The ‘Official’ Cthulhu Mythos FAQ – Part 1 of 3

Part 1. Introduction

1.1. What is the Cthulhu Mythos?

The Cthulhu Mythos comprises a “shared world” in which various authors set works of horror, with some overlap with the fields of fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction thrown in. A reader might well compare this to Star Trek or Star Wars, but the Cthulhu Mythos is not controlled by some central authority which commissions books, maintains continuity, and so forth. Rather, authors use elements from each others’ tales in ways which complement (and sometimes conflict) with other’s stories. All of these authors, in one way or another, are paying homage to H. P. Lovecraft.

Some have objected to the term “Cthulhu Mythos”, as it was not coined by Lovecraft himself, but by August Derleth. These people point out that “Cthulhu” is hardly the most important creature in the Mythos universe, and have proposed an astonishing array of names to describe the same pantheon. Still, “Cthulhu Mythos” is used by most fans, and it will continue to be used here.

1.2. Who is Cthulhu?

Cthulhu is a large green being which resembles a human with the head of a squid, huge bat-wings, and long talons (true, that doesn’t really resemble a human, but bear with me here). According to H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Cthulhu rests in a tomb in the city of R’lyeh, which sank beneath the Pacific Ocean aeons ago. Cthulhu is dead but not truly dead, as he and his fellow inhabitants of R’lyeh sleep the aeons away. (Cthulhu is generally thought of as a “he” for some reason.) From time to time R’lyeh comes to the surface, and Cthulhu’s dreams influence sensitive individuals across the globe to depict his image, slay, and found cults dedicated to him. In the past, R’lyeh has sunk after a short time, but the day will soon come when it rises to the surface permanently and great Cthulhu strides across a world thrown into chaos and anarchy from his telepathic sendings.

As has been stated before, Cthulhu is not the most important or powerful being in the Mythos, but he wins in terms of sheer popularity among his fans. No one is sure why, but that’s the way things are.

1.3. Who was H. P. Lovecraft?

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was one of the most influential horror writers of our times. Lovecraft was born into a wealthy family in Providence, Rhode Island, but led a tragic life thereafter. At the age of five, his father was committed to an asylum, and his grandfather died nine years later, leaving his family nearly bankrupt. Nonetheless, the young Lovecraft read prodigiously, going through everything from the Iliad to dime-store novels, and later publishing articles on astronomy in the local papers.

In 1914, Lovecraft became involved in amateur journalism, in which members submitted their poetry and fiction to various small journals in hopes of receiving constructive criticism. Lovecraft at first considered himself a poet, but then begin writing fiction for these journals. Lovecraft’s pieces during this period included “The Tomb”, “Dagon”, and “The Hound”.

Lovecraft saw his first professional sale in 1921, with his sale of “Herbert West — Reanimator” to the magazine Home Brew, and this success encouraged him in 1923 to send his stories to the pulp Weird Tales, where much of his work appeared in later years. In the same year as his first professional sale, however, his mother died, and Lovecraft was left bereft until he met Sonia Green, another amateur press member. The two married and moved to New York from 1924-1926, but they separated when financial difficulties and mutual incompatibility proved too much. Upon his return to Providence, Lovecraft began one of his most productive periods, writing two short novels (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”) along with many short stories, including the horror classics “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour out of Space”.

In this period, Lovecraft’s Mythos began to take on a definite form. He would often create various elements — the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s evil book of magic called the Necronomicon, the witch-haunted town of Arkham, the gods Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep — which he used in his stories to give an alien tone to his work. Unlike many other authors, who would create such items for just one work and then move on, Lovecraft continued to refer to them in his new stories. In doing so, Lovecraft not only had fun with his in-jokes and fictional cosmology, but built up an internally consistent system of lore which enthralled his readers.

As the years went on, Lovecraft wrote less and less, even as his stories became longer and more intricate. Among his later masterpieces were “The Haunter of the Dark”, “The Shadow out of Time”, and the novel “At the Mountains of Madness”. Lovecraft became increasingly discouraged by the rejections of his work, and near the end of his life became too ill to answer his correspondents. On March 15, 1937, Lovecraft succumbed to cancer and Bright’s disease at Jane Brown Memorial Hospital in Providence.

By most of our society’s standards, Lovecraft was a failure. He spent most of his life unemployed, showed little romantic attachment, had few friends in Providence, and lived most of his life in Providence under the care of his mother or his aunts. Even when he set out to become a writer, he was financially unsuccessful; he spent much of his time too tired or depressed to write, and diverted a great deal of his energy to his letters or revising other’s works for a pittance instead of writing his own fiction. At the same time, he made friends across the country through his letters, and was always willing to help younger writers when they needed advice on their fiction. Though his stories may be few in number, they more than make up for this in quality. In this sense, Lovecraft was a success.

Even during Lovecraft’s lifetime, many authors liked to take his creations and add them to their stories. Although no one asked his permission to do this, Lovecraft agreed and even mentioned his imitator’s creations in his own stories. It was through this sort of literary in-jokes that the Cthulhu Mythos came into being.

(Those who wish to know more about Lovecraft himself should check Donovan Loucks’ The H.P. Lovecraft Archive.)

1.4. What authors influenced Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos?

Lovecraft was an exceedingly well-read man, but here are a few of the authors most pertinent to our discussion:

  • Poe*

  • Lord Dunsany (1878-1957): Dunsany was a master of the fantastic tale long before there was a fantasy genre. He set a large number of his tales in the lands of dream at the edge of the world, a precedent which Lovecraft later followed in his Dreamlands tales. Dunsany’s book The Gods of Pegana also deserves mention here, as it was one of the first attempts at creating a wholly artificial mythos and probably impacted Lovecraft’s decision to do the same. For more information, see Jeffery Wyonch’s Dunsany’s Corner.

  • Arthur Machen (1863-1947): A Welsh author whose greatest work may be his autobiographical The Hill of Dreams. Horror fans know him best for his short tales of horror, including “The White People” and “The Great God Pan”. Machen’s fiction was built on then-popular anthropological theories that the myths of faeries and witches were based on historical fact, and may have influenced Lovecraft’s cults of the Old Ones. See Alan Gullette’s Arthur Machen page and Henrik Johnsson’s Arthur Machen page.

  • Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933): An American author who wrote many historical and romance novels, but is mostly remembered today for his horrific short stories from The King in Yellow (1895), named after a fictional play which drove men mad. Lovecraft did not read Chambers until 1926, so he was not as much of an influence on Lovecraft as many have thought, but Lovecraft did make use of some names from his fiction, such as Hastur (which originally appeared in Ambrose Bierce) and the Yellow Sign. See Christophe Thill’s Robert W. Chambers page and Henrik Johnsson’s Robert W. Chambers page.

1.5. Who are some authors of Mythos tales, other than Lovecraft himself?

There are a large number of individuals who might be called “major Mythos authors”. Here are a few of the all-time greats:

  • Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994): This young correspondent of Lovecraft’s may have been the person who started the “Cthulhu Mythos”, as he quoted from the Dee translation of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon in his story “The Space-Eaters.” Little of his fiction is in print today, but he did contribute the Hounds of Tindalos to the Mythos.

  • Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961): A writer and poet from Auburn, California, and the final member of the “Weird Tales Triumvirate” (along with Lovecraft and Howard). He is little known in comparison to the other two, but his writing is of superb quality. Smith created the Book of Eibon, the wizard Eibon himself, and the toad-god Tsathoggua. See Boyd Pearson’s The Eldritch Dark.

  • Robert Bloch (1917-1994): Only a young man when he wrote Lovecraft for the first time, Bloch later went on to become the author of Psycho and many other famous works of horror. He created De Vermis Mysteriis and the Black Pharaoh Nephren-Ka.

  • August Derleth (1909-1971): Another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents. Derleth would later become the founder of Arkham House, the publishing house which was to publish the fiction of Lovecraft and others in his circle. In his own fiction, Derleth created the Great Old Ones Cthugha, Ithaqua, Lloigor, and Zhar, as well as the pre-human R’lyeh Text.

    Derleth is a controversial figure in Lovecraftian circles. On one hand, Derleth published Lovecraft’s fiction even though he had no legal permission to do so, and tried to keep all Lovecraft scholarship, personal memoirs, and Mythos fiction under his strict control. On the other hand, he kept Lovecraft’s writing in the public eye and kept the Cthulhu Mythos going, in the process discovering such Mythos authors as Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. I strongly urge anyone who is interested in Derleth’s role in the Mythos to research both sides of this question before making up their minds.

  • Ramsey Campbell (1946 – ): Campbell’s first break as an author came when Derleth agreed to publish his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake. Since then, Cam pbell has become known for such works as Ancient Images and Demons by Daylight. In his stories, he created the Great Old Ones Y’golonac, Glaaki, and Byatis, along with the infamous cult manual Revelations of Glaaki.

  • Brian Lumley (1937 – ): Lumley was another British author discovered by August Derleth, and his first collection The Caller of the Black was published by Arkham House. Lumley’s output has been prolific, and has included his “Titus Crow” novels, a series of Dreamlands stories, and the popular Necroscope series. Lumley’s Mythos stories tend to be more heroic and science-based than most other tales in the genre. Lumley has created the Cthaat Aquadingen, the subterranean Cthonians, the Great Old One Yibb-Tstll, and the psychic detective Titus Crow. Check here for a list of Brian Lumley’s books.

  • Colin Wilson (1931 – ): This literary critic first dealt with Lovecraft in his The Strength to Dream, in which he labelled him as “sick” and the moral equivalent of a serial killer. Wilson later revised his views slightly, and published three Mythos novels: The Mind Parasites, The Philosophers’ Stone, and The Space Vampires. His fiction is generally more about the psychic development of humanity than the Mythos, but he has added the astral species called the lloigor to the Mythos canon. See the “Colin Wilson” Home Page by John Russell.

  • Lin Carter (1930-1988): A fantasy author known for his Thongor series of books, Lin Carter wrote a great deal of Mythos fiction. His greater accomplishment, however, was the editorship of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which brought the works of such authors as Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany to a wider audience. His Mythos creations included the books The Ponape Scripture and The Zanthu Tablets, along with the Great Old One Zoth-Ommog. You can find a list of Lin Carter’s fiction here.

  • Robert M. Price (1954 – ): The latest “Mythos guru”, Price is a literary critic and New Testament scholar. He currently edits not only the Chaosium line of Mythos fiction, but also the journals Cryp t of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Codex, Midnight Shambler, and Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

1.6. What stories are included in the Cthulhu Mythos?

This is undoubtably one of the most difficult questions to answer. I have heard all of the following criteria from different people:

  • Stories which include creatures, books, and characters from Lovecraft’s stories
  • Only Lovecraft’s stories
  • Only stories in imitation of Lovecraft
  • Only stories by Lovecraft and his friends
  • Only stories not by Lovecraft
  • Stories which expand our knowledge of the Mythos
  • Stories with a sense of “cosmic horror”
  • Stories which reflect the way you think about the Mythos
  • Stories you like
  • Stories you don’t like
  • Stories Donovan doesn’t like

Obviously, not all of these can be right. Still, there seems to be a core group of stories (those of Lovecraft, Derleth, Howard, Smith, Lumley, and so forth) which most fans agree belongs in the Mythos. I tend to define a “Cthulhu Mythos” story as one which includes an imaginary element (character, god, book, place) from other accepted Mythos stories (springing originally from Lovecraft’s stories which include either Cthulhu or the Necronomicon). Thus, if Story A mentioned one of Lovecraft’s creations from a story mentioning one or both of these key elements, it would be a Cthulhu Mythos story. If Story B mentions an element from Story A, it too becomes a Mythos story, and so forth. I exclude parodic material and those based on elements which turn up much more often in non-Mythos fiction (i.e. Sherlock Holmes is not Mythos, though he does turn up in Mythos tales), but I include other media, such as poems, pseudo-scholarly essays, occult works, television shows, radio dramatizations, and gaming material, in my definition. Even having said this, I do catch myself including something that I like from time to time.

Many Mythos fans would argue with me about this definition, saying that a story must have a sense of cosmic fear to be a Mythos story. I dispute this on several counts. First, if we say this, it excludes such works as Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, in which humanity does occupy a center stage but which contained numerous references to the Mythos. Second, it tends to center all “cosmic fear” stories around Lovecraft, when in truth people like Guy de Maupassant and William Hope Hodgson were writing such tales long before Lovecraft. Third, the degree to which a story includes “cosmic fear” is largely dependent on individual tastes — some think Thomas Ligotti is Lovecraft reincarnated, while others are less fond of him. I think it is much simpler to have two genres — “cosmic fear” and “Cthulhu Mythos” — which overlap at points. Others will disagree.

Some people (like me) still try to define what is and isn’t a Mythos story, but none of them has been successful in convincing others to accept their ideas. Coming up with a single definition of the Mythos is unlikely, and would be unenforceable even if a good one was found. Just remember that your definition of what is “in the Mythos” may not be the same as another person’s.

1.7. What’s this I hear about Lovecraftian occultism?

For the most part, the early Cthulhu Mythos authors saw their fiction as just that — fiction — and had no belief in the supernatural at all. Most Mythos writers and fans have followed suit, and even though groups like “Campus Crusade for Cthulhu” might pop up, their purpose is simply to have fun. A few people, however, believe that Lovecraft’s fiction conceals darker truths which a wizard or magician can use for their own ends. Both the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, for example, use a few elements of Cthulhu Mythos fiction in their rituals. The person who spearheaded the use of Lovecraft in magic was Kenneth Grant, head of the Typhonian OTO (which at one time had Aleister Crowley as its head). Most of what has followed has been derived from Grant’s experiments with the “Cthulhu current”.

Lovecraftian magic is quite controversial in the occult community. Some see it as a source of great power, others call it a joke, but most consider it more trouble than it’s worth. Those who wish to know more about this should post about it on the Usenet group alt.magick. Various orders devoted to Lovecraftian occultism exist, but they rarely last for long and I would rather not discuss any of them here lest I say something wrong about them or their enemies. I recommend that those who wish to join such an order be cautious, ask about it on alt.magick for several opinions, and read Kenneth Grant’s Hecate’s Fountain before diving in.

1.8. Is it true that the Cthulhu Mythos is derived from Sumerian mythology?

The clicking sound you may have heard was the rest of the FAQ readers scrolling past this question. This particular information comes from the Simon Necronomicon, a book of ill-repute among most Mythos fans. Generally, when someone states that there is a connection, they have only read the Necronomicon and have little knowledge of either the Cthulhu Mythos or Sumerian mythology. The “Cthulhu Mythos” names in the Necronomicon (those on pp. xix-xx) do not turn up in any other known Sumerian texts, or anywhere else other than Cthulhu Mythos stories and articles. If you don’t believe me, most libraries have good mythological dictionaries in which you can research Sumerian gods and demons. You might also try the The Temple of Enki and the Sumerian mythology FAQ.

When reading Cthulhu Mythos fiction, you may find parallels between the author’s myths and those of different cultures. This similarity is to some extent intentional; many of these authors have studied mythology, and have used elements of it in their fiction. Be careful when you try to chart similarities between fiction and myth, however; most of the attempts to do this I have seen (including my own less-serious ones) generally concentrate on a few superficial elements in both and fail to account for the vast differences between them.

1.9. Are there any references to the Cthulhu Mythos in video games?

(More clicking heard) There are a large number of Cthulhu-based games out there, the most famous of which are probably Alone in the Dark and Shadow of the Comet. You may also find out a large number of other games which mention Lovecraft’s creations in a peripheral way, such as Quake, which includes ,a href=”part2.htm#shubnigg”>Shub-Niggurath at the end and has many of its levels named after Mythos locations. *

1.10. Are there any references to the Cthulhu Mythos in music?

(Still more clicking) There are a number of bands which mention Lovecraft’s works in their songs. The most famous of these is Metallica, whose songs “The Call of Ktulu” (Ride the Lightning) and “The Thing that Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets) both deal with Lovecraft’s creatures, and were probably due to drummer and Lovecraft fan Lars Ulrich. A number of other heavy metal and death metal bands use Lovecraft’s work in occasional songs, gaining much of their inspiration from the Simon Necronomicon. You might want to look at the *music section of the alt.horror.cthulhu FAQ. There is only one band which deals with Lovecraft’s work on a regular basis: the infamous Vancouver punk band *Darkest of the Hillside Thickets.

(And just so you know, the above three questions are not the best for discussion on alt.horror.cthulhu, as they’re done to death at least once a month.)

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