I've recently been listening to classic H.P. Lovecraft horror with audio books.
It's quite enjoyable to drive home during a stormy night and listen to classic horror tales.

One thing in most of the stories has struck me as being odd.
The other-worldly beings are often very easily dealt with.

Needless to say, spoilers ahead

In The Call of Cthulhu

Cthulhu is rammed by a ship, and decides to go to sleep.

In The Whisperer in Darkness

a single old farmer holds back the hordes of darkness by himself for weeks.

In The Dunwich Horror

the spawn of man and Yog-Sothoth, Wilbur, is killed by a dog who seems completely unharmed by the encounter. And the other-worldly horror is vanquished by a stern talking to an incantation, and doesn't seem to attempt to resist its banishment.

In The Haunter of the Dark

the being is so vulnerable to light, direct contact with even a flash-light banishes it.

Is there any explanation as to why most of these beings were so easily banished, yet so frightful and hard to summon?
Why would these beings come / want to be summoned to earth, while showing little to no interest in its inhabitants or its riches. Meanwhile being clearly weakened by their very existence in our realm.

The only thing I could come up with was truly alien things can't be explained.
But that seems more like a plot device than an actual explanation.

  • @ThorstenS. Seems like some interaction between ` and the spoiler tag? Tried to fix it.
    – Reaces
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 12:14
  • Better, thanks. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 12:15
  • 2
    To your question: Well, Lovecraft had a big imagination, but a rather...modest writing talent ? Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 12:17
  • Lovecraft probably got more existential as he got older, and eventually decided everything was going to end badly. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 14:45

4 Answers 4


Lovecraft said the following about his storytelling style in a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith:

My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about "short story technique", & build up a stark, simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to "put across" a deception in real life—a deception clever enough to make adults believe it. My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoax-weaver. One part of my mind tries to concoct something realistic & coherent enough to fool the rest of my mind & make me swallow the marvel as the late Camille Flammarion used to swallow the ghost & revenant yarns unloaded on him by fakers & neurotics. For the time being I try to forget formal literature, & simply devise a lie as carefully as a crooked witness prepares a line of testimony with cross-examining lawyers in his mind. I take the place of the lawyers now & then—finding false spots in the original testimony, & thereupon rearranging details & motivations with a greater care for probability. Not that I succeed especially well, but that I think I have the basic method calculated to give maximum results if expertly used. This ideal became a conscious one with me about the "Cthulhu" period, & is perhaps best exemplified in The Colour Out of Space.

(From a letter dated Oct. 17 1930, reprinted in Selected Letters, Volume III)

I think this could help explain the phenomenon you mentioned--to work as a "hoax" all his stories have to involve only a fairly small number of eyewitnesses and a return to the status quo at the end, rather than, say, a monster going on a rampage that devastates cities, or anything else that would lead to major newsworthy consequences. So, the stories generally have to end with the monsters going back to sleep/hiding or leaving the Earth/our dimension, having only affected the lives of a few people.

That said, the human actions you mention aren't always the main reason the monster in the story failed to go on a wider rampage (spoilers to follow):

  • In "The Call of Cthulhu", being split apart by the ship perhaps caused Cthulhu to temporarily retreat to the island, but it's suggested that the reason he didn't return was because the island sunk again while he was there:

Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.

  • In "The Whisperer in Darkness", the Mi-Go never really seemed to have plans to take our world for themselves, they are just interested in getting some humans to volunteer to be their traveling companions in exploring the universe, which unfortunately requires the humans to have their brains extracted and put in metal cylinders to survive the rigors of space travel, which can be hooked up to sensory devices and speech synthesizers. Since the old farmer Akeley was their target to convince to join them, it makes sense that they wouldn't have killed him, and the ending reveals that they did manage to get him to give up his body.

  • In "The Dunwich Horror" your description is basically accurate, but the main monster, horrible as it is, seems to be basically a child, and is banished by an incantation from the same powerful book (the Necronomicon) that brought it into this world, shouting for its otherworldly "father" Yog-Sothoth as it goes:

"Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah—e'yayayayaaaa ... ngh'aaaaa... ngh'aaaa ... h'yuh... h'yuh... HELP! HELP!... ff—ff—ff—FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!..."

  • In "The Haunter of the Dark", the entity known as the Haunter of the Dark was said to be "awaked by gazing into the Shining Trapezohedron" which Blake found at the church, and it seemed to be primarily interested in pursuing the person who had looked into the Trapezohedron, in this case Blake, who had an "unholy rapport" with the entity. Then during a power outage the entity seemed to break out of the church and fly to Blake's home, and the next day Blake was found dead with a look of horror on his face, suggesting the entity had succeeded in its pursuit. After that the Shining Trapezohedron was thrown into the waters of Narragansett Bay by Dr. Dexter, so no one else would look into it and inadvertently summon the entity to pursue them as Blake had.
  • +1My main point is though that once awakened, the whole premise of the first book. Chtulhu is thwarted by the very first human it encounters that doesn't simply fall over in fright. (Even if it is not destroyed, it was a somewhat weak encounter) And the Whisperer in the darkness, I don't mean to say that they failed. I mostly wanted to point out that despite having a numbers advantage, technological advantage, and already discovered, they were thwarted for weeks. Likewise the Haunter of the Dark seemed to be simply content killing its summoner, and going back to sleep. It's all so... meek.
    – Reaces
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 18:10
  • @Reaces - The Mi-Go could no doubt have used their numbers advantage and technological advantage to take Akeley's brain by force, but that wasn't their goal--they wanted to convince him to travel with them of his own free will. The Haunter of the Dark may not have been specifically wanting to kill Blake, but perhaps to show him the far reaches of the universe (which he was already beginning to see due to his 'unholy rapport'), and that may have killed him from the shock--or perhaps it stole his mind from his body to take him to the outer reaches of reality.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 18:29
  • Fair points, thank you for the discussion! :)
    – Reaces
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 18:31
  • 1
    Lovecraft's alien beings are truly alien - and so their motivations aren't normal human motivations either. Cultists say that Chtulhu wants to cleanse the world, but who can say what he wants? These stories just report what happened. In a way that makes things more scary - you have a hard time fighting races and beings that you cannot understand.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 19:13
  • 1
    @Oldcat Yet for all their other-worldly mystery, they seem pretty susceptible to shotguns / ships to the face. I find the cultists in the stories vastly more scary than the things they summon. They generally kill dozens of people to summon a being that kills a select few. And is subsequently vanquished in some mundane fashion.
    – Reaces
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 6:42

Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and franzy.

The narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu" is thus saying that if R'leyh had not sunk again in time Cthulhu would have already and quickly destroyed Human civilization. Isn't that badass enough for you? Only chance geological (and maybe astronomical since the stars had to be right) factors that Humans can not understand or predict narrowly averted total disaster. This time. But maybe not next time. And we can't predict when "the stars will be right" or know when next time will be.

  • So, he went away for a reason that we don't know. But next time he shows up we can just keep shipping him in the face until he gets bored again. I don't see how he is in any way scarier than for example the Yellowstone volcano.
    – Reaces
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 6:40
  • Remember that Cthulhu immediately began to re-form himself after his body was split apart by the ship, and the main character got only a passing glimpse of this so we don't know how quickly Cthulhu recovered (it might have been very quick, but the ship just didn't interest it enough to continue pursuit). You could compare this to the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2, which could also be briefly stopped in its tracks when split by something like a shotgun, I don't think this would make it less scary if there was a giant T-1000 threatening to go on a rampage.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 12:07
  • 1
    Reaces - and remember that the terrible physical damage Cthulhu can do is nothing compared to the way his thoughts can turn all Humans in to omnicidal maniacs. Cthulhu's thoughts were stopped from reaching men and driving them insane by the water when R'lyeh sank beneath the sea again soon after the encounter. The fact that Cthulhu was inside and sank with his crypt to sleep again instead of swimming around on the surface and making his way to land while broadcasting his thought commands saved the world. Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 5:18

It was not really the physical prowess of his creatures that made them terrifying, in Lovecraft's time, it was their very existence that made them so.

We have grown up with a steady stream of sci-fi and horror, to the point that we compare the fighting abilities of creatures from completely different comic books, films and video games, in an attempt to determine which is tougher. As a result there has been a gradual ramping up of power in our sci-fi and horror monsters, like a fictional arms race. I think we have been somewhat immunized to the work of Lovecraft because of this.

They don't work by an all out assault on the human race. They work in the shadows. Remember Ackley, who defended his farm for weeks with dogs and a rifle, ultimately has his brain removed, and is being sent to Pluto, and beyond, against his will.

Cthulhu, who was temporarily defeated by a boat, was never fully awake when that happened, and will eventually rise up and bring the world to its knees. Mind you, he does not attack the world as a physical enemy, but rather "The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild, and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom." The Call of Cthulhu," H.P. Lovecraft"

This, to me, is far more terrifying than just having a giant monster attacking our cities. We are not killed off physically, rather, we join Cthulhu and revel in killing each other off.

The Dunwich Horror was a close call, for sure. But as the story suggests, if Wilbur Whateley had been successful, his brother would have grown beyond mankind's ability to stop.

And the Haunter in the Dark, yes it has its limits by being trapped in darkness. But for the main character, it was more than enough for him to die of fright.

The part you are not mentioning is hinted at in "At The Mountains of Madness" where we learn that these creatures and others like them used to have complete control over the earth. Even then, they fought each other, and none were "all powerful" but the idea was that mankind would not be able to handle their return.

  • I guess looking back on it a few years later, I was mostly disappointed because of the major buildup. Each time it seems like some ancient, eons old, great evil is about to finally unleash havoc upon the world. But there is almost always a near-happy ending. I wish the endings were a bit more doom-and-gloom :)
    – Reaces
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 19:00
  • I can appreciate that. I would think it goes back to Lovecraft's desire to scare his readers. If the world actually ended in the story, or some great big beast destroyed a city, then the people reading it would look out the window and say, "hey, none of that happened ... this is obviously fictional." However, if the evil that they encounter simply drives people mad, or gets them to off themselves, then the reader can be convinced to wonder whether these things may have actually happened. In Call of Cthulhu, the creature was never seen by the main character. It was just a diary he read.
    – MKSchmidt
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 6:13

In case the previous answers did not appease you, here's some additional sophistry:

Survival bias: in the overwhelming number of times that the beings prevail, there are no narrators, reliable or otherwise, to relate their encounters. In the four times you mention, low-probability events transpired, but your sample is skewed because it doesn't include the full population of encounters with Lovecraftian horrors.

Timelessness: being dispatched at one period in time when you will exist forever and beyond is more akin to being inconvenienced than dealt with.

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