Howard Philip Lovecraft — aka H.P. Lovecraft — was born 130 years ago this week (on August 20, 1890) in Providence, Rhode Island.
The pulp-fiction storyteller, known for claustrophobic tales of the occult, lived for a time in Brooklyn. He did not enjoy it.
In 1924, he moved to 259 Parkside Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, close to Ebbets Field and Prospect Park. When his new wife relocated for work in Cincinnati, Lovecraft moved from the pleasant Flatbush neighborhood to a small flat at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. He only lived here until 1926 but during his stay, possessed of anxiety and neurosis, he practically starved himself.
Below: The boardinghouse at 169 Clinton Street, pictured here at left, from 1935. The first four buildings still exist. The building at the far right is the old Brooklyn Athenaeum.
Lovecraft had contempt for New York’s thriving immigrant population and those workers who sustained Brooklyn waterfront in the 1920s. In particular he negatively interacted with the residents of Brooklyn’s so-called “Little Syria” on Atlantic Avenue.
I find his invective ugly and even a little obsessive, but it illustrates that occasional truth that the culture of New York City is simply not for everybody, especially if you have certain racist dispositions mixed with a little mental instability.
In a comparison with Philadelphia, Lovecraft wrote “[Philadelphia has] none of the crude, foreign hostility and underbreeding of New York — none of the vulgar trade spirit and plebian hustle.” He further described New York as “an Asiatic hell’s huddle of the world’s cowed, broken, inartistic, and unfit.” [source]
According to author Donald Tyson, “when [H.P.’s wife Sonia] and Lovecraft were walking the streets of New York and encountered a group of immigrants, Lovecraft would become so animated and enraged that she feared for his sanity.”
The renovated, wealthy houses of today’s Brooklyn Heights were often working-class housing in the 1920s, many turned into affordable boarding houses. Lovecraft disliked his ethnic neighbors and held particular scorn for his Irish landlady. “Only later was I to learn of her shrewish tongue, desperate household negligence, miserly watchfulness of lights and unwatchfulness of repairs, and reckless indifference to the class of lodger she admitted.” [source]
He would have lived with mostly single men of differing ethnicity, many employed along the congested docks that lined the waterfront all the way down to Red Hook, culminating in two self-contained shipping areas — the Atlantic and Erie basins. Back in the 1920s, it was the busiest freight port in the entire world.
Below: Ships along the waterfront heading towards Red Hook, circa 1890
He seemed to filter all his untethered anxiety into the very building at 169 Clinton Street. “I conceived the idea that the great brownstone house was a malignly sentient thing — a dead, vampire creature which sucked something out of those within it and implanted in them the seeds of some horrible and immaterial psychic growth.”
Yet Lovecraft saved his greater fantasies for the neighborhood south of here. He eventually funneled all this tortured and deranged hysteria into his horror writing with the publication of “The Horror at Red Hook,” a story that literally depicts the neighborhood as a gateway to Hell. Naturally he wrote it over a two-day period from the Brooklyn Heights boardinghouse.
Below (the next two pictures): Some striking illustrations by Robert Cummings Wiseman of shanties around the Atlantic Basin in 1930, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
The short story, one of his best known, is an amusing curiosity to read today. Its a muddled, sometimes incomprehensible work with some occasional flashes of creepy description. Clearly the story is self-therapy as much as it is an actual story, an early 20th century entry in the field of conspiratorial fiction. It’s undeniably haunting if you manage to forgive the vast amount of virulent, anti-immigrant description:
“Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”.
The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.”
I won’t spoil any of the plot points of the story. (If you’re interested in reading ‘The Horror At Red Hook’, you can check it out here. ) But let’s just say the author confirms his suspicions — the street gangs and liquor rackets of the Prohibition era are really just dens of age-old evil:
“The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are already rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things.”
The story would be published in 1927 in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Notably, their offices were in Chicago, not in New York
Once he left New York, he pursued some of his more famous writing projects, using his anxiety to more disturbing effect in runic, terror-filled stories of the occult. He died in 1937, revered by many as a truly boundary-breaking writer, greatly inspiring writers like Stephen King.
It would be almost fifty years before an author attempted to look at south Brooklyn with similar monstrous intent — in the 1970s horror novels The Sentinel and The Guardian by Jeffrey Konvitz.
Top picture: Detail from a 1897 Rand McNally map of Brooklyn