The horror canon simply wouldn’t be the same without H.P. Lovecraft — the writer best known for creating Cthulhu, a winged Kraken-like creature, along with an entire mythos of similarly monstrous “Old Ones.” And though Lovecraft’s terrifying tales have been captivating readers for nearly a century now, there’s no time like the present to dive into his must-read works! Here’s a primer on the 10 best H.P. Lovecraft books, novellas, and stories to give you an idea of where to start. (And if you're hungry for more, you can always check out our guide to cosmic horror, the subgenre his works helped establish.)
*Note: as with any author, Lovecraft cannot and should not be read in a cultural vacuum. It’s critical to acknowledge that his work often reflected highly racist and xenophobic views, and that Lovecraft himself was a noted white supremacist. Readers should be aware of this and use their own discretion when reading and examining his works.
The Call of Cthulhu is probably Lovecraft’s most influential story, serving as the basis for his epic “Old Ones” mythos. It centers around an ancient dragon-sea monster hybrid that implants itself subconsciously into human minds, driving them slowly insane. The cultists who worship Cthulhu commit ritual killings and chant in tongues. As more details of the creature and its history come to light, our narrator realizes that no one can possibly be safe from such a powerful entity — not even himself.
This eerie work of masterful suspense heads up one of the best H.P. Lovecraft books of all time, but it’s by no means the only worthy piece in this anthology! Included among these “weird stories” are seventeen other tales of the mad, mystical, and macabre, each taking a slightly different approach to horror. The Rats in the Walls is a Tell-Tale Heart-esque account of a man who’s plagued by the sound of rats in his family home. However, when he goes to investigate, he uncovers a gruesome truth about his ancestors. Dagon is the testimony of a World War I vet who relies on morphine to ease his tortured mind… but the visions that haunt him are worse than any battlefield violence.
Basically, no matter which of these stories you start with, you’re sure to find something to make you shiver and leave you in shock at the final horrific twist.
These next two entries are both part of the Weird Stories anthology as well, but as longer novellas (and landmark Lovecraftian works), they merit their own entries.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth follows Robert Olmstead, a man who becomes fascinated by the mysterious (sadly fictional) New England hamlet of Innsmouth. As Olmstead embarks on a tour of the town — having heard vague, superstitious warnings from outsiders — he detects something strange about its citizens. Most of whom walk in an odd shambling manner and have unusual facial features, including flat noses and “bulgy, stary eyes.”
Olmstead meets an old townie called Zadok Allen, who provides an, er, interesting explanation for the town’s peculiarities: that its human inhabitants have devoted themselves to a brutal race of fish-like humanoids known as the “Deep Ones,” who have forced humans to breed with them. Those walking the streets of Innsmouth are the resulting offspring — as they mature, they will grow to resemble the Deep Ones, eventually joining them in their underwater cities.
Naturally, Olmstead dismisses Zadok’s ramblings. But when the old man disappears soon after, our hero realizes that he could be next… though at the hands of humans or monsters, he can’t be sure. This gloriously unsettling tale is also another foundational work of Lovecraft’s mythos, introducing the ideas of the Deep Ones (a subset of the Old Ones) and the “Esoteric Cult of the Dragon” that began the practices of worship in Innsmouth.
The Whisperer in Darkness takes a different, less extreme tack to horror than Shadow Over Innsmouth. It’s considered by many to be a blend of horror and science fiction, representing something of a genre shift for Lovecraft in the 1930s.
In this novella, literature professor Albert A Wilmarth (you’ll notice that many of Lovecraft’s protagonists have such formal names and scholarly professions — likely in homage to the characters of M.R. James) becomes involved in a controversy surrounding strange, seemingly extraterrestrial sightings. A man of logic, Wilmarth naturally sides with skeptics, who claim the “sightings” stem from local legends with no factual basis. But after receiving a letter from one Henry Wentworth Akeley, a fellow academic, Wilmarth opens his mind to the possibilities of extraterrestrial life — only to find that he never should have gotten involved.
The chilling meditation on science and belief certainly says as much about humanity than it does about about any possibility of alien life, and Wilmarth’s revelations are sure to leave you reeling. If you’re more into message than monsters, this is the Lovecraft story for you. Though we will say there’s no lack of disquieting imagery, including one of the earliest incidents of “brain in a jar” (we’ll leave you to find out whose it is).
Lovecraft loved him a fictional New England town full of inexplicable phenomena. The Dunwich Horror follows the development of Wilbur Whateley, a child who matures at a freakish rate, becoming a full-grown man in just a few years. His grandfather, Old Whateley, takes Wilbur under his wing, as Wilbur’s mother is crippled and unstable and his father is mysteriously absent. Old Whateley teaches Wilbur the ways of dark sorcery and witchcraft; the locals fear and avoid them. However, they do take note of the odd circumstances surrounding the Whateleys’ cattle, which occasionally disappear.
What single thread runs through all of this bizarre horror? Something even more disturbing than readers might anticipate. This story is a rattling precursor to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, written a couple years later, which would bring Lovecraft’s ideas about human-monster spawn to full fruition. The Dunwich Horror also prominently features the “Necronomicon,” a critical text in H.P. Lovecraft books that frequently appears in connection with the Old Ones.
Another classic Lovecraft novella, and probably his best-known work after Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness describes a failed (to put it lightly) Antarctic expedition as recounted by Professor William Dyer. Upon arriving at their base, Dyer and his colleagues are thrilled to unearth the remains of a previously undiscovered prehistoric species — some specimens of which are in perfect condition. However, their excitement soon turns to terror as they realize that these “specimens” may not be so lifeless after all.
At the Mountains of Madness is one of the primary expository works about the Old Ones, here dubbed the “Elder Things” by the explorers as they stumble upon more and more evidence. For instance, Dyer and another colleague discover the remains of massive, inhuman architecture, along with etchings that explain the evolution of the Elder Things and imply their eventual migration into the ocean.
Indeed, this story a prime example of Lovecraft’s skillful worldbuilding, creating a sense of vivid dread through this mythos that seems so detailed, it must be true — especially with so many elements tying seamlessly into his other works.
Now we’re getting into the “Dream Cycle,” a series of works in which Lovecraft explores the supernatural through dreams and the subconscious. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath features Randolph Carter, a scholar and antiquarian driven to explore the “Dreamlands”: an alternate dimension accessible only via dreams.
Carter has already dreamt several times of a majestic city on the horizon which he’s never been able to get close to. He wants to ask the dream gods to help him — but to do that, he’ll first have to find Kadath, where they reside. Carter must navigate the uncharted terrain and interact with the many strange inhabitants of the Dreamlands, never quite sure who wants to help and who would rather hurt him.
From the feline-filled city of Ulthar (where the only law is that no one may kill a cat) to the onyx nation of Inganok, Kadath truly does mimic the atmosphere of our most random dreams. Of course it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without constant ominous warnings for Carter to abandon his quest, but overall, this novella is more fantastical than frightful. If you loved A Wrinkle in Time or Prince Caspian, you’ll enjoy this similarly imaginative journey.
We’ll lump these two Dream Cycle works together, as both stories continue the narrative of Randolph Carter. Some time after the events of Kadath, Carter realizes that he no longer possesses the “key to the gate of dreams”: where once he had vivid, whimsical dreams every night, his recent scientific learnings have left him utterly uninspired. Carter is desperate to regain his dreaming abilities, leading him to search for an actual ornate silver key that he believes will unlock the gate of dreams.
In Through the Gates of the Silver Key, Carter has disappeared, and his family and friends gather to handle his estate. A mysterious newcomer called Swami Chandraputra claims that Carter has ascended to an even higher plane than the Dreamlands, passing through the “Ultimate Gate” to learn the true nature of the universe and greater gods. But though everyone else questions his sanity, Chandraputra is the only one who understands the full truth — which is actually even more unbelievable than he’s letting on.
The whole Dream Cycle sequence signifies yet another genre shift for H.P. Lovecraft’s books, away from the purely phantasmagorical and into the philosophical. These works pair nicely with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (a great philosophical read, even if you don't believe his psychology).
This 1936 novella sees Lovecraft return to writing about strange creatures, namely the Great Race of Yith, aliens who can travel through space and time. The main human character of the story is Professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, who unexpectedly finds his own consciousness linked to that of a Yithian. Though at first Peaslee worries that he is losing his mind, he’s reassured by the existence of many similar cases before his… and then plunged into terror again, when he realizes the identity of the culprit.
The Shadow Out of Time is most notable for delving so thoroughly into Yithian culture and history, explaining their original cosmic purpose: to study all forms of civilization throughout space and time. Yithians amassed their knowledge in a “library city” where they lived for millions of years, which no longer exists by the chronological time of Peaslee’s life. However, as our hero shares his mind with a Yithian, he’s able to temporarily see their past. Indeed, Shadow Out of Time is one of Lovecraft’s few works in which the alien or monster species is not portrayed as outright malevolent — a rare reprieve from his usual xenophobic sentiments.
9. The Mound
The Mound is another classic Lovecraft novella detailing a rich (but much less benign) non-human culture. This time it’s that of the K'n-yan, an underground civilization with an above-ground portal that’s hidden by a mound of earth. Our narrator uncovers this portal and an accompanying scroll written in Spanish, which gives an account of the last man to visit K'n-yan: explorer Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez.
Zamacona happened upon the K'n-yanians during an expedition nearly 400 years prior, when they welcomed him as one of their own. However, as Zamacona learned more about their history and barbaric cultural practices, he became more and more terrified of what they might do to him. The story on the scroll ends hastily, unclear whether Zamacona was able to escape or not; the narrator dismisses it as an elaborate hoax. But when he returns to the mound the next day, a creature of unspeakable atrocity is waiting to greet him.
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs is a bit of a fun one to cap off our list, as Lovecraft collaborated on it with Harry Houdini himself! It’s allegedly based on a true story, but Lovecraft (much like his frequently skeptical narrators) believed Houdini’s personal account to be fabricated, and so took a good deal of artistic license as he was writing it.
In this tale, “Houdini” narrates a series of misadventures that he has while vacationing in Egypt, beginning with a tour of Cairo during which he must break up a fight. Impressed by Houdini’s fortitude, his tour guide invites him to participate in a boxing match atop the Great Pyramid of Giza — but this is soon revealed to be a plot to drug and kidnap him.
When he awakens, Houdini isn’t fazed, easily slipping out of the ropes in which he’s bound (clearly the kidnappers didn’t know who they were dealing with). But this is only the first problem he has to solve, as he’s now trapped in a temple underneath the Great Sphinx, and must face all manner of ancient Egyptian horrors in order to escape.
H.P. Lovecraft made his career out of writing stories like these: so weird and wonderful that you almost can't imagine them, yet his vivid descriptions and incredible storytelling bring them to life. From Cthulhu to Innsmouth to Kadath to K'n-yan, his contributions to the world of horror have been invaluable, and will undoubtedly serve as a handbook for horror writers for many years to come.