If one were to build a Mount Rushmore of Horror Writers, you could easily suggest the faces of Poe, Shelley, and Stoker as starters, and some may propose Matheson, Blackwood, Jackson, and of course King, among many others, but for me, one name is a must—H.P. Lovecraft. Like Poe, Lovecraft’s work stands out from his contemporaries as so uniquely strange with such a singular aura that there hasn’t really been anyone like him before or since. Many were inspired by him, but few were as wholly odd in aesthetic, style, and life.
And yes, one must point out in any conversation about Lovecraft that he was terribly xenophobic, even for his era, but while his work unfortunately used this to create an “other” within our own human ranks, I feel his work can often achieve this effect without going anywhere near the racist stereotypes he embraced.
If fact, it’s this eerie otherworldly sort of “other” that I find most interesting about his work, the fear built upon the idea that some of us are in touch with deeper darker secrets, powers, and creatures than we’d ever like to let on. This frightening partnership between sentient evil and the reclusive families hiding in the woods of New England or the wizardly outcasts locked away in small rooms in any given town is what really gives me the creeps. Yes, excellent tales like “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Colour Out of Space” deal more directly with monstrous oddities than the ones I chose here, and they may be some of the better Lovecraft tales, but I love his deeply interconnected stories about the dark mysterious powers at work behind the scenes and the human accomplices helping these forces inch closer and closer toward you in the dark of night. That’s what I like best about Lovecraft’s work—the human element, the human evil, the human curiosity and greed for knowledge and power that truly makes his work horrific. These may or may not be the best H.P. Lovecraft stories, but they're certainly my five favorite tales that touch on that theme, among others.
Needless to say, spoilers lie in wait…
5. The Shadow Over Innsmouth
One could argue this story doesn’t deal with the human element so much as the not-quite-human element, as our curious narrator gets himself in too deep while exploring the mysteries of Lovecraft Country and finds himself stranded in the shunned seaside town of Innsmouth, where things seem a little fishy. Or, to be more precise, the people LOOK a little fishy. And suspicious. Something isn’t right in town and he clearly isn’t welcome. Once the narrator extracts the secret of Innsmouth from a local drunkard, he realizes a spy overheard his discovery, and his life is now in mortal danger. The story of the town’s past is enough to make your skin crawl, and touches on that theme of humans selling themselves out to aid a darker power, but the last half of the story is practically an escape thriller, with the narrator dodging locals, fighting his way out of his hotel, and desperately searching for a way out of town before throngs of fishy-looking men and women try to drag him into the deep. The final twist at the bitter end of the tale adds another excellent level of “Oh no!” to what could be considered one of Lovecraft’s more adventure-driven stories, and again pins the true evil not on some monstrous species of creature, but on the human need for knowledge and power.
4. The Picture in the House
This one is a bit of an outlier, in that it doesn’t deal with the cosmic horrors invading humanity’s domain as the others do, but rather plays off the Lovecraft Country aspect of exploring the dark hidden recesses of New England’s backwoods and the macabre folk who live there in grim seclusion. In this tale, a wayward census taker stumbles across an out-of-date but fairly well-kept home set deep in the woods in a remote corner of the Miskatonic Valley (the fictional region Lovecraft created for so many of his stories). As it begins to rain, our intrepid traveler takes shelter within, where he finds the home decorated in outdated furniture and filled with ancient books, one of which seems to turn itself open again and again to a horrifying woodcut image of what appears to be a scene of cannibalism. The traveler suddenly hears a noise upstairs, then footsteps, and I won’t give too much away, but I’ll say I love how this story bridges the bizarre Rip Van Winkle tales of early Colonial times with the more modern bloodcurdling tropes of haunted house/slasher films. The story doesn’t have any deep human consequence as the others do, but it’s atmospheric and creepy and I love it.
3. The Dunwich Horror
In terms of Lovecraft stories, this one is a biggie, one of his pillars, and it hits on so many of his tropes: the small reclusive community of Dunwich filled with superstitious locals; the self-proclaimed wizard who ascends Sentinel Hill to chant to some unknown deity; the strange child born of an unknown father who grows prodigiously fast into a bizarre goatish-looking man who searches for the mysterious tome, the Necronomicon, in order to finish his grandfather's work out there on Sentinel Hill; and then the rumors of something large, squishy, and hungry locked away in the wizard's farmhouse, until it gets loose and begins to feed. The story is a captivating mix of second-hand rumors, first-hand accounts, secretive characters, and a thrilling adventure into the dour backwoods by a group of scientist, academics, and locals to destroy the beast. It's quite an adventure, and is easily one of Lovecraft's best.
2. The Thing on the Doorstep
This one knocked me for a loop, because once again Lovecraft uses people and their fascination with power, magic, and the dark arts to convey true horror in this layered story that methodically ratchets up the horror bit by bit from start to finish. It's a steady slow burn to a morbid and terrifying end. The story concerns the narrator's young friend, who falls in love with a mysterious girl who seems to have an unnatural ability to affect and control those around her. Any reader will immediately pick up on the danger she poses when we learn of her family's deep connection to that strange town of Innsmouth. Slowly we watch as she consumes her new husband's life, controlling him in ways no one expects, using him like a vehicle, leaving her own body and entering his, even from afar, pushing him to the brink of madness. He ends up the Arkham Sanitarium, where he rants and raves...until one day, he's fine again. It's all very suspicious, especially when a grotesque being appears on our narrator's doorstep with a secret from beyond the grave, telling our narrator that the possessive spirit of the wife may not have ever existed, and that it is something else at work, something far more insidious. This dark evil must be stopped before consumes soul after soul to achieve its goals. But is it already too late?
1. The Whisperer in the Darkness
This is my favorite Lovecraft piece because it has a little bit of everything, and uses the same tool Bram Stoker used in Dracula to explain all the happenings from different perspectives: the epistolary format of letter writing. I know, I know, it doesn't sound thrilling, but Lovecraft is able to ratchet up the suspense as letter after letter reaches our narrator from an isolated farmer in Vermont who tries to tell us all about the evil happenings in those green mountains. We receive descriptions of strange otherworldly creatures wandering the woods, tormenting his dogs, holding bizarre ceremonies, and colluding with secretive human accomplices to do their bidding. As each letter becomes more desperate and frightening, as well as more claustrophobic, the narrator insists he will travel to Vermont to help, but is warned away each time...until he isn't, and is encouraged to come at once. The change in attitude is suspiciously noticeable to the reader, but not to our narrator, who journeys to remote Vermont to find his friend ill and propped up in a dark room, where he speaks of the peace he made with his monstrous friends, and how they wish to teach them all about their technology and otherworldly powers in due time. The narrator agrees to stay the night, but comes to understand that the figure whispering to him in the dark is not his friend, but some evil thing using his friend's dead body as a puppet. What's worse, he's trapped upstairs, and those things are just below him lying in wait. Creeeeepy! Lovecraft does a great job of making the story feel more suffocating with each letter, and being in that dark room and knowing what we know before the narrator realizes it is almost too much. I just wanted to scream GET OUT! for the last quarter of the tale! Cosmic horror, suspense, adventure, everything you'd want in an eerie tale of alien lobster people with wings!
Bonus: Witches’ Hollow
This isn't a Lovecraft tale as much as one inspired by him, more specifically some notes he jotted down describing a story he wanted to create but never did. After his passing, writer August Derleth took up the task and created this little piece, which to me feels like a mix of Ichabod Crane meets the X-Files. Replete with references to the Necronomicon and taking place in another gloomy stretch of Lovecraft Country, this quick tale recounts a new school teacher who encounters a child in his class who seems out of place somehow. The other children fear him, and the teacher decides to investigate. He drives the boy home to meet the family, but is repulsed by the dilapidated condition of the home deep within Witches' Hollow. Something isn't right about the home and the threatening family, and after doing some intensive research in town, the teacher meets another professor who suspects there is a dark force at work on the family. With this professor's deep knowledge of the Necronomicon (perhaps too much knowledge, as this professor seems to have all the tools and info readily available to win the day, making the story feel a tad easy) the two set out to save the young boy and his family from a possessive evil from beyond the stars. It's short, fun, and spooky, and while not one of Lovecraft's (or Derleth's) "best" tales, it's a personal favorite that I always recommend.