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A Beginner’s Guide to the Weird Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of horror, most often set in small-town New England (with the occasional jaunt to the Antarctic, New York City, or The Dreamlands), are enjoyable little morsels of creepiness.

lovecraft-portraitIf I had to pick a favorite horror author, I’d go with Howard Phillips Lovecraft. His tales of horror, most often set in small-town New England (with the occasional jaunt to the Antarctic, New York City, or The Dreamlands), are enjoyable little morsels of creepiness. Lovecraft was one of several authors such as M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Robert Bloch, and Robert E. Howard who cranked out short stories and novellas for various literary magazines (and, if they were fortunate, published novels) whose work was heavily influenced by those Gothic horror authors before them such as Lord Dunsany, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Lovecraft was not exactly a paragon of manly virtue nor was he a particularly nice man. He was, simply put, odd and not very pleasant. A self-avowed racist, many of his stories contain language you simply would not get past an editor today. As an example, see the name of the main character’s cat in The Rats in the Walls. It’s tempting to say he was a product of his time, which is certainly true, but Lovecraft went more than a bit over the top when it came to dislike for those of other races (and mixed race relationships, which is odd considering he married a Jewish woman).

The Basic Setup and Where to Find the Stories

The outline of the classic Lovecraft story is this: The protagonist, usually a young and curious academic, comes across something  – an old statue, a scrap of old manuscript, a local legend, a forgotten house, a curious medical story — that piques his interest. He begins to investigate the little trinket of lore and finds there is much more to learn and that he must decide whether to give it up or delve deeper into the shadows of forbidden knowledge. This is where we, the audience, jump up and down and yell “Stop!” Indeed, Lovecraft would often send in another character who is either a friend or relative of the protagonist, or sometimes a professional colleague, to warn him off the hunt, but it never works. Our protagonist continues undaunted despite finding more an more unsavory details of the story. His sanity begins to unravel. His curiosity becomes obsession and often leads him off well-traveled roads into towns where the locals aren’t quite right and he’s seen as an interloper. Eventually, he reaches the core of the mystery at which poi–AAAH! NAMELESS AND MIND-BLASTING HORRORS FROM BEYOND TIME AND SPACE! *gibber drool slurp twitch*

Okay, his stories don’t all end in a loud minor chord but a good number of them do, which is part of their appeal. Much like Stephen King’s finest novels The Shining and Pet Sematary, we know fairly early on in the story that a Lovecraftian protagonist is going to meet with a horrible end, but we can’t turn away. We need to see where they mystery leads as much as he does, but we at least have the confidence that our brain won’t end up excised by alien insects and prepared for transport to their cold and light-less home.

Probably.

Because Lovecraft was not possessed of much business sense and died without heirs, his works have passed into the public domain. You can read them all for free on the web at the H.P. Lovecraft archive or download a well put-together compilation of his works for your e-reader of choice. If you choose the latter, please thank CthulhuChick for her hard work.

Now that you have the stories in front of you, click on the link or open that book in your e-reader and…

Holy Crapweasel! So. Many. Stories.

You noticed that, too? Lovecraft was a prolific author and the sheer number of stories are enough to put anyone off. Where in the world do you start? Should you read chronologically and chance being put off of good stories by a few early clunkers? Are there ongoing themes? I confess, though I’m a Lovecraft fan, I don’t love everything Lovecraft wrote. His poetry, especially, isn’t my speed. You may like it, though, and if you do, dive in!

My point is that you don’t need to read everything. We’re going to use the Table of Contents to send us straight to the good stuff and, after you’ve read those, if you want to cover even more ground, you can. The important thing to remember is that most of Lovecraft’s stories are short. You can read them in one sitting. His novellas are good for a few hours of lights-out, hunker under the covers, keep a baseball bat handy in case something is hiding under the bed or behind the closet door reading.

Before I send you to the good stuff, though, let’s do a bit of necessary culling.

Set These Aside for Later

We’ve already set aside the poems (unless, of course, you love poetry, in which case start there and come back in a couple months). Now, let’s lay aside the stories that comprise the Dream Cycle (which you can find in one inexpensive volume here). Lovecraft wrote an entire category of stories that revolve around “The Dreamlands”, a separate dimension the protagonists could only access through their dreams. While I like the Dream Cycle stories, they’re…different. You may want to tackle them after you get a good feel for Lovecraft’s vibe. I’ve taken this list from the Dream Cycle Wikipedia page, to which you can refer if you’re curious.

  • “Polaris”
  • “The White Ship”
  • “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”
  • “The Cats of Ulthar”
  • “Celephaïs”
  • “Ex Oblivione”
  • “From Beyond”
  • “Nyarlathotep”
  • “The Quest of Iranon”
  • “The Other Gods”
  • “Azathoth”
  • “Hypnos”
  • “What the Moon Brings”
  • “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”
  • “The Outsider”
  • “The Silver Key”
  • “The Strange High House in the Mist”
  • “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
  • “The Dreams in the Witch House”
  • “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”

There are two exceptions to the list. “The Dreams in the Witch House” is a solid story apart from the Dreamlands component and it reads more like a conventional Gothic horror story than, say, “The Silver Key”. Put that one back in the “Read sooner rather than later” bucket. “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is Lovecraft’s only novel-length work (about 50,000 words). Though it deals heavily with the Dreamlands, it roams about in other places and is a pretty good introduction to the overall themes that tend to crop up in his other stories – sorcerers, Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, plots from outside time and space, mighty beings who wish the destruction of men, and the ever-present intrepid investigator who ends up in an asylum. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s not bad. If you decide to get into the Dream Cycle, start with the novel.

The Essential List

Now that we’ve set aside the Dream Cycle stories, I’ll sift out the best of the rest. I tried to give you a rough reading order, based on how much I liked each tale, so the last one in each list is my favorite.

Longer works:

  • At the Mountains of Madness
  • The Call of Cthulhu
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • The Whisperer in Darkness
  • The Dunwich Horror
  • The Shadow over Innsmouth

Shorter works:

  • The Dreams in the Witch House
  • The Shunned House
  • Pickman’s Model
  • The Tomb
  • The Lurking Fear
  • The Thing on the Doorstep
  • Cool Air
  • The Rats in the Walls
  • The Music of Erich Zann
  • The Haunter of the Dark

There you go. That’s your list of essential H.P. Lovecraft stories. I did leave a few off the list for you to discover on your own. Besides, you don’t want to limit yourself to the stories I like. What’s the fun in that? Go read a few more and find the ones you like best. When you do discover those little gems, leave a note in the comments to tell me what you found and why you liked it. I’d love to hear from you!

Jimmie Bise Jr

2 comments

  • Very informative. I’ve read quite a bit of Lovecraft, but it’s always fun to go back and discover ones I haven’t read before. Thanks!

  • Well, I want to thank you for robbing me of any further sleep tonight.
    After reading your cryptic reference to the name of the cat in “The Rats In The Walls”, I chose that story as my starting place, and I wish that I had saved the reading for daylight.
    However, now that I am up, I suppose I should go back for a second reading.

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