Richard L. Tierney

The "Cthulhu Mythos" is largely the invention of, not H.P. Lovecraft, but August Derleth.

Lovecraft, of course, did the groundwork. He invented most of the gods, demons and servitors -- and, above all, he provided the spooky, gothic atmosphere necessary to the genre. Yet it seems to me that it was Derleth who established the concept of a "Mythos" to comprehend all the Lovecraftian concepts.

Lovecraft himself seems never to have entertained such a concept. His outlook on the supernatural and the cosmos seems to have been basically dynamic -- it was constantly developing throughout his life. Derleth's attitude on the other hand was largely static; he appreciated Lovecraft's concepts but cared less for developing them than for systematizing them. His efforts were interesting but less than successful from an aesthetic point of view. That is not to say that Derleth was unaesthetic but merely that, in my opinion, his basic outlook was non-Lovecraftian and his attempt to carry on the Lovecraft tradition left out something vital.

Derleth probably coined the term "Cthulhu Mythos." If he did not, he certainly developed the attitude that goes with that term. Consider the basic premises of the "Mythos": a cosmic cluster of "good guys" (Elder Gods) protecting the human race from the "bad guys" (Ancient Old Ones) who are striving to do us (humanity) in! Derleth maintains that this all a parallel of the "Christian Mythos," with its bad against good, and with humanity the focal point of it all. Evil Ancient Ones are striving to take our planet from us, but angelic Elder Gods always intervene in time to save us.

I grant Derleth the right to his view of the cosmos, but the sad thing is that he has made all too many believe that his view is that of Lovecraft also. This is simply not true. Lovecraft's picture of the universe and Derleth's are completely dissimilar.

Derleth seems determined to link the Cthulhu pantheon with Christianity and the Medieval tradition by making it a struggle between "good" and "evil" from an anthropocentric point of view. Too, the concept of "elemental forces" in the Mythos seems to be Derleth's own -- borrowed from the ancient theory that all things known to us are compounded from the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. Derleth runs into many contradictions here. For instance, he makes Cthulhu and his minions water beings, whereas "The Call of Cthulhu" has them coming down from space and building their cities on land; only later are their cities submerged by geological upheavals, and this is a catastrophe which immobilizes the Cthulhu spawn. Hastur is portrayed as an "air elemental," while at the same time Derleth implies that he lives on the bottom of the lake of Hali. Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep, probably the two more purely Cosmic of all Lovecraftian entities, are squeezed into the "earth" category; while, finally, he invents the fire elemental, Cthugha, to round out his menagerie of elementals. (Lovecraft invented no beings that could be construed as "fire elementals.") Cthugha comes from the star Fomalhaut -- presumably because Lovecraft once mentioned that star in one of his sonnets.

Elementals aside, the whole basic concept of Derleth's "good-versus-evil" Mythos seems as non-Lovecraftian as anything conceivable. Lovecraft actually regarded the Cosmos as basically indifferent to anthropocentric outlooks such as good and evil. The "shocker" in his best tales is usually the line in which the narrator is forced to recognize that there are vast and powerful forces and entities basically indifferent to humanity because of their overwhelming superiority to Man.

Most writers continuing the "Cthulhu Mythos" in fiction or documenting it in scholarly articles are merely perpetuating the misconceptions begun by Derleth.

I feel Lovecraft reached his highest imaginative peak in the two novels, "The Shadow Out of Time" and "At the Mountains of Madness." In both these tales, Lovecraft turned the whole universe into a haunted house, so to speak, linking the findings of modern science to the flavor of Gothic horror. In so doing, he created a type of "creepy" story that 20th Century man could continue to believe in even after the traditional trappings of cemetaries, crumbling castles, haunted mansions, etc., began to acquire the flavor of cliches. But Lovecraft's followers have never pursued this line of development. Without exception they all leave Man and his values at the center, in the Derleth tradition, and most of them even continue to use the non-HPL devices of "Elder Gods," "elementals," etc., while writing endless variations on the basic Lovecraftian themes dealing with Dunwich and Innsmouth.

To sum up: The Cthulhu Mythos as it now stands is at least as much Derleth's invention as it is HPL's. The line of Lovecraft's development remains open -- no one has really taken up as yet where he left off -- and it leads toward the cosmic. Yet if one wants to get to the heart of what Lovecraft felt about the cosmos, one must sidestep Derleth and his followers.

Send your comments to Nightscapes


© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
"The Derleth Mythos" by Richard L. Tierney: © 1973 Meade and Penny Frierson. All rights reserved. Email to: Meade Frierson III.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: October 21, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004