That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest. […]
They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in those realms where the Pole Star shines high and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years, and never a man save squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Polaris”
At the end of the 19th century, the Yellow Peril or Yellow Terror had gripped the imagination of the Western world; works such as weird fiction author M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger; Or, what Might Happen in the Division of the Chinese Empire Should Estrange all European Countries (1898) were pure invective, fueling racist and Orientalist fantasies about Asia and the prospect of a global conflict on the lines not of nation-states, but of race. The victory of an industrialized Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) stoked these fears, and a year before the Great War broke out found an avatar in Dr. Fu Manchu, the villainous star of what would become thirteen novels by Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu would inspire hundreds of copycats, not a few of whom appeared in Weird Tales, and even by favorite authors; Robert E. Howard’s “Kathulos” from the serial “Skull-Face” (1929) definitely has Fu Manchu in its literary DNA. The Yellow Peril, in more generalized form, would be familiar in Weird Tales throughout its entire run from 1923-1954, as was the case in many pulps.
Throughout his life H. P. Lovecraft was clear in his genuine belief in the Yellow Peril, at least as an impending threat. One passage from a letter will suffice to give the general substance of this racialist paranoia, although in many other instances Lovecraft wrote admiringly of Japanese culture and aesthetics, and of Japanese actors and artists:
Of Japan I have not so far spoken, because I think it a certain enemy of the future, which no plan can permanently make a friend. It demands free access to Anglo-Saxon soil for its citizens, and this can never be given. Orientals must be kept in their native East till the fall of the white race. Sooner or later a great Japanese war will take place, during which I think the virtual destruction of Japan will have to be effected in the interests of European safety. The more numerous Chinese are a menace of the still more distant future. They will probably be the exterminators of Caucasian civilisation, for their numbers are amazing. But that is all too far ahead for consideration today.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Sep 1919, Letters to Alfred Galpin 57
Despite this belief, which was relatively common during the period, the Yellow Peril is scarce in Lovecraft’s fiction. He never quite develops a Fu Manchu type character, the cult in “The Horror at Red Hook” has overtones of the multiethnic criminal enterprise of Rohmer’s villain, the “corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng” in “The Hound” is located in Central Asia, and Castro in “The Call of Cthulhu” claims that he has spoken to the “undying leaders of the cult in the mountains of China,” likely a reference to the mythical Shambala and the claims of the Theosophical Society to receive their guidance from the Great White Brotherhood in Asia. There are only two stories where the idea of a racial conflict on these lines is suggested in Lovecraft’s fiction: a glancing reference in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (“that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia”) written with E. Hoffmann Price, and the very short story “Polaris.”
The story came from an odd start. In 1918, Lovecraft was arguing about religion in one of his letters, which led to a discussion of truth and recalling a recent dream:
Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city—a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills. There was not a soul in this vast region of stone-paved streets and marble walls and columns, and the numerous statues in the public places were of strange bearded men in robes the like whereof I have never seen before or since. […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 15 May 1918, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 70
Shortly thereafter, Lovecraft shaped the dream into “Polaris,” about a man who dreams (or is possessed by the spirit) of an ancestor from 26,000 years before, in the land of Lomar situated in the far north. This would be familiar to audiences at the time as a reference to racialist theories of Caucasians originating from Northern Europe. Lomar is under peril from the Inutos—and these are explicitly Asian stereotypes, which Lovecraft near the end directly associates them with the Inuit people, foreshadowing his reference to the “degenerate Esquimaux” in “The Call of Cthulhu” a decade later.
At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s racialist beliefs were strongly influenced by Thomas Henry Huxley, who categorized the Inuit and other Native Americans and trans-polar peoples as “Mongoloids” alongside many Asian ethnicities. Lovecraft typically shortened this to reference to “Mongolians” or “Mongols,” regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The fantasy racism that Lovecraft engages in here, equating a contemporary group of people with a mythical precursor, was not unknown—the entire “Lost Race” subgenre of scientific romance depends on such linkages, and the basic ideology can be seen in Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” (1936) essay and in some of the worldbuilding of J. R. R. Tolkien, who at the same time was crafting what would the background of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lrod of the Rings (1955).
Lovecraft’s use of the term “Esquimau” and its plural “Esquimaux” was a touch archaic in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, but not necessarily intended as a pejorative. The term “Eskimo” was in general use (as evidenced by the 1933 film Eskimo, which Lovecraft had seen), and Lovecraft’s preference for the older form an apparent affection. The term “Inutos” suggests he was at least aware of the term “Inuit,” even if he chose not to use it; the suffix “-os” would make the name match the other pseudo-Grecian names in the story. While there are no contemporary accounts of Lovecraft’s thoughts on the Inuit, later in life his few references in his letters categorize them as a “degenerate offshoot” of the “Mongolian race.” (A Means to Freedom 1.482) This was a very typical distinction for Lovecraft to make, when regarding a culture that he was generally ignorant of but perceived as “primitive” compared to contemporary (and white) civilization.
Which is a great deal to unpack from a few lines in a story of a little over 1,500 words. Nor was it an immediate success; Lovecraft shared it in the amateur Transatlantic Circular, and it was published in the amateur journal The Philosopher in 1920. In 1925, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, but it was rejected as a “prose-poem.” In 1931, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Harry Bates at Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, who likewise rejected it, and in 1932 to Carl Swanson’s projected magazine Galaxy, which never came out. “Polaris” was finally reprinted in the fanzine The Fantasy Fan (Feb 1934), where it was well-received by readers. The first professional publication of “Polaris” was posthumous, in Weird Tales (Dec 1937). August Derleth and Donald Wandrei included it in their initial Arkham House publication The Outsider and Others (1939), sealing its place in the Lovecraft canon.
That wasn’t necessarily the case. Lovecraft had a soft spot for the little tale, but soured on it nearer the end of his life:
“Polaris” is a sort of semi-favourite of mine—written in 1918 & therefore largely experimental.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Aug 1930,
Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 229
I’ve expunged both from my list of acknowledged writings—relating them to the oblivion now enjoyed by such failures as “The Street” & “Juan Romero”. Before long I shall strike other times out in the same way—”The Tree”, “Polaris”, “The Hound”, “The White Ship”, “He”, & perhaps a few more. It doesn’t do me any good to have my name associated with absurd crap.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 120
The real legacy of “Polaris” and the impact it had on Lovecraft and his writings is that the idea of Lomar as this mythical ancient northern land became an intertextual element in Lovecraft’s fiction, mentioned in “The Other Gods,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Mound” (with Zealia Bishop), At the Mountains of Madness, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (with E. Hoffmann Price), and “The Horror in the Museum” (with Hazel Heald), and “The Shadow out of Time,” which contains Lovecraft’s only other reference to the Inutos:
I talked […] with that of a king of Lomar who had ruled that terrible polar land 100,000 years before the squat, yellow Inutos came from the west to engulf it […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”
Which is where things get a little weird. In “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Lovecraft says:
[…] the hairy cannibal Gnophkehs overcame many-templed Olathoë and slew all the heroes of the land of Lomar.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”
Just to make things complicated, a very different entity with a similar name and geographic bound is given in another story:
A small bulge in the canvas far to the right suggested the sharp horn of Gnoph-keh, the hairy myth-thing of the Greenland ice, that walked sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, and sometimes on six.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”
The accounts are contradictory and at a glance irreconcilable; it is difficult to tell if Lovecraft was deliberately muddying the waters of his own Mythos, or if his conception of what caused the fall of Lomar had shifted from 1918 when he wrote “Polaris” to 1926 when he wrote “Dream-Quest” to 1932 when he wrote “The Horror in the Museum” for Hazel Heald. Later writers made efforts to gloss these contradictions, which resulted in stories such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price.
It is too much to suggest that Lovecraft made the change from Inutos to Gnophkehs because he recognized the Yellow Peril influence of the work and wished to change it; the last appearance of the Inutos is in “The Shadow out of Time,” written in 1934, and there is no evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that his basic prejudices regarding the Inuit changed substantially by that point in his life.
When we talk about talk about the effect that Lovecraft’s prejudices had on his fiction, and by extension the fiction of other writers, it is not necessarily the very blatant examples of an N-word in print, or even the infamous ending to “Medusa’s Coil.” It is the much more subtle impact of racialist thought and tropes, however common and accepted they may have been in Lovecraft’s time, which persist as part of the Mythos. The Inutos, thankfully, are not especially pervasive in the wider Cthulhu Mythos; Lomar and Gnoph-Keh/the gnophkehs are more popular.
This is not always the case.
One of us was home for the summer from a year of teaching at a military academy in Missouri and preparing for post-graduate work at Wisconsin and Harvard, the other was back to stay in Sauk City, Wisconsin, having resigned an editorial position with Fawcett Publications in order to do or die as a writer. Though both our homes were in Sauk City, we chose not to work in them but to rent what had once been a summer cottage on the village’s main street, just north of the business section, in a relatively quite zone on the west bank of the Wisconsin. […] the method of work was this—the basic outline for each story was set down by Derleth, the entire first draft then written by Schorer, a final revision made by Derleth. […] he went over the manuscript, sometimes rewriting, sometimes simply retyping selected pages or paragraphs; and prepared the story for submission—usually to Weird Tales or Strange Tales, and rounded out the evening by outlining the next story to be done.
—August Derleth & Mark Schorer, Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People
The industrious collaboration during the summer of 1931 netted the two young writers 17 stories, one of which was a Mythos story titled “The Statement of Eric Marsh,” echoing Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” and it would introduce a new element to the expanding artificial mythology:
Though your major field will probably be much broader, you nevertheless have a very distinct aptitude for convincing spectral creation; & it would be a pity if things like the Tcho-Tchos & Rigelian daemons were to remain for ever unchronicled.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.354
Herewith the Tcho-Tcho story, The Statement of Eric Marsh; I don’t like the story. Have you any suggestions for a better one? But then, the story is rotten, too.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Aug 1931, ES1.365
As for a new title—how would “The City of Elder Evil” do? Or “The Lair of the Star-Spawn”? I’m not much for fancy titles, but I presume something on this order is what you’re looking for. I shall undoubtedly use the Tcho-Tchos in some later story—let Wright say what he please!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 26 Aug 1931, ES1.367
“The Lair of the Star-Spawn” became the title; the story was accepted and published in Weird Tales (Aug 1932). Among the elements that Derleth & Schorer added or referenced in the story were the Tcho-Tcho:
It is true that strange legends had reached us, even before we had left Ho-Nan province, of a weird race of little people, wo whom the natives applied the odd name, Tcho-Tcho, supposedly living near or on the Plateau of Sung.
So the Hawk Expedition proceeded into Burma (present-day Myanmar). The story in many ways is a very typical Lost World/Lost Race narrative, comparable to H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core (1914), Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (1933) and “Red Nails” (1936), C. L. Moore’s “The Tree of Life” (1936), and many others—only with a Mythos twist, as the Tcho-Tcho are servants of Lloigor and Zhar. The descriptions of them are stereotypical:
[…] the tallest of them no more than four feet, with singularly small eyes set deep in dome-like, hairless heads. These queer attackers fell upon the party and had killed men and animals with their bright swords almost before our men could extract their weapons. […]
The Tcho-Tcho people could not believe them dead, since it is impossible for them to conceive of such a weapon as a gun. At base, they are very simple people. Yet they are inherently malevolent, for they now that they are working for the destruction of all that is good in the world. […]
Then the Old Ones, the Elder Gods, returned to the stars of Orion, leaving behind them ever-damned Cthulhu, Lloigor, Zhar, and others. But the evil ones left seeds on the plateau, on the island in the Lake of Dread which the Old Ones caused to be put here. Anf rom these seeds have sprung the Tcho-Tcho people, the spawn of elder evil, and now these people await the day when Loloigor and Zhar will rise again and sweep over all the earth!
Damning an entire species to be unapologetically or uncomplicatedly “evil” from birth is a gross oversimplification—but easy moralities play well in politics, pulp stories, and fairytales; J. R. R. Tolkien would do much the same thing with Orcs in his legendarium, with all the unfortunate implications still being worked out decades later. It’s not necessarily a problem of having a group of antagonists depicted as irredeemable—its the use of racialist language, ideas, and reasoning behind it.
Like the Inutos of “Polaris,” the Tcho-Tcho are depicted as aggressive, primitive, and adversarial to the main viewpoint of the story; Lovecraft doesn’t make the Inutos explicitly evil (or the men of Lomar good), but the framing of the story as a quasi-fable of the Yellow Peril would establish those relationships with the readers. Derleth & Schorer are if anything more explicit, even if they make the Tcho-Tcho a “race apart,” from both the Caucasian Eric Marsh and the Chinese Dr. Fo-Lan.
If it had been a one-off story where the Tcho-Tcho were never mentioned again, this would be worthy of a footnote—none of them appear to survive the end of Derleth & Schorer’s tale, though Derleth references them again in “The Thing That Walked On the Wind” (1933) and a few later stories; “The Sandwin Compact” (1940) moves them from Burma to Tibet—but of course, it didn’t end there.
“Do you remember,” he shouted, “what I told you about that ruined city in Indo-China where the Tcho-Tchos lived? You had to admit I’d been there when you saw the photographs, even if you did think I made that oblong swimmer in darkness out of wax. If you’d seen it writhing in the underground pools as I did. . . .”
—H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”
Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, 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; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”
Lovecraft doesn’t expand much on the original conception of the Tcho-Tcho, aside from adding the “s” for a plural; he places them alongside the Serpent-People of Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” the Voormi of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” and his own Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness—all in good fun, just an inside joke for astute readers and members of the gang. Yet it cemented, if that was necessary, the Tcho-Tcho as part of the Mythos.
For many readers the occasional references to the Tcho-Tcho people encountered in Cthulhu Mythos fiction do not really register. Aren’t these hard-to-prounounce people just one more of the so-called “servitor-races” of the Old Ones? So what?
—Robert M. Price and Tani Jantsang, “The True History of the Tcho Tcho People”
in Crypt of Cthulhu #51, 24
Unlike the Inutos, several later authors decided to elaborate on the Tcho-Tcho, to various purpose and effect. The term “servitor-races” that Price and Jantsang use is particular to the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, and is exemplary of the problem that the Tcho-Tcho embody: the long shadow of the Yellow Peril, sliding uncomfortably into the contemporary day. Call of Cthulhu came out of Runequest which came out of Dungeons & Dragons, which based itself on the borrowed racialist terminology of later 19th and early 20th century popular fiction: scientific romance, science fiction, fantasy, pulp fiction, Lost World and Lost Race tales, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber…and more, but the gist is that in the translation to the roleplaying milieu, the Tcho-Tcho, Deep Ones, and other strange critters of the Mythos were translated into D&D-esque terms: where Tolkien (and thus D&D) had “races” of Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Humans, CoC had Humans, Deep Ones, Serpent People, Voormis, and Tcho-Tcho.
The habit of thinking of groups of sentient humanoid entities as biologically and culturally distinct from anatomically modern humans and essentially not human and morally irredeemable can be problematic in and of itself—there are plenty of parallels to scientific racialism and racial discrimination, which some authors of the Mythos have explored, such as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys.
In the case of the Tcho-Tcho, there are added wrinkles: their original placement in Southeast Asia, and subsequent movement around Asia by different authors, their depiction as inherently autochthonous and antagonistic to “human” life, and their initial description aspects of Asian visual stereotypes (short stature, different eyes), has allowed them to pick up several more Yellow Peril characteristics in their general depiction. Many Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game products, including spin-offs like Delta Green, depict the Tcho-Tcho as Asian characters, often conflating them with negative stereotypes as criminals and drug-dealers.
The issue of the Inutos and the Tcho-Tcho is a problem that transcends the Cthulhu Mythos. Those are symptoms, the result of many different writers working independently toward different goals, not stepping back to consider where some of the conceptions they were using came from or how they were being used. Fantasy racism can be used to explore some of the consequences of real-life racial discrimination and prejudice in a way that echoes the experience of ethnic minorities without calling them out…and it can be used very lazily, so that Tcho-Tcho (or Orcs, etc.) can serve as easy villains and faceless fodder for the heroes to kill without moral compunction.
It is seductively easy to use stereotypes to apply to entire groups of people. That’s why pulp fictioneers did it; painting with a broad brush, using tropes the readers were familiar with, they could sketch out stories quickly and the reader could suspend disbelief. It is also why many people use it today; discrimination is terribly easy, appreciating the nuance and complexity of human relationships and seeing them as individuals rather than representatives of a group is hard.
Perhaps because of the initial complexity of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and their tremendous popularity, the Deep Ones have gotten a lot of attention and engendered a good deal of sympathy from later Mythos writers. The Tcho-Tcho have not attracted anything like the same level of development or empathy, and have fallen into a very weird space where they have largely become “acceptable villains” in Mythos roleplay and fiction—and, if they have not already, are in danger of becoming nothing more than a Mythos-flavored Yellow Peril.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).