5 of John Langan’s favorite Lovecraftian short stories

John Langan (photo by Ellen Datlow)

John Langan (photo by Ellen Datlow)

Welcome to the fourth entry in this series!

Mike Davis here.  Recently, I asked Lovecraftian authors, editors, and reviewers to send me a list of five of their favorite Lovecraftian short stories.

It’s important to note that these lists are not our “top five” Lovecraftian short stories — for most of us, that would be next to impossible to determine.  It’s simply a list of five stories that we love, and that we feel are important to Lovecraftian fiction.

This is a great way to discover some tales you might not have known about.  Enjoy!

The rest of this post is by author John Langan — here is his list.  Click the story title if you want to purchase the book in which each short story appears:

  • 1. T.E.D. Klein “Children of the Kingdom” (1980): The farther away we move from it, the more essential T.E.D. Klein’s 1985 collection, Dark Gods, seems to Lovecraftian fiction. In the space of four (long) stories, Klein demonstrates his mastery of some of the major narrative responses to Lovecraft, from the imitative, to the oblique, to the biographical/metafictional, to the theological. In a lucid, literate style, he presents living, breathing characters who would be comfortable at one of John Cheever’s urbane cocktail parties, confronting situations that drop the floor out from underneath them. Depending on the day, any of the stories in this book might rank as my favorite; for the moment, I’m opting for the one that brings together Lovecraft’s interest in pre-historic, non-human civilizations with the New York City of the 1970’s. It’s a story that manages to be both sad and chilling at the same time.
  • 2. Stephen King “Gramma” (1984): Lovecraft looms large in King’s work, in ways big and small. Often, his influence appears as a variation on “The Colour Out of Space,” especially in the quasi-science-fictions novels, The Tommyknockers (1987), Dreamcatcher (2001), and From a Buick 8 (2002). But it’s there in other places, in the half-seen monsters that threaten the women and men barricading themselves in a grocery store in “The Mist” (1980), and in the titular figure in “Gramma” that I think King responds to Lovecraft in the most interesting and memorable ways. In “Gramma,” King begins with a situation that is already terrifying: a young boy must keep his dying grandmother company. King’s always been strong when he writes from a child’s point of view, and this story is no exception. What exactly Gramma is, what she’s been part of, brings elements from Lovecraft’s work into play in a way that’s unique and results in a memorable story.
  • 3. Fred Chappell “Weird Tales” (1984): The temptation to write Lovecraft into one of his own stories extends all the way back to the young Robert Bloch—earlier, if you count the aliases Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith coined for one another. At this point, even S.T. Joshi has gotten in on the act, with his recent The Assaults of Chaos (2013). What Fred Chappell does in “Weird Tales,” though, is more subtle altogether. He considers the acquaintance—you can’t really call it a friendship—Lovecraft had with the poet, Hart Crane. There’s none of the bombast such fiction usually engenders; Lovecraft and Crane don’t team up to defeat the evil that’s going to use the Brooklyn Bridge as a giant harp whose strings will open a portal to the dreamlands. Instead, Chappell places Lovecraft and Crane beside one another as literary artists following parallel artistic paths through the early decades of the twentieth century. In the sad end to which each man succumbed, Chappell allows the possibility of the supernatural to rear its head, and it stabs you like a sliver of ice.
  • 4. Caitlin Kiernan “Onion” (2001): The elevator–pitch for this novella sounds, as such things pretty much always do, comical: a twelve-step group for people who have had Lovecraftian experiences. What such a reductive summary fails to capture is the deftness with which Kiernan dramatizes the utter trauma such an event would cause to the individual psyche. Of course those who had encountered the Lovecraftian other would need to talk about it; of course they would seek out others who had had similar experiences. Her evocation of one of the group’s meetings allows her to allude to at least one of Lovecraft’s major works in a way that brings its details forward into the new century. On a more metafictive level, “Onion” enacts the rereading to which fans of Lovecraft’s work subject their favorite stories, returning to them again and again, and in so doing, the story draws a link between the repetition of desire and the repetition of trauma. As the beast in the Stephen Crane poem says, “I like it / Because it is bitter, / And because it is my heart.” What we might want may be no less frightening than what we fear.
  • 5. Laird Barron “Hallucigenia” (2006): I loved the title of this story the moment I first heard it. I didn’t know it was the name of a strange, prehistoric worm; to me, it suggested generation by hallucination—which, I thought, seemed an apt way to describe what writers of the strange and fantastic do. When I finally sat down to read the novella in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I was pretty well dazzled. A novel in brief, Barron’s story reverses usual narrative design, keeping its hobbled protagonist in a limited set of places. Wallace Smith is unable to venture very far from the house in which his much-younger wife lies in a near-vegetative state caused by a horrific incident at the story’s beginning. A man of substantial resources, he spends the story trying to find out about the sinister family connected to location of his wife’s injury. As he does, he undergoes an escalating series of unsettling experiences—including listening to a nightmarish account of a private detective’s descent to the bowels of a sinister prison that is unparalleled in recent horror fiction—that make of his life a dark hallucination. The story gestures in the direction of “The Dunwich Horror” (as Barron’s later “The Forest” would to “The Shadow Out of Time”), but it’s more tip of the hat than extensive rewriting. “Hallucigenia” is the centerpiece of Barron’s debut collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2009), and it’s as fine a piece of writing as anyone has done.

It’s taken me long enough to write this list for other names to have suggested themselves: Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Livia Llewellyn. You won’t go wrong with any of them.

John Langan

(Previous lists: Laird Barron — Mike Davis — Rick Lai)

3 responses to “5 of John Langan’s favorite Lovecraftian short stories

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