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A “Little Lost World”: Walking Greenwich Village with H. P. Lovecraft

20th August 2023

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By David J. Goodwin, author of “Midnight Rambles: H.P Lovecraft in Gotham

The influential horror writer H. P. Lovecraft explored Manhattan’s Greenwich Village on the eve of his thirty-fourth birthday in August 1924. His account captures his relationship with New York City and reveals both the enchanting and repulsive elements of his character.  

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Howard Phillips Lovecraft adored his hometown, even hyperbolically declaring it to be “the most beautiful city in the world!”[i] An obscure horror and science fiction writer publishing exclusively in pulp magazines, most notably Weird Tales, during the 1920s and 1930s, he wandered the streets of Providence—often amid the small hours of the night—in a tireless quest for architecture dating from the eighteenth century. A doorway, a fanlight, a garden, or even a lamppost might stir his imagination, and he stored away such sightings in his memory for possible later inclusion in a story. Tall, lean, with a long, angular face and often dressed in old, out-of-style clothing, H. P. Lovecraft likely cut a strange figure to anyone casually peering out their window or passing him on the sidewalk.

On August 20, 1924, his thirty-fourth birthday, Lovecraft composed a conversational and colorful letter to his aunt and family matriarch, Lillian Clark. Presumably comfortably and happily ensconced at his desk, he chronicled his latest search for buildings and spaces embodying his preferred colonial-era aesthetic. This adventure occurred on the prior evening in Greenwich Village, then the epicenter of American bohemian life. Not long after leaving Providence for New York City in the spring of 1924, Lovecraft regularly lost himself in that neighborhood’s alleys and streets. Mingling with its artists and poets in studios and cafes held no attraction for him. The built environment and architecture of Greenwich Village—its “endless rows of Colonial houses” and “labyrinths of curving lanes”—captivated Lovecraft, unfailingly drawing him back to the neighborhood.[2]

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Delightfully recounting the previous evening, he remarked that he was “an explorer awaiting archaic revelations as new to me as to the rest of my party.”[3] The other member of his “party” was his wife of five months, the stylish and striking Sonia H. Greene. A Brooklyn-based milliner and fashion industry professional, she might have represented the most grand and perplexing contradiction in Lovecraft’s personal character. He was a vocal and committed bigot, peppering his correspondence with racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic statements, and injecting such beliefs into his literary output. Greene was a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant, and she was the reason that he came to New York.

Lovecraft’s epistolary memorialization of his and his wife’s private self-guided tour of Greenwich Village offers compelling insights into his relationship with his adopted city and reveals both his endearing quirks and repulsive traits. A self-declared “Khatist,” Lovecraft swooned when a half dozen felines crept forth from the shrubs and shadows in front of a mansion on the corner of MacDougal Street and Washington Square South for a “chat” with him.[4] While surveying Gay Street, a repository of eighteenth-century buildings and homes in his estimation, he lamented “the unpleasing proximity of African habitations.”[5] A “loafer of weatherbeaten face and incongruously good speech” chaperoned Lovecraft and Greene through the courtyard and passageways of Milligan Place, introducing him to a “little lost world,” and possibly serving as an inspiration for Lovecraft’s own short story “He,” a tale told by a narrator crestfallen after his failed flirtation with New York and then discovering horrifying mysteries in a nighttime Greenwich Village.[6]

Photo 1 Gay Street Greenwich Village

Today, H. P. Lovecraft commands a diverse, global audience, and his opus widely influences popular and literary culture. His loosely interlocking short stories and novellas, a unique hybrid of the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres collectively known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” present a bleak fictional landscape populated by omnipotent alien entities and human beings in their service. In many of Lovecraft’s more accomplished and popular works, such as “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” the New England region serves as a setting and almost a character itself. Place, architecture, and the natural environment figure prominently in his storytelling.

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However, the New York chapter in Lovecraft’s biography has long been overlooked and underexamined. Quoting the anonymous narrator of the aforementioned story “He,” these years and all they encompass—Lovecraft’s friendships with fellow writers and intellectuals, his exhaustive exploration for colonial remainders, his romance with Sonia H. Greene—traditionally have been categorized as “a mistake.”[7] My forthcoming book Midnight Rambles H. P. Lovecraft in Gotham aims to challenge this widely accepted belief, contending that the innovative and controversial author’s New York period is critical to a complete appreciate of his life, work, and ever-evolving legacy.

Lovecraft’s birthday letter to his aunt concluded with praise and passion for New York: “The town is full of Colonial arcana,” he wrote, “and in time I mean to unearth and revel in them all!”[8] However, marital difficulties, financial setbacks, and personal failures soon began to batter and buffet Lovecraft. As he grew to loathe the city and abhor its diverse population over the coming months, Lovecraft would unflaggingly, almost desperately scour the five boroughs for “Colonial arcana.” When encountering those buildings and places, he experienced a tactile, imaginative, and daresay spiritual connection to an idealized past. Greenwich Village and other pockets and corners of the city exuding a similar historical aura sustained Lovecraft until he fled back to his native Providence in April 1926. He would remember these picturesque spaces as entities detached and distinct from the “squalor” and “garishness” of New York City, akin to images viewed “through an old-fashion’d stereoscope.”[9]


 About the author: Author David J. Goodwin presents a chronological micro-biography of Lovecraft’s New York years, emphasizing Lovecraft’s exploration of the city environment, the greater metropolitan region, and other locales and how they molded him as a writer and as an individual. Drawing from primary sources (letters, memoirs, and published personal reflections) and secondary sources (biographies and scholarship), Midnight Rambles develops a portrait of a talented and troubled author and offers insights into his unsettling beliefs on race, ethnicity, and immigration.   

                    


Image 1: Gay Street.

Caption: Gay Street in Greenwich Village (Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum)

Image 2: H. P. Lovecraft and Sonia Greene’s marriage certificate

Caption: H. P. Lovecraft and Sonia Greene’s marriage certificate (Courtesy of the Municipal Archives, City of New York)

Image 3: Midnight Rambles cover.

[1] H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., May 1, 1926, in Letters from New York, ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2005), 314.

[2] H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, August 20, 1924, in Letters to Family and Family Friends, ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, vol. 1, 1911-1925 (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2020), 151, 149.

[3] Lovecraft to Clark, August 20, 1924, Letters to Family, 1:150.

[4] Lovecraft to Clark, August 20, 1924, Letters to Family, 1:150.

[5] Lovecraft to Clark, August 20, 1924, Letters to Family, 1:151.

[6] Lovecraft to Clark, August 20, 1924, Letters to Family, 1:152.

[7] H. P. Lovecraft, “He,” in Tales (New York: Library of America, 2005), 147.

[8] Lovecraft to Clark, August 20, 1924, Letters to Family, 1:153-154.

[9] Lovecraft to Long, May 1, 1926, Letters from New York, 310.

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