Top 10 Opening Lines by H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft
The original Slim Shady dropped mad hooks.

H.P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.

I’m currently writing a novel with a strong Lovecraftian influence, so I’ve been revisiting his body of work, and recently, while discussing hooks with a young writer I’m mentoring, I realized that any horror writer, no matter how modern their style, would do well to look at Lovecraft’s openings for good examples of powerful hooks. Here are my top ten favorites from the gentleman of Providence.

10. THE DUNWICH HORROR

When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.

Subtle and atmospheric but for me the hook is that it’s a WRONG turn. You wouldn’t go there on purpose. And that makes me curious about that curious country.

9. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS

I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.

The reluctant narrator. He doesn’t want to talk about this shit but no one will heed his warnings without an explanation? I’m in. Give up the goods.

8. HYPNOS

May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.

Um, dude, are you okay? What’s so bad about falling asleep? Could it be the dreams?

7. THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK

Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge.

Dead body introduced by a rational, journalistic voice that you just know is going to suggest that something far stranger than lightning killed Mr. Blake.

6. THE DESCENDANT

In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.

And I want to know why.

5. HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.

All about dissonant juxtaposition. Why would the memory of a longtime friend become a source of extreme terror?

4. THE CALL OF CTHULHU

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.

3. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.

What end? And WTF did you see, exactly, if that’s your opening?

2. DAGON

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.

Top that! Hard to do, but I believe the man himself did with…

1. THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Possibly one of the best opening lines in all of horror literature. Within 31 words you know that some heavy shit went down. You want to know why one bullet through the head wasn’t enough. Was emptying the gun enough? And how is he not his friend’s murderer? Put a paradox like that up front with highly specific details and visceral language and promise to resolve it in the story that follows, and you have me eating out of your hand.

What do you think, did I miss any of your favorites? Which of Lovecraft’s opening lines hooked you on his writing?
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The Devil of Echo Lake – Book Trailer from Douglas Wynne on Vimeo.

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21 thoughts on “Top 10 Opening Lines by H.P. Lovecraft

  1. Andacar says:

    To me the opening line of “The Call of Cthuluh” isn’t as memorable as the paragraph after it:

    “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

  2. DTWynne says:

    It was hard to narrow it down, and so many of his stories have fantastic first paragraphs, but limiting it to just the first line at least gave me more of a focus.

  3. Keith Phillips says:

    We are discussing The Color Out Of Space this Thursday in the Post Apocalyptic Fiction class. The way he describes the lay of the land in the opening paragraph is beautiful.

  4. Randy Attwood says:

    First line from my Lovecraftian homage: “The Strange Case of James Kirkland Pilley”

    Edward Hawthorne had no premonition of the first disturbing and later horrifying consequences that would result from his joining the Friends of Pilley Park Garden Society.

    Easy to find on Amazon.

  5. ognjanovic666 says:

    how could one omit this one: Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” from Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family

    or somewhat florid but still catchy opening of THE HOUND: “In my tortured ears there sounds unceasingly a nightmare whirring and flapping, and a faint distant baying as of some gigantic hound. It is not dream – it is not, I fear, even madness – for too much has already happened to give me these merciful doubts.”

    or the stunning: There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear. from The Lurking Fear

  6. mrheslop says:

    I’m glad you mentioned “The Thing on the Doorstep”, as that’s one of his most underrated stories, I think. One critic described it as “a sordid domestic tragedy”, but I thought it was brilliant.

    1. Randy Attwood says:

      My homage to HPL “The Strange Case of James Kirkland Pilley” has this “hook” as a first sentence:

      Edward Hawthorne had no premonition of the first disturbing and later horrifying consequences that would result from his joining the Friends of Pilley Park Garden Society.

      1. Randy Attwood says:

        Thanks. William Hart, whom I’m sure you know had this compliment: “Randy,
        I received your excellent story today, The Strange Case of James Kirkland Pilley, read it, and having found it to be a marvelous tale that touches upon Lovecraftian mood, and events somewhat similar to those in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with your own original spin on the past haunting the present; I now also recommend it as a bargain to download in a Kindle format from Amazon.”

  7. H. Tweed says:

    The Tomb: “In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative.”

  8. WanderThruYonder says:

    Honorable mention, the opening line of “Nyarlathotep.”

    “Nyarlathotep… the Crawling Chaos… I will tell the audant void…”

    Okay, tell me about this guy. I’m listening. What in the hell made you so damn scared of this character that you can barely form full sentences?

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