The stories and ideas of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have had an impact on 20th century horror possibly unmatched by any other early writer in the genre. Sure, Mary Shelley helped create what we think of as the horror genre, and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories set the template for countless techniques and subgenres still at work today. And yes, vampires descended from Bram Stoker’s Dracula have haunted the genre for more than a century and still lurk around the edges, however sparkly and soap operatic they’ve gotten. But Lovecraft’s vision speaks to 20th (and 21st) century concerns and realities in ways these earlier authors couldn’t have hoped to do. There’s also the fact that both Shelley and Stoker only produced a handful of genre pieces between the two of them, though those pieces and their influence are of course undeniable. This in comparison to HPL’s output, which while mostly restricted to short stories and novellas creates an entire worldview and the makings of what would eventually be known as the Mythos.
From the bodily resurrections of Herbert West to the incipient invasion of the great and powerful sleepyhead Cthulhu, HPL’s work blew open the doors of a genre that was still too often tied down to Gothic conventions, ghosts and haunted castles. Lovecraft wasn’t alone in this literary expansion, and a future list is going to cover some of his contemporaries that should be better known, but none have so far had the sort of influence that he did. HPL was interested in science, history, theology, and philosophy in a way that lent depth and texture to his fiction.
There is also, of course, the other side of the man, the often virulent racism and general xenophobia that sometimes is visible in his stories and sometimes, unfortunately, is the foundation on which certain tales rest. The following authors all work within or adjacent to the territory opened up by Lovecraft, struggling in different ways to update, criticize, and pay homage to this influential author.
If you can imagine William Faulkner writing a psychological horror novel with touches of the Lovecraftian Mythos, you may have an idea of what you’re getting into with this novel. Peter Leland is a minister trying to finish his book on Dagon, the ancient Sumerian fish god, when he inherits a rambling house and four hundred acres of land in remote North Carolina from his grandparents. After he moves there with his wife Sheila, though, he finds a family of strange squatters have taken up residence on the grounds.
It isn’t long before this clan and their peculiar religious beliefs begin getting to Peter, but what do they actually want of him? This isn’t a rousing adventure story in the fashion of many Mythos novels, nor is it a vividly supernatural one (though there are certainly elements of that). This is a dark and poetically told tale of psychological disintegration and the extremities a desire for transcendence can drive one to.
Dark Gods (1985)
T. E. D. Klein
This collection by T. E. D. Klein, part of his sadly limited output, is made up of four novellas, one of which is a direct homage to Lovecraft. “Black Man with a Horn” deals with an old man, once a protégé of HPL himself, who learns of existence of real cosmic horror on a plane flight. Though the other stories in Dark Gods don’t deal directly with the Mythos, they are an excellent, moody set of tales. My favorite may be “Petey,” a story of creeping terror so subtle many readers don’t catch on to how disturbing the ending is. That one and “Nadelman’s God,” which mixes a Lovecraftian fear of vast and unknowable powers with Fritz Leiber‘s vision of metropolitan monstrosities.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986)
As with Klein’s stories, these pieces by Thomas Ligotti are only Lovecraftian in spirit. Expect no appearances of Cthulhu and his star-spawn here. Ligotti’s is a unique voice. What they do have in common are certain “psycho-spiritual” concepts. Ligotti’s protagonists, much like HPL’s, often teeter on the edge of madness, but Ligotti’s aesthetes and cracked actors often seem to enjoy it in some perverse way.
There’s also this cosmic pessimism in the work of both authors, but Ligotti takes it to another level, suggesting in his stories (and outright preaching in his nonfiction) that existence itself is the ultimate horror, one we would’ve all been better off with having avoided. Despite how nihilistic that sounds, there is an enjoyable vein of dark humor that runs through most of his work. He’s one of the few contemporary authors I have no problem applying the word “genius” to.
Resume With Monsters (1995)
William Browning Spencer
If HPL had collaborated with Philip Dick in order to write a sequel to Office Space, they may have come up with something as batshit crazy as this fun horror/sci-fi/corporate satire by William Browning Spencer. The novel is about Philip Kenan, office schlub and aspiring author, who is constantly putting off finishing his book, The Despicable Quest. Kenan has his own strange reasons for this, reasons that tie-in quite explicitly with the Lovecraft Mythos.
Resume With Monsters is an early entry in the comic/cosmic horror novel subgenre that has seen most recent success with David Wong’s John Dies at the End, though this one is less gory and more focused on satirizing big business and its organizational oddities. Time travel comes into play, as do vast and awful plans for the world. This one would be a lot of fun to see turned into a movie.
This another story with no straightforward ties to the Lovecraft Mythos, but which gleefully partakes in some of Lovecraft’s central themes, particularly the notion that there are powers so different than us that we cannot even conceive of their aims. Uzumaki is a graphic novel by the great manga writer Junji Ito, an incredibly inventive horror author who also wrote the Tomie series. It’s an epic about the small town of Kurouzu-cho which is undergoing a rather weird and inexplicable slow-motion catastrophe. Spiral patterns are appearing throughout the town, distorting not only settings and objects but the minds and bodies of its citizens.
This is a curse like none other I’ve seen with the exception of the weird events on the Gardner farm in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” in which an abstract quality, here color rather than shape, similarly creates monstrosities and drives people mad. That there should be some familial resemblance here is no surprise, in that Junji Ito names Lovecraft as one of his greatest influences. One of the things Ito’s work has going for him that is virtually nonexistent in HPL’s work is a concern with interpersonal relationships, and this spiral-driven contamination is portrayed through the lenses of many different characters and their emotional reactions to the nightmare consuming them.
Mr. X (1999)
In Mr. X, Peter Straub not only pays homage to Lovecraft and some of his conceptions, he tells a complex supernatural mystery filled with lively characters. Ned Dunstan has been haunted his entire life by the sense that he is connected to someone out there, a dark half always lingering on the fringes of his life. This ominous feeling has often been accompanied by vivid and violent visions. Now, with his mother dying, Ned is returning to his home town and is about to learn terrible family secrets.
The novel alternates Ned’s story with that of the eponymous Mr. X, an arrogant misanthropic serial killer who reads Lovecraft’s fiction like scriptures. This novel, like most of Straub’s, is more literary and complicated than someone might expect from a Mythos-related piece, so don’t expect cheap thrills. It is instead an examination of the way lies and evasions can misshape families, as well an at-times amusing portrait of what toxic fandom can become. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The Last Revelation of Gla’aki (2013)
Ramsey Campbell’s early work leaned into both Lovecraft’s style and supernatural conceptions. Fortunately for the genre, editor August Derleth, who had decades earlier been one of HPL’s friends, encouraged Campbell to shake off some of that influence, dig into his own unique terrors, and relocate his stories to England. Years later, having firmly established his own darkly subtle vision of horror, Campbell has returned to play in Lovecraft-adjacent territory in a few pieces.
In this short novel, Leonard Fairman, a repressed librarian, comes to the seaside town of Gulshaw in order to secure a complete set of The Revelations of Gla’aki, a nine-volume occult treatise that no one has seen in its entirety for decades, if not centuries. When he gets to Gulshaw, though, his visit stretches longer than he’d planned, as the townspeople prove an odd bunch who clearly want more from Fairman than meets the eye. This one is creepy, visionary, and even plays with some loving satire of the whole Lovecraftian schtick while still telling a fast story of cosmic horrors and bizarre revelations.
Stephen King has certainly worked the Lovecraftian vein before, particularly in stories like “Crouch End” and “Jerusalem’s Lot.” In Revival, though, he really lets the cosmic madness shine through. The novel also shows the influence of Arthur Machen‘s excellent 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, a work that itself helped form HPL’s imagination. In King’s novel, we meet Charles Jacobs, a minister with a beautiful wife and son, both of whom die in a terrible accident. Jacobs renounces his faith rather publicly and then leaves the small town he’d been ministering to.
Years later, Jamie Morton, one of the kids affected by Jacobs, is an addict whose life is falling apart. Enter Jacobs, who has spent the intervening decades creating a new electrical method of healing people. When he cures Morton of his heroin addiction, the younger man thinks he has stumbled into a miracle story. But Jacobs has plans that outstrip any tent-revival healing shows, and Morton is going to regret becoming a part of them. This is King going really dark, some of the same tonal territory he explored in Pet Sematary, and while that turned off some of his faithful readers who like their horror a bit less bleak, I ate this one up.
The Ballad of Black Tom (2016)
This is another short one, but oh boy does it pack a wallop. Set in the 1920’s, The Ballad of Black Tom follows Tommy Tester, a black street musician who gets roped into a questionable scheme by a wealthy man with occult tastes. LaValle’s spare prose and vivid imagination make this a cinematic experience, but he’s also wrestling with some significant themes. There’s all the stuff about cosmic horrors and evil tomes, of course. After all, this is a Mythos tale.
But LaValle’s novel also struggles with the nastier parts of Lovecraft’s personality and influence, namely his rancid views on race. Tommy faces horrors both supernatural and all too real, and the way the story pulls these threads together is both thought-provoking and enthralling, never sinking into didacticism. A TV series or movie is rumored to be coming out of this one and I look forward to it, as well as LaValle’s future explorations of the genre.
I Am Providence (2016)
I’m capping off this list with a strange one. It’s strange in that it isn’t a supernatural horror novel. Instead, I Am Providence is a murder mystery that also works as literary satire. But it does take place at the “Summer Tentacular,” a fictional Lovecraft convention set in HPL’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. And it is filled with discussion, criticism, homage, and parody of Lovecraft’s writing, Mythos, and complicated personality. Briefly, one of the writers attending the con is violently murdered, his face removed and stolen, and his ghostly self narrates a good part of the novel.
Who among the weirdos, super-fans, cultists, bigots, and scholars at the Summer Tentacular could have carried out this murder? And what, if anything, does it have to do with Lovecraft? This novel is particularly amusing in its sly lampooning of several real critics and authors prominent in Lovecraftian circles, but you don’t have to be steeped in all of that to enjoy it for what it is. It also tackles both the best and worst parts of Lovecraft’s work and legacy.