My Forebears in the 18th Century

My maternal grandfather—born in 1833—and his generation seemed much closer to me than the generation of my parents, uncles, and aunts, born around the ’60’s; while my forebears in the 18th century (periwigged Devonshire squires and rural Anglican vicars on my father’s side, and New-England planters on my mother’s side) seemed closest of all. That sense of immediate personal kinship with the 18th century—its costume, architecture, literary style, thought, etc.—has never left me or even diminished. It’s that which sends me rambling around the country looking for Vieux Carré’s and Charlestons and Natchezes and Salems and Annapolises and Quebecs!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft describes the affinity, the “sense of immediate personal kinship,” he feels for his maternal grandfather’s generation and for his ancestors in the eighteenth century.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 15 Feb. 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 149-54.


My God of Fiction

I used to write detective stories very often, the works of A. Conan Doyle being my model so far as plot was concerned. But Poe was my God of Fiction. I used to love the horrible and the grotesque—much more than I do now—and can recall tales of murderers, spirits, reincarnations, metempsychoses, and every shudder-producing device known to literature!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his childhood infatuation with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 2 Feb. 1916. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 20-1.

A Genuine Pagan

When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxictated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a half-sincere belief in the old gods and Nature-spirits. I have in literal truth built altars to Pan, Apollo, Diana, and Athena, and have watched for dryads and satyrs in the woods and fields at dusk. Once I firmly thought I beheld some of these sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks; a kind of “religious experience” as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of any Christian.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “A Confession of Unfaith,” Lovecraft claims that, when he was a child, he once saw dryads and satyrs in the woods near his home.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “A Confession of Unfaith.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006, pp. 145-8.

The Nightmare of Nightmares

Nyarlathotep is a nightmare—an actual phantasm of my own, with the first paragraph written before I fully awaked. I have been feeling execrably of late—whole weeks have passed without relief from headache and dizziness, and for a long time three hours was my utmost limit for continuous work. (I seem better now.) Added to my steady ills was an unaccustomed ocular trouble which prevented me from reading fine print—a curious tugging of nerves and muscles which rather startled me during the weeks it persisted. Amidst this gloom came the nightmare of nightmares—the most realistic and horrible I have experienced since the age of ten—whose stark hideousness and ghastly oppressiveness I could but feebly mirror in my written phantasy. . . . The first phase was a general sense of undefined apprehension—vague terror which appeared universal. I seemed to be seated in my chair clad in my old grey dressing-gown, reading a letter from Samuel Loveman. The letter was unbelievably realistic—thin, 8½ X 13 paper, violet ink signature, and all—and its contents seemed portentous. The dream-Loveman wrote:

“Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.”

I had never heard the name NYARLATHOTEP before, but seemed to understand the allusion. Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in publick halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts—first, a horrible—possibly prophetic—cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes the nightmare that inspired his story “Nyarlathotep.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 14 Dec. 1921. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 160-2.

A Little Lost World

Falling into a conversation with the chrysostomic gentleman of leisure above-mention’d, we learned much of local history; including the fact that the houses in Milligan Court were originally put up in the late 1700’s by the Methodist Church, for the poorer but respectable families of the parish. Continuing his expositions, our amiable Mentor led us to a seemingly undistinguished door within the court, and through the dim hallway beyond to a back door. Whither he was taking us, we knew not; but upon emerging from the back door we paus’d in delighted amazement. There, excluded from the world on every side by sheer walls and house facades, was a second hidden court or alley, with vegetation growing here and there, and on the south side a row of simple Colonial doorways and small-pan’d windows!! It was beyond words—it is still beyond words, and that is why I cannot do it justice here! Buried deep in the entrails of nondescript commercial blocks, this little lost world of a century and a quarter ago sleeps unheeding of the throng. Here stretch worn pavements which silver-buckled shoes have trod—here, hidden in cryptical recesses which no street, lane, or passageway connects with the Manhattan of today!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes how he and his wife discovered a hidden court one evening while exploring the historic district of Greenwich Village.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 20 Aug. 1924. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 59-62.

My Greenwich Peregrinations

My Greenwich peregrinations included Abingdon Square, Grove St., Grove Court, Barrow & Commerce Sts., the Minettas, Milligan & Patchin Places, Gay St., Sheridan Square, & Charlton St., & embraced many marvellous glimpses of the old times. Once I saw a colonial doorway lighted up, the traceries of transom & side-lights standing out softly against the mellow yellow gleams inside. From Greenwich my route led south along Hudson St. to old New York, (across Lispenard’s Meadows & the filled-in swamp) & I noted the colonial square at the intersection of Canal. Later crossing to Greenwich St., I descended into the most ancient district; noting the Planters’ Hotel, Tom’s Chop House, & the like, & emerging on Broadway to salute St Paul’s & plunge down Ann St. into the heart of Golden Hill—Irving’s boyhood neighbourhood, & the seat of much disturbance during the late disastrous revolt against His Majesty’s government. I passed under the Brooklyn Bridge to Vandewater St., & noted with horror the replacement of a fine colonial row by a damnable new garage, (other excellent colonials have vanished in Greenwich, at Barrow & Hudson Sts.) & doubled back through New Chambers & Pearl, noting beside the former a colonial smithy which had always appealed to me. Proceeding along Pearl toward the Battery, I viewed all the ancient houses & waterfront panoramas as I passed them—remarking incidentally that the old Harpers publishing house has been newly razed. At Hanover-Square, seat of the best British gentry before the Revolution, I lifted my hat in honour of King George the Third; then passing on by the Queen’s Head Tavern—Fraunces’, that is—to those regions of Battery Park where one or two colonial mansions yet linger. It was now five o’ the morning, & I had so fully thrown off melancholy by my free & antique voyage, that I felt exactly in the humour for writing. The clouds were dissolving, & another day was done. Should I drag it away in New-York, & lose the keenness of my mood, or keep on in my dash for liberty—gaining fresh strength as I kicked aside the irritating fetters of the usual?

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes his late-night walk through Greenwich Village, a journey that inspired him to write the short story “He” the following day.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 13 Aug. 1925. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 169-72.

My Gaze Was Ever Upward

. . . In the summer of 1903 my mother presented me with a 2½ astronomical telescope, and thenceforward my gaze was ever upward at night. The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle. Ladd Observatory tops a considerable eminence about a mile from the house. I used to walk up Doyle Avenue hill with my wheel, but when returning would have a glorious coast down it. So constant were my observations, that my neck became affected by the strain of peering at a difficult angle. It gave me much pain, & resulted in a permanent curvature perceptible today to a close observer.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his nearly lifelong fascination with astronomy, a love he traced back to a gift from his mother.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 16 Nov. 1916. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 29-42.

Marblehead’s Hoary Magick

I came to Marblehead in the twilight, and gazed long upon its hoary magick. I threaded the tortuous, precipitous streets, some of which an horse can scarce climb, and in which two wagons cannot pass. I talked with old men and revell’d in old scenes, and climb’d pantingly over the crusted cliffs of snow to the windswept height where cold winds blew over desolate roofs and evil birds hovered over a bleak, deserted, frozen tarn. And atop all was the peak; Old Burying Hill, where the dark headstones clawed up thro’ the virgin snow like the decay’d fingernails of some gigantick corpse.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his discovery of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an ancient seaport so well preserved that it seems to defy the passage of time.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 11 Jan. 1923. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 112-4.

My Mode of Play

I derived the most extreme pleasure from my toys—of which I had  profuse variety, since our really straitened circumstances date only from 1904. My favourite toys were very small ones, which would permit of their arrangement in widely extensive scenes. My mode of play was to devote an entire table-top to a scene, which I would proceed to develop as a broad landscape . . . . helped by occasional trays of earth or clay. I had all sorts of toy villages with small wooded or cardboard houses, and by combining several of them would often construct cities of considerable extent and intricacy. (Do they make these toy villages now? There were even steepled churches!) Toy trees—of which I had an infinite number—were used with varying effect to form parts of the landscape . . . . even forests (or the suggested edges of forests). Certain kinds of blocks made walls and hedges, and I also used blocks in constructing large public buildings.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft describes how, as a child, he would build elaborate cities out of wooden blocks and other small toys.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 8 Nov. 1933. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 18-24.

As to “Sherlock Holmes”

As to “Sherlock Holmes”—I used to be infatuated with him! I read every Sherlock Holmes story published, and even organised a detective agency when I was thirteen, arrogating to myself the proud pseudonym of S.H. This P.D.A.—whose members ranged between nine & fourteen in years, was a most wonderful thing—how many murders & robberies we unravelled! Our headquarters were in a deserted house just out of the thickly settled area, and we there enacted, and “solved”, many a gruesome tragedy. I still remember my labours in producing artificial “bloodstains on the floor!!!” But in conformity with our settled policy of utter candour, I must admit to you that the entire venture was more dramatic than psychological in objects & essence; and that our “deductions” were generally pretty well provided for in advance.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft describes his early infatuation with Sherlock Holmes, which led him, at the age of thirteen, to organize the Providence Detective Agency.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Alfred Galpin.” 27 May 1918. Letters to Alfred Galpin. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Hippocampus Press, 2003, pp. 14-23.