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

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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.

1. SPACE AND ASTRONOMY

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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. 

2. THE PAST

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.

3. HIS OWN FAMILY’S PAST

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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.

4. SEAFOOD

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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.

5. RELIGION AND THE OCCULT

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.

6. XENOPHOBIA 

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.

7. MADNESS

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.”

 

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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