Column: Writing the Mythos: The Unnameable: Mythos Monsters

The Unnameable: Mythos Monsters

By G. W. Thomas


H. P. Lovecraft gave the world more monsters than just about any other writer. Only H. G. Wells can claim a more important position. (HPL built on Wells’ example, so they actually compliment each other.) What HPL realized about monsters was they should be outside our experience. Wells gave us the giant rat or “the natural creature made monstrous”. As he also did with the Morlocks, once having been men. Or a man who is invisible and insane. Or animals made to look and act like men on Moreau’s island. It is only with the Martians from The War of the Worlds that Wells ventured into that territory Lovecraft would expand: the alien, the unknown monster.

The technique both masters used is the conglomerate monster or the simile monster. This is where the author says things like:

Wells excerpt from The War of the Worlds:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather. Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air. Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.

Lovecraft excerpt from “The Call of Cthulhu”:

It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters. The tips of the wings touched the back edge of the block, the seat occupied the centre, whilst the long, curved claws of the doubled-up, crouching hind legs gripped the front edge and extended a quarter of the way down toward the bottom of the pedestal. The cephalopod head was bent forward, so that the ends of the facial feelers brushed the backs of huge fore paws which clasped the croucher’s elevated knees. The aspect of the whole was abnormally life-like, and the more subtly fearful because its source was so totally unknown.

Creatures that are completely unknown to us can only be taken in by comparison with natural things such as plants, animals or inanimate objects. For example: “It looks like a dinosaur with an elephant’s trunk”, or “Its head was like a shark’s but with three mouths”. Lovecraft realized the limitations of this type of monster-building in his story “The Unnamable”. In the opening paragraph of the story, Lovecraft’s friend chides: “Besides, he added, my constant talk about “unnamable” and “unmentionable” things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author.” But after encountering a real monster, he claims:

“No – it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere – a gelatin – a slime yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes – and a blemish. It was the pit – the maelstrom – the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!”

A truly unknowable monster has no words by which to define it. Not much good to a writer, who has only words to get across the terror and shape of the monstrous. Similes and comparisons we are stuck with.

Here are some other considerations:

  1. Despite the limitation of comparisons, a good writer will find ways to imply these comparisons rather than baldly stating them. If it hisses, we will associate it with snakes. If it has many legs, bugs and so on. And these unpleasant similarities are useful. An alien that is soft-furred like a rabbit with not be frightening (at least until it lulls the unwary child to pet it and it reveals twenty snake-like fangs, or that its fur is actually razor-sharp filaments.)
  2. Don’t over-kill on the combinations. A rat-snake-insect-lobster-dragonfly-rhinoceros is not any more scary than a rat-snake monster. Over-doing it will become ludicrous at some point. Remember this is subtle suggestion we want, not something from Dr. Seuss. Cthulhu has the head of an octopus, the body of a bear and the wings of a bat. This combination in unskilled hands would be pretty silly, but Lovecraft does such a good job of describing Cthulhu slowly in bits and pieces in “The Call of Cthulhu” that we buy the final compilation without too much trouble. Cthulhu has become the favorite Mythos monster and a recognizable icon of cosmic horror fiction.
  3. As many successful horror writers will tell you, don’t give away all the details. Keep much of your monster unseen. The well-lit ghoul is a science specimen, but the glowing eyes and just a hint of the wolfish head in the dark is creepy. Check out these two examples:

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath“:

This almost made him lose his hold through faintness, but a moment later he was himself again; for his vanished friend Richard Pickman had once introduced him to a ghoul, and he knew well their canine faces and slumping forms and unmentionable idiosyncrasies. So he had himself well under control when that hideous thing pulled him out of the dizzy emptiness over the edge of the crag, and did not scream at the partly consumed refuse heaped at one side or at the squatting circles of ghouls who gnawed and watched curiously.

Robert E. Howard, “The Dwellers Under the Tombs”:

But before it closed, a ghastly picture leaped out at us, half lighted by the straggling moon-beams: the sprawling, mutilated corpse, and above it a grey shambling monstrosity—a flaming-eyed dog-headed horror such as madmen see in black nightmares. Then the slamming door blotted out the sight…

Lovecraft minimizes the impact of the dog-headed monsters because he is telling a fantasy tale while Howard gives only the quickest, nastiest glimpse of the same creatures, for he is telling a horror story.

For more on monster-creating, check out my “Creating monsters: Crash Course” at