His intellectual curiosity drew him back from the edge, though, and Lovecraft eventually found solace in describing vivid scenes from his imagination. He had an undeniable talent for it. In "The Shunned House" (1924), the narrator squares off in a dank Benefit Street basement with a creature who has inhabited his uncle's body: "It was all eyes — wolfish and mocking — and the rugose insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist which curled putridly about and finally vanished up the chimney."
Lovecraft would never hold a real wage-earning job. Instead, he lived off of a modest inheritance and occasional income from the sale of his stories. He produced more than 100 of them: tales of far-off planets, ancient beings living under oceans, and, in one case, a foul-smelling monster that thrashed around Federal Hill after a lightning storm cut out Providence's power supply.
He found a market for these tales in pulp magazines and, also, a devoted group of fans and colleagues with whom he corresponded. (It is estimated he wrote more than 100,000 letters.) After a brief, doomed marriage lured him to Brooklyn for two years, he moved back to Providence where he spent the rest of his life.
He referred to himself as "Grandpa" during these later years, despite having no children and being barely older than 40 years old. He subsisted on canned foods and crackers. He was fond of films, lectures, and long, rambling walks. Then, on March 15, 1937, impoverished and dejected about his writing abilities, he succumbed to intestinal cancer. His final days were excruciating. His last recorded words, according to R. Alain Everts's The Death of a Gentlemen: The Last Days of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, were "Sometimes, the pain is almost unbearable." At 46 years, a collected book of his stories had never been published.
Critical rejection persisted in the years following Lovecraft's death. "The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad art and bad taste," Edmund Wilson wrote, in The New Yorker, in 1945. Calling Lovecraft's cult followers "infantile," the critic plainly stated that "Lovecraft was not a good writer."
Infantile or not, Lovecraft's fans were loyal. They quickly collected his stories and established Arkham House as an outlet for publishing them. Having received encouragement from Lovecraft, many wove his cosmic "Cthulhu Mythos" scheme of gods and monsters into tales of their own. Thanks to these efforts, his stories found their way into the hands of short story writer Jorge Luis Borges, in Argentina; the young British horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, in Liverpool; and American authors like Stephen King and Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Gradually, Lovecraft began to achieve the fame he never received in life.
It helped that his slimy creatures and lurid scenarios were perfect fodder for the big and small screen. From The Dunwich Horror (1970) to From Beyond (1986) to Dagon (2001), the list of films and TV shows based on Lovecraft's writings is lengthy. The list of indirect descendants — from Stephen King's The Mist to Ridley Scott's Alien — runs even longer.
"There would be no real horror without Lovecraft," says Ray Dowaliby, editor of the Rhode Island-based horror magazine, SCARS.
"In many ways, his influence has grown beyond his reputation," says Joshua Gravel, a projectionist and programmer for the local Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Film Society. "There are a lot of people who enjoy things that are influenced [by] his stories or even sometimes based on them, but [they] don't even necessarily know of his reputation or of his writing."
Nowadays, the "Old Gentleman from Providence" has become the rare cultural creature who appeals to both low- and high-brow audiences. His stories have leapt from the pulp of Weird Tales and Astounding Stories to the crisp white pages of Library of America and Penguin Classics anthologies. His work is taught at Princeton by one of his most esteemed fans — the prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates. Oates says, via email, that there are "interesting results" when she teaches Lovecraft's story "The Rats In the Walls," which ends in a frenzy where the protagonist gnaws at the body of one of his human companions and screams "'Sblood, thou stinkard, I'll learn ye how to gust . . . wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?"
"We always spend time on the very ending," she says, "which is brilliant."