Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Man Behind the Cthulhu Mythos

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, American poet and author of macabre short novels, was born on 20 August 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He came from distinguished British ancestry on both sides of his family. His mother made him wear his hair long until the age of six and treated him like a girl. His father was Winfield Scott Lovecraft a travelling salesman, who went mad, probably from syphilis and died when his son was five. At the time of his birth Lovecraft's family was quite well-to-do, most of the wealth derived from the extensive business interests of Lovecraft's maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. This prosperity, however, was not to last. At the death of Whipple Phillips in 1904 his fortune was squandered and the Lovecrafts were forced to move out of their Victorian home into cramped quarters at 598 Angell Street. Lovecraft was devastated by the loss of his birthplace, and apparently contemplated suicide, as he took long bicycle rides and looked wistfully at the watery depths of the Barrington River. But the thrill of learning banished those thoughts. Lovecraft suffered from terrifying nightly disturbances and nightmares which lasted until his own death. This deeply personal material also marked his stories.

Lovecraft was a precocious youth: he was reciting poetry at age two, reading at age three, and writing at age six or seven. His earliest enthusiasm was for the Arabian Nights, which he read by the age of five; it was at this time that he adapted the pseudonym of “Abdul Alhazred,” who later became the author of the mythical Necronomicon. The next year, however, his Arabian interests were eclipsed by the discovery of Greek mythology, gleaned through Bulfinch’s Age of Fable and through children’s versions of the Iliad and Odyssey. But Lovecraft had by this time already discovered weird fiction, and his interest in the weird was fostered by his grandfather, who entertained Lovecraft with off-the-cuff weird tales in the Gothic mode.

Lovecraft grew up as a fringe member of the conservative New England aristocracy, and was educated at local schools. He was somewhat lonely and suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. His attendance at the Slater Avenue School was sporadic, and he was often kept away from school by his overprotective mother, but Lovecraft was soaking up much information through independent reading. At about the age of eight he discovered science, first chemistry, then astronomy. During this time he found the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who had visited several times the library in Province, and whose model inspired Lovecraft in his literary aspirations. He also read works by Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), who inspired him to write the short novel The dream-quest of unknown Kadath (1926).

Lovecraft later believed that Hellenism and astronomy were the two central influences of his early years, the latter especially because it led directly to his "cosmic" philosophy wherein mankind and the world are but a flyspeck amidst the vortices of infinite space. Lovecraft’s first appearance in print occurred in 1906, when he wrote a letter on an astronomical matter to The Providence Sunday Journal. Shortly thereafter he began writing a monthly astronomy column for The Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, a rural paper; he later wrote columns for The Providence Tribune (1906-08) and The Providence Evening News (1914-18), as well as The Asheville (N.C.) Gazette-News (1915). It was in the amateur world that Lovecraft recommenced the writing of fiction, which he had abandoned in 1908. W. Paul Cook and others, noting the promise shown in such early tales as The Beast in the Cave (1905) and The Alchemist (1908), urged Lovecraft to pick up his fictional pen again. This Lovecraft did, writing The Tomb and Dagon in quick succession in the summer of 1917. Thereafter Lovecraft kept up a steady if sparse flow of fiction, although until at least 1922 poetry and essays were still his dominant mode of literary expression. Lovecraft also became involved in an ever-increasing network of correspondence with friends and associates, and he eventually became one of the greatest and most prolific letter-writers of the century. L. Sprague de Camp has claimed in Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) that the author wrote over 1000,000 letters. At the age of 27 he was still at home, writing gloomy tales. He was eventually offered the job of editor at the magazine Weird Tales, but he turned the offer down.

Lovecraft was virtually unknown most of his career as a writer. His posthumous fame, particularly in America and France, rests on his Cthulhu Mythos stories that lead him to become a cult figure in the genre of horror fiction. He is considered the most original American writer of weird fiction subsequent to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft's imaginary town in his tales, Arkham, was based on his home town of Providence. He never wrote (or, rather, sold) enough fiction to be a professional writer; instead, his income was provided by an ever-dwindling family inheritance and by the dreary task of literary revision and ghost-writing. This work ran the gamut from textbooks to poetry to novels to articles; but on occasion Lovecraft attracted revision clients who wished to write horror tales, and his "revisions" of the works of such tyros as Hazel Heald, Zealia Bishop, Adolphe de Castro, and others are often tantamount to original composition.

Lovecraft's mother died in 1921, when the author was 31. Mrs. Lovecraft, her frail constitution destroyed by the death of her husband under peculiar circumstances and pathologically overprotective of her only child, died in a sanitarium; the immediate cause of death, however, was a badly managed gall bladder operation. Lovecraft continued to live with his two aunts. His marriage in 1924 with Sonia Greene, who was seven years his senior, lasted only until 1926.

Lovecraft's fiction turned from the nostalgic -- The Shunned House (1924), set in Providence -- to the bitter: He and The Horror at Red Hook (1925) laid bare his feelings about New York, and the ending of the former tale encapsulates his yearning to return to the tranquil and familiar world of New England.

His later works show that he was beginning to outgrow from the genre of horror in the direction of science fiction - among others The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow Out of Time from his mature period were first published in science fiction magazines.

Most of Lovecraft's short stories appeared in the magazine Weird Tales, beginning in 1923. His works from the early phase include The Tomb, The Statement of Randolph Carter, Rats in the Wall, The Shunned House, From Beyond, and Cool Air, all written with more or less conventional scenarios. Lovecraft often used the first-person narrator, who is a scientist or scholar. The narrator witnesses horrors that contradict his beliefs, and going gradually insane he must face his destiny.

After two years in New York, where Lovecraft was horrified with its oppressive size, the hordes of "aliens" at every corner, its emphasis on speed, money, and commercialism, he returned to Providence on April 17, 1926, where he spent with his aunts the rest of his life. The last ten years of his life were the time of his greatest flowering, both as a writer and as a human being. He nurtured the careers of many young writers (August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber); he became concerned with political and economic issues, as the Great Depression led him to support Roosevelt and become a moderate socialist; and he continued absorbing knowledge on a wide array of subjects, from philosophy to the New England heritage, evoking its topography, history and society. This mature period produced such stories as The Colour Out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Thing on the Doorstep, The Dreams in the Witch House. Many of Lovecraft's tales utilize a pseudo-mythical framework, termed the Cthulhu Mythos. His best-known work in the series is The call of Cthulhu (1928), where he created his basic myth of the Elder Race. It once dominated the Earth, but largely destroyed itself. Its members now lie sleeping somewhere under the sea or underground. In this cosmic scheme of things, humans were reduced to a position of hapless victims, who are not important for the incomprehensible forces.

His later stories, increasingly lengthy and complex, became difficult to sell, and he was forced to support himself largely through the “revision” or ghost-writing of stories, poetry, and nonfictions works. In 1936 the suicide of Robert E. Howard, one of his closest correspondents, left him confused and saddened. By this time the illness that would cause his own death – cancer of the intestine – had already progressed so far that little could be done to treat it and he died from a combination of cancer Bright's disease on March 15, 1937 at the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital in Providence. He was buried in the family plot in the Swan Point Cemetery. Lovecraft's friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei set up in 1939 a publishing house for his work, Arkham House, and the author's books have remained in print ever since. Only recently has a separate marker been erected on his grave, the funds contributed by many of his posthumous admirers; the stone reads: "I am Providence".

source: booksfactory.com