Worms of the Earth (race)

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For the short story by Robert E. Howard, see Worms of the Earth.
Worm of the Earth photographed in Cheddar Cave and Gorge, Somerset UK

Worms of the Earth, also known as Dogs of the Dark, Vermin of Hell, Children of the Night.

Origin: (Robert E. Howard, possibly "Worms of the Earth"; these beings are similar to Machen's "Little People" and may originate with Machen's stories)


Detail from "Garden of Earthly Delight", H. Bosch

The worms of the earth, also called the Children of the Night, are a race of almost-human beings created by Robert E. Howard. It is said that they came to the British Isles at a very early time. They were followed by the Picts and later the Celts, who fought the "worms" and drove them out. By the time of Bran Mak Morn (somewhere between 100 and 300 C.E.), the "worms" were horribly degenerate things that lived underground, and by modern times could be expected to have fallen even further from stock humanity.

Howard's stories make it clear that the "worms" are descended from humans and had once been human, before degenerating into bestial, sub-human, nocturnal things reminiscent of reptiles or serpents.

In the time of Bran Mak Morn they appeared to be individually weak but wielded powerful magic as a group. They lived in the west of the British Isles near what they call the Dagon-Moor. There they kept a Black Stone as an idol. The worms can be bargained with like men, and those who steal the idol can force the worms to do their bidding in exchange for the return of their prize, though any who would do so should beware the treachery of the worms.

The "worms" are master engineers, having digged great honeycombs of passages and vaults beneath the earth, and master stonemasons, and can tunnel through rock, pulling entire fortresses down into the earth. They also seem able to enter rooms from underground without being seen. Those taken by the "worms" into their subterranean hell-world will be hard-pressed to stay sane. The "worms" may also keep more human-looking people or "witches" - the wild, half-mad, bastard changeling offspring the worms have born upon their unfortunate human captives - above their caves as collaborators and spies to send adventurers to them or away as needed.

Heresies and Controversies

  • The "worms of the earth" may, in fact, be identical with Machen's "Little People", who are also protean, degenerate, dwarven, deformed, slant-eyed, yellowish, nocturnal creatures with hissing, sibilant voices, which dwell in the wild places of the British Isles, worshiping black stones of vast antiquity and bearing repulsive offspring on unwilling and broken victims. (fan analysis)
  • The role-playing game Cthulhu Dark Ages re-interprets the worms of the earth as being descendants of the Serpent Men that worshipped Tsathoggua and were cursed by Yig to slowly degenerate into beasts. (Cthulhu Dark Ages)

Keeper Notes

The "worms of the earth" have been patterned on a standard trope from Weird Fiction since Arthur Machen's "Little People" appeared in print, and Keepers can generally borrow lore from virtually any other subterranean Mythos humanoid to add to that of the "worms of the earth" (see Ghouls, Faeries, Deros, Serpent Men, Deep Ones, etc. for examples).

The "reptilian" or "serpentine" aspects of the descriptions of the "worms of the earth" need not be taken literally; they are similarly described as "worms", "vermin" or "dogs" - what is certain is that they have degenerated from humanity into a repellent form better-suited to creeping about in perpetual darkness.

The "worms of the earth" can fill a role similar to orcs and goblins in other role-playing games, as a hidden race of fragile evil humanoids living in dungeons who might be slaughtered by hardened adventurers, except that there are hints that the worms can command magic, their own sanity-shattering appearance and presence, and at least stone-age technology with great cunning and to tremendous destructive effect, potentially causing entire villages and cities to disappear into the earth to be overwhelmed by hordes of worms by undermining the foundations below in the night.

The hellish cleverness of the worms' skill in shaping stone and in digging and carving terrible vaults and tunnels deep in the Earth, as well as working and shaping nightmarish artifacts from black stone and soft metals, may provide some interesting details for scenarios involving contact with these beings. These might even represent an advanced technology developed to levels beyond the ability of human masons and artisans.

The fact that the worms can be bargained with, after a fashion, might perhaps be used more often as the basis of a scenario, or a minor step in completing a larger scenario or campaign. For example, cultists might bargain with the worms for access to the terrible spells inscribed on their hellish black stones with other magic or with human victims, or adventurers might bargain with the worms for safe passage through their vaults for access to deeper and more alien subterranean realms, or trade with the worms for whatever is left of a recently-taken victim.

Associated Mythos Elements

  • Resemblences between Machen's Little People and the later inventions of Robert E. Howard and other contemporary writers are almost certainly not coincidental, and Howard's worms can generally be used interchangeably with or alongside similar Mythos creatures, such as:
  • The Black Stone - a mysterious, vaguely-described black stone of some great but undefined importance to the worms; this Black Stone seems to play a similar or identical role to "The Black Heaven" and "The Black Seal" from Machen's fiction, and might be formed in black stone in a rough geometric shape carved with Aklo runes; these stones apparently contain the secrets that have helped these beings degenerate away from humanity and thrive under the Earth.
  • Sacred Tombs and Vaults under haunted hills often contain cunningly-hidden doorways into the worms' hellish tunnels.
  • Ancient circles of standing stones were believed by the most ancient men to have been raised up by this ancient, fallen race of men in a primordial age.
  • The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (a real-life book that proposed the existence and survival of a Machenesque secret ancient faerie "witch-cult" throughout European history as a scientific or pseudo-scientific/occult theory)


And now Bran was aware of movement in the gloom. The darkness was filled with stealthy noises not like those made by any human foot. Abruptly sparks began to flash and float in the blackness, like flickering fireflies. Closer they came until they girdled him in a wide half-moon. And beyond the ring gleamed other sparks, a solid sea of them, fading away in the gloom until the farthest were mere tiny pin-points of light. And Bran knew they were the slanted eyes of the beings who had come upon him in such numbers that his brain reeled at the contemplation—and at the vastness of the cavern.... Then from the silent ring that hovered beyond the dim torchlight rose a vague abhorrent murmur. Bran, prepared as he was for anything, started. Gods, was that the speech of creatures which had once been called men? ...As far as he could see floated a glittering ocean of slanted yellow eyes upturned. But the owners of those eyes kept carefully beyond the dim circle of torchlight and of their bodies he could see nothing. Their low hissing speech floated up to him and he shuddered as his imagination visualized, not a throng of biped creatures, but a swarming, swaying myriad of serpents, gazing up at him with their glittering unwinking eyes.... They had been abhorrent enough when his people drove Them into the caverns under the hills, ages ago; what had long centuries of retrogression made of them? In their nighted, subterranean life, had They retained any of the attributes of humanity at all?
— Robert E. Howard, "Worms of the Earth"

Between the menhirs flowed a dark tide of shadows, unstable and chaotic. The Ring filled with glittering eyes which hovered beyond the dim illusive circle of illumination cast by the phosphorescent altar.... He strained his eyes, trying to make out the shapes of those who ringed him. But he glimpsed only billowing masses of shadow which heaved and writhed and squirmed with almost fluid consistency.... One segment of the mass detached itself for an instant and Bran cried out in fierce revulsion, though he caught only a fleeting glimpse of the thing, had only a brief impression of a broad strangely flattened head, pendulous writhing lips that bared curved pointed fangs, and a hideously misshapen, dwarfish body that seemed—mottled—all set off by those unwinking reptilian eyes. Gods!—the myths had prepared him for horror in human aspect, horror induced by bestial visage and stunted deformity—but this was the horror of nightmare and the night....
— Robert E. Howard, "Worms of the Earth"

Humans they were, of a sort, though I did not consider them so. They were short and stocky, with broad heads too large for their scrawny bodies. Their hair was snaky and stringy, their faces broad and square, with flat noses, hideously slanted eyes, a thin gash for a mouth, and pointed ears. They wore the skins of beasts, as did I, but these hides were but crudely dressed. They bore small bows and flint-tipped arrows, flint knives and cudgels. And they conversed in a speech as hideous as themselves, a hissing, reptilian speech that filled me with dread and loathing.
— Robert E. Howard, "Children of the Night"