Perhaps the second most famous eldritch abomination in Lovecraft’s pantheon, Nyarlathotep is something of an oddity among oddities. If entities like Azathoth and Yog Sothoth are gods, then Nyarlathotep is sort of a dark angel, working as their messenger. Nyarlathotep appears in many Lovecraft stories and is mentioned in others, and, of all the major players in Lovecraft’s mythology, he has the most human-ish personality. While Azathoth, Yog Sothoth, and the other various “gods” of the mythos seem distant and removed from humanity, Nyarlathotep actively works amongst us as a cruel trickster and devil-like figure, manipulating mortals with apparent glee. When Yog Sothoth or Cthulhu destroy you, it’s basically an accident (albeit one he could care less about). When Nyarlathotep destroys you, it was probably planned.
I think Lovecraft created Nyarlathotep to sort of have his cake and eat it too. While monsters like Cthulhu are terrifying because of their incomprehensibility, stories need plots that can be comprehended by the audience to, well, appeal to an audience, which is pretty important if you want to live off your writing. So Nyarlathotep presents a sort of middle ground, acting as a somewhat flawed translator of the untranslatable. He literally puts on a human face (and a black one more often than not because, well, Lovecraft was a racist) and pretends to have simple motives, tricking human beings into sabotaging their own species by forming cults to bring the various cosmic monsters back to life and power.
However, the key aspect of Nyarlathotep is that his human persona is a façade. While he acts cruel and devilish, his goals aren’t as simple as destroying humanity – like all of Lovecraft’s cosmic beings, he ultimately wants to facilitate some grand, abstract design of the universe that just happens to be catastrophic for human civilization. The goals Nyarlathotep works for are no more inherently malevolent than, say, the eventual heat death of the universe – the fact that we would be destroyed by them is a mostly irrelevant detail as far as the laws of physics are concerned.
Nyarlathotep shows up in a lot of stories outside of Lovecraft’s canon, even being used as a pseudonym for Stephen King’s multi-dimensional agent of evil, Randall Flagg. The semi-comprehensibility of his motives and methods may be the key to his popularity, as it’s a lot easier to write Nyarlathotep’s standard characterization than it is to write inscrutable beasties like Cthulhu. Yet sometimes he slips a bit too far, becoming JUST a squid-shaped Mephistopheles when, like all of Lovecraft’s beasties, he should be something just a bit more peculiar than a simple tempter.
This is an excellent series I only now encountered, and I’m eager to read more of your thoughts on classic literature and fiction! Nyarlathotep has always been one of my favorite monsters, so if you don’t mind I’d like to add a few thoughts to your own!
“stories need plots that can be comprehended by the audience to, well, appeal to an audience, which is pretty important if you want to live off your writing.”
This is a logical thought, but it might be overlooking a few details. As Lovecraft admitted in his own letters, he never cared what audiences wanted. He stated many times that he had no room for the tastes of mainstream readers, and he felt they were responsible for encouraging bad and cliched fiction. He never lived off of his writing (he was usually taken care of by his family), which means he never had to bow so low to his editors. And he stated in more than one letter that if an author like himself had already existed, he would have been content to never write any fiction. This shows that money and audiences weren’t a big deal to Lovecraft (though of course he expected due payment for what he wrote).
“So Nyarlathotep presents a sort of middle ground, acting as a somewhat flawed translator of the untranslatable.”
This makes perfect sense for your original line of logic, but when you look at Nyarlathotep’s appearances throughout Lovecraft’s fiction, I think the matter is a bit more complicated than a human-like antagonist for the sake of sales/audiences. Keep in mind, Nyarlathotep only appeared in four stories, and of those stories he only played the role of traditional human-like villain once: at the very end of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In his other appearances he isn’t as direct as you make him sound. For instance, his original appearance in the short story “Nyarlathotep” was based entirely on a dream (which explains why the story didn’t have a plot) and he played the role of a traveling lecturer who opened new vistas of cosmic imagination to curious (doomed) audiences, rather than a typical villain who is scheming and fighting a protagonist. And in “Dreams in the Witch-House”, Nyarlathotep doesn’t have any lines of dialogue or any clear motivation, he’s merely glimpsed at rare moments as a mysterious demon. And his final appearance in “The Haunter of the Dark” portrayed him as a shrieking killer monster with no dialogue or anthropomorphic qualities.
With this in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Lovecraft did not consciously develop Nyarlathotep to be a human-like antagonist for the sake of sales. He only plays a typical villainous role in one story, and even then his nature was very ambiguous, and he only physically appeared at the very climax.
Hope this proved to be an interesting read rather than an annoying correction. Consider me a follower now!