H. P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, is widely celebrated for his stories centering on madness. He invented the famous fictional mental institution, Arkham Sanitarium, which later gained greater fame as Arkham Asylum when it was co-opted by the DC universe in a number of Batman comics. But for Lovecraft, stories of insanity and institutionalization weren't just a fun way to frighten. They were personal.
Lovecraft's fascination may have stemmed from the fact that both of his parents were institutionalized during his lifetime. In fact, they were both separately committed to Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Butler was Rhode Island's first psychiatric hospital, founded back in 1844. An imposing edifice built in the Gothic style, Butler Hospital certainly looks like something you might expect to come across in a horror tale.
Lovecraft's father was the first to become a permanent resident at Butler. Winfield Scott Lovecraft was a traveling salesman who spent much of his time away from his family. In 1893, Winfield suffered a psychotic episode in his hotel room while in Chicago for business. He suffered hallucinations and delusions and had to be brought back home under restraint. Following this incident, Winfield was committed to Butler Hospital; H. P. Lovecraft was only three years old. His father died at the hospital five years later, in 1898. Winfield is generally believed to have died of syphilis, which could have been the cause of his earlier strange behavior.
After his father's death, Lovecraft was raised by his mother, who kept him close by her side up until she, too, was committed. It's impossible to know for sure what exactly ailed Sarah Susan "Susie" Phillips Lovecraft. She was diagnosed with "hysteria," as pretty much everyone with a uterus who went to see a doctor was in those days. During the winter of 1918–1919, Susie had some sort of nervous breakdown and went to go live with her sister. Before this instance, Susie had confessed to a friend that she sometimes saw "weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark." In March 1919, Susie was committed to the same hospital where her husband had died almost two decades before. For the duration of her stay, Lovecraft wrote letters to his mother frequently and may have visited her at Butler, though some reports say that he only ever met her on the grounds and would not enter the hospital. Like Lovecraft's father, Susie died in Butler Hospital after suffering complications from a gall bladder surgery in May 1921. Her death was a huge emotional blow to Lovecraft.
In the years after his mother's death, Lovecraft's works began to focus more and more on the topic of madness and he developed the fictional Arkham Sanitarium which appears in stories like "The Thing on the Doorstep." Was Lovecraft afraid of following in his parents' footsteps—of losing his wits and dying alone in an asylum?
What do you think of Lovecraft's works on madness and mental institutions? Do you think his personal experience with Butler Hospital influenced his writing? Let me know what you think—and what else you would like to learn about Lovecraft or any other literary figure—in the comments below!
Written By: TheGothicLibrarian