Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia – Foreword, Part 3

(Most of our other features, including the Testament, are on hiatus for the moment while I finish out the introduction.  Sit back and enjoy.)

Lovecraft built up the Mythos through two methods.  First, he spun his stories together with a weave of shared allusions.  Many assume that Lovecraft  took this technique from Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana (1905), in which the Irish lord created a set of interlocking prose poems about the gods of a fantastic realm.  Nonetheless, we have no indication that Lovecraft set out to create a pantheon; his early creations are mostly places, individuals, and forbidden books.  A more immediate source of inspiration was probably Dunsany’s Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919), in which we find three stories (“Idle Days on the Yann”, “A Shop in Go-By Street”, and “The Avenger of Perdondaris”) that refer to events, individuals, and places from each other, thereby creating a world that the reader explores with the narrator.

The second component of Lovecraft’s Mythos was its inclusion of others’ creations in his work.  We see the first signs of this in “The Hound”, which as Philip Shreffler points out in his H. P. Lovecraft Companion, contains so many in-joke references to the works of Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle that it might be considered parody.  In “The Festival”, Lovecraft deliberately introduces the works of another author into his story.  When the narrator examines the books on his host’s table, he finds, in addition to the Necronomicon and such anti-witchcraft literature as Saducismus Triumphatus and Daemonolatreia, a book called Marvells of Science by Morryster.  This book was the creation of Ambrose Bierce, who refers to it once in his story “The Man and the Snake”.  We will never know why Lovecraft chose this book, but it seems to have been his only attempt at making such a reference for many years.

Lovecraft’s protégé Frank Belknap Long took the first step at cross-author referencing, thereby starting the Mythos as we know it.  While writing his story “The Space-Eaters”, he included an introductory quote from a previously unknown translation of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon made by the Elizabethan magus John Dee.  The quote was not printed with the story, but Lovecraft saw it in Long’s manuscript.  As a result, he referred to the John Dee translation in his story “The Dunwich Horror”, a story which Joshi has noted had a major impact on conceptions of the Cthulhu Mythos. 

After this, Lovecraft and his circle of friends began a process of borrowing gods, books, and people from each other’s stories.  Lovecraft played along, often including long lists of references to the creations of authors past and present in his later stories.  For example, HPL might use Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua in one of his stories.  The California author would return the favor by including the Necronomicon in one of his.  The exact process by which these elements were exchanged is difficult to determine in some cases, because no scholar has yet examined the chronology through which these stories were written and exchanged through correspondence.  Thus, in some cases, the first appearance of an element in a story might not be the first published, leading to the appearance that it originated with another author.  At this point, the Mythos became more than a device to inspire horror; it also signified the friendships between the writers.

Lovecraft also adopted names from stories by his own favorite writers.  One of these was the Welsh author Arthur Machen, best known today for his stories of prehistoric resurgences of magic and primitivism.  Lovecraft’s use of a black stone in “The Whisperer in Darkness” echoes the appearance of the Ixaxar in Machen’s “The Black Seal,” and “The Dunwich Horror” not only refers to phrases like “Aklo” and “Voorish” from “The White People,” but also explicitly alludes to “The Great God Pan.”  After reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow and The Maker of Moons, Lovecraft mentioned Yian, Hastur, the Yellow Sign, and the Lake of Hali.  (Some of the names in Chambers, such as Hastur and Carcosa, in fact originated in Ambrose Bierce.  Commentators have stated this was the inspiration for the Mythos, but Lovecraft was borrowing names well before he had read Chambers’ works.)  Finally, Lovecraft turned to Poe, whose “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” contributed not only the inspiration for “At the Mountains of Madness,” but the source for the mysterious phrase “Tekeli-li!”

If Lovecraft worried that these references would discourage readers, a letter from N. J. O’Neail to Weird Tales, printed in the March 1930 issue, added a new dimension to this cross-pollenization.  O’Neail asked whether Robert E. Howard’s “Kathulos” and Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” were inspired by the same source (they were not).  He also noted the appearance of Yog-Sothoth in both “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Last Test”.  Here was proof that readers found the in-jokes to be conducive to their enjoyment of the stories.  While they did not see the behind-the-scenes connections between the writers, the fans enjoyed puzzling out and bringing together the pieces of what seemed to be an ancient and esoteric lore.  The frequent letters to Lovecraft and other writers suggests that many had no idea that these background elements were fictional.


The Mythos also signified another sort of relationship between Lovecraft and his revision clients.  A good portion of Lovecraft’s income came through revising the manuscripts of other authors.  Lovecraft took such work because payment was guaranteed, whereas original stories might not be accepted due to Farnsworth Wright’s inconsistent editorial policies.  However, Lovecraft often took on too much work for his money, writing or rewriting entire stories for which his clients received all the published credit.  His letters show that he found this situation frustrating.  Lovecraft may have dealt with these feelings by inserting his creations into these stories – in effect, placing his stamp of ownership on them.  He also created a new set of elements for them – the gods Nug and Yeb, Yig, the underground land of K’n-yan, and Rhan-Tegoth, the horror from the Arctic.

Published in: on January 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Part 3 […]

  2. I think Machen did more than provide names but as much as Dunsany did inspired Lovecraft’s thinking. Machen also created a shared mythos for his little people tales which Lovecraft would have observed. The edition of Three Impostors which Lovecraft owned included the Red Hand and the Novel of the Black Seal. The Little people also appear in The Hill of Dreams and The Shining Pyramid. Lovecraft was reading these in New York just as he started to move towards writing mythos style tales. If you look at Rats and Horror at Red Hook the influence of Machen’s ideas of archaic horror are apparent. It is interesting to note as well it was Long a massive Machen fan who introduced Lovecraft to Machen. Long’s mythos stories just like RE Howard’s are full of Machenesque touches.

  3. Aklo,

    I’m reluctant to cite Machen as an inspiration for the Mythos, largely because, as with Chambers, so many components of what was to become the Mythos were already in place at the time. Overall, Dunsany is probably a much better choice for the overarching idea of having multiple interlocking stories.

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