The Argosy, a pulp magazine, complaining about the insipidness of the love stories of one of the publication's popular writers. The ensuing debate in the magazine's letters column caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, President of the American Press Association, who invited Lovecraft to join in 1914. The job reinvigorated Lovecraft, inciting him to contribute many poems and essays. In 1917, at the prodding of correspondents, he returned to fiction with more polished stories, such as "The Tomb" and "Dagon."
A few weeks after the death of his mother in 1921, Lovecraft attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston, where he met Sonia Greene. Born in 1883, she was of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry and seven years older than Lovecraft. They married in 1924, and the couple moved to New York City. Initially, Lovecraft was enthralled by New York but soon the couple was facing financial difficulties. Lovecraft could not find work to support them both so his wife moved to Cleveland for employment. Lovecraft lived by himself and came to intensely dislike life in New York. (This situation is closely paralleled in the semi-autobiographical "He," as noted by Michel Houellebecq in H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.)
A few years, later he and Greene, still living separately, agreed to an amicable divorce, which was never fully completed. He returned to Providence to live with his aunts during their remaining years.
Back in Providence, Lovecraft lived in a "spacious brown Victorian wooden house" until 1933. The period after his return to Providence—the last decade of his life—was Lovecraft's most prolific. During this time period he produced almost all of his best-known short stories for the leading pulp publications of the day, as well as longer efforts like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. He frequently revised work for other authors and did a large amount of ghost-writing, including "The Mound," "Winged Death," and "The Diary of Alonzo Typer."
Despite his best writing efforts, however, he grew ever poorer. He was forced to move to smaller and meaner lodgings with his surviving aunt. In 1936, he was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine and he also suffered from malnutrition. He lived in constant pain, until his death on March 15, 1937, in Providence.
H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with American style horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” has influenced authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, and even cartoons which take science-fiction and horror as their subjects. Many modern horror writers—such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, and Joe R. Lansdale—have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
For most of the twentieth century, the definitive editions (specifically At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, The Dunwich Horror and Others, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions) of his prose fiction were published by Arkham House, a publisher originally started with the intent of publishing the work of Lovecraft, but which has since published a considerable amount of other literature as well. Penguin Classics has at present issued three volumes of Lovecraft's works: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, and, most recently, The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. They collect the standard texts as edited by S. T. Joshi, most of which were available in the Arkham House editions, with the exception of the restored text of "The Shadow Out of Time" from The Dreams in the Witch House, which had been previously released by small-press publisher Hippocampus Press. In 2005, the prestigious Library of America canonized Lovecraft with a volume of his stories edited by Peter Straub, and Random House's Modern Library line just released the "definitive edition" of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
Lovecraft's poetry is collected in The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft, while much of his juvenilia, various essays on philosophical, political, and literary topics, antiquarian travelogues, and other things, can be found in Miscellaneous Writings. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," first published in 1927, is a historical survey of horror literature available with endnotes as The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature.
Although Lovecraft is known mostly for his works of weird fiction, the bulk of his writing consists of voluminous letters about a variety of topics, from weird fiction and art criticism, to politics and history. S. T. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft wrote about 87,500 letters from 1912, until his death in 1937, including one 70-page letter from November 9, 1929, to Woodburn Harris.
"The Call of Cthulhu" is one of Lovecraft's best-known short stories and a superb example of his mature, gothic style. Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in Weird Tales, in February 1928. It is the only story penned by Lovecraft in which the extraterrestrial entity Cthulhu, an insane alien god who plays a central role in Lovecraft's horror mythos, makes a major appearance.
It is written in a documentary style, with three independent narratives linked together through the device of a narrator discovering notes left by a deceased relative. The narrator pieces together the whole truth and disturbing significance of the information he possesses, illustrating the story's first line: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
The story is presented as a manuscript "found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston." In the text, Thurston recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his grand-uncle, George Gammell Angell, a prominent professor of Semitic languages at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who died suddenly in "the winter of 1926–27" after being "jostled by a nautical-looking negro."
The first part of the story, "The Horror in Clay," concerns a small bas-relief sculpture found among the papers, which the narrator describes: "My somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings."
The sculpture turns out to be the work of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design who based the work on his dreams of "great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror." These images are associated in the dreams with the words Cthulhu and R'lyeh.
Wilcox's dreams began on March 1, 1925, culminating in a period from March 23 until April 2, when Wilcox was in a state of delirium. During the same period, Angell's research reveals, there were cases of "outre mental illnesses and outbreaks of group folly or mania" around the world.
In the second part of the story, "The Tale of Inspector Legrasse," Angell's notes reveal that the professor had heard the word Cthulhu and seen a similar image much earlier. At the 1908 meeting of the American Archeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri, a New Orleans police official named John Raymond Legrasse had asked the assembled antiquarians to identify a statuette, made of an unidentifiable greenish-black stone, that "had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting." The "idol, fetish, or whatever it was" closely resembled the Wilcox bas-relief:
It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.
Legrasse had led a party in search of several women and children who disappeared from a squatter community. The police found the victims' "oddly marred" bodies being used in a ritual that centered on the statuette, about which roughly 100 men—all of a "very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type"—were "braying, bellowing, and writhing," repeatedly chanting the phrase, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."
Legrasse interrogated the prisoners and learned "the central idea of their loathsome faith:"
They worshiped, 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. Those 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 men, who formed a cult which had never died…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.
The prisoners identified the statuette as "great Cthulhu," and translated the chanted phrase as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."
Thurston, the narrator, notes that at this point in his investigation, "My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were."
In the third part of the story, "The Madness From the Sea," Thurston extends the inquiry into the "Cthulhu Cult" beyond what Professor Angell had discovered. He discovers by chance an article from the Sydney Bulletin, an Australian newspaper, for April 18, 1925, that reported the discovery of a derelict ship in the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor—Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen, second mate on the schooner Emma out of Auckland, New Zealand which on March 23, encountered an island in the vicinity of 47° 9' S, 126° 43' W, even though there are no charted islands in that area. Most of the remaining crew died on the island, but Johansen is said to be "queerly reticent" about what happened to them.
When Johansen's widow gives Thurston a manuscript that her husband left behind, the narrator learns of the crew's discovery of the uncharted island which is described as "a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth's supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh." Exploring the risen land, which is "abnormal, non-Euclidian, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours," the sailors manage to open a "monstrously carven portal," and from
the newly opened depths…It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway…. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
Thurston (or Johansen) writes that "(T)he Thing cannot be described," though the story does call it "the green, sticky spawn of the stars," and refers to its "flabby claws" and "awful squid-head with writhing feelers." Hinting at its scale, the story says, "A mountain walked or stumbled." Johansen manages to get back to the yacht.
After reading this manuscript, Thurston ends his own narrative on a pessimistic note: "Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men." He assumes that he will soon meet the fate of Angell and Johansen: "I know too much, and the cult still lives."
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