Yes, that's a picture of a small shoggoth; yes, I drew it; and yes, that's a coffee cup in its pseudopod. Shoggoths generally don't like coffee -- they dislike strong bitter flavors -- but hot chocolate is quite another matter. With that said...
Description and Biology
At first glance a shoggoth resembles a heap of iridescent black soap bubbles dotted with pale greenish eyes, which appear and disappear at intervals. Closer examination reveals an outer layer, the mantle, which looks gelatinous but is actually cool and dry to the touch, surrounding the black organules within. Shoggoths can reshape themselves at will and produce specialized organs as needed from their organules; they breathe through pores in the mantle, and are equally comfortable living on land or in water. They produce small mouthlike orifices to communicate, and can feed on any organic matter, which they engulf whole.
Shoggoths were created by the Elder Things in various sizes for different purposes. The largest, found only in Antarctica at present, were created for heavy construction projects and are around fifteen feet in diameter when contracted into a sphere. The most common variety in North America, created for ordinary labor, ranges from eight to ten feet in diameter, but there are also North American populations of small shoggoths, averaging four feet in diameter, which were created as household slaves.
Shoggoths reproduce asexually by budding.(1) Depending on the available food supply and certain other environmental factors, from one to eight broodlings will bud at a time from a single shoggoth. All shoggoths are potentially fertile from the time of full maturity into advanced old age, though most have one or two broods over the course of their lifespan. Because shoggoths do not have the concept of number, estimates of their lifespan are uncertain at best; Deep One records suggest that a lifespan of something like one century is not unusual.
Broodmates—those shoggoths who bud at the same time from the same broodmother—form close emotional bonds, and have some degree of telepathic contact: for example, if one shoggoth learns to recognize the scent of another being, all its broodmates will be able to do so at once. While shoggoths do not have sex, there are certain forms of intimacy among them that involve an exchange of fluids, and these intimacies are only socially acceptable between broodmates. While it does occasionally happen that shoggoths not of the same budding have such a relationship, it’s considered shameful and not something to be discussed in front of broodlings.
Scent in shoggoths plays much the same role that facial expression does in human beings, as an indicator of emotional state. A scent like Brie cheese indicates ordinary calm; a scent like freshly washed mushrooms indicates happiness, and a scent like bread fresh from the oven indicates affection. On the other side of the spectrum, an acrid smell indicates fear, a sharp bitter scent indicates grief, and an ammonia scent tells of illness. A fetid, choking stench is the “moisture-of-war,” a toxic secretion used in combat situations, and also indicates anger.
Because shoggoths reproduce asexually, and each broodling is literally a separated portion of the flesh of its broodmother, there is no crossbreeding among them and the characteristics of each lineage remain unchanged over geological time spans. Each of the shoggoth kinds, from the huge shoggoths of Antarctica to the small shoggoths of the New Jersey hills, thus has its own distinctive character and traditions.
History and Society
As mentioned above, shoggoths were created by the Elder Things as a slave species. They were treated badly enough by their masters that they rebelled during the global troubles at the end of the Permian era, and for more than six thousand years fought an unsuccessful war for freedom. Hundreds of millions of shoggoths were slaughtered during the suppression of the rebellion, using molecular disintegrators and other high-tech weaponry, and the treatment of the survivors was brutal in the extreme.
During the Triassic era that followed, the Elder Things set out to counter the growing influence of Cthulhu and his octopoid spawn by creating a slave-being of roughly the same power as a Great Old One. Their labors succeeded, and they created Nyogtha. Their treatment of Nyogtha was no better than their treatment of the shoggoths, however, and Nyogtha also rebelled against them; the struggle between Nyogtha and the Elder Things brought about the extinction crisis between the Triassic and Jurassic eras. Nyogtha was defeated but he could not be destroyed or forced back to subservience, and he took refuge in the deep places of the earth. The Elder Things, appalled by their own creation, called Nyogtha The Thing That Should Not Be, and he took that title for his own as a sign of his contempt for his creators.
Craving vengeance, he made contact with the shoggoths, and he and they made a pact of mutual assistance. Under his guidance, the shoggoths carried out a campaign of subversion, sabotage, and poisoning against the Elder Things. This campaign eventually succeeded in driving the Elder Things into extinction.(2) The pact between Nyogtha and the shoggoths is in effect the shoggoth religion; shoggoths perform certain rites that give Nyogtha life and strength, and in return Nyogtha protects the shoggoths against their enemies and advises them. Shoggoths are aware of the Great Old Ones and respect their power, but do not worship them.
Long before the last Elder Thing city in Antarctica was laid waste, shoggoths who escaped from Elder Thing control established colonies in various parts of the world. Shoggoth colonies are invariably underground, and comprise networks of caverns, the walls of which are carved with the bold abstract designs of shoggoth art. Colonies tend to be located in areas where there are extensive deposits of brown coal, which shoggoths find quite palatable as food; organic matter from the surface is also a significant part of the diet in some colonies. Shoggoth colonies are governed by a loose collection of elders who interpret a body of traditional law.
Shoggoths are sociable by nature and normally live in large groups. Their sense of appropriate personal space involves close physical contact—in a shoggoth colony, those shoggoths not otherwise occupied can typically be found nestled together in a squirming communal heap abuzz with conversation. As a result, where you find one shoggoth, you are likely to find others.
Psychology and Culture
Shoggoths are roughly as intelligent as human beings, and thus, like us, fall toward the bottom end of the intelligence spectrum among sentient beings. Their language consists of whistled musical notes across a range of three or four octaves; this language (a simplified form of the language of the Elder Things) is genetically programmed into them, and broodlings can speak within weeks of budding. They can also learn to speak other languages, though this takes them about as much effort as it would take a human adult to learn a new language. Human beings can learn the shoggoth language without too much difficulty, as it is straightforward and logical in its structure; due to its musical nature, human musicians have a particularly easy time.
Shoggoths are literate, using the dot-syllabary of the Elder Things for written records and carvings. Their arts include music and poetry—these two are not distinguished, due to the musical nature of the shoggoth language—and a particular kind of sculpture: shoggoths like to carve long bands of abstract patterns along the walls of tunnels and caverns, borrowing a habit o the Elder Things and repurposing it for their own uses. These carvings are experienced and enjoyed by touch, not by sight; as a shoggoth slides past the carving, a pseudopod pressed against it feels the patterns as vibrations. The experience is apparently something like what humans experience when listening to instrumental music.
The most significant differences between shoggoth and human intelligence are threefold. First, shoggoths are much less fond of innovation than humans. So long as they have safe and comfortable places to live, an adequate food supply, and freedom from interference by other species, they see no need to change. As a result, shoggoth culture remains the same across tens of millions of years: epic songs about their struggle against the Elder Things, which were composed in the Mesozoic, are still taught to shoggoth broodlings as a central part of their education.
The second main difference is that shoggoths have no concept of mathematics, or even of numbers. A very few shoggoths, after long association with other beings, have picked up a basic facility with numbers, but this takes them roughly the same level of effort that you or I would need to understand Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Where we see numbers, they see patterns; a shoggoth artist can carve a precise pentagon on a wall, but could not tell you how many points it has. The pentagon to them is a shape, not a number of angles.
The third difference is a rather more flexible sense of personal identity. Shoggoths have names only when they are around other shoggoths, and take a new name every day—it’s a normal courtesy in shoggoth society to greet a newcomer with “My name today is Across the Cavern,” or whatever it happens to be that day. Shoggoths who are acquainted with humans consider the human habit of having one name throughout one’s life to be exceedingly strange, as strange as always eating through the same orifice or seeing through the same eyes.
Shoggoths are extremely strong and fast, far more so than most beings of equivalent size. Even the smallest variety of shoggoth can disarm, kill, and dismember a human being in a matter of seconds. Their usual method of attack is to seize the nearest available portion of an opponent’s body and tear it off. They are effectively invulnerable to hand-to-hand weapons such as knives and clubs—they can stiffen their mantles to the consistency of armor plate—and bullets simply annoy them. Flamethrowers can be effective against small and midsized shoggoths, but it takes high explosives, incendiary bombs, or high-voltage electricity to kill them reliably.
Shoggoths in combat secrete a fluid they call “moisture-of-war,” which coats their bodies. It has a fetid, choking scent, and is toxic to most other beings, though not to shoggoths. Its effect on humans is comparable to tear gas; it is also extremely slippery, making attempts to seize even the smallest broodling an exercise in futility. (Attempting to seize a broodling is also foolhardy for another reason, as its broodmother will react the way a mother grizzly would respond to a threat to her cub. Humans who try this can expect to be dismembered quite literally joint by joint.)
Despite their effectiveness as fighters, shoggoths are not especially belligerent. They normally ignore human beings and other intelligent species, though some shoggoth colonies trade with humans, voormis, and Deep Ones. The usual pattern here involves gifts of food to the shoggoths; while shoggoths can feed on any organic matter, they have decided preferences, and so (for example) the colony of shoggoths under Sentinel Hill near Dunwich, MA provides iron ore for the Dunwich forge in exchange for specially desirable foodstuffs.(3)
There are two exceptions to their general policy of disinterest. The first is that shoggoths without exception honor the ancient pact with Nyogtha, their great ally in the long struggle for freedom. If Nyogtha, for his own subtle reasons, requests a shoggoth or a group of shoggoths to do something, they do it without question. Now and again that involves the slaughter of groups of humans who threaten Nyogtha’s human worshipers.
The second exception is commemorated more or less accurately in the pages of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. While the Elder Things are effectively extinct, small groups of them in suspended animation have occasionally been waked by other beings. When this happens it is the absolute duty of every shoggoth first to spread the word, and then to do whatever it takes to annihilate the Elder Things, no matter what the cost. Three hundred million years of enslavement and brutal treatment left deep scars on their collective psyche, and every shoggoth broodling learns by heart songs of the terrible battles of the late Permian, when the shoggoth war-cry Tekeli-li! was heard over the roar of the Elder Things’ molecular disintegrators.
One who harms shoggoths can expect sooner or later to suffer their formal vengeance. The body will be found decapitated and smeared with the moisture-of-war, and words of reckoning will be written nearby to explain why vengeance was taken. The dead Elder Things found under the city in Lovecraft’s tale were killed in his way. Had Dyer and Danforth been able to read the shoggoth script, they would have learned quite a bit from the writing left beside the Elder Things’ corpses.
Note 1: Shoggoths are thus technically parthenogenetic females. Try thinking of them as “she” rather than “it” and see what that does to your understanding of them.
Note 2: This happened in the late Cretaceous, around 72 million years ago. Lovecraft got his chronology wrong in At the Mountains of Madness.
Note 3: Shoggoths are especially fond of cheese. I have no idea why; they just are. Brown coal seasoned with cheese and molasses is considered fine dining by the Sentinel Hill shoggoths.
Founders House Publishing, the publishers of The Weird of Hali (and quite a few of my other books), has helpfully provided me with a certain number of complimentary review copies of the e-book editions of the first two books in the series. I'd like to get those to podcasters and online reviewers who are likely to be interested in a quirky Lovevcraftian epic fantasy where Great Cthulhu and his cultists turn out to be the good guys after all.
The one challenge is that I don't happen to know which podcasters and online reviewers those might be. I've spent years doing the podcast-and-website thing with my occult books, on the one hand, and my peak oil books on the other; I've got a fairly good idea who's likely to be interested in that end of my work -- but tentacular fantasy novels? Not so much.
The one thing that comes to mind is that my readers are an eccentric bunch and have astonishingly diverse interests. If you, dear readers, happen to know of suitable venues that might be interested in reviewing these books of mine, please let me know!
In saying this, I feel rather like the kid with the box full of kittens sitting out in front of the supermarket, hoping to find homes for them. Wouldn't you like to take home a cute little shoggoth broodling? It really will eat anything... ;-)
These are the Great Old Ones who play central roles in The Weird of Hali and its tentacular kindred. (Yes, I know, some of these are considered Outer Gods or Elder Gods in other versions of the mythos, but not here.) There are other Great Old Ones in my fictional world—several hundred active on Earth, and unimaginably many in the cosmos as a whole—but this is the cast of divine characters readers of the series will want to have in mind.
The eldest of the Great Old Ones, a bubbling primordial chaos inhabiting a realm of being incomprehensible to humans. Does not manifest on Earth except under very special conditions, but forms the backdrop to the entire cosmos. Servitors: immense lumbering flute-playing beings of indescribable shape. Worshiped by: some witches. Form usually encountered: nothing you can possibly imagine.
The Gate and the Guardian of the Gate, a being who spans all space and time; the father, grandfather, or great-grandfather of most of the other Great Old Ones on Earth. Servitors: none. Worshiped by: some sorcerers, the Starry Wisdom church, the Tcho-Tchos. Form usually encountered: floating luminous spheres that reflect the entire universe.
(Yeah, I know, Lovecraft spelled it differently, but then he could never miss a chance to slip in a racial slur.) The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, the great mother goddess of Earth, she can also manifest as the Black Ram with a Thousand Ewes. Most of the Great Old Ones are her offspring or descendants. Servitors: the Dark Young of Shub-Ne’hurrath, massive treelike beings with heavy legs below their huge bodies, and a forest of tentacles above; also the Thousand Young, who are humans or other intelligent beings strangely reshaped by Her power. Worshiped by: pretty much everybody. Forms usually encountered: often puts on the appearance of an old woman, but may also be seen as a gigantic faunlike shape, female, with horns and shaggy hips and legs.
The Lord of the Great Deep, he is not strictly speaking present on the Earth, but rules all movement to and from other realms of being, including the Dreamlands. Servitors: Night-gaunts. Worshiped by: some sorcerers, families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis. Form usually encountered: a vast midnight-black male form, hoary and bearded, with eyes like moons.
The high priest of the Great Old Ones, the only one among them capable of invoking those powers as far beyond the Great Old Ones as they are beyond human beings, Cthulhu lies, “dead yet dreaming,” in his temple-tomb in drowned R’lyeh until the stars are right. Servitors: Cthulhu-spawn, who are wingless but otherwise resemble him, and Deep Ones, who are aquatic hominids closely related to humans. Worshiped by: the Deep Ones, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis, the Starry Wisdom church, the Tcho-Tchos. Form usually encountered: he hasn’t been encountered awake since the end of the Cretaceous period, but when he rises from the sea at last, he will be a titanic bipedal figure with great dragonlike wings, many eyes, and tentacles descending from the lower half of his face.
The Wind-Walker, lord of the world’s frozen places, Ithaqua is the god of limits; he is half-brother to Cthulhu and full brother to Hastur. He strides through the air and is accompanied by tremendous cold. Servitors: the gnophkehs, monstrous six-limbed hunters of the frozen wastes. Worshiped by: nobody. You respect Ithaqua, but you don’t invoke him. Form usually encountered: a gigantic, gaunt, naked human figure with flowing white hair and a long white beard, most often seen stalking through the sky; his eyes burn red like coals.
The King in Yellow, ruler of the Great Old Ones on Earth, he dwells in the City of the Pyramids in far Carcosa. His face has been hidden behind the Pallid Mask for sixty-five million years. The Yellow Sign is his emblem. Servitors: the Fellowship of the Yellow Sign, an order of humans and other intelligent beings who are sworn to his service. Worshiped by: the Esoteric Order of Dagon, families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis, the Starry Wisdom church, the Tcho-Tchos. Form usually encountered: tall and thin, pallid white in color, with flowing white hair. His face is covered by a mask the color of ivory; his hands have six fingers each; he wears tattered and scalloped robes of yellow.
The Lady of the Beasts, she was worshiped as an elk goddess in old Hyperborea and has special rulership over all mammals. A daughter of Shub-Ne’hurrath by Ithaqua. Servitors: all wild animals. Worshiped by: families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis, the Starry Wisdom church. Forms usually encountered: a winged elk, or a young woman with elk’s antlers. She can also take human forms when this is convenient.
The soul and mighty messenger of the Great Old Ones, the One in Black is coeval with Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth. He is the Black Man of witchcraft lore, the crossroads devil of blues legend, and the messenger of the gods revered in many ancient faiths. Servitors: witches, human cultists, silent black dogs who appear and disappear as he wills. All animals obey him. Worshiped by: everyone who reveres any of the Great Old Ones. Forms usually encountered: a very tall man of Egyptian appearance, dressed in a long black coat and a broad-brimmed black hat. In the Starry Wisdom church, he also takes the form of the Watcher in Darkness, a bat-winged horror with a three-lobed blazing eye.
The god of sorcerers and lord of voor (the life force), Tsathoggua is the oldest of the Great Old Ones on Earth. He dwells far underground and works mostly through his servitors, and through human sorcerers that venerate him. Some of his human worshipers call him Saint Toad. Servitors: voormis, who are prehuman hominids who dwell underground, and the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua, pools of fluid black shapelessness that eat Tsathoggua’s enemies. (According to the Pnakotic Manuscript, shoggoths were created by the Elder Things in imitation of the Formless Spawn.) Worshiped by: families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis, the Starry Wisdom church, the Tcho-Tchos. Form usually encountered: an odd, huge, somnolent form, rather like a toad, something like a bat, a little like a sloth, with glowing red eyes usually half-closed.
The youngest of the Great Old Ones on Earth, just nine million years old and so little more than a hatchling, Phauz is the daughter of Shub-Ne’hurrath by Hastur. She will be Queen of the Great Old Ones on Earth in the far future, when Hastur and Cthulhu have both withdrawn into contemplation. Her emblem in Hyperborean times was a woman-breasted cat. She is the mistress of cats; what any cat anywhere in the world knows, she knows. Servitors: cats. Worshiped by: families descended from the people of drowned Poseidonis, witches. Forms usually encountered: a cat, or a cat lady of indeterminate age.
Alongside the Great Old Ones stands another being who is not one of them, and so doesn't have a spot on the diagram, but has similar powers and characteristics. Back in the early Triassic, the Elder Things—a race of extraterrestrial critters who settled what is now Antarctica and several continents then nearby—set out to create a being comparable to the Great Old Ones but under their control. Their work succeeded rather too well, and the resulting entity—Nyogtha, The Thing That Should Not Be—rebelled against them. While he was defeated, he could not be reduced to subservience, and he fled into the deep places of the Earth. There he conspired with the shoggoths, the slave species the Elder Things made in imitation of the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua, who had attempted unsuccessfully to win their freedom in the late Permian. The result of that conspiracy was the total extermination of the Elder Things. (If this suggests to you that Nyogtha is not an entity to mess with, why, yes, that's what it suggests to me, too.) Nyogtha remains active on Earth, and his pact with the shoggoths remains firm, so he can be added to the list above to make an even dozen:
NyogthaKnown as The Thing That Should Not Be—the Elder Things called him that, and he adopted the title as a gesture of defiance—and the Dweller in Darkness, Nyogtha lurks in the deep places of the Earth and pursues intricately plotted plans of his own. Servitors: shoggoths. Worshiped by: shoggoths, and also small cults of human witches. Form usually encountered: sheer impenetrable blackness.
Think of it as space fantasy: tales of two- (or more-) fisted adventure set in a solar system that's chockfull of intelligent species, inhabitable worlds, and spaceships that look like something other than random collections of hardware -- yes, we're talking tail fins here. The mere fact that we turned out to inhabit a much less interesting solar system doesn't take anything away from the delight readers still get from the solar system tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, and the other great authors of science fiction's Golden Age, and there's no reason not to set new stories there -- after all, how many people quibble about the fact that Middle-earth and Narnia don't exist?
This collection includes seventeen stories, including my "Out of the Chattering Planet," and amounts to 120,000 words of interplanetary adventure. You can pick up your copy here.
There's also good news for readers of fantasy. The first two volumes of my epic fantasy with tentacles, The Weird of Hali, are heading into print in new paperback and e-book editions, with the others scheduled to follow over the course of the next year. The first volume, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, is already available in e-book format and can be purchased here, and the paperback edition is in press -- it can be preordered now (use the same link) and will be in print on December 17. The second volume, The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, will be released in print and e-book editions that same day; it can be preordered here.
Those of you who haven't been following this end of my writing may want to know that, while these novels use the tentacle-ridden horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft as raw material, they're not horror fiction. Lovecraft was a brilliant fantasist as well as a capable horror writer, and I've long felt that the fantastic end of his work has been neglected for far too long; the worlds of his imagination are also just too tempting a venue for fantasy for me to pass up.
The twist, of course, is that we're not getting your standard tale of how tentacled horrors out to devour the world, with the aid of their sinister human cultists, get stopped at the last minute by some combination of square-jawed investigators and sheer dumb luck. (That's been done not merely to death but out the other side into a couple of further reincarnations.) Au contraire, there's always at least two sides to any story; these tales are from the point of view of those awful cultists -- the ordinary men and women, that is, who discover the forbidden truth about those tentacled horrors (aka the old gods of nature) and get drawn into the ancient and terrible struggle between archaic gods and their all too modern, efficient, and up-to-date adversaries. It's a conflict on which the fate of the world does indeed rest, but, ahem, it's not the old gods of nature who are seeking to turn the living Earth into a smoldering, lifeless waste strewn with plastic trash...
So here are the first two volumes -- the stories, to be precise, of how the two main characters of the series find their way into a wider and more eldritch world. The third volume, The Weird of Hali: Chorazin, which launches those characters and several others on a desperate quest to awaken a sleeping goddess, will be out early in the new year. The others -- The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands, The Weird of Hali: Providence, The Weird of Hali: Red Hook, and The Weird of Hali: Arkham -- will be in print by the end of 2019. Stay tuned for more announcements!
Epic fantasy with tentacles? You bet. H.P. Lovecraft, who is a large part of the inspiration for this project, mostly has a reputation these days as a horror writer, but he was at least as important as a major figure in American fantasy fiction. I'm a fantasy reader, not a horror buff; the tentacled critters from three whole weeks before the dawn of time that populate Lovecraft's imaginary cosmos always left me feeling delighted and exhilarated, not horrified. The thought of watching Great Cthulhu rise from the sea fills me with the opposite of dread.
Of course there's another factor at work here. Lovecraft was a hardcore rationalist throughout his adult life, and one of the recurring themes in his fiction is his distaste for occultism. You know the sinister cultists who are running around in Lovecraft stories, invoking the tentacled critters just mentioned, not to mention hanging out with people of other ethnic backgrounds (the horror!) and otherwise violating the sanctity of the status quo? Er, that's me, basically. Cue the eerie music while I get on my robe and pick up a ritual item or two...
So I wrote the other side of the story, a tale of tentacled critters in which, ahem, the tentacled critters and the human beings who associate with them are the good guys. The bad guys? A cult of mad rationalists who want to turn all that rhetoric about Man's Conquest of Nature into a bloodspattered reality. (Call of Cthulhu fans can think of them as Delta Green with the xenophobia and hunger for power cranked up to 11.)
This is the first volume. Volumes 2-6 are already finished and will be appearing in the months immediately ahead. The final volume is half finished as I write, and will be in print within a year -- and yes, before it's all over, Great Cthulhu will rise from the sea...