Lovecraftian Horror: The Cthulhu Mythos


In the second article on the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, this one is going to focus on what is called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Right away, most people are familiar with the name Cthulhu and the vague image of an octopus-headed, dragon-bodied, winged alien demon entity. But there is much more to the Cthulhu Mythos than just one monster, and that extends to numerous other entities to the more subtle themes Lovecraft sought to convey.

Cthulhu, escaping from the underwater city of R’lyeh

First off, it is important to point out where the horror of the Cthulhu Mythos stems from. After all, at this point Cthulhu is just as popular as Dracula, so how could a giant alien creature be scary to modern audiences? That would be because the horror did not necessarily stem from the monsters themselves: most of the creatures featured in Lovecraft’s work is almost indescribable, with strange and almost random combinations of animal features. Rather, the true horror is that such creatures can exist, and if they did, they would not conform to human laws or sensibilities.

As Lovecraft said himself,

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form-and the local human passions and conditions and standards-are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes.”

Basically, Lovecraft was of the belief that if alien life did exist elsewhere in the universe, then it would only make sense for it to be extremely different from humans because they would have originated and evolved in an environment very different from Earth. Not only that, but notions such as good and evil, and the motives behind such notions, would be totally inapplicable to these aliens because of how different they are. In many stories, just encountering, seeing, or coming to the realization that such entities even exist is enough to drive the characters insane, as is summarized in 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.”

H.P. Lovecraft in 1921 with his friend William J. Dowdell

This concept can best be exemplified in the story The Colour Out of Space, as a strange meteor lands near a rural farm. Unlike a normal meteor, scientists all describe it as being different colors while it eventually shrinks and disappears. The meteor then causes strange and horrifying effects to both plants, animals and people before it (intelligently) seems to rise out of the farm’s well and fly into space. While this story focuses on a meteor rather than an entity, it simplifies Lovecraft’s attitude towards space in that anything from a creature to a meteor could exist that would not follow the laws of science established on Earth.

Then there is the recurring themes of how these entities are worshiped by cults around the world. There is a secret, worldwide cult of isolated peoples (such as a group of Eskimos in Greenland and a “mix-blooded” group in the swamps of Louisiana) that worships Cthulhu, there is an apparent group of foreigners that has dealings with the Great Race of Yith, there is a group of people in Tibet who have encountered the Mi-Go, etc. Often times the entities are worshiped as gods by occultists and isolated tribes, then are revealed to be not gods, but rather alien beings who may have nefarious plans for humanity, or not even care about the Earth at all.

But what exactly are the entities that have become the focus of Lovecraft’s work? For the sake of clarity only beings from the Cthulhu Mythos stories actually written by Lovecraft will be examined, and these are only a few of the many creatures.

Cthulhu needs little description due to his popularity, but just to recap he is an alien entity that is currently sleeping in the underwater city of R’lyeh, located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. He is able to communicate with his followers through dreams, and the worldwide cult tries to summon him in order to rule the world, while killing those who have stumbled upon the cult’s activities.

The Great Race of Yith are featured in The Shadow Out of Time and are a race of aliens who are able to transfer their minds telepathically to other creatures regardless of time or space. They do this in order to gather as much information about other species as possible, while saving their own race. According to the narrator of the story, the Great Race of Yith was actually a different race that swapped minds with a race of cone-shaped creatures on Earth millions of years ago to escape a disaster, then swapped minds with the race of post-human beetle creatures to escape another disaster.

The Mi-Go are a space-faring race of creatures that are known to occupy the mountains of Tibet and the mountains of Vermont, who are after an ore that can only be accessed on Earth. They apparently offer to take other creatures on trips through the cosmos, a process done by removing the brain from a subject’s body and placing it in a glass jar, which is then attached to a device allowing the brain to interact with its surroundings. Although some, such as Native Americans are described as being afraid of the creatures, there is supposedly a cult loyal to another alien entity that seeks to destroy the Mi-Go, hence their secrecy.

The Elder Things are a race of aliens that colonized the Earth at some point billions of years ago, having come into conflict with the Great Race of Yith and the Mi-Go over time. Eventually the Elder Things’ civilization comes to an end due to the rebellion of their slave race the shoggoths and the cooling of the planet, with one of their last ruined cities being located in the mountains of Antarctica. The Elder Things are also capable of hibernation, as a few specimens discovered by an expedition to Antarctica come alive and wreak havoc despite being millions of years old.

The Deep Ones are described as underwater beings similar to humans but with features of fish and frogs. These beings worship an entity called Dagon and were in turn worshiped by a tribe in the Pacific before coming to an agreement with the people of Innsmouth. The Deep Ones reflect some of Lovecraft’s racial attitudes, as in exchange for a plentiful supply of fish and jewelry the Deep Ones request humans to reproduce with, although the mixed-race offspring gradually turn from human to fish-like before swimming to the Deep One’s underwater city, never to return.

There is one entity that is referenced multiple times in Lovecraft’s work and is possibly the most human of all the creatures, and is named Nyarlathotep. Also known as the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep takes many forms but is commonly recognized as a human of Egyptian appearance, being described as “a man of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh.” In his human appearance, Nyarlathotep is described as causing tension and unrest where ever he goes, creating strange electric devices that stun and frighten crowds. However, in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Nyarlathotep is described as ruling the city of Kadath which also indicates he has some level of control over people’s dreams. Unlike other entities who are worshiped by cults, Nyarlathotep serves cults while also serving the Outer Gods and seems to enjoy the chaos and misery his interactions with humans causes. The character himself originated in a nightmare Lovecraft had, which he described as one of the worst and most realistic nightmares he had ever experienced. Supposedly in the nightmare, Lovecraft received a letter from Samuel Loveman that stated:

Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible- horrible beyond anything you can imagine- but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.

Azathoth, in the center of the universe

The rulers of this massive pantheon of entities are Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth. Azathoth, or the “blind idiot god,” is suggested to be the ruler of the universe, yet is currently asleep (similar to Cthulhu) and kept in that state by the playing of a flute. This flute is played by Nyarlathotep, and it is implied that one day Nyarlathotep will one day attempt to destroy the world, either on his own or by ceasing the music that keeps Azathoth asleep. Yog-Sothoth on the other hand is described as knowing all and being very powerful, yet being “outside” of the universe. He is encountered by Randolph Carter when investigating other realms of consciousness, so it is possible that by “outside” it means that Yog-Sothoth is located in the subconscious realm rather than the conscious one.

These are just a few of the many races described by H.P. Lovecraft, as the many alien entities were later expanded upon and detailed by other writers such as August Derleth. In fact, Lovecraft encouraged other writers in the pulp fiction community to share ideas and build on each other, so that many authors contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos, including his friend and author of Conan the Barbarian Robert E. Howard who wrote such stories as The Thing on the Roof.

Another major aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos isn’t a creature, but rather a book entitled the Necronomicon. Like Cthulhu, the Necronomicon is frequently referenced in pop culture and horror fiction and is mentioned in many of Lovecraft’s stories. Essentially, the Necronomicon was written by the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred and contains information on the many deities in the Cthulhu Mythos as well as the necessary spells to summon them. Supposedly there are only a few copies of the Necronomicon available, and that some are driven mad merely by reading it. As for Alhazred, there are multiple reports of his death but the most common one is that he was seized by an invisible creature in broad daylight and then brutally consumed by it, all while multiple people watched in horror.

Like the ancient book the Necronomicon, ancient cities containing long-lost and horrible knowledge are a staple of many of Lovecraft’s stories. In The Nameless City, an explorer finds a city left exposed by the shifting dunes somewhere in the Arabian desert that belonged to an ancient race. In The Shadow Out of Time, the underground ruins of a massive Yith city are uncovered in the Australian desert. In At the Mountains of Madness, a group of explorers find an ancient city of the Elder Things located in Antarctica. And in The Call of Cthulhu, the ancient city of R’lyeh is summoned by cults and risen by tectonic shifting, then accidentally uncovered by the crew of a ship.

Although not as appreciated during his lifetime, the works of H.P. Lovecraft have only grown in popularity and many of his works are available to read online for free at various websites. There are some aspects of Lovecraft’s work that reflect the attitudes of many during the time period, such as the depiction of foreigners as often being occultist or uncivilized, mixed race relations, etc. But the true horror of Lovecraft’s work remains the emphasis on the uncaring universe and the potential pitfalls that could come of attaining ancient or otherwise forbidden knowledge. And, as Lovecraft himself once said,

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”

If you enjoyed this article but haven’t seen the first part relating to Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, click here to give it a read. If you enjoyed this article, then follow for more Halloween-themed articles. And as always, thanks for reading.