Five Must Read H.P. Lovecraft Tales

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The "Awesomer Than Thou" blog recently had a post authored with recommendations for reading five tales, and only five tales (should some demon reach through time and restrict you to such). Invid's list is very reasonable with his selection of "The Call of Cthulhu," "Pickman's Model," "At the Mountains of Madness," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Colour Out of Space." However, I feel inclined to weigh in with my own suggested readings by modifying his list. So, here are five H.P. Lovecraft stories that cannot, should not, and must not be missed, and why:

  1. "The Call of Cthulhu:" No arguments with Invid here. This story tops the list as a central nexus of Lovecraftiana, for multiple reasons. "The Call of Cthulhu" most easily introduces Lovecraft's Yog-Sothery, vital for the uninitiated reader to gain a toehold on for better readings of other tales by HPL tying into the Cthulhu cycle. It's also a solid stand-alone work, reflecting Lovecraft's cosmic horror and general view of man's place in the universe--insignificance. Like "At the Mountains of Madness," the idea of 'ancient astronauts' is taken to an extreme degree here. The Earth has teemed with intelligent alien beings since its inception, in Lovecraft's fictional world, and will continue to writhe under the influence of things infinitely more timeless and powerful than mankind.
  2. "The Rats in the Walls:" I find this a competitive candidate with "Pickman's Model" for its themes of degeneracy, human and otherwise. It also proves stylistically interesting for the reader acquainted with other areas of horror, which a good many coming to Lovecraft will be. The untold horrors of the scurrying rats and loathsome ruins underneath the mansion speak volumes about H.P. Lovecraft's mastery of and ability to twist the traditional ghost and Gothic tale. Finally, "The Rats in the Walls" echoes the Providence writer's own antiquarianism quite well, a less important but rather charming aspect interwoven into his terrors.
  3. "The Music of Erich Zann:" Some may be surprised at this selection, due to the ambiguity of the terrible revelation at the end. However, it's the mystery left much to the imagination that's one of the major reasons for choosing this one. Moreover, this story carries a hefty dose of what might be considered the "pure weird." Lovecraft's focus in this story is almost purely on the strange phenomena: Zann's music and the eerie window overlooking another dimension. While a general ambivalence toward characters can be observed in almost all works, it is especially clear here in the narrator's obsession with Zann's performances and virtual disregard for him as a person. Oddly, this makes the storyteller himself something of an unbalanced figure, subtly rendering a Poe-like narrative in the process. "The Music of Erich Zann" bears the stamp of the "high weird" that continues to enjoy a cult following today in the works of Thomas Ligotti and others. It's an underrated and marvelously original piece by Lovecraft worthy of inclusion here.
  4. "The Dreams in the Witch House:" This story is a blend of features dear to H.P. Lovecraft's heart. It's a bold stroke outward in innovative directions as well. The author's intersection of magic, legend, and quantum physics is a brilliant testament to Lovecraft's Renaissance Man-like knowledge and literary application of it. "Dreams" is a story of both the supernatural and the scientific. Though blended, each can be felt distinctively throughout. The appearance of Lovecraft as both horror and sci-fi writer in this story is a slightly better and more succinct sampling than either feature stressed to its extreme elsewhere. "The Dunwich Horror" can be considered a mostly supernatural tale, while the same can be said of the novella-length "At the Mountains of Madness" as a science fiction work. "The Dreams in the Witch House" allows readers to experience both of these simultaneously in the same story. What more can one ask for?
  5. "The Colour Out of Space:" A masterpiece. This story is many things: high weird, rich sci-fi, supernatural, grotesquely descriptive, and revolutionary. An abstract horror that almost portends nuclear radiation well before its discovery is just too good to pass up. The exceedingly unusual nature of the interstellar blight and the merciless execution of its victims and the countryside make for a story that is almost overtly frightening--something relatively rare in HPL's career of nightmares. Much of Lovecraft is weird, disturbing, and insidious. Not "Colour." It's still those things, but it is also actually scary. This ability of the story, as well as the others touched on, makes it a must read any interested in Lovecraft.
Honorable mentions: "The Cats of Ulthar" and "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath." The former has always possessed a folksy wit, nearly making it part of another less well defined sub-genre in Lovecraft's oeuvre. It's also just fun. Meanwhile, "Kadath" and the other Dreamlands stories are good, but not quite good and representative enough of their author to warrant inclusion as staples of Lovecraftiana. They are strange, unique fantasies that Lovecraft circles have often tossed in the backseat. Compared to the rest of Lovecraft's work, however, this is understandably so.

-Grim Blogger

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