The works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have had a large impact on the work of many horror writers and game enthusiasts for a long time. The number of stories he has written, whether with entire books or short novellas, has given rise to the Cthulhu Mythos; a universe where madness underlies every intricate surface, and although there are entities that could be considered gods, they are horrors so unimaginable that even to look at them would break the spirit of the best of men and reduce them to a state of irreversible insanity.
The first work done by Lovecraft was The Call of Cthulhu, a short story published in the magazine Weird Tales during the year 1928 (Loucks (1). 2016). The story involved recollections of an explorer’s notes, which highlighted the existence of cults worshipping Great Old Ones, a ruined city near the Antarctic, and one of the above mentioned Great Old Ones briefly awakening: Cthulhu. Often, this first work is the one people are directed to as an introduction to the overall mythos (TheExploringSeries (1). 2016: 6:39-6:45).
Although the most widely known, The Call of Cthulhu wasn’t the only one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. Many of his stories were published in the horror and fantasy-based magazine Weird Tales (Kneale. 2006: 109). Other titles include The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, The Whisperer in Darkness and The Dunwich Horror (Loucks (2). 2016), to name a few.
However, of interest to me are the entities and themes presented in Lovecraft’s works. In particular, one prominent theme was of the protagonist’s journey of discovery leading them to a chilling truth: that humanity is worthless in the grand scheme of things (Lowell. 2004: 48). In The Call of Cthulhu, the narrator notes that the cult knows he is aware of the existence of Cthulhu. In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, after escaping the fictional town of Innsmouth and its monstrous population, the narrator notes that he has traced his lineage back to the town itself, and is becoming the very thing that once revolted him, soon to go and live in the sea with the rest of the monstrosities now considered family. These beings, thought to not exist, make the perception that humanity is the dominant species and highest form of life little more than a lie from ignorance (Portnow & Floyd. 2014: 2:22-2:38).
Another way this theme of humanity’s insignificance plays out in Lovecraft’s works can be found in the story titled The Shadow Out of Time. In this particular story, which involves a literal exchange of minds between two beings, even what humans believe to be true in the realm of physical science is nothing more than a comforting delusion to mask the frightening truth (Halpern & Labossiere, 2009: 513). Normally, regarding horror stories, the laws of physics are broken by the supernatural elements to make way for the moments of horror and the entities that will scare the characters (Halpern & Labossiere, 2009: 513). Lovecraft’s approach to this problem was to instead blend those elements into the realm of science, restructuring them as natural elements and turning what we understand by science into an elaborate lie (Halpern & Labossiere, 2009: 513).
The above feeds into another theme of Lovecraft’s works. This is the theme of isolation, and the way in which this works can be explained as follows; that the main character of the story has had an otherworldly experience, and often comes out worse for it, but at the same time, he cannot tell anyone of his discovery because if he does, he will be thought insane and shunned at best, or committed to an asylum at worst (Portnow & Floyd. 2014: 3:30-3:42). A second element that plays into this theme of isolation is the possibility of one’s own sanity being called into question. This comes into play as the character, regardless of the story, may feel he needs to let the world know of his discoveries, but at the same time, the nature of those events make them lose legitimacy in the eyes of society (Portnow & Floyd. 2014: 3:42-3:58). This aggravates the self-doubt in his experiences, leading him to question whether the world at large is merely ignorant, or if he himself has just gone insane (Portnow & Floyd. 2014: 3:42-3:58).
Portnow and Floyd (2014: 0:24-1:08) also explain why Cthulhu, or a similar being in Lovecraftian horror, gets misused by content creators who design media, especially games: Cthulhu cannot be fought, or even be looked upon without the human mind breaking down and going completely insane. Game creators who have tried to use Cthulhu have often made it possible to defeat the Great Old One, to hurt it, or to ward it off in some way, all of which moves against the spirit of the concept as it gives hope to the player. (Portnow & Floyd, 2014: 1:08-1:25)
Another important aspect, which a lot of popular culture has focused around, is the bestiary of entities that populate Lovecraft’s universe. Cthulhu, the sleeper of R’lyeh, is the most well-known of these entities, but there are other beings identified in the mythos, including Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and Shub-Niggurath. Many of these Great Old Ones had individual stories dedicated to them, or in some cases whole collections of stories. One thing to note, however, is that many of these deities were not written by Lovecraft himself, but were added in by other writers at one point in time.
The first of these other Great Old Ones that I will talk about is Hastur. Originally conceived by Ambrose Bierce as a benevolent god of shepherds in the story ‘Haita the Shepherd’, Robert W. Chambers slightly expanded the character in the collection of stories entitled ‘The King in Yellow’, albeit focusing on the play with which Hastur is associated (TheExploringSeries (2). 2016: 0:28-0:54). Finally, August Derleth was the one to fully flesh Hastur out as a Great Old One (TheExploringSeries (2). 2016: 1:52-1:56).
The second Great Old One I will mention is Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, and one of the few Great Old Ones to actively take an active interest in humanity. Nyarlathotep often takes a large number of forms, such as a Black Pharaoh wandering the Earth, driving more and more people to madness (TheExploringSeries (3). 2016: 0.57-1:00). Additionally, Nyarlathotep’s appearances weren’t restricted to the story bearing his name, but instead included several of Lovecraft’s works and marking him as the deity most used by Lovecraft (TheExploringSeries (3). 2016: 1:10-1:26).
The final Great Old One I will mention is Yog-Sothoth, also known as the Lurker at the Threshold. Yog-Sothoth is portrayed as the most knowledgeable of the Great Old Ones, being said to be all-seeing and all-knowing (TheExploringSeries (4). 2016: 0:20-0:23, 1:27-1:28). One thing to note is that Yog-Sothoth is the grandfather of Cthulhu himself (TheExploringSeries (1). 2016: 2:31-2:36)
To end off, Lovecraft created an entire multiverse not just by writing a fiction, but also encouraging others to do the same. With the focus on cosmic horror, and the number of writers who have contributed to the overall Mythos, a rich universe had been created with a number of unique inhabitants as well as a series of interesting concepts. Many forms of modern media, including video games, have drawn from this universe to create distinct experiences, and as a result, the effect of the Mythos on popular culture is considerable.
Kneale, J. 2006. “From beyond: H. P. Lovecraft and the place of horror”. Cultural Geographies. 13 (1): 106-126. Available: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=64d5790a-e0aa-45d3-8498-09f2a981c6e3%40sessionmgr101&vid=1&hid=124 [Online 9/11/2016]
Loucks, D. K (1). 2016 “H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”.“ The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Available: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/cc.aspx [Online 9/11/2016]
Loucks, D. K (2). 2016 “Visitors’ Favorite Stories.“ The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Available: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/favorites.aspx [Online 10/11/2016]
Lowell, M. 2004. “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU MYTHOS”. Explicator. 63 (1): 47-50. Humanities International Complete. Available: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=7a3246db-7856-426e-b0ba-8f343c34975c%40sessionmgr103&vid=1&hid=124 [Online 9/11/2016]
Portnow, J & Floyd, D. Why Games Do Cthulhu Wrong. Extra Credits. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DyRxlvM9VM [Online 22/1/2017]
TheExploringSeries (1). 2016. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos: Cthulhu. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKQMBYYIrSU [Online 9/11/2016]
TheExploringSeries (2). 2016. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos: Hastur. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fbGUs8Ukmw&list=PL-aprpylMuCdnaFEYwTzAobqUZGxS1D5p&index=7 [Online 9/11/2016]
TheExploringSeries (3). 2016. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos: Nyarlathotep. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYEBQJoz1_c&list=PL-aprpylMuCdnaFEYwTzAobqUZGxS1D5p&index=5 [Online 9/11/2016]
TheExploringSeries (4). 2016. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos: Yog-Sothoth. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmZP0VSENCA&list=PL-aprpylMuCdnaFEYwTzAobqUZGxS1D5p&index=3 [Online 22/1/2017]