Let’s start our romp through 12 of Uncle Howard’s stories with one of his most celebrated, influential, and problematic, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Ostensibly found amongst the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston, “The Call of Cthulhu” begins with the narrator poring over the papers left by his late uncle (who died suddenly after being jostled by that most ominous and horrific of persons, “a nautical-looking Negro.”).
A combination of pluck and luck leads our narrator to uncover the secret of The Cthulhu Cult which is, more or less, this: horrific creatures from space are marooned on Earth under the sea in a city of non-Euclidean geometry and are just waiting for the stars to align correctly so they can rise again and, um, be horrible. (Aside: I feel there’s room for a really great parody of the Little Mermaid song “Under the Sea” in this. Somebody get on this, willya?)
1. Surely one of the greatest opening lines in short fiction, to wit: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.” If that line doesn’t grab you, kindly exit Tor.com immediately and go read something boring.
2. Mysterious cults in far-flung regions of the globe are keyed into ancient mysteries they’ll kill to protect. This is not the first “far-ranging conspiracy of evil” story, but it’s done incredibly well here and echoes through lots of later conspiracy-minded fiction, like Rosemary’s Baby and That Umberto Eco Book That Nobody Finished. No, The Other One.
3. When Cthulhu and his pals near the surface of the ocean, they infect the dreams of sensitive mortals and there are outbreaks of disturbing art and bad behavior all over the place. Creepy! (And see Close Encounters of the Third Kind for echoes of this idea.)
4. What I really really love about this story is that the horror here is not of the spring-loaded cat variety. The horror is the horror of existence. Really, H.P. is an existentialist before Camus, Sartre, and friends. By the end of the story, our narrator is pretty much unafraid of the death he knows is coming at the hands of the cultists; he figures it will be a release from knowing that existence is meaningless and earth is at the mercy of unspeakable creatures who don’t care a whit about humanity. In other words, we are alone and insignificant, and the universe, while it may have bad effects on us, is not malevolent; more horrifying yet, it’s indifferent.
Oy, the racism. The horrible, horrible racism. I mean, okay, we could probably overlook the sinister nautical Negro of the story’s opening pages, but throughout the story, a lack of whiteness, and particularly being of “mixed blood” is a reliable signifier of evil. Thus the Cthulhu cultists we encounter are “diabolist Eskimos”, a “braying” throng of “mongrel” or sometimes “hybrid” celebrants in Louisiana (worshipping in a part of the swamp unknown to white men! O, the unspeakable evil!), and, of course, the crowd of “mongrel” degenerates and Negroes who populate the seaport where the narrator’s uncle met his end. I suppose one could say that the narrator’s evident racism is not necessarily the author’s, but I don’t see the narrator being satirized or chided in any way for it.
Less seriously, there’s H.P.’s characteristic overwriting, particularly in the second half of the story. “That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its eon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings.” Whew! A gibbous sky, yet!
And, of course, the logical problem: our narrator curses the shreds of evidence that he pieced together and wishes his uncle’s papers had been destroyed, and yet he writes all this stuff down himself. Um, dude, if this knowledge is so horrible and should be destroyed, why not take it to your grave with you and not write it down? Well, because then we’d have no story. But still.
Join us next time, when we journey to Innsmouth, Massachusetts to see what exactly that shadow is all about.
Illustration by Scott Altmann.
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Nightshade Books, 2009). He lives in Boston beneath a gibbous sky but only occasionally flaps his membranous wings.