It’s more or less impossible to avoid the adjective ‘Lovecraftian’ when reading horror, or to come across some vague mention of Cthulhu. A whispered reference, perhaps, or a nuanced tip of the hat to something that, to those not versed in the works of the reclusive and troubled author, seems unknowable yet all-encompassing, pervasive yet obfuscated. Much like the fictional character itself.
Indeed, there’s so much ancillary material created that supports HP Lovecraft’s invention that it’s almost impossible to know where the original idea starts and where the meta-fiction ends. Many prominent writers over the years have taken up the banner of what is termed the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Charles Stross, giving their own spin on the material and further spreading its tentacular reach across the genre.
But what is Cthulhu?
Essentially, it is the great unknown. In a metaphorical sense at least. Literally, it’s a giant squid monster that has a worldwide apocalyptic cult, and it generally drives those who encounter it insane. The character first appeared in the short story The Call Of Cthulhu, published in Weird Tales in 1928, where it emerges from the horrifying sunken city of R’lyeh to attack, until it is driven back below the waves ‘until the stars are right’. Cthulhu is an alien being, one of unknowable and unstoppable power that will eventually rise to consume humanity and the world – the sheer inevitability of this outcome, and the subsequent relegation of humanity’s place in the universe to little more than grains of sand, is what tends to cause the ubiquitous mental breakdowns suffered by those who cross its path.
The character is also hinted at, but not seen, in At The Mountains Of Madness (Astounding Stories, 1936). This is often cited as being a definitive entry in the mythos proper, reinterpeting it under a science fiction paradigm from a straight fantasy/horror setting. It is also referenced in other stories such as The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), The Dunwich Horror (Weird Tales, 1929), The Whisperer In Darkness (Weird Tales, 1931) and Herbert West – Reanimator (Home Brew, 1922).
As mentioned earlier, other writers then took Cthulhu as an idea and character, along with its associated fictional apparatus, and ran with it, giving a material feel to Lovecraft’s creation. As his work has enjoyed a popular resurgence recently, so too has Cthulhu, being something of an inextricable part of Lovecraft’s writing. The character and the stories have also appeared in other media – up until recently, Guillermo Del Toro was on record saying that he was actively pursuing an adaptation of At The Mountains Of Madness, and The HP Lovecraft Historical Society produced a silent movie version of The Call Of Cthulhu. Other dramatic films have taken inspiration from it, Cthulhu for instance, and so have comedic efforts, such as The Last Lovecraft: Relic Of Cthulhu. Nods and winks can be found all through television and videogames, such as a side mission in Fallout 3 set in ‘Dunwich Manor’. Mass Effect also features heavy Cthulhu references, with “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” being inscribed on the Charon mass relay, and the central antagonists, the Reapers, closely resembling cephalopod anatomy.
For further reading, we recommend these Lovecraft-penned and further Mythos stories:
The Call Of Cthulhu
At The Mountains Of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Dunwich Horror
Haggopian, and other stories – Brian Lumley
A Colder War – Charles Stross
The Return Of Hastur – August Derleth
Crouch End – Stephen King