Early life (1890–1908)
Lovecraft c. nine years old
Lovecraft was born in his family home on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft (1853–1898) and Sarah Susan (Susie) Phillips Lovecraft (1857–1921). Though his employment is hard to discern, Lovecraft's future wife, Sonia Greene, stated that Winfield was employed by Gorham Manufacturing Company as a traveling salesman. Susie's family was of substantial means at the time of their marriage; her father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, being involved in many significant business ventures. In April 1893, after a psychotic episode in a Chicago hotel, Winfield was committed to Butler Hospital in Providence. Though it is not clear who reported Winfield's prior behavior to the hospital, medical records indicate that he had been "doing and saying strange things at times" for a year before his commitment. Winfield spent five years in Butler before dying in 1898. His death certificate listed the cause of death as general paresis, a term synonymous with late-stage syphilis. Susie never exhibited symptoms of the disease, leading to questions regarding the intimacy of their relationship. In 1969, Sonia Greene ventured that Susie was a "touch-me-not" wife and that Winfield, being a traveling salesmen, "took his sexual pleasures wherever he could find them". How Greene came to this opinion is unknown, as she never met Lovecraft's parents, though Lovecraft himself termed his mother a "touch-me-not" in a 1937 letter noting that, after his early childhood, she avoided all physical contact with him. This is contrary to Susie's treatment of a young Lovecraft soon after his father's breakdown. According to the accounts of family friends, Susie doted over the young Lovecraft to a fault, pampering him and never letting him out of her sight. Throughout his life, Lovecraft maintained that his father fell into a paralytic state, due to insomnia and being overworked, and remained that way until his death. It is unknown if Lovecraft was simply kept ignorant of his father's illness or if his later remarks were intentionally misleading.
After his father's hospitalization, Lovecraft resided in the family home with his mother, his maternal aunts Lillian and Annie, and his maternal grandparents Whipple and Robie. Lovecraft later recollected that after his father's illness his mother was "permanently stricken with grief." Whipple became a father figure to Lovecraft in this time, Lovecraft noting that his grandfather became the "centre of my entire universe." Whipple, who traveled often on business, maintained correspondence by letter with the young Lovecraft who, by the age of three, was already proficient at reading and writing. When home Whipple would share weird tales of his own invention and show Lovecraft objects of art he had acquired in his European travels. Lovecraft also credits Whipple with being instrumental in overcoming his fear of the dark when Whipple forced Lovecraft, at five years old, to walk through several darkened rooms in the family home. It was in this period that Lovecraft was introduced to some of his earliest literary influences such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Doré, One Thousand and One Nights, a gift from his mother, Thomas Bulfinch's Age of Fable and Ovid's Metamorphoses.
While there is no indication that Lovecraft was particularly close to his grandmother Robie, her death in 1896 had a profound effect. By his own account, it sent his family into "a gloom from which it never fully recovered." His mother and aunts' wearing of black mourning dresses "terrified" him, and it is at this time that Lovecraft, approximately five and half years old, started having nightmares that would inform his later writing. Specifically, he began to have recurring nightmares of beings he termed "night-gaunts"; their appearance he credited to the influence of Doré's illustrations, which would "whirl me through space at a sickening rate of speed, the while fretting & impelling me with their detestable tridents." Thirty years later night gaunts would appear in Lovecraft's writing.
Lovecraft's earliest known literary works began at age seven with poems restyling the Odyssey and other mythological stories. Lovecraft has said that as a child he was enamored with the Roman pantheon of gods, accepting them as genuine expressions of divinity and foregoing his Christian upbringing. He recalls, at five years old, being told Santa Claus did not exist and retorting by asking why "God is not equally a myth". At the age of eight he took a keen interest in the sciences, particularly astronomy and chemistry. He also examined the anatomy books available to him in the family library, learning the specifics of human reproduction that had yet to be explained to him, and found that it "virtually killed my interest in the subject." In 1902, according to Lovecraft's own correspondence, astronomy became a guiding influence on his world view. He began producing the periodical Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, of which 69 issues survive, using the hectograph printing method. Lovecraft went in and out of elementary school repeatedly, oftentimes with home tutors making up for those lost school years, missing time due to health concerns that are not entirely clear. The written recollections of his peers described him as both withdrawn yet openly welcoming to anyone who shared his current fascination with astronomy, inviting anyone to look through the telescope he prized.
By 1900 Whipple's various business concerns were suffering a downturn and slowly reducing his family's wealth. He was forced to let the family's hired servants go, leaving Lovecraft, Whipple and Susie, being the only unmarried sister, alone in the family home. In the spring of 1904 Whipple's largest business venture suffered a catastrophic failure. Within months he died due to a stroke at age 70. After Whipple's death Susie was unable to support the upkeep of the expansive family home on what remained of the Phillips' estate. Later that year she was forced to move herself and her son to a small duplex. Lovecraft has called this time one of the darkest of his life, remarking in a 1934 letter that he saw no point in living anymore. In fall of the same year he started high school. Much like his earlier school years, Lovecraft was at times removed from school for long periods for what he termed "near breakdowns". He did say, though, that while having some conflicts with teachers, he enjoyed high school, becoming close with a small circle of friends. Aside from a pause in 1904 he also resumed publishing the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy as well as starting the Scientific Gazette, which dealt mostly with chemistry. It was also during this period that Lovecraft produced the first of the types of fiction he would later be known for, namely "The Beast in the Cave" and "The Alchemist".
It was in 1908, prior to his high school graduation, when Lovecraft suffered another health crisis of some sort, though this instance was seemingly more severe than any prior. The exact circumstances and causes remain unknown. The only direct records are Lovecraft's own later correspondence wherein he described it variously as a "nervous collapse" and "a sort of breakdown", in one letter blaming it on the stress of high school despite his enjoying it. In another letter concerning the events of 1908 he notes, "I was and am prey to intense headaches, insomnia, and general nervous weakness which prevents my continuous application to any thing." Though Lovecraft maintained that he was to attend Brown University after high school, he never graduated and never attended school again. Whether Lovecraft suffered from a physical ailment, a mental one, or some combination thereof has never been determined. An account from a high school classmate described Lovecraft as exhibiting "terrible tics" and that at times "he'd be sitting in his seat and he'd suddenly up and jump." Harry Brobst, who recorded the account and had a Ph.D. in psychology, claimed that chorea minor was the most likely cause of Lovecraft's childhood symptoms while noting that instances of chorea minor after adolescence are very rare. Lovecraft himself acknowledged in letters that he suffered from bouts of chorea as a child. Brobst further ventured that Lovecraft's 1908 breakdown was attributed to a "hysteroid seizure", a term that today usually denotes atypical depression. In another letter concerning the events of 1908, Lovecraft stated that he "could hardly bear to see or speak to anyone, & liked to shut out the world by pulling down dark shades & using artificial light."
Earliest recognition (1908–1914)
Not much of Lovecraft and Susie's activities from late 1908 to 1913 are recorded. Lovecraft mentions a steady continuation of their financial decline highlighted by a failed business venture of his uncle that cost Susie a large portion of their dwindling wealth. Accounts differ on how reclusive Susie and Lovecraft were during this time. A friend of Susie, Clara Hess, recalled a visit during which Susie spoke continuously about Lovecraft being "so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze on him." Despite Hess' protest that this was not the case, Susie maintained this stance. In the same account though, Hess said she regularly saw Susie out and about riding streetcars.
For his part, Lovecraft said he found his mother to be "a positive marvel of consideration." A next-door neighbor later pointed out that what others in the neighborhood often supposed were loud, nocturnal quarrels between mother and son, she recognized as being recitations of Shakespeare; an activity that seemed to delight mother and son. Susie had an adoration for French literature, having studied French in boarding school. Lovecraft, though he never matched his mother's admiration of French literature, admired her knowledge and devotion to it. Lovecraft recalls Susie also had a passion for painting landscapes of the surrounding countryside, though none of her work survives today. One of Lovecraft's later friends, C. M. Eddy Jr., became aware of Lovecraft due to his wife Muriel, whose mother-in-law attended a women's suffrage meeting where she met Susie.
During this period Lovecraft revived his earlier scientific periodicals. He endeavored to commit himself to the study of organic chemistry, Susie buying the expensive glass chemistry assemblage he wanted. Lovecraft found his studies were hobbled by the mathematics involved, which he found boring and would cause headaches that would incapacitate him for a day. Lovecraft's first poem that was not self-published appeared in a local newspaper in 1912. Called "Providence in 2000 A.D.", the poem envisioned a future where proper people of English heritage were displaced by immigrants. Surviving unpublished poems from this period, most notoriously "On the Creation of Niggers", were also emblematic of the xenophobia and racism inherent in much of Lovecraft's later work.
In 1911 Lovecraft's letters to editors began appearing in pulp and weird fiction magazines, most notably Argosy. A 1913 letter critical of Fred Jackson, a prominent writer for Argosy, started Lovecraft down a path that would greatly affect his life. Lovecraft described Jackson's stories as "trivial, effeminate, and, in places, coarse." Continuing, Lovecraft said that Jackson's characters exhibit the "delicate passions and emotions proper to negroes and anthropoid apes." This sparked a nearly year-long feud in the letters section of Argosy between Lovecraft, along with his occasional supporters, and the majority of readers critical of his view of Jackson. Lovecraft's biggest critic was John Russell, who often replied in verse, and to whom Lovecraft felt compelled to reply to because he respected Russell's writing skills. The most immediate effect of the feud was the recognition garnered from Edward F. Daas, then head editor of the United Amateur Press Association (also known as the UAPA). Daas invited Russell and Lovecraft to the organization and both accepted, Lovecraft in April 1914.
Rejuvenation and tragedy (1914–1921)
With the advent of United I obtained a renewed will to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening void.
—Lovecraft in 1921.
Lovecraft immersed himself in the world of amateur journalism for most of the following decade. During this period he was an advocate for amateurism versus commercialism. Lovecraft's definition of commercialism, though, was specific to writing for, what he considered, low-brow publications for pay. He contrasted this with his view of "professional publication", which he termed as writing for journals and publishers he considered respectable. He thought of amateur journalism as training and practice for a professional career. Lovecraft was appointed to chairman of the Department of Public Criticism of the UAPA in late 1914. He used this position to advocate for his, what many considered peculiar, insistence on the superiority of English language usage that most writers already considered archaic. Emblematic of the Anglophile opinions he maintained throughout his life, he openly criticized other UAPA contributors for their "Americanisms" and "slang". Often these criticisms were couched in xenophobic and racist arguments bemoaning the "bastardization" of the "national language" by immigrants. In mid-1915 Lovecraft was elected to the position of first vice-president of the UAPA. Two years later he was elected president and appointed other board members that mostly shared his view on the supremacy of classical English over modern American English. Another significant event of this time was the beginning of World War I. Lovecraft published multiple criticisms of the US government's, and the American public's reluctance to join the war to protect England, which he viewed as America's homeland.
In 1916 Lovecraft published his early short story "The Alchemist" in the main UAPA journal, a departure from his usual verse. Due in no small part to the encouragement of W. Paul Cook, another UAPA member and future lifelong friend, Lovecraft began writing and publishing more fiction. Soon to follow were "The Tomb" and "Dagon". "The Tomb", by Lovecraft's own admission, follows closely the style and construction of the writings of one of his largest influences, Edgar Allan Poe. "Dagon" though, is considered Lovecraft's first work that embraced the concepts and themes that his writing would later be known for. In 1918 Lovecraft's term as president of the UAPA elapsed, and he took his former post as chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. In 1919 Lovecraft published another short story, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep".
In 1917 came two first hand accounts suggesting that, despite his climb in the ranks of the UAPA, Lovecraft still lived a fairly hermetical life. One comes from Cook himself, the other Rheinhart Kleiner, a Brooklyn-based UAPA writer. Both recalled that during their visits Lovecraft's mother regularly checked in on Lovecraft. Kleiner mentioned that "at every hour or so his mother appeared in the doorway with a glass of milk, and Lovecraft forthwith drank it." In the same account Kleiner described Susie as "very cordial and even vivacious." Cook recounts an almost comical delay of his meeting with Lovecraft wherein Susie and Lillian would not let Cook in because Lovecraft had been up all night writing and could not be disturbed. Eventually Lovecraft appeared at the door in his "dressing gown and slippers." Lovecraft later attributed his mother and aunt's reticence to allow Cook in being due to his unkempt appearance and their general dislike of Lovecraft's involvement with amateur journalism. Also in 1917, as Lovecraft related to Kleiner, was Lovecraft's aborted attempt to enlist in the army. Though he passed the physical exam, he told Kleiner that his mother "has threatened to go to any lengths, legal or otherwise, if I do not reveal all the ills which unfit me for the army."
In the winter of 1918–1919, Susie, exhibiting symptoms of a "nervous breakdown" of some sort, went to live with her elder sister Lillian. It is unclear what Susie may have been suffering from. Clara Hess, interviewed decades later, recalled instances of Susie describing "weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark." In the same account Hess describes a time when they crossed paths in downtown Providence and Susie "was excited and apparently did not know where she was." Whatever the causes, in March 1919 they resulted in Susie being committed to Butler Hospital, like her husband before her. Lovecraft's immediate reaction to Susie's commitment was visceral, writing to Kleiner that, "existence seems of little value," and that he wished "it might terminate." Speaking to Susie's doctors, a month after she entered Butler, Lovecraft came to the realization that she was never going to be released.
The nature of Susie's illness is impossible to ascertain. Her medical records were lost in a fire, and the only Lovecraft researcher to have seen them prior was Winfield Townley Scott. His account describes Susie weeping often and speaking regularly about both her family's financial collapse and her son, whom she described as "a poet of the highest order." Her psychiatrist claimed she had Oedipus complex. The psychiatric views of the day, still beholden to archaic Victorian assumptions, make any contemporary diagnosis of Susie questionable. No matter their symptoms or situations, women were predominately diagnosed (as Susie was) with hysteria, a concept that women are inherently mentally frail due to having "thinner blood" as a result of menstruation and having a uterus. Lovecraft visited Susie often, walking the large grounds with her, and sent her letters on a regular basis.
Late 1919 saw Lovecraft become more outgoing. After a period of isolation, he began joining friends in trips to writer gatherings, the first being a talk in Boston presented by Lord Dunsany, whom Lovecraft recently discovered and idolized. In early 1920, at an amateur writer convention, he met Frank Belknap Long, who would end up being Lovecraft's most influential and closest confidant for the rest of his life. This period also proved to be the most prolific of Lovecraft's short-story career. The influence of Dunsany is readily apparent in his 1919 output, later be to coined Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, with stories like "The White Ship", "The Doom that Came to Sarnath", and "The Statement of Randolph Carter". In early 1920 followed "Celephais" and "The Cats of Ulthar". It was later in 1920 that Lovecraft began publishing the earliest stories that fit into the Cthulhu Mythos. The Cthulhu Mythos, a term coined by August Derleth, encompasses Lovecraft's stories that share a commonality in fictional locations and Lovecraft's invented pantheon of god-like beings known as The Great Old Ones. The poem "Nyarlathotep" and short story "The Crawling Chaos", in collaboration with Winifred Virginia Jackson, were written in late 1920. Following in early 1921 came "The Nameless City", the first story that falls definitively within the Cthulhu Mythos. In it is found one of Lovecraft's most enduring bits of writing, a couplet recited by his creation Abdul Alhazred, "That is not dead which can eternal lie; And with strange aeons even death may die."
On May 24, 1921, Sarah Susan (Susie) Phillips Lovecraft died in Butler Hospital, due to complications from a gall bladder surgery five days earlier. Lovecraft's initial reaction, expressed in a letter nine days after Susie's death, was that of an "extreme nervous shock" that crippled him physically and emotionally, again remarking that he found no reason he should continue living. Despite Lovecraft's immediate reaction to his mother's death, he continued to attend amateur journalist conventions. It was at one such convention in July that Lovecraft met Sonia Greene.
Marriage and New York
Lovecraft's aunts disapproved of this relationship with Sonia. Lovecraft and Greene married on March 3, 1924, and relocated to her Brooklyn apartment at 793 Flatbush Avenue; she thought he needed to get out of Providence in order to flourish and was willing to support him financially. Greene, who had been married before, later said Lovecraft had performed satisfactorily as a lover, though she had to take the initiative in all aspects of the relationship. She attributed Lovecraft's passive nature to a stultifying upbringing by his mother. Lovecraft's weight increased to 200 lb (91 kg) on his wife's home cooking.
He was enthralled by New York, and, in what was informally dubbed the Kalem Club, he acquired a group of encouraging intellectual and literary friends who urged him to submit stories to Weird Tales; editor Edwin Baird accepted many otherworldly 'Dream Cycle' Lovecraft stories for the ailing publication, though they were heavily criticized by a section of the readership. Established informally some years before Lovecraft arrived in New York, the core Kalem Club members were boys' adventure novelist Henry Everett McNeil; the lawyer and anarchist writer James Ferdinand Morton Jr.; and the poet Reinhardt Kleiner.
On New Year's Day of 1925, Sonia moved to Cleveland for a job opportunity, and Lovecraft left Flatbush for a small first-floor apartment on 169 Clinton Street "at the edge of Red Hook"—a location which came to discomfort him greatly. Later that year the Kalem Club's four regular attendees were joined by Lovecraft along with his protégé Frank Belknap Long, bookseller George Willard Kirk, and Lovecraft's close friend Samuel Loveman. Loveman was Jewish, but was unaware of Lovecraft's nativist attitudes. Conversely, it has been suggested that Lovecraft, who disliked mention of sexual matters, was unaware that Loveman and some of his other friends were homosexual.
Not long after the marriage, Greene lost her business and her assets disappeared in a bank failure; she also became ill. Lovecraft made efforts to support his wife through regular jobs, but his lack of previous work experience meant he lacked proven marketable skills. After a few unsuccessful spells as a low-level clerk, his job-seeking became desultory. The publisher of Weird Tales attempted to put the loss-making magazine on a business footing and offered the job of editor to Lovecraft, who declined, citing his reluctance to relocate to Chicago; "think of the tragedy of such a move for an aged antiquarian," the 34-year-old writer declared. Baird was replaced with Farnsworth Wright, whose writing Lovecraft had criticized. Lovecraft's submissions were often rejected by Wright. (This may have been partially due to censorship guidelines imposed in the aftermath of a Weird Tales story that hinted at necrophilia, although after Lovecraft's death Wright accepted many of the stories he had originally rejected.)
Greene, moving where the work was, relocated to Cincinnati, and then to Cleveland; her employment required constant travel. Added to the daunting reality of failure in a city with a large immigrant population, Lovecraft's single-room apartment at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, not far from the working-class waterfront neighborhood Red Hook, was burgled, leaving him with only the clothes he was wearing. In August 1925 he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook" and "He", in the latter of which the narrator says "My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration [...] I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me". It was at around this time he wrote the outline for "The Call of Cthulhu", with its theme of the insignificance of all humanity. In the bibliographical study H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Michel Houellebecq suggested that the misfortunes fed Lovecraft's central motivation as a writer, which he said was racial resentment. With a weekly allowance Greene sent, Lovecraft moved to a working-class area of Brooklyn Heights, where he subsisted in a tiny apartment. He had lost 40 pounds (18 kg) of body weight by 1926, when he left for Providence.
Return to Providence
Lovecraft's final home, May 1933 until March 10, 1937
Original Phillips family gravestone bearing H. P. Lovecraft's name
Back in Providence, Lovecraft lived in a "spacious brown Victorian wooden house" at 10 Barnes Street until 1933. The same address is given as the home of Dr. Willett in Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The period beginning after his return to Providence—the last decade of his life—was Lovecraft's most prolific; in that time he produced short stories, as well as his longest work of fiction The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. He frequently revised work for other authors and did a large amount of ghost-writing, including "The Mound", "Winged Death", and "The Diary of Alonzo Typer". Client Harry Houdini was laudatory, and attempted to help Lovecraft by introducing him to the head of a newspaper syndicate. Plans for a further project were ended by Houdini's death.
Although he was able to combine his distinctive style (allusive and amorphous description by horrified though passive narrators) with the kind of stock content and action that the editor of Weird Tales wanted—Wright paid handsomely to snap up "The Dunwich Horror" which proved very popular with readers—Lovecraft increasingly produced work that brought him no remuneration. Affecting a calm indifference to the reception of his works, Lovecraft was in reality extremely sensitive to criticism and easily precipitated into withdrawal. He was known to give up trying to sell a story after it had been once rejected. Sometimes, as with The Shadow over Innsmouth (which included a rousing chase that supplied action) he wrote a story that might have been commercially viable, but did not try to sell it. Lovecraft even ignored interested publishers. He failed to reply when one inquired about any novel Lovecraft might have ready: although he had completed such a work, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it was never typed up.
A few years after Lovecraft had moved to Providence, he and his wife Sonia Greene, having lived separately for so long, agreed to an amicable divorce. Greene moved to California in 1933 and remarried in 1936, unaware that Lovecraft, despite his assurances to the contrary, had never officially signed the final decree.
Lovecraft was never able to provide for even basic expenses by selling stories and doing paid literary work for others. He lived frugally, subsisting on an inheritance that was nearly depleted by the time he died. He sometimes went without food to be able to pay the cost of mailing letters. Eventually, he was forced to move to meager lodgings with his surviving aunt. He was also deeply affected by the suicide of his correspondent Robert E. Howard. In early 1937, he was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine and suffered from malnutrition as a result. He lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937 in Providence. In accordance with his lifelong scientific curiosity, he kept a diary of his illness until close to the moment of his death.
Gravestone of H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft was listed along with his parents on the Phillips family monument (41°51′14″N 71°22′52″W / 41°51′14″N 71°22′52″W / 41.8540176; -71.3810921). In 1977, fans erected a headstone in Swan Point Cemetery on which they inscribed his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the phrase "I AM PROVIDENCE"—a line from one of his personal letters.
Groups of enthusiasts annually observe the anniversaries of Lovecraft's death at Ladd Observatory and of his birth at his grave site. In July 2013, the Providence City Council designated "H. P. Lovecraft Memorial Square" and installed a commemorative sign at the intersection of Angell and Prospect streets, near the author's former residences.