I’m running an H. P. Lovecraft-based horror/survival LARP this August, and a friend of mine volunteered to help. “I can make you a really good octopus mask.”
I blinked. “Um…well…if we were on the coast, I might do something Cthulhu-y, but we’re playing in the middle of the woods, so no Cthulhu.”
My friend seemed baffled. “What else is there?”
I don’t blame her. Lovecraft has become so closely linked with his most famous creation that a lot of his other works are all but unknown to the casual reader. I thought, therefore, that it might be enjoyable to give an overview of Lovecraft’s work and share what’re some of my favorite stories of his.
Patische-ing Poe – Lovecraft’s Early Works
If you read a lot of early Lovecraft, you’ll realize pretty quickly that Lovecraft was very heavily influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Reading a story like “The Rats in the Walls” feels a lot like reading Poe, and Lovecraft himself referred to Poe as his “god of fiction.”
Lovecraft’s earlier works are simpler, more straightforward stories, in a way, as he hadn’t yet fully developed the bizarre cosmic horror concepts that dominate most of his work. Some of these early stories are quite good, such as “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Tomb,” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” Already in these stories, one finds elements such as a monstrous heritage that returns to haunt the narrator, places that exist at one time and then seem to have ceased to exist altogether later, and people with terrible secrets they may try to share, only to lose life and/or sanity.
Although he wrote them much later than these, I often mentally lump two of my favorite Lovecraft stories in with these earlier pastiches. In “Pickman’s Model,” the narrator befriends an outcast artist, Richard Upton Pickman. Pickman’s subject matter is very macabre, but his technique is almost photo-realistic. Pickman ultimately shows the narrator his secret studio, and his new painting, of a ghoulish creature coming up from below. The narrator notices a photo tacked to the canvas which is purported to be of a background Pickman intends to use. Before the narrator can examine the photo, they’re interrupted by something seemingly coming up into Pickman’s basement studio from below, which Pickman wards off with gunfire. Shaken, the narrator eaves, realizing only later that he took the photo with him by accident. The photo reveals only the basement studio…with the ghoulish creature revealed to be quite real.
The other story in question is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In it, a young man seems to undergo a startling personality change after becoming obsessed with his ancestor, who was burned for witchcraft and who was supposed to be able to reanimate the dead. Ultimately, it’s revealed that the young man used his ancestor’s powers to bring the ancestor back, only to be replaced by the evil ancestor.
Perchance to Dream – Lovecraft Reads Lord Dunsany
Sometime in the early to mid 1920s, Lovecraft finds a new author to inspire him. Lord Dunsany, author of such books as The Gods of Pegana and The Queen of Elflan’ds Daughter, brought out in Lovecraft a desire to write dreamy, eerie stories that are referred to as the Dream Cycle or Dreamlands stories.
These stories are almost utterly unlike the rest of Lovecraft’s works. They range from the fable-like “The Outer Gods” to the dreamy “The White Ship.” A tragic story like “The Quest of Iranon” can follow a tale like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath.” They feature strange characters, a sort of fantasy backdrop, and an appropriately dream-like quality to them. Two of my favorite pieces of this period include “The Cats of Ulthar” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”
In “The Cats of Ulthar,” we learn that there’s a law in the town of Ulthar to never harm a cat. This is because of a group of gypsies who passed through. A terrible man and wife killed a kitten belonging to a gypsy boy, and the boy laid an awful curse on the couple. All of the cats in town disappeared for a day, and then turned up, apparently pleased and well-fed. And all that was found of the evil couple were a pair of picked-over skeletons.
“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is suitably epic. In it, the narrator dreams of a golden city, and goes on a quest to find it again when he stops dreaming of it. His quest takes him through the lands of friendly ghouls, to the cold and hostile Plateau of Leng. It sees him dodging giant gugs and battling slimy white moonbeasts. In the end, he has a Wizard of Oz movie ending moment where he realizes the golden city is Providence, where he was born and raised, and the dreams come from his memories of the town he loves.
Calling in Cthulhu – Yog-Sothothery and Other Strangeness
I theorize that, sometime in the mid-20s, Lovecraft said, “I am sick of ghost stories, vampires, witches, and everything of that nature. I want new horrors…more cosmic horrors.” Since no one was quite writing what he was wanting, he starting writing it himself, becoming one of the first writers to blend horror with sci-fi.
These stories, more so than anything else, are what Lovecraft is famous for, and a list of even the decent one will be extensive. Some worth mentioning include “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and, arguably his most famous work, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
The practical upshot of these stories is that, despite our high opinion of ourselves, earth in general and mankind in particular are just cosmic motes in the grand scheme of things.
The “monsters” of Lovecraft’s work aren’t evil…they just couldn’t care less about humanity, because humanity is to them as gnats are to humanity.
“The Call of Cthulhu” echoes a number of Lovecraft’s themes. In it, the narrator follows in the footsteps of his Uncle, who seemed to be collated a number of strange events that had happened in the moths previous to his death. Things that would otherwise seem unrelated began to seem connected when compared to each other in terms of the dates they happened. It all comes to suggest that something monstrous happened over a few days in mid-1925.
The final piece in the puzzle comes by accident, but it fills in the story. Cthulhu, essentially an alien god, used to rule the earth, but he fell into a death-like slumber long ago and now waits, dreaming, his dreams troubling only the psychically receptive. During the days in 1925, however, a new island had been heaved up to the ocean’s surface by seismic activity. Some sailors discovered the new island and were slaughtered by Cthulhu, a colossal octopus-headed anthropomorphic creature with huge batwings. The poor narrator, being the only one to put it all together, is stuck knowing that Cthulhu and his cult are real, that Cthulhu’s island will likely rise again, and that humanity will likely be wiped-put when next he rises.
I could go on and on about Mr. Lovecraft. Do people want to know more? Am I preaching to the choir? Do you have a favorite story of his, or a movie, book, or anything else was influenced by his work? Let us all know!
Editor’s Note: If you’re new to Lovecraft or an old fan, be sure to download Ruth “CthulhuChick”‘s free compilation of all of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. (It’s cool - they’re public domain!) No matter how you like to read your digital books, she’s got a file ready for you.