Why is Lovecraft important to fantasy and horror?
Why is this writer, with his affected 18th century prose style and pretensions to being an antiquarian and gentleman scholar, his odd choices for exposition and narrative, his jittery, fluttering, sensitive pseudo-Poe-esque protagonists, his reticence when describing the “unnameable” and lack of reticence when describing so much else, especially architecture, his propensity for fishy, scaled and tentacled monstrosities, why is he given a Library of America volume, and before that a collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and why have hundreds of scholarly articles been written about him not just in America but world-wide, including dozens of articles and books by the one relatively well-known and respected academic critic of weird fiction, S. T. Joshi?
Darned if I know. I just enjoy the stories and have since I was in my middle teens, which seems to be about the age when Lovecraft captures a reader, if he captures the reader at all.
I will hazard a guess, though, based on my reading of and about his work: I think, simply put, his work is a bridge from a 19th century viewpoint to a 20th century viewpoint, that while stylistically his work is more 19th century and can be read as a late Gothic sensibility, his essentially scientific point of view and his rejection of Christianity as the source of his horrific tales is decidedly 20th century. In the years around Einstein’s theory of relativity and the discovery of Pluto, HPL’s tales acknowledged and even gloried in (in their nervous, awe-stricken way) the vastness of space and the vastness of our ignorance of what lay beyond Earth. And that was a jumping off point for the 20th century fantasy/horror story. Lovecraft himself praised tales that roused cosmic awe – which often translates to a contradictory reaction fluttering between terror and hope – and, in spite of his excesses and flaws as a writer, for many of us his work struck that note resoundingly time and again.
Even if you don’t care for HPL’s stories, some of the other stories below may appeal to you. Lovecraft drew from some powerful sources, and many of the writers who absorbed what he had to offer then equaled and sometimes excelled his own work.
• Edgar Allan Poe: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
• Ambrose Bierce: “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”
• Arthur Machen: “The Novel of the White Powder”
• H. G. Wells: “The Crystal Egg”
• Algernon Blackwood: “The Willows”
• Lord Dunsany: “The Bureau d’Echange de Maux”
• William Hope Hodgson: “The Voice in the Night”
• Robert W. Chambers: “The Repairer of Reputations”; “The Yellow Sign”
Dunsany was one of Lovecraft’s favorite writers and HPL’s early fantasy (not really represented below) sounds a bit like Dunsany’s work. The Poe and Machen lead directly to Lovecraft’s “Cool Air”; the Wells, with its intimations of vast, cool intelligences, leads to the Mythos stories; the weirdness and sense of foreboding over the Bierce and Blackwood are effects for which Lovecraft strove.
Odd thing about the Chambers stories, while they read like precursors of the stranger stories in HPL’s own work (and maybe even moreso some of Thomas Ligotti’s work), I read awhile back that from HPL’s letters it appears that he didn’t read Chambers’ work until rather late in his career. Really, I’m not sure Lovecraft wrote anything more macabre, unsettling or unbalancing than “The Repairer of Reputations,”
Of the stories above, I strongly recommend … honestly, all of them. Most are weird and disturbing, and the Dunsany and Chamber’s “The Repairer of Reputations” are like the written equivalents of an Escher drawing – with a pinch of Bosch for flavor. What I find most important is that they give an idea of what fantasy was before it was genrified.
Non-Mythos (or, perhaps more accurately, Not Quite Mythos)
• “The Rats in the Walls”
• “The Music of Erich Zann”
• “The Hound”
• “The Festival”
• “Cool Air”
• “The Dreams in a Witch-House”
• The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
• “The Call of Cthulhu”
• “The Colour Out of Space”
• “The Dunwich Horror”
• “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
• “The Shadow Out of Time”
• “At the Mountains of Madness”
My favorites are “The Rats in the Walls” which is a full-scale, head-on haunted house story with a twist, “At the Mountains of Madness” for creating a sense of delving into immeasurably ancient ruins, and “The Colour Out of Space,” which is one of the spookiest of HPL’s stories.
c. Not Lovecraft
• Frank Belknap Long: “The Hounds of Tindalos”
• Fritz Leiber: “The Dreams of Albert Moreland”
• Robert Bloch: “Notebook Found in a Deserted House”
• Ramsey Campbell: “The Voice of the Beach”; “The Tugging”; “Cold Print”
• T. E. D. Klein: “The Events at Poroth Farm”; “Black Man With a Horn”
• Karl Edward Wagner: “Sticks”; “The River of Night’s Dreaming”
• Thomas Ligotti: “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World”
• Bob Leman: “Olida”; “The Feesters in the Lake”
• Poppy Z. Brite: “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood”
• Fred Chappell: “The Adder”; Dagon
The Long is in for two reasons, first that it is a sort of traditional pastiche of Lovecraft, and second because I often wonder if Long wasn’t in T. E. D. Klein’s mind when he wrote “Black Man With a Horn”; Klein’s story combines a terrific and closely observed character snapshot with Lovecraftian horrors. Bloch is in for similar reasons, though this particular story is later Bloch, after he’d shed his attempt at a Lovecraftian voice and adopted a more contemporary voice in the course of reading and writing then current crime and horror stories.
Ramsey Campbell, like Bloch another writer who early on tried to mimic HPL, again, with age and maturity developed a more distinct voice and found his own ways to probe into the kinds of story Lovecraft wrote. The three mentioned above are strong entries and among my favorites in this group.
Note: I’m not fond of Chappell’s novel, Dagon, including it here more for completeness than any other reason. I find it rather slow and opaque for all that it’s short, while “The Adder” and the other fantasy fiction in his collection More Shapes than One are much more accessible and compelling.
Last edited by Randy M.; October 27th, 2012 at 02:43 PM.
“The Colour Out of Space” was the first Lovecraft story I read and it remains one of my favorites. There is something very disturbing, almost behind the words that are actually written that makes this one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read.
“At the Mountains of Madness” (the ruins are so stunningly huge) & “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” both make me want to explore the worlds they are in far more than he’s written. For that matter, so does my other favorite tale, “The Outsider”.
When he's at his best, H.P.Lovecraft gives the desire to be in a place that is far from healthy, but be there anyway.
According to Brian Aldiss, modern science fiction stems from the Gothic novel and its very first appearance was Frankenstein.
I wouldn’t argue with Brian Aldiss, though I believe several critics do, since his assertion in essence supports mine: S.f. and horror have been close partners since pretty near the beginning of modern s.f. And I’ll support my statement by noting that a good number of the following stories can be found in The S. F. Hall of Fame, Adventures in Time and Space, The Norton Book of Science Fiction, and various year’s best s.f. anthologies, among others.
a. “The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells
b. ‘Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.
c. "Black Destroyer” by A. E. Van Vogt
d. “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon
e. “They” by Robert Heinlein
f. “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
g. ”With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson
h. "The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth
i. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke
j. “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
k. “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson
l. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
m. “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby
n. Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
o. Quatermass by Nigel Kneale (screenplay)
p. “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
q. “The House the Blakeney’s Built” by Avram Davidson
r. “Passengers” by Robert Silverberg
s. “Window” by Bob Leman
t. “Carcinoma Angels” by Norman Spinrad
u. “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr.
v. “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin
w. “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea
x. “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Study” by Michael Blumlein
y. “All My Darling Daughters” by Connie Willis
z. Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
And some of these writers went on to write more than one s.f./horror story:
aa. H. G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau; “The Strange Orchid”; “The Crystal Egg”; “The Sea Raiders”
bb. Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore: “The Twonky”
cc. Ray Bradbury: “The Sound of Thunder”; “The Veldt”
dd. Richard Matheson: I am Legend
ee. Nigel Kneale : Quatermass II (screenplay); Quatermass and the Pit (screenplay)
ff. Bob Leman: “Instructions”
gg. James Tiptree, Jr.: “The Screwfly Solution”
hh. George R. R. Martin: Fevre Dream; ”Nightflier”
ii. Michael Blumlein: “The Brains of Rats”
My favorites above include “The Invisible Man”; “Who Goes There?”; “The Little Black Bag”; “Fondly Fahrenheit”; “There Will Come Soft Rains”; “Passengers”; “The Autopsy;” and almost anything produced by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore fits in my list of favorites.
Last edited by Randy M.; September 28th, 2012 at 03:50 PM.
Because I just don't get chance to say as much very often, I just want to say how much I am enjoying Randy's posts here. They are erudite yet entertaining and say a lot of really good things that I can't disagree with.
His knowledge on these matters is awe-inspiring. Though I have read a lot of what he's suggested (and those I have, fit the comments admirably!) there's a lot here to keep dipping back into.
As I will.
I've just reread The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney for review: good stuff, and yes, an SF novel that is quite chilling.
Last edited by Hobbit; October 18th, 2010 at 05:55 PM.
I hope I'm offering up some titles that others have wondered about or maybe haven't heard of. Before the end of next week, I'll pull together a list of collections and anthologies that include the short stories and novellas I've mentioned so far.
There’s a fine line between horror and humor. What one person finds frightening, another will laugh at – have you ever rolled your eyes at someone else’s fear of spiders? snakes? clowns? Sometimes writers take the core tropes of horror and present them with gallows humor; sometimes it’s just funny, sometimes it’s satirical, sometimes it’s even horrific.
Ambrose Bierce, “Oil of Dog”Bitter Bierce, as he came to be known in his years as a muckraker, was a not altogether successful amalgamation of Poe’s sense of the macabre and Mark Twain’s most caustic satirical humor. His humor occasionally shows up in his more serious supernatural stories, as in the chapter heading, “A Man though Naked May Yet Be in Rags,” describing a corpse in his story, “The Damned Thing.” This story is one of the few I know of where he combined them both in more or less equal proportions, it is told by a young man about his childhood and the occupations of his parents.
Saki: “The Open Window”
John Collier: “Bottle Party”; “Evening Primrose”
These were two of the most urbane writers of macabre fiction, their stories often told with an underlying humor, making the moments of horror all the more effective when they came. Saki’s story describes the first encounter between a child and his prospective teacher. Collier’s “Bottle Party” tells of a man finding a genie in a bottle, while his “Evening Primrose” starts as a light-hearted romp through a closed department store and then gradually becomes something darker.
Evelyn Waugh: “The Man Who Loved Dickens”; “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing”; The Loved One
Waugh was a highly-regarded satirist in his lifetime, though his stories tend more toward dry humor than laugh-out-loud hilarity. Still, the bonny, cheery tone of these short stories and their telling make an odd contrast to the doings described. The Loved One is not really horror, but since it deals with mortuaries and the business of death, I’ll add it here as associational.
T. H. White: “Soft Voices at Passenham”
The tone of the narrative early on is one quietly amusement as a man and woman entertain themselves with stories. The story the man tells is rather serious, yet the tone of amusement still presides. Impeccable writing.
Robert Aickman, ”The Hospice”
If there’s humor here it comes from the oddity of the situation and the timidity of the protagonist in his attempts to understand what he’s walked into. I am certain this is satire. I’m less certain what Aickman is satirizing; I have my guesses, but I could be fulla baloney.
Robert Bloch, “Talent”
If any writer’s work was a prototype for the EC Comics stories of the 1950s, it was Bloch. This is a straight-faced and well-constructed horror story throughout, but the ending … well, I find it funny.
Fred Chappell: “The Adder”
Chappell is one of the mainstream literary writers who occasionally offer genre stories. This is Lovecraft pastiche, of sorts, merging Lovecraft’s wrok with Milton, subverting some of the poetry and ending on a rather chilling note.
Joe Lansdale: “Bubba-Ho-Tep”
Gross, disturbing, gross, funny … all the usual signs of a Lansdale story, this is also oddly touching even though it’s ostensibly about a mummy invading an old-folks home.
Scott Baker, “The Lurking Duck”
I no longer recall the details of this story clearly enough to describe it. I do recall it clearly enough to doubt that recalling the details would help in describing it. Bizarre, situational humor. If I were going to create a list titled, “Freakin’ Odd,” this would be on it.
Anthony Boucher: “The Compleat Werewolf”
Peter Beagle: “Lila the Werewolf”
Avram Davidson: “The Golem”
Woody Allen: “Count Dracula”
Neil Gaiman: “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar”
These stories aren’t really horror. At least, I don’t think so. They are, however, amusing, and the Beagle is insightful into where the wolf ends and the human begins. I’m especially fond of Gaiman’s straight-faced send-up of Lovecraft, which manages not to ridicule the Mythos stories while making fun of the basic set up of so many of them.
Christopher Moore: Practical Demonkeeping; The Stupidest Angel
All sorts of story elements from horror show up in these, djinns, demons, angels, zombies, a talking bat, a schizophrenic former actress well-remembered for her role as Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland, and there’s the local café that serves things like Eggs-Sothoth … Not subtle humor, but if you enjoy Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Return of the Living Dead these are the novels for you.
Some stories are just disturbing. They don't have to be horror stories to be disturbing -- say Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation" or Ring Lardner's "Haircut" -- but we expect horror stories to unsettle us. That's why some of us like them. And that's why some of us don't. The following are a few that disturbed me:
Lord Dunsany: “Two Bottles of Relish”
I’ll come back to this story in another list: At the time I read it, the ending was a revelation in the potential for perversity.
Thomas Ligotti: “The Frolic”; “My Work is Not Yet Done”
The latter is far more violent and visceral than anything I’ve read by Ligotti in the past; it comes very near going over-the-top, which I suspect was Ligotti’s aim – reading him is rather like watching someone walk a tightrope, wondering how long before there’s a misstep. The former was deeply disturbing in a different way: Allusive, suggestive, it describes the fate of a young girl based on the actions of her father. I first read it within a year of my daughter’s birth and have not reread it since.
Michael Blumlein: “The Brains of Rats”; “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report”
These stories are told with all the calm detachment of a scientist or doctor practicing his profession, and yet what they describe are disturbing. Maybe all the moreso for seeming possible, the point of view of the writer well within the possibilities of our ability to rationalize our actions.
Kathe Koja: “Angels in Love”
A woman is listens to the love-making of her neighbor night after night and wishes she could have someone, too. She decides to find out more about her neighbor and her neighbor’s lover, and what she finds is horrific …
Leonid Andreyev: “Lazarus”
A singularly depressing story, the most depressing I have ever read, it details the life of Lazarus after he has been resurrected and his sense of loss at returning to the world, and does so with a probing, pitiless relentlessness.
Some stories, in spite of their content, elicit a warmer reaction. This is especially unexpected when the story is ostensibly a horror story.These are a few stories that touched me:
Ray Bradbury: “Homecoming”
I’ve raved on about this previously.
Richard Matheson: “Born of Man and Woman”
This has a similar pathos to the Karloff Frankenstein: Told from the “monster’s” point of view, it tells of a child, big, strong, innocent and incapable of understanding why its parents treat him the way they do, enduring parental abuse and only wishing for their attention and affection.
Jack Ketcham: “The Box”
Another story in which family and the need to belong to family defines the horror of the situation and makes the events all the more poignant. A Christmas story, naturally.
Stephen King: “The Reach”
King in kinder, gentler mode. A ghost story.
Kathe Koja: “Angels in Love”
… and even though what the woman finds is horrific, it appeals and attracts, and … This is a story about the kind of aching deep loneliness that makes most any alternative seem better, even this one. A terrific, unsettling, sad story.
While some of these stories may have supernatural elements (“The Horla”) and some flirt with the supernatural (“The Body Snatcher,” “Seaton’s Aunt,” Twilight, and even No Country for Old Men) when their essence is distilled they all concern the human capacity for destruction and evil and, sometimes, some more redemptive qualities.
Poe: “The Black Cat”; “The Tell-Tale Heart”; “The Fall of the House of Usher”; “William Wilson
Poe set the pattern for the short tale of terror based on human psychology and writers are still playing off of it. The first two stories are fine tales of terror, but the last two have a weight that makes them among the best of American short stories regardless of genre.
Guy de Mauppasant: “The Horla”
De Mauppasant ended his life in an insane asylum. Some critics speculate that some of his late, supernatural work is a result of his illness. Whether that’s true or not, this is one of the more frightening tales I’ve read. The first time I read is as a teen I thought it was a story of the supernatural. I’m not so certain now.
Robert Louis Stevenson: “The Body Snatcher”
Beautifully written, strongly atmospheric, this is based on the exploits of Burke and Hare, graveyard robbers.
Ambrose Bierce: “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge”
Bierce’s most famous story. This deals with those final moments before … but that would be telling.
Thomas Burke: “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”
I’m not fond of second person narration so I should dislike this. But it’s excellent of its type, Burke’s narrative strategy and voice emphasizing the strangeness of his story. There is a murderer loose and a reporter has an idea of who it might be …
Richard Connell: “The Most Dangerous Game”
Famous story of the hunter and the hunted. A great adventure story compressed into a very few pages.
Lord Dunsany: “Two Bottles of Relish”
This story jolted me when I first read it as a teen. Perhaps not as shocking in these days of CSI and Bones, but still effective.
Walter de la Mare: “Seaton’s Aunt”; “Mr.Kempe”
In “Seaton’s Aunt” nothing happens, not really, not until near the end, and even then it’s not much, really. But throughout there’s a mounting sense of something dreadful about to happen, of something that could happen. As for Mr. Kempe, he is not a man you want to meet in a quiet untravelled area, like his home.
William Faulkner: “A Rose for Emily”
Another one that was shocking in its day and may still be uncomfortable for many readers. Possibly Faulkner’s best known short story, a slow strip-tease of event and motivation, by the end of which we know Miss Emily well enough what we learn is all the more shocking.
John Collier: “The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It”
A quiet story in which, after an accused murderer is acquitted of killing his friend, he is grateful that two co-workers will dine with him. Again, a story that sounds, in synopsis, not very exciting, but that the skill of the writer makes riveting.
Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”; “Good Country People”
O’Connor is not a favorite of mine. I’ve never warmed to her stories, though her writing is excellent. Still, these two stories are quite good, the former about a murderer and the family that meets him on the road, the latter about a young, crippled woman and the man she decides to trust.
Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery”; “The Summer People"
I probably don’t need to say much about the first story. The second is somewhat less well-known, but again about customs of areas, as a couple learns when they decide to stay in their summer home for the winter.
Joe Haldeman: “Feedback”
A story of a future form of performance art, this shows what could happen in a collaborative art when one of the collaborators has a hidden agenda.
Laird Barron: “Strappado”
Another story, more contemporary than futuristic, about performance art. A more or less innocent bystander is pulled into an act performance art of a peculiar, destructive kind. This is an intense story.
William Gay: “The Paperhanger”
Losing a child is destructive no matter how it happens. Losing her and unable to find her body to prove she’s dead is more devastating. So what would constitute a miracle? Shares setting with the Gay novel mentioned below.
Psycho by Robert Bloch
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
From Hell by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (artist)
I won’t say much about these, since so many people have read the books and/or seen the movies. Psycho was reissued within the last year, but as much as I enjoy Bloch’s shorter work I think Hitchcock’s movie is better. I found Red Dragon a bit more frightening than The Silence of the Lambs, but are extremely effective thrillers. And I think From Hell is an extraordinary re-imagining of the killings of Jack the Ripper; it’s a graphic novel that is not for the faint hearted.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Lou Ford, aw shucks kind of guy he is, is the local sheriff. From page one you know he’s not to be trusted. Would be a good read along with Bloch’s novel.
The Face that Must Die by Ramsey Campbell
Published around the same time as Red Dragon, this novel’s killer is not a Renaissance man, not romanticized at all, he’s almost the anti-Lector. If you enjoy Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Frenzy, this might be of interest to you.
Finishing Touches by Thomas Tessier
The seduction of a man into decadence and perversion. Great fun!
One of the bleaker novels in this list and, oddly enough, one of the best written sentence by sentence, it gradually escalates the protagonist’s actions so that the ending feels inevitable and believable.
Koko by Peter Straub
Straub favors the “onion” approach to story-telling: peel away one layer only to find another, and beneath that another, and so on. This novel tells of four veterans of the Vietnamese war who learn of a serial killer whose signature “Koko” left at the scene of his crimes indicates he’s one of their former brothers-in-combat, and they determine they will save him from himself.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Part crime story, part Western, part morality play, the killer in this novel, Chigurh is as relentless and implacable as the Terminator, and might well have given Hannibal Lector qualms. I cannot recommend this book too strongly, but it is bleak.
Twilight by William Gay
I mentioned this book in a previous list. It is dark, twisty, perverse in spots and beautifully written. Like the McCarthy novel, it is about a chase, with a killer who is devious and determined, if not quite the force of vengence McCarthy’s Chigurh is. Even more interesting, for me, is the way Gay plays with a fairy tale forest, giving the story mythic overtones and a sense of universality that not all chase novels attain.
I just tried reading "Koko" about a month ago and gave up on it. I like your taste in other books,though, so I'm going to give it another chance.
Do you like Clive Barker? He's one of my favorite horror/ supernatural/ fantasy novelists and I think he has some short stories and novels that you'd like.
I haven't read much horror but a couple years ago I accidentally came across a collection of horror short stories named "Demonized" by Christopher Fowler and they were quite entertaining. I also strongly recommend Clark Ashton Smith.
Barker was just becoming big when I stepped away from reading genre for almost ten years and I've never gotten around to him. I have Damnation Game and the first three Books of Blood, so I hope to eventually start reading him.Do you like Clive Barker? He's one of my favorite horror/ supernatural/ fantasy novelists and I think he has some short stories and novels that you'd like.
I also second Vangel's recommendation of Clark Ashton Smith. I haven't read a lot by him, but what I've read has been quite good.
I hope you get to read some Barker soon. His horror has a great Lovecraftian feel to it. Damnation Game is one of his best horror novels, and the Books of Blood have some great short stories.
I've got the Night Shade Clark Ashton Smith volumes (4 to date, I think.)
But I'd recommend the 1 volume Fantasy Masterworks collection, Emperor of Dreams, if you want a taster: Link to picture and review HERE.
He is, as you might expect, weird. Like Lovecraft, lots of weird names made up of letters all jumbled up... and never was a fan of his poetry. But there's a lot to like, in the right mood.