H. P. Lovecraft is widely considered the twentieth century's most important writer of supernatural horror fiction. Forging a unique niche within the horror genre, he created what became known as "weird tales," stories containing a distinctive blend of dreamlike imagery, Gothic terror, and elaborate concocted mythology. During his lifetime Lovecraft published work almost exclusively in pulp magazines, and only after his death in 1937 did he receive a wide readership and critical analysis. While many disparage his writings as verbose, melodramatic, and inconsequential, others extol his precise narrative skills and capacity to instill the unsettling. He has been placed among the ranks of such storytellers as Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe, but, as August Derleth pointed out in H. P. L.: A Memoir, "Lovecraft was an original in the Gothic tradition; he was a skilled writer of supernatural fiction, a master of the macabre who had no peer in the America of his time." According to Curt Wohleber in American Heritage, Lovecraft was "the man who brought the . . . thriving genre of supernatural fiction into the twentieth century. . . . Lovecraft abandoned the demons, ghosts, and vampires of his nineteenth-century predecessors in favor of modern horrors inspired by Darwinian evolution and Einsteinian physics."
Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft grew up in the affluent and intellectual surroundings of his grandfather's Victorian mansion. Sickly as a child and only able to attend school sporadically, he was an avid reader, fascinated by eighteenth-century history and Gothic horror stories. He was particularly interested in science and began to write about it at an early age. Following the death of his grandfather in 1904, Lovecraft and his mother moved from the family mansion to a nearby duplex (his father, a virtual stranger to Lovecraft, had died some years earlier after spending the last years of his life in a sanitorium). Lovecraft would later relate that, raised by a sensitive and overprotective mother, he grew up in relative isolation, believing he was unlike other people.
Chronic sickness as a teenager prevented Lovecraft from finishing high school or attending college. He continued his self-education and supported himself by working as a ghostwriter and revisionist--vocations that, though disliked by Lovecraft, would financially sustain him throughout his life. An admirer of Poe, he had begun writing horror tales but, deeming them meager efforts, devoted himself to amateur journalism. In addition, he contributed nonfiction and poetry to magazines. In 1914 Lovecraft joined the United Amateur Press Association, a group of nonprofessional writers who produced a variety of publications and exchanged letters, and one year later he began publishing his own magazine, The Conservative. His numerous letters and essays written during this time focus on his deep respect for scientific truth, his love of the past, and his relative disdain for a present-day world populated by non-Anglo-Nordic citizens. Lovecraft developed the belief, to quote Darrell Schweitzer in The Dream Quest of H. P. Lovecraft, "that only by clinging to tradition could we make life worth living amidst the chaos of modern civilization."
Lovecraft resumed writing fiction in 1917 and, at the behest of friends, began submitting stories to Weird Tales, a pulp magazine that would serve as the major publisher of Lovecraft's writings during his lifetime. Critics note that many of his early tales are heavily influenced by Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. Such stories as "Dagon," "The White Ship," "The Silver Key," "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," and "The Cats of Ulthar" stem from fairy tale tradition, exhibiting rich dreamlike descriptions and imaginary settings. "This early cycle culminated in the extraordinary short novel Lovecraft called The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath," stated Lin Carter in his introduction to Ballantine's edition of the work. The story of protagonist Randolph Carter's search for a magnificent city he once envisioned, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath depicts Carter's voyage into the world of his dreams, where wondrous landscapes and fantastic creatures exist. "Few more magical novels of dream-fantasy exist than this phantasmagoric adventure," declared Carter. "[Never have] the fluid and changing landscapes, the twilit and mysterious silences, and the spire-thronged and opulent Oriental cities of the dreamworld been so lovingly explored."
Contrasting to these relatively innocuous stories of fantasy are Lovecraft's tales of horror, remarkable for their bizarre supernatural conceptions rooted in the realism of a New England setting. Lovecraft was captivated by what he considered the ideal beauty of New England's traditional landscape and architecture. However, he was also intrigued by a perceived darker dimension. His stories "The Unnameable" and "The Picture in the House," for example, depict corruption and superstition that persist in secluded New England areas. "The Festival" illustrates unearthly rituals practiced in the picturesque town of Kingsport--a village Lovecraft modeled after Marblehead, Massachusetts, and "Pickman's Model" focuses on a group of ghouls inhabiting modern Boston. Similar to these stories is the novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which the title character engages in magic to resurrect a seventeenth-century ancestor named Curwen. A practitioner of the black arts in Salem, Curwen is determined to inflict his evil on modern Massachusetts and consequently takes over the identity of Ward, who is later saved by the family doctor.
The best known of Lovecraft's stories are his later ones centering on the "Cthulhu Mythos," a term critics use to describe a distinctive universe of landscape, legends, and mythology completely of Lovecraft's invention. Like his earlier tales, the Cthulhu Mythos works are inspired by New England locales, but their settings are extensively recast to form Arkham, Innsmouth, and Dunwich, fictional worlds overseen by Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and other gods. These stories, explained Lovecraft as quoted by August Derleth, "are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on the outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again." Tales governed by this principle include "The Nameless City," "The Call of the Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in the Darkness," and At the Mountains of Madness.
In addition to writing weird tales, Lovecraft maintained an extensive correspondence and continued to generate a number of essays. Through these nonfiction outlets, he expounded on the aesthetics of supernatural horror fiction and on such philosophies as "mechanistic materialism" and "cosmic indifferentism"--the idea that the universe is a purposeless mechanism wherein humankind is largely insignificant. Lovecraft also produced a relatively large body of poetry, mostly imitative of eighteenth-century masters. Though he wrote prolifically, only one book, 1936's The Shadow over Innsmouth, realized publication during his lifetime. When Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer at the age of forty-six, the bulk of his writings remained either scattered in magazines or unpublished.
Later, Lovecraft's friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei brought his writings to a wide readership. Establishing the publishing house of Arkham expressly to bring Lovecraft's work into book form, Derleth and Wandrei edited such early collections as The Outsider and Others in 1939 and Beyond the Wall of Sleep in 1943. Numerous volumes of the horror writer's work have been collected by Arkham and other publishers over subsequent decades, and this broader circulation has spawned an extensive and diverse body of analysis.
Admirers of Lovecraft point to several elements in his fiction that distinguish him as a master of supernatural horror. Foremost is his ability to evoke terror through the creation of an unseen and unearthly presence. Lovecraft once explained in his lengthy essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, that in order for fiction to instill fear, "a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexpected dread of outer, unknown forces must be present." Particularly impressed by Lovecraft's capacity to induce anxiety in this way was Angela Carter, who described in an essay appearing in George Hay's The Necronomicon: "The twisted shapes of the trees in the woods above Arkham are emanations of the menace they evoke--menace, anguish, perturbation, dread. The cities themselves, whether those of old New England or those that lie beyond the gates of dream, present the dreadful enigma of a maze, always labyrinthine and always, the Minotaur at the heart of this labyrinth, lies the unspeakable in some form or else in some especially vile state of formlessness--the unspeakable, a nameless and unnameable fear."
While some critics have been satisfied that Lovecraft effectively arouses fear solely through developing a sense of imminent dread, others pointed to an extra element in his fiction that creates a more powerful terror. Donald Burleson explained in H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study: "The horror, ultimately, in a Lovecraft tale is not some gelatinous lurker in dark places, but rather the realization, by the characters involved, of their helplessness and their insignificance in the scheme of things--their terribly ironic predicament of being sufficiently well-developed organisms to perceive and feel the poignancy of their own motelike unimportance in a blind and chaotic universe which neither loves them nor even finds them worthy of notice, let alone hatred or hostility." Steven J. Mariconda, writing in Lovecraft Studies, expressed a similar sentiment, calling Lovecraft's tales "cosmic horror . . . the horror of unknowable forces or beings which sweep men aside as indifferently as men do ants."
Other uncommon components marking Lovecraft's work include his manner of combining sterile scientific facts with arcane mysticism. Lovecraft "was uniquely able to link the inner substance of former spiritual beliefs with the most recent scientific discoveries," explained Schweitzer. "He used a rational, mechanistic context to get his readers to the edge of the abyss--and then dropped them over. The result was an irrational horror grimmer than anything a Puritan could conjure up." Critics also admired Lovecraft's ability to agitate his readers by creating an atmosphere of chaos. Lovecraft's universe, according the Maurice Levy in Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, is a place of "bizarre dimensions . . . where time and space stretch or contract in incomprehensible ways." These various features of Lovecraft's fiction lead many reviewers to conclude, as Dirk Mosig did in Whispers, that "[Lovecraft's oeuvre] is a work of genius, a cosmic-minded oeuvre embodying a mechanistic materialist's brilliant conception of the imaginary realms and frightful reality 'beyond the fields we know,' a literary rhapsody of the cosmos and man's laughable position therein. . . . The Lovecraft oeuvre can be regarded as a significant contribution to world literature."
Despite extensive praise, controversy exists over Lovecraft's position in American letters. "At his best . . . [Lovecraft] was a superior literary technician," wrote Schweitzer. "At his worst, he was one of the more dreadful writers of this century who is still remembered." Other critics have been less gentle. Deeming Lovecraft "a totally untalented and unreadable writer" as well as "a hopeless and rather pitiful literary crank," Larry McMurtry dismissed Lovecraft in the Washington Post as "the master of the turgid and the inflated." Colin Wilson, in Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination, further attacked the author's prose, claiming, "Lovecraft hurls in the adjectives ('monstrous,' 'slithering,' 'ghoulish,' 'thunder-crazed') until he seems to be a kind of literary dervish who gibbers with hysteria as he spins. . . . [It] must be admitted that Lovecraft is a very bad writer." Even more scornful was Ursula Le Guin, who announced in the Times Literary Supplement that Lovecraft "was an exceptionally, almost impeccably, bad writer. . . . Derivative, inept, and callow, his tales can satisfy only those who believe that a capital letter, some words, and a full stop make a sentence."
Curt Wohleber described Lovecraft's prose as "florid" and "Gothic," but the reviewer nevertheless concluded that Lovecraft "explored the territories of alienation surveyed with much different instruments by Sartre, Kafka, and Beckett." Lovecraft himself made no pretensions of possessing great writing talent. "No one is more acutely conscious than I of the inadequacy of my work. . . . I am a self-confessed amateur and bungler, and have not much hope of improvement," the author confessed in "The Defense Reopens!," an article later collected in S. T. Joshi's In Defense of Dagon. He did, however, consider himself a serious artist, practitioner, and theorist. Lovecraft "demanded that the fantastic tale be treated as art, not just a frivolous parlor game or an easy way to make a buck," wrote Schweitzer.
Placing himself among those whom he considered "imaginative artists," such as Poe, Dunsany, William Blake, and Ambrose Bierce, Lovecraft explained in "The Defense Reopens!": "The imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense. . . . He is the painter of moods and mind-pictures--a capturer and amplifier of elusive dreams and fancies--a voyager into those unheard-of lands which are glimpsed through the veil of actuality but rarely, and only by the most sensitive. . . . Most persons do not understand what he says, and most of those who do understand object because his statements and pictures are not always pleasant and sometimes quite impossible. But he exists not for praise, nor thinks of his readers. His only [goal is] to paint the scenes that pass before his eyes."
Source: Gale Literature Resource Center