Howard Phillips Lovecraft
I am envious of you.
To go back and read these stories for the first time with no prior knowledge of their greatness would be quite the treat! I already know how they end, and what happens along the way. I still go back and re-read them from time to time, but that first time through…. when I had no idea what would happen at The Gilman House, or what Inspector Legrasse would uncover during his investigation or what was causing the cattle (and people) to become….. “brittle” in the blasted heath west of Arkham… well, that first time through these stories was nothing short of magic!
Who was H.P. Lovecraft?
Some background must be understood before diving sanity first into the work of arguably the greatest practitioner of weird fiction the world has ever known. Born as Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937), HP Lovecraft was always something of an outsider to the world around him. When he was just 3 years old, his father went insane due to a syphilis infection and was committed to a nearby hospital to spend his remaining 6 years. Lovecraft spent the remainder of his childhood and early adolescence living with his mother, his two aunts, and his maternal grandfather.
A sickly boy, he spent much of his youth absent from formal education, instead reading books on subjects that interested him. He had a fascination with science -particularly astronomy and chemistry – and studied the subjects intensely. This fascination with science was coupled with a love of literature -particularly literature of a more fantastic or ‘weird’ nature. In fact, he is often considered to be one of the originators of ‘weird fiction,’ a macro-genre that encompasses science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Being that he did not have a lot of contact with other people outside of his mother and aunts for a large part of his life, he was -to put it mildly- sheltered. This alienation from the rest of humanity was the foundation for his very myopic perspective and serves as a solid foundation for the kind of cosmic indifference that is present thematically in much of his work.
Many of the characters in his stories find themselves in incredible predicaments where they are completely alone as the world around them devolves into something altogether unfamiliar, indifferent and ultimately hostile toward their humanity. After losing his father to syphilitic insanity and seeing his mother end up in the same hospital after a long history of hysteria and depression, he was no stranger to feeling alone as his world eroded around him leaving him exposed and ill prepared for it. He often felt as though he should have been born in a different time -perhaps
hundreds of years prior – adding a temporal dimension to his profound isolation from the world around him. One last peculiarity to Lovecraft’s work is his obvious revulsion for human biology. This goes for *all* forms of human biology not just that of the sexual nature, though that is very much present. These circumstances and perspectives are important to understand as these themes are omnipresent in his work. That said, I have compiled a list of recommended reading that should introduce the neophyte to an incredible body of work that has served as an inspiration to countless writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers ever since.
In short, and without hyperbole, I think that without HP Lovecraft, you would not have Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Mike Mignola as you know them. No HP Lovecraft, and Black Sabbath might have sounded more like Simon and Garfunkel. Without Lovecraft, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro might be directing romantic comedies and Ridley Scott’s Alien may have been more fond of Reece’s Pieces than human flesh and bone.
OK, maybe a touch of hyperbole crept into that last bit. 😉
I have read most of his work, and have come up with a list of stories I feel give you a broad overview of this body by selecting titles that allow for various entry points into the deeper works where these initial concepts and themes are more fully explored. Undoubtedly there will be those who will chastise me for leaving off this title or that title, and they would be right. As you go deeper into his work you find yourself wanting more and more and finding something to love in even his least effective work. But a beginner’s guide is just a starting point and by definition can’t contain everything!
I have listed these in the order I think will build interest with some of the shorter stories first building into the more ambitious works at the end. Some of my personal favorites aren’t even mentioned. I felt it important to leave some of the best work to be discovered by those of you who enjoy what you read from this list.
Suggested starter stories for the beginner…
The Music of Erich Zann
The Rats in the Walls
The Call of Cthulhu
The Shunned House
Under The Pyramids (written at the suggestion of Harry Houdini!)
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Colour Out of Space
The Shadow Out of Time
At the Mountains of Madness
This list should provide a good overview of HP Lovecraft’s work leaving some nice surprises and gems to be discovered by those of you who get hooked by this initial list. If you make it up to The Shunned House and don’t ‘get it’ by then it is likely you never will – I hear there are those who don’t. In that unlikely event, maybe skip ahead to The Shadow Over Innsmouth for one of the most heart-pounding chases ever described in print.
More suggested reading:
For those more interested in Lovecraft himself, S.T. Joshi is the premier scholar on Lovecraft, and his book “HP Lovecraft: A Life,” is considered to be the definitive biography. At 716 pages it is a commitment, so for a shorter but very effective overview, one need look no further than Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction to her Lovecraft compendium, “Tales of HP Lovecraft.” Oddly enough, the stories she has selected have quite a bit of overlap with my own list! This introduction can allegedly be found on Oates’s web site or those interested enough to look for it.
HP Lovecraft – The Complete Works
If you plan on buying the complete works, they can be had over 4 volumes (5, really, but 4 main ones), and I recommend getting them straight from Arkham House publishing.
Now go forth and discover what revelations drove poor Danforth insane. Find out what *really* happened to Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee during those 5 years his amnesia prevents him from fully recalling, and learn about the origins -and fate- of life on this planet.
In celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s 203rd birthday, we bring you his literary classic – The Raven.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
Only this and nothing more.”