If you listen to metal, chances are that you have at least a passing familiarity with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Most famously, Metallica has drawn inspiration from his writings more than once: “The Call of Ktulu” specifically name-checks one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories (though it misspells the name of the most famous of his Great Old Ones, possibly as a way of avoiding copyright infringement), and “The Thing That Should Not Be” references several of Lovecraft’s works, including the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and incorporates a passage from the Necronomicon as related in the story “The Nameless City” in the lyrics: “That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Today, there are countless bands who take their names and lyrical inspirations from Lovecraft and other writers from within his circle who contributed to what’s known as the Cthulhu Mythos. The best of those bands is French black metal outfit The Great Old Ones, who take their name from an ancient race of primordial beings first mentioned in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Their most recent album, EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy, continues their run of excellent concept albums based on stories within the mythos. This time, their inspiration is The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and specifically the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which is the main religion within the creepy coastal Massachusetts town.
Here’s the thing about Lovecraft, though – he’s not an easy read. His prose style relied heavily on long passages of narration and little to no dialogue, making for some dense, slow going at times. He also wrote a lot of really bad stories, particularly early in his career before he really found his voice with the Cthulhu Mythos stories. He was also a virulent racist (though apparently less so as he got older), and that unfortunately bled over into some of his writing, most notably in the awful, mostly forgotten story “The Street,” but there are even some questionable passages in some of his better-known works like “Herbert West: Reanimator.” In other words, it can be difficult to know where to dive in with Lovecraft, because any anthology you’re likely to pick up is going to have a handful of good stories and a whole lot of chaff.
So in honor of EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy, we present this beginner’s guide to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re curious about his writing but don’t know where to start, these five Cthulhu Mythos stories represent the man at his best.
5. “The Dunwich Horror”
Thanks to Metallica, the first Lovecraft story most people seek out is probably “The Call of Cthulhu,” but that story, while certainly important to the overall Mythos, really isn’t the best entry point. Instead, I’d suggest starting with “The Dunwich Horror,” which is probably Lovecraft at his most accessible. It is the story of Wilbur Whatley, the child of a deformed albino spinster named Lavinia Whatley and the extra-dimensional Outer God Yog-Sothoth. It also contains many of the recurring elements of other tales in the Mythos, including a visit to Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, home to one of the few complete copies of the Necronomicon in existence, and the only appearance of Miskatonic’s head librarian Henry Armitage, who is mentioned in several of the Mythos tales.
As a side note: there’s a fun but very loose film adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” from the early 70’s starring Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whatley that’s definitely worth checking out. It was done by the same film company that produced the very loose adaptations of several of Poe’s stories, most of which starred Vincent Price.
4. “The Call of Cthulhu”
This story has to be on this list because of how important it is to the overall Cthulhu Mythos. That being said, even Lovecraft himself didn’t think this story was one of his best. Still, it introduced the most enduring of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, who is accidentally released from his prison in the sunken city of R’lyeh by the crew of an Australian ship called the Emma. The story also contains the famous description of Cthulhu’s appearance on bas-relief sculpture found among the notes of narrator Francis Wayland Thurston’s great-uncle, who was a professor of linguistics at Brown, and the first appearance of a cult dedicated to the worship of the Great Old Ones and the preparation of this world for their eventual return. It’s worth reading, but don’t read it first.
3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth
This novella is notable for introducing the Deep Ones into the Cthulhu Mythos, particularly the anthropomorphic amphibious deity Dagon. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this one, but in some ways it follows a pattern Lovecraft used often: an outsider comes to town—in this case it’s an unnamed narrator referred to in Lovecraft’s notes as Robert Olmstead, who comes to Innsmouth seeking genealogical information—and ends up finding much more than he bargained for. In Innsmouth, that’s the Marsh family and the Esoteric Order of Dagon.
2. “The Thing on The Doorstep”
A sequel of sorts to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, this story includes a lot of familiar elements from the Cthulhu Mythos: Innsmouth, Arkahm, Miskatonic University, the Necronomicon, and the Pickman family, who appear in numerous incarnations throughout Lovecraft’s fiction, including the relatively well-known and enjoyable non-Mythos story “Pickman’s Model.”
The plot of “The Thing on The Doorstep” revolves around Edward Pickman Derby and his wife Asenath Waite Derby, a young woman from Innsmouth who Derby met when they were both students at Miskatonic University. There are some definite callbacks to the Esoteric Order of Dagon in this story, which involves madness, murder, and Lovecraft’s first attempt at using mind transference as a plot device (he would return to it again in The Shadow Out of Time). It’s also notable for being one of the very few Lovecraft stories with a significant female character. Most critics don’t consider it one of his better stories, but I like it.
1. At the Mountains of Madness
This story of the doomed Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s masterpiece. Not only does it contain many of the elements that make the Mythos so compelling—books of forbidden lore, Shoggoths, Old Ones, unsuspecting humans stumbling onto unnamed horrors—it’s also probably the best-written story in his entire oeuvre. Aside from that, I don’t want to say any more lest I give away too much of the plot. If you only read one Lovecraft story, it should be this one.
Another side note: Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a movie based on At the Mountains of Madness for at least the last decade, with Tom Cruise reportedly as the star. Not sure how I feel about the Tom Cruise part, but I’m a big fan of del Toro’s work (particularly the Hellboy films) and hope the film eventually gets made.