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H.P. Lovecraft Collection Development Guide

by Jamie Blackman


    H. P. Lovecraft is, beyond doubt, the most important horror writer of the twentieth century. Others may have sold more (King), or enjoyed better critical appraisal (Jackson), but Lovecraft, in a very real sense, created the modern Horror genre.  Any time a protagonist–or for that matter, a villain–in a horror novel or film consults a vile book of forbidden lore, or visits a backward, inbred town where “the folk just ain’t quite right,” or summons a blasphemous, gibbering, betentacled monstrosity from beyond time and space, you have Lovecraft to thank (or blame).


    Lovecraft’s fiction (several dozen pieces ranging from brief short stories to novelette length, along with three short novels) can be roughly divided into three “eras”: Poe-esque straight horror fiction, Dunsanian fantasy, and the later, distinctly “Lovecraftian” material, most of which falls into a set of tales known as the Cthulhu Mythos, “cosmic horror” centered around the assumption that mankind is not the first intelligent race to inhabit the planet, and that the (hostile, extraterrestrial/extra-dimensional) former inhabitants want it back.  This latter set is widely acknowledged as his best work, and is both the work for which he is best known and most likely to be in demand.


    Lovecraft died in 1937, and through the passage of time and gaps in copyright re-registration, his work has fallen into the public domain; this has led to a collection development nightmare. Briefly stated, there are simply too many different versions of his work on the market, and unless a librarian is intimately familiar with his oeuvre, knowing what to buy and what to avoid can be a daunting task.


    The most important facts about Lovecraft’s work, from a collection development standpoint, are as follows:


1) The actual body of his work is quite small; therefore, all of the collections on the market are simply rearrangements of the same material.


2)Depending upon how many books your library can afford, it is possible to collect the complete corpus of Lovecraft’s fiction in as few as four volumes, or to find a single-volume collection with a representative sampling of his best work for under fifteen dollars.


3)This being the case, the most important thing to keep in mind, along with the price-point issue, is who is likely to be reading the books: are your patrons likely to be teens? Is “literary cachet” in any way important? How about packaging?


    In terms of historical significance and definitive text, the Arkham House four-volume set comprising The Dunwich Horror and Others (0870540378), At the Mountains of Madness (0870540386), Dagon (0870540394), and The Horror in the Museum (0870540408)--with the addition of the multi-author anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (0870541595), which collects the best Cthulhu Mythos tales by authors other than Lovecraft--is difficult to beat. All of the texts of the four Lovecraft titles were painstakingly corrected in the early 1980s by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, and represent the most authentic and complete presentation of Lovecraft’s work.


    The Dunwich Horror contains a decent single-volume selection of Lovecraft’s best work, and but for the short novel At the Mountains of Madness and the short story “The Dreams in the Witch House,” (available in volume two) contains all of the important Cthulhu Mythos stories. At the Mountains of Madness contains the title story and the other two novel-length pieces, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, as well as a small selection of other tales connected to Dream-Quest. Dagon contains the remainder of the earlier, lesser work, including Poe pastiches and the Dreamlands tales inspired by Lord Dunsany. If one volume were to be skipped, this would be the one. It’s   The fourth volume, The Horror in the Museum (0870540408), while containing “revisions,” actually contains some of Lovecraft’s most entertainingly pulpy, over-the-top work.  His “revisions,” in most cases, were complete rewrites of the original author’s work, and it was here that Lovecraft felt most comfortable cutting loose and letting himself go wild. Lovecraft also allowed friends and colleagues to adopt his settings, use his alien gods and forbidden books, and  add not only to his Mythos, but also to the verisimilitude thereof. The best of this work rival’s Lovecraft’s own, and is collected in the aptly titled Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (0870541595).


    If an institution has the money and space, due to their durability and definite texts, the Arkham House versions of Lovecraft are the way to go, with two caveats: They are expensive (a full set costs about $150.00, though The Horror in the Museum and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are also available from Del Rey for about $15.00 apiece), and the new dustjacket art is simply dreadful. In an academic library that disposes of dustjackets before circulating its books will not have a problem with this, but any librarian seeking to establish any sort of literary cachet for Lovecraft through its choice of editions will be nothing short of baffled by the hideous packaging.


    Speaking of cachet, without a doubt the second best choice overall and the hands-down winner of the book-snob stakes is the Library of America edition of Lovecraft, simply titled Tales (1931082723). The publisher’s reputation is second to none, and an author’s inclusion in their series is tantamount to canonization. This is not to say that this is the best (or even a particularly valid) reason why a library should consider adding the volume to its collection.  The selection of tales, while somewhat idiosyncratic, is still the most comprehensive ever offered in one volume, including all of the most significant Cthulhu Mythos stories.  The versions used are the same as in the Arkham House uniform edition, albeit updated with minor corrections, and in the case of one story, “The Shadow out of Time,” with a newly discovered passage restored. This is a book any library, academic, public, or private, should be proud to own. It’s an expensive volume at $35.00 retail, but when one factors in cataloging costs, may turn out to be a bargain over some of the less expensive (but also less inclusive) options that follow.  Its only real drawback is its lack of any of the Dreamlands stories (which are Fantasy rather than Horror and thus somewhat beyond the scope of this website in any case), but this could be easily rectified by picking up a copy of Del Rey’s Dreamlands volume, detailed below.


    Also noteworthy for literary cachet is the Ecco Press Tales of H.P. Lovecraft (0061374601), edited by Joyce Carol Oates. At around fifteen dollars it offers a decent though by no means comprehensive selection of stories, but has the advantage of placing the crucial short novel At the Mountains of Madness alongside other tales central to the Mythos. The new edition also features eye-catching cover by Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, sure to warm the hearts of comic book loving teenaged boys of various ages and genders.


    Still strong in the literary respectability stakes but not recommended are the Penguin Classics volumes The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (0141182342), The Thing on the Doorstep (0142180033), and The Dreams in the Witch House (0142437956). While they use the same S.T. Joshi revised and definitive versions of the stories and their contents mirror those of the Arkham House edition, they split the material in such a way that it obligates one to purchase all three volumes, at $15.00 apiece, in order to get a reasonable selection of Lovecraft’s late period Cthulhu Mythos work, which is what most patrons are likely to be looking for. With all due respect, and considerable respect is due, to both Joshi and Penguin Classics, these books are the solution to a problem nobody has, an answer to a question no-one asked.  In the end this option offers nothing but literary cachet, which can be had at a lower price and with almost as comprehensive a selection of important stories as these in the Library of America volume, together with a considerable savings in cataloging cost and a more durable hardbound volume on acid-free paper.


    Amongst the remaining versions of Lovecraft’s work, the Del Rey trade paperback editions (roughly $15.00 apiece) are  the most commonly available. The original large omnibus selection of his work that Del Rey released was the tastefully titled The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (0345350804); its contents largely mirror those of Arkham House’s The Dunwich Horror and Others (discussed above). Bloodcurdling Tales contains all of the major Cthulhu Mythos tales with the exception of At the Mountains of Madness and the novella “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which can be found in the other two charmingly named Del Rey trade paperback volumes The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (0345384210) and The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness (0345384229). Dreams performs a relatively useful purpose in that it collects all of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands fantasy work into one volume, with the addition of the unrelated novella “The Dreams in the Witch House,” most likely included because it includes the word “dreams” in the title. As mentioned previously, this would make a nice addendum to the Library of America edition which excludes the Dreamlands stories. The final volume, Road to Madness, contains mainly earlier, less important works, the odds-and-sods of the Lovecraft oeuvre, if you will. The only thing that makes it essential is the inclusion of  At the Mountains of Madness, included, one assumes, for precisely that purpose. The major disadvantage of these Del Rey editions is that, aside from pulling the same Pokemon-esque “gotta catch ‘em all” trick Penguin Classics did, i.e. requiring the purchase of all three volumes to get all of the stories central to the Cthulhu Mythos, with one notable exception (see below) they also feature the earlier, unrevised texts of the stories. Is this a major problem?  Probably not. Is it ideal? Definitely not. That having been said, Bloodcurdling Tales is an adequate single volume of Lovecraft for a small collection.


    In addition to Del Rey’s three main Lovecraft collections, they also publish word for word trade paperback facsimiles of the Arkham House volumes The Horror in the Museum (0345485726), collecting Lovecraft’s “collaborations” and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (034542204X), collecting the best Mythos tales by other authors, incorporating, in the former case, all of the S.T. Joshi revisions Arkham has had since the 1980's.  These are less expensive at about $15.00 apiece, and (especially in the case of Horror) feature much more attractive cover art by John Jude Palencar.


    Del Rey also publishes a few mass-market collections of Lovecraft’s work, none of which are recommended because their limited contents make them nowhere near as cost-effective a way to collect Lovecraft’s fiction from a price/content standpoint, and furthermore, many of the most important stories are unavailable in mass market, and all can be found in the trade paperback editions.


    Last but by no means least are the annotated volumes The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (0440506603) and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (0440508754), each of which collect a few of Lovecraft’s best-known tales and add annotations by pre-eminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. These are fascinating for persons studying Lovecraft in either a literary or historical context, though for most readers, Lovecraft’s vocabulary is not different enough from modern vernacular (yes, even despite his well-known fondness for peculiar adjectives) to necessitate annotations for simple issues of clarity. They are highly recommended, but only after one has either filled one’s collection with more basic volumes or found a specific need for an annotated version of his work.


    Doubtless, new additions to the be-tentacled mass that is Lovecraft publishing post-public domain will continue to add to the ever-growing selection available, so updates will be need from time to time.  Suggestions, corrections, praise, and corrections will be gladly accepted, criticisms and complaints cheerfully ignored. Just kidding!