John Howe


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. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species — if separate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

 “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – written 1920; first published in The Wolverine, No. 9 (March 1921)


That is not dead which can eternal lie,

And with strange aeons even death may die.

 “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)

Cthulhu, pen drawing by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft, dated May 11, 1934 

The volume of writings on the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, a wealth of speculation and interpretation, surely exceeds tenfold the relatively modest body of the stories themselves. The “Cthulhu Mythos” has preoccupied Lovecraft scholars ever since the author’s death, even going as far as to debate whether “mythos” is the appropriate term to describe Lovecraft’s cosmogony.

If you’ll forgive an etymological parenthesis, “mythos” is generally qualified as the underlying system of beliefs, especially those dealing with supernatural forces, characteristic of a particular cultural group, or: a pattern of beliefs expressing often symbolically the characteristic or prevalent attitudes in a group or culture. Myths themselves are “stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial … the result is religious legend, not myth.”[1]

In other words, a pantheon with a view, provided by a single individual, as we are dealing in this case with fiction. Author and anthologist August Derleth, who is best remembered at Lovecraft’s first book publisher[2], somewhat heavy-handedly organized Lovecraft’s into a well-established hierarchy[3], with the “gentle gods of Earth” counterbalancing Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, which he transformed into elemental forces. The consolidation (and subsequent deconstruction) of the “Cthulhu Mythos” is a work of many hands.

Additionally, Lovecraft was generous with his creations, eagerly name-dropping throughout his ghostwriting, leaving a trail of clues well outside his own oeuvre, and happily exchanging gods and forbidden fictitious grimoires with his writer friends. (Generally speaking, Lovecraft was gracious to a fault with his friends and acquaintances, including the illustrators he admired – or who happened to be providing imagery for his tales. It is easy enough to grasp his enthu
siasm for Nicholas Roerich and Sidney Sime, harder to understand his praise for the work of Clark Ashton Smith or Anthony Angarola.)

Lovecraft in the pulps. Left: Weird Tales, May-June-July 1924, containing the story “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” that Lovecraft ghostwrote based on a synopsis by Houdini. Lin Carter refers to the story as “one of the best things Lovecraft had written up to that time”. The cover art is by R. M. Mally. Centre: Weird Tales, July 1933, containing “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and “The Horror in the Museum”. Lovecraft sent the unpublished manuscript of Dreams in the Witch House to August Derleth, who was critical of it. Lovecraft responded: “[Y]our reaction to my poor ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ is, in kind, about what I expected—although I hardly thought the miserable mess was quite as bad as you found it… The whole incident shows me that my fictional days are probably over.” While Lovecraft vowed, in his typical fashion, to never try to sell it – he took rejection very badly – Derleth submitted the story to Weird Tales, who published it. “The Horror in the Museum” is a short story ghostwritten for writer Hazel Heald in October 1932. The cover art is by Margaret Brundage. Right: Weird Tales, July 1942, containing an unauthorised and abridged version of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. (Lovecraft was himself unjustly critical of the tale, stating that is “has all the defects I deplore—especially in point of style, where hackneyed phrases & rhythms have crept in despite all precautions…. No—I don’t intend to offer ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ for publication, for it would stand no chance of acceptance.”) The cover art is by Edmond Good.

August Derleth convinced himself that some order must be bestowed on the Mythos.[4] Derleth’s proprietorial approach echoes that of the sophisticated anthropologist making sense of primitive myth-cycles by slotting them into more established pantheons, as the Romans did with the Celts. In this sense, the Cthulhu Mythos is a primitive[5] one, an elaborate backdrop, a burgeoning work-in-progress developing organically in the shadowy margins of Lovecraft’s stories. (With this in mind, I beg in advance the indulgence of experts of the genre, for the inevitable inaccuracies of the amateur professing only a nodding acquaintance with Lovecraftian scholarship.)

One essayist has stated convincingly that Lovecraft’s gods are not gods at all, but simply alien life forms, deified by distance and potency of menace. Humanity dimly perceives their existence and only rarely sees them up close. This classification has the merit of pointing out the “outsideness” of the mythos. Lovecraft’s gods are not involved in creation, as are most traditional gods; their eschatological role carries no hope of rebirth and renewal after the apocalypse. Their intent is simply to “clear off the Earth.” If they are indeed gods, they are alien ones in every sense.

The closest Lovecraft navigates to the coasts of traditional myth is when he suggests that mankind was created as an idle undertaking, immediately changing course by qualifying it as a scientific experiment. This typically Lovecraftian ambiguity blurs the border between science and religion, mitigating the science behind his mythos by the formulae required to materialize these alien gods on Earth. These incantations, eked out of forbidden grimoires (about which, more later) have nothing to do with trajectories, gravitation, orbits and flight paths, but are pure invocations modeled on traditional notions of sorcery.

Moreover, they are strangely ineffectual in actually gaining entry into the Earth, which they desire to “clear off”, relying on individuals like Old Whateley, “aged and half-insane… about whom the most frightful tales of magic had been whispered in his youth” and his feeble-minded albino daughter Lavinia, who is somehow impregnated by Yog-Sothoth and gives birth to the humanoid if monstrous Wilbur and his brother, an invisible many-legged being with half a gigantic face on the summit of its vast tubular bulk. This seems a singularly tortuous way of gaining a foothold on the Earth, and a stop is put to the endeavour by a guard dog (who rips out Wilbur’s throat when he tries to break into the Miskatonic University Library after his request to borrow a copy of the Necronomicon was refused) and a small band led by the librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, who shouts a spell from a hilltop to destroy the other sibling. (Sorcery again!) The other alien beings live either in remote galaxies or in the shadow of unexplored regions of the earth or oceans, or clumsily manage to switch places and take control of human bodies, though they seem to do little with them. As for Cthulhu, he is asleep in Ry’leh, somewhere under the Pacific, and only stirs when sudden tectonic activity pushes the undersea metropolis to the surface, and seemingly submerges along with it when the ocean bottom subsides again.

Lovecraft in the pulps. Left: Opening page of “The Dunwich Horror”, Weird Tales, April 1929. Lovecraft was happy with the tale, stating that it was”so fiendish that Farnworth Wright (the editor of Weird Tales) may not dare to print it.” Despite his predictions, Wright took it immediately, sending Lovecraft a cheque for $240.00, the most he had ever been paid for a story. The illustration is by Hugh Rankin. Centre: Weird Tales, October 1937, containing Lovecraft’s tale “The Shunned House”. The cover art is by Margaret Brundage. Right: Opening spread of “The Shunned House”  with an illustration by Virgil Finlay. Lovecraft wrote the story in a few days, between October 16th and 19th, 1924. In 1928, publisher W. Paul Cook had 250 copies printed, Lovecraft’s first publication in book form. Unfortunately, the proofs were never bound, eventually finding their way to Arkham House in 1959, where they were first sold in their unbound condition and finally bound, but with no cover, in 1961. 

Lovecraft’s “Yog-Sothothery”, as he half-jestingly called it, saw the creation of a handful of gods during his lifetime: The “Great Old Ones”, the “Outer Gods” and a scattering of miscellaneous deities. The principal gods are Azathoth (floridly described as “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”), Yog-Sothoth (described as “a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness”), Nyarlathotep (the “Crawling Chaos”), Shub-Niggurath (“The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young”), along with “hoary” Nodens, Sn’gac the violet gas (who both seem benign, or at least largely indifferent to humankind) and a few others. Cthulhu and his acolyte Dagon, along with a host of lesser (but nevertheless terrifying) beings and races, make up the cosmology. Lovecraft’s writer friends, eagerly added their own: Clark Ashton Smith introduced Tsathoggua and Ubbo-Sathla; Robert E. Howard provided Bran, and so on. Others are harder to trace. Hastur, for example, may be been borrowed by Lovecraft from Chambers; and was subsequently transformed into a “Great Old One” by Derleth… Lovecraft enthusiastically embraced these additions, further blurring the genealogical trail by inserting them both in his own stories and even more freely in his ghost writing.

“I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections – Yuggoth , Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’leh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran and the Magnum Innominandum – and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way…. There is a whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking them down and injuring them on behalf of the monstrous powers from other dimensions.”[6]

Later authors have since added dozens and dozens of deities to the Mythos. (They are now too many to comfortably list. If the Lovecraft Mythos was once a select club, the Cthulhu Mythos has become something of an onomatopoeic frat house.)

The same procedure was followed for the forbidden tomes of the Cthluhu Mythos, a card catalogue of exotic titles created by Lovecraft and his pen pals in the wake of the Necronomicon. Robert E. Howard dreamed up the Unaussprechliche Kulte, Clark Ashton Smith the Livre d’Eibon, Robert Bloch the Culte des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis, Lovecraft himself added The Book of Azathoth, and so on. (Many more have been added by subsequent contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos – it seems few can resist the urge to create yet another suppressed book or accursed manuscript.) Lovecraft was generous to a fault, encouraging these private jokes, even placing them in his own stories. The result is a sturdy shelf full of forbidden volumes, which have to bad habit of cropping up by chance just about everywhere needed, diluting their impact and in turn risk transforming a part of the Mythos into an elaborate in-joke.

Lovecraft in print. Left: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Ballantine Books, 1970, cover art by Gervasio Gallardo. Centre: H. P. Lovecraft & August Derleth, The Survivor & Others, Ballantine Books, 1971, cover art by Gervasio Gallardo. First published in 1957 by Arkham House, the tales in The Survivor are part of the “posthumous collaboration” of Lovecraft and Derleth. There are 16 stories in all.) Right: The Spawn of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft & Others (edited by Lin Carter), Ballantine Books, 1971, cover art by Gervasio Gallardo. (Gallardo did a number of covers for Ballantine’s Lovecraft stories between 1970 and 1973.)

Lovecraft is perhaps one of the most paradoxical authors of the 20th century. He embodied so many contradictions that listing them all need hardly be done again. Racist, violently xenophobic (at least verbally) painfully shy, pampered, entitled, ineffectual, he was also generous, garrulous, and altogether decent in his dealing with everyone he met. His unusual upbringing, his fragile and laconic marriage with the energetic Sonia Greene, his misspent years ghostwriting and keeping up a prodigious correspondence, his odd and antiquated mannerisms and contradictions all make reading about him a frustratingly unsatisfying exercise. Of course, had be been a perfectly ordinary citizen, he might never have written the fiction he did.

What IS likely though, is that the key to the genesis of the Mythos (all three: Lovecraft, Derleth and ultimately Cthulhu) might be found in his early years. While he was still a relatively young man, Lovecraft liked to refer to himself as “Grandpa” in his epistolary exchanges with younger correspondents. This is admittedly curious from several points of view; Lovecraft had no children and few men like to muse on their decline decades before age obliges. Certainly Lovecraft was writing mock-seriously, but it remains unusual.

Lovecraft eternal lies. Strange Eons by Robert Bloch (Pinnacle Books, 1979, cover art by David Hada). The youthful Bloch, an avid devotee of Weird Tales, was much encouraged in regards to his own fiction by Lovecraft, after Bloch wrote a fan letter to his idol when he was 13. The two corresponded regularly until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Strange Eons is Bloch’s homage to Lovecraft; though not a particularly successful story, it is a curiosity well worth reading.

When Lovecraft was about 19, he spent literally four or five years in bed, beginning in 1909, until 1914. The real reasons for this closeted episode have never been truly elucidated. L. Sprague de Camp, in his voluminous biography[7], passes over it quickly. Donald Tyson[8] attributes it to hypersensitivity. Most biographies pass it over quickly; Lovecraft describes himself as “shattered” and “listless”. It has been attributed among many reasons: to the newly impoverished household in which he found himself, to difficult years in school beginning in 1904, to the death of his pet cat, to revulsion concerning his own developing sexuality, or the realization in 1907, the last year of his formal schooling, that his mediocrity in mathematics excluded him from his long-dreamed-of career in astronomy. He was comforted in this withdrawal by his mother, who seems to have been complicit, looking to the needs of her treasured recluse unquestioningly all the while. (Lovecraft half-heartedly tried to join the National Guard in 1917, but his mother would tolerate nothing of the kind and marched him back home again.)

The result, admittedly in oversimplified terms: Lovecraft largely missed his crucial teenage years. Naturally, each individual is different, and culture and context play determining roles, but those crucial years, the passage from the prolonged and protective environment of childhood to the adult world. Lovecraft seems to have undergone no rite of passage, formal or informal, self-initiated or thrust upon him by circumstance. Instead, he seems to have drawn a curtain across those years, a sort of entr’acte, to emerge almost half a decade later.

The virtual elimination of these years, when friendships are primordial and existence in others’ eyes vital are even more crucial from a Jungian point of view. In the words of Ursula K. LeGuin: “As Jung says, the child’s ego and shadow are both still ill-defined; children are likely to find their ego in a ladybug, and their shadow lurking horribly under the bed. But I think that when in pre-adolescence and adolescence the conscious sense of self emerges, often quite overwhelmingly, the shadow darkens right along with it. The normal adolescent ceases to project so blithely as the little child did, realizing that you can’t blame everything on the bad guys with the black Stetsons. The adolescent begins to take responsibility for his or her acts or feelings. And with the responsibility may come a terrible load of guilt. The adolescent shadow often appears as much blacker, more wholly evil, than it is. The only way for a youngster to get pas the paralyzing self-blame and self-disgust of this stage is really to look at that shadow, to face it, warts and fangs and pimples and claws and all – to accept it as the self – as part of the self. The ugliest part, but not the weakest. For the shadow is the guide. The guide inward and out again, downward and up again; there, as Bilbo the Hobbit said, and back again. The guide of the journey of self-knowledge, to adulthood, to the light.”[9]

Cthulhu dissected. Left: L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of H. P. Lovecraft (Ballantine Books, 1976, cover art by Murray Tinkelman). Centre: Lin Carter’s exploration of the Cthulhu Mythos (Ballantine Books, 1972, cover art by Gervasio Gallardo). Right: The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S. T. Joshi (Mythos Books, 2008, cover art by Jason C. Eckhardt).

Is it possible that Lovecraft never enacted this step in his life, that the “dark” remained forever a force exterior to him, which he peopled with his motley horde of horrifying gods? He felt no need to organize them into a pantheon and a tidy good vs. evil dualism; that was Derleth’s doing. Lovecraft’s gods came from a dark inner space, one that Lovecraft never explored or truly sublimated. Like the hero of Andersen’s tale “The Shadow”, Lovecraft struggled with many (to us) incomprehensible demons, although he finally began to subdue them in his last years. He regretted his vicious racism, saw the folly of his aristocratic posturing, but too late to save his own life.[10] After years of priding himself for subsisting on a perilously unbalanced diet of pennies per day, he died of abdominal cancer on March 15, 1937. He was 46.[11]

Lovecraft’s demons of the outer dark seem to have coalesced from his inability to recognize and assume the part of shadow that would have made him a more balanced adult. Had he done so, it is not likely they would have taken the form they did; indeed his literary output itself might not have taken the form of his powerful works that have defined the genre. Criticizing Lovecraft’s inadequacies is in that sense indefensible, despite his occasional vituperative reflections, there is no evidence whatsoever that he carried this through into acts. They are more the confused groping in the dark of a man seeking to place blame in the same manner a child swats or scolds the table against which he bumped his shin. The mongrel hordes he so decried lead the imagined assault to destroy an antiquated world he largely imagined; Lovecraft would have stopped time had he been able, he would happily have dwelt in the in-between time so poignantly evoked in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, under the sloping roofs of the seaside town where the mild Gods of Earth had been drawn by the very power of Carter’s evocative dreams. The importance of dream in Lovecraft’s life and writing of course bring with it the duality of sleep – nightmares, which provided Lovecraft not only with a literary trope, but further proof that he, like Andersen’s mild character, had never gotten his shadow back.

H. P. Lovecraft, portrait by Virgil Finlay from The Lovecraft Portfolio, 1977

Ultimately, Lovecraft’s “failure” is his gift to fantastical literature. The Outer Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, some of the most ambiguous and powerful creations of the genre, undiluted by self-conscious rationalizing, seem to have been glimpsed through the dark glass of the shadow that Lovecraft was never able to gather back into himself. They possess a presence that speaks directly to the reader, rarely explained, never rationalized, they are raw gods of fever-dream, embodiments of the shadow-self over which control has been relinquished, and all the more terrifying for it. They blur boundaries between genres, and, like our own irrationality and fears, avoid the convenient pantheons that allow us to tame and catalogue them. While Lovecraft describes them as alien gods of the airless outer void, they are very much gods of inner space, of the darkest places in the mind.

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Further reading: For the best book on the subject, read the indispensable The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S. T. Joshi (Mythos Books, 2008). Joshi has written at length of just about every aspect of Lovecraft’s life and work, as well as several in-depth studies of fantastical literature.

Also indispensable: Dissecting Cthulhu, Essays on the Cthulhu Mythos edited by S. T. Joshi (Miskatonic River Press, 2011). L. Sprague de Camp’s biography remains authoritative; more recent scholars have conducted more detailed explorations of Lovecraft’s life and work. Lin Carter’s Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos (Ballantine Books, 1972) provides an often fascinatingly detailed account of Lovecraft’s relations to the pulps.

For the stories themselves, there are innumerable and often overlapping collections. (I recall my disappointment in my late teens, after exhausting Lovecraft quite quickly, and ending up with collections and titles by “Lovecraft and Others”.) Race Point Publishing has produced a nicely boxed edition entitled The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in their series Knickerbocker Classics.

S. T. Joshi has edited several collections: letters, ghost written tales and Lovecraft’s own fiction and non-fiction as well as comprehensive collections of later contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos.

As for the pronunciation of Cthulhu, Lovecraft had this to say: “The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats … The actual sound — as nearly as any human organs could imitate it or human letters record it — may be taken as something like Khlûl’-hloo, with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The u is about like that in full; and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound, hence the h represents the guttural thickness.”

– Footnotes –

[1] J. Simpson & S. Roud, “Dictionary of English Folklore,” Oxford, 2000, p.254

[2] H. P. Lovecraft never saw his work published in book form during his lifetime, with the exception of confidential and very limited printings and the occasional inclusion of his stories in anthologies. His stories appeared in the pulps, notably Weird Tales.

[3] Derleth arranged Lovecraft’s gods into Empedoclean “elemental” categories, filling in the ranks with gods of his own invention.

[4] There are fine distinctions between the “Lovecraft Mythos” (created by the author) the “Derleth Mythos” (his executor’s revisiting and rationalizing) and the “Cthulhu Mythos” (the two together, plus subsequent additions by a host of later authors) which have experts engaging in lively exchanges. I am happy to stand corrected in case of error, and only hope to present them briefly and not too erroneously.

[5] “Primitive”, of course in the sense of relating to, denoting, or preserving the character of an early stage in the evolutionary or historical development of something, or (of behavior or emotion) apparently originating in unconscious needs or desires and unaffected by objective reasoning.

[6] H. P. Lovecraft, The Whisperer in Darkness, first published in Weird Tales, August, 1931

[7] L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft, A Biography (Barnes & Noble, 1975)

[8] Donald Tyson, The Dream-World of H. P. Lovecraft (Llewellyn Publications, 2010)

[9] Excerpt from “The Child and the Shadow” (1974), from The Language of the Night, Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harper Collins Publishers, revised edition, 1989)

[10] And to a large degree, his reputation; Lovecraft’s viciously xenophobic diatribes have long cast a shadow over the legacy of his fantastical fiction. There is no denying he espoused some of the worst opinions of the time, though to his credit, his closet racism seems to never have been expressed in his actual conduct.

[11] Howard Philips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island on August 20, 1890. He died in Providence on March 15, 1937. He is buried in the prestigious Swan Point Cemetery.