A lot of people have had limited (or no) exposure to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe they’ve seen those memes that go around at election time that say “Cthulhu for President: Choose The Lesser of Two Evils”, or have an adorable tentacled plushie, but that doesn’t mean they have ever actually read his stuff (and in addition to being creepy and terrifying, his writing can get pretty cumbersome). And once you toss in the really problematic aspects to his work, those people are probably not going to seek it out.
But you do not have to be a fan of the man to appreciate the imaginative worlds he created. Way before the Internet made fanfiction communities possible, people took his words and ran with them to create their own stories, and they are still doing it. I think he’d truly be astonished to see what people today have done with what little he wrote.
I will admit that I am not his biggest fan, mainly because his work gave me the heebie-jeebies in high school and I’ve never been able to get past that. But as an adult, I have read books that are grounded in the universe he imagined, and some of them have been really, really good. Books that are outstanding on their own merits, but that would never have existed if he hadn’t written down his own stories first. Also, there are many authors that have approached his work in different ways, some more inventive than others. It makes me curious as to what will come next! I’m going to share a few titles with you here that either I have read and enjoyed or that our reviewers have recommended. If you’re ready to move on from the past, here are a few books you can try to check out what’s new in the world of Lovecraftian fiction.
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
Emrys flips Lovecraft’s view completely, by giving the narrative voice to Aphra Marsh, one of the “people of the water” who inhabited Innsmouth until the government destroyed it and took the survivors to an internment camp in the desert in 1928. Aphra and her brother Caleb are the only survivors, and are adopted by the Koto family, Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II. After the war is over, Aphra is contacted by a Jewish FBI agent, Ron Spector, who has reason to believe that the Russians may have learned the dangerous ability to body-switch, a power possessed by the Yith, long-lived time travelers who archive as much of history as they can. Spector wants Aphra to visit Miskatonic University as part of a research delegation and attempt to discover who at Miskatonic might have presented the Russians with the information. Aphra and Caleb jump at the opportunity to visit the Miskatonic library, where all books and documents remaining after the destruction of Innsmouth are stored. All this is just the beginning of a suspenseful and creepy mystery with more than its fair share of terror. A second team of FBI agents working at cross-purposes with Spector, a mysterious Yith, and an unexpected family reunion all feed into the chaos and pain, but there’s also love and loyalty, coming from unlikely places. With survivors of Innsmouth, formerly interned Japanese-Americans, a Jewish FBI agent, and an African-American informant, as central characters, genocide and racism must be faced head-on, but Emrys handles it without ever getting didactic. From Aphra’s point of view, we are all monsters, and it’s the choices we make that matter.
Dreams from the Witch-House: Female Voices of Lovecraft edited by Lynne Jamneck
This feminist anthology of Lovecraft-inspired horror received a rave review from Monster Librarian reviewer Lizzy Walker. Read her review here.
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson
This novella by Kij Johnson is her response to Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. It has an unreal, dreamlike feel to it, reminiscent in places of Ursula K. Le Guin, and draws the reader in to that dimension where uncaring, destructive, and capricious gods determine the fate not just of individuals but of entire communities. Vellitt Boe is a professor of mathematics who goes on a nightmare quest to retrieve one of her students, who has escaped to the waking world, before her grandfather, an insane god now deep in sleep, awakes and destroys the women’s college Vellitt works at, out of vengeance. An adventurous traveler earlier in her life, Vellitt, now middle-aged, sets out again to find her student, a rare woman traveling through dangerous places, forced to face her regrets and past decisions as she moves closer to her goal. In a note at the end of the novella, Johnson writes that her first experience with Lovecraft was with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and that while she was uncomfortable with the racism, it was only later that she noticed the absence of women. Even though there are women in Johnson’s story, that absence is notably obvious. It’s also rare to see an adventure story with a middle-aged woman as protagonist, and it’s pretty cool that Johnson chose to center her in this novella.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle
This is Lavalle’s response to Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”. It’s been featured in many major review sources and has won multiple awards. Read our review here.
Maplecroft: The Lizzie Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest
Lizzie Borden lives with her sister Emma, a disabled, brilliant, mad scientist, near the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, in the remote estate of Maplecroft. Although she’s been found innocent of the crime of murdering her parents with an ax, she can see malevolent entities from the ocean infecting the people of her community with nightmares and insanity, and she is not afraid to take them on, with every resource at her disposal. This is an epistolary novel, made up of journal entries and letters, and it’s easy for a story told using this method to drag. In this case, though, the plot is fast-paced, descriptions are vivid and horrific, and characters are revealed as in the peeling of an onion. Priest climbs inside the minds of characters who are slowly going insane, and we see through their eyes– it is a riveting, disturbing, trainwreck of a book. Priest does a great job of integrating historical details and Lovecraftian elements into her story. In addition to being ruthless and brutal with an ax, Lizzie also has a lover, Nance, who adds to the tension of the story. With complex women at its center, Maplecroft is a take on Lovecraft that would blow him away. A second volume, Chapelwood, is also available.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
This is a series of interlocking stories taking place during the Jim Crow era, about two African-American families threatened by cultists. Some critics have said it’s short on the existential dread and wiggly creatures, but an argument can be made that African-Americans in segregated America had more immediate terrors as part of their daily lives. This book is being made into an HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, the individual responsible for the excellent movie Get Out.