From a Gable Window
By G. W. Thomas
One of my favorite Cthulhu Mythos clichés is the protagonist dragged out of the window by a tentacle as he writes all about it. Where did all these window-lurking tentacles come from anyway? The victims who are scribbling their death rattles never explain that.
“Squidgies” are part-and-parcel of the Mythos. Classic tentacles would start with the ancient legend of the Kraken, said to live off the shore of Iceland. This beast was so large it could devour whole ships. In fiction, the giant squid in Chapter 18 of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) inspired many other writers, along with the killer squids of “The Sea Raiders” (1896) by H. G. Wells and the supernatural guardian in M. R. James’ “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” (1904). But the master of tentacles has to be William Hope Hodgson with his The Boats of ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907), as well as “A Tropical Horror” (1905), “The Thing in the Weeds” (1913), “The Finding of the Graiken” (1913), and “Demons of the Sea” (1919). Along with all these aquatic monsters, there are the space variety such as H. G. Wells’ Martians from War of the Worlds (1898): “A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.”
All these stories gave Lovecraft the inspiration to create the Dhole, shoggoths, Cthulhu, and many other ropy, tentacle-filled critters. Mythos writers after HPL served up plenty more. Robert E. Howard created the tentacle toad creature of “The Black Stone” and Clark Ashton Smith Tsathoggua’s formless offspring in “The Tale of Satampras Zeiros” (both from Weird Tales, November 1931). August Derleth created one that crosses dimensions in “The Gable Window”( Saturn, May 1957). More recent writers like Brian Lumley have created new variations like the Cthonians in The Burrowers Beneath (1974).
Like snakes, insects and spiders, humans have, for the most part, a natural dislike of squids, octopi and other creatures possessing tentacles and their suction-cup-covered pseudopodia. Exploiting this dislike is a tool for the horror writer. The idea of great and terrible things (including tentacular monsters) lurking just beyond our view isn’t bad in itself, quite powerful when expertly done, but writers need to be more subtle with it than these elder example, or you might receive an “Alonzo Typer” laugh. (If you don’t know what that is, read “the Diary of Alonzo Typer’ by H. P. Lovecraft and William Lumley at http://www.psy-q.ch/lovecraft/html/alonzo_typer.htm)
If you are going to use tentacle monsters in a Mythos story, I would recommend the following:
- Build up to the final reveal. Don’t show everything too quickly. Maybe don’t show everything at all as King does in “The Mist”. Establish the danger of the tentacles with hints beforehand. Slime trails, people, and pets gone missing, and such. When they show up, make them nasty.
- Try to think of your monster as a living organism. Where does it live? What does it eat? Why is it here? How could it be gotten rid of? You don’t have to tell your readers any of this, but you should know. Don’t be afraid to give a glimpse of this other dimension where they dwell.
- Change the nature of the beast to something unexpected. Are the tentacles real flesh or are they ethereal? Can they reach through walls? Are they subject to magic? Keep your characters guessing.
My own use of tentacle monsters has been fairly traditional, but I did try to create something a little different in “Merlin’s Bane”, a Book Collector story where the most beautiful may in fact be the most hideous. You can listen to it on Pseudopod.com at http://pseudopod.org/2008/02/15/pseudopod-77-merlins-bane/.