The Cthulhu Mythos

26 Oct

The Cthulhu Mythos was a term coined by August Derleth to describe the collective work of several writers, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, most famously, H P Lovecraft. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his tales, in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft and his circle remade the horror genre in the early 20th century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead writing about malignant entities from beyond the stars. A number of plot devices were utilized by those writing about the Cthulhu Mythos in order to convey the essentials of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy. These devices included a wide array of extraterrestrial creatures (deemed ‘gods’ by their human followers), such as the cosmic entity in The Call of Cthulhu, the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness, and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness. Then there is the veritable library of mythical books containing the forbidden truth about these ‘gods’, such as the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the fictionalized New England landscape which was to be such an influence on later horror writers. As Stephen King once said, when as a child he found in his attic a dusty copy of Lovecraft’s The Lurker in the Shadows that once belonged to his father, “I knew that I’d found home”.


The Cthulhu Mythos takes its name from one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu (pronounced Khlul-hloo – the odd spelling is meant to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word). The Mythos implies that the reality we know is narrow and constricted – that lurking just beyond the boundaries of sanity are beings of vast power and malice that ruled this world before mankind. These ancient rulers of the universe have slumbered in a place called R’lyeh for uncounted aeons but are now stirring and intend to take back what was once theirs. Ever since Lovecraft first postulated the existence of these ‘Great Old Ones’ in the pages of Weird Tales, scores of other writers have been inspired to compose their own visions of his dark mythology. Most famous of these are the members of the Lovecraft Circle, a group of writers and friends, all contemporaries of Lovecraft and linked through their association with him. Lovecraft was a prodigious letter writer who made it a point to introduce his many like-minded friends to each other and encourage them to share stories, utilize each other’s invented fictional trappings, and help each other to succeed in the pulp field. In this sense the Lovecraft Circle shared many similarities with other literary conclaves such as The Inklings, the Bloomsbury Group, the Beats and, in the field of horror, the James Circle on the other side of the Atlantic. It was as a result of their membership of the Lovecraft Circle that prominent writers such as Howard and Smith contributed several stories to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. 

It has to be said that Howard and Smith were no mere imitators of Lovecraft. Howard wrote of foul sacrifices made to a reptilian god in Hungary, a werewolf prowling the corridors of a castle in strife-torn Africa, criminal masterminds on both sides of the Atlantic vying for world domination and an enchanted ring exerting a terrible influence upon its wearer. Meanwhile, Smith’s highly imaginative, genre-spanning visions of worlds of fantasy, horror and science fiction, combined with his profound understanding of the English language, earned him wide and lasting acclaim, as well as the epithet ‘The Bard of Auburn’. What the three men also shared was their strangeness. Lovecraft was a brilliant but complex character, racist, paranoid, disturbed and reclusive. The equally gifted Howard never married and always lived with his mother, who had been ill with tuberculosis his entire life. In 1936, upon learning that his mother had entered a coma from which she was not expected to wake, Howard, for reasons that are not entirely clear, walked out to his car and shot himself in the head. Lovecraft was deeply affected by Howard’s apparent suicide and, after being diagnosed with cancer, lived in constant pain, both mental and physical, until his death in 1937. Smith, who was – at least in terms of his literary skills and poetic flair – in some ways the finest writer of the three, also had a life touched by tragedy. The deaths of Howard and Lovecraft, in addition to those of both his parents, all in close proximity, left him exhausted and depressed. As a result, Smith withdrew from the literary scene to live in isolation in a small cabin in Auburn. He died peacefully of a stroke in his sleep in 1961.

Lovecraft’s reputation as a writer rests upon a remarkably small body of work: about 60 short stories, only three of which, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness, might be classified as short novels. However, even this small corpus of fiction presents a surprising richness of form, substance and texture. The scope and quality of Howard’s work (especially considering that he died at barely 30) was also tremendous – he wrote historical fiction, westerns, fantasy, thrillers, high adventure, romance, mythic fiction and horror. It was as a result of his membership of the Lovecraft Circle that Howard contributed several stories to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, beginning with The Black Stone. Although Smith, with studied playfulness, borrowed Lovecraft’s coinages of the names of strange gods and places for his stories, he did so with his own uniquely morbid vision, which was characterized by florid prose and a detailed attention to setting. Indeed, so different is Smith’s treatment of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that it has been dubbed by some the ‘Clark Ashton Smith-os’. What cannot be denied is that the combined legacy of all three, in the form of the Cthulhu Mythos, stands to this day. The mythologies of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and countless other fantasy, science fiction and horror universes all owe a large debt to their collective imaginings. With Halloween just around the corner, now is perhaps the perfect time for the uninitiated to enter the nightmare world of Lovecraft, Howard and Smith.

11 Responses to “The Cthulhu Mythos”

  1. mqallen October 26, 2013 at 5:12 am #

    It’s an interesting mythos. My son is very much into it. I’ve heard it called “cosmic horror”, which is a neat label- basically a universe where humans are insignificant and the real forces are beyond our comprehension.

    I’ll have to look at some of the non-Lovecraftian stuff again. I remember finding it creepy but rather ponderous.

    Check out Die Farbe is you haven’t seen it. A very well done adaptation of the Color of Space (out of space? forget the English title.)

  2. Parlor of Horror October 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Wonderful overview. Although I have read almost all of Lovecraft’s work (including stories furnished and finished by August Derleth) and some of Robert E. Howards work, I have not read too much of Smith’s work, only a few stories that were in anthologies. Do you have any must-read suggestions? Also, I posted a Lovecraft in Film post earlier this year if you care to take a look:

    • ashsilverlock October 29, 2013 at 7:19 am #

      Yes, ‘The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis’ is probably is one of the two works (the other being ‘The City of the Singing Flame’) for which Clark Ashton Smith is most famous.

      • Parlor of Horror October 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

        Thanks for the reccomends. I have read quite a bit of Arthur Machen, who has his own mythos but parallel to the old ones. I’m sure you’ve probably read his work. If not, I have reviews up in my Horror Books category on my blog if you care to check out some of his work.

  3. celticsprite October 28, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    Awesome post kind Ash, I am sure you will be glad to know that I have issued a short story “The Clay Book” now available for free regarding my forthcoming work rooted on HPL’s cosmogony… Now Available for FREE! :
    It would be nice to know your comments! Let’s keep in the loop…

  4. murmuration October 30, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Thank you for this! I am so enthralled with Lovecraft after reading more about his story, how he used to play at night in graveyards because his mother deemed him too ugly to go out in the day. How he dreamt most of the characters that he created. I have only read a book that combines his characters with the Necromonicon, so I sort of ritualistically saved a book I purchased of his short stories to read on Halloween. Looking forward to following your blog, loved this post.

  5. mynewtruth3 November 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    It amazes me how desperately some people want to believe in Cthulhu Mythos and the existence of the nonexistent Necronomicon. It’s almost as amusing as the belief in illusion of reality. Both are merely the product of creative genius. Years ago I was addicted to some of Lovecraft’s imaginative literary inventions. Since then I left the dark side in favor of healthier thoughts. If you can keep yourself from indulging in Lovecraft’s horror, I feel his stories are very entertaining.

  6. demoncat4 November 11, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    nice view on the cthulla mythos and how love craft work was indeed stuff one has to have a love of horror and gothic type stuff to really appriciate his work. and also interesting to learn lovecraft was reclusive and wound up committing suicide never knew that about him.

  7. tonyallen204 November 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Fantastic article, its spurred me on to read more Lovecraft. I have only read some short stories and he writes with a strange scariness I’ve not seen before, spooky and haunting without been gory

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