H. P. Lovecraft Short Stories

Posted: August 29, 2022 in Book reviews, horror, science fiction
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By H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s work is seminal, and he’s been a huge influence on a host of horror and science fiction writers going forward. Despite this I wasn’t that familiar with his work. Sure, I’d read one or two stories, I’d seen a few films based on his work, and I played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game while at university, but as a fan of the horror and sci-fi genres I’d been remiss in reading many of his stories.

When I saw this beautiful hardback book going cheap in Waterstones, well I couldn’t resist. I ended up starting it quicker than I expected to thanks to a bout of covid which confined me to the house.

As always with anthologies I’ll break down how I felt about individual stories. I certainly enjoyed some of them, and I probably appreciate Lovecraft’s’ influence even more now, there is something definitely unsettling about the world of dark gods and cosmic horror he created. He is also not a terrible writer.

You know there’s a but here, right?

But, his prose can be laborious, and many stories are long and arduous to read, as such the further I got into the anthology the more reading it felt like a chore, which hasn’t put me off Lovecraft, quite the reverse, but for me at least I think going forward the trick will be to approach his work in small chunks. If I’d read a few stories then gone away and read something else before returning to read another story or two, and so on, I think I’d have enjoyed this far more.

It also has to be highlighted that Lovecraft was more than a little bigoted, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities, and at times this is reflected subtly, and often not so subtly in his work. Yes, he was a product of his time but I’m not sure that completely absolves him (plenty of his contemporaries aren’t horribly racist)  and it shouldn’t be ignored, however important he is to the genres of science fiction and horror.

Anyway, onto the stories:

The Call of Cthulhu

Perhaps the story Lovecraft is most famous for and it’s a doozy. Narrated Francis Wayland Thurston who explains that he has discovered an incredible story by going through the notes left behind by his uncle, who was a prominent professor of Semitic languages. Thurstan also finds a bizarre sculpture of a creature with a tentacled head and explains that his uncle discovered it was made by a young student in Rhode Island who crafted the sculpture based on dreams he had of incredible Cyclopean cities and of the creatures that inhabit them.

Thurstan then goes onto further studies by his uncle, whereby he encountered a policeman from Louisiana who talked of a curious cult that worshipped the old God Cthulhu. The policeman and his men had broken up what they thought was a voodoo cult, but turned out to be something much darker.

The final part of his uncle’s studies features a derelict ship in the Pacific. There was one survivor onboard, a Norwegian sailor with a tale of a mysterious island where his shipmates had lost their lives.

Thurstan travels to New Zealand and Australia to find out more.

It’s an odd tale, and like several other Lovecraft stories feels almost more like a history than an actual story, but his worldbuilding is so good, and the things he’s describing so creepy, that it almost doesn’t matter. It does go on a bit and there is some rather unfortunate language, but you can see how it spawned a sub-genre in its own right.

The Whisperer in the Darkness

Another long tale and another story recounted by a single narrator, in this case Albert Wilmarth, a lecturer at the fictious Miskatonic University. When strange things are found in Vermont rivers after a flood Wilmarth sides with the sceptics against those who claim there are old monsters living in the uninhabited Vermont hills.

When he receives a letter from Henry Wentworth, who lives in an isolated farmhouse in the Vermont hills, he begins to doubt his scepticism and he and Wentworth engage in correspondence about the strange creatures who Wentworth believes are menacing him.

Eventually Wilmarth travels into the wilderness to visit Wentworth and discovers something incredible and horrific.

A slight sidestep for Lovecraft here, there are Cthulhuish vibes here, but this is more science fiction then horror, featuring aliens rather than elder gods (never forgetting that theoretically those elder gods could be aliens too).

It’s another tale that goes on too long, but again another story that’s very interesting, although you will find yourself wondering just how dense Wilmarth is at one point.

His visit to Wentworth’s house is genuinely creepy, and the final reveal is a corker.

The Thing on the Doorstep

Daniel Upton, the narrator begins the story by explaining that he has murdered his best friend, Edward Derby, and then goes on to explain why he did. As a young man Derby had been reliant on his parents, and interested in the occult, after his parents’ death he marries a fellow student from Miskatonic University Asenath Waite. She too has an interest in the occult and moves into Derby’s home, brining with her three servants from her home in Innsmouth, a mysterious coastal town. As the years pass Daniel begins to notice changes in Derby’s personality, almost as if he was someone else. Is Asenath the villain of the piece, or curiously, is it her aged and infirm father Ephraim?

Another story that goes on far too long, but the central conceit is imaginative, and the story is genuinely unsettling.

The Lurking Fear

An unnamed reporter travels to the Catskills Mountain range to investigate reports of attacks by unidentified creatures. The attacks seem to be linked to violent thunderstorms, and also seem tied to the foreboding, deserted Martense mansion.

There’s a kernel of an interesting story here but this one just didn’t grab me, the first clunker of the collection, though it does feature a great jump scare midway.

The Shadow over Innsmouth

The unnamed narrator explains how he came to instigate a secret government investigation of the isolated, and partially deserted, seaport of Innsmouth.

Intrigued by superstitious tales about the town, including reference to an epidemic that killed off half the populace, and the rise of a pagan cult that became the town’s main religion, the narrator takes a bus ride to Innsmouth and discovers a brooding, near abandoned town, where many buildings lie empty and the locals show signs of inbreeding. A talk with a local drunk reveals a fantastical tale of old Gods and interbreeding with aquatic creatures. When the bus breaks down the narrator is forced to take a room for the night in the local hotel, and that’s when his nightmare really begins.

Another disquieting tale, and perhaps the one where I wish I’d taken a break after some of the earlier stories because I think I’d have liked it more. The history of Innsmouth is interesting, as is the narrator’s night-time adventures in trying to escape from it. It links neatly to the wider Cthulhu mythos and features a disturbing twist in the tale. It does take an age for anything to happen however!

The Shunned House

For many years the narrator and his uncle, Whipple, have been fascinated by an abandoned house in Providence. Dr Whipple has done a large amount of research tracking the mysterious, yet seeming unconnected, incidences of sickness and death that have cursed the various occupants of the house, to the point where no one will live there. There is curious fungus growing in the basement, and a strange mouldy outline on the floor that looks like a man curled up, there’s also a strange yellow vapour from time to time. The narrator and his uncle decide to spend the night in the basement, with horrific results.

There’s an interesting story here, and the title is great. As with many of Lovecraft’s works it is too long, but the way he explains the history of the house is really nicely done. I also like the way that for the most part he leaves it vague as to whether the cause is something supernatural or something more prosaic. It does go on way too long though, and the eventual resolution seems somewhat lacking.

From Beyond

An unnamed narrator details his experiences with a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast who creates a device that stimulates a person pineal gland, allowing them to see other realities and the creatures that live in them.

A short, sharp inventive tale that demonstrates one of Lovecraft’s  recurring themes, of things existing on other planes of reality.

Pickman’s Model

The story involves an artist named Richard Pickman whose work, whilst brilliant, is so horrifying that he is shunned by most in the artworld. The narrator is his friend, who Pickman takes to show his studio/gallery, squirreled away in a slum area of the city. There the narrator discovers how Pickman is able to paint such vivid monsters!

Another fairly short tale. It has a nice sting at the end and some unsettling moments throughout.  

The Nameless City

A(nother) nameless narrator discovers a lost and abandoned city in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. Whilst exploring the ruins he finds low ceilings buildings that doesn’t seem to have been designed for humans, and upon discovering a staircase leading down he descends into a bizarre necropolis where the bodies reserved are not remotely human.

I really liked this one. The decent into the lower regions of the city was incredibly unsettling (and did have me screaming for him to turn back at several points) and I enjoyed the dreamlike quality to it. It could be argued it doesn’t really go anywhere, but on the plus side it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome either. Probably the best story in the latter half of the book.

The Dreams in the Witch House

Walter Gilman, a student at Miskatonic university, rents a room in the Witch House, a place rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of Keziah Mason, an accused witch who somehow manged to escape execution, and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a creature with the body of a rat but the face of a man. Gilman begins having terrible nightmares that feature both of them, and lead him to become obsessed with understanding a new form of geometry that would allow for the existence of other universes to be perceived.

I really struggled with this one, in part because again it’s too long, but also because of its placing at the end of the book and I was just so ready to finish it. It feels like a smorgasbord of Lovecraft’s obsessions. In some respects this makes the central story interesting, but it also makes it confused. We have the supernatural, human sacrifices, witchcraft and devilish creatures, but there’s also a huge portion of cosmic horror and science fiction given Gilman’s fascination with unearthly geometry which seems to promise the ability to teleport between worlds.

I suspect I would have liked this more if I’d read it earlier in the book.

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