LOVECRAFT, East Village

The name of this bar/restaurant on Avenue B sounds like a Sinatra title, or perhaps Barry White. However the name actually honors a singular horror writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) based in Providence, RI except for two years in Brooklyn, a place he despised.

Brooklyn Heights’ leafy lanes have been a mecca for the lions of literature for much of the 20th Century and on into the 21st; it all began in the pre-Civil War period when Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published on Fulton Street. At one time or another Whitman, W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, and Thomas Wolfe have all lived in Brooklyn Heights, attracted by its quiet, its atmosphere and its contingent of like-minded literati.

There was one writer, though, whose time in Brooklyn Heights was most decidedly a depressing period in his life. H.P. Lovecraft, while read only by pulp fiction fans in his lifetime, became, by some critics, second only to Edgar Allan Poe (whose time in NYC was also less than cheerful for the author) in the horror genre. Beginning in the 70s, when I was a teenager, I thrilled to his “Dunwich Horror”, “Call of Cthulhu” , “At the Mountains of Madness” and other stories imagining a universe rife with hostile forces utterly indifferent to the everyday cares and desires of man.

Lovecraft was born to a wealthy family in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. In 1904, his family would lose its fortune after the death of its patriarch, his grandfather the industrialist Whipple Phillips, and Lovecraft was to lead a hand-to-mouth existence for most of his life. Without sinking into actual poverty Lovecraft burned off his inheritance while making scant money on literary revisions, ghost writing, and the sales of his own tales.

By the 1920s, Lovecraft was a leading figure in the now little-remembered field of amateur journalism; through that decade and into the 1930s, he published dozens of stories in Weird Tales and other pulps. Only one of his more lengthy stories, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, ever saw hardcover publication in his lifetime, and it was only through the efforts of his friends and correspondents, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, who founded Arkham House, that his tales were kept before the public after his death. A coterie of imitators who tried but just couldn’t seem to match his style have been busy hommag-ing the “spectral scrivener” (as Harlan Ellison called him in a moving eulogy to Lovecraft’s former agent and longtime DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz) ever since.

In 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife, Sonia Greene, during his amateur journalism days. The two would marry in 1924 at St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway and Fulton Street in Manhattan, and Lovecraft would move to Sonia’s home in Brooklyn, in an apartment on 259 Parkside Avenue; after a year, they would move to 169 Clinton Street. Lovecraft biographer and scholar S.T. Joshi has pointed out that in the Twenties, 259 Parkside, in a neighborhood now known as Lefferts Gardens, was a middle-to-upper class area and 169 Clinton was rather downmarket. By the mid-20th century those roles would be decidedly reversed.

Sonia, a milliner and saleswoman, had a hat shop for a while in 1924 on Fifth Avenue, but it would go bankrupt during the year. Her health suffered, and she spent time in a New Jersey sanitarium; by January 1925, she had made her way to Cleveland to pursue business prospects there, and Lovecraft was left alone at the Clinton Street apartment where they had moved the same month. By his own account (Lovecraft was one of the most voluminous letter writers of his time) he was miserable in Brooklyn Heights; his efforts to find work came to nothing, and he depended on money sent from Providence by his aunts, Annie Gamwell and Lillian Clark. Sonia, on her various ventures in the Midwest, would send him an occasional stipend as well. It was a decidedly unusual marriage Sonia and Lovecraft had in 1925; she helped support him while living hundreds of miles away much of the time.

Lovecraft has been painted a recluse by those who have heard just a superficial, sketchy account of his life. While he spent a lot of time alone, he had many friends in Providence and Brooklyn Heights, and many more correspondents all over the country. He traveled extensively all over the East Coast, South, and Canada; his travelogues make an entertaining aside from his horror fiction. He was the key member of the Kalem Club, a roundtable of Brooklyn Heights writers that also included poet Samuel Loveman and Frank Belknap Long, who would have a five-decade career in horror fiction (Lovecraft mischievously nicknamed him “Frank Chimesleep Short”).

Overall, though, Lovecraft intensely disliked New York City; while born into aristocracy in New England, he kept the mindset of wealth and privilege he had long since lost. He disdained New York’s madding crowds, and there is more than a hint of racism in his screeds complaining about New York’s cosmopolitan makeup. This resentment asserted itself in two stories he wrote in 1925, during his Brooklyn “exile”: “He”, a story of a mysterious stranger who provokes attacks by sprits of native Americans and Asians, and “The Horror at Red Hook”, a lurid story of devil worship. “Red Hook” in particular reads like an atlas of Brooklyn: protagonist Robert Suydam, his wife Cornelia Gerritsen, and his dwelling, on Martense Street, are all from Brooklyn street names.

After months of Lovecraft trying to persuade his aunts to let him return to Providence, they acquiesced, but apparently balked at allowing Sonia to move there as well; to some in conservative New England in 1926, a businesswoman wife was a stigma, not an asset. The two would eventually divorce. By the spring of that year the man whose gravestone reads “I Am Providence” had returned home, where he would lead a quiet existence, writing the occasional weird tale, traveling, and carrying on his amazingly prodigious correspondence, all written in longhand, with friends all over the USA. He died young, of cancer, in 1937 at the age of 46.

8/25/16

 


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