Mythos & Majesty
Personal Horror and H.P. Lovecraft
In today’s installment of Zen and the Art of Screaming, we examine how, despite his faults, H.P. Lovecraft changed the way we think about—and experience—horror.
H.P. Lovecraft was a hypersensitive shut-in who mostly communicated through writing. If he lived in the modern day, he would be one of those people sitting behind a computer who never left the house. He was also more than a bit racist, and by “more than a bit” he thought certain people came from eggs. With a failed marriage and few friends that weren’t on the other end of a postbox, socially he was largely hopeless. But through all this, despite all of his missteps, his racism and misogyny, he managed to defy existing boundaries and invented a new form of horror.
In all the forms that came before, from ghost stories to Frankenstein and all the various forms that monsters have taken, being human meant something. Monsters were a thing you could defeat. Monsters were a thing you could understand, you could see. Even the werewolf you could see, you knew it when you saw it, even though it might be the last thing you see. But you knew how to fight it; you could get a silver bullet and it was done. Being human mattered, because being human meant being important. What H.P. Lovecraft did—what no other writer before him had done besides, perhaps Edgar Allan Poe—was look up at the cold and unblinking stars and the vast spaces between them and said “what if the universe doesn’t give a damn about us? What if there are things out there that are so vast and powerful that we are less significant than ants beneath their feet?”
Not the old humanoid gods of the Greeks and the Romans—they were just humans taken to excess. No, the gods Lovecraft imagined were so alien, so foreign, so far outside the realm of our possibility, that to look upon them was to lose your mind. The idea that something so utterly wrong, so terrible that it annihilates one’s sanity by its mere presence. It is such a violation of everything we understand about existence that we cannot look upon it, see it, and know it for what it is. To do so shows us without a doubt how unimportant, trivial, and meaningless we are. That concept gave birth to a form of horror that we had never seen before.
But he did give it a name: he called it Cthulhu. Cthulhu was the high priest of the Great Old Ones, an order of beings that long predated humanity. If for some reason dread Cthulhu wasn’t dead, he was dreaming in a city left by these ancient powers that touched the Earth. His dreams were so powerful that they would be conveyed to humans, the unfortunate recipients forming cults in his name. But he was alien, he was foreign, he was impossible. The stories that Lovecraft wrote had a science fiction feel, but the greater truth was that they were saying that some things within the universe were so big and so powerful and so beyond our ken that they could destroy us just by walking by us.
They didn’t have to talk to us. They didn’t have to know us. There was no personal conflict with these things; no Van Helsing to do battle with it. The best you could hope for is that they would ignore you; that was the great truth that he created. Now, his Cthulhu mythos didn’t exist in a vacuum. The thing Lovecraft pioneered was his method, much in the same way that Edgar Allan Poe focused on something that is known as singular effect, where every word was to convey a singular emotional state. Lovecraft used many, many words to not describe the thing you are looking at.
Lovecraft would tell you all the things it wasn’t. Not what it was, because he was trying to convey how the mind desperately grasped for something to give context to what they saw, yet ultimately could not understand. To this end, many of his stories focused on moral and genetic degeneracy. In one instance, it is revealed that a white ape is someone’s grandmother, a fact that drives them to suicide because they couldn’t deal with the fact that they were descended from an ape [ 1 ]. Do with that whatever you will. I’m not saying the man was a saint by any stretch of the imagination. But I am saying he was very influential in his time—a time when the Scopes Monkey Trial was gripping the country [ 2 ].
Context in His Time
One of Lovecraft’s closest confidants was a fellow writer named Robert E. Howard [ 3 ]. Howard wrote two-fisted type adventures; he wrote sports stories, he wrote mysteries, he wrote war novels and things of this nature. But the thing you’re probably most familiar with is Conan the Barbarian [ 4 ]. Conan wasn’t his first work in the field of fantastic adventure stories. He had Kull the Conqueror, who was an Atlantean, and Solomon Kane, who was a witch hunter. But Conan specifically—and the Hyperborean Age in which Conan lived—was the time right after the ancient powers of the Lovecraft Mythos have passed through. Magic was evil and dangerous with the various, sorcerous nations; Lovecraft collaborated heavily on these works with Howard, and you can see a similar pattern within both works. There were aspects of the early Cthulhu religions shown in Conan. Of course, Conan’s solution to these problems was punching them, but a lot of the background work, a lot of the fleshing out of the setting itself was in collaboration with Lovecraft [ 5 ].
Lovecraft himself basically lived in the same community for most of his life. He had a brief period of where he lived in New York when he was married. The marriage fell apart after a very short period and ended in disaster. He then returned to his beloved Rhode Island to live with his aunt until his final days. However, much as influences of Lovecraft’s work emerged in Howard’s (and vice versa), his creations did not end with him. He had many devotees to his work and his vision and wanted to continue his work. August Derleth was chief among these fans, while taking significant creative liberties and adding a bit of a tangential “spin” to the entirety of the mythos.
Derleth managed to acquire some of Lovecraft’s works, as well as the rights to others, upon his death. He then created the Arkham House publishing imprint, which then published more Cthulhu stories after his death [ 6 ]. These tales were quite comprehensive and really fleshed out the universe and the setting that Lovecraft created. There is a full pantheon of horrors there from Cthulhu, Hastur, Ygolonac, Shub-Niggurath, and so on. Lovecraft had an extensive collection of work, but Arkham House took the notes that he had left: according to a popular, but not verifiable, story there was a big black steamer trunk in which Lovecraft kept his various notes and that the acquisition of those notes is what fueled the start of the publishing house. In there they found many of the correspondences between Lovecraft and Howard and published them. There are fascinating examples of the written conversations between these two men over many years. Sadly, Robert E. Howard met his end by his own hand shortly after the death of his mother, who died of cancer. It was a sad end to a great career, but one that lives on much as his friend Lovecraft’s.
Lovecraft does not necessarily lend himself very easily to film or other mediums, as he is not telling you what the monster looks like. He’s telling you what it doesn’t look like, and trying to build that sense of atmosphere, that sense of dread with a visual medium, is very hard. When he does it with writing he’s making these implications and allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps in its most horrific way; from that, readers gain some sort of terrible insight to this otherworldly monster that is there. Make no mistake, although his work is epic in scope, trying to get this into film form has been relatively nightmarish, no pun intended.
While there have been some good examples that have come out over the years, some have been straight out awful. Yet his influence is wider than it once appeared. The films The Dunwich Horror [ 7 ] and In the Mouth of Madness [ 8 ] are both good examples of Cthulhu mythos and the setting adapted into a more palatable visual format. Arguably, despite their “campy” qualities, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, as well as Army of Darkness, are good modern interpretations of his works. Evil Dead obviously has some strong influence from Lovecraft with the inclusion of the Necronomicon, the notoriously evil magic book which features in all too many Lovecraftian tales [ 9 ]. There have been countless horror works that have taken the Necronomicon as part of its storytelling method to introduce dark and terrible powers and unimaginable horrors.
Arguably there have been evil books in other similar works that he wrote. He also has some very interesting stories that feature extraterrestrials; something I appreciate about his aliens is that they do not at all look like little green people. A lot of sci-fi back in the day said, “I’ll slap a silver jump suit on it and add some antenna and away we go,” because clearly all the aliens are going to look like us, right? Lovecraft not only didn’t believe that—he thought that was impossible and absurd.
Another thing that you will find throughout his works is an insular nature of the towns. For example, Shadow Over Innsmouth, symbolic of the whole insular nature of New England towns, is about a place where they don’t really talk with outsiders because most of the townsfolk have been interbreeding with amphibious horrors that live just offshore; these evil fish men worship the Babylonian god, Dagon [ 10 ]. That of course is where he is reflecting on his own personal environment.
The aquatic horror is a prevalent theme in his work, with some claiming Lovecraft’s own fish allergies created a deep disdain for such creatures [ 11 ]. The aquatic aspect of his monster is again implied; however, the cosmic scale and scope of its very nature is hard to express in a medium in which you can see things physically. Movies aren’t ideal for conveying this feeling. Even with books it’s hard to do. Radio has the best chance for outside media to show Lovecraftian horror; for example, the pseudo-radio program Welcome to NightVale, which features a protagonist that is the DJ for the radio station in a very peculiar town [ 12 ]. The setting is very Lovecraftian; however, the tone is also very tongue in cheek. I find that it has a sense of humor about itself, which is quite refreshing to a mythos that normally takes itself very seriously.
Lovecraft also expresses a strong distrust for archeology, conveying that things from the past are best left buried. One of Lovecraft’s characters, Nyarlathotep, was particularly evocative of ancient Egypt, as he referred to the entity as the Black Pharaoh and the Creeping Chaos. Lovecraft also implies something that resonates in Howard’s work, that digging into any past, such as the past of your own family, or of a seemingly innocuous place, leads to madness and ruin. Don’t ask about the rats in the walls, don’t ask about the ancient journal, and don’t ask about what that guy saw, or what that guy did, or whose ancestors they are. You are not going to be happy when you discover the truth. Oedipus just went blind; in a Lovecraft tale that’s getting off easy.
Many times, in Lovecraft’s tales you are dealing with the story of very intelligent people. Lovecraft was not afraid to have a really smart guy be his protagonist, so you would have the aura of rationality around him so that when he was broken down, he would retreat to logic and then have his logic fail him. When later authors pick up these stories and develop them further, many of the trappings that we know of the mythos came into existence. The Elder Sign, a symbol which drives hellish creatures off in the same way a crucifix repels a vampire is one example. The pantheon has become more fleshed out through these successors telling their stories.
Cthulhu eventually went, as these things do, from being an object of horror and terror to being in fact rather cute and comedic. He’s been adapted onto lunchboxes, plush stuffed animals and bobble heads. It lost some of its horror because when you can see it, name it, and touch it, as “Great Cthulhu” ceases to be that shadowy entity looming impossibly large, over and beyond you. Once we have a name for a thing, we’ve got a handle on it. We don’t understand what a crab nebula is; it is too big and far away for us to understand. But I can say “The Crab Nebula” and you know what I mean: you’re not thinking about the trillions and trillions of miles between us and that nebula or the trillions of miles it comprises. It’s that big, it’s that foreign; we don’t understand it and we can’t understand it. Most astronomers have bent their minds to be able to comprehend the sort of numbers they deal with because the universe is that big. The universe is that incomprehensible. That is what makes Lovecraft enduring, not just the little plushies. Some of his nightmarish horrors, well, good luck making a plushie out of it. Though corporate media will certainly try, but that’s a different form of existential horror.
The things that make Lovecraft enduring—the thing that gives his stories their undying power and prestige—is that we live in a universe that we really do not understand. That is the truth that Cthulhu brings, that is the source of the horror on a human scale. That the world is more complicated, bigger, and vaster than we can ever hope to understand.
Maybe our ancestors got a glimpse of it and they recoiled with the horror. Maybe Lovecraft just wrote down what everybody else was thinking when they were looking at the dawning of the nuclear age opening before them. They were looking at a world unlike any they had come before: a world where science took the lead and science didn’t say we were special; just said we were there and that it was oddly miraculous that we were there at all. So, he sets these stories in distant and exotic locations, the depths of the ocean or a distant island or the Antarctic, because that’s where those little bits of unknown still exist.
For those who have never read any of Lovecraft’s work perhaps a brief introduction is in order. Cthulhu is the High Priest of Azathoth. Azathoth is, essentially, a god—an omnipotent but completely insane being, the size of a galaxy, slumbering as ethereal tunes keep him lulled. If he would awake, it would be bad. Other major players in the Cthulhu Mythos include Yog-Sothoth, who is an extra-dimensional entity that, while it likes humans very little, is one of the primordial entities that is worshipped like Cthulhu. There is Shub-Niggurath, also known as the Black She-Goat of a Thousand Young and the Lurker in the Wood. She is an ancient and bizarre fertility goddess, and is perhaps even wife, sister, or both to Yog-Sothoth. Yet she is best known for her spawn that are many-tentacled goat-like beasts that resemble twisted trees. These entities may or may not eat you. Sometimes they will do much, much worse [ 13 ].
Other entities include Tsathoggua, which is a bunny-like creature (in the way that the Donnie Darko rabbit is “bunny-like”) that lives in a cave in the Himalayas. Tsathoggua likes to hug people to death. There are numerous lesser servitor creatures, ghouls, and vampires. There are the Deep Ones, who are the servitors of Dagon and interbreed with the humans of Innsmouth as part of an ancient pact to protect that city and to see to its prosperity. There are the Night Gaunts, who are creatures who live in dreams and come forth to drag people into the Dreamlands and tickle them—sometimes to death.
The Night Gaunts are particularly horrifying for their complete silence, as they lack mouths, yet that kind of nightmarish vision is one of the more commonplace. There are also of course the various human cultists who worship these dark and terrible powers. There are some other entities that are not necessarily gods like the Old Ones, but they are ancient and powerful. The Mi-Go, or the Fungi from Yuggoth as they are called, are weird-looking cucumber shaped entities that live on Pluto and engage in a lot of mining. They deal with problematic humans by putting their brains in jars and taking over the body. Therefore, it’s become a commonly referenced trope that the three most probable fates one can expect in the Cthulhu mythos is dead, insane, or never heard from again [ 13 ].
Of course, no story of Lovecraft and his creations would be complete without going into the tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu [ 14 ]. CoC has been around for many years and has many iterations. You play investigators looking into and solving various mysteries involving cultists, strange disappearances, and unusual sightings. Investigators often end up duking it out with a plethora of chthonic entities with each encounter often leading to the aforementioned death, insanity, or never being heard from again. Your characters are often doomed from the onset and few, if any, get to the end of these stories. I have played Call of Cthulhu and at best it is claustrophobic, unnerving, disturbing and kind of classic in its way. It is set in the in the ’20s and the ’30s, so you have a bit of the Steampunk or Dieselpunk angle but with much less hope. In fact, there is no hope: you are doomed. The cultists are deranged nihilists, the investigators are in over their collective heads and up against forces they cannot possibly prevail against.
In my own character’s case, he developed an insanity that caused him to see supernatural monsters everywhere and he was gunned down by his local police force after he shot his mailman for thinking he was a monster. The other form of insanity you get in that game is that you think everything is normal to you. You stop seeing monsters as monsters, a Deep One wanders by, and you simply think, “Ah, it’s just a guy in a wet suit.” That is really the story of the game. When the most dangerous thing you can do is wander into a library alone and touch a book, it tells you a lot about the setting and the mentality of that world. Knowledge is power—and knowledge will destroy you. The more you know about the truth of reality, the less sane you become; it wears away at you until you lose your mind. The line between who is the monster and who is the monster hunter gets blurred to the point where you become the monster yourself. This is highly appropriate for Lovecraft’s brand of existential terror.
H.P Lovecraft may have not published many books while he was alive, but his ideas have stood the test of time. Evidence of this is in how many of his creations have outlived him to provide us with cosmic horror today.
- “The body of work that Lovecraft created, while prodigious, is barely a drop in the bucket of his cultural impact, even within his own lifetime.”
- “A recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work, is the infamous libram carried by Alhazred the Mad, The Necronomicon. This is hardly the only usage of occult tomes and arcane mystery, a frequent theme in the Mythos’ narratives.”
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
- Emrys, Ruthanna, and Anne M. Pillsworth. “If We Knew What We Were… — ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.’” Tor.com, Tor.com, 16 June 2015, tor.com/2015/06/16/if-we-knew-what-we-were-facts-concerning-the-late-arthur-jermyn-and-his-family/
- History.com Editors. “Scopes Trial.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 Nov. 2017, history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial
- Shogan. “The Letters of Robert E. Howard.” Users.rcn.com, users.rcn.com/shogan/howard/letters/rehletters.htm. Accessed 20 June 2021.
- Howard, Robert E, and Finn J D John. Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian: The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus. Corvallis, Oregon, Pulp-Lit Productions, 2017.
- “Arkham House Publishers—about Us.” Arkham House, Arkham House Publishers, arkhamhouse.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=ABUS Accessed 20 June 2021.
- “Arkham House Publishers—about Us.” Arkham House, Arkham House Publishers, arkhamhouse.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=ABUS Accessed 20 June 2021.
- The Dunwich Horror. Directed by Daniel Haller, American International Pictures, 14 Jan. 1970.
- In the Mouth of Madness. Directed by John Carpenter, New Line Cinema, 3 Feb. 1995.
- Lambie, Ryan. “From Lovecraft to Evil Dead: The History of the Necronomicon.” Den of Geek, Den of Geek World Limited, 3 Apr. 2013, denofgeek.com/movies/from-lovecraft-to-evil-dead-the-history-of-the-necronomicon/.
- Lovecraft, H P. Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. New York, Chartwell Books, 2016.
- Tyson, Donald. “H. P. Lovecraft: Flight from Madness.” Llewellyn Worldwide, Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., 25 Oct. 2010, llewellyn.com/journal/article/2152.
- “Welcome to Night Vale Wiki.” Nightvale.fandom.com, Fandom Inc., 17 May 2021, nightvale.fandom.com/wiki/Welcome_to_Night_Vale_Wiki.
- “The H.P Lovecraft Wiki Characters.” Lovecraft.fandom.com, Fandom Inc., lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Category:Characters.
- Petersen, Sandy, et al. Call of Cthulhu: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. Hayward, CA, Chaosium, 2004.