Love him or hate him, H.P. Lovecraft is an iconic literary figure in horror fiction. Despite his casual racism, misogyny, and his morals, his nightmares continue to influence. Modern authors who summon inspiration from this elder include: Stephen King, Brian Lumley, Clive Barker, and more.
When reading Lovecraft, it is difficult to pick which of his tales are the scariest. So when suggesting one of his stories to beginners, it’s challenging to narrow down options. Among horror readers, I’m sure everyone has their top Lovecraft stories to recommend. I’m also sure that due to his diversity, their recommendations differ greatly.
To avoid argument of, “You forgot this tale,” or “You didn’t list the essentials,” this entry will compile my top three favorite Lovecraft chillers. Not only have these stories influenced my own work, they have caused me to sleep with the lights on. So, if one is a writer looking for inspiration, or a reader hoping to lose sleep, here are my top three recommendations.
Lovecraft created “Dagon” for an amateur press journal called, ‘The Vagrant’. When questioned what inspired the tale, Lovecraft shared it partly manifested from a dream. Since Lovecraft preferred factual references in his stories, Dagon is an actual deity. For those unfamiliar with this God, he was part fish and Sumerians worshiped his divinity.
This story opens from a World War 1 marine officer’s perspective. Early on, he reveals he has a morphine addiction, so it’s hard to depict what parts of his tale actually happened. However, trying to determine what is real makes this story more frightening.
The narrator speaks of when he was a prisoner on a German sea raider and how he escaped by lifeboat. After drifting at sea, he arrives on a deserted island. Here, he finds a monolith covered in hieroglyphs. These scribblings depict bizarre creatures smeared between human and aquatic life. Some of the illustrations suggest these beings are of goliath proportion. One portrays a creature killing a whale that is but a little smaller than itself.
Wandering about, the narrator encounters a monstrous thing spawned from a pre-human race. Following his encounter, it is never determined what actually transpired on the island. Afterwards, such as all good Lovecraft stories, the narrator’s fate isn’t favorable.
While psychological and speculative, everything the narrator experiences can receive rational justification. Due to his morphine addiction, his experience could be because he’s high. Since he tells the story from a mental institution, his words might be psychobabble. Being that he imagined the creature, the hieroglyphs could have influenced his thought.
Accompanying the plausibility of his tale, the hieroglyphs might not be authentic. In reality, they might depict nothing more than superstitious lore. Another possibility is the islanders painted these images to ward off unwanted visitors.
In the end, the reader determines what is real or not. Regardless, neither outcome makes this tale any less unsettling.
Lovecraft penned “Herbert West-Reanimator” as a serial story. In order, the tales include: “From the Dark,” “The Plague- Daemon,” “Six Shots by Midnight,” “The Scream of the Dead,” “The Horror from the Shadows,” and “The Tomb Legions.” Among his tales, this serial is the first to introduce the Miskatonic University. As a side note, the Reanimator series parodies Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Though Lovecraft’s take on reanimated tissue is more grisly compared to Shelley’s elegance.
This macabre adventure chronicles Herbert West and his assistant, the narrator. In sequence, one learns how the two met in college, and how West instigates their deviant actions. Thereafter, dialogue reveals West and his assistant require dead bodies for experimentation. To gain these subjects, they rob graves and return the corpses to their laboratory. Their goal in this crime is to reanimate dead tissue by utilizing a chemical solution.
Throughout the serial, West and his assistant continue forward with their studies. During this time, they excel in school and become doctors. Also, they advance with their private endeavors. However despite some of their successes, most rotting specimens produce tragic failures. In turn, the team aborts these mishaps once poor results are visible. Unfortunately, their precautions don’t prevent blunders. Due to carelessness, the occasional corpse escapes their lab and terrorizes the locals.
Regardless of past failures, where the dead return bloodthirsty, the team continues practice. In one misadventure, they experiment on those who died in a typhoid outbreak. Another concept places West and his assistant as medics in the World War. Of course, with death at their fingertips, their tampering results in gruesome outcomes.
Before the series concludes, the most horrific concept unfolds. In a scenario that urges one to stop while ahead, the team becomes cornered by their own abominations.
Though intrigued from page one, my attention piqued when West and his assistant entered the war. From that point, I felt their experiments became more bizarre. A good example of this is when West decides to animate different severed body parts of the deceased.
Another admirable aspect includes subtle creepy revelations. Particular scenes regard how the discarded reanimated experiments terrorize the community. These brief encounters are more frightening than any detailed brutality. I say this because I would be more horrified by the randomness of something I couldn’t explain. If I had an explanation to the madness, the initial shock might not be as intense.
What I love most about these stories is the point they make. My interpretation suggests one should consider the consequences to their actions. If not, one’s very actions can mean their defeat.
After reading these stories, I couldn’t shut up about them. Never before have I read work so subtle that it causes the mind to exaggerate beyond the context. The “less is more” style here is so well utilized that rot almost wafts from its decayed pages.
“Call of Cthulhu” is where Cthulhu makes his grand appearance. Compared to other Cthulhu mythos, this work grants backstory in full detail. Foremost, the kraken is Cthulhu’s primary inspiration. Yet, aquatic lore isn’t the only factor behind Cthulhu’s existence. In the past, scholar Robert M. Price noted Lovecraft drew from likeminded authors. Names include: Alfred Tennyson, Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Machen, William Scott Elliot, and Lord Dunsany.
Written like a documentary, this infamous tale continues into three parts. In order, segments include, “The Horror in Clay,” “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse,” and “The Madness from the Sea.” It opens, noting (Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston). One can determine at the beginning that Francis has met his demise. Because of this, found documents piece together his story. Although Lovecraft establishes that Francis has died, the tale progresses in mystery. Its style causing readers to question how Francis perished.
The first narrative speaks of Francis discovering notes left behind by his grand uncle. Accompanying these letters is a clay sculpture created by a Rhode Island art student. Its hideousness and craftsmanship erects a figure mixed between octopus, dragon, and human. Uncovering this causes Francis to become infatuated by the deity, thus setting forward his fanatical journey to uncover the mythical Cthulhu.
As research continues, Francis learns of ungodly horrors. One regards a New Orleans Cthulhu cult who participates in human sacrifice. Next, almost two decades later, he learns of a shipwreck in Australia that Cthulhu may have caused. While Francis has become obsessed over Cthulhu, he will stop at nothing until he sees the elder God in the flesh. Consumed by obsession, the importance of answers overrules the importance of his life.
This story has always felt unsettling. By how this piece flows, it feels like the reader has stumbled upon something forbidden. In a sense, the documented style of this work can make one feel like they too can search for Cthulhu. Nonetheless, if one isn’t careful, they can enter into the same fanatical nightmare that consumed Francis.
Another element to applaud is the conspiracy vibe this tale emits. Somewhat, there is a nudge that fate is to blame. Meanwhile, due to the amount of Cthulhu followers, one can assume the cults are manipulating Francis. The scenarios inspire the fear of everyone being against you, and everyone being out to get you. No matter, may it be fate or cult followers to blame, the stars align for Francis in the worst scenario.
Without Lovecraft, the concept of the “Necronomicon,” and Cthulhu, never would have existed. Also, cosmic horror might not be as popular as it is today. As Lovecraft’s style of literature continues to expand, a subgenre stands in his honor. Unlike how even death may die, “Lovecraftian Horror,” will outlast the eons of time and space.
Literature aside, Lovecraft’s nightmares have blead over into pop culture, as well. This includes Necrocomicon themed jewelry, artwork, and genre geek jokes. Also, Cthulhu has expanded his wings. He appears in the form of not only toys, but video games, fashion, and even episodes of “South Park.”