H P Lovecraft and the Foundations of a Mythos

H P Lovecraft is famed for his creation of what is widely known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”, a term used to describe the intricate fictional universe constructed by Lovecraft that was gradually expanded upon through successive stories. This fictional universe became so influential that it continued to be widely referenced, utilised and expanded by other authors even after Lovecraft’s death, and still is today.

Even outside of the direct use of the Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft’s influence can be found across modern horror literature, films, and music, such as the Evil Dead franchise (1981-2015), songs such as Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets, 1986), games such as Bloodborne (2015), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

During his lifetime, Lovecraft’s contemporary authors also referenced his fictional universe, just as Lovecraft referenced the creations of his contemporaries. For example, Lovecraft wrote in a letter to William Anger, in 1934, of the “ fun of building up a convincing cycle of synthetic folklore, all of our gang frequently allude to the pet daemons of the others–thus Smith uses my Yog-Sothoth, while I use his Tsathoggua.” In another letter to Robert E. Howard, written in 1930, Lovecraft notes that “I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.”

In his creation of this mythic world, Lovecraft utilised several symbols and plot devices which are utilised throughout his stories to create a coherent mythology that has inspired generations. These distinctive aspects of Lovecraft’s writing can be observed even in his very early works which pre-date the stories that contributed to the Cthulhu mythos. Most of the following examples focus on The Tomb (1917), The Horror at Red Hook (1925), The Call of Cthulhu (1926), and The Dunwich Horror (1928), as those are the stories I have re-read most recently.

Recurring Characteristics of Lovecraft’s Writing:

1.

A common feature of Lovecraft’s writing was the presence of narrators or protagonists that can see beyond the mundane or material reality. This begins in one of Lovecraft’s earliest works, The Tomb (1917), in which the first person narrator notes that:

It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.”

Excerpt From: H.P. Lovecraft & Digital Papyrus. “H.P. Lovecraft: The Ultimate Collection”.

2.

Another common feature was a focus on ancient books and writings, feared and loathsome volumes, sometimes in obscure languages. Particularly in the case of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Necronomicon is the most feared of all. The antagonists in Lovecraft’s writing often have an obsession with occult books, either having large libraries of their own, or going to great lengths to acquire particular volumes (sometimes both). In The Horror of Red Hook, “Suydam had read and brooded for some six decades”, and maintained “a vast, high-ceiled library whose walls were solidly packed with tattered books of ponderous, archaic, and vaguely repellent aspect.” This “repellent aspect” is a common feature of the occult tomes used for various nefarious purposes in Lovecraft’s stories. The Necronomicon is described in The Dunwich Horror as “hideous”, and “the dreaded volume kept under lock and key at the college library”.

3.

Another characteristic is ancient cults and sects, or individuals, that worship beings or powers beyond human comprehension. The Dunwich Horror and The Horror at Red Hook both feature individuals that set horrifying events in motion through their obsession with arcane knowledge contained in ancient books. Though The Horror at Red Hook also features an ancient cult and their rituals, it is a single man, Robert Suydam, that possesses a library and obsession with the occult which allows him to unlock the full potential of these rituals. In The Dunwich Horror, it is Old Whateley, whose obsession with sorcery and ancient lore and the mysterious tomes of his centuries-old library (which includes a copy of the Necronomicon) leads to the unleashing of a terrible force with the potential to destroy mankind.

In The Call of Cthulhu, it is an ancient cult almost brings devastation on humankind by awakening and releasing the Great Old Ones:

They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

Excerpt From: H.P. Lovecraft & Digital Papyrus. “H.P. Lovecraft: The Ultimate Collection”.

H P LoveCraft  Quote

4.

Finally, Lovecraft’s stories focused, perhaps above all else, on immense cosmic horrors that exist in the universe, which cannot be fully comprehended by mankind. In the Cthulhu Mythos, these cosmic horrors became personified as The Great Old Ones. Prior to this, in earlier works such as The Horror at Red Hook, these cosmic horrors were more loosely based on a variety of ancient mythologies and imagery. This story, which features another protagonist who is described as having “a far vision of weird and hidden things, but the logician’s quick eye for the outwardly unconvincing”, refers to “age-old horror” that is “a hydra with a thousand heads, “cults of darkness” that are “rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus”, and “poisons older than history and mankind”.

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A List of Lovecraft’s Works that belong to the Cthulhu Mythos

Although many of his other works reference certain aspects and themes of the Cthulhu universe, these are the works considered by Lin Carter (see further reading/references below) to comprise the Cthulhu Mythos:

1. “The Nameless City” (1921)

2. “The Hound” (1922)

3. “The Festival” (1923)

4. “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)

5. “The Dunwich Horror” (1928)

6. “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)

7. “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932)

8. “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931)

9. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931)

10. “The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35)

11. “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935)

12. “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933)

13. History of the Necronomicon (short essay)

14. Fungi from Yuggoth (poem) (1929-30)


Further Reading/References: 

H.P. Lovecraft & Digital Papyrus. “H.P. Lovecraft: The Ultimate Collection (160 Works including Early Writings, Fiction, Collaborations, Poetry, Essays & Bonus Audiobook Links).” Digital Papyrus. iBooks.

Lin Carter, Lovecraft: Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos – The Background of a Myth that has Captured a Generation, Ballantine Books, 1972.

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1934/was-h-p-lovecrafts-necronomicon-for-real

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