Tue
Dec 8 2009 2:00pm

12 Days of Lovecraft: “The Call of Cthulhu”

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.”

The Story:

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?)

What’s awesome:

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.

What’s horrible:

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.

This article is part of December Belongs To Cthulhu: ‹ previous | index | next ›
14 comments
Eilis42
1. Eilis42
(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?)

Or SpongeBob SquarePants "The Best Day Ever."
Eilis42
2. Jared(PK)
Good review!

I, rather grandiosely, hold Call of Cthulhu as one of the best pieces of genre fiction ever written. Not only are there the well-executed horror elements that you flag up above, but Lovecraft creates this brilliant atmosphere of dread that completely permeates the piece.

This is a short story that condenses all of the author's neuroses, society's post-WW1 'apocalyptic' state of mind and a uniquely prescient crippling 'scientific' fear of mankind's ultimate insignificance. All in a few dozen pages. Even the horrific racism fits in to the terrifying view of the world that he's trying to convey.

Poor Cthulhu is often interpreted as some sort of tentacled Godzilla, which misses the real horror of Lovecraft's 'mythos'. Cthulhu and his ilk? They just don't care. They aren't some sort of Satanic nemesis of humanity - we just don't matter to them.

And, psychologically, being unnoticed is a thousand times more disturbing than being hated. Lovecraft knew it and nailed it.
Eilis42
3. GoblinRevolution
I would say that I find At the Mountains of Madness to be the better story, but you raise some interesting points. Particularly the zeitgeist of the inter-war years (see 'The Wasteland').
Eilis42
4. GalMontag
"That Umberto Eco Book That Nobody Finished. No, The Other One."

+1, FTW.
Andrew Foss
5. alfoss1540
I remember picking up "Call" just to read it. I had heard that it had far reaching impact in horror - a classic in the genre. I remember reading another Lovcraft short story in high school that even the teacher didn't understand. What I remember about it was that the character was being chased by something big - huge in fact. So I read Call twice in a row.

With Call - it has all of Lovecraft's insanity and bizarreness happening, and you are in the middle of it -kind of. Kind of . . . because it is narrated. Action is all passive, as being described rather than happening, making it hard to feel the Point of View until too late. It has you.

The Unberto Eco Book - Foucault's Pendulum. Anyone can figure out why he namesd it that, please respond. My opinion as to why it is incomprehensible - It was translated from Italian and not really made for the English language. But the Diabolics are really out there!
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
Just out of curiousity, does anything important happen in the New Yorker story you link to? I got to the part where they discuss their coats and I realized you weren't kidding about how dull it is. Evidently there are seven pages after the thrilling anorak debate.
Eilis42
7. LAJG
I spent an entire summer many years ago struggling through Foucault's Pendulum. I actually did finish it, but I couldn't tell you now what it was about. I do remember thinking as I was reading it, that it was so scholarly and dense that surely the ending would reveal the meaning of life. No such luck.

Perhaps Lovecraft was right, and existence is meaningless.

On that cheerful note, off I go to bed for a good night's sleep!

p.s. that word verification thing is making me type "mauls it's"
Eilis42
8. zenspinner
So has anyone seen the silent movie? I thought they did a really great job on it. Link here: http://www.cthulhulives.org/cocmovie/index.html if you don't know what I'm talking about. :)
Richard Fife
9. R.Fife
Just gonna put this here.
"Down in R'lyeh"

The seaweed is always darker
In the caves of Devil's Reef
I dream about going down there
But that would cause much more grief
For Cthulhu is now stirring
All the way down in R'lyeh
All the Deep Ones will be moving
When stars finally set the way.

Down in R'lyeh!
Down in R'lyeh!
My mind is melting,
Shaggoth is watching
Out in the bay!
Now Yog-sothoth is breaking through
Then the world is pealing like glue.
Dagon and Hydra
they's gonna eat ya,
Down in R'Lyeh!
philip hodgson
10. hodgsopg
As far as I can remember Foucault's Pendulum is about finding a old document that the conspiracy theorists take to be about the Knights Templar/ Rosicrustians, but could just as easily have been a medieval shopping list. Maybe if Dan Brown has read it he would have been a little less eager to believe his sources.
Eilis42
11. AFurrow
The ending of Foucault's Pendulum was all about the Meaning of Life.

But as to why he named it after the pendulum in the beginning, I would have to reread it to be sure. Because of the inexorability of its swing? Because of the implacable, decidedly non-arcane scientific truths it revealed? Because the pendulum describes an arc centered on its own endpoint, but really reflects a much larger rotation that is not centered on the pendulum at all?
Eilis42
12. firkin
of the two or three lovecraft stories i've read, this is the first one i sort of appreciated. the mongrel cultists got pretty tedious but i thought "Call" did a great job of slowly building dread and suspense, and, at least until the last section, the somewhat ridiculous vocabulary worked pretty well.

i didn't at all like the actual appearance of cthulhu in the story. he's much worse as a rumor than as something you can escape from in a boat.
Seamus Cooper
13. Seamuscooper
I agree that driving a boat through Cthulhu's gelatinous bulk makes him far less horrifying. He needs to be indifferent and untouchable.

I can't answer whether anything happens in that New Yorker story as about halfway through I started thinking about what I was going to eat for lunch, which turned out to be far more interesting.

Like the parody!
Bruce Brown
14. brucebrown
My name is Bruce Brown and I'm new to Tor.com.

I am the author of Howard Lovecraft & The Frozen Kingdom. It is an all ages introduction to the works of HP Lovecraft and my book takes place on Christmas eve.

So, I really dig the The Twelve Days of Lovecraft! Ha!

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