Thursday, August 20, 2009

Notes For August 20th, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On August 20th, 1890, the legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was born. He was born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the only child of a traveling salesman, Winfield Scott Lovecraft. When H.P. was three, his father suffered a severe psychotic episode while on a business trip in Chicago. He never recovered and had to be institutionalized, as his incurable mental state was the result of syphilis. He died five years later.

After his father's death, H.P. Lovecraft was raised by his mother, her two sisters, and their father, all of whom lived in the same house. Lovecraft was a child prodigy; at the age of three, he could recite poetry verbatim, and by the age of six, he was writing his own poems. His grandfather encouraged his voracious passion for reading, supplying him with classics such as The Arabian Nights, Bullfinch's Age Of Fable, and children's versions of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Lovecraft's grandfather encouraged his passion for the weird by telling him his own original Gothic horror stories. Lovecraft's mother worried that these stories would upset him, but he loved them. He was a sickly child, though at least some of his illnesses were psychosomatic. He also suffered from night terrors, a rare sleep disorder. There was speculation that his father may have passed his syphilis on to him, but it was ruled out. Because of his poor health, lack of discipline, and argumentative nature, he rarely attended school until he was eight years old. Even then, he only lasted a year before he was pulled out of school.

As a voracious reader, Lovecraft educated himself. He developed a particular interest in chemistry and astronomy. When he was nine years old, Lovecraft printed his own hectographed publications, the first of which was called The Scientific Gazette. Age the age of 13, Lovecraft returned to high school. In 1908, just before his high school graduation, Lovecraft suffered what he called a nervous breakdown. Lovecraft biographer J.T. Joshi suggested that the breakdown was caused by Lovecraft's difficulty in learning advanced mathematics, which he would need in order to become a professional astronomer. Lovecraft's failure to complete his education was a lifelong source of disappointment and shame for him.

Though he had written some fiction before, most of H.P. Lovecraft's early work was poetry, which he wrote prolifically. In 1914, after he wrote a letter complaining about the insipidness of a series of popular love stories that had been published in a pulp magazine called The Argosy, the resulting debate in the magazine's Letters section caught the attention of Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who invited Lovecraft to join the organization. It encouraged him to submit more poems and essays for publication.

Three years later, Lovecraft, an avid letter writer, returned to writing fiction after being prodded to do so by some of his correspondents. His first new horror story, Dagon, was published in W. Paul Cook's The Vagrant in 1919, then reprinted in Weird Tales in 1923. The story is told by a tormented, suicidal morphine addict who recalls a horrific experience he had while in the Merchant Marines during World War 1. After his cargo ship is captured by the Germans, he escapes in a lifeboat and drifts across the Pacific, eventually landing on an island where he encounters a monster that was once worshiped as a sea god by an ancient race of fish-men. All that remains of them is the shrine that they built for their god.

In 1919, after suffering from mental illness for years, H.P. Lovecraft's mother was placed in the same institution as her husband. Lovecraft corresponded with her frequently, and remained close to her until her death in 1921 - the result of complications from gall bladder surgery. Lovecraft was devastated. A few weeks later, he attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston, where he met Sonia Greene, a Ukrainian-Jewish shopkeeper (she owned a hat store) whom he married in 1924. Lovecraft's aunts were not happy that he married a woman of the merchant class; the fact that she was Jewish probably didn't thrill them, either.

The Lovecrafts moved to the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. At first, Lovecraft was thrilled to be living in New York, but he quickly came to hate the city. The couple faced financial difficulties; Sonia lost her hat shop, and H.P. was unable to find work, as the city was teeming with a large immigrant population. Lovecraft's frustration fueled the racism that would later be reflected in his writings, which sometimes contained characters such as bestial blacks and scheming Jews.

Lovecraft's was an atypical form of racism; he tended to regard people more in terms of class than race. For example, in his story Cool Air, Lovecraft's narrator makes disparaging remarks about the poor Hispanics in his neighborhood, but he admires and praises the wealthy, cultured Dr. Munoz, who is also Hispanic. These and other contradictory aspects of Lovecraft's racism have led scholars to believe that in both his writings and in life, Lovecraft was questioning the veracity of his racial views.

Sonia Greene, Lovecraft's wife, had to remind him that she was Jewish when he made anti-Semitic remarks. It must have had an impact on him; near the end of his life, when he learned of Hitler's persecution of Jews in Germany, he was horrified. He regarded Nazi ideology as irrational. A few years after they were married, Lovecraft and Sonia separated. Sonia moved to Cleveland to work. They later divorced amicably, and Lovecraft returned to Providence to live with his aunts.

Lovecraft continued to write and publish short stories and essays. He wrote over sixty short stories, most of them horror, establishing himself as a master of the form. His stories reflected his personal beliefs. He considered himself an agnostic in theory and an atheist in practical terms. Many of his stories present gods not as loving creator beings, but as ancient, monstrous alien beings who have influenced the development of the human race over the ages. These beings are often malicious, inspire the formation of cults, and demand sacrifice, as seen in Lovecraft's "Cthulu Mythos" of loosely connected stories.

In some of these stories, Lovecraft mentions a book called the Necronomicon - an ancient book of black magic whose rituals can summon evil deities, demons, and spirits. The book was supposedly written by the "Mad Arab," Abdul Alhazred, in the 8th century. In the early 1970s, a book appeared that claimed to be the real Necronomicon, translated by someone known only as Simon. The book has no connection to Lovecraft and appears to be based on Sumerian mythology. It includes a forward warning the reader not to attempt to perform the rituals contained in the book, which has since become a cult favorite. Still in print, it has sold over 800,000 copies.

Another theme in Lovecraft's writing is the dangers of modern science and technology, which inspire humans to investigate things that should be left alone and tamper with the order of the universe. In his classic 1919 short story, Beyond The Wall Of Sleep, an intern at a hospital for the criminally insane uses one of the inmates - a homicidal maniac - as his guinea pig to test a device he invented to facilitate telepathic communication. The experiment goes awry as the intern and his test subject channel an alien being made of light.

Although H.P. Lovecraft published dozens of short stories in Weird Tales and many other pulp magazines - and was sometimes paid very large sums of money for them - his finances soon dwindled and he was forced to move to smaller quarters with his surviving aunt. In 1936, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He died a year later at the age of 46.

H.P. Lovecraft's stories have been adapted as feature films and for TV series such as Showtime's Masters Of Horror. Heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Mercyful Fate have written songs based on Lovecraft's works. He has inspired many contemporary writers. Horror master Stephen King considers him a major influence, calling him "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

Quote Of The Day

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." - H.P. Lovecraft

Vanguard Video

Today's video is a two-part presentation featuring a reading of H.P. Lovecraft's short story, The Picture In The House. Enjoy!

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