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Howard Phillips Lovecraft came into this world on August 20th, 1890, the only child of a rich mother and a father who would soon be acting strange. By 1893, W.S. Lovecraft’s behavior had become so chaotic that he was committed to Butler Hospital in the family’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He died five years later of “general paresis,” or general paralysis of the insane. Today, we would call it late-stage syphilis.
The episode had a profound effect on Lovecraft. Whether he knew the truth or not, he later told friends that his father perished of insomnia and overwork. As it turned out, “insomnia” and “overwork” are two of the chief complaints of Lovecraft’s characters when they are hiding a terrible secret.
The horror of H.P. Lovecraft is the horror of insignificance. His characters encounter beings with unfathomable power, and while they mostly live to tell the tale, they suffer through an awful epiphany — that their thoughts don’t matter, their desires don’t matter, and their entire existence is temporary and fragile… a soap bubble ready to burst.
Lovecraft wrote scores of stories, of which 68 were published during his lifetime and after his death. Of the major Lovecraftian themes, the cosmic horror has aged by far the best, and it is upon this foundation that his whole reputation rests. This is what we think of when we think of Lovecraft: the linked tales that make up the Cthulu Mythos (very few of which involve Cthulu), the Necronomicon, and the less-well known Dream Cycle starring Randolph Carter.
He also wrote tales of ghosts and vampires, science fiction, fantasies, parodies, poems, and exceedingly boring accounts of his own dreams. His literary pretensions to be the next Edgar Allen Poe mostly failed, and reading his early poetical works can feel like being cudgeled with a thesaurus. But that is hardly the biggest stain on his legacy.
H.P. Lovecraft was a vile bigot. In his stories, immigrants are slain for the crime of being immigrants, women’s brains are inferior to men’s, and people with darker skin tones are inherently dumber, more “primitive,” and more prone to evil deeds. He consistently returns to body horror themes of mixing white blood with other races or species, and Caucasians are constantly under threat.
For a while in the 1920s, Lovecraft lived in New York City. He hated it, primarily because of the heterogeneous mix of people. This prejudice shows up in his fiction. In “The Horror of Red Hook”, a cop fears for his safety around “swarthy, evil-looking foreigners,” and we’re supposed to tingle with dread as he describes dark-faced youths on corners, “playing eerily on cheap instruments.”
This is New York City in the Roaring Twenties, remember, and in retrospect, he’s offered an unintentionally hilarious description of jazz. It would be funnier if the author’s perspective weren’t so bleak. It’s all too easy to picture Lovecraft himself walking the streets of Manhattan, quaking with fear and envisioning violence against everyone who didn’t look like him.
Lovecraft’s views don’t improve when compared to his contemporaries: Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While other (better) authors pushed literature in exciting new directions, Lovecraft’s prose looked backwards, to Poe and to run-on sentences in the Victorian style. Even his prose was regressive.
Today, once-admirable writers like Orson Scott Card and J.K. Rowling have sullied their reputations by scare-mongering about Muslims and non-binary people, respectively. But their literature is kinder than their real lives. Card’s Ender’s Game is about failures of cross-species communication, and in the sequels Ender strives endlessly to understand other perspectives. As for the Harry Potter franchise, it was clearly intended to be an allegory for bigotry, with muggles, mudbloods, and pure families standing in for classist and racist institutions. These authors failed to live up to their own ideals. But in Lovecraft’s world, some people really are better than others, and communicating with strangers could lead to the end of civilization. Even compared to other bigots, he reads as narrow-minded and mean-spirited.
On the other hand, Lovecraft is dead and his works are in the public domain. Studying his oeuvre is not financially supporting prejudice. Besides, he’s a foundational figure in speculative fiction, and those of us who love a good “What if…” must eventually wrestle with that literature’s racist past. I first encountered Lovecraftian horror in games like Diablo, Starcraft, and Dungeons and Dragons. His influence is felt in Stephen King, Stranger Things, and so many new and classic tales. We can acknowledge his influence and discuss his craft without forgetting what kind of person held the pen.
A listicle can be a cumbersome way to do that — after all, how do you rank something bigoted but written with style versus unreadable descriptions of dreams? And what about the less obviously hateful stories? How far down should tales be knocked for brief moments of xenophobia or vile throwaway lines? It can’t be done, at least not in a satisfying way. It’s no good lumping all the racist ones at the bottom — too many of them are racist. Eventually, judgment calls must be made.
But I will say that bigotry has an undeniable impact on quality. Something like “The Street”, with its white nationalism and explicit, abusive language, is full of leaps of logic that make it boring and stupid as well as offensive. It’s clearly in another category from The Shadow over Innsmouth, which is well-constructed, but based in Lovecraft’s own racist fears of mixed and dirty bloodlines. The Shadow over Innsmouth is a liminal moment in speculative fiction — one of the first times that an intense aura of dread was wedded to blockbuster pacing and taut action scenes.
The story is to horror writing what The Birth of a Nation was to film. D.W. Griffith’s silent epic glorified the Ku Klux Klan while innovating new filmmaking techniques that make it arguably the first modern movie. Film students study it to learn the history of cinema. They are (hopefully) also taught that in lionizing the Klan, Griffith was personally responsible for getting Black people killed. The Shadow over Innsmouth isn’t quite that evil, but it comes loaded with problematic baggage that cannot be ignored. I gave it a high ranking, not because it is good and virtuous, but because none of the stories are good and virtuous. Lovecraft was a shitty person. In the absence of admirable qualities, we’ll focus on craft. The most explicitly hateful stories are close to unreadable anyway.
Besides, the list format has one advantage over other surveys of Lovecraft’s fiction, which is that you can see at a glance just how many of his stories are ill-intentioned, poorly conceived, barely half-assed, or severely, unforgivably prejudiced. I don’t recommend reading the complete works yourself, and I would never have volunteered for this assignment if I had known what it would be like. His bibliography has unintentionally become a book he would write about, a kind of Bigotnomicon, full of shocking descriptions unfit for casual consumption.
But I don’t regret the experience, either. I learned lots of history about one of my favorite genres, and I see Lovecraft more clearly: as an unusually creative bigot, and a minor literary genius. His best works influenced generations of readers — and for good reason. Lovecraft can be as gripping as anyone and some of his ideas will endure for many years to come. But he does not belong in the top tier of genre authors, and his work should be studied with proper context, in the same careful and deliberate way that film students should encounter The Birth of a Nation.
At the bottom of this ranking of 68 novels, novellas, and short stories, you will find Lovecraft’s most overtly hateful fictions, along with his juvenile writings. (Note: I will spoil some of these endings, but I will go spoiler free as the stories get better.) The next tier is tedious descriptions of dreams (seriously, how did he get so many of these published?) as well as half-finished fragments published after Lovecraft’s death. Afterwards, we move into good ideas with rough execution and mediocre concepts that are written with skill. Beyond that come those tales which are generally pretty good, and finally the best writing that Lovecraft produced — though again, even his masterworks retain their master’s flaws.
68. “The Street” (1920)
“There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they do not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.”
The “soul” of this street is unaccountably vile. The street feels good when white people live there, but feels bad when immigrants move in. It’s xenophobia masquerading as a tale of the strange. Lovecraft openly pines for an Anglo-Saxon America, when Caucasians took up arms against people of other countries and cultures, instead of living alongside them as neighbors. The final section of the story fearmongers against communism in the hysterical pitch of McCarthy. Besides that, the repeated use of the phrase “swarthy and sinister” is Lovecraft at his worst. The story ends with the sentient street crushing all of the immigrants who live there. It’s a repugnant white nationalist fantasy.
67. “The Beast in the Cave” (1918)
“I was lost, completely, hopelessly lost in the vast and labyrinthine recesses of the Mammoth Cave.”
Written when Lovecraft was 14, “The Beast in the Cave” was published 14 years later in The Vagrant, an amateur magazine. Here, the juvenile writer embarks on one of the great themes of his career: humans who become debased or even de-evolved. A man lost in a cave resigns himself to death when he hears the approach of a strange creature. Sometimes it walks on four legs and sometimes on two. Alone in the dark, the man throws rocks at the creature and succeeds in downing it. After miraculously finding his tour guide, he takes a torch to the site of the conflict and there finds a horrifyingly bleached ape with black eyes. As it dies, it speaks, and the narrator realizes the beast was once a man. There’s little suspense and the style is overly breathless.
66. The Descendant (1938)
Short Story Fragment
“In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.”
One of a small number of story fragments to be published after Lovecraft’s death, “The Descendant” features a tantalizing glimpse of Lovecraft’s favorite book: the Necronomicon, by the so-called “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” This unfinished history picks up years later with the main character of “The Nameless City”. Now, the young explorer is old and skittish, as something even more horrifying has happened in the interim. We never find out what it is. But we do learn that Lovecraft is as prejudiced against Jewish people as he is against Muslims. Even in this brief tale, he stoops to the laziest anti-Semitic tropes. Sometimes Lovecraft’s defenders point out that he had a Jewish wife — the writer called her “well-assimilated” — but his description in “The Descendent” of the Jewish book merchant should dispel all doubts on the subject. Besides that, this fragment has the least to offer among all of the author’s posthumous work. There are no horrifying descriptions or poetic flights of fancy and only the barest intimation of plot. There was no reason to save this from the trash bin.
65. “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927)
“Just at a time when a wave of kidnappings and disappearances spread its excitement over New York, the unkempt scholar embarked on a metamorphosis as startling as it was absurd.”
Malone is a New York detective with an interest in the occult who is assigned to the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Ostensibly, he’s concerned with Robert Suydam, a “lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” who seems to have a lot of low-class friends. But a foul strain of xenophobia runs through the story, and Lovecraft can hardly make it through a page without using “swarthy” as a synonym for “bad” or describing gangs of youths as evil-looking foreigners. Malone hears strange music on the streets that is definitely a parody of jazz, because apparently Lovecraft found jazz music frightening. His prejudice against Black people and immigrants is on full display. From a storytelling perspective, the pacing is irregular and the climax anticlimactic. But he starts to develop his fascination with cults that would later serve the Cthulu Mythos so well.
64. “Ex Oblivione” (1921)
“In my dreams I found a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life…”
Probably written after “Celephaïs”, “Ex Oblivione” is a shorter, duller take on the same themes. A man unhappy with his life wishes to escape into his sleeping dreams. An avalanche of adjectives ensues. Lovecraft wrote a lot of different kinds of weird tales, but the dreamy prose poems tend to put readers to sleep.
63. “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921)
“Madness was in all the Jermyns, and people were glad there were not many of them.”
What starts as a long, dry, family history involving African explorers, tales of white apes, and ancient prehistoric cities ends with a “reveal” telegraphed from miles away. The only horror is that several generations prior, his great-great-great(?) grandfather had taken a white ape princess as his bride. That’s it. This supposedly rational, seemingly well-adjusted young man absolutely loses his mind at the thought. It’s just not scary, and the only exciting part (the narrator burned himself alive because he didn’t want to be related to his great-great-great grandmother) feels unearned. Lovecraft’s obsession with the mixing of blood led to some truly tedious stories.
62. Azathoth (1938)
“…There was a man who travelled out of life on a quest into spaces wither the world’s dreams had fled.”
This incomplete novel fragment was published after Lovecraft’s death. It survives as flash fiction about a man who’s unhappy with his life and spends all his time looking out his window at the stars until one day he flies away and finds a constellation of overwrought descriptions. As previously discussed, Lovecraft’s poetical flights rarely get off the ground. Notable for the first mention of Azathoth, one of Lovecraft’s favorite recurring Gods.
61. “The Alchemist” (1916)
“May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line/ Survive to reach a greater age than thine!”
Another juvenile fiction, written when Lovecraft was 15 or so and published later. It’s an improvement on “The Beast in the Cave” at least. Antoine, last of the Comtes de C–, tells of the curse upon his family whereby all men die at the age of 32. Years ago, his ancestor unjustly killed Michel Mauvis, incorrectly supposing the medieval alchemist had murdered his son. Michel’s own son, Charles le Sorcerer, put a curse on his line. A week before Antoine’s expected death, he finds a trap door in his rundown estate, where he meets a shocking old figure. Not that it’s a surprise to the reader; as soon as the aged man appears, the conclusion is obvious, though Lovecraft feels the need to explain at length.
60. “He” (1926)
“Then, on a sleepless night’s walk, I met the man.”
A young man moved to New York City to become a poet, but finds the city oppressive, the (non-white) people intolerable, and the daytime bustle too much to bear. He takes to nocturnal walks in the oldest parts of the metropolis, and after a while meets an ancient man who speaks to him unbidden. He follows the old man to his musty home, and it is here that “He” develops all of its fantasy elements, which is also when Lovecraft busts out his most racially abusive language. The powers involve “mongrel” half-Native Americans — “half-breeds” who taught the titular necromancer strange rites. The demonstrations of power are interesting, and the thing at the end anticipates the shoggoths, which are among Lovecraft’s most feared and beloved creatures. Unfortunately, many of the less-prejudiced cosmic elements seen in his later works still have racist roots.
59. “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937)
“Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.”
This is late Lovecraft, at a time when he’s come into his storytelling powers. The horror isn’t his most creative, although that’s hardly the worst of this story. The whole premise of “The Thing on the Doorstep” is that men are biologically superior to women. Therefore, a body-hopping wizard currently stuck in his daughter’s form sets his sights on the flesh of Edward Pickman Derby. The actual mechanics of the plot are mildly interesting, if derivative of better stories. But the core motivation is too stupid to find engaging. Perhaps the crisp writing deserves a better spot in these rankings, but at the end of the day, Lovecraft’s bigotry is an explicit part of the narrative. Unless you’re a misogynist yourself, it’s hard to care about whether the misogynist wizard succeeds. It’s notable that one of the very few female characters in Lovecraft’s bibliography opens up untapped reserves of disdain for women. This story was written after the passage of the 19th Amendment, after Virginia Woolf changed consciousness in literature. Again, even for his time, Lovecraft’s views were especially prejudiced and regressive.
58. “Memory” (1923)
“At the very bottom of the valley lies the river Than, whose waters are slimy and filled with weeds.”
This flash fiction is about a poetically gothic valley around the river Than. There are several descriptions of natural decay, a brief conversation between a Genie and a Daemon and as much of a twist as can be mustered in a few hundred words. It’s Lovecraft in his Poe-worship mode, leaning heavily on archaic language and even using the word “sooth” for “truth.” But there’s no story, and the twist, such as it is, isn’t particularly compelling.
57. “What the Moon Brings” (1923)
“I hate the moon — I am afraid of it — for when it shines on certain scenes familiar and loved it sometimes makes them unfamiliar and hideous.”
Another short prose poem based on yet another of Lovecraft’s dreams. On the one hand, the lotus flowers turning to dead faces, the receding water, and what the water reveals make this somewhat compelling. But these images lead nowhere, and Lovecraft’s knotty sentences may require a second glance from even his most devoted readers.
56. “Ibid” (1938)
“Ibid’s masterpiece… was the famous Op. Cit. wherein all the significant undercurrents of Graeco-Roman expression were crystallised once for all.”
This not particularly funny parody was published after Lovecraft’s death. Ibid, of course, is what you write in the citations of a scholarly paper to indicate a previous reference. Here, Lovecraft’s joke is that Ibid was a real author with the ludicrous name Magnus Furius Camillus Arelius Antoninus Flavius Anicius Petronius Valentinianus Aegidus Ibidus. Lovecraft gives a brief background on his life and work, followed by a lengthy history of the fictional author’s skull. Ibid’s cranium bounces around Europe, achieves the status of sainthood, sails across the ocean to Salem, Massachusetts, and lands in a prairie dog hole in Milwaukee. One of Lovecraft’s targets here is over-ostentatious writing, and he engages in it with gusto. This hamstrings his story, however, making the feeble humor a chore to read.
55. “The White Ship” (1919)
“Out of the South it was that the White Ship used to come when the moon was full and high in the heavens.”
Basil Elton, lonely keeper of a lighthouse, begins to see a White Ship on nights of the full moon. An old man beckons to him, until one month he answers the call. Elton goes on a fantastical journey through far-away lands suffused in songs and paved with marble and gold. The imagery is luscious and ludicrously repetitive while the places Elton doesn’t visit sound far more interesting than the places he does.
54. “Old Bugs” (1959)
“He was called “Old Bugs,” and was the most disreputable object in a disreputable environment.”
Written in 1919 and set in the future of the 1950s, this speculative tale is an argument in favor the 1920 alcohol prohibition. It takes place in a speakeasy/drug den in gangster-ridden Chicago that is home to Old Bugs, a notorious derelict who may have once been a professor of some genius. His whole sordid history is revealed at the entrance of young student Alfred Trevor. It’s not a very surprising or weird tale, and the pro-Prohibition angle is propped up by a cartoonish depiction of substance abuse. It’s not that addiction isn’t a serious matter; it’s that Lovecraft hasn’t made a serious effort to understand it. This is Lovecraft the Hall Monitor, Lovecraft the R.A., Lovecraft the judgmental scold.
53. “The Transition of Juan Romero” (1944)
“Firmly though respectfully they signified their refusal to revisit the chasm, or indeed to work further in the mine until it might be sealed.”
On the one hand, the tale of an endless chasm opened during a mining operation is a wonderful setup for a horror story, even if it’s a bit familiar. On the other hand, the descriptions of the Mexican laborers — and the blithe co-mingling of Aztec and Hindu religions — is more unsettling than anything Lovecraft did intentionally. The narrator keeps speaking about how much he’s travelled, and yet Lovecraft’s own lack of experience has rarely been so clear. The “transition” itself is too vague to be anything but disappointing.
52. “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” (1917)
“Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing, it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a young Man.”
Often mocked for his old-fashioned prose, H.P. Lovecraft embraces his critics with this stylistic spoof. A fake autobiography, Lovecraft “reveals” that his real name is Humphrey Littlewit and that his writing sounds antiquated because he himself is over 200 years old. There’s not much of a plot to speak of, and the “reminiscences” of the deceased author wouldn’t have been worth publishing, even if they were real. Notable only because it shows Lovecraft had a sense of humor about his own place in modern fiction.
51. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919)
“He had habitually slept at night beyond the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative populace.”
An intern at a state psychiatric institution comes into contact with a certain Joe Slader, a rural dullard. Lovecraft’s prejudices towards poor people come out, and Slader is described as a barely functioning idiot who, nevertheless, awakens in a disturbed state spouting poetical nonsense about a gorgeous other world. The narrator uses radio technology to try and communicate with Slader’s dreams, without luck, until the night before Slader dies. He experiences a communion with Slader’s soul — or something resembling it — and learns some interesting tidbits about a certain supernova recently spotted in the heavens. It’s a mean-spirited story, though, with just enough suspense to keep committed readers turning the page.
50. “Polaris” (1920)
“Sometimes, when it is cloudy, I can sleep.”
The narrator spends many nights looking out the window, staring at the star Polaris and unable to sleep. Only on cloudy nights can he sleep, and then he dreams of a strange city in the distant past. Soon the dreams become more real, and he begins to believe himself a citizen. The Inuits make an appearance, in a role revealing Lovecraft’s prejudices towards native peoples. The reversal that takes place in the dream world won’t have your eyes bugging out, but it’s not his worst effort. “Polaris” is notable for the first mention of the Pnakotic Manuscripts, which are among the most oft-mentioned of Lovecraft’s arcane tomes.
49. “The Quest of Iranon” (1935)
“I am Iranon, and come from Aira, a far city that I recall only dimly but seek to find again.”
A fantasy tale about a fair-haired youth named Iranon. This itinerant artist travels relentlessly singing songs about the city of Aira. While he stays in many kinds of towns, he never finds Aira, nor feels at home. It’s a philosophical story, and while it doesn’t have that propulsive, can’t-put-down quality that defines his best work, it’s engaged with thought-provoking themes.
48. “The Nameless City” (1921)
“That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die.”
This is the first story that could be counted part of the Cthulu Mythos, although the plot itself is unrelated. A white explorer finds a so-called Nameless City that locals in the Arabian peninsula fear to visit. The mystery — what happened to the people who built this town? — is so heavily foreshadowed that it passes through the veil into dramatic irony; the audience knows what’s happening and has to wait for the protagonist to catch up. Really, this tale is mostly notable for two things: the mention of the Arab poet Abdul Alhazred, who becomes one of Lovecraft’s oft-cited fictional sources, and Alhazred’s most famous couplet, “That is not dead which can eternal lie…” Both of these ideas will be put to much more thrilling use later.
47. “The Other Gods” (1933)
“Barzai knew so much of the gods that he could tell of their comings and goings, and guessed so many of their secrets that he was deemed half a god himself.”
A horror twist on a Biblical classic. Barzai the Wise travels up a mountain to witness the old gods. He believes his great secret knowledge of the Pnakotic Manuscripts and other sources will allow him to view their faces. He brings along an apprentice, the recurring character Atal of “The Cats of Ulthar” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The climactic showdown is out of Atal’s line of sight, and the reader must imagine what is happening. This leads to a clumsy plot device, where Barzai shouts outloud to himself and helpfully describes what he sees. There are a lot of exciting elements in this story, but the execution lets it down.
46. “The Book” (1938)
Short Story Fragment
“I remember how I read the book at last — white-faced, and locked in the attic room that I had long devoted to strange searchings.”
This is a posthumously published, unfinished fragment of middling value. There is a sketch of a story, and some gestures towards plot after the book is discovered. But at a certain point, the narrator’s confused memories drag “The Book” down into another of Lovecraft’s muddled dreamscapes. It was written late enough that Lovecraft has a good handle on his wordy prose, so it’s easier to read than some of his better stories. But if it had remained unpublished, the world would have suffered no loss.
45. “Sweet Ermengarde; Or, the Heart of a Country Girl By Percy Simple” (1943)
“When the lovers had finally strolled away he leapt out into the lane, viciously twirling his moustache and riding-crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was also out strolling.”
This story is both a comic satire and an odd mishmash. Lovecraft mentions the 18th Amendment, placing the plot in the years after 1919, but writes the whole thing in a mock-Shakespearean style. There are “ohs!” and “ahs” aplenty, sections labelled as chapters that end in the stage direction “[Curtain]”, and a constant subversion of expectations. The plot is dull and instantly forgettable, notable only for the sudden deaths or bizarre reversals. But Lovecraft’s meta-commentary is a reliable source of humor, and this might be his funniest story, even if the one joke grows tiresome. A nice departure from his more conventional fare.
44. “History of the Necronomicon” (1938)
“Reading leads to terrible consequences.”
Published after his death, this short sketch purports to be a non-fictional account of a very real book. Lovecraft’s most famous bibliographical creation is given detailed histories of various translations, though those are less fun than the hinted-at consequences of reading. Oblique reference is made to “The Rats in the Walls”, and the story “Pickman’s Model” is almost directly cited. It’s still racist, in the way that Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred is always marred by racism. But for anyone tracking the Cthulhu Mythos, the Dream Cycle that includes The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath, or the many strange lives of Richard Upton Pickman, “History of the Necronomicon” is informative.
43. “The Terrible Old Man” (1921)
“This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.”
Lovecraft gives the robbers ostentatiously “foreign”-sounding names, and the titular character has spent so much time abroad that he’s made out to be half-immigrant himself. The author’s prejudices are getting in the way again. As for the storytelling, this tale is the right length for its idea — we learn in the second sentence that the titular Terrible Old Man will be set upon by robbers, and we wait happily for their comeuppance. Suspense builds in the second paragraph, when we hear that the ancient antihero has “many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string.” Apparently, he even talks to the bottles. Yet, how the robbers’ fate is connected to this tantalizing tidbit is never made clear. This leaves the short tale with a slightly unfinished feeling. The Old Man appears again later in “The Strange High House in the Mist”.
42. Hypnos (1923)
“…no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.”
The narrator is a sculptor, and he relates a tale of taking drugs with his friend and exploring strange sensations in the world of sleep. That the unnamed friend is lost forever, we learn early on. But the actual how has enough twists and surprises to keep “Hypnos” humming along. In some ways, this is a trial-run for The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath.
41. The Very Old Folk (1940)
“Roman dreams were no uncommon features of my youth… but I had so long ceased to experience them, that the present one impressed me with extraordinary force.”
This story takes the form of a letter, and Lovecraft sent it in 1927 to the weird writer Donald Wondrei. “The Very Old Folk” was among the many stories published after Lovecraft’s death. Here, the narrator relates an extremely vivid dream in which he inhabited a Roman officer. It’s a tale of besieged civilization coming into conflict with native “hill people.” Lovecraft’s descriptions of the locals are loathsome, if thankfully brief. From a technical perspective, the story has a (by his standards) short buildup, followed by a compact, well-executed conclusion. Lovecraft’s skills are on display from the moment the military column hears the drums.
40. “The Tree” (1921)
“Fata viam invenient” (“Fate will find a way.”)
Set in Ancient Greece, this ironic tale concerns two sculptors whose artistic skill was only exceeded by their love for each other — a “brotherly” love, Lovecraft calls it. You can decide for yourself whether a prude like Lovecraft understood what the Greek authors he’s imitating were getting at. The action kicks off with a commission from the Tyrant, in which the two close friends must compete for universal acclaim. Tragedy strikes, and as the tale nears its end, it acquires an aura of irony and horror. A sleight but very readable fable.
39. “The Unnamable” (1925)
“…yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory.”
Aptly, “The Unnamable” is a hard story to categorize. It starts with a self-aware framing device: Carter, an author of weird stories, defends tales of the supernatural from a skeptic. Early on, it wavers into parody, especially as Carter mentions his own stories and his habit of never showing the scary thing itself. But as this fictional author goes into the “factual” basis for the tale-within-the-tale “The Attic Window”, “The Unnamable” becomes a disquieting horror story in its own right. The prolonged discussion over whether something can truly be said to be “unnamable” is undoubtedly corny, but that can be fun or an eyeroll depending on your mood.
38. “The Hound” (1924)
“Our lonely house was seemingly alive with the presence of some malign being whose nature we could not guess, and every night that daemoniac baying rolled over the windswept moor, always louder and louder.”
Two men who rob graves because they believe the act is aesthetically pleasing come in contact with a cursed amulet. Afterwards, they find themselves pursued. Yet, the greatest horror of all is Lovecraft’s overuse of the thesaurus. Once the amulet arrives, the pace of the story considerably quickens, and unlike some of his better stories, the ending satisfies. The plot is quite memorable, though readers must wade through a morass of adjectives and adverbs to get there. One of those stories that grows better in the remembering. Notable for the first mention of the Necronomicon, although its author, Abdul Alhazred, precedes it.
37. “Nyarlathotep” (1920)
“Nyarlathotep… the crawling chaos… I am the last… I will tell the audient void…”
An old god (this is before the Elder Gods mythology is fleshed out) rises out of Egypt and conquers the world. Our narrator shows doubt, and his city is punished with annihilation. The descriptions of the apocalypse are interesting, but there isn’t much of a plot, just shifting visions of twisted horror. Nyarlathotep returns as one of the most significant characters in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, though the mythologies don’t quite overlap. Still worth reading, if only to inform that other, better story.
36. “The Moon-Bog” (1926)
“And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.”
Our narrator is an old friend of Denys Barry, an American who buys up his family’s previous estate in Kilderry, Ireland. Barry hopes to drain the bogs to sell peat, and he won’t be put off by local superstition. In many ways, this story foreshadows “The Rats in the Walls”, and while that later tale is better, this one maintains its own unsettling mythology.
35. “Celephaïs” (1922)
“In a dream it was also that he came by his name Kuranes, for when awake he was called by another name.”
A poor man of the landed gentry retreats further and further into his dreams, seeking out the fantastical city of his own sleep creation. While Lovecraft’s dream tales are usually a drag, “Celephaïs” stands out for rooting the fantastical retreats in a real character who progresses along a bittersweet arc. Boasting some of Lovecraft’s most successful poetic writing, “Celephaïs” is an important step in the Dream Cycle and a key precursor to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
34. “Cool Air” (1928)
“A rush of cool air greeted me; and though the day was one of the hottest of late June, I shivered as I crossed the threshold…”
The writer has just moved into a dingy but habitable apartment building, and after a few days, he smells ammonia and notices something wet dripping from the ceiling. After talking to his Spanish landlady, Mrs. Herrero, he learns of the strange Dr. Muñoz. Later he befriends Muñoz and learns the strange man is obsessed with cold. There’s a bit of suspense with the “why,” but it ends with a fizzle rather than a bang. In other stories, Lovecraft perfected an unexpected final twist, but “Cool Air” contains exactly the anticipated information. It could’ve used a little more razzle dazzle.
33. “The Shunned House” (1937)
“What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers.”
Along with his uncle, the esteemed Dr. Elihu Whipple, our narrator has become obsessed with a peculiar abode in the town of Providence, Rhode Island. It begins with the pretense that Lovecraft’s hero, Edgar Allen Poe, used to walk by this house unaware of what horrors it contained. As a boy, the narrator actually broke in through the front door, and with the bravery of youth ventured down into the noxious cellar. His experience there with phosphorescent fungi and strangely shaped vapors leaves a great impression, and as he grows older, his equally curious uncle takes him into confidence. Together, they embark on a twisted chase to discover the truth, and their pursuit of mystery leads them deep into rumors from the past and headlong into horrors. Not Lovecraft’s most creative tale but among his most complete and well-paced.
32. “The Festival” (1925)
“It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their heads it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”
A traveler returns to the place of his forefathers — some of whom were hung for witchcraft in the 1600’s — to take part in “The Festival”. In the empty colonial town of Kingsport, the narrator finds his old family home and is greeted by a man wearing a wax mask. He sees the Necronomicon in the house, and follows the old people outside, joining a silent throng that leaves no footprints into an empty church. They descend to the sub-basements and then keep going, finding a fungous beach where a horrific rite takes place. The narrator seemingly goes mad, but how mad is an open question that causes a suggestion of doubt to settle over the narrative. The plot is simple; “The Festival” revels in the slow accumulation of atmosphere.
31. “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” (1920)
“So one day the young warriors, the slingers and the spearmen, and the bowmen, marched against Ib and slew all the inhabitants thereof, pushing the queer bodies into the lake with long spears, because they did not wish to touch them.”
A long time ago when the world was young, an early group of men built the town of Sarnath near the established city of Ib. Their hatred of the strange humanoids of Ib grew over time, until the massacre occurred. Then, one thousand years later … well, you’ve seen the title. A bit slow to get going, but the actual all-caps “DOOM” is fun.
30. “The Silver Key” (1929)
“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”
This story reads like a prologue to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and it was likely written over the same period. More than anything, it’s a bridge between “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, where Carter is a young apprentice to an occult scholar, and the later tales of the Dream Cycle, in which Carter is one of the most powerful dreamers in history. Here, at the age of 30, Carter loses the ability to enter the Dreamlands, and the plot finds him struggling to regain it. Thematically, it shares a lot in common with “Celephaïs” and similar stories of nostalgia; Lovecraft, who had an unusually stark childhood, clearly pines for an idyllic lost boyhood.
29. “The Lurking Fear” (1923)
“Some said the thunder called the lurking fear out of its habitation, while others said the thunder was its voice.”
Tempest Mountain has a particularly lightning-prone climate, and on this mountain, storms are often accompanied by death and terror. The narrator’s investigations into the slaughter of a whole village leads him to the Martense mansion. But his explorations alone threaten to drive him mad, and he has trouble keeping his allies safe. The ending is undoubtedly a letdown, returning to themes he explored in his first story, “The Beast in the Cave”. But before then, the story provides reliable chills.
28. “The Tomb” (1922)
“I shall never forget the afternoon when I first stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death.”
One of Lovecraft’s earliest successes, the old-fashioned ghost story of “The Tomb” concerns Jervas Dudley, a “dreamer and a visionary” who begins the tale in an asylum for the insane. In an ancient, dark forest near his childhood home, young Dudley discovered a deserted tomb to a long-dead family, the Hydes. Dudley becomes obsessed with the sepulcher, even sneaking out at night to have strange dreams. He wakes with knowledge of things that happened long before his birth, and even as his family becomes concerned, Dudley’s obsession grows. His final, electrifying visions land him in a “refuge for the demented,” but even that doesn’t quench his passion for the tomb. A chillingly psychedelic encounter with the dead.
27. “Herbert West — Reanimator” (1922)
“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”
This is the ranking that perplexed me the most, and it has partially to do with the unusual serialized storytelling method. Lovecraft published “Herbert West” between February and July of 1922 with chapter-long installments in Home Brew magazine.
Chapter 1 opens with the narrator helping his old pal Herbert West with a chemical “reagent.” This hard-to-perfect liquid has the potential to revive the dead, and dear West is getting a bit obsessive about it. The section closes with a powerful image: marks that may have been left by human hands. By this time “Herbert West” is starting to feel like a masterpiece. It gets even better in Chapter 2, as the relationships between the characters begin to mature. Chapter 3 is where things go woefully wrong; it’s a step-backwards in plot, purely for the sake of racism.
Whereas Chapter 2 had West experimenting on someone he knew, with all sorts of attending emotions, Chapter 3 has him back on a perfect stranger, with the only difference from Chapter 1 being that the stranger is Black. Furthermore, he engages in disgusting stereotypes when discussing the subject’s physique, and the episode closes with his least-imaginative finale of the tale. It’s a gratuitous, ugly detour. Then Chapter 4 gets the story back on track, offering new and disturbing developments in West’s character. The last two chapters feel ridiculously rushed.
In the final third, the reagent causes some bewildering developments that, while memorable, are also much more heightened than anything we’ve seen before. It’s as if the volume suddenly shot from a four to a ten. The rushed ending makes the wasted Chapter 3 even more disheartening. Chapter 6 had grand potential, but the story flow lets it down. And yet the best bits are so memorable, so vivid, that “Reanimator” tends to grow in the memory. Besides, West is surely one of Lovecraft’s most compelling antiheroes. Consider this ranking an unhappy compromise.
26. “The Outsider” (1926)
“And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.”
The debt to Edgar Allen Poe is obvious in the language, but although the imagery tends towards the baroque, it’s often lovely. The nightmarish, surreal forests in the world without light, and the black tower, give way to a slow realization of who is telling the story. There’s much about the narrator we never learn, but the epiphany, such as it is, brings a satisfying jolt.
25. “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (1924)
“…I was soon to have my “magic powers” put to a supreme test which would quickly remove any egotism I might have gained through triumphing over all the tests offered by America and Europe.”
This tale was published under the name of American magician Harry Houdini, and reportedly Houdini himself was quite pleased with the result. But it was Lovecraft who ghostwrote “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”, and this tale of unspeakable ancient horrors is suffused with Lovecraft’s brand of magic. Houdini the character travels to Egypt and finds himself drawn into conflict with an ancient evil who feels his magical exhibitions are mockeries of the real thing. Lovecraft shows off his homework a bit too much, and the long descriptions of Egypt tend to drag on. But the final nightmares are worth the journey. It traffics in one of the most enduring Lovecraftian horrors, which is a big thing that turns out to be just a small part of something absolutely enormous.
24. “The Temple” (1925)
“When we rose to the surface about sunset a seaman’s body was found on the deck, hands gripping the railing in curious fashion.”
For this nautical tale, our narrator is Karl Heinrich, Lieutenant-Commander aboard an imperial German U-Boat. The submarine’s luck turns sour after sinking a British freighter and later discovering a drowned youth clinging to the U-Boat’s rails. The youth’s pockets contained an odd piece of carved ivory, and while Heinrich doesn’t quite believe in it, he comes to notice supernatural occurrences associated with the carving. Madness and death follow. “The Temple” combines the claustrophobia of a submarine thriller with the great horror of powers beyond human understanding.
23. “The Music of Erich Zann” (1922)
“… I cannot find the house, the street, or even the locality, where… I heard the music of Erich Zann.”
A French student reflects on his fruitless efforts to find the Rue d’Auseil. Some time before, he used to hear the playing of an elderly “viol” genius. Erich Zann was mute, as it turned out, and although he could hear, French wasn’t his first language. Still, the narrator develops a halting friendship with the bizarre composer. He’s puzzled by odd harmonies and “haunting notes” he hears from the old man’s room, and his investigations into these strange noises give the story its forward thrust. “The Music of Erich Zann” works because Lovecraft holds just enough back so that the reader feels simultaneously close and far away from knowing what happened.
22. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943)
“Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away…”
This novella is the longest and most ambitious project in what is sometimes called Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. Randolph Carter, the author’s most-used protagonist, embarks on a cyclical journey through the Dreamlands to find the literal place of his dreams: Kadath, a magnificent city that Carter visited on his nightly excursions. When the Gods of Earth block his visions, he sets out on an epic adventure to find it once more. Carter’s overarching motivation is unlikely to stir many readers, and the structure is either poetically suggestive or boring, depending on your inclinations.
Each episode is almost unconnected from anything that came before, and when Carter reaches a new place, there’s a feeling of starting over. The horror elements are more likely to have you saying, “Oh cool” than “Oh shit!”, and even the most die-hard obsessives may struggle to keep apart the ghouls, ghosts, gugs, night-gaunts, and those dirty, dirty bholes. But Unknown Kadath feels like more than the sum of its parts and not just because of cameos from favorites like Richard Upton Pickman. The repetitions come to seem significant, even symbolically charged. Above all, it’s intensely rewarding for Lovecraft completists. If you’re going to venture outside his best works and dawdle in the Dream Cycle, Unknown Kadath is a must-read.
21. “Pickman’s Model” (1927)
“Morbid art doesn’t shock me, and when a man has the genius Pickman had I feel it an honour to know him, no matter what direction his work takes.”
Unusually for Lovecraft, this tale takes the form of an ongoing monologue. The narrator, Thurber, explains to his friend Eliot why he now fears subways. It has to do with the great painter of weird scenes, Richard Upton Pickman, and his unusual source of inspiration. The big reveal is so obvious it’s visible from space, but the setup is pleasantly thrilling.
20. “The Evil Clergyman” (1939)
“Yes, he lived here — but I don’t advise your doing anything. Your curiosity makes you irresponsible.”
Without doubt, this is the best Lovecraft story fragment published after his death, because it is the only unfinished work enhanced by its brevity. The narrator remembers going to the attic of an evil clergyman and relates as much as they can still remember. There isn’t enough supernatural interest to keep the tale going, but it doesn’t need to — the ending is conclusive, and the parts that remain unresolved seem done so intentionally. It’s a nice way to pass a handful of minutes.
19. “The Cats of Ulthar” (1920)
“For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see.”
One of the best of Lovecraft’s minor works, this short tale involves a cat-hating couple in a dark house. It features Atal of “The Other Gods” and, more importantly, Menes, an orphan boy with a beloved black kitten. “The Cats of Ulthar” is short and gruesome, with a moral as tidy as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale.
18. The Shadow out of Time (1936)
“My thoughts and speech wandered from the subject… Then I slumped down, unconscious in my chair, in a stupor from which no one could arouse me. Nor did my rightful faculties again look out upon the daylight of our normal world for five years, four months, and thirteen days.”
Lovecraft’s final novella is about a professor of economics named Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee. One day, Professor P. suffers a strange attack during his class at Miskatonic University. A few days later, this narrator awakens with no memory, along with curious alterations in his speech and personality. He leads quite a different life for a time, until, some five years later, he suddenly snaps to his senses as if rising from a dream. In the meanwhile, his wife has left him, and he learns from his remaining friends that he has spent half a decade in arcane study, occasionally traveling around the world on bizarre trips.
As if that weren’t enough, his nights are besieged by bizarre dreams in which he inhabits an alien body. As the nightmares continue, he publishes a series of accounts of his experiences, which draw the attention of a miner who has witnessed strange hieroglyphs in the Australian desert. The Shadow out of Time reads like a cross between two stories that shortly preceded its writing, At the Mountains of Madness and “The Thing on the Doorstep”. It is a great improvement on the misogyny of “Doorstep”, but it’s inferior to Madness — here, the exposition comes in great clumps, while the narrative is constantly shunted aside in favor of more backstory.
Overall, the scope is thrilling, and it often finds a groove as propulsive as anything else in Lovecraft’s bibliography.
17. “The Strange High House in the Mist” (1931)
“Despite a conservative training — or because of it, for humdrum lives breed wistful longings of the unknown — he swore a great oath to scale that avoided northern cliff and visit the abnormally grey cottage in the sky.”
This story is both deeply connected to Lovecraft’s other works and able to stand on its own. The plot concerns the philosopher August Olney, who is summering in the fabled town of Kingsport. The city is surrounded by tall cliffs, and on top of one inaccessible peak is an enthralling little cabin. One day, Olney decides to visit it, taking the long way around and scaling the cliff from the other side. What happens when he gets there is unexpected, and what happens after he leaves is what makes this tale such a treat. Notable for references to the “Terrible Old Man” and Hatheg-kla and Ulthar from “The Other Gods” and “The Cats of Ulthar”. Also Nodens gets a reference, and that Elder God would return with greater effect in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
16. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941)
“So come quickly if you wish to see me alive and hear how you may help to save the cosmos from stark hell.”
While Lovecraft wrote several long short stories and a handful of novellas, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is his one and only novel. Tangentially related to the Cthulu Mythos, this is a much more developed take on his earlier story “The Shunned House”, and some of the elements explored here will be put to better use in “The Dunwich Horror”. The unfortunate young man of the title started out as a harmless antiquarian, before developing an obsession with a frightening dead ancestor, Joseph Curwen. As the young Ward’s behavior begins to change, his father and Dr. Willett investigate what is wrong. As a mystery, it isn’t exceedingly mysterious, and most readers will guess the truth long before Dr. Willett does. It’s also not Lovecraft’s most original work, depending on European traditions of horror rather than his own cracked imagination. But the pacing and storytelling are solid, and when Lovecraft rolls up his sleeves to make something frightening, his descriptions carry plenty of zip.
15. “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1934)
“You see, I have really learned pretty much what happened to Carter after he left his car with the Silver Key at sunset on that seventh of October, four years ago.”
This was a collaboration with the pop author Edgar Hoffman Price, now best remembered for this particular tale. The Randolph Carter saga comes to an end in the same way it began: with the disappearance of a scholar of the occult. But where “The Statement of Randolph Carter” found the titular character as the younger witness to the horrifying tragedy of his mentor Warren, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” begins with Randolph himself vanished from the face of the earth. As his friends square off against his heirs over whether to divide his estate, the truth of Carter’s withdrawal becomes known, and its weirdness far dwarfs the preceding events in “The Silver Key”. It’s a satisfying ending for Lovecraft’s favorite recurring character.
14. “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920)
“… certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years.”
None of Carter’s many adventures provide quite the satisfaction of his first appearance. The initial thrill of the circumstances — a deposition, as Carter is tried for murder — gives way to a rousing bout of grave digging. The horrors are as vague as Lovecraft gets; the thrills are distilled down to their monstrous essence.
13. “The Call of Cthulu” (1928)
“A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.”
As a genre, horror is infamous for endings that fail to satisfy. But even within that context, “Call of Cthulu” has one of the worst anticlimaxes in all of literature. Without spoiling the (terrible) finale — if Cthulu could be allayed by that, then there’s no cause for everyone to get all worked up in the first place. “The Call of Cthulu” owes its whole reputation to everything that comes before: the narrator Thurston’s careful reading of his uncle’s notes; the unquantifiable bas-relief made of clay; the strange rites practiced by the cultists; and Thurston’s slow realization of what it all means. The ending isn’t the only problem — suffice to say, white people from good families don’t seem to be tempted by the cults — but if you can get past the story’s many flaws, “The Call of Cthulu” stands out as a masterclass in building suspense.
12. “The Picture in the House” (1921)
“But naow I’ll shew ye the best un — over here nigh the middle –”
This story offers the first reference to the celebrated town of Arkham. Our narrator, on a mission of genealogical studies, is overtaken in the rain on his way to Arkham, and forced to seek shelter in a ramshackle country house that he finds repellant for unknown reasons. The ancient man is all the creepier for his kindness and gentle voice, but the best part comes when the final evidence literally falls into place.
11. “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933)
“That the influence of the old house was unwholesome, he could not deny; but traces of his early morbid interest still held him there.”
Gilman is a student of folklore and quantum physics, which is apparently a typical double-major at Miskatonic University in Arkham. He takes a room in an old house with a strangely angled room that used to belong to a notorious witch and finds himself haunted by strange dreams and impulses beyond his control. Here, the chills come, not just from the imagery, but from the creeping sense of helplessness. This is a tight and gripping story, and while it isn’t central to the Cthulu Mythos, it’s an engrossing contribution.
10. In the Vault (1925)
“Birch in those days was insensitive, and was concerned only in getting the right coffin for the right grave. He had not forgotten the criticism aroused when Hannah Bixby’s relatives, wishing to transport her body to the cemetery in the city whither they had moved, found the casket of Judge Capwell beneath her headstone.”
A perfect little idea, and as the dedication tells us, Lovecraft owes its inspiration to his publisher C. W. Smith. George Birch is the slovenly undertaker of the village of Peck Valley. One day, after years of neglecting the latch on the cemetery vault, the door closes behind him and Peck is unable to get out. What he experiences there causes him to give up his morbid profession forever. “In the Vault” excels because of its restraint. This isn’t bombastic horror, it’s subtle, and it stays a page-turner right until the end.
09. The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936)
“It was I who fled frantically out of Innsmouth in the early morning hours of July 16, 1927, and whose frightened appeals for government inquiry and action brought on the whole reported episode.”
The narrator is a young student and burgeoning antiquarian who traveled through New England to learn his family history. His route will take him from Newburysport to dreaded Arkham, when he learns about the even-more dreaded town of Innsmouth along the way. Innsmouth has a bad reputation, but his curiosity gets the better of him. As he says early on, this short trip led the US government to investigate and ultimately destroy large swathes of the town. The readers quest to learn “why” keeps this story humming along. By this time, Lovecraft is a master of foreshadowing, and the aura of dread is worse than the actual discovery of truth.
Only, the story keeps going after the big reveal. The Shadow over Innsmouth climaxes with a thrilling action scene, and the denouement retains a few more twists and turns. This is Lovecraft at the height of his powers. However, the central metaphor — the danger of miscegenation — is clearly racist. With this tale, several things are true at once: It’s a foundational part of the Cthulu Mythos; it’s well-made and important within the history of speculative literature; and it comes from an ugly, hateful place. Earlier, I compared it to the Ku Klux Klan epic The Birth of a Nation, sometimes considered the first modern movie. It’s not quite that significant or evil, but it might be the best representation of Lovecraft, as it encompasses both his strengths and his vile flaws.
08. “Dagon” (1919)
“The window! The window!”
Lovecraft’s earliest foray into cosmic horror is short: all killer, no filler. “Dagon” opens with the narrator admitting to opium addiction and planning suicide. As he tells it, he escaped from enemy capture at sea during World War I. He seemed likely to drift forever, but overnight the seabed rises and he finds himself mired in an alien landscape. His addiction, and his other lifelong miseries, is owed to a single glimpse of the being called Dagon.
07. At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
“It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic… and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.”
An Antarctic expedition encounters something worse than the elements in this, Lovecraft’s best-known novella. There are two ways to rate Mountains of Madness — as a standalone work of fiction or as the capstone of the Cthulu Mythos, the spine connecting all the other Weird and alien forces. There’s a long section reminiscent of Lovecraft’s own “The Nameless City”, in which the explorers learn about a bygone civilization. But the knowledge they glean touches on so many of Lovecraft’s other stories, from The Whisperer in Darkness through “The Dunwich Horror”, “Call of Cthulu”, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and more.
Furthermore, it clearly lays the groundwork for The Shadow of Innsmouth, which he wrote next. But this long delve into forgotten history is also a slight drawback, as the forward thrust of the plot bogs down in exposition. Also, there was no reason to try and make Edgar Allen Poe a small part of the Cthulu Mythos. He’s been through enough. Still the overall narrative is exciting, and the major set pieces mostly deliver the expected thrills. The ending is a slight anticlimax, but not so much that the time reading feels wasted. Besides, once you’ve ploughed through a thousand pages of Lovecraft’s prose, there are immense satisfactions in watching certain pieces fall into place.
06. “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936)
“Of all the distant objects on Federal Hill, a certain huge, dark church most fascinated Blake.”
Dedicated to Robert Bloch, author of Psycho and an early disciple of Lovecraft. It all began when Bloch wrote a story in which a character based on Lovecraft meets a horrific end. After this heartfelt tribute, Lovecraft re-payed the favor with the slaughtered Robert Blake. Like Bloch, Blake is a young writer, and in the story he becomes fascinated with a certain Cyclopean church in Boston. A furtive trip inside reveals a dead reporter, a cryptic, coded book, references to the “haunter of the dark,” and a curious box with a “shining trapezohedron.” Blake escapes this trip, but his sanity slowly evaporates in the coming weeks. He fears the haunter of the dark, an elder being with great powers in the absence of light. The connection between Blake and the entity continues to pay off long after Blake leaves its presence.
05. “From Beyond” (1934)
“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us?”
A topnotch version of one of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes: The narrator is the best friend of a great scientist who brushes against dark knowledge. Here the researcher is Crawford Tillinghast, and the change that overcomes him after his contact with the “beyond” is “horrible beyond conception.” What makes “From Beyond” stand out is the relationship between the characters and the development Lovecraft packs into a relatively brief tale. The imaginative, cosmic experience is just the cherry on top.
04. “The Rats in the Walls” (1924)
“When I examined the circular trap that had been placed in the room, I found all of the openings sprung, though no trace remained of what had been caught and had escaped.”
A nearly perfect story, marred by a cat named after a racial slur. It’s completely unnecessary and divorced from the plot, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that the animal has a historical basis — named after a real cat that Lovecraft had as a child. Whether his mother named it or merely allowed it, there’s little wonder he turned out the way he did. Regardless, it has nothing to do with the narrative, which is concerned with a white family’s generational guilt.
The American millionaire De la Poer (named for E.A. Poe) buys his ancestral home in England, which has been abandoned for several decades. After the death of his son, he travels to the ancient Priory and has the ruins rebuilt. He’s happy during the daytime, but his nights are beset by mad dreams. During those nocturnal episodes, the cats in the house are furiously agitated, seeming to chase small creatures that none of the servants can see. “The Rats in the Walls” is exquisitely paced, with De la Poer making slow, consistent discoveries that quickly accumulate a terrible meaning. The kind of story that makes it hard to fall asleep.
03. “The Dunwich Horror” (1929)
“…she seemed strangely proud of the dark, goatish-looking infant…”
One of the core stories in the Cthulu Mythos, “The Dunwich Horror” is among Lovecraft’s best works because it is set closer to home. Here, the cultists are natives of Massachusetts, descendants of witches and wizards who fled the gallows at Salem in 1692. The problem starts with members of the Whately family: the elder “Wizard Whately”, his albino daughter Lavinia, and her “goatish” son Wilbur (Wilbur’s own father being unknown, wink-wink). Here the Necronomicon plays a starring role, as does Yog-Sothoth, first mentioned in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. By now, Lovecraft has solved his earlier pacing problems, and the story unfolds along a brisk and winding road.
02. “The Colour Out of Space” (1927)
“The colour… was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.”
A surveyor for a new reservoir comes across a “blasted heath” in rural New England. Through conversation with aged Ammi Pierce, the narrator hears the strange tale of events about 40 years in the past. The summer of 1882, a meteorite struck the farm of Nahum Gardner. Over the next two years the land seemed to become infected, the farm animals fled or died, and Gardner’s family underwent a slow transformation. Lovecraft often hid his horrors from view, but these
colors coulours quickly leap to mind. This is his most visual horror story, and it’s all the easier to enjoy because of an antagonistic element that resembles very little else in literature.
01. The Whisperer in Darkness (1931)
”I think they mean to get rid of me because of what I have discovered.”
After the 1927 Vermont floods, strange rumors reach a professor of literature at Miskatonic University in Arkham. Some people are whispering about weird bodies floating down the swollen rivers. This man, Professor Wilmarth, comes into correspondence with a farmer, Henry Akely, with bizarre claims about the nature of those bodies. Akeley even offers various proofs. The first half of the story takes place over mail, as Akeley is drawn deeper into conflict with the Outer Ones. Here, The Whisperer in Darkness reads like a more streamlined version of “The Call of Cthulu”, as the investigation is so thrilling that it’s easy to forget it’s just a man reading alone in a silent room.
Eventually, Professor Wilmarth journeys to the farmhouse near Battlebro, and the feeling of discovery gives way to suffocating dread. Wilmarth is just a short distance behind the reader in sensing when something is wrong, which allows us to feel anxious for him to catch up without getting exhausted by his stupidity. The dialogue is masterful; seemingly normal conversations feel tensely charged. And best of all, the monsters are fun. Among the cosmic creatures mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness, the Outer Ones are the beings we get to spend the most time with. While the finale is heavily foreshadowed, Lovecraft holds enough back that you’re not quite sure how it will end. It’s not the most important pillar holding up the Cthulu Mythos, but it’s the most fun to read.