THE ALMOST-HUMAN RACE
OF LOVECRAFT’S MYTHOS
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 to encounter:
“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
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 slow:
“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 the platform..”
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
“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 it too....
“... 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
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
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 eaters.
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 significant passage:
“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
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
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
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
“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
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 certainly primates.
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
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
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 this?
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
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 or acromegaly.
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
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 from cannibalism.
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 side road.
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 Asia.
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 beasts.
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 galleys.
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, and rowers.”
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 older lands.”
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.