Before Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, before The Exorcist and Dawn of the Dead, before Resident Evil and Silent Hill existed the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.
Don’t be fooled by his pleasant-sounding name—Lovecraft is one of the most famous horror writers in history. He created an entire mythology, later dubbed the Cthulhu Mythos, which represents our world as a speck adrift in a cosmos of madness, horror and chaos. Lovecraft’s vision of the world is named after Cthulhu, the ancient, tentacle-faced abomination which slumbers in a hellish city beneath the sea.
The Cthulhu Mythos is a minor phenomenon, influencing everything from modern literature to pop culture. Now, I dislike horror fiction. It’s grim and gross and creepy. All the same, I decided to give H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories a try.
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, cheerfully subtitled Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, is a collection of some of Lovecraft’s most famous stories. It’s also quite a good read, with two great strengths.
First is the dark existential background of the stories. They feature pretty much the sort of scares you’d expect from horror fiction—insanity, cannibalism, monsters, aliens, gruesome and highly creative deaths—but they’re mostly depicted against the stark backdrop of an unknown, unfriendly cosmos seething with God knows what dreadful things.
Yes, declares Lovecraft, there’s a monster in the attic, but what really matters is that the universe is full of monsters.
The story that unsettled me most was the only one that was not a horror story. “The Silver Key” has some supernatural elements, but it’s not overtly scary. No one goes insane. There are no monsters. Nobody dies. What makes the story disturbing is its oppressively nihilistic worldview, its vision of a blind cosmos that “grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.”
Lovecraft’s monsters are mildly scary, but what really puts me on edge is his philosophy of an empty existence in which life is fleeting and futile: a spark that flares for an instant in the darkness and illuminates nothing.
The second great strength of Lovecraft’s stories is their variety. There’s psychological horror in spades, from madness to cannibalism. Fantasy horror shows up in the form of demonic entities, ancient cults and dark magic. Much to my surprise, sci-fi horror makes appearances in the form of extraterrestrial creatures and eerie technology. Despite differences of genre, most of these stories are consistent with Lovecraft’s mythos, and the lines between genres are sometimes wonderfully vague.
Lovecraft’s literary style is plain and mostly unimpressive, and he occasionally tries too hard to convey a sense of horror by describing it openly. Dark hints would have been scarier than matter-of-fact phrases such as “Now, indeed, the essence of pure nightmare was upon me.” As Lovecraft himself pointed out, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His stories might have benefited from fewer explanations and more haunting implications.
It is worth noting Lovecraft’s stories aren’t scary in the way, say, most horror movies are. There are few, if any, abrupt scares. The terror lies in the slow, steady buildup of tension. Impatient readers will be disappointed.
If horror is your cup of tea, H.P. Lovecraft delivers some genuinely creepy stories. If you’re sensitive to blood, existential angst or old-fashioned prose, Lovecraft is a good writer to skip.