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H.P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror: an Introduction

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer of weird fiction and horror fiction. He was born in Providence, RI, and not only did he spend most of his life there, but most of his work was set in New England. He lived a tragic and short life, and despite never really believing in himself or his writing, is widely revered as the Godfather of cosmic horror. Though he passed away in 1937, his work continues to inspire new Cthulhu Mythos material around the world today. 

 

(If you’d like to learn more about H.P Lovecraft’s life, there is an excellent documentary available on YouTube.)

 

H.P. Lovecraft once wrote: "All my tales are based upon the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

 

He further imagined that the fundamental truths of the universe were so alien and horrific that mere exposure to them might result in madness or death. While humanity might crave both comfort and the truth, only one or the other was possible to it.

 

The human mind, according to Lovecraft, was an inflexible container. It could not maintain both more truth and complete sanity - more of one poured in must push out more of the other. Humans desperate for power cloaked within truth might choose to forgo all remnants of sanity in exchange for gaining the ability to manipulate the secrets of time and space. Their devil’s bargains made, these merciless cultists would whistle down devastation and doom to this world in new exchange for yet more knowledge and power.

 

And that is where we begin to delve into the world of cosmic horror. Now, many people ask, what makes cosmic horror different from any other genre?

 

Horror, at its core, usually brings us to a precipice in which there is a chance at a happy ending. The monster is killed. The end of the world is thwarted. The aliens are defeated. Humanity flourishes. See a pattern? Horror - whether it’s gothic, slasher, splatterpunk, psychological or sci-fi - all have a romanticized notion that humanity is worthy and capable of a hero coming to the rescue. That is where all other genres of horror part ways with cosmic horror.

 

Cosmic horror is terrifying because the root of it exists in the idea that not only are humans insignificant in the vast design of the universe, but that greater beings are at play… and they truly don’t care if we live or die. And generally, cosmic horror tales do not have happy endings. Or any real resolution, in fact. According to Lovecraft, the truly alien is genuinely unknowable. Which makes cosmic horror not only mysterious, but protean and contradictory: Not only do we not know it, but we can never know it. As it unfolds, we have only our own names for most of these things. We do not even know their names for themselves, or if they have names. This is what is known today as the Cthulhu Mythos. 

 

A Not-so-General Summary

 

Though their interrelations are dim, we know that some entities of the Cthulhu Mythos are clearly superior or inferior in their powers. Gods are the mightiest, followed (at some distance) by the Great Old Ones. Both may be attended by lesser races, often of a characteristic species.

 

Some have tried to codify the Mythos, however such alien beings are beyond mankind's ability to assign moral or associative qualities.

 

Outer Gods, Elder Gods, Other Gods

 

The Outer Gods rule the universe and have little to do with humanity, except for Nyarlathotep. Humans meddling with these entities suffer for it, usually ending mad or dead. Names for a few Outer Gods are known. They appear almost to be true gods, as opposed to the alien horror of the Great Old Ones, and some may personify some cosmic principle. Only a few of these deities seem to take an interest in human affairs or to acknowledge the existence of the human race. When they do, they often are shown trying to break through cosmic walls or dimensions in order to wreak new destruction. All the races and lesser deities of the Mythos acknowledge the Outer Gods, and many worship them.

 

The Outer Gods are controlled to some extent by their messenger and soul, Nyarlathotep. When the Outer Gods are discomforted, Nyarlathotep investigates. Azathoth, the daemon sultan and ruler of the cosmos, writhes mindlessly to the piping of a demon flute at the center of the universe. Yog-Sothoth, either a second-in-command or co-ruler, is coterminous with all time and space, but locked somehow outside the mundane universe. Yog-Sothoth can be summoned to this side only through the use of mighty spells, whereas Azathoth theoretically might be met by traveling far enough through space. A group of Outer Gods and servitors dance slowly around Azathoth, but none are named.

 

The term Elder Gods sometimes refers to another race of gods, neutral to and possibly rivals of the Outer Gods. The Elder Gods, if they exist, do not seem to be as dangerous to humanity as Azathoth and its kin, but they have even less contact with humanity. Nodens is the best known Elder God.

 

Outer and Elder Gods sometimes have been lumped together and confusingly called the Other Gods, though primarily gods of the outer planets and not of our Earth. They would seem seldom called here, but when they do appear they are second to nothing in horror. (And, just to thoroughly confuse you, a set of minor Outer Gods are known collectively as the Lesser Other Gods!)

 

Species associated with these deities (shantaks, hunting horrors, servitors of the Outer Gods, dark young of Shub-Niggurath) are correspondingly rare on Earth.

 

The Great Old Ones

 

They are not as supernatural as the Outer Gods, but are nonetheless god-like and terrible to human eyes. Humans are much more likely to worship Great Old Ones, who are comparatively near at hand and who occasionally participate in human affairs or contact individual humans, than they are to worship Outer Gods. Entire clans or cults may secretly worship a Great Old One. Lone madmen, on the other hand, seem to prefer the Outer Gods. Beings serving the Great Old Ones frequently inhabit the remote vastness of the Earth. Investigators most often encounter their worshipers and alien servants.

 

The Great Old Ones themselves appear to be immensely powerful alien beings with supernatural-seeming abilities, but not to be true gods in the sense that the Outer Gods are reported. Each Great Old One is independent of the rest, and many seem to be temporarily imprisoned in some way.

 

It is said that “when the stars are right” the Great Old Ones can plunge from world to world. When the stars are not right, they cannot live. “Cannot live” need not mean death, as the famous couplet from the Necronomicon suggests.

 

That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.

 

Cthulhu, the most famous creation of Lovecraft, is a Great Old One. With the rest of his race, he sleeps in a vast tomb at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Cthulhu seems to be the most important Great Old One on Earth. Others of differing forms exist, and they are recorded as being both less powerful and more free. Ithaqua the Windwalker roams at will across Earth's arctic latitudes. Hastur the Unspeakable dwells near Aldebaran, and Cthugha near Fomalhaut. Other Great Old Ones doubtless infest other worlds, and it may be common for a world to be ruled by dominant Great Old Ones. All those known on Earth are invoked or worshiped by humans, but by the evidence of the stories, Cthulhu is worshiped more than the rest put together. Minor Great Old Ones such as Quachil Uttaus usually have no worshipers, but wizards may know spells to summon them. Such entities fill the role of de–mons within the hierarchy of the Mythos.

 

But even Cthulhu is known by few, and interventions by Great Old Ones in human affairs are isolated. Some commentators suspect that these greater beings rarely think about human beings or take them into account. Humanity is negligible and unimportant.

Lesser Races

 

Particular species are often associated with particular Great Old Ones or Outer Gods - byakhee with Hastur, for instance, or nightgaunts with Nodens. These are servitor species, and frequently a god or Great Old One manifests accompanied by several such servitors. Representatives may act as assassins, messengers, spies, and couriers, frightening off investigators and bulking out confrontations. In comparison, Outer Gods and Great Old Ones should be met with exceedingly infrequently.<

 

Other alien species are also important, and sometimes have been able to hold their own against Great Old Ones. Such "independent" races vary in power, and some are extinct. They are intimately connected with our planet, as described in "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time". In these stories Lovecraft gives the true history of the Earth. Some species, such as dholes or flying polyps, make no association with particular gods or else, as with elder things and the Great Race, take no special interest in magic. Whether one is greater or lesser seems to depend on the relative danger posed by the average individual.

 

At the dawn of the Cambrian age, beings known only as the elder things flew to the Earth. They inhabited much of the land, warred with other species, and finally were pushed back to Antarctica. The elder things, perhaps by mistake, bred organisms eventually to evolve into dinosaurs, mammals, and humanity. They also bred the horrible shoggoths, whose ultimate revolt led to the near-extinction of the elder things.

 

Eons ago, indigenous cone-shaped beings had their minds taken over by the Great Race of Yith, mental beings from the stars. The Great Race survived in their adopted bodies until about 50 million years ago, when they were defeated by terrible flying polyps not native to this Earth, which the Great Race had imprisoned in vast caverns beneath the surface. However, the Great Race had already transmitted their minds forward in time to escape their doom.

 

The star-spawn of Cthulhu came down upon the Earth and conquered a vast reach of land in the primordial Pacific Ocean, but were trapped when it sank beneath the surface.

 

The beings referred to as the fungi from Yuggoth (or mi-go) established their first bases on the Earth in the Jurassic period, about a hundred million years ago. They gradually reduced their bases to the tops of certain mountains, where they maintain mining colonies and such.

 

At present, humans share the planet with deep ones and ghouls (which seem related to humanity in some fashion), and with a handful of mi-go. Other species occasionally visit Earth, or are sleeping, or are dormant.


The Cthulhu Mythos in Wailing Rock

 

The Cthulhu Mythos is the backdrop we use to make Wailing Rock an even darker version of our world. Our island is populated with supernatural creatures, which already has the potential to be frightening - however, the creators of Wailing Rock didn’t want those beings to be the “be all, end all” of our dark lore. The Mythos allows us to introduce the unknown. As Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown”. 

 

The players In Wailing Rock take on the roles of beings, whether human or supernatural, that wish to blend in with today’s society in a place that’s a bit off the beaten path. Slowly, happenings will begin innocently enough, until more and more of the workings behind the scenes are revealed. As our players learn more and more about the true horrors of the world and the irrelevance of our existence, sanity will eventually begin to wither away. To gain the tools necessary to defeat the horrors that Wailing Rock introduces - both mystical and magical - the characters may have to sacrifice a part of themselves. At the end of it all, the triumph of Wailing Rock’s residents should never be assumed. 

 

These horrors will be introduced by way of events and instances, hosted by Sim Support. Though if players wish to participate at a story-teller or NPC level, they are welcomed to do so!

 

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Sim Support. 

 

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!