Friday, February 28, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft's "Most Important" stories

So, I've been reading "The Complete" works of H. P. Lovecraft (although it doesn't include the ghost-writtern or collaborative works).  The stories in this collection are arranged chronologically, which is a little bit unfortunate... I've been reading some of his least polished works first, including several that I've never read before (like "The Transition of Juan Romero" or "Old Bugs."  I wasn't missing much with most of these.)

This leads me to wonder which stories I would recommend as the "most important" ones to read.  I'm thinking that there are plenty that Lovecraft initiates would never really have to read  But some are the really iconic ones--the ones that have led to long-lived and lasting influence, either because they've contributed something that has since been utilized by the "Yog-Sothothery" circle, or have been important in gaming since.  I'm going to try to limit this to the "Top Ten" stories, but it may end up being "To Ten (Or So)" if I feel I need to add one or two more to get the list "complete".  Given in no particular order, because they really all should be read by anyone who cares to learn anything about Lovecraft's work.  Many of them are novellas, but none of them are particularly long.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that all of his novellas make the list, as well as several of his short stories.
  1. The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath was, curiously, my gateway into Lovecraft.  I used to have an old "adult" coloring book complete with essays that identified important writers of fantasy, and this was the one that was referred to.  I still prefer it to many of his stories, although from a Lovecraft fans' perspective, it's an odd one.  Taking place entirely in the DreamLands, it reads in many ways more like an odd Sword & Sorcery story than a Lovecraftian horror story.  In spite of that, it's one of the main sources of many creatures of the mythos--the nightgaunts, the moon-beasts, the Plateau of Leng and Kadath, the Gugs, the ghouls, Nyarlathotep and Azathoth, etc.  In many ways, it's a trojan horse—it seems like sword & sorcery, but it's actually one of the better horror stories in the corpus.  I do, however, admit that the long, rambling, unbroken-by-chapters text can be a bit difficult to read at one go...
  2. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of the first Lovecraft novellas I read way back in high school in the late 80s.  It feels, in many ways, more like a traditional horror story, albeit a pretty good one.  I don't know that it necessarily brings a lot of anything new or unique to the Mythos to the table, but since it's one of his better stories, and one of only five novellas that Lovecraft wrote, I think it deserves to be on the list.
  3. At the Mountains of Madness is, on the other hand, one of the most iconic of Lovecraft's stories, and the capstone of his phase of writing that really drifts into science fiction horror.  It's a flawed masterpiece, no doubt.  After a very strong beginning, it wanders into an extended flashback that largely dilutes the ambiance of horror that it delivered in the first half of the story.  And at the very end, it comes to a confusing and anti-climactic finish.  But wow, the story that you can see Lovecraft reaching for here; the one that he almost but doesn't quite manage to tell, but which you can glimpse regardless, it's not hard to see why this story is fondly well-regarded.  It's one of the most important to read to understand the whole ouvre of Lovecraft and his fellows.
  4. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a truly effective horror story, as well as one of the most crucial in terms of icons that are remembered today—Innsmouth itself, the Deep Ones, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, etc.  It's also the starting point for the wildly successful Delta Green setting for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  You can't say you understand what a CoC game, or Lovecraft's writing is about, really, if you haven't read this, I think.
  5. The Shadow Out of Time, along with Mountains, best encapsulates the science fiction horror that later seemed to take over a fair bit of Lovecraft's writing.  However, this is one that I haven't read in so long, that I don't remember a lot of details about it!  Luckily, it's on my to-read list in two formats—electronic and in print—so I can get back up to speed.
  6. The Mound is a ghost-written novella, but it's one of his most important, and equal in quality (and similar in theme) to Mountains or Shadow Out of Time--although rather than being weird aliens that it describes, it talks about serpent men who live under the earth and worship the snake-god Yig—an element that has taken on a bit of a life of its own outside of Lovecraft's writing per se (Yig is important in the Green Ronin setting of Freeport, for instance, and it may have been, along with DreamQuest the source of the Underdark.)
  7. "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" is an interesting story, more along the lines of DreamQuest, that is a history essay, of sorts, of the Sword & Sorcery setting that Lovecraft loosely developed.  Many may quibble with its inclusion here, but especially for gamers who come out of a D&D milieu, I think these two are important gateways into more "complete" Lovecraftiana.  It also contains an iconic Lovecraftian element; the said "Doom" which harks back to many of the same themes that infuse his other work, including Innsmouth, "Dagon" and others.
  8. "The Call of Cthulhu" is often considered the most iconic of Lovecraft's stories, the one that most fully explored his themes (or at least the themes he explored at a certain phase of his writing; as I said earlier, Mountains of Madness and Shadow Out of Time evolved him into slightly different themes...)  Plus, the RPG is named after this one.  If, for some reason, you can only read one Lovecraft story, it should be this one.  The structure of the story, too, encapsulates the best of Lovecraft's work, and features most of his recurrant themes—distrust of foreigners, fear of the sea, etc.  It's really got it all.
  9. "The Colour Out of Space" is an unusual and creepy story from his more "science fictional" phase--an alien presence of some kind that kills a farmstead and destroys the area around it, but which is never fully understood or even adequately described.
  10. "The Dunwich Horror" is the iconic story for a Call of Cthulhu adventure, given that it has a cadre of "informed" academics that heads out into the hills of Arkham County to confront a supernatural menace and stop it with a magic spell that they've learned.  This is less in the science fiction horror department, and more in the "weird supernatural" horror, with witchcraft, and more, featuring as important focii in the story.
  11. "The Whisperer in Darkness" is the source of the mi-go, which are an iconic Lovecraftian element, and vastly important to the Delta Green setting.  This is also just a pretty good story, and the subject of an independent movie.
  12. "The Dreams in the Witch-House" is a great example of how even the more traditional witchcraft/ghost story has weird, science fictionish elements in it.  Also, c'mon—Brown Jenkin has got to be an iconic Lovecraft character!
Anything I'm missing?  I'm sure at least a couple of these would be controversial picks—I admit that I picked some of them just because I like them, rather than because they're objectively important.  But mostly the ones that I like are also the ones that are important.

1 comment:

James Sullivan said...

I couldn't agree more regarding At The Mountains of Madness. And The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorites.

But, The Music of Erich Zann is near the top of my list too.