I don’t admire Lovecraft as a writer and I don’t admire him as a person, but I have been reading him fairly consistently since middle school. His work has had an impact on my appreciation of weird fiction and horror, as well as kickstarted an entire subgenre of horror dubbed Lovecraftian. Now that I have just finally finished his collected works, I thought it might be useful to rank his fiction, see what’s good about him and what’s bad. This will also help newbies curious about the guy’s fiction weed out the less important pieces of his bibliography, figure out what’s actually useful to read.
Ranked here are his novellas and short stories. Excluded are poems, juvenilia, nonfiction, essays, incomplete and lost works.
60. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”
Creative but unreadable. I really, really dislike the Dream Cycle, and this story has all its worst qualities. Lots of fanciful action without anything actually happening. Striking images and creative ideas, but Lovecraft does exactly nothing with any of it.
59. “The Silver Key”
The sequel to “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which as just mentioned I place among some of the most unreadable of Lovecraft’s fiction. This is more of the same.
Dream Cycle story describing a city. Sort of works as a prelude to “Unknown Kadath”. Again, striking images made as boring as possible by lack of character, theme or plot.
57. “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”
Written like the lore in a Bethesda RPG that nobody ever bothers to read. Lovecraft’s Lord Dunsay-inspired stories certainly try their hand at vibrant world-building—they are, however, dreadfully dull.
56. “The Unnameable”
Hey, do you really like didactic writing? How about characters speaking in essay format, zero narrative thrust, and really banal descriptions of graveyards? This is the story for you.
55. “The Street”
A city street is, in some inexplicable paranormal way, cognizant of the corruption encroaching upon it and takes action. Not a bad story on the surface. Unfortunately once you take a moment to think about it you realize it’s about Lovecraft’s fear of immigrants, and his enormous racist side starts to show.
54. “The Horror at Red Hook”
Lovecraft lived in Red Hook for a spell and hated it more than anyone could possibly hate a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Maybe just maybe had something to do with all those clearly-up-to-no-good ethnic people around. Here’s a more drawn out example of Lovecraft’s frothing racism than witnessed in “The Street”.
53. “The Other Gods”
A high priest attempts to scale a mountain to glimpse the faces of the great old gods. More Lord Dunsian fiction. Its theme of hubris prevents the story from being superfluous, but other than that you’ll find nothing special here.
52. “The Quest of Iranon”
Better than the similar “Sarnath” and “The Other Gods”, this Lord Dunsay-inspired dream fantasy is still packed full of potentially interesting settings squandered by a narrative that goes nowhere.
51. “The Thing in the Moonlight”
Hill people kidnap citizens of the Basque country and use them in sacrificial rituals. A drawn-out recollection of another of Lovecraft’s dreams. Great premise, boring execution.
50. “What the Moon Brings”
Want to read some descriptions about an ancient city of the dead and some other similar stuff? You’ll find that here. Not much else.
49. “The White Ship”
More Dream Cycle fluff. A lighthouse keeper hops on a ship with a mysterious bearded man and they see some neat stuff. That’s about it. Cool descriptions without much substance.
48. “The Transition of Juan Romero”
His name is Juan Romero? You mean Lovecraft wrote about somebody who wasn’t Anglo as shit? Well, yes, but keep in mind that this is a Lovecraft story and the dude isn’t exactly known for great characterization. Anyway, this story concerns a couple mine workers discovering a weird chasm. Creepy, but a premise done much better in “The Statement of Randolph Carter”.
47. “The Tree”
A unique prose-poem regarding two sculptures in ancient Greece. Some musings on the artistic process and a few eerie touches, pleasantly existing outside much of Lovecraft’s usual generic trappings. Unfortunately it reads like a writing exercise more than a complete piece of fiction.
Native American people are scary and will definitely seek vengeance on you if you learn the secrets of mastering time and space from them and then kill them. Moving on.
45. “Old Bugs”
Lovecraft really hated drinking, okay? If you ever wondered how much of a wet blanket the dude must have been, then look no further than this story.
A micro-story that will serve the curious reader well if they’re wondering if Lovecraft’s overwrought descriptions of monolithic ruins are right for them.
43. “The Cats of Ulthar”
Cats are scary and will kill you. A good story if you dig the Dream Cycle fantasy context. Would have been much better if Lovecraft hadn’t been trying to imitate Lord Dunsay. I dunno, Lovecraft’s most iconic setting is bizarro small town New England and whenever he strays from that too much the work winds up less memorable.
42. “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson”
This self-satire reflecting on Lovecraft’s penchant for antiquarianism is refreshingly light, but ultimately forgettable. It’s nice to see the author had a sense of humor about himself, but as you might guess he isn’t really that funny of a person.
Another parody attempt, this time directed at the pretensions of academic scholarship. As with his other parodies, it’s funny at times but mostly jarring, a bit boring.
40. “Sweet Ermengarde”
The last of Lovecraft’s stabs at comedy, this time in the form of a romantic-drama parody. Actually kind of funny in some places. Not that distinguished among the rest of the author’s works.
39. “Ex Oblivione”
A prose-poem dealing with what happens after death. Didactic, but worth a read. The purple prose is more readable than usual.
Another prose-poem, this one dealing with something akin to the transference of identity musings of Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou. Lord Dunsay-inspired, but better than its counterparts given that it seems to be following a clearer line of thematic intent.
37. “The Nameless City”
Yet another exercise in excess of description. Look no further if you’ve got an eye on images of ancient ruins and lizard people. Significant in that there’s a palpable sense of how in awe of his own imagination Lovecraft is here, but otherwise it’s mostly another series of details.
36. “The Temple”
A German Navy officer finds a supernatural nautical city that is definitely not R’lyeh. Decent, similar to “Dagon” in premise, but too all over the place as a narrative to really enjoy. Cthulhu Mythos as filtered through the Dream Cycle—a series of bizarre occurrences amounting to neat images, most of which leave the reader wondering what their significance is.
35. “The Evil Clergyman”
A man witnesses and participates in some bizarre rituals and magic in an ancient house. Not really a story, since it was originally a part of a letter Lovecraft had written to a buddy of his. It’s Lovecraft’s account of a dream he had, which is usually an enormous red flag. However there’s more of a narrative than his usual Dream Cycle stories. Decent, but forgettable.
34. “The Hound”
A couple graverobbers rob the wrong grave. A bit hoakey, incorporating many Cthulhu Mythos trappings to mediocre effect. More fun than the average Lovecraft story, at least.
33. “The Moon-Bog”
Ancestral home horror, behold! A man drains the bog near his family’s Irish estate to dire effect. An okay story, overshadowed by its successors. The general setting and themes are handled much better and at greater depth in “The Rats in the Walls”.
32. “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”
More cursed ancestry. Telling the story as a laying out of the Jermyn family genealogy does it no favors. It does have a nice air of mystery to it, though, which keeps things engaging. Read just a bit into the idea of interspecies mating though and you realize this is another story about Lovecraft’s racial prejudices.
A decent story about a man’s descent into madness after getting stranded on a strange island where bizarro sea creatures worship. One of Lovecraft’s earliest short fictions, it isn’t to be admired for its writing quality. Still, any Lovecraft story with creepy sea things is going to be at least a little scary.
30. “The Tomb”
The fantastically named Jervas Dudley feels a strong connection to his family tomb. Perhaps a bit too strong. A nice concise exercise in Lovecraft’s obsession with ancestry. Blends in too well with a lot of the author’s other, better work though.
Two buddies take drugs to breach the doors of perception. Except not in the cool way, in the holy-shit-what-eldritch-abomination-is-that kind of way. The sleep deprivation and horrendous anxiety kind of way. Pretty creepy, marred by mediocre writing that confuses its most effective passages.
28. “The Picture in the House”
A genealogist gets caught in a storm and takes shelter with a creepy old man. This story is a good sketch of Lovecraft’s weird New England. Fine on its own, but it paved the road for later, better stories that deal with the same setting and similar tropes.
27. “The Strange High House in the Mist”
In Kingsport, there is a house that is strange that stands on a cliff, which is often in the mist. Thomas Olney tries to explore the strange abode and finds that it houses some supernatural forces. An okay read, another pleasant, typical foray into the unknown.
26. “At the Mountains of Madness”
It gets points for inspiring John Carpenter for like half his dang filmography, but I found this novella way too repetitive and mundane. There are occasional instances of brilliance—the premise itself, in which a group of Antarctic explorers uncover antediluvian horrors, is promising. Antarctica as the setting for as-yet undiscovered supernatural beings is great. But it just gets hung up on banal technical details and far-too-similar plot developments.
A strange prose-poem about a Pharaoh-type manthing appearing in modern day, traveling from city to city to seep forebodings of doom into the people of the world. Another demonstration of cosmic horror and Lovecraft’s obsession with humanity’s ultimate insignificance. Pretty good once you release your expectations of it actually being a narrative.
24. “In the Vault”
An entertaining, brief story about an undertaker stuck in the vault where the corpses are kept. Needless to say, this already unnerving premise is made worse by supernatural intervention. Quite pulpy for Lovecraft. Still, the prose is spot on with dread and involves a nice little shocker at the end.
23. “The Haunter of the Dark”
A derelict church becomes the object of a young man’s fascination. While at times a bit mundane, this tale manages to do some entertaining things with madness, ancient gods, and weird cults. Some really outstanding images of terror here.
22. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
One of the most iconic works in Lovecraft’s bibliography. It’s readable, interesting enough. There are some pleasantly thrilling and kinetic action scenes, which is a breath of fresh air amid all these somber expository stories. The setting is extremely unsettling, the town just permeating with bad secrets and sinister conspiracies. Mediocre writing and an unnecessary twist ending though.
21. “The Dreams in the Witch-House”
Miskatonic University student rents an attic apartment, discovers its cursed by a Salem witch. Nonsense tying it to the Cthulhu mythos keeps it from standing out too strongly. There is a surprisingly badass finale involving child sacrifice and strangling people. Not an outstanding work though, too unfocused for that.
20. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”
A med student at an asylum uses a Catskills white trash patient to channel mysterious entities among the stars. Never quite amounts to what it wants to be. Weirdly paced. Still, it’s probably the most concise example of cosmic horror in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
19. “The Lurking Fear”
An exploration of traditional horror elements, much more in line with contemporary urban legends than antediluvian gods and curses. A reporter and a monster hunter travel to the Catskills to locate an unidentified creature purportedly attacking locals. While overlong and digressive like many of Lovecraft’s heavier stories, this is still pretty effective with the set pieces and the scares.
18. “From Beyond”
A fun story about a crazy scientist trying to breach alternate dimensions, who then discovers all the eldritch abominations waiting to tear his skin inside out on the other side. The writing is a bit stiff (like usual) but it’s a conceptual blast (like usual). Never be a servant in an H.P. Lovecraft story is all I’m saying.
17. “The Music of Erich Zann”
A companion piece of “Pickman’s Model”, in which this time it’s a musician whose work is appreciated by, uh, interesting patrons. A decent story whose main detriment is its lack of distinction. Uses many of Lovecraft’s standard setpieces with neither fuss nor finesse.
16. “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
Another story that far outstays its welcome. Lovecraft himself described it as “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” In its defense, it demonstrates a smorgasbord of Lovecraft tropes in one neat package—thus it’s a good point of reference for people who want to get acquainted with the style. The general plot, which deals with ancestral spirits coming to wreak havoc on the present generation, is much better handled in his later work “The Thing on the Doorstep”.
15. “The Outsider”
One of Lovecraft’s most literary short fictions. A weird fantasy gothic horror hybrid sort of thing, our narrator recounts how he has lived alone in a dark castle for as long as he can remember, and how he has decided to break free of his solitude in order to pursue human contact. A great ending and far-reaching themes regarding loneliness and abnormality definitely serve in this story’s favor.
14. “The Terrible Old Man”
A bunch of thieves try to rob a feeble old man, who might be a bit more dangerous than his appearance leads on. By the numbers, nothing special, but good. Adapted into a fantastic short adventure game by Cloak & Dagger Games.
13. “The Dunwich Horror”
The Whateleys are up there with the families from the X-Files episode “Home” and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the all-time Most Screwed-Up Creepy Shut-in Families list. Grandpa Whateley summons an invisible monster and a group of Miskatonic University faculty members have to prevent it from ravaging New England. The plot is nothing new, but the story’s success hinges more on the creepiness of the Whateleys. And boy are they creepy.
12. “The Festival”
A man is summoned to participate a peculiar ritual. One of Lovecraft’s stronger prose poems, it is mostly admirable for its grim and haunting descriptions of the town of Kingsport.
11. “The Shunned House”
Lovecraft’s take on the haunted house genre. A young man and his scientist uncle investigate a strange glowing fungi beneath an abandoned house. Fantastic build-up, if overwrought. One of the few cases of the protagonists actually standing a chance against the mysterious abominations they face.
10. “The Shadow Out of Time”
An alien species called the Yith are switching bodies with humans. Another case of a story being better conceptually than it is in execution, but for reasons actually pretty standard to most science-fiction writers and unlike most Lovecraft stories. Too much exposition, not enough plot. Here we see Lovecraft actually commit to explaining an alien world in a Cthulhu Mythos story though, which is neat. And it did serve as the basis for the awesome videogame Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
9. “Cool Air”
Lovecraft was never great with plot twists, but he knows how to set the mood. So while the surprise end is let down by being extremely obvious, the story is uplifted by narrator’s peculiarly dread-induced descriptions of air conditioning.
8. “The Call of Cthulhu”
Hard not to include this near the top of the list due to shear impact. The Cthulhu mythos is admittedly pretty damn repetitive and it’s hard for the umpteenth slimy abomination reveal to stay scary, but this particular story does it well enough. That opening line is extremely effective: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” From there Lovecraft puts together a piecemeal narrative with aftershocks that get under your skin.
7. “Herbert West—Reanimator”
I may be biased because I consider Jeffrey Combs’ narration of this story one of the greatest audiobooks ever produced, but it’s a great story on its own right. As the title suggests, Herbert West is attempting to resurrect the dead. The narrator follows him in his mission, and going quickly from admiring West to being horrified of him. The plot is somewhat drawn out, but consistently creepy. Far more future-focused than most Lovecraft stories, which almost always dwell on ancient horrors.
6. “The Rats in the Walls”
More uncanny ancestral terror! By-the-numbers, but done so well it’s hard to complain. A man moves from Massachusetts to England to take residence in his family home, only to discover his family’s sinister history. A great descent into madness story. Also features possibly the most racistly named cat in all of literature.
5. “The Thing on the Doorstep”
In which Lovecraft expresses his fear of both the ladies and possession by antediluvian forces. A killer opening line (hehe) kickstarts a great story about a young man in over his head when he marries a girl whose family comes from the peculiar town of Innsmouth. A much tighter variation on the premise established in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”.
4. “The Statement of Randolph Carter”
Lovecraft really seems to be at his best when he plays around with storytelling. Here is the first-person testimony of the titular Carter, who has to explain to the police how his friend Warren vanished during their exploration of an ancient graveyard in Big Cypress Swamp.
3. “Pickman’s Model”
A well-written piece about an artist with a peculiar muse. The narrator is surprisingly ostentatious for a Lovecraft character, making it stand out among his works in a good way. Definitely the best of the author’s single-sitting readings. The ending, while seen from a mile away, manages to frighten with a microcosm of Lovecraft’s signature eldritch unknown.
2. “The Colour Out of Space”
Does this story really deserve the distinction of second place almost exclusively because of the striking mental images of mutilated cattle that it invokes? Well there’s more to it—but absolutely. This story of a farm troubled by the nearby impact of a supernatural meteor is actually that dang good. Nails Lovecraft’s obsession with humankind’s insignificance in the face of the unknown and unknowable. And like I said, fantastically grotesque mental images.
1. “The Whisperer in Darkness”
This one gets a lot of hate that I don’t understand. Perhaps Lovecraft’s most fully fleshed-out story. The character of Albert Wilmarth, while still dry and exposition-loving like most Lovecraft protagonists, is much more vital and dynamic than his counterparts. The story actually involves even a grain of pathos, which is insane for Lovecraft. The plot, which deals with ancient aliens inhabiting the hills of Vermont, is insidious and terrifying. Some great instances of fridge horror and conceptual terror here, capturing the best parts of his unexplained supernatural stories and bizarro world alien god stories. Avoid the movie at all costs.