A little over thirty years ago, a teenage boy borrowed a book, a collection of short stories by an author he had never read before, from one of his closest friends and hurried home to start reading.
Ghost stories were my first love at the time I encountered The Tomb, and as I began to read Lovecraft’s tale of a young boy’s nocturnal visits to ‘the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets’, I assumed it would be just that. And so, in a way, it is. But this was not so straightforward as a chill and a scare from things going bump in the night: here was a deeper, darker, more disturbing and altogether more compelling terror – a desire to be united with the dead themselves, regression into distant history, a story that brought the stench of corruption almost tangibly into my nostrils. The man Stephen King would call ‘the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale’ was born where he would die and pass almost the entirety of his life: in Providence, Rhode Island on August 20 1890. His parents, Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan Phillips had not married until they were in their thirties.
His father was a traveling salesman and, while away on a business trip in Chicago in 1893, he became 'psychotic' in his hotel. Brought back to Providence, he was taken to Butler Hospital (founded in 1844 as Rhode Island’s first mental hospital and still open today). He died there in 1898. Lovecraft would say his death was caused by the stress of his job and by nervous exhaustion and that may very well have been the explanation the little boy was given. In fact, his father almost certainly died of paralytic dementia, caused by syphilis, also explaining the dramatic and sudden onset of his psychotic disorder. Lovecraft’s mother was almost certainly aware of the likely cause of her husband’s collapse. If so, it would have left her with the knowledge and fear that she might have contracted the disease herself, and possibly passed it on to her son.
Lovecraft was now raised by his mother, her two sisters Lillian and Annie Phillips, and also by his grandfather, the magnificently named Whipple van Buren Phillips, a prominent industrialist and businessman who, according to Lovecraft scholar and biographer S T Joshi, ‘made and lost several fortunes in his continent-spanning career’. He became an important influence in Lovecraft’s life at this point, encouraging the young boy’s love of literature, giving him copies of The Arabian Nights, The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as telling him his own invented tales of Gothic horror. Lovecraft was something of a child prodigy, reportedly reciting poetry at the age of two, reading it by three, and writing his own at six. He had by this time also created the persona of Abdul Alhazred, who would later become the mad monk and author of the mythical Necronomicon and the famed couplet
That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons, even death may die
Lovecraft said that he discovered the tales of Edgar Allan Poe at the age of 7 or 8, a moment which he described as ‘my downfall’ - as he would describe his discovery of the writings of Alfred Lord Dunsany aged 19 as an 'electric shock'. Another personal trauma was waiting for him, however, with the death of his grandfather due to heart failure – Joshi suggests ‘probably brought on by the collapse of his latest business venture’ – in 1904. The 14 year old was now living with his mother and her sisters. Whipple’s business failures, coupled with evident mishandling of his estate, saw the odd quartet forced to move to increasingly smaller and meaner accommodation.
Lovecraft had been frequently ill as a child, much of it psychosomatic, of a nervous or depressive nature and possibly the result of over-cossetting by his mother (one can only imagine the fears these illnesses must have provoked in her, with the shadow of the knowledge of her husband’s syphilis hanging over her), and had consequently missed much of his schooling, although when he started regular attendance at Hope Street High School, he seems to have enjoyed the company of both teachers and fellow-pupils well enough and to have made friendships strong enough to outlast schooldays. He remained a voracious reader, although some may be surprised to hear that his interests at this time were moving in a scientific direction, specifically chemistry and astronomy. He had already begun writing and printing his own scientific pamphlets: The Scientific Gazette by age nine, and The Rhode Island Journal Of Astronomy at thirteen.
But more troubles awaited him. He suffered some sort of nervous breakdown just before completing High School, which prevented his graduation. ST Joshi suggests the breakdown was due to his inability to cope with higher mathematics, which would have thwarted his aim of becoming a professional astronomer, and also stymied him in his desire to continue his education at Brown University.
Whatever the cause, it seems to have been bad enough to have led to the contemplation of suicide, and was followed by a period of his life in which he lived a reclusive existence, writing mainly poetry, and having contact with almost no-one apart from his mother, whom Joshi describes as ‘still suffering from the trauma of her husband’s illness and death, and who developed a pathological love/hate relationship with her son.’
His fortunes at last took a turn for the better when he wrote a letter (in verse!) to Argosy magazine, complaining about the blandness of their stories. His letter was read by Edward Daas, President of the United Amateur Press Association, who contacted Lovecraft and he began to contribute journalistic pieces, poems and essays for local papers and journals and then stories: his first published tale being Dagon, in Vagrant magazine in 1919. He also published his own newspaper The Conservative between 1915 and 1923
'For the first time,' he wrote, ‘I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening world.'
He also now began his correspondence: he was one of the most prolific letter-writers of the twentieth century, with one estimate suggesting he wrote as many as 100,000 letters running to several million words, with correspondents including fellow authors Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard, (creator of Conan The Barbarian).
His skies would not remain cloudless for long, however. His mother had begun to show depressive and hysterical symptoms, and in 1919 she was confined to Butler Hospital where she died two years later following a gall bladder operation.
Perhaps in reaction to the loss of his mother, Lovecraft now embarked on one of the more unlikely episodes of his life. Only weeks after his mother’s death, he travelled to Boston to attend a convention for amateur journalists, where he met Sonia Greene. Three years later, they were married and Lovecraft moved to New York. The early omens were good: Lovecraft’s reputation was on the rise as his stories began to appear in Weird Tales, while Sonia ran a milliner’s shop on Fifth Avenue. However. with her health in decline, Sonia lost her shop and was forced to move to Cleveland for work. Lovecraft had turned down an offer to edit a companion magazine to Weird Tales – it would have necessitated a move to Chicago – and so he stayed behind in Brooklyn. But he had grown to dislike New York. In particular, he developed a hatred of the city’s immigrant communities: his undoubted racism already fueled by his sense of himself as a privileged Anglo-Saxon New Englander. And so, just a couple of years after his marriage, he was planning to return to life with the aunts in Providence with, it seems, no possibility that Sonia might join him, that same sense of privilege and snobbery apparently causing his aunts to look with horror upon the notion of their nephew being married to a mere tradeswoman (tellingly, Lovecraft had not informed them of the marriage until after the ceremony). In fact, Howard and Sonia agreed to a separation, although it seems that they never officially divorced.
The return to Providence in 1926 saw the start of the most prolific decade of his writing career, in spite of which he sank further and further into poverty, moving to smaller and smaller living quarters with his surviving aunt. Ironically, he now undertook more travel than he ever had before: to Canada, across New England, to Philadelphia and the Carolinas. Perhaps surprisingly, he became more politically vocal, supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal as the Great Depression began to bite, and describing himself as a moderate socialist.
By 1936, the illness which would claim his life – cancer of the intestine – was already developing beyond his doctors’ ability to treat, and his personal emotional state was not helped by the sudden suicide of his friend Robert E Howard. In March the following year, he was admitted to hospital where he died five days later, on March 10 1937, aged just 46. He was buried in the family plot in Swan Point cemetery, although in 1977, fans paid to have a separate headstone erected which bears a phrase from one of his letters: I Am Providence.
It is very easy to see the shadows of Lovecraft’s life looming over his work. His narrators are often detached and isolated. Indeed, discussing the narrator in that very first story I read as a teenager (‘wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances’), Joshi suggests that Lovecraft is voicing attitudes inherited from his father and grandfather. Lovecraft extends those personal emotional states from the microcosmic to the universal: the ‘outsider’, unable to make sense of the world around him, the powerlessness of the individual against larger, darker forces in a dark, cold, incomprehensible universe largely indifferent to his fate. Perhaps his scientific interests and learning made him uniquely well-equipped to extend his fantastic playground to the cosmic scale: when he speaks of forces and horrors of incalculable age traveling vast distances across the cosmos, we know this is more than just a turn of phrase. His early mathematical training also invests those ‘impossible angles’ and ‘strange geometries’ he brings into play in so many of his stories.
But it is also clear that many of the elements of his terrors and horrors sprang fully-formed from the heightened imagination of a highly sensitive child. In some of his stories, such as The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath, he introduces figures called ‘night-gaunts’. These were the personification of the night-terrors which assailed him as a child (and as the parent of a child who was briefly afflicted with night-terrors, I can attest to just how distressing they are – and for the witness as much as for the sufferer). He wrote of them in an early poetic effort:
Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,
But every night I see the rubbery things,
Black, horned and slender with membranous wings...
...But oh! If only they would make some sound,
Or wear a face where faces should be found!
While I might have wished the young Howard a peaceful night’s sleep, I can only be personally grateful that his gaunts continued to flap and crawl across his pages until they caught up with me in that Liverpool suburb.