Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia – Foreword, Part 7

As Call of Cthulhu was finding success, other aspects of the Mythos were slowly germinating. Mythos fiction continued to circulate through amateur press associations such as the Esoteric Order of Dagon.  The magazine Crypt of Cthulhu, started in 1981 by Robert M. Price, served as a forum for fiction, essays on the Mythos, and other materials of interest to fans.  Kenneth Grant’s teachings and the Necronomicons came to influence occultists, especially those involved with chaos magick, a belief system aimed at destroying the practitioner’s beliefs.  Peter Carroll, the founder of chaos magick, utilized fictional beings such as Azathoth as a means of deconstructing notions of what is real and powerful for the budding magician.

A revival eventually came, starting with Arkham House’s re-release of a revised Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990).  Fedogan and Bremer followed suit in 1992 with Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, with other Mythos anthologies quickly on their way.  In 1993, Chaosium released The Hastur Cycle, the first in a series of mass-market paperbacks dealing with different aspects of the Mythos.  Mythos anthologies and fanzines appear each year, and although many of the magazines and publishers have vanished over the years, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos are more popular than ever, with new material appearing constantly in many different media, ranging from computer games to graphic novels. 

One of the most recent factors to affect the growth of the Cthulhu Mythos has been the expansion of the Internet.  Though it may be too early to fairly assess the impact of this technology, it has already done much to bring together Mythos fans across the world.  In addition, it is likely to make publication of Mythos stories much easier, especially with the blossoming of “fanfic”, or fiction based in particular worlds by fans.  Whereas before amateurs printed their work in low circulation journals, now they can put it on a Web page where thousands or millions of people can read it.  Given the nature of the Web, most of this material vanishes as user accounts are closed or are no longer maintained, but new sites are always appearing.  This will probably continue as more people join the Internet community, allowing the Mythos to reach an even wider audience than before.

So why has the Cthulhu Mythos become so popular?  There are a variety of reasons that may account for this.  The first of these may be its diversity.  The mythologies of Dunsany, Machen, and Chambers were limited; they appeared in one author’s stories, and thus had a single mood and style about them.  The early Mythos writers wrote using a variety of styles and subject matter, making it interesting to more people.  Someone who doesn’t like the Deep Ones may like the Yithians, and vice versa.  Another reason may be its resemblance to existing mythologies.  In creating his own pantheon, Lovecraft used his own prodigious knowledge of folklore, leading to many of the same fundamental ideas and concepts turning up in both.  This has led to his popularity among occultists, many of whom find their own beliefs and ideas mirrored in his work.  But there may be another reason we should consider.

Much of the appeal of the Mythos has to do with filling in the “holes in the text.”  Since my first proposal of this idea, a similar one has been explored by H. S. Versnel in his article “The Poetics of the Magical Charm:  An Essay in the Power of Words” from Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World.  A common feature of many incantations is their use of voces magicae, words without any known meaning.  Versnel argues that these are not mere distortions, but in fact integral to the spells’ perceived powers:

…the specificity of voces magicae and other anomalous expressions conveys them a special function of passwords that take us literally “out of our place” into a different world, where paradox reigns… in short a reversed reality, the world of abnormality, the world of otherness.

The Mythos uses the same strategy, but instead of using these names to create the impression of power, it does so to entertain the reader.  Each Mythos story includes only a few pieces of the puzzle, and one who reads a story can do either of two things.  One can either accept the uncertainty and terror that go along with these allusions, or one can attempt to fill them in by reading more Mythos fiction.  People who follow the latter course may even write their own stories expanding on one of these mysterious elements or including their own experience within the framework.  Thus, the very element that provides these tales with so much of their horror may also have led people to systematize and re-interpret the pantheon.

If one risk arises from the Mythos, it is that of overexposure.  Many fans see the Mythos as a list of names and a source of in-jokes (“Cthulhu saves, in case he gets hungry”), filling fanzines and the Internet with knockoffs of Derleth and Carter.  As a proud owner of plush Cthulhus, I certainly cannot condemn anyone for having fun or sharing it with others.  Still, a proliferation of Mythos material has led to a growing reluctance among authors and editors to promote the genre.  For example, Guillermo del Toro decided not to quote from the Necronomicon at the beginning of his movie Hellboy because he feared the book was too exposed.  He settled for De Vermis Mysteriis, but his concerns were well-founded.

On the other side of the matter are those who feel that the Mythos is a cheap gimmick that distracts from other elements of Lovecraft’s fiction.  The question, “What does the Mythos really mean?” is a welcome antidote to the overemphasis on lists of names, and it certainly deserves to be asked.  Nonetheless, we must be careful that the question does not become “What did the Mythos mean to Lovecraft specifically, as judged by his explicit statements?” or that it becomes the only question that is asked.  The creations of Lovecraft and other authors have had a resonance that derives from their ability to embody numerous meanings within an appealing, albeit horrific and often squamous, exterior.  To say that Cthulhu is merely an expression of humanity’s insignificance in an indifferent cosmos is just as fallacious as announcing that he is a huge squid-like monster.

Whatever the reason, the Cthulhu Mythos genre has outlasted its creators and will likely last into the foreseeable future.  Its success in doing so will likely be tied to the creativity of new creators to re-envision its tenets while paying attention to what has come before.

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Published in: on January 25, 2008 at 12:09 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting intro look forward to seeing the new edition. That is if the Stars don’t come right first.

  2. Maybe you’ve already posted on this but have you heard about the james cameron/guillermo del toro Mts of Madness project? Nice article in a recent New Yorker. Don’t think it’s too far along, probably no green lite yet from Universal…


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