The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.
Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:
Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.
This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)
Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.
Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?
It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…