I am providence the life.., p.152
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 152
Lovecraft was at this time finally receiving the attention of a doctor, who prescribed three separate medications. On February 28 he made a feeble response to Talman’s continued queries about the Morrow book deal: “Am in constant pain, take only liquid food, and so bloated with gas that I can’t lie down. Spend all time in chair propped with pillows, and can read or write only a few minutes at a time.” Two days later Harry Brobst, who was much on the scene during this time, wrote to Barlow: “Our old friend is quite ill—and so I am writing this letter for him. He has seemed to grow progressively weaker the last few days.” On a postcard sent to Willis Conover on March 9, Lovecraft wrote in pencil: “Am very ill & likely to be so for a long time.”
The nature of Lovecraft’s various illnesses is ill understood, at least in terms of their aetiology. This may be because Lovecraft waited so long to have them examined by a competent medical authority. On his death certificate the principal cause of death was given as “Carcinoma of small intestine”; a contributory cause was “chronic nephritis,” or kidney disease.
Cancer of the small intestine is relatively rare, colon cancer being much more common; as a result, this cancer frequently goes undetected for years, even when patients are examined. Lovecraft, of course, was never examined until a month before his death, at which time it was too late to do anything except relieve his pain—and even massive doses of morphine seemed to offer little alleviation. It can be hypothesised why Lovecraft did not go to a doctor earlier, since he first experienced a serious bout of what he called indigestion as early as October 1934 (“I was in bed—or dragging betwixt there & the kitchen & bathroom—a week, & have thereafter been distinctly flabby & shaky”). Lovecraft’s habitual term for this condition—“grippe”—is simply an antiquated layman’s term for the flu, although it is quite clear (and was probably clear to Lovecraft) that that is not what he had. But Lovecraft’s phobia of doctors and hospitals may have been of very long standing. Recall that his mother’s death was caused by a gall bladder operation from which she was unable to recover. Although it was probably Susie’s general physical and psychological debilitation that led to her death, rather than any medical malfeasance, perhaps Lovecraft gained a fear and suspicion of doctors from this point onward.
The causes of intestinal cancer are various. Chief among them is diet: a high-fat, low-fiber diet results in the greater absorption of animal proteins in the digestive tract, and cancer can result in this manner. Interestingly enough, in view of the amount of canned food Lovecraft ate, studies have shown that modern food additives and preservatives may actually inhibit intestinal cancer. In other words, it was not that the preservatives in the canned food Lovecraft ate caused his cancer, but that their possible absence may have done so.
It is a difficult question whether Lovecraft’s kidney problems were related to or actually produced by his cancer or were a separate phenomenon entirely; the latter seems quite possible. Chronic nephritis is a now antiquated term for a variety of kidney ailments. In all likelihood, Lovecraft had chronic glomerulonephritis (formerly known as Bright’s disease)—the inflammation of the renal glomeruli (small bulbs of blood capillaries in the kidney). If unrelated to the cancer, the cause of this ailment is not entirely clear. In some cases it is a function of a breakdown of the immune system; in other cases, poor nutrition may be a factor. In other words, poor diet may have caused or contributed to both his cancer and his renal failure, hence it is worth examining once more his eating habits, especially as they evolved toward the end of his life.
In a letter to Jonquil Leiber written three months before his death, Lovecraft outlined the average content of his two daily meals:
(a) Breakfast . . .
Doughnut from Weybosset Pure Food Market 0.015
York State Medium Cheese (for sake of round numbers) 0.060
Coffee + Challenge Brand Condensed Milk + C12H22O11 0.025
Total Breakfast 0.100
(b) Dinner . . .
1 can Rath’s Chili con Carne* 0.100
2 slices Bond Bread 0.025
Coffee (with accessories as noted above) 0.025
Slice of cake or quadrant (or octant) oif pie 0.050
Total Dinner 0.200
Grand Total for Entire Day 0.30
Average Total per Week 2.10
(*or Armour’s Corned Beef Hash or baked beans from delic., or Armour’s Frankfort Sausage or Boiardi Meat Balls and Spaghetti or chop suey from delicatessen or Campbell’s Vegetable Soup, etc., etc. etc.)
This table’s chief purpose was to show how Lovecraft could eat on 30¢ a day or $2.10 a week; as Lovecraft had written some months earlier to Willis Conover, if the remnants of his inheritance didn’t help to augment (minimally) the income from revision (sporadic) and original fiction (nearly non-existent except from accidents like the Astounding sales), “I wouldn’t be eating very much.” But the brute fact of the matter is that Lovecraft was not eating very much, and that much of his diet was indeed high-fat (cheese, ice-cream, cake, pie). August Derleth maintained that it is a “myth” that Lovecraft died of starvation; but clearly his poor diet contributed significantly to his early death.
I have delayed discussion of Lovecraft’s anomalous sensitivity to cold till now because I am convinced that it has some relation to his worsening cancer, although it is perhaps now impossible to ascertain what that relation may be. It has previously been thought that Lovecraft suffered from a supposed ailment called poikilothermia. This is, however, not a disease but merely a physiological property of certain animals, whereby their body temperature varies with the external environment; in other words, this property applies to cold-blooded animals such as reptiles. Mammals are all homeothermic, or capable of maintaining a constant body temperature (within narrow limits) regardless of the external environment.
Now there is no explicit evidence that Lovecraft’s actual body temperature decreased during the cold, although it could have; since he was never hospitalised when suffering from exposure to cold, no tests exist on what his body temperature was in such a state. We only have various anecdotes as to his symptoms on such occasions: disturbed cardiovascular and respiratory functions (he had to pant when exposed to cold during a Christmas visit to New York); swelling of feet (customarily an indication of poor blood circulation); difficulty in the manipulation of hands; headache and nausea, sometimes leading to vomiting; and in extreme cases (perhaps three or four times in his life), actual unconsciousness. I have no idea what this concatenation of symptoms signifies.
What could have caused this condition? There does not seem to be any actual illness coinciding with these symptoms, but one hypothesis can perhaps be made. Body temperature is, in mammals, almost certainly regulated by the central nervous system. Experiments with animals have shown that a lesion in the caudal section of the hypothalamus can result in homeothermic animals becoming quasi-poikilothermic: they do not sweat in hot weather, nor do they shiver in cold weather. Lovecraft, of course, did admit to sweating profusely in hot weather, but claimed nevertheless that he had nearly unbounded energy on these occasions. Nevertheless, I believe it is at least possible that some sort of damage to the hypothalamus—which does not affect intellectual or aesthetic capacity in any way—caused Lovecraft’s sensitivity to cold.
And yet, Lovecraft makes it abundantly clear that his “grippe” really did improve whenever the weather warmed up. This, at any rate, was the case during the winter of 1935–36. This fact may have led Lovecraft to believe that his digestion problems were some by-product of his sensitivity to cold, which he apparently believed to be non-treatable; if so, it could have contributed to his failure to see a doctor until the very end.
Lovecraft’s last month of life is agonising merely to read about; what it must have been like to experience can scarcely be imagined. This period has been made suddenly more vivid by a document that was long thought to be lost or even apocryphal: a “death diary” of
Lovecraft began keeping the diary at the very beginning of 1937. He notes lingering digestive trouble throughout the first three weeks of January. There is one curious note on January 27: “revise Rimel story.” He finished the revision the next day. This is a story entitled “From the Sea,” which Lovecraft returned to Rimel in mid-February “with such minor changes as I think are needed.” The story was apparently never published and presumably does not now survive. However minor the revisions, it is the last piece of fiction on which Lovecraft worked.
Dr Cecil Calvert Dustin was brought in on February 16. According to his recollections, he could tell immediately that Lovecraft was suffering from terminal cancer, so that he probably prescribed a variety of painkillers (Lovecraft states three different “nostrums” given to him). Lovecraft’s condition did not improve, and the medications did not even appear to alleviate his pain. He took to sleeping propped up in the morris-chair, since he could not lie down comfortably. Also, there was enormous distension in his abdomen. This is an edema in the peritoneal cavity caused by his kidney disease.
On February 27th Annie told Dr Dustin that Lovecraft was much worse. When Dustin came over, he claims to have notified Lovecraft that his condition was terminal. Lovecraft, of course, kept up a good front to his colleagues, saying merely that he would be out of commission for an indefinite period; but perhaps he assumed that this euphemism would be correctly understood. On March 1 Annie asked Dustin to call in a specialist in internal medicine. Dustin contacted Dr William Leet, but clearly not much could be done at this stage. The diary entry for March 2 tells the story: “pain—drowse—intense pain—rest—great pain.” On March 3 and 4 Harry Brobst and his wife paid a visit; Brobst, with his medical knowledge, must have immediately known of the nature of Lovecraft’s condition, although he too put up a good front when writing to mutual colleagues.
On March 6 Dr Leet came over and found Lovecraft in the bath: immersions in hot water appeared to alleviate the pain somewhat. On this day Lovecraft suffered “hideous pain.” By March 9 Lovecraft was unable to take any food or drink. Leet called the next day and advised that Lovecraft check into Jane Brown Memorial Hospital. He was taken there that day in an ambulance and placed in what was then Room 232 (the rooms were renumbered during an expansion of the hospital in the 1960s). Lovecraft’s diary ends on March 11; presumably he was unable to hold a pen thereafter.
For the next several days Lovecraft had to be fed intravenously, as he continued vomiting up all nourishment, even liquids. On March 12 Annie wrote to Barlow:
I have intended to write you a gay little letter, long since, but now I am writing a sad little letter telling you that Howard is so pitifully ill & weak. . . . the dear fellow grows weaker & weaker—nothing can be retained in his stomach. . . .
Needless to say he has been pathetically patient & philosophical through it all. . . .
On March 13 Harry Brobst and his wife came to visit Lovecraft in the hospital. Brobst asked Lovecraft how he felt; Lovecraft responded, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” Brobst, in parting, told Lovecraft to remember the ancient philosophers. Lovecraft smiled—the only response Brobst received.
On March 14 Lovecraft’s edema was so severe that a stomach tap drained six and three-fourths quarts of fluid. That day Barlow, having received Annie’s letter, telegraphed her from Leavenworth, Kansas: “WOULD LIKE TO COME AND HELP YOU IF AGREEABLE ANSWER LEAVENWORTH TONIGHT.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft died early in the morning of March 15, 1937. He was pronounced dead at 7.15 A.M. That evening Annie telegraphed a reply to Barlow:
HOWARD DIED THIS MORNING NOTHING TO DO THANKS
26. Thou Art Not Gone
On the evening of March 15 the Providence Evening Bulletin ran an obituary, full of errors large and small; but it made mention of the “clinical notes” Lovecraft kept of his condition while in the hospital—notes that “ended only when he could no longer hold a pencil.” This feature was picked up by the wire services, and an obituary entitled “Writer Charts Fatal Malady” appeared in the New York Times on March 16. Frank Long, Lovecraft’s best friend, learnt of his death from reading this obituary.
A funeral service was held on March 18 at the chapel of Horace B. Knowles’s Sons at 187 Benefit Street. Only a small number of friends and relatives were there—Annie, Harry Brobst and his wife, and Annie’s friend Edna Lewis. These individuals then attended the actual burial at Swan Point Cemetery, where they were joined by Edward H. Cole and his wife and Ethel Phillips Morrish, Lovecraft’s second cousin. The Eddys had planned to come but arrived after the gravesite ceremony was over. Lovecraft’s name was inscribed only on the central shaft of the Phillips plot, below those of his father and mother: “their son / HOWARD P. LOVECRAFT / 1890–1937.” It took forty years for Lovecraft and his mother to receive separate headstones.
News of Lovecraft’s death spread a little faster than that of Robert E. Howard, but some of his closest colleagues still did not hear of it for weeks. Donald Wandrei had written Lovecraft a long letter on March 17, concluding: “What of your own winter? Did you make a holiday visit to Belknap, or indulge in explorations farther south? Have you written, or are you writing, any new tales?” And yet, it was Wandrei who, when he eventually did learn of the matter, passed the news on to August Derleth. Derleth noted that he read Wandrei’s letter “on my way into the marshes below Sauk City, where I had intended to spend an afternoon reading Thoreau’s Journal. Instead, I sat at a railroad trestle beside the brook and considered ways and means of putting together Lovecraft’s best works and bringing them out in book form.”
Derleth told Clark Ashton Smith, but Smith had already heard from Harry Brobst. “The news of Lovecraft’s death seems incredible and nightmarish, and I cannot adjust myself to it. . . . It saddens me as nothing has done since my mother’s death . . .” Recall that neither Smith nor Derleth had ever met Lovecraft but had merely corresponded with him for fifteen and eleven years, respectively.
The outpouring of grief from both the weird fiction and the amateur press was instantaneous and overwhelming. The June 1937 issue of Weird Tales contained only the first wave of letters from colleagues and fans alike. Farnsworth Wright prefaced the letters with the touching note: “We admired him for his great literary achievements, but we loved him for himself; for he was a courtly and noble gentleman, and a dear friend. Peace be to his shade!” It is remarkable how perfect strangers such as Robert Leonard Russell, who knew Lovecraft only from his work, could write: “I feel, as will many other readers of Weird Tales, that I have lost a real friend.” Many real friends—from Hazel Heald to Robert Bloch to Kenneth Sterling to Clark Ashton Smith to Henry Kuttner—also wrote moving letters. Kuttner wrote: “I’ve been feeling extremely depressed about Lovecraft’s death. . . . He seemed, somehow to have been an integral part of my literary life . . .” In the August 1937 issue Robert A. W. Lowndes, who exchanged exactly two letters with Lovecraft, wrote: “ . . . it may seem somewhat strange for me to say that it is as though I had lost a beloved friend of many years’ acquaintance. Yet this is the case . . .” Jacques Bergier, in the September 1937 issue, concluded: “The passing of Lovecraft seems to me to mark an end of an epoch in the history of American imaginative fiction . . .”
As for amateurs, Walter J. Coates wrote an affecting obituary in Driftwind for April 1937. Perhaps the most significant tribute was a special issue of the Californian (Summer 1937) prepared by Hyman Bradofsky, full of memoirs, poetry by Lovecraft, the first significant publication of his letter
Great as was Howard Lovecraft in heart and mind, we of today are unable to evaluate him at his true worth. Time and the march of events will bring increased understanding of him and of his tangible legacies. . . .
Lovecraft’s passing is a distinct loss to this writer. When we visit Boston we will not see him. That hurts, when we force ourselves to realize it. But Lovecraft lives on in his work; lives, too, in the memory of those who knew him, and lives well.
Edward H. Cole revived his amateur journal, the Olympian, after a twenty-three-year hiatus to produce a superb Autumn 1940 issue containing poignant memoirs by Ernest A. Edkins, James F. Morton, Cole himself, and W. Paul Cook. Cook’s piece was an early version of his full-length memoir, In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Recollections, Appreciations, Estimates (1941), which remains the finest memoir ever written about Lovecraft.
One of the most remarkable phenomena about Lovecraft’s passing is the number of poetic tributes it inspired. Henry Kuttner, Richard Ely Morse, Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth, Emil Petaja, and many others wrote fine elegies; but the best without question is Clark Ashton Smith’s “To Howard Phillips Lovecraft,” written on March 31, 1937 and published in Weird Tales for July. Its conclusion can only be quoted:
And yet thou art not gone
Nor given wholly unto dream and dust:
For, even upon
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