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A Brief Introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Pirate Planet #9

The Great Old Ones are those gods. There's Cthulhu, who we met in Haiti, if you recall, and the Gods of Ragnarok, who Ace will tell you about if you ask her nicely, and Nyarlathotep, who I sincerely hope never to encounter. And Dagon, who was worshipped by the Sea Devils, and the entity known as Hastur the calling himself Fenric and who Ace will not tell you about no matter how nicely you ask. And Yog-Sothoth, who I met in Tibet and again in London, and Lloigor, who settled quite happily on Vortis...
All-Consuming Fire, Andy Lane, pg 221
Ah, the gentle art of literary cross-overs. In any given series you're going to have the Vampire episode, the Sherlock Holmes episode; you'll probably get the HAL episode (what are you doing, Doctor?), the Mummy's Curse and odds on, the Cthulhu mythos. The paragraph above is taking this, perhaps, to an extreme.

The Cthulhu mythos, named after its most famous representative, is the "world" of a collection of stories centred by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, dating from the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Lovecraft's original tales such as The Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror inspired authors such as Robert Bloch, Clarke Ashton Smith and August Derleth to set other stories in the same background; actually more multiverse than world. But when an author uses any combination of blasphemous, shapeless entities from beyond the confines of three- dimensional space, and strange cults independent of the axis of Satanism; mentions "Arkham", "Miskatonic University" or "the Necronomicon"; and above all speaks of the utter insignificance of humanity in the scale of the cosmos, and its total irrelevance to the things that inhabit that cosmos, they are demonstrating the legacy of Lovecraft to the literature of horror. And the mythos itself is still being used today; Stephen King, for instance, wrote the short stories Crouch End and Jerusalem's Lot, the latter all but a duplication of Lovecraft's own writing style.

Film-makers have it harder. The mythos is so detailed, and is so notorious for its horrors-that-cannot-be-described, that evoking it on screen is vastly difficult. Consider being faced with the following description:

No -- it wasn't that way at all. It was everywhere -- a gelatin -- a slime -- yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes -- and a blemish. It was the pit, the maelstrom -- the ultimate abomination.
The Unnameable, text in The Lurking Fear and Other Stories,
Del Ray, p106.
Reading Lovecraft is an excellent way to increase your vocabulary. One of the most successful visual adaptations, in my opinion, is in fact the Season 15 episode The Image of the Fendahl, which in spite of making no overt references, as do Andy Lane and David McIntee in their New Adventure novels, contains all the essentials.

The Cthulhu mythos has even been made the basis of a roleplaying game -- The Call of Cthulhu by Sandy Peterson, the Chaosium Company. It is impossible for me here to give more than the briefest taste of its unique style, the fear of something worse. When the vampires, werewolves and megalomaniac computers have been done and done to death, I heartily recommend you summon Cthulhu.

As far as the actual mythos goes, the prologue of David McIntee's White Darkness is accurate in fact.

The Great Old Ones held out for centuries in their war... The only recourse that could be seen was a retreat to the deepest, darkest places in the heart of the world. As the time grew near, the parts of the great, multi-lobed brains which could sleep gently drifted into a state of suspended animation. Those parts of the mind which could follow the magnetic fields of the world, soar along the solar winds, and even travel the Time Winds themselves, did so.

At the last suitable conjunction of those intangible forces of time and space, the Great Old Ones left their former lives, drifting through the vortex to seek new experiences as they waited until the time when they could return to their true forms. But the return could not be simply whenever the planet's biosphere had recovered. For one thing, they would need assistance after being gone for so long.

Secondly, they could only return when the stars were right.

pp 1-2
Compare this to The Call of Cthulhu.
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. If those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.
text in The Dunwich Horror and Others, Arkham House edition, pg 139

There may be something to learned here about the difference between science fiction and horror.

For Lovecraft himself, the greatest concentration of these malign influences lay in New England, especially surrounding the original Puritan settlements of Boston, Salem and Arkham. This was, of course, Lovecraft's own stamping ground. The city of Arkham is located on the Miskatonic River, some miles up the coast from Boston, and for the Batman fans I am delighted to report that it does contain an asylum, the site of some action in The Thing On The Doorstep. It is also home to the fabled Miskatonic University.

Arkham, like the villages of Innsmouth and Dunwich, is Lovecraft's detailed invention. The Arkham House Publishing Company, thus, is based in Sauk City, Wisconsin.

The main Arkham stories are The Thing on the Doorstep, Dreams in the Witch House, and an important side trip in The Dunwich Horror. As implied, Lovecraft did set stories such as Pickman's Model and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in the real cities of Boston and Providence. What distinguishes Lovecraft from all his followers is the pervasive and beautifully detailed accent he provides with these locations, vistas of antique, decaying American streets that form the gateway to things better left unknown.

Other important sites for the mythos include Antarctica (At the Mountains of Madness), Exham in England (The Rats in the Walls), and surprisingly enough Australia and New Zealand, in The Shadow Oat of Time and The Call of Cthulhu itself.

Lovecraft's background, as detailed in these stories, contains such history and props as to make it all but irresistible to utilise. The other, certain calling card of the Cthulhu mythos is gratuitous references such as below.

He dug out a large, thick book from the bookcase, which creaked in relief, and laid it in front of the Doctor.

"Where did you get this?" the Doctor breathed in a palpable mixture of fascination and horror.

"From Crowley. I once had cause to give him emergency treatment for an ulcer, and he gave me this in lieu of payment."

"The unexpurgated Necronomicon, eh?"

White Darkness, pg 89
The Necronomicon turns up in some truly odd places; an episode of the original Tomorrow People, Hearts of Soggoth, comes to mind. The Necronomicon, the book of the black name, containing the history of what came before. Written in the eighth century by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, a Latin translation exists by the seventeenth century monk Olaus Wormius, and an English translation is accredited to Doctor John Dee. Copies "exist" in the libraries of Cambridge, Harvard and Miskatonic Universities, in the British Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the University of Buenos Aires. There are stories of librarians in these genuine institutions being asked for the volume. I understand that there are several books that use the title floating around; the only one I have actually seen being Hans Rudi Giger's compilations of art, I & II. The true Necronomicon is a guide to the Cthulhu multiverse, and Lovecraft did provide substantial quotes from it:
Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken islands of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet he can spy Them only dimly. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now.
Necronomicon, p752
The Dunwich Horror, op.cit. pl69
Rich territory. I noted Mr Lane resisted placing a copy in his arcane library, but he did go out of his way to mention Ludwig Prynn's De Vermiis Mysteriis -- Lovecraft again, along with The Book of Dyzan, The Book of Eibon and references to the plateau of Leng and the above-mentioned Kadath. A purist such as myself, of course, feels that the efforts of most cross-overs fail, especially if there is a continuing hero involved. Being beaten with some clever trick at the end of the story tends to sell the mythos short -- Lovecraft's own protagonists seldom win or escape, and never unscathed.

The Cthulhu mythos is an excellent place to extend your reading, and Lovecraft's entire body of work has the distinction of being still in print, mostly due to the efforts of Arkham House. If you enjoyed the touch of "death, devouring, sucking out the life force" from The Image of the Fendahl, or the idea of hidden libraries and strange books -- indeed, the strongest element of the style to appear in All-Consuming Fire; or the hints of interstellar antiquity that appeared in White Darkness, I strongly recommend exploring, in this direction, such terrifying vistas of reality, and our own frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly Light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The Call of Cthulhu, op.cit. p125

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