Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
Welcome to the HP Lovecraft Overview. This is his published fiction. There are a large number of stories Lovecraft wrote in collaboration with other writers; only a few are included here.
Lovecraft was a sort of materialist, so his work has little (if any) of the literally spiritual. His cosmos is mechanistic and hopeless.
But still, a lot of fun.
The monsters and gods, then, are not supernatural but natural – and very very Other. Think of giant viral phages that can write in glyphs and need only the lightest of sweaters when traveling through the vacuum of open space. All of these beings have abstract reasoning far beyond our abilities and appendages way better than opposable thumbs. So much for the Human Advantage on planet Earth. We are sand crabs on the beaches of Normandy: not hated, just unnoticed and inconsequential. Some of his stories at least carve out a tiny place in the Darwinian ranks of more-or-less-sentient living things, placing us somewhere between The Old Ones and beetles with the instinct for making balls out of dung. And where do we, mere place-holders on the tree of life, make our last stand?
The land of clam chowder is home base for Lovecraft. With its neat, straight-lined houses, it is the perfect foil for the amorphous, tentacled citizens of Lovecraft’s cosmos.
His timeline adds aeons to Earth’s history, making the dinosaurs look like the dessert course and mammals the after-meal belch. Humans are the wiff of nasty breath at the tail end of the belch.
So, without further ado….
Best Current Collections:
The Complete Fiction of HP Lovecraft from Knickerbocker classics has all the best material and almost everything else besides. That’s the good news. The bad news is at 1100 pages, it’s tough to fit in your backpocket. Though it doesn’t have much in the way of extras, it’s your best bet for your home library.
Another very long option is called Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of HP Lovecraft, which has 99% of the best material (800+ pages) in one place. A second volume called Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre has the lesser material plus some poetry and essays, for the completist. But again, not much in the way of notes or intros.
A third “comprehensive” option is The New Annotated HP Lovecraft (900+ pages). With an intro from Alan Moore and annotations from Leslie Klinger, it has a lot to offer. It’s a collection of the scary stuff (not much of the lower quality or non-horror work), BUT does not include Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Unforgivable. There are great appendices, but I seriously can’t believe they left Dream-Quest out. It would be perfect if they hadn’t. Cool cover, though.
A more portable option is the series from Penguin, which pretty evenly divides the best material into 3 volumes. Each of the 3 has a few of the best stories, and yes, some filler, but also has intros from S.T. Joshi, who is the premiere Lovecraft scholar. These volumes are:
Those are your best large and small collections. Of course, there are a ton of other smaller collections, and a few individual editions of Dream-Quest, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness.
Here’s a grouping of the stories (and novellas) into Essential, Very Good, Good, and Meh, though all of the above editions will have a combination of all four. That’s the way collections work.
Dagon – This is what an adrift sailor finds when the bottom of the ocean mysteriously rises up out of the sea. Pretty cool for his first printed story.
The Rats in the Walls – Man, this dude likes cats. And ruins. This one has a gothic feel, and is full of nasty surprises. Takeaway: No matter how fancy or storied our exterior, we all have rats in the walls.
Call of the Cthulhu – A classic and maybe the real start of the Cthulhu material that is Lovecraft’s most significant creation. It is a hodge-podge of clippings, letters and detective-style narrative, with globe-spanning, tracking-down of the thing, with madness, derelict ships and really bad dreams. Lovecraft takes away your value as a human, removes the structure of the physical world and foreshadows the manner and inevitability of your death. And he’s available for children’s parties. [Here’s another look at this story from The Last Spookstore: A Horror Story Art Show]
The Colour Out of Space – Someone should count how many LC stories boil down to “Weird shit happening at that place just outside of town.” He does that physics-bending thing where he talks about an “unknown colour”. As cosmic and Other as it gets. F#$%ing Carl Sagan may have doomed us all.
The Dunwich Horror – An effed up little town called Dunwich festers an abomination (or two) that could destroy the world. There’s a bit of a monster-hunting feel to it and some arcane-detective noir. This story does one of my favorite things: it leaves loose ends. Don’t forget your Powder of Ibn Ghazi.
Whisperer in the Darkness – Heavy on the sci-fi, light on the characters behaving rationally. A lot of tension and great details of Lovecraft’s mythos, mixed with superfun! astronomy lessons.
Shadow Over Innsmouth – One of the greats, this one feels like the prototype for a lot of the horror that followed it: guy hears about a weird town, he checks it out – against advice – yep, the town is weird. Innsmouth makes nearby Arkham look like Disneyland. Do NOT go surfing.
The Shadow Out of Time – This throbbing gristle of the Cthulhu mythos takes place in that eldritch land of horror, Australia. There is a bit of a timeline for Lovecraft’s universe. This is archaeology, science fiction, and Freaky Friday in a dreamy, Crazy Train burrito.
Haunter in the Dark – This is a story told from a dead guy’s journal, and is the last thing HP Lovecraft wrote. It is a companion piece to Robert Bloch’s stories “Shambler from the Stars” and “The Shadow from the Steeple”. Thought: small towns with a horror-filled, haunted ruin right in the middle of the town square need to feel okay about busting out the pitchforks and torches. You gotta nip that shit in the bud.
The Statement of Randolph Carter – This is a short one, really simple in structure and pretty classic for horror – a trip to a graveyard, two occult researchers, a portable phone with copper wiring, no less. Awesome.
The Cats of Ulthar – This is an origin tale of how the town of Ulthar came to have its special relationship with cats. Chilling, odd, satisfying for animal lovers.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – This is the main Randolph Carter story; it is 130+ pages and EPIC. It’s literally a quest in a dream, and covers a hell of a lot of territory.
My takeaways: Be nice to cats, a ghoul is a person too, and there’s no place like home. (Seriously, this is an effed up Wizard of Oz)
The Outsider – So Poe it hurts. A lone dude tries to leave the castle where he has always dwelt, unsure of the world beyond. Poor guy. You’ll prob see where it’s headed halfway thru, but maybe only because other folks have since ripped off the idea.
Pickman’s Model – A lot of bad things in LC come out of holes in the ground. Here’s a great example of one of LC’s favorite things: leading you into hidden corners of a city, up and down thru obscure back alleys to a spot you’d never find again on your own – and I always think “What’s everyone else in this hood doing?” It’s the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark as a slum of ancient urban horror, each hovel with its own dark secret.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – A young man researches a vilified ancestor. This is a novella, a bit of reanimator with necromancy and the classic Lovecraftian “look – we found a lost city/building/temple/old place with dead stuff”. Not for the first time in Lovecraft, we see that ignorance is a defense. What is dangerous is the desire to know or understand. Bury it, walk away.
Dreams in the Witch House – Dreams, rodents and math. Real-life, super advanced geometry connected to his sorta-but-not-really occult themes. Strange to think of Planck and Heisenberg in a context with Cotton Mather and Abdul Alhazred, but it’s perfect for his non-supernatural – could we say extra-natural? – worldview. Witchcraft is just high math. There’s a splash of surrealism and a dash of psychedelia.
At the Mountains of Madness – This is almost a novella, an expedition to Antarctica to do scientific research – you know, some DRILLING and so forth. Drilling never ever works out in horror or sci-fi. You get one of the best timelines for his universe. And The Old Ones are amongst the most interesting and respectable(!) Lovecraftian creatures. Get to know them! They’re critters you’d love to have a beer with, if they didn’t cut you into bloody ribbons first.
Question: Come to think of it, is The Thing really a Shoggoth?
The Picture in the House – This is just a rude little story about cannibalism in the Miskatonic Valley, but it explicitly states what we already know about LC’s favorite place: New England is a very bad place.
“Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun – but d’ye know, ‘twan’t quite satisfyin’.” This is an origin tale for a certain kind of horror film.
In the Vault – Poe-ish and like something from an EC comic: grisly, but somehow funny, primarily because of the main character. This blunt, practical-to-a-fault guy sticks out to me as most Lovecraft characters do not. Nothing grand here, but I loved it.
The Thing on the Doorstep – “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend….” Irresistible, right? I feel like you can see the twists coming, and that the main character is a little slow on the uptake – but that doesn’t really diminish the grisly fun. There is a fair amount of pathos and … sorry for planting this in your head, but seriously… Christina Ricci as Asenath is a strong take-away. That and something coming out of the basement – urrrf.
The Temple – This has some of Lovecraft’s characteristic attractions PLUS those of a submarine/U-boat movie: what’s not to love?! Contains the phrase “English pig-dogs”, at which point I could have stopped reading and been totally satisfied.
In the Walls of Eryx – This is a rare straight-up sci fi story for Lovecraft, written with young Kenneth Sterling. It’s that ol’ standard: obnoxious colonial Earthman mows down the natives with his flame pistol, and pillages Venus. This, until he underestimates them, and gets more than he bargained for.
The Nameless City – Not much action here, but good atmosphere, as an adventurer – Indiana Jones style – explores a forbidden city ruin. Lotsa crawling. It’s a straight-line, with no real surprises unless this is your first HP story.
Dark Bonus 2: Here’s an Open Culture post that features some of Lovecraft’s sketches and notes.
Polaris – Not all stars should be wished upon. In fact, some stars are assholes. Usually the cosmos is cold and indifferent towards man, but in this case, at least part of it is deliberately malicious. Effective story.
The Doom That Came to Sarnath – It has that told-from-far-away feel he gleaned from the work of Lord Dunsany. It’s a bit predictable, but the button on the end is satisfying.
Takeaway: just because something is weird or ugly doesn’t mean it should be killt.
Celephais – This is the backstory of Kuranes, one of Carter’s allies in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. There is a kind of pathos for Kuranes, and it somehow reminds me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn”, but I can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s the dreams/drugs.
The Unnameable – This is a tight little number. It has kind of a Twilight Zone/Night Gallery feel. For the sake of all that is holy in the world – do not go to New England, ever. And if you really must, then at least don’t hang out in a cemetery.
The Silver Key – This is an origin story of Randolph Carter, perhaps Lovecraft’s main character. “There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes.”
Through the Gates of the Silver Key – This is the follow-thru of The Silver Key. When this dude gets on the road, he doesn’t just go to Knott’s Berry Farm or the Grand Canyon or wherever. He packs a cooler full of snacks, and breaks the time/space barrier. He gets a bit more than he bargained for. Take-away: If you somehow procure a Magic Key – read the damn instructions.
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs or Under the Pyramids – This is great on several levels: it was written for Harry Houdini (who is the protagonist) and it happens in Egypt. You might look back after the story and say, “Wait- why did all that happen?”, but as far as horror/fantasy adventures starring Harry Houdini and written by HP Lovecraft – it’s the only one.
The Festival – Worst Christmas story ever. Look – if your family has a holiday tradition of traveling back to its hometown to participate in ancient ghoulish rituals, you should skip it. Some traditions suck.
Here is more commentary with spoilers from dream-questing duo Ruthanna Emrys & Anne M Pillsworth over at Tor.com.
The History of the Necronomicon – Not a story, but exactly as advertised: a short history of that book, from its composition by Abdul “The Mad Arab” Alhazred to its influence on Robert W Chambers, who wrote The King in Yellow (Yes, from True Detective).
The White Ship – Here’s a cautionary fable about a third generation lighthouse keeper who answers the call of the sea – but not just any sea… a dreamy, beckoning sea. It offers a preview of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Again – more spoilers and analysis from the Dunwich Duo at Tor.com, Pillsworth and Emrys.
Ex Oblivione – Literally escapist, this shares elements with Beyond the Wall of Sleep, being trapped in the waking world, wanting to get back to the “real” world of dreams. I actually kinda felt for the guy, “In my dreams I found a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life, and wandered through old gardens and enchanted woods.”
The Quest of Iranon – This is in the Dunsanian vein, and is boring as hell until the very end. A delicate, bardish youth goes a-questing for the idyllic city of his dreams. Only Lovecraft could pull this one out of snoresville, but it’s a near run thing.
The Other Gods – Tells the story of Barzai the Wise and his Sancho Panza, the young priest Atal, and their attempt to see the gods dance atop the highest mountain. Super bad idea. Takeaway: It sometimes pays to be the fat guy in back who can’t keep up, especially if the guy in front is bat-shit crazy.
What the Moon Brings – These “word pictures” are not stories in themselves, but could be the final few frames of a narrative, like a coda. Things look different in moonlight – but is it sunlight or moonlight that actually illuminates reality?
The Strange High House in the Mist – Local legend in the seaport town says a house atop a cliff invites doom to any who dare its treacherous heights. And who should appear in a Lovecraft story, but someone incapable of resisting said doom? It escapes me a bit, because I think I’m supposed to feel a twinge of shadow… but I don’t.
Third and Final Dark Bonus: Check out Michael Bukowski’s Yog-Blogsoth for his sketches of Lovecraftian critters. This stuff is great.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep – With its dreams, cosmic scope and time-bending, you could think of this as a prefiguring of the themes and setting of his latter work.
From Beyond – Apparently, the “sixth sense” operates out of the pineal gland, and you see more than dead people. Remember your friend that invented a crazy little glowing machine and then his servants disappeared and he stopped grooming himself? When he invites you up to his attic – dude, duh – don’t go.
Nyarlathotep – It’s our old pal Nyarlathotep. He is also known as Crawling Chaos, and he is in a lot of Lovecraft. Not a guy/thing to invite to your Settlers of Catan party. This piece lives up to his name. You’ve heard of a “black sabbath”? How about a “black pentecost”?
The Hound – If collecting cemetery paraphernalia, including cadavers, is your hobby, you should get your own movie. And padded room. Feeling compelled to exhume a 500 year old body? Don’t take anything. Get your selfie, and put everything back intact. Spoilers in this extensive essay from S.J. Chambers on Tor.com.
The Descendant – Not a lot happens in this vignette or story fragment, but it centers on a “descendant” of mysterious origins who, in any other story, might reach great heights (or, more like, depths), but here just kinda broods and moulders like a forgotten muscle car in the side yard. For every Randolph Carter, there are 100 of these guys.
The Tomb – This is one of Lovecraft’s earlier stories, but it’s high quality: a macabre mood, a touch of taboo, a distortion of time/space. This feels like an initial creative explosion of energy, and I imagine him sitting at his little desk, staring at the freshly typed, neatly stacked pages, thinking “I love this. I am really good at stories. Why wasn’t I doing this before?!” It’s ok, Howard: all that poetry and all those essays are what got you here.
Of course, there’s a Suess version.
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family – This story has also been called The White Ape and Arthur Jermyn, depending on where/when it was published. Think Michael Crichton’s Congo mixed with any number of Gothic romances. The Jermyn clan has a dark secret it has kept even from itself. On the other hand, it might make Planet of the Apes less of a zero-sum game.
The Moon-Bog – Not much good ever comes of Americans going back to the Old Country to “fix up” the family estate (see The Rats in the Walls), but that’s what Denys Barry intends to do. The big mystery for me is not what happens to everyone in the story (that’s clear enough), but what the hell the Greeks were doing in ancient Ireland?
The Music of Erich Zann – This one feels like an obscure Poe story. Taking lodging in a mostly-empty building in an impossibly hidden neighborhood, our protagonist has a neighbor who plays odd violin pieces out his open window. That’s horrifying in any context.
The Lurking Fear – This is basically a mystery monster hunt. Elements of X Files – but say, Moulder gets his face bit off. It lost me a bit in the middle, but at the end it mostly made sense. This is popping a zit on the face of Hell.
The Shunned House – This is a haunted house story. It has tons of colonial era backstory, with a hint of Ghostbusters pre-climax. For some reason, the writing felt more like Poe than usual, but it may just be the power of suggestion from references to him.
Cool Air – This is more EC Comics material. Not 100% clear in its internal mechanisms (wait, how did he…?), but still fun and gross. The take-away is getting the willies every time you catch a waft of chilled air.
The Book – This is just a fragment, but still kinda cool. It’s like sliding down the Reading Rainbow to Hell. Opening any book in a Lovecraft story will yield complicated results, and I’m pretty sure this guy is not better off for it.
Old Bugs – Nothing to do with bugs. Another surprise, this one. A morality tale about the dangers of vice in ol’ Chicago. Kinda moving, actually.
The Terrible Old Man – This made me think of pirates, and that’s always a good thing. Con men (well, thugs) want the treasure of a wizened sea captain. Takeaway: best practices is to treat the elderly with respect, especially if they’re salty, old sea dogs.
The Street – Nothing really supernatural or scary. You trace the history of the nation, from colonial times up to the Red Scare of the 1920s, through the eyes of a street. Yes, the Street is your narrator. Interesting.
Herbert West: Reanimator – This one is different in that it was originally serialized, so each section starts with a rough summary of previous material and ends with a bang. As a result, it feels like you keep backtracking. A scientist spends his “career” reanimating dead people – or trying anyway. The problem is, they’re never “fresh enough”. Ha ha. You know, Doc – if you sprinkle them with lemon juice, it keeps them from browning.
The Very Old Folk – This fun if unsatisfying tale puts you back with a Roman cohort in Spain, late in the Republic.
The Evil Clergyman – This one is pretty inventive. A man visits a notorious attic space, and is warned about this or that, and more or less ignores the warnings – the sine qua non choice of Lovecraft and all horror lit: ignore any warning.
The Little Glass Bottle, The Secret Cave, The Mystery of the Grave-Yard, The Mysterious Ship, The Beast in the Cave – These very very early stories were written from ages 7 to about 18. They are predictably not great, and yet… and yet…. You can detect promise. Seriously, age SEVEN.
A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson – An impossibly old narrator recalls – in the early 20th century – his friendship with Dr. Johnson and his circle of (mostly) English luminaries, back in the day – way back in the day. Not horror. Not sure what it is.
Sweet Ermengarde – This is your classic melodrama – the Villain, the Ingenue, the Hero, etc. – with some sassy twists. Funny dude, that ol’ HP. Who knew?
The Alchemist – A very early story, which – despite a great setting in an old castle, a family curse, a village warlock, etc. – doesn’t quite build or surprise enough for impact.
The Crawling Chaos – This is an opium trip – literally. Kind of Poe-ish. There may be more to it, but it escapes me. And no apparent connection to Nyarlathotep, who is called Crawling Chaos in other stories, so what’s up with this story, Howard? Written with and based on a dream of “Elizabeth Berkeley” (Winifred Jackson).
Hypnos – A touch of Greek mythos, a bucketful of drugs – this is dream-quest as a buddy movie. Could be an oblique companion piece to The Tree. Talk about dreaming, I had trouble staying awake.
Azathoth – More of a vignette than a story, could this be metaphorically autobiographical? A guy in a dingy room travels thru his tiny window up into the sky to dreamy Otherwheres. Maybe a transition from his Dunsany period to his Dreamer-as-Quester period.
The Horror at Red Hook – Basically a detective story involving black magic in Brooklyn. That sounds promising, but in the actual event – meh. Apparently, foreigners are mostly evil and practice witchcraft. Hmm.
He – New York again. The funny thing about this story is that after a harrowing experience in the Big Apple, the protagonist returns “home to the pure New England lanes up which fragrant sea-winds sweep at evening.” Ha. We know about New England, don’t we? Feels like a fruitcake of other stories, with ideas that don’t develop.
Memory – A very short, poetic piece that might work as an intro to Planet of the Apes.
The Transition of Juan Romero – The only thing notable about this story – besides the racism – is that it takes place in the deserts of the Southwest US. It’s not even clear what happens in the story.
The Tree – Urrf. Two Greek sculptors compete for the king and become friends, there’s a tree someone dies blah blah boring.
Ibid – Uncharacteristic of Lovecraft, this one is basically a parody (of academia?). The skull of the venerable Roman scholar “Ibid” (that’s his name) makes its unlikely way down thru the ages and across continents.
You are now as ready as you’ll ever be.
If you’ve read this far, all the way through the “Meh”s, then you are pretty hardcore and well-suited for the Lovecraft universe, which is filled with characters who don’t know when to turn around and go back. Grab your flashlight, ignore the stench, and get in there.