The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

tags: fiction, horror, anthology

This is an anthology of every work of narrative fiction H.P. Lovecraft wrote, in order. (I say “narrative fiction” because he apparently wrote a bunch of poetry that isn’t in this book.)

I had always wondered about Lovecraft. I was familiar with “Call of Cthulhu,” the role-playing game. Then a few years ago, I read “The Call of Cthulhu” online, just out of curiosity. And then Lovecraft Country came out in 2020, and he was suddenly back in the news.

That’s about when I bought this book. I just loved the idea of reading everything that an author ever wrote.

Lovecraft was active in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He was Edgar Allen Poe after him, and Stephen King before him. He basically wrote the “X-Files” of the early 20th century.

He only wrote short stories and novellas – he never wrote a full novel, and only one of his novellas was ever bound and sold as a book. He was published a lot in Weird Tales magazine. A lot of his longer works were serialized. His longest work is 50,000 words, which is a little larger than a novella (normally a maximum of 40,000 words).

(I did some calculations from this page. The average is 6,700 words, with the median at about 3,000 words.)

What was a little unique about Lovecraft is that he developed a common world in which a lot of his stories were set. So he has a common set of narratives and settings, and he would write stories that took place there. Some of his stories were standalone, but many took place in what became known and celebrated as “The Cthulhu Mythos.”

There are common elements:

(People are still writing about this world and these elements today. Several authors borrow from it. The heavy metal band Metallica has even written a few songs that reference it.)

I love the idea of a common world where an author would set short stories, but Lovecraft’s world was a little bit messy. It was clear he was kind of making it up as he went along. There never seemed to be much coherence to it.

He wrote in the first person, quite a bit. And he loved the idea of “things known but not seen.” A lot of his fiction involves scary things that lurk just beyond the horizon that would drive a mortal insane if fully comprehended.

Consider some of the titles of various stories:

He also loved the “last line revelation.” In many of his short stories, literally the last line was something that explain everything to horrible effect (often in italics).

Consider the last line of “The Dunwich Horror”:

It was his twin brother, but looked more like his father than he did.

That line reveals that a character’s mother was impregnated by a demon or something (I wasn’t quite sure, honestly). It explained a lot of questions that had accumulated through the story.

The straight horror stuff were the better stories. Where Lovecraft lost me was when he drifted into science-fiction and alternate realities. Some of his stories read like weird drug trips, or involved voyages to outer space and such.

Likewise, I could never figure out a common “source of evil” in his stories. Was it a religious evil, like demons or devils? Or did it come from outer space or other realities or universes? Or how about science gone made? Honestly, I think he shifted back and forth. That wouldn’t be weird, except that there was a common mythos, so I expected some thematic consistency.

As for the writing, it’s verbose when considered a century later. It was probably normal for the time, but sometimes you needed to work to understand what was going on. I would often read a story, then read the Wikipedia summary and realize I had completely misunderstood it.

And none of them were particularly scary. Perhaps they would have been wild a century ago, but they were pretty mainstream when considered against today’s media.

Also, Lovecraft was reportedly quite racist. This is apparently very evident in his private writing, and some of it leaks into his stories. Most of the cast of Lovecraft Country was black, which is ironic – probably purposefully so (note: I haven’t seen the show).

I read 2-3 stories a week pretty consistently, when I wasn’t traveling. Some of the longer novellas took me a few sittings to get through. I think the book look me six months to finish (it’s 1,100 pages).

It’s a mixed bag. I’m glad a got through it, because it’s culturally significant. And some of the stories were quite interesting. But there’s a lot of noise there as well. If you’re interested in Lovecraft, perhaps just read his greatest hits, rather than wade through all of it – I read it all so you don’t have to.

Book Info

H.P. Lovecraft

Here are some notes I took on the acquisition of this book:

Bought this at Brost’s in Brookings, which is an amazing book and game store. Unfortunately, it’s also home to several cats which are not totally…healthy? The smell is intense.

This is item #8 in a sequence of 683 items.

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