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.