Aug 202017

Today is the birthday of Howard Phillips (“H.P.”) Lovecraft, U.S. author who achieved posthumous fame through his works of horror fiction. He was virtually unknown, and published only in pulp magazines, before he died in poverty; but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in the genre. Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he spent most of his life. Among his most celebrated tales are “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Lovecraft was never able to support himself from earnings as an author or editor and commercial success increasingly elude him in his later years, not least because he lacked the confidence and drive to promote himself and spent much of his life as a recluse.

Lovecraft was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft (1853–1898), a traveling salesman of jewelry and precious metals, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft (1857–1921), who could trace her ancestry to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Lovecraft’s father, who became acutely psychotic in 1893 when Lovecraft was 3 years old, was placed in the Providence psychiatric institution of Butler Hospital where he remained until his death in 1898. After his father’s hospitalization, Lovecraft was raised by his mother, his maternal aunts Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips, and his maternal grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a businessman. All five lived together in the family home.

Lovecraft was frequently ill as a child, and he barely attended school until he was eight years old because of his sickly condition, and was withdrawn after a year. Beginning in his early life, Lovecraft is believed to have suffered from sleep paralysis, a form of parasomnia. He believed himself to be assaulted at night by horrific “night gaunts.” Much of his later work is thought to have been directly inspired by these terrors.

The adult Lovecraft was gaunt with dark eyes set in a very pale face (he rarely went out before nightfall). For five years after leaving school, he lived an isolated existence with his mother, primarily writing poetry without seeking employment or new social contacts. This changed in 1913 when he wrote a letter to the pulp magazine Argosy complaining about the insipidness of the love stories in the publication by writer Fred Jackson. The ensuing debate in the magazine’s letters column caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who invited Lovecraft to join the organization in 1914.

The UAPA reinvigorated Lovecraft and incited him to contribute many poems and essays; in 1916, his first published story, The Alchemist, appeared in the United Amateur Press Association. The earliest commercially published work came in 1922, when he was 31. By this time he had begun to build what became a huge network of correspondents. His lengthy and frequent letters eventually made him one of the great letter writers of the century. Among his correspondents were Robert Bloch (Psycho), Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian series). Many former aspiring authors later paid tribute to his mentoring and encouragement through the correspondence. Although Lovecraft was dismissed in his day as a hack writer of little consequence, he began to acquire the status of a cult writer in the counterculture of the 1960s and reprints of his work proliferated.

Philosopher Graham Harman wrote “No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.” Harman describes Lovecraft as an anti-reductionist who was a pioneer in the literary genre of speculative realism (which includes science fiction and fantasy), and at a conference of philosophers on speculative realism he noted that the major philosophers in the field shared no philosophical heroes, but all were enthusiastic readers of Lovecraft.

Several themes recur in Lovecraft’s stories:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

Forbidden, dark, esoterically veiled knowledge is a central theme in many of Lovecraft’s works. Many of his characters are driven by curiosity or scientific endeavor, and in many of his stories the knowledge they uncover proves Promethean in nature, either filling the seeker with regret for what they have learned, destroying them psychologically, or completely destroying the person who holds the knowledge. Some critics argue that this theme is a reflection of Lovecraft’s contempt of the world around him.

Lovecraft created a complex mythos of non-human beings inspired in part by cults in various parts of the world including those of the circumpolar Inuit and voodoo practitioners in Louisiana and Africa. He believed that primitive and non-Western peoples were guardians of esoteric knowledge that was either unknown to, or lost to, the modern Western world.

Another recurring theme in Lovecraft’s stories is the idea that descendants in a bloodline can never escape the stain of crimes committed by their forebears, at least if the crimes are atrocious enough. Descendants may be very far removed, both in place and in time (and in culpability), from the act itself, and yet, they may be haunted by the revenant past, e.g. “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Lurking Fear”, “Arthur Jermyn”, “The Alchemist”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

Often in Lovecraft’s works the protagonist is not in control of his own actions, or finds it impossible to change course. Many of his characters would be free from danger if they simply managed to run away; however, this possibility either never arises or is somehow curtailed by some outside force, such as in “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dreams in the Witch House”. Often his characters are subject to a compulsive influence from powerful malevolent or indifferent beings. As with the inevitability of one’s ancestry, eventually even running away, or death itself, provides no safety (“The Thing on the Doorstep”, “The Outsider”, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, etc.). In some cases, this doom is manifest in the entirety of humanity, and no escape is possible (“The Shadow Out of Time”).

Lovecraft was in part inspired by Oswald Spengler, whose pessimistic thesis of the decadence of the modern West formed a crucial element in Lovecraft’s overall anti-modern worldview. Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith in 1927: “It is my belief, and was so long before Spengler put his seal of scholarly proof on it, that our mechanical and industrial age is one of frank decadence.” Friedrich Nietzschewas also an influence. Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilization struggling against dark, primitive barbarism. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

In such stories, the curse is often a hereditary one, either because of interbreeding with non-humans (e.g., “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931)) or through direct magical influence (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”). Physical and mental degradation often come together; this theme of ‘tainted blood’ may represent concerns relating to Lovecraft’s own family history, particularly the death of his father due to what Lovecraft probably suspected to be a syphilitic disorder.

In other tales, an entire society is threatened by barbarism. Sometimes the barbarism comes as an external threat, with a civilized race destroyed in war (e.g., “Polaris”). Sometimes, an isolated pocket of humanity falls into decadence and atavism of its own accord (e.g., “The Lurking Fear”). But most often, such stories involve a civilized culture being gradually undermined by a malevolent underclass influenced by inhuman forces.

Race is the most controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy, expressed in many disparaging remarks against the various non-Anglo-Saxon races and cultures in his work. As he grew older, his original Anglo-Saxon racial worldview softened into a classism or elitism which regarded the superior race to include all those self-ennobled through high culture. While Lovecraft’s racism was directly influenced by the society of his day, especially the New England society he grew up in, his racial views are stronger than those in the society of his day, and failed to change as US culture began to moderate in this regard (at least in the northeast).

Lovecraft’s view of science was complex. At a time when people viewed science as limitless and powerful, Lovecraft imagined alternative potential and fearful outcomes. Lovecraft’s works are ruled by several distinct pantheons of deities (actually aliens worshiped as such by humans) who are either indifferent or actively hostile to humanity. Lovecraft’s actual philosophy has been termed “cosmic indifference.” Several of Lovecraft’s stories of the Old Ones (alien beings of the Cthulhu Mythos) propose alternate mythic human origins in contrast to those found in the creation stories of existing religions, expanding on a natural world view. For instance, in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” it is proposed that humankind was actually created as a slave race by the Old Ones, and that life on Earth as we know it evolved from scientific experiments abandoned by the Elder Things. Protagonist characters in Lovecraft are usually educated men, citing scientific and rationalist evidence to support their non-faith. “Herbert West – Reanimator” reflects on the atheism common in academic circles. In “The Silver Key”, the character Randolph Carter loses the ability to dream and seeks solace in religion but does not find it and ultimately loses faith.

Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in life. In 1932, he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory, I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”

Lovecraft’s writing, particularly the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, has influenced fiction authors including modern horror and fantasy writers. Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, Junji Ito, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, William S. Burroughs, and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences. Japan has also been significantly inspired and terrified by Lovecraft’s creations and thus even entered the manga and anime media. Chiaki J. Konaka is an acknowledged disciple and has participated in Cthulhu Mythos, expanding several Japanese versions. He is an anime scriptwriter who tends to add elements of cosmicism, and is credited for spreading the influence of Lovecraft among anime base. Along with Junji Ito, other influential manga artists have also been inspired by Lovecraft. Novelist and manga author, Hideyuki Kikuchi, incorporated a number of locations, beings and events from the works of Lovecraft into the manga Taimashin.

Because Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer we have scores of references in his writing to his food likes and dislikes. Rather than give you a recipe here’s a selection for your perusal and inspiration:

I’m not, however, a heavy eater—take only 2 meals per day, since my digestion raises hell if I try to eat oftener than once in 7 hours. In winter, when it’s too cold for me to go out much, I subsist largely on canned stuff. I always get my own breakfasts, anyway—doughnuts and cheese. I have financial economy in eating worked out to a fine art, and know the self-service lunch rooms where I can get the best bargains. I never spend more than $3.00 per week on food, and often not even nearly that.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Speaking of industrio-economic matters—let me assure you that a 2-or-3-dollar-a-week dietary programme need not involve even a particle of malnutrition of unpalatability if one but knew what to get and where to get it. The tin can and delicatessen conceal marvellous possibilities! Porridge? Mehercule! On the contrary, my tastes call for the most blisteringly high-seasoned materials conceivable, and for desserts as close to 100% C12H22O11 [sugar] as possible. Indeed, of this latter commodity I never employ less than four teaspoons in an average cup of coffee. Favourite dinners—Italian spaghetti, chili con carne, Hungarian goulash (save when I can get white meat of turkey with highly-seasoned dressing).

(to Mrs. Fritz Leiber, 20 December 1936)

Incidentally—not many doors away, on the other side of Willoughby St., I found a restaurant which specialises in home-baked beans. It was closed on Sunday, but I shall try it some time soon. Beans, fifteen cents, with pork, twenty cents. With Frankfort sausages, twenty-five cents. Yes—here is a place which will repay investigation!

(to Mrs. F.C. Clark, 20 May 1925)

…in New England we are very fond of baked yellow-eye beans…

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

How can anybody dislike cheese? And yet Little Belknap hates it as badly as you do! I don’t suppose you would like spaghetti if you don’t like cheese, for the two rather go together.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)

I like cheese, preferably of the common hard variety, medium strength. I hate Roquefort, dislike cottage cheese, just tolerate Camembert and Brie, and am neutral about Limburger—which latter I’ve tasted only once, at Whitehead’s a year ago last spring.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Hershey’s sweet chocolate is one of my favourite nibbles.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 9 December 1931)

I enjoy chocolate in nearly any form—cake, frosting, sweet milk chocolate, etc….

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

I like coffee exceedingly, but relish its imitation Postum just as much.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

I, too, am an enthusiastic potato-ite’—& guess I like the fried form best of all. Shake!

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)

But I more often take ice cream, of which my favourite flavours are vanilla & coffee (the latter hard to get outside New England) & my least relished common flavour is strawberry.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

But as for jam or jelly—I am your utter opposite, for I like it so well that I pile on amounts thicker than the bread which sustains them!

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

Of meats, I fancy I rather prefer beef for all-around consumption, but like most others pretty well. Fond of sausage—especially the old fashioned baked or fried sort. Like fowl—but white meat only. Can’t bear dark meat. My really favourite meal is the regular old New England turkey dinner, with highly seasoned dressing, cranberry sauce, onions, etc., and mince pie for dessert.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Pie is my favourite dessert, and blueberry (for summer) and mince (for winter) are my preferred kinds—with apple as a good all-year-round third. Like to take vanilla ice cream with apple and blueberry pie.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Like Italian cooking very much—especially spaghetti with meat-and-tomato sauce, utterly engulfed in a snowbank of grated Parmesan cheese.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Of other vegetables I like peas & onions, can tolerate cabbage & turnips, am neutral toward cauliflower, have no deep enmity toward carrots, prefer to dodge parsnips & asparagus, shun string beans & brussel sprouts & abominate spinach. I like rhubarb—& am also really fond of baked beans prepared in the ancient New England way…

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)