A Lovecraft Reading Order For Beginners
Have you wanted to read H.P. Lovecraft, the father of cosmic horror, and see what the hubbub is all about? After all, he created the iconic Cthulhu and inspired a generation of creators like Neil Gaiman and Guillermo Del Toro. But there’s a few big hurdles to getting started:
- Where the heck do you start?! H.P. Lovecraft wrote over 100 stories!
- His writing style has some good points, and some…weak points. At his best, he’s dynamite at building atmosphere. At his worst, his dialogue can be clunky, and he dumps exposition like he stole it and needs to stash it in your garage.
- And let’s not play coy about the eldritch elephant in the room: there’s no two ways about it, H. P. Lovecraft was racist, xenophobic, and classist. He was an imaginative, iconic, and influential writer whose legacy is complicated by his clear affinity for white supremacy, channeling his fear of non-Anglo-Saxons into stories of human monsters, alien invaders, and the fear of the unknown.
Reading Lovecraft can sometimes be off-putting. But it’s also worthwhile and rewarding to read some of his stories so A) you can be in on what the fuss about Cthulhu is, and B) more importantly, you can see how he formed the source code for modern day horror.
So to help out newbies sample his work, here’s a suggested reading order to get your feet wet in Lovecraft’s mythos that’s worked out for me. If you have your own suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments!
1. The Shadow over Innsmouth
Ok, small bias here. This story has one of my favorite lines, ‘blasphemous fish-frogs.’ A young man goes on a little trip to the isolated town of Innsmouth, where the people have strange faces and…gills?
I’d start with this because you really get a feel for Lovecraft’s best, and worst, habits in one well-written story:
- The first half is a LONG info dump to muscle through.
- The second half is an amazing pay off with the creaky town’s haunting atmosphere.
- Lovecraft’s xenophobia and obsession with race is very clearly on display.
2. The Call of Cthulhu
If you’re just dipping your toes, you might as well get to this one sooner rather than later. It’s Lovecraft’s most famous creation: Cthulhu, the high priest of the Great Old Ones, waiting and dreaming under the ocean. This story has all the hallmarks of a good Lovecraft story: haunted dreams, non-Euclidean geometry (’cause there’s something spooky when triangles are…all wrong), and a strong likelihood that the narrator has gone bonkers.
And bless ya if you can pronounce Cthulhu the way Lovecraft intended: Khlûl′-hloo.
3. “The Cats of Ulthar” or “Pickman’s Model” or “The Music of Erich Zann“
Time for a palette-cleanser before carrying on. All three of these are short, simple, but effective in what they set out to do.
- “The Cats of Ulthar” is a dark fairy-tale about a town where it’s against the law to harm cats…and how that law came to be.
- “Pickman’s Model” describes the amazing but graphic paintings of grotesque creatures. What exactly is Pickman’s model?
- ‘The Music of Erich Zann” features a man meeting his upstairs neighbor: an old mute musician, who at night plays strange melodies that are not of this world.
4. The Dunwich Horror
Ever wondered what your neighbors are hiding in their attic? Why is that Wilbur Whately kid growing up way too fast like Robin Williams in Jack? Do whippoorwills eat the souls of the dead? The first half is some of the most effectively drawn out horror that Lovecraft ever wrote, and the second half features a memorable twist.
5. At The Mountains of Madness
This is the big one. Some people adore it, some people find it way too long (reading it is definitely work), but everyone agrees it’s a monumental story that ties together the universe where “The Call of Cthulhu,” The Shadow Over Innsmouth, “The Dunwich Horror,” and lots of other stories exist. A group of explorers go to Antarctica and discover evidence of a previous civilization. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I can at least tell you the big discovery the explorers make:
There are things that even monsters fear.
6. Go at the rest in whatever order you like (or read other Lovecraftian authors)
If you’ve made it past these stories, you have a good feel for what to expect from Lovecraft. So if you’re still curious about Lovecraft’s world….continue! Read “The Colour Out Of Space” or The Whisperer in the Darkness. Pick a title that seems exciting! Or pick one at random! Each story has something interesting to offer, so you really can’t go wrong.
Or delve into other authors. H.P. Lovecraft encouraged other writers to borrow his ideas and write in his universe. And so a lot of other authors have, such as Ruthanna Emrys and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, reinventing the Cthulhu mythos in interesting ways.
At Book Riot, we’ve have already compiled some awesome Lovecraftian books and unique retellings of Lovecraft’s stories for you to try out. So you now have lots of options to get your Lovecraftian fix!