Despite not being particularly appreciated during his lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft’s writing has endured long after his death. While some of his more contentious works have rightfully faded into obscurity, his cosmic horror still resonates with a global audience today.
His fantastical settings and stories are undeniably fascinating, but what keeps readers flocking back to Lovecraft is something more human: fear.
Lovecraft’s unique ability to chill you to your bones through his words alone is what has made his work so powerful for so long. He had an intimate understanding of how fear works and could manipulate it to make anyone’s skin crawl.
A lot of the most profound and relatable elements of Lovecraft’s writing are inspired by real life experiences. Grief, loss and mental illness fuelled his writing. The darkness in his stories feels so real because often, for Lovecraft, it was.
His trauma bled into his writing and marked its place in literary history as some of the most relatable horror ever written.
His Father’s Madness and Death
Winfield Scott Lovecraft was committed to Butler Hospital in 1893 after a psychotic episode. His son Howard was just three years old at the time. For a year before he was committed, his medical records indicated that he had been “doing and saying strange things”.
Winfield remained in Butler for five years, until he died in 1898. His cause of death was officially listed “general paresis”, indicating late-stage syphilis.
Experiencing such peculiar and worrying behaviour at a young age, and then being separated entirely from his father, had a profound impact on Lovecraft. He became closely attached to his mother, whom he described as being “permanently stricken with grief” throughout his childhood years.
For his entire life, Lovecraft maintained that his father’s illness was due to insomnia and being overworked. It is not known if he was hiding the truth of his father’s death, or if he never knew.
Often, his work explored themes of inherited madness, which suggests that, whether he knew it or not, a fear lingered within him that he may suffer the same fate.
His Grandmother’s Death
After his father’s death, Lovecraft and his mother moved in with his maternal grandparents and aunts. His grandparents doted on him and encouraged his curiosity and his love of stories. Although Lovecraft was famously closest to his grandfather, the death of his grandmother Robie Phillips affected him profoundly as a young boy.
She died in 1896, when Lovecraft was not yet six years old. Coming so soon after being separated from his father, Lovecraft was still too young to really understand what was going on. Robie’s death affected the entire family. In later accounts, he described the family’s communal grief as “a gloom from which [we] never fully recovered”.
His mother and two aunts wore black mourning dresses around the house. The grieving five-year-old, not understanding what this signified, was scared of the dark shrouds his beloved relatives had swaddled themselves in. They inspired nightmares that he describes as “night-gaunts”, which looked like the dark creatures from his illustrated copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Decades later, Lovecraft’s written descriptions of night-gaunts were some of his most chilling creations.
His Grandfather’s Death and Family Poverty
While he was living with his grandparents, Lovecraft’s grandfather Whipple Phillips took on a paternal role. He was instrumental in curing the five-year-old Lovecraft of his fear of the dark. He told the boy some of the first weird tales he ever heard, making him one of Lovecraft’s earliest and most enduring influences. He encouraged Lovecraft in his every curiosity.
Although he had to travel a lot for work, he wrote religiously to the boy, maintaining one of the most precious relationships of his childhood. Even as Whipple’s businesses suffered, he was always there for his grandson, ensuring that he still had access to education and stories that fuelled his fascinations, even when servants had to be let go from the family home and wealth dwindled away.
Young Lovecraft reached the darkest point in his short life in 1904 at the age of just fourteen, when his grandfather suffered a stroke and died.
Talking about the time later on in life, he said that he saw no point in living any more. Not only did he lose his grandfather, but without a provider, his family had to leave the Phillips Estate. Lovecraft and his mother moved into a small duplex on their own.
Although his grief didn’t prevent him in enrolling in high school, it caused him to miss long periods of study for what he described as “near breakdowns”. He became a recluse, rarely speaking to anyone aside from his mother and throwing himself into scientific curiosity and his dark writing.
World War I
Despite his tragic childhood, Lovecraft managed to find work as a young man through amateur journalism. He didn’t make a lot of money, but he lived frugally on his mother’s earnings and what remained of the family money. He was invited to join the United Amateur Press Association in 1914 and was elected president of the organisation two years later.
1914 also saw the breakout of World War I. Although it wasn’t as personally traumatic as the losses his family suffered during his childhood, Lovecraft had strong opinions about the war.
A lifelong Anglophile, Lovecraft viewed England as the homeland of every white American. He was horrified that his native USA was so reluctant to the join the war to defend England, as he considered it their duty to their forefathers.
He used his authority at the UAPA to publish criticisms of the US government’s decisions regarding the war. This was almost all the difference Lovecraft could make to the war effort, however, as the ill health that had plagued him his entire life disqualified him from enlisting in the army, despite his best efforts.
During this time, his attempts to write fiction became more serious for him, following the encouragement of a number of colleagues. It was during this period that some of his earliest enduring pieces were published.
His Mother’s Depression
As much as victim of the Lovecraft family trauma as her son, Susie Phillips Lovecraft suffered depression for much of her life. She loved her son deeply and their relationship was intensely close, to the point that she was often considered over-protective of him.
However, Susie was deeply troubled by the problems her family had faced, first with her husband’s death, then her father’s and the resulting financial problems they had been plunged into since. She was known to weep often about the things they had been through and the negative impact it had on her son.
In 1918, she exhibited symptoms of a nervous breakdown and had to move in with her older sister. Although her medical records were lost, reports made by those close to her described her as having hallucinations and at times not knowing where she was or what was going on.
Like her husband before her, she was committed to Butler Hospital. Again, Lovecraft became suicidal due to the separation from his mother. She, more than anyone, had been the rock he had clung to during every tragedy he had suffered so far. He described his existence as having “little value” without her.
It was a month before he accepted that she may not be well enough to leave the hospital.
His Mother’s Death
The archaic Victorian approach to treating mentally ill women did not bode well for Susie Lovecraft.
While she was in hospital, her son flourished as a writer. This was thanks to both his ability to draw on his sense of loss at being apart from her and the freedom he had to attend writer gatherings with his peers, colleagues and literary idols.
It was during this period that he invented his some of his most famous works, including The Cthulhu Mythos. In early 1921, he wrote The Nameless City, which contained the heartbreakingly prophetic lines:
That is not dead which can eternal lie;
And with strange aeons even death may die.
In May 1921, Susie Phillips Lovecraft died following complications from gall bladder surgery. This threw Lovecraft into what he described as an “extreme nervous shock”, which again saw him contemplating suicide as the pointlessness of life without his mother’s weight on him.
His one comfort during this time was his journalism conventions. His writing offered him an outlet for his grief and the gatherings were his sole connection to the world outside his home.
His Wife’s Bankruptcy
Shortly after his mother’s death, Lovecraft met a woman named Sonia Greene at a journalist convention. They married in March 1924 and Lovecraft moved to her Brooklyn apartment to be with her. Sonia was prepared to support Lovecraft financially so that he could focus on his writing.
Lovecraft did indeed flourish in New York, making friends with literary intellectuals. They encouraged his creative work and pushed him to submit stories to publications such as Weird Tales.
However, their marital bliss did not last long. Sonia lost her wealth thanks to a bank failure and shortly afterwards fell ill. Lovecraft’s lack of marketable skills forced him into low-level work that paid poorly in order to support them now that her money was gone.
Having been plagued by death his entire life and now worn down by a soulless job, Lovecraft’s work had become darker than ever with a renewed sense of hopelessness. Farnsworth Wright, the new editor of Weird Tales, rejected a lot of Lovecraft’s writing thanks to new censorship guidelines he imposed on the publication.
Living in Brooklyn
It makes sense that stories drawing on death and poverty would connect to a wide audience, being the kind of universal experiences that at some point touch every life. However, some of Lovecraft’s popular pieces drew purely on his experiences of living in New York.
Although he had moved to be closer to his wife, her work often took her out of town and she had to relocate frequently. Left alone, he felt stranded in the big city. This fed directly into his outline for The Call of Cthulhu, which heavily featured the theme of humanity’s insignificance in a vast, vast world.
In August 1925, he wrote He, a short story about a mysterious stranger who tells of haunting images of New York’s past and future. The story contains a passage of almost biographical honesty, which reads:
“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.”
After spending so much time apart while Sonia was working in different towns, Lovecraft and his wife eventually separated amicably. By that point, he had been living on an allowance she sent him for years, though he had hardly seen her.
After their divorce, he lived frugally on a near-depleted inheritance, but never managed to earn a living from his writing. Sometimes he went without food in order to send letters. Eventually, he give up his modest home and move into even less pleasant lodgings with his one surviving aunt.
In 1937, he was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine and became more malnourished than ever.
He wrote religiously up until his final days, keeping a diary documenting his pain and suffering in his last few months, until he died in March 1937. His last writings are imbued with a lot of the same profundity of feeling as his most celebrated fiction.
Although he kept this journal as a largely scientific endeavour, it offers more than a little glimpse into how Lovecraft’s writing was shaped by the darkest moments of his life.