Fantasy, science fiction, and horror literature are replete with examples of inhuman beings with human-like forms, often to work wickedness among mankind. When they are slain, such monsters' glamours are often broken. They may revert to different, true forms, or they may just deliquesce into structureless ooze.

This last possibility seems to have been a well established trope by the pulp era of the late 1920s. It happens to Kosatral Khel after he is killed by Conan in Robert E. Howard's "The Devil in Iron" (1934).

Khosatral reeled and fell. In the shape of a man he reeled, but it was not the shape of a man that struck the loam. Where there had been the likeness of a human face, there was no face at all, and the metal limbs melted and changed.... Conan, who had not shrunk from Khosatral living, recoiled blenching from Khosatral dead, for he had witnessed an awful transmutation; in his dying throes Khosatral Khel had become again the thing that had crawled up from the Abyss millenniums gone.

Likewise, the body of Wilbur Whateley dissolves upon his death in 1929's "The Dunwich Horror," by H. P. Lovecraft.

Meanwhile frightful changes were taking place on the floor. One need not describe the kind and rate of shrinkage and disintegration that occurred before the eyes of Dr. Armitage and Professor Rice; but it is permissible to say that, aside from the external appearance of face and hands, the really human element in Wilbur Whateley must have been very small. When the medical examiner came, there was only a sticky whitish mass on the painted boards, and the monstrous odour had nearly disappeared. Apparently Whateley had had no skull or bony skeleton; at least, in any true or stable sense. He had taken somewhat after his unknown father.

The earliest example of this that I am aware of comes from "The Great God Pan" (1894) by Arthur Machen.

Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me, and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm. I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to see that which was on the bed, lying there black like ink, transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.

"I know that the body may be separated into its elements by external agencies, but I should have refused to believe what I saw. For here there was some internal force, of which I knew nothing, that caused dissolution and change.

"Here too was all the work by which man had been made repeated before my eyes. I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed.

"The light within the room had turned to blackness, not the darkness of night, in which objects are seen dimly, for I could see clearly and without difficulty. But it was the negation of light; objects were presented to my eyes, if I may say so, without any medium, in such a manner that if there had been a prism in the room I should have seen no colours represented in it.

"I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substance as jelly. Then the ladder was ascended again... [here the MS. is illegible] ...for one instance I saw a Form, shaped in dimness before me, which I will not farther describe. But the symbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spoken of... as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death.

This passage was apparently fairly controversial at the time "The Great God Pan" was published. However, it seems like much of the contemporary commentary and disgust was focused on the dying entity changing sexes (which tied into the implications of sexual deviance found throughout the story), rather than the deliquescence.

Were there earlier, similar deaths of evil monsters in older stories that influenced Machen and later writers? Or was Machen essentially the first to describe this kind of gruesome death scene.

  • 2
    Honorable mention for the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum's (1900) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
    – Lexible
    Dec 11, 2019 at 4:33

1 Answer 1


The end of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) anticipates this type of grisliness:

As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of "dead! dead!" absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once — within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity.

The character in question may or may not qualify as an “eldritch horror”: Valdemar is a normal (sickly) human whose death is delayed (or something) by hypnosis. When his trance ends, the natural processes of decay apparently carry themselves out in an accelerated fashion.

  • 2
    “Valdemar” is a noteworthy work in eldritch horror-adjacent studies, as it was a major inspiration for Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.” Dec 11, 2019 at 1:54

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