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Cthulhu Mythos

Entry updated 6 January 2022. Tagged: Theme.


This Shared-World background derives from stories by H P Lovecraft, notably "The Call of Cthulhu" (February 1928 Weird Tales). The Mythos was elaborated by members of Lovecraft's circle, including Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E Howard, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft references some of these friends in Recursive jokes, ascribing a grimoire to the "Comte d'Erlette" (Derleth) and having "Robert Blake" (Bloch) driven mad in "The Haunter of the Dark" (December 1936 Weird Tales) – the latter in mock retaliation for Bloch's Lovecraft pastiche "The Shambler from the Stars" (September 1935 Weird Tales). The Round-Robin Mythos tale The Challenge from Beyond (September 1935 Fantasy Magazine; 1954 chap; exp as anth 1990) is by Howard, Long, Lovecraft, A Merritt and C L Moore.

The Mythos centres on a pantheon of monstrous "Great Old Ones" whose mere appearance may cause insanity (see Basilisks). Although these beings – Azathoth, Cthulhu, Hastur, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth et al – are systematized by Derleth in terms of Horror, Lovecraft himself interestingly presents them as Aliens from incomprehensibly different Dimensions. He aimed to evoke "cosmic terror", the dark side of Sense of Wonder, from these entities' unconcern for such small fry as humanity in a vast Universe: foolish enquirers are withered or destroyed almost incidentally. Some mystically charged names of the Mythos – Carcosa, Hali, Hastur – are borrowed from Ambrose Bierce via Robert W Chambers's The King in Yellow (coll 1895); they also feature in Marion Zimmer Bradley's sf Darkover sequence, e.g. The Heritage of Hastur (1975). Assorted apocryphal grimoires, most famously Lovecraft's own Necronomicon or Book of Dead Names, contain the dread Mythos lore and may themselves have basilisk-like effects. Inevitably, various spoof versions of the Necronomicon have appeared, including George Scithers's anonymously published Al Azif (The Necronomicon) (graph 1974) – comprising several pages of meaningless, vaguely Syriac calligraphy by Bob Dills, repeated again and again to fill out the book – and the collaborative The Necronomicon (anth 1978) edited by George Hay.

Later authors of Cthulhu Mythos fiction generally focus on its Horror aspect, even when using sf devices as in Donald Wandrei's The Web of Easter Island (1948). However, Colin Wilson treats it entirely in sf terms in The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher's Stone (1969), both of which rationalize the supernatural aspects via Psi Powers. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson also invoke Mythos entities in the delirious mishmash of conspiracy theories making up their Illuminatus! sequence: The Eye in the Pyramid (1975), The Golden Apple (1975) and Leviathan (1975). Gene Wolfe's Peace (1975) alludes recursively to the Mythos via an unscrupulous book dealer who forges its canonical grimoires for sale to collectors. Neil Gaiman's Hugo-winning "A Study in Emerald" (in Shadows Over Baker Street, anth 2003, ed Michael Reaves and John Pelan) ingeniously involves Sherlock Holmes with the Mythos. Charles Stross imagines Mythos beings deployed as Cold War terror Weapons leading to World War Three in "A Colder War" (July 2000 Spectrum SF); in lighter vein, his Laundry occult thrillers – opening with The Atrocity Archives (coll of linked stories 2004) – similarly blend rationalized Mythos tropes with sf devices (including a modern updating of the Electric Pentacle from the Carnacki stories by William Hope Hodgson) and pastiche of spy novels by Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Peter O'Donnell and others.

The retrospective Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (anth 1969; 1975 2vols) edited by August Derleth assembles early Mythos stories. New contributions, some of them sf, appear in The Disciples of Cthulhu (anth 1976) edited by Edward P Berglund, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (anth 1980) edited by Ramsey Campbell, Shadows Over Innsmouth (anth 1994) and Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (anth 2005), both edited by Stephen Jones – theme anthologies inspired by Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) and its sea-dwelling Deep Ones with which human cultists miscegenate (see Exogamy) – and Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology (anth 1995) edited by Jim Turner.

Role Playing Game adaptations of the Mythos include Call of Cthulhu (1981), Arkham Horror (1987) – a Board Game with role-playing elements – and Trail of Cthulhu (2008).

In 2020 the Cthulhu Mythos was awarded the first ever Retro Hugo for best series (of 1944). [DRL]

see also: The Acolyte; Forerunners; Series.

further reading

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