THE ALMOST-HUMAN RACE OF LOVECRAFT’S
Ghouls are perhaps an interesting, but largely overlooked race of Lovecraft.
In part, I think, because so many of Lovecraft’s creations are wildly exotic.
Compared to the fungoid Mi-Go, the crinoid Elder Things, and the conical
Great Race of Yith, the Ghouls are practically homespun folk.
So, what do we know about Lovecraft’s Ghouls? Well, first
up, Lovecraft took them from Arabic folklore, most likely the 1001 Nights.
In Arabic folklore, Ghouls, or Gul are evil spirits which haunt cemetaries
and try to lure travellers to their deaths. Some aspects suggest
Guls or Ghuls are material creatures, or at least feed on material substances,
the flesh of corpses and unwary travelers. Interestingly, in Arabic
jargon, a Ghul or Gul is a nickname applied to any large strong man, without
particular connotations of evil. The supernatural Ghul or Gul is
thus likely a powerful manlike creature with a taste for living in cemeteries
and the flesh of human corpses.
The first mention of something that might be a ghoul in Lovecraft’s
stories is undoubtedly ‘The
Hound.’ In this story, we meet a narrator undone, hamstrung
by fear, his best friend a mangled ruin. He cowers, ready to blow
his brains out rather than face whatever awaits him. As the story
runs, we find our narrator to be quite a sick puppy indeed, fond of collecting
corpses, and delving deeply into the exotic and macabre. They
were artists of the macabre, no mere ghouls, he reassures us, but gentlemen
of leisure, grace and style who just happened to rob graves.
He relates who they chose to rob the wrong grave, that of another Ghoul,
long since dead. It doesn’t seem that the narrator is referring
to a literal Ghoul, but rather, a grave robber like himself. But
it seems a little ambiguous, the hints are that whatever was buried here
was not quite human, or at least made a left turn at humanity and delved
into forbidden things. Most disturbingly...
". . .worst of all, the faint deep-toned baying of some gigantic hound
which we could neither see nor definitely place. As we heard this suggestion
of baying we shuddered, remembering the tales of the peasantry; for he
whom we sought had centuries before been found in this self same spot,
torn and mangled by the claws and teeth of some unspeakable beast."
The canine overtones are persistent. As they dig, they continue
“the strange, half-heard directionless baying of whose objective existence
we could scarcely be sure.”
They find the skeleton:
“...though crushed in places by the jaws of the thing that had killed
it, held together with surprising firmness, and we gloated over the clean
white skull and its long, firm teeth and its eyeless sockets that once
had glowed with a charnel fever like our own.”
At first, that sounds pretty human. But note the reference to
long firm teeth, and the reference to the remains as ‘it’ rather than ‘he.’
It’s as if this body is not quite human, not human enough to be called
a he or him. Accompanying the body is found the following item:
“In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had
apparently been worn around the sleeper's neck. It was the oddly conventionalised
figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face,
and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece
of green jade. The expression of its features was repellent in the extreme,
savoring at once of death, bestiality and malevolence. Around the base
was an inscription in characters which neither St John nor I could identify;
and on the bottom, like a maker's seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable
skull.... the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible
Leng, in Central Asia. All too well did we trace the sinister lineaments
.... drawn from some obscure supernatural manifestation of the souls
of those who vexed and gnawed at the dead.”
Having won their prize, they take off with it, closing the grave on
the ‘cavern eyed face.’ The suggestion of unusually large eye sockets,
together with long teeth hint that whatever was in that grave might not
have been entirely human. On the way back, the baying of the
mysterious hound haunts them. Mysteries accumulate, they hear shrill
laughter and scratching at the door. Their researches disturb them.
Disembodied chatter in the dutch language is heard, and strange indescribable
footprints are discovered. His friend is torn to pieces, a
winged shadow is glimpsed flitting through the night. He resolves
to return to the grave, only to discover that the skeleton is now no longer
just a skeleton, no longer quite dead, and definitely not human.
This is perhaps more of a Vampire story than a Ghoul, I think.
In terms of modern folklore, it seems that Lovecrafts’ nameless protagonist
has removed the amulet keeping a vampire ‘dead’ in much the same way, and
for much the same reason that pulling a stake out of Dracula’s corpse is
never a good idea.
The creature, whatever it is, starts off as a skeleton, and when last
we see it, its wrapped in rotting flesh. So it may be a Vampire of
sorts. Or a Zombie. It may be a human sorcerer in process
of reanimation. Or perhaps a true Ghoul sorcerer returning to a state
of undeath. Lovecraft was big on the notion of Sorcerer’s triumphing
over death by animating or recreating dead tissues.
Nevertheless, there’s some interesting associations here.
Ghouls are generally accorded as grave robbers, and Lovecraft’s character
uses it in that sense. It’s not clear that he employs the term in
the sense he would later, but this notion is at least open. But there’s
more, clearly, there are associations with hounds or houndlike aspects...
note the mysterious baying and the sphinx-hound, as well as corpse eating
and even Leng, the center of the corpse eating cult. It seems that
rather than quite depicting what would later become his ghoul, he’s developing
the ideas and notions associated with it.
Pickman has attracted attention through a painting called “Ghoul Feeding”,
and the protagonist Thurber becomes attracted to his wild imagination.
Pickman and Thurber hang out, and slowly, Pickman becomes quite open, daring
to show him his most exotic work.
And its both haunting and terrifying. Lovecraft starts us
“The backgrounds were mostly old churchyards, deep woods, cliffs by
the sea, brick tunnels, ancient panelled rooms, or simple vaults of masonry.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground, which could not be many blocks away from this
very house, was a favourite scene.”
Creepy backgrounds, for sure, but consider the hidden subtext.
Lovecraft is revealing a world beneath our feet, graveyards and tunnels
and vaults. The shadow places that we don’t like to contemplate:
“...there were any number of cellar views, with monsters creeping in
through holes and rifts in the masonry and grinning as they squatted behind
barrels or furnaces and waited for their first victim to descend the stairs....
Another showed a dance on Copp's Hill among the tombs with the background
of today...One disgusting canvas seemed to depict a vast cross-section
of Beacon Hill, with ant-like armies of the mephitic monsters squeezing
themselves through burrows that honeycombed the ground. ....“
In short, the pictures that Thurber is watching suggest that tunneling
everywhere beneath the normal world, in caverns and holes, in pirate trails,
crypts and burrows, there is a malevolent underground world. Indeed,
it’s a world that covertly intrudes into ours.
“Occasionally the things were shown leaping through open windows at
night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats...
There was a study called 'Subway Accident,' in which a flock of the vile
things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in
the floor of the Boston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on
We think we are safe in our daylit world, but we’re not. They
come into our bedrooms, they invade the subways. These creatures,
Thurber assures us, are a consistent race that he explictly calls Ghouls.
They are not diverse monstrosities. The description comes again and
“These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity
in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward
slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a
kind of unpleasant rubberiness.”
The associations, as in The Hound, are frequently dog-like or canine:
“a squatting circle of nameless dog-like things in a churchyard teaching
a small child how to feed like themselves... One canvas showed a
ring of them baying about a hanged witch on...”
The most intimate description comes near the end:
“....It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes,
and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head
as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch,
and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present
prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn't even the fiendish
subject that made it such an immortal fountain- head of all panic- not
that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose,
and drooling lips. It wasn't the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor
the half-hooved feet.
So, what we’ve got is a semi-upright, human-like but not human creature
with a prominent muzzle that gives it a canine appearance.
It’s not truly doglike face, note the reference to flat nose and drooling
lips, but clearly, its doglike. They are not fully upright,
their stance is awkward, slumping forward as if they’re constantly on the
verge of going on all fours. They do not move in a human way.
Rather, they’re referred to as squatting several times, they lope,
they leap, they crouch, they clamber. True bipedalism seems foreign
to them, they do not walk or run. At most, they dance in unholy ways.
What does this remind one of? My first thought is baboons,
dog-faced monkeys with prominent muzzles. Lovecraft’s depictions
are sort of man sized, leprous skinned baboons, both human and not.
Monkeys of course, have a strangely human quality. Baboons take that
human aspect and cross it with something canine.
Baboons, of course, were a recurring feature in some Egyptian art.
They feature prominently in some tomb paintings, including the wall of
Tut’s burial chamber. They were associated with the Egyptian God,
Thoth, who seems to have inspired several of Lovecraft’s gods - Azathoth
and Yog-sothoth. Egyptian lore, of course, also features Anubis,
the Jackal headed deity which judges, and is therefore associated with
The notions and associations that Lovecraft works, canine-like beings,
baying, strange footprints, corpse eating, grave haunting here come to
fruition. His corpse eaters are fully developed, and a well realized
and discrete race rather than the usual undescribable monstrosities.
Lovecraft goes a little further though. His theme is often one
of degeneration. So at one point, his character refers to Pickman
himself as slowly falling away from human:
“Reid, you know, had just taken up comparative pathology, and was full
of pompous 'inside stuff' about the biological or evolutionary significance
of this or that mental or physical symptom. He said Pickman repelled him
more and more every day, and almost frightened him towards the last- that
the fellow's features and expression were slowly developing in a way he
didn't like; in a way that wasn't human.”
Reid has apparently not been quiet with his thinking, Pickman’s heard
“... Reid, damn him, whispering even as it is that I'm a sort of monster
bound down the toboggan of reverse evolution.”
Lovecraft hints that this is true, and indeed, he refers to an unusual
resemblance between the face of a witch and a ghoul. Later, in depictions
of a changeling, he refers to images of a human child being kidnapped and
taught to feed like ghouls.
“Pickman was showing what happens to those stolen babes- how they grow
up- and then I began to see a hideous relationship in the faces of the
human and non-human figures. He was, in all his gradations of morbidity
between the frankly non-human and the degradedly human, establishing a
sardonic linkage and evolution. The dog-things were developed from mortals!”
The suggestion here is that Ghouls are not a separate species, but rather,
a degenerated or altered form of human. That a normal human might,
from childhood or perhaps later years, become a Ghoul. The suggestion
is that Pickman’s association with them is wearing thin his humanity.
Of course, we have no indication that this is actually true.
Lovecraft’s characters are great guessers. They’ll wander into a
dead city, look at a few paintings here and there, and the next thing you
know, they’ll reconstruct an entire civilization. This happens, to
some extent, in Dagon, and is central to the narrative of both the Nameless
City and Mountains of Madness. Their conclusions are presented as
fact, but the truth of the matter is that they’re just making guesses.
The conceit that humans might transform into Ghouls, carefully suggested
through here, is drawn from hints of Pickman’s strange aspects, from paintings
of resemblance between humans and ghouls, and depictions of their interactions.
Hook and Other Stories
Accumulating degeneration, either within an individual, or between generations,
shows up in Lovecraft more than a few times. In the community of
Innsmouth, we see both - a town and a society regressing towards inhumanity,
and individuals within that town losing human aspect as they grow older.
In another story, the Lurking Fear, he depicts the degeneration of the
Martens family into a series of apelike tunnel dwelling cannibals and corpse
Oddly, the Martens family is not presented as Ghouls, although they
betray obvious similarities. The Martens degeneration renders them
apelike, which suggests that Ghouls are something else entirely.
Not merely degenerated or degraded humans, but something like a parallel
But elsewhere in Lovecraft’s oevre, there are further hints of Ghouls.
In “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, Carter’s friend descends down a
staircase in a crypt, leaving behind a telephone line to which Carter receives
a horrible message. Given the underground networks depicted
in Pickman’s Model, its tempting to think that Carter’s friend has delved
into the realms of ghouls.
More obviously, there are suggestive passages in The Horror of Red Hook:
“ ... In an instant every moving entity was electrified; and forming
at once into a ceremonial procession, the nightmare horde slithered away
in quest of the sound - goat, satyr, and ?gypan, incubus, succubus and
lemur, twisted toad and shapeless elemental, dog-faced howler and silent
strutter in darkness .... 'O friend and companion
of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs (here a hideous howl
bust forth).... who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs...”
Remember the description of ghouls canine features - dog faced
howlers, lemurs, Aegypans; and partially hooved feet - silent strutters,
goats, satyrs, the reference to howling and baying like dogs, the association
with tombs and tunnels. The reference to goats or satyrs may
be creatures who are described elsewhere as ‘Men of Leng’ or ‘Tcho Tcho’,
more on that later. A lot of the variation, the descriptions and diversity
we might attribute to individual variation among the Ghouls, although its
possible, even likely that they have congress with even more inhuman abominations.
But its clear that what we have here is a hysterical description of an
unholy ceremony of ghouls. Indeed, there’s are a couple of, perhaps
“The walls were lined with small cells, in seventeen of which - hideous
to relate - solitary prisoners in a state of complete idiocy were found
chained, including four mothers with infants of disturbingly strange appearance.
These infants died soon after exposure to the light; a circumstance which
the doctors thought rather merciful.”
Sensitivity to light, we’ll find, is a hallmark of Ghouls.
Again, this passage implies that Ghouls may be transformed humans, in this
case, transformed as infants. Or perhaps the babies are hybrids
of Ghouls and humans. Cannibalism, we’ve seen before:
“Before the canals were filled up they were thoroughly dredged, and
yielded forth a sensational array of sawed and split bones of all sizes.”
Cannibalism, all right. Both Horror at Red Hook and Pickman’s
Model, as well (to a lesser extent) as The Statement of Randolph Carter
suggest an underground culture, perhaps a civilization, existing directly
beneath our own, inhabiting tunnels and subteranean chambers, conducting
their unhallowed rituals, occasionally preying upon our own.
For Lovecraft, the Ghouls are a hidden, not quite human population, hidden
beneath our world.
of the Dreamlands
The most vivid and personal description of Ghouls comes in the Dream
Quest of Unknown Kadath. It amounts to a crossover
story. The hero of the ‘Statement of Randolph Carter’, who
may have almost encountered ghouls, hangs out with Richard Upton Pickman,
who has definitely encountered Ghouls.
Indeed, when we encounter him, Pickman has turned into a Ghoul himself!
Of course, we have to take this with a grain of salt. Carter and
Pickman are in the Dreamlands, and we might suspect that Pickman in the
dream reality may not have the same form as he does in real life.
Nevertheless, there’s a clear inference that a Ghoul, or at least some
Ghouls, are transformed humans.
It turns out that in waking, Pickman and Carter knew each other, and
that Pickman before he vanished, taught Carter some degree of the language
of Ghouls, “disgusting meeping and glibbering.” In fact, Pickman
once introduced him to a Ghoul, which Carter describes as canine faces,
slumping forms and ‘unmentionable idiosyncrasies.’ I guess
cannibalism is not talked about among the polite set.
From the start, Carter betrays little fear of Ghouls, confident that
he can communicate with them, and confident that they will not be immediately
unreasonable or aggressive. Indeed, his shouts from the bottom of
a pit result in a helpful passing ghoul throwing down a rope to rescue
him. He encounters a tribe eating, they are for the most part curious
but respectful, though one pinches him. They converse politely, and
an elderly Ghoul, whose flesh has turned greenish, leads him to his friend:
“There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary Burying Ground
in Boston, sat a ghoul which was once the artist Richard Upton Pickman.
It was naked and rubbery, and had acquired so much of the ghoulish physiognomy
that its human origin was already obscure. But it still remembered a little
English, and was able to converse with Carter in grunts and monosyllables,
helped out now and then by the glibbering of ghouls.”
Pickman is pretty helpful:
“Pickman even consented to lend three ghouls to help with a tombstone
lever in raising the stone door; for of ghouls the Gugs are somewhat afraid,
and they often flee from their own colossal graveyards when they see them
feasting there. ....He also advised Carter to disguise as a
ghoul himself; shaving the beard he had allowed to grow (for ghouls have
none), wallowing naked in the mould to get the correct surface, and loping
in the usual slumping way, with his clothing carried in a bundle as if
it were a choice morsel from a tomb.”
Perhaps a moment here to take stock. Ghouls description
seems consistent, canine faces, rubbery skin, at a later point, their skin
is described as leathery, so we can assume that it is smooth and hairless.
Even if they or some of them are transformed humans, its clear that they
have their own language, suggesting that they’re a separate culture with
its own roots, rather than a subculture or offshoot. We accumulate
more information as to their natures, whereas in Pickman’s Model, they’re
ferocious predators on humanity, here they’re relatively benign, even friendly.
They’re hairless, or at least beardless as a race, and elderly individuals
tend to become greenish. The change of colour may simply represent
age. Or it may represent a progressive infection. Later on,
we learn that Ghouls can see in the dark, a useful trait indeed for nocturnal
tunnel dwellers. It’s repeated that they travel by loping, and have
to work to imitate the gait of humans.
The Ghouls society in the Dreamlands maintain solemn treaties with with
the Night Gaunts, but apparently are not on good terms with the race of
Moon-Beasts who enslave the ‘Men of Leng.’ The Ghouls at one
point, assemble an army to fly to battle on Night Gaunts. In
other respects, the Ghouls seem fairly primitive - they have no interest
in rubies or gems they cannot eat. They’re unfamiliar with sailing
or rowing galleys, they’re ignorant of the ways of spear or javelin.
They habitually go naked. On the other hand, they prove quick
learners in the art of sailing or spear-warfare. One of their
more unsavoury habits is killing and eating their own wounded. At
another point, they’re referred to as soulless.
Other Ghouls, Kindred Races
Lovecraft’s Ghouls seem to be related to two other races found in the
Dreamlands, or at least, they have common features which might indicate
The first encountered are the Ghasts of the vaults of Zin, described
as repulsive beings which live in the vaults of Zin and leap on long legs
like Kangaroos. Kangaroo men? Not much of an association.
The Ghasts are described as vindictive, mean spirited and thoroughly vicious.
Within the vaults of Zin, they prey upon, and are in turn preyed upon by
the giant Gugs. But their martial fury is not reserved for the Gugs
alone. They readily attack and eat Ghouls and other dwellers of the
upper world, as well as each other.
Ghasts are light sensitive. Indeed, exposure to harsh light will
kill them, although they can endure grey twilight. The size
of a small horse, Ghasts faces look curiously human, though absent an apparent
nose, forehead and other particulars. Their faces do have muzzles,
and they bite in nips and tears. They speak in coughing gutturals.
Notably, their feet are hoofed.
Ghasts have share with Ghouls a humanoid or humanlike face with a muzzle,
hooved feet, cannibalistic nature and a sensitivity to light.
Based on this, it seems likely that they’re related.
The big difference seems to be Ghasts larger size, a kangaroo-like leaping
ability which seems to be derived from Ghoulish loping, and a state of
warfare with the Gugs.
Their enemies, the Gugs, are strange giants which occupy the vale of
Zin. The Gugs appear to be tool using bipeds, they have a city,
which marks them as more civilized than the feral ghasts. They’re
giants, twenty feet tall, but thoroughly nonhuman, covered with black fur
and with limbs that bifurcate at the forearm. This alone would be
a bizarre feature, but Gugs barrel sized heads feature fanged mouths that
open horizontally rather than vertically. Their eyes are mounted
on stalks on the side of their head, and they are both deaf and silent,
communicating by expressions.
The Gugs are a puzzle. They’re clearly civilized monsters, so
the implication is that they have an advanced culture, and therefore a
history. But equally, it seems that they’re anomalous to Earthly
evolution. A horizontal jaw structure is unknown among ground vertebrates,
as are the bifurcated forelimbs. They don’t appear at all in
waking folklore and mythology. It seems likely that the Gugs
are not of Earth’s waking or dreaming world, but are likely an extraterrestrial
race in the dreamland. They’ve been here so long that no one
even recalls that they’re alien, which suggests that their appearance in
the Dreamlands/Earthly realm might precede humanity.
The second race are those known as the Men of Leng, in the Dream Quest
novel. Here, Lovecraft is explicit about the resemblance:
“At sight of the incoming galley the crowds on the wharves displayed
much eagerness; those with eyes staring intently.... They did not, of course,
realize that the black ship had changed hands; for ghouls look much like
the horned and hooved almost-humans.”
The Men of Leng, therefore, clearly resemble Ghouls. But there
are differences too:
“Around the feeble fires dark forms were dancing, and Carter was curious
as to what manner of beings they might be; for no healthy folk have ever
been to Leng, and the place is known only by its fires and stone huts as
seen from afar. Very slowly and awkwardly did those forms leap, and with
an insane twisting and bending not good to behold; so that Carter did not
wonder at the monstrous evil imputed to them by vague legend, or the fear
in which all dreamland holds their abhorrent frozen plateau. As the Shantak
flew lower, the repulsiveness of the dancers became tinged with a certain
hellish familiarity; and the prisoner kept straining his eyes and racking
his memory for clues to where he had seen such creatures before....They
leaped as though they had hooves instead of feet, and seemed to wear a
sort of wig or headpiece with small horns. Of other clothing they had none,
but most of them were quite furry. Behind they had dwarfish tails, and
when they glanced upward he saw the excessive width of their mouths.
Like Ghouls and Ghasts, the Men of Leng feature hooves and excessively
wide mouths. Unlike Ghouls or Ghasts, they do not seem sensitive
to light. They sport horns and tails. Like Ghouls they
go naked, but are much hairier. Like Ghouls, they seem inclined to
hellish fluting dances. Like Ghouls, their language includes howls,
though they speak a different tongue.
What are they?
The shared features of hooves and wide mouths/muzzles suggest a common
origin or relationship for the three races. They are either the same
species, or they are all descended from the same species. But what
and from where?
The Men of Leng differ from Ghouls and Ghasts in that they apparently
once sported a very impressive culture, which may shed light on a few things:
“On the walls of the corridors were printed frightful scenes older than
history, and in a style unknown to the archaeologists of earth. After countless
aeons their pigments were brilliant still, for the cold and dryness of
hideous Leng keep alive many primal things. Carter saw them fleetingly
in the rays of that dim and moving lamp, and shuddered at the tale they
told. Through those archaic frescoes Leng's annals stalked; and the
horned, hooved, and wide-mouthed almost-humans danced evilly amidst forgotten
cities. There were scenes of old wars, wherein Leng's almost-humans fought
with the bloated purple spiders of the neighbouring vales....
And in those frescoes was shewn the great seaport and capital of the almost-humans;
proud and pillared betwixt the cliffs and the basalt wharves, and wondrous
with high fanes and carven places. Great gardens and columned streets led
from the cliffs and from each of the six sphinx-crowned gates to a vast
central plaza, and in that plaza was a pair of winged colossal lions guarding
the top of a subterrene staircase. Again and again were those huge winged
lions shewn, their mighty flanks of diarite glistening in the grey twilight
of the day and the cloudy phosphorescence of the night. And as Carter stumbled
past their frequent and repeated pictures it came to him at last what indeed
they were, and what city it was that the almost-humans had ruled so anciently
before the coming of the black galleys. There could be no mistake, for
the legends of dreamland are generous and profuse. Indubitably that primal
city was no less a place than storied Sarkomand, whose ruins had bleached
for a million years before the first true human saw the light, and whose
twin titan lions guard eternally the steps that lead down from dreamland
to the Great Abyss.....”
Notice the winged lion, a sort of companion to the motif of the winged
hound medallion seen in the story, The Hound. Clearly the sphinx
of the medallion, with its ancient and unknown workmanship, is related
to and derived from the sphinx of Sarkomand, which in turn relates to the
not quite human men of Leng. The relationship of the Men of
Leng to the Ghouls is seen clearly in the reference to ‘corpse eating cult’
and the houndlike aspects.
But there’s more to it. If Sarkomand really is a million years
old, then this means it precedes the very evolution of the human species.
The Men of Leng are a manlike species who evolved before Men, whose civilization
rose and fell before men.
But what gave rise to the manlike species. The strangest
feature is the hooved or semi-hooved feet. It seems unlikely that a feature
like hooved feet would evolve independently, or that that humans would
produce three separate ‘hooved races’, or that three different hooved animals
would produce separate humanoids.
Indeed, the hooves of these races are a puzzle. At first, we might
assume that they’re descended from hooved animals. But the hooved
mammal lines are hooved on all four feet. There’s no evolutionary
precedent for hooved mammals only having their back feet hooved, which
might represent a common ancestor.
And indeed, it seems almost impossible for a hooved limb to evolve back
towards a functional hand. Indeed, the hands of the ghouls,
ghasts and men of leng seem quite humanlike. Indeed, they’re hominid-like
in that there is a strong specialization and differentiation between the
hands and feet. If not hominids, these creatures are almost
But there’s much that argues against them being hominids.
Apes and hominids, even the most primitive like the Gibbons, lack tails
entirely. The presence of tails on the men of Leng, even short
tails, remove them from the category of higher primates, apes and hominids.
Tails are found in the old and new world monkeys and the prosimians and
lemurs. So I think we can reasonably assign them to the lower
primates, probably monkeys. Given the association with Asia
and Africa, they’re likely derived from old world monkeys.
They are imperfectly bipedal, although easily leaping or loping on two
legs, they stand or walk only awkwardly. Clearly, they haven’t
evolved to upright stance nearly as well as humans. The awkward walking
of the Leng, and the loping gait of the Ghouls leads to the leaping of
the Ghasts. Monkeys, of course, can walk upright although it is not
their normal stance. It appears that they’ve developed in this respect.
The wide mouth and protruding muzzles are suggestive of descent from
monkeys. But more than that, they’re suggestive of a particular kind
of Monkey. I’m tempted to say that Lovecraft’s Ghouls
are merely a race of giant baboons. Hairless, burrowing, nocturnal
scavenging babboons, but still an offshoot of that species of monkey.
Evolution, Before Apes to Angels, Dog-Faced
Monkeys to Goat-Footed Devils
Baboons seem to be the perfect candidate, based on what we know.
They have short tails, strongly protruding muzzles, they’re ground dwellers,
and already fairly largeIndeed, we have records of a couple of species
of prehistoric baboons, Dinopethecus and Theropithecus as large or larger
than modern humans, that might have been about 250 lbs, and could have
stood upright six or seven feet tall. Certainly there’s nothing in
evolution or biology which would prohibit the developments that might take
a baboon into a ghoul..
Moreover, Baboons ranges occupy the same kinds of territories that modern
paleantologists believe was responsible for both the evolution of large
brains and bipedalism in apes. So its quite possible that identical
evolutionary pressures may have produced a manlike baboon.
Big brains, upright posture, versatile hands, specially adapted feet...
But why hooved feet? Speed. Big flat feet may
be good for trundling around in the mud, its great for traction, and long
toes may be great for climbing things, but the more surface area you’re
putting down, the more it slows you. The more shock you’re putting
into delicate structures, the more you’re just laying out all these delicate
bones and tendons to bend wrong and break. The faster you move,
the more risk of breaking a toe. There’s just more kinetic risks
in footfalls the faster you put them down.
Fast animals will tend to walk on the tips of their toes.
Wolves, for instance, famous speedsters and long distance runners, have
very small paws compared to human feet. Their toes are literally
small digits. They run on short toes and a foot pad.
Bears and cats have proportionately larger feet, but if we look at the
Cheetah, the fastest cat, we find very doglike feet. Raccoons
have long splayed toes, but they don’t get around too fast, rabbits who
rely on speed go down literally to running on their toes with small short
feet. Of course, the best examples are hooved animals who are
natural born runners. Not only are antelopes, goats, deer and cattle
run on their toes, but they’ve reduced themselves to only two toes.
Horses are down to one toe. Even Ostriches have reduced to
So if we have a monkey that is evolving hooved or hooflike feet, we
can assume that he’s not a walker but an open country loper or sprinter.
Maybe predators were just more numerous and more aggressive when the Baboons
were evolving their version of a man. They had to do more running.
The later naked ape had fewer predators and could afford to walk greater
distances at a more leisurely pace.
Our hypothetical Baboon is probably running on the ball of his foot,
with the arch lengthening and the heel being held off the ground.
That sort of stance would be hell on the toes, so likely, we’ll see extreme
shortening of the toes, from monkey lengths to human length or less.
We may see a reduction of toes from five to four, the smallest digit, the
little toe is just going to be a liability. Or even three or two.
Those toes are still going to get a lot of punishment, taking all the weight
with the ball of the foot. So odds are that the toenails will develop
into a heavy protective covering.
Its unlikely that primates would have gone and evolved fully hoofed.
But its likely that they evolved towards moving on the balls of their feet,
shorter and shorter toes, and heavy protective nail coverings until it
was almost hooved. Remember that in the Hound, our protagonists saw
strange footprints, but not hooved footprints.
We do know from evolution that related features are often linked.
Thus if you start developing heavy, covering nails on your feet that start
to become hooflike, you may also see heavy covering nails on your fingers.
After all, the tissues that generate nails are going to be the same, and
the biological processes supplying the proteins and amounts of proteins
to one will be supplying the same to the other. So the likelihood
is thick hard fingernails, perhaps resulting in claw-like talons.
Anyway, that would get you monkeys, or baboons who were capable of short
astonishing bursts of speed, or dramatic leaps, to escape predators or
hunt prey. This sort ‘ball of foot’ erect arch and heel, would
give you a lengthened leg structure that would add more spring, leading
to loping gaits or even towards a kangaroo-like leaping.
Of course, being oriented more towards sprinting than steady walking,
its unlikely that our evolved baboon would fully master bipedalism and
erect posture. Humans themselves are imperfect bipeds, but
a lot of our upright posture comes from the rigours of walking and relatively
slow two footed motion. In runners you can lean forward.
Walkers have to balance better. The Baboons were not evolving
as walkers, but as runners, lopers or leapers. So their posture
would tend to lean forward more rather than being classically upright.
This gives us the walking anatomy of our creatures.
Nocturnalism would make a great deal of sense. Monkeys are
normally diurnal, or day dwellers. It just makes a good deal of sense,
if you’re leaping around in trees you are pretty safe from predators, on
the other hand, you really need to have a good idea where the next branch
is. Missing a leap in the dark could be fatal.
Ground dwelling monkeys have a much harder time of it. They’re
not nearly as safe from predators, and the advantages of tree jumping are
not there. Conceivably, if you’re evolving into a big, smart
monkey, and the predators are dangerous enough that you have to develop
sprinting hooves, then arguably, shifting your most vulnerable activities...
foraging for food, into night, would be a big advantage. So the result
is man sized, semi-bipedal, semi-hooved, nocturnal jumping and sprinting
Of course, we know that Ghouls and Ghasts are carnivorous, or at least
carrion eaters. We don’t know what the Men of Leng eat, but we can
be pretty sure that if they’re related, meat is a part of their diet.
But we know that baboons are opportunistic carnivores and will hunt and
eat meat if they can get away with it. So the Ghouls and Ghasts
are simply extensions of lifestyles that we have already seen.
Transformations and Infections
Of course, there’s a problem in this model. That problem is named
Richard Upton Pickman, who starts out as a human in Pickman’s Model, and
shows up as a Ghoul in Dream Quest. What are we to make of
My first thought is: Not too much. Things are
different in the Dream World, and its possible that Pickman is simply a
human in our world who manifests as a Ghoul in the Dreamland. In
which case, there’s no real transformation, just a fairly unhealthy psychological
The various hints of transformation in Pickman’s Model, the resemblances
and apparent family kinships between witches and ghouls, the apparent conversion
of changelings and Pickman’s own signs of disturbing alteration may simply
be red herrings, good for atmosphere, but perhaps not a real transformation.
If we wanted to play with it, we might hypothesize sterile mules or
hybrids between Ghouls and Humans. Perhaps these are the babies
who are so sensitive to light in the Horror of Red Hook (or they’re human
babes afflicted with Ghoulishness, or true Ghoul babes wet-nursed by human
mothers in substitution of their own babes)
Of course, there’s another approach. There are diseases
that induce hairlessness or furlessness. In Florida there have
been numerous sightings of furless bears (and damned weird pictures) and
in the American southwest there are occasional sightings of furless coyotes,
both of whom are afflicted with a disease or parasite. Such a disease
might produce consistent deformations or swelling of soft tissues, perhaps
skeletal abnormalities and growth, hormonal imbalances, etc.
In Dream Quest, Randolph Carter at one point notes that an elderly Ghoul
has greenish skin. Perhaps this is indicative of the progression
of a chronic disease. Certainly turning green is not a normal part
of the aging process. But it might be a symptom of a progressive
chronic disease that is so common it is not distinguished from the species.
Ghouls hairlessness, their rubbery skin, their light sensitivity and perhaps
some features of their appearance may be connected to a diseases.
If this is the case, then it’s a disease they probably get from each
other, likely derived from constant proximity, sharing of food, sexual
contact, etc. Obviously its not airborne and doesn’t easily cross-infect
to humans. But if a human were to spend enough time with enough Ghouls,
they might experience a cross-species infection.
In which case, the human would begin to take on ghoul characteristics,
hairlessness, rubbery skin, light sensitivity, perhaps a change in facial
features. You’d never transform completely into a Ghoul, but
you’d take on enough characteristics, including smell, that you would be
accepted as one.
It’s tempting to speculate that this disease might be a key factor in
the evolution of Baboons from clever animals to fully sentient Ghouls.
The disease and species might have evolved in parallel, perhaps with the
disease driving or creating more efficient neural pathways, inhibiting
or promoting bone growth or hormonal imbalances that resulted in larger
brains, perhaps inspiring cravings for more meat in the diet, leading to
carrion eating. Think of it as a kind of positive form of leprosy
On the other hand, the Men of Leng do not appear to be light sensitive
in the same way that Ghouls or Ghasts are, and Randolph Carter is very
definite that they’re a hairy race. So if indeed it is a communicable
or inheritable disease, it appears to have developed after the start of
their civilization, or perhaps at some point, the Men of Leng shook off
the disease. So I suppose we’ll leave it as an entertaining speculation.
Or perhaps the Ghouls acquired their disease from the company of men.
After all, they’re creeping around underground, in crypts, dealing with
and eating human corpses, exposed to human sewage and wastewater.
That’s probably not healthy stuff. It’s quite possible that one of
our diseases crossed the species barrier, found a nice warm home in them,
and adapted to the new host.
In which case, the occasional instance of re-infection, as Pickman,
some of his artistic subjects and the babies in Red Hook may be experiencing
may be nicely ironic.
One interesting notion is that the Ghoul’s condition may be derived
from eating corpses. There might be something to this.
There is a disease called Kuru, also known as the laughing disease.
It’s basically a human form of Mad Cow disease. Its acquired by eating
the brains of humans, cannibalism in other words, and being infected by
prions. It’s possible that in Lovecraft, the condition of being
or becoming a Ghoul may be similar, a prion transmitted disease derived
Ghouls characteristics do not seem entirely derived from their lifestyle,
or infections or parasitic diseases from their lifestyle. The
Martens family in the Lurking Fear are degenerate creatures certainly.
Like the Ghouls, they have become tunnel dwellers, light fearing and cannibal
corpse eaters. But they have become apelike, not ghoulish.
If it is a disease, then obviously, it seems mainly resident in the ghouls,
and isn’t a by-product of cannibalism.
Anyway, some interesting speculation, but mostly it’s a diversion or
The Rise and Fall of the Ghoul
From what we know of primate evolution, we can assume that these creatures
evolved in north Africa, and probably spread into the middle east and Asia..
From Lovecraft, we can assume that their civilization emerged or reached
its height on the plains of Leng, which appears to have been in central
Although their downfall was probably long before the emergence of human
civilization, they may well have hung on and had an influence on early
Egyptian society, as seen in the importance of baboons (dog/monkey/men)
to the god of wisdom, Thoth, as well as the god of the underworld (dog
Ancient peoples recorded Africa as the traditional home of dog headed
races of men. Belief that Africa was inhabited by dog headed men
(cynocephali) persisted well into the middle ages. One of the cynocephali
even became a saint. Meanwhile, the more goatlike men of Leng clearly
were the inspiration for satyrs and medieval devils. Lovecraft
notes the association of flutes with the men of Leng, flutes and lutes
were also associated with Pan and Satyrs.
Okay, so the Proto-Ghouls managed to travel to a couple of continents
and build a nifty civilization of their own. What happened
to them? Because in Lovecraft’s world, all they’ve got left are colonies
feeding like ticks on the underbellies of our civilization, some mysterious
ruins and perhaps a few tribes in the middle of nowhere.
The frescos that Randolph Carter sees, and from which he, (like several
other Lovecraft characters), deciphers their history, records at least
two invasions of alien beings - the bloated purple spiders and the moon
Thinking out loud, its It’s likely that the Gugs who share their underworld
with the Ghasts, must have been another alien invasion, not appearing in
the frescoes that Carter was only able to hastily scan. The
Gugs were clearly not defeated, but merely contained in the vale, the experience
taught them a racial fear of the Ghouls. The Ghasts were undoubtedly
a garrison population, or perhaps a Ghoul army, who over millenia, evolved
into a separate population.
The Ghouls and the Men of Leng split at some point, likely after the
initial fall of the Leng civilization. The Ghouls emerged as
the more widely distributed branch, and managed to infiltrate human civilizations,
creating their own communities beneath human cultures.
This history clears up one other mystery of Lovecraft. The identity
of the abominable Tcho Tcho, mentioned in the Shadow Out of Time:
“There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live
incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six
million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged,
starheaded, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the
reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean
worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos;”
Well, in Lovecraft’s oevre, we meet the winged starheaded, half-vegetable
race of Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness. The
reptile people of Valusia are from Robert E. Howard of course. But
the furry pre-human Hyperboreans and the Tcho-Tchos are more mysterious.
Well, mystery is over. The Hyperboreans clearly are of the ancestral
race of the Ghouls. And the Tcho Tcho? Other stories,
by other writers, associate them with both Sarkomand and Leng. Still
other sources place them in Tibet, Burma and Indo-china. Tibet is
considered the modern name of Leng. The Tcho Tcho are described as
a short hairless race, human seeming but non-human, and prone to unspeakable
The Tcho Tcho are most likely of the same bloodline. They may
be the real world name for the Dreamland’s ‘Men of Leng.’ Or they
may be an ‘out of the closet’ tribe of ghouls. Or even a fourth race
of the Ghoul species.
But I’ve wandered off track: What happened to the Men of
Leng? Or at least, the Dreamland branch? Clearly
they once had a mighty civilization of their own, history, lore, literature.
Now their city is ruins and their race is enslaved....
“And there were scenes also of the coming of the black galleys from
the moon, and of the submission of Leng's people to the polypous and amorphous
blasphemies that hopped and floundered and wriggled out of them. Those
slippery greyish-white blasphemies they worshipped as gods, nor ever complained
when scores of their best and fatted males were taken away in the black
The Moon beasts happened to them:
“Carter could now distinguish moving figures on the noisome wharves
ahead, and the better he saw them the worse he began to fear and detest
them. For they were not men at all, or even approximately men, but great
greyish-white slippery things which could expand and contract at will,
and whose principal shape - though it often changed - was that of a sort
of toad without any eyes, but with a curious vibrating mass of short pink
tentacles on the end of its blunt, vague snout. These objects were waddling
busily about the wharves, moving bales and crates and boxes with preternatural
strength, and now and then hopping on or off some anchored galley with
long oars in their forepaws. Now and then a small herd of slaves
dressed and turbaned like the dark merchants would be driven aboard a galley,
followed by a great crew of the slippery toad-things as officers, navigators,
What are they really? Come on, its pretty much telegraphed:
They’re ‘polypous’ ‘amorphous’ ‘blasphemies’ that ‘hopped’, ‘floundered’
and ‘wriggled.’ Elsewhere, their flesh is described as
jellylike, or like a jellyfish. They are clearly not made of the
same matter that we are. And they’ve got tentacles for a face.
What do you think?
Cthulhu spawn. What else?
Consider this passage from the Mountains of Madness:
“Another race - a land race of beings shaped like octopi and probably
corresponding to fabulous prehuman spawn of Cthulhu - soon began filtering
down from cosmic infinity and precipitated a -monstrous war which for a
time drove the Old Ones wholly back to the sea - a colossal blow in view
of the increasing land settlements. Later peace was made, and the new lands
were given to the Cthulhu spawn whilst the Old Ones held the sea and the
The time period for the beings in Mountains of Madness is wrong.
They precede even the Permian era. And they’re described as
being much more like Octopi than the Moon-beasts. But nevertheless,
I still hold that the Moon Beasts, with their tentacled faces, unearthly
flesh and humanoid bodies are most likely Cthulhu spawn.
But the Cthulhu spawn have invaded earth several times, the most recent
being the incursion which ended the civilization of the Ghouls.
Indeed, it is certain that there must have been later incursions, as it
is the Cthulhu spawn brought the language of R'lyeh directly or indirectly
to humanity. Certainly humans were not picking up the language of
R'lyeh from the Great Race of Yith or the Elder Things, neither of which
did they have any significant contact with. It’s possible that the
Serpent Race of Valusia may have transmitted the language.
But the best guess is that the R'lyeh language was transmitted by the Cthulhu
spawn either directly to humans, or through an intermediate race.
The Proto-Ghoul civilization would have existed immediately prior to
the evolution of true humans, and were clearly overrun by the Moon Beasts
in the Dream World. This implies that something similar may
have happened in our world, and the Proto-Ghoul civilization may well have
been ended by this incursion. This would have occurred relatively
recently, anywhere from few tens of thousands of years ago to a few millions
of years ago. It’s likely that the modern Cthulhu cult, and
much of the lore of Cthulhu and the Old Ones comes to us through the survivors
and remnants of the Ghoul culture.
And here, I’ll draw it to a close. I hope that you’ve enjoyed
this little journey, and I pray that this venture has not taken away from
the magic and pleasure of Lovecraft’s prose. Fare well, gentle reader
and sweet dreams.