The Lovecraft-Derleth Connection

by Robert M. Price

copyright 1982 by Robert M. Price
reprinted by permission of Robert M. Price

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. 16).

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" theory.)

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.