Updated: Jul 25, 2022
The father of Cosmic Horror, H.P. Lovecraft, died on March 15, 1937. Lovecraft had always been a prolific writer and it is fitting that he kept a diary in his final days. The creator of such horrors as Cthulhu and the Necronomicon would succumb to cancer in his small intestine. His diary was meant to be a series of clinical notes that he kept in order to assist his physicians. The suffering he documented would become his final act as a writer.
Early Life - Touched by Tragedy
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, to the wealthy Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan [née Phillips] Lovecraft. His mother, Sarah, was the chief source of wealth in the family as her father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, was a successful businessman. Lovecraft's family lived in Providence, Rhode Island, a place that he would rarely leave during his life.
The author's life would prove to be touched by madness from an early age. His father was committed to Butler Hospital in April 1893, following a psychotic break. Winfield Lovecraft would spend the next five years in Butler Hospital before finally succumbing to General Paresis in 1898. His death certificate indicates that he was suffering from late-stage syphilis. H.P. Lovecraft would later maintain that his father had become paralytic due to being overworked and suffering from insomnia.
Lovecraft lived with his mother, aunts, and grandfather from the age of three. His grandfather, Whipple, took on the role of a father-figure to the young Lovecraft - schooling him in classical literature and poetry from a young age. Whipple had to travel for business but he kept up a correspondence with his grandson. Young Howard had learned to read and write by the age of three and grew enamored by his grandfather's stories.
According to Lovecraft, his mother was "permanently grief-stricken" after his father's illness. The condition would spread to the rest of his family following his grandmother's death in 1896. He noted that her death sank his clan into "a gloom from which it never recovered". This gloom would invade Howard's dreams at the age of five in the form of night-terrors.
Inspiring Nightmares - Lifelong Passion for the Strange
Whipple didn't only raise the young Howard on classical literature. He would read Howard the weird tales that he wrote for the boy's entertainment. These tales included stories of "winged horrors" and other such abominable creatures. His inspiration for these stories remains unknown, but their impact on H.P. Lovecraft's work is clear to see.
Following his grandmother's death, H.P. Lovecraft found his mother and aunts' black clothing disturbing. He started having night-terrors featuring creatures that he referred to as "Night-Gaunts", who would later feature in his writing. Some people run from the terrors of their minds and others embrace them.
Lovecraft grew fascinated with the Roman pantheon of gods early on. After being told that Santa Claus wasn't real, he retorted by asking why "God is not equally a myth?" The Roman focus on astronomy in their worship likely led him to become fascinated with the sciences. He spent his days scouring the family library for any scientific works, even devouring a book on human anatomy at 8 years old. This book also served as Lovecraft's sexual education, a fact that "virtually killed my interest in the subject."
Howard Lovecraft's life was fraught with health problems. He would regularly miss long periods of schooling due to these unspecified concerns. Tutors would make up for the missed time. These health problems likely gave Lovecraft a lot of time alone with his imagination.
Steady Decline - Inherited Guilt
Whipple's businesses weren't doing well. After a particularly catastrophic failure of his largest business venture in 1904, the old man suffered a stroke and died. He left his daughter and her son without the means to maintain their ancestral home. They moved into a small duplex in the year that Howard started high-school. Lovecraft would later refer to this as one of his darkest times and that he saw no point in living any longer.
The boy remained sickly and would periodically miss school due to his "near breakdowns". It was during this period that Howard wrote the first of his own weird tales, The Beast in the Cave. He would continue to suffer from this unspecified nervous condition throughout high-school. Later he described his condition as "I was and am prey to intense headaches, insomnia, and general nervous weakness which prevents my continuous application to any thing."
Lovecraft and his mother's financial decline continued following a failed business venture by his uncle. This venture consumed a large portion of Susie's remaining wealth.
Harry Brobst, a professor of psychology, later examined Lovecraft's recollections of his childhood ailments. He diagnosed the boy with Sydenham's Chorea, a disease affecting pre-adolescent children that involves sudden uncontrollable jerking movements. Although the disease rarely lingers after adolescence, accounts from his peers indicate that he suffered well into high-school.
Lovecraft suffered a major breakdown in 1908, the year that he was to graduate high-school. He would later describe it as either a "nervous collapse" or "a sort of breakdown." Brobst attributes this breakdown to a "Hysteroid Seizure", what is today known as atypical depression.
Notorious Racist - Projections of Self-Hatred
Articles about Lovecraft should never exclude his racism. It is important to remember that the man behind the stories was very flawed. Most racists are channeling their own self-loathing when they spew hatred. Lovecraft was no exception and this self-loathing can be clearly seen in this quote from 1921:
"With the advent of United I obtained a renewed will to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening void." - H.P. Lovecraft, 1921
These feelings of futility and uselessness are reminiscent of the modern INCEL community. Lovecraft, having no interest in sex, channeled this hate into racism. His first published poem was titled, Providence in 2000 A.D. and it was printed in a local newspaper. The poem is a loathsome tirade against immigrants from Irish, Portuguese, Italian, and Jewish heritage. He wrote several other hateful poems on the subjects of immigration as well as racist poems about African-Americans.
This hatred seems to have been universally applied. His first success as a writer came after he sent a letter to the editor of Argosy magazine. Lovecraft criticized a regular contributor to the magazine, Frederick J. Jackson. The letter kicked off a year-long feud in the letters section of the magazine. Eventually, Edward F. Daas, the head editor of the United Amateur Press Association recognized the talent behind the hatred. Lovecraft was accepted into the organization in April 1914.
Lovecraft's self-loathing may have stemmed from his weakness during childhood. He would likely have perceived his failure to regularly attend school as a personal weakness. Adding to this is the fact that his mother seems to have been verbally abusive. Clara Hess, a friend of his mother, mentions a visit where Susan said the following about her son:
"(Howard is) so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze on him."
This kind of verbal abuse is likely to cause some kind of personal resentment. Sufferers of such abuse often become abusers themselves later in life. Lovecraft likely suffered from a form of Stockholm Syndrome as he referred to his mother as "a positive marvel of consideration." Feeling like an abuser is doing you a kindness by merely tolerating your existence is common in such cases.
Although his racism is heinous and should never be omitted, the man was clearly damaged.
The Rise of Dagon - Finding his voice
Moving away from his racist poems, Lovecraft published Dagon in a 1919 edition of The Vagrant. Dagon was based in part on a dream that Lovecraft had, "I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down!" The story is considered by many to be the first installment in what is now known as the Cthulhu-mythos. The titular monster is also based on the Sumerian deity, Dagan, who presided over fish and fertility.
Dagon would feature in the later tale, The Shadow over Innsmouth. Just as Lovecraft was finding his literary voice, his mother fell ill. According to Clara Hess, Susie would describe: "weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark." Were these hallucinations the manifestations of Lovecraft's creations, come to release him from his mother? She would periodically forget where she was while out in Providence. No official diagnosis exists, but it seems as though she was suffering from some form of dementia. Susie was committed to Butler Hospital in March 1919.
Having a second parent committed to Butler Hospital had a profound effect on Lovecraft. He would write that "existence seems of little value," and that he hoped, "it might terminate."
That is not dead which can eternal lie - Lovecraft Unleashed
Something changed after Susie's hospitalization. Lovecraft became more outgoing and would often attend writing workshops. The first workshop he attended was a talk by Lord Dunsany in Boston. Lovecraft idolized Lord Dunsany, and Dunsany's influence is evident in his writings of 1919. His work of that year would later become known as Lovecraft's Dream Cycle. The Dream Cycle takes place in a world called the Dreamlands that can only be entered through sleep. He met Frank Belknap Long at one of these workshops. They soon grew close and Frank would remain Lovecraft's closest confidant for the rest of his life.
The first stories that would become the Cthulhu Mythos were published in early 1920. These stories all share common themes of cosmic insignificance and feature recurring entities. The term Cthulhu Mythos was likely coined by August Derleth. Lovecraft wrote his most famous couplet in a 1921 story, "The Nameless City." The couplet is uttered by Abdul Alhazred, the fictional writer of the Necronomicon:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie; And with strange aeons even death may die."
Lovecraft's mother died from complications following gall bladder surgery in May 1921. Despite experiencing crippling shock, Lovecraft continued to attend amateur journalist conventions. Once again he met one of his closest companions at one of these events, Sonia Greene, his future wife.
Leaving Providence - Big Bad World
Lovecraft and Sonia Greene got married on 3 March 1924. He moved into her Brooklyn apartment, leaving Providence behind. Sonia believed that he needed to get out of Providence in order to flourish. He had to escape his mother's smothering shadow. She was right, but it would cost him great suffering in order to produce his greatest works. By her account, he was a satisfactory lover, despite claiming to have no interest in the act.
Sonia moved to Cleveland on New Year's day 1925 and Lovecraft moved to a one-bedroom apartment "at the edge of Red Hook." He grew to despise Red Hook over the next few years. Later in 1925, he became a member of the Kalem Club. Lovecraft wasn't the only person to join the club in 1925. Frank Belknap Long, George Willard Kirk, and Samuel Loveman also joined that year. Despite the fact that Loveman was Jewish, Lovecraft befriended the man. He was either becoming more tolerant with age or this is another instance of racism being unable to persist once familiarity has been established.
Sonia Greene would soon lose most of her money in a bank failure. The stress made her fall ill and Lovecraft was forced to seek regular employment. Due to the near aristocratic decadence of his upbringing, Lovecraft had no marketable skills. Around this time the publisher of Weird Tales, in an effort to make the magazine profitable, offered Lovecraft the job of editor. Citing a reluctance to move to Chicago, Lovecraft refused the position:
"think of the tragedy of such a move for an aged antiquarian," the 34-year-old Lovecraft said.
The job went to one of Lovecraft's literary rivals, Farnsworth Wright. Wright rejected most of Lovecraft's submissions to Weird Tales. He was likely miffed because Lovecraft had criticized his (Wright's) writing in the past. Many of the stories he initially rejected were accepted after Lovecraft's death.
Lovecraft's apartment would soon be burgled, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. His next two stories were somewhat biographical, "The Horror at Red Hook," and "He," were published in August 1925. Lovecraft summed up his feelings about New York in "He":
"My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration [...] I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me."
The tragedy of his stay in New York would inspire Lovecraft to outline his most famous story, "The Call of Cthulhu." He persisted in New York for another year before fleeing back to Providence in 1926.
Providence Rhode Island - Back Where He Belongs
H.P. Lovecraft's return to Providence would mark the start of his final decade. This would also prove to be his most prolific period. He would produce stories such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dunwich Horror, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft also lost most of his interest in being published, going so far as to ignore letters from publishers asking him for any novel he had ready. His fear of rejection was so great that he wouldn't even attempt to submit commercially viable stories.
Sonia Greene and H.P. Lovecraft agreed to divorce not long after his move to Providence. They had lived apart for so long that the decision was an easy one. Sonia would go on to remarry in 1936, although Lovecraft never signed the original divorce papers.
The inheritance that Lovecraft lived off was rapidly diminishing. He made almost no money from writing and would sometimes go without food in order to pay for the mailing costs of his letters.
His novel, The Shadow over Innsmouth, would be published in late 1936. The book sold poorly and Lovecraft was typically unhappy about it, stating that it was full of errors. All of the unsold copies were destroyed when the publisher went out of business. This final failure marked the end of Lovecraft's literary career. The last story he would write was "The Haunter in the Dark."
Decline and Death - End of a Career
H.P. Lovecraft would die a year after The Shadow Over Innsmouth was published. The banshee's cry came in the form of the death of a close friend, Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft was introduced to Howard after the latter wrote a letter to Weird Tales praising one of Lovecraft's stories. The two set up a correspondence that would last until Howard's tragic suicide. Howard is known for creating Conan the Barbarian and the genre of Sword & Sorcery. He committed suicide on June 11, 1936, after hearing that his mother would never come out of her coma.
The death of his friend shook Lovecraft. While he was emotionally distraught, his physical health was declining as well. He suffered from a condition that he referred to as "Grippe". Lovecraft had never trusted doctors, as such, he avoided consulting one until a month before his death. He was hospitalized soon thereafter and would spend a month languishing before his death on March 15, 1937.
Keeping with his passion for science, Lovecraft kept a detailed diary in his final days. He tracked what symptoms he could but was often confounded by the severe pain. His "Grippe" turned out to be terminal cancer of the small intestine.
H.P Lovecraft's Death Diary - The Death of a Gentleman
The record of Lovecraft's final days was nearly lost. The nurse tasked with cleaning his room following his death likely binned the original. Luckily Robert H. Barlow managed to make a partial copy of the diary before it disappeared. The diary begins on New Year's day 1937 and ends four days before his death on March 15. Following is a transcript of H.P. Lovecraft's death diary taken from The Tragic Death of H P Lovecraft -His last days in his own words - The Death Diary - Cthulhu Report on YouTube:
1/1 Rise 7 a m—write letters—rest-9 a m—warm-1 p.m. write—out for walk John St—Sheldon—Hope to 66 read Journal—home dinner—read RI hist. booklet—Miss Bonner call—discuss—lighted tree—Miss B.W.—writer letters—read—retire 12:30 midnight
1/2 Rise 8 a m, write letters—read papers—rain—down-town to cinema of “Winterset”—excellent-66 discuss AEPG by lighted tree—home dinner—Miss French call, discuss & lis.—write—retire 12:30midnight—digestive trouble—rise 4 a m—write—retire 8:30 a m [condensations]
1/6 feel considerable grippe
1/10 digestive & foot trouble continue
1/14 digestive distress & swollen foot
[1/17-1/23] digestive trouble marked
1/24 digestive trouble perhaps worse, but feel less swollen.
1/26 rest poorly
1/27 digestion & health poor—frequent rest periods—revise Rimel story—
1/28 finish Rimel revision
[first week of Feb. reiterate, bad digestive night, restless]
2/13 digestive trouble persist with complications
2/15 trouble marked—restless night with intestinal trouble
2/16 Dr. Dustin arr, examine, & prescribe
2/17 acute pain continue‑
2/20 rise 8 a m, bad day with much pressure of gas—coordinate correspondence, rest, read paper, 1/22/21 home dinner—rest—write—rest, write & read at intervals. Pain off & on.
2/22 increased pain—retire 11 pm—worst night yet—couch & morris chair—rest intermittently in pain
2/24 up & down irregularly in pain
2/25 intense pain
2/26 rest in pain
2/27 up & down—regurgitation—AEPG tel.—Dr. Dustin—make notes &c.—read paper—rest—up & down—pain—
Mch 1 AEPG tel. Dustin about specialist—enormous abdominal distension—feet again swollen—intense pain—drowse
2 pain—drowse—intense pain—rest—great pain
4 pain worse—Brobst call—read—pain worse—bad night, frequent immersions
5 pain intense
6 Dr. Leet call while in bath—bad day—hideous pain—read paper—bad night
7 hideous pain
8 weak—pain less—pain
9 pain—do very little. AEPG tel Dr. Leet—pain—nourishment difficult—very bad night
10 pain & weakness. Brobst call. Dr. Leet call—recommend hospital, pre-pare—off with AEPG to J. Brown—wait—finally get room. AEPG stay for dinner—ho—Leet call—very bad night—regurg.
11 pain—Dr. Jones take blood—bath—pain—elec. pad—AEPG call
H.P. Lovecraft spawned a genre of horror that was ahead of his time. The average reader of his time would lack the scientific vocabulary to fully grasp his work. That, coupled with his self-doubt, is why his fiction only took off well after his death. Lovecraft may have been a less than stellar example of humanity, but his fiction has gone on to inspire many. The death diary, as well as some of his final letters, are preserved in: The Death of a Gentleman: The Last Days of Howard Phillips Lovecraft by R. Alain Everts.