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The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King
The American master of horror fiction was as peculiar in his life as he was in his writing
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
“The Call of Cthulhu” and the other stories in the mythos deal with races of beings from other worlds and other dimensions who once ruled the earth, warred with one another, and now bide their time until they can regain ascendancy. Lovecraft created an elaborate fictional New England for the Cthulhu stories, including the eerie coastal town of Kingsport, the accursed village of Dunwich, and “crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham,” home to the unwholesomely curious scholars of Miskatonic University. Searching for fragments of ancient lore, characters frequently consult the pages of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon , kept under lock and key at Miskatonic U. and Harvard’s Widener Library.
The Cthulhu Mythos eventually made Lovecraft famous, but it failed to make him rich. He was born on August 20, 1890, into a wealthy Providence, Rhode Island, family, but his clan’s fortunes waned as he entered adolescence. The privileged child grew up to be a financially straitened adult, and he never quite adjusted.
Both of H. P. Lovecraft’s parents went mad toward the ends of their lives. His mother described young Howard’s appearance as “hideous” and tried to keep him from the sight of others. As a boy of six or seven growing up in Providence, he was tormented by dreams of “black, lean, rubbery things with horns, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all .” These “Night-Gaunts” would seize him by the stomach and “carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead & horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needle-like pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let me drop. . . .”
Lovecraft spent the first three years of his life in the suburbs of Boston. When his father, a traveling salesman, came down with general paresis in 1893, Howard and his mother, Susan Phillips Lovecraft, moved into his maternal grandfather’s Providence mansion. The sprawling three-story clapboard house contained a library of some two thousand volumes. Lovecraft could read by the age of three and soon was captivated by Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the novels of Jules Verne.
Despite his early love of the fantastic, he was a born skeptic. When he was about five years old, he was withdrawn from Sunday school after engaging his teacher and classmates in a debate about the existence of God. Philosophical doubts aside, for Lovecraft, stern, somber New England Protestantism paled before “the Eastern magnificence of Mahometanism,” which he read about in The Arabian Nights . He outfitted his room with Oriental hangings and incense vessels. His infatuation with Islamic culture faded when he discovered the Greek and Latin poets. After that he built altars to Pan and searched the woods for dryads and satyrs, but this enthusiasm too gave way. “I struck EDGAR ALLAN POE !!” he recalled. “It was my downfall, and at the age of eight I saw the blue firmament of Argos and Sicily darkened by the miasmal exhalations of the tomb!”
Lovecraft attended public school only sporadically. His mother periodically withdrew him from classes because he was sick, though most of his childhood infirmities seem to have been psychological: headaches, stomach pains, bladder problems, facial tics. Family members and private tutors took up the task of educating Lovecraft when he was absent from school. The boy wrote precocious imitations of Dryden and Pope and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses . He also developed an avidity for the sciences, building a noxious chemistry lab in a cellar room and scanning the night skies with a ninety-nine-cent mail-order telescope.
During that time his grandfather Whipple Phillips suffered such business reverses that when he died in 1904, the mansion had to be sold. Lovecraft’s mother rented the ground floor of a house three blocks to the east. Howard had planned to study astronomy at Brown, but his “nervous collapse” and his family’s financial straits prevented that. He withdrew from high school and became a recluse, sleeping during the day and then reading or writing at night. Susie Lovecraft indulged her son’s retreat from society and gave him little impetus to learn how to make his way in the world. She was beginning to behave oddly herself, lurking about in the shrubbery and telling her neighbors of strange creatures that hovered around the house.
Despite his mental state, Lovecraft published astronomical articles in several local papers and the Asheville, North Carolina, Gazette-News . In one column from the Providence Evening News , after an evocative description of the constellations that would be visible in the coming months, Lovecraft offered an existential meditation on man’s place in the universe: “Humanity with its pompous pretensions sinks to complete nothingness when viewed in relation to the unfathomed abysses of infinity and eternity which yawn about it.”