Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lovecraftian Psychology 101

Anyone who has read more than a few of the stories written by H.P. Lovecraft has probably wondered about his mental health, and perhaps even more the status of his soul.  What would possess—and the word seems appropriate—such an intelligent mind and preoccupy it with such dark fantasies? 

Since his death in late winter of 1937, many have speculated about the emotional origins and motivations for his writing.  Certainly the content and the recurring themes and imagery in many of his stories are suggestive.  And so is what is consistently missing:  dialogue, families, work, humor, happiness.  To mention just one peculiarity: female characters are conspicuously absent from virtually all of his creative output.  Why is this?  Given what is known of his troubled relationship with his mother and with Sonia Greene, his wife of two years, and what is suspected—though not substantiated—of his relationships with a number of male colleagues, the lack of women in his stories is intriguing.

Another fascinating aspect of Lovecraft’s writing is his reliance on dreams both in the context of his stories as well as a source of inspiration.  So much of his work exhibits the coherence of a nightmare, with stories that are not much more than an elaboration of material from recorded dreams.  It would be an interesting project to collect all of Lovecraft’s dreams from his correspondence, and from the stories that are overtly constructed around them, and see what patterns emerge.  Even more interesting would be to arrange this material chronologically to see how the imagery parallels events in his life.

Interpreting the psychological and autobiographical significance of an author’s creative work is hazardous, and some would say irresponsible.  There is probably no exact one to one correspondence between what an author imagines and records in his or her fiction, and the actual contents of their mind or of their life.  That said, readers of The R’lyeh Tribune have probably discerned that the view here is that all written production by definition reveals the personality, emotional state, and mentality of the mind that created it.  Even the handwriting, even the typing, contains markers that are indicative of emotional and mental status.   

It is not known whether Lovecraft ever sought psychological counseling, and doubtful, then as now, whether it would have been effective in curing him of his particular psychic pain.  It is our collective fate to suffer the experience of having divided minds and hearts.  These days, a psychiatrist would probably have offered Lovecraft Elavil, Klonopin or Xanax, (or all three, and others besides), and encourage him to modify his diet.  Of course, a calmer and happier Lovecraft would probably have made him a much less productive or influential writer.

In Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror (1996)—admittedly not a work of scholarship, but an entertaining survey of late 20th Century horror entertainment—there is a psychiatric profile of Lovecraft offered by Dr. Eileen McNamara of Providence, Rhode Island.  She ascribes Lovecraft’s emotional difficulties to the trauma of having both of his parents perish in an insane asylum, (his father of syphilis). 

McNamara cites a story Lovecraft wrote right around the time of his mother’s death, Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919).  The narrator works in an insane asylum and encounters a “degenerate” who, with the aid of a special technology, is determined to be in actuality a noble being involved in a great cosmic struggle.  (See also Clinical Lovecraft).  The psychiatrist interprets this story as expressing Lovecraft’s desire to see his father as more than a syphilitic wastrel.  She suspects that the loss of his parents left him with a lifelong fear that he would in some way succumb to the same illness.  McNamara also describes the negative influence of his mother, who

"…hovered over him and doted over her only child, although she told him that he was very ugly, and also told him that he was a little girl up until about the age of six.  She dressed him up as a little girl, and he grew up with this crippling self-identity.”

In L. Sprague DeCamp’s highly critical Lovecraft, A Biography (1975)—a cautionary tale that could have been subtitled How Not to Succeed as a Genre Writer—is this diagnosis:

“…he was a man who, as a result of congenital tendencies (his schizoid personality), compounded by an abnormal upbringing, was long delayed in maturation.  He showed adolescent bumptiousness, prejudices, dogmatism and affectations, and adolescent timidity towards new human contact and relationships, in his thirties, more than a decade after he had ceased to be an adolescent.  In some respects, such as the sexual and the monetary, he never did mature”.

Plexus Publishing in the UK will be releasing a new biography of the author later this year, The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft, by Paul Roland.  The publisher has graciously provided The R’lyeh Tribune with  a review copy, and the plan is to discuss this new book in future posts.  In keeping with the growing interest in Lovecraft’s psychology and personal challenges, the biographer’s intent is to provide an in depth exploration of “how Lovecraft’s disturbing creations may have been an attempt to exorcise both his inner-demons and the elemental abominations which haunted his recurring nightmares”.


There have been numerous earlier posts that speculate about Lovecraft’s inner life--a favorite topic of The R'lyeh Tribune.  These are listed below.  Disclaimer:  your humble blogger is not a psychiatrist, nor does he play one on TV.

1. What Happened to Randolph? (The Statement of Randolph Carter)
4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney (The Strange High House in the Mist)
Diagnosis (Various stories)
The Kvetch of Iranon (The Quest of Iranon)
A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender (The Thing on the Doorstep)
Lovecraftian Family Secrets (Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family)
‘Bromantic’ Relationships in Lovecraft (Various stories)                                           


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Lovecraft in my early twenties. His dark stories mirrored my own heart. Now, though, I find his work, while still well done, hard to read. His stories are horrifyingly bleak and without hope! The man surely had problems mentally. Not mentally ill , just a warped world view. Some counseling may have helped him. But then, his writings may have become bland! I thank you for your site; I am going to go peruse it for awhile. . .

    1. Thank you for your interest--hope you enjoy some of my posts. I was a big fan of Lovecraft in my teens and read everything I could find by him. I still appreciate his contributions and influence on horror and science fiction, which are very evident even today. I have since discovered that several of his colleagues were also talented and interesting authors. They wrote at a time of great change and social upheaval, and their work--now almost 100 years old--is fascinating to explore.

  2. Thanks for your article. I am right now working on my project based on Psychological approach in the short stories of Lovecraft, and I suppose it would be successful.

  3. Thanks for your article. I am right now working on my project based on Psychological approach in the short stories of Lovecraft, and I suppose it would be successful.


Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.