HP Lovecraft is one of my favorite writers. I don’t like all of his work, some of it bores me to tears, particular his more traditional “supernatural horror” stories. However many of his best pieces are closer to science-fiction and horror hybrids. There no ghosts or demons or spirits. Instead there are alien creatures who are so unlike us, so old, and so indifferent to our existence, that in simpler times they could only be understood as gods or demons. It’s worth noting that his writing predates Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods by a good 50 years. His vision of a uncaring nihilistic universe where humanity is little more than a footnote was groundbreaking for his time and his influence on modern literature and art cannot be underestimated.
His style is often very factual and sometimes documentarian, as the narrator is recalling events. The age of his writing makes his prose something that is difficult for modern readers to approach, you might want to have a good dictionary on hand.
So what story is a good one to start with? Why not his most famous? The Call of Cthulhu.
The Call of Cthulhu
Written in 1926 and approximately 12,000 words in length The Call of Cthulhu was first published in Weird Tales magazine in February 1928 (after initially being rejected), and is considered by many to be one of Lovecraft’s finest pieces and definitely his best known. Written after his return to Providence from New York City, it has provided inspiration to many in the arts, and indeed the titular tentacled entity Cthulhu has become an icon of horror in the modern era, the imagery of the creature probably more recognized than the original work itself.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. 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 shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The opening paragraph nicely encapsulates the theme of the story, a theme which is common to much of Lovecraft’s work, that of a universe which is so terrible to behold that we should be thankful that we understand so little of it, for we would almost certainly be driven insane if we were to know the truth.
Super Quick Plot Summary - spoilers
Introduced as being “found amongst the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston”, the story tells of the narrator (Thurston presumably) discovering a manuscript, a clay tablet, and many newspaper clippings in a locked box belonging of his recently deceased grand-uncle, Professor Angell, a widely known authority on ancient inscriptions.
This manuscript tells of two sets of events.
The first is that of a young sculptor, Henry Wilcox, who approaches Angell after having fashioned the clay tablet from the images in the particularly vivid and strange dream he had after a earthquake tremor. The professor is intrigued as the imagery of the tablet and dreams (also the words that Wilcox reports hearing in the dreams) are curiously similar to other seemingly unrelated accounts of mysterious and disturbing cults around the world. Angell has Wilcox report these dreams regularly over a month until they suddenly stop after a strange fever.
The second event documented occurred 17 years earlier when the professor met a police inspector, Legrasse, at an American Archeology Society meeting. Uninterested in archeology itself, Legrasse had in his possession a small idol taken from a cult meeting that his men had broken up in New Orleans that he wished to learn more about. All those in attendance are baffled by the idol except one who recalls a smiliar item worshipped by an Eskimo tribe who practiced dark rituals and where shunned by the other tribes. The inspector then tells the assembled group of the raid he led on the cult in New Orleans and the dark beliefs and tales told by some of those taken prisoner.
The events described in Wilcox’s dreams and the imagery of the clay tablet he had made as a result is so strikingly similar to the idol shown by Legrasse and the stories of the New Orleans and Eskimo cults that Angell begins to investigate and collects many newspaper cuttings of strange events from all across the world during the month when Wilcox had his dreams.
However then Angell suddenly dies of seemly natural causes after being “jostled by a nautical looking negro” on the waterfront. This is when our narrator Thurston comes into possession of the manuscript and decides to investigate himself as there is the potential here of a great anthropological discovery - a secret cult dedicated to dark gods surviving hidden across the world since ancient times… this would be a career making discovery. He travels the world speaking to all those mentioned in the manuscript but largely comes up with a blank. He abandons this work until one day accidentally stumbling across an old newspaper article from Sydney, Australia detailing mysterious events at sea from the period of the Wilcox’s dreams which includes a photograph of yet another of the idols. He travels to Sydney, Auckland and finally Norway in search of Gustaf Johansen, the sole survivor of these strange happenings at sea but learns from the sailor’s wife that he had died suddenly after a minor accident on the waterfront.
Our narrator obtains another manuscript from the sailor’s wife that he wrote shortly before his death. This piece tells of how his ship was suddenly attacked at sea and then discovered what appeared to be the peaks of a sunken city thrown up by the earthquake. They go ashore and accidentally witness a terrible horror from which only two of them escape, although one dies later.
The narrator connects the meaning behind all these events and begins to fear for his life as he too might now know too much of the truth and meet the same fate as his grand-uncle and the late Johansen. Or worse still the cult might achieve it’s aim and unleash this terror on all the earth.
the uninvolvement of the narrator
It’s interesting that the narrator of the story doesn’t actually see or participate in any of the key events of the story. Aside from interviewing some of the witnesses he doesn’t really do all that much. He never sees anything happen first hand (aside from viewing the idols that the inspector and Sydney museum have) and most of the story is just him relating the accounts of others, with what little collaborating evidence he has found.
a story of stories
This story is a like a nested collection of stories. The manuscript tells of the stories from three other manuscripts, and each of those have little details that would be worthy of stories in their own right. The writers of each of these manuscripts has died under odd circumstances … while we don’t know how Thurston died, he definitely suspected that he would meet a similar end to the others. And like Thurston, you the reader have discovered this manuscript detailing events. The reader is the next level of the story, what will happen to you now that you too know the terrifying truth.
inverted 4th wall breakage
This is like an inversion of 4th wall breakage. Instead of the narrator breaking the 4th wall by talking to the audience from the stage, the narrator talks directly to the audience and the audience realizes that they aren’t the audience. They are on the stage too. The 4th wall is behind them, not in front. It’s a fantastically immersive effect.
Lovecraft went on to refer to Cthulhu in nine subsequent stories. These references establish a common universe for the stories even if none of those stories are sequels or even directly reference each other to the best of my knowledge.
Lovecraft’s writing in this piece is, while still a product of its time and probably too dense for many modern readers, is much more refined than many of earlier work. It has a sense of being concise while still being poetic.
was one of the first to be approached by the several outsiders who took advantage of the convocation to offer questions for correct answering and problems for expert solution.
I love that phrase.
racism and xenophobia
It’s hard to avoid HP Lovecraft’s well documented racist and xenophobic views in this writing. I’m not going to address that here except to say that the protagonists are implicitly well educated white males, and the antagonists are, without exception, negro or of mixed-heritage. They are described in terms such as “mixed-blood”, “mentally aberrant”, “mongrel”, “hybrid”, “mulattoes”, and “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes”. Unfortunately this is not unusual for Lovecraft, and is fairly representative of his view that the mixing and inbreeding of the different races would be the downfall of civilization.
the accuracy of the cult’s knowledge
Most of what we learn of Cthulhu and his history comes from the various cult’s that are encountered in the story, especially one in the New Orleans. However we don’t have any confirmation of the accuracy of any of it. Cthulhu has been lying dreaming since before humans evolved, and it’s only through dreams that he communicated. And that was only until the city sank. So it has been a very long time since any human contact with Cthulhu and the cults have only perpetuated in secret by oral tradition. Who knows how much of their knowledge has been lost or distorted over time.
was that really Cthulhu? and what’s up with the sea water?
There’s two things which stood out to me.
The first is that there is no actual reason to believe that the creature that is unleashed in actually Cthulhu. It is implied that it isn’t only Cthulhu that sleeps down there, but others as well. That could explain the disparity between the size of the creature described in Wilcox’s dream (“miles high”) and the relatively small size of that encountered by Johansen.
The second thing is the apparent vulnerability of the creatures to sea water. It blocks their telepathic abilities (which is why when the city is underwater they have no influence on our dreams) and the creature hesitates before entering the water to pursue the ship. This could explain why Johansen’s plan to ram the ship into the creature’s head works, it is weakened by it’s immersion in sea water.
I find this interesting due to the way Cthulhu is so often associated with the water and sea creatures, do doubt due to the tentacles. However it would seem that the water is not an environment they are comfortable with.