Biography of H. P. Lovecraft, American Writer, Father of Modern Horror

Portrait of American author H. P. Lovecraft, taken in June 1934, by Lucius B. Truesdell.
Portrait of American author H. P. Lovecraft, taken in June 1934, by Lucius B. Truesdell.

Public domain

H. P. Lovecraft was many things: a recluse, a virulently xenophobic racist, and arguably the most influential figure in modern horror fiction. Lovecraft, who made very little money from his writing and often seemed to sabotage any possibility that he might, took a genre that was still bound to Victorian and Gothic tropes and rules and introduced into it a truly frightening concept: That the universe wasn’t filled with rule-obeying evil you could comprehend and thus defeat; rather, it was filled with beings and forces so beyond us they aren’t even aware of our existence as they terrify, destroy, and annihilate us.

Lovecraft spent his life living on the margins, suffering increasingly dire financial constraints as his writing career, once promising, floundered and finally failed utterly. When he died in 1937, he was a fringe figure in literature, but over the years his stories and ideas influenced countless other writers. Today the word "Lovecraftian" has become part of our literary language and his stories continue to be adapted and reprinted while many of his contemporaries, more famous at the time, have faded from memory.

Fast Facts: H.P. Lovecraft

  • Full Name: Howard Phillips Lovecraft
  • Known For: Writer
  • Born: August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island
  • Parents: Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan Lovecraft
  • Died: March 15,1937 in Providence, Rhode Island
  • Education: Attended Hope High School, but did not earn a diploma.
  • Selected Works: The Cats of Ulthar, The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, The Horror at Red Hook, The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • Spouse: Sonia Greene
  • Notable Quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Early Years

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 into an affluent family in Rhode Island. His mother, Saran Susan "Susie" Phillips, was often described as lacking affection, and frequently referred to her son as "hideous." His father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, was institutionalized when Lovecraft was 3 years old, and died of complications stemming from syphilis when he was 8, leaving him solely in the care of Susie.

Although Susie was not an ideal mother, Lovecraft fell under the influence of his grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, who encouraged the young boy to read and pursue learning. Lovecraft showed signs of high intelligence, but was also sensitive and high-strung; his grandfather’s ghost stories inspired a period of night terrors that drove Lovecraft from his bed, convinced he was pursued by monsters. Lovecraft nursed ambitions of becoming a scientist, and studied astronomy and chemistry. But he struggled with mathematics and could never make much progress as a result.

By the time Lovecraft was 10 years old, Whipple’s businesses had declined sharply and the family’s circumstances were greatly reduced. The servants were let go, and Lovecraft lived alone with his mother and grandfather in the large family home. When Whipple passed away in 1904, Susie could not afford the house and moved them into a small home nearby. Lovecraft would later describe this period as very dark and depressing for him. He started high school and did well in several subjects, but began suffering self-described nervous breakdowns that prevented him from attending for long periods of time. He would never graduate.

Poems, Letters, and Early Short Stories (1912-1920)

  • "Providence in 2000 A.D." (1912)
  • "The Alchemist" (1916)
  • "Dagon" (1919)
  • "The Cats of Ulthar" (1920)

Lovecraft had begun writing as a child, publishing an amateur scientific journal and completing his first works of fiction while in high school. After dropping out, he lived alone with his mother under increasing financial strain and published his first poem, "Providence in 2000 A.D.," in the Providence Evening Journal in 1912. The poem is a satire that describes a future where the white descendants of English heritages have been pushed out by waves of immigrants, who begin to rename everything along their own cultural leanings. It’s telling that Lovecraft’s earliest published credit is unabashedly bigoted; his terror of just about anyone who was not a white person from a specific cultural and economic background, is a theme throughout much of his work.

H. P. Lovecraft's Dagon
Cover page spread of H. P. Lovecraft's Dagon as it appeared in Weird Tales October, 1923.  Public Domain 

Lovecraft began reading the new "pulp" magazines being published at the time, a burgeoning genre of weird and speculative stories. The letters sections of these magazines were the Internet forums of their day, and Lovecraft began publishing letters offering critical analysis of the stories he’d read, much of which was centered in Lovecraft’s bigotry and racism. These letters inspired a great deal of response, and brought Lovecraft to the attention of Edward F. Daas, chief of the United Amateur Press Association, who invited Lovecraft to join the UAPA.

Lovecraft thrived in the UAPA, eventually rising to its presidency. His work there was marked by an ongoing effort to support what Lovecraft considered to be "proper" English language as opposed to the modern vernacular, which he felt had been bastardized and harmed by the introduction of immigrant influence. Lovecraft’s obsession with language resulted in a curiously stilted and formal tone in much of his writing, which usually elicits a strong reaction from readers who see it as either serving the desperate, otherworldly tone of the stories or simply as poor writing.

His success with the UAPA paralleled a surge of creativity as well; Lovecraft published his first short story, "The Alchemist," in a UAPA journal in 1916. After publishing more fiction, he published the first story that exhibits his signature style and preoccupation with incomprehensible forces: "Dagon," which appeared in The Vagrant in 1919. While not considered officially part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, it explores many similar themes. Lovecraft’s writing continued to gain confidence. In 1920, he published "The Cats of Ulthar," a straightforward horror story that anticipates the sort of fiction that would appear in later periodicals like Creepshow, in which an elderly couple who delight in torturing and killing stray cats face horrifying—if satisfying—vengeance.

The Early Cthulhu Mythos (1920-1930)

  • "The Crawling Chaos" (1920)
  • "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925)
  • "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928)
  • "The Dunwich Horror" (1929)

In late 1920, Lovecraft began working on the earliest stories that are traditionally included in his Cthulhu Mythos, a fictional universe populated by god-like creatures known as the Great Old Ones, most notably "The Crawling Chaos," written with Winifred Virginia Jackson.

In 1921, Lovecraft’s mother, Susie, died unexpectedly due to complications from surgery. Although Lovecraft experienced one of his typical nervous episodes as a result of the shock, he continued to work and appear at amateur writing conventions. At one such convention in Boston in 1921, he met a woman named Sonia Greene and began a relationship; they were married three years later, in 1924.

The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft cover At
Illustration on page 159 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (Feb 1928, vol. 11, no. 2) featuring The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft. Cover Art by Hugh Rankin.  Public Domain

Greene was a businesswoman with independent means who had self-financed several amateur publications; she felt strongly that Lovecraft desperately needed to escape his family, and convinced him to move with her to Brooklyn, where she promised to support him so he could pursue his writing. For a time, Lovecraft flourished. He gained weight and his health improved, and he found a group of literary acquaintances who encouraged him and helped him publish his work. Greene’ health declined, however, and her business failed. In 1925, she took a job that required her to move to Cleveland and then travel constantly. Lovecraft stayed in New York, supported by an allowance she sent monthly. He moved to Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood and became miserable, unable to find work to support himself and trapped in a neighborhood of immigrants he despised.

In response, he wrote one of his best-known stories, "The Horror at Red Hook," and outlined his earliest versions of what would become his most famous work "The Call of Cthulhu." Both works explored the themes of humanity’s insignificance in the face of ancient, incredibly powerful beings. While "The Horror at Red Hook" has many of these elements, it’s considered a transitional story between Lovecraft’s earlier work and the formal Cthulhu Mythos, as the evil cult at the center of the story is fairly traditionally conceived. The latter story has come to be regarded as a classic of horror fiction, depicting an expedition that encounters the titular creature, resulting in horrific death, insanity, and an uneasy lack of resolution—the lingering fear that more horrors are to come—that marks much of Lovecraft’s work and the horror influenced by him.

A year later, Lovecraft published "The Dunwich Horror," another key story in the Cthulhu Mythos, telling the story of a strange, rapidly-growing man and the mysterious, monstrous presence he and his grandfather contain in their farmhouse. The story was one of the most successful Lovecraft ever published in both literary and financial terms.

Later Works (1931-1936)

  • At the Mountains of Madness (1931)
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936)
  • "The Haunter of the Dark" (1936)

In 1926, Lovecraft’s financial distress led him to move back to Providence, and he agreed to an amicable divorce from Greene; however, the divorce papers were never submitted, so Greene and Lovecraft remained legally married until his death (Greene was unaware and remarried). Once settled back in his hometown, he began to work prolifically, but his pursuit of publishing and financial success became almost negligible. He rarely attempted to publish his work, and often ignored offers or requests for work even when he had completed stories ready to go.

In 1931, Lovecraft published At the Mountains of Madness, a novella set in his Cthulhu Mythos that describes a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic; it remains one of his most famous and most reprinted works. Lovecraft supported himself by doing ghostwriting and editing work for other writers; this, combined with his lack of effort in marketing his work, often resulted in lengthy delays between the completion of a story and its publication. He wrote the novel The Shadow Over Innsmouth in 1931, for example, but it was not published until 1936. The novel was a terrible blow to Lovecraft, as it was printed cheaply and the type contained multiple errors. The book only sold a few hundred copies before the publisher went out of business. Lovecraft wrote his last story, "The Haunter of the Dark," in 1935.

Personal Life

Lovecraft’s was a complicated life. Both his parents exhibited mental instability, and his youth was marked by a steady decline in both financial security and the stability of his home life. His mother dominated his youth and early adulthood; while sometimes described as "doting" and always fondly remembered by Lovecraft himself, other evidence marks her as an oppressive presence in his life. He was reclusive and often incapable of performing the basic tasks most people take for granted, such as completing basic schooling or holding a job. He spent much of his adult life in near-poverty, and frequently skipped meals in order to afford writing materials and postage for his voluminous correspondence.

Lovecraft’s sole known relationship was with Sonia Greene. Their brief marriage began happily enough but, once again, financial straits intervened. Separated when Greene was forced to find employment, the couple split up amicably after just two years of marriage. Despite assuring Greene that he had done so, Lovecraft never submitted the divorce papers to the courts, but whether this was a silent protest against the dissolution of the marriage or simply one more thing Lovecraft found himself incapable of doing remains unknown.

Legacy

H. P. Lovecraft’s influence on horror and other speculative fiction has been profound. Horror, especially, was still the genre of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker when Lovecraft began publishing, still a genre marked by gentlemen facing down evils that sought to destroy the natural order, or to lure men into ruin. At the same time, his clear and corrosive racism has tainted his legacy. In 2015, the World Fantasy Award changed the award trophy, discarding the image of Lovecraft it had used since 1975, citing his racist beliefs. Despite his influence, no conversation about Lovecraft is possible without addressing in some way his bigotry.

But Lovecraft’s stilted language and recurring obsessions carved out a sub-genre that is all his own, and he introduced concepts of cosmic horror that transformed how the genre is perceived, shifting it from stories that followed a clear moral code (typically) based on Western belief systems to a genre that seeks to unsettle, to provoke—to horrify. Despite his lack of success or fame during his lifetime, he is without question one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Sources

  • Flood, Alison. “World Fantasy Award Drops HP Lovecraft as Prize Image.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Nov. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/09/world-fantasy-award-drops-hp-lovecraft-as-prize-image.
  • Eil, Philip. “H.P. Lovecraft: Genius, Cult Icon, Racist.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Aug. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/hp-lovecraft-125/401471/.
  • Cain, Sian. “Ten Things You Should Know about HP Lovecraft.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Aug. 2014, www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/20/ten-things-you-should-know-about-hp-lovecraft.
  • Nuwer, Rachel. “Today We Celebrate the Short, Unhappy Life of H.P. Lovecraft.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Aug. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/today-we-celebrate-the-short-unhappy-life-of-hp-lovecraft-28089970/.
  • Wes House. “We Can't Ignore H.P. Lovecraft's White Supremacy.” Literary Hub, 9 Apr. 2019, lithub.com/we-cant-ignore-h-p-lovecrafts-white-supremacy/.
  • Gray, John. “H.P. Lovecraft Invented a Horrific World to Escape a Nihilistic Universe.” The New Republic, 24 Oct. 2014, newrepublic.com/article/119996/hp-lovecrafts-philosophy-horror.
  • Emrys, Ruthanna. “H.P. Lovecraft And The Shadow Over Horror.” NPR, NPR, 16 Aug. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/08/16/638635379/h-p-lovecraft-and-the-shadow-over-horror.
  • Staff, WIRED. “The Mysterious Love of Sonia Greene for H.P. Lovecraft.” Wired, Conde Nast, 5 June 2017, www.wired.com/2007/02/the-mysterious-2-2/.