Modern America 1914 -

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Major Works

  • "The Call of Cthulhu"
  • "The Dunwich Horror"
  • "The Tomb"
  • "Dagon"
  • "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"
  • "At the Mountains of Madness"
  • "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"

Homes

  • Providence, Rhode Island
  • New York, New York
  • Brooklyn, New York

Careers

  • Wrote astonomy column for The Providence Evening News
  • Attempted to find employments as a traveling salesman and editor for a newspaper or publishing house but was unsuccessful
  • Spent most of his life reading, writing, and traveling but lived in constant poverty

Family

  • Father: Winfield Scott Lovecraft
  • Mother: Sarah Susan Lovecraft
  • Maternal Grandfather: Whipple V. Phillips
  • Aunts: Lilian D. Clark and Annie E. Phillips Gamwell

Chronology

1890:  born August 20 in Providence, Rhode Island 
1897?:  first reads Edgar Allan Poe 
1899:  begins writing The Scientific Gazzette, a journal devoted to chemistry 
1903:  begins writing The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy
1906-1908:  writes for Providence Tribune and Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, two astronomical publications 
1914-1918:  writes astronomy column for The Providence Evening News
1915:  publishes first issue of his amateur journal, The Conservative
1917:  "The Tomb" and "Dagon" are published, Lovecraft's first works of prose as an adult 
1918:  "Polaris"
1919:  "The White Ship", "Beyond the Wall of Sleep", and "The Doom That Came to Sarnath"
1920:  "From Beyond", "The Temple", "The Cats of Ulthar", and "Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family"
1921:  "The Nameless City", "The Quest for Iranon", "The Moon-Bog", and "The Other Gods"
1922:  "Hypnos", "The Hound", "The Lurking Fear", "Herbert West - Reanimator"
1923:  "Dagon"(1917) becomes Lovecraft's first story published in Weird Tales; "The Unnamable", "The Festival", "The Rats in the Walls"
1924:  marries Sonia H. Greene and moves to New York City; "Under the Pyramids"
1925:  moves to Brooklyn; "The Horror at Red Hook", "He"
1926:  returns to Providence; "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Strange High House in the Mist", "The Silver Key"
1927:  completes "Supernatural Horror in Literature", a treatise detailing the development of the horror genre; "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath", "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", "The Colour Out of Space"
1928:  "The Dunwich Horrors"
1929:  begins divorce proceedings with Sonia H. Greene 
1930:  "The Whisperer in Darkness", "The Mound and Fungi form Yuggoth"
1931:  "At the Mountains of Madness", "The Shadow over Innsmouth"
1932:  "The Dreams in the Witch House"
1933:  "The Thing on the Doorstep"
1935:  "The Shadow Out of Time", "The Haunter of the Dark"
1936:  "The Night Ocean" (with R.H. Barlow) 
1937:  dies March 15 at Jane Brown Memorial Hospital in Providence of intestinal cancer 

Themes 

  • cosmicism: mankind is nothing compared to the massive universe in which he lives
  • hubris: man's pride leading him to strive for immortality and the conquest of anything he encounters
  • denied primacy: humans are not the original and most important species
  • forbidden knowledge: some knowledge, if known, would destroy mankind.
  • illusory surface appearances: everything has a darker meaning hidden under its physical form
  • unwholesome survival: past existences can affect our present
  • oneiric objectivisim: dreams are a reality possibly greater than our conscious world and all of humanity's dreams collecitvely hold the secrets of nature

Literary Elements 

  • Cosmic Imagery
  • Symbolism
  • Historical Allusion
  • Metaphors
  • Amalgams
  • Satire
  • Irony
  • Alliteration
  • Crescendo

  • Transferred Epithet


Updated January 17, 2002
© Mark Canada, 2001
mark.canada@uncp.edu

    H.P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937

    By Robert Bean
    Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

    Howard Phillips Lovecraft, hailed by literary critics as the inventor of modern horror, is a driving force behind such modern writers as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Wes Craven (The Craft, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), and Stephen King (Pet Semetary, Carrie, Children of the Corn), to name a few. 

    Life

    Born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft always felt as though he were an anachronism of the time in which he lived. His great fondness for the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations as well as his love of such fantasies as Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights, provided the backdrop for the fascinating tales he would spin later in his life. By the age of twelve, he had already mastered the standard English meters of poetry and was mainly a poet until about 1917, when the life blood of prose poured forth out of his pen and leaked mesmerizing tales on to the parchment stained with his imagination. Lovecraft drew much of his inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen Poe, whose style is evident in many of Lovecraft's stories. S.T. Joshi, a leading literary critic who has devoted much time to the study of Lovecraft and written several volumes about his life and works, says Lovecraft's discovery of Poe at the age of eight gave Lovecraft's writing "the greatest impetus it ever received." 

    Lovecraft's family life was filled with tragedy. In 1893, Lovecraft's father, a traveling salesman named Winfield Scott Lovecraft, became paralyzed and remained in a coma until his death in 1898. As a result of this unfortunate turn of events, Lovecraft's grandfather, Whipple V. Phillips, a wealthy industrialist, sustained Lovecraft and his mother, Sarah Susan Lovecraft, until he met his death in 1904. From this point on, poverty would be Lovecraft's lot in life until his untimely demise at the age of forty-six in 1937. Though Lovecraft loved his mother dearly, he suffered much emotional scarring from her as she deemed him ugly and, for no apparent reason, hated him for his father's poor health. She was hospitalized for her disturbed psychological condition and Lovecraft made no special efforts to see her during her final days. Her death in 1921, however, led Lovecraft to combat suicidal tendencies. After the collapse of his brief and unhappy marriage to Sonia H. Greene, Lovecraft lived with his aunt, Lilian D. Clark, until her death in 1932. He then moved in with his other aunt, Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, and remained with her until his death. 

    Some believe Lovecraft's greatest accomplishment was his correspondence with fans of his work and other authors. It is estimated that he wrote over 100,000 letters in his life to such people as Henry Kuttner, Samuel Loveman, and Vincent Starrett. The letters describe his feelings about the nature of life, his aspirations, and his interests.  Some readers find these more fascinating than his fiction works as they unleash his true writing genius completely unfettered. 

    Themes

    Lovecraft's themes pierce very deep into the very heart and nature of mankind, revealing the truth of our inner selves we sometimes try to hide. Lovecraft spares no expense in opening our eyes to the horrors that lurk deep within us, ready to surface like a lion longing for freedom from the cage that restrains his wild nature.  Lovecraft believed that true horror was not lurking in the outer world but rather was resident within man himself.  Literary critic Donald R. Burelson, in his essay "On Lovecraft's Themes: Touching the Glass," puts it this way: "The grand theme of the soul-shattering consequences of self-knowledge is the one defining notion onto which Lovecraft's other themes feed in confluence, rivers running into a common sea." 

    In his work "The Thing on the Doorstep", Lovecraft writes in first person perspective, taking on the character of Dan Upton, and says, "It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer." He goes on to say, "So I say that I have not murdered Edward Derby. Rather I have avenged him, and in so doing purged the earth of a horror whose survival might have loosed untold terrors on all mankind."  Edward Derby became involved in occultic practices and married Asenath, only to find out later that she was not entirely human but a dwelling place for a spirit named Ephraim. Asenath constantly took control of Edward's body and intended to completely switch places with him, allowing her to become fully human and unleash her total evil on the world. Dan's knowledge of this leads him to kill Edward and desire to cremate him so that Asenath can not take control of his (Dan's) body. In a letter Dan later is handed by a mysterious figure, Edward instructs Dan to kill "that fiend" and cremate it before it moves from "body to body."  This evil, vile spirit that moves from body to body and tries to bring people under its subjection is symbolic of the evil nature humanity fights so hard to tame lest it exerts unmerciful power over us. Lovecraft held a belief that we are all inherently evil and must constantly war within ourselves to prevent such destructive behaviour from surfacing. 

    "The Thing on the Doorstep" also presents an interesting aspect of Lovecraft's writings - the tendency to provide an autobiographical sketch of himself within the characters. Edward Derby had Poe-like abilities, wrote poetry, had an interest in the supernatural and macabre, and had an unhappy marriage that was ready to end in divorce after only three years. All of these are merely pages transcribed from the tomes of Lovecraft's life. 

    Burelson defines another of Lovecraft's themes as oneiric objectivism, a belief that dreams are a reality possibly greater than our waking existence and all of mankind's dreams as a unified whole hold the key to existence. Though this idea was scoffed at in the days of Lovecraft and labeled as weird fiction, research psychologists now believe in the validity of this belief and define it as the collective unconscious, one giant mind shared by all mankind that filters its way into our conscious existence by way of the subconscious mind. Lovecraft was a visionary who peered through the telescope of time and saw distant beams of revelatory light which would manifest themselves to humanity in due time. 

    The theme of oneiric objectivism is first explored fully in "The Silver Key", written in 1926. In this tale, Randolph Carter loses "the key to the gate of his dreams" because philosophers and realists told him he was immature as he "preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation." For a while, Randolph denies the child-like fantasies which stem from his dream world and strives to be more logical. Eventually, however, his "dead" grandfather reminds him in a dream of the silver key that will lead him back to his fantasy worlds. Shortly after, he converses with his deceased Uncle Chris in one of his dreams. Through these dreams, Randall has mastered "the fine art of prophecy," foretelling events before they happen with unerring accuracy. These prophecies are merely recountings of his experiences in the dream world. After Randall's physical death, the author states his belief that Randall is not dead but skillfully navigating the reality of the dream world. He concludes by saying, "Certainly, I look forward impatiently to seeing the sight of the great silver key, for in its cryptical arabesques there may stand symbolized all the aims and mysteries of a blindly impersonal cosmos." This last statement embodies Lovecraft's view of how the collective dream world of humanity actually is a reality that can discern the truth of humanity and provide an eternal habitation for the souls of mankind. 

    Literary Technique

    The one technique that is an all-encompasing thread running through the whole of Lovecraft's works in cosmic imagery. "Lovecraft's Cosmic Imagery", an essay of critic Steven J. Mariconda, states, "During his career, Lovecraft evolved a characteristic set of imagery to convery this cosmic horror, imagery reflecting his view of the universe as a vast, purposeless machine." Lovecraft himself is quoted as saying, "If one must web cobwebs of empthy aether, let them supply a decorative element of those cosmic spaces which would otherwise be ambiguous and tantalizing void." Cosmic imagery attempts to paint portraits of man's outer surroundings and tie it directly with the framework of the work of which it is a part. The imagery can refer to actual physical surroundings or encompass the intangible recesses of imagination, personality, and other abstract concepts. Examples of cosmic imagery flood Lovecraft's horrific tales. The conclusion of The Haunter of the Dark is saturated with such images. Following are the two closing paragraphs which serve to splash terror across the canvas of the mind. 

    "I am Robert Blake, but I see the tower in the dark. There is a monstrous odor...senses transfigured...boarding at that tower window creaking and giving away...Ia...ngai...ygg... 

    "I see it - coming here - hell-wind - titan blur - black wings - Yog-Sothoth save me - the three-lobed burning eye ..." 

    In these few words, the reader can see the utter blackness, hear the torrentious wind and eerie creaking of the window, and visualize the hideous, enflamed eye. 

    Another example of cosmic imagery is seen in "The Call of Cthulhu". Here, Lovecraft writes, "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of the black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage too far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."  Here, ignorance is seen as an island and infinity as black seas that we sail upon. Science is given the ability to strain and knowledge the ability to open up 
    vistas. One can actually see humanity running from the light of revelation and entering the shrine of a dark age. The ability to weave masterful imagery into ordinary circumstances and entities is a hallmark of Lovecraft's literary genius. 

    Conclusion

    Though derided by many as merely a writer of "weird fiction" and a restless contributer to pulp magazines, Lovecraft's boundless imagination, inspired writing style, and contribution to modern best-selling authors can not be denied. It would be fitting to close a discussion of the controversial father of modern horror by citing one of his most popular quotes which serves as a cornerstone for his fascinating works: 

    "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.  And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."  H.P. Lovecraft

    Bibliography

    The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Ed. Donovay K. Loucks. 29 Feb. 2000.25 March 2000 <http://www.hplovecraft.com> .
     
    This is an outstanding website chronicling the life, works, and creations of the founder of modern horror.  It also contains several good links to other websites about Lovecraft, including movies derived from his works.  The site is well organized and aesthetically pleasing - a must for the serious Lovecraft fan. It contains brief biographical information  reprinted from the H.P. Lovecraft Centennial Guidebook, used by permission of S.T. Joshi, a leading scholar of H.P. Lovecraft's life and works. This site has been mentioned in such leading science fiction, fantasy, and Internet magazines as Sci-Fi Universe, InQuest, and Cybersurfer.  Another contributer to this site is David E. Schultz, who has been researching Lovecraft extensively since the 1970's and has edited a critical edtion of Lovecraft's Commonplace Book (1987).  He also worked with S.T. Joshi in editing and annotating Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1994) and  co-edited An Epicure in the Terrible (1991) with S.T. Joshi. 
    H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Alan Gullett. 1996. 25 March 2000. <http://www.creative.net/~alang/lit/horror/bloch.sht>
     
    This website contains a brief but detailed biography of Lovecraft's life. However, its crowning achievement is the reprint of an article entitled "Poe and Lovecraft" by Robert Bloch which first appeared in Ambrosia No. 2 in August of 1973. Although the reprint is old, it was written after the deaths of both Poe and Lovecraft, thereby containing information still relevant today. Bloch was a leading horror writer and screenwriter who was a teengage correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft. 
    Bloch, Robert.  "Heritage of Horror."  The Best of H.P. Lovecraft.  New York:  The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1982.
     
    Some of Lovecraft's finest tales of horror are contained in this book but the introductory essay by Robert Bloch provides invaluable information about Lovecraft's life and his effect on the field of horror.  Bloch has written several works of horror, the most famous being Psycho
    Joshi, S. T.  Starmont Reader's Guide 13:  H.P. Lovecraft. San Bernardino:  Starmont House, 1982.
     
    This is a brief but comprehensive overview of Lovecraft's motivations, his philosophy of life, and his development as an author.  This work wastes no words but gives detailed accounts of events in Lovecraft's life and provides an excellent analysis of Lovecraft's works. S.T.Joshi is a leading literary scholar who has devoted much of his time to the study of Lovecraft. Currently, Joshi is Senior Managing Editor of the literary criticism division of Chelsea House Publishers. 
    Johsi, S.T., and David E. Schultz, eds.  An Epicure in the Terrible:  A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft. London, Ontario, Cranberry:  Associated University Presses, 1991.
     
    Here is a very detailed work which analyzes Lovecraft's works through the essays of thirteen of the leading American scholars on Lovecraft, including Will Murray, Robert M. Price, and Norman Gayford.  This work explores such topics as the effect of Lovecraft's New England heritage on his works, "five dominant themes in his fiction", and Lovecraft's philosophies and their incorporations into his works. 
    Schweitzer, Darrell.  Discovering H.P. Lovecraft.  Mercer Island:  Starmont House, 1987.
     
    Discovering H.P. Lovecraft is a solid introduction to the beginning student of Lovecraft's life and works. The reader should gain an understanding of Lovecraft's mindset and how it was expressed through his works. Reading this work allows one to gain a deeper appreciation for this writer of "weird fiction." Darrell Schweitzer is an author of three fantasy novels and over 200 short stories which appeared in several magazines and anthologies. He has served as an editor for Weird Tales, Isaac Asimov's Magazine, and Amazing Stories. Schweitzer is currently the editor of Worlds of Fantasy and Horror and has written book reviews for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Science Fiction

    Study Questions

    "The Call of Cthulhu"

    Notes

    • Publication: Weird Tales, II, No. 2 (Feburary 1928), 159-78, 287
    • Genre: short story:

    Study Questions

    1. Give examples of Lovecraft's use of cosmic imagery in The Call of Cthulhu and explain how the cosmic imagery contributes to the plot, mood, characters, and setting of the story.
    2. Using specific examples from The Call of Cthulhu, give a detailed description of the Cthulhu cult. Analyze the strengths that make it so powerful and the weaknesses that bring about its temporary downfall.
    3. Explain how Lovecraft makes use of the theme of oneiric objectivism in "The Call of Cthulhu". What significance does this theme have concerning the resolution of the story?
    4. Citing specific examples from "The Call of Cthulhu", explain how Lovecraft presents this story in a way which seems as though the events recorded actually transpired.
    5. In the closing paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu", Lovecraft writes, "What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise." Explain the significance of this sentence as it relates to Cthulhu and, using concrete examples from the story, speculate as to how Cthulhu and his cult may once more rise to prominence.