The Geekery Guide: What is the Cthulhu Mythos?
Welcome to our new series! What is it?
Well, I’m old enough to remember when being a geek wasn’t cool or even accepted. I remember a friend of mine asking me why I read comics, pointing out that I was the only person in the school who did (don’t get cranky, he meant well). These days the subculture is much more widespread, transcending gender, age and culture. Some people get a bit protective, going on about ‘real geeks’ and ‘fake geek girls’. Those people are stupid. We should be accepting and welcoming. To that extent here’s a series that will provide guides to different aspects of geek culture. If you’ve found yourself looking at a popular series or expression and wondering what the deal is with that we’ll try and lay it out for you!
Part 1: The Cthulhu Mythos
In a sentence: A fictional horror mythology concerning a group of ancient evil deities – known as the ‘Old Ones’ or ‘Elder Gods’ – who spread fear, chaos and destruction and have spend centuries in a deep sleep awaiting their chance to devour the world.
We begin with one H.P. Lovecraft, born 1890 in Rhode Island. Lovecraft proved to be a literary prodigy and was writing original poetry by the age of 6. He became interested in the gothic and macabre – possibly due to his father being institutionalised early in the writers life. Lovecraft’s first foray into publication occurred when he wrote to a pulp magazine complaining about the poor quality of their love stories. This sparked a debate in the letters column that caught the attention of United Amateur Press Association who invited Lovecraft to contribute his own works.
H.P. Lovecraft is responsible for dozens of short stories and novels published in serials, all of which are now available in collected formats. It was later in his writing career that his short story The Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928. The story was told from the point of view of a narrator who is investigating unusual artefacts beginning with a clay relief depicting what appears to be an octopus, dragon and human melded together. This leads to the uncovering of an ancient global cult, an outbreak of hysteria in mentally ill patients, disappearances and more artefacts made of an unknown green stone.
The tale concludes with a ship’s crew discovering the lost city of R’lyeh off the coast of Australia. Amid the geometrically impossible architecture was the resting place of Cthulhu, a mountain sized ancient god who awakens and attacks the crew. They flee to their ship but Cthulhu chases them into the ocean. They turn and ram it’s head with the prow of the ship, splitting Cthulhu’s head open. The Old One immediately reforms and continues on, with the story ending with Cthulhu’s whereabouts unknown.
Lovecraft’s other stories would feature more Elder Gods including Hastur, Shub-Niggurarth and Yog-Sothoth. The stories would be loosely linked together through a shared mythology to the monsters, cross-over characters, a New England setting, similar themes of insanity, cultism and fate and descriptions of the horrors (featuring lots of teeth and tentacles).
Why’s It So Popular?
For a long time Cthulhu and the associated stories filled a niche. He was very popular with horror readers who had grown bored with King and grown out of Koontz, preferring creeping dread over spooks and gore. As the Harry Potter readers grew up some looked for other cult writers to move into and Lovecraft started turning up on their bookshelves, and the goth subculture of the 90s onward sought his works out as an alternative to Poe.
One major reason for the popularity was the existence of the mythos itself. Like Tolkien did with fantasy Lovecraft created a world with a backstory that could be built upon by fans and other publications. It featured different viewpoints and some unseen figures (such as Hastur, the King in Yellow) could be explored. Once trying one story readers would seek out others to explore the world further and discuss it with other fans.
The explosion in popularity can be tracked along with spread of geek culture as a whole. You can’t go to a convention or visit a message board without coming across some reference to Cthulhu. As such contact with geeks has been going hand in hand with encountering Cthulhu. Naturally he draws the eye – he’s one of the most striking and unique figures in literary fiction.
The term ‘Lovecraftian’ readily gets applied to horror fiction and monster designs that have drawn their influence from the writer, including Terry Pratchett’s use of the archetype in his popular Discworld series (called the Demons from the Dungeon Dimension). This clearly indicates that what Lovecraft created had become a genre of horror on it’s own. Many writers have used the Cthulhu Mythos as the basis for their stories, building on and adding characters of their own.
Popularity of the mythos has expanded into other aspects of pop culture. Movies, TV shows and video games have produced direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories or taken their inspiration from them. 1970’s The Dunwich Horror is a strong example of the former while In the Mouth of Madness created Sutter Kane, a modern author based on Lovecraft and featured many of his famous creations.
The past two decades have seen an explosion in Cthulhu related products and fan works. Thinkgeek’s plush Cthulhu is a mainstay in people’s homes, TeeFury has featured dozens of designs featuring the monster (Cthulhu vs Godzilla being my favourite) and Fantasy Flight has dozens of board games set in the world of Lovecraft such as the popular Elder Sign. Other games such as Smash Up, King of Tokyo and The Horror That Came to Atlantic City take a lighter look at the genre by pairing it against other geeky mainstays or a humor based approach. In video games we’ve seen goofy versions of the mythos in Cthulhu Saves the World and the downright terrifying influence in Amnesia.
Being of such a unique design – the giant green monster, bat wings and tentacled face – Cthulhu is a popular candidate for artists with a leaning towards the gothic. Deviantart has played host to hundreds of images of the characters and mash-ups with other pop-culture icons. Cthulhu has become a easy shorthand for unstoppable evil across pop culture, including an appearance in South Park.
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Is it Worth Checking Out?
Absolutely. The books are fantastic in a nightmare inducing kind of way and live up to hype. As to all the other iterations of the figure, there’s good and there’s bad. Quite often Cthulhu gets added as a punchline, such as in the Scribblenauts games, but if you seek out the works produced by fans there’s good stuff. The Fantasy Flight game series remains the definitive board game version of the stories and while there are plenty of video games none quite to it justice. One day we might see Cthulhu on the big screen but in general movies based on Lovecraft stories are a poor representation of his work.
Check out the original stories at the very least.
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