Writing the Mythos: Cosmic Mojo (Part 1)
By G. W. Thomas
Critics of horror fiction have labeled Lovecraft’s brand of storytelling “cosmic” horror to differentiate it from the regular legions of werewolves and murderers that filled the Pulps at the time that Lovecraft wrote. This “cosmic” label seems appropriate, for HPL’s stories are filled with intergalactic beings and interdimensional creatures, but, more importantly, the frisson of fear derived from his prose is that of the unknown terror of cosmic vastness. To read Lovecraft’s best works is to see our world as a tiny speck in an infinite sea of stars and cool, indifferent star-beings.
It should come as no surprise that HPL wrote of astronomical terrors, for he was an amateur astronomer from his youth. This knowledge shows in his descriptions of constellations and gibbeous moons. But it was not this alone that inspired Lovecraft’s “cosmic” horror. HPL did borrow much from the masters before him. We can see this quite clearly in his lengthy survey of horror, “The Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927). He often refers to the works of past masters as “cosmic” in nature, from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft’s use of the word seems to mean any horror tale that makes us see dark vistas beyond the ordinary.
From these selections, we can pick a few favourites that illustrate how the English authors inspired the cosmic nature of the Cthulhu Mythos – in a sense, gave it its ‘cosmic mojo’. (I will later look at the American authors who did the same.)
An early and important influence on HPL was Lord Dunsany (1878-1957): “Unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world of iridescently exotic vision, is Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Eighteenth Baron Dunsany, whose tales and short plays form an almost unique element in our literature. Inventor of a new mythology and weaver of surprising folklore, Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty, and pledged to eternal warfare against the coarseness and ugliness of diurnal reality. His point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period… Beauty rather than terror is the keynote of Dunsany’s work.”
The Dreamlands tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are imitations of Dunsany’s Pegana. Of all these authors I am about to mention, the only one Lovecraft ever met in person was Dunsany, on a book tour in America, though HPL was too shy to speak to him. It is first with Dunsany that Lovecraft begins creating a style of horror tale that is both fantasy and horror. As he grew older, the Dunsanian tales would disappear as he discovered his own direction.
Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is one of the most important authors to inspire HPL. The Welsh writer, living in London on scraps, wrote tales inspired by his boyhood home. These visions of Welsh hills are always tainted with a secret knowledge that dark secrets lurk beneath the peaceful façade. Machen shows the terrifying power of nature in “The Great God Pan” (1894); hidden creatures lurking in “Out of the Earth” (1923); “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895) (and many other stories); and a world unseen in “The White People” (1904). Lovecraft writes of him: “Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” Also inherited to HPL is the technique of slowly revealing only part of the mystery and leaving part of its vast terror to the imagination. From Machen, Lovecraft would borrow the “dhole” and “Nodens”.
“Less intense than Mr. Machen in delineating the extremes of stark fear, yet infinitely more closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours is the inspired and prolific Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age… Mr. Blackwood’s lesser work is marred by several defects such as ethical didacticism, occasional insipid whimsicality, the flatness of benignant supernaturalism, and a too free use of the trade jargon of modem ‘occultism’.” As HPL says here Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) the English ghost story writer was another important teacher, though not as successful as often as Machen, for Blackwood was an ardent believer in Spiritualism that ruins some of his work. The two tales that had the most effect on HPL were “The Wendigo” (1910) and “The Willows” (1907). In “The Wendigo”, hunters in Canada encounter an ancient Indian terror that August Derleth would later co-opt into the Mythos as Ithaqua, the Wind-walker. Even better is “The Willows”, which follows some campers in Germany who come close to crossing a cosmic veil, behind which terrible things lurk. Blackwood’s tales of occult doctor John Silence never rival these two tales.
Another stylist to influence Lovecraft was the English Don, Montague Rhodes James (1962-1936) who wrote ghost stories for Christmas parties. James’ technique was to place his readers at a great distance from the supernatural events then slowly draw them a little closer. “…gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life, is the scholarly Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton College, antiquary of note, and recognized authority on mediæval manuscripts and cathedral history…” This style of ghost story uses many books, letters, diaries, all of which found their way into the Mythos as the mechanics of telling a story along with the evil tomes of the canon. From James’ first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), the stories “Canon Alberic’s Notebook”, “Count Magnus” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, and later, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), which features “Casting the Runes”, are all important.
After Machen, William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was perhaps the next-biggest influence on the monsters-of-the-cosmic variety of horror. Lovecraft wrote of him: “Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be.” Perhaps more than any other writer, Hodgson used tentacular beasts and cosmic pig-monsters to create his terror. These creatures and their unearthly origins would help form the typical Lovecraftian monster. Hodgson’s many tales of the sea had their influence, but it is his novels, The House on the Borderlands (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909), The Boats of ‘Glen Carig’ (1907), and the masterpiece The Nightland (1912) which most suggests the vast terror of the “abhuman” world.
For the Mythos writer, I can only recommend reading all these English writers and more. Learning how they influenced Lovecraft is to learn a thing or two, yourself. The ability to imitate the style of M. R. James or Arthur Machen, or to be able to create monsters like Hodgson, are all useful things for a Mythos writer. Always remember, though, what worked in 1895 may not work in 2010. Modernise where necessary, but what truly terrifies never goes out of style. In my own story, “Black Sun”, I took the Mythos out into space, and showed that modern technology such as space stations, cyborgs and lasers is still no match for the terror of the cosmic.