Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jeff Raymond's "So you want to dive into the Cthulhu Mythos" Guide

When it comes to getting involved in a new fandom or interest, often the entry can be paralyzing. For every Firefly with a season, a movie, and a few books, there's a Doctor Who with nearly a dozen Doctors and entire lost episodes. With the sustained popularity of HP Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, especially on the internet, trying to navigate your way through the muddy waters of the Miskatonic isn't going to be as easy as someone simply handing you a copy of The Necronomicon at a nearby coffee shop. So, in celebration of, uh, Cthulhumas, here's a quick and dirty on Lovecraft and the Mythos to get you started on your long dark road to insanity!

Follow the jump to madness

HP Lovecraft 

It's important to know a few things about Lovecraft himself: 

He was very prolific: Dozens of stories, a bunch of poems, plenty of nonfiction essay work, and that's only what he published in his own name alone. He was also a ghostwriter for numerous tales and collaborated on many other stories. 

He died fairly poor: Whether it was due to a lack of overall success (even his publishing outlet of choice, Weird Tales, rejected both The Shadow Over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness, both of which are among his more popular works today) or something else, Lovecraft died poor and much of his work fell out of copyright rather quickly. While the status of much of his work copyright-wise is murky, the lack of care taken for the work initially speaks to its early reception. 

He was pretty racist: One could probably chalk this one up to his being a product of his time, but the harsh reality is that his racist tendencies shine through in much of his work, and it is an unfortunate part of his legacy. While the mythology he created on a whole has significant merit without showing any overt racism, the same cannot be said universally about his works, and could be an understandible turn-off for many readers. 

The Mythos
The "Cthulhu Mythos," as it were, was never used by Lovecraft himself. He encouraged other writers to use the characters for their own stories within the universe (and he used their characters as well), and a cottage industry sprung up after his death. While the story of Arkham Press, founded in part by August Derlith shortly after Lovecraft's death, is an adventure in itself, it was only in the last 30-40 years that we've seen an explosion of sorts in new fiction, including entries by established authors like Poppy Z. Brite, Roger Zelazny, Elizabeth Bear, and others. While I'm unaware of any comprehensive Mythos bibliography, this Wikipedia entry is a good starting point, and the Elizabeth Bear short story "Shoggoths in Bloom" won a Hugo Award in 2008. I personally enjoyed nearly all of the Cthulhu's Reign anthology, didn't care much for Miskatonic University, and found some great gems in Cthulhu 2000, most notably "The Barrens." Your mileage may vary. 

The Stories
With Lovecraft's stories, especially considering how much of a cultural touchstone they've become in many circles, it's very hard to know where to start. While the urge may be to just start from the beginning, let's just face it - you want to get the jokes now, and worry about the rest later. The good news is that Lovecraft's individual works are available as public domain eBooks - I recommend CthulhuChick's free HP Lovecraft Anthology, which is formatted for the eReader of your choice (or available through the ebook stores for 99c, allowing you to get the features that those readers provide). But if you're looking for a quick and dirty introduction to the world of HP Lovecraft, I recommend these stories: 

 * The Dunwich Horror: One of my favorite settings for a Lovecraft book, featuring the rural hillside areas of New England, as compared to his reliance on Providence or Salem, Mass-style cities and towns. The story itself is a nice, slow burn, and is a great introduction if only because the story drops so many names and characters that show up repeatedly both in Lovecraft's stories and in the stories of those he inspired. 

 * The Shadow Over Innsmouth: One of the classic Lovecraft tales, referred to repeatedly in fiction and gaming (one of my D&D games had a chapter that basically reenacted this story in a fantasy setting). A novella-length book, introduces the classic "Innsmouth look" and has been the subject of countless cross-media references, including the Metallica song "The Thing That Should Not Be." 

 * Dagon: Introduces a great number of basic horror themes that would later become prevalent in Lovecraft's works. Also introduces the god Dagon, which was cribbed from a Semitic god of fertility (Lovecraft did this a lot - my favorite horror character of his, Nyarlathotep, had its name inspired in part by Egyptian lore). A great short introductory story. 

 * The Call of Cthulhu: A fairly obvious choice - introduces the cultist aspects of the Mythos, introduces Cthulhu, and really presents much of the mythology and sustained cultural references we hear today. Face it: "In his house at R'Lyeh dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming" is still creepy. 

 * The Colour Out of Space: Not so reliant on the Mythos, but gives a good idea as to the different tones and themes Lovecraft explored, such as the dark science aspects and the distorted perceptions that become central to so many stories. Probably one of his better stories overall, but nothing tends to top... 

* At the Mountains of Madness: ...this story, which is arguably Lovecraft's best work, and is a signficant culmination of much of his prior output. Also a later novel, the story was nearly made into a film helmed by Guillermo del Toro. Probably not something you want to read first, but definitely something you want to read early on. Obviously, those well-versed in Lovecraft's work may have other recommendations as to where to go first/next, but this is just one guy's recommendation. Overall, the Lovecraft body of work is a lot of fun to get into, and there are a lot of gems out there to discover and a wealth of fiction inspired by it. Just be careful if the angles in your room start looking a little weird...

Jeff Raymond is a soon-to-be-regular poster at Fruitless Pursuits. You can find more of his writings and reviews at his personal site


  1. Welcome aboard Jeff! And what a great way to kick things off.

  2. Welcome Jeff, this is brilliant.

    As a thirteen-year-old I went to school in the city but lived in a small rural town about an hour out. On bleak weekends I'd ride my bike down to the tiny library and consume Lovecraft stories which seemed even freakier in that sleepy setting. I will have to revisit them in the future!

  3. Thanks, folks!

    Luke, when I was rereading some of these, I'm still struck by how sneaky freaky they are. It catches you off guard, how covert the whole thing is.