Today, “weird fiction” fans everywhere toast the birth of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, more commonly known as H.P. Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft left this world in 1937, his prolific short stories, poems and essays continue to feed the imagination and nightmares of readers around the world, including fanboy and author Stephen King, the creators of the Batman series and the band Metallica.
Just what makes that particular brand of Lovecraftian horror? Strange Horizons describes Lovecraft’s unique way of conveying fear on paper:
Drowning is scary, murderers are scary, and dead bodies are scary, but these are all perfectly natural occurrences. No, horror for Lovecraft involved the breaking, or disturbance, of cosmic law — in short, things that are against nature, or at least nature as humans conceive it.
As Lovecraft himself noted, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Lovecraft’s sad, short life informed his now-considered-genius writing – the silver lining of nearly 5 decades of suffering. He was born 122 years ago today, on August 20, 1890, and life more or less went downhill from there. His father, who became “acutely psychotic” a few years after Lovecraft’s birth, died of syphilis when the young boy was only 8 years old, though Lovecraft – perhaps oblivious to his father’s true malady – maintained throughout his life that his dad died from “overwork.”
A sickly child, little Lovecraft hardly ever attended school. Around the age of 8, his mother pulled him out of organized education for good. Still, the boy was a voracious reader and would spend his days gobbling up whatever books he could get ahold of, especially those related to chemistry and astronomy. By the age of 9, Lovecraft was producing his own written musings on scientific topics.
Later in life, Lovecraft’s stories often drew upon his scientific knowledge and he became one of the first writers to mix science fiction and horror. Scientific American elaborates:
Lovecraft is today considered one of the first authors to mix elements of the classic gothic horror stories, mostly characterized by supernatural beings, with elements of modern science-fiction, were the threat to the protagonists results from natural enemies, even if these are creatures evolved under completely different conditions than we know. He was an enthusiastic autodidact in science and incorporates in his story many geologic observations made at the time, he even cites repeatedly the geological results of the 1928-30 expedition led by Richard Evelyn Byrd.
While he was learning the fundamentals of geology and evolution by day, young Lovecraft’s nights, however, were not so productive. He suffered from intense night terrors and described regular visits from horrific “night gaunts,” devil-like horned creatures with no faces that assaulted the boy in waking dreams and later haunted the pages of his disturbing stories.
Lovecraft’s grandfather died in 1904, and due to a case of mixed up inheritance paperwork, the family lost much of its fortune and was forced to move into a shabby house. Lovecraft promptly had a nervous breakdown, gave up on earning his high school diploma and began writing poetry. A few years later, his mother – hysterical and depressed – wound up in the same mental hospital that Lovecraft’s father had been committed to years earlier. Lovecraft’s mother likewise took her last breath in the hospital’s wards, in 1921, when surgeons botched her gallbladder surgery. Lovecraft later eulogized this mental asylum in his fictitious Arkham, Massachusetts, which DC Comics borrowed to create the infamous Arkham Asylum that housed the Joker, the Riddler, Poison Ivy and Bane in the Batman series.
The now-orphaned Lovecraft tried to turn his life around. He won the hand of a woman 7 years his senior and the happy couple moved to Brooklyn. Things went well for a while despite Lovecraft’s judgmental aunts (they didn’t like that his wife was a tradeswoman), but then the inevitable money woes descended. Lovecraft’s lady lost her shop and her health, and the struggling author couldn’t find work. His wife took off for Cleveland in the hopes of finding employment, leaving Lovecraft in a solo apartment in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, which he soon began to hate intensely and channeled that antipathy in his short story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” Still living apart and seeing no means of reuniting, Lovecraft and his soon-to-be-ex agreed to divorce and the starving artist returned to his aunts’ home in Providence. Little did he know, this would be the last pain-filled chapter in his life.
Back in Rhode Island, Lovecraft produced the majority of what today are his most celebrated works, including ”At the Mountains of Madness “and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” But he saw no hint of his current popularity, and grew poorer by the day. With his surviving aunt, he moved from smaller to smaller houses, and also suffered from malnutrition. He was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine, and, ever the macabre-obsessed weirdo, kept meticulous notes of the various unpleasant ways his malady manifested itself. On March 15, 1937, ten years after moving back to Providence, Lovecraft passed away, his pain finally coming to an end.
Only after his death was Lovecraft’s fiction finally recognized as works of genius by horror and fantasy genre fans. In 1977, his disciples pooled their funds to purchase a respectable headstone for the long-deceased master, inscribing it with the phrase “I AM PROVIDENCE” taken from one of Lovecraft’s letters.
If you happen to be in Phoenix today, join other fans tonight for “The Birth of HP Lovecraft Party” where Lovecraft afficionados will attempt to summon one of the horror guru’s most dreaded and celebrated creatures – the tentacled lord Cthulu - from the cosmic abyss.
More from Smithsonian.com: