A Short Biography of H. P. Lovecraft

by S. T. Joshi


Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, to a well-to-do family in Providence, R.I. His father, a traveling salesman, took ill in 1893 and died five years later of syphilis; as a result, his mother returned to her family home in Providence, and Lovecraft’s upbringing was largely undertaken by her and by his maternal grandfather, the successful industrialist Whipple Van Buren Phillips. A precocious youth, Lovecraft read voraciously in the Arabian Nights and in Graeco-Roman mythology, and began to write prose and verse at the age of six. Ill-health dogged him as a child, and he attended grammar school only sporadically.

            In 1904 the death of Whipple Phillips plunged the family into an economic decline from which it never recovered. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move out of their large home into smaller quarters, and the loss of his birthplace apparently impelled suicidal inclinations in the teenage Lovecraft. But intellectual curiosity banished thoughts of self-extinction, and he entered Hope Street High School with enthusiasm. An unspecified nervous breakdown in 1908 compelled him to withdraw from high school without a diploma, and he spent the next five years as a hermit, reading compulsively. In 1914 he discovered the amateur journalism movement, and over the next several years he wrote essays, poetry, and editorials voluminously; but he wrote fiction only sporadically beginning in 1917. The death of his mother in 1921 proved momentarily traumatic, but he quickly recovered. Encouraged by fellow writers Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft submitted some stories to Weird Tales shortly after its founding in 1923, and quickly became a fixture with that pulp magazine. In 1924 he was offered the editorship of the magazine, but he turned it down because it was in shaky financial shape and would have necessitated a move to Chicago. That same year he married Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian Jewish immigrant seven years his elder, and moved to New York.

            Lovecraft’s two years in New York (1924-26) were among his most wretched, and his lifelong racism and xenophobia came to the surface as he mingled with the heterogeneous crowds of the city. Unable to find work, he also proved an irresponsible and inconsiderate husband. In 1926 he fled back to Providence, essentially ending his marriage. Over the next ten years he produced the work for which he is best known, including such tales as “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), “The Colour out of Space” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), At the Mountains of Madness (1931), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), and “The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35). Residing in various cheap quarters in Providence with his aunts, Lillian D. Clark and Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, Lovecraft lived frugally and traveled as widely as his slim purse permitted—from Quebec to Charleston, S.C.; from Portland, Me., to New Orleans; from Richmond, Va., to Key West, Fla., always in search of the colonial antiquities he loved. He was unsuccessful in repeated efforts to find a book publisher for his tales, and the meager income he secured from increasingly sparse sales of fiction to pulp magazines was only slightly augmented by professional work as a revisionist and ghost-writer. In his later years he was plagued by ill-health, and he succumbed to cancer of the intestine on March 15, 1937. Today Lovecraft is known not merely for his tales but for the immense number of letters he wrote to dozens of correspondents, young and old, many of whom revered him as a titan in the fields of fantasy and horror literature.


--S. T. Joshi