This article originally appeared in the Arkham Advertiser, Volume 1, Issue 1. 

The Mythos of Howard Phillips Lovecraft is a huge subject and worthy of a series of articles. This is the first in that series.

During his career, H.P. Lovecraft seems to have written fiction in three distinct styles. These might be classed as: fantasy, Gothic horror, and science horror. Some critics and scholars
consider H.P.L.s fantasist stories such as "The White Ship," "The Silver Key," and "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" as relatively innocuous and derivative of Lord Dunsany. His
Gothic horror stories, such as "The Picture in the House," "The Music of Erich Zann," and "The Strange High House in the Mist," while archetypal and atmospheric, are often considered
derivative of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and the eighteenth century. This is not to say that the fantasy and Gothic horror tales aren't fascinating and deserving of praise, but it is
Lovecraft's tales of science horror which, says August Derleth, "manage to remain individually Lovecraftian to such an extent that it has influenced many other writers of the genre." 

Of the science horror stories, the ones centering on the "Cthulhu Mythos," a term critics invented after Lovecraft's death, are often considered his best and most original. In these tales
Lovecraft made up a distinctive universe made up of four distinct elements: atmospheric landscape, legends, modern science, and a mythology of Lovecraft's own invention. Of these
elements, it is the addition of the scientific aspect that became the unique quality that set Lovecraft's work apart from those who came before him. And it is these stories which have
placed Lovecraft securely in the great American horror tradition of his mentors: Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps the opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu" best
serves as an introduction to the tales of the "Cthulhu Mythos": 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,
and it was not meant what we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, has hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated
knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our 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. 

In many ways, Lovecraft almost saw mankind as ignorant peasants cowering in awe and wonder as the accepted and comfortable laws of Nature are reshaped by horrible and godlike
celestial forces. This seemed to him a greater fear than that of witches and cemeteries. As early as 1922 he wrote: "My own view toward aesthetic things has always been one of awe at
the mystery of the cosmos. The dominant sensation has been a kind of ecstatic wonder at the unfathomed reaches of nighted space... The only poignant sensation in life is that of
wonder, fascination, and terror at the unknown." 

It is this fearful vision suggested by the explosion of scientific thought in the early years of the Twentieth Century that allowed Lovecraft to take the Gothic horror story into a new
direction not available to Bierce, Poe, and Blackwood. 

August Derleth has pointed out that the Mythos was not a planned development on Lovecraft's part, he never even gave it a name. Lovecraft was finding that the traditional Gothic
horror tale was losing its punch in the Twentieth Century. His audience was becoming better educated and more aware that science, and not occult superstition, ruled our universe.
Remember that Einstein presented his theory of relativity in 1908. Witches, ghosts, and ogres were becoming old hat to his audience who had begun to discover the new and expanding
world of science fiction. In his search for a means to make his horror both plausible and suggestive, Lovecraft began to blend the occult, which he now thought banal, with science and
the supernatural. 

James Turner wrote, "Lovecraft typically would take an element from the old Gothic tradition - perhaps an authentic New England setting or some aspect of New England lore or legendry
- and reinterpret this element in terms of the scientific theories (Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, et al.) of his day. Through a fanciful extension of contemporary scientific thinking Lovecraft
ultimately would resolve his narrative upon a supernatural - or, more accurately, supramundane-level [far above the mundane - Ed.] of reality, thus revivifying the trappings and
appurtenances of old-time Gothicism through an expressly scientific approach." In a 1930 letter, Lovecraft explained this technique: "My big kick comes from taking reality just as it is -
accepting all the limitations of the most orthodox science - and then permitting my symbolizing faculty to build outward from the existing facts; rearing a structure of infinite promise and
possibility whose topless towers are in no cosmos or dimension penetrable by the contradicting-power of the tyrannous and inexorable intellect." 

An excellent example of this technique is "Dreams in the Witch House" (written in 1933). Lovecraft created from New England legends the old Salem witch Keziah Mason, her evil ratlike
familiar, and the infamous Black Man of the witch cult. Rather than accepting the occult image of these characters, as they had been viewed in the past, Lovecraft brought these
legendary elements into the twentieth century. They are not just the simple creatures of an old superstition but characters capable of traversing the fourth-dimension, unheard of in the
days of the Salem witch trials and thus revealing our culture's lack of scientific knowledge in the Colonial period. This contrast of our superstitions with possible scientific explanations
creates an eerie synthesis of New England black magic and Einsteinian physics. This may seem premeditated but it was probably a natural and unplanned move on Lovecraft's part. And
it did not happen overnight. In "The Shunned House" (written in 1924) it is the weakest element in a powerful story: the explanation of the haunting, with its "certain kinetic patterns"
continuing to function in "some multiple-dimensional space along the original lines of force," seems a muddle. Yet only three years later in "The Colour Out of Space" he quite
convincingly blends a tale of terror with science fiction. This latter story never mentions any of the Mythos names and has therefore been left of the "Mythos" listing by most scholars. 

What is the Mythos? The American Heritage Dictionary says: "mythos n, pl. mythoi. 1. Myth. 2. Mythology. 3. The pattern of basic values and historical experiences of a people,
characteristically transmitted through the arts. 4. A deliberately fostered cult: "Sukarno... established a mythos in which towns were named for him, and his picture displayed
everywhere." (New York Times). [Greek muthos, MYTH]" It is the third and fourth definitions which might best apply to Lovecraft's stories. For the fourth dictionary definition, to current
science and existing legends Lovecraft added, invented, and fostered the cult of Cthulhu, a fictional being which was said to have come from beyond time and space to live on this planet
long before man was formed. This creature vanished into a sunken city in the South Pacific, perhaps by man's arrival, and waits in a strange hibernation for the day it will again take
control of the world we live in. Around the figure of Cthulhu (pronounced Koo-too-luh), Lovecraft organized a full mythology of beings who ventured from time and space to reside at
some point in time on our planet. The effect Lovecraft's alien creatures (gods) had on early cultures or their effect on current people's lives fits the second dictionary definition. Thus the
Mythos is a fictional cosmology which explained the dynamics of the origin and structure of our Universe, or rather Lovecraft's universe. 

Besides his own feast of mythological inventions, Lovecraft incorporated many elements invented by other writers, some contemporary and some who had influenced Lovecraft in his
youth. In the evolution of the Mythos as a whole, "The Whisperer in Darkness" is enormously important - it is the Lovecraft Mythos story which contains the first references to the
Abominable Mi-Go (the Yeti or Tibetan Abominable Snowman); Yuggoth, the dark planet in the rim of the solar system (the planet Pluto only discovered in the 1930's); Tsathoggua, the
loathsome demon god of primal Hyperborea (a creation of writer Clark Ashton Smith); to say nothing of Hasthur, the Lake of Hali (Ambrose Bierce), the Yellow Sign (Robert W.
Chambers), Bran (Robert E. Howard), Yig the Father of Serpents (Zelia Bishop Reed), the Hounds of Tindalos (Frank Belknap Long), and other Mythos elements of considerable

The Mythos was never coherent, nor did it need to be. Its subtle presence in the Mythos stories functions not to explain itself but to suggest something larger and more terrible than was
ever stated. Often in Lovecraft's work, it is what is hinted at and not stated that creates the most terrifying visions of a world out of the control of mankind. And often this grand
cosmology hovers offstage of a story which concerns simple experiences, not directly affecting the characters but subtly controlling the world they move in. 

And while science was bombarding society with revelations that might be taken as horrifying, since they constantly changed the shape of the universe we had come to feel comfortable
with, it was the stark and legendary New England countryside that Lovecraft used to emphasize this uncertainly man felt about the universe he lives in. Lovecraft wrote: is certainly a substantial artistic feat to bring the unreal into the midst of the every day; and only an illiberal critic, whatever his personal predilections, could judge any
atmospherically effective performance of this feat tame or commonplace. The raison d'etre . . . in many cases attempts at crystallizing certain natural sentiments connected with distant or
rarely observed scenes or phenomena . . . to dramatize, substantialize, or symbolize certain definitely existing perspectives which naturally evoke vague emotions of a mystical sort. The
important factor is the remoteness and the uncommonness rather than the weird emotion . . . To use a personal example, - my object in writing "The Whisperer in Darkness" was not just
to be weird, but primarily to crystallize a powerful imaginative impression given me by a certain landscape. 

Lovecraft was captivated by what he considered the ideal beauty of New England's traditional landscape and architecture, but, simultaneously, found in these landscapes a darker
dimension as the modern world cut us off from long-standing traditions and turned parts of New England old and dark. The "Cthulhu Mythos" works are inspired by New England
locales, but their settings are extensively recast to form Arkham, Innsmouth, and Dunwich, fictional examples of a New England overseen by Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and other alien gods.
Of these Lovecraft wrote: "All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the 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 live on the outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again." 

The Mythos grew gradually across a number of years and stories. It is generally felt that, of all his stories, only twelve are truly Mythos stories. The earliest of Lovecraft's stories which
genuinely belongs to the Mythos is "The Nameless City," which he wrote in 1921. The last of these is "Haunter of the Dark" written in 1935. Other of the "Cthulhu Mythos" tales include
" The Call of Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "At the Mountains of Madness." There are a couple of borderline cases: some Lovecraftian scholars consider the novel "The
Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (written in 1927-1928) and the short story "The Colour Out of Space" (written in 1927) to be Mythos stories. Through these stories Lovecraft developed a
complete mythology and geography - "a wild, weird, yet curiously impressive flight of the imagination". 

- compiled by Jean-Paul Ouellette 


Campbell, Ramsey, editor, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham, 1980 

Carter, Lin, editor, The Spawn of Cthulhu, Ballantine, 1971 

Carter, Lin, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the "Cthulhu Mythos," Ballantine, 1972 

de Camp, L. Sprague, Lovecraft: A Biography, Doubleday, 1975 

Derleth, August, H. P. Lovecraft: A Memoir, Ben Abramson, 1945 

Faig, Kenneth W., Jr. H. P. Lovecraf: His Life, His Work, Necronomicon, 1979 

Hay, George, editor, The Necronomicon, Neville Spearman, 1978 

Joshi, S. T., In Defense of Dagon, Necronomicon, 1985 

Levy, Maurice, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, translated by Joshi, Wayne State University, 1988 

Long, Frank Belknap, Howard Phillips Lovecraf: Dreamer on the Nightside, Arkham, 1975 

Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature, introduction by August Derleth, Ben Abramson, 1945 

Schweitzer, Darrell, The Dream Quest of H. P. Lovecraft, Borgo Press, 1978 

Turner, James, "A Mythos in His Own Image," At the Mountains of Madness, Arkham, 1964 

This article first appeared in The Arkham Advertiser, volume 1, issue 1 
Copyright © 1993, Miskatonic University Press, all rights reserved

Copyright © 1997, 2002 Miskatonic University Press, all rights reserved