Kurt Komoda     agony@optonline.net
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Monday, April 25, 2016

A New Look At The Old Ones

Elder Thing tessellation

   H.P. Lovecraft's monsters, whether they be immense gods from the deepest fathoms of primordial space or something scurrying within the walls, have filled, perhaps even cursed, our imaginations ever since his first works were published. Lovecraft had a gift for implanting clear images of his lumbering, skittering, gibbering, creeping, lurking, flapping horrors within the minds of his readers with just the vaguest of descriptions. I believe that he described the Byakhee by listing just what it wasn't entirely.

   There was, however, one time where Lovecraft described one of his creatures in precise detail. I am, of course, referring to the Old Ones, also called the Elder Ones or Elder Things. In At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft describes the findings of the Miskatonic Expedition to Antarctica, in 1930-31, where are found the remains of the Old Ones and the great city they once inhabited some 600 million years ago. We have the benefit of reading the descriptions of the partially and fully intact specimens extracted from a limestone cave as reported by Lake, a biologist. What we get is an end-to-end verbal depiction, complete with measurements, an autopsy, and theories of function. Later observations are written to us by Dyer, a geologist and the narrator of the report.

   Yet, I'm surprised that so many artists, given such a thorough brief, get so many things wrong. Now, I'm not saying that mine are anywhere near perfect- oh, hell no! Why, in the drawing above, the head is too big, the body too short, and the extended wing too small- but we'll get into the dimensions in just a bit. Across the board, every artist seems to miss that the Old One has 5 wings, one in each furrow between the 5 ridges of its torso. The number of wings is mentioned more than once. It's really odd that it's overlooked.

   The first specimen found was thought to be the preserved remains of possibly some sort of vegetable or perhaps a species of marine radiata. The specimen was heavily damaged, missing  the bulbous necks on either end of the five-staved barrel-shaped torso (which, I guess looks pretty much like a star fruit, but not as sharp-edged), the head and legs, and the crinoid-like arms. The wings were mostly damaged, but still intact:
star fruit
Star fruit

Old One/Elder Thing corpse torso

   The wing is too small, again- but I'll fix that later. Okay, let's get down to the dimensions. The drawing below represents the later, intact specimens and has every measurement mentioned in the text:

Elder Thing measurements by Kurt Komoda

   The overall height is 8', with the dark grey torso measuring 6' end to end. At each end, a lighter grey bulbous neck, with the top one having gills, which are not described in any detail. Atop this, there is a puffy star-shaped head of yellowish hue, 2' point to point (which is odd, since a 5-pointed star doesn't really have directly opposing points) and covered with 3" of wiry prismatic cilia. At the end of each point, are 3" yellowish stalks that end with a bulbous protrusion that, when folded back, reveals a glassy, red-irised eyeball. Protruding from the inner points of the star-shaped head are reddish tubes that end in sac-like swellings that, when squeezed, open up into a bell shape with a 2" diameter and are filled with sharp white teeth. In the center of the head on the top is a slit-like mouth.

   Around the equator of the 6' star fruit-like torso on the outer ridges of the 5 staves are the crinoid-like arms. They start with a 6" stalk, 3" in diameter, which then divides into 5 arms 8" long, which then each subdivide into 5 tentacles for a total arm length of 3'.

   In the 5 furrows of the torso are folded the 5 dark-grey membranous wings, which open into fan-like structures with a total extended reach of 7'. The wings are supported tubular or glandular structures of a lighter grey color with minute orifices at the wing tips. The formation of these tubules is not described. More on all of this in a bit.

  At the bottom, below the bulbous light-grey "neck" is a star-shaped structure, similar to the head, but of a greenish color and with muscular legs extending from the points: 4' long, 7" diameter at the base, tapering to 2.5"and terminating in a triangular five-veined webbed foot 8" long and 6" wide at the "toes." Protruding from the inner points of the greenish star are 2' reddish tubes, 2" diameter at the base and tapering to 1" at the end, used for excretion.

   A total of 14 Old One bodies were found, with 6 badly damaged and 8 in pristine condition. These intact specimens were apparently in a sort of Old One rigor mortis, with the eyes and mouths folded tightly down and the legs and excretory tubes folded tightly up:

Elder thing body folded up

   Now, let's take a closer look at the Old One's star-shaped head. I wasn't really sure how to depict the eyes, except that they were described as glassy red globes. They might have been pupil-less, but I always draw them with this small, black pupil- and I think mostly because I am so inspired by Wayne Barlowe's beautiful depiction . Though, he paints it with only two wings visible and the arms of the wrong proportions, it's still my favorite because he's just such an incredible and inspiring artist.

Elder thing eyes
Elder thing eyes

elder thing head
Elder thing head with dimensions

   Up until the drawing of the Old One's head with the white gouache highlights, above, I always drew the prismatic wiry cilia only growing in patch in the center, surrounding the slit mouth, as in the un-highlighted drawing below it, but I'm not really sure why. Lovecraft describes it as covering the head. For this drawing, I figured that maybe the cilia would be dispersed in kind of the same way that some starfish are covered with short spines or prominent nodules.

   I used to draw the 5 reddish, bell-shaped mouths on much shorter stalks, but after seeing Lovecraft's own sketch of the Old One, along with his notes, which appear to be scribbled on an unfolded envelope, I now draw them at about equal length and size to the eye stalks.  Just to the right side of the head, in between an eyestalk and a mouth, he has a line pointing to the extended tube of the mouth and the notation "1 ft"- a measurement that does not appear in the story.

Lovecraft's notes for At the Mountains of Madness
   Moving down to the neck we have the gills. Unfortunately, Lovecraft does not go into any description of these except by saying that there are "gill-like suggestions." I only assume that there are 5, or 5 sets of gills. Here, I've drawn a neck that's supposed to have 5 sets of 3 gills each, but there's really no basis for this choice. 

Elder thing gills

   Of the arms, Lovecraft wrote that they were crinoid-like, which means that they may actually be more feathery and delicate than those I have drawn here. I imagine that they are extremely strong and can manipulate objects with surgical precision. Most everyone gets the proportions wrong on the arms which, repeated, are that they have a 6" stem which branches into 5 8" segments, which then each branch into 5 1' 10" arms, for a total of 25 arms. 125 arms all around.

elder thing working rubik's cubes

   Now, the wings. The wings are a problem. Lovecraft describes them as "combs or wings that fold up and spread out like fans."  He does not say where they are attached, but I've always drawn them attached around the middle of the 5-staved torso.

Elder thing wing and reproduction
5-veined wing design with spore cases along the serrated edge. Inset is a photo of cryptogam spore cases.
   I've also always drawn them with five tubular veins- but "combs" would suggest more than just 5. That, and in Lake's report, he does not say that there are 5 veins in the wings, yet he seems to make note of the number 5 in so many other features. It seems like if there were just 5, he would have said so. As I continue to draw them for this blog, I've been going from the 5-veined wing to a wing that looks more like the pectoral fins of a Sea Robin.

Photo by Ned DeLoach, marinelifeblog.com  
 No matter where on the torso they are attached, I also have a problem trying to figure out how they fold up. They can't just open and close like a paper fan and still have a 7' wing spread- unless they attach near the top of the torso, below the gilled bulbous neck and then extend down to where the lower bulbous neck ends (see figure A, below). 
   Lovecraft's drawing and notes (above) confuse me because the sides of the torso have this jagged edge, like a pinecone or something. I think those are the wings folded up. On the left side, there is an arrow which points out to the note: (circled) "Fan-like expansible to 7 foot spread." And then: "veined  ?????-membraned comb-????. At tips- ends of veins are spore cases." So, those could be the serrated edges of the comb-like wings somehow sticking out of the furrows, but....I don't see how those would unfold....unless the tubular veins extend each time, but I doubt it.

   The way I have it, the wings spread open like a paper fan, but then when closing, are bent back into the body, folding once so that they fit into the furrows in between the staves  (figure B, below). This would still allow for the more comb-like appearance alluded to, with more glandular tubing (figure C, below).

elder thing wing variations

   I like the idea of the Old Ones flying, using all 5 wings, perhaps even alternating pairs or triplets of wings. I imagine that they can fly horizontally, but can also turn their wings 90 degrees for vertical flight. Millions of years ago, they lost their interstellar flight ability through a loss of some sort of technology or chemical formulae, but also through an evolutionary change in structure. Lake noted that they seemed most adapted to a marine environment.

elder thing flying with all 5 wings
Old One in flight, using all 5 wings.

 The legs: "Tough, muscular arms four feet long and tapering from seven inches diameter at base to about two and five-tenths at point. To each point is attached small end of a greenish five-veined membranous triangle eight inches long and six wide at farther end." Well, right off the bat, Lake describes them as "arms." Probably more appropriate, since I imagine them being used as such when not being used for locomotion. I suppose that the triangular flippers could be as powerful and dextrous as a hand. I drew some quick illustrations to show how the Old Ones might use these appendages.

elder thing running
Quadrupedal Gallop

elder thing standing tall
"Bipedal." By bringing pairs of legs together, the Old One could stand upright and imitate a biped, using the fifth leg as a tail. No, I don't know why this would ever happen.
elder thing crawling
One One crawling with the help of its crinoid-like arms.
elder thing walking with footprints
"5-Legged Spider Walk." Probably the main method of getting around on land.

elder thing climbing
Old One climbing.
elder thing sprinting
All out run, using all five legs and occasionally one or more pairs of wings.

elder thing swimming
Inspired by cephalopod movement, here we see an Old One using all five of its wings, as well as its legs and arms, to propel itself quickly through the water.

elder thing swimming
An Old One under water, skimming along the sea floor, using the legs as flippers and one pair of undulating wings, like a ray or skate. 
   In the story, the Old Ones are found to have dug vertical pits, in which they buried their dead, covering them with a 5-pointed star-shaped mound. Now, I first thought that maybe they had dug these graves by using their legs and just burrowing down. Problem is, this was in Antarctica, and they'd surely be digging through 8 or 9 feet of permafrost. Perhaps, the five veins of the triangular feet could be pinched together to form a sharp tool and then expanded and used like a spade or shovel. In conjunction with the crinoid arms, which could also be clustered together to form various tool-like shapes, these could be used to carry soil up and out as they burrow down. More simply, they could have used the tools of the expedition team. After waking up, the surviving Old Ones appeared to have made use of a gasoline stove, which they later took with them, and Lake's anatomical instruments to dissect one man and one dog on the same table where he had performed dissections on what he thought were cadavers. So, the Old Ones had quickly learned to make use of human tools and devices, as well as apparently leafing through many of the illustrated texts available.

elder thing dissecting a human
An Old One dissecting a human.

   All of this is just a creative exercise and an excuse to draw a monster that I got a little carried away with. It was supposed to be this one day thing, with just a few drawings, but then I kept seeing gaps. I still see gaps (didn't get into the mouths or five anuses, which seem strangely and humorously excessive), but I have to put a lid on it. I'm already in over my head and I've probably gotten a dozen things wrong. I've been neglecting this blog for some time, so I intend to return to it soon with another creative exploration of some other beasty.

   BYE!   - Kurt Komoda

A drawing of an Old One with incorrect proportions. Maybe it's a juvenile Old One (a Young Old).

an industrious elder thing
An older drawing, from 2012, of a rather industrious Old One. With their advanced 5-lobed brains, I figure that they can multi-task pretty well.


  1. Love this! I did similar sketches in college, in 1981. I too, pored over the descriptions. Here's my drawing of one in flight.


    1. Yours maybe more accurate to Lovecraft's vision, because he gave , I think, EVERY one of his winged monsters membranous bat-like wings. Mi-Go...Shantaks...Night-Gaunts....Cthulhu....(I think) Byakhee. All had membranous bat-like wings. Now, he didn't say bat-like this time, but he did say membranous.

    2. I drew them the way I did because he described them as fan-like, and opening like a fan. Also, I thought the vertical symmetry would work well when all 5 wings were turned 90 degrees (kind of like an umbrella), which would be useful when propelling itself through the water. Now, there are marine birds that can use their wings to swim at great speeds just fine, so the bat wing could still work.

  2. My solution to the folding of the wings was to give them a forward 'elbow.'

  3. Fantastic interpretation of HPL's creature! My only difference of opinion is that I see the aperture at the top of the head more as a nostril than a mouth, but really I'm just splitting hairs. This is, quite simply, one of the best versions of the Old Ones that I've seen.

    1. Yeah, I had a problem with that. Everything else is in fives, but then the mouth was only described as a 'slit.' It was used for their musical communication as well as, I suppose, for the intake of water for use with the gills in the neck. 'Slit' is vague, but then it also suggests that it couldn't have been anything more specifically shaped, since Lake was so descriptive of everything else. I have to go not just by what was said, but by what wasn't said, i.e. if there were big blue stripes all over the wings, he would absolutely have mentioned that.

      Maybe it was a slit that could open into a nostril like opening- or maybe more like the siphon of an octopus?

  4. Oh man. This is the most thorough interpretation of the Elder Things I've ever seen. I love all the thought you've put into this. And your illustrations are amazing.

    1. Thank you so much, David! I try to make sure that I don't say that I think what I'm doing is by any way "definitive," so I hope that came across. I like hearing other opinions or seeing other takes on these creatures.

  5. Amazing work! So good to see how you spent all that time working out the creature to get a true idea of how they work to make them more realistic!

    1. I was going to draw a dissected view, but then I realized that I'm probably no good at that.

  6. Maybe your old one stuck their 5 wings out perpendicular to the body and tilted then at an angle and spun like a top to fly

    1. yeah! They could autorotate down like whirlybirds or some seed pods. I'm sure that they'd be awesome aerial or aquatic dancers, too- if they were in to that sort of thing. They had art, though it seemed to be purely for historic purposes.

  7. Nice work.

    One thing to consider regarding the wings, which would both have a nice Occam's-Razor-like elegance to it and perhaps yield wings more like the description in the text and the notes: what if the wings had the same general structure as the arms, except webbed? In this case the wings' veins would be the equivalent of the arms' fingers, and would yield an adequately comb-like edge; these veins can terminate in spore pods; and the wings can still fold up as you've depicted by folding at the branch points. Shouldn't be too hard to make the wings open and close horizontally using this approach either (since that seems to make more sense for flight).

    1. It seems like Lake would have noted the similarity in the pattern between the arms and the wings, but I REALLY like this idea!

    2. This is true, though to be frank the wings seem to get somewhat short shrift in the description overall, which is maybe why they're so hard to pin down....

  8. I just found this through Propnomicon, and have only skimmed through it, but I just have to applaud your work right away! Looking forward to reading the whole thing. Awesome!

    1. Thank you! And now I shall have to investigate this "Propnomicon!"

  9. NecronomiCon Providence 2017. Let's talk! (Message Niels Hobbs thru The Lovecraft Arts & Science page)
    The joey Zone,

    PS THAT dissection scene--I just went to "Heaven"! GREAT art,Sir!

    1. Thanks!!
      You mean: http://necronomicon-providence.com/the-lovecraft-arts-and-sciences-council/ ?

  10. Kurt, these are really fantastic! Thank you! The dissection scene alone is a masterpiece! I've been diving back into the Mountains... to retreat from the horrors of the modern world for a bit. These help, as odd as that may be! Really outstanding work! Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much! Sorry for the late response. I need to set up email alerts for this thing.