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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
During his Dunsany period Lovecraft did not abandon his “weird fiction.” In 1921 he wrote perhaps his best early story, “The Music of Erich Zann.” The narrator, a student and resident of a boardinghouse on the creepy Rue d’Auseil in Paris, is beguiled by the haunting music of his neighbor, a mute elderly violinist. The musician, it turns out, plays his unearthly melodies to hold at bay some malign presence on the other side of his shuttered garret windows. When a fierce wind tears through the shutters and kills Zann, the student looks through the window to see not the aged buildings and narrow cobblestone pavement of the Rue d’Auseil but an ominous dark void.
Lovecraft’s period of literary industriousness coincided with a time of great personal distress. In 1919 Susie Lovecraft was admitted to Providence’s Butler Hospital for the Insane, where she lingered for two years until her death at the age of sixty-three. Susie’s sisters, Lillian and Annie, assumed the responsibility of caring for the thirty-one-year-old Howard. Like his mother, they discouraged visitors and resisted his leaving the house unaccompanied.
His mother’s illness and death left Lovecraft suicidal, but he kept himself busy and made frequent trips to Boston to meet with fellow amateur journalists. At one of these conventions he met a lovely Ukrainian-born Jewish woman from New York named Sonia Haft Greene. The two struck up a correspondence that blossomed into an improbable romance. Greene, a divorcée with a grown daughter, was seven years Lovecraft’s senior and a manager at Ferle Heller’s clothing store in Manhattan, earning a then-considerable salary of almost ten thousand dollars a year. She also had literary aspirations, which Lovecraft encouraged.
Lovecraft wrote Greene almost daily, and in 1922 he joined her at a resort near Gloucester, Massachusetts. During an evening stroll, as they watched the moonlight shimmering on the water, they heard a loud “snorting and grunting” noise in the distance.
“Oh, Howard,” Greene said, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.”
Lovecraft suggested that she write the story. The next day she showed him an outline. His enthusiasm so delighted her that she kissed him. Lovecraft blushed, then went pale. He told her that he hadn’t been kissed by a woman since he was a child.
As he courted Sonia Greene by mail, Lovecraft began to see his stories published in professional magazines. He wrote two serials for the lowbrow Home Brew , and in late 1923 his story “Dagon” appeared in Weird Tales , a pulp magazine devoted to tales of the strange and supernatural. During its thirty-one-year lifetime, Weird Tales , with its lurid covers depicting inadequately dressed women writhing in the clutches of various horrid creatures, would publish stories by writers who later became giants in genre fiction, among them Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury.
Lovecraft soon became a frequent Weird Tales contributor; it published some of his best-known stories, such as “The Rats in the Walls,” with its rodents and cannibals, and “The Outsider.” In the latter story, which has been frequently interpreted as an autobiographical allegory, the narrator escapes from the castle in which he has been imprisoned since childhood. Roaming free at last, he comes across a hideous creature from which people flee in terror. He reaches out to touch the beast, and his fingers press against the surface of a mirror.
Howard and Sonia married in March 1924. Lovecraft moved into Sonia’s Brooklyn apartment and launched a valiant but failed effort to find work; he was thirty-three years old and had never held a regular job. Sonia, who now co-owned a millinery shop on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, supported them both. Lovecraft instructed his Jewish wife that whenever they had company, he would prefer that “Aryans” were in the majority.
Lovecraft was ebullient in his first months of married life. He enjoyed the frequent company of New York’s contingent of amateur journalists, and the city’s abundance of museums and historic buildings enthralled him. Through his amateur journalist friend Samuel Loveman, he met the poet Hart Crane. The two men did not hit it off. Crane wrote to his mother that the “piping-voiced” Lovecraft had “kept Sam traipsing around the slums and wharf streets until four in the morning looking for Colonial specimens of architecture, and until Sam tells me he groaned with fatigue and begged for the subway!”
His enchantment with New York did not last long, however. The millinery shop failed. Faced with bankruptcy, Sonia took a job with a department store in Cincinnati. Lovecraft decided to stay in New York; the Midwest, with its absence of colonial architecture, would be intolerable to him. Sonia helped him move into a smaller apartment and went off to Ohio. She continued to send him money to supplement his scant earnings from ghostwriting.