by: Bill Burns
The iconic H.P. Lovecraft. What other author’s shadow looms so large over our cultural landscape? While the canon of literature needs to be constantly resuscitated by mandated curriculum, public TV, and movie producers frantic for more product, Lovecraft’s influence continues to grow without the help of academics or Hollywood. Perhaps his past obscurity to the masses and critical dismissal actually ensured his fruitful afterlife, as his works were allowed to be discovered, enjoyed, and disseminated organically rather than being forced down our throats in school (ala Poe)or overexposed in film and mass media (ala King). The vultures of academia, advertising, and big business have not yet picked apart the healthy body of Lovecraft’s works, but how much longer can the academy, culture industry and global capital be kept at bay? The Great Old Ones have nothing on graduate students, media bloggers, and corporations looking for the next big thing.
What is it about this antiquarian pulp writer who died almost 80 years ago? Some say his philosophy of materialist pessimism imbues his stories with a prophetic vision of existentialism, neo-pragmatism, and speculative realism that haunt our essentially meaningless existence. Others appreciate the frighteningly innovative scaffolding his stories provide for their own writing, borrowing, building on, and expanding Lovecraft’s ideas, creations, and suggestions (though only Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti have equaled the old gent from Providence). Whether it’s his philosophy or aesthetics, Lovecraft’s immense imagination is the glue that holds it all together. Lovecraft’s horrors highlight the ancient influences on modern anxieties, a continuum that exists outside any human agency or hope of intervening in the indifferent mechanisms that will grind us all down to dust. Whether his creatures are gods, aliens, or indigenous beings, it really doesn’t matter. Do we care what ants think of us? Lovecraft’s tales suggest that nothing, not history, nature, the universe, even our own biology, is stable or predictable; the absurdity of human existence lies in our own arrogance and need to place ourselves at the center of everything. We are all “fumbling at the latch,” clumsily, thoughtlessly, and conceitedly throwing open the door to knowledge that will lead to our annihilation. The decay of Lovecraft’s beloved New England heritage is a microcosm for his sense of the global breakdown of old world supremacy; his creatures and extraterrestrials mirroring the ascendancy of Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.” His works will continue to terrify because, like Kafka’s, they express a dawning ontological awareness that all intelligent people must confront at some time in their lives. And there is a giant octopus dragon that sleeps on the bottom of the ocean waiting to take over the world too. In honor of his 123rd birthday, here are the 13 best works by H.P. Lovecraft:
One of Lovecraft’s earliest mature tales, “Dagon” was written in 1917. Playing off of Germany’s desperate ploy of unrestricted submarine warfare during World War One, “Dagon” is told from the perspective of a terrified, drug addicted sailor whose ship was captured by the Germans in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Escaping in a lifeboat, the sailor is set adrift in an unchartered area of the vast sea, finally coming ashore on a unknown island that he conjectures has been thrust up from the depths by some geological upheaval. After spending days exploring this decrepit atoll, he finds a titanic monolith that is covered by hieroglyphics that utilize marine creatures as symbols. Out of the water emerges a gigantic anthropomorphic sea creature that seems to be worshipping the monolith. Driven mad by his secret viewing of this primal ceremony, he somehow gets back to his lifeboat and is rescued. His return to society offers no solace as he obsesses about the possibility that these undersea monsters will rise up and destroy humanity. Heavily influenced by Poe and Coleridge, “Dagon” can be seen as an early run through of many of the themes that would come to fruition in the epochal “The Call of Cthulhu”: a sea creature emerging from the depths, a land mass that appears from nowhere in the ocean, a sailor that is driven mad by his knowledge of a race of beings that can overthrow civilization. Most importantly, “Dagon” introduces a key Lovecraftian idea: what we believe the natural order to be has to be rewritten, and human beings are no longer at the top of the evolutionary chain. This world shaking knowledge destabilizes the foundations that humans use to structure their lives and their larger significance in not only our world but in the universe itself. Perhaps reflecting anxieties about the outcome of WWI and the configuration of the post-war world, “Dagon” is the start of Lovecraft’s “thrill of repulsion”: characters that are simultaneously exhilarated and annihilated by their experiences with the unknown.
12. The Picture in the House
Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lovecraft was the master of New England horror. His use of the geography, culture, history, and folklore of New England informs the vast majority of his stories. Lovecraft clearly loved the region, of which he felt a deep almost metaphysical bond, and yet he also saw the underlying fear, ignorance, and malevolence that caused much death, terror, and misery in the upper six states. "The Picture in the House," written in 1920, opens with a brilliantly written explanation of why New England is much scarier than any of the stock horror settings such as mausoleums, castles, keeps, and lost cities. To prove his point, the narrator illustrates New England’s “perfection of the hideous” by relating a story of being caught in a storm while exploring the backwoods of the Miskatonic Valley looking for a shortcut to the city of Arkham. He takes refuge in a dilapidated colonial house where he meets an old man who speaks with an antiquated New England dialect. The hoary Yankee gets more and more excited discussing the attractions of cannibalism and its supposed life extending properties. The narrator begins to think that perhaps this cannibal theorist may be practicing what he preaches. Only marred by a cop out ending, “The Picture in the House” begins Lovecraft’s ingenious creation of a fictional geographical expanse (Miskatonic Valley) and its infamous city of Arkham (only referred to and not visited yet). By constructing his own imaginary place situated in the midst of real places, people, and events, Lovecraft achieves an amazing verisimilitude that allows him to suspend disbelief and yet keep his settings believable. For Lovecraft, there is a fine line between being an antiquarian and an abomination: one respects the limits and boundaries of time, while the other disrupts and makes a mockery of the linear progress of history.
11. The Mound
If Lovecraft was alive today, he would be a wealthy man, making money tentacle over fist from publishing, merchandising, and adaptation rights. Unfortunately, he was a man before his time (though he felt he was born much too late), and lived a life of borderline poverty, clinging to past familial glories last seen in turn of the century Providence. To supplement his meager wages from his own writings, Lovecraft would toil as a ghost writer, revising the works of others who desperately wanted to publish. Lovecraft, forever the gentleman and Samaritan, would extensively rewrite these often sophomoric stories, doing much more work than he was paid for in order to give these fledging authors a chance getting something published. Though these revisions are generally not up to the grand standards of his own creations, a few do manage to entertain on a higher level. "The Mound" is a novella written between 1929 and 1930 based on a story idea provided by Zealia Bishop. Taking Bishop’s notion of an Indian ghost haunting a mysterious mound in the Southwest, Lovecraft used this premise to dry run some of his social critiques and explorations that would later inform At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and “The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35). Though his political analysis and conjectures would become more expansive and in-depth in those two later works, “The Mound” is much more visceral and shocking. The mound is really an entrance to an underground world of the K'n-yan, a highly advanced immortal race of all powerful beings (kind of like the Vril-ya) who are discovered by a wayward Spanish conquistador Zamacona. Though appearing to be the perfect species, the K’n-yan are revealed to be a decadent, sadistic, selfish society in which they can only feel anything through subjugation, torture, and licentiousness. Can Zamacona return to the surface world and warn his fellow humans about these monstrous demi-gods? “The Mound” mixes its cultural insights with some truly bizarre grotesqueries and doesn’t unnecessarily prolong its climax like its two later (and better known) conceptual progeny.
10. Herbert West: Re-Animator
Though Lovecraft would probably be horrified, "Herbert West: Re-Animator" is one of his most recognized works thanks to the wondrously gonzoid film and stage adaptations directed and produced by one of the most Lovecraftian film makers ever, Stuart Gordon. "Herbert West: Re-Animator" was a serialized story written in 1921 and 1922 appearing in six issues of the amateur publication Home Brew. A parody of Frankenstein, the story arc follows the Grand Guignol-esque misadventures of Dr. Herbert West and his quest to prove to the world that the human body is just a machine that needs to be jump started to return to a semblance of existence after it conks out. His experiments result in his test subjects becoming raging, disfigured berserkers with a taste for human flesh and revenge. Banding together to form a reanimated legion of rejected guinea-pigs, the resurrected chickens come home to roost for the murderous doctor. Lovecraft thought the story was beneath his usual aesthetic sensibilities and felt that the serialized format of having a “cliffhanger” ruined the totality of effect he tried to employ in his stories. But that’s exactly what makes the picaresque stories so incredibly mind-blowing: the need to top the previous insanity of the last part drives Lovecraft to ever dizzying heights of absurdity and gruesomeness. When a story ends with a revived brain-dead boxer chewing on a baby’s arm, you would be a masochist if you didn’t want to see how the author could out out-gore himself with the next installment. If that wasn’t enough, “Herbert West: Re-Animator” contains the first mention of one of the most hallowed fictional institutions of learning: Miskatonic University.
9. The Hound
Lovecraft’s knack for parody was so dead-on that many readers and critics confused his mastery of irony for his true writing style. "The Hound," written in 1922, sees Lovecraft point his satirical pen at the Decadents, a cultural movement of the late 1800’s that elevated artifice, perversity, and elegant degeneration. Authors such as Charles Baudelaire, J.K. Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde and artists like Aubrey Beardsley focused on pleasure, debasement, and oblivion as responses to an industrialized, Victorian bourgeois conformity. Though only sharing their idolization of Poe, Lovecraft recognized that the inherent ghastliness of these lovers of the charnel house would make good protagonists for a horror story, and so “The Hound” is narrated by a true Decadent. It seems that two Decadents can only shake their crushing ennui by robbing graves and decorating their shared bachelor pad with their ill-gotten gains (tomb stones, skulls, bodies, etc.). These are not merely smash and grab jobs, but have a crucial aesthetic component that turns their necrophile fantasies into works of art. After disrespecting the final resting place of an infamous necromancer, they take his jade ghoul amulet that is imprinted with the image of a winged hound. Soon the two flowers of evil start to hear the baying of a hound that seems to be getting closer and closer to them no matter how much distance they travel away from the defiled grave. Lovecraft perfectly emulates the Decadent flair for gothic camp through over-exaggeration, excessive verbiage, and opulent descriptions to not only give an authentic narrative voice to his tale but also to critique this aesthetic form. Lovecraft believed that a weird tale needed to be based on realism and scientific fact in order to generate the effect of the uncanny through the violation of reality. The Decadents’ rejection of logic, reason, and propriety, so far from Lovecraft’s own creative philosophy, would have been ripe for spoof and ridicule. “The Hound” is also important because it contains the first mention of a little known book called The Necronomicon.
8. Pickman’s Model
Another satire of and contemplation on aesthetics, "Pickman's Model" was written in 1926 and would be adapted for television as an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in 1972. One of Lovecraft’s most idiosyncratic tales, the story is told through a monologue as if the narrator was speaking directly to the reader in casual conversation. Lovecraft’s style in “Pickman’s Model” is idiomatic and informal, as if the narrator has just walked into one of Gatsby’s Jazz-Age bashes with a cigarette in one hand and a flask of hootch in the other. Lovecraft-haters love to harp on his supposedly purple, archaic, adjective abusing prose, yet here he shows that he could easily have aped the then current “Modern” fiction voice if he so chose. The story relates the life and works of Richard Upton Pickman, a painter of the terrible and the grotesque, an artist whose shocking realism has led him to be ostracized from the local arts community, and perhaps with good reason. “Pickman’s Model” can be read as both a criticism of Modernism (the imagined listener to the narrator’s tale is named Eliot, perhaps alluding to T.S.) and a treatise on Lovecraft’s own beliefs about art and the horror genre. The narrator name drops such giants of the macabre as Fuseli, Dore, and Goya, explaining that what makes their works (Pickman included) so frightening is how their art has a graphic authenticity reflecting instinct, tradition and the sublime, traits that the Modernists sought to deconstruct and abolish in their quest for the “new.” These primal, biological, and historical connections to fear are what make their creations so dangerous and threatening to the viewer because their realism is based on a deeper existential level that transcends the contemporaneous and hits us right in the aboriginal parts of the brain.
7. The Haunter of the Dark
"The Haunter of the Dark" was Lovecraft’s last story, written in the same year as his death, 1935. After writing the glacially paced At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Haunter in the Dark is a welcome return to a more rousing and menacing quality of horror. A sequel to Robert Bloch’s inferior “The Shadow from the Steeple,” Lovecraft’s tale revolves around Robert Blake, a horror author who, while investigating an abandoned church in Providence, runs afoul of The Shining Trapezohedron and its guardian the Haunter of the Dark. Eschewing the more philosophical and cosmic concerns of his previous two works, “The Haunter in the Dark” gives us good old fashioned occult thrills, filled with Lovecraftian esoterica like The Necronomicon, the Starry Wisdom cult, Yuggoth, Nephren Ka,, Yog-Sothoth , and an avatar of Nyarlathotep. The Shining Trapezohedron is every stoner’s dream; by gazing into the alien crystal, the viewer can see across time and space into other worlds and dimension, but use of this extraterrestrial lava lamp summons its protector, who demands a ghastly price for this knowledge. On the surface, the toll demanded by the Haunter of the Dark from those who use the Shining Trapezohedron seems to be only physical dissimulation, and yet Blake’s final words allude to Roderick Usher, a reference which may suggest that the Haunter’s real fee is absorption of the soul and the engulfing of identity. As a final work, “The Haunter of the Dark” stands as a fitting testament to Lovecraft’s genius.
6. The Dunwich Horror
Lovecraft was not known for constructing well rounded, deep characters. Often used as cyphers or as frames from which he could hang his horrific speculations, the characters in Lovecraft’s stories are merely fodder stepped on by an indifferent, cold universe. The main character of the much beloved "The Dunwich Horror" may be Lovecraft’s most interesting and well developed fictive personality. Written in 1928, “The Dunwich Horror” relates the story of the Whately family, a degenerate clan who reside in the desolate town of Dunwich, Massachusetts. The reader is witness to the birth of Wilbur Whateley, a deformed being who grows abnormally fast and is raised by his grandfather Wizard Whately, schooled in the dark arcane arts. After his grandfather dies, Wilbur is left with the care of the farmhouse and his family and that maintenance involves finding a complete copy of The Necronomicon. His search for this dreaded tome brings him to Miskatonic University, initiating a series of events which brings about the Dunwich horror. Wilbur Whately is the ultimate outsider: over 8 feet tall, he looks like a goat, dogs hate him, and he is shunned by his community. His father is absent; he is saddled with an insane mother and other familial obligations that increase exponentially. In the end, he is destroyed by these pressures trying to satisfy the expectations placed on him by his grandfather. Much more than Dr. Armitage, the “good guy” of the story, Wilbur is a tragic hero, a fully realized complex character that elicits fear and sympathy from the reader. Heavily influenced by the psycho-sexual-magickal work of Arthur Machen, “The Dunwich Horror” reflects a certain prurience in Lovecraft’s writing. The coupling and sexuality suggested in the story are presented as elements of loathing and disgust, and yet there seems to be a definite pleasure in lingering over the abhorrence. It is one of Lovecraft’s most geographically evocative stories, blending fictional and real elements of the New England landscape and lore (The Devil’s Hopyard, the Moodus noises, Wilbraham Mountain) to construct a forebodingly lovely setting for the preparation for “clearing off the earth.”
5. The Whisperer in the Darkness
One of the myriad reasons why Lovecraft is still so significant and readable is that he blurred the boundaries between fantastique genres. Not content with the strictures of horror and astutely recognizing the potentials of the terrifying new world as revealed through science fiction, Lovecraft merged futuristic scientific realism with eldritch gothic sensibilities to create a thoroughly dismal portrait of the present. His best example of this crossbreeding is "The Whisperer in Darkness" written in 1930. Many Lovecraftians (and Lovecraft himself) would point to “The Colour out of Space” as the finest specimen of this peculiar genus, but “The Whisperer in the Darkness” prefigured the head in a canister motif prominently featured in Futurama, therefore trumping everything. Narrated by Miskatonic professor Albert Wilmarth, strange creatures are reportedly running rampant in the Vermont backwoods and nobody will take the warnings of resident Henry Akely seriously. After a convincing correspondence between the two men (including physical evidence to validate the sightings), Wilmarth journeys to Akely’s besieged home only to find a changed man and some shocking revelations about the motives and travel procedures of the other worldly Mi-Go. Finding dread in non-terrestrial objectives and intentions, Lovecraft rejects the supernatural as the only form of terror and anxiety and utilizes the amoral, cold rationality of an advanced organism to extinguish any notion of humanity’s superiority. Not obeying any of the natural laws that limit us weak human beings, are the Mi-Go really evil or just victims of our ignorance, fear, and jealousy? Even more frightening than the Mi-Go are the human henchmen that help the creatures. What are their motives in betraying their own race? Lovecraft’s creation of an isolated, oppressively sinister feeling amongst the rustic splendor of Vermont is particularly impressive. I would love to have heard the droning soundtrack of the Mi-Go rituals as captured on record by Akely. I imagine it would sound like Throbbing Gristle’s first album.
4. The Festival
Even Lovecraft’s harshest critics have to pay him a begrudging compliment when recognizing his amazing ability to invoke an uncanny atmosphere in his tales. Perhaps his most atmospherically eerie story, "The Festival" was written in 1923 and is considered one of the earliest entries in what some see as his greatest achievement and others see as an albatross, the Cthulhu mythos. “The Festival” was inspired by a trip Lovecraft took to the colonial village of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an excursion that left a powerful influence on his imagination. In the tale, the narrator is summoned to his home town, Kingsport, Massachusetts (based on Marblehead), to participate in an ancestral pagan festival. Following his relatives down into an underground cavern beneath an ancient church, the narrator witnesses unholy rites and primordial creatures that drive him to the brink of madness. Lovecraft’s finest invocation of the deep rooted beauty and evil of New England, the descriptions of Kingsport are especially melancholic and redolent of both reverence and malevolence. The narrator’s approach to Kingsport sets the perfect mood: “Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.” Short and sweet, “The Festival” boils down all that’s splendid about the adjective “Lovecraftian.” Plus, it’s a Christmas story!
3. The Call of Cthulhu
Arguably the most influential and important short story in the horror genre, “The Call of Cthulhu" started a phenomenon that, slowly but insistently, has emerged as an essential component of the 21st century horror landscape. For such a dominant work, its structure is highly unconventional and complex: fragmentary, displaced, and seemingly arbitrary. It starts with one of Lovecraft’s most quoted dissections of humanity’s tentative mastery of the planet and our inescapable step into the abyss. Broken up into three chapters, the narrative (which, itself, is a random account found among discarded papers) begins with the discovery of notes written by the narrator’s deceased granduncle . The notes fixate on the granduncle’s dealings with Henry Wilcox, an art student whose intense nightmares of an ancient sunken city and ominous chanting of the words Cthulhu and R'lyeh inspire him to sculpt an image of a strange creature that resembles a hybridized octopus, dragon, and human. The artist’s dreams coincide with a global pandemic of insanity and Fortean occurrences that ends after a final frenzied outpouring of mass psychosis. The second chapter continues the investigation of these bizarre events through the relation of a past experience with the chanted, seemingly nonsensical words. A meeting of the American Archaeological Society is stunned by an artifact confiscated by a police inspector involved in the arrest of murderous cult members in the Louisiana swamps. Under interrogation, one of the prisoners divulges that there is a secret word-wide network of believers who worship the Great Old Ones, aliens/monsters/gods from the cosmos that arrived on earth billions of years ago and still command the super-antediluvian cult from hidden locations. These beings are in a state of suspended animation and are awaiting a certain cosmic convergence to release them. Cthulhu is the greatest Great Old One of them all, and he sleeps in his sunken Pacific city R’lyeh waiting for the opportunity and human assistance to reign once more. The final chapter finds the narrator attempting to link these pieces of the narrative with the story of a sailor that, inadvertently, encountered the Great Old One and the consequences that that meeting had for him, his crewmates, and the rest of humankind. “The Call of Cthulhu” brings together many contemporary fears and anxieties: chance, accident, upheaval, conspiracy, instability, hopelessness, and inevitability. Nothing can be depended on anymore; humanity can find no security or solace in religion, science, history, culture, or philosophy. All the institutions that we use to give our lives meaning and significance are shown to be houses of cards, falling domino-like in the face of incompressible and unknowable forces that we have no control over. This sentiment is what makes Lovecraft the prophet of 21st century existence.
2. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Lovecraft only wrote three novels and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is the best of them, adapted into two great films. Written in 1927, but not published during the author's lifetime, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of Lovecraft’s most personal works. Taking place in Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, the novel focuses on the attempts Charles Dexter Ward to come to terms with his familial past and the history of the region which has informed that past. Ward discovers a purposely obscured ancestor named Joseph Curwen, an ageless necromancer who was seemingly destroyed by an outraged and frightened community of his fellow Rhode Islanders. Finding diaries, papers, and public versions of events, Ward’s research validates Curwen as a historical figure and then later, through Curwen’s forward looking machinations, as an actual resurrected fiend. The intertwining of Ward, Curwen, and Providence itself reflects Lovecraft’s relationships towards his own ancestors, his love for Providence and his obsession with antiquities, an ostensibly safe haven from the realities and disquiets of the present. This escape into the past, at first exciting, later disastrous, is a trap that Curwen utilizes to return to life, parasitically latching on and draining the present of its potentials and its future. Lovecraft’s brilliant weaving of actual personages, geography, classical writings, and happenings with his own fictional creations breaks down the rhetorical boundaries between History and history, suggesting that there is no truly objective narrative of people, places, and things. All these accounts are filtered through subjectivities that require multiple interpretations and perspectives, but even then there is no guarantee of truth. Ward’s insistence on an unambiguous truth leads to his destruction as Curwen preys upon the young man’s enthusiasm, idealism, and hubris. Rich with detail and supernatural authenticity, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward begins the epic ruminations on time and history that culminated in the later At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time.” But unlike those works, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward never drags or is predictable; it surprises, it terrifies, and makes you wonder, just like the best horror novels.
1. The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The pinnacle of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” brings together many of Lovecraft’s key themes and concerns in an exciting, horrifying, and ambitious work. Composed in 1931, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” oozes with a rotting atmosphere and despondent tone, a tale of one expiring way of life and the awakening of another. Displaying Lovecraft’s interest in and anxiety of heredity, the story describes the narrator’s journey to research his genealogy and the detour that mission takes through the putrefying seaside town of Innsmouth. The history of Innsmouth is haunted by misfortune, miscegenation, and misery connected to a Faustian bargain that backfires on its inhabitants and accelerates the downward financial, cultural, and genetic spiral towards desolation. The description of the town and its denizens are striking in their mutual revulsion and repugnance, reflecting each other’s de-evolution and breakdown. Yet from destruction and decay often springs creation and new and better hybridized forms of life. The layered images of nautical customs and sea creatures create a nauseatingly claustrophobic environment, and the labyrinthine design of the town entraps like the coils of hidden DNA strands. What takes the story to the rarified status of a classic are the elements of self-doubt, self-realization, and self-discovery that originate in outward repulsion and end with internal acceptance and empowerment. The “Innsmouth look” starts as a curse but becomes a sign of superiority and higher existence, a concept that is not truly understood until the story’s highly satisfying conclusion, a twist that makes subsequent re-readings entirely different experiences. Stuart Gordon’s 2001 film Dagon borrows much from “The Shadow over Innsmouth,”which should make sense since back in 1991 he tried to adapt it (Bernie Wrightson did some unbelievable character designs) but the project was unrealized. Here’s hoping that some Lovecraftian director can bring this fish tale to the big screen soon in a form that celebrates the art and thought of the great master.