There are few authors out there who have had the same impact on a literary genre as H. P. Lovecraft affected horror. While during his lifetime Lovecraft’s works went largely unnoticed, posthumously he achieved the kind of fame he could hardly dream of when alive, many of his short stories heralded as classics which pioneered the horror genre, paving the way for other famous maestros like Clive Barker and Stephen King. The Cthulhu Mythos is perhaps his most widespread creation, a shared fictional universe between not only many of his short stories, but also those of other authors who came after him through the decades. The association between ancient gods and antediluvian terrors has always been strongly present in his stories, a theme shared by Dagon, Nyarlathotep and The Call of Cthulhu.
“Dagon” (1917) – The Landscape of Fear
Only a few pages long, the story is about a former merchant marine, now a broken opioid addict, who recounts the experience that shaped him during the First World War. It starts off about as normally as you would expect, with the narrator’s ship being captured by Germans and the man himself managing to flee away on a lifeboat. After drifting aimlessly for a little while, the narrator begins to realize that the landscape around him has slowly changed, and that he is now stranded on a black and slimy mire that extends as far as the eye can see, littered with carcasses of fish and unrecognizable bits of flesh. After three days the ground dries up enough for him to walk on, and so he does, searching for a way out, for answers that persistently elude him, and making discoveries completely unfathomable.
One of Lovecraft’s earlier stories, Dagon is an excellent demonstration of his amazingly-fluent writing as well as his ability to create a true sense of dread and horror without having to resort to cheap tricks that we categorize today as cliches. The unnamed narrator’s story instantly draws us in as we are compelled to find out what could have broken this marine to such an extent, what otherworldly spectacle he must have witnessed. As we reach the black slimy mire the author’s prose grows in power and we are treated to extremely vivid, accurate and practically photographic descriptions of a very unsettling landscape that almost becomes a character in and of itself. As he trudges deeper and deeper into the vast unknown the tension slowly rises higher and higher, culminating in a satisfying and heart-pounding way.
If you are new to H. P. Lovecraft and want to get a quick look at the kind of stories he wrote, then I believe Dagon is as good a place as any to start. It’s short (should take less than an hour), moves along quickly, and demonstrates how good H. P. Lovecraft is at various facets of horror storytelling.
“Nyarlathotep” (1920) – The Sprawling Chaos
An even shorter story, Nyarlathotep is a welcome addition to the Cthulhu Mythos, describing the eponymous Mad Howling God’s arrival on Earth in Ancient Egypt and his time spent as the Black Pharaoh. More specifically, this story feels like a few pages taken from a very interesting and unconventional history book, detailing inexplicable phenomenon beyond human comprehension, giving a glimpse into the mind and intentions of a being that transcends us and the world itself. The few pages dedicated to this God mostly describe the plane of existence it inhabits, painting breathtaking and incomprehensible tableaux of impossible vistas. Apart from that, we also get a look at a sort of seance where Nyarlathotep gathers followers and exposes them to technology from the deep future.
Perhaps a bit more akin to a profound character description rather than a story, this tale banks entirely on making Nyarlathotep an interesting being with enough curiosity to make us want to learn about him. While at first the premise may seem a bit underwhelming, in my opinion this God is one of the most captivating creations to come out of Lovecraft’s mind and it quickly becomes apparent that there are many hidden depths to this being, each descriptions making you yearn for more and more answers. It feels like it ends a bit too soon, but it does leave a strong impression and will drive you to reanalyze what you’ve just read.
It’s probably not the best introduction to Lovecraft’s work as it lacks a conventional story structure, but if you’ve already been initiated to his literature, then I highly recommend you find the time for these few pages as they add some fascinating details to the Cthulhu Mythos.
“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) – The Rise of Gods and Fall of Man
This is without a doubt Lovecraft’s best-known story, serving as inspiration for anything from books and movies to toys and t-shirts, having defined him in the eyes of the many generations that came after him… which is rather comedic seeing as how the author himself wasn’t all that fond of this story. Anyhow, the story is told from the perspective of a certain Francis Thurston who rediscovers the notes of his late grand-uncle and linguistic professor, finding amongst them a bas-relief sculpture of a creature best-described as a mixture between a human, dragon and an octopus. As he digs through the notes he makes many disturbing discoveries, including one that points to a certain “Cthulhu Cult”, a potentially-misguided organization whose members are trying to resurrect the “Great Old Ones”. Following that, he reads in an Australian newspaper about a derelict ship whose crew crash landed on an uncharted island, with there being a sole and very uncooperative survivor remaining. Feeling he must get to the bottom of this, Francis digs as deep as he ever has and makes his way into the heart of all that is unholy.
Somewhat longer than the two previous stories, The Call of Cthulhu is much closer to being a complete and cohesive story that focuses on the plot rather than the characters themselves. It still remains a short story however, so things move along pretty quickly whether they want to or not. There are always some new and strange discoveries being made by Francis to keep you hooked in and wondering what it is he’ll have to face exactly. Even if you are familiar with the character of Cthulhu and the stories surrounding it, I believe you’ll still get a fair amount of enjoyment out of the story due to the process of discovery itself. In large part, it’s thanks to Lovecraft’s writing abilities which come to the fore yet again. His ability to describe alien and illogical worlds is absolutely unique to him and instills jaw-dropping awe.
While in terms of horror the story might not be all that scary nowadays, it still retained some of its strength and creates a very unsettling and hopeless atmosphere that weighs down on you and slowly sucks away all optimism for happy resolutions. I will admit that the ending had a bit of a strange and sudden feeling to it, but on the whole the author’s timeless classic in an ultimately satisfying and appropriately dreadful way.
This is the classic story Lovecraft will forever be known for, and while it may not have been his absolute best, it certainly stands as the most influential one. If you are a fan of the horror genre in general or are looking to get acquainted with a true pioneer in this domain, then I highly recommend you check out this short story.