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Monday, October 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Part 1: Introduction


(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

I've never been a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Although I loved monster movies as a kid, that love didn't really translate over to horror fiction. I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school and later borrowed a collection of Lovecraft stories from a friend who was a Cthulhu fan, but I didn't really get into them. I found Lovecraft's prose to be dense and his characters not terribly engaging. Most of all, I found Lovecraft's over-riding theme that Humanity is but a meaningless speck in a vast, uncaring (if not outright hostile) cosmos, unappealing.

But recently, I've been reading through a couple volumes of Lovecraft edited and annotated by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi that have been making me look at his work in a different light. I hadn't really thought of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer, but actually his Cosmic Horror springs as much from his understanding of Science as it does from a sense of the Supernatural, and Lovecraft took great pains to check his stories against the science of his day. Although I've read little of Lovecraft's work before, the truth is that all my life I've been reading stories that were influenced by him.


Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 to a prosperous upper-class family in Providence, Rhode Island. As a boy he had an intense love of reading and a burning curiosity about science. His favorite authors were the great Victorian authors of imaginative literature, like Arthur Machan, Lord Dunasy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Raised to privilege, he tried to model himself as a gentleman. But with the death of his grandfather and the subsequent mis-management of his grandfather's estate, the family fortune dwindled. His family's lack of money and an illness which prevented him from finishing high school kept him from attending college. He found himself an unemployed gentleman with no marketable job skills, except his imagination.

What saved him was blogging. The Internet, of course, did not exist in 1914, but something else did: Amateur Publishing Associations. These early fanzines were publications in which amateur journalists could write about things that interested them and distribute them. Lovecraft had already earned a small reputation writing to the letters columns of magazines such as Argosy, and was invited to join once such APA.

This proved to be a perfect outlet for Lovecraft's self-expression because it allowed him to find an audience for his writing and make friends. The lack of pay did not bother him, because he felt that a gentleman ought not to stoop to writing for hire; he believed in Art for Art's Sake. The contact and correspondence with other views also allowed him to somewhat broaden the insular outlook his sheltered childhood had given him.

One of his friends was starting a humor magazine and asked Lovecraft to contribute a series of stories for it. The resulting serial, "Herbert West -- Reanimator", was a broad parody of the horror genre and Lovecraft detested it. Still, it was an entrance into the world of Commercial Fiction.

In 1923 the magazine Weird Tales was founded, considered by many critics to be the first Pulp Magazine. Lovecraft's circle of friends urged him to submit to it. Although many of his stories were published in the pulps, Lovecraft never considered himself a pulp writer. He disdained writers who cranked out verbiage by the yard according to formula and tried to hold himself to the artistic standards of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

By this time, Lovecraft's life had undergone dramatic upheavals. His mother had died after a lengthy illness. Sometime afterwards, he met a woman named Sonia H. Greene, a widow seven years his senior, at an amateur journalism convention. She persuaded him to move to New York and they married. Sonia was a businesswoman who owned a hat shop; but shortly after their marriage, the shop failed. She was able to find a new job in Cleveland, but her husband stayed in New York.
Life in the Big City did not suit Lovecraft. He found it threatening and impersonal. In addition, he had difficulty finding work. About the only good thing about his "exile", as he called it, was that it gave him greater contact with the friends he had made through his correspondence. His circle of friends became known as "The Kalem Club", because most of it's members had names starting with the letters "K", "L" or "M".

After a few years, his aunts in Providence invited him to move in with them. He welcomed the chance to escape the hated metropolis. The invitation did not extend to Sonia. She was, after all, in Trade, and the idea of her opening a shop in Providence was unthinkable. And the fact that she was a Russian Jew probably had a lot to do with it too. Lovecraft acceded to his aunt's demands. He rarely saw his wife any more anyway; now he saw her even less, and they divorced in 1929.

His return to Providence marked a burst of output, and here he wrote what are considered some of his best stories, including the stories associated with what later became known as the "Cthulhu Mythos". Many of these stories were set in upstate Massachusetts near a fictional town called Arkham where the fabled Miskatonic University was located and many referenced a nebulous body of lore found in that unspeakable tome, the Necronomicon.

Lovecraft is sometimes regarded as a man born in the wrong century, because of his outdated notions of gentility and his pre-Victorian mannerisms, but in many ways he was very much a man of his time, the early Twentieth Century. He had an abiding interest in science, but his philosophical interest led him to make connections that others might not have. For him the great revelation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity was not in physics, but in metaphysics; by demonstrating that Matter and Energy are interchangeable  Lovecraft felt that Einstein had demolished the ancient duality of Matter and Spirit. On a broader theme, mankind has known since Copernicus that he was not the Center of the Universe; but most people didn't think much about what that really, really meant. Lovecraft did.

Lovecraft died in 1937 of intestinal cancer. After his death, one of his friends August Derleth started a publishing company, Arkham House, to keep his works in print. He also appointed himself a sort of keeper of the flame, organizing and expanding upon Lovecraft's stories into a kind of continuity, codifying the amorphous, non-Euclidian lore of Old Ones and Elder Gods into organized pantheons. Derleth's "Cthulhu Mythos" is controversial among Lovecraft fans, but he did much to keep Lovecraft's stories alive.

Since Lovecraft wrote mostly shorter works, instead of discussing a single story of his, I'll be looking at a few of his short stories and a novella, which are collected in The Annotated H.P Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi. I intended to start on the first one this week, but my biographical sketch would up a bit long; so next week we'll find out what's with "The Rats in the Walls" and experience the terror of "The Colour Out of Space."