Five Lovecraftian Doctor Who Monsters

From its earliest days Doctor Who has flirted with horror (except when it went full-on relationship with horror under Philip Hinchcliffe). The show has given us pre-Romero zombies in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Frankenstein send-up The Brain of Morbius, and the Dracula-inspired State of Decay. But has Doctor Who ever called upon the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft? Maybe not intentionally (although some of the New Adventures novels tackle the Mythos outright), but the classic series of Doctor Who has occasionally invoked Lovecraftian nightmares. Here are five monsters that leave me with that Lovecraft vibe.


 

The Animus

  1. The Animus

    While not high on the list of fan favorites, the First Doctor story The Web Planet features the Animus, a creature that has enslaved a population and nearly destroyed a planet. The Animus could control the minds of anyone who looked at it, as well as controlling anyone who wore gold. The Web Planet author Bill Strutton intended the story to be an allegory about cancer. As such, the Animus was a cancerous cell that infected the ecosystem of a planet, turning its own population against one another. The inhabitants of the planet Vortis were based on insects (ants, moths, grubs) and the Animus was envisioned as spider-like. When the effect was realized on set, it looked appropriately tentacled. Even the Doctor couldn’t fight against the control of the creature’s mind. The Mythos opportunities were later taken up by New Adventures authors and the Animus was categorized as a Great Old One.


     

    The Yeti

  2. The Great Intelligence

    Steven Moffat brought back this Second Doctor adversary in the 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen and provided it with an origin story. The original creation by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln was more mysterious. In The Abominable Snowmen, a Tibetan Lama entered the astral plane while meditating. The Great Intelligence latched on to his consciousness and followed him back to the mortal plane. The Intelligence’s desire was corporeal existence. He augmented the Lama’s scientific knowledge to create robotic Yeti. The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria defeated the creature, but it returned to our plane in The Web of Fear. The exact nature of the creature was never revealed. Once again, New Adventures authors added The Great Intelligence to the Cthulhu Mythos by identifying it as Yog-Sothoth. It is currently unclear if the three portrayals of The Great Intelligence (classic Who, New Adventures, and new Who) are compatible.


     

    Fendahleen

  3. The Fendahl

    The Fendahl were a gestalt creature composed of a core and Fendahleen, which are eyeless, limbless creatures with fins and tentacles. They fed off the psychic energy of humans. They were thought to have been destroyed on pre-historic Earth, but the core was discovered by a group of scientists who believe the core is a pre-historic human skull. Their attempt to study it leads to the core being activated and Dr. Thea Ransome is turned into a new core. It doesn’t help matters that one of the scientists, Dr. Maximillian Stael, was part of a Fendahl-worshipping coven who wanted to see the Fendahl return to Earth. The Doctor and Leela encountered the Fendahl in Image of the Fendahl.


     

    Rutan on the stairs

  4. The Rutan at Fang Rock

    More than any other story The Horror at Fang Rock feels like a weird fiction story in the mold of Lovecraft. It is dark, brooding, and one of the best realizations of atmosphere in the classic series. The Doctor and Leela arrive at a lighthouse on Fang Rock, an island that is rumored to be haunted. One of the lighthouse keepers is killed and a ship crashes on the island soon after. The survivors are trapped on the island with a killer. While creatures from the sea are par for the Lovecraftian course, it is the atmosphere that really makes this story effective.


     

    Fenric possessing a human

  5. Fenric

    The Seventh Doctor story The Curse of Fenric ticks quite a few Lovecraft boxes. It has creatures from the sea, ancient ruins, mythological threats, and a non-corporeal being desiring a body in our plane of existence. To make matters worse, he has a grudge against the Doctor and has been playing a game of wits against him for who knows how long. Fenric is revealed to be a force of evil that had existed since the dawn of time. Like The Great Intelligence and the Animus, Fenric was added to the Mythos when The New Adventures identified him as Hastur the Unspeakable, though this version of Hastur has little connection to the King in Yellow that Call of Cthulhu gamers are familiar with. Fenric returned in the Big Finish story Gods and Monsters.

These are my favorite Lovecraftian Doctor Who monsters, but I’m sure there are others. Let me know of your favorites or any I have forgotten in the comments.

My Little Equoid

Scan of "Of the Unicorn" from "The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents" by Edward Topsell

“Equoid” is the first of Charles Stross’s works that I have read. It is part of his popular Laundry Files series of books, novellas, and short stories. “Equoid” was recently nominated for a Hugo Award and is currently available to read on Tor.com.

The basic premise of The Laundry Files is quite similar to the role-playing game Delta Green: a covert government agency investigates and covers up eldritch horrors because the citizen population wouldn’t be able to handle the truth. The major difference between the two is that while Delta Green focuses more on existential horror, The Laundry Files incorporate bureaucratic humor with the horror. A secondary difference is that Delta Green is a U.S. creation, while The Laundry Files is a British creation. This difference may actually account for the humor.

“Equoid,” then, takes us into the world of Bob Howard (pseudonym), agent of The Laundry. He has been sent to East Grinstead to investigate a possible unicorn sighting. These are not the unicorns of popular mythology, however. These are the offspring of Shub-Niggurath also called the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. The offspring typically resemble horses (“It’s an equoid not an equus”), although monstrous with glowing eyes, dagger-sharp teeth, and with a taste for human flesh. Shub-Niggurath itself is a vaguely horse-like creature with tentacles it uses to speak through human hosts and it is all quite horrifying and unpleasant. Honestly, if you have a weak stomach, this portion of the story, recounted as a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, is extremely disturbing.

But that is one thing that surprised me about Stross’s style: he masterfully balanced humor and horror. The humor and absurdity of the concept (malicious unicorns) is perfectly balanced by the horror of the encounters with Shub-Niggurath. I enjoyed the Lovecraft letter that was part of the dossier on unicorns (codename: EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN) because most of the best horror happens in the letter, a letter that may have been embellished because, as Bob Howard points out, Lovecraft is not exactly a reliable narrator. He had a tendency to exaggerate—just look at his prose. And so part of the horror rests in uncertain expectation. It retains an element of the unknown even after the creature has been described.

Humor is also achieved in passages on bureaucracy and IT. In particular is an occult computer virus that consumes human souls—appropriately activated when opening a Word file. Also present is a government bureaucracy that institutes a program to genetically engineer WMD police-mounts based on a memo that no one remembers writing and no one can trace to its source. The interspersion of the memos and the letters worked to elevate the tension in the story.

So far as I know, “Equoid” is available on the Tor site indefinitely. I recommend it if you are not easily horrified by disturbing content and are a fan of Lovecraft.

Story Review: The Great God Pan

My treasures from California.
My treasures from California.

Earlier this year I finished reading H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. Inspired by Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” I decided to search out stories which inspired and were inspired by Lovecraft. I didn’t find much help in the local used bookstores in my hometown, but on a trip to California last month I hit the jackpot. I was able to find The House on the Borderlands by William Hope Hodgson, The Last Incantation by Clark Ashton Smith, The Cthulhu Mythos anthology which collects August Derleth’s mythos work, Mysteries of the Worm which collect’s Robert Bloch’s mythos work, and Tales of Horror and the Supernatural Volume 1 by Arthur Machen. And since I am a huge fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, I subscribed to their premium feed (which I highly recommend once you work your way through their coverage of Lovecraft) and have been reading along with them.

This week I completed Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan. This is a fascinating story. It was written in the 1890s. Lovecraft praised it in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and many Lovecraft scholars and fans have noted the influence Pan had on his own story “The Dunwich Horror.”

The Great God Pan is told in eight chapters. It moves jarringly across a handful of years and characters, making the story a bit difficult to follow at times. Machen wrote it early in his career, and it is unpolished. There are a few places where the story is unclear or where the reader has to work a bit to figure out what, exactly, is being said. But what balances Machen’s often clunky prose is his grasp of untold horrors. In some places, Machen only gives us enough details to start the imagination, then stops and lets us fill in the rest of the scene. The unmentionable, indescribable atrocities that occur behind closed bedroom doors, in secret whisperings in high-society dinners, or in Welsh meadows near ancient Roman markers are only as chilling as the reader’s imagination. In fact, the story was denounced at the time because it was considered scandalous and sexually disturbing. By modern standards, the sexual content is so subtle that it can be missed. But this lack of concrete detail serves to emphasize Machen’s personal worldview: a suspicion of naturalism and a love of mysticism. Although a skeptic of the supernatural, Machen did try out some of the mystic orders that existed at the time (including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), but Machen never entirely turned away from his Christian beliefs. He favored the mysteries and unknown in the spiritual world rather than the strict adherence to a physical, material existence. But where Lovecraft emphasizes cosmic indifference to humanity, Machen emphasizes the dangers to humanity when it acts without wisdom and respect to the spirit world. The ultimate villain of this piece, the one who allows evil to enter the world, is a scientist who is trying to prove a theory. He is cold and clinical, a truly despicable character who views his subject, Mary, as his to experiment on as he pleases. He exposes her to an unfiltered view of reality, which destroys her mind and let’s something evil step into our world.

While The Great God Pan certainly has problems with its prose, the story is still a masterwork of horror and dread. In many places it is very subtle (perhaps too subtle) but it rewards close reading, and I believe it is well-suited for analysis. There is a timelessness to this story that enables it to endure, even if it only endures just beneath the surface of the mainstream.

The Great God Pan can be read online for free at Project Gutenberg. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com. You can subscribe to the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast’s premium feed here and hear all four parts of their coverage of The Great God Pan.

 

My Favorite H.P. Lovecraft Stories: A Top Ten

A photo of H.P. Lovecraft
Source: WikiCommons.

For nearly two years I have been reading through a copy of H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. I completed it this month, and decided to share my ten favorite stories from the book. There were others that I enjoyed (“From Beyond,” “Herbert West—Reanimator,” “The Picture in the House,” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but they didn’t quite make the top ten cut. I tried to limit my list to stories that I would be likely to read again for fun.

  1. At the Mountains of Madness – Hailed as Lovecraft’s most successful novel, At the Mountains of Madness is gripping and chilling in some places, slow and dull in others. But the scope and ambition are admirable. This story lays out a history of some of Lovecraft’s mythology, all in the guise of arctic exploration gone wrong. I confess this is not my favorite of Lovecraft’s works, but the exploration of the Old Ones is interesting. The arctic horror is awesome!
  2. The Cats of Ulthar” – Lovecraft loved cats, and this story illustrates why you should always treat cats with respect. This story is perfect for a Halloween reading or recitation. It is simple, concise, and it reads like a fairy tale.
  3. The Colour Out of Space” – This story relates the horrific aftermath of a meteorite crash in the backwoods of Arkham, MA. This may well be Lovecraft’s best story. It is clear, concise, and incredibly creepy. I don’t scare easily (when reading, anyway), but this story did it. I remember sitting on the couch at one in the morning, desperately trying to reach the end because if I didn’t finish the story, the cosmic horror could transcend the story and emerge in my house.
  4. The Call of Cthulhu” – This is Lovecraft’s best-known story. Many of the themes and ideas that Lovecraft flirted with during his early career brilliantly come together here.
  5. The Festival” – There is something about the tone and atmosphere of this story that I find fascinating. The story takes place during the Christmas season, and I think that is what works for me. Christmas is frequently portrayed as a magical time; why wouldn’t it be magically horrible as well? What better time than Christmas to learn about the dark legacy of your family?
  6. The Music of Erich Zann” – After “The Colour Out of Space,” this is one of Lovecraft’s more accessible stories. I love the idea of forgotten streets taking someone to hidden parts of a town. I love that music can act as a conduit to the otherworldly. This story is a lot of fun.
  7. Pickman’s Model” – Like “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Pickman’s Model” is a story that is accessible to a general readership. It is creepy and plotted well. In fact, I would say Neil Gaiman’s A Short Film About John Bolton takes inspiration from this story.
  8. The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – Another genuinely creepy story, this novella follows Robert Olmstead, who is looking up genealogical data. He decides to visit Innsmouth, a town that many people in New England tell him to avoid. It is a dying town. If you’ve enjoyed the Silent Hill games, or Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” you will enjoy this story.
  9. The Temple” – One of Lovecraft’s best early stories. A World War I lieutenant-commander on a German sub slowly descends into madness as his crew encounters mysterious nightmares and visions.
  10. The Whisperer in Darkness” – This is my absolute favorite story by H.P. Lovecraft. I prefer it to “The Colour Out of Space.” It follows Albert Wilmarth as he corresponds with Henry Akeley, a man who believes extraterrestrial creatures live in the woods around his cabin. As Akeley begins to collect evidence, which he sends to Wilmarth, the aliens begin to harass him. The story is somewhat predictable, although it doesn’t quite work out the way you expect, but the atmosphere and tension is masterfully conveyed. After reading through this story, I coincidentally began listening to Role Playing Public Radio’s actual play of “Convergence,” a Delta Green scenario which features the aliens from “Whisperer.” I highly recommend both.

Now that I have finished Lovecraft’s fiction (well, the non-collaborative fiction), I’m trying to decide which weird fiction/supernatural horror writer to read next. I’ve already read The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers. Ideally, I would like to start on Clark Ashton Smith, but the collected works series I want is a bit pricey. I may read Poe since I already have a complete collection.

But I am always open to more suggestions. I’ve enjoyed Lovecraft. Who else should I check out in the weird tradition?