“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
* Special thanks to Bobby Derie, author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
HP Lovecraft is a controversial writer that has, nevertheless, left an immense footprint on the collective psyches of geeks from the early 20th century onward. The creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, his willingness to share his fictional creations with other writers and the work of men like August Derleth as well as Chaosium have resulted in incredible spin offs. Great Cthulhu and his ilk are now available in fuzzy slippers, movies, video games, and more. Literally hundreds of writers have also expanded on his work and created their own variations.
However, the simple fact is that with such an immense legendarium, there’s a question of where to begin. Lovecraft wrote for decades and some of his work is more influential than others. While Lovecraft scholars may want to read the entirety of his output, there’s some of us who would rather simply pick and choose. Here is a list of some of his best work as well as some of the spin:offs that I would recommend.
As befitting a writer who was born in 1890, it should be noted quite a bit of his views have not aged well (to say the least). Much ink, electronic or otherwise, has been spoken about his racism as well as other controversial views. This writer will not contribute further other than to say that there’s quite a bit of racism in his books.
As such, it’s perhaps better to read spin-off fiction by such greats as Brian Lumley, Matt Ruff, Victor LaValle, or Ruthanna Emrys if you want to avoid that. Heck, read Cthulhu Armageddon by prolific hack, C.T. Phipps. But for others who want to go back to the source, just like with fans of people like Robert E. Howard or Dashielle Hammett, here’s a list of where to begin.
All of HPL’s fiction is in the public domain and available online, including here: https://hplovecraft.com/
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: HPL’s only novel is a fairly subdued horror story compared to his other writing. There’s supernatural horrors and madness afoot but less of his complicated crypto-mythology. Charles Dexter Ward had a Puritan warlock as an ancestor and became obsessed with this fact. Up to the point of being committed to an asylum after exploring his ancestor’s occult artifacts. Ward’s doctor, Marinus Willett, attempts to investigate what became of him as a result.
At the Mountains of Madness: Probably of equal importance with The Shadow over Innsmouth for making a shared Lovecraft canon, I just don’t feel this one the same way. An Antarctic expedition discovers the secret origins of man as well as a terrifying bunch of monsters that should never be woken up. Most remembered for introducing the blob-like shoggoths that remain a staple of Lovecraft’s successors.
The Call of Cthulhu: The classic tale that started it all is something of a mixed bag to be honest. It involves a globe:trotting adventure, insidious cults, and the introduction of the most iconic of HPL’s monsters. On the other hand, to be honest, not much is accomplished by our heroes. It’s mostly a travelogue that ends on a downer note. Still, it’s important to read if you really want to know who Old Squidface is.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath: Randolph Carter is more or less the antithesis of your typical Lovecraft protagonist as he’s a daring hero who is fascinated rather than repulsed by the exotic, be they human or supernatural. After dreaming of a strange and miraculous city, he uses his powers as a Dreamer to seek the gods of Kadath in hopes of being led to it. A simple word of advice: trust the cats.
The Shadow over Innsmouth: Probably Lovecraft’s best work in terms of sheer mass appeal and what I would recommend for introducing others to his world. Almost all the Cthulhu Mythos as a connected world comes from this work. The narrator is compelled by curiosity to visit a cursed New England town. Despite repeated warnings, he ventures to the town and finds it is carrying a horrific secret involving alien creatures as well as blasphemous religion.
The Whisperer in Darkness: A rather peculiar novella that touches on Lovecraft’s supernatural creatures but is more weird than terrifying. Albert Wilmarth finds himself heading to an isolated part of New England where there’s stories that would sound very familiar to fans of UFO culture involving weird cults, strange circles, and bizarre abductions. It introduces the Mi-Go and also leaves a lot to the reader to determine about how malevolent the supernatural is.
The Colout out of Space: The best thing HPL ever wrote, IMHO. A water surveyor investigates a farm and discovers something utterly inexplicable. It may not sound like much, but the beauty and terror of the unknowable is never more brilliantly realized. A lot of the effects of the “monster” in question also nicely dovetail with our later understanding of radiation.
Dagon: A guy is shipwrecked on an island and sees a monster. Probably not the best description but the journey is more important than the destination.
The Dreams in the Witch House: Another one of the “monster hunting” HPL stories that he had more of than people believe. Poor Walter Gilman wants to take down an evil witch endangering children but he is way outclassed.
The Dunwich Horror: Probably my favorite of HPL’s stories and one that delightfully establishes the occult horror elements that I love so much about his crypto-mythology. Wilbur Whateley is a freakishly tall occultist from the isolated town of Dunwich. Seeking the Necronomicon to work some hideous magic, Doctor Henry Armitage stops him and investigates what terrible apocalypse may be afoot. Virtually all Call of Cthulhu tabletop game adventures owe this story their origin.
The Nameless City: A terrifying story of a traveler exploring an abandoned ruined city. Like Dagon, the experience is what matters versus the description.
Pickman’s Model: A painter of ghoulish horror art shows a friend his inspirations. I really like this story and it plays a big role in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, so should probably be read first.
Herbert West-Reanimator: A series of stories that are, honestly speaking, objectively terrible. However, they’re terrible in a delightfully entertaining way. So much so that Stuart Gordon successfully realized the work’s full comic potential in his movie (see below). Herbert West is a mad scientist who has a formula that can raise the dead. Badly. Yet he keeps trying!
The Thing on the Doorstep: I admit, probably my favorite of HPL’s works. It’s also notably the one with his most interesting female character. Azenath Waite and her evils are a fascinating study in witchcraft and psycho-sexual politics.
The Statement of Randolph Carter: The less than heroic origins of Randolph Carter. Basically, he and his friend Harley Warren believe there’s a wizard’s tomb in the area and decide to go explore it. This was before Dungeons and Dragons and they forgot to bring a rogue, wizard, or priest.
The Unnameable: Randolph Carter, who we discover is a Weird Fiction writer, encounters a friend of his who explains his harrowing story of seeing something awful. I feel this perfectly encapsulates how Lovecraft creates his scares.
Masks of Nyarlathotep: A masterpiece class of Pulp pastiche by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. Based on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game campaign, this is the story of a bunch of heroic adventurers attempting to save the world done in a 1930s radio drama style. A lot more die than is typical for such a drama and humorous advertisements for arsenic as well as other products predominate. I absolutely love this and wish they’d do more parodies.
Wraith of N’Kai: I put the graphic audio version here instead of the novel itself because I feel like the actors manage to elevate what was already good material. An Arkham Horror game-lit tie in, it’s still a tremendously fun pulpy adventure. Josh Reynolds should and undoubtedly is, proud.
Non-Lovecraft Mythos Works
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: A novel that re-envisions the events of The Horror at Red Hook but from the perspective of a young black jazz musician. Perhaps the best explanation why someone would want to burn the world.
The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell: Ramsey Campbell remains arguably the “best” of many-many horror authors to tackle the Mythos directly. He also may have improved on a few things. This collects all of them and gives some context to how he helped shape the Mythos for decades to come.
Cthulhu Armageddon by C.T. Phipps: It’s my list, so hush. The world is finally destroyed by the Great Old Ones and humanity tries to survive in their shadow. An existential examination of humanity’s place in a hostile universe full of bang, bang action.
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw: A private detective investigates the dark and seedy underbelly of the occult in a house suffering domestic abuse. Surprisingly dark in its human evil but fully of the Mythos.
The Elder Ice by David Hambling: A WW1 veteran and boxer investigates the occult in London while never quite coming face to face with the true face of reality. This novella starts it off with a story of how a simple debt collection leads to a relic of the Elder Things.
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys: Aphra Marsh is a survivor of the Deep One internment after the events of The Shadow over Innsmouth. A gentle and kind girl, she struggles to deal with the racism and cruelty of the post-WW2 world. A good, “What if the Mythos was good” story.
Miskatonic University: Elder Gods 101 by Matthew Davenport and Mike Davenport: Matt Davenport has done some great novels like The Trial of Obed Marsh and Andrew Doran series but I love this best. A Young Adult urban fantasy novel about the legacies of HPL’s creations summoned to Miskatonic University to save the world.
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird: Basically a collection of short stories by fantastic authors that update the Mythos in various fascinating and interesting ways. My favorite story is “Pickman’s Other Model” which deals with the only way to make a ghoul more frightening to a Lovecraft protagonist: make it a hot lady.
The Burrowers Beneath by Brian Lumley is a fantastic 1970s adventure about an occult investigator and his sidekick against an army of tunnel-dwelling monstrous squid. Titus Crow is a fantastic protagonist and the rest of the series becomes ever more crazy.
Casefile: Arkham by Josh Finney: A pulpy black and white comic book about a WW2 veteran detective who is sent to chase down Richard Pickman by the mad artist’s sugar mommy. The time doesn’t quite match (WW1 would have been better) but it is a delightful tale.
Miskatonic by Mark Sable: A lengthy homage to the works of HPL that stars one of the last female detectives working for the Bureau of Investigation before J Edgar Hoover took over. I love Agent Miranda Keller and the role of Asenath Waite in the tale.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005): Another delightful creation by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. It’s basically a black and white silent film adaptation of the short story. It’s only about an fifty-minutes long but works well with the material. It’s just quirky enough to appeal to weirdos like me.
The Color out of Space: Nicolas Cage is a hipster alpaca farmer who wants to start a new life with his pagan daughter, sickly wife, and two sons. Unfortunately, a meteorite brings a horrifying alien abomination that carries insanity as well as death. The magenta color scheme isn’t very terrifying but the fact the protagonists are so likable makes the resulting horror all the more effective.
Dagon (2001): Oh, how delightfully trashy this film is! An adaptation of The Shadows over Innsmouth except moved to an isolated Spanish town. There’s a lot more nudity, violence, and screaming than in the original story. It’s also just fantastic B-movie fun with wonderful actresses hamming it. My only regret is that they didn’t get Jeffrey Coombs to play the lead even if he was a bit old for the part in 2001.
Reanimator (1985): As mentioned, the original Reanimator story is terrible but funny in a way that I’m 90% sure was deliberate. Much like Dagon, the violence and nudity is ramped up from the original material. Jeffrey Coomb’s Herbert West is an icon of Eighties horror the way that Ash Williams and Freddy Krueger or Jason is. It’s fantastic and Barbara Crampton is wonderful as the much-suffering Barbara.
The Whisperer in Darkness (2011): Another great retro:movie distributed by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. It’s more or less a straight adaptation of the story and I actually think its better watched than read, no offense to the author. Then again, I suspect that’s because of the completely new ending.
The Call of Cthulhu : If you love tabletop roleplaying games, you’ve probably already played this. It’s been a truly fantastic source of horror and introduction to Lovecraft’s beasts for the better part of forty years. There’s other Lovecraftian RPGs nowadays but you can’t beat the original.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005): Another adaptation of The Shadow over Innsmouth, or more precisely, the Raid on Innsmouth adventure by Chaosium. You will end up massacring hundreds of Deep Ones by the end, but the early part is terrifying.
Call of Cthulhu (2018): A decent enough detective story, Ethan Pierce is sent to an island to investigate the death by fire of a local painter. Honestly, the story ruins itself by going too hard too fast. If they’d kept it a story about Lovecraftian paintings and the Dimensional Shambler, it would have been a great start to a series. Sadly, it goes from 0 to Cthulhu Rises! in six hours.
The Sinking City (2019) : A much more action focused detective game, Charles Reed is another private detective (three for three in video games) who is visiting the cursed city of Oakmont. Oakmont is basically Silent Hill with a Lovecraft twist and everyone is kind of blasé about the Cthulhu cultists and monsters in town. It has its flaws, but I found it to be very fun.
Deep Cuts: A fantastic review site of Lovecraftian material for all sorts. Maintained by Bobby Derie the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos. Link: https://deepcuts.blog/
HP Lovecraft Wiki: Pretty much what the title says. A source for navigating the unknowable. Link: https://lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Main_Page
Reading the Weird: Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth review Lovecraftian and cosmic horror stories. Often from a modern feminist and progressive bent. Link: https://www.tor.com/series/reading:the:weird/
Seth Skorkowsky’s Youtube Channel: A review site that isn’t specifically focused on Call of Cthulhu but includes dozens of reviews of its material anyway. It is tabletop RPG focused and a winner of an ENnie Award. Link: https://www.youtube.com/@SSkorkowsky