It’s never easy to know how to approach classic literature. There’s not always an obvious starting point or a first piece that can open the door to a broader collection of writing. H.P. Lovecraft is exactly one of those writers whose reputation is so iconic and whose creative output is so vast that it can feel like a challenge just to find your way in – but it doesn’t need to be, despite the thousand page collections of Lovecraft’s work.
Instead, start with these 6 stories that introduce you to the Lovecraftian world.
1. The Colour Out of Space
The Colour Out of Space, written in March 1927, unravels the mysterious of a dark and haunted place in the hills of Arkham, Massachusetts. Known only as the “blasted heath”, the locals refuse to speak to the bemused narrator. He eventually gets a story out of a supposed madman named Amni Pierce who lived in the cursed place when the land belonged to a man named Gardner.
The haunting, he says, first started when a meteorite crashed into the land. It never cooled, but shrank, and its origin is a mystery to everyone who studying it. It leaves behind mysterious traces that only Lovecraft can really describe.
A year after the meteorite is destroyed by lightning, the crops on the land grow unnaturally large, but are revolting to eat. The poison from the meteorite spreads to the surrounding flora and fauna. The plants around the farmhouse begin to glow.
Slowly, the effect of the meteorite spreads, cursing more and more of the farmland and driving the Gardner family mad. Pierce recounts in chilling detail the tragedy the family faced and the efforts made to find out just what brought them too their terrible fate.
2. The Call of Cthulhu
Perhaps the most famous of Lovecraft’s tales, The Call of Cthulhu was written in 1926 and published in Weird Tales in 1928. It tells the story of how a young man named Francis discovers the truth of Lovecraft’s most enduring monster, Cthulhu.
Through clues scattered amongst the writing of his late grand-uncle, Francis is led on a journey that takes him first to Rhode Island, then New Orleans and finally Australia.
Piecing together increasingly ominous pieces of the story, Francis finds himself entangled in the affairs of a murderous cult. The worship creatures known as the Great Old Ones and are eager for the return of their most terrible god, Cthulhu.
Francis’s curiosity takes him from tragic death to tragic death as the cultists carry out bigger and more destructive sacrifices to their god. He only realises what connects each of Cthulhu’s victims when it is too late for him to escape his doom.
3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth
More of a novella than a story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth expands upon the Cthulhu mythos established in The Call of Cthulhu. It was written in the winter of 1931 and is the only story Lovecraft wrote that was published in his lifetime.
It tells the story of an unnamed traveller who returns to a town called Innsmouth that he once visited on a tour of New England. Plagued by the superstitions of the surrounding town, Innsmouth is largely deserted and the few people that remain are peculiar, to say the least. Outsiders, traditionally, are not welcome.
With the help of alcohol, he persuades an elderly local to reveal the town’s history. He explains that a race of fish-like creatures live in the ocean near Innsmouth known as the Deep Ones. In exchange for human sacrifices, the Deep Ones gave the people of Innsmouth wealth and riches. But the relationship between the people and the monsters blurred. The Deeps Ones grew violent when human sacrifices were not forthcoming. The people were made to breed with them until the townsfolk consisted more of hybrids than humans.
The young man dismisses the story as the ramblings of a drunk old fool, but Innsmouth is determined not to let him forget about it. Haunted by the shadow, he finds himself returning to the story until he realises that he has been embroiled in Innsmouth’s affairs for far longer than he ever knew. Leaving it be is not an option.
4. The Dunwich Horror
Considered one of the core stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, The Dunwich Horror was published in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. It is ideal for anyone looking for a more optimistic story than Lovecraft typically wrote.
It tells the story of Wilbur Whateley, a hideous child born to a deformed albino mother and mystery of a father. He has matured to adulthood by the age of ten and both people and animals alike shun him. Suspicions are aroused by the disappearance and wounds of a number of cows in Whateley’s grandfather’s field.
Something lives in Whateley’s farmhouse, growing as the years go by. Whateley’s grandfather dies and his mother disappears. The entity is left entirely on its own when Whateley is viciously killed by a guard dog as he attempts to break to into a library.
Unattended, the creature breaks free of the farmhouse it has called home for all of Whateley’s life and rampages through Dunwich. It is up to the small handful of townsfolk who spoke to Whateley before he died to work out how to restrain the monster.
5. The Whisperer in Darkness
Another of Lovecraft’s longer pieces, The Whisperer in Darkness as written in 1930 and published in Weird Tales the next year. It blends horror and science fiction and, while it isn’t a central aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos, it does heavily lean into it.
It focusses on the conflict caused by supernatural sightings in Arkham, Massachusetts. Told from the perspective of Albert Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University, it documents his thought process as his sceptical mind is forced to confront extra-terrestrial terrors he has never before comprehended.
His correspondence with a man named Henry Akeley provides him with detail information about the creatures and what they want. Changes in his story arouse Wilmarth’s suspicions, but he goes to visit Akeley at his request.
There, the true nature of the aliens gets even murkier. Peculiar whisperings in the night haunt him and there is something decidedly troubling about the ailing Akeley’s insistence that these creatures seek only peace. It is up to Wilmarth to work out what is really going on.
6. At The Mountains of Madness
Despite being rejected by Weird Tales, At The Mountains of Madness was eventually serialised across three editions of Astounding Stories in 1936. Again, it follows a professor at Miskatonic University – this time, a geologist by the name of Dr William Dyer on an expedition to Antarctica.
An advance group discover the remains of fourteen mysterious prehistoric life forms. Some are badly damaged, but others are perfectly preserved. When the group loses contact with the expedition party, Dyer is one of the explorers sent to investigate.
They find a bloodbath, with one man and one dog missing and the rest slaughtered, with at least one corpse mutilated. The specimens have vanished.
Exploring the area from a plane, Dyer and a student discover that the mountains are the walls of a vast yet abandoned city of some lost, monstrous civilisation. They glean from hieroglyphs the story of the Elder Things – beings who came to Earth not long after the creation of the moon, whose biological material may be the source of all living things.
But the Elder Things’ history is not only of peace. Wars with other alien races are depicted in the murals, along with their downfall at the hands of their slave race, the shoggoths. There are hints within the tales from something darker that haunts the area, that even the Elder Things did not want to face, driving them subterranean.
Dyer and his student find themselves trapped in a dangerous clash between revived Elder Things, shoggoths and an entity of pure evil that threatens them all.