There are few names as influential to the horror genre as H.P. Lovecraft, particularly given his relatively scant output and short life. His blend of weird and speculative fiction, gothic horror, and dark fantasy has terrified and enthralled readers in near equal measure for decades. Despite his broad-ranging influence and status as perhaps the most influential author of horror fiction of the twentieth century, engaging with the works of Lovecraft can feel like a daunting task. Despite the length of most of his works– Lovecraft primarily wrote short fiction or novellas– the worlds and mythologies Lovecraft created were dense affairs. His writings steeped in speculative sci-fi, weird fiction, and Lovecraft’s own literary philosophy: Cosmicism.
The idea of Cosmicism, a literary style and philosophy developed by Lovecraft, is the central underlying theme of all of his work. Cosmicism posits the insignificance of man in relation to the universe. In much of Lovecraft’s fiction, his protagonists are forced to face up to the triviality of their existence on a grand cosmic scale, and realize that there are creatures in the cosmos vastly more intelligent and powerful than humanity. It is a bleak and unforgiving view, but one that is central to the horror of Lovecraft.
So, where do you step into this unrelenting world of haunting atmosphere, existential horror, and creeping dread? Lovecraft’s works are generally split into two distinct cycles: The Cthulhu Mythos and The Dream Cycle. The Cthulhu Mythos is largely synonymous with Lovecraft and deals primarily with protagonists forced to confront the cosmic horrors that have shaped the earth and still lurk, often dormant, in its darker reaches. The Dream Cycle is more fantastical, telling stories of an otherworldly dreamscape but are nonetheless bleak and horrifying. I’ve pulled together the list below to get you started in each.
The Cthulu Mythos
Note: A number of these and other stories in the Cthulhu Mythos can be found in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft and edited by S.T. Joshi.
Call of Cthulu
While arguably one of his lesser works, The Call Of Cthulu is none the less an important piece of the Lovecraft puzzle – particularly if you’re interested in the Cthulu Mythos. Perhaps Lovecraft’s most well-known creation, Cthulu is an immense Great Old One slumbering within non-Euclidian walls of the dead city of R’lyeh. Told from the point of view of Francis Wayland Thurston, The Call of Cthulu recounts Thurston’s discovery of Cthulu, the Cult of Cthulu, and the horrifying experiences of a crew of sailors after discovering the city of R’lyeh and inadvertently releasing Cthulu.
At the Mountains of Madness
This was my introduction into the world of H.P. Lovecraft and still consider this novella a great entry point. Centering on a scientist recounting his experiences on a disastrous Antarctic expedition in the hopes of discouraging a second attempt by others, At the Mountains of Madness is in many ways a foundational text for Lovecraftian fiction. It presents an ancient and alien history of the Earth and more importantly introduces the Elder Things and the Shoggoth as well mentioning a number of the Great Old Ones (cosmic deities of indescribable power).
The Dunwich Horror
Set in fictional Dunwich, Massachussetts, this short story is not only a core piece of the Cthulhu mythos, but takes a deep look into the Necronomicon – a central fictional book in the Cthulhu mythos written by the Abdul Alhazred. The Dunwich Horror is the tale of Wilbur Whately – an unusual child who grows at an unsettling rate – but Wilbur is merely the precursor to a far more terrifying creature.
Shadow Over Innsmouth
This novella deals primarily with a theme that deeply fascinated Lovecraft – the comingling and breeding of humans and the spawn of Cthulhu. It centers on a young man who discovers a decaying seaport town home to disturbingly mutated people who worship a Great Old One known as Dagon. The story introduces a few common Lovecraft creations, notably the Deep Ones and the Esoteric Cult of Dagon.
The Dream Cycle
Note: The Dream Cycle can be found collected in Dreams of Terror and Death: The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft H.P. Lovecraft
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
This is the principle story featuring Randolph Carter – a frequent protagonist in Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. The story follows Carter on his search for the lost city of his dreams. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath ranges across much of the Dreamlands – an alternate realm that humans access via their dreams – and features a run-in with an Outer God (Cosmic beings of even greater power than the Great Old Ones).
The Silver Key
The Silver Key is a continuation of sorts of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and sees a middle aged sinking into despondency and finding it difficult to reach the Dreamlands. The story is more overtly philosophical than much of Lovecraft’s works, but is an integral part of the Dream Cycle.
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
Essentially the final Randolph Carter story (although he does appear or is referenced in other works), and sees Carter plunge deep into the cosmos to discover the nature the universe itself. It is a desolate encapsulation of Lovecraft’s philosophy on humanity place in the universe.
There you have it, a solid starting point to delve into the world of H.P. Lovecraft. It can be a grim and unforgiving place, but an essential one for horror and dark fantasy fans.