The Lovecraft Reread

The Most Merciful Thing in the World: “The Call of Cthulhu”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Call of Cthulhu,” written in Summer 1926 and first published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.

Summary: This manuscript was found among the papers of Francis Wayland Thurston, deceased.

Thurston’s grand-uncle Angell leaves everything to him when he dies, apparently after being jostled by a “nautical-looking negro.” These possessions include a disturbing bas-relief and a series of notes and clippings.

In the first half of a manuscript labeled “Cthulhu Cult,” Angell describes a bas-relief brought to him by a young sculptor named Wilcox in March 1925. An earthquake has sparked dreams of a vast city of cyclopean architecture, and disembodied voices chanting the mysterious phrase: “Cthulhu fhtagn.”

The dreams nudge Angell’s memory and he questions the boy intensively. Wilcox continues visiting to share his artistic inspirations, but then is bed-ridden, delirious with fever. When the fever breaks, Wilcox’s dreams cease.

Angell also collected newspaper articles from around the world. In March 1925, artists and others shared Wilcox’s mad dreams. Reports of insanity, artistic inspiration, and unrest cover the same period.

The bas-relief includes unfamiliar hieroglyphs, and a monster that seems a mix of octopus, dragon, and caricatured human.

The second narrative is from Inspector Legrasse of Louisiana, who in 1908 brought a similar idol to the American Archaeological Society. It was captured during a raid on a “supposed Voodoo meeting” and he hopes the experts can explain it. (Why do Voudun rituals require police raids? Oh, right, this is during Prohibition.) The scientists are excited: the idol seems both ancient and unrelated to any familiar form. The stone it’s made of is likewise unfamiliar.

The description of Legrasse’s idol matches Wilcox’s bas-relief: “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

Legrasse describes the raid. Deep in a cypress swamp the police found cultists capering naked around a bonfire amid corpse-hung trees. One cultist told of their group’s ancient origins.

The cult worships the Great Old Ones, creatures not quite made of matter who came from the stars. They are asleep, or dead, in sunken R’lyeh beneath the ocean. When R’lyeh rises they communicate in dreams, so the living can learn how to awaken the great priest Cthulhu. When the stars are right, he’ll call, and the cult will answer. And he, in turn, can awaken the other Great Old Ones to kill and revel beyond laws and morals, and teach mankind to do the same.

The cultist’s chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” means: In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

And one anthropologist recalls hearing this same chant from a cult of “degenerate Esquimaux” in Greenland.

Thurston suspects Wilcox learned of the cult and fabricated his dreams to hoax Professor Angell. But when he travels to Providence to rebuke him, the young man seems a sincere, if eccentric genius. Still, perhaps he heard of it and forgot…

Visiting a museum, Thurston finds a Sydney Bulletin spread under a mineral specimen—with a picture of a Cthulhu idol. The article, dated at the same time as the dreams, describes a “mystery derelict” found at sea with one living man and one dead. Johansen was the last survivor of a crew that took over the Alert when it attacked their own ship. Six men were killed on a small island; another died delirious on the return voyage.

Unable to find explanations in Australia, Thurston travels to Oslo—where he finds Johansen’s widow and a manuscript the seaman conveniently left behind in English. He, too, died after being touched by nautical-seeming strangers.

Johansen’s manuscript describes the Alert’s attack. Their own ship sunk, his crew killed the attackers and took over their vessel. They explored the area that the Alert warned them away from, and found an uncharted island—covered in cyclopean architecture with off-kilter geometry. They opened a great door in the highest structure. The terrible, gargantuan figure from the idol lumbered forth. Two men died immediately of fright, while the Thing destroyed another three with a swipe of its claws. The remaining three men fled, but one fell and vanished into an angle of masonry.

Johansen and his remaining companion reached the boat and started the engine—only to see Cthulhu slide greasily into the water in pursuit. Johansen set the steam on full and reversed the wheel. You guys he rammed Cthulhu. The creature dispersed in a noxious green cloud, and was already starting to re-form as the ship steamed away.

The dates of R’lyeh’s rising and Johansen’s encounter exactly match the dreams and madnesses of March 1925.

Thurston has placed Johansen’s manuscript with Angell’s papers and artifacts, and this last manuscript which pieces together what should never be connected. The cult still lives, and will soon kill him as well, for he knows too much. Cthulhu lives too, once again beneath the waves. But a time will come—best not to think about it.

What’s Cyclopean: The word’s used no less than 7 times to describe R’lyeh’s architecture. And Cthulhu is “braver than the storied Cyclops” when he goes after the Alert.

The Degenerate Dutch: “Mongrel celebrants” at the swamp ritual are “of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type.” In general, most of the cultists appear to be anything but white Americans, and it’s repeatedly emphasized that a “negro sailor” probably killed Angell. When Cthulhu calls, white folk may go mad and/or make art, but brown folk react with “native unrest,” “voodoo orgies,” etc.

Mythos Making: Everything here is central Mythos text: the origin of the Great Old Ones, R’lyeh, the rising of things that aren’t dead, Cthulhu himself. (Described as male throughout, implying the existence of females. And offspring.)

Libronomicon: Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria by W. Scott-Elliot, Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europeare cited among Angell’s papers on the cult. Real books all. The Necronomicon drops hints about Cthulhu’s dead/not dead status.

Madness Takes Its Toll: During the shared dreams, an architect goes mad and dies of a seizure. Only two of the prisoners taken in the swamp are sane enough to be hanged. Johansen’s surviving companion dies mad as they make their escape from R’lyeh.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

It’s hard to read Call as it should be read, to recapture the weirdness of words and images now so familiar. Cthulhu’s appearance, the unpronounceable chant, the non-Euclidian geometry, “…in strange eons even death may die,” are among Lovecraft’s most iconic creations. They’ve been used in stories both serious and satirical, turned into paintings and sculptures, sung to popular tunes, turned into stuffed animals. And yet they were also among Lovecraft’s most original and unusual creations—they succeed in being unlike anything in earlier art or anthropology. But that’s hard to remember when I’m being earwormed by Tom Smith singing “Cthulhu fhtagn” to the tune of “Hakuna Matata.”

“Call” breaks with much Lovecraft, and raises the creepiness factor, through immersion in real schools, books, and towns. No Miskatonic and Arkham here, and only one reference to the Necronomicon. It’s Princeton and Sidney and Golden Bough, and are you absolutely certain there isn’t a box somewhere full of clippings and disturbing figurines? If you find it, how confident will you be that it was created for a Call of Cthulhu LARP?

Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one isn’t exactly an advertisement for the advantages of knowledge. Rather the reverse. Here’s that familiar quote about the merciful inability of the human mind to correlate its contents. Learn too much and you’ll go mad, or run away gibbering. It’s like a detective story where the goal is to avoid putting together the clues—no wonder people like combining the Mythos with Sherlock Holmes. A scientist myself (one who studies the human mind’s imperfect attempts to correlate its contents), I find this a little strange and off-putting. But “Call” makes the case better than others—unlike, say, the existence of inhuman civilizations with awesome libraries, the rise of the Great Old Ones wouldn’t be much fun to know about.

So this is a successfully horrific story, one that stuck with me and apparently with everyone else who ever read it. One could wish, therefore, that it wasn’t so deeply entwined with Lovecraft’s racism. No mere mentions of crude slurs here—Cthulhu’s worshippers are almost entirely brown people. Or “mongrels” or “degenerates” or “mixed-bloods.” Indeed, it seems that rich white men have a very different reaction to C’s call than everyone else. White artists and poets get mad dreams and inspiration. But elsewhere we get “Native unrest” and “voodoo orgies.” Bothersome tribes in the Philippines! Hysterical Levantines in New York City! (Arabs or Jews, presumably, all scary.) The Paris Salon just gets blasphemous paintings.

Yeah, when white people get the call it’s mostly scary for them. When brown people get the call, it’s scary for the white people.

One suspects Lovecraft and I would disagree about just how close we are to the lawless, amoral state that will make apparent the rightness of the stars.

On a happier note, I’d forgotten about this tidbit: “Of the cult, he said that he thought the centre lay amid the pathless deserts of Arabia, where Irem, the City of Pillars, dreams hidden and untouched.” Irem shows up in Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts and sequels, where it is deeply awesome. Reading “Call” has much in common with reading Lord of the Rings and noticing all the things picked up by later writers, funny t-shirts, etc. It’s hard to read in isolation from everything it’s inspired, but worth it.

 

Anne’s Commentary

And here he is, the entity of entities! This story is superlative in all reread categories: most Mythos-making; most Cyclopeans per square inch; most far-flung cast of “degenerate Dutchmen”; folks going mad everywhere. Okay, it’s not the most tome-laden, but the Necronomicon appears, and there are those wonderful props, the idols made of no earthly stone by no earthly artists.

Narrator Thurston tells how his uncle’s papers instigated his own investigations. Following the mandatory warning about the repercussions of learning too much, he tells us too much. Like the Ancient Mariner who must collar some hapless listener and leave him a sadder but wiser man, he can’t help himself. He carefully records his baleful discoveries and does his best to correlate them—this, after he’s claimed the mind’s inability to correlate its contents is the most merciful thing in the world. We’ve seen confusion of motive before: What I have to relate’s unspeakable, but I’m going to speak it! At length! Or write it in a manuscript that is never destroyed or lost. Nope. Some scholarly sort will always inherit it, or dig it up, or stumble upon it in a dusty library.

One who worries too much about this sort of thing probably shouldn’t read SFF. We want our narrators to blurt out horrors we’d be better off not knowing. Otherwise we wouldn’t get to enjoy them.

The subsections are arranged not chronologically but in a more effective least-to-most-horrific order. Lovecraft opens with the 1925 “dream epidemic.” Then back to 1908, when Professor Angell learns of the Cthulhu cult and its vile rites. Then forward again to what caused that 1925 dream epidemic: the stirring and brief release of mighty Cthulhu! Only a second sinking of R’yleh saves the world—temporarily. For “decay spreads over the tottering cities of men,” while the dead yet deathless Old Ones abide, dreaming.

So far, so satisfying. But this reread I found myself pondering theological implications. Though Lovecraft calls Cthulhu a great priest rather than a god, it’s clear his human worshippers consider him a deity. Why wouldn’t they, given his powers? In “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the Deep Ones worship Dagon and Hydra, yet that Cthulhu fhtagn is part of their ritual, and they’ll supposedly rise again to give Cthulhu a tribute he craves. Huh. If the Deep Ones are his servants, why does Cthulhu need human cultists to free him? Surely Deep Ones could do it more efficiently.

Of course, though I think the Deep Ones are prefigured in “Dagon” (1917), they don’t actually “exist” in the Lovecraft universe before “Innsmouth” (1931)—hence they can’t do the deed. Damn. Gotta settle for humans, Big C.

Back to the tribute thing. The “Innsmouth” Deep Ones trade fish and gold for certain human concessions, that is, young sacrifices and consorts. “Call” makes me think Cthulhu won’t be interested in flounder or tiaras. Human sacrifices? That’s another story, if we believe the cultists. Here, old Castro gets the inside informant role Zadok Allen plays in “Innsmouth.” Like Zadok, Castro is “immensely aged.” Like Zadok the alcoholic, he’s not fully compos mentis—since only two cultists are found sane enough to hang, Castro must be one of the insane majority. I sense Lovecraft wants his narrators able to dismiss Zadok and Castro as unreliable, even while we readers accept their stories pretty much verbatim. Tricky.

Well, Castro tells interrogators that the cult means to resurrect the Old Ones so true believers can become like Them, “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.” Reveling would doubtlessly include human sacrifices even more elaborate than those the cult already enjoys. But human sacrifices? Shouting and killing and generalized ravening? Are these really the pastimes of cosmic spawn who’ve filtered down from the STARS? Who can dream their way through the UNIVERSE? Who though dead are IMMORTAL? Strikes me as another example of men making gods in their own images, to cater to their own drives and desires.

I hope Cthulhu and his spawn dream of more than the pulp-cover-lissome sacrifices they’re going to slaver over when they come topside. I hope they’re not that tiresome sort of alien common to old Star Trek episodes, epicures of mayhem and misery who drive lesser creatures to supply them with same.

Come on, if you’re going to be a god (or close enough), be godly! At least open that damn door yourself, Big C. That “the spells” require outside assistance isn’t explanation enough. Okay, old Castro might not be able to explain it any better. I get that. He’s not one of those immortal humans living in the mountains of China. And, hey! Immortality! If that’s something the Old Ones can grant to followers, can we sign up for it minus the reveling?

Ahem.

Rant curtailed due to space considerations. Just time enough to note I’m intrigued by the black spirits of earth Castro mentions, all mouldy and shadowy. I guess these are the Black Winged Ones who supposedly kill the Louisiana victims. A species of night gaunt, Lovecraft’s favorite dream terror? And what about the mountainous white bulk in the heart of the haunted swamp? One of Legrasse’s party glimpses it, as Danforth glimpses what may be a protoshoggoth beyond the farthest Mountains of Madness.

These are peripheral horrors here. One might make a case for excluding them, but I’d find that a false economy. The sidelong glimpses, the apparent interweaving of milieus, Dreamlands into young Mythos, are additional spice for the fictive stew.

 

For the next month, we’ll celebrate the Halloween season with a special four-part reread of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Join us next week for Part I: “A Result and a Prologue,” and Part II: “An Antecedent and a Horror.”


Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives with a large number of mammals.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection.The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.

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