Maybe you've heard the name, or seen a cool movie based on one of his stories, or heard Cthulhu mentioned in the lyrics of your favorite band. I'm not surprised... for a pulp author from the 1920s and 30s, with a fairly niche following, he travels in lots of circles. It's a bit ominous actually... is it a conspiracy of secret knowledge? He definitely has a cult-like following that permeates all walks of life, all over the world, (like the fictional Cult of Cthulhu in his story), but he's still a bit underground.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890. He is commonly regarded as one of the most influential American horror writers of all time, and is frequently compared to Edgar Allan Poe. He lived primarily in Providence, Rhode Island, and helped invent the genre of cosmic horror, which is the idea that the universe is an alien and dangerous place, incomprehensible to most sane people. His stories often feature protagonists who encounter horrible beings from outside our world, resulting in horror, insanity, and death.
Lovecraft has a cult following that revolves around his Cthulhu Mythos, which is defined by a series of loosely connected stories that feature encounters with inhuman creatures such as horrible fish-men, faceless flying devils, and tentacled beasts, as well as semi-human cultists that worship mind-shattering deities like Cthulhu, Dagon, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep. The dreaded Neconomicon, a grimoire of evil knowledge and rites, features heavily in some of his fiction.
He died on March 15, 1937, and is still loved by fans of his unique kind of science fiction and horror. He has such a popular cult following that you can find references to Lovecraft's tales on bumper stickers, T-shirts and other apparel, Role-playing (and other) games, even poker cards, and a Cthulhu Fish for your car.
His vision has been captured by innumerable artists, including Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Lee Moyers, Michael Whelan, H.R. Giger, Gahan Wilson, Raymond Bayless, Ian Miller, Virgil Finlay, Lee Brown Coye, Rowena Morrill, Bob Eggleton, Allen Koszowski, and many more. Filmmakers like Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, Roger Corman, Aaron Vanek, and Guillermo Del Toro have adapted his words to the big screen. There are even dozens, if not hundreds, of bands directly influenced by Lovecraft's unique fiction, like Fields of The Nephilim, The Unquiet Void, Yog-Sothoth, Cradle of Filth; he's big with black metal and even surf punk (check out The Darkest of The Hillside Thickets). Oh, and then there are the writers: Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Cody Goodfellow, Stanley Sargent, and many many more have all written tales inspired directly by Lovecraft, and most have acknowledged his mastery of a special brand of genre fiction. There are even cartoons inspired by Lovecraft - remember "The Collect Call of Cthulhu" episode of The Real Ghostbusters, written by Michael Reaves?
Lovecraft wrote many short stories and novellas, but there are a few pieces that he is most well-known for, off the top of my head (forgive me, if I forget your favorite):
- At The Mountains of Madness
One of Lovecraft's most famous novellas, it follows an antarctic expedition which encounters a sinister alien presence that may prefigure all life on Earth. This is Guillermo Del Toro's (Pacific Rim and Hellboy) dream movie project, so with any luck we'll see a big budget film adaptation of this story in our lifetimes. In the meantime, we encourage you to listen to the radio play by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Get the At The Mountains of Madness radio drama here.
- The Call of Cthulhu
The main story in the loose collection known as The Cthulhu Mythos, this tale follows a narrator that pieces together several disparate events and documents that lead him to discover the depths and widths of a little known cult. He soon realizes the horrifying truth about a sunken island in the Pacific and its ancient otherworldly inhabitant, with mind-shattering consequences. This seminal story was finally adapted to film by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society in 2005 as a silent black and white film, featuring old time special effects and a beautiful orchestral score. You can buy that version of The Call of Cthulhu here on DVD.
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth
A lone student visits a strange seaside town and investigates the origins of strange gold artifacts and encounters hostile townspeople bearing the "Innsmouth look," an apparent genetic mutation that makes them seem fish-like. He soon discovers that the atrocities of a previous generation are now having horrible consequences, not just on the town, but in his own life. Stuart Gordon's 2001 film Dagon was based on this tale. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society adapted this story as a radio play - get the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre production of The Shadow Over Innsmouth here.
- The Dunwich Horror
A student of the occult seeks out the Necronomicon to open the gates between our world and one that is unseen. Later, we discover that he has an even more dangerous and considerably more monstrous brother locked away in the attack who escapes his bonds to rampage across the land. It falls to a group led by the noble Dr. Armitage to put and end to the destruction. This story was also adapted to film in 1970, directed by Roger Corman and starring Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee. You can also get the excellent Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptation of The Dunwich Horror here.
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
A man becomes obsessed with his wizardly ancestor, and soon starts to act like him. His doctor discovers that this may be no psychological problem, but has more to do with the manipulation of certain "essential salts" and even resurrection of the long dead. The story culminates in a catacomb of monstrous living horrors that are the results of evil alchemical experiments. Also adapted to film, this one got two treatments, The Haunted Palace directed by Roger Corman in 1963 and starring Vincent Price, and The Resurrected in 1992, directed by Dan O'Bannon and starring Chris Sarandon.
- The Thing On The Doorstep
Edward Derby falls in love with and weds Asenath Waite, a woman whose father was a master of the occult. We soon learn that Asenath is much more than she seems. Does she really love Derby, or does she just want him for his body (groan)? Another tale of occult identity theft, this story has one of the more gruesome endings that Lovecraft put to the page, involving the titular "thing." You can see an adaptation of this story, Strange Aeons directed by Eric Morgret in 2005, on The H.P. Lovecraft Collection Vol. 5: Strange Aeons, which you can get here. Another feature-length adaptation was made in 2012 and directed by Tom Gliserman. You can get the Thing on the Doorstep DVD here.
- The Shadow Out of Time
Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee wakes from a long blackout to discover that he has been judged insane by those around him due to unaccountably weird behavior during his amnesia. He soon tracks down other people throughout history who have suffered the same malady, only to finally discover a terrifying secret locked away by a long extinct race of creatures whose minds could travel through time. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has published an excellent radio play based on this story. You can get the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre production of Shadow Out of Time here.
- The Colour Out of Space
A formless alien visitor invades a farm in a quiet community, bringing with it a strange radiation that causes the plants to grow in odd ways, and brings insanity and illness to the residents. Never faithfully adapted to film, this story did surface, sort of, in the 1987 film The Curse starring Wil Wheaton and John Schneider, and in 1965's Die, Monster, Die! starring Boris Karloff. There is, finally, quite an excellent German adaptation, Die Farbe (The Colour) directed by Huan Vu, available here.
- Herbert West: Reanimator
Okay, not one of his best, but it is a cool little serialized novella involving the reanimation of the recently dead. It's gruesome and a bit funny, and is well-known because of the 1985 Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna film Re-Animator that captured something of the essence of the story, if not the spirit, featuring infamous scenes like the decapitated "head" scene, strangulation by intestines, an eye-bursting overdoes, and the reanimation of poor Rufus the cat.
- Dreams in The Witch House
Walter Gilman, a student of math and folklore at Miskatonic University, moves into an old house that is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of witch Keziah Mason. He soon has strange dreams involving a strange violet light, the witch, and her familiar, a rat-like creature with a human face and hands, named Brown Jenkin. Hijinks ensue... not really. This is a dark story that involves travels through the fourth dimension via advanced mathematics instead of witchcraft, the sacrifice of a small child, and the ultimate damnation of those who seek knowledge that man was not meant to know. There is now an excellent adaptation of the story... as a Rock Opera. I'm not kidding! It's one of the most intelligently frightening adaptations of a Lovecraft story in any medium, and it treats the source material with incredible reverance, expanding the story in ways that give it more emotional impact, and doing it all with screaming guitars and poignant vocals. Click here to get the Dreams in The Witch House Rock Opera.