CTHULHU 101: The Basics Of Lovecraft’s Fiction

by Mark McLaughlin

Because I’ve written so many Cthulhu Mythos stories over the years, people ask me questions about the creator of the Mythos, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. They may already know that he was an author from an earlier time (he was born in 1890 and died in 1937) and that his fiction is still being enjoyed by readers of classic horror and dark fantasy fiction. They ask which of his stories are the best ones to read to gain a better understanding of his work. “Where do I begin?” they ask. Launching into Lovecraft’s work for the first time can be daunting, since his tales are set in an elaborate fictional universe.

Discovering the works of H.P. Lovecraft is like finding a yellowed treasure map stuck in a dusty old book. The more you study it, the more you find yourself wondering: Could this be real? Have I come across something truly magical?

Lovecraft wrote wild, complex tales of fantasy, science-fiction and horror, and certainly, for many readers, they do seem magical. Lovecraft also possessed a talent for generating convincing details, creating a world that could seem surprisingly genuine, when combined with his fervent style. That’s why his stories are still being read today, and will be read for years to come.

Lovecraft was born August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His most memorable stories appeared in Weird Tales and other horror and science-fiction pulp magazines, mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were called pulp magazines because they were usually printed on a cheap grade of wood-pulp paper.

Lovecraft’s top stories include “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “The Colour Out of Space.” If a person wants to read Lovecraft, those are great stories to start with, since they all contain a substantial amount of background information. Lovecraft also excelled at poetry, and his greatest achievement in that field was a sequence of sonnets known as “Fungi From Yuggoth.” The money he made from writing did little to support him, and he had to rely in part on a family inheritance. He died in poverty at age 46 on March 15, 1937.

Many of the protagonists in Lovecraft’s fiction were scholars, mystics and explorers. They didn’t seem to have or need day-jobs. You won’t find any hardware store owners, advertising executives, or interior decorators in his works. There are some female characters in Lovecraft’s stories, but not many. That may be because there weren’t many women in his life, though he did work with some female writers in his role as a ghost-writer. He eventually married one of his writer friends – a businesswoman named Sonia Greene. It was a short-lived marriage, but they cared deeply for each other.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories are set in the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts, home of the equally fictional Miskatonic University. Arkham is loosely based on Salem, Massachusetts. Lovecraft’s best-known fictional character is undoubtedly the creature Cthulhu, a cosmic entity introduced in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1928. Cthulhu was a gigantic monstrosity of alien origins. His scaly, bulbous head featured a beard of tentacles, and his flabby, dragon-like body included long wings and fierce talons.

Lovecraft’s friend, writer August Derleth, named Lovecraft’s monster-mythology the Cthulhu Mythos. The mythos included multiple creatures divided into specific groups – the Outer Gods, the Great Old Ones, the Great Ones, and the Elder Gods. The Outer Gods are ruled by the daemon-sultan Azathoth, who holds court at the center of the cosmos. His entourage includes Yog-Sothoth, who co-rules with Azathoth and appears as a mass of iridescent globes. The messenger of the court is Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. The court of Azathoth includes the female nature deity Shub-Niggurath, known as the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.

Other deities in the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft include the Great Old Ones, a group of ancient, alien entities who once ruled the Earth and have since become dormant, but can still make their influence felt. The most prominent of these deities is the aforementioned Cthulhu, who sank with his temple on the island of R’lyeh to the ocean floor. But someday, it is said, when the stars are right, the island will rise again and Cthulhu will again roam the Earth, to plague the populace with his madness.

The Great Ones are the minor gods of Earth who rule the Dreamlands – the domain of dreams, mentioned in many Lovecraft stories. The deity Nyarlathotep protects the Great Ones. When Nyarlathotep visits our world, he sometimes appears as a tall man who resembles an Egyptian Pharaoh. He can also take on many other appearances – mostly monstrous.

After Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth tried to arrange Lovecraft’s deities, and some of his own creations, into groups of good vs. evil, or even the elements of earth, air, fire and water. His Elder Gods were supposed to be ‘good’ gods. But, Lovecraft’s creations were never meant to be neatly divided into good and evil forces, like Christian angels and demons. With the possible exception of the more sophisticated Nyarlathotep, the majority of Lovecraft’s entities were amoral and bestial.

At the center of most of Lovecraft’s stories is the Necronomicon, a fictional chronicle and guide to mythology and magic. The book made its premiere in Lovecraft’s 1924 story, “The Hound.” Allegedly, anyone who read the book went mad because of its arcane content. According to Lovecraft, the author of the Necronomicon was Abdul Alhazred, a reclusive poet of the deserts who worshiped Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.

The name ‘Abdul Alhazred’ was actually a pseudonym that a very young Lovecraft enjoyed using after reading 1,001 Arabian Nights. Many readers of Cthulhu Mythos tales have believed the Necronomicon to be a real book, and to this day, libraries and bookstores still receive queries, asking if they have any copies available.

Lovecraft was probably inspired to create the Necronomicon by Robert W. Chambers’ book, The King in Yellow, which features a fictional book of evil also named The King in Yellow. Like the Necronomicon, the made-up King in Yellow contains such unspeakable content that it drives its readers insane once they’ve read it. Lovecraft absorbed many aspects of The King in Yellow into his fiction. Lovecraft also encouraged others to write about his characters, monsters, and mysterious settings … and decades later, many of today’s horror writers still do, including myself.

If you’d like to see some of the Cthulhu Mythos books I’ve written over the years, you can check out my author’s page at Amazon:

Many of my latest tales of Lovecraftian horror, co-written by Michael Sheehan, Jr., can be found in these collections:

HORRORS & ABOMINATIONS: 24 Tales Of The Cthulhu Mythos. Paperback available on Amazon:
US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1791560520/
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1791560520/

THE HOUSE OF THE OCELOT & More Lovecraftian Nightmares. Paperback available on Amazon:
US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1795518367/
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1795518367/

NIGHTMARES & TENTACLES: 13 Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Available on Kindle Unlimited:
US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09LRH6S4T/
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09LRH6S4T/

I also wrote INJECTABLES: A NOVEL OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR, which is available as a paperback and on Kindle Unlimited:
US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08JVMS26R/


About bmoviemonster

Mark McLaughlin is the author of the novels, HUMAN DOLL, THE HELL NEXT DOOR, and INJECTABLES. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in many magazines, newspapers, websites, and anthologies, including Cemetery Dance, Black Gate, Galaxy, Fangoria, Writer’s Digest, Midnight Premiere, Dark Arts, and two volumes each of The Best of the Rest, The Best of HorrorFind, and The Year’s Best Horror Stories (DAW Books). Mark is the author of many books of horror, so be sure to visit his Amazon Author's Page at http://www.amazon.com/Mark-McLaughlin/e/B008QCY4TC/
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