I have acquired a special interest in the Cthulhu Mythos lately, so I’ve been reading a lot of short stories set in the Mythos. Some of them, particularly the ones by Lovecraft himself, are very good. Many of them… are less so. Here is a list of (unlucky number thirteen) items that I would like to never see in a Mythos story ever again.
1. “Is the Mythos real… or am I having a psychotic break?” is the worst plotline.
Themes of insanity are a core part of the Mythos, and one of the things that draws me to stories set in it. I love stories of someone going mad from the revelation. However, “am I insane or is this all really happening?” is a boring plot.
Obviously it is going to turn out that the Mythos is real, because you published your story in Weird Tales and not Tales Of Unusually Complex and Rich Psychotic Breaks. The reader is not in any way in suspense about whether the Great Race of Yith actually exists in the world of your story. It is not a reveal when it turns out that (gasp) the Great Race of Yith actually existed all along!
The real problem with these stories is that, as long as the Mythos existing is in question, you can’t explore what it means that the Mythos exists. Do you try to learn as much as you can– even at the cost of your sanity– or do you try to push it all out of your mind? How do you return to normal life having seen the true nature of the universe? Does everyday existence feel meaningless and pointless in the face of the vastness of the cosmos? How do you gather the strength to fight a battle against the eldritch horrors that you know humanity is inevitably going to lose? What are you willing to sacrifice to get humanity a little bit more time?
These are the interesting questions that you cannot address as long as whether the Mythos exists at all is in question.
2. “The protagonist’s best friend who doesn’t believe in the Mythos” is the worst viewpoint character.
The Skeptical Best Friend plotline has all the flaws of the “is the Mythos real… or am I having a psychotic break?” plotline, plus some extra for flavor.
The primary issue with the Skeptical Best Friend as viewpoint character is that there’s basically one story you can tell with the Skeptical Best Friend:
- The protagonist explains whatever Mythos thing is happening.
- The skeptical best friend dismisses the protagonist as insane.
- The protagonist gets devoured.
- The skeptical best friend wonders if perhaps… it cannot be… but perhaps the Mythos is real…
By the very nature of the Skeptical Best Friend, they can’t desperately try to escape the monster pursuing them though they know getting caught is inevitable, or fear their inevitable transformation into an inhuman creature, or rend their sanity pursuing dark truths, or do much of anything.
I realize that you are trying to give the reader, who is themself perhaps skeptical of the existence of magic, someone to project on. But I think a reader who picks up a volume of Cthulhu Mythos stories is capable of empathizing with an investigator, a cultist, a sorcerer, a hapless victim, or someone else who knows that the supernatural is real and therefore is capable of taking actions about it.
3. No more writer protagonists.
Perhaps following the dictum of “write what you know,” writers of Mythos tales have an unusual tendency to make the protagonists authors, often of stories published in Weird Tales. However, I am absolutely positive that every now and again someone encounters the occult and the eldritch who is not an author. I would like to get to read their stories occasionally too.
4. H. P. Lovecraft should not exist in universe as a character whose short stories are entirely accurate descriptions of what happened in the real world, unless you have a REALLY good explanation.
This is such a specific thing to be in so many Mythos stories, but it recurs a lot and I am baffled by the implications here. What do the readers of Weird Tales think about Lovecraft? He takes actually existing Prohibition raids on small towns and disastrous Antarctic expeditions and… pretends that they’re about weird fish monsters and shoggoths? What? Wouldn’t a reader of Weird Tales think that was incredibly offensive to the people who died?
It also raises many questions about Lovecraft himself. He knows the secret forbidden truths that destroy men’s sanity and chooses to… write fantasy stories about them? Why? Why isn’t he at least writing nonfiction? And then other people are like “hm, this horror story published in Astounding Stories seems like a credible source about the history of Innsmouth”?
You may have Lovecraft be a character in your story if you are addressing these questions. Otherwise, it just destroys my immersion.
5. Christianity should be false.
There are many horror subgenres which can reasonably contain demons, Satanists, and Black Masses. Cosmic horror is not one of them. If demons exist, then it implies that God exists, which implies that the creator of the universe notices each sparrow and cares about each human individually and incarnated as a human to die for our sins. This is antithetical to the entire concept of cosmic horror, which is that we are irrelevant in the face of the universe.
“Satan but no God” is annoying enough, but can be handwaved away as Satan being a Mask of Nyarlathotep or something. More irritating is Christian symbols such as the sign of the cross having power against eldritch horrors. If the sign of the cross defends you against an eldritch horror, then the universe is overseen by an all-loving and all-powerful deity that wants nothing more than to be with you forever in Heaven. This is just completely thematically inappropriate for the Cthulhu Mythos.
6. Do not systematize the horrors beyond our comprehension.
Naturally, humans are going to try to create taxonomies, to predict the Great Old Ones’ behavior, and generally to do empiricism to the cosmic horrors. That’s what humans are about. But our systems should be, at best, abstractions over a more complex reality too vast and too terrible to fit inside any human mind.
We should not be capable of knowing which of the Elder Gods are allies and which are enemies, which had children together, what their goals are, or how they are pursuing their goals. Any time we come up with a system, it should be obvious that the system is at best representing one small part of a more complicated reality. If something is supposed to be a horror beyond our comprehension, we should not be able to understand it.
(Shoutout to the podcast The Magnus Archives, which while non-Mythos does this very well. Highly recommended to all fans of cosmic horror.)
7. No wars of good versus evil, DERLETH.
August Derleth had one good idea, which is that the Cthulhu Mythos should be its own thing instead of just a tendency for Lovecraft to reference his other stories when writing fiction. Then, satisfied, Derleth retired from having good ideas for the rest of his life.
The Cthulhu Mythos should not be a battle between the evil Great Old Ones and the good Elder Gods. Cosmic horrors are beyond all human notions of morality, because they are fundamentally inhuman and incomprehensible.
8. NO ELEMENTAL ASSOCIATIONS, DERLETH
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the Great Old Ones lived in harmony. Then everything changed when Cthugha attacked.
Seriously, why would you decide that Hastur needs to be an elemental spirit of air? This is the Mythos, not a New Age shop. When I hear “Hastur is the elemental spirit of air,” I immediately imagine a nice hippie lady with a floral dress and a Tarot deck who wants to read my aura and unblock my chakras. Then I think about the dozens and dozens of mediocre and entirely non-horrific fantasy novels which have used elemental associations. Then I start asking myself why Galen was right about the secret underlying nature of the universe. Galen was not in any way an occultist and also he thought the uterus was a scrotum turned inside out. Why does he know about the basic four categories which govern the Great Old Ones themselves?
If you must have elemental associations, you can take a page out of Trail of Cthulhu’s book and make Cthulhu the elemental spirit of gravity instead.
9. Make your tomes in some way different from the Necronomicon.
Insufficient differentiation is a problem in the Mythos in general. There are quite a lot of Great Old Ones where it is unclear how they are at all different from Azathoth or Cthulhu. But this is less objectionable because maybe our limited mortal minds just can’t understand the exact distinction between Gol-Goroth and Tsathoggua.
On the other hand, our limited mortal minds can understand books. And every Mythos author has decided to add their own tome, the dread Whatever with the yellowing pages that is probably in Latin or Greek or Arabic or something and that contains secrets humankind was not meant to know. However, most of these tomes could be easily replaced with the Necronomicon and nothing of value would be lost.
The problem is that, perhaps to maintain flexibility, the authors do not specify what sort of information is in their tomes. But that means that the books get rather same-y after a while. The solution is to differentiate. Maybe this tome specializes in the secrets of necromancy: speaking to, summoning, and resurrecting the dead. Maybe it is the holy text of one particular cult and has little on any Great Old Ones the cult doesn’t worship. Perhaps it is a work of astrology that focuses on knowing exactly when the stars are right. Perhaps it is a history of the Black Pharaoh’s reign in Egypt. There are a lot of interesting options to make your tome unique.
10. Before you describe something as an unknowably evil horror, check that it is actually an unknowably evil horror, and not instead a totally knowable horror.
I understand that it is a genre convention that there are unknowable horrors from beyond time. We can describe the protagonist’s reaction, but the English language is insufficient to convey the enormity and majesty of the Great Old Ones. And I love it when authors describe seemingly mundane items– like the tiara in Shadow Over Innsmouth– as being alien and horrific in a way the narrator simply can’t put words to. The idea that we simply cannot comprehend most of what is happening in the universe is fundamental to the Mythos.
But before you invoke this trope, you need to check whether your horror is actually indescribable, like a Deep One’s tiara or Shub-Niggurath, or in fact it is perfectly describable, like a severed hand crawling around on its own. Severed hands crawling around on their own are gross and freaky, but I feel like I am capable of visualizing such a hand and understanding why I would be horrified if I saw one. If your narrator is telling me endlessly how spooky the hand is, I’m not going to be scared. I’m just going to be bored.
11. You should not write entire paragraphs in italics.
Italicizing an entire paragraph does not make it scarier. It just makes you seem worried that your writing won’t stand on its own so you have to use typography to indicate to the reader that this is the scary part–!
12. No long racist screeds.
Look, I am a reasonable person here. I am not demanding an end to miscegenation horror in the Mythos. I can accept that I am going to have to put up with a certain number of references to barbaric primitive tribes, Negro savages, and the natural strength and courage of the Aryan race. This is what happens when you like a fandom started by a racist in the 1930s. Society marches on.
However, I feel that when I am picking up a Cthulhu Mythos story, less than twenty percent of it should be composed of sympathetic characters discussing the latest cutting-edge findings of scientific racism. In general, if you place a Mythos story and the chatlogs of an alt-right chatroom side by side, I should be able to distinguish them in some way other than the number of times the speakers say the word “cuck.”
(Lovecraft gets a bad rap for racism but honestly the worst offender here in my opinion is Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft does not have any stories nearly as bad as The Children of the Night.)
13. No takes on the Mythos that are exclusively “Lovecraft is racist.”
I am stirring up a hornet’s nest here, I realize. But there’s a lot of really great material in the Mythos. And a lot of the nuggets of gold are there on the ground for anyone to pick up, because instead of mining them everyone else has spent the past ninety years writing about Skeptical Best Friends and making Cthulhu a water spirit.
It is baffling to me why so many people have looked at all of the untapped material here and decided to go with writing books about how Lovecraft is really racist.
I agree! Lovecraft was a racist person and this pervades the entire Mythos. As fans of the Mythos, we should acknowledge this. I am not opposed to books exploring the racial themes of the Mythos existing. But I think that we should explore all the other fascinating material that hasn’t really been touched on. What is it like to grow up as a member of the cult of Cthulhu? Why do people worship the Great Old Ones (and, no, “insanity” is not a good answer)? What is it like to be a Deep One hybrid and slowly transform into something repulsive and alien? How do investigators cope with the trauma of living in a cosmic horror setting? How does a person readjust to normal life after being captured by the Great Race of Yith? What clever schemes can you come up with to elude the Hounds of Tindalos? There’s so much potential to explore themes of trauma and abuse and complicity and neurodivergence and wonder at the tremendous scale of the universe.
Sure, write your book about how Lovecraft is racist. But do other stuff with the Mythos too.