As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:
There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.
That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the ludicrous opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.
And when I tell you that the last words of Lovecraft’s tale are “They were never heard of again,” you may find it hard to believe that even a 14-year-old would not be sophisticated enough to laugh out loud.
Yet somehow, for a boy craving escape from the mundane world of the suburbs south of London, Lovecraft’s overwrought ghastliness rang an eerie distant bell in some haunted mansion of my imagination.
I bought the book, and became a Lovecraft fan, and in a modest way a collector. A specialist horror bookseller provided me with several of the limited-run first-edition Lovecraft collections published for true fans and investors by August Derleth’s press Arkham House in Sauk City, Wisconsin. I coveted (but never did own) a copy of the rarest of these, The Outsider and Others (1939), worth more than $2,000 now.
Lovecraft’s later work, which introduces the Cthulhu mythos, with its hideous creatures from beyond, and dark hints of a book called Necronomicon that visits insanity upon anyone who reads it, contains some interesting experiments in horror. Lovecraft creates glimpses of a terrifying other universe whose alien entities seek to break through from beyond and regain their ancient power over us. His use of science fiction to create supernatural horror without ghosts was a breakthrough in the horror genre that still strikes me as significant.
Last Thursday evening, after my work day of teaching in the department of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, the fact that I am now living and working in Lovecraft’s beloved home town suddenly struck me as very significant. For some reason I could not name, I headed up Thayer Street, and after a few blocks turned left on Barnes Street. Within minutes I was staring at the big double-duplex that is Numbers 10 and 12. Lovecraft lived on the lower floor of Number 10 from April 1926 to May 1933. He used the address as that of the fictional Dr. Willett in his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror” were written there.
The house is now broken up into apartments and bedecked with multiple mailboxes and students’ bikes. No plaque or other indication reveals that it was occupied by the man who Stephen King says “has yet to be surpassed as the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”
Turning south, in a few short blocks I came to the house that now stands at 65 Prospect Street (it was moved from 66 College Street in 1959), to which Lovecraft moved in 1933, and in which he died. No plaque.
I stood and looked at both houses for a long time, and found it strangely moving. Lovecraft, who died in poverty some years before I was born, was a very odd soul: a topomaniacal prudish misfit; a poseur and a snob; a total failure during his lifetime. Why would I find it moving to stare at a house where this strange man once lived? I actually have no idea. It’s especially peculiar in the light of the one big thing about Lovecraft that I haven’t mentioned. But I’ll write about that next week.