Howard Phillips
July 22, 2010 6:07 PM   Subscribe

So, H.P. Lovecraft ... where to start?

I've always wanted to read a few Lovecraft books to get a taste for him but have never known where the hell to start. Most of that has to do w/ looking at his bibliography and throwing up my hands.

I'm a book-a-week reader who very, very rarely reads any SF/Fantasy/Horror/Pulp, but I've read too many people fawn/express their undying devotion to all things Lovecraftian.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
I think the most famous ones are famous for a reason, so go for those first. I'd go for The Rats in the Walls, At the Mountains of Madness, Shadow over Innsmouth, Call of Cthulhu, and one of the tales of Herbert West: Re-Animator. None are over-long so you should get through them pretty quickly. Those should give you a good overview of his various phases and his general style, and serve as a solid base should you wish to delve deeper.
posted by lhall at 6:15 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, if you want a good creeping out, I suggest getting the audiobooks for those stories, and listening to them in the dark before bed. That also can help you deal with his affected archaic phrasing and fanciful words, which is what held me up on reading his stuff for a long time.
posted by lhall at 6:20 PM on July 22, 2010

You can polish off Call of Cthulhu in an hour. No reason to debate where to start when the debate itself would take longer than reading his most famous work.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:20 PM on July 22, 2010

Hmm, on the contrary I would risk saying that in the OP's frame of mind and likings (hope I'm not beanplating this), one of the novellas would be better, as they tend to be so much more self-contained. As such, no better one than At the Mountains of Madness. Everything good about HPL is there, I would say.
posted by Iosephus at 6:22 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shadow over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and Call of Cthulhu are my faves.

I wouldn't recommend reading his complete works; his best stories are great but many of his lesser stories are outright terrible.
posted by benzenedream at 6:24 PM on July 22, 2010

Widely referenced:
"Cool Air"
"Pickman's Model"
"Shadow over Innsmouth"
"The Colour Out of Space"

Phantastic and Poetical:
"Ex Oblivione"
"The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"
"The Cats of Ulthar"

Personal Favorites:
"The Outsider"
"Herbert West: Reanimator"*

Grab Bag:
"From Beyond"*
"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"*
"The Call of Cthulhu"*
"The Doom that Came to Sarnath"
"Dreams in the Witch-house"

* Made into decent films
posted by adipocere at 6:30 PM on July 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Look for a compilation of short stories that has Call of Cthulhu, Shadow Over Innsmouth and the Dunwich Horror, and you'll get the gist of his style and mythos. One of my favorites isn't among the most frequently discussed, but according to Wikipedia (not linked, article is one big spoiler) it happened to be Lovecraft's own favorite: The Colour Out Of Space.

(Be prepared for a lot of disparaging remarks about non-white people and rural New Englanders. I'm not sure which group of people bothered him more.)
posted by usonian at 6:34 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: holterbarbour, I never knew that they were that short! My complete ignorance of Lovecraft knows no bounds.

lhall, I take an hour-long walk in the park in the mornings and figured I'd plow through some Lovecraft while I walked; if I like it, it probably won't be long before it's on the bedtime playlist.

Iosephus, you're definitely not beanplating. One of the big reasons I've never read Lovecraft was that I had the impression that there was some severe interconnectedness that enriched the stories for fans. I didn't want to dive in at the wrong point. Self-contained novellas/stories would definitely be a step in the right direction.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 6:36 PM on July 22, 2010

I will second Pickman's Model or Shadow Over Innsmouth as good starting points. I will also note however that however much hype there may be around Lovecraft in popular culture, and I love his work like hell myself, it's actually something of an acquired taste. I think it's great fun, but many find his prose oddly stilted or dated, and he was quite definitely a bit of a racist. YMMV.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 6:37 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

For my money, the best way to start is the Arkham House hardcover compilations you can find in most decent public libraries. Start with The Dunwich Horror and Others (contains most of the classics), move on to At the Mountains of Madness and Other Macabre Tales (the longer-form fiction is all in here, along with the dreamworld/Randolph Carter stuff), and finish up with Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (yes, there is a lot of macabrosity involved; Dagon is kind of the HP Lovecraft B-sides compilation, with earlier and lesser short fiction- it's all fun, though, and has some undeniable classics like "Herbert West, Re-Animator," "The Other Gods" and "Under the Pyramids," a story he ghost-wrote for Harry Houdini). And if you really want more, there's The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, a collection of work he "revised" for other authors before publication, usually to the point of completely rewriting it himself.
posted by Merzbau at 6:37 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Many thanks, folks, knew there wouldn't be a shortage of recs. Sounds like I should search and destroy:

- At the Mountains of Madness
- Shadow over Innsmouth
- Call of Cthulhu
- The Color out of Space
- Herbert West: Reanimator
- Pickman's Model

Figure polishing these off should give me a good idea whether I want to keep going w/ him. Thanks a ton!
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 6:49 PM on July 22, 2010

I started with this book and was not disappointed, although the stories are more in the "fantasy" than "horror" section of his oeuvre.
posted by griphus at 6:55 PM on July 22, 2010

Seconding The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. That's that one that got me into his writing, at least. Novella-length.
posted by Wulfhere at 6:56 PM on July 22, 2010

Post on the Blue in case you missed it. Also, HPL is one of those writers metafilter loves to hate, so if you feel like some abuse hit past threads on him.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:59 PM on July 22, 2010

The Library of America collection is what I read through, and my understanding is that it has pretty much everything worth reading. One bonus is that it's a classy-looking book (and pretty inexpensive for what it is) that you don't have to hide on the subway or something.

The stories hardly have any interconnectedness at all, so don't worry about that. That mostly came later, when other people started writing in his world and decided to make a consistent mythos.
posted by dfan at 7:13 PM on July 22, 2010

I've been following the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, which looks at each one of his stories in chronological order, and also rreading Kenneth Hite's Tour De Lovecraft, which essentially does the same thing, and on the basis of that I would say: Not all of them, and not from the begining. Lovecraft probably suffers a little from every last thing of his being published and anthologised repeatedly, and some of the early stuff in particular is rather ropey, and probably only worth visiting if you really get a taste for him.

In fact here is what Hite says...

As a final thought, I'd say this. Lovecraft combined an epochal imagination with a nearly nihilist philosophy -- the two ingredients that together make "cosmic horror." But more importantly, Lovecraft was a great writer. Of his solo adult works, 17 of 50 are great by almost any standard. (That's a career .340 average -- home run average, that is. And six of those were knocked clean out of the park.) By the time his style fully matured in the mid-1920s, he was almost incapable of turning out a bad story. He was a complex writer, who believed (correctly) that both verisimilitude and gothicism depended on intricate structures of both plot and language. A true Anglophone craftsman, HPL is not for the lazy, any more than Faulkner or Borges is -- or Hawthorne, his great unsung model. In his mature phase, he almost never wastes a word: if you can't figure out why it's there, that's your problem, not his. Not all of the mature stories work for all readers -- "The Thing on the Doorstep" is probably the weakest of them, and as I've intimated before, "The Silver Key" is perhaps best seen as mental attic-cleaning rather than as fiction in the technical sense. But even those two (clearly his weakest post-1925 tales) are structurally sound as drums, and make interesting reading to boot, two desiderata that far too many short stories fail at.

So, 17 stories. Now, If could find my print copy of Tour De Lovecraft I could tell you what the 17 are, but it's buried in a pile of stuff somewhere. I do recall that "The Colour out of Space" was his favourite, and it's one worth starting with. It's also fairly free of interconnections with other stories, though to be honest you shouldn't really be too worried about the sanctity of Lovecraftian continuity very much - he made it up as he went along and changed stuff quite a lot - it was actually August Derleth that imposed a lot of the structure on that.

Here's the ones I'd consider unmissable...

At the Mountains of Madness
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Shadow Out of Time
The Call of Cthulhu
The Colour Out of Space
The Haunter of the Dark

They'd probably move up and down in order a little and I'd probably add others in and make the list huge given time, but hit those and you've got some pretty awesome Lovecraft.
posted by Artw at 7:14 PM on July 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

The stories hardly have any interconnectedness at all, so don't worry about that. That mostly came later, when other people started writing in his world and decided to make a consistent mythos.

Well... that's not entirely true. There is a bit of an interconnected meta-narrative that coalesced over time, even if it's not as structured as Derleth et al would have you beleive. It's not present in every story, but he definately was into building a sense of vermisitude by repeating references to things in different tales, particularly the gods and eldritch tomes, and it all eventually became the Mythos we know today, even if the Mythos of Mounatins of Madness is far more of an SF take on the mythos than earlier versions of it.

For that reason, though Mountains of Madness is by far my favourite, I'd recommend leaving it and maybe The Shadow outof Time untill you've read a couple of the other stories. Maybe get Call of Cthulhu in early as it's the foundation of a lot fo that stuff.
posted by Artw at 7:27 PM on July 22, 2010

But yeah, there's definately not an over-arching plot as such, or much actual continuity between stories.
posted by Artw at 7:27 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: Yup cjorgensen, that post was what finally pushed me to Although it's funny to hear you say that Lovecraft is someone that MeFi loves to hate; always been my impression there are plenty of people around here who love the dickens out of him.

And thanks, Artw.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 7:36 PM on July 22, 2010

All the above are good. I have a weak spot for "The Shunned House" and "Haunter of the Dark". I also suggest branching out to some M. R. James (Victorian era writer) short stories to go more into the ghost realm... he wrote some great stuff!
posted by crapmatic at 9:54 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

HP Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre has been in print for nearly 30 years and doesn't have a single bad story in it. Here's a Google Books link so you can have a look ahead of time if you want.

This is the book I habitually recommend to new HPL fans.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:52 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

IMHO With Lovecraft it's very much a case of less is more, as you probably know already his prose can be a bit overwrought at times. My advice would be to buy one of the collections with the most well-known stories in it that people above have indicated then dip into it between reading other stuff. Too much at once, especially of his more poetic fragmentary stories, might put you off.

And yeah, don't sweat the 'mythos' stuff too much... although Lovecraft uses the same names of monsters, gods and evil books repeatedly it's mainly just window dressing and in-jokes to his friends.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:38 AM on July 23, 2010

If you're interested in HPL's biography as well as his fiction, the standard biography is Joshi's H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, but I also recommend Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. It's edited by Joshi, but all of the text is from HPL's copious body of letters.

Lord makes it obvious that HPL wrote himself as well as his stories. And that's no less fascinating.
posted by Anephim at 6:20 AM on July 23, 2010

Just fyi, the dreamland stories, especially The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, have influenced modern popular fiction, comics, role-playing games, etc. almost as much as Tolkien. Imho, Pickman's Model has just exquisite delivery, btw.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:31 AM on July 23, 2010

I'd like to mention The Terrible Old Man as a short,quick, nasty tale. The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out of Space really capture the decadent rural New England of the early 20th century.
posted by pentagoet at 7:39 AM on July 23, 2010

The Picture in the House is another short, nasty rural tale I rather like.
posted by Artw at 8:02 AM on July 23, 2010

Another vote for Bloodcurdling Tales etc. I was also very fond of The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Lovecraft's stuff works so well because he plays very masterfully on the fear of the unknown. I therefore tend to avoid the "mythos" stuff, if only because the monsters are familiar and thus lose a lot of their impact. But that's just me.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:34 AM on July 23, 2010

A copy of my comment in previously linked the front-page post -

And here's where you can find a whole ton of Lovecraft's works (about 60, I think). And, despite the name of the hosting site, this is not a self-link.

Also, since that site design comes shambling from the ancient eldritch age of 1999 or something, you may want to use something like Readable to improve the layout with a reading experience that won't drive you gibbering mad... quite as quickly.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:57 AM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I read the three Penguin Classics editions of his work put out over the past decade or so and don't regret it. Joshi's notes are great too. They also don't have the horrible garish covers most collections of his work usually do.
posted by Radiator at 2:27 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, finally got around to something! While I was falling to sleep on a bench waiting for Shakespeare in the Park tickets (along Central Park West, right above the A/C/B/D subway lines), I listened to a dramatized reading of Pickman's Model. Had a nice magical moment where a subway car was rumbling underneath right as the interlocutors were talking about it.

Feel like it might represent what people both love and hate about Lovecraft. Yeah, there were severely overwrought bits, maybe some hints at casual bigotry, but goddamn was the ending satisfying. As long as he keeps delivering with those kinds of climaxes, I'll keep reading.

Thanks again everyone for the precise suggestions; looking forward to digging through the rest of this.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 10:01 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Zed found Kenneth Hite's list:

Absolutely Perfect: "Colour Out of Space"
Vanishingly Close To Perfect: "Charles Dexter Ward," "Call of Cthulhu," "At the Mountains of Madness," "The Dunwich Horror," "Shadow Over Innsmouth"
Masterpieces: "Whisperer in Darkness," "Music of Erich Zann," "Rats in the Walls"
Great: "Dreams in the Witch House," "Haunter of the Dark," "Pickman's Model," "The Shunned House," "Shadow Out of Time," "Strange High House in the Mist," "Doom That Came to Sarnath," "The Cats of Ulthar"

Not a lot to disagree with there.
posted by Artw at 1:09 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree absolutely with Ken Hite on this. "The Colour Out of Space" is just the pinnacle of Lovecraft's aesthetic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:27 PM on October 18, 2010

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