Franchise: Cthulhu Mythos
"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
— Passage from the al-Azif, a.k.a. the Necronomicon,
An informal and appropriately chaotic Shared Universe
that squarely defines the darkest and edgiest
of genres, cosmic horror
It was started unintentionally by HP Lovecraft
and his circle of peers (informally called the 'Kalem Club') who belonged to the embryonic Fandom
. At that stage less about Speculative Fiction
, and more about writing short amateur "weird" stories for the 'pulp' magazines, at least for Lovecraft.
Lovecraft had already incorporated small elements of Robert W. Chambers
' earlier The King in Yellow
and the writings of Arthur Machen
by way of Shout Outs
. As time went on, Lovecraft and his friends began referring to his Eldritch Abominations
and Tomes of Eldritch Lore
in their writings, though usually not actual characters, and to share references made in his friends' stories or private letters. Mythopoeia
defined the abstract, and original, cosmic setting. The actual term "Cthulhu Mythos" (depending on how you define it) post-dates Lovecraft's death, at which time H. P. Lovecraft's work got seized and expanded on by August Derleth
. Lovecraft himself called his budding mythology "Yog-Sothothery", because Yog-Sothoth features or is mentioned in many more stories than Cthulhu.
Due to the Shared Universe
's informal nature, several rather divisive conceptions of the Mythos have arisen, generally categorized as the Lovecraft purists' version; the version including the broad post-1930s expansions by later writers like August Derleth
(who is a controversy unto himself) and Ramsey Campbell; and then there's the rigidly codified and de-mystified Tabletop RPG
adaptations which crunch down Mind Screwdriver
-style to produce orderly game rules from an inherently disorderly Canon
. Information from the latter has tended to proliferate across the Internet disproportionately, resulting in simple Google searches producing a majority of pages
derived from the game and its various campaigns, rather than from prose literature (let alone Lovecraft's writings), which are not always labeled as such.HP Lovecraft
has his own trope listing, so tropes here should be for tropes that are not specific to his work, or have been greatly expanded from his work. See also Cosmic Horror Story
(for works which deal with Lovecraft's themes
(and, optionally, make use of the Mythos) and Lovecraft Lite
for works that take Lovecraft and Mythos less seriously.
See also the Call of Cthulhu RPG
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Sub-settings within the Cthulhu Mythos 'verse include:
- Lovecraft's own inventions of Arkham (containing Miskatonic University), Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport, Trope Namer for Lovecraft Country.
- The Dreamlands: Also created by Lovecraft and inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany. A fantastical world created by people's dreams, more subtly horrific.
- Hyperborea: Prehistoric Greenland prior to the Ice Age. Created by Clark Ashton Smith, it focuses more on weirdness than Cosmic Horror. Smith's Zothique stories, set on Earth's last continent, have a similar emphasis.
- Kull, Conan the Barbarian, and Bran Mak Morn: Robert E. Howard's works form a peripheral part of the Mythos. The stories tend to be human-centric. "The Tower of the Elephant", one of the best early Conan stories, features a Lovecraftian abomination and subverts the mythos by making it sympathetic.
- Delta Green: The Mythos meets government conspiracies and black ops. It began as a supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG game.
The "Lovecraft Circle"
The original writers who corresponded with each other and used the elements of the mythos in their writings.
Writers whose works were before Lovecraft started, but were a great influence on him. Later retconned into the Mythos:
Notable authors who have written in the mythos after Lovecraft had passed away:
- Fritz Leiber. Technically a contemporary, but published wrote stories set in the continuity only later.
- Brian Lumley: A prolific writer whose Titus Crow, Primal Land, and Hero of Dreams works forms a part of the mythos.
- Chiaki Konaka: Who has written several Mythos stories in addition to his work as an anime screenplay writer.
- Lin Carter: The major scholar and archivist of the Mythos, as well an editor and writer.
- Ramsey Campbell: Notable for founding Campbell Country.
- C. J. Henderson: Known for combining mystery with the Mythos. Some focus on Inspector Legrasse and others private eye Teddy London.
- Stephen King: Contributed a couple of stories set in the Mythos.
- Thomas Ligotti: More influenced by Lovecraft's bleak philosophy than by the particulars of the Mythos, but has written a few explicit homages like "The Sect of the Idiot."
- Graham Masterton: draws on the Cthulu mythos, or at least some of its original referents on Native american mythology, for works such as The Manitou and the Night Warriors series.
- WH Pugmire: Writes Mythos stories set in Sesqua Valley, his own creation.
- Charles Stross: Has written The Laundry Series, about government agencies focused on the occult, as well as several short standalone stories of the Cosmic Horror variety.
The Mythos includes such specimens as:
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- Genocide Backfire: The Doom that Came to Sarnath.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Trope Namer.
- Gratuitous German: The Unausprechlichen Kulten. According to S T Joshi, a leading Lovecraft authority and who provides the annotations for Lovecraft's stories for the Penguin Classics editions, it's also wrong German. It should be "Die Unausprechlich Kulten". Odd, since Lovecraft spoke German. And it's still wrong: The correct form would be either "Unaussprechliche Kulte", "Die unaussprechlichen Kulte" or "Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten" (note the capitalization).
- The Greatest Story Never Told: People journey into the depths of horror, sometimes preventing such nightmares from rising - and very few (if anyone) actually learn of the tale.
- Half-Human Hybrid: And not the cute furry kind, nor the sympathetic outcast kind.
- He Knows Too Much: Whoever finds out too much about the Mythos (such as the Cthulhu Cult) tends to be hunted down and killed. That is, if the person in question doesn't go insane first or get eaten.
- Historical-Domain Character: It's common for Mythos stories by later authors to feature Lovecraft himself as a character, often with the premises that he wrote truth disguised as fiction. Lovecraft Is Missing is a prominent example.
- Homeworld Evacuation: The Insects From Shaggai (AKA Shan) in Ramsey Campbell's stories. When their home planet was destroyed by a Mythos abomination, some of them fled to a succession of other planets, finally ending up on Earth.
- Yith itself is a dead planet, but the Great Race which evolved there fled to primordial Earth via mass mind-swap.
- Hostile Terraforming: Allies of the Mythos are trying to work towards "clearing off the Earth" for the Great Old Ones.
- How We Got Here: Typically of the "See, this is why I must commit suicide before sundown..." variety.
- Human Sacrifice: Whether it's being used in some unspeakable experiment/ritual or just being a snack for an Old One, it's very common.
- Humans Are Cthulhu: As shocking as it may seem there are some stories, even by Lovecraft himself, where humans are not at the bottom of the cosmic food chain. For instance "Memory" has a daemon and a genie talking about a race that built the ancient ruins in a valley: Man. And in "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" Randolph Carter possesses an alien from the distant past who is "disgusted by the thought of the human earth-mammal" that holds him prisoner in his own body for millions of years, long after the rest of his race is extinct.
- I Have Many Names: All of the Great Old Ones and other incomprehensible beings have multiple aspects and/or names. Part of this is due to multiple attempts at spelling a alien word (Cthulhu, Ktulu, Clooloo, Q'thulu, Tulu, etc.) and partly just due to the use of epithet (Nuclear Chaos or The Daemon Sultan for Azathoth) in the case of The Scottish Trope where the true name is forbidden (even "Azathoth" is a pseudonym).
- Insectoid Aliens: The Mi-Go and the Insects From Shaggai.
- Kaiju: There are some really big monsters in the Mythos. Cthulhu is described as a walking "mountain". Most of his children are almost as large- one of them whose talons alone are the size of mountains. Not to mention Dagon, Zhar and Lligor, several of Nyarlathotep's masks... all big. And then there's Ghroth, a monster the size of a planet.
- Living Bodysuit: Nyarlathotep, Hastur, Y'Golonac, and the Insects from Shaggai.
- Lizard Folk: The Serpent Men of Howard's Conan stories, and later used by Lovecraft.
- Loads and Loads of Races: HPL himself mentioned or sometimes showed a few dozen aliens and monsters, and subsequent authors and co-writers have expanded this greatly. That's not even getting into the godlike deity-aliens. Overall there are at least 30 intelligent races described.
- Locked Out of the Loop: Upper-class Anglo-Saxons seem to be the only people on Earth unaware of the horrors going on.
- Lovecraft Lite
- The stories by Smith, Derleth, Lumley, and Howard, in particular. Smith's tales focus on the weirdness rather than the horror, and Howard's characters were simply Bad Ass enough to face cosmic horrors and fight them. Even Lovecraft had some lighter tales.
- Naturally, the Mythos parodies and homages tend to be this as well.
- Magic from Technology: Often hinted that the "magic" of the Mythos is just advanced science.
- Magic Is Evil: There are plenty of evil (and insane) sorcerers. However, there are also examples of good people using "magic" to stop the bad guys. Titus Crow is one example, and Lovecraft's Professor Armitage is another. It's hinted that the magic may not be evil outright, just extremely dangerous to us ignorant humans. It's this interpretation that the Call of Cthulhu RPG takes, where using spells will sap Sanity.
- Masquerade: One of the defining aspects of the Mythos, living in ignorance of the true horrors of reality.
- Medium Awareness: Lovecraft encouraged the authors he corresponded with to use elements of his mythos in their stories, even if those stories were not part of the mythos itself. This emergence of common elements in seemingly unrelated works of literature created the impression that the mythos was actually real, thus leading to the fan theories that Lovecraft actually had encounters with eldritch entities. This culminated in a peculiar case when an infamous Moral Guardian by the name of Patricia Pulling included in a questionnaire submitted to police as a means of investigating people for possible occult affiliations, a question regarding whether or not the suspect had heard of and read the Necronomicon. This question, among various other things, led to her discrediting as a credible expert in the area of occult crime.
- Mistaken for Quake: When the ground shakes in a Mythos tale, you can bet it's either a Cthonian hive nearby or something worse.
- Moe Anthropomorphism: You can find most, if not all, of the mythos beings depicted as human girls. Cthylla is notable here since, being called Cthulhu's daughter, it's much easier to search for her moe art than her squid-like form. Haiyore! Nyarko-san takes this to the next level, with Nyarlathotep, Cthugha, and Atlach-Nacha as cute moe girls.
- More Than Three Dimensions: This trope is all over the Mythos. Most of its famous monstrosities exist in many more dimensions than we humans can perceive, so what we do see are just limited projections of their true multidimensional forms onto the 3D "reality".
- Multiple-Choice Past: Details vary between story to story, even if it's the same author. It may have been done on purpose to create a sense of ambiguity.
- Mushroom Man: The Fungi from Yuggoth.
- Mysterious Antarctica: "At the Mountains of Madness", as well as the material that follows up on the plot, such as roleplaying supplements and the novel Hive.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Pretty much all of them, unsurprisingly.
- No Biological Sex: Almost all the monsters created by Lovecraft himself are sexless. The only exceptions are the Deep Ones.
- No Hugging, No Kissing:
- Lovecraft's stories contain virtually no hanky-panky. His narrators are universally chaste. Female characters are almost consistently abominations in disguise. On the very rare occasions that sexual activity is implied, it is depicted negatively and guaranteed to result in inhuman hybrid demon spawn. The only even semi-notable exception is the unnamed mother of Charles Dexter Ward, who, while remaining a side character, deeply loves her son and falls ill out of concern for him; when her husband discovers what their son is really up to, he does everything he can to keep her from knowing just how awful things really are out of fear that he'd lose her forever, either mentally or altogether, from the shock.
- There's the poor Lavinia Whateley in The Dunwich Horror, who goes over her head under the coaxing of her grandfather, and meets a grisly ending later on because she's not happy with the idea of destroying humanity. Most of the time women aren't so much evil as completely absent from Lovecraft's stories, since he had no idea how to write female characters. Even Asenath Waite was actually the spirit of a man inhabiting the body of his daughter.
- As in the space of a story (days, maybe weeks) the male heroes spend time among creatures like Innsmouth hybrids or man-eating degenerate beings from The Lurking Fear, it would be pretty horrible to imagine what they could do if they weren't chaste.
- Averted with Smith and Campbell, where romance plays a role in some of their stories.
- Non-Indicative Name: Cthulhu only appears in one of the original Lovecraft stories, and his role beyond that one is fairly minimal. Though he is the most iconic character in the Mythos, he is definitely not the central figure—technically, "The Great Old Ones Mythos" would be a more accurate title.
- Not-So-Safe Harbor: Not surprising considering how it's mostly set on New England, but Innsmouth is especially noteworthy. Also not surprising considering Lovecraft's phobia towards all things aquatic, thus marine and octopoid creatures as a consistent source of horror.
- Occult Detective: Several characters attempt this, but often it doesn't end well. Titus Crow is a traditional example, while Teddy London is a private detective that worked on cases involving the Mythos.
- The Old Gods: The Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods. Averted with the Elder Gods, who imprisoned the Great Old Ones.
- Our Titans Are Different: The Great Old Ones once ruled the cosmos, but are now trapped, limited in power, or sleeping.
- Our Vampires Are Different: The fungoid creature in "The Shunned House" is Lovecraft's version of a vampire. It bears little resemblance to the undead humans of other works. Other authors added Star Vampires and Fire Vampires, which are even less conventionally vampire-like.
- Paranormal Investigation: Plenty of investigators, and very few survivors.
- Perspective Flip:
- "The Litany of Earth" tells the story of one of the survivors of Innsmouth, thematically engaging with Lovecraft's fear of the other.
- The works of WH Pugmire do this a lot. Most of his protagonists are non-human and linked to Lovecraftian entities.
- Picky People Eater: Some of the horrors of the mythos want blood or brains instead of eating people entirely.
- Plant Aliens: Both the Mi-Go and the Elder Things are described as being fungoid.
- Poke in the Third Eye: In Long's The Hounds of Tindalos, the protagonist, using mental time travel ends up going too far back in time, and attracting some really unwanted attention.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Thanks to the innumerable pop culture references, people have learned about the Mythos from almost everything but the original stories.
- Posthumous Collaboration: Several stories were finished after Lovecraft's death by Derleth.
- Product Placement: Partly a Shout-Out - in one of Derleth's stories, the characters acquire the anthology "The Outsider and Others" by H.P. Lovecraft for their investigation. "The Outsider" was the first book published by Arkham House, Derleth's and Donald Wandrei's company that was founded to help preserve Lovecraft's legacy. It was also a practical way to get the word out to the fans.
- Public Domain Character: Even when it was created. H.P. Lovecraft encouraged creative diversity in the original Cthulhu Circle, such that there was (and is) no single all-enjoining Canon, but rather what amounts to multiple authors' Ascended Fanon. In this sense, the Cthulhu Mythos more resembles an organic Mythology with numerous variations.
- Psychological Horror
- Puny Earthlings: Everyone else in the cosmos is either vastly stronger, powerful, or more advanced than the fragile-minded humans.
- Purple Prose: Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith indulged in this. Later writers, not so much.
- All over the place. Range from Derleth's ideas of morality or Smith's Greek pantheon-style genealogy (including such gems as Cthulhu being Hastur's half-brother), to Fan Wank trying to avert Science Marches On, like explaining various winged creatures like the Byakhee & Elder Things flying through space, originally ascribed to "ether", as biotechnological solar sails.
- Lovecraft even did it to himself, such as placing the locales of some of his earlier short stories into the setting of the Dreamlands. (You'll notice that 'The Cats of Ulthar', for instance, never mention being anywhere but in the real world, let alone a shared dream consciousness.)
- Sapient Cetaceans: A story in Tales from Innsmouth has dolphins as allies of the Deep Ones.
- Satanic Archetype: Nyarlathotep is more or less Satan, if not worse. A shape changer, sometimes humanoid (as the Black Pharaoh in "Nyarlathotep"), sometimes a hideous Eldritch Abomination (as The Haunter of the Dark in the story of the same name); diabolical pact-maker (to Keziah Mason in "The Dreams in the Witch House"), trickster (to Randolph Carter in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"). Although he does act as The Dragon for Azathoth, Nyarlathotep can be seen as a physical manifestation of the Outer Gods' will (Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth), and is referred to as their 'soul and messenger' more than once, which means the Outer Gods are colossal bastards. He's also the only one of them with a human mindset, and has active interest in humanity. This isn't a good thing. AT ALL.
- Specifically, most of the entities these stories revolve around are basically uninterested in humans as a matter of scale: They exist at least as far above us in the scale of the cosmos as we do above ants. Humanity's primary defense against them is being completely beneath notice. Nyarlathotep, however, has plans for which humans happen to be ideal.
- Science Fiction: Several of the various monsters are given scientific (or quasi-scientific) explanations and origins.
- Scrapbook Story: Most famously, the original Call of Cthulhu story does this, and other writers have followed suit.
- Sentient Cosmic Force: Yog-Sothoth for the Space-Time Continuum. The various Outer Gods could be interpreted to be this. For example, every nuclear reaction is Azathoth.
- At least one version says Azathoth's physical presence was the big bang.
- Series Mascot: Cthulhu, naturally; it's neither the most powerful of the Outer Gods nor their leader, but it's the most famous because of the story it was featured in.
- Shout-Out: To Lovecraft and the other writers in Lovecraft's circle. What started as in-jokes became hard continuity with Adaptation Expansion. References to the Mythos are also common in popular culture.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Most of the time, so cynical you could use the scale as a trebuchet. Competes with Warhammer 40k for the title of most cynical popular body of fiction.
- Sorting Algorithm of Evil: In essence, there are three tiers to the Mythos; at the bottom are the "mere" horrors — aliens, ghouls, mad sorcerers, etc. Above these are the Great Old Ones, which are basically Physical Gods. And above these are the Outer Gods, which are to the Great Old Ones what the Great Old Ones are to the lesser races. To put it in perspective, Cthulhu worships the Outer Gods.
- Spacetime Eater: Conversed between the narrator and a Lovecraft-expy in Long's "The Space Eaters". They talk about Eldritch Abominations in general, with the Expy asking what would happen if they "eat their way to us through space!"
- Spared by the Adaptation: The narrator in the 2005 silent film adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu. The beginning of the original story refers to the "late" Francis Wayland Thurston. How he died is not revealed. The movie doesn't really hint at this at all.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Intentionally; most of the Great Old Ones and the like have names that can't be rendered in human languages, so they're spelled in all sort of different ways in different stories.
- Spotlight-Stealing Title: Despite being the most well known and iconic character, Cthulhu himself has only a few small appearances in the stories and is more of a minor background character compared to Yog-Sothoth, Dagon, and Nyarlathotep.
- Starfish Aliens: All of HPL's aliens, and quite a few earth-dwelling creatures. Howard, for such an early writer, was good at ensuring his aliens were actually alien. And in the case of the Elder Things, one of the more sympathetic species, almost literal Starfish Aliens. Later authors have followed suit.
- Stuck in Their Shadow: In-universe example: The protagonist of Black Man With A Horn by T.E.D. Klein feels that his literary career was overshadowed by his friend H.P. Lovecraft.
- Sufficiently Advanced Aliens:
- The Great Old Ones are some of the, er, oldest examples. All too often this aspect gets ignored in favor of The Theme Park Version's literal gods.
- In an inversion, in their introductory story, the Elder Things are presented as being men- that is, in comparison to the other aliens and horrors out there, the Elder Things built things, created a civilization, wrote, created, learned, taught. They built things and invented things. They're human compared to the nigh-godly Cthulhu Spawn and the horrific Shoggoth(s?).
- Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Many of the alien tech look like they're ancient stone ruins or tools. Some of it is actually so very advanced it may be beyond human comprehension.
- Superweapon Surprise: Of the Bigger Brother variety, in Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories "The Doom that Came to Sarnath" and "The Other Gods", to name a few. (Not in stories set in our world, though, or else said Bigger Brothers would have wiped humanity off the page.)
- The Taming Of The Grue: You can buy Cthulhu plushie dolls. Adorable, aren't they?
- Tabletop Games:
- Spawned several RPGs, including the Call of Cthulhu RPG, Trail of Cthulhu (using the GUMSHOE system and focused in the 1930's), Arkham Horror and Yellow Dawn - The Age of Hastur RPG (set in a post-apocalyptic world).
- The franchise also inspired Card Games, like the Mythos CCG, the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game, and even Munchkin Cthulhu.
- These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: The entire Mythos is filled with these.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: Several stories by Lovecraft, who was likely inspired by Chambers.
- Tomato in the Mirror: Several stories involve the protagonist discovering something unpleasant about his heritage.
- Tome of Eldritch Lore: Most notably the Necronomicon, but also De Vermis Mysteriis, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the... well just look at the list. Name-dropping one of these is a stock horror Shout-Out.
- Too Many Mouths: One of the classic Eldritch Abomination traits. In a particularly corporeal case, the Great Old One Y'golonac (you fool, you've doomed us all!) has them on his palms.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Oh so many, from Innsmouth to Jerusalem's Lot to Temphill...
- Trope Overdosed: Think this page has a lot of tropes? Check out the character page.
- The Trope without a Title
- Tuckerization: In addition to all the Author Avatars and Shout Outs, the Lovecraft Circle tossed out references to their pals:
- Ultraterrestrials: Deep Ones, Ghouls, and Sand Dwellers.
- Universe Concordance: Daniel Harms' The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia and earlier Encyclopedia Cthulhiana.
- The Unpronounceable:
- All the Great Old Ones qualify.
- In one short story a fan of Lovecraft in a world where the stories are in truth based on reality has surgery to allow her to pronounce R'lyehian correctly. This gives her an eldritch look, and when she actually practises the ability, it sort of causes the end of the world as a side effect.
- Weaksauce Weakness:
- The Cthonians dissolve in water. Justified: Considering the Cthonians are able to survive intense heat and pressures, can burrow underground, and have telepathic powers capable of controlling people's minds, the fact that Earth is mostly water may be the only reason why they haven't wiped humanity out.
Not a particularly exploitable weakness for the bigger ones though. Shudde-M'ell (the chief Chthonian) is described as a mile long, so immersing him in water would be ... pretty challenging.
- Water isn't good for the Great Old Ones according to The Call of Cthulhu, either - it blocks their telepathic powers completely, trapping them to their lairs both physically and mentally, until R'lyeh rises again.
- The Haunter in the Dark, one of Nyarlathotep's many forms, is extremely weak against light. Granted, it comes from a dimension where no visible light exists (and where it would presumably be invincible), and it can't be killed, only banished back to that dimension, but still, it's an Eldritch Abomination that can kept at bay with a flashlight! But you'd better hope your batteries last until you find something else... the Haunter can wait, it only needs to catch you once.
- In Robert Bloch's story "The Shadow From the Steeple" (considered out of canon by some) it gets better: after a serious blunder by a university professor attempting to contain it, it takes over his body, therefore becoming almost unaffected by light, changes the man's field of expertise to theoretical physics, then joins the Manhattan project so we'll succeed in creating a weapon that could actually annihilate us. It's also an avatar of the god Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos.
- Call of Cthulhu itself offers one. You may be surprised that, despite being an ancient and unspeakably powerful entity able to drive humans to insanity with nary a glance, Cthulhu is just as vulnerable as anything else to being rammed with large objects.
- Weird Tales: Lovecraft and many of his friends wrote for the magazine.
- When the Planets Align: The Great Old Ones will return when The Stars Are Right.
- Who You Gonna Call?: Professor Shrewsbury, Inspector Legrasse, Titus Crow, The Wilmarth Foundation, Delta Green, and Teddy London.
- Wolverine Publicity: Cthulhu only appears in one story, yet his name is used for the whole body of fiction. Justified in that Cthulhu or the events from The Call of Cthulhu is alluded to in other stories.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Contrary to popular belief, people can see the true form of many eldritch beings just fine. It's just sometimes the truth is just too much for the human mind. But there's a few that do play the trope straight. See the Character page for more detail.
Cthulhu fhtagn... what a wonderful phrase...