How to read Lovecraft: A practical beginner’s guide
NOTE: When you’re finished with this article, be advised that it has a sequel.
After reading “Lovecraft: Invading the ego with shadows from the id,” a friend and coworker asked if I could “give a first-time Lovecraft reader a title to start with!” The answer to such a request is of course a resounding yes, and after typing and sending an email response to my friend, I found that I had actually created a low-key, all-purpose mini-introduction to Lovecraft as a whole, aimed specifically at anybody who has no background knowledge of him and designed intentionally to maximize a person’s enjoyment and understanding of his work. It also draws almost entirely on free material available on the open Internet.
So here’s a somewhat expanded version that I figured I would share here with the Teeming Brain audience, for those among you who are likewise looking to take the plunge into Lovecraft territory for the very first time.
Get acquainted with Lovecraft himself: his biography, his literary legacy, and his signature themes.
Lovecraft is one of those authors whose life and philosophy are uncommonly pertinent to understanding and appreciating his stories, so the best approach to reading them is one that begins by introducing you to the man himself, the better to give you a sense of who he was, what he wrote, and why he matters. Any number of books and articles can serve this purpose, but you can gain the same effect entirely online by following this brief viewing and reading plan:
1. Watch the introductory segment to the excellent 2008 documentary film Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Note that if this segment interests you, the entire documentary is available for free viewing as well.
2. Read the introductory summary to the article “H.P. Lovecraft” at Wikipedia (as it appeared on May 26, 2013):
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890–March 15, 1937) — known as H. P. Lovecraft — was an American author of horror, fantasy, poetry and science fiction, especially the subgenre known as weird fiction.
Lovecraft’s guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle was what he termed “cosmicism” or “cosmic horror”, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind. As such, his stories express a profound indifference to human beliefs and affairs. Lovecraft is the originator of the Cthulhu Mythos story cycle and the Necronomicon, a fictional magical textbook of rites and forbidden lore.
Although Lovecraft’s readership was limited during his lifetime, his reputation has grown over the decades, and he is now regarded as one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. According to Joyce Carol Oates, an award-winning author, Lovecraft — as with Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century — has exerted “an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction”. The science fiction and fantasy author Stephen King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” King made it clear in his semi-autobiographical non-fiction book Danse Macabre that Lovecraft was responsible for King’s own fascination with horror and the macabre, and was the single largest figure to influence his fiction writing. Lovecraft’s stories have been adapted into plays, films and games.
3. Read the very brief (one-paragraph) and effective biographical sketch of Lovecraft by the editors at Penguin Books:
H. P. Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived most of his life. Frequent illnesses in his youth disrupted his schooling, but Lovecraft gained a wide knowledge of many subjects through independent reading and study. He wrote many essays and poems early in his career, but gradually focused on the writing of horror stories, after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his fiction. His relatively small corpus of fiction — three short novels and about sixty short stories — has nevertheless exercised a wide influence on subsequent work in the field, and he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American author of supernatural fiction. H. P. Lovecraft died in Providence in 1937.
4. Read this slightly longer but amazingly complete biographical sketch from the article “H.P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937,” published at the Website for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke:
Born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft always felt as though he were an anachronism of the time in which he lived. His great fondness for the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations as well as his love of such fantasies as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights provided the backdrop for the fascinating tales he would spin later in his life. By the age of twelve, he had already mastered the standard English meters of poetry and was mainly a poet until about 1917, when the life blood of prose poured forth out of his pen and leaked mesmerizing tales on to the parchment stained with his imagination. Lovecraft drew much of his inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe, whose style is evident in many of Lovecraft’s stories. S.T. Joshi, a leading literary critic who has devoted much time to the study of Lovecraft and written several volumes about his life and works, says Lovecraft’s discovery of Poe at the age of eight gave Lovecraft’s writing “the greatest impetus it ever received.”
Lovecraft’s family life was filled with tragedy. In 1893, Lovecraft’s father, a traveling salesman named Winfield Scott Lovecraft, became paralyzed and remained in a coma until his death in 1898. As a result of this unfortunate turn of events, Lovecraft’s grandfather, Whipple V. Phillips, a wealthy industrialist, sustained Lovecraft and his mother, Sarah Susan Lovecraft, until he met his death in 1904. From this point on, poverty would be Lovecraft’s lot in life until his untimely demise at the age of forty-six in 1937. Though Lovecraft loved his mother dearly, he suffered much emotional scarring from her as she deemed him ugly and, for no apparent reason, hated him for his father’s poor health. She was hospitalized for her disturbed psychological condition and Lovecraft made no special efforts to see her during her final days. Her death in 1921, however, led Lovecraft to combat suicidal tendencies. After the collapse of his brief and unhappy marriage to Sonia H. Greene, Lovecraft lived with his aunt, Lilian D. Clark, until her death in 1932. He then moved in with his other aunt, Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, and remained with her until his death.
Some believe Lovecraft’s greatest accomplishment was his correspondence with fans of his work and other authors. It is estimated that he wrote over 100,000 letters in his life to such people as Henry Kuttner, Samuel Loveman, and Vincent Starrett. The letters describe his feelings about the nature of life, his aspirations, and his interests. Some readers find these more fascinating than his fiction works as they unleash his true writing genius completely unfettered.
Note that the same piece also contains excellent information on Lovecraft’s typical themes and literary style, and is highly recommended.
5. In the Wikipedia article “Lovecraftian horror,” read the opening paragraph and the two sections titled “Origin” (including “Themes of Lovecraftian horror”) and “Collaborators and followers” (including “Literature and art”). Read the rest of the article as well, if you want. Here’s a condensation of the named sections:
The hallmark of Lovecraft’s work is cosmicism: the sense that ordinary life is a thin shell over a reality which is so alien and abstract in comparison that merely contemplating it would damage the sanity of the ordinary person. Lovecraft’s work is also steeped in the insular feel of rural New England, and much of the genre continues to maintain this sense that “that which man was not meant to know” might be closer to the surface of ordinary life outside of the crowded cities of modern civilization. However, Lovecraftian horror is by no means restricted to the countryside; ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, for instance, is set in a crowded ethnic ghetto.
Several themes found in Lovecraft’s writings are considered to be a component of a “Lovecraftian” work:
- Anti-anthropocentrism, misanthropy in general.
- Preoccupation with visceral texture. The horror features of Lovecraft’s stories tend to involve semi-gelatinous substances, such as slime, as opposed to standard horror elements such as blood, bones, or corpses.
- Antiquarian writing style.
- Helplessness and hopelessness. Although Lovecraftian heroes may occasionally deal a “setback” to malignant forces, their victories are temporary, and they usually pay a price for it. Otherwise, subjects often find themselves completely unable to simply run away, and are instead driven by some other force to their desperate end.
- Unanswered questions. Characters in Lovecraft’s stories rarely if ever fully understand what is happening to them, and often go insane if they try.
- Sanity’s fragility and vulnerability.
By the late 20th century, Lovecraft had become something of a pop-culture icon, resulting in countless reinterpretations of and references to his work.
6. Be aware that Lovecraft, as a man and as a writer, was not solely “about” horror. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the common stereotype of him as a neurotic recluse who was monomaniacally obsessed with writing about visceral slime, tentacular nightmares, and monstrous pseudo-gods accounts for, at best, only half the real story. For although such things were indeed some of his perennial tropes and themes, he was also gripped by a profound longing for transcendent beauty and cosmic liberation into realms and visions of supernatural aesthetic bliss. This was central to his character and his writing. For more on the matter, see “C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds.”
7. Be aware that for most or all of his life, Lovecraft held blatantly and rather savagely racist attitudes, something that has long been a point of controversy over his legacy and that has gained added currency in the past year and two. This aspect of his thinking shows up in a number of his stories, sometimes as a central focus and other times as a background matter, and it’s always distressing. But from my lifetime’s worth of reading everything that’s available by him and about him, and of interacting with the sprawling community of scholars and admirers that surrounds his memory today, I personally think his racism was matched by and even enfolded within a more fundamental cast of mind and character that was quite lovely and humane. Others, however, disagree with me on this.
Read “The Call of Cthulhu.”
A sketch of the fictional monster Cthulhu, drawn by Lovecraft himself in 1934.
The most famous of Lovecraft’s many fictional monsters is easily Cthulhu, the anthropoid-octopoid-dragonlike “god” (actually an extraterrestrial/interdimensional being) that features most prominently in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” written in 1926 and first published in 1928. As explained at The H.P. Lovecraft Wiki,
It is the only story written by Lovecraft in which the extraterrestrial entity Cthulhu himself makes a major appearance. The story is written in a documentary style, with three independent narratives linked together by the device of a narrator discovering notes left by a deceased relative. The narrator pieces together the whole truth and disturbing significance of the information he possesses, illustrating the story’s first line: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
The story serves as an excellent “test drive,” both stylistically and content-wise, that will tell you whether you want to stop there or delve further into Lovecraft’s world. It’s also a supremely valuable literary and philosophical experience, for the right kind of person.
Read five more of his best and most famous stories.
If you enjoyed “The Call of Cthulhu,” and especially if you found it strangely and deeply thrilling and fascinating, and if you felt its cosmic horrific themes and implications resonate powerfully in your emotions and press darkly upon your thoughts, then I encourage you to expand your exploration of Lovecraft’s literary and philosophical universe by reading the following tales in the following order. The plot summaries are courtesy of The NetherReal, except for the last one, which I wrote myself:
- “The Rats in the Walls” — The descendant of the family de la Poer returns to Exham Priory and discovers the grisly secret of the family palate.
- “The Music of Erich Zann” — A deaf-mute German plays a different sort of concert against the forces of the universe in a nightly battle which costs much more than his soul.
- “The Dunwich Horror” — Dunwich, Massachusetts, a hidden village falling into its own decay of inbreeding and pestilence, experiences a new horror which threatens to destroy it all. Old Whateley makes a pact with Yog-Sothoth and rears a spawn from hell. (Note that this one was famously adapted as a 1970 B-movie starring Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Ed Begley, and Talia Shire.)
- “The Colour Out of Space” — A meteor falls from the heavens, infecting a small farm and its occupants with a strange malady. What strangeness comes from the deepest of space to destroy everything it touches? (Note that this one has been adapted for film more than once.)
- “The Shadow Out of Time” — An American professor in the early 1900s fears he is going insane when he unaccountably begins seeing strange vistas of alien cities. It emerges that he is being “possessed” by members of an alien race that project their minds through time and space to switch bodies with a host species and study cosmic history.
Proceed at will into the eldritch abyss.
READ MORE ONLINE. After following all of the above steps, if you find that your appetite, instead of being extinguished, is whetted for more, then you can simply proceed at will through the rest of Lovecraft’s stories, and also, if you’re really hooked, through his other writings — poems, letters, essays — and perhaps through the rich world of literary criticism and interpretation devoted to him.
Also see these worthy writings for more about his life, person, and meaning:
- “H. P. Lovecraft” by S. T. Joshi. This is an excellent, free, and very long article — almost a miniature book in its own right — about Lovecraft’s life, philosophy, works, and criticism.
- “Calling Cthulhu: H. P. Lovecraft’s Magick Realism” by Erik Davis. Says Erik, “Lovecraft constructs and then collapses a number of intense polarities — between realism and fantasy, book and dream, reason and its chaotic Other. By playing out these tensions in his writing, Lovecraft also reflects the transformations that darkside occultism has undergone as it confronts modernity in such forms as psychology, quantum physics, and the existential groundlessness of being. And by embedding all this in an intertextual Mythos of profound depth, he draws the reader into the chaos that lies ‘between the worlds’ of magick and reality.”
- “The King of the Weird” by Joyce Carol Oates. Says the esteemed Ms. Oates, “In writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton who experimented with gothic forms of fiction, the gothic tale may compensate for a conventional, restrictive life; in others, notably Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the gothic tale would seem to be a form of psychic autobiography.”
- “Dark Mysticism: H. P. Lovecraft as Soulcraft” by Scott Poole. Says Scott, “For me Lovecraft has opened the way to a dark mysticism, by short-circuiting the longing for rational explanations and intentionality at every turn . . . . Lovecraft imagined a world without blessing. But it is also a world without curse. Death itself ceases to be the sum of all despair. It simply represents the non-negotiable nature of the universe, a rough rescue that frees us from idiot gods and their attendant devils. Lovecraft offers us not a barren bleakness but a rich and welcoming darkness.”
- “The Myth Maker” by Michel Houellebecq. Says Mr. Houellebecq, “Lovecraft’s body of work can be compared to a gigantic dream machine, of astounding breadth and efficacy. There is nothing tranquil or discreet in his literature. Its impact on the reader’s mind is savagely, frighteningly brutal and dangerously slow to dissipate. Rereading produces no notable modification other than that, eventually, one ends up wondering: how does he do it?”
- “Heritage of Horror” by Robert Bloch. Says the legendary Mr. Bloch — who was famously a youthful correspondent of Lovecraft, and who even had the honor of being fictionalized by Lovecraft and killed by an extra-dimensional monstrosity in the story “The Haunter of the Dark” — “In a time of turmoil there is a widespread intimation — not based on hereditary impulse but on today’s realities — that the evils abroad in the world may come from without as well as from within ourselves. While we may consciously reject [Lovecraft’s] cosmology, a part of us finds in it a chilling confirmation of secret fears. At the time Lovecraft created it, the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and its threat of Elder Gods rising and returning to rule over earth could be easily dismissed as merely a paranoid fable of the future. Today there is growing suspicion that this future may become our present.”
READ MORE ON PAPER. If by chance you end up deciding that you want to buy some actual books, I recommend the Penguin Classics editions published at the turn of the millennium and edited by S. T. Joshi:
And there you have it. You are now conversant with the works and person of H. P. Lovecraft. I wish you many exquisite journeys through the dark and beautiful dreamscape of his rich imagination.
For more on the same subject, and for a revised and shorter introduction to HPL, see the sequel to this article: “Deadly pedantry: How (and how not) to murder art, literature, and H. P. Lovecraft“