I'd originally planned this month's column to be a quick overview of the better post-Lovecraft Mythos fiction that's out there, in light of my review of Move Underground (a column about the worst Mythos works could go on for ten pages, more if I focused on folks other than August Derleth). But I realized that I've never actually written a column about Lovecraft himself. So I'll rectify that mistake this month, and talk about some of his successors next month.
I'm not going to give you a full biography, or even a bibliography, of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. That would take more space that I have for this column. In a nutshell, however, Lovecraft led a relatively sad life, growing up in Providence and spending some time in New York before moving back home (his short-lived marriage crumbled during this time). He spent his later years in Providence writing many of his best works, and also was something of a long-distance mentor for a number of young writers, including Fritz Lieber and Robert Bloch (two of the true masters who emerged from the next generation of writers). At the time he died, few of his works had seen print in book form, and two of his comrades, the aforementioned Derleth (who, for all his faults as a writer, was still critital in preserving Lovecraft's legacy) and Donald Wandre, formed Arkham House as a means of keeping Lovecraft's works in print. Like many authors, his reputation grew after his death, and he has come to be recognized as one of the most important voices in horror of this century.
I adore Lovecraft's work, but I'm the first to admit that the quality did vary. His poetry, frankly, bores me to tears (and is just as bad as every whiny "horror" poem written by wannabe goth kids nowadays -- some things never change). And too many of his works that have been published are mere fragments, or items the Derleth completed after Lovecraft's death. Further, many of Lovecraft's later works are a part of his Mythos -- his general pantheon of Great Old Ones who offer menace to mankind -- and can be a little confusing to readers not familiar with his other stories. More than one horror fan I know has forever been turned off of Lovecraft after encountering something awful or baffling. So which of Lovecraft's works are worth seeking out?
Let's start with his short novel, At the Mountains of Madness. The tale of a doomed Arctic expedition that discovers the remnants of the Great Old Ones, it's a well-written and quick-moving horror story. Lovecraft's characters (unusually enough for him) are distinct and mostly believable, and the mystery that the characters eventually unravel about the true history of the world (and the godlike beings who have created it) is one that's been aped by almost every second-rate pulp writer since then. This story also gets bonus points for being, to the best of my knowledge, the only novel to contain giant albino penguins. Seriously.
As for his short fiction, most of his post-1926 works are the ones truly worth checking out. My personal favorite is "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," yet another story that has practically become an archetype. It tells the story of a mysterious New England town, and the attempts by an outsider to escape it when he realizes that something is amiss. Lovecraft's ability to create a creepy mood never shines brighter than in this story.
Amongst his earlier tales, "Pickman's Model," is a very nice "old school" horror story, with an O'Henry-esque twist ending and a narrative that doesn't bog itself down in Lovecraft's Mythos. "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," is another one of his classic Weird Tales, and shows a sly and twisted sense of humor that was often lacking in Lovecraft's other works. Fans of Brian Yuzna's movies should be warned that such early stories as "Herbert West, Re-Animator" and "From Beyond" aren't nearly as interesting as you might expect.
Amongst later Lovecraftian works, "The Colour out of Space," the story of a strange meteor that gradually corrupts those around it, is one of the few to get turned into a decent film (Boris Karloff's Die, Monster, Die, which shifted the setting to England), and is a very solid read. Of course, anyone familiar with Lovecraft's mythos work should read "The Call of Cthulhu," which isn't his best narrative, but is a well-written tale that nicely sets a mood of imminent danger from the sleeping Old One and his cult worshippers. And "The Dunwich Horror," whose demonic family terrorizes a town and plans to destroy the world, is a fine read.
My favorite Lovecraft story, however, is "The Shadow Out of Time," a sweeping tale of madness that plays with unreliable narration, time loss, and the Mythos, all within Lovecraft's familiar Miskatonic University. It tells the story of Professor Nathaniel Peaslee, who loses five years of his life, then uncovers the mystery of what happened to him and to others. It culminates with a voyage to ancient ruins in Australia that is one of the creepiest sections of any Lovecraft story.
All of these stories are much more focused on mood and plot than on graphic horror and bloodshed. That means that folks who mistake the jump-scares and gore of contemporary genre flicks (and, alas, of much of horror literature today) for "horror" might not find much to their liking here. But Lovecraft's ability to create a true mood of horror has influenced more contemporary writers and filmmakers than anyone but Poe himself. I'll talk about Lovecraft's successors more next month. In the meantime, you could do far worse for yourself than to pick up a copy of some of his stories. It's hard to go wrong with any of the ones listed above.