It would not be a stretch to call H.P. Lovecraft the father of modern horror. His influence can be seen all throughout horror of the 20th and 21st centuries. Whether you're reading a novel by Steven King or watching a movie by John Carpenter, you're seeing the suction cupped mark of Lovecraft's special brand of horror. One of his claims to fame were the creatures of unknowable horror that he wrote about in his works. Some came from beyond the stars, while some were here all along. His use of the unknown to strike terror into audiences left us with some memorable monsters.
Most people immediately look to Lovecraft's most well known creation, Cthulhu, as a prime example of this signature type of horror. The Lord of R'lyeh a gigantic, unknowable Elder God that lives in a sunken city of profane geometries. That's basically the standard Lovecraftian monster. That being said, there are so many other monsters from the work of Lovecraft and his predecessors that are just as, if not more, unspeakably terrible than Cthulhu. So here are the top 10 most mind-bendingly frightening creatures in Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.
In At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft described the Shoggoths as a, “Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes... rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile...” So, essentially, they're large, shape shifting blobs. That's unsettling enough, but their history makes them all the more creepy.
Originally, they were created for underwater construction in the arctic by the Elder Things, which also first appeared in Lovecraft's seminal At the Mountains of Madness. They were the first alien species on Earth in Lovecraft's mythos. And while the Elder Things were plenty gross themselves, being man-sized, barrel shaped aliens with tentacles, they weren't quite up there on the gross scale with their creations.
At some point after being created, the Shoggoths revolted against their creators. This is especially disconcerting given that they were created to be mindless workers. They developed a kind of intelligence over time, however, and rebelled against the Elder Things. The implication that, aside from being huge, shape shifting, underwater blobs, they were also learning, is definitely a pretty potent sleep repellent.
Shoggoths were frightening when they were originally written for a fairly common reason: They're monstrous. They are shambling, amorphous blobs that are like nothing that anyone on Earth had ever, or hopefully, would ever see. As time has progressed, however, Shoggoths have taken on a much more terrifying symbolism. They were tools created to make life easier for the Elder Things, and ended up turning on them. With the rise in, and increasing dependence on, more and more advanced artificial intelligence, this story becomes much more terrifying. We have seen this fear play out increasingly often in science fiction because as we advance technologically, we have to grapple with the fear of our creations turning on us more often. That's what Lovecraft was using, maybe unwittingly, in At The Mountains of Madness, and it is one of the few horror conventions that becomes more effective as the years go on.
2. The Dunwich Abomination
One of Lovecraft's most well known works, probably on a similar level to At the Mountains of Madness, is The Dunwich Horror. Aside from being one of the best known Cthulhu Mythos stories out there, it also holds one of the creepiest monsters in the whole group of tales.
The Dunwich Abomination is the spawn of the Outer God, Yog-Sothoth (more on him later) and a human woman named Lavinia Whateley. There is no consistent description of quite how the Abomination looks, mostly because it is invisible until the right magic spell is cast on it, which is definitely creepy. If there is something we can't see that is also half Outer God, it's already very disconcerting, but the actions of The Dunwich Abomination really drive home the horror of this entry.
The Abomination was born to free the Great Old Ones so that they can take over the Earth like they did in ancient times. In addition, it feeds, apparently exclusively, on cattle. It first drains the animal's blood, then eats the entire body that is left over. However, in spite of all of that, this creature does lose a few creepy points by begging for its life before its father, Yog-Sothoth, kills it.
The events of The Dunwich Horror happen behind closed doors in a sleepy Massachusetts town. While there are certain aspects of the town of Dunwich that are disconcerting, like the strange pillars that dot the hills, or even just the fact that it is one of the first European settlements in the Americas, the people seem like run of the mill small townsfolk. That's what makes the Dunwich Abomination so unsettling. It is a reminder that we can never really know what is going on behind the doors of our neighbor's houses. Just like much of Lovecraft's work, it's that element of the unknown that supplies the horror, and the Dunwich Abomination is a perfect example of that technique in action.
Lovecraft really liked the idea of something being so horrifying that it would drive a normal human insane. That's sort of Daoloth's whole thing. This one, though, isn't a Lovecraft creation. In the short story, The Render of the Veil, by Ramsey Campbell. This isn't at all an unusual phenomenon when it comes to the Cthulhu Mythos, which is why it isn't referred to as the Lovecraft Mythos. After his death, other authors took over, adding more to the literary tradition that Lovecraft started.
Daoloth, as described by Campbell, as:
“[The image of Daoloth was not] shapeless, but so complex that the eye could recognize no describable shape. There were hemispheres and shining metal, coupled by long plastic rods. The rods were of a flat grey colour, so that he could not make out which were nearer; they merged into a flat mass from which protruded individual cylinders. As he looked at it, he had a curious feeling that eyes gleamed from between these rods; but wherever he glanced at the construction, he saw only the spaces between them.”
So, yes, Daoloth is difficult to look at. That, in and of itself, isn't especially horrifying. The reason it's difficult to look at certainly is horrifying, though. Daoloth primarily dwells in dimensions beyond the three that humans are able to perceive, meaning that our brains are unable to process how it looks. For this reason, Daoloth needs to be summoned in pitch black, or else the summoner will go insane.
Just summoning it in the dark, though, isn't enough. If Daoloth is summoned without magical containment, it will expand indefinitely. More than that, if the expanding Outer God touches you, it will transport you to some strange, distant planet. This normally ends in the human dying. Finally, in the rare occasions it is contained, it will grant its captor the ability to see reality as it is meant to be seen. That is, it allows human eyes to actually perceive the extra dimensions that make up reality, but our brains are unable to comprehend them, so the viewer goes mad in the end anyway.
Daoloth is a distillation of one of the most common themes in the Cthulhu Mythos: the fragility of the human mind. While causing insanity is far from uncommon in the works of Lovecraft, few other entities in the mythos are entirely dedicated to the theme. Daoloth is an entire entity devoted to showing us, in very plain (for a Lovecraftian work) language, that humans exist very low on the cosmic ladder. For a species that views itself as the top dog on its own planet, the concept of this kind of extreme fragility is absolutely horrifying.
Another creation of a non-Lovecraft author in the Cthulu Mythos, Abhoth first appeared in The Seven Geases by Clark Ashton Smith. Also known as “The Source of All Uncleanness”, Abhoth is an Outer God described in his initial appearance as:
“...[H]e described a sort of pool with a margin of mud that was marled with obscene offal; and in the pool a grayish, horrid mass that nearly choked it from rim to rim... Here, it seemed, was the ultimate source of all miscreation and abomination. For the gray mass quobbed and quivered, and swelled perpetually; and from it, in manifold fission, were spawned the anatomies that crept away on every side through the grotto. There were things like bodiless legs or arms that flailed in the slime, or heads that rolled, or floundering bellies with fishes' fins; and all manner of things malformed and monstrous, that grew in size as they departed from the neighborhood of Abhoth. And those that swam not swiftly ashore when they fell into the pool from Abhoth, were devoured by mouths that gaped in the parent bulk.”
So here we have another amorphous abomination. The difference, though, is that Abhoth also spawns horrifying monsters, some of which it devours immediately after they are born. So Abhoth is a giant, shape shifting, cannibalistic, infanticidal, birthing pit, which, coincidentally, is one of the most unsettling sentences we've ever had to write.
Abhoth is horrifying because of what it does to our view of motherhood. It reminds us that the act of creating life is not necessarily anything more than a mechanical process, and that the significance we place on it may just be a human invention to protect our psyches from the harshness of reality.
Now we're getting into some of the heavy hitters of the Cthulhu Mythos. Tsathoggua has been mentioned in so many stories in the mythos that in 2005, The Tsathoggua Cycle was published to anthologize some of the better known and liked stories about the Great Old One.
Tsathoggua is described in a few different stories with slightly different appearances. In The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, the idols that depict him are described as:
“He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague sensation of both the bat and the sloth His sleepy lids were half-lowered over his globular eyes; and the tip of a queer tongue issued from his fat mouth.”
That's definitely creepy but there's something about his description in the aforementioned The Seven Geases that's a special kind of unsettling.
“[In] that secret cave in the bowels of Voormithadreth... abides from eldermost eons the god Tsathoggua. You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad which he has eternally. He will rise not from his place, even in the ravening of hunger, but will wait in divine slothfulness for the sacrifice.”
The descriptive phrases, “batlike furriness” and “sleepy black toad” have such benign connotations that their juxtaposition with the actual appearance of the Great Old One makes this appearance of Tsathoggua even more terrible. So no matter who describes Tsathoggua, he is cosmically disgusting.
Nyarlathotep is just about everywhere in the Cthulhu Mythos. He first shows up in a self-titled story, where he appears as a “tall, swarthy man”, looking similar to Egyptian Pharohs. His unusually bland appearance leads the audience to believe that this is simply just a wizard of some sort. In fact, in Nyarlathotep he, ostensibly, is just that. However, we get a hint that things are not as they seem when he travels as a magician from town to town, and wherever he goes, the inhabitants of the town begin having terrible nightmares.
After that introduction, we are shown a scene where Nyarlathotep is performing magic tricks for a crowd of onlookers. The narrator of the story is among the onlookers, and openly dismisses the Outer God as nothing more than a charlatan, just doing slight of hand, rather than actual magic, as Nyarlathotep claims. In anger at having his abilities challenged, he disperses the group. They leave in three lines. The first disappears around a corner, shortly followed by a moaning sound. The second goes into a subway station, followed by the sound of insane laughter. The third group, which includes the narrator, leaves the city and is shown bizarre, horrifying visions of terrible landscapes. From these visions, the third group realizes that something horrible has come to Earth.
What makes Nyarlathotep so terrible is the mundane appearance he likes to use when he walks among humans. It forces the people around him to exist near an unspeakable evil without realizing it. Even beyond the story implications, Nyarlathotep, both the story and character, drive home the basic human fear of the unknown as it is exemplified in other people. Nyarlathotep represents the fear that comes with never being able to truly know another person's intentions.
Aside from Cthulhu, Dagon is probably the most famous of all of the creatures in the Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, he is one of the few examples of a Lovecraft story being adapted directly into a film. One of his most famous appearances, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, was adapted into the 2001 film, Dagon, not to be confused with the short story of the same name, which also happened to be the Great Old One's first appearance.
Essentially, Dagon looks like a giant fish person, as described in his self-titled short story. Though, “giant” doesn't really cover it. According to Dagon, he is depicted as being about the same size as a whale. More than that, he is the god of a race of fish-like humanoids known as the “Deep Ones”.
The terror of Dagon seems to come from his role as a confirmation of our fear of the unknown. As a grotesque, titanic, undersea god of a race of fish men, Dagon represents all of the bizarre fears our imaginations come up with when faced with the unknown, here represented by the sea.
Shub-Niggurath, or “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young” is an Outer God, and fertility goddess. She is also one of the best known creatures in the Cthulhu Mythos. First appearing in 1928's The Last Test, she would go on to appear in more than her fair share of mythos works.
Although, Shub-Niggurath's physical appearance is never actually described in any of Lovecraft's works, she is commonly depicted in the art that she inspires as a gigantic cloud of tentacles, mouths, and eyes, not entirely different from many other Lovecraftian deities.
Shub-Niggurath, similar to Abhoth before, but on a much larger scale due to her role as an Outer God, is terrifying because of the way she twists motherhood into something horrible and perverse. Motherhood is commonly regarded as one of the most basically benevolent roles a person can take on. Bringing a helpless life into the world, and caring for it, in spite of our own self-interest, is one of the most altruistic things a person can do. Shub-Niggurath, however, subverts all of the positive expectations of motherhood. She constantly births monsters with no care for what happens to her offspring, sometimes even so far as to devour her young. Shub-Niggurath embodies the horrifying reminder that even our most closely held familial bonds are not outside the realm of the malevolent.
Few of Lovecraft's creations have more of a presence throughout the mythos than Yog-Sothoth. Its first mention came in the short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Yog-Sothoth is mentioned numerous times in the incantations used by the protagonist of the story. From there it would appear in seminal works such as At the Mountains of Madness, where one of its avatars is implied to be the thing beyond the mountains that even the Elder Things fear. In The Dunwich Horror, Yog-Sothoth is said to be the father of the Dunwich Abomination.
Though, it has been described many different ways across his appearances, there is a consensus among the various mythos authors that it is a mass of glowing orbs, often shown with tendrils and/or eyes. Though, any description of its appearance is suspect because, according to the The Dunwich Horror, Yog-Sothoth exists outside of material reality.
In spite of existing outside of our physical universe, Yog-Sothoth still has the ability to influence it. Again, in The Dunwich Horror, it is revealed that it can control time and space. In that same story, he also manages to impregnate a woman from outside of the universe.
Yog-Sothoth isn't the same kind of terrifying as a lot of the other creatures in the Cthulhu Mythos, because we can never actually see it or come into direct contact with it. The fear of this Outer God comes from its sheer power, rather than some insidious implication. Its ability to reach into any time or place, and influence it however it likes means that, at least where Yog-Sothoth is concerned, security is non-existent.
Azathoth, also known as the “Nuclear Chaos” or “Blind Idiot God”, was first mentioned as the title of an unfinished novel, turned short story, published by Lovecraft in 1938, but written in 1927. It is the Cthulhu Mythos's creation deity. Differentiating itself from other creation deities, Azathoth is shown to be completely unaware of its actions. It simply “dreamed” the universe into existence, and will likely “dream”it out of existence eventually.
“The Blind, Idiot God” is often mentioned in passing, kept to the fringes of stories in order to drive home the unknowable, terrible nature of the creator deity, so descriptions of its appearance are few and far between. In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, however, Lovecraft gave one of the most complete looks at Azathoth and its lair:
“[O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”
The terror surrounding Azathoth stems from something pretty simple: It tears the cosmic safety net out from under us. That is, the truth that the creator god isn't benevolent, or, perhaps even more unsettling, malevolent either, precludes the idea that morality can be divine in nature. This is obviously a pretty awful prospect for most religious people. It points to conventional morality being a human creations, and thus, inherently flawed.
What's worse is that the implications of Azathoth are not limited to the religiously devout. As people who live in a universe created accidentally by this completely unaware creator deity, we can never be certain that it won't just as accidentally end it, too.
Azathoth's terror comes from the utter sense of uncertainty it leaves intelligent life with. Since it has no mind, and thus, no purpose behind its actions, we have no solid footing to stand on when dealing with it. Azathoth represents the idea that safety isn't just lost, but never existed in the first place.