Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/23/22: Shady Characters
xxxx(Lovecraft III)

Asenath Waite, Lovecraft’s only transgender femme fatale, by Abigaril Larson

Humans in Lovecraft’s universe did not fare very well. They were transformed into monsters or disembodied brains, driven mad by forbidden knowledge, or became cannon fodder against ancient gods. That’s for the male humans. Female humans fared better. Mostly, by keeping out of his stories. But when they appeared they were witches, or the mothers of monsters.

Lovecraft was meticulous about choosing names for his characters, sticking to family names from his corner of New England (Masschusetts) like Dyer, Pabodie, Peabody, and Whately. His male characters’ names always sound a bit prissy, like they got called four-eyes in school and got beaten up a lot. When he references imaginary local histories, the first names he uses are those that were popular in that particular decade, which may be names from the Bible, Puritan names like Mercy or Resolve, or old blood English ones, such as Thomas or Abigail. In doing research to randomgen this list I came across some very odd ones indeed, like Onesiphorus, Gershon, and Hepza.

Since his characters are often professionals like doctors and scholars, I included some titles for both women and men.

 

Characters for a Lovecraftian story

MALE

Old Leyander Lipcott

Captain Theodore Baird

Dr. Jeremiah Pallsgrave

Elder Levi Cabell

Pastor Israel Hugh

Resolve Plumstead

The Honorable Israel Clough

William Trascott

Minister Gershon Curtwell

Nathaniel Shapley

Zephaniah Jessup

Roland Sherman

Deacon Wymont

Governor Jonathan Whippel

Enoch Stoddard

FEMALE

Madame Paget

Dr. Eunice Granger

Patience Silsbee

Lydia Cabell

Serene Cordner

Old Addie Osgood

Lavina Charles

Susannie Watkins

Harriet Rose Bucknam

Lucy Colcord

Mercy Stoddard

Lady Adelaide Carrington

Madame Lucente

Mrs. Eber Alger

Mother Phoebe

The Art of the Elder Thing (Part I)

H. P. Lovecraft’s notes on At the Mountains of Madness and a drawing of an Elder Thing, written on the back of an envelope

The Elder Things are one of Lovecraft’s crowning creations, an  exercise in speculative biology that also includes the Yithians (The Great Race) and the Mi-Go, also known as the fungi from Yuggoth. These trifecta of beings stand the test of time even today of what an alien intelligence could be like.

Lovecraft based his creatures on echinoderms, that is, starfish, with their five-part head and five-part radial symmetry. Their barrel-shaped bodies recall a stiff, leathery version of a sea cucumber, with the sea cucumber’s tentacles serving as legs. Around the body’s five ridges are arms similar to the arms of a basket star or crinoid — that is, tentacles that split again and again into smaller tendrils — and wings which can be folded up and tucked into pockets between the ridges. He was very exacting with his description, which appears twice in At the Mountains of Madness. Yet, every artist who attempts to illustrate one of these creatures has his or her own interpretation, and for the most part, they are all correct according to the text.

Let’s start with the original drawings from their first published appearance in Astounding Tales in 1936.

I rather like these. They are basic, and… cute? They adhere to the text, particularly the bit apart being part vegetable. The heads look more like those of a brittle star than the familiar cookie-cutter like American flag star. Correctly for the text, they are covered in cilia and have eyeballs on the end. The bat wings don’t really make sense, but they didn’t make sense in the text either.

It’s my feeling that Lovecraft had a lot of affection for his creations. He worked out their society and biology in  detail. Though the human characters are repulsed, the Elder Things are shown to be curious, thinking, emotional beings — they hold a funeral for one of their fallen comrades — and live in comfort surrounded by artwork carved on the walls and even have furniture of a sort. Compare this to the Mi-Go, who are just repulsive all around, and a lot scarier.

I’ll come out and say favorite depiction is artist Kurt Komoda’s. Not only does he go into fine anatomical detail, he has worked out studies of how the Elder Things must have moved, and there’s humor on his site, too, like this drawing of an Elder Thing playing with multiple Rubik’s cubes.

Artwork by Kurt Komoda

Komoda addresses the issue of the creature’s odd wings, which, though they might have seemed cool when written, don’t gel with what we know today about flying and space travel. Even planetside the wings don’t seem substantial enough to lift such a large and hefty creature, let alone propel it through the vacuum of space. I don’t get the feeling Elder Things things had hollow bones like birds. Hell, they probably didn’t even have any bones! Since their flesh is described in the text as tough yet supple, I will bet they are also a good deal denser than Terran animals. Anyway, the wings seem like a mistake from the beginning that the creature is better off without.

If I had to retcon the Elder Things, I would say the wings developed as a spawning organ, and evolved, over time on their original world, as a means of aquatic locomotion. At some point, the Elder Things developed a means within their bodies to generate a lighter-than-air gas, enabling them to rise from the earth and fly, perhaps rotating their bodies in a screwlike motion through the air. Changes in direction may have been possible with puffs of air from their nether tubes. Such flight was smooth, but not too swift.

For space travel, however, who knows?

Artist Jagoba Lekuona has also done anatomical studies in detail. Already, we can see how the creatures can differ even in the basics like body texture, wings, and leg and arm structure. Lekuona’s speciman below even seems to peeing from one of the waste apertures between its legs.

Artwork by Jagoba Lekuona

Another anatomical drawing, again demonstrating the diversity of visual ideas.

Elder Thing by Pickmansmodel

This artist delves further into the creature’s hypothetical anatomy, like giving the creature lamprey-teeth claws on the underside of its feet. At lower right he or she postulates that it might move through water like a squid with jets of water –aft-to-fore.

This drawing also attempts to make sense of the anatomical parts that were not fully explained in the text — for example, the orifice slit in the center of the starfish head, which is explained as a “major mouth” with teeth like that of a starfish or sea urchin.

In his 1980 book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestials SFF artist Wayne Barlowe includes a streamlined version of an Elder Thing whose trunk reminds me of the shell of a leatherback turtle.

 

Illustration by Wayne Barlowe

It’s an OK depiction but not as rotund as I pictured them myself. I get a delphinoid, marine vibe from them. Well, they are partly sea creatures. The fanlike wings, though I don’t like them in concept, look good here and nicely alien. This body shape doesn’t seem very expressive though, and like it would locomote on land in a stiff, clumsy way.

A chubbier marine version. This one seems sessile, like it could barely move at all. The texture is nicely done making it seem very unearthly.

Elder Thing by Tom Ardens

A magnificent depiction by artist Tom Ardens. I like how the wings seem tough, yet still transparent, and how they and the the creature’s bottom part reminds me of a type of bulbous kelp. It’s both disquieting and oddly beautiful .

Of course, some artists just get it all wrong!

This one from a French paperback ignores the starfish head and crinoid arms, and to make things worse, puts trees in Antarctica!

This Death Metal version is more influenced by H. R. Giger than H. P. Lovecraft. The legs are all wrong — they are not spider-like in the text, they are tentacles! — and so are the arms, while the mouths are not at the ends of tubes like they were in book. I don’t know what’s up with the skull. Perhaps they’re headbanging.

This one resembles a… lion? A lily flower? It also seems to have six segments instead of pentameral.

Sometimes, though, the changes are done well enough that they could be valid re-interpretations. This cartoon of an Elder Thing gets the proportions wrong — the being is barrel-shaped, not rhomboid, and the arms are too long and the head too small. Yet, I like it.

Another “skinny” version that ignores the crinoid arms, replacing them with insectile ones. Again, I like it in spite of its shortcomings.

On to more faithful versions that add a twist.

Manga panel by Gou Tanabe

Manga artist Gou Tanabe tackled At the Mountains of Madness and came up with this design, in which the creature’s head is more starlike than usual. Depicted is the moment the Pabodie explorers come across a mummified version in the cave.

There’s a lot to like, too, about this Elder Thing by davinci41. Namely, its magnificent, but alien, wings, two of which are shown emerging from their pockets. (How does such a wingspan fold up so tidily though?) I like the legs, too, and how the artist shows the plantlike nature of the feet which resemble leaves.

This version incorporates reptilian elements, with the clawed, webbed feet, dragon wings, and the snakelike seeking of the tentacled orifices. It’s active, sensing, exploring its environment, something I didn’t get from the more polished Wayne Barlowe version I posted earlier. Folded up and mummified, it’s like a squash blossom.

A very bulbous Elder Thing that relies heavily on vegetable elements like roots and tubers. Its large, bulging eyes are flat black, adding to the alien nature of it.

There are so many Elder Things around, I feel like a child discovering a Baskin Robbins ice cream store for the first time — so many different flavors, and I have to try them all. So I’m going to break this topic apart, and the next installment will deal with the Elder Things depicted in their natural environment.

The Happy Couple

Art by Dan Hillier

“With these tentacles, I thee wed…”

Lovecraft jokes

“The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”
― H. P. Lovecraft

 

Google “Lovecraft” and “Humor” and you’ll find an astounding number of jokes and cartoons, the Mythos giving Star Trek and Star Wars a run for its money in the meme department. Here I’ve culled out a few.

Q:   Why did Lovecraft go to Hawaii?
A:    He wanted to learn how to Cthulhu dance.

Who writes the most frightening tales from the dark web?
… HTTP Lovecraft

Q:   What does Cthulhu have for lunch?
A:    Fish & Ships

 

Necrotelecomicon: The book of dead phone numbers.

Q:    What are Lovecraft’s favorite TV subscription services?
A:    Cth-Hulu and HB mi-gO.

A customer in a sushi restaurant orders sashimi of tako (octopus.) But to his disgust, the tiny creature is delivered to him still alive. “Waiter!” he calls. “This octopus is still alive.”

“Not alive, Sir, only dreaming.”

 

 

H.P. Lovecraft needs some alone time for serious writing, so he takes a boat to Antarctica. There, on a snowy beach and wrapped in furs, he takes out pen and paper and starts to compose. But he’s soon interrupted by some starfish-headed, barrel-shaped beings who start to play volleyball.

So he packs up and sets up his table and chair further inland. But again the starfish-headed beings come by, this time whistling loudly among themselves, to lay down a picnic cloth and bottles of wine.

This time Lovecraft moves even further away. But again the silence is broken by the squawks of a giant blind albino penguin, who is running away with a whole pack of the alien beings chasing it with spears.

“Blazes,” Lovecraft mutters. “I’ll never get any writing done today. It’s just one damn Elder Thing after another.”

 

 

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/16/22: Great Old Ones
xxxx(Lovecraft II)

 

This image is of Hastur, equated with the mythical King in Yellow. Hastur isn’t depicted nearly as frequently as his compatriot Cthulhu so I wanted to give him, or her, some press.

Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones were powerful, immortal godlike beings who were worshipped, and in some cases are still being worshipped, on planet Earth. They are present, for the most part, in spirit not body. Certain rites, times of year, or sacrifices are required to manifest them. Their physical forms may live deep in the mantle of the Earth, on other planets of the solar system, or even other worlds, where they snooze in a semiconscious state. Cthulhu, Hastur, Ghatanothoa, and Tsathoggua are the best known of Lovecraft’s own creations. In addition, there are Outer Gods who are even more powerful and less understandable, such as Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, and Shub-Niggurath. The division between the two is not clear, so for this randomgen, I’ll just lump them in all together.

Lovecraft’s Mythos, while he was writing, was always growing and changing. He cribbed creatures and concepts from earlier writers like Robert Chambers, and, with permission, from writing friends who also borrowed Mythos elements from him. The first Mythos stories I read, in fact, were from borrowers and not Lovecraft’s original ones. Some of their creations, like the Hounds of Tindalos, Lloigor, and Glaaki, proved just as popular as Lovecraft’s own.

As the decades went on, however, the Mythos accrued more and more ancient gods of every stripe until it seemed you couldn’t spit at a sacrifical stone without hitting one, and every author was convinced their Mythos god was the best. Unfortunately, not all of them knew how to name properly. That’s how we wound up with such ridiculous, unpronounceable entities like Zstylzhemghi  and Hziulquoigmnzhah. This is just unacceptable.

Lovecraft’s names looked complex, but were easy to say. YOG-sawth-UTH. If they resembled any language, it might by Yiddish, Latin, and certain Polynesian tongues. The many ths and shs makes the words sound soft and slimy. But they’re their own thing, really.

By those standards, a new bath of Great Old Ones to terrorize your dreams.

(Incidentally, Lovecraft pronounced Cthulhu as K’tool-who, NOT K’thool-oo.)

 

Great Old Ones

Yarog’n

Yebuth

Shablatha

Yaggloth

Ghataar

Ngorgna

Quagnu Yarith

Zorog’n

Cthono

Cynothog

Umcha M’bakhee

Yogshee

Zuyiddoth

Zashotharagua

Xothmoog

Azmar

Chagla Azhkhee

Hsayeb

Ghatshee

Yorshub

Mordyag

Yurt-yag

M’bachka

Nug-yae

Tsabthaat

Hsaakoth

Mythaggua

Mnimog

Sothya

Glysgna

Mnathoom

Zutrik’i

Mnatur

Yebglaa

Sothn’gor

Nyctobra

Ngyagog’n

Tzu-tho-tho

Ubbelath

Vullithor

Zaalthant

Vhusch

Lovecraft Lamp

Courtesy of a local chiropractor.

Baby Cthulhu

Now you can crochet your own Baby Cthulhu! The pattern maker is from Ukraine, and by purchasing the pattern, you will be giving a besieged citizen some much-needed support.

City of the Elder Things

The beautiful artwork of the city of the Elder Things by illustrator François Baranger

The City of the Elder Things (it didn’t have a proper name) is the most well described of Lovecraft’s alien cities, which also includes Pnakotus, the city of the Great Race of Yith that lay in the Australan outback, and R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s tomb. Immense, alien, frozen in time both literally and figuratively, half of the novella At the Mountains of Madness is taken up with it.

But, it could never exist in real life. For one thing, glaciers would crush it in their slow advance, not flow around it. And though it might have been buried in snow which later compacted into ice, the mass of frozen water would still move, and periodically crack into crevasses, grinding down and breaking the stone of which it was made. There’s also a description of wooden shutters which have fossilized into place at the windows while their metal parts dissolved, which isn’t very plausible either. I still love the story, but it’s now in realm of alt.history and fantasy.

Lovecraft himself seems to have been aware of this. The history of the city, given by the story’s narrator, gives a dizzying array of geographic dates for the various eras of construction: this part was built on an older part, with this part being older still, but, hey, most of it really dated from blahblahblahozoic, which implies he knew it wasn’t plausible for it to survive so long and was making excuses, trying to have his cake and eat it too. Which is actually endearing, as was the narrator’s deriving the history of the city solely from its bas-reliefs.

In my research on Lovecraft, he said he had been inspired by the description of a mirage known as a Fata Morgana, in which the bending of light due to certain atmospheric conditions causes distant objects to appear over the horizon in a distorted, often upside down way, like fantastic cities looming through the mist. In fact, the whole city seems inspired by a mirage.

Continue reading

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/9/22: Blasphemous Books
xxxx(Lovecraft I)

A sample page from the Necronomicon by artist Daniel Govar. Too pretty to be blasphemous?

It was Lovecraft who wrote the book on the magic book… the insanity-causing occult book trope that is.

The Necronomicon, entirely an invention of his despite the listings on Amazon first appeared in 1922 in his short story “The Hound.” It was a treatise on dark magic and the Old Ones, written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred in the 8th century and called then Kitab al-Azif.

Probably what that original copy looked like, minus the purple stickies. If the book was real, of course. Which it isn’t.

The author was torn to pieces and eaten by an  invisible demon after writing this and the Arabic copies later disappeared. But one apparently made it out of Syria and was translated into Greek, then Latin, and hence into English, a rare copy residing, in Lovecraft’s alt.history, in the library of Miskatonic University. Where it no doubt is continuing to cause trouble for future generations who poke their noses into things that they shouldn’t.

Lovecraft created the word Necronomicon out of several Greek ones: nekros, nomos, and eikon, or dead-law-image, but the missing e in icon translates the title to English simply as “Book of Considering the Dead.” Despite its longevity and notoriety, it was not the first fictional book Lovecraft created. That honor goes to the Pnakotic Manuscripts, which appeared in 1918.

As to the inspiration behind the book? Lovecraft never said, and cited only the Gothic trope of moldering books in cobwebbed libraries. But I think the likely candidate is the Lesser Key of Solomon, that notorious treatise on demon-summoning I took a look at here. Like the Necronomicon, the Lesser Key has a checkered past of multiple translations and compilations, being lost and then found, and having strange and perverse artwork.

Need a Mythos magic book to spice things up in your world?

 

Lovecraftian Books

Eldritch Surveys

The Ngorish Guide to Mharinoom

Book of Yoggha

The Shabric Album

The Yellow Journals

The Papyrus of Dzyscha

Book of the High Priest Llyhu

Tales of Lucid Uhm

The N’kai Manuscript

Unspeakable Scrolls of Pnarion

The Byaatic Treatise

Wanderings of a King’s Astrologer among’st the Upper Planes

The Azhraic Translations

In Pursuit of the Brown Witch

Scroll of the Mad Arab

Golden Papyri of the Hyades

The Betelgeuse Manuscript

The Cosmic Guides of Count Tsuyov

Notebooks of Canopus

Shoggastic Encyclopedia

The Shebbish Scrolls

Eternal Transformations

Ebon Encyclopedia

Kreinhausen’s Tome of Blasphemous Beings

Locke & Key, Vol. 1
[Reading Challenge 2022]

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft

by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
IDW Publishing, 2008

[ Challenge # 21: A graphic novel or comic book. ]

Finished my Three-color mythology pick, Locke & Key. This was Vol. 1 of the series, but I don’t think I’ll be going on. I was eager to read it because of the Lovecraft associations, but aside from the name of the town it’s set in, there wasn’t much of the Mythos in there. It’s more of a supernatural thriller.

A high school guidance counselor is murdered by two of his former students and his wife and children traumatized, having had to hide from the killers and then attack them on their own. One teen attacker dies while the other has his face disfigured by the murdered man’s teen son, who bloodily bashes him with a brick. Afterwards they move cross country to a old Edwardian house in Massachusetts on its own private island which was in the late father’s family. The house is called Key House and the town, Lovecraft.

The house has special keys that unlock special doors, which, when you go through them, turn you into  someone or something else, or transport you somewhere else. A demonic woman living in the wellhouse wants one or more of the keys so she can get out of her supernatural prison and cajoles the youngest child into befriending her. Meanwhile, the crazy youth who planned the father’s murder escapes from jail and travels cross-country to seek the same keys from the family. And — surprise! — he had been cajoled by the demon lady in the wellhouse as well (sorry for the pun) because she had communicated with him out of a picture of it in the murdered teacher’s house!

The artwork was OK, if not as expressionistic as I wanted, and bloodier than I wanted. Too angular and stylized for my taste. The palette of subdued browns, golds, and blues was restful, but monotonous. I would have liked it used to convey emotion. The character design of the teen killers made them look supremely goofy, and in the case of the stalking teen, unsettling. He began to remind me of Mad Magazine’s gap-toothed mascot Alfred E. Neumann. Shortly after this came into my mind, there came a page showing him sitting on the steps of the high school, which is named William Gaines Academy! Gaines being the original publisher of Mad Magazine. I appreciated the in-joke, but know also a teen reader of this (it’s made to appeal to teens and YA) wouldn’t get it.

“What? Me worry?”

I thought the story lacking. It sounds like a good story in synopsis, but just wasn’t written well. Much of the dialogue sounded two guys were joking around as they wrote it, trying to sound edgy and flip, even as the things they were writing about — grief, PTSD, guilt, the fear of forever being a victim — were serious ones. It devalued the more heartfelt parts. For example, one of the teens who killed the father mentions twice that the mother used to bend over while she was packing groceries to show him her panties. I guess the purpose of this was to show he’s a gross teen psycho who makes things up, but as far as grossness goes, it’s a cheap shot. It served no purpose except to make the writers sound flip and edgy. The story wasn’t about this yucky dude who dies early. It’s about the family and the mysterious house.

There’s another cheap shot later when the demon lady, who has escaped the well, uses one of the magic keys to change her gender to male and quips, “Time to have clothing to fit balls again.” Like…what?

I don’t recommend this despite the hype.

(More of a Lovecraft connection comes into play later on in the series, when it turns it there is a “Plain of Leng” — an extradimensional space — beneath Key House that is full of demons, who are wont to possess teens and turn them into murderers. Which brought up, for me, the way Lovecraft’s Mythos has sunk its tentacles into modern horror and fantasy… not least because it’s copyright-free.)