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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
In 1913 Lovecraft published a long, vitriolic letter in The Argosy , a short-story magazine specializing in male-oriented escapist literature. The letter complained about the “erotic fiction” (innocent by today’s standards) of Fred Jackson, a popular contributor to the magazine. Lovecraft preferred stories “where acts of valor are more dwelt upon than affairs of Venus. ... let me venture to describe the Jacksonine type as trivial, effeminate, and, in places, coarse.” Numerous readers came to Jackson’s defense. “I am a cowpuncher,” wrote one, “and certainly would like to loosen up my .44-six on that man Lovecraft.”
Lovecraft escalated the fight from prose to verse, venting his contempt for The Argosy ’s readership with forty-six lines of iambic pentameter: “Scrawl on, sweet Jackson, raise the lover’s leer;/’Tis plain you please the fallen public ear. ...” For the next year the magazine’s letters page was filled with good-natured poetical sparring between Lovecraft and a pro-Jackson reader, John Russell.
The exchange caught the attention of Edward F. Daas, a member of the United Amateur Press Association. Formed in the 1890s, the UAPA was a nationwide alliance of publishing hobbyists who circulated their privately printed journals among themselves. At Daas’s urging, Lovecraft joined the association, writing critiques of amateur periodicals and finding a receptive, if nonpaying, audience for his poems and essays. He rose to prominence in the UAPA and eventually served as its president.
In addition to his writing for the amateur journals, he established a wide circle of correspondents. Letter writing would, in fact, occupy the greater part of his working hours for the rest of his life. His epistolary output was staggering, an estimated hundred thousand letters totaling ten million words. In many of his letters Lovecraft flawlessly maintained his pose as an aged Tory gentleman, using archaisms like “Publick” and exclamations such as “God Save the King!” To his closest correspondents he signed his letters “Grandpa.”
He launched his own amateur journal, The Conservative , in 1915. It ran for thirteen issues over the next eight years and was devoted largely to Lovecraft’s own poems and essays, though it also featured contributions from other UAPA members. The inaugural issue contained an appalling editorial, “The Crime of the Century,” praising the Aryan race’s “vast superiority to the rest of mankind.” Lovecraft’s loathing of Jews, foreigners, and blacks reached almost manic proportions in the 1920s, though he mellowed considerably in his forties.
Lovecraft’s prolific era was a time of great personal distress, during which his mother died in a hospital for the insane.
Lovecraft’s colleagues in amateur journalism encouraged him to try his hand once again at supernatural fiction, which he had abandoned in his teens. In the summer of 1917 he wrote two stories, “The Tomb” a Poe-esque tale of a young man obsessed with the burial vault of an extinct line of New England aristocracy, and “Dagon,” about a stranded sailor who goes mad when he encounters a monstrous sea creature rising from the ocean. Both stories were published in amateur journals.
When America entered the Great War in 1917, Lovecraft tried to enlist, to his mother’s absolute horror. He once described himself in a letter as a “Teutonic killer . . . brother to the frosts and the auroras—a drinker of foemen’s blood from new-picked skulls,” but the local draft board deemed him unfit for service.
Around this time he started working as a ghostwriter. Throughout his career most of his meager income came not from his stories but from ghostwriting and revising other people’s work. His clients included the escape artist Harry Houdini and the popular self-help guru David Van Bush, who wrote books with titles like Grit and Gumption and who made Lovecraft feel “swamped with . . . drivel!”
Despite the drivel, the next several years were the most productive period in his working life. This initial spurt of literary creativity in 1919 was triggered by his reading of Time and the Gods , a 1906 collection of fantasy stories by the Irish writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany. “The first paragraph arrested me as with an electric shock,” Lovecraft recalled. Two months later he ventured to Boston to attend a reading by Dunsany at the Copley-Plaza Hotel.
Quite popular in his time, Dunsany (1878-1957) was later eclipsed by J. R. R. Tolkien ( The Lord of the Rings ) and Lovecraft, who both were heavily influenced by Dunsany’s fantasies. Dunsany set his stories in an imaginary land “at the Edge of the World.” For the next several years Lovecraft wrote a number of fantasies in a distinctly Dunsanyan vein, though with a decidedly darker cast and an air of melancholy absent in Dunsany’s tales. In stories like “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The White Ship,” and “The Other Gods” Lovecraft painstakingly imitated Lord Dunsany’s lofty, neobiblical prose style and devised his own fantasy realms, such as the plains of Leng and the forbidding polar wastes of Unknown Kadath.