Visual Arts — April 14, 2016 16:52 — 14 Comments

More Than A Thousand And One: The Many Faces Behind The Faceless Howler

One of the greatest misconceptions among Lovecraft fans is that his creation, Nyarlathotep, has only a thousand forms. The idea stems from the novella Dreamquest Of Unknown Kadath, in which Nyarlathotep appears as a Pharaoh, giving the story’s protagonist a warning, “pray to all space that you may never meet me in my thousand other forms.” What readers tend to overlook is the key word “other” i.e. that in addition to the slender Pharaoh there are also a thousand others… for a grand total of a thousand and one. I went on a dream-quest of my own, looking for the illusive one, the one that Lovecraft fans are probably most familiar with, but whose origins have always been unknown.

The first stop on my quest was a letter to S.T. Joshi, a Mythos Scholar and leading figure in the field of Lovecraftian study. I described to him the Internet’s most popular version of Nyarlathotep, a three-legged giant with a blood-red tongue (or tendril) in place of a face. It’s the first thing querents see when performing a Google search and I wanted to know where that particular avatar came from. To my surprise, S.T. had never heard of it, “I’m afraid I can’t recall ever seeing Nyarlathotep outlined or depicted in that way,” he wrote. “What a bizarre interpretation! It’s certainly not Lovecraft.” Joshi was right. No description of Nyarlathotep appears in Lovecraft’s writing that matches the three-legged creature, so I contacted another expert: Robert M. Price, a theologian, writer and former Baptist minister, credited as playing a major role in the revitalization of Lovecraft’s work.

I asked Price about what Richard Svensson called The Howler avatar. Richard is a filmmaker and animator in Sweeden, who named The Howler in his behind the scenes tutorial The Making Of The Other Gods. The name was important, because it appears in the title of a Richard L. Tierney story, edited by Price and first published in Price’s fanzine Crypt Of Cthulhu. Price responded to my inquiry with a message that was short but sweet, “I just scanned through the story and there’s no description of Nyarlathotep in it, though he is mentioned glancingly, once. Good hunting!” I didn’t want to take Robert’s word, so I obtained a copy of the Tierney story and sure enough, The Howler In The Dark turned out to be a severed human head, kept alive by misfit Antiquarians in the subterrene caverns of a spooky old castle. Frustrated, I decided to go straight to the source and wrote a letter to Mr. Howard Philips Lovecraft.

howler avatar 01 - the howler in the dark

Lovecraft is the adopted name of artist and thespian, Leeman Kessler. Since 2012 he’s been portraying his namesake H.P. Lovecraft in the web series Ask Lovecraft. Kessler’s likeness as well as incite has always been remarkable and his video response to my question was both poetic and instructional. He pointed me toward Chaosium’s role playing game, Call Of Cthulhu, stating that the large, three-legged tongue (or “little scamp”) was probably a creation of the game’s makers. I didn’t have any of the COC source material, but did find an interesting article, written by Doug Bolden, attempting to link Call Of Cthulhu’s Nyarlathotep to August Derleth’s The Dewller In Darkness.

Bolden’s article gives a detailed account of Nyarlathop in the Derleth story, but doesn’t support the COC connection by citing Nyarlathotep’s description in the game’s pages, or its first illustrated appearance. I found a copy of The Dweller In Darkness (first published in Weird Tales) and though Derleth describes Nyarlathotep as a giant, that description doesn’t exactly match the three-legged giant in Doug’s article. The closest Derleth comes to the Internet’s Howler is to recount an Artist’s depiction, “The drawing represented some kind of creature, but no one could tell what it was; it was certainly not a man, but on the other hand, it did not seem to be hairy like a beast. Moreover, the unknown artist had forgotten to put in a face.” Later, Derleth’s characters encounter a stone carving, illustrating Nyarlthotep as being, “a vast amorphous creature,” with a, “curious, cone-like head which even in stone seemed to have a fluidity which was unnerving.” Derleth never mentions the iconic three legs, but, after corresponding with Doug, I was pointed toward Sandy Petersen’s Field Guide To Cthulhu Monsters, published by Chaosium and illustrated by Tom Sullivan.

I obtained a copy of Petersen’s Guide, printed in 1988, which did list at least five Nyarlathotep avatars, including a brief description of The Howler In Darkness: “the three-legged monstrosity illustrated to the right, often spotted howling at the moon for unguessable purposes.” I can’t include Tom’s wonderful illustration, but I did get a comment, “I wish I could help. I recall the tripod legs, the eye in the palm and the tentacle-like face/snout instructions. My information came in a paragraph supplied by Chaosium. It may have been Sandy Petersen’s description.”

I was having trouble reaching Sandy, so I checked with some of his other illustrators. Earl Geier shared, “From what I remember of working with Chaosium, I’d get a quote, which sounded like Lovecraft and then a specific instruction, especially if the quote had more than one option.” Richard Luong, illustrator for Sandy’s newest Lovecraft game (Cthulhu Wars) remembered the following when asked what inspired his three-legged avatar: “Sandy came to me with a short description of characteristics he wanted to make sure to have: three legs, no face, not too human hands.”

Since it was clear that Sandy knew something no one else did, I knew we had to talk, but every piece of contact info I found for him was out of date. My best option was to keep looking, while simultaneously looking for clues in any Chaosium material published before 1988. The big break finally came when I began corresponding with Tristan Oberon, of Spain, who for over eight years has been diligently cataloging books, games, films and anything else involving the Mythos (for his blog Susurros Desde La Oscuridad).

Tristan and I wrote back and fourth, considering every Chaosium resource we could think of. The company released multiple versions of Call Of Cthulhu, as well as a number of companion scenarios, but thanks to another blogger, Michael Bukowski, I’d been concentrating on the Masks Of Nyarlathotep campaign and Tristan had it. The first edition cover published in 1984, had the very first pictorial representation of what was then called The Bloody Tongue. It’s a faceless giant, with a bloody tongue or tendril in place of a head, but its lower half is hidden by clouds and there’s no mention of The Bloody Tongue having three legs in the book. The game does contain another Nyarlathotep avatar, known in India as The Small Crawler, with three legs, but the first person to put all the elements together turned out to be a woman named Lisa A. Free.

howler avatar 02 - the small crawler

I’d been unwittingly looking at Lisa’s drawings from the moment my quest landed me on Chaosium’s shores. Her work appears in Petersen’s Guide and dozens of other Chaosium books, but it’s the easiest to overlook, since she almost invariably drew nothing but silhouettes for Call Of Cthulhu’s size comparison charts. Her crucial silhouette, the giant, tongue-headed, three-legged Nyarlathotep, was first published in Fragments Of Fear, the second Call Of Cthulhu companion, originally released in 1985.

I needed to speak to Lisa, but unlike Chaosium’s other Artists, she stopped working and it took nearly a week to find her number. I left a few messages, but never got a response. I kept trying and when someone finally did answer her phone they didn’t do it with a friendly “hello.” They only picked up the receiver and greeted me with an eerie silence. I wasn’t sure what to think, or do, so I waited, until the silence was unbearable… until it was obvious that someone was holding the receiver to their head, listening, like a hunter waiting for a twig to snap. Terrified, I snapped, “Hello? This is the reporter from Seattle. I’m trying to reach Lisa?” The awful quiet continued, until a wave of bad psychic mojo altered the sound of silence, then the malign listener hung up.

It would be a cold day in Cthugha’s belly before I tried calling Lisa again. Further research indicates that since leaving Chaosium, she’s become a born again Christian and in 2010 an RPG internet forum user suggested that the illusive illustrator had publicly denounced role playing games as, “the work of the Devil.” Still, I was able to piece together a theory based on her work.

howler avatar 03 - lisa + tom

The 1984 Masks cover was a Tom Sullivan pic. At that time he was illustrating The Bloody Tongue as described in the campaign’s pages. By the following year The Bloody Tongue was already becoming the most popular version of Nyarlathotep among Chaosium Gamers and when the company wanted a size comparison chart for Fragments, their icon had only ever been drawn from the waste up, so Lisa had to fill in the blank. Even in silhouette, her Nyarlathotep is almost an exact match for Tom’s Bloody Tongue. She either invented the three legs because she thought they were cool, or extrapolated from the Small Crawler avatar in Masks.

Eventually, Sandy and I began a dialogue. I ran my theory past him, but he must’ve been busy, because his entire response was simply “I took my description of The Howler directly from Lovecraft’s dream, which has been published under the name The Thing In The Moonlight.” I read The Thing In The Moonlight and though it does contain a howling creature, with what could be construed as a bloody tongue, Lovecraft’s tentacle-faced dream was not described as a three-legged giant and was easily mistaken for a man until its face came into view. So again, the 1985 silhouette remains… Lisa’s Howler was the first to incorporate elements of Lovecraft’s dream, Derleth’s Dweller, Tom’s Tongue and Chaosium’s creatures. With no interest in the heathen annals of gaming, Lisa’s become as faceless as the dark icon she helped to create, but the key word to the question is “helped.”

When I first wondered about The Howler’s origin I imagined one answer that could be credited to a single individual, but the final Howler was the brain-child of a community with much more than a thousand and one faces. Lisa helped finalize The Howler by being the first to combine the community’s best efforts. Derleth, Free, Sandy and Sullivan all contributed pieces to a larger puzzle, all did their best to conserve, create and continue Lovecraftian horror. Now that horror has taken on a life of its own and thanks to the next generation of fans, Gamers, Artists, etc., the horror will last, beyond the wildest dreams of even the blackest abyss.


Words and pictures by Poster Bot


  1. A. Scott Glancy says:

    Nice detective work. It’s got everything you want from a Call of Cthulhu rpg scenario… conflicting accounts, hostile witnesses, obscure texts… and a monstrous truth at the end. The Lovecraft crowd on Facebook is passing your article around just as fast as they can.

    • Poster Bot says:

      Thank you very much. I’ve always been impressed by Lovecraft’s fiction, but Lovecraft’s legacy is what impresses me the most… he was a blazing spark, igniting the creative fire of a brilliant community. Without their passion, my detective work would’ve resulted in another cold case.

  2. JB Lee says:

    I don’t think Nyarlathotep ever gains a true identity in Lovecraft. It’s just a name he dreamed and continued to use for various things (none of them being tentacle-faced tripods) throughout his life. In Dream-Quest it’s the 1001-faced pharaoh, but in “Nyarlathotep” it’s a mad scientist, in “Rats in the Walls” it’s an Azathoth-like being, in “Dreams in the Witch-House” it’s the Satan-surrogate “black man”, and in “Whisperer in Darkness” it’s the Mi-Go wearing the abominable “garb”.

  3. I’d wondered where that version of Nyarlathotep had originated. Thanks for doing the research!

  4. Zach says:

    Very good detective work. I myself had wondered, after reading through all of Lovecraft’s stories, where Nyarlathotep had ever bern described in such a manor. I’m surprised that getting a hold of Sandy was so difficult for you. He’s always online over at Boardgamegeeks, as well as his Kickstarter pages. From what I remember, Nyarlathotep barely ever took a monstrous form in Lovecraft’s stories. Also, I wonder if the person on the other end was actually Lisa, as I’ve heard of her dealings with the Mi-Go.

  5. Lisa says:

    Hahaha you are too funny. No it wasn’t me that answered the phone. Sorry but the picture you think is my illustration, is not mine. That chart has a conglomeration of art, some of which is mine but I never drew a tongue headed creature.
    Sorry to ruin a persistant rumor, but I never said that RPG’s are the works of the Devil. I also am not a born again christian. Thanks for the story.

    • Lisa says:

      Will the real Lisa please stand up? Anybody can post a comment here, claiming to be anybody else. If you were the real Lisa A. Free, you wouldn’t come across as some internet troll, with nothing to say but “fail.” You’d say something useful like, “I didn’t draw that but the person who did was-”

      I’m Lisa. I’m proud of my faith but not so proud of my work… because the devil made me do it. And when pushy reporters try calling me at home to ask about a life I left behind years ago, I always give them the silent treatment.

      May God have mercy on your soul.

      • Lisa says:

        It’s been close to 30 years since I’ve worked for Chaosium. Wow. I’m not even a blip on the radar of the art world and now some one wants to be me, or pretend to be me. I’m not sure if this is an attempt at dark humor or you have nothing better to do.
        Why didn’t you tell everyone who did the drawing since you must know if you are the real Lisa. FAIL
        Hahaha Anyway, I found it funny you should write this but the author of the article is way funnier.
        Who is the real Lisa? Not even I know. I’ve been lost for several years….

        • Lisa says:

          This has to stop. I don’t know who the two of you are, but neither of you is contributing anything relevant. The drawing Poster Bot describes seems to be the first instance of the giant/three-legged version of Nyarlathotep. Lisa Free (the real Lisa Free) is the most likely person to have drawn it. If either of you are the real Lisa, then answer these questions:

          1. Who did the drawing, if not you?

          2. Why didn’t “you” say anything on the phone, or get back to Poster Bot when he tried to reach you?

          3. If you’ve been out of Chaosium, and away from the gaming scene for so long, why bother including yourself in this conversation, i.e. why do you care?

          4. Given that anyone can call themselves Lisa, and post a comment here, how do we know which is the real Lisa?

          5. If one of you is the real Lisa, and you care about the truth behind the story, why don’t you get in touch with Poster Bot or The Monarch now for an official interview?

          Nut up or shut up.

          • Lisa says:

            I happened to have a wave of nostalgia hit me and so I searched my name. I’ve done it before but I was surprised to see a new article. I read it, I enjoyed it, I commented. I’m not the kind of person that thinks about faking an identify so I was surprised to see someone reply in that way, but I think it’s just a humorous add on to the story. I do get your concern about who the real Lisa is, but I haven’t been contacted by the author (at least as far I can tell – I checked the junk email and there wasn’t anything) I just assumed that the author wrote his piece and left.
            1. I did answer. It wasn’t me. I was an artist for hire and didn’t have any input into how Chaosium did layouts. If I were to guess, it would be one of the guys at Chaosium. Why? Then they wouldn’t have to pay anything. Yurek Chodak might be my first guess, Lynn Willis the very very last.
            2. I don’t know what phone number he called. I’ve moved several times.
            3. Is there a rule that says I can’t care what is written about me?
            4. I could tell stories about Chaosium, pretty funny ones at that but then you would have to get in contact with one of them to ask if it is true.
            5. I didn’t think anyone really cared. I figured if the writer wanted to contact me, he could.

            Enjoy your solitude.

  6. Animi says:

    It was hard to reach this: I was looking for the origin of the howler form, but only found wikis and sites with descriptions that didn’t have proper references.

    This article is fantastic, awesome work. The story is so meta that it seems a lovecraftian tale on its own.

    Thank you for your investigative effort and for sharing!

    Cheers from Argentina.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney