Article by Frederick Fooy
The spooky and ghoulish celebration of Halloween is upon us, and one of the most popular trick-or-treating locales is State Street. But what would you think about trick or treating if your neighbor turned out to be horror author H. P. Lovecraft, dubbed one of the most influential writers of the weird and scary in the 20th Century? That could very well have been the case if you lived on Clinton Street and State Street in the mid-1920s.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born and raised in Providence, R.I. His best-known stories, such as, “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” were written in Rhode Island after some tumultuous years in Brooklyn. Stephen King credits Lovecraft as his single biggest influence.
In 1921, just a few weeks after the death of his mother, Lovecraft attended an amateur journalist conference in Boston, where he met Sonia Greene, a woman of Jewish-Ukrainian origin born Sonia Haft Shafirkin. Greene was seven years older than Lovecraft, and unusually enough for this time period, a female of independent middle class. She worked as a milliner for a department store and lived in Flatbush here in Brooklyn. H. P. Lovecraft and Sonia Greene married in 1924, and the couple moved into her apartment on 259 Parkside Avenue in Flatbush.
Lovecraft was initially fascinated by New York, and the newlywed couple probably had reason to be optimistic: Lovecraft was getting established as a professional writer, and several of his stories had been published by Weird Tales, a celebrated pulp magazine founded in 1923. Sonia Greene had opened a successful hat shop on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Sonia’s hat shop declared bankruptcy; and Lovecraft declined to edit another pulp magazine located in Chicago. Sonia’s health was affected by the rough waters the couple found themselves on, and she spent time in a sanatorium in New Jersey while Lovecraft unsuccessfully sought employment.
On New Year’s Day of 1925, Sonia moved to Cleveland for a job opportunity, and Lovecraft left Flatbush for a small first-floor apartment on 169 Clinton Street, on the corner of State Street.
Although Brooklynites of this day probably wouldn’t find the address objectionable, Lovecraft found himself displeased with both New York and Brooklyn. The apartment was located at “at the edge of Red Hook,” as he once said. Though we would not consider Brooklyn Heights as part of today’s Red Hook, in the 1920s a massive area was generally referred to as Red Hook.
Lovecraft found the neighborhood to be “decrepit,” and in a letter written in March of 1927 he described his apartment as “something unwholesome – something furtive – something vast lying subterrenely [sic] in obnoxious slumber – that was the soul of 169 Clinton St. at the edge of Red Hook, and in my great northwest corner room.“ Indeed, he had more intense complaints than noisy neighbors. Though Lovecraft did claim that his imagination was never so alive as when he lived on Clinton Street.
Lovecraft had many friends in New York, for example fellow authors Frank Belknap Long, and the poets Rheinhart Kleiner and Samuel Loveman. They socialized at cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlors in South Brooklyn, Coney Island and Manhattan, including establishments such as the Italian restaurant Taormina on Clinton Street and a “Joe’s Restaurant,” which may very well have been in the same neighborhood.
It is interesting to note that there was a “Joe’s Restaurant” until recently on Court between President Street and Union, though it dated to the 1950s. Other establishments included Cairo Gardens in downtown Brooklyn and Tontonno’s on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island.
Despite socializing, Lovecraft became increasingly isolated. His novels became bleak and misanthropic as the contrast between small town life in Rhode Island and the super-urban environment of New York started to weigh down upon him.
Lovecraft may have expressed a peak of his imagination during his Brooklyn years, but the period on Clinton Street led to some of his most mediocre works such as, “The Horror at Red Hook.” This novel was first published in the January 1927 issue of Weird Tales, and it was written over the course of two days in 1925.
His distaste for New York is also obvious in the novel “He,” also from 1925. The main character claims that “My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rose blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me”.
Lovecraft’s failure to find employment amongst the immigrant population of New York transformed his parochial racism to outright fear, and this became quite obvious in ”The Horror at Red Hook.” The cultural diversity of New York City was more than unappealing to Lovecraft’s entitled Anglophile persuasion. In April of 1927 he moved back to Providence.
As his friend W. Paul Cook stated, “He came back to Providence a human being – and what a human being! He had been tried in the fire and came out pure gold.”
Lovecraft may have left Brooklyn more than 80 years ago, but his impact on our neighborhood lives on. Musical group “The Mountain Goats” released a song called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” in 2008, comparing the alienation of H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s to the lead singer’s experiences in Brooklyn of the ‘naughts.
That same year, current residents told The New York post of creepy events taking place at 169 Clinton Street. Should trick or treaters of 2011 perhaps pause and reconsider before ringing the bell of H. P. Lovecraft’s old Brooklyn address?