Have you ever gone outside at night to look up at the stars? To experience that feeling of wonder at all that is possible in this cosmos, to imagine the vast starscapes of brilliance and beauty that the night sky can offer? To think of other worlds strange and exquisite, impossibly far but so close you could touch them with your hand? Would that not excite you?
Anyone who has studied the cosmos knows just how precious little space in the universe is inhabitable by humans. Anywhere outside that minuscule bubble and we expire, sometimes instantly. A chilling thought, but let’s keep going. When we imagine the possibility of life on other planets, we tend to think of societies full of alien people just trying to live their lives the same way we do. What if I told you that this was a rather rose-tinted way of looking at the cosmos around us?
What if I told you that the universe itself wanted you dead? A ridiculous notion for some. But if you would ever have the chance to meet some of the universes’ oldest denizens, there would be no question about it.
Welcome to the world of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Born August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, H.P. Lovecraft quickly found a niche for himself in the Horror genre. Writing stories for publications such as Weird Tales, he never found the ‘big break’ he had hoped for his entire life. It wasn’t until after his death in 1937 that his work began to find fame. His most famous story “The Call of Cthulhu,” published in 1928, tells the tale of a great monster, impossibly old, living beneath the Pacific Ocean. If you have yet to read any of Lovecraft’s tales, this is an excellent place to begin as it sets up the basis for what has been known today as The Cthulhu Mythos. A grotesque tapestry weaved by the tales of the Great Old Ones, a collection of cosmic beings enormous and ancient. Having no true sense of goodness only neutrality or evil, these beings will rampage across an inhabited world for nothing more than to feast on a civilization, bending it to their will and leaving the shattered husk of a planet behind. In certain tales, these creatures, or Elder Gods, or Outer Gods as primitive people have called them, can only travel between worlds when ‘the stars are right.’ So it can take them a long time to get from place to place, but they still can wreak havoc on our little blue-green planet.
Although Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, he was not the only one to contribute to it. Many authors over the years have written their own stories within this fictional universe. From early 20th century writers such as Robert Bloch and August Derlith all the way up to the present with Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. Even the works of Stephen King are heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If Pennywise (an ancient evil from beyond the stars who comes to Earth and eats people) cannot be considered part of the Cthulhu Mythos, then he can at least be an honorable mention.
Let’s take a look at some of Lovecraft’s more notorious creations…
Although the great winged one may be the most popular Elder God, he is by no means the most powerful. He is said to resemble a mix of octopus, dragon, and human. Great Cthulhu sleeps an eons-long, dreamless slumber in his house within the sunken city of R’leyh at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean. His power is so great that he can control the minds of certain individuals and bend them to his will as they worship him, and since he has existed long before mankind evolved, he has inserted himself into all our subconscious and primal urges. Some say it is Cthulhu who is the origin of our fear of the dark. While mentioned in stories such as The Dunwich Horror, and At The Mountains of Madness, it is the Call of Cthulhu where he makes his greatest appearance.
Although Dagon is an actual God of the Sea worshiped by the ancient Sumerians, and not strictly considered to be part of the Mythos, Lovecraft wrote a story about him, appropriately entitled ‘Dagon,’ and included him in a few other tales.
In the genealogy that Lovecraft created, Yog-Sothoth can technically be called Cthulhu’s grandfather. Although Yog-Sothoth is not evil, and will impart his vast knowledge onto any sentient being that pleases him, it can take a human sacrifice or two in order to get his attention. So if you wish to learn secrets of the universe that could possibly burn out your brain just by knowing them, you have to go to insane lengths in order to even gain audience with him. I suppose you could call it a him. Gender identification among the Great Old Ones is tricky at best. He is also considered the gateway to the multiverse. In the story “The Horror in the Museum,” Lovecraft describes Yog-Sothoth as
“Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth—only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.”
I imagine him as a great formless wibbly-wobbly sphere thingy.
Also known as The Crawling Chaos and the ‘God of a Thousand Forms’, he is most famously described as a “great, swarthy man” resembling an Egyptian pharaoh. His other forms are much more terrifying. He travels the globe recruiting followers who will help him bring about the end of the world. Nyarlathotep is also the custodian and messenger of the Elder Gods. Instead of being trapped at the bottom of the sea like Cthulhu, or banished to a far away star like Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep is free to walk the Earth, gathering his worshipers and tending to the cults formed by absent Gods. Considered to be one of the more evil deities, he takes pleasure in destroying people.
Hastur the Unspeakable
Originally created by Ambrose Bierce in the 1893 short story “Haita the Shepherd,” Lovecraft was enthralled by the character and included this faceless, shapeless being who must never be named in a few of his stories and is placed within the Mythos as Cthulhu’s half-brother. Not much is known about Hastur. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927,) Lovecraft had this to say about Hastur…
“… after stumbling queerly upon the hellish and forbidden book of horrors the two learn, among other hideous things which no sane mortal should know, that this talisman is indeed the nameless Yellow Sign handed down from the accursed cult of Hastur—from primordial Carcosa, whereof the volume treats…”
Not only are we unsure as to what Hastur looks like, we are not certain whether it is a deity, a supernatural creature, or even a place. In the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett novel Good Omens, Hastur is featured as a minor Duke of Hell tasked with helping bring about the end times.
“It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train — a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.”
— H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
As creatures of no real identity or conscious thought, they are a hive-mind species controlled by the Elder Gods to do their bidding on Earth and many other worlds. They apparently aren’t that crazy about penguins either.
Azathoth could be considered the Big Daddy of the mythos who seems to reside at the center of the universe where all the other Gods dance around him. As described in Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath…”
“Outside the ordered universe is that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”
And in the Haunter of the Dark…
“the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws”
That’s the thing about these beings, for the most part they are only mentioned in reference, or only appear at the climax of the story. Even in Call of Cthulhu, (spoiler alert) when Cthulhu is released from his eternal bonds and rises up to the surface of the ocean, he is only in the story for that one scene before he trods off, presumably, to begin killing everyone in the world and the story ends. Before that, he only exists in the minds of the followers he telepathically controls.
So how does mankind have knowledge of all these terrible things and more? They’re all featured in a book, a singularly evil tome that can instantly destroy the mind of anyone who reads it…
You thought that was just a cute prop in the Evil Dead movies? Nope, this was another Lovecraft invention that has spread throughout pop culture. In the Mythos, the information within was compiled by a fictional person known as The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred who worshiped Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. The Necronomicon was inked in blood and bound in human flesh. It can usually be found in the dusty cellar underneath the library at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusettes. Both of these places are also creations of Lovecraft. The Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe was inspired by Lovecraft’s Arkham. There have been arguments raging across the internet as to whether or not this means the DC comics universe is the same as the Lovecraft universe. (I say it is not and I expect to be summarily sacrificed to Yog-Sothoth because of this opinion.)
The Necronomicon is what connects humanity to the seething chaos in the stars. As we read its cursed script, it connects our minds to the Elder Gods causing us to writhe on the ground chanting foul incantations such as…
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!
OK. I’m better now. My eyes have stopped glowing, but there is now something rumbling in my basement, so I think I should finish this up while I still can.
Lovecraft’s creations have been a major inspiration for writers of horror and weird fiction for almost a century now and it is something that I think will persist for a long time to come. Many of his works have been made into films, one of the most famous being Re-Animator.
Cthulhu himself has even had his own rise in pop-culture from political posters, role-playing and video games, to an appearance in the Real Ghostbusters, t-shirts, songs were written about him and he even has his own Funko figure.
If you haven’t read any of Lovecraft’s tales, well this would be the perfect time of year to start. As for me, I think I’m due for a reread of his work. If you’ll excuse me, some large green slimy thing with a million eyes is standing behind me waving a few tentacles at me. I think I’d better see what