- Cthulhu Mythos
- Term devised by August Derleth to denote the pseudomythology underlying some of HPL’s tales, chiefly the “cosmic” stories of his last decade of writing.It is difficult to know how seriously HPL himself regarded his invented pantheon or his invented New England topography (which has also been regarded by later critics as an important component of the Mythos). That pantheon developed from his very earliest work — “Dagon” (1917)—to his last, and it was in a state of constant flux, as HPL never felt bound to present a rigidly consistent theogony from one tale to the next. His own references to his pseudomythology are vague and inconsistent, suggesting that, even though he employed it often enough, it was merely for coloration, not the primary theme of his fiction. One of HPL’s first comments on the matter is briefly stated in a letter to James. F.Morton (April 1, 1927; AHT), when he remarks that he has written an “atmospheric episode of the Arkham cycle” (i.e., “The Colour out of Space”). He next noted that “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) “belongs to the Arkham cycle” ( SL2.246). In 1934 he told a correspondent, “I’m not working on the actual text of any story just now, but am planning a novelette of the Arkham cycle [never written]—about what happened when somebody inherited a queer old house on the top of Frenchman’s Hill & obeyed an irresistible urge to dig in a certain queer, abandoned graveyard on Hangman’s Hill at the other edge of the town. This story will probably not involve the actual supernatural—being more of the ‘Colour out of Space’ type . . . . . greatly-stretched ‘scientifiction’” (HPL to F.Lee Baldwin, March 27, 1934; ms. JHL). He never elucidates this expression “Arkham cycle,” which appears to suggest that his invented topography (Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, Dunwich) is a central component of certain loosely linked tales.Writing to Clark Ashton Smith ([November 11, 1930]; ms. in private hands), HPL mentioned YogSothoth as one of several “ingredients of the Miskatonic Valley myth-cycle.” In early 1931, HPL wrote to Frank Belknap Long: “I really agree that ‘Yog-Sothoth’ is a basically immature conception, & unfitted for really serious literature…. But I consider the use of actual folk-myths as even more childish than the use of new artificial myths, since in employing the former one is forced to retain many blatant puerilities and contradictions of experience which could be subtilised or smoothed over if the supernaturalism were modelled to order for the given case. The only permanently artistic use of Yog-Sothothery, I think, is in symbolic or associative phantasy of the frankly poetic type; in which fixed dream-patterns of the natural organism are given an embodiment & crystallisation…. But there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than those of ordinary oneiroscopy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsideness” ( SL3.293–94). HPL’s comment shows that his “pseudomythology” is not so much a “false” or made-up mythology, but an anti-mythology—the only kind of mythology that could be possible in this day and age. It is not a mythology of the kind invented or believed in by previous cultures—lore or legend intended to explain or account for the history of humankind, the history of the universe, the exploits of heroes, and so on. In fact, the careful reader of his stories will realize that it is no mythology at all, but a cycle of events intended to be perceived by only the more primitive or impressionable characters as realin the context of the fiction. Again, HPL’s use of the term “Yog-Sothothery” is unclear, but it appears to denote his more “cosmic” narratives (the letter was written during his writing of At the Mountains of Madness). The context in which HPL used “Yog-Sothothery” (which resembles such terms as tomfooleryand chicanery) suggests that HPL took his pseudomythology none too seriously.HPL emphasized that allhis tales—whether they used his pseudomythology or his invented topography or not—were linked philosophically. His canonical utterance on the subject occurs in a letter to Farnsworth Wright (July 5, 1927), accompanying the resubmittal of “The Call of Cthulhu” to WTand at a time by which he had written the majority of his tales, but only a few of what most proponents refer to as his “mythos” fiction: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all” ( SL2.150). As early as the fall of 1927, when Frank Belknap Long wrote “The Space-Eaters,” HPL’s associates were “adding” components to various elements of his tales—in this case, his ever-growing library of mythical volumes of occult lore (Long invented John Dee’s translation of the Necronomicon,citing it as an epigraph to his tale, although the epigraph was omitted in its first appearance in WT,July 1928). HPL cited Long’s invention in “History of the Necronomicon” (1927). In late 1929 Clark Ashton Smith wrote “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which invented the toad-god Tsathoggua. Whether Smith was inspired by HPL’s example is debatable; in fact, it was HPL who borrowed from Smith, citing Tsathoggua in his revision of Zealia Bishop’s “The Mound” (1929–30), on which he was then working, and also in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930). Smith himself later wrote, in reference to several citations by other authors of elements he had invented: “It would seem that I am starting a mythology” (Smith to August Derleth, January 4, 1933; ms., SHSW).In 1930 N.J.O’Neail wrote a letter to WT (March 1930) inquiring whether “Kathulos” cited in Robert E.Howard’s “Skull-Face” (1929) was related to or derived from Cthulhu. Howard in turn queried HPL as to the reality of the various mythological elements cited in HPL’s tales, to which HPL replied: “Regarding the solemnly cited myth-cycle of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Nug, Yeb, Shub-Niggurath, etc. etc.—let me confess that this is all a synthetic concoction of my own” ( SL 3.166), going on to say that he dropped references to this myth-cycle in his ghostwritten tales purely for fun. Howard himself thereupon began dropping references to HPL’s myth-cycle in his tales, although neither he nor Smith nor Donald Wandrei nor even younger disciples such as Robert Bloch ever actually wrote stories about HPL’s mythic conceptions—they merely dropped references to HPL’s entities in the course of their tales, for the sake of cryptic allusiveness and verisimilitude. It is an exaggeration to say that HPL “encouraged” these imitations or elaborations of his myth-cycle; in most cases, the writers simply made additions of their own accord, and HPL (usually out of courtesy) praised the results.August Derleth, however, appears to have become obsessed with the Mythos, from as early as 1931, when he wrote the first draft of “The Return of Hastur” ( WT, March 1939). At that time he suggested to HPL that the myth-cycle be given a name; he offered the Mythology of Hastur. HPL replied: “It’s not a bad idea to call this Cthulhuism & Yog-Sothothery of mine The Mythology of Hastur’—although it was really from Machen & Chambers & others rather than through the Bierce-Chambers line, that I picked up my gradually developing hash of theogony—or daimonogeny” (HPL to August Derleth, May 16, 1931; ms., SHSW). (HPL refers to his derivation of the term Hastur from Robert W.Chambers’s The King in Yellow ; Chambers himself derived it from various tales of Ambrose Bierce. In “Some Notes on a Nonentity”  HPL stated that it was from Lord Dunsany that HPL “got the idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by ‘Cthulhu’, ‘Yog-Sothoth’, ‘Yuggoth’, etc.,” suggesting that HPL was adapting the imaginary pantheon found in Dunsany’s early volumes of tales, The Gods of Pegana  and Time and the Gods .) He also wrote to Robert Bloch (late May 1933): “As for the synthetic myth-cycle — I suppose I got the idea from Poe’s allusions to fabulous lands of his own dreaming, from Dunsany’s artificial pantheon, & from Machen’s portentous references to ‘Aklo letters’, ‘Voorish domes’, &c.” ( Letters to Robert Bloch,p. 11). HPL went on to say in another letter to Derleth: “The more these synthetic daemons are written up by different authors, the better they become as general background-material! I liketo have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s [Clark Ashton Smith] Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran” (HPL to August Derleth, August 3, 1931; ms., SHSW). Derleth used that last sentence as a license to continue writing tales using HPL’s pseudomythology, although even before HPL’s death he warned at least one writer (Henry Kuttner) to avoid using HPL’s pseudomythological elements in his own work as doing so could hamper HPL’s ability to earn income from his own ideas. Ultimately Derleth himself departed from the tradition of HPL’s own colleagues by writing stories entirely aboutHPL’s mythic conceptions, rather than using them as “general background-material.”In 1932 the composer Harold S.Farnese engaged HPL in an epistolary discussion of HPL’s theory and practice of weird fiction. Farnese seems to have misunderstood much of what HPL said to him, and after HPL’s final move to 66 College Street, the two lost touch with each other. Then, after HPL’s death, when August Derleth asked Farnese to lend him HPL’s correspondence for use in SL,Farnese replied (April 11, 1937; ms., SHSW) that he could not at the moment find all his letters from HPL, but he supplied what he had, as well as what he claimed was a direct quotation from one missing letter: “Upon congratulating HPL upon his work, he answered, ‘You will, of course, realize that all my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on one fundamental lore or legend: that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet love on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’‘The Elders,’ as he called them” (emphasis by Farnese). This quotation does not appear in any surviving letter by HPL to Farnese or anyone else. Derleth, however, found the quotation useful in his own interpretation of the Mythos, which differed radically from what HPL himself conceived. (Derleth was unable to recall where he had obtained the quotation and, very late in life, became angry when Richard L.Tierney asked him to verify its source.) This interpretation featured several key notions:1. The Old Ones (a term HPL used in several stories to denote several different entities, most notably the barrel-shaped extraterrestrials in At the Mountains of Madness) are “evil” or “malignant” and are opposed by the “Elder Gods” as forces of good. But HPL never mentions any such entities as “Elder Gods”; “Elder Ones” are cited in “The Strange High House in the Mist” and some other tales, but their exact denotation is unclear. HPL did not regard his Old Ones as evil or malignant, although in some cases they presented a physical danger to humanity.2. The major gods of HPL’s mythology were “elementals”: Cthulhu a water elemental, Nyarlathotep an earth elemental, and Hastur an air elemental. Since HPL purportedly failed to provide a fire elemental, Derleth obligingly supplied Cthugha. HPL, however, did not conceive of his “gods” as elementals; the fact that Cthulhu is an extraterrestrial imprisoned(not enthroned) in the underwater city of R’lyeh makes it highly illogical that it should be considered a water elemental. The glancing citation of Hastur in “The Whisperer in Darkness” does not make it clear that it is even an entity (in Bierce, Hastur is the god of shepherds; in Chambers, a star or constellation).3. HPL’s mythology parallels the “expulsion of Satan from Eden and Satan’s lasting power of evil” in Christian mythology(Derleth, “Introduction” to HPL’s The Dunwich Horror and Others[Arkham House, 1963], p. xiii). This interpretation appealed to the Roman Catholic Derleth but is absurd when attributed to the atheist HPL.4. There is a rigid distinction to be made between those of HPL’s tales that “belonged” to the “Cthulhu Mythos” and those that did not. Much subsequent criticism (by Francis T.Laney, Lin Carter, and others) was involved in debating which stories did or did not “belong” to the Mythos, but most critics failed to note that HPL scattered references to his pseudomythology, his imaginary topography, and his mythical books across many stories, making the exercise of segregating them into mutually exclusive categories a futile endeavor.5. HPL consciously developed his mythology, but died before he could accomplish all he intended to do.But HPL had no such intention; only Derleth seems to have arrived at this conclusion. See, for example, his statement concerning his “posthumous collaboration” with HPL, “The Shuttered Room,” that it is a “wedding of the Innsmouth and Dunwich themes, as manifestly HPL intended to do, judging by his scant notes” (Derleth to Felix Stefanile, August 11, 1958; ms., SHSW). There is no evidence in HPL of an Innsmouth theme, or a Dunwich theme, or that he intended to join them. Derleth began expounding his view of the Mythos—and attributing it to HPL—as early as the article “H.P.Lovecraft, Outsider” ( River,June 1937), in which he first mentioned the “Cthulhu mythology” and first cited the spurious “All my stories” quotation. He continued to disseminate this view in books, articles, and introductions to HPL’s stories for the rest of his life. He also wrote numerous “posthumous collaborations” with HPL, taking plot germs from HPL’s commonplace book (most of which had no connection with his pseudomythology), making “Cthulhu Mythos” tales of them, and affixing HPL’s name to them. He also wrote numerous “Cthulhu Mythos” tales of his own (e.g., The Mask of Cthulhu , The Trail of Cthulhu ). In some cases he urged other writers (such as Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley) to “add” to the “Cthulhu Mythos”; in other cases he threatened legal action against others who sought to do so (e.g., in regard to the pulp writer C.Hall Thompson) when their work did not conform to his interpretation. What is most difficult to comprehend is that Derleth published HPL’s statement to Farnsworth Wright (cited above) in Marginalia(in “Two Comments,” pp. 305–6), as though it were an important statement about HPL’s work; and yet, even though it was diametrically opposed to the conception Derleth had devised, Derleth nevertheless continued to emphasize the less tenable statement—the “black magic” quotation provided by Farnese. Despite research in the 1970s by Richard L.Tierney, Dirk W.Mosig, and others exposing the errors of Derleth’s interpretation, numerous writers continued to write their own takeoffs of the Mythos, a phenomenon that gathered considerable steam in the 1990s with many anthologies of “Cthulhu Mythos” stories assembled by Robert M.Price. Few scholars today, however, regard HPL’s pseudomythology as significant in itself; rather, they see it as one of several ways through which HPL expressed his distinctive cosmic vision.See Matthew H.Onderdonk, “The Lord of R’lyeh,” Fantasy Commentator 1, No. 6 (Spring 1945): 103– 14 (rpt. LSNo. 7 [Fall 1982]: 8–17); George T.Wetzel, “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study,” in HPL, ed. Meade and Penny Frierson (1972) (rpt. FDOC); Richard L.Tierney, “The Derleth Mythos,” in HPL,ed. Meade and Penny Frierson (1972); Dirk W.Mosig, “H.P.Lovecraft: Myth-Maker,” Whispers 3, No. 1 (December 1976): 48–55 (revised version in FDOC); Robert M. Price, “Demythologizing Cthulhu,” LS No. 8 (Spring 1984): 3–9; Will Murray, “The Dunwich Chimera and Others,” LS No. 8 (Spring 1984): 10–24; Will Murray, “An Uncompromising Look at the Cthulhu Mythos,” LS No. 12 (Spring 1986): 26– 31; David E.Schultz, “Who Needs the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’?” LSNo. 13 (Fall 1986): 43–53; Thekla Zachrau, Mythos und Phantastik: Funktion und Struktur der Cthulhu-Mythologie in den phantastischen Erzaahlungen H.P. Lovecrafts (Peter Lang, 1986); Donald R.Burleson, S.T.Joshi, Will Murray, Robert M.Price, and David E.Schultz, “What Is the Cthulhu Mythos?” (panel discussion), LSNo. 14 (Spring 1987): 3–30; David E.Schultz, “The Origin of Lovecraft’s ‘Black Magic’ Quote,” CryptNo. 48 (St. John’s Eve 1987): 9–13 (revised version in The Horror of It All, ed. Robert M.Price [Starmont House, 1990]); Robert M.Price, H.P.Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos (Starmont House, 1990); Steven J.Mariconda, “Toward a Reader-Response Approach to the Lovecraft Mythos,” in Mariconda’s On the Emergence of “Cthulhu” and Other Observations (Necronomicon Press, 1995); David E.Schultz, comp., “Notes Toward a History of the Cthulhu Mythos,” Cryp tNo. 92 (Eastertide 1996): 15–33; Chris Jarocha-Ernst, A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance (Armitage House, 1999).
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.