What Are the 'Lovecraft Country' Monsters and Where Do They Come From?

Horror author H.P. Lovecraft's monsters—collectively known as the Cthulhu mythos—are sometimes frustratingly formless. They're often described as asymmetrical, shapeshifting creatures, and the author's usually focused more on other characters' reactions than the monster itself. The monsters' appearances sometimes drive characters insane, like the poor narrator of Lovecraft's 1919 short story "Dagon," who announces plainly, "I think I went mad then," after witnessing the titular fish-god rising from the surface "like a stupendous monster of nightmares."

So despite a smattering of horror movies based on his stories—Re-Animator, From Beyond, Color Out of Space—many Lovecraftian creatures haven't been brought to life onscreen. HBO's new series Lovecraft Country is already rectifying that, bringing form to what was once formless.

Audiences got their first look at Lovecraft Country on Sunday night, when the first episode of the gothic-drama premiered on HBO. Based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the TV adaptation from showrunner Misha Green follows Atticus "Tic" Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Black WWII veteran who is searching for his missing father across a segregated landscape of monsters in '50s America. And if it's clear enough, the monsters are of the supernatural and the Ku Klux Klan variety.

Though H.P. Lovecraft is an author of fiction inside the world of Lovecraft Country, Tic and his traveling companions soon find that the Cthulhu mythos is more than just fiction.

"It's a shoggoth," Tic says in the first episode, after hearing a sound while searching through a wooded area. "It's a monster from one of Lovecraft's stories."

In this foreshadowing scene, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), Tic's brash friend and a freelance photographer, asks Tic what shoggoths look like.

"A massive bubble-blob with hundreds of eyes," Tic responds.

"Oh, well, that's not scary at all," Leti says. "We can outrun a blob."

In the moment, Tic and Leti are joking, like a bunch of teenaged counselors invoking Jason Voorhees around a campfire. But later that night, the Lovecraft Country characters learn that it's no joke at all. Forced into the woods by the local sheriff and his deputies, Leti, Tic and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) narrowly escape death at the hands of racist police when monsters attack from the dark woods. The creatures are as large as a car, with repulsive, wide-jawed faces and hairless pink bodies. But their most distinguishing characteristic is the yellow-green eyes spread all over their body.

Are these Lovecraft's shoggoths, pulled from his stories and into the world of Lovecraft Country?

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Something terrible is chasing George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Leti (Jurnee Smollett) in the first episode of 'Lovecraft Country.' HBO / Warner Media

Lovecraftian horror has become most associated with Earth's first gods and rulers—most famously Cthulhu, one of the "Great Old Ones," who sleeps in a death-like and dreaming state beneath the Pacific Ocean, in his sunken city of R'lyeh. But the shoggoth is not a singular being with malevolent motives. It is instead the most protean and prototypical of Lovecraft's monsters: a being of formless chaos, that can take on any shape, and plays multiple roles throughout the author's nightmarish canon.

Shoggoths were first introduced in a series of sonnets that Lovecraft began writing at the end of 1929 and that were published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. In the 20th of the 36 sonnets comprising "Fungi from Yuggoth," shoggoths make their debut, alongside "Night-Gaunts" that fly "down the nether pits" to a "foul lake where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep."

While we get a good description of the night-gaunts in Lovecraft's sonnets, the merely mentioned shoggoths didn't appear again for more than a year. This was typical of Lovecraft, who often name-dropped creatures, then revealed more about them in later tales. Shoggoths make a far splashier appearance in one of Lovecraft's most famous stories, his 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness, which went unpublished until a 1936 serialization in the magazine Astounding Stories.

At the Mountains of Madness follows a Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica, which uncovers a chain of mountains higher than the Himalayas—a find soon dwarfed by the world-shaking discovery of a vast city predating all of human history by hundreds of millions of years, built by the grotesque, extraterrestrial "Elder Things," also known as "Old Ones."

These Elder Things created "multicellular protoplasmic" life on Earth, partially in order to construct a slave race: the shoggoths. First described as "viscous masses," the shoggoths were incredibly strong creatures, who built cities for the Old Ones. Through pictorial murals left behind in the dead city, the expedition learns of the shoggoths' rebellion against their masters, whose society was crumbling under internal pressures and attacks from other cosmic beings hoping to colonize Earth.

In the novella, the narrator, Dr. William Dyer, and a graduate student named Danforth are the first to describe the shoggoths, based on sculptures found in the ancient city:

"They were normally shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles; and each averaged about fifteen feet in diameter when a sphere. They had, however, a constantly shifting shape and volume; throwing out temporary developments or forming apparent organs of sight, hearing, and speech in imitation of their masters, either spontaneously or according to suggestion."

Even after the members of an advance party are killed under mysterious and brutal circumstances, the expedition continues their explorations, eventually awakening the denizens of the ancient city and reigniting battles between the Old Ones and shoggoths. The expedition's survivors are chased from the Mountains of Madness by a reawakened shoggoth, which is described as being like an "onrushing subway train." A "nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence," the shoggoth is covered in "myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming."

While the shoggoths pop up in two other Lovecraft short stories, they only reappear in the rantings of madmen and in nightmares.

While Tic and Leti's invocation of shoggoths before their night-time encounter in the premiere episode of Lovecraft Country suggests we're looking at an onscreen depiction of shoggoths, it's a little hard to square their description in At the Mountains of Madness with the show's quadripedal monsters, which look more like giant naked mole rats.

But Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos have become a playground for multiple generations of horror writers, who have often reinterpreted or recontextualized his most famous creations. In Lovecraft Country, we catch glimpses of the monster's many eyes—a shoggoth signature, and not the only one. The show's monsters tear apart sheriff's deputies by chomping down on heads and ripping them away from their bodies, just as the shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness leave behind bodies "sucked to a ghastly headlessness."

Still, perusing influential visual depictions of Lovecraft's monsters, like writer Sandy Petersen and illustrator Tom Sullivan's 1988 Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters, suggests that Lovecraft Country's seeming-shoggoths may be an inspired hybrid of several Lovecraftian beasties. While the guide—now an out-of-print collector's item—depicts shoggoth in its spheroidal, oozing form, the artist's interpretations of minor Lovecraftian monsters known as "ghasts" and "ghouls" also closely match some of the characteristics found in the Lovecraft Country monsters, particularly their sensitivity to light.

But while they may not match perfectly with the description of shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness, the monsters in the first episode of Lovecraft Country are most likely a more concrete reinterpretation of the endlessly shapeshifting shoggoths. Near the end of the new HBO series' premiere, a mysterious whistle sounds, drawing the shoggoths away. It seems someone new is controlling the creatures created by the Old Ones.

Perhaps viewers will find out in the second episode of Lovecraft Country, called "Whitey's on the Moon," which premieres Sunday, August 23, on HBO.