American history is filled with writers whose genius was underappreciated—or altogether ignored—in their lifetime. Most of Emily Dickinson’s poems weren’t discovered and published until after her death. F. Scott Fitzgerald “died believing himself a failure.” Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave. John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize 12 years after committing suicide.
But no tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “cosmic horror” writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraft’s final years were as bleak as anyone’s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, “I was never closer to the bread-line.” He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, “I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.” Among the last words the author uttered were, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was “full of errors large and small,” according to his biographer.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Lovecraft faced such poverty and obscurity, when regions of Pluto are named for Lovecraftian monsters, the World Fantasy Award trophy bears his likeness, his work appears in the Library of America, the New York Review of Books calls him “The King of Weird,” and his face is printed on everything from beer cans to baby books to thong underwear. The author hasn’t just escaped anonymity; he’s reached the highest levels of critical and cultural success. His is perhaps the craziest literary afterlife this country has ever seen.
Which isn’t to say Lovecraft’s reanimation is simply a feel-good story. His rise to fame has brought both his talents and flaws into sharper focus: This is a man who, in a 1934 letter, described “extra-legal measures such as lynching & intimidation” in Mississippi and Alabama as “ingenious.” On the 125th anniversary of Lovecraft’s birth on August 20, 1890, the author’s legacy has never been more secure—or more complex. Stephen King calls him “the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” and yet Lovecraft was also unarguably racist—two distinct labels that those studying and enjoying his works today have had to reconcile.