Thursday, April 26, 2007

Author profile: H.P. Lovecraft

Note: In the Readerville forum, I've written a few profiles of science fiction authors, some of which might also be of interest to others. Once in a while I'll post one of them here.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 - 1937)

The Name of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, obscure during his lifetime except to a select circle of devotees, has acquired a measure of posthumous fame.

Thus began J. Vernion Shea his, or her, article "H.P. Lovecraft: The House and the Shadows" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - May, 1966). What held true four decades ago, certainly holds true today, perhaps largely due to August Derleth (1909 - 1971), founder of the Arkham Press, of which Shea says:

August Derleth refers to [Lovecraft] as "The late great H.P. Lovecraft" ... Derleth's viewpoint is perhaps partisan, for he was a friend and correspondent of Lovecraft for many years, and is now the executioner of his estate.

H. P. Lovecraft do appear to split his readers into two bipolar groups - Damon Knight (1922 - 2002) referred to him as "a neurasthenic recluse, scholarly, fastidious, and prim".

Perhaps surprisingly, I fall in neither camp. I like Lovecraft's works, and I think he shows flashed of brilliance, but I won't go out of my way to read his works. On the other hand, Lovecraft has become such a part of the sf/fantasy/horror pantheon, that you nearly have to read him; at least to understand all the references to The Great Old Ones and Cthulhu.

H.P. Lovecraft had a very unusual childhood. His mother treated him like a girl until he was at least six, and his father went mad when Lovecraft was two, and died five years later. Unsurprisingly Lovecraft had many problems throughout his life. He started at school when he was eight, but was withdrawn after a year for medical reasons. This didn't happen before he discovered Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) though.

In high school, Lovecraft had a nervous collapse after 2½ years, and was again withdrawn. Following this, he more or less spent his life at home writing stories, most of which (perhaps luckily) weren't published. He stayed living with his mother until she died when he was 31. A couple of years after her death, in 1924, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, 7 years his senior, but the marriage broke up in 1926. As The Encyclopedia of Fantasy puts it: "the fact that she was Jewish and he was prone to antisemitic rants cannot have helped".

In 1924 Lovecraft rewrote a story by one C.M. Eddy, "The Loved Dead", for Weird Tales (a magazine founded because of the founder's love of Edgar Allan Poe, and which Lovecraft apparently declined to become editor of). It was a story about a necrophiliac who becomes a sex murderer, and it caused an uproar, forcing Weird Tales to withdraw the issue from the newsstands. Human nature being what it is, the next issue of Weird Tales sold out within hours, inadvertently saving Weird Tales from bankruptcy, which the magazine had been close to, even before the lost sales from the Lovecraft issue.

In his, now famous, short story, "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), Lovecraft created his now well known myths about the powerful, but evil, beings called The Great Old Ones (or alternatively The Ancient Old Ones) - not to be confused with the two other Lovecraftian groups of beings: The Old Ones and The Great Ones, which I guess proves that whatever Lovecraft's merits, naming ancient powerful races in distinctive ways is not one of them.

Gradually as he grew older, Lovecraft's stories turned less grim, though I doubt anyone would call them light-hearted. This change took away much of the drive behind his stories, and he seemed to be heading towards less spectacular mainstream fantasy, until his early death of cancer March 15, 1937, put an end to that.

After Lovecraft's death, August Derleth published his works under the Arkham house imprint, gradually making Lovecraft a household name in the fantasy/horror genre.

Lovecraft was in many ways typical of many of the authors in the genres at his time. Compare his story with Robert E. Howard (1906 - 1936), and you'll find many similarities, though Lovecraft's upbringing was certainly more weird than mosts'. Not surprisingly many of the authors of the time wrote together, and I've heard and read that Lovecraft's letters (which has been collected) should be well worth the effort reading.

There are several different Lovecraft collections out there, and if you cannot get hold of any containing his complete works, I'd suggest focusing on collections of his stories about The Great Old Ones.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - May, 1966

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