Monday, January 02, 2006

Lovecraft's New York Crisis

My original essay previously published on

A Glimpse of Greatness in The Midst of Crisis: HP Lovecraft's He.


Deep in his mid-30's, Lovecraft's dream was to be a poet and he believed that New York would free his muse to greatness. As it turned out, The Big Apple of the roaring 20's did not agree with HPL. Instead of being inspired, the grand metropolis took his narrow small city ideals and his old fashioned bigoted beliefs and crushed them.

For a time, Lovecraft felt free. He'd learned to live life without his mother who passed in 1921. He'd met and then married Sonia Greene in 1924. For a time, Lovecraft settled into a life in New York, but tensions built.

For one thing, he could not find a job - or perhaps didn't want one. Sonia was pulling down about $10,000 a year which was five times the typical salary of an average family in America [2,p. xii]. He ignored many opportunites and in March 1924 turned down an opportunity to go to Chicago and edit a Weird Tales correlary. He relates, "Henneberger ... has in mind a new magazine ... 'right in my line', and he wants to know if I would consider moving to Chicago to edit it! My gawd, Pete, bring the stretcher! It may be a fliver, but S.H. [Sonia] is urging me to take it up if it definitely materialises [sic] ... She would be willing to move at any time, for the milinery world of Chicago...". In the same breath, Lovecraft decides, "such a break from the Colonial scenes would be a little short of tragic; and big though the proposition would be ... I would not consent ...". That was basically that. [2, p.47.]

Things turned bad after Sonia opened up a store of her own which failed. She left him and moved to Cincinnatti. After his marriage broke up and the opportunities for employment in New York dried up, Lovecraft grew increasingly hostile to the city.

As the year 1925 ground into summer, Lovecraft slowly hunkered down into a cheap flat and struggled to spread out his meager income. He refused to go home to Providence in defeat, yet he was close to starvation. He wrote little. Those two years in New York would produce only five stories [2, p. xiv] and little poetry.

In July 1925, Lovecraft turned in his editorial resignation in United Amateur Vol. 24, No.1. "...the present editor [Lovecraft] is doubtless as much to blame as anybody else [the the organization is failing]. It is true [he dissembles] that a multiplicity of outside duties have drained his head, hand, and schedule of nearly available time and energy ... he ought to retire and make room for younger blood." [9, p. 354, 355]

How far HPL's dreams had tarnished.

When he had first spied New York, he had waxed poetically, “Out of the waters it rose at twilight; cold, proud, beautiful; an Eastern city of wonder whose brothers the mountains are. It was not like any city of earth, for above purple mists rose towers, spires and pyramids which one may only dream of in opiate lands beyond the Oxus...” [4, p.169].

Lovecraft actually reproduces this portrait in his short story He. “Coming for the first time upon the town, I had seen it in the sunset from a bridge, majestic … its incredible peaks and pyramids … pools of violet mist to play with the flaming clouds .. redolent of faery music, and one with the marvels of Carcassone and Samarcand and El Dorado…”. [1, p. 119]

This is, in fact, amazingly the same as what his acquaintance, the poet Hart Crane, said in a letter of his own, "I am living in the shadow of that bridge ... There is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window ... the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan ... it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh ..." [5]

Long afterwards, HPL wrote to Donald Wandrei of his New York crisis [3, p.33ff], “If you want to know what I think of New York, read, “He” ... I had to get out of town to the quiet shades of a New Jersey village in order to put it in coherent words. No – New York is dead & the brillancy which so impresses one from outside is the phosphoresence of a maggoty corpse. There can be no normal American life or thought in a town so full of twisted ratlike vermin from the ghetto & steerage of yesterday – a town where for block on block one can walk without seeing ... the Nordic, Anglo-American stream of civilisation [sic] ... it is ... the sort of stinking, amorphous hybridism which Juvenal noted.”

This mirrors his text in He, “...[New York] is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things ..”.

Lovecraft was an elitist, perhaps even a racist, and loathed the melting pot of the city. Yet, the events and circumstances of his New York collapse isn't so simple. After all, he'd married Sonia, and his best friend was Sam Loveman, both Jewish. Loveman, Crane and his later friend Robert Barlow were homosexual. [6] Lovecraft had no problem associating with them, yet still maintained his anathema to strangers who did not meet his elitist criteria. Most notorious were his attacks on T. S. Elliot's Waste Land [4, p.181,182] and later William Faulkner [7 ,p.362].

His attempt to control what people saw and thought of him was lifelong. Frank Long declared that Lovecraft never uttered a racial remark during their frequent visits and walks. [2, p. xv]. Loveman was stunned to find out about HPL's bigotry when he learned of it from Sonia after Lovecraft's death. Yet, on January 11, 1926 Lovecraft wrote this to Aunt Lillian, "Most frankly peasant stocks are moronic en masse & injudicious immigration priveleges have brought about the deplorable condition here ..". [2, p. 267.] As late as 1936, Lovecraft maintained these attitudes. [7 ,p.361]

Should we be sympathetic to genius? Compare Lovecraft’s bitterness to another artist in a different field, George Gerswin, who flourished in the town. His popular song, Swanee, was a hit sung by Al Jolson. He followed that with Lady Be Good! starring Fred and Adele Astaire. On February 12, 1924, Rhapsody in Blue was placed near the end of a program put on by the then phenomenal Paul Whiteman. The score was like nothing before. Gershwin went on to his magnum opus, the opera Porgy and Bess. There could not be two different responses to the same environment, the same city.


To fathom Lovecraft'ss depression, and his amazing rebound a few years later, consider this passage from He [1, 119]. "My coming to New York had been a mistake ... the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found ... a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse [sic], and annihilate me … So instead of the poems I had hoped for, there came only a shuddering blackness and ineffable loneliness…”.

Lovecraft was a dreamer and had lived in a secluded fantasy world of his own making from childhood. He wanted to be surrounded by antiquarian architecture and fancied himself an aristocrat of leisure. He certainly played at the part. Instead of poking fun at him, his brilliant and friendly banter usually won his acquaintances over. His affectations were endearing down to his 20 year old suits and ratty bathrobes.

Still, something was taking place in his fevered brain during this period. His writing of the earlier period was filled first with Poe and then Dunsany – he was not his own man yet. Bungling his way from job to job and walking through the poorest parts of the city into the wee hours of the night, he thought. He pondered. He created. He wrestled with ideas. He visited museums. He read for hours at the Library. He met Houdini and other notables. He read new horror stories and studied weird mythology anew.

He had become a fan of Nietsche in 1918 [7, p.97]. He stated in 1921, "Frederich Nietsche ... [has] perfected my cynicism; a quality which grows more intense ..." [7, p. 130]. A few years later - based on Nietsche - he declared, "I believe in an aristocracy, because I deem it the only agency for the creation of those refinements which make life endurable.." [7, p. 183].

His mind desperately wanted to see the world through Anglo-Saxon rose-tinted glasses, and his anger welled that the nostalgic antiquarian days were over. So, too, was his childhood days of comfort. He missed his Grandfather and that era. As such, he usually called himself “Grandpa” and “Theobald” [3, p.170] and made up pet names for his pen pals because that was the way it was – or the way he recalled - back in the days of comfort under the protection of his grandfather Philips.

Boiling mad at New York, he lashed out with The Horror at Red Hook. Described by HPL, it is a story of “hellish happenings amongst mongrel Satan worshipers that lurk in a slum district of Brooklyn, betwixt Clinton St. & the waterfront.” [2, p. 160]. It told a tale of an heroic Irish New York detective. It is filled with demonology, slant-eyed Asians and Kurds who practice a blend of the worship of Lilith, Satan, Moloch and satyrs. [4, 240,241]. Sociologists would find it hard to believe that segregated racial and ethnic groups freely associated, much less practiced a hybrid blend of kabaalism and witchcraft.

While this scenario is as far from real life New York as one could get, more spectacular is that the story evolved over a trivial incident in Lovecraft's life.

Sonia reported that one evening, a band of ruffians invaded a restaurant and upset Lovecraft. [4, 240]. That small thing set him off on a tirade. “Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squallor ... the population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements ... a babel of sound and filth ... strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers ...”. The Horror at Red Hook is more a primal scream than a story.


Though he wrote of modern New York in The Horror at Red Hook , Lovecraft really had ancient New Amsterdam on his mind. He reported in a letter of August 6, 1925 to his Aunt Lillian that the main feature of The Horror at Red Hook was: “A gentleman of ancient Dutch family in Flatbush, goes down among these folk & becomes their leader in terrible rites – after which he meets a loathsome end.” [2, p.160].

Lovecraft's enormous mind stored and recycled events in his life and colored them horrific. On his 34th birthday, August 20, 1924, HPL told his Aunt Lillian about a walk he had with Sonia through Greenwich village. [2, p.60] He relates that Sonia noticed a small opening between two business fronts, and they squeezed through to an antiquarian world. The triangular court with flagstone walks, a giant urn and greenery, had lots of colonial doorways.

He was in antiquarian Heaven. The best was to come.

They met “a neighboring loafer of weatherbeaten face and inconguously good speech”. [2, p.60] They fell into “a conversation with the chrysotomic gentleman of leisure” and “learned much of local history”. The man took them though more twists to a “little lost world of a century and a quarter ago”. He speculated about “what awesome images ... suggested by the existence of secret cities within cities! Beholding this ingulp'd and search-defying fragment of yesterday, the active imagination conjures up endless weird possibilities – ancient and unremember'd towns still living in decay ... sometimes sending forth at twilight strains of ghostly music”.

It took a year of incubation, but the cordial tour guide transmogrified in He. [1, p.120] “On a sleepless night's walk, I met the man. It was in a grotesque hidden courtyard of the Greenwich section ... the archaic lanes and houses and unexpected bits of square and court had indeed delighted me.”


Lovecraft had a secret retreat. On the night of August 10, he jumped a ferry, went to New Jersey, rode a train and wandered an obscure place he often misnamed Elizabethtown. [1, p. 388]

As day broke and shops opened, he bought a little notebook and sat in a little park in Elizabeth, N.J. And penned most of the story of He in one setting. [1. p.388-390] Surrounded by relaxing antiquarianism, he gazed at the Georgian relics and thought of Providence, R.I. It would not take many more months for him to return to his hometown and exhale "I am Providence" [7, p.236] and generate a veritable pent up explosion as he rushed to write classics such as Call of Cthulhu, Pickman's Model and The Silver Key.

This day, however, he was still depressed and in transition. Glimmers of the future can be gleaned from He. Already his idea of cosmicism was deeply thought through. He'd pondered Einstein's theory. Special relativity produced. "... can you do that for anytime? ... Far? What I have seen would blast ye to a mad statue of stone. Back, back – forward, forward ...”. [1, p.126,7]

An atheist from his youth, despite his family's Baptist leanings, Lovecraft embraced some peculiar ideas. He'd desperately wanted to be a chemist, then an astronomer, but illness and apathy doomed this. But his entire life he embraced the branches of science. He was an early advocate of continental drift – decades before it was accepted in the 1960's, so thus was born his Lemurian-type continent of R'lyeh. And while not exactly a Darwinian, he certainly ridiculed the Scope trial [2, 149,150]. He was more concerned with a spicy brand of social darwinism, and that sense of devolution started back in 1904 with The Beast in the Cave and certainly that philosophy bore fruit in New York.

Lovecraft's amalgam of belief in Western and Anglo-Saxon superiority, his paranoia, quantum mechanics, rejection of classic myths for nihilism, and a layer of social darwinism formed a hodge-podge that came out with a startling new style of weird and "scienti-fiction".

No one had yet seen its like. It was hard to classify, but his teenage fans adored it. He shows a new twist on this.

A few months previous, he'd worked hard on a small project [2, p. 53] and wrote three chapters on American superstition. That was when he was introduced to a pivotal book: “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” by Margaret Alice Murray. While her theory has since been discredited (though some feel this book lay the ground work for modern Wiccan belief [10, p. 90]) it played a profound influence on HPL for years to come. The Shunned House, Dunwich Horror, and Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward all sprung upon unsuspecting fans later, but we see both witchy things and antiquarianism blended in the coloquial language and spooky goings on in He.

Harlan Ellison says, "To see the cosmos through his eyes was scary." [8, p.x] Yet, while horrible things happen to people in Lovecraft's stories, the horror usually transmogrifies – or translates to a new plane – individuals. If the protagonist is erudite and artistic, clever and well read, holds fast to quantum nihilism, that person raises to a higher level as if engaged in some bloody multidimensional chess match.

This happened in Pickman's Model for we later see Pickman in some later stories. Randolph Carter – Lovecraft's pseudonymn – was the highest elevated of all, often seen transcending space and time – and evolution. It is clearly the case in He.

It is not that the old man in He has merely killed a few Indians and dabbled in witchcraft – no! He has soiled himself by rising above his means. The old squire, long gone ahead to a new plane of existence, had transcended. Like animals with instincts keen, the Indians knew that the old man was a poseur. The observer, Lovecraft of course, endured, though injured, and yet he escaped and dragged his broken body off to write another day. So, who was the winner in this horror story? Lovecraft, the intelligent and prepared.

As a want-to-be scientist, Lovecraft always knew that experimentation was risky. As a kid, he'd nearly burned fingers off with his chemistry kit. Magic was no different. But preparation was everything. To survive through to the otherside, one had to be cultured, refined, and knowlegable.

Death was literally nothing to Lovecraft – just cold and rotting in the grave. His thought was that through horror came immortality – in Hell or not, one could not say in his stories – but the plane of existence on the other side certainly existed in a different set of physical reality. On that plane, the old myths and petty gods like Zeus, Jehovah or Allah were bit players.

HPL had not yet thought through all of the elder gods that he playfully created and later exchanged with Robert Bloch, August Derleth, R.E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. He hadn't yet snickered over all of the made up books of elder majick, but with He he took a solid step forward.

In the end, Lovecraft crawled off to ponder on magic which had taken the old man "whither he has gone, I do not know". That magic would take Lovecraft [1, p.129] "home to the pure New England lanes up which fragrant sea-winds sweep at evening."


1. H.P.Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, ed. S.T. Joshi, 1999, Penguin Books, NY, isbn 0141182342
2. H.P. Lovecraft, Letters From New York, ed. S.T. Joshi and David E. Scultz, 2005, Night Shade Books, isbn 1892389371
3. Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H.P.Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei, ed. S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2002, Night Shade Books, isbn1892389495
4. H.P.Lovecraft: A Biography, L. Sprague de Camp, 1975. 1996, Barnes and Noble, isbn 1566199948
5. Tom Robbins,
6. James Russell
7. H.P. Lovecraft In His Time: A Dreamer and a Visionary, S.T. Joshi, 2001, Liverpool University Press, isbn 0853239460.
8. Terrifying Tales by H.P. Lovecraft: Shadows of Death, Introduction by Harlan Ellison, 2005, Arkhma House Publishers & DelRey, isbn 0345483332.
9. Collected Essays, Volume 1: Amateur Journalism, H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S.T. Joshi, 2004, Hipocampus Press. isbn 0972164413.
10. Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America, Christine Wicker, 2005, Harper Collins, isbn 0060726784.

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