In which the venerable Howard Phillips Lovecraft introduces the biggest, baddest Great Old One of them all.
First published in 1928
Anthologized in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Penguin)
Available online from Wikisource
I feel extraordinarily sorry for H. P. Lovecraft.
He died in poverty at the age of 47, from a combination of intestinal cancer and malnutrition. His sole marriage had ended some years before, and he had no children. He also had no home of his own, and was living with an elderly aunt at the time of his death.
Lovecraft (or, as his fans often refer to him, “HPL”) had no reason to think that his literary reputation, such as it was, would survive. Despite his influence on a small cadre of significant horror authors, including Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and Henry Kuttner, the fact remained that his career had been spent writing for disreputable pulp magazines, in addition to copy-editing the work of fellow genre writers.
He certainly didn’t hang with with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the rest of the gang at the Algonquin. He knew how the literary establishment regarded him, and it’s likely that he didn’t care.
Lovecraft couldn’t have foreseen what actually occurred.
Like the late Philip K. Dick, the bulk of his fame came posthumously. Two years after Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth founded Arkham House to keep his friend’s legacy alive. After that, HPL fandom was here to stay.
Lovecraft’s stories inspired generations of writers, within the horror field (e.g., Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman) and without (Jorge Luis Borges, Joyce Carol Oates). He has also influenced film makers (Roger Corman, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro), television producers (J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Carter), graphic novelists (Alan Moore, Mike Mignola), graphic artists (H.R. Giger), game designers (Sandy Petersen, the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG), and bands (Metallica, Iron Maiden, and many others, including a band called H. P. Lovecraft).
His work also inspired an apparently never-ending series of parodies and mashups, ranging from the HPL version of the “Family Circus” to plush toys modeled after his most notorious creation.
To top it all off, he even added a word to the English lexicon — Lovecraftian.
I have to wonder what his reaction to all of this would be. Something tells me that he would be mortified, and refuse requests for interviews as a matter of course. I might be completely wrong about that, though; he could’ve gone completely Hollywood, hanging out with starlets at Comic-Con, and appearing on PBS shows in the company of Corman and Romero. Mental image: HPL in wraparound Ray-Bans, driving a pink Cadillac down Sunset Strip… (Steve shakes head violently.) Jeebus, what’s up with me?
Anyhow, one of the intriguing things about HPL is that he was a master mashup artist himself. His influences are all obvious, even to casual fans of supernatural fiction, and he acknowledged his exemplars in the essential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. He’s a great synthesist: Lovecraft takes time-honored themes and fuses them into something fresh. Nearly 80 years after his death, his amalgamations still have a hold on us.
And “The Call of Cthulhu” is the story that started it all.
I should point out that this was far from Lovecraft’s first published fiction; at the time of its first appearance in 1928, he had been a professional writer for over a decade. This was, however, the turning point of his career.
“The Call of Cthulhu” introduces the body of ideas that would later be called “the Cthulhu Mythos.” The Mythos was expanded upon by other writers, starting in the late ’20s and continuing to the present day. Its core concept is that, in the distant past, the earth was a battleground between warring groups of powerful and malign deities from space.
The most ferocious of these beings were — and are — the “Great Old Ones.” Chief among these is Cthulhu, who (a) is Godzilla-sized, and has (b) the head of a squid, (c) leathery bat-like wings, and (d) a manlike torso and legs.
In time, a second group of entities, the “Elder Gods,” defeated the Great Old Ones, but was incapable of killing them. Instead, the latter are imprisoned in various remote places, on and off Earth, waiting for the time when they can once again rule.
“The Call of Cthulhu” makes this bizarre scenario credible via fake documentary methods; in fact, it’s structurally more like an essay than a short story. There is no character development or climax. Instead, we’re presented with a series of accounts taken from police reports, newspaper clippings, and interviews with individuals who’ve had strange experiences. At times, it reads like a strange combination of Studs Terkel and Aleister Crowley.
The main character, Francis Wayland Thurston, is going through the papers of his late grand-uncle, George Gammell Angell, an academic whose area of study was Semitic languages. Professor Angell met his demise in a rather peculiar way:
“The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street.”
(In fact, this is not the last we’ll hear of sinister non-Caucasians in “The Call of Cthulhu.” African-Americans, Hispanics, mixed-race individuals, and even native Greenlanders [a.k.a. “degenerate Esqimaux,” per Lovecraft’s original spelling] are all among the groups most likely to be swayed by the psychic blandishments of Cthulhu. HPL had a racist streak, and while it’s seldom overt, it often seems to be lurking in the background, like one of his Great Old Ones.)
Thurston learns that his late relative may have been onto something. In an envelope labeled “CTHULHU CULT,” the professor collected information about a series of strange events occurring worldwide, all apparently linked to a recent earthquake. These include accounts of odd dreams experienced by creative types, all of which contained similar elements:
“…startling fragments of nocturnal imagery whose burden was always some terrible Cyclopean vista of dark and dripping stone, with a subterrene voice or intelligence shouting monotonously in enigmatical sense-impacts uninscribable save as gibberish”. (Note from Steve: This is not unlike some bus stations I’ve been stuck in. Just sayin’.)
There’s also material about a raid carried out by Louisiana police on a remote part of the bayou, and the nightmarish scene they found there.
Probing further, Thurston learns about a group of sailors out of New Zealand who came across an island where there should have been none. This is the most effective section of “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which HPL describes a non-Euclidean landscape where even right angles can’t be trusted.
Lurking behind all of this is a cosmic sense of doom — in fact, the same angst that underlies all of Lovecraft’s best work. It’s a feeling similar to the one expressed by Pascal in his Pensées: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
And that brings us to what made Lovecraft’s concepts so novel at the time, and so disturbing now. He refocused the supernatural story; after HPL, horror would have a whole new scope.
In a conventional ghost story, the haunted house can be escaped. Not so in Lovecraft, however; in his formulation, the entire universe is a haunted house.
And if that’s the case…then where will you flee?
One final note: I would like to recommend two Lovecraft film adaptations. Both are fun in different ways.
- In 2005, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society produced a black-and-white silent adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu.” This short is a brilliant piece of work; the object of the creative team behind the project said that they were trying to match the look and feel of a typical movie from 1920s. They succeeded admirably. I cannot recommend this highly enough, and you can order it directly from the group here.
- The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu is a feature-length parody, released in 2010. The film is aimed squarely at HPL fans, but it’s funny enough to appeal to anyone. Dark forces are on the rise, as usual, and the only person who can save the world is the last living relative of HPL. The end result plays like a more-subtle-than-usual Zach Galifianakis film, albeit one with monsters. I suggest watching this in the company of nerds who have been plied with beer. Lots of beer.