Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: H. P. Lovecraft
Why it’s daunting: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,” H. P. Lovecraft wrote in 1926, in his legendary short story “The Call Of Cthulhu,” “and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” And yet he did voyage far: Although he led an insular life primarily in his native Providence for most of his 46 years, his fiction traveled from the hellish ice of Antarctica to planets of his own devising, such as Yaddith and Yuggoth. And beyond that physical plane is a roiling miasma of extradimensional gods and monsters—concepts mostly interchangeable to Lovecraft—which fueled the cosmological horror of his work. No wonder he’s borne an aura of impenetrability since his first professional publication in 1922. His reputation has grown as generations of horror writers from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman have heaped praise and reverence on him. As with the sinister Cthulhu cults Lovecraft wrote about, there’s a real-world cult of Lovecraft that’s been dissecting, debating, and expanding on his legacy for decades. Venturing into that realm for the first time can feel like dipping your toes into one of Lovecraft’s infinite black seas.
Possible gateway: The Best Of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales Of Horror And The Macabre
Why: Besides the dizzying metaphysical depth of his fiction, another reason Lovecraft is so daunting is the multitude of editions and volumes collecting his work since the ’40s. Del Rey began issuing cheap mass-market paperbacks of Lovecraft in the ’60s, but the horror boom of the ’80s led the publisher to produce a more comprehensive overview of his work. The result is 1982’s Bloodcurdling Tales Of Horror And The Macabre, a trade-paperback selection of some of his best-known stories, such as “The Call Of Cthulhu”—an account of one man’s discovery of the ancient, loathsome forces that sleep and seethe beneath the flimsy fabric of reality—and “The Dunwich Horror,” a repulsive tale of human-demon miscegenation. The latter cites three of Lovecraft’s most notable and recurring creations: the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham, its mysterious Miskatonic University, and the apocryphal tome of hidden truths called the Necronomicon. Topping the book off is an introduction by Psycho author Robert Bloch, a teenage protégé of Lovecraft, which puts his mentor’s nightmarish work into biographical perspective.
Next steps: Only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories stray into novella-length territory, and the greatest of them is “At The Mountains Of Madness.” Besides being the apotheosis of his Cthulhu Mythos, the story fuses and crystallizes just about everything that’s stunning about Lovecraft: pseudo-archeology, rich prose, hideous deities, epic yet claustrophobic vistas, and the type of metaphysical terror traditionally wielded by priests and prophets. (As a bonus: You’ll never watch John Carpenter’s The Thing the same way again.) Praised by everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Michael Chabon, “At The Mountains Of Madness” is a great place to dig deeper after experiencing the short, sharp shocks of Lovecraft’s anthologized work. The Modern Library Classics edition of the book from 2005 is the way to go: In addition to the inclusion of Lovecraft’s sprawling, essential essay, “Supernatural Horror In Literature,” in which he traces his heritage back to gothic fiction and Edgar Allan Poe, the edition boasts an introduction by fantasy author China Mievillé that looks at Lovecraft with a fresh, unflinching eye. Alternately, the Science Fiction Book Club released a gorgeous 2001 hardcover anthology called Black Seas Of Infinity, edited by Lovecraft scholar Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler doesn’t just contribute an insightful, sweetly personal introduction, he includes the full text of At The Mountains Of Madness, plus two brief but fascinating appendices: Lovecraft’s step-by-step account of his writing method—which, since the age of 6, included documentation of his frequent and feverish dreams—and the autobiographical “Some Notes On A Nonentity,” a bittersweet, self-deprecating piece penned four years before his death.
Where not to start: Although Del Rey chased Bloodcurdling Tales with a series of excellent Lovecraft collections, the one volume that shouldn’t be read right away is the enticingly titled Tales Of The Cthulhu Mythos. Only one of the book’s stories is by Lovecraft—and it’s “The Call Of Cthulhu,” which appears in Bloodcurdling Tales. The rest are tales set in Lovecraft’s universe written by other authors, from friends and contemporaries like Clark Ashton Smith and Conan creator Robert E. Howard on up to followers like Stephen King. The quality of this glorified Lovecraft fanfic—reams and reams of which exist—isn’t bad in this specific case, but it isn’t at all necessary in understanding or appreciating Lovecraft’s singular vision. By the same token, avoid anything titled Necronomicon: The nefarious grimoire existed only as a prop in Lovecraft’s elaborate milieu, but acolytes and pranksters alike have published various books under that title over the years. If there’s a bona fide Lovecraft story that’s better to leave until you’re more acquainted with the man’s peculiar worldview, it’s “The Horror At Red Hook.” While it sadly isn’t the lone example of Lovecraft’s infamous, well-documented racism, it’s easily his most offensive—although Lovecraft apologists will often contend that he was predominantly an equal-opportunity misanthropist.