“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Ask any writer of horror, fantasy, or weird fiction who their influences were and H.P. Lovecraft’s name is almost sure to come up, especially if they’re over the age of 50. For this reason alone, all true fans of these genres must experience H.P. Lovecraft’s work for themselves. Think of it as “required reading.” Even if you don’t read horror or weird tales, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos pops up regularly in fantasy literature, games, television, music, and art, so it’s a good idea to get a little of it under your belt.
If you want to get a good quick culturally-relevant dose of Lovecraft, I recommend The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories which is available in several editions. I listened to Naxos AudioBooks’ version read by William Roberts, which I downloaded at Audible.com for $4.95. This version (there are others) is 4½ hours long and contains four important Lovecraftian stories: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “Dagon.” The narration is excellent; Mr. Roberts’s voice and cadence helped evoke a suitably sinister ambiance.
In “The Call of Cthulhu,” the first story in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos which was published in Weird Tales in 1928, we learn from our narrator that Cthulhu is a monster who lives in a sunken city in the South Pacific. He looks like a cross between a dragon, a giant octopus, and a man. He’s got a scaly body, tentacles, short wings, and the top of his head is vaguely human. You’ve probably seen some concept art. Cthulhu is related to the Elder Gods, an ancient race from space who will someday come back and wipe humanity off the Earth and restore themselves as rulers. There are secret religious cults on Earth who chant to Cthulhu and look forward to his return. The narrator of the story discovers all this while investigating some strange notes left by his granduncle, a professor who died unexpectedly. After his investigation, our narrator realizes that he knows too much — now he’s a target of the Cthulhu cult, too.
In the second story, “The Hound” (Weird Tales, 1924), a couple of friends who are bored with the normal pleasurable pursuits of life turn to graverobbing and build a museum filled with the objects of necromancy they uncover. When they steal a jade amulet from a grave, they begin hearing the baying of a hound, and things go badly from there. This story, which feels very much like Edgar Allan Poe and a little like The Hound of the Baskervilles, is notable because it’s the first to mention Lovecraft’s famous fictional grimoire, The Necronomicon.
The third story is “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, 1929). It tells the tale of Wilbur Whateley, the child of a deformed albino mother who grows up supernaturally fast in a backwater village in Massachusetts where, because of inbreeding, the natives have regressed into degeneracy and perversity. Nobody knows who Wilbur’s father is, but his grandfather seems to be indoctrinating him into some sort of evil. There are strange things going on in Wilbur’s room and the boy is obsessed with getting a copy of The Necronomicon. Eventually, things go bad, as we knew they would. This story is significant because it introduces Yog-Sothoth, one of the Outer Gods of the Cthulhu mythos, and gives us some more ideas about what’s in The Necronomicon.
In the last story, “Dagon” (The Vagrant, 1919) an opium-addicted mariner plans to kill himself because he’s haunted by visions of Dagon, the Philistine fish-god, whom he saw inside a volcano-like island in the South Pacific. He fears the creatures of the sea and worries about the future of mankind.
I have to admit that I’m not H.P. Lovecraft’s biggest fan. I’m occasionally in the mood for his creepy atmospheric tales, and sometimes he genuinely scares the heck out of me, but mostly I read him occasionally as an academic exercise — just to be well-versed enough in the Cthulhu mythos to get by. I find him too repetitive in theme, plot, and style. His narrators often sound like the same person (some curious white male scholar), the same images and motifs are used to frighten us, and often the same words are used, though sometimes it seems like Lovecraft has plundered the thesaurus for every possible synonym of words like rot, mold, decay, malignant, sinister, stench, charnel, repellant, abhorrent, repulsive, cursed, unholy, grotesque, terror… I could go on. In each story one or more characters are on the verge of a descent into madness due to the horrors or the “terrifying vistas of reality” they’ve seen.
Another issue is the elitism and racism — something I’ve noticed from other horror writers of the early 20th century. Lovecraft equates lack of beauty, physical deformity, and mixed-bloodedness with low intelligence, violent tendencies, and bad morals. He talks negatively about people who are chinless or have thick lips, coarse crinkly hair, or large pores. It doesn’t matter if we “expect” this from early 20th century writers — it’s still ugly.
But, as I said at the beginning, everyone must read a little Lovecraft and this is a great collection in audio format with an excellent reader. It goes on sale regularly, so put it on your wishlist and wait until it goes down to $4.95 again.