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H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft
Not all bad.

All right. Let's look at the opening of H. P. Lovecraft's story, Azathoth:

When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of spring's flowering meads; ...

Now compare that to the opening of A. E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway.

In the spring of 1948, I was dispatched to Cuba to make a horse's ass out of myself..."

Which book would you read?

Still, it is likely that more people have read an H. P. Lovecraft story than something by Hotch. Not that Hotch hasn't had his share of justly praised bestsellers. It's just that stories by Howard - as his friends called him - have been around longer.

Point of fact, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. With the exception of the two years from 1924 to 1926 when he resided in New York City, he lived in the city of his birth.

Howard's move to the Big Apple was prompted by his marriage to Sonia Greene, a lady who he first met in Boston. Although seven years Howard's senior, Sonia had both intelligence and movie-starlet good looks.

On the other hand, Howard's return to Providence was also prompted by his marriage to Sonia. After less than two years, she moved to Cleveland and later to Los Angeles. The couple never officially divorced - which came as a big surprise to both Sonia and her new husband, Nathaniel Davis, because Howard had assured them he had completed the necessary paperwork.

Howard's family was solidly middle class. His dad, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, is a somewhat shadowy figure, and he was what people of the time called a "commercial traveler" - ergo, a traveling salesman. In those days where long distance travel was by train, Winfield was absent for extended periods, leaving his wife, Sarah (called Susie), and Howard at home.

In 1893 - when Howard was three years old - his dad made a business trip to Chicago. But when he returned, it was under most unusual circumstances. He was "under restraint" and sedated.

It seems that Winfield had gone nuts. In the hotel, he had begun shouting that a chambermaid had insulted him and then he began raving that there were men the next floor up were "outraging" his wife. Actually, Susie was back home in Providence.

There wasn't much to do except commit Winfield to the Butler Hospital, a still extant psychiatric institution. He was diagnosed with "general paresis" which like so much of 19th century medicine diagnoses was a rather vague medical term. Today the opinion is Winfield was at the tertiary stage of syphilis.

He was scarcely a model patient, sometimes running around the ward and attacking the staff. He also kept saying men on the upper floor were attacking his wife, his food was poisoned, and the staff was stealing his clothes. Winfield lived five years longer and never left the hospital. He died in 1898.

The family, though, was pretty well set up. Winfield left them with $10,000 worth of assets. In a day when there was no income tax and an entire family could live on $500 a year, this wasn't too bad. Susie's own father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, stepped in as a surrogate father for young Howard.

Howard was a precocious child and he began reading at about age 4. He particularly loved books with an exotic theme (like the Arabian Nights) or of long and epic journeys (The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Paradise Lost). He was also quite a fan of Edgar Allan Poe.

However, in 1904, a family tragedy struck when Grandfather Whipple, now 70, had a stroke and died. The estate was mishandled and Howard and his mom received little of the inheritance. They soon had to move from the home where Howard was born to a smaller and cramped house down the street (it was actually a duplex). That year Howard also entered high school, albeit with some trepidation.

But Howard was a good student and in general was liked both by his fellow students and the teachers. He loved his science classes and began writing stories. These were not just schoolboy exercises, and he showed enough talent that he began to write columns for local newspapers. He wrote essays, reviews, and occasional fiction pieces up until 1908.

Then something - we're not quite sure what - happened that took Howard out of circulation for about five years. Probably he, like his dad, had some type of mental or emotional collapse. He spent extended times bedridden, and he seems to have spoken with no one except his mother. He never graduated from high school and so never (as he had hoped) entered Brown University.

Although an "invalid", Howard kept writing and began to include poetry in his oeuvre. But a disturbing element began to creep in. Some of his writings were blatantly racist and even in his later (and famous) stories there are often racist and anti-immigrant sentiments. People who knew Howard - including Sonia - mentioned he would go into spittle-flinging diatribes against cultures and races that were not light-skinned Western or Northern European. He readily acknowledged he was anti-Semitic which is a surprise since Sonia was Jewish.

Without defending Howard's views, we also have to remember that many famous writers have been accused of racism. Ernest Hemingway's first best seller The Sun Also Rises has the characters using such anti-Jewish epithets that some have dismissed him as the most overrated author of all time (although the Jewish writer Chaim Potok said Hemingway was a major influence on his own writing). The characterization of (and Jake Barnes's comments about) a black drummer at a Parisian nightclub are so offensive (and unnecessary to the plot) that you wonder why a Schreibner's blue pencil didn't catch it.

But as Justice Charles mentioned during the trial of Oscar Wilde, if "an imaginative novelist puts into his novel some consummate villain and puts into the mouth of that man sentiments revolting to humanity, it must not be supposed that he shares them." Even though C. S. Lewis once yearned for the good-old-days when England would turn howitzers on an indigenous population armed only with spears, his selection of the "Calormen" to be one of the bad guys for the Narnia tales was simply Jack modeling an enemy after his country's recent belligerents. Virtually all writers use stereotypes for character development. And are fans of Get Smart guilty of racism because Siegfried and Starker are your stereotypical comic-opera Germans?

C. S.Lewis

C. S. Lewis
He followed conventions.

The relationship between Howard and his mom had been strained at the best of times. Supposedly she had wanted a girl and so dressed Howard up in frilly clothes and made him sport curly locks. Although such feminine apparel was common for Victorian toddlers regardless of gender, Susie evidently kept Howard in girl's costume long past the customary age and longer than Howard could tolerate. Mother and son bonding wasn't improved when she told Howard he was so ugly (he had pronounced mandibular prognathism) he'd scare the other kids if he went outside. Even as he reached adulthood, Susie thwarted her son's attempts to enlist in the National Guard.

Not long after Howard left school, Susie also began showing signs of mental instability, sometimes complaining of seeing strange creatures around. Others also noted that during one of her trips downtown she had appeared disoriented. Then in 1919 she suffered what is often called a nervous breakdown. However, in common parlance, a "breakdown" is a short term disorder, and Susie was confined to Butler Hospital for the rest of her life.

Howard kept up with his reading. Like many young men, he liked what is courteously called popular literature - ergo, junk. This was a good time for such literary tastes as there were plenty of cheap "pulp" magazine's around. Concentrating mostly on fiction, the covers of the pulps would often feature hot babes. If the cover was for a modern story, you would have a flapper in a slinky form fitting dress. If the cover was for something like a Tarzan adventure by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it would picture a buxom jungle woman with surprisingly explicit anatomical details craftily qualified to make it appear that any impropriety was in the eye of the beholder.

Howard would read the pulp magazines and write letters to the editors commenting on various stories and authors. But what distinguished his letters were they were written in verse. Soon Howard's poetical criticism attracted the attention of Edward Daas who was the President of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). UAPA (pronounced "you-AP-ah") was a writer's organization whose members wrote stories and issued them in cheap editions with the costs being born by the members themselves. Edward invited Howard to join, which he did in 1914.

So Howard began to write and publish his own stories. Returning to fiction which he had dropped in 1908, he switched to horror and supernatural themes.

Howard's mom, though, was not in good shape. She had remained in the mental hospital, and she died in May of 1921 after a gall bladder operation. Although it's not stated as such, it's entirely possible that her mental problems were from her - ah - "association" - with her husband.

His mother's absence from home - although at first disconcerting to Howard - had given him more freedom than he had ever known. He began attending writer's conventions and visiting friends up and down the Atlantic Seacoast. That his spirits rose was a surprise to him but not to anyone else. Then shortly after Susie died, Howard went up to Boston to attend a writer's convention. It was there he met Sonia and the two hit it off.

Sonia was both a writer and a businesswoman. She had a millinery (hat-making) shop in New York which brought in an adequate if not opulent income. She and Howard were married on March 3, 1924.

They moved to an apartment in Brooklyn but almost immediately ran into difficulties. Sonia's business folded and although Howard was sent $5 a week from his two aunts, Lillian and Annie (who later bumped this sum up to $15), the financial strain became too much and Sonia herself ended up hospitalized. She then recuperated in a rest home (actually a farm) in New Jersey. On her release, she set up a new shop, but in Cleveland. Howard remained in Brooklyn, and although Sonia kept sending Howard money, it seems she did so rather grudgingly.

It isn't accurate, though, to see Howard simply as sponging off Sonia and his aunts. His stories, even those published in amateur venues, had begun to attract attention of commercial editors and were sometimes reprinted in their magazines. Howard also had begun sending his stories to the newly formed Weird Tales edited by Edwin Baird. Weird Tales was first published in 1923 and was to become one of the most popular horror magazines for decades to come.

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini
He and Howard worked together.

But the nice thing about Weird Tales was the magazine paid. Today the rate - 1¢ a word - might not seem like much today, but there could be higher rates if the story was particularly good (Howard once got $55 for a 2500 word story). About the only drawback was the magazine paid on publication, not (as most writers prefer) on acceptance.

The fact the writers were paid by the length of the article may also explain why some of Howard's stories seem to be longer than needed. That is particularly true for the first of Howard's stories printed in Weird Tales.

We don't mean, though, the first story to carry Howard's by-line. This was "Hypnos" in the May-June issue of 1924. We mean another story "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" in the same issue which was ostensibly by the famous magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. The editor had asked Howard to ghostwrite the story - also called "Under the Pyramids" - and it is way, way, WAY longer than need be.

Whether the story was supposed to be true was handled in a most waffling manner. On the one hand "Harry" says he was reluctant to write the story because he was "averse to exploiting certain unmistakably actual facts" that were "apparently secreted with much diligence by the authorities at Cairo" But then he adds "What I saw - or thought I saw - certainly did not take place; but is rather to be viewed as a result of my then recent readings in Egyptology".

The story is that while Harry is traveling from England to perform in Australia, he stops by Egypt. Harry visits the pyramids, of course. Eventually he and some locals are at the pyramids (he must have left Bess back at the hotel) when his new erstwhile friends kidnap him. Harry is overcome, bound with ropes, passes out, and wakes to finds himself in a mysterious subterranean passageway. He keeps getting recaptured and escaping (of course) and then fainting and waking up somewhere else (a good literary device to get from one place to another). He sees, hears, and smells strange things and eventually he faints one more time and wakes up on the sand by the Sphinx in more or less good order.

Harry was quite pleased with the story, and at it's overlong word count of 10,000 words it landed Howard $100. Harry later hired Howard to ghostwrite other stories, and this collaboration lasted until Harry's death on Halloween, 1926.

On the other hand Howard's own writing - never really lucrative - was maybe pulling in $200 in a good year. Had Howard been able to go for actual journalism and write fiction on the side, he might have become a far more profitable author. But attempts to land permanent journalistic or editorial jobs fell flat.

But at least writing the story for Harry helped Howard land other assignments for ghostwriting, revision, and editing. These jobs provided him with much needed income and kept him focused on fiction even if he wasn't credited. However, much of his income was on his (decreasing) family inheritance, his aunt's handouts, and - when it was available - from Sonia's businesses.

The question today is that if Howard's writing didn't make him a reasonable living, just how good a writer could he really have been. After all, this was the time when there was no television or video games and home entertainment - except for listening to the radio - was reading books and magazines. The market for writers was much greater than today and there were many freelance authors who made a good living providing short stories and articles for the many periodicals.

Despite the myriad of Howard's enthusiastic fans, one recent reviewer claimed Howard's stories have minimal literary merit. He added that the readers who are most enthusiastic for his stories first read them in the years of their insecure adolescence. Because young readers share the same phobias and hang-ups that prompted Howard to write the stories, they naturally like his tales. But if you come to Howard's writings at a more mature age, you're likely to wonder just what the heck is Howard trying to say.

What makes Howard's writings stiff going is less the subject than the style. Howard wrote as a holdover of Victorian and Edwardian era with long paragraphs, minimal dialogue, and too many adjectives. Even in the early 20th century this style was fading fast. F. Scott Fitzgerald was almost an exact contemporary of Howard and The Great Gatsby was published during the same decade as many of Howard's stories. But Scott's novel has much more of a modernistic feel while it often takes some effort just to get past the first couple of paragraphs of Howard's tales.

"Imprisoned With the Pharaohs" does give us another characteristic of Howard's fiction. Often you don't know how much of the plot was something that was supposed to have actually happened or was part of the character's imagination. Was the narrator of "The Dunwich Horror" telling what he actually saw or was it something planted in his mind? In "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" was anything other than a creation of the mind of the protagonist? This mixing, though, of reality and imagination is what many of Howard's fans say is his real strength.

As far as what Howard liked, everyone knows it was cats and ice cream. In his short story "The Cats of Ulthar", the cat's take revenge on cat-haters. And we when say revenge, we mean revenge.

We now know that picturing Howard as a hermit sequestered from any companions is far from correct. He had a number of good friends, and after his mom died, he would visit them frequently. Sometimes there was not a day that he didn't stop to visit someone or meet them at the low cost cafeterias that were common at the time. In fact, his busy social life - almost all with his male literary friends - seems to have been a major distraction from his writings. He would sometimes go for months and not write anything.

One of Howard's friends was August Delerth, later the author of the stories about the Sherlock Holmes-like detective, Solar Pons (residing at 7B Praed Street with his friend and colleague, Dr. Lyndon Parker). The Solar Pons stories are great reads for Holmes buffs and in some ways are better than their literary progenitor.

But it was August and his friend Donald Wandrei who eventually formed the publishing company, Arkham House. Arkham House - whose name was taken from Howard's writings - was specifically organized to publish Howard's work in hardcover and to bring Howard's writings to a widespread audience.

Howard was happy to leave New York and return to Providence, which he did in 1926. What prompted the move isn't clear. Like a doctor's prescription, it was likely a combination of ingredients.

Sonia herself later wrote that she was the one to suggest the move (and even helped Howard pack up and leave Brooklyn). She had intended to set up a house for herself, Howard, Lillian, and Annie and use half of the building as a new place of business. But she said that Lillian and Annie made it clear that they didn't want their nephew's businesswoman wife living in Providence, much less with them. Sonia's account, however, was written long after the fact and at a time when Sonia's memories had turned rather sour. In any case, Howard found accommodations where he resided alone.

Sad to say, another factor prompting Howard's return to Providence was the diversity of New York. There's no way around it. Howard was a blatant racist, and demographically Providence, although now quite diverse, was largely white until after World War II. Howard's prejudices only got worse as the years went by, and he hated living in a city where many ethnic groups lived side by side and in relative harmony. In Providence Howard continued to live as before, writing his own stories and ghostwriting and making rewrites and edits for others.

By the mid-1930's Howard was far from unknown, with his writings admired by many science fiction and fantasy readers. He had published much of his work in Weird Tales, and in a good year, his stories appeared in a number of consecutive issues. He had also written for other magazines like Astounding Stories and Fantasy Magazine.

Fans of science fiction and fantasy stories are great letter writers, and Howard received a good deal of mail for which he was happy to respond. Among his youthful correspondents was James Blish, later to become a science fiction writer and who in the 1960's and 70's penned the famous Star Trek paperback series. Another fan and beginning writer (who received much encouragement from Howard) was Robert Bloch, now most famous for writing Psycho, the book which became the hit and even iconic Alfred Hitchcock movie.

By the early 1930's, though, Howard's writing under his own name had dropped off. In 1932 he wrote only one story and he was having trouble paying his rent. Sometimes his diet was food that was so old it should have been thrown out.

He and Annie decided they would do better if they set up a single household. After looking around they found a nice house at 66 College Street less than a block east of the Brown University campus (it's now the site of the David Winton Bell Art Gallery). It was a real stroke of luck. The rent was only $10 a week for the two of them.

Aunt Annie immediate broke her leg tripping down the stairs and was in the hospital for three weeks. Back at home she had a nurse in attendance which made the household's finances even more precarious. But both Howard and Annie liked their new home.

Howard had never had great health himself. True in the late 19th and early 20th century it was fashionable to "enjoy bad health" and not feeling well was common at a time when medical treatments did not have to be effective to be legal. One of Howard's favorite complaints was "the grippe" which he suffered when the New England weather turned cold.

Then in 1936, he began to experience abdominal pains and in January, 1937, he wrote to August Delerth that he was suffering from indigestion. But he must have suspected that he had something more serious since when mainstream publishers like Knopf, Putnam, and William and Marrow sent sniffers out, he lamented how interest in an author's work seemed to come "at the end of one's life".

Howard finally visited a doctor who later said he saw immediately that Howard had inoperable cancer of the intestine. All the doctor could do was prescribe painkillers which did little good. By the beginning of March Howard could no longer eat solid food and was in constant and intense pain. On March 10, he was taken to the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital and died on March 15. He was 46.

References

A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in His Time, Sunand Joshi, University of Liverpool Press, 2001.

The H. P. Lovecraft Archive, http://www.hplovecraft.com/

Papa Hemingway, A.E. Hotchner, Random House, 1966.

H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, Sunand Joshi, Necronomicon Press 1997.

"The Mysterious Love of Sonia Greene for H.P. Lovecraft", Annalee Newitz, Wired, February 5, 2007.

Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950, Tom Pendergast, University of Missouri Press, 2000.

"Scans of 'Weird Tales' Issues Containing Lovecraft's Stories", The Lovecraft E-zine, Mike Davis, 2015.

"An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia", Sunand Joshi and David Schultz, Greenwood, 2001.

"The Hideous Unknown of H.P. Lovecraft", Charles Baxter, The New York Review, December 18, 2014.

Lovecraft's Legacy: A Centennial Celebration of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Weinberg and Martin Greenberg (Editors), Robert Bloch (Introduction), Tom Doherty Associates, 1990.

"H. P. Lovecraft:, Sunand Joshi", The Modern World, June 1, 2007.

"H.P. Lovecraft, Author, Is Dead", Matthew Baldwin, The Morning News, March 15, 2012.

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, C. S. Lewis (Walter Hooper, Ed.), Harper-Collins.

     Volume I: Family Letters: 1905-1931, 2000
     Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and War: 1931-1950, 2004
     Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy: 1950-1963, 2006.

The Solar Pons Gazette, http://www.solarpons.com