Ghouls are a species of cannibalistic nocturnal creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos. They are first described in the Cthulhu Mythos by Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model".
Lovecraftian Ghouls are usually described as white or green-skinned humanoid hairless creatures with long canine muzzles, pointed ears, and clawed feet that have almost become hooves. They inhabit networks of underground tunnels and crypts, and eat the corpses of dead humans. Despite their favored food and reclusive habits, Ghouls are usually not hostile creatures, and in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath the protagonist gains the aid of a group of Ghouls and travels with them for a period of time. Ghouls communicate using a "meeping" or gibbering vocalization called Ghoul Speech or Pnathic.
Ghouls are found through the underworld of the Dreamlands as well, and it seems that they can navigate between the waking world and the dreamlands through the use of special tunnels. The universal center of ghoul activity seems to be the bone-filled Vale of Pnath in the Dreamland underworld, were the world's ghouls dump cleaned bones. This dumping is done from the Crag of the Ghouls, a cliff jutting off from the Mountains of Thok over the vale.
Ghouls appear to be a separate species from humans, breeding and living as their own society, but it also seems that some humans can slowly become ghouls, though the exact means are unknown, and the Changeling aspect of some of Pickman's paintings suggests that human and ghoul infants are routinely exchanged, and it might be inferred that, similarly to other aspects of Changeling myths, humans and ghouls might be able to interbreed.
"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.... Occasionally the things were shown leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats. One canvas showed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs....
"...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- none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness...."
— HPL, "Pickman's Model"
From The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, we learn that Ghouls speak in a "meeping"/"glibbering" language of their own and remember little of the language they spoke in life, have no beards, have a rubbery/mouldy texture to their skin, lope "in a slumping way" and squat when resting, tend to prefer not to wear clothes, live in conflict with Ghasts, and might turn greenish in old age. This story also contains many details about the Ghouls' habitat in the Dreamlands and the waking world, as well as something of the feeding habits of Ghouls and their disposal of bones in the Vale of Pnath.
Heresies and Controversies
- Ghouls share some resemblance to hairless baboons or apes, and may represent a different path of evolution, an earlier stage of evolution, or a de-evolution from humanity (source: "The Great Ghoul Thread")
- Ghouls are known to worship the Great Old One Mordiggian, and his priests wear concealing hooded purple robes and metal skull-shaped masks, which double as disguises when the ghouls wish to walk among humans. (Clark Ashton Smith)
- Ghouls share some thematic similarities to Deep Ones, Tcho-Tchos, Deros, Wendigos, Faeries (or elves, dwarfs, trolls, goblins, witches, ogres, etc.), Serpent Folk, Worms of the Earth, and other such beings, and might be similar, closely-related, or even completely interchangeable with such creatures.... (fan speculation)
- Similarly, there is a great deal of overlap between Ghoul, Faerie, Werewolf, Vampire, Witch, and Ogre legends, with clear distinctions between these creatures only being drawn since the Victorian era; aspects from the folklore of any of these creatures might be used to add unique details to Ghouls. (European folklore)
- Ghoul-like beings appear in other Lovecraft stories (fan speculation):
- "The Hound" (The ghoulish lifestyle of the human narrator and his accomplice, as well as the spectre associated with the strange, canine amulet they unearth in an abnormal grave, and the apparently living corpse they disturb in retrieving this tomb-loot....)
- "The Outsider" (The narrator claims to have lived is life in a sort of "castle" beneath a stone slab in what appears to be a cemetery, among bones and skeletons he accepted as normal and strange libraries of books, with dim memories "...that whoever nursed me must have been shockingly aged, since my first conception of a living person was that of something mockingly like myself, yet distorted, shriveled, and decaying like the castle...."; at the climax of the story, the narrator reports seeing "the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape....")
- "The Picture in the House" (An encounter with a repulsively youthful and strange old man who has apparently been kept young for centuries by eating human flesh....)
- "The Horror at Red Hook" (The strange tunnels under the neighborhood used by cultists, with underground cells containing prisoners "in a state of idiocy", including mothers with "infants of disturbingly strange appearance" who died soon after exposure to sunlight, prompting investigators to speculate about children born of "demons, incubi, and succubi"....)
- "The Statement of Randolph Carter" (the undescribed and unnamed hordes encountered by Harley Warren in the crypts could as easily be Ghouls as anything else....)
- "The Rats in the Walls" (The hellish subterranean cannibal paradise below Exham Priory could as easily have been inspired by, influenced by, or perpetrated by Ghouls as anything else....)
- Many conclusions might be drawn from Lovecraft's sketchy details about the relationship between Ghouls and humans:
- Humans evolved from Ghouls.
- Ghouls evolved from Humans.
- Humans and Ghouls are different branches of the same family tree.
- Ghouls are the result of interbreeding between humans and some eldritch horror.
- Ghouls are some form of mutation.
- Ghouls are unrelated to humans, and are instead the descendants of alien beings from another world (such as the Dreamlands).
- Ghouls are supernatural beings, the results of magic or the miracles of demonic spirits.
- Ghouls are humans who have contracted some communicable, dietary, or genetic disease.
- Ghouls are undead beings, malevolent spirits inhabiting human corpses.
- Ghouls are just a different form of humanity, resulting from the psychological and physical corruption from a steady diet of human flesh and morbid and abnormal interests, entertainments, and lifestyles.
Associated Mythos Elements
- Mordiggian, a Great Old One worshiped by some Ghouls ("The Charnal God" by Clark Ashton Smith)
- Ghasts and Gugs are the enemies of Ghouls
- Pnathic, the "meeping", "glibbering" language of the Ghouls
- Cultes des Goules, a Mythos Tome which may heavily reference Ghouls
- Fiction (primary sources): "Pickman's Model", "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath"
- Fiction (secondary sources): "The Hound", "The Outsider", "The_Horror_at_Red_Hook_(Fiction)|The Horror at Red Hook", "The Picture in the House", "The Statement of Randolph Carter", "The Rats in the Walls"
- Fiction (other sources): "The Charnal God" (Clark Ashton Smith), "Dream Land" (Edgar Allen Poe), "The Hour of the Dragon" (Robert E. Howard), "The Dwellers Under the Tomb" (Robert E. Howard), "Amina" (Edward Lucas White), "The Chadbourne Episode" (Henry S. Whitehead), "Cabal" (Clive Barker), "Hunters from Beyond" (Clark Ashton Smith)
- Film: Nightbreed (1990 film), "Pickman's Model" (1972 Night Gallery episode)
- "Down in the Delta", a Delta Green short story by Scott Glancy
- "The Great Ghoul Thread" at Yog-Sothoth.com: (link)