An intro to Cthulhu
November 10th, 2011
02:34 PM ET

An intro to Cthulhu

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We see you there, siting comfortably in front of your computer, eating moon pies and Cherry Garcia while watching wrestling kittens wearing bow ties.

You don't have a care in the world, do you? You're going to watch an episode of "Jersey Shore," wrap yourself up in your slanket and sleep soundly until you have to get up tomorrow and go to a job that you actually kind of like.

God, we hate you.

We bet that you didn't once stop to think about what horrors might lie beyond the stars in the infinite vacuum of space or within the darkest chasms of the deepest seas, now did you? Did you?!

Well, we know someone who contemplated myriad monstrous blasphemies, creatures that do not live yet are not dead, and things that lie just beyond the fringes of sanity. Let's take a quick jaunt through the looking glass into the unspeakable madness of the undisputed master of the sciencehorrorfantasy fiction genre, Howard Phillip Lovecraft.

An introverted, misanthropic, sickly man who spent much of his life making up stories about terrifying interstellar beings while living with his mom, Lovecraft was what you might call a "weirdo." Is it any wonder that he has inspired some of the most talented monster makers of our day? Mike Mignola, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and others can all lay claim to a serious preoccupation with Lovecraftian lore.

The universe that Lovecraft created - and the creatures that inhabit it - is both fascinating and complex. Throughout dozens of stories and novels largely published in the 1920s and 30s, Lovecraft weaved familiar themes (and cosmic entities) into his tales of insanity and terror. Yet, Lovecraft's dense prose remains impenetrable for some. We therefore present this primer to help get you started. Think of it as the grease that will no doubt get your future Cthulhu-based cocktail party banter flowing.

We also have stunning visuals to aid us in our educational quest. Lovecraft's influential work was recently the inspiration for the Dead and Dreaming art show at the Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia. "Once you read Lovecraft, you turned into that weird kid at school that knows something really awful is going on," contributing artist Roger Petersen says. Lovecraft was all about terrifying things happening while silly humans went on obliviously with their lives.

At a time when everyone was writing stories about the boring, old occult stuff - vampires, witches, ghosts, etc. - Lovecraft set out to make a world that was terrifying to people who didn't believe in spirits. In his stories, the bad guys are never some incarnation of the devil that could be defeated with holy water. For Lovecraft, the real terror lies in just how insignificant human kind really is in the face of cosmic horrors.

What sort of cosmic horrors, exactly? We thought you'd never ask!

The thing that should not be (but is)

Many conversations about Lovecraft begin with Cthulhu. Deep beneath the inky depths of the ocean lies the ruined city R'lyeh where IT sleeps in a death-like state, haunting the dreams of all mankind. IT, of course, is Cthulhu, a behemoth alien from beyond the stars.

Artist Christine Larsen describes Cthulhu as "an octopus head with bat wings." But where did he come from? Cthulhu and his starspawn (sometimes called The Old Ones) came to Earth millions of years ago. They found another group of aliens already living here. As super-advanced, transdimensional beings often do, they went to war for control of the Earth.

After peace was made, the territory occupied by The Old Ones fell into the ocean, where they lie to this day, waiting until a time "when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind - of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium."

"It's so serious, it's funny," Larsen says, since we all know there is nothing funnier than the apocalypse.

The Elder Things

The 1936 Lovecraft novella At The Mountains of Madness features an ill-fated trip to Antarctica, or as the author calls it, "a haunted, accursed realm where life and death, space and time, have made black and blasphemous alliances in the unknown epochs since matter first writhed and swam on the planet's scarce-cooled crust."

Perhaps not the best place for a first date.

Remember when we mentioned that Cthulhu and the Old Ones went to war with another species of alien when they arrived on Earth? Well, those guys were The Elder Things, the dominant civilization on Earth until the starspawn came along. Eventually, the shifting of Earth's continents isolated The Elder Things' city in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.

The Elder Things were just your good, old-fashioned, star-headed extraterrestrials who flew through space with leathery wings and a desire to engineer a race of creatures that were strong enough to do all the hard work but dumb enough to subjugate. Eventually, they succeeded in creating the amorphous beings called the Shoggoths...along with accidental by-products like dinosaurs, humans, and the rest of life on Earth.

Sadly, as the Elder Things' civilization slowly declined, the Shoggoths became impossible to control. Eventually, The Elder Things' once-great city crumbled, buried beneath layers of ice. But the Shoggoths - black blobs with hundreds of eyes and a tendency to decapitate things - are still lurking in the dark parts of the earth. So be careful out there.

Freaky fish monsters

Lovecraft was not only interested in the goings-on of terrible celestial beings. Among the many horrific things that live just outside the view of humankind is a race of amphibian creatures who worship the Mesopotamian fish god, Dagon. In Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," it is discovered that, from time to time, these hideous fish monsters demand human sacrifices and also come on land to mate with humans. In exchange, the humans get all the fish and gold they could ever want. Plus, as a special bonus, they get to live forever under water, as misshapen fish freaks.

Sam Heimer, founder of the Autumn Society, who hand-picked the artists for the Dead and Dreaming show, particularly likes "The Shadow Over Innsmouth": "The all-encompassing historical background, nebulous bits of folklore and rumors, detailed descriptions of the crumbling architecture, and almost medical studies of the mutated, debased Innsmouth blood-line make this story a standout from some of Lovecraft's shorter works, and a perfect example of the rich storytelling mechanisms Lovecraft uses to draw in the reader."

Not to mention the human-on-fish sexytime.

Reanimating the dead

Roger Petersen's piece for the show is an illustration of one of Lovecraft's longest stories: "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," published in 1941. It's a retelling of that age-old story of boy-resurrects-300-year-old-ancestor, ancestor-kills-boy-and-tries-to-summon-an-unspeakable-ancient-evil.

How does one go about resurrecting their dead ancestors? It helps if you have a copy of "The Necronomicon," a fictional tome that is one of Lovecraft's most famous creations. Though the contents of this mysterious volume remain somewhat cryptic, we know it contains accounts of the history of the Old Ones, as well as magic spells of a macabre and arcane nature including "How to Raise the Dead" and quite possibly "How to Manufacture a Teen Pop Sensation".

So with the aid of "The Necronomicon" and the ancient power of a cosmic being named Yog-Sothoth, Charles Dexter Ward is successfully reunited with his murderous, necromancing ancestor. High fives all around.

It should be noted that to contemplate Yog-Sothoth may drive a man to madness (naturally). "He's kind of the embodiment of time and space," says artist Michael Bukowski, who drew Yog-Sothoth's half-human son, Wilbur Whately, for Dead and Dreaming. With a menacing name like Wilbur, you can be sure he's up to no good. Wilbur was born with the primary purpose of opening the way for the return of Cthulhu and the Old Ones to come out of their death-like slumber and take over the world while, in the process, destroying all of mankind.

What a dick.


Try to hold onto your sanity, because there's more to Lovecraft than just monsters. Paul Romano, who has done the concept art for bands like Mastodon and A Life Once Lost, decided to draw the more intangible horrors of Lovecraft. "I always enjoyed the imagined terrors," he said. "I was trying to imagine what these unseen terrors were. I want to avoid specific creatures."

Romano decided to illustrate a scene from "The White Ship," about a man who sets sail in his dreams and, since it is a Lovecraft story, eventually confronts unspeakable horrors on the fringes of his dream world.

Always remember that, according to Lovecraft, "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." Because: "It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life and, blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests."

So, maybe you should quietly go back to your wrestling kittens and your "Jersey Shore," lest you find yourself driven mad by the horrible nightmares that lie just beyond the threshold of our understanding.

Because that would be a total bummer.

For more info about the Dead and Dreaming art show, visit Paradigm Gallery's website here.

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