Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Lovecraft, H P

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(1890-1937) US author whose admirers regard him as a kind of 20th-century Edgar Allan Poe. His mother made him wear his hair long until the age of six, and treated him like a girl; although possessive, she seems to have been unaffectionate, and often remarked that he was ugly, laying the foundation for a lifelong inferiority complex. His father, a travelling salesman, went mad (probably from syphilis) when HPL was two, and died when the child was seven; HPL was brought up in the home of his maternal grandmother, surrounded by women, and thoroughly spoilt.

HPL was intellectually precocious, acquiring a taste for Gothic thrillers (see Gothic Fantasy) from his grandfather, and reading the Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy) and The Age of Fable (1855) by Thomas Bulfinch at an early age. Because he was nearsighted and suffered from headaches his mother kept him away from school until he was eight, and after a year withdrew him. But during that year he discovered the work of Poe, and realized that the "ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir" was his natural intellectual climate. He began writing stories with titles like "The Mysterious Ship" and "The Mystery of the Graveyard".

At high school, in his early teens, he developed a love of science that seems to have been an emotional reaction against his naturally morbid Romanticism, and it led him to take a certain pleasure in the notion that men are mere insects whose only defence against a harsh and meaningless Universe is self-delusion.

After two and a half years of high school he had a "nervous collapse", and was again withdrawn. Confined in the stale and bookish environment of home, his reclusiveness increased. He longed for friendship and a wider range of experience, but felt they would be forever denied him. At 27 he was still spending most of his time in his room, like a lonely teenager; he was also writing gloomy stories – with titles like "The Tomb" (1922) – in a wildly melodramatic style, peppered with obscure words. "Dagon" (1923), another of these early stories, describes how a man is shipwrecked on a mud-covered island hurled up from the seabed; here he encounters signs of a civilization of fish-men, and a scaly but obviously intelligent monster. A few of these early stories were published in small magazines; most were not.

His mother died when he was 31, and he continued to live with his two aunts. In 1924 he married Sonia Greene (1883-1972), whom he had met at a writers' convention. She was seven years his senior, and the marriage lasted only until 1926, breaking up largely because HPL disliked sex; the fact that she was Jewish and he was prone to antisemitic rants cannot have helped. He spent those two years in New York, which he hated and where he developed strongly racist views. Thereafter he spent the rest of his life in Providence, RI, where he had been born and raised.

In 1924 HPL achieved a kind of notoriety in New York via Weird Tales, for which he had rewritten a story by one C M Eddy (1896-1967): "The Loved Dead", about a necrophile who becomes a sex murderer. The story created a scandal, and that issue of WT sold out rapidly despite being banned from many newsstands. HPL was offered the editorship of WT, but the idea of so much involvement in the real world appalled him. Surviving correspondence suggests that he would have made a first-class editor.

By now he had become a regular contributor to WT and other pulp Magazines, and had developed his unique fantasy world set around "Arkham" (based on Providence), with its gloomy hills, legends of Magic and Devil-worship, and its air of decay and Decadence. In his most famous story, "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), he creates his basic myth of the mysterious Elder Race that once dominated the Earth but largely destroyed itself through sorcery, and whose members now lie sleeping somewhere Under the Sea (or Underground). He called them "the ancient old ones" – typically failing to note the tautology – or more often the Great Old Ones, not to be confused with the Great Race in "The Shadow Out of Time" (see below), nor indeed the Old Ones in Antarctica. HPL's terminology was erratic, but it can be argued that Cthulhu and his gang are unpleasant Elder Gods rather than an elder race; unfortunately this distinction is also confusing since August Derleth's systematization of the Cthulhu Mythos includes vaguely benevolent Elder Gods. HPL was always inclined to hurl around words like "eldritch", "monstrous", "miasmic" and "gibbous" with the abandon of a tachist artist flinging paint at the canvas.

The best of HPL's stories include "The Rats in the Walls" (1924), The Colour out of Space (1927; 1982 chap), "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1937) and "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931). Unlike Poe, whose imagination was obsessed by death, HPL was fascinated by sliminess, corruption, disintegration; his work seems to exude the smell of rotting vegetation. Most of the horrible "creatures" in his stories – tentacled Monsters who drip green slime – have been conjured up by sinister old recluses using a Book of ancient magic called The Necronomicon, written by the "mad Arab Abdul Alhazred".

With his increasing circle of correspondents and his success in WT, HPL began to travel (as much as his limited means would allow), and the morbidity started to evaporate from his work. So far he had been essentially a Romantic in the same tradition as E T A Hoffmann or the early W B Yeats, turning his back on the real world and preferring a world of imagination – with the difference that HPL enjoyed exciting Horror rather than wonder or dreamy nostalgia. But by the age of 40 he was beginning to outgrow his desire to scare his readers out of their wits. A tale like At the Mountains of Madness (cut 1936; 1939; 1990 chap) is closer to traditional sf, with a touch of fantasy in the manner of Lord Dunsany. The short novel The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) is unconvincing because HPL himself had ceased to be convinced by his own horrors; he could now see that the idea of a race of amphibious semi-humans is interesting rather than terrifying. And some stories, like "The Haunter of the Dark" (1936), have a distinctly tongue-in-cheek flavour – this one in particular being partly a literary game, with HPL killing off Robert Blake (i.e., Robert Bloch) in mock-retaliation for a Bloch pastiche of HPL.

Professionally speaking, HPL's belated attainment of adulthood was something of a disaster. He had made his reputation for his own unique brand of horror fantasy. Now, just as it was beginning to look as if he could make a living from writing, he was starting to find it all rather silly.

The real solution would have been to give up horror in favour of his individual type of sf. In fact, this is what is beginning to happen in the novelette "The Shadow Out of Time" (cut 1936; 1939), a late work written at about the time that he learned he had cancer. The story is about a professor from "Miskatonic University" (based on Brown University, Providence) whose body is taken over by some alien intelligence from the distant past which needs to undertake research in the 20th century. The professor's psyche meanwhile finds itself in the conical, betentacled body of one of the "Great Race". At story's end, back in his own body, he finds the library of the "ancient old ones" in an underground city in Australia and comes upon some notes in his own handwriting – written millions of years ago.

HPL died on March 15, 1937. Two years later his friend Derleth published, under the Arkham House imprint, a collection of HPL's stories, The Outsider and Others (coll 1939); this prevented HPL from being totally forgotten. In fact, within two decades HPL had become a cult figure and Arkham House, largely because of its republication of his works, a successful publishing house. Derleth also worked up various fragments that HPL had left, publishing them as co-authorships; The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) is a notable example.

The influence of HPL, and in particular of the Cthulhu Mythos, on later fantasy writers has been patchy. Of his contemporaries or near contemporaries, the names of Robert Bloch, Derleth, Robert E Howard, Henry Kuttner, Frank Belknap Long, E Hoffman Price and Clark Ashton Smith stand out. More recently Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Colin Wilson and especially Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley have been indebted to him. [CW/DRL]

other works (selective): Fungi from Yuggoth (coll 1941), poetry, not to be confused with vt of 1963 collection noted below; The Lurking Fear (coll 1947; vt Cry Horror! 1958), not to be confused with either The Lurking Fear (coll 1964 UK) or The Lurking Fear (coll 1971), all 3 with differing contents, or with The Lurking Fear (1928 Weird Tales; 1977 chap), which reprints the story alone; The Curse of Yig (coll 1953); Dreams and Fantasies (coll 1962); The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943; 1955), not to be confused with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (coll 1970) ed Lin Carter; Something About Cats, and Other Pieces (coll 1949), revisions, essays, notes, etc.; Collected Poems (coll 1963; cut vt Fungi from Yuggoth and Other Poems 1971); Selected Letters 1911-1937 (coll 1965-1976 5 vols); Uncollected Prose and Poetry (coll 1978) ed S T Joshi and Marc Michaud.

further reading: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) by L Sprague de Camp, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (1966) by S T Joshi, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside (1975) by Frank Belknap Long.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.