The basic idea: Humans are an irrelevancy within the greater universe, a cosmos governed by forces so alien and terrifying that our tiny minds cannot encompass or bear their knowledge. Most characters who glimpse it promptly go insane. Cosmicism’s big bad is Cthulhu, a winged, octopus-like ancient god. But Cthulhu and his associates aren’t so much evil as indifferent to pesky human life.
As pantheons go, Lovecraft’s cosmogony is fairly imprecise, with much of it enfleshed by his immediate disciple, August Derleth, and other writers. There are Great Old Ones, the Outer Gods, the Elder Things and assorted monsters like the Shoggoth, a slave race of many-eyed, protoplasmic amoeba doodads. These gods are occasionally humanoid, but more often sluglike, piscine, crustacean, gelatinous or a lose-your-lunch buffet of unnamable horrors. Lovecraft typed these beings as explicitly extraterrestrial, though some are former rulers of the earth and still lurk within its depths and reaches. (So no more expeditions to Antarctica, OK?)
Gods to know and then run from in crazed terror: Dagon, a sea monster god; Nyarlathotep, a malign shape-shifter god, who appears sometimes in the form of a pharaoh and sometimes as an upsetting bat thing; Shub-Niggarath, a cloudlike lady god sometimes called “the Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young”; Yog-Sothoth, the “All-in-One and One-in-All,” a collection of glowing circles, but scary.
Five Essential Works
If Lovecraft remains a prized writer, that has more to do with the atmosphere his stories evoke than with the turgid prose. His pacing can be slow, his dialogue stilted, his humorlessness suffocating. But for a taste of his crawling chaos, here are some ghastly places to begin.
‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (1936)
Dr. William Dyer, a professor of geology at Miskatonic University (think Harvard, but eerier), joins a trek to Antarctica in this harrowing novella. His team discovers frozen prehistoric life-forms. Then mayhem begins. Dyer uncovers the remnants of an ancient alien civilization, a race of Elder Things and intimations of an even greater evil waiting nearby.
‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928)
This twisty story follows a man piecing together various writings left behind by his recently deceased professor uncle. Had his uncle stumbled on a series of cults devoted to the worship of an Elder God? He had! Note Cthulhu’s big debut: “It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway.”