Rebecca O'Connell // Wikimedia (Lovecraft), iStock (background)
Rebecca O'Connell // Wikimedia (Lovecraft), iStock (background)

7 Obsessions That Influenced H. P. Lovecraft’s Work

Rebecca O'Connell // Wikimedia (Lovecraft), iStock (background)
Rebecca O'Connell // Wikimedia (Lovecraft), iStock (background)

Nearly 80 years after H. P. Lovecraft’s death, his influence over popular culture shows no signs of waning. In his own day, Lovecraft's influences included writers such as fantasist Lord Dunsany, English horror writer Arthur Machen, and his beloved Poe, but Lovecraft’s weird fiction was also shaped by his life events, personal interests, and multiple obsessions. In honor of his 126th birthday, here are just a few.



Contrary to popular perception, Lovecraft was not really a reclusive shut-in as a grown man, enjoying instead a circle of close friends and travel around New England and beyond. During his teenage years, though, he was afflicted with mysterious ailments (which may have been psychological in nature), which often kept him at home and eventually forced him to drop out of school. Being a very precocious autodidact, Lovecraft used this reclusive period to school himself in a number of subjects and developed a keen interest in science, particularly astronomy. At the ripe age of nine, Lovecraft began publishing his own Scientific Gazette. Later, he self-published The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy and began submitting astronomical articles to local publications. He received his first telescope at age 13, allowing him to indulge his love of stargazing.

Lovecraft’s fascination with the vast cosmos formed the backdrop to the particular brand of weird horror that he created, in which the reaches of space are populated with incomprehensible entities that, like the stars themselves, are foreign and indifferent to the concerns of men. This fascination is seen throughout Lovecraft’s work. In particular, The Color Out of Space, thought by many to be Lovecraft’s most sci-fi piece, features a meteorite with baffling qualities that falls from the sky and horribly alters the farmland on which it lands, as well as the farm’s inhabitants, while The Shadow Out of Time features two extraterrestrial species exploiting Earth for their own ends. 


Lovecraft’s deep interest in the past formed a counterpoint to his fascination with space and astronomy. As a boy, Lovecraft read voluminously, becoming captivated by ancient Greek myth and history and developing a lifelong affinity for the Baroque era. A dedicated Anglophile (a leaning which was likely influenced by his mother Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft’s view of herself as a New England blueblood of English ancestry), Lovecraft was particularly entranced by 18th century England and the Revolutionary War era—though in his case he wished that the British had won. He also adopted 18th century spellings (his characters often offered to “shew” something of interest to one another), and once appeared in a local newspaper wearing a tricorne hat.

It is Lovecraft’s fascination with New England colonial history and Puritanism, though, that is reflected most in his tales, along with his love of colonial architecture. Richard Upton Pickman, the central character of Pickman’s Model (who is described as coming from “old Salem stock”) states of his Boston: “I can shew you houses that have stood two centuries and a half and more; houses that have witnessed what would make a modern house crumble into powder.” Similarly, Keziah Mason of The Dreams in the Witch House is rumored to have been a Salem witch.



Lovecraft’s father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, was confined to a mental institution when he was quite young, forcing young Howard and his mother to live with his grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips at the family mansion in Providence. These were happy years for Lovecraft, but financial troubles put the Phillips’ fortunes in increasing jeopardy. Grandfather Whipple’s death in 1904 dealt a final blow, precipitating the sale of the estate and forcing Howard, his mother, and two aunts to move to a more modest home three blocks east of the mansion. 

Lovecraft never got over the loss of his family estate, along with the associations of status and happiness tied up with it. He spent a lifetime pining for his family’s former life, and dragged such items as had been salvaged from the estate around with him for life. When he arrived in New York in 1924 to begin an ill-fated marriage to Sonia Greene and an unsuccessful two years of city life, the story goes that he was carting a trunkload of fine linens, china, and books from the Phillips estate, which he eventually crammed into a rundown bachelor pad at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn when his marriage began to crumble. Lovecraft’s story Cool Air reflects this reality: Its central character, Dr. Munoz, occupies similarly modest quarters crammed full of gentlemanly trappings. In fact, Lovecraft’s many gentleman scholar characters point to his idealization of upper crust life at the Phillips estate.



Lovecraft loved science and he loved history, but there were a litany of strange things he was averse to. Among them: seafood. He was coddled during his years living with his mother and aunts, who allowed him to follow his own sleep schedule and culinary inclinations. This may explain why Lovecraft maintained the palate of a five-year-old throughout his adult life, relishing sweets but rejecting more adult fare. His hatred of seafood was so strong, though, that it seems to defy explanation. On an occasion when a friend tried to take him out for a steamed clam dinner, Lovecraft (who rarely swore) reportedly declared, "While you are eating that God-damned stuff, I'll go across the street for a sandwich; please excuse me."

Whatever the reason for Lovecraft’s extreme disdain for crab cakes, mackerel, and calamari, it proved fertile inspiration for many of his horrifying creations—from the fishy people in The Shadow Over Innsmouth to the now famous octopus-headed god, Cthulhu.


Lovecraft’s stories are full of occultists of all stripes, from the Cthulhu worshippers in The Call of Cthulhu to the demonic devotees in The Horror at Red Hook to the authors of the dreaded Necronomicon. While some fans love debating whether Lovecraft was an occultist himself, the fact is, he wasn’t. While confessing to “pagan inclinations” as a child, Lovecraft was a staunch atheist and self-described materialist. It was his skepticism that led to him to collaborate with Harry Houdini, who prided himself on being a debunker of superstition (the publication of Lovecraft and Houdini’s collaboration The Cancer of Superstition was cut short by Houdini’s untimely death in 1926, though the manuscript was recently re-discovered).

Lovecraft was clearly deeply fascinated by the occult, despite his strident disavowal of it, but mainly because it served to deepen the sense of dread in his tales. Despite the color that occult settings provide to Lovecraft’s stories, magic is often revealed to be the product of some form of science that humanity does not understand. His concept of cosmicism rejects the comforts of religion, instead presenting a cold, indifferent cosmos, absent of God.


Lovecraft’s racism has been a difficult issue for many horror and fantasy fans. Xenophobia, of one kind or another, is at the root of many of the strange, alien, and vile beings that populate Lovecraft’s stories. His racism was at its most shrill during his ill-fated New York City years, and this is reflected in the “maze of hybrid squalor,” “dark foreign faces,” and “Persian devil-worshippers” depicted in The Horror at Red Hook, as well as the “yellow, squint-eyed people” swarming over the hellish scape at the end of He. But it is also evident in earlier tales, such as The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, where the revelation that Jermyn bred with a white ape goddess points to a horror of racial intermixing. Some critics have found racism in other stories, too—like the fish people of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or more fishy people in The Doom That Came to Sarnath … or maybe he just really, really didn’t like fish? 

Toward the end of Lovecraft’s life (he died in 1937 at age 46), he began to soften his views and to grow more accepting of people who were different from himself, but he never transformed into what we might call a progressive today. Many modern fans have found it difficult to square their respect for his genius with their distaste for his problematic views.


Artwork by John Holmes for early 1970s Bantam H.P. Lovecraft series. Image credit: Charles Kremenak via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Characters in Lovecraft’s stories are always teetering on the brink of madness. Whether they begin a story having just escaped a mental institution (like the titular character in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) or whether they go mad at the end (like the de la Poer scion in The Rats in the Walls), characters are always uncovering forbidden knowledge that will make them lose their marbles.

Lovecraft had his early brushes with madness, including the hospitalization of his father and general instability of his mother. It may be that he feared the same fate for himself, given that he was prone to psychosomatic illnesses and extremely vivid dreams in youth. If so, it certainly would explain his fierce adoption of materialism and atheism. However, Lovecraft also saw the cosmos as one in which man existed side-by-side with knowledge that, if comprehended, would send him over the brink. His most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, begins with a paragraph that speaks to this worldview: 

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”


Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
An Ancient Book Blasted with High-Powered X-Rays Reveals Text Erased Centuries Ago
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A book of 10th-century psalms recovered from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is an impressive artifact in itself. But the scientists studying this text at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University were less interested in the surface text than in what was hidden beneath it. As Gizmodo reports, the researchers were able to identify the remains of an ancient Greek medical text on the parchment using high-powered x-rays.

Unlike the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used by the scientists is a much simpler and more common type of particle accelerator. In the SSRL, electrons accelerate to just below the speed of light while tracing a many-sided polygon. Using magnets to manipulate the electrons' path, the researchers can produce x-ray beams powerful enough to reveal the hidden histories of ancient documents.

Scanning an ancient text.
Mike Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the case of the 10th-century psalms, the team discovered that the same pages had held an entirely different text written five centuries earlier. The writing was a transcription of the words of the prominent Greek physician Galen, who lived from 130 CE to around 210 CE. His words were recorded on the pages in the ancient Syriac language by an unknown writer a few hundred years after Galen's death.

Several centuries after those words were transcribed, the ink was scraped off by someone else to make room for the psalms. The original text is no longer visible to the naked eye, but by blasting the parchment with x-rays, the scientists can see where the older writing had once marked the page. You can see it below—it's the writing in green.

X-ray scan of ancient text.
University of Manchester, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the researchers know the hidden text is there, their next step will be uncovering as many words as possible. They plan to do this by scanning the book in its entirety, a process that will take 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. Once they've been scanned and studied, the digital files will be shared online.

Particle accelerators are just one tool scientists use to decipher messages that were erased centuries ago. Recently, conservationists at the Library of Congress used multispectral imaging, a method that bounces different wavelengths of light off a page, to reveal the pigments of an old Alexander Hamilton letter someone had scrubbed out.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Lucy Quintanilla
10 Facts about John Knowles's A Separate Peace
Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

John Knowles’s 1959 novel about a conflicted prep school friendship has become a coming-of-age classic.


Like his protagonists Gene and Finny, who are students at the elite Devon School during World War II, Knowles attended the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the early 1940s. He then served in the military for a short time before graduating from Yale in 1949. The West Virginian Knowles later wrote that despite the culture clash (and the cold) he fell in love with the school. "The great trees, the thick clinging ivy, the expanses of playing fields, the winding black-water river, the pure air all began to sort of intoxicate me. Classroom windows were open; the aroma of flowers and shrubbery floated in," he wrote. "The summer of 1943 at Exeter was as happy a time as I ever had in my life … Yale was a distinct letdown afterward."


After graduating from Yale, Knowles worked as a drama critic at the Hartford (Conn.) Courant and as a freelance writer. One of his first published short stories, “Phineas,” appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1956 and contained the narrative seeds of A Separate Peace.


In several key scenes in A Separate Peace, Gene and Finny dare each other to jump off the overhanging limb of a huge tree into the river below. In the beginning of the novel, naturally adventurous Finny takes a flying leap off the branch. Gene, who is more reserved, follows his friend's lead, which cements their friendship. Later, Gene loses his balance while standing on the limb, and Finny catches him. Like his characters, Knowles admitted to being in a secret society with an initiation requirement that involved jumping from “the branch of a very high tree” into a river. Knowles did suffer his own fall, which injured his foot and compelled him to use crutches for some time.


His name was David Hackett, and Knowles met him during a six-week summer session at Exeter in 1943. Hackett attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts during the regular school year. There, he was a standout athlete on the hockey, football, and baseball teams. He also quickly befriended the future U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, and later served under him in the Justice Department.


At the novel's climax, Gene and Finny decide to jump off the tree branch together. Gene shakes the branch, causing Finny to plunge and break his leg. Though readers have debated Gene's intentions since the book was published, Knowles never said whether Gene meant to cause Finny's fall. Upon the author's death in 2001, his brother-in-law Bob Maxwell said, "John used to say he would never answer that question."


The protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, an American soldier fighting in Italy during World War I, grows disillusioned after a disastrous battle and deserts the army. “I had made a separate peace,” he declares. Hemingway also uses the line in his 1925 short story collection In Our Time, with the character Nick saying it to a dying soldier. Knowles may have chosen the title to illustrate the parallel of the collective peace after war and the personal, subjective peace between individuals. In this case, Gene reaches a state of peace after he and Finny reconcile following the accident.


Eleven publishers turned down A Separate Peace. The book first appeared in print in 1959 thanks to the London publisher Secker and Warburg, while the initial U.S. publication took place on leap year day—February 29, 1960. Though the book received mostly positive reviews, it wasn’t an immediate bestseller. But as more and more English teachers discovered A Separate Peace, they brought it into their classrooms, and the book gained a colossal momentum. Knowles’s first published novel would prove by far his most successful one, ultimately selling more than 8 million copies.


Knowles once wrote about serving as the anchor man in a swimming relay race while at Exeter, beating the school’s rival, Phillips Andover Academy. He became “an athletic mini-hero for about 15 minutes.” In A Separate Peace, Finny breaks Devon’s 100-yard freestyle swimming record—but the winning time was unofficial, as Gene, who served as timekeeper, was the sole witness.


Though there was no description of any sexual encounter in the novel, some readers have contended that the book has a gay undercurrent. A handful of critics have objected to this perceived dynamic, including parents in a central New York school district who, in 1980, denounced A Separate Peace as a “filthy, trashy sex novel” that encouraged homosexuality. For what it’s worth, Knowles said, “If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.”


Fred Segal wrote the screenplay of A Separate Peace; Knowles read through the script and made suggestions for improving it. Directed by Larry Peerce with a largely amateur cast, the movie came out in 1972 to so-so reviews. Knowles was proud of the fact that the production was able to shoot on location at Phillips Exeter Academy, the inspiration for the fictional Devon School.


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