Thu
Feb 12 2009 9:40am

Cthulhu ...Calling Mister Cthulhu: The Dark Writings of H.P. Lovecraft

So I’ve blogged a number of times Robert E. Howard and I’ve blogged about Clark Ashton Smith.  It took a little while, but it’s time to complete the trifecta of the Big Three of the golden age of Weird Tales by blogging about H.P. Lovecraft.  Unlike Howard & Smith, Lovecraft is remembered more as a horror writer than a fantasy writer, and rightly so.  He influenced an entire generation horror writers, including some of the best and most popular names you can think of.  The stories falling into his Cthulhu Mythos (or Lovecraft Mythos, as some call it) represent many of his most lasting creations.  In a nutshell, the Cthulhu Mythos revolves around the Great Old Ones, an assortment of ancient and powerful deities from outer space who ruled Earth long ago.  Lovecraft liked to take this idea and present the premise that humankind’s world and our role in it are but illusions, that we cannot possibly comprehend the eldritch and cosmic horrors that lurk on the planet Earth and beyond.  Calling these tales the Cthulhu Mythos refers to one of Lovecraft’s more popular tales about one the Great Old Ones, in his story “The Call of Cthulu.”

But I’m supposed to be one of the fantasy guys here at Tor.com, so I feel it’s my duty to point out that when he felt like it, Lovecraft could also write a rollicking good fantasy tale, the sort you might expect from either Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith.  As an example, I’ll point you to “The Doom That Came to Sarnath.”  Lovecraft’s writings have always been very hit or miss with me. The first time I read him, had it been one of those “miss” stories, it might have been a long time before I tried reading Lovecraft again.  Fortunately, the first story I read happened to be “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which hit me right in the literary sweet tooth.

This story may be short, but it packs a lot of punch.  It is absolutely drenched in atmosphere and detail, and in a very few pages Lovecraft does an excellent job of building the tension.  And while this tale should appeal to fans of the S&S and weird fantasy writings of Howard and Smith, it avoids being derivative.  Lovecraft makes the tale his, with his particular brand of dark foreboding, and his usual deft touch at revealing startling levels of strangeness while simultaneously managing to cast a cloak of shadow and mystery over the greater picture.

If I’m being coy about what actually happens in the story, it’s not meant to frustrate you, but dropping spoilers for a tale this sort risks ruining the tale in its entirety.  Suffice it to say that the folks at Sarnath are up to some bad stuff, and so this tale is about (you guessed it) the doom that came to Sarnath.  Of course, this teaser might only frustrate you more.  Luckily, you can read the tale in its entirety right here.  Even better, you can read a number of Lovecraft’s other works at this site as well.  BTW, of the stories listed here, my other personal favorites would be “The Colour Out of Space” & “The Music of Erich Zann.”  And so that the curious don’t feel misled, I’ll add that neither of these stories are in the S&S vein.

Like Howard & Smith, Lovecraft’s writings sometimes depicted a racist attitude.  But like his contemporaries, Lovecraft also understood storytelling as few others did.  Lovecraft was a writer that had a knack for exploring the cracks in the human psyche, and he often excelled at forcing those cracks open, which was most unfortunate for his characters (the human ones, that is).  Whether he was composing cosmic tales of horror or scribbling tales of fantastical worlds of myth, he was a true master of the craft.  If you haven’t read his works before, you should take the time and learn why he’s becoming an accepted part of Western Literature.   

11 comments
Chris Meadows
1. Robotech_Master
My favorite Lovecraftian fantasy is his epic novel (novella?) "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." It's probably as far as Lovecraft got from traditional Lovecraftian horror, though it is still shot through with horrific elements. Amusingly, it's also a sort of mega-crossover, as Lovecraft borrows liberally from his own other stories: "The Cats of Ulthar" make an appearance, as does Pickman from "Pickman's Model," and some others.

Also, it inspired the album "Kadath Decoded"—a sort of Kadath rock-opera—by German prog-rock band Payne's Grey, which I describe as being sort of like Dream Theater if Dream Theater's lead singer couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. The tone-deaf singing takes some getting used to, but the rest of the album is by and large good enough to carry the listener after you're used to it.
Brandon Bell
2. Brandon Bell
I consumed every Lovecraft story I could find when I was about 16. One of my favorites was a bit of ghost writing (if I recall correctly) in the form of a straight pulp SF story in which the protagonist gets stuck in an invisible maze on Venus. I don't recall the story name.

Unfortunately, I'd say the racism in Lovecraft's work is as significant as Tolkien's though honestly more blatant. It doesn't keep me from enjoying the stories but it seems to be a point that admirers gloss over. Even Mieville, which I think is odd.

One of Lovecraft's best stories is The Whisperer in the Darkness. Highly recommended for both the good read, and as an illustration of his racism.

Brandon Bell
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http://nithska.blogspot.com
Patrick Regan
3. tazo85
It's always weird seeing racism in old works. I was listening to the Silmarillion last night and I was suddenly introduced to the "swarthy men", who I was then told would mostly become evil.

Without meaning to, it always kicks me out of the story somehow, even with such brilliant writers as Lovecraft or Tolkien.

Despite his racism, though, Lovecraft remains a towering influence on horror and an amazing writer. I discovered him late in life, like two years ago, and I've been slowly devouring his canon, particularly his amazing build of atmosphere.
Jess Nevins
4. jessnevins
Not a single mention of Dunsany in a discussion of "Sarnath"?

FAIL.
Brandon Bell
5. DouglasCohen
I'm no Lovecraft scholar, and since I've yet to read Dunsany (one of these days ...), it would be difficult for me to point out which Lovecraft stories draw influence from Dunsany.

INCOMPLETE? :)
Brandon Bell
6. Ningauble
"The Doom That Came to Sarnath" is definitely one of the Dunsany-influenced stories. It will be obvious once you have read anything from, say, A DREAMER'S TALES or the two WONDER books.

Interesting, BTW -- "The Colour out of Space" and "The Music of Erich Zann" happened to be HPL's own favourites too (meaning that those were the ones he was LEASt dissatisfied with).
Brandon Bell
7. overtheseatoskye
If you're interested in Dunsany or Machen (or Lovecraft, for that matter), I can't recommend Joshi's "Weird Tales" enough. He really separates the gold from the dross.
Brandon Bell
8. DouglasCohen
Ningauble @ 6, I had no idea "The Colour Out of Space" & "The Music of Erich Zann" were Lovecraft's personal favorites. Thanks for sharing!
Patrick Garson
9. patrickg
It's impossible to have this thread without mentioning Lovecraft's brief career writing Whitman's Sampler copy.

My favourite:

Nut Cluster Crunch

This eerie candy will test the sanity of all but those who possess the strongest of constitutions. Strange congeries of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios dance hypnotically within, promising to reveal their eldritch secrets to anyone foolish enough to take a bite of these ancient nut clusters!

Toffee Nugget for honorable mention.
Brandon Bell
10. Whateley
As a long-time (25 years plus, eldritch??) reader of Lovecraft, I have noted that one often overlooked aspect of his fiction is that he encouraged others to use his themes and characters in their own writings. Having said that, I would have to say that, while I love HPL's works, some of my favorite "Lovecraft" stories were written by R.E. Howard. Years ago there was a book put out which was called something like "Stories of the Cthulhu Mythos by R.E. Howard". That isn't the correct title, but I wish I could find a copy of that book again.
Brandon Bell
11. Donovan K. Loucks
Whateley,

The book you're thinking of is Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors.

Donovan K. Loucks
Webmaster, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive
http://www.hplovecraft.com

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