The Madness Behind the Man: 10 H.P. Lovecraft Stories Worth Rereading
Why not let Lovecraft's fears of the unknown become yours for a while this Halloween?
Arguably the forerunner of the long-forgotten amateur journalism movement and the weird fiction sub-genre, H.P. Lovecraft was predominately published in pulp magazines throughout his lifetime and only achieved fame in the years after his death from intestinal cancer at the age of 46.
The New Annotated H. P. LovecraftPublisher: Chartwell
Author: H. P. Lovecraft, Leslie S. Klinger, ed.
Publication date: 2016-07
Seen by many as the successor to Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft's tales of classic horror would go on to influence other contemporary writers in the genre such as Stephen King and Clive Barker. Unfortunately, the pulp fiction writer's legacy is tainted, as his work has been criticized for being anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic. Indeed, there's little doubt that Lovecraft had a deep-seeded mistrust of blacks, Jews, southern Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Mexicans, French Canadians, and just about anyone else who was not a “light-skinned Nordic".
He once wrote, “In general, America has made a fine mess of its population, and will pay for it in tears amidst a premature rottenness unless something is done extremely soon." It's because of statements like these that the horror icon's name is sometimes associated with the championing of the “master race".
However, in his later years, Lovecraft's attitude towards ethnicity, race, and class softened, and he even married a Jewish woman whom he viewed as “well assimilated". So, perhaps, the author's depictions of the grotesque aspects of modern society came from his own fears of the unknown. Fears of a world that, at the beginning of the 20th century, would become a reality with the unfolding of World War II and the nuclear arms race; events that the shy, isolated writer didn't live to witness, but dreaded, nevertheless.
For those of us enduring these times in corporeal form, what follows are, in my mind, the top ten stories by the man behind the Deep Ones, the Mad Arab, the Old Ones, the Elder Gods, and Cthulhu himself.
Written in the summer of 1917, “Dagon" was first published in The Vagrant in November 1919 and later appeared in Weird Tales in October of 1923. Although not a direct tie-in, this short and sweet piece was one of Lovecraft's first to introduce a Cthulhu Mythos element.
After his cargo ship is captured by a German sea-rider, the unnamed narrator escapes on a lifeboat and drifts aimlessly at sea for three days. Finally, winding up on some strange terrain that appears to have risen up from the ocean floor, the mariner comes face to face with the massive titular deity, whose name is Hebrew for “little fish".
Insane with fear, the man flees the scene and miraculously returns to society. However, he's haunted by visions of the ancient creature and addicted to morphine, just waiting for the end with the “slippery body" lumping against the door.
9. "The Whisperer in Darkness"
Written between February and September of 1930, “The Whisperer in Darkness" was first published in Weird Tales in August 1931. Once again, it's not a central part of the Cthulhu Mythos, but it does make reference to the shared fictional universe and introduces the Mi-go, an extraterrestrial race of fungoid creatures.
This piece is told through the eyes of Albert N. Wilmarth, an instructor of literature at Lovecraft's fictional Miskatonic University, which is located in the fictitious town of Arkham in Essex County, Massachusetts. After Wilmarth receives a letter from Henry Wenthworth Akeley, his correspondent in Vermont and fellow folklorist, the assistant professor begins to investigate the strange events that followed in the wake of the historic Vermont floods of 1927.
In his letters, Akeley warns of the previously described extraterrestrial race and human agents that worshipped several beings, such as Cthulhu and Nyarathotep. At the time of publication, Lovecraft had already established these entities in their own short stories.
8. "Herbert West-Reanimator"
Written throughout 1921 and 1922 as a parody of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, “Herbert West-Reanimator" was first published in Home Brew in February 1922 and later reprinted after Lovecraft's death in Weird Tales in March 1942.
It's also the first to mention the famed Miskatonic University, where the titular character and narrator, West's only friend and an Igor-like character, graduate with their MDs. Later, the two go into business together as licensed doctors, by day. But, by night, they go about their morally reprehensible experiments, which involves reanimating their dead subjects.
One of their subjects, a black boxer, is killed during one of his prizefights by Kid O' Brian. Although the fighter's name suggests Irish descent, his “un-Hibernian hooked nose" implies that he's actually Jewish. This exemplifies Lovecraft's fear that America, like West, was molding its various ethnicities into one massive hybrid.
“Herbert West-Reanimator" would later be adapted for the screen in 1985 by director Stuart Gordon, who would also adapt Lovecraft's “Dreams in the Witch-House" for an episode of Masters of Horror (2005-2007), created by Mick Garris (Desperation, Riding the Bullet).
7. "The Color Out of Space"
Written in March of 1927, immediately after the publication of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and during the final revision of his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature", “The Color Out of Space" was first published in Amazing Stories in September 1927.
Told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed surveyor from Boston, it recounts the narrator's attempts to piece together the story of an area known by the locals as the “blasted heath" in the wild hills west of the once again fictitious town of Arkham, Massachusetts. The “blasted heath" is a phrase from both John Milton's Paradise Lost and William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
As it turns out, a meteorite that never cooled crashed there three years prior. This causes vegetation to grow large but tasteless, and drives animals to go mad and even die. Lovecraft stated that the inspiration for his personal favorite story came from the newly constructed Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island. Being the largest body of water in the state, the reservoir flooded much of the town of Scituate and forced the majority of its residents to relocate.
6. "The Rats in the Walls"
Written in August and September of 1923, “The Rats in the Walls" was first published in Weird Tales in March 1924. It is also seen by many as a nod to Lovecraft's literary icon Edgar Allan Poe and his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart", which was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843.
In this dark tale, the last living heir to the De la Poer family moves from Massachusetts to his new estate in England, the run-down Exham Priory. Still grieving the death of his only son, who died during World War I, the narrator fixes up Priory. He then begins to hear, along with his cat, the sound of rats behind the walls, and later learns that he comes from a long line of cannibals who raised generations of “human cattle" underground. Like his ancestors, the man's peculiar taste eventually gets the better of him.
Once again, Lovecraft's racial attitudes are brought into question, since one of the narrator's cats is named is "Nigger Man". The author had, in fact, owned a beloved cat of the same name until 1904.
5. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"
Written from January to March 1927, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" first appeared posthumously in Weird Tales in May 1941. Being one of Lovecraft's longest works, it was originally written as a much shorter story. However, the writer realized he still had more to say, due to the story's theme that New England was still "witch-haunted" by its dark past.
Here, Charles Dexter Ward becomes obsessed with his distant ancestor, Joseph Curwen, an alleged wizard with questionable habits. Closely resembling Curwen, Ward attempts to duplicate his ancestor using his magical feats. But he gets more than he bargained for when he resurrects the prominent family member.
The theme of a descendant closely resembling an ancestor has previously appeared in Nathaniel Hawthorne's gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851. Lovecraft once called Hawthorne “New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature", which was first featured in the one-issue magazine The Recluse, published in 1927.
4. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"
Written between November-December of 1931, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth" first appeared in a small press publication by Visionary Publishing Co. in 1936 and once again after Lovecraft's death in Weird Tales in January 1942. It was also the writer's only story to be published in book form during his lifetime.
This late Lovecraft masterpiece focuses on an unnamed student on an antiquarian tour of a decaying New England village that just so happens to be home to an alien race known as the “Deep Ones". It is here that these aquatic monsters have been interbreeding with the residents of the titular seaport town and spawning amphibian hybrids.
Due to the deterioration of Innsmouth's culture at the hands of the villainous foreigners, the racist and xenophobic themes are undeniable. However, perhaps the evil depicted is not so much the result of mixing between different racial groups, but rather humanity's greed and search for immortality, which is represented in the exotic jewelry and relics displayed in the town's museum.
3. "The Shadow Out of Time"
Written during 1934 and 1935, “The Shadow Out of Time" first appeared in Astounding Stories in June 1936. One of Lovecraft's last attempts at fiction, its troubling ending leaves its reader in awe of our relatively minor role in the universe.
“The Shadow Out of Time" indirectly tells the story of the Great Race of Yith, an extraterrestrial race with the ability to travel through space and time. Populating much of the Earth until their demise in the late Cretaceous era, the source of the Great Race's power came from their ability to switch bodies with an intended host.
One such host is Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a psychology professor at none other than Miskatonic University. For five years, he is possessed by the Yithians, whose civilization was destroyed eons ago by their arch rivals, a pre-human race described as “half-polypous" creatures. However, Peaslee discovers that the Yithians have inhabited human bodies ever since, and will continue to do so after that which makes man "mankind" is long gone.
2. "At the Mountains of Madness"
Written during February and March 1931, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright had rejected the novella that same year due to its length. However, At the Mountains of Madness would later be published in three installments in Astounding Stories from February to April 1936.
Cinematic in scope, there's little doubt that at the time of its publication, Lovecraft's work had reached its height. Unfortunately, Astounding Tales paid the author but a pittance for the epic piece.
Told from the first-person perspective of William Dyer, a professor at, yes, you guessed it, Miskatonic University. The geologist leads a much-publicized expedition to Antarctica, and to the dismay of the travelers, they discover the remains of a once great civilization that deteriorated in the Lovecraft universe. This one fell due to a war between the natives, the Mi-go race, and the titular character of this list's final installment.
1. "The Call of Cthulhu"
Most likely written in August or September 1926, “The Call of Cthulhu", the quintessential Lovecraft story, first appeared in Weird Tales in February 1928. Although it's considered to be a mere expansion of “Dagon", this monumental achievement is certainly more than that.
Extremely loose in its structure; being told through newspaper clippings and as a story within a story, within another story, Cthulhu's plot involves the discovery of some lost documents and a mysterious cult that worships the “great Sleeper", who will one day awaken to wreak havoc on our tiny little island of ignorance.
Nevertheless, our octopus-like friend has clearly taken his place within America culture; being referenced in video games such as World of Warcraft and Fallout 3, South Park's “Coon and Friends", and Metallica's song “The Thing That Should Not Be", which appeared on their 1986 album Master of Puppets. Perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the story is that the Sleeper of R'lyeh, which “waits dreaming", can be seen as an amalgam of the creator's -- as well as the 20th century's -- greatest fears that had yet to be realized.