The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.— The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
And with this quote begins the short story The Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft, a work that like no other, defines the Cthulhu Mythos. Hp Lovecraft was a writer in the 1920′s and 30′s who short stories and novellas helped define the modern supernatural horror genre. Never particularly popular during his lifetime (he would die young a pauper) he has been highly influential to many important modern day writers (most notably Stephen King). HP Lovecraft’s works are growing increasingly popular. Once only enjoyed by nerds and horror fans, his works are attaining mainstream popularity. James Cameron and Guillermo del Torro even wanted to make a film of his longest work At the Mountains of Madness.
HP Lovecraft’s writings are quite unusual for his time in many ways, although a lot of the concepts and techniques that he used have become the mainstay of many modern writers. He frequently deals with themes such as madness, the futility of humankind, elder beings that are grander than the ability of humanity to understand, and cultists. While he was contemporary with Edgar Allen Poe, his writing is very different, not suffering from Victorian niceties and melodrama to quite the same degree.
I have been a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s writings, and in particular, his Cthulhu stories for a long time. Recently, after being asked on numerous occasions, I decided it was high time I wrote a beginner’s reading guide that I could point people too.
Where to get his writings
The first place you can start is online. Depending on where you are, either all, or the vast majority of HP Lovecraft’s works, are out of copyright. The general consensus is, in the USA there are a couple of his works that may have had their copyright renewed, but most have lapsed. Elsewhere around the world, the works have long since had their copyright expired. For a complete list of everything that HP Lovecraft wrote that is in the Public Domain along with the actual text of the stories the Wikisource website has it all. Here you will find LOTS of his stories that you can read online or print yourself if you are so inclined. I have, when introducing players to Call of Cthulhu (the roleplaying game – don’t judge me…), printed out a series of his stories so that they can follow along and have a good idea of how the setting works.
Another resource that I can highly recommend is Cthulhu Chicks collection of the entirety of HP Lovecraft’s works as a single ePub file. She has painstakingly collected all of Lovecraft’s writings from the Australian Gutenberg Project’s (amongst others) collection and put them into a singe e-book in the order that they were published. Even better, you can download it for free. The ePub file will work on your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, computer, eBook reader, or Android tablet. While you are checking Cthulhu Chicks site out, you may also want to have a look at her crocheted Cthulhus. They are very cute…
If you are a bit more traditional and still like to read, you know, an actual book – from my collection (and I have multiple Lovecraft collections) one of the best is: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) from Amazon (as of writing, it was listed at around $10).
There are other Penguin editions of Lovecraft’s work that are also good and would round out your collection if you were interested. At the end of the day, the majority of the books out there will have the same content and stories. Mountains of Madness tends to be its own book as it is quite long, but the others will collected in anthologies. The Penguin ones are good as they have been corrected and annotated, but you may find another collection with a larger selection more to your liking.
With the growing popularity of HP Lovecraft’s writing, Amazon have created a page dedicated to finding his works here: Amazon HP Lovecraft Page
What to read
In order to get you started, the stories that I would recommend starting with (in order) are:
- The Call of Cthulhu – this story sets up the Cthulhu Mythos and introduces the reader to the mythology and premise.
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth – this is a creepy and dark story that is, in my opinion, one of his best
- At the Mountains of Madness – this is his longest story, and also one of his best (nearly made into a movie by James Cameron)
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
- The Dunwich Horror
- Herbert West: Reanimator – the basis for so many horror movies and a classic (if not strictly in the Cthulhu Mythos)
While HP Lovecraft wrote many other stories not connected with the Cthulhu Mythos, I would hesitate starting with anything from his ‘Dreamscape’ series as they are not, generally speaking, as accessible to new readers as his Cthulhu Mythos stories, but if you discover that you enjoy his writing, they are worth adding to your collection later.
This introduction to reading within the Cthulhu Mythos has only focused on HP Lovecraft. There are numerous other Mythos writers that I haven’t included, like Lovecraft’s friend Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan), Brian Lumley, August Derleth, etc. We may cover these writers later, but as they often ‘re-interpreted’ the premise of Lovecraft’s original work, they tend to not be as good place to get started. If you have not read anything by HP Lovecraft and are interested in doing so, we hope that this guide makes it easier for you to find a place to get started.