You've heard about Cthulhu, and you've probably heard about the man who created this tentacled horror, H.P. Lovecraft. Now you want to try delving into the world of Lovecraft, but where to start? Let us help you.
There are so many terrific, iconic stories by HP Lovecraft that no introductory list could ever satisfy completely. But here are eight stories and novellas that will introduce you to the main concepts in Lovecraft's world, as well as exposing you to some of his obsessive preoccupations. You can read the full text of all of these stories at Project Gutenberg.
"At the Mountains of Madness"
The tale of an ill-fated expedition to the mountains of Antarctica, this story explains the ancient, alien history of Earth as well as giving us a glimpse of "the Old Ones," the "shoggoths," and some backstory on the "spawn of Cthulhu." When the expedition discovers an ancient, alien-built city buried beneath the ice, they also find out what led to that city's demise. And let's just say it had to do with giant, shambling, polymorphous beings. What's great about this story is that it explains how many of the spooky, seemingly-magical beasts we encounter in other stories actually have an extraterrestrial (or biotechnological) origin.
"Call of Cthulhu"
While it may not be the very best of Lovecraft's stories, this tale introduces his most legendary monster and the madness it can bring upon the world. Just one glimpse of the tentacled visage of Cthulhu, and the non-Euclidean geometry of his city, is enough to turn an entire boat of tough sailors into shattered husks.
"Shadow Over Innsmouth"
One of my personal favorites in the Lovecraft canon, this story is also one of the more thoughtful, character-driven pieces that Lovecraft ever wrote. It's the tale of an antiquarian who comes across a forgotten, decaying New England town filled with oddly-mutated people who worship a strange deity called Dagon. Here we see Lovecraft dealing with an issue that preoccupies him in many stories - the terrifying and seductive results of a carnal intermingling between alien monsters and humans. Our hero is at first repulsed, then fascinated, by a town whose alliance with Cthulhu's spawn has resulted in a strange (and possibly beautiful) hybrid culture.
Here Lovecraft delves deeply into the power of a mystical book he mentions in several stories, the Necronomicon by the "mad Arab Abdul Alhazred." A young antiquarian seeks the mysterious book at Miskatonic University (another favorite fictional institution of Lovecraft's), and then discovers that it holds a key to stopping a terrible force growing inside the barn of a local farmhouse.
"The Colour Out of Space"
One of Lovecraft's most straightforwardly science fictional stories, about a meteorite whose color begins to colonize everything around itself.
"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"
Sometimes called Lovecraft's only novel, this story is really more of a novella. It is also, like "Innsmouth," a revealing character study as much as it is a tale of historical terror whose claws reach into present-day Providence, Rhode Island. Ward, a young antiquarian (yes, Lovecraft has a lot of these), becomes interested in the papers of his ancestor Curwen, a man who grew rich trading in mysterious items from overseas, as well as in the slave trade. Curwen also built a house outside town, atop a vast underground catacombs devoted to nefarious experiments with the undead. Slowly, Ward is consumed by his obsession with Curwen, eventually attempting a dangerous experiment that will allow him to communicate with this once-powerful wizard from beyond the grave. There are several autobiographical flourishes here too, as Lovecraft sets the story in places familiar to him in Rhode Island, as well as bringing in characters who resemble historical figures in Providence history. It's an incredible, must-read Lovecraft story, full of the historical details that he loved as well as an alternate history of the slave trade that involves spirits as well as people.
"The Horror at Red Hook"
This is Lovecraft's classic story of the ghoulish goings-on beneath the cosmopolitan streets of New York City, where the writer lived for a few years in an immigrant neighborhood known as Red Hook. Here you'll see Lovecraft's usual obsessions - the horror of miscegenation/hybrid cultures, ancient forces from prehistory - set in an urban landscape rarely glimpsed in his generally-rural tales.
"The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath"
This is another of Lovecraft's near-novels, and is a crucial part of the author's surreal "dream cycle" of stories that involve the swashbuckling dream hero Randolph Carter. Unlike Lovecraft's usual heroes, who tend to be nerdy antiquarians or shivering half-monsters, Carter knows how to use a sword and trick the gods. In this adventuresome tale, we follow Carter through the dream world, from a city of cats (Lovecraft was very fond of these furry creatures), all the way to the Moon where a god of space (an "outer god") known as Nyarlathotep or the Crawling Chaos tries to trick Carter into abandoning his quest to dwell one day in a perfect city he once dreamed about.
Crucial biographical details
Though his stories are fantastical, Howard Phillips Lovecraft often pulled bits of his real life into them. Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, at the turn of the twentieth century, Lovecraft was a sickly child who was passionate about both ancient history and astronomy. Some of his first writing is about astronomy, in fact. His fixation on history was related in part to his fascination with pure Nordic cultures, and he once described himself in an essay as a "chalk-white racist."
But he was also a bundle of contradictions. When Lovecraft became a young man, he began contributing to - and eventually editing - the premiere pulp science fiction/horror zine of his day, Weird Tales. Through the group of friends he made while contributing to Weird Tales, he met an independent businesswoman named Sonia Greene. A Jewish immigrant to New York City, she brought Lovecraft to the city and they eventually married. So despite Lovecraft's horror at miscegenation, and his protestations that he was a racist, the one romance of his short life was with a Jewish immigrant.
After their marriage deteriorated, Lovecraft returned to his hometown of Providence in the mid-1920s, where he wrote some of his very best stories. Though he was poor, he was happy living with his aunt in a large house, and often spent his days hiking around Providence and writing in the city's beautiful, light-filled library called The Atheneum. When his aunt died, and then his good friend Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan books and a Weird Tales contributor) committed suicide, he fell into what today we would probably call clinical depression. He grew steadily more destitute, ate poorly (he mainly consumed bread, candies and coffee), and his health declined. He died at the age of 47, in 1937, shortly after completing his novella "The Shadow Out of Time."
The definitive biography of H.P. Lovecraft is S.T. Joshi's H.P. Lovecraft: A Life.
Crucial literary connections
Two of Lovecraft's best friends and correspondents were Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, both contributors to Weird Tales and famous pulp authors in their own rights. Howard's work is probably remembered more today, with the help of the Conan movies, but Smith's work is usually deemed of higher literary merit. Prime Books is about to issue a handsome collection of Smith's stories called The Return of the Sorcerer.
Another of Lovecraft's great friends and literary champions was the writer and editor August Derleth, who kept Lovecraft's work in print long after the writer had died. In fact, it is probably Derleth's editorial efforts we have to thank for Lovecraft's cult status today.
One of Lovecraft's greatest influences was the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, who wrote about faeries and dreams in a poetic style that finds its way into Lovecraft's work as well. Like Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote reams of poetry but is largely remembered for his fantastical stories.
Crucial adaptations of, and immersions in, Lovecraft's tales
There are so many amazing stories, comic books, and movies that have been influenced by Lovecraft - not always in a good way - that it would be impossible to list them all. But here are some standouts.
Dreams in the Witch House
This was Stuart Gordon's entry in the "Masters of Horror" series on TV, and it's a great, modern-day adaptation of the Lovecraft story. There is even a moment when we see some terrifying geometry that is, in fact, sort of terrifying. Gordon has adapted several other Lovecraft tales, some more faithfully than others. While Gordon's Re-Animator is a true cult classic, it shares almost nothing with the Lovecraft story that inspired it, other than the main character's name, Herbert West. Same goes for Gordon's film From Beyond, which was inspired by Lovecraft too.
A truly great Stuart Gordon adaptation, however, is Dagon - based on the short story "Shadow Over Innsmouth." While some of the movie is by necessity campy - sorry, but there is just no way to represent the church of Dagon without some seriously goofy outfits - it captures the poignancy of the original story. The ending of this movie is possibly the most truly Lovecraftian moment I've ever seen committed to film. (See a NSFW clip from the movie here.)