This chapter of A Life of Fantasy and Horror: H.P.Lovecraft by Donald Clarke appeared in "The Arkham Advertiser" volume 1, issue 3. Copyright © 1995 Donald Clarke / Miskatonic University Press




Lovecraft's grandfather, Whipple Phillips, was visiting with a political comrade, Alderman Gray, on a Sunday evening, March 27, 1904, when he suffered a coronary. Transported home, he died shortly after midnight. He was seventy.1 Young Lovecraft was only thirteen, and life as he had come to expect it was about to end. Phillips left a small inheritance for each of his four children and two grandchildren. Lovecraft also inherited his grandfather's gun collection. The negligible interest in Rhode Island quarries and the family mansion were liquidated. The house became an office building for doctors. It was, in 1961, torn down and replaced with an apartment house. 

Although Lovecraft's new residence down the street from the mansion was spacious for an apartment, five rooms with use of the attic and cellar, HPL descended into a morbid state of self-pity at the sudden drop in station he had taken. Adding insult to injury, his cat disappeared, apparently also unable to economize his lifestyle. Lovecraft had a genuine love for this creature, which he had raised from a kitten. He would remember the cat again and again in his letters and stories.2 And, unable to afford private tutors, HPL was facing the further horror of returning to the public school, this time: "high-school next September which would probably be a devilish bore, since one couldn't be as free & easy in high school as one had been during the brief snatches at the neighborly Slater Ave. school."3

It was almost too much for a teenager to bear: "It seemed like a damned futile business to keep on living. ... Why not slough off consciousness altogether? The whole life of man & of the planet was a mere cosmic second - so I couldn't be missing much. The method was the only trouble. I didn't like messy exits, & dignified ones were hard to find. Really good poisons were hard to get - those in my chemical laboratory (I reestablished this institution in the basement of the new place) were crude & painful. Bullets were spattery and unreliable."4 One solution he considered was the Barrington River where he had bicycled along the bank during the summer: "How easy it would be to wade out among the rushes & lie face down in the warm water till oblivion came. There would be a certain gurgling or choking unpleasantness at first - but it would soon be over. Then the long peaceful night of non-existence."5

But suicide is an ignoble act, and rather than disappear from the earth in obscurity, in the autumn, Lovecraft entered Hope Street High School and: "Wellthat fall I found high-school a delight & stimulus instead of a bore."6 His painful experiences in elementary school had done nothing to prepare him for the more adult environs of high school. Though Lovecraft was defiantly independent in temperament, the teachers at Hope Street High seemed to Lovecraft genuinely interested in academics and not in discipline: "& by removing all restraint, made me apparently their comrade & equal; so that I ceased to think of discipline, but merely comported myself as a gentleman among gentlemen."7

Thoughts of self-destruction faded away as Lovecraft rediscovered his lust for knowledge: " I contemplated my exit without further knowledge I became uncomfortably conscious of what I didn't know. Tantalising gaps existed everywhere. When did people stop speaking Latin & begin to talk Italian & Spanish & French? What on earth ever happened in the black Middle Ages in those parts of the world other than Britain & France (whose story I knew)? What of the vast gulfs of space outside all familiar lands - desert reaches hinted by Sir John Mandeville & Marco Polo, Tartary, Thibet. ... Mathematics, too. Could a gentleman properly die without having demonstrated on paper why the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides? So in the end I decided to postpone my exit till the following summer."8 This desperate end was further postponed when: "the next spring I resumed publication of the R. I. Journal of Astronomy, which I had allowed to lapse."9

Though he did not participate in athletics, Lovecraft still managed to get along with the other students. After a couple of scuffles with student bullies, Lovecraft learned to control his temper and keep his opinions to himself. He shrouded himself with the appearance of an emotionless 'nerd.' Unfortunately this distanced him from his fellow students and gave others the impression he was odd and snobbish. This emotionless facade would become one of the self-imposed trademarks he would carry throughout his life. 

Actually, underneath this front Lovecraft was highly emotional. As his later letters will attest, he was strongly opinionated, easily injured, able to lash out in angry hatred, and fiercely independent despite his strong inferiority complex. But this expectation of failure conflicted deeply with Lovecraft's dreams of grandeur as a professorial astronomer or chemist. 

Lovecraft did well in his first year of high school (1904-05). He found it all very exciting: "What a world! Why, good god, a man might keep busy forever, even in an uncongenial environment, learning new things."10 He was, of course, late for school seventeen days and completely absent for another eighteen. With an average grade of 81, Latin was his best subject and algebra his worst. His problems in algebra would become a nagging thorn in his psyche. It is possible that one incident, which shows both his inflexibility toward new ways of looking at things and against authority, may have triggered his problem: "I really detested only one teacherwhom I had in algebra, and who found fault with methods of solving problems, even when correct, if the steps did not agree with his own. He might have tried to 'ride' me (he especially dislike me because my methods were unorthodox) if I had not brought him up short the first time he became really offensive; but as it was, I was able to force a showdowna blackboard demonstration of the actual correctness (which he wanted to deny by forestalling proof) of my method. After that a policy of dignified peacethough scarcely of cordialityprevailed betwixt me and the gentleman."11

During 1904 Lovecraft worked on his Science Library, a nine volume treatise of which only three volumes have survived: Volume 1. Naked Eye Selenography, Volume 2. The Telescope, and Volume 5. Saturn and His Rings. The six volumes which were lost were: Volume 3. The Life of Galileo, Volume 4. The Life of Herschel, Volume 6. Selections from Authro's 'Astronomy,' Volume 7. The Moon, Part I, Volume 8. The Moon, Part II, and Volume 9. On Optics.

It was on April 21st of 1905, "that I first wrote a story worth readingan effusion called The Beast in the Cave, which involved a prodigious amount of study of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave."12 It ran just over 2,000 words and was more sophisticated than his earlier fiction works. This more adult style stressed the mood and expectation of action over action itself. It was an extension of his fascination with 18th century verse and Edgar Allen Poe's heavy handed gothic embellishments. And it continued the theme begun with "The Noble Eavesdropper" and "The Secret Cave": claustrophobia! Lovecraft spoke of claustrophobia and agoraphobia: "I have, however, a cross betwixt the twoin the form of a distinct fear of very large enclosed spaces. The dark carriage-room of a stablethe shadowy interior of a deserted gas-housean empty assembly-room or theatre-auditoriuma large caveyou can probably get the idea. Not that such things throw me into visible & uncontrollable jittery spasms, but that they give me a profound & crawling sense of the sinister"13 And it was not until 1928 that he actually entered a cave: "Despite all the fantasy I have written concerning the nether world, I had never beheld a real cave before in all my lifeand my sensations upon plunging into one of the finest specimens in the country [the Endless Caverns] may be better imagined than described."14 This story was good enough, in Lovecraft's mind, to survive the fires of his anger against his juvenile work. 

That July, Lovecraft turned again to his archaic poetry, working on a magnum opus entitled "De Triumpho Naturae." Next door to the Lovecrafts' new residence lived the Reverend James Pyke and his aged mother. They were both poets. And, though they had known Susie Lovecraft and her son when they lived down the street, they now began to see more of each other. Unfortunately, Reverend Pike didn't care much for Lovecraft's antiquated poetic style. Lovecraft set his quill aside again and did not pick it up to write another poem for seven years. 

Lovecraft didn't return to school in the fall because of his "nervous condition." Instead, Lovecraft convinced his mother to buy him a hand press with which he could print his monographs and, hopefully, make some money as a printer of greeting and other cards. He inserted advertisements in his hectographed15 publications stating he could print cards at 5¢ a dozen. It is unlikely he reached an interested clientele nor made a living as a printer since, in the spring of 1906, Lovecraft put the press up for sale. 

Though he did shirk school, Lovecraft kept himself busy. On June 3, 1906, young Lovecraft (only fifteen) had his first professionally published piece: a letter-to-the-editor (written May 27th) in the Providence Sunday Journal. It was an attack on astrology in the name of scientific materialism. Two months later on July 16th, the Scientific American published a letter from him, urging that astronomical observatories undertake a cooperative program of searching for a trans-Neptunian planet. Lovecraft had turned to astronomy wholeheartedly. He even tried to organize a Providence Astronomical Society. 

In July of 1906 Lovecraft began a weekly series of articles on astronomy in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, a rural paper from the section of Western Rhode Island where the Phillips family originally came from. Lovecraft attributed their acceptance of his articles being due to Gleaner's willingness "to print & feature anything from Whipple Phillips' grandson."16 These articles discussed the monthly astronomical motions as well as unusual topics like: "Is Mars an Inhabited World? Startling Theories of Prof. Lowell on the Subject" (September 14), "Are there Undiscovered Planets" Boundaries of Our System Still Shrouded in Obscurity" (October 5), and "Can the Moon Be Reached by Man? Showing That the Trip to Our Satellite, Heretofore Attempted Only in Fiction, May Be a Scientific Possibility" (October 12). 

In August HPL began a monthly series of articles on astronomy in the newly founded Providence Tribune. For these articles, Lovecraft asked no payment which must have pleased the Tribune no end. The paper needed a columns such as his to go head-to-head with Professor Upton's astronomical column which had been running in the rival Providence Journal since 1893. Unlike the Gleaner articles, the Tribune pieces were very short, giving quick astronomic facts for the upcoming month, much like an almanac: moon phases, the positions of visible planets, and the times of sunrise and sunset. 

Lovecraft's new occupation (though unpaid) was greatly assisted by his newest acquisition. On July 6, 1906, Lovecraft received a used Remington typewriter. Though he never learned how to touch type, he hunt-and-pecked on that machine for the remainder of his life. 

In a 1918 letter to his friend Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft remembered: "I was a great reformer then(in my own mind), and had high ideas about uplifting the masses." The story he tells somwhat bears this out but it gives the impression that the nearly friendless fifteen year old Lovecraft was trying to play the 'professor' character he so desired to become and create a protege who would look up to him: "I came across a superficially bright Swedish boy in the Public Libraryhe worked in the "stack" where the books were keptand invited him to the house to broaden his mentality (I was fifteen and he was about the same, though he was smaller and seemed younger.) I thought I had uncovered a mute inglorious Milton (he professed a great interest in my work), and despite maternal protest entertained him frequently in my library. I believed in equality then, and reproved him when he called my mother "Ma'am"I said that a future scientist should not talk like a servant! But ere long he uncovered qualities which did not appeal to me, and I was forced to abandon him to his plebeian fate. I think the experience educated me more than it educated himI have been more of a cynick since that time! He left the library (by request) and I never saw him more."17

That September, sixteen-year old Lovecraft reentered the Hope Street High School. His new status as a professional journalist did help his social position. Though still considered the bookworm nerd, the students switched his nickname from the unkind "Lovey" to a more reverent "Professor." And, when his English teacher, Mrs. Blake, suggested that one of his papers plagiarized from a magazine, Lovecraft admitted that it had been. "Then, reaching in my pocket, I produced a badly printed cutting from a Rhode Island village paper (which would accept almost anything sent it). Sure enoughhere was the selfsame article. And mixed were the emotions of the honest Mrs. Blake when she perused the headingCAN THE MOON BE REACHED BY MAN? BY H. P. LOVECRAFT."18 He received a grade of 90 in that class. He was taking a full course that first term. While he did well in physics (95), plane geometry (92), Latin texts (90), he was average in drawing (85) and Latin grammar (85) and again only passing in algebra (75). His failure to be brilliant in algebra was grating on him. 

In December, the Gleaner went out of business ending the weekly astronomy series. Lovecraft continued to produce weekly series for the Tribune as well as his Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy. This latter publication, hectographed in editions of 25 copies, was distributed to his friends and family. And, on January 25th, 1907, he was invited to lecture on astronomy before the Boys' Club of the First Baptist Church. 

His local hero, Professor Upton, invited Lovecraft to attend a lecture by Percival Lowell, noted astronomer and the brother of the President of Harvard University. Upon arriving at Sayles' Hall in Providence with some friends, Lovecraft was spotted by Professor Upton and called over to meet Mr. Lowell. Lovecraft was immediately embarrassed fearing the eminent scientist had read one of his Gleaner articles which had poked fun at Lowell's fanciful idea that the canals of Mars were not natural but dug to bring water down from the Martian polar caps, proof that intelligent alien life existed on the red planet. (Lowell was not alone in this theory which had a marked impact on science fiction authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs.) Luckily, Lowell had not read nor, probably, ever heard of the articles of this young astronomical journalist. Lovecraft was relieved when Lowell merely questioned him about his studies and his telescope. Mars was not brought up and "Dr. Lowell no doubt remembered our existence fully five minutes after his courteous handshake."19

Lovecraft purchased a two-dollar No. 2 Brownie with the intention of learning photography. But, like his typewriter, Lovecraft did not really take to this modern device and used it only on occasion and never with much sense of the art for which he bought it. 

But he did pick up the pen (or peck the keys) to produce another short story of a "painting of ultimate horror."20 Entitled The Picture, it: "had a man in a Paris garret paint a mysterious canvas embodying the quintessential essence of all horror. He is found clawed & mangled one morning before his easel. The picture is destroyed, as in a titanic strugglebut in one corner of the frame a bit of canvas remains. . . & on it the coroner finds to his horror the painted counterpart of the sort of claw which evidently killed the artist."21 His literary course was now set definitely on horror. Unfortunately this story is lost to us except for this description L. Sprague de Camp was able to discover, but it may reveal some elements of Lovecraft's development. Previously his fiction had had as models Poe and the pulp detective writers. While this still carries the mark of Poe it may indicate the influence of another of Lovecraft's forerunners, Robert W. Chambers. Lovecraft was much taken with Chambers's The Yellow Sign, a story written in 1895, whose style, while still archaic, brought with it the romance of the artist and the exotic Parisian garret setting. It is also possible that this story was the precursor of Lovecraft's own classic, Pickman's Model

Lovecraft was becoming aware of his shortcomings as a student of science. Returning to high school in the fall, he concentrated on chemistry, intermediate algebra, and physics. Though he obviously worked very hard on algebra, which he was beginning to show signs of mastering, he dropped the subject after the first term. 

His weakness in algebra and the difficulty he was having getting good grades in sciences overall was bothering him. Certainly a brilliant young astronomer such as himself, destined to become a brilliant professor, would have trouble convincing the admissions board of Brown University of his prowess if he couldn't master something as simple as algebra. And with this realization, a greater one dawned on young Lovecraft. His whole life he had assumed that he would glide easily into the fame and fortune his family had expected him to attain. But the reality was that he would never attain it unless he worked very hard and earned it. Somewhere along the route of his life, he had failed to learn how to work hard. He became aware of the fact that he was spoiled and the good life he had expected to always be there for him was further out of his grasp than he expected. And he wasn't sure any more of how to earn it. He didn't have the simple tool of diligence. And hard work, even mental work, scared him. 

By the spring of 1908, with a year and a half to go to receive a diploma, Lovecraft dropped out of school. In later years, Lovecraft would both lie about and regret his failure to complete his education. Generally he would claim to have graduated from high school and say that he had studied so hard that: "the strain was too keen for my health, and I suffered a nervous collapse immediately after graduating, which prevented altogether my attending college,"22 or one step further: "In 1908 I was about to enter Brown University, when my health completely gave waycausing the necessary abandonment of my college career. Of my non-university education, I never cease to be ashamed; but I know, at least, that I could not have done differently."23

But while these statements seem to indicate that Lovecraft was somewhat blase about his education, in reality he was deeply hurt by his failure to complete high school and attend a university. It was, probably, the central pain of his life. "In studies I was not badexcept for mathematics, which repelled and exhausted me. I passed in these subjectsbut just about that. Or rather, it was algebra which formed the bugbear. Geometry was not so bad. But the whole thing disappointed me bitterly, for I was then intending to pursue astronomy as a career, and of course advanced astronomy is simply a mass of mathematics. That was the first major set-back I ever receivedthe first time I was ever brought up short against a consciousness of my own limitations. It was clear to me that I hadn't the brains enough to be an astronomerand that was a pill I couldn't swallow with equanimity. But it's just as well to have one's ego deflated early."24 He would, in his later life, pose as the professor he was unable to become. He would give himself artificial age, calling himself "grandpa" to his own aunts as well as his peers, trying to capture the image of professorial eminence he had been devoted to in his boyhood heroes Whipple Phillips, Professor Upton, and Doctor Clark. 

Instead of completing high school, Lovecraft fell into something he later explained as his "nervous collapse." Though it may have had some actual health symptoms, it appears more induced by self-shame and feelings of inferiority and failure: "In those middle years, the poor devil was such a nervous wreck that he hated to speak to any human being, or even to see or be seen by one; and every trip to town was an ordeal."25

Also: "In those days I could hardly bear to see or speak to anyone, & liked to shut out the world by pulling down dark shades & using artificial light."26 and "I'd hate to think of the amount of high-school lore which slipped out of my mind during the five years following '08. My health did not permit me to go to the universityindeed, the steady application to high-school gave me a sort of breakdown."27

For the next few years, Lovecraft would complain of headaches, indigestion, lassitude, fatigue, depression, and inability to concentrate. He even manifested an allergy to cold temperatures that made it physically dangerous for him to venture outdoors when the mercury was below 20 Fahrenheit. Whether these symptoms were real or imagined or self-induced, they served to hide Lovecraft away from the world. Rather than excuse his physical health as the reason, Lovecraft admittedly called this his "general nervous breakdown of 1908-1909."28 He lived in seclusion, studying his sciences, reading, and writing. 

He wrote The Alchemist in this period. Though he would not write another fictional story for nine years, this was a step beyond The Beast in the Cave. Lovecraft was refining his powers of Gothic atmosphere. Lovecraft considered it the final work of juvenalian fiction. It runs about 2,700 words and concerns the ancestor of a French count who slew the local sorcerer, Michel Mauvais, wrongly thinking he had killed the count's son. The sorcerer's son changes his name to Charles Le Sorcier and burdens the count's family with a curse: "May ne'er a noble of they murd'rous line/Survive to reach a greater age than thine!

The narrator, the Comte Antoine de C, discovers, as he reaches the age of his accursed death, a "mysterious stranger" in a deserted part of the family castle. While the story is still essentially an imitation of Poe, Lovecraft's ability to weave a believable world of fantasy, with characters that live and breath on their own, emerges. 

Still aware that he must someday attain a career and still not completely abandoning his scientific interests, Lovecraft enrolled in a correspondence course in chemistry. He continued to work in his basement laboratory. In 1908, "I had nearly the whole underside of the 3d ringer of my right hand burned off with phosphorus through an accident in my laboratory."29 Doctor Clark saved the finger, but the member was a little stiff and heavily scarred on the palm side thereafter. 

Late in 1909, Lovecraft came down with a case of measles which "damned near finished me." This and his natural or psychosomatic illnesses weakened him. Doctors, whom he rarely visited, could find nothing wrong with him except that he rarely ever went out in the sun, ate more candy than he did nutritious food, and never exercised. After The Alchemist, Lovecraft dropped writing fiction and climbed down into his basement laboratory determined to master inorganic chemistry and qualitative analysis. Howard Phillips Lovecraft went into hibernation. 


1. - Note similarity to "The Call of Cthulhu"'s Professor Angell who was killed at the age of 92 (he was born the same year as HPL's grandfather). Angell suffered an attack and was removed to his house where he died of what doctors believed to a "some obscure lesion of the heart" and to "The Shunned House" where the narrator's uncle, Dr. Elihu Whipple, was known for his knowledge of local history though which he often visited and sparred with local elders, Sidney S. Rider and Thomas W. Bicknell.

2. - Note similarity to "Rats in the Walls" where the lead character had a companion cat of the same name "Nigger-Man." The name, while insulting, didn't have the terribly bigotted connotation then which it deserves today. Also, Lovecraft's fictional alter-ego Randolph Carter was able to talk to cats and was accepted by the cats of Ulthar as a friend.

3. Letter to J. Vernon Shea, February 4, 1934, SELECTED LETTERS OF H.P. LOVECRAFT (SL-HPL), Vol IV, Arkham House.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner, Nov. 16, 1916, SL-HPL, V-I.

8. Letter to J. V. Shea, February 4, 1934, SL-HPL, V-IV.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Letter to Robert E. Howard, March 25, 1933, SL-HPL, V-IV.

12. Ibid.

13. Letter to Harry O. Fischer, late Feb., 1937, SL-HPL, V-V.

14. Letter to Z. B. Reed (Bishop), July 28, 1928, SL-HPL, V-II.

15. - Hectographic printing was done with a gelatin pad which produces multiple copies, much like carbon paper.

16. Letter to R. Kleiner, Nov. 16, 1916, SL-HPL, v-I.

17. Letter to Alfred Galpin August 21, 1918, SL-HPL, v-I.

18. Letter to R. E. Howard, March 25-28-29, 1933, SL-HPL, v-V.

19. Letter to Miss M. F. Bonner, June 9, 1936, SL-HPL, v-V.

20. Lovecraft, H. P., THE NOTES & THE COMMONPLACE BOOK, The Futile Press, Lakeport, CA, 1938.

21. L. Sprague de Camp, LOVECRAFT: A BIOGRAPHY, quoting a letter by HPL to Robert Bloch, June 1, 1933.

22. Letter to B. A. Dwyer, March 3, 1927, SL-HPL, v-II.

23. Letter to R. Kleiner, November 16, 1916, SL-HPL, v-I.

24. Letter to R. E. Howard, March 25-28-29, 1933, SL-HPL, v-IV.

25. Letter to E. Baird, February 3, 1924, SL-HPL, v-I.

26. L. S. de Camp, LOVECRAFT: A BIOGRAPHY, quoting a letter by HPL to R. H. Barlow, April 10, 1934

27. L. S. de Camp, LOVECRAFT: A BIOGRAPHY, quoting a letter by HPL to Helen V. Sully, December 4, 1935.

28. - By coincidence, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee of "The Shadow Out of Time" was struck with a strange amnesia on Thursday, May 14, 1908 which lasted through to 1913.

29. Letter to Elizabeth Toldridge, Jan. 23, 1934, SL-HPL, v-IV.

Copyright © 1995, 1997, 1998, 2002 Miskatonic University Press /, all rights reserved