By G. W. Thomas
H. P. Lovecraft did not invent ghouls. He was kind of like their PR man. No one author invented the idea of the creature that lurks in graveyards or tombs to feast on the dead. The monster has its origins in folklore. The ghul of Persian and later Arab stories has come to us as the model of the flesh-eating beast, living or undead. One author who inspired Lovecraft was Edward Lucas White. This author who wrote down his nightmares gave us the ghoul classic “Amina” (1907), in which ghouls are dog-like creatures that inhabit tombs.
Reading the many ghoul tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, you won’t find a consistent type of ghoul. Are ghouls living things that eat the dead or undead that preserve themselves unnaturally on flesh? Lovecraft is not much help since he uses both types in his fiction. In fact, HPL ghouls fall into three categories:
- Genetically Cursed – In “The Lurking Fear”, the Martense family – with their dissimilar eyes – are basically hooped from birth. If you are related to them, there is a very good chance you’re going to end up down in the tunnels with gramma and grampa ghoul. It’s your genetic destiny. Once the genes kick in, you’ll start hanging around graveyards, then with ghouls, and finally become one yourself.
- “Dog-headed Ghouls” – It is suggested through the many stories that a person who succumbs to the genetic taint will go on and become more dog-like. Here, Lovecraft leans on Edward Lucas White. But Lovecraft goes even farther than to merely suggest a hidden society of ghouls. In “Pickman’s Model”, we get snapshots of the relationship between ghouls and humans through Pickman’s paintings. In “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath”, HPL takes us on a fantastic tour of the Dreamlands and we see the ghouls at war with another race, the ghasts. We also get to catch up with Pickman, the artist who disappears in his own story, to find him living with the ghouls.
- The Undead – In a smaller group of tales that include “The Outsider” and “The Picture in the House”, Lovecraft doesn’t feature the dog-headed ghouls but ones that look human though undead. These revenants are more familiar in pulp fiction and are little different from other undead creatures such as mummies or vampires.
“The Outsider” and “Pickman’s Model” remain HPL’s best-loved and most-adapted in TV and comic book formats. Other Mythos writers such as Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch used HPL’s ideas about ghouls in their fiction.
So, you want to write a ghoul story. You certainly can use any of these three types in your fiction or all of them. But as I have said in previous articles, what can you bring to them that hasn’t been done before? How are you going to top the weird frisson of Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” (Weird Tales, March 1936) or the viciousness of Anthony Boucher’s mini-mummies, the Carkers (“They Bite” from Unknown, August 1943)? It’s a tall order, but it can be done.
The key to ghouls is to remember they are not human despite their origins. They have their own weird agendas, their own bizarre supernatural culture, and their alienness can be inherited through genetic doom. To write about someone who slowly degenerates into a ghoul is to ape HPL and has been done to death, both with ghouls and Deep Ones. The two very-successful The Mummy remakes also make things harder. You don’t want your readers thinking you’re cribbing it from the movies.
Better to strike out on your own and find something new to do with these creatures. In my story, “Goon Job”, (listen to it at Pseudopod) I used a ghoul as a weapon, having my hero locked in the trunk of car with it. Borrowing a little claustrophobia from Kuttner, I had to come up with some way for the Book Collector to get out alive.