The Reading Room

Bridges Across the Void in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos

“All my stories,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft, “unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.” (August Derleth, “The Cthulhu Mythos” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, vii)
I have written before of Lovecraft’s cosmicism, his pervasive, lingering sense of complete isolation and worthlessness in the face of the universe’s uncaring vastness. For a man who wrote so much about loneliness, though, he sure built a lot of bridges breaching those mighty gaps. His very own Mythos, for example, he shared widely among his friends, a circle of writers scattered across the United States and Great Britain united by their shared love for writing weird tales for pulp magazines. He permitted and even encouraged them to use his established world of Great Old Ones and ancient races and even add to it. Most notable of these friends were Robert E. Howard, many of whose stories made more than vague hints toward the powers and races of Lovecraft’s fiction, and August Derleth, editor, compiler, and publisher of Lovecraft’s works after his death. Derleth was the primary contributor to the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, augmenting Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones with his own interpretation of them as a Satanic pantheon, to mixed reception from Lovecraft’s fans. Besides these two, however, there were many, many other contributors to the Mythos whose added elements (new ancient races, mystic books, evil cults, etc.) to the growing world were swiftly incorporated by the other writers, including Lovecraft himself. Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, and Henry Kuttner all “added appreciably to the Mythos…other beings sprung from the fertile imagination of Lovecraft’s creative correspondents” (Derleth, “The Cthulhu Mythos” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, viii). What started as a shared pattern in Lovecraft’s own stories, then, quickly grew into a much larger world, a shared mythology with contributions from any number of other writers which has continued on in one form or another to this day. 
This bridge between pulp writers, this shared community and world, was not the only bridge that Lovecraft built from his fiction, though. A long-time admirer of the works of Lord Dunsany (best known for his novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter) Lovecraft drew nearly as much inspiration from this writer of British fairy-tale poesy as he did from Poe, incorporating the dream-like atmosphere, fantastical descriptions, and pantheon of gods into much of his fiction, particularly his Dream Cycle. This too was a bridge, for Dunsany did not write either in the same style as the Gothic horror writers such as Poe or in the style of the dark fantasy pulp writers such as Howard’s Conan. Het wrote rather like George MacDonald, combining fairy-tale worlds with British Romanticism to craft more surreal, imaginative fantasy tales of greater contemplation and allegorical depth, but less seriousness. In one such tale he writes: “At that moment the Sea sang a dirge at sunset for all the harm that he had done in anger and all the ruin wrought on adventurous ships; and there were tears in the voice of the tyrannous Sea, for he had loved the galleons that he had overwhelmed, and he called all men to him and all living things that he might make amends, because he had loved the bones that he had strewn afar” (Dunsany, “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”).
Such a description bears little resemblance to the pulp writers, yet Lovecraft borrowed much from Dunsany’s style, incorporating that ethereal, dream-like method of description into his own tales of horror and madness. In so doing, Lovecraft created a bridge, connecting the cold steel and sorcery of the pulps with the fantastical creatures and magical kingdoms of Fairyland, creating what would in time be known as the fantasy genre as we now recognize it. His own Dream Cycle was an example of this bridge, for there he combined the eldritch horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos with a fairy-tale world walked by dreamers, populated by both his monsters and by wondrous fantastical cities of gold and crystal. This was not always done to the greatest effect, and indeed led to some of the oddest moments in Lovecraft’s fiction, such as a battle between an army of planet-hopping house-cats and a horde of moon pirates, but it was a vital step even so, introducing pulp writers to new, more imaginative storytelling possibilities and offering a new weight and realism to the British fairy-tale fantasies. Thus a bridge was forged, leading to serious stories where elves ruled magical kingdoms, gods roamed the earth, and vile sorcerers dueled for power—the modern fantasy.