Column: Writing the Mythos: The Game Is a Foot – No, an Actual Giant Foot: The Mythos Mystery

By G. W. Thomas

There is no requirement that a Mythos tale have a mystery in it, but the most successful often do. The main character of “The Call of Cthulhu” is a policeman, Inspector LeGrasse. Lovecraft knew that a detective would have a logical reason to dig into the strange occurrence surrounding his bigger mystery: that of Cthulhu’s existence and operations on Earth. Classics like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, and “The Haunter of the Dark” all use a similar motivation to drive their stories, whether the investigator is a professional detective or an amateur one.

Knowing the rules of mystery writing can’t hurt, but using elements of mystery in a horror tale is a little different. For instance: you don’t need a murderer, or to play fair with the reader to present clues about such. You don’t have to limit the possible suspects or the number of clues. The mystery elements in a Mythos tale are more often bread crumbs on a trail leading the story to a terrible ending. Where the mystery tale is one that reaffirms the order of the universe (the detective righting wrongs), the cosmic horror tale is the exact oppose, a story that slowly reveals that there is no real order to anything in existence. The protagonist is not required to play detective; the terrible clues may reveal themselves, like them or not.

The Mythos writer usually starts with some initial clue, object, or situation. This is called a “macguffin’. This could be an inheritance of a cursed or mysterious object like a manuscript or notebook. It could be as simple as moving into a rented room or meeting a fascinating individual. The first step is usually a small one, too insignificant to warn the ill-fated protagonists that they are on a slippery slope to doom.

Once initiated, the writer needs only to add the next link in the chain. This could be our heir reading the manuscript and wanting to know more, or a series of strange occurrences happening around it. The renter of the room begins to have dreams or visions. These strange clues lead to others and so on, the story winding its way to a finale that will be satisfying to the reader and often fatal for the main character.

The final sequence of the Mythos tale usually involves a monster–whether it is one of the big guys, such as the great old ones (Cthulhu, Nyogtha, etc.), or smaller minions (like ghouls, nightgaunts, etc.). The hero may be transported to another dimension, planet, or time. Whatever happens, it should be logical as a result of following the mystery to its end.

Arthur Conan Doyle, not H.P. Lovecraft, sets the standard for the horror-mystery with his classic Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Here is the moment when the monster attacks Henry Baskerville:

At the same instant Lestrade gave a yell of terror and threw himself face downward upon the ground. I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

With long bounds the huge black creature was leaping down the track, following hard upon the footsteps of our friend. So paralyzed were we by the apparition that we allowed him to pass before we had recovered our nerve. Then Holmes and I both fired together, and the creature gave a hideous howl, which showed that one at least had hit him. He did not pause, however, but bounded onward. Far away on the path we saw Sir Henry looking back, his face white in the moonlight, his hands raised in horror, glaring helplessly at the frightful thing which was hunting him down.

Doyle, who is a mystery writer first and a horror writer second in this tale, pulls the plug:

But that cry of pain from the hound had blown all our fears to the winds. If he was vulnerable he was mortal, and if we could wound him we could kill him.

A Mythos encounter of this sort would not defuse the situation with a revelation of the monster’s weakness. Guns, bombs, cross, Bibles, everything might prove useless in the face of the enemy.

Some other considerations:

  1. This type of story is as old as Lovecraft (Older really, since it is modeled on Victorian ghost stories like M. R. James’ “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”), so try to do something new with it. Don’t be afraid to borrow from other genres and story types. Would it be more interesting with an actual murderer in it, as well? Could it be a Western setting? Could it take place a hundred years in the future? Can codes and ciphers add to the difficulty and mystery of the puzzle?
  2. Strive for as much logic as possible when choosing your main character. Why should anyone keep looking into what is an obviously self-destructive search? Keep asking yourself: why doesn’t he (or she) stop here? If you can sustain logic in the ordinary portion of the story, then the reader has a buffer against what is not ordinary.