An Introduction to HP Lovecraft: 5 Essential Stories
One of the masters of literary horror, HP Lovecraft's work can be a little intimidating to new readers. We offer you five favorites to help ease you into the horrific world of elder gods and madness.
People come upon HP Lovecraft in many different ways. Some people discovered Lovecraft’s works in the 1960s-1970s when many of his stories were rereleased in the form of graphic novels, pulp stories, and other works. For some it came with the introduction of HP Lovecraft RPG. The two most well known of these RPGs are "Arkham Horror" and "Call of Cthulhu." Or perhaps you found HP Lovecraft through stranger means: Cthulhu plushies, the Re-Animator film series, the “Ask Lovecraft” channel on YouTube...or you’ve simply stumbled upon this article. In any case, welcome. If NecronomiCon 2013 was any indication, you are in good company.
HP Lovecraft’s Brief Life
But before we dive into the logistics of how to read HP Lovecraft, let’s talk a little about Howard Philips Lovecraft, the Gentleman from Providence. ST Joshi has written extensively about HP Lovecraft’s life. Joshi writes of Lovecraft’s fairly normal childhood. His mother and his aunts raised him after his father was committed to an asylum for what Joshi and others believe was neurosyphilis. Otherwise, he lived a fairly normal life. Joshi talks about how Lovecraft had a few very loyal friends growing up in Providence, Rhode Island. He loved learning and was intensely curious about the world around him. He also declared himself an atheist by eight years old. He grew up a sickly young man who was saved from becoming a recluse by his intense interest in pulp magazines and weird fiction.
It was this intense interest and a love of writing that would lead HP Lovecraft to revolutionize American horror. He began writing for these independent pulp fiction rags in the early 1920s. He also began great friendships and great rivalries with his fellow writers. Much of this can be seen in the letters he sent. He eventually married and divorced. At one point he lived in New York City but found that he was miserable outside of Providence. He died at the age of 46 due to untreated cancer. During his lifetime he never found mainstream success. He also continued to harbor racial prejudice that can be found in much of his writing. He would probably have been considered racist even in his own time. And yet, in other ways he was incredibly progressive. He was an outspoken atheist and a strong promoter of science. And if he had lived longer he may have eventually found mainstream success in the shape of a new art form: the comic book. But alas, we will never know what he could have been in his old age.
When people begin to read HP Lovecraft, they are often intimidated by his use of language. Lovecraft was in love with history and it is reflected in his antiquated use of language. This language was considered “old-fashioned” even during his life. Lovecraft’s use of this language accentuates the ancient magic that his writings examine.
But HP Lovecraft’s unique style doesn’t stem purely from his love of antiquated linguistics. Lovecraft also had a unique style of description. During NecronomiCon 2013, speaker after speaker discussed Lovecraft’s ability to both call something indescribable while then going on to describe it. He uses a great deal of adjectives without ever painting a clear picture. And while this can be frustrating for readers, it is done in order to emphasize Lovecraft’s ideas of the unnameable, the indescribable, and the unspeakable.
The Themes of Lovecraft
Though HP Lovecraft can be, at times, difficult to understand it is important to note that there are distinct thematic elements in most of his works. The element that is most spoken about is the idea of the “unnameable”, the “unspeakable”, and the “indescribable.” Lovecraft often writes about Elder Gods so hideous that a person would go mad if they saw them. Therefore, the only characters in Lovecraft that look unspeakable horror in the eyes are also the very ones that are rendered incapable of describing it. Lovecraft knew that the reader’s internal imagination was so much greater than the power of words. In layman’s terms, Lovecraft knew not to show the monster. Showing the monster renders the audience capable of categorizing, compartmentalizing, and dissecting. Lovecraft’s genius is not allowing the audience to do that. He only gives the audience permission to peak and then takes it away. And he always implies that he is protecting us from the horrors behind the curtain.
Another major thematic element of Lovecraft is use of madness as a plot element. Many of his characters that are exposed to various horrors become mad. To him, madness is simply a natural reaction to the experience of true horror, and not an innate trait. It is a state of being that all humans are capable of falling into if presented with the right set of circumstances. HP Lovecraft writes in the Call of Cthulhu, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” From his perspective, ignorance is the only thing protecting the human mind from madness.
And finally, one of the major themes of Lovecraft is the concept of cosmic horror. Perhaps the best definition of cosmic horror comes from Leeman Kessler, a Canadian actor/comedian best known for his YouTube channel “Ask Lovecraft.” Kessler states “…it is a daunting thing to face the cold stark reality of a universe so cosmically black and vast that it doesn’t even care enough to dislike us.” In many of Lovecraft’s tales, humanity is simply a speck of cosmic dust. And there are creatures in the universe so old and so powerful that we are nothing to them. Our existence has no meaning or reason. And that is the horror of the cosmos.
So now that you’re ready to dive into Lovecraft, you may be wondering “where do I start?” HP Lovecraft wrote over 100 short stories and countless letters. Diving in, even when you’re ready, may be a little daunting. Here are the five tales you may want to start with in no particular order.
1. The Color Out of Space – The story of a meteorite that crashes to Earth that sucks the life out of everything around it. Time after time HP Lovecraft experts cite The Color Out of Space as Lovecraft’s best work. It truly exemplifies the use of cosmic horror in Lovecraft’s writing. And it also refuses us a nice, neat, tied together ending. It is one that should be adapted into film.
2. The Call of Cthulhu – A strange series of events lead investigators to discover a cult worshipping ancient evil. Cthulhu is probably the best known of HP Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. Cthulhu has made appearances in RPGs, geeky mash-ups, and in cuddly stuffed elder god form. This story is really where our love of Cthulhu stems from so it shouldn’t be missed.
3. The Thing on the Doorstep – A man justifies the murder of his best friend by describing a horrific tale of identity theft. This tale is incredibly compelling and haunting. It brings out some of the worst fears regarding marriage, identity, and the occult. It is a story that lingers with the reader.
4. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – A young man becomes obsessed with an ancestor that resembles him in more ways than one. This is the one of the longest of HP Lovecraft’s tales. It is a novella that has been adapted into the film The Resurrected. Although it is a longer piece, it really captures Lovecraft’s obsession with raising the dead and it may one of the first takes on the “modern” zombie.
5. The Shadow Over Innsmouth – Whereas there exists a strange town where people aren’t quite what they seem. This story is incredible for many reasons including that it adds to the Cthulhu Mythos by describing the worship of the Elder God Dagon. It is also an interesting read because it reveals many of the unfortunate prejudices of HP Lovecraft and reveals a great deal about what he found to be terrifying about the modern world.
Did we miss any of your favorites? You know what to do! Tell us in the comments!