Midnight Rambles: H. P. Lovecraft in Gotham

Image of Midnight Rambles: H. P. Lovecraft in Gotham
Release Date: 
November 7, 2023
Empire State Editions
Reviewed by: 

“Lovecraft began writing when he was a teenager, crafting racist and politically reactionary poems and essays. He used the “n-word” with gleeful abandon and praised the Confederacy.”

H.P. Lovecraft, the author known as the father of cosmic horror fiction, lived in New York City from 1924 to 1926. David J. Goodwin’s Midnight Rambles is the first book to offer a detailed—and often disturbing—depiction of that brief but significant period in Lovecraft’s life. Drawing on his subject’s correspondence, memoirs, diaries, and other documents, Goodwin’s book is neither a biography nor a close reading of Lovecraft’s writing but rather a “thorough telling” of the relationship between the author and the city he sometimes loved and more often loathed.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, first visited New York City in 1922 as the guest of Sonia H. Greene, a Brooklyn milliner he’d met at a literary convention in Boston. He and Greene wed in 1924; Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn for two years, with and without Greene, trying but mostly failing to break into New York’s literary and publishing worlds. When he arrived in the city, it was the United States’ “cultural dynamo,” leading the nation in book publishing, music, and theater; it was the spawning ground for avant-garde movements in the arts, including the Harlem Renaissance. New York was home to bohemians, intellectuals, and political radicals.

During his two years in New York, Lovecraft maintained a love-hate relationship with the city. An ardent Anglophile and antiquarian fascinated by the 18th century, he constantly sought out evidence of New York’s colonial past during his “rambles,” long, often late-night walks, usually in the company of male friends who constituted his “small coterie of scribblers, booksellers, and intellectuals.” If Lovecraft admired the architectural gems he encountered in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (he never made it to Staten Island), he feared and despised many of the city’s inhabitants: Jews, Blacks, and recently arrived Italian and Eastern European immigrants. 

Lovecraft’s Rhode Island family enjoyed wealth and a patrician lifestyle when he was a child but became downwardly mobile after his grandfather’s death. After the death of both parents in mental institutions, Lovecraft was raised by his two unmarried aunts, who pampered and supported him. Despite the family’s loss of wealth, Lovecraft and his aunts continued to see themselves as Anglo-Saxon aristocrats and “real” Americans.

Lovecraft began writing when he was a teenager, crafting racist and politically reactionary poems and essays. He used the “n-word” with gleeful abandon and praised the Confederacy. His antipathy toward “any group antithetical to his definition of a solidly white American” reached “a fever pitch” in New York, where—in the streets, the subway, parks, and other public places—he daily encountered those he considered his inferiors. Sonia H. Greene noted that “whenever he would meet crowds of people . . . and these were usually the workers of the minority races—he would become livid with anger and rage.”

But despite his hatreds, Lovecraft could compartmentalize; he married Sonia H. Greene, fully aware that she was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine. His homophobia notwithstanding, his close friend, Samuel Loveman, was gay and also Jewish. Lovecraft, Goodwin observes, “made exceptions for individuals falling into his negative categories.” “Although he expressed loathing for immigrants, white ethnics, and Jews, he would respond with, mentor, and befriend both select men and women belonging to these demographic groups.” But never Black people, whom he regarded as irredeemably inferior to whites.

Lovecraft’s inability to find work and his wife’s business failures fatally strained their marriage. Greene left New York for employment in the Midwest, and Lovecraft eagerly returned to Rhode Island, relieved to no longer live in the city that he described to a friend as “the pest zone.” They divorced in 1928.

Lovecraft’s New York sojourn was not very productive; he wrote only five stories there, including “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the most blatantly bigoted works in his oeuvre. (In the story, the immigrant neighborhood is revealed as the literal gateway to hell.) When back in Rhode Island, his productivity increased. There, he wrote many of his best-known stories, among them “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Color Out of Space,” and “Pickman’s Model.”

Midnight Rambles raises a critical question about Lovecraft as an artist and individual. Why bother reading, or reading about, a writer who was in so many ways deplorable, even repulsive? As Goodwin notes, although Lovecraft had little success or recognition in his lifetime, today his cultural influence is broad and deep. His so-called Cthulhu Mythos (a term he didn’t coin) has influenced writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon, filmmakers Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, Joss Whedon, and Sam Raimi, the popular Netflix series Stranger Things and HBO’s Lovecraft Country.

Lovecraft’s prose is often overwrought, the deepest shade of purple, and sometimes risible. But his best stories are gripping and haunting expressions of a bleak cosmology in which human beings are, in Goodwin’s apt formulation, “little more than a biological chance error” doomed to be obliterated upon the return of “malevolent alien entities” that once ruled the Earth. Humanity’s cosmic loneliness and insignificance, and the impermanence of all human creations, are key themes, and Lovecraft’s talent for dramatizing them in his weird tales has secured his reputation as an heir to Edgar Allen Poe in the decades since he died in 1937.

Even though H.P. Lovecraft’s New York experience was brief and difficult, the city had a profound impact on him. Goodwin concludes his slim but in-depth and fascinating study by noting that despite Lovecraft’s distaste for New York, “it provided him with the physical separation and mental distance necessary for him to mature as a writer.”

“If he had not boarded a Manhattan-bound train in March 1924, he might never have fashioned his unique and disturbing literary vision.”