UPDATE NOTE (3 July 2011): Not really an update, I just ended the final paragraph, as it was incomplete somehow.
ORIGINAL POST: My friend Chris still hasn’t read HPL, though he is an excellent writer working in genre fiction and really, I imagined he would have somehow, for some reason, just because Lovecraft’s influence is so pervasive in the speculative arts. I think I was urging him to address that oversight, when he asked me which stories have meant the most to me. I figured I might as well blog it, and then, like most things I swear an oath to blog about, I promptly forgot it.
But he reminded me, and so here I am, blogging my list, which is destined to be lost in the place where favorites-lists go to die.
A little context, first: I came to HPL quite late. I’d been reading horror fiction, but only short fiction and only spottily — especially the excellent Borderlands anthologies put together by Thomas F. Monteleone. I was living in Edmonton, working at a music store in a mall during a year off from university, and I’m pretty sure it was my co-worker Paul Patience who recommended Lovecraft to me. Certainly, I was recommended the author by someone at the music store, and I think I’m remembering right that Paul had been a gamer and was a big fan of Bill Laswell — not that these lead straight to Rhode Island, mind, but it seems to fit together in my memories.
So I went down to whatever the hell bookstore was downstairs (Coles? W.H. Smith?) on my lunch break and picked up a couple of those Del-Rey editions of Lovecraft that were in most bookshops in those days. The ones I got were At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror and Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: the Best of H. P. Lovecraft.
Which is likely to inform my choice of stories. After all, I still have both those books with me, even all these years later, here in Korea. (I have a lot of books with me here in Korea, mind you.) What struck me might be somewhat arbitrary, of course, but I’ll just say, this isn’t intended as a list of “Lovecraft’s Best” or anything like that. Rather, it’s just stories that struck me personally. I’ll say a little about why each tale struck me as well, without spoiling it for those lucky few of you out there discovering Lovecraft for the first time.
Note: I’m not including links for each of the HPL stories below, but at the end of my post I’ll suggest a few places where you can get the works I’ve recommended either individually, or in a collected file.
- At the Mountains of Madness. HPL’s only real “novel,” and it might not exactly be one either. I don’t know the wordcount, but people certainly class it as a novel. It’s longer than
SteinbeckHemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, anyway… and a lot more interesting. If you’ve seen that John Carpenter film The Thing, you know something of this. It’s influential. It’s something that has seeped into the consciousness of the Western world. Indeed, when I read it, there was this weird spark of recognition: for me, it was this sudden sense of, “Hey, wait, this is like that Erich von Däniken guy’s Chariots of the Gods but as horror/SF, instead of flakey pseudoscience history!” And it is: von Däniken was ripping off French guys who in fact had ripped off Lovecraft, after all. It’s a novel in the form of a crescendo. Researchers, weird shit discovered in the Antarctic wastes. Lovecraftis bowing down before his elders — that is, especially, Poe, whose only novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket) also involved some action in Antarctica. I’d just read the Poe around this time, so the connection was extra-interesting to me. It’s spooky, it’s claustrophobic, it’s big (in the sense of the scope of awfulness imagined, and the vast dead emptinesses of time and space considered). I’d say more than any other piece by Lovecraft, it embodied for me that peculiarly atheistic, existential horror of which Lovecraft was the first true poet laureate.
- “The Statement of Randolph Carter” was, perhaps, the first Lovecraft story I ever read. I’m not sure, but I think I flipped the book I was looking at in the store open to that page and read it in the shop, it was so short. And chuckled to myself and decided this obviously author might be as good as weird and funny as I’d been told he was. It’s a gag, but a bleakly funny one: much less a grandpa joke than some kind of mind-curdling weird-uncle-from-the-sanatorium joke.
- “The Cats of Ulthar”: Sure, on one level it’s another gag story of the kind Lovecraft liked to write sometimes. But it’s a story from which I learned that contrasts are forceful, powerful things. Ulthar is a sunny, sweet town teeming with cats… and the reason why will make you shudder. How it got that way is lovingly told, if lovingly can include such nastiness.
- “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” If you want to understand the jokes I make about the (poor) quality of construction in the (newly-opened but already-cracking-up) building where I work, you need to read this story. Those references I make to non-Euclidean geometries, to the peculiar angles and strange vertexes, are references to “The Dreams in the Witch House.” (While I haven’t yet seen any creature so singular as Brown Jenkin, I would not be surprised to encounter him in the halls of the university’s older buildings at some point.) This is a tale that sketches out the descent of a mind into insanity by means of hardcore study: for that reason, I think perhaps it might be the one story most fitting to adaptation in Korean cinematic form… if only one could really depict the stuff the poor, er, hero of the piece sees.
- “The Music of Erich Zann.” I gave this story to my creative writing class for a lesson on critical reading: that is, on letting the story inform you on what its own criteria for success are. “The Music of Erich Zann” is about the alienating power of art, of transcendent contact with the infinite and cold expanses of ultimate reality. It’s a piece that has been adapted well to video form, too, and is the story I’m most likely to write up a treatment for filming, with a Korean cast and in a Korean setting. It also follows a familiar form, and at least one other Lovecraft story does so as well, though with another art form: “Pickman’s Model” deals with a painter of horrific paintings… but is really about the aesthetics, the skill, and the artistry necessary to be a practitioner of weird or horrific arts. In some deeper way, I think it’s also about Lovecraft’s work itself, just as “The Music of Erich Zann” is a mirror on the anxieties and terrors and unease and estrangement that lay at the core of Lovecraft’s own work, and the work of those he admired.
- “The Call of Cthulhu.” What do an academic, a police inspector, a ship’s captain, and our poor narrator have in common? They all Know Too Much, that’s what… This is the classic Cthulhu Mythos tale, and the one that I suppose inspired the aspect of Cthulhu games most amusing and unusual when compared with other RPG games: the idea that confrontation with the Most Awful Truth can drive one insane, making one go raving lunatic mad. I could have recommended “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Color Out of Space” here instead, but for me, The Call of Cthulhu is the one that came to mind first for this list.
- I may be the victim of a slippery mind (my own!), but I remember fondly listening at Clarion West to my classmate Mark Bukovec reading “The Haunter of the Dark” to a group of us one night after our instructor for the week, Ian R. MacLeod, mentioned the tale in the course of discussing someone’s story. Most of us gathered there knew Lovecraft at least well enough to giggle at the moments where Lovecraft’s antique phrasings turned most convoluted — and yet, we also learned something from it, I like to think, for the texture of the tale more than held us and gave us pleasure as we listened to our narrator. Lovecraft does many things that young, aspiring writers are told, quite explicitly, not to do. And yet it works, it grabs one and holds one. Which is not to say one ought to write like HPL — even if one could — but rather to say that the rules are, well, rules for a certain kind of writing, and not for all writing. And perhaps that following rules will never make your work singular… even as, in Lovecraft’s tales, one learns that the price demanded of rule-breakers is occasionally their sanity.
- “The Outsider”“What the Moon Brings” are tales I love simply for its gloppy, purple, hyperventilative prose. It exults in its own writtenness, in a way that makes me laugh when I hear people speak about how prose should be clear, unobtrusive, and so on.
Bonus Round: Recommended Lovecraftian texts by anyone other than HPL himself:
- Resume With Monsters by William Browning Spencer: Lovecraftian horror and the horror of pointless dead end office work intersect to great comedic effect. The plotting has faded from my memory, as I read it a decade ago, but it is a triumph, as I remember, especially a comedic one.
- “The Black Man With the Horn” by T.E.D. Klein: This novella, collected in Klein’s Dark Gods, is one I read over a decade ago, and the details are sketchy in my memory, beyond that I thought it was an excellent, excellent Lovecraft tribute, about an author who was a friend of Lovecraft’s and has lived in his shadow all his career, and who, like so many Lovecraft characters, stumbles onto stuff he was better off not knowing about. It’s one of the first tales I read that grappled with HPL’s more distasteful side in an honest, direct way while also spelunking the dark regions of the imagination that HPL so feverishly mapped out; but it’s also about the whole industry of Lovecraftian pastiches and tributes and schlock that followed after the man’s wake.
- The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross: Stross has fused Lovecraftian horror with [post-]Cold War spy-thrillery-type narrative a few times, but this one is the standout for me, mainly due to the humor. Of course, I haven’t yet gotten to the later books in this series — I’m mainly comparing it to “A Colder War,” which is also good, but didn’t amuse me as much as The Atrocity Archives.
- Though I haven’t yet gotten around to it yet, the stellar author/editor Nick Mamatas has written a Lovecraft/Kerouac mashup called Move Under Ground which is available under a Creative Commons license online, and about which I’ve heard pretty consistently great things. You can preview it here (and send Mamatas a dollar). You can also download it in a bunch of formats from Manybooks.net.
- There is, of course, my own Lovecraft-tribute, the story “Of Melei, of Ulthar” which appeared (online) in Clarkesworld in October 2009. You’ll probably want to have read at least Lovecraft’s own “The Cats of Ulthar” beforehand, and maybe “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” so that the references mean more to you.
For those interested in reading some of the Lovecraftian stories mentioned above, well, there’s the Internet. But specifically, there’s a ton of his work available for free at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive. You can also download a fair number of his stories individually from places like Manybooks.net. Cthulhu Chick, maker of fine crocheted Cthulhu dolls (like these), has also done up an ebook collection of the (almost?) complete works of Lovecraft for ebook readers that can handle formats like epub, mobi, and others.)
If you’re looking for print editions, I don’t know how “good” they are but I read the older Del Rey editions and they were good enough for me. The newer editions might be preferable in that they sort his work into different periods (the Dreamlands stuff, for example, is primarily in one book, as are the Cthulhu Mythos tales), which is handy; also, by going with one series, you can avoid the endless problem of overlap between anthologies — buying a book because it has a few stories you haven’t read, even while it has ten stories you have read. Lovecraft aficionados might have a different preference, but you’d have to go ask them to know more about that.
Those of a more scholarly bent might be interested in S.T. Joshi’s The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, though I think that’s something for people who’re already very interested in how the man’s work related to his life and circumstances. (It’s a book I’d very much like to check out sometime, but haven’t had a chance to look at yet.) Another book I haven’t read yet (not yet, but I will) is Michel Houllebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, about which I have heard good things.