Lovecraft for beginners:
I’m often asked “which is the best” and “how do I start” etc. Here’s my beginner’s guide for those interested in Lovecraft the man, and the best editions of his tales.
Created 2019, updated February 2024.
Audiobooks of the stories:
Full readings of Lovecraft’s stories are a fine way to approach his work, if from a strong reader. The Wayne June readings are the ‘gold standard’, issued as the series The Dark Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft. Many of these are on YouTube for free, and also paid on Audible if you want them with better sound quality. Make sure you are actually getting Wayne June, and haven’t been sidetracked onto crapware by one of Amazon’s misleading links to ‘other editions’.
For the other stories, those not recorded by Wayne June, The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft for $20 on a USB-stick is available from the highly professional H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. The Society is peopled by Hollywood professionals who know exactly what they’re doing, in terms of high-grade media production and vocal delivery. A recording of Lovecraft’s long survey essay Supernatural Horror in Literature is also available to their bona fide purchasers, as a free download.
Also of note are the outstanding readings of Lovecraft’s various Dreamlands tales recorded by actor Gordon Gould, whose voice was well-matched to the wistful moods in these tales. Gould read Lovecraft for the mail-order cassette-tape service of the U.S. Library Service for the Blind, and many of his readings are now free on YouTube with variable transfer quality.
The advantage of audiobooks is that you cannot skim-read. Lovecraft assumes that you read every word, whereas modern hack and ‘doorstop novel’ authors such as Stephen King have created a generation accustomed to rapid skim-reading. With Lovecraft, even one missed word can ruin his intended ambience and effect.
Print and ebook (paid):
The three Penguin Modern Classics paperbacks edited by S.T. Joshi are ‘the gold standard’ in terms of using S.T. Joshi’s painstakingly corrected texts and adding useful annotations. While usefully portable and lightweight and thus not likely to strain your wrists, the text is a little small — you may instead prefer to have them in their ebook editions (with the ability to increase text-size). Their titles are: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories; The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories; and The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. Beware Amazon’s links to other non-paper ‘versions’ of these, as Amazon is incredibly lax in policing such links and you’ll probably be sent through to some unrelated crapware. Check that your ebook is actually published by Penguin Books in its Modern Classics series, before purchasing. Also be aware that, in paper, the latest re-printings by Penguin have cheap-looking and slapdash new covers and these are also soiled by a Stephen King quote. Ideally you want the original 2002-2005 editions, which had a classier look.
If you really do need a mammoth wrist-trembling hardback for armchair reading, then the Library of America’s 850-page Tales edition of Lovecraft has most stories, and uses Joshi’s corrected texts though not his annotations. Again, note that Amazon’s links to the supposed 99-cent ‘ebook edition’ of this will happily send you to crapware.
Do not consider any collection from Oxford University Press or the British Library, who have cynically issued questionable cash-in collections. Note also that the Barnes & Noble hardback edition of Lovecraft was riddled with errors. A later 2011 Barnes & Noble hardback edition is said to have corrected. However Barnes & Noble seals this edition in shrinkwrap, so you need to check the ribbon bookmark. A purple/lavender ribbon indicates the updated 2011 edition.
If you really need ‘free’ and an ebook, look at the Free Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft for Kindle, carefully compiled by a librarian some years ago.
There is no particular reading order. My suggestion to total newcomers has often been to start with the short poetic story “Nyarlathotep” to get in the mood and to intrigue you, then dive in with “The Colour Out of Space”. Then perhaps recover a little the next day with ‘the fun ones’, such as “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, and then try the more complex “The Call of Cthulhu”. Then perhaps “The Cats of Ulthar”, “Hypnos” and “Erich Zann”. Avoid going straight for a weighty classic like “At The Mountains of Madness”, as you’ll immediately get bogged down and turned off by what may seem like thirty pages of interminable geological science. Much the same can be said of other weighty tales such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” with its deep antiquarianism and difficult antique language. Definitely do not start to read chronologically in order of writing, or you risk reading through juvenile stories (“Beast in the Cave”, “The Alchemist” etc) written when Lovecraft was still a boy or a callow teenager. If you really do want to read chronologically, then start with “Dagon” and read on from there — but be aware you’ll spend a long time wandering in the Dreamlands before you get to Cthulhu.
A big, long read: S.T. Joshi’s definitive I Am Providence (2013) is ‘the gold standard’ biography, though at 1,000 pages in two large volumes it won’t suit everyone. Also available as an ebook, and in German, French, and Italian translations and possibly in other languages too.
A medium read: de Camp’s original 1975 biography Lovecraft: A Biography is a vivid and lively read, though not a book for the gullible. He gets some things wrong in the light of later scholarship, is a little harsh in his judgements, he considered Lovecraft to be a minor writer of the 20th century, and he indulged in dubious 1970s-style ‘armchair psychoanalysis’. But his groundbreaking book is still worth reading, if you can skip over or mentally parse such sections. It’s also rather valuable for being written by a fellow writer who knew ‘the pulp magazine trade’. Now available as an abridged budget ebook.
A quick read: For a quick 90 minute read, the short biography that fronts The Lovecraft Lexicon is very well-written, fair-minded and sound on the facts. You can also get it very cheap in ebook. If you can afford it then also get S.T. Joshi’s more expensive H. P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries (2012). Nightmare Countries is Joshi’s huge I Am Providence biography, but radically cut-down and also heavily illustrated — it was made for a big U.S. bookstore chain to sell as a special short ‘accessible’ edition of the big new biography everyone was talking about in 2013.
Graphic novel: Some Notes on a Nonentity: The Life of H.P. Lovecraft (2017) is your best choice. By the fans, for the fans, and beautiful art. Currently in print only.
Avoid all other biographies.
Memoirs of Lovecraft:
Lovecraft Remembered is a very fine and elegant book, collecting various accounts by those who knew him. But it is now expensive, and has been superseded by the expanded Ave atque Vale: Reminiscences of H. P. Lovecraft. For some reason the latter book is not listed on Amazon.
Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters is a superb book from Ohio University Press, although it has become expensive and will shortly be superseded by a revised 2019 paperback edition with the same title. Here Lovecraft’s enormous output of letters have been edited down and arranged into a fine chronological autobiography.
Collected Essays and Letters:
The Collected Essays in five volumes. “Travel” is probably the most approachable volume of the set to start with, although its lengthy “Quebec” section is not for the faint-hearted (because unless you live there or are about to visit, it’s boring rather than horrifying). S.T. Joshi is set to produce a Selected Essays book soon. In that volume, Lovecraft’s “Cats and Dogs” will be the best essay to start with. This essay can also be found online for free.
The Selected Letters in five volumes. There is a useful index booklet to accompany this set, by S.T. Joshi, and you want the second edition of that. It’s possible you may occasionally find some volumes scanned and free on Archive.org. Letters from New York is also a good selection of letters, all from the time he was living in New York City, but it has lately become expensive.
By Correspondent. Lovecraft’s letters to various correspondents are also currently being issued as affordable annotated print-on-demand paperbacks, and the series is currently five books away from completion (possibly in 2023). The volume of letters to Kleiner is perhaps the best of these to start with, and this has recently been issued in an expanded version. The Barlow letters in the Florida University Press book O Fortunate Floridian!: H.P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R.H. Barlow are highly regarded and still available as an affordable paperback. The volume of letters to Moe has many vivid travelogues and antiquarian accounts of Providence, and will interest natives of that city. Also popular with many are the special two-volume sets which respectively collect the letters to fellow writers R.E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth.
The only retail ebook is the Morton letters, which is keyword searchable on an old Kindle 3 although I find the book is not searchable on a Kindle Fire. But generally there is not yet any way to keyword-search across all the Lovecraft letters and get back Google Books-style snippets. A unified index to the collected volumes of Letters is underway, but may not appear for a while yet. Perhaps 2024 or 2025, once the Letters are fully published and annotated.
The revision tales:
Lovecraft did paid and unpaid work revising (and often completely re-writing) weird stories for other writers. He would also write a story for someone based on their briefest outline notes, sometimes in exchange for their typing services. The definitive ‘gold standard’ corrected text of his ‘revision’ works are to be found in two volumes, The Crawling Chaos and Others, and Medusa’s Coil and Others. Few of these have the power of his own pure writing, but many are very entertaining.
The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft (2013) collects everything known at that date, but is dauntingly huge. In 2019 there appeared the more manageable collection To a Dreamer: Best Poems of H. P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi. The latter will now probably become the ‘go-to’ collection for most people, and will include all the best weird poems — of which there are plenty.
Those in need of a ‘topics, themes and places’ index to the poems will not find this in either the 2001 first edition or the newer second edition of The Ancient Track, or in the new To a Dreamer volume. After eight years the second edition of The Ancient Track also continues to lack any ebook edition, which might otherwise have effectively served as a keyword lookup index. This lack was filled in August 2021 by myself with a free full index in PDF. Those in search of an additional index for Lovecraft’s poetry should seek out S.T. Joshi’s Index to the Fiction & Poetry of H.P. Lovecraft (1992), although this only serves as an index only to the scarce volume The Fantastic Poetry (1990).
Introductory studies of Lovecraft’s philosophy and thought, which offers considerable scope, can be found in the books H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West; The Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft (New Studies in Aesthetics series); and Ideology and Scientific Thought in H.P. Lovecraft. Various others have engaged with his ideas in essays and theses.
An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (stories, poetry, essays and life) and The Lovecraft Lexicon (just the stories) will both serve very well while reading and studying Lovecraft, and they nicely complement each other. Ideally obtain both in paper for constant perusal and easy comparison, though they are much cheaper and more searchable in ebook. Both focus on Lovecraft, and not the later sprawling Cthulhu mythos as it was extended by others. Note that these encyclopaedias do not cover Lovecraft’s intellectual ideas and his engagement with the ideas/science of his time, and a hypothetical title such as An Intellectual Encyclopaedia for H.P. Lovecraft is a book that remains to be written.
There are also several nice booklets which offer illustrated guides to key places in the New England ‘Lovecraft Country’; his Commonplace Book (the notebook where he kept all his story-ideas) as a booklet; a Chronology Out of Time booklet giving a useful single timeline of all the main events of Lovecraft’s stories; a Lovecraft Dream Book which is a single-volume booklet collection of all his strange dreams; a free high-resolution map of his Providence places; and if you especially enjoy his Dreamlands tales then you may want the award-winning wall-map of his Dreamlands by Jason Thompson.