Recent scholarly scrutiny of the popular
"Cthulhu Mythos" has made clear just how much of it was H. P.
Lovecraft's and how much August Derleth's. Or perhaps one should say how little
was Lovecraft's, and how much was Derleth's invention. Studies by Richard
L. Tierney, Dirk W. Mosig, and the present writer [Note]
have sought to peel back the layers of the "Derleth Mythos" (Tierney)
so that the disturbing vistas of Lovecraft's imagination may be more clearly
appreciated. But as often happens, it seems that the reaction has been a bit too
severe. Granted, Derleth did recast Lovecraft's picture in his own image,
and the result was distinctly lacking in horrific pungency. But it should be
remembered that in most cases Lovecraft had already furnished a precedent, or at
least a hint, for going in the same direction. In what follows, we want to
indicate some of those precedents, and thus demonstrate that there was indeed a
Lovecraft-Derleth connection, albeit perhaps a slight one.
The Good Guys
According to Tierney, the keynote of the
"Derleth Mythos" is "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!" (p. 57). Mosig suggests that it was
Derleth's Roman Catholic upbringing, deeply engrained, that made him
"unable to share Lovecraft's bleak cosmic vision. . . ." (p. 108), On
the whole, Derleth was more optimistic than Lovecraft in his conception
of the Mythos, but we are dealing with a difference more of degree than kind.
There are indeed tales wherein Derleth's protagonists get off scot-free (like
"The Shadow in the Attic", "Witches' Hollow", or "The
Shuttered Room"), but often the hero is doomed (e.g., "The House in
the Valley", "The Peabody Heritage", "Something in
Wood"), as in Lovecraft.
And it must be remembered that an occasional
Lovecraftian hero does manage to overcome the odds, e.g., in "The Horror in
the Museum", "The Shunned House", and The Case of Charles
Dexter Ward. Donald R. Burleson has recently shown that what at first
appears to be the unambiguous victory of Dr. Henry Armitage in "The Dunwich
Horror" is only a momentary stopping up of the bulging dike of evil. With
both Whateley twins dead, Yog-Sothoth has suffered but a minor setback in his
effort to "wipe the earth clean". And Armitage will not be alive to
foil him next time. We might understand Dr. Willett's dispatching of Joseph
Curwen in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in the same terms, since Curwen
was, by implication, also trying to provide entry to Yog-Sothoth and so imperil
the world. Yet Lovecraft leads the reader to believe that humanity is now safe
since Curwen and his colleagues have all been disposed of, and no one else with
sufficient knowledge remains. In sum, Lovecraft, too, had "good guys",
and sometimes they won.
But let's go back a step. If Armitage had won but
temporary respite, Derleth's heroes often win no more. Even the chain of
adventures contained in The Trail of Cthulhu are ambiguous in their
result. Though Great Cthulhu has been atom-bombed on the "black
island" of R'lyeh, the narrator confesses, "I knew by an intuition I
could not then explain that R'lyeh still stood in its depths, wounded but not
destroyed, that the dweller in those subaqueous depths still existed in whatever
form he chose to assume. . . ." ("The Black Island").
The Elder Gods
If Lovecraft and Derleth at least sometimes show the
same notions of good and evil, whether that of heroic victory or of mere
ambiguous reprieve, do they also share the device of the "Elder Gods",
a friendly pantheon opposed to the Great Old Ones? Mosig is sure they do not.
"The 'Elder Gods', as benign deities representing the forces of good, were
entirely Derleth's invention. . . ." He particularly scorns Derleth's
device of "interventions by rescuing Elder Gods which arrived with a timing
reminiscent of the U. S. Cavalry in cheap Western films" (pp. 107, 108).
Tierney makes the same point, noting that in Derleth's tales the "angelic
Elder Gods always intervene in time to save us" (p. 57).
One wonders if Mosig and Tierney would similarly
disparage Lovecraft's own The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, wherein
Randolph Carter is saved by exactly the sort of deus-ex-machina
intervention of "hoary Nodens" to deliver him from the clutches of
Nyarlathotep: "And hoary Nodens raised a howl of triumph when Nyarlathotep,
close on his quarry, stopped baffled by a glare that seared his formless
hunting-horrors to grey dust." Derleth, of course, had enumerated this
being among his beneficent pantheon: "The Elder Gods (only one of whom,
Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, is given a name). . . ." (p. 247). Now
Lovecraft may not have intended to make Nodens a member of a race of Elder Gods,
but it is hard to deny that his role in Dream Quest, as head of a host of
beings who effectively oppose the Old Ones, is not at all alien to Derleth's
conception. Who are Nodens's minions? Not Elder Gods, to be sure, but Night
Gaunts, "those mindless guardians of the Great Abyss . . . who own not
Nyarlathotep but hoary Nodens as their lord."
Yet we may even dare suggest a Lovecraftian
precedent for Derleth's picture of warfare between the Elder Gods and the Great
Old Ones, the latter group effectively headed, according to Derleth, by Cthulhu.
Mosig notes that Lovecraft had used the term "Elder Gods" here and
there, but with a meaning far removed from that intended by Derleth.
Specifically, Lovecraft's "Elder Gods" (actually "Elder
Ones") were the star-headed aliens in Antarctica described in At the
Mountains of Madness, whom he usually referred to in the same tale as
"Old Ones". Obviously, the terms are synonymous, both indicating that
Elder/Old Ones vastly antedate humanity. Interestingly, Derleth preserved a
similar ambiguity in some of his stories ("The Return of Hastur",
"Lair of the Star-Spawn"), using the names "Old Ones" and
"Elder Gods" interchangeably.
Was Derleth's use of the rubric "Elder
Gods" so alien to Lovecraft's in At the Mountains of Madness?
Perhaps not. In fact, this very story, along with some hints from "The
Shadow over Innsmouth", provides the key to the origin of the "Derleth
Mythos". For in At the Mountains of Madness we find the history of a
conflict between two interstellar races (among others): the Elder Ones and the
Cthulhu-spawn. Here is the relevant passage:
Another race --- a land-race of beings shaped like
octopi and probably corresponding to [the] fabulous pre-human spawn of Cthulhu
--- soon began filtering down from cosmic infinity and precipitated a
monstrous war which for a time drove the Old Ones wholly back to the sea. . .
. Then suddenly the lands of the Pacific sank again, taking with them the
frightful stone city of R'lyeh and all the cosmic octopi, so that the Old Ones
were again supreme on the planet. . . .
So here we have a primordial conflict between a
group of "Elder Ones" (so called earlier in the story) and another
race, the minions of Cthulhu!
By the way, there is nothing here which contradicts
the story of R'lyeh's sinking in "The Call of Cthulhu" except that in
the latter the Cthulhu-spawn are confusingly called the "Old Ones".
In both "Call" and Mountains,
R'lyeh sinks because of a natural catastrophe, not by the wrath of the Elder
Ones or Elder Gods as Derleth implies. Nonetheless, the parallel is sufficiently
close to indicate that Lovecraft did indeed leave seeds that would grow into
Derleth's later conception.
The Elder Sign
In his several summaries of his Mythos, Derleth
describes the expulsion of the Great Old Ones. "Their rebellion failing,
they were cast out and banished by the Elder Gods --- locked away on far planets
and stars under the seal of the Elder Gods." In The Lurker at the
Threshold, Derleth elaborates on "The Elder Sign, the mark of those
Elder Gods whose strength against the Great Old Ones is absolute, the mark the
Great Old Ones fear and hate."
This "Elder Sign" is a five-pointed
star-stone modeled on the artifacts of the Antarctican "Elder Ones" in
At the Mountains of Madness. Only there, as Mosig notes, they do not
function as magical talismans, save that the explorers' dogs are disturbed by
them. Mosig makes sport of Derleth's amulets "which played the role of
garlic and the crucifix in the hackneyed vampire tale. . . ." (p. 108).
Yet, ironically, Lovecraft himself alludes to the same kind of magical charms
against Cthulhu and his kin in "The Shadow over Innsmouth". Zadok
Alien tells what he knows of the powers of Cthulhu's servitors, the Deep Ones.
"They cud wipe aout the hull brood o' humans ef they was willin' to bother
--- that is, any as didn't have sarten signs sechas was used onct by the lost
Old Ones, whoever they was." Onct . . . er, once again, we have enmity
between the "Old (or "Elder") Ones" and the servants of
Cthulhu, not to mention protective talismans such as Derleth described. "In
some places they was little stones strewed about --- like charms --- with
somethin' on 'em like what ye call a swastika naowadays. Probably them was the
Old Ones' signs." Since various references seem to link "The Shadow
over Innsmouth" and At the Mountains of Madness in the same frame of
reference (the Old/Elder Ones vs. the Cthulhu-spawn/Deep Ones, mentions of
Shoggoths, etc. ), it is not improbable that the stone "charms" or
"signs" mentioned by Zadok Alien and the star-shaped stones discovered
in Antarctica are the same, except that the markings on the two sets of stones
differ. In Mountains, there are repeated groupings of dots, whereas in
"Shadow", it is a swastika. But if the same "Old Ones" are
in view, it is quite likely that the swastikas were traced in five-pointed
stars, given the ubiquity of that shape among the star-headed crinoids.
What of the name "Elder Sign"? Lovecraft
approaches it with his phrase "the Old Ones' signs" above. But he
actually uses the term "Elder Sign" elsewhere, and with various
detonations. In The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the "Elder
Sign" is a conventional gesture with which people cross themselves.
Randolph Carter "asked questions about the gods . . . but the farmer and
his wife would only make the Elder Sign. . . ." In "Through the Gates
of the Silver Key", it appears that the sign is not very effective;
Lovecraft adds to Price's original text a reference to "the evil that
defieth the Elder Sign." In his fragmentary "Of Evill Sorceries Done
in New-England of Daemons in No Human Shape", Lovecraft says that Indian
sorcerers had imprisoned the demon Ossadogowah ["Son of Tsathoggua"]
under "a flat Stone carved with what they call'd the Elder Sign." Here
we have the sign exactly as Derleth envisioned it. (On the other hand, in the
poem "The Messenger", Lovecraft interprets the sign in diametrically
opposite fashion: "The Elder sign, bequeathed from long ago, / That sets
the fumbling forms of darkness free.")
Derleth seems, then, to have picked up on the
"Old Ones' sign" from "The Shadow over Innsmouth", described
it in terms of the Antarctican star-stones of At the Mountains of Madness,
and adopted the nomenclature of the "Elder Sign" from The Dream
Quest of Unknown Kadath and "Through the Gates of the Silver Key".
The Seal of R'lyeh
All the preceding brings us to the interesting
problem of Cthulhu's entombment in the sunken city of R'lyeh. According to
Derleth, Cthulhu, after having been "cast out and banished by the Elder
Gods" is "locked away . . . under the seal of the Elder Gods . . .
deep under the sea in the place known as R'lyeh. . . ." ("The House in
the Valley"). Incidentally, if this "seal of the Elder Gods" is
to be identified with "the Elder Sign", which it presumably is, then
we have a rather serious contradiction in Derleth's schema, whereby the Elder
Sign star-stones are supposed to be effective against the Deep Ones, et al.,
but powerless against the Old Ones themselves. At any rate, we must ask after
any Lovecraftian basis for this conception.
Derleth himself, as is well known, appealed to a
letter wherein Lovecraft wrote that all his stories were "based on the
fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another
race who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled. . .
." (quoted in Derleth, p. 245). Thus it would seem pretty straightforward,
but for the fact that Mosig has fairly certainly shown that this quotation is
spurious, an apocryphal product of Derleth's faulty memory (Mosig, p. 112, n.
When we turn to Lovecraft's own "The Call of
Cthulhu", we find an altogether different picture. Here Cthulhu has simply
been trapped in his cyclopean palace by a geological upheaval. The island of
R'lyeh sank, and Cthulhu cannot free himself. There is indeed a seal engraven
upon the vast door of his palace-prison, but it is simply a royal escutcheon,
not an imprisoning sigilof the Elder Gods or anybody else. (It is interesting
that Derleth himself shares this conception of the seal in his story "The
Seal of R'lyeh", though elsewhere he upholds the "Elder Sign"
Thus far it would seem that Derleth's picture of
Cthulhu held captive by the magical seal of the Elder Gods finds no support in
Lovecraft. But to stop our search here would be premature. Perhaps surprisingly,
there is indeed some evidence in Lovecraft, and though it is not as unequivocal
as one might wish, it is hardly peripheral. We refer to the lengthy quote from
the Necronomicon appearing in "The Dunwich Horror":
They [the Old Ones] bend the forest and crush the
city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the
cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the
South and the sunken isles of [the] Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is
engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the scaled tower long
garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can
he spy Them only dimly.
Several important things are to be noted here. In
the context, the author, Abdul Alhazred, is warning his readers of inevitable
and irrevocable doom at the hands of the Old Ones. Kadath in the cold waste, or
ice desert, has felt their fury with the result that it has vanished utterly
from the sight of man. Paralleled with the fate of the polar city is that of
some sunken civilization, all that remains of which is a weed-grown tower and a
collection of ruins. In the very next line Cthulhu is mentioned. One implication
is that he is not one of the Old Ones (rather only "their
cousin"). Another is that he has felt their punishment. It is hard not to
identify sunken R'lyeh with the "sunken islands" mentioned here,
especially since Cthulhu is mentioned in the very same breath. Finally, the text
says that these sunken ruins bear "their seal", i.e., the "Old
Ones' sign" which, again, is said to hold the Deep Ones in check in
"The Shadow over Innsmouth"! The resulting scenario is virtually
identical to that envisioned by Derleth. Having lost some struggle with the
Elder Ones/Old Ones, Cthulhu has been banished and imprisoned on the ocean
floor. This may well have been Lovecraft's intention in the Necronomicon
passage. Even if it was not, the very ambiguity that allows the text to be read
plausibly in this manner opens the way for Derleth's version. This means that
the Lovecraftian text lends itself to a Derlethian reading, and so forms a
precedent for the "Derleth Mythos" at this key point.
Let our intention be clear. We have not argued that
Lovecraft and Derleth were in full accord, nor even that Derleth necessarily
developed the Mythos in directions of which Lovecraft would have approved. We
have merely contended that for some important points in Derleth's schema,
Lovecraft did provide smaller or larger precedents. Or to put it more directly,
Lovecraft himself had already begun to complicate the picttire by adding charmed
talismans and warring races of "elder gods". We are actually in full
agreement with Mosig and Tierney in judging Derleth's system foreign to
Lovecraft's central insights. Only we would draw the line not, as Mosig and
Tierney do, neatly between Lovecraft and Derleth, but rather between Lovecraft's
earlier work (broadly speaking) and his latest. Lovecraft's latest stage, it
must be admitted, shades ever so slightly into Derleth's system.
See references at end of article.
Derleth, August. "A Note on the Cthulhu
Mythos", in Derleth, The Trail of Cthulhu. Sauk City: Ark-ham House,
1962, pp. 245-248.
Mosig, Dirk W. "H. P. Lovecraft:
Myth-Maker", in S. T. Joshi (ed.), H.
P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Athens, Ohio; Ohio University
Press, 1980, pp. 104-112.
Price, Robert M. "Higher Criticism and the
Necronomicon", in Lovecraft Studies, Spring 1982.
Tierney, Richard L. "The Derleth Mythos",
in Darrell Schweitzer (ed.), Essays Lovecraftian. Baltimore: T-K
Graphics, 1976, pp. 57-59.