On the surface, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) seems like an enigma, an intentionally difficult puzzle that both appeals to and repulses readers. As a man, biographies and Lovecraft’s own letters reveal him to be an impoverished New England gentleman who held deeply prejudiced views. His racism was noticeable even during a time of widespread hatred, while his Anglophilia was so strong that he considered the American Revolution a mistake. Lovecraft also abhorred modernism and its attendant revolutions in writing and manners, and this reactionary mentality influenced his prose style, which can be called anything from “purple” to “overbearing.”
While many today maintain that H. P. Lovecraft was both a purely pulp stylist and an abysmal writer, his fans are legion, and because of this, his invisible hand can be discerned as a patron guiding horror and science fiction authors and filmmakers. In fact, the website The H. P. Lovecraft Archive has an entire section dedicated to his influence on popular culture. Not bad for a man who essentially died forgotten and penniless.
After his death on March 15, 1937, his friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei established the publishing company Arkham House for the purpose of preserving Lovecraft’s fiction, which, for the most part, had been previously confined only to the pages of pulp magazines. Because of the efforts of Derleth and Wandrei, Lovecraft’s fiction found an entirely new audience after World War II — an audience ill at ease with nuclear weapons, the ever-present threat of Soviet aggression and the new obsession with UFOs. In particular, this postwar audience found interest in Lovecraft’s fictional history of the world, what with its ardent atheism and nihilistic view of humanity. In Lovecraft’s mythology, man is but a plaything for prehistorical gods, and it is only a matter of time before this cosmic joke is eradicated by the whims of beings from outer space.
This mythology has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos (so named because of the tentacled monster that guards the underwater city of R’lyeh in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”). In this truly cosmic system, the “Great Old Ones” — a large pantheon of ancient deities originally from the outer reaches of space — have fallen into a deathlike slumber after being replaced on Earth by modern human beings. Although they sleep, theirs is not a peaceful rest, for from their watery and underground resting places they constantly communicate with their worshippers and those doomed souls with especially sensitive minds. Their goal is to rise again, and even though these plans are often thwarted in Lovecraft’s many tales, the knowledge of their existence inevitability drives the heroes insane. Rather than set one free, the truth in Lovecraft’s world is often deadly. As the author himself puts it in “The Call of Cthulhu”:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
Here are five stories by Lovecraft that shape those black seas of infinity into the Cthulhu Mythos:
1. “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928)
Published in the February 1928 issue of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, the titular character of “The Call of Cthulhu” is probably H. P. Lovecraft’s most recognizable creation. As a detective tale of sorts, this short story shifts between different narratives that are all linked by a foreboding sense of the outré. Underneath all of these strange occurrences is the secretive cult which the late Bostonian Francis Wayland Thurston has uncovered as a worldwide religion devoted to ancient aquatic god Cthulhu. This theme of hidden knowledge and alternative history runs throughout Lovecraft’s fiction, but after the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu,” it began to coalesce more or less into a distinct worldview.
2. “The Dunwich Horror” (1929)
Set in the rural wilderness of western Massachusetts, “The Dunwich Horror” follows one Wilbur Whateley, the bastard offspring of a family devoted to worshipping to “Great Old Ones” and to studying the Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire full of forsaken lore and magic. Whateley is ultimately defeated by Professor Warren Rice and Dr. Francis Morgan, two representatives of Lovecraft’s many scholarly protagonists. “The Dunwich Horror” is notable not only for its use of anachronistic Yankee dialects, but also its numerous references to the fictional Miskatonic University and the superstition surrounding whip-poor-wills.
3. At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
One of Lovecraft’s longest works, this novella was turned into a graphic novel by British artist I. N. J. Culbard in 2010 (more on his work later). At the Mountains of Madness owes much of its creeping melancholy to not only Lovecraft’s fascination with polar exploration, but also to the legacy of polar exploration in fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Told in the first-person by Miskatonic geologist Dr. William Dyer, At the Mountains of Madness details a scientific expedition to Antarctica that unearths the ancient and ruined city of the Elder Things of the Necronomicon.
4. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936)
As with “The Dunwich Horror,” this short story is set in the fictional Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth, yet another “strange, little town” in the history of American horror. As the narrator, an amateur genealogist named Robert Olmstead, goes deeper and deeper into town, he uncovers the unholy marriage between Innsmouth, the Marsh family and the weird creatures that live just out past the coastal waters. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a good example of another one of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes: guilt inherited by tainted blood. As such, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” takes fears of miscegenation to the extreme.
5. The Shadow out of Time (1936)
Like At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time is one of Lovecraft’s longest and most involved novellas. Moreover, The Shadow Out of Time was also turned into a graphic novel by Culbard in 2013. After a protracted coma which saw him become a topic of fascination for psychologists and psychiatrists around the world, the former Miskatonic Professor Nathaniel Peaslee embarks on a journey through the Australian outback in order to discover the lost civilization of the Yithians, a race of brilliant extraterrestrials who can travel through both space and time. Like other great minds from different epochs, Peaslee once had his mind switched with that of a Yithian in order for the alien to learn as much as possible about human civilization during the early 20th century. A profoundly pessimistic tale, The Shadow Out of Time was published nine months before Lovecraft died of cancer in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He was 46.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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