Writer Spotlight: A Lovecraft Primer

Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a weird fiction author who wrote primarily for the pulps. Obscure in his own time, he has now become one of the most popular and influential authors of the 20th century, in part due to his extensive correspondence and mentoring of young authors like Fritz Lieber, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch, and in larger part due to the influence of his particular brand of cosmic horror, exemplified through strange creatures like Cthulhu and fictional publications like the Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.

It’s possible you might be more familiar with Lovecraft’s creations than his stories. His most famous monster, the squid-headed and dragon-winged kaiju known as Cthulhu can be found as a plushie at Spencer Gifts and even had a guest starring role on several episodes of South Park. The book of arcane lore that Lovecraft invented, the Necronomicon, has featured in the Evil Dead movies and television program, as well as too many other stories and novels to mention. Lovecraft’s conception of cosmic horror, in which incomprehensible, malevolent and ancient alien beings substitute for the benevolent gods of human myth and religion, in which the secrets of the universe do not illuminate the nature of the cosmos but in fact lead to insanity and tragedy, has been echoed in horror and science fiction throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It found more resonance in the post-nuclear age than it did during Lovecraft’s lifetime.

Lovecraft is not without his issues. Chief among them are his racism. Lovecraft was particularly xenophobic during a period in history known for its general intolerance. His early fiction is marred by racial epithets and backwards, ignorant attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners. Lovecraft considered anyone who wasn’t either English or Anglo-American to be unacceptable – he had as much contempt for Irish- and Italian-Americans as he did for African- and Asian-Americans. Less inflammatory, Lovecraft’s Anglophilia and baroque language, to say nothing of his addiction to adverbs, makes reading his stories a struggle for some readers.

But I think, particularly at this time of year when the trees in Lovecraft’s beloved New England turn to fire, nights grow longer, spirits and goblins haunt every dark corner, and Jack O’Lanterns decorate front yards around the world, it’s worth taking a look at Lovecraft’s fiction.

But where to begin? In this day and age of tight continuity in films, comics, and television shows, where we are accustomed to season long arcs and the like, we can sometimes assume that previous generations expected the same and become daunted by the task of figuring out where to start with a particular author or creator. But previous generations didn’t do that sort of thing. Lovecraft, to be sure, was somewhat ahead of the curve by even linking all of his mythos stories together, but at the end of the day they were a mythos and not a continuity. Stories do make reference to what came before, and there is a certain satisfaction in reading them in their publication order, but this is not necessary. That wasn’t how they were meant to be read when Lovecraft produced them and one shouldn’t feel hindered by that notion now.

Here are ten stories that represent Lovecraft at his best.

“The Call of Cthulhu”

Written after Lovecraft returned to his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island following the failure of his marriage and a brief stint living in Brooklyn, “The Call of Cthulhu” is the first story of his that really knocked it out of the park. He’d had his successes before, but “The Call of Cthulhu” represents a maturation of his storytelling ability, the scope of his tales, and his ability to fully explore the nature of his philosophy of cosmic horror.

The tale is told by a young researcher who, while going through the papers of his late uncle, stumbles across an ancient conspiracy, at the heart of which is a cult that worships a starborn monster known by the unpronounceable syllables “Cthulhu.” As the tale unfolds, delving deeper and deeper into sub-tales like one of Scheherazade’s tales from the Thousand and One nights, it reaches a crescendo of horror as the titular monster rears his squid-like head. The nested structure of the story is part of what makes it such a good story, how each piece adds to the whole, allowing the reader to correlate the contents and make inescapable conclusions about the nature of reality and humanity’s place within it.

“The Colour Out of Space”

Relentlessly self-critical, Lovecraft rarely evidenced much favor for any of his own stories. Like any artist, he could always see where the cracks showed. But he actually had nice things to say about “The Colour Out of Space,” and well he should. Arguably his best story, “The Colour Out of Space” concerns the residue left by a strange meteor, and how it transforms the landscape and inhabitants of a small New England farm. This is a story without good or evil, without punishment or retribution, where terrible things happen to innocent people for no particular reason. The horror comes from outside the Earth, without any seeming agenda, and no one who encounters it is left unaffected.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”

While “Colour” may be Lovecraft’s best written story, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is perhaps one of his most popular. Certainly, it is one of the most action packed, with a tense chase scene as the protagonist attempts to escape the fog-shrouded, crumbling coastal town of Innsmouth and the townsfolk, who very much do not want him to leave. But before that happens, the protagonist and the reader are introduced to Innsmouth itself, its empty streets and strange denizens, who reflect some kind of strange inbreeding that leaves those who do walk about during the day resembling fish or frogs, and many others who remain indoors hiding from the public. As it turns out, Innsmouth has made an alliance with a race of amphibious monsters who need humanity for breeding stock. And that’s just for starters.

“The Shadow Out of Time”

Nathanial Peaslee has a hole in his mind. While lecturing in an economics class, he broke off in mid-sentence and woke up years later, carrying on as if the intervening years had not happened. For him, they did not. But apparently his body was occupied by something else, something that delved into arcane tomes and built strange machines and wandered the odd corners of the Earth. “The Shadow Out of Time” is narrated by Peaslee, one of the most finely constructed of Lovecraft’s characters. The loss of those years, and the loss of his family and career, have emotional weight that Lovecraft’s shadowy, unnamable horrors often lack. But there are shadowy, unnamable horrors aplenty as well. Peaslee attempts to recover his memories of the time he spent “away,” and to retrace his body’s steps to figure out who or what possessed him and why.

“The Dunwich Horror”

While all of Lovecraft’s stories share loose connections – places, characters, and events from other stories are mentioned or recur – the tone often varies from tale to tale. “The Dunwich Horror” is one of his most straight-forward horror adventure stories, with a clear villain set against a band of heroes trying to stop what the villain has set in motion. It’s practically a romp, with some fun characters, some good action sequences, and one of his more evocative settings, the rural, backwards town of Dunwich. Dunwich is a fictional version of Wilbraham, Massachusetts (birthplace of Friendly Ice Cream!), with a colorful cast of characters dwelling within its ramshackle buildings. It is also a tale that escalates, as the titular horror is not the first one the reader encounters.

“The Whisperer in Darkness”

Lovecraft may have failed high school math, but he was keenly interested in astronomy, chemistry, and other sciences. He often incorporated the latest discoveries and theories as he understood them into his fiction. On this occasion, the newly discovered planet of Pluto served as the impetus of the short story, as well as a chilling ending. “The Whisperer in Darkness” concerns the legends of a strange race of crustacean-like beings that haunt the green hills of Vermont, focusing on the correspondence between a professor of folklore at Miskatonic University who is familiar with the legends and a farmer in Brattleboro, Vermont who has proof of their reality.

This story holds special meaning for your humble writer. Not only does the action occur more or less in my backyard, but it also impressed me upon my first reading as a teenager that H. P. Lovecraft could take a ridiculous notion such as lobster men from outer space and make them not only believably creepy, but scary through a combination of mood, craft, tension, and description. That the characters in the story are unaware of what is painfully obvious to the reader lends a surprising punch to the tale.

“Rats in the Walls”

One of Lovecraft’s earlier stories, “The Rats in the Walls” was written as a kind of pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe, one of Lovecraft’s greatest influences, but it remains entirely Lovecraft’s. It concerns a wealthy American descended from English aristocracy who has recently lost his son due to injuries sustained in the Great War. The American purchases his ancestral manse in England and occupies it, only to discover the terrible legacy that is his. This is one of the most tightly plotted and well-constructed of Lovecraft’s stories, the only one to be anthologized within his own lifetime, and the combination of damaged protagonist and unspeakable horror makes for an effective, unsettling tale.

“The Haunter of the Dark”

The next to last story Lovecraft ever wrote, and his final solo story before his death from stomach cancer in 1937, “The Haunter of the Dark” moves the action out of the fictional locations of Arkham, Kingsport, or Innsmouth, and into Lovecraft’s beloved Providence. In the story, a writer of weird fiction based on Lovecraft’s friend Robert Bloch visits Providence on sabbatical and stumbles across the remains of a hoary old cult in the heart of the city. By accident, he summons up the creature that the cult had communed with, unwittingly unleashing a terrible curse upon the city.

At the Mountains of Madness

The last two I will mention are Lovecraft’s longer works, a pair of novellas that could not be more different from one another. At the Mountains of Madness concerns a geologic expedition to the Antarctic continent in the 1930s, at a time when the technology and safety equipment would have been much less comprehensive than they are now. Still, Lovecraft lingers lovingly over the expedition’s equipment and preparations, an unfortunately tedious part of the story that still serves to ground the reader in the mundane and the real before the truly fantastic rears its five-lobed head. The geologists uncover Cambrian horrors from a distant geologic age, immortal creatures that have merely slumbered for hundreds of millions of years, and pay the ultimate price for their curiosity. To find a missing colleague, two of the surviving researchers follow a trail to what they discover is an eons-old city of alien beings, sequestered behind a towering mountain range in the heart of the Antarctic. Their explorations uncover a secret history of the planet Earth and the ultimate origins of human life.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Young Charles Ward, who like so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists is a thinly veiled version of the author, is fascinated with an ancestor of his named Joseph Curwen. Curwen, it turns out, was a wealthy member of Providence society in the 18th century. He was also a wizard and a disciple of the Elder God Yog-Sothoth, a being more ancient and terrible than even Cthulhu. Ward becomes obsessed with his researches into his ancestor’s life, and eventually finds a way to bring Joseph Curwen back to life. Then the real fun begins.

Bonus

“Herbert West, Reanimator”

Until Stuart Gordon made the film Reanimator, Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” was one of the hardest of his to find. It’s not a mythos story, featuring little connection to the rest of Lovecraft’s fiction save for the location of Miskatonic University. And of course, it’s a comedy.

A very black, dark, mean-spirited comedy to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. It usually surprises people to learn that H. P. Lovecraft had a sense of humor, but he was actually a very funny guy who liked a good joke. He was much more personable than his reputation suggests, although he focused more on his correspondence than on physically meeting other people; he remained connected to a wide variety of pen pals across the United States. Yet he traveled often to meet with them, ranging all across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Quebec. He was no shut-in.

But I digress. “Herbert West, Reanimator,” is a black comedy about a Frankenstein-like student of medicine who seeks the ultimate medical knowledge: how to bring the dead back to life. He is continually stymied in his researches by the problem of not finding any corpses that are “fresh enough,” and yet he continues to awaken cannibal zombies who unleash havoc upon an unsuspecting world. In the end, his experiments catch up with him, but along the way there are some fun set-pieces, a great deal of gallows humor, and some unfortunate racial politics.

Hopefully one or more of these will strike your fancy and you’ll give them a look to celebrate the Halloween season. Lovecraft has long been in the public domain and his stories are available for free many places online.