The package never properly arrived. Instead, there was a brown note stuck to my front door saying that it couldn’t be delivered. When I recovered it from the post office, the box was shipwrecked, cardboard burst and buckled. Inside, some of the books had turned to pulp; others had been soaked and slowly dried, their pages curled arthritically. Tucked among them was a green folder, the papers within damp but legible.
I’d mailed the box to my home in Brookline, Massachusetts, from my parents’ house in the suburbs of Hull, the industrial city in East Yorkshire where I grew up. Twenty years earlier, I had come to the U.S. for graduate school, met my future wife, and stayed. These days, I teach philosophy at MIT. The house my parents live in now is not my childhood home. But there is a room in it that they call mine, where the relics of my life sink beneath the sediment of theirs. On my last visit, I had mined the box’s contents from the bottom drawer of a dresser filled with books and papers dating from my teen infatuation with the author H. P. Lovecraft, who fused horror with sci-fi in “The Call of Cthulhu” and other stories.
For more than a year after it came, the folder lay unopened on my bedside table. I would glance at it occasionally, sidelong, as if it held some terrible secret, like a forbidden book in one of Lovecraft’s tales. Of course I knew in outline what the documents were. But when I tried to recall the passion that went into them, the dedication of weeks and months absorbed in Lovecraft’s work, I met an almost total blank. There was a void where memory should have been.
For the most part, I am happy not to think about my childhood; those are years I am glad to have left behind. A lot of what I can recall I wish I could forget. What I want now to remember, I cannot: the liberating fervor of obsession. Reading Lovecraft changed my life. I was a solitary, introspective child. Through Lovecraft, I escaped into melodrama: a myth of alien beings whose capacities dwarf our own and whose intentions threaten all of life on earth. And I found a way into philosophy. Lovecraft used the trappings of pulp fiction to philosophical ends. He wrote allegories of human insignificance, of the limits of knowledge, of mechanism and a world without purpose. These were problems in which I was already, inarticulately, lost. It was as if he could read my mind.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, August 20, 1890, in the house of his maternal grandfather. His childhood reads like the blueprint for an author of weird fiction: an attic library of old books; a father who goes insane and winds up in a lunatic asylum; a mother so protective that she monitors her one son’s every move, so doting she believes he will be “a poet of the highest order,” so critical she tells him he is physically repulsive. The child is, of course, a prodigy, but a high school dropout; he has a nervous breakdown. A decade later, the mother goes insane and is sent to the same asylum where the father died; she dies there, too.
We don’t know how much Lovecraft knew about his father. Winfield Lovecraft was a commercial traveler for a Providence silversmith. When Lovecraft was three, Winfield was diagnosed with “general paresis”—known to us now as syphilis, which in its tertiary stage can lead to madness. He would remain in Butler Hospital until his death five years later. Was all of this kept from his young son? Or did the child witness symptoms of insanity, erratic behavior, changes in personality? “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” Lovecraft would later write, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The boy was a precocious reader, graduating around age five from Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights to Samuel Garth’s 1717 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. At six or seven, he wrote an eighty-eight-line rendering of Homer’s Odyssey in verse, which he “published” in a booklet for his family, advertising more to come. “The later works may be much better than this,” his ad copy read, “because the author will have more practice.”
If Lovecraft’s first obsession was literature—fantasy, myth, adventure—his second was science. He took up chemistry at age seven, followed by astronomy at twelve. From an early age, he combined these interests: Lovecraft’s self-published juvenilia would range from his own partial translation of Ovid to nine volumes of The Science Library, an “encyclopedia” of astronomy composed in the archaic eighteenth-century English he picked up from his grandfather’s books. In 1906, he acquired a three-inch telescope, a rebuilt Remington typewriter, and his first authentic publication: a letter on astronomy in the Providence Sunday Journal. His note on the existence of planets beyond Neptune appeared in Scientific American later that year. By the end of 1906, Lovecraft was writing regular columns of popular astronomy for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner and the Providence Tribune. He was just sixteen.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable. Lovecraft became an author, splicing speculative fiction with fantasy and horror. He pioneered the now-pervasive trope in which the seeming supernatural turns out to be the work of aliens. The eldritch gods of his nefarious cults are beings from outer space, not hostile but indifferent to us. In the mythology that emerged across Lovecraft’s best-known tales, the aliens came to earth millennia ago, created human life by accident, and lurk in hidden places—oceans, deserts, backwaters in a fictionalized New England—waiting to return.
Though Lovecraft died in relative obscurity, his influence has been vast. You can see it in movies, books, and TV shows from Alien and The X-Files to Stranger Things, from Ramsey Campbell and Caitlín Kiernan to Stephen King. In 1999, Penguin Classics recognized Lovecraft with the first of three volumes collecting his fiction, and in 2005, he was inducted into the Library of America. Last year, a friend gave me a stuffed toy modeled on Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s gargantuan winged octopus, buried under the Pacific Ocean, dead but dreaming.
In 1988, though, Lovecraft wasn’t so well known. Like a lot of twelve-year-old boys, I discovered him through Call of Cthulhu, a role-playing game based on the “Cthulhu Mythos,” Lovecraft’s pantheon of extraterrestrial “gods.” (I must have found a copy alongside Dungeons & Dragons in the local game store.) The game confronts a team of investigators with a succession of supernatural mysteries, which they must solve without going insane. Though I rarely had friends to play with, I loved the intricate rules, the gamification of fear. As well as “hit points” for physical health, there are “sanity points,” subtracted in each fraught encounter. I think I found this comforting: horror reduced to a roll of the dice.
It was Call of Cthulhu that sent me looking for Lovecraft’s literary work. I found a collection of his stories in the local library in Longhill, on the outskirts of Hull, but was bored by them at first. Months later, I tried again at school, where I chanced upon an ominous cinder block of prose: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. The volume ends with “The Dunwich Horror,” one of Lovecraft’s more sensational works. An extraterrestrial being impregnates the uneducated daughter of a sinister yokel in rural Massachusetts. She has two children: a prodigious youth who grows to nine feet tall and hides a skirt of tentacles in his trousers, and an invisible monster with an insatiable appetite for cattle. The bad guys are defeated by a trio of professors from nearby Arkham University with the aid of a magic spell. I was enthralled by the adventure but I sensed something beyond it, something profound about our place in the universe, our ignorance and impermanence.
To my teenage self, Lovecraft felt deep; for grown-ups, he is easy to dismiss. His plots are sometimes operatic and his prose hysterical. Looking back, it’s hard to ignore the disgust at miscegenation that informs “The Dunwich Horror.” Some of Lovecraft’s fiction is overtly racist or xenophobic; elsewhere, one might find at work a sublimated fear of what is alien or other. His prejudice encompassed not just Blacks but the influx of immigrants in New York City, which both frightened and revolted him. After protests, Lovecraft’s image was removed from the World Fantasy Award in 2016. But his cultural presence endures, as a new generation reckons with his legacy. The HBO series Lovecraft Country, based on a novel by Matt Ruff, takes place in a Jim Crow America full of horrors, human and otherwise. Victor LaValle’s searing novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, rewrites one of Lovecraft’s most offensive tales from the perspective of a Black street musician who appears in its sinister backdrop.
At his best, though, Lovecraft strikes a kind of cosmic distance, contemplating human life from a perspective so removed that we come to seem like aliens to ourselves. At the height of his fictional career, Lovecraft wrote a manifesto to his editor: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.… To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
Lovecraft mixed historical research with allusions to fictive histories. He lent his inventions to fellow writers and cheerfully borrowed theirs, creating a shared mythology that incautious readers mistook for historical fact. As a budding fanatic, I was in the know. I loved the kooky, cosmic names—Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth—which I collected like Pokémon, and the sonorous aphorisms real fans knew by heart: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”; “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!” Lovecraft married playfulness with intellectual angst, pulp fiction with ponderous prose. To read him was to think about the deepest questions—How do I know who I am when I wake up in the morning? Why is there anything at all?—while being party to an inside joke. Lovecraft suited both my contemplative side and the irony I flaunted as a teen. “The world is indeed comic,” he once quipped, “but the joke is on mankind.”
Lovecraft’s humor is most vivid in his correspondence. Six months before he died, he wrote back to a teenage fan who had asked him how “Cthulhu” was pronounced: “Of course it is not a human name at all—having never been designed for enunciation by the vocal apparatus of Homo sapiens. The best approximation one can make is to grunt, bark, or cough the imperfectly-formed syllables Cluh-Luh with the tip of the tongue firmly affixed to the roof of the mouth. That is, if one is a human being. Directions for other entities are naturally different.” Is the tongue placed in the roof of the mouth or in the cheek? Lovecraft’s letters were witty, informal, silly, erudite, frank, ranging from politics to history to literature to travel to architecture to food. He wrote tens of thousands of them—roughly ten a day at his peak—sometimes thirty, forty, even seventy pages long. He would reply to anyone who wrote.
In my teenage years, Lovecraft became a refuge from the harsh, erratic discipline of my father. I remember coming home from school, the nervous glance along the driveway. If the car was gone, I was fine; if not, it was hard to know. I remember standing on the porch in the shadow of the blue door, looking at the chipped paint, breathing. The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.
I wish I could remember what it felt like to read Lovecraft then. What lingers is the feeling of captivity, the yellow kitchen with frayed linoleum, the heat turned off, doing homework in the half-light of the dining room. I remember the necessity of good grades and the sour taste of competition. I can feel the confines of my room, the coils of brown wool in the carpet, the floral wallpaper whose swirls would seem to shimmer at night, the turquoise curtains drawn.
I remember what happened when I was bad. My mother would direct me to the living room, where I would settle on the sofa in near-dark. There was a single wall light on beside my father’s armchair. On TV, the news would murmur. He would not say anything at first, allowing the fumes of rage to fill the room. Then a torrent of invective, steady, strong, like the first jet of piss against the porcelain. A pause, sometimes for minutes, and the second burst, the third, the pauses growing, time distending. After an hour or two, he was empty, only spatters left of “selfish … bloody … lazy … worthless … nothing…” My body was there, but I was not. I would project my mind to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. To Providence in 1931. To the Great Australian Desert. In the shadows of the living room, I traveled through space and time.
At thirteen, I stumbled on a small press journal, Dagon, edited by Carl T. Ford, “for readers of the Cthulhu Mythos and players of Call of Cthulhu.” It was my passport to the world of Lovecraft fandom. I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction, graduating from cheap paperbacks to the corrected texts, revised by the critic S. T. Joshi from manuscripts at Brown University in Providence. Scanning advertisements in the back of Dagon, I learned about another journal, Lovecraft Studies, published by Joshi, and about the volumes of Lovecraft’s letters still in print. With my mother’s help, I ordered everything I could afford.
Soon I was devoting every moment of spare time to H. P. Lovecraft, a disciple in the cult of fans and students who took ownership of his work. On August 24, 1990, I wrote a letter to S. T. Joshi. Like my father, Joshi was born in Pune, India, though his family moved to the U.S. when he was four. He had been thirteen when he became obsessed with Lovecraft; at thirty-two, he was the foremost Lovecraft scholar in the world—tireless, encyclopedic, often acerbic in print. What made me think that I should write to him with my inchoate thoughts? I guess I didn’t know better. Within a year, I had published my first essay in Lovecraft Studies. I was just fifteen.
In 1904, Lovecraft’s beloved grandfather, the family’s sole source of income, died. Lovecraft’s mother, Susan, was forced to move them to a smaller house, and her son was stuck within her claustrophobic orbit.
According to a neighbor, “The house had a strange and shut-in air … and Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her unfortunate son, who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him.” As an adult, Lovecraft had a somewhat protruding lower jaw; as a child, he was nondescript. “Unfortunately,” his ex-wife wrote, “he was conditioned by his poor demented mother into believing himself bad-looking.” The year his mother died, Lovecraft sent her a photograph from Boston with a note apologizing for his face.
Though far from hideous, Lovecraft was an eccentric child, prone to facial tics, involuntary movements. His speech seemed awkward and foreign, the language learned from archaic books. Citing his nerves, Lovecraft’s family kept him out of elementary school, except for two nonconsecutive years. He went to Hope Street High School in 1904, missed a year, then labored through two more. In his final semester, he took only three classes, one a repeat of sophomore algebra. In 1908, having failed to graduate, Lovecraft had a breakdown that would last five years.
What happened in that time? Lovecraft was of working age but unemployed, unschooled, unskilled. He continued to write verse, some of it disturbingly racist; his 1912 poem “On the Creation of N-----s” is only the worst of several. Lovecraft’s racial attitudes would evolve from a stark commitment to White supremacy into cultural isolationism, but he never lost his belief in the biological inferiority of Blacks and as late as 1933, the year my father was born, Lovecraft would write: “The more one learns about India, the more one wants to vomit.”
It is difficult to know how Lovecraft filled his young adult years. He would celebrate his twenty-first birthday with an epic trip by trolley car to Putnam, Connecticut, then Boston and back, alone. The one thing we know he did was read; and what he read was mostly garbage.
Pulp magazines had been around since the late nineteenth century; printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, they were known for stories lurid, conventional, and poorly written. You can get a sense of their subject matter from the titles that emerged in the early twentieth century: Detective Story, Western Story, Love Story. And in the 1920s, with a certain desperation: Submarine Stories, Underworld Love, Fire Fighters. Lovecraft joked that he “wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see Undertaking Stories or True Plumber’s Tales—to say nothing of Garbage-Collecting Adventures & Real Newsboy Mysteries.” He read the complete run of Railroad Man’s Magazine from 1906 to 1919.
Dozens of magazines each week, each a hundred pages or more: an Encyclopaedia Britannica of pulp fiction every year. This was the literary sustenance of a man who had read Ovid at age five and at eight discovered Edgar Allan Poe. The miracle is that it worked. The pulps saved Lovecraft twice—once in 1913, once in 1923.
The turning point was a letter. In 1913, the twenty-three-year-old Lovecraft wrote to the editor of a pulp called The Argosy, trashing the work of a frequent contributor. His letter “created an immense sensation (of hostile character) amongst the Argosy readers,” as Lovecraft crowed to a friend three years later. “The editorial department had nothing but anti-Lovecraft letters the following month! And then I composed another satire, flaying all my tormentors in stinging pentameter. This, too, was printed, till the storm of fury waxed high.”
Not the most auspicious start to a literary career: the pulp equivalent of an internet troll, writing rhyming couplets. But the dispute was more or less good-humored, and what happened next was life-changing. Having read this storm of correspondence with amusement, Edward F. Daas, official editor of the United Amateur Press Association, invited Lovecraft to join. He soon became a titan in a miniature literary world.
An amateur press association was a collective of writers who produced and edited journals of one another’s stories, essays, and poems. Lovecraft’s prose appeared in The Philosopher, edited by Alfred Galpin, W. Paul Cook’s The Vagrant, and others. He also created his own journal, The Conservative, published in thirteen issues from 1915 to 1923. It was Cook who encouraged Lovecraft to resume weird fiction, which he had not written since his teenage years. One of his first adult attempts was “Dagon,” about an undersea colony of fish-men and their unholy god.
Lovecraft’s mother was “rather ashamed” of his amateur pursuits. But through them, Lovecraft’s life expanded. He found friendship, first by correspondence, then in person, as amateur associates came to his Providence home. He gained exposure to a larger world both intellectual and geographic, as he began to travel more widely. And he finally had a way to publish, without expectation or commercial pressure: the freedom to work out his own weird aesthetics.
It was a decade of incubation in rich soil, in the sand, silt, and clay of admiration, congeniality, and criticism. In an essay written in 1921 but only published after his death, Lovecraft wrote:
When the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be.… With the advent of the 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 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 an unlistening void.… What Amateur Journalism has given me is—life itself.
When I think of reading Lovecraft as a teen, the image I bring back is of the night sky through lace curtains once the light is out, the fiction set aside. I am folded up in bed, my glasses off; the stars blur into radiant webs. Reality transcends our subjectivity, indifferent to us. When I read Lovecraft’s stories now, the image they project is different: more intimate, less cosmic. There has been a shift in aspect, like an optical illusion in which figure and background reverse. Lovecraft’s paper-thin protagonists affect me as they never did.
Take Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, professor of political economy at Arkham University, in Lovecraft’s last substantial work, “The Shadow Out of Time.” On May 14, 1908, Peaslee collapses while teaching and falls unconscious for sixteen hours. When he awakes, he is suffering from amnesia. His family does not recognize him: it is as though a different person were inhabiting his body. His wife files for divorce and takes the children. In the next five years, Peaslee travels widely, studying folklore, history, science. And then one night he burns everything he has written. The next day, his memories return—except that the years of his affliction are a blank.
With the return of memory come recurring dreams. In them, Peaslee roams a titan city of granite blocks. He encounters alien beings, “immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.” As the dreams progress, Peaslee turns out to be one of them. On May 18, 1934, twenty-six years after his initial collapse, he receives a letter: a mining engineer in Australia has found blocks of masonry that are an eerie match for Peaslee’s dreams. Traveling to the Great Australian Desert, Peaslee confronts the truth every reader has already guessed: the dreams are memories. The cone-shaped beings lived on Earth until the Eocene, fifty million years ago. They cast their minds through time and space, exchanging forms, as one of them did with Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee.