“The Call of Cthulhu”: An Appreciation of a “Rather Middling” Weird Tale

cthulhu_sky_shotH. P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” is a story about a monster and the monstrous.

The Lovecraft canon is replete with monsters. The “Dream-Quest” tales overflow with fantastical shamblers, and his earliest published stories, like “Herbert West: Reanimator” and “The Lurking Fear,” are brimming with what could be called man-made monsters. Hybrids abound in cursed places like Innsmouth and Dunwich, while elsewhere stalk witches, at least one vampire (but possibly more), aliens, primordial survivors, throwbacks, and, for lack of a better term, gods. No omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent beings that exist apart from the universe, but other-dimensional deities like the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones. Lovecraft was an atheist who survived a somewhat tragic childhood, so it may not be surprising that his weird tales, like “Call of Cthulhu,” aim to disturb readers by confronting them with how small, powerless, and alone we are in the universe.

Well, not alone, precisely, and that is the rub.

Lovecraft writes, “The one test of the really weird is simply this–whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”[1] To better create this dread and awe, Lovecraft concocted a pantheon of malicious or ambivalent Ancient Ones such as Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Nyarlathotep to represent the uncaring cosmos. According to Robert Bloch (Psycho, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”), who corresponded with Lovecraft and was a member of the Lovecraft Circle of contemporary writers who borrowed and contributed to what is popularly known as the Cthulhu Mythos, “Gradually [Lovecraft] built up a rationale for both reality and dreams, nothing less than a history of the universe.”[2] Quite an accomplishment, but more important to Lovecraft was that his pantheon allowed him to create the desired atmosphere in his stories. “Atmosphere is the all‑important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.” Lovecraft continues:

We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror‑literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.[3]

The sensation Lovecraft wants to create in his weird tales is fear, because, as he states in the first sentence to his noteworthy thesis Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”[4] But exciting cosmic fear can be a daunting challenge, since the aim is to maintain some semblance of the unknown whilst throwing open the door to a monstrous horror.

Stephen King (Salem’s Lot, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”) , who is often listed as an American grandmaster of horror along with Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, describes this as the paradox of the big bug behind the door.  Nothing is as frightening as what may be lurking behind a closed door, but when you throw the door open and there is a ten-foot bug standing there, the normal human reaction is, “That’s pretty bad, but I’ll handle it. Now if that had been a hundred-foot bug … !” The ability of the human consciousness to come to grips with virtually any monster lurking behind any door puts horror writers in a virtual no-win situation,[5] but Lovecraft attempts to trump this paradox in weird tales like “Call of Cthulhu” by imbuing his monster with something too monstrous for the consciousness to handle. Cthulhu is horrible, yes, not to mention bigger than one hundred feet tall, but what Cthulhu represents is so much worse.[6]

* * *

Weird_Tales_February_1928_Call_of_Cthulhu

“The Call of Cthulhu” was first published in WEIRD TALES, Feb. 1928.

Some reviewers claim “Call of Cthulhu” epitomizes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos[7] because it is his first weird tale to shift “the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space.”[8] Written in 1926 and published in Weird Tales in 1928, “Call of Cthulhu” expands upon elements found in one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories, “Dagon,” written in 1917. In both stories a long-submerged horror documented by a rescued sailor rises out of the Pacific Ocean following a natural disaster.[9] Both stories likewise feature ancient sea creatures[10] that will one day unite with others of its ilk in an inevitable apocalypse directed against humanity and narrators that fear they are doomed to die because they have learned too much about these creatures.[11]

dagon2000_jeff_remmer

Unlike “Call of Cthulhu,” though, “Dagon” is a very shot story. The Narrator, a supercargo on a packet captured by German sea-raiders during the early days of World War I, recounts how he escaped in a lifeboat only to end up floating in “one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific[.]” He eventually washes up on a bizarre island, where he discovers a valley with a channel of water running through it and a tall monolith carved with aquatic hieroglyphs and images of gigantic fish-men. One of these giants suddenly rises out of the channel, wraps its arms around the monolith, and “bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds.” The Narrator retreats to his lifeboat, where he collapses and hears the thunder of a great storm, and then wakes up in a San Francisco hospital after being found adrift by the captain of an American ship. Haunted by nightmares of what he saw or might have seen, destitute, and low on the morphine that makes his life tolerable, the Narrator is planning to leap out a high window when he hears a sound outside his door “as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it.” Before he can leap, he sees a hand outside the window. That is all, and, as Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon explains:

The weakness of the tale lies in its brevity … Dagon rises from the waters too abruptly … [and] because Dagon’s background remains a mystery, other than [an] implied connection with the actual Phoenician god of that name, his horrific impact is minimal. Not until “Call of Cthulhu,” which “Dagon” so resembles in outline, will Lovecraft place one of his monsters, another Cyclops-like creature, in a situation where its emergence is truly effecting.[12]

Lovecraft was a tyro when he wrote “Dagon,” so“Call of Cthulhu” benefits from his having written several more stories and, perhaps more importantly, his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature in the interim. As Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi explains in his introduction to The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature:

… Lovecraft’s entire theory of weird fiction can be found encapsulated in that essay. It quite literally occupies a central place in his work: it was written at almost the midpoint of his career, a decade on either side of the commencement of his mature fiction-writing (“The Tomb,” 1917) and his death in 1937. What is more, it not only allowed him to codify his views on the weird tale, but it seemed to galvanise him creatively: it is surely no accident that, shortly after the bulk of his work on the essay was finished in the summer of 1926, Lovecraft produced a torrent of fiction that included “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), “Pickman’s Model” (1926), “The Silver Key” (1926), THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH (1926–27), THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD (1927), and “The Colour out of Space” (1927) [pp. 23-4].

Supernatural Horror in Literature also provides important evidence as to literary influences upon Lovecraft’s own work. A careful reading of both the well-known and obscure works cited in the essay can reveal much about the sources of Lovecraft’s tales:

[H. B.] Drake’s THE SHADOWY THING is a clear influence upon “The Thing on the Doorstep”; [Herbert S.] Gorman’s THE PLACE CALLED DAGON may have influenced “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dreams in the Witch House”; “The Haunter of the Dark” draws upon Hanns Heinz Ewers’s “The Spider.” Many other such influences could be traced upon further investigation. It hardly need be added that these purely literary influences do not compromise the fundamental originality of Lovecraft’s work, for in his later work he transmuted what he borrowed and made it uniquely his own: his days of slavishly imitating [Lord] Dunsany or [Arthur] Machen were long over [p. 24].

cthulhu+on+earth“Call of Cthulhu” does appear to be partially inspired by Lord Dunsany, who created a pantheon for his fantasy sphere Pagāna, and Arthur Machen, whose The Novel of the Black Seal gradually reveals the existence of an ancient being through the piecing together of disparate knowledge, including a random newspaper clipping;[13] but there are other possible influences, including Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” William Scott-Elliots’s The Story of Atlantis and The Lost Lemuri, A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s sonnet “The Kraken”:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.[14]

Lovecraft might have also been influenced by Versuch einer natürlichen Geschichte Norwegen (A Natural History of Norway) by Bishop Erik Pontoppisan, whose descriptions of the kraken resemble a giant cuttle-fish.[15]

* * *

“Dagon” was inspired by a dream,[16] and it strives to recreate the amorphous and disjointed atmosphere of a nightmare; to that end it contains no specific details about anything while the Narrator is on Dagon’s island, an immense black expanse mostly devoid of any prominent features.[17] In contrast, “Call of Cthulhu” strives to create cosmic fear by disturbing our universe; to that end it is ripe with real and realistic details about everything including its lost island, R’lyeh. Lovecraft even provides its coordinates! The non-Euclidian geometry of the island’s architecture is repeatedly emphasized, and where Lovecraft used a lack of sensations such as sight and sounds to conjure a creepy alien realm in “Dagon,” here he mixes suggestions with scientific facts to create a memorable realm that is concretely out of place, out of time. R’lyeh is no mere black expanse belched up out of the sea. It seems a plausible anomaly that flies in the face of everything we understand about physics, thereby underscoring what is truly monstrous in “Call of Cthulhu.” Mathematician and physicist Benjamin K. Tippett explains why this is (perhaps with tongue somewhat in cheek):

We calculate the type of matter which would be required to generate such exotic spacetime curvature. Unfortunately, we determine that the required matter is quite unphysical, and possesses a nature which is entirely alien to all the experiences of human science. Indeed, any civilization with mastery over such matter would be able to construct warp drives, cloaking devices, and other exotic geometrics required to conveniently travel through the cosmos.[18]

Tippett goes on to explain that it is not R’lyeh’s architecture, “but rather the interstitial space itself which possess a curvature,”[19] while “rays of light, which aught to be straight, are apparently curving in unreliable ways.”[20] In such a place a man can never “be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable,” so it may appear that a man can be “swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” What is more, according to Tippett, R’lyeh places Cthulhu “in a position where [he] does not feel the passage of time…Anyone sitting at the center of the bubble would seem (to the outside world) unchanging for aeons to observers in the outside world.”[21]

There is a rational explanation for everything on R’lyeh, it’s just that none of it should be possible.

A survivor from R’lyeh describes the “island” as a jumble of “Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror…loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” Image from the excellent 2005 HPLHS silent film adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu.”

R’lyeh is an alien realm, one Maurice Levy describes in his doctoral thesis Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic as “a setting [that is] strangely familiar and fabulously faraway, where a dream-topography is superimposed on the real topography. Geographic space is substituted by a malefic space.”[22]  Beyond ancient, “built in measureless eons behind history,” R’lyeh is also huge in the truest sense of the world. When Cthulhu rises we are told that “A mountain walked or stumbled,” but the tomb that held him is “only a single mountain-top, the hideous monolith-crowned citadel” of the island. Worse, when the narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, contemplates “the extant of all that may be brooding down there” he is tempted to suicide, because, as monstrous as Cthulhu is, the aggregate of what waits with him beneath the Pacific’s surface is worse.[23]

There is no denying that R’lyeh is as warped as Wonderland or any fairyland to be found through any looking glass, but what makes it cosmically terrifying is that everything that seems impossible here is strictly improbable yet possible. Demonstrably impossible for humanity, true, but not for Cthulhu and the Great Ones, who are “wild and free and beyond good and evil.”

* * *

“Call of Cthulhu” also benefits from being more than a weird tale. It is a mystery, a science fiction story,[24] and an adventure.

Cthulhu_idol_and_sketch

Is this the Maltese Falcon of weird tales? Lovecraft’s 1934 sketch of the Cthulhu idol and an interpretation of the idol from the HPLHS 2005 film adaptation.

I say that “Call of Cthulhu” is a mystery because the truth about the Cthulhu cult is gradually revealed throughout the story, but it is not until the climax, when Thurston finally uncovers the entire truth behind the cult after searching for it throughout the story, that the monstrous reality behind Cthulhu is revealed. In the process, according to Canon, Thurston “comes across as an armchair investigator[.]”[25]

As stated at the outset, Cthulhu is a monster, and so are the Great Old Ones, but there is nothing magical or supernatural about them. Boiled down to their essence, they are aliens not of this world, and maybe, if the space bubble that is R’lyeh is any indication, not of this dimension. “When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky,” a swamp cultist named Castro tells Inspector John Legrasse of the New Orleans Police Department, “but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.” Their bodies are not “composed all together of flesh and blood” and their shape[26] is “not made of matter,” but like aliens these creatures obey physical laws, at least as far as we understand such laws. Puncture Cthulhu’s head and it bleeds a noxious green mist. Sink an Old One in “deep water” and something in the ocean jams its telepathic communications. Once trapped in their “stone house in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu,” the Great Old Ones are powerless to return until the stars are correctly positioned, and even then they cannot free themselves from their tombs on their own. Rather, “some force from outside must serve to liberate Their bodies.”

“Call of Cthulhu” likewise recalls the Lost World subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. These stories, like Merritt’s The Moon Pool, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, often begin with a mystery or a clue that suggests there exists a land lost in place or time or both. A perilous journey to this place-that-should-not-exist ensues, leading to even greater thrills as the lost world’s ancient civilization is explored and its great secrets (and possibly great treasures) are revealed. All of this takes place in “Call of Cthulhu,” however the ancient civilization and its secrets and treasures are darker than in any other Lost World story, even Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

“Call of Cthulhu” is also a literary adventure story, wherein a hero (Thurston) receives a call to adventure (to come to Providence and settle his granduncle’s estate) that leads him away from his home (Boston). Generally a Wise Old Man delivers the call to adventure to the hero, like Gandalf does for Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, but this gets warped in “Call of Cthulhu,” where Professor George Gammell Angell is the Wise Old Man, but he is dead. It is his murder that calls Thurston to Providence.

Cthulhu_ship

Gustaf Johansen would prefer to go out on his feet then on his knees in this image of the Alert barreling down on Cthulhu from 2005 HPLHS film adaptation.

In most adventures, after answering the call the hero experiences a series of heroic episodes while traveling a road of trials that takes place within the larger context of a physical, spiritual, or psychological journey;[27] however, in “Call of Cthulhu” there are four heroes whose journeys we follow: Angell (beginning with his 1908 visit to St. Louis where he meets Legrasse, followed by his 1925 researches and interviews), Legrasse (who battles the swamp cultists in Louisiana and then seeks aid from Angell and other Wise Old Men in St. Louis), Thurston (who not only travels to Rhode Island, but New Jersey, Australia, and Norway), and Gustaf Johansen (a sailor who travels to R’lyeh and does battle of sort with Cthulhu using the Emma, a yacht won from a vicious pack of cultists). Angell, Thurston, and Johansen are eventually murdered, while, ironically, Legrasse, a professional investigator, is still alive at story’s end because he apparently never learns enough about the Cthulhu cult to register as a threat.

Another thing that happens in most adventure stories is that the hero defeats a father figure to win a glimpse of the basic and essential secret about creation, life, and the cosmos; a secret that can never be fully explained because no human can completely understand the universe.  “The problem of the hero going to meet the father,” writes Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces, “is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being.” For just a brief moment the hero “beholds the face of the father, understands and–the two are atoned.”[28] Unfortunately, in “Call of Cthulhu,” the Being delights in the sickening and insane tragedies of the cosmos, something Thurston fully understands when he opens his soul beyond terror. There is no majesty of Being in the Mythos’ universe; just the opposite; and in such a cosmos, any happiness and morality is not only accidental but illusory.

I said “Call of Cthulhu” is a literary adventure story because most adventure stories follow the “happy ending story” or “unhappy ending story” plot pattern described by Professor William Foster-Harris in The Basic Patterns of Plot. In these stories the solution is up in the air until the hero decides rather to make a sacrifice to benefit others. This sacrifice will apparently cost the hero his happiness, but, because his decision is based on a right or moral choice, it leads to a happy ending; however, if the hero does not make this sacrifice, it will lead to an unhappy ending, because this decision is based on a wrong or immoral choice. This takes places during “the dark moment,” a pivotal instant where the hero cannot possibly see how his decision will determine his fate and hence the story’s solution. The dark moment occurs near the end of a happy ending story or unhappy ending story, but in a literary or objective story it takes place before the story begins. The hero has already made his choice before we meet him and there are no do-overs, so the hero is powerless to affect the story’s outcome,[29] and Lovecraft makes it abundantly clear that such is the case at the beginning of “Call of Cthulhu” by providing a footnote that informs the reader that what follows was “Found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston.” Because a hero cannot affect his future, literary stories are often explorations into human futility or misery, which can be powerful, but also downright depressing, frustrating or, in the case of “Call of Cthulhu,” disturbing. Most heroes answer the call to adventure so they can return their society, which is somehow being threatened, to its tranquil status quo, but that is not possible or desirable in “Call of Cthulhu,” since the status quo for earth and humanity will be lawlessness, immorality, and chaos.[30]

There are also a few places where “Call of Cthulhu” reads like a serial story like “Herbert West: Reanimator” and “The Lurking Fear.” Besides being divided into chapters like “The Lurking Fear,” there are occasional recaps of events, and the last two sentences of the second chapter read like a teaser from a serial’s cliffhanger ending: “I think Professor Angell died because he knew too much, or because he was likely to learn too much. Whether I shall go as he did remains to be seen, for I have seen much now.”

Cthulhu_bas-relief

Cthulhu does not appear until the climax, but he is “glimpsed” throughout the story in works of art like the idol and this bas-relief.

Overall, though, the style and structure of “Call of Cthulhu” recalls epistolary novels like Bram Stoker’s gothic masterpiece Dracula.[31] Just like in Dracula, “Call of Cthulhu” presents a series of recollections and accounts that gradually reveal the true horror at the heart of the story. In Dracula, however, the monster is seen practically at the beginning of the story. We are trapped in a castle with this monster for approximately eighty pages, during which time we discover that Count Dracula is not only a vampire but has a goal to invade England as a source of fresh blood and to satiate his warrior’s desire for conquest. This is reported by Dracula’s prisoner, the solicitor Jonathan Harker, however Dracula is rarely seen throughout the remainder of the novel, which turns into a polylogic epistolary consisting of diaries, reports, and articles that gradually reveal the true and full horror facing their authors as they document their battle against Dracula. In contrast, “Call of Cthulhu” might be called a monologic epistolary, since all accounts are filtered through Thurston’s narration. Lovecraft keeps his monster off-stage until the climax, even though Cthulhu is “seen” throughout the story as depicted in descriptions from nightmares and imagery in artwork. Diverse accounts collected by Angell, before the old man’s mysterious death, and fresh research by Thurston gradually reveal Cthulhu and what he represents. Only then do we get to see the actual monster.

* * *

the_call_of_cthulhu___pages_30___31_by_drfaustusau-d4mn1uf

Cthulhu has become a pop culture icon. You can even buy “The Call of Cthulhu – For Beginning Readers” (text and art by R. J. Ivankkovich).

Ten years after Lovecraft wrote “Call of Cthulhu” and a few months before his death, he wrote in a letter that he rated this story as “rather middling–not as bad as the worse, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches.”[32] That seems a bit harsh to me, but a writer is generally not the best judge of his work. Rather Lovecraft is right or wrong, “Call of Cthulhu” is often rated as one of the most popular and influential horror stories of the 20th Century, and was faithfully adapted into a silent cult film in 2005. Cthulhu himself seems to be becoming one of the most popular monsters of the early 21st Century. His visage has influenced characters such as Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, there are Cthulhu plus toys, his image is sold on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers, and he often runs for President.

Not bad for a middling weird tale. Not bad at all.

_ _ _

[1] Reanimator Tales: The Grewsome Adventures of Herbert West & Supernatural Horror in Literature, p. 89

[2] “Introduction: Heritage of Horror,” The Best of H. P. Lovecraft, p. 7

[3] Reanimator Tales: The Grewsome Adventures of Herbert West & Supernatural Horror in Literature, p. 89

[4] Reanimator Tales: The Grewsome Adventures of Herbert West & Supernatural Horror in Literature, p. 87

[5] Danse Macabre, pp. 114-5

[6] That said, Cthulhu is Lovecraft’s greatest and purest monster, and, putting aside the cosmic ramifications behind his presence for a moment, Cthulhu, like any good monster, has his limitations. You can slow him down with a steam yacht, sinking islands can drag him under the sea, something in the ocean’s deepest waters can block his ability to communicate telepathically, and his wings appear to be more for style than function, at least on earth. To be fair, though, even ancient Babylonian and Greek gods have their limits, so we should not think any less of Cthulhu because of his.

[7] H. P. Lovecraft, p. 65

[8] “A Literary Copernicus,” Four Decades, p. 50

[9] A volcanic upheaval in “Dagon” and an earthquake in “Call of Cthulhu,” probably the Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake that struck northeastern North America on February 28, 1925.

[10] Both Dagon and Cthulhu are also compared to the Cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s The Odyssey, but this appears to be a thematic preoccupation, not a reworking of an element from the earlier story, since Lovecraft often relies on classical literature as a source for analogies and metaphors.

[11] Other parallels include the capture of a ship (an unnamed packet in “Dagon” and the steam yacht Alert in “Call of Cthuhlu”), weird skies (on Dagon’s strange island “[the] sky seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty,” while on Cthulhu’s R’lyeh the “very sun in heaven seemed distorted”), and narrators driven mad by the thought of what horrors may exist deep in the oceans. Also, the only evidence of an ancient civilization the Narrator sees in “Dagon” is a tall carven monolith, while the only part of R’lyeh to emerge from the water is a stone pillar, “the hideous monolith-crowned citadel whereon great Cthulhu was buried[.]”

[12] H. P. Lovecraft, p. 21.  Another problem with “Dagon” is, for lack of a better term, believability. One of Lovecraft’s biggest influences was Edgar Allan Poe, but unlike tales such as “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which are frightening in part because we believe the events that the story’s narrator describes actually happened, in “Dagon” the validity of the Narrator’s story in “Dagon” is as questionable as his sanity. As fantastic as the Narrator’s experiences are, they are no more supernatural than what takes place in Poe’s tales, but a giant sea-creature attacking a house to dispose of a “witness” inside it who is on the verge of ending his own life only makes sense in a nightmare. Perhaps things turn out this way in “Dagon” because, according to Lovecraft, the story was inspired at least in part by a dream (“In Defence of Dagon,” Miscellaneous Writings, p. 150). Other inspirations appear to include Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Lost World novel At the Earth’s Core and Irvin S. Cobb’s horror story “Fishead,” which features a character that may best be described as a fish-man as well as a description of one victim being dragged into a lake that may be echoed in Lovecraft’s description of mankind’s ultimate fate in “Dagon.” See also: “Dagon,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagon_(short_story)#cite_note-1.

[13] An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, pp. 28-9

[14] There is no description of the kraken in the sonnet, but there is plenty of imagery that parallels “Call of Cthulhu” (e.g., “ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep”, “There hath he lain for ages and will lie”), and Lovecraft may have also been influenced by the way the sonnet, according to Philip V. Aligham, “combines the Bible, literature, mythology, and natural history (see “’The Kraken’ (1830) Alfred Lord Tennyson,” http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/kraken.html).

[15] Ibid. This would explain Cthulhu’s “cephalopod” or “pulpy, tentacled head[.]”

[16]An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 58

[17] After floating for “uncounted days” the Narrator wakes up one morning to find himself and his boat “half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire” that surrounds him as far as he can see. There is no sound of sea or surf, there are no birds or wildlife, save for the carcasses of fish and bizarre deep-sea creatures (some likely prehistoric) scattered on the mud, and the sky “seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty.” It requires three days for the land to dry sufficiently for him to set out and explore the island, it takes another three days of walking before he finally spots a hummock on the horizon, and it takes another day of walking across the black expanse before he reaches the foot of the hummock.

[18] “Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific,” p. 1

[19] ibid., p. 2

[20] ibid., p. 3

[21] ibid., p. 10

[22] Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, p. 41

[23] “The irrational in Lovecraft’s tales seems indissociable from the images of the depths. The abnormal, the disquieting, and the unclean are, on the vertical axis of the imagination, always situated toward the bottom, in the zone of deepest shade … the sea, insofar as it is a primordial, mythical element, is particularly adept for concealing horror. It is, let us not forget, at the very bottom of the ocean that, in an engulfed temple, there reposes–but for how much longer?–the god Cthulhu (ibid., pp. 64 & 67).”

[24] For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that Levy would disagree with this assessment: “At the risk of shocking or deceiving we would like here to repeat, before going any further in our analysis, how Lovecraft’s tales seem to us distinct from science fiction. The cosmic dimension of the settings, the ‘entities’ from Outside, and the scientific experiments were for Lovecraft a means, not an end: the oftentimes feeble reverie where space and time are arranged very differently (ibid., p. 79).” To me, and I mean no disrespect to Levy, this sounds like hairsplitting. Put another way, if Lovecraft is right and a weird tale can be a weird tale even if it does meet all the usual criteria, can’t the same be true for science fiction?

[25] As an aside, while writing a script for a proposed graphic novel adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu,” I found myself thinking about the idol Legrasse liberates from the swamp cultists as the weird tale’s answer to the Maltese Falcon. Like “Call of Cthulhu,” Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel incorporates and warps elements of the traditional adventure story, yet it remains as true to its hard boiled essence as “Call of Cthulhu” does its weird tale essence. The Falcon statuette, however, has become the talisman of the mystery genre, much like Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven has become the talisman for human horror. For the weird tale fan, could there be a better talisman than the Cthulhu idol? Does anything else better sum up the genre? And think about the 1941 film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, where Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) looks at the Falcon and tells Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) that it is “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Where Spade is being tragically ironic, the same can seriously be said of the Cthulhu idol.

[26] More than once Lovecraft refers to Cthulhu and his brethren as “shapes”. When the sculptor Henry Wilcox shows Thurston a statue of Cthulhu, Thurston realizes, “It was, no doubt, the giant shape he had raved of in delirium.” Webb recognizes “the monstrous shape” of the Cthulhu idol taken from Castro and his fellow swamp cultists, and the cultists are visited by “shapes [that] came out of the darkness to visit the faithful few.”  The immortal Chinese cult leaders tell Castro that the Great Ones have “shape … but that shape was not made of matter.”  Finally, R’lyeh was constructed by “loathsome shapes that seeped down from the stars.” These repetitions underscore that these creatures are not of this world or possibly this dimension, but also stress that Cthulhu and the Great Ones are beyond corporeal concerns since their bodies are not exactly corporeal.

[27] Arthur Conan Doyle, p. 52.

[28] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 147. Also see pp. 130 and 136-7.

[29] Basic Patterns of Plot, p. 63.

[30] Ironically, the only people in “Call of Cthulhu” who come to grips with mankind’s destiny, albeit in a savage fashion, are the cultists, most culled from what Lovecraft refers to as “mongrels” and “half-castes.” Even Wilcox is a “decadent” (a pun, granted) and an outcast from Providence’s artistic society.  It is polite society and academia that is living in a fool’s paradise and therefore shrivels up when confronted by the monstrous truth. Rather or not Lovecraft recognized the irony in this is debatable, although he appears to be singing a different tune almost a year later in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Here the hero, Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett, not only learns almost everything Thurston does, but has a face-to-face encounter with the Being. Instead of wadding his soul and his sanity up into paper balls, Willett uses what he learns to defeat the leader of one cult, the warlock Joseph Curwen. Much the same thing happens again in The Dunwich Horror, written a year after The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; nevertheless, optimistic endings, where heroes are willing to fight or die on their feet rather than their knees, are far outnumbered by pessimistic ones like “Call of Cthulhu” in the Lovecraft canon.
It may also be tempting to think that “Call of Cthulhu” could be a morality tale against delving into things Man was not meant to know, a chestnut of horror and science fiction. In the story’s famous opening paragraph Thurston writes, “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Lovecraft, however, was an atheist well versed in the physical sciences and who appeared to have faith in them. The horror in his weird tales often comes from this faith being trumped by some impossible cosmic horror, and even in his most Frankenstein of stories, the “Herbert West-Reanimator series,” there is barely a whiff of any such moral against mankind learning too much.

[31] Lovecraft praises Stoker and Dracula in Supernatural Horror in Literature, calling Stoker  “ingenious” and Dracula “almost the standard modern exploitation of the frightful vampire myth … a tale now justly assigned a permanent place in English letters (Reanimator Tales: The Grewsome Adventures of Herbert West & Supernatural Horror in Literature, p. 122).”

[32] H. P. Lovecraft, p. 67

 

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