ICHF: Cthulhu


Perhaps the most famous Cosmic Horror character of all time, Cthulhu has only grown in infamy with age, being far more popular now than he was when he debuted way back in the twenties.  Despite technically being only one of a vast pantheon of eldritch abominations (and far from the most powerful at that), his name is practically synonymous with H. P. Lovecraft’s work, and the Cthulhu Mythos is for many people the definitive work of Cosmic Horror, just as Dracula and Frankenstein are for the Gothic.

Yet despite his fame, I think Cthulhu, like many aspects of Lovecraft’s work, is poorly understood.  Many modern works portray Cthulhu as sort of an intergalactic Satan or God of Evil, always working on a nefarious scheme to destroy the world in an apocalyptic spree of destruction straight out of the book of Revelations, except seafood themed.  You’d be forgiven if you thought Cthulhu was a card carrying villain, essentially an expy of Lord Sauron who’s simply waiting for the stars to align in favor of his dark and wicked reign.

However, it should be noted that this isn’t how Lovecraft intended the monster to be taken.  While Lovecraft himself was an extreme xenophobe, he rarely settled for monsters that could be mundanely defined as “evil.”  Instead, Lovecraft’s mythos revolves around a world where “good” and “evil” are simply human concepts – and, like all human concepts in that universe, they are deeply flawed and bear little meaning on the truth of reality, which is so far beyond humanity in scope that it can’t be arsed to care about “morals.”

In Lovecraft’s writing, Cthulhu is an utterly alien and immeasurably powerful being, to the point that he scarcely seems to understand what humanity even is.  Sure, it’s true that Cthulhu could destroy this world with a mere flex of his tentacle and literally without a thought.  Yes, the cults that worship Cthulhu are vicious and cruel, often being led by genocidal monsters or wicked humans that want to sell out their own species for the chance of winning Cthulhu’s favor.  And yes, many humans go mad just at the sight of Cthulhu.  However, none of these things are Cthulhu’s goal – the monster has no particular ill will towards humanity, and whatever harm he causes is just a byproduct at best.  We aren’t Cthulhu’s target – we’re collateral damage.  What Cthulhu wants, what his motives are, and what his role in the universe is are questions we cannot and should not be able to answer. He’s not evil – he’s amoral, which means without morals. That doesn’t make him bad – it makes it impossible for him to be bad or good. He just is.

This is one of the many reasons eldritch abominations are hard to write for – they inherently rebel against traditional motivations, and far too often horror writers get lazy and reduce them to cackling villains.  Done right, Cthulhu shouldn’t be some architect of humanity’s doom, but an indifferent force of calamity.  He harms us with the same apathy that leads humans to harm the creatures beneath their notice.  His attacks aren’t done out of malice, but irritation, like a human swatting a mosquito.  The indifference of him, and the implication that he understands the universe far more than we do, and the possibility that he may even be justified in his indifference, is what makes Cthulhu so unique compared to other monsters.

Honestly, modern Cthulhu stories would be more compelling if they showed the monster doing things completely unrelated to humanity’s destruction, and explored the idea that this being, vast, powerful, and devastating as he is, has more on its plate than world domination.  There’s something to be said for the terror of seeing a tornado heading your way, only for it to stop at the last moment and, for no reason you can understand, move in the opposite direction.  Cthulhu needs his incomprehensibility to be at his best.

This entry was posted in Cosmic Horror Characters, Creepy Columns, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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