A Lovecraftian Life and Death

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Lifestyle

Known as the Father of Cosmic Horror, H.P. Lovecraft only lived for forty-six short years. What he was able to accomplish in his lifetime, however, was enough to change the tides of an entire genre.

A Visionary from an Early Age

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in the late summer of 1890, to Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, in Providence, Rhode Island. As a child of three, his father suffered from a nervous breakdown and was sent to Butler Hospital, where he remained in residence for five years until his death in the summer of 1898. Unaware of his father’s mental condition, Lovecraft was told that his father was paralyzed and comatose, but surviving medical records show that his father actually died of paresis—a form of neurosyphilis.

Following the death of his father, Lovecraft was brought up by his mother, two aunts, and grandfather—who had him reciting poetry at two, reading at three, and writing at six or seven years of age, having recognized his advanced intelligence. By the age of five, he had proven his penchant for the creative, fantastical, and mythological, eventually using these influences to inspire his own literary works. His oldest surviving work came when he was a young boy of seven, having paraphrased the Odyssey into rhyming verse in his 1897, “The Poem of Ulysses.” His grandfather played a large role in Lovecraft’s strange gothic sense of fantasy, encouraging him to pursue his weird flights of fantasy into the realm of horror.

Due to numerous childhood afflictions, including some instances of psychological troubles, Lovecraft’s attendance at school was never consistent—he spent much of his youth studying independently, favoring chemistry and astronomy over all else. As far as works of fiction, Edgar Allan Poe served as the inspiration for much of Lovecraft’s dark and imaginative creations. Despite his diminished ability to socialize, he was still able to create and maintain a number of significant friendships with his peers when he attended Hope High School, through his self-published hectograph journals. These journals, The Scientific Gazette (1899–1907) and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (1903–07) garnered him his peer’s encouragement to write outside of his home. Unfortunately, in 1908 Lovecraft suffered from a nervous breakdown and never received his diploma. His inability to graduate high school and be admitted into Brown University would be a source of great shame to Lovecraft later in life

This breakdown led Lovecraft to become somewhat of a hermit for several years—exacerbated by the death of his grandfather and their consequential financial ruin—he would stay up late studying, reading, and writing poetry, then sleeping late into the day. Even though he managed to publish articles on astronomy in several newspapers, Lovecraft went through a difficult time after losing his childhood home, as well as the compulsive love-hate relationship he had with his mother, so he regularly contemplated suicide.

From Isolation to Notoriety

Emerging from his need for isolation in 1913, like an internet troll emerges when they see something online that drives them absolutely crazy, Lovecraft wrote an entire letter in verse to Fred Jackson as an affront. He joined the United Amateur Press Association in 1914, which is where his amateur journalism career began, leading him to launch his self-published magazine The Conservative in 1915. It would be safe to say that these opportunities launched Lovecraft’s entire career out from within the pit of his own self-pity.

H.P. Lovecraft (1915)
H.P. Lovecraft (1915)

“In 1914, 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 renewal 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 world.”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

It only took two more years of his life before he once again delved into his fictional worlds—in the summer of 1917, Lovecraft easily produced “The Tomb,” as well as “Dagon,” which were two shorter stories that he owed to his passion for fiction. The dark edgy tales of Edgar Allan Poe and fantasy tales of Irish author Lord Dunsany, which inspired some of his earlier fiction pieces.

I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.

The Tomb”, June 1917 by Howard Phillips Lovecraft

It was around this time that his mother’s own mental and physical deterioration began to really affect her and after her own nervous breakdown in 1919, she was admitted to Butler Hospital—the same hospital Lovecraft’s father had been committed to and subsequently died in. Only two years later a failed operation caused the death of his mother and in spite of his devastation, Lovecraft recovered enough to meet his future wife a few weeks later. In 1923, the horror magazine Weird Tales paid Lovecraft for his stories, which was his first paid gig as a writer. When he married Sonia Greene in 1924, they moved to New York for two years, but the marriage soon failed and Lovecraft returned to Rhode Island where he began working on his most renowned stories. Just two years after splitting up with his wife, “The Call of Cthulhu,” came out in the Weird Tales magazine, which was the first piece that really helped make a name for Lovecraft as an author of otherworldly horror.

The Death of a Legendary Horror Writer

I am essentially a recluse who will have very little to do with people wherever he may be. I think that most people only make me nervous – that only by accident, and in extremely small quantities, would I ever be likely to come across people who wouldn’t.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1926
Tombstone of H.P. Lovecraft
Tombstone of H.P. Lovecraft

The last decade of his life was spent creating what is now known as his classics, having found a niche for himself as an author of weird horror fiction, and prolific writer-of-letters. The last few years of his life, in particular, were incredibly strenuous for Lovecraft, beginning with the death of one of his aunts in 1932, from there his writing became largely too complex to sell to a normal reader. At this part of his career, he began to attempt a career solely editing, as well as ghostwriting stories, poetry, and non-fiction—no longer even trying to sell his own original creations. The suicide of a close friend brought him depression, but it was ultimately his own incurable illness that would bring Lovecraft’s final days. In the winter of 1936, Lovecraft’s intestinal cancer caused him pain that increased on a daily basis and eventually he had taken himself to the hospital where he died five days later, on March 15, 1937.

Like many other underappreciated artists of his age, Lovecraft has gained a far greater following after death than he ever saw during his lifetime. He’s been the inspiration for writers Peter Straub, Stephen King, as well as Neil Gaiman—to name a few.

Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.

Stephen King

Departing From the Mind of H.P. Lovecraft

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Featured Lifestyle
Colour Out of Space by Ludvik Skopalik
Artwork by Ludvik Skopalik

During this month’s Dead Author Dedication of H.P. Lovecraft, we have talked about his life, death, literature, his own personal inspirations, and how he has inspired authors and artists all over the world since his death. The question on this writer’s mind is, “how did a master crafter of the written word end up poor and barely able to make ends meet doing what he loved?” and what that means for aspiring writers.

The Legacy of Lovecraft

Last week we delved into the topic of why and how the work of Lovecraft never really successfully makes it into the film medium; since he was such an influential writer for the horror genre. Other authors in this genre have had their work be adapted into films–sometimes these stories are so popular they have even been remade, to update the story with more modern age techniques and higher quality film in order to see if they could do a better job capturing the original source. Stephen King has been one author who has been successful and lucky enough to be able to boast this honor, the productivity of his own lifetime of writing is something of a celebrity amongst aspiring writers. Any writer would be so lucky to capture even a fraction of the renowned that someone like Stephen King has managed, but the kind of reputation that Lovecraft has grown to develop as a writer since his death has a deeper and more concealed appeal.

H.P. Lovecraft Interview (1933)

The thought of having a cult following has an enchanting draw for artists, one that evokes the concept of an inextinguishable legacy; an artist who may have struggled from their creative inception can’t help but entertain the fantasy of their work not only lasting long after their life has ended but becoming more appreciated with time. There have been so many artists inspired by the chaotic and terrifying concepts that Lovecraft helped to create, that we were able to construct a list of books for people interested in learning more.

Even Lovecraft himself never expected to live to see his own stories adapted into film and like all good authors and literary critics, he agrees that while the film industry is a great and complex art form, it cannot and will not ever hope to replace literature entirely. His argument here, and we’re inclined to agree, is that literature is far too complex a beast to ever be matched by the artistic avenues of film. One cannot hope to accomplish the intricacies of the written word with mere dialogue and action, where words effectively capture our innermost thoughts, desires, fears, and secrets.

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft statue in Providence, RI
H.P. Lovecraft Statue in Providence, RI
Artwork by Gage Prentiss; Photography by David Lepage

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft comes across as a fairly low budget short film, which lies more in the mystery genre, but it’s a brilliant show of how Lovecraft inspired minds to create a more complex, tangled, and generally incomprehensible universe–one that alludes to far greater, far darker, far more ancient and terrible things in comparison to the world that man knows. Lovecraft’s legacy was what can really bring hope to aspiring creatives, his legacy of work speaks to the complexity of the overflowing river that is the human imagination. This is a river that can never truly run dry, but it is only the limits of our own mundane experiences that can place our creativity within constraints.

It’s important to understand that while we here at Puzzle Box Horror greatly appreciate the body of work that Lovecraft added to the horror genre, we recognize his biases and do not endorse them or agree with them. We were more than ecstatic when we found that there were actually literary responses to these particular issues and hope that such responses continue to appear within the literary community.

Now that we’ve spent a month looking into the creative, yet dark and hellish mind of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s safe to say we know a fair amount about him–but there is always more to learn about his work that helped the horror genre become what it is today?

Is there anything you’d like to add about this mad and mysterious mind? Comment below!

Horror Trends From Gore to the Supernatural

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Indie Horror Creation Lifestyle Scary Movies and Series

It’s been well over a hundred years since the first horror movie was created—since it’s fair to say that the three-minute short film, Le Manoir du Diable (1896) counts as the first horror film ever created. Known in English both as The Haunted Castle as well as The House of the Devil, which you can actually watch here. While considered tame by today’s standards of the horror genre, it launched a multimedia genre that has gotten increasingly popular over the last one hundred twenty-four years. The sheer number of horror movies made per year continues to grow steadily, but since 2001 it has been an ever-accelerating trend—sources cite that by the year 2000 an approximated two-hundred horror films had been produced, then by 2016 the number had jumped to well over a thousand films in the genre.

This says nothing of the vastly different topics that this genre actually covers, which essentially has a taste of every kind of interest paired with the one thing that brings horror lovers together—the fear factor!

Popularity Within Horror—What Draws the Audience In?

It used to be that gory, disturbing, and slasher flicks brought the crowds in, at least that’s what the data has said since 1996. Interestingly enough, ever since 1999 this particular subgenre of horror has dramatically declined, coinciding with the introduction of stellar horror movies that fall within other genres, especially the paranormal and supernatural subgenre.

Gore, Disturbing, and Slasher Films

Static image on television screen
Photography by Jisun Han

For those of you unclear about what thematic elements cause a horror movie to be classified as either a gore, disturbing, or slasher film, I’ll clear that up here. Gory and disturbing movies tend to focus on portraying violence, blood, and guts in the most graphic way possible—the general emphasis is the shock factor. Violence tends to incite the fight or flight instinct that lays within each and every one of us, which in turn causes a huge release of adrenaline as well as mood-altering hormones. It’s safe to say that real-world events had some impact on whether or not a person might want to go see a horror movie that depicted obscene amounts of violence, as the early 2000s displayed a steep decline of this violent subgenre of horror. There have been exceptions to this rule, of course, the Saw movie franchise and the rebooted Hellraiser franchise enjoyed success, but 2008 marked the rapid drop in popularity. To compare fifty percent of the horror movies produced in 1999 were categorized into the gore, disturbing, and slasher film genre, whereas it now makes up less than fifteen percent of horror films being made. That being said, it’s been suggested that much like senses of fashion, certain trends are cyclically popular and that the gore, disturbing, and slasher subgenre should be expected to make a comeback sometime in the future.

Audiences have a remarkable fascination with gory violence and disgusting scenes, and scientists who have studied the depths of human recall, when surrounding horrific events have discovered—not surprisingly—that participants in this study had detailed recall of the scene itself, but the overwhelming nature of the event causes a “temporary blindness,” in our memory of what happened just before and just after the event. This is why gory movies are so jam-packed full of violence—they want the movie to be memorable, even if they aren’t the best movies ever. As an example, films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Green Inferno (2013) are talked about more frequently than any other horror film simply because of the abhorrent events that take place within the film. These films often surpass box office hits like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) when it comes to how memorable they are because these movies are violent and gory just for the sake of being violent and gory.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) continues to be talked about today because it was legitimately believed to be a snuff film and the director even got brought up on murder charges until he produced the actors that were believed to have been killed during filming—that’s not all though, it featured live animal torture and is now one of the main reasons why films are required to divulge that “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie,” in a testament to animal cruelty laws that are now in effect. Films like this were made for shock value and although they remain in the memory of those who have dared to watch them, they leave the audience feeling somehow dirty. Suffice it to say, watching a movie like this once is often overkill if you like horror for more than just shock value.

Bridget Rubenking and Annie Lang argue that even though disgust makes us feel bad, it has evolved to a functional response of attention capture—as a form of entertainment, filmmakers can’t lose with the factor of disgust on their side. It keeps audiences engrossed and engaged, hoping that somehow the story gets better. From the 482 participants that were studied in Germany and the United States, they reached a conclusion that gory scenes function to reinforce our hope that good will inevitably triumph over evil.

Paranormal and Supernatural Films

While it’s clear that not all paranormal and supernatural films can be classified as horror movies, which can be easily explained by referencing A Ghost Story (2017)—a movie where the featured version of ghosts is literally a guy wearing a sheet with eye-holes cut out, over his head and walking around in a kind of vacant melodrama. A Ghost Story (2017) isn’t meant to be a scary movie, it’s meant to be a depressing drama and honestly kind of failed at that too. The horror franchise marks paranormal and supernatural movies as having content that, “deal[s] with phenomena which defy scientific explanation such as ghosts, demons, psychics, the dead and other such spooky experiences.” These days, paranormal and supernatural take the proverbial cake, as they become increasingly popular in production and now take up the largest share of the box office. It’s thought that this trend is due to the mysterious nature of this subgenre of horror—people like to be kept guessing what is going to happen next. A huge benefit to the volume of production for paranormal and supernatural films versus monster films and violent flicks is that they have a low cost to produce—with ghosts and other paranormal phenomena it’s what is left unseen that makes the movie more compelling. With a low cost in production means that more ideas are able to be brought to fruition on-screen without the burden of raising funds or seeking sponsors. The major uptick in viewership of paranormal horror came with the beginning of the Paranormal Activity franchise, which hundreds of films being added into the genre.

Low budget costs for creating a movie means that creating a captivating film becomes more attainable for people that aren’t already known in the film industry. So, these paranormal and supernatural films are brought to us from a wider collective of filmmakers who have fresh and exciting ideas, original takes on existing content, or a new idea entirely—then they help thrill-seekers who have an affinity for horror find their adrenaline rush.

What this means for the Horror Genre

Violence and Monster-centric movies aren’t going to die out anytime soon, don’t worry—we’re still going to have plenty of new slashers and monsters coming (we’re personally excited about Antlers (2020) coming out this April. So while the popularity of these movies may have decreased to the point of minimal production, it seems like the ones that do make it end up generally being well worth the watch. Take Films like I Am Legend (2007) and World War Z (2013) as examples, both were large budget movies (over $150 million dollars each) and unqualified successes within the monster subgenre. Then again, despite the average horror audience’s proclivity to enjoy things that scare or disturb them, they inevitably want to see a positive ending—instead of being left with an ending that raises questions or leaves the audience wishing for some emotional closure. This can be seen in how I Am Legend (2007) was released with two different endings, one in which the main protagonist sacrifices himself and the one that was ultimately used for the final cut—where the main protagonist finds a way to fix the problem.

Why We Keep Watching

Horror films are entertaining—anyone who enjoys watching them would wholeheartedly agree—according to Søren Birkvad, a film scholar at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences—they are a way we keep the boredom away. Those who are prone to boredom more often than not, score higher than others in a trait dubbed, “sensation seeking.” These people are then more likely to have an increased affinity for horror films.

Creepy House in Camera Image
Photography by Caleb Minear

Horror films help us explain away the evil and darkness in the world—they enable us to essentially get to the root cause of why evil exists in the world. Whether or not it’s the true cause of evil doesn’t really matter in this scenario, because the fictional explanations give the audience closure for their curiosity. If people want true reasons why people do awful things to one another, they generally have a fascination with movies or television series that revolve around serial killers, who have been psychologically studied and often diagnosed with a mental disorder—psychopathy, sociopathy, the worst of the worst helped define evil within forensic psychiatry.

In modern culture, it’s a rarity to discuss evil as a true force of nature—what drove the conversation before was the dominant religious influence within western culture. The beliefs of religious extremists, it’s simply not common for people to believe in a demonic force within the world; in popular culture, especially within books and movies, evil is easily conveyed within the horror genre. More and more noticeably we’ve seen the gore and monster subgenre move from the fantasy realm to the science fiction realm, where instead of relying upon the explanations from the church, we’ve begun to explore the hubris of man. Unexplainable forces that were responsible for vampires and zombies turned into explainable scientific procedures gone wrong—in the form of viruses, or cures, they generally allude to man trying to play the role of God.

The final reason why people frequently seek out the thrills that horror movies provide is what Birkvad calls the anthropological and therapeutic utility of horror film. Birkvad insists that horror movies help us to cope with our own anxiety by stimulating us through a “familiar framework,” which is essentially our safety net. The audience need never overwhelm itself with how they would feel if these film sequences were really happening in front of them, as they can easily disconnect from the action—cover your eyes, cover your ears, make a joke to ease the tension, or indulge in comfort foods.

In psychology, we call this activation of a feeling “emotional regulation.” By watching horror films one can have a sense of control over both the situation, or the viewing experience, and over the feeling of fear. Watching a scary film may possibly also function as a distraction from other feelings.

Svein Åge Kjøs Johnsen

Freud’s attempts to provide a reason to how we perceive things that are considered strange or unusual—he insists that entertaining the idea of the existence of ghosts can create undue excitement, so when we experience things that we cannot explain it incites the adrenaline response. Then again, considering Freud’s work on behavioral psychology he also insists that we never fully overcome the triggers of stress and anxiety from our childhood. Fear of the dark, excessive solitude and eerie silences are things that some adults just can’t shake the trepidation of. Come to think of it, have you ever had an unbearably awkward silence with someone you’ve just met—it stands to reason that the feeling of anxiety most people get from those awkward silences stems from the same source.

So, what are your thoughts on why we as horror lovers have moved away from the gore and violence and begun to embrace paranormal and supernatural themes within the horror genre?

The Literary Genius of H.P. Lovecraft

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Horror Books

H.P. Lovecraft was an underrated author of his time, not really gaining a following until long after his passing, during which time he gained a cult following. His writing has inspired generations of writers both in the fictional horror and science-fiction subgenres, and he was inspired by the greatest minds that preceded him. The worlds that he imagined have been given of life of their own, although there is an unfortunate lack of movies and other media that have expanded upon his work in order to bring more entertainment to those that follow the horror genre.

“Well—the train sped on, & I experienced silent convulsions of joy in returning step by step to a waking & tri-dimensional life. New Haven—New London—& then quaint Mystic, with its colonial hillside & landlocked cove. Then at last a still subtler magick fill’d the air—nobler roofs & steeples, with the train rushing airily above them on its lofty viaduct—Westerly—in His Majesty’s Province of RHODE-ISLAND & PROVIDENCE-PLANTATIONS! GOD SAVE THE KING!! Intoxication follow’d—Kingston—East Greenwich with its steep Georgian alleys climbing up from the railway—Apponaug & its ancient roofs—Auburn—just outside the city limits—I fumble with bags & wraps in a desperate effort to appear calm—THEN—a delirious marble dome outside the window—a hissing of air brakes—a slackening of speed—surges of ecstasy & dropping of clouds from my eyes & mind—HOME—UNION STATION—PROVIDENCE!!!!

H.P. Lovecraft (Letter to Frank Belknap Long, 1 May 1926)

Even though Lovecraft was a legendary horror writer, he as actually quite varied on the subjects he tackled. At one point in time, Lovecraft much like his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe considered himself primarily a poet. By the age of eight, he fell victim to his own mental turmoil, becoming overwhelmed by his own anxieties and intelligence by his early adulthood he had become a recluse. As an American author, he had the unfortunate fate of never having achieved fame for his works during his lifetime, but like many authors who came before him, the resources to spread his talent across the globe didn’t exist as they do today. Perhaps his most prolific writing venture was his habit of writing letters–it is estimated that he wrote over 100,000 letters within his lifetime. Lovecraft died, in effect, unknown to the world at large having only been published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, before he passed away, in financial ruin. His work stood the test of time, now being regarded as one of the most significant authors of his time within the horror genre.

Most of Lovecraft’s work is in the realm of the Public Domain, much of which can be found here–some of his most popular work has actually been made into audio recordings. YouTube has become an abundant resource on these public domain audiobooks, which means that much of what he has written in the way of fiction.

Take a look at what we’ve collected here for you!

The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft

The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror is a horror short story, written in 1928, published in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. It is considered one of the core stories of the Cthulhu Mythos.

The Dunwich Horror tells the tale of the isolated, desolate, and decrepit village (albeit fictional) village of Dunwich, Massachusetts. The story revolves around the strange events that surround the birth and development of Wilbur Whateley–the unsightly son of a deformed, insane albino woman and an unknown father.

Now within the Public Domain, you can download and read this for free!

The Shunned House by H.P. Lovecraft

The Shunned House

A fictional horror novelette, written between October 16–19, 1924. It was first published in the October 1937 issue of Weird Tales.

InThe Shunned House, Lovecraft presents the narrator as Dr. Elihu Whipple–the story follows Whipple and his uncle as they investigate an old dilapidated house with an alarming reputation for causing any occupants to either die a slow, wasting death–or go completely insane.

On the northeast corner of Bridge Street and Elizabeth Avenue is a terrible old house—a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds—with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, and an outside flight of stairs leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed. It reminded me of the Babbit House in Benefit Street…. Later its image came up again with renewed vividness, finally causing me to write a new horror story with its scene in Providence and with the Babbit House as its basis.

H.P. Lovecraft in a letter on The Shunned House

Now within the Public Domain, you can download and read this for free!