Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 15, 1890 in his maternal grandfather’s home in Providence, Rhode Island. A child prodigy, Lovecraft learned to read at the age of three, and by six, he was writing his own poetry. His childhood, however, was far from idyllic. In 1893, his father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, suffered a mental breakdown while on a business trip to Chicago and, as a result, was confined to Butler Hospital in Providence. Though he remained there for five years, finally passing away in 1898, young Lovecraft never saw his father again.
After his father’s confinement, Lovecraft and his mother lived with her parents and two sisters in east Providence. The affluent Phillips family spoiled Lovecraft, transforming the basement into his chemistry lab and the stables into his clubhouse. Though he attended no more than two years of schooling before entering high school, he was, by nature, bookish, and he made a careful study of the subjects that interested him, including Greco-Roman history, eighteenth-century literature, chemistry, and astronomy.
In 1904, his beloved grandfather, Whipple Phillips, lost most of his fortune in a bad investment and died shortly afterwards. The family home was sold, and Lovecraft and his mother rented a pair of rooms nearby. Lovecraft’s health, both physical and psychological, was fragile at best, and his attendance poor. In 1908, despite his remarkable erudition, he left Hope Street High School without a diploma. Aware that his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer was hopeless, he fell into a depression and, for the next five years, rarely left the house.
In 1913, Lovecraft spared a debate in the pages of the Argosy when he wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the amount of space devoted to writer Fred Jackson. When Jackson’s admirers responded, Lovecraft submitted a series of satirical poems, ridiculing his opponents. Edward F. Daas, a recruiter for the United Amateur Press Association, saw one of Lovecraft’s poems in the Argosy and suggested that he join the organization. He did, launching his own paper, The Conservative, in 1915 and serving in several important, though unpaid, positions, including president, editor, and critic. Amateur journalism offered Lovecraft a forum where he could promote his views, disseminate his poetry, and interact, albeit from a safe distance, with his peers and fellow writers. In 1917, after a decade long hiatus, he started writing fiction again.
Though Lovecraft was beginning to thrive, his mother, Susan Phillips Lovecraft, became increasingly neurotic as the household’s finances deteriorated. In 1919, she suffered an emotional breakdown, and like her husband before her, she, too, was admitted to Butler State Hospital. Two years later, she died after a botched gallbladder surgery. Though Lovecraft mourned his mother’s death, he may also have felt a sense of freedom: he had lived alone with her and submitted to her coddling for fifteen long years. Two months after her death, Lovecraft met his future wife at an amateur journalism convention in Boston.
Sonia H. Greene was a Russian immigrant, a successful executive at a New York department store, and seven years older than Lovecraft. And yet, as different as they were, there can be no doubt that Sonia loved and admired Lovecraft deeply. In 1924, after a three-year courtship, the two eloped to Manhattan where they were married. The marriage was not, unfortunately, a happy one. After moving into Sonia’s apartment in Brooklyn, Lovecraft struggled to find a job. When Sonia lost hers, the two were destitute, and in late 1924, Sonia was forced to accept a position in Cleveland. Lovecraft, who felt a deep connection to New England, refused to move farther west. In early 1925, he settled into a mice-infested apartment not far from Red Hook. He grew to despise New York and loathe the vast number of immigrants, few of whom were Anglo-Saxons, who had settled there.
Over the course of the next year, Lovecraft wrote little. Weird Tales, the first magazine devoted exclusively to weird fiction, had been established in 1923, and during that first year, Lovecraft had enjoyed the magazine’s favor. In 1924, however, Farnsworth Wright became editor, and though he admired Lovecraft as an artist, he also felt that his works were too avant-garde for the magazine’s readership. Depressed, broke, and unable to write, Lovecraft spent more and more time in the company of his friends, a group of writers and poets he met through amateur journalism. In early 1926, much to his relief, his maternal aunts suggested that he abandon Sonia and return to Providence. Lovecraft was ecstatic. Though he remained, technically, married to Sonia, for all practical purposes, their marriage was over.
Back in Providence, Lovecraft shared quarters with his aunt, Lillian Clark. Over the course of the next decade, he wrote his most characteristic work, revolutionizing both horror and science fiction in the process. The return to Providence, a city he adored, invigorated him, and in two short years, he wrote some of his best and most innovative stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and “The Colour out of Space” (1927). And yet, as his fiction grew longer and more complex, fewer and fewer markets were interested in buying it. When Wright rejected his magnum opus, At the Mountains of Madness, in 1931, Lovecraft, who was always sensitive to criticism, all but stopped writing. During the next five years, he wrote little and submitted even less.
Desperately poor though he was, Lovecraft was not, by any means, unhappy. A lover of colonial architecture, he began exploring the Eastern Seaboard, traveling as far north as Quebec and as far south as Key West. In 1934 and 1935, he spent the summer in Florida, enjoying life as a guest of his young friend and admirer R. H. Barlow. Lovecraft maintained an extensive network of pen pals, many of them young writers like Barlow, and he developed new interests in the fields of economics, political science, philosophy, and physics.
In late 1935, he began experiencing erratic, but excruciating, abdominal pains, and in early 1937, at the age of forty-six, he was finally admitted to Jane Brown Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, kidney disease, and malnutrition. He died five days later.
Copyright © 2017 by Dylan Henderson