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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
While he was living alone in New York, Lovecraft’s hatred of foreigners grew. He was appalled to learn that “a Syrian had the room next to mine and played eldritch and whining monotones on a strange bagpipe which made me dream ghoulish and indescribable things of crypts under Bagdad. . . .” His letters to his aunts were filled with hysterical rants against blacks, Jews, and “loathsome Asiatic hordes.” He began to avoid his friends, complaining that they were keeping him away from his work. He threatened suicide and took to carrying a bottle of poison.
Lovecraft expressed his loathing of New York in several of the stories he wrote during this period, including “The Horror at Red Hook,” about sinister occult doings in a seedy Brooklyn neighborhood, and “He,” in which an alienated Greenwich Village poet meets a two-hundred-year-old man.
Early in 1926 his aunts invited him to come to Providence for a visit. He latched on to the invitation as an excuse for a permanent retreat to his native soil. The accommodating Sonia soon followed, planning to rejoin her husband and start a business there. She offered to support not only her husband but his aging relatives as well. Aunts Lillian and Annie would not hear of it. It was one thing for a lady to provide for her husband in vice-ridden New York, but in genteel Providence it was unthinkable. Lovecraft meekly acquiesced to their wishes, and Sonia returned to New York. The couple divorced amicably in 1929.
Of the failure of his marriage, Lovecraft said that the causes were “98% financial.” So long a lonely recluse, he was simply not emotionally equipped to be a husband. “My life lies not among people ,” he wrote, “but among scenes —my local affections are not personal, but topographical & architectural.”
After he had died, Sonia confided to one of Lovecraft’s correspondents that he had been squeamish about sex. As a child he had learned the facts of life, characteristically, by consulting textbooks. The anatomical details of human sexual congress so thoroughly repulsed him that his interest in the subject was permanently extinguished. Critics would later see a pervasive erotophobia in Lovecraft’s many stories about fearful men plunging into tunnels, crypts, and caverns teeming with slimy horrors.
“I had hoped,” Sonia wrote, “that my ‘embrace’ would make of him not only a great genius but also a lover and husband. While the genius developed and broke through its chrysalis, the lover and husband receded into the background until they became apparitions that finally vanished.”
The last decade of Lovecraft’s life was a time of gradually diminishing expectations. For years he hoped to buy back his grandfather’s mansion, but prospects of wealth were becoming ever more remote. He longed to visit Europe, but this too was beyond his reach. Without Sonia’s financial support he depended on his ghosting. His best clients were gone: He had parted company with Van Bush, and Houdini died in late 1926 of a ruptured appendix. For a time Lovecraft supplemented his freelance earnings by working nights as a ticket seller in a Providence movie theater.
With his florid, Gothic prose, he explored the same territories of alienation as Sartre, Kafka, and Beckett, using much different instruments.
He began losing confidence in his writing too. In the years following his return to Providence he wrote two short novels, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward . Both works so displeased him that he did not bother to try to get them published. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath , a fantasy in the mold of Lord Dunsany’s stories, is one of Lovecraft’s few overtly sentimental works, ending with the protagonist’s discovery that the “marvellous city” glimpsed in his dreams was his home city of Boston.
Lovecraft’s own home city is the backdrop of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward , a deft mixture of occult lore, real and imagined local history, and loving evocations of Providence’s colonial architecture. Ward, a young antiquarian, becomes obsessed with his distant ancestor Joseph Curwen, whom he closely resembles. Curwen had fled Salem, Massachusetts, and in 1692 settled in Providence. After nearly eighty years the ageless and sinister Curwen was lynched by a band of concerned Providence merchants led by Capt. Abraham Whipple, an ancestor of Lovecraft. (The same group in real life later set fire to the British revenue schooner Gaspé e in 1772.) Ward learns that Curwen had discovered the secret of extending life and resurrecting the dead by consulting Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon and other forbidden tomes. Naturally Ward loots Curwen’s grave and raises his ancestor from the dead. Curwen, unmellowed by a century and a half of death, kills Ward and assumes his identity.