If you want to read H.P. Lovecraft in the original collections of short stories he
published during his lifetime, you will come up empty-handed.  Lovecraft couldn’t
find a commercial publisher willing to issue his stories in book form—the first
widely-available collections were issued posthumously by Lovecraft’s friend August  
Derleth.  Derleth and his collaborator Donald Wandrei encountered so much
resistance from publishers that they founded their own imprint, Arkham House, to
release these now classic tales. Lovecraft faced the same fate with his short novels.  
During his lifetime,
At the Mountains of Madness only appeared as a pulp magazine
serial, and
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward didn’t get into print in any format
during the author’s lifetime.

H.P. Lovecraft spent his final days in abject poverty. “Outgo persists, income
shrinks to invisibility,” he wrote in dismay in one of his
letters.  The author’s newest suit was almost a decade
old, and he still wore the overcoat he had owned as a
teenager. “I have reduced nourishment to $2 and $3
per week, and continue to wear the raiment of yester-
year,” he admitted to Fritz Leiber.  Sometime he went
without food to pay for the postage necessary to
maintain his activity as an author. (And he needed
plenty of stamps—he wrote around 100,000 letters
during his comparatively short lifetime, and perhaps
ranks as the most prolific correspondent in the history
of American literature.) Lovecraft lived with an ailing
aunt to save on expenses, and may have delayed seeking
treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him,
because of his financial hardships.

He got little consolation from his literary achievements in his final days, and the
Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is probably right in claiming that “as he saw death
approaching, Lovecraft envisioned the ultimate oblivion of his work, as he had
never had a true book published in his lifetime.”  His oeuvre was scattered in old
pulp magazines, garish periodicals such as Weird Tales and Astounding despised by
the highbrow literary community.  Some of his best work simply existed in
typescript in his files.

Fast forward to the present day and marvel over the changed state of affairs.  
Lovecraft’s stories are widely read, and available in various editions, including an
impressive 800-page volume from the Library of America, where he can be found
on the shelf between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Madison.  His tales
have served as the basis for dozens of film and TV adaptations, with more appearing
every year.  A bizarre cottage industry in Lovecraft inspired collectibles—jewelry,
medallions, T-shirts, playing cards, greeting cards, games, key chains, and other
items large and small—testifies to the devotion and creativity of this author’s legion
of fans.

When I visit the gym to workout, I routinely wear a
sweatshirt emblazoned with the insignia of Miskatonic
Univeristy—a non-existent institution (loosely based
on Brown University) that solely exists in the pages
of Lovecraft’s stories. Earlier this week I was confronted
by a barista in a café, who had glimpsed me out of the
corner of his eye. “Does that sweatshirt say ‘Miskatonic
University’?” he asked. “What do you know about
Miskatonic University?” I responded. At that point,
my interlocutor simply rolled up the sleeve of his shirt
and showed me a tattoo that read “H.P. Lovecraft.”

Such is the passion of Lovecraft’s admirers, a passion
that burns brightly almost eighty years after the author's
death. Indeed, his influence shows up in the strangest
places—much of it far afield from Lovecraft’s native soil
in New England. French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have drawn
on his example in their work
A Thousand Plateaus. French novelist Michel
Houellebecq has written a full-length study of Lovecraft’s work. Jorge Luis Borges
dedicated a short story to him. You will find echoes of his work in Japanese manga
and heavy metal music.

But even this impressive list of achievements fails to measure the scope of
Lovecraft’s influence on literature and popular culture.  With the exception of
Edgar Allan Poe, no author did more to establish the horror genre and create its
ground rules and formulas, and here his ethos can be traced in virtually every form
of contemporary storytelling, from motion pictures to video games.  But when I
consider Lovecraft’s legacy, I marvel first and foremost at his prose style.   Virtually
every paragraph in every Lovecraft story is immediately identifiable as his work.
The cadences of his elaborate sentences, the density of his modifiers, the macabre
and melancholy tone of his narratives:  these are his trademarks, as essential to the
Lovecraftian universe as his gripping plots or arcane private mythology.

Such dark, demented and dense writing almost demands parody, even as it stirs
admiration.  Here is
Michael Chabon’s send-off of Lovecraft’s prose:

“This record of sorrow is being penned in human blood on parchment made from
the hides of drowned sailors.  Its unhappy author—O pity me, friend, wherever you
lie at your ease!—perches by the high window of a lightning-blasted tower…chained
at the ankle to an iron bedstead, gnawing on the drumstick of a roasted rat….A
prisoner of ill fortune, a toy of destiny, a wretched cat’s-paw for gods of  malice who
find sport in plucking the wings from the golden butterfly of human happiness!  
Thus shorn of liberty and burdened with the doubtful gift of time do I propose to
ease the leaden hours in setting down this faithful record, the memoir of a king in

Long before the “unreliable narrator” became fashionable in literary fiction,
Lovecraft mastered his own distinctive variant, namely the terror-stricken narrator
who questions his own sanity, perhaps even craves the disclosure that he has lost
his marbles, because this would allow him to doubt the reality of the fearful and
loathsome story he is recounting. (A typical Lovecraft line: “I am writing this under
an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more….”)  Again and
again, we encounter this troubled character in the Lovecraft oeuvre.  Some hapless
soul, due to excessive curiosity, scientific pride or just sheer bad luck, gets a glimpse
of a horror best left unseen, and usually with cataclysmic implications for the
human race.  In “The Colour Out of Space,” one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, the
danger arrives via a meteorite from the sky.  In another much cherished tale, “The
Shadow Over Innsmouth,” it crawls out of the sea.  In
At the Mountains of
, it emerges from the frozen wastelands of Antarctica.

Beyond these many variants, Lovecraft maintained a surprisingly coherent vision in
story after story, drawing on a recurring mythology of his own invention.  Derleth
coined the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the lore, bestiary and alternative
history constructed by Lovecraft during the several decades of his writing career,
refined over the course of dozens of works, and later drawn on and expanded by
other storytellers. In time, the Mythos encompassed not only the supernatural
threats faced by Lovecraft’s haunted protagonists, but also a species of intelligent
life that inhabited the earth before the rise of human society, and a successor race
(of intelligent beetles) that will eventually succeed us. He brought in some
elements of preexisting myth, such as the story of Atlantis, with the addition of new
twists of his own devising. But most of this material came only from the fevered
inspiration of his seemingly inexhaustible imagination. Eventually, as Lovecraft
aimed to branch out from pure horror to science fiction, he drew on elements of
quantum physics and Einsteinian space-time jargon to buttress his mthology with a
thin veneer of technological plausibility.  These theoretical elements added little to
stories that relied on suspense, not futuristic science for their appeal, and in some
instances undermined perhaps the key allure of Lovecraft’s work, namely the
reader’s instinctive repulsion at the inexplicable and unmentionable. But they
testify to the author’s obsession with expanding the scope and rigor of his
homegrown system, his unified theory of horror.

When Lovecraft gets too caught up in science,
I lose interest. The long drawn-out opening of  
At the Mountains of Madness, filled with techno
-speak and musings on geological matters, will
exasperate all but the most patient readers.  
Lovecraft is at his best, in my opinion, when he
leaves the horror unexplained, and all the more
ominous for its amorphous qualities. The same
is true of this author’s prose, which at first glance
appears obsessed with explaining everything in
the most intricate detail.  Indeed, few writers
have used adjectives and subsidiary clauses
with more abandon than H.P. Lovecraft.  But,
in his most inspired moments, Lovecraft find a
ways of explaining very little even while he
appears to try to convey every detail.  The web of description proves as fragile as a
spider’s web, and much of it is simply an enumeration of different gradations of
shadow, mist and darkness.  We hear the screams, we feel the chill wind, and
vaguely make out, through the suffocating smoke and fog, the dim outlines of a
present menace.

My favorite Lovecraft work, his novel
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, displays a
casual mastery that may surprise those who see this author as limited to short
works, long on mood and light on structure. Here Lovecraft presents an expansive
work, covering several generations and a wide range of narrative stances. This
ambitious story spans two continents and hundreds of years, incorporates a
considerable amount of historical detail, and involves a shifting array of characters
and protagonists. Lovecraft is so bold as to telegraph his ending in the very first
sentence of the novel, yet manages to withhold various key details until the proper
moment when they can strike the reader with the greatest amount of shock and
awe.  Judging by this work, Lovecraft had all the skill required to flourish as a
novelist or screenplay writer. How strange that he put such little effort into
marketing this manuscript, which didn’t appear in print until after his death.

But Lovecraft didn’t need a hundred pages to pull off his well-honed effects. Like
Poe, he could construct terrifying vignettes that cut to the quick in just a few pages.  
And the careful student of H.P. Lovecraft will dissect this author further, exploring
how paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, he draws the
unsuspecting reader into his elaborate alternative universe of the macabre. I’m
reminded of a comment from a character in one of Lovecraft's early works:
"Memories and possibilities are even more hideous than realities." That’s Lovecraft
in a nutshell:  a peering into a future that always echoes with the past, a gauging of
the real that tells us as much about the possible as the actual, and the ever-present
suspicion that these shadows from afar, the horrible flickerings on the wall of a
demented Plato’s cave, are a burden beyond enduring.  If horror is more than a kind
of entertainment, but actually a type of metaphysics or aesthetic, this is its essence—
one that, nowadays, we often simply call ‘Lovecraftian’.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs:
The Hidden History
, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: February 8, 2016
The Weird Tales
H.P. Lovecraft
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experimental fiction
This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
To purchase, click on image
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft
If horror is more than a
kind of entertainment, but
actually a type of
metaphysics or aesthetic,
this is its essence—one
that, nowadays, we often
simply call ‘Lovecraftian’.
H.P. Lovecraft
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading

Links to related sites

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Great Books Guide
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Ted Gioia on Twitter


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