“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 disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” – The opening paragraph from The Call of Cthulhu (1926).
Just an extraordinary piece of prose, reflecting of H.P. Lovecraft’s unmatched talent to disturb. The Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite short stories of all authors and times. Cthulhu (see here for pronunication) is the cornerstone of spiritual terror, it has no literary precedent and yet many imitators and mimickers. With Cthulhu Lovecraft declares a literary summit. Cthulhu, a “Great Old God” in the world of Lovecraft, is dreaming in R’lyeh and waits to rise on Earth again.
The story is a rather odd collection of discovered texts, newspaper clippings, and fantastic events. The structure of the story is to have a lot of levels, stories within stories. Discovery of discoveries. The reader is in jeopardy here. When you read this story you read things you were not meant to know. Don’t put the pieces together. Cthulhu is dead but dreaming.
The narrator of the story opens an old safe he finds amongst the papers and legal business of his recently, mysteriously, deceased great uncle, a professor. Therein he finds a bas-relief of Cthulhu. Lovecraft actually drew what was on it later. He describes Cthulhu in detail in the story. Within the safe there are notes regarding two separate, previous events. First, in 1925, a young artist who created the bas-relief came to the now dead professor, inspired by a bizarre dream that the young man had after an earthquake that happened the previous evening. (The earthquake actually occurred in New England in January 1925. It woke Lovecraft up at 3AM.)
Leaving out a significant amount of details for the sake of brevity, the weird thing is that the now dead professor had seen this bas-relief before. In 1908, the professor was attending an archeological meeting in St. Louis. A police investigator visited this meeting, coming all the way from New Orleans. The investigator brought with him a statuette that had been captured from a raid by the police upon a murderous "voodoo cult" there. Of course, it is the statuette of the bas-relief the professor saw inspired by the young man’s dream.
Another professor attending the meeting had seen this statuette back in the 1860’s while studying a strange Eskimo cult in Greenland. The story begins to take on this worldwide context. There are newspaper clippings of dreams, events, around the time of the earthquake. Lovecraft uses fragments of other documents to tell his story. It is a very masterful technique.
The raid on the voodoo cult resulted from a mass murder investigation. The victims were apparently sacrifices in a wild ritual around which this statuette was the center.
“Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises heard by Legrasse’s men as they ploughed on through the black morass toward the red glare and the muffled tom-toms. There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other. Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell.
“In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sims or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous with its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.
“It may have been only imagination and it may have been only echoes which induced one of the men, an excitable Spaniard, to fancy he heard antiphonal responses to the ritual from some far and unillumined spot deeper within the wood of ancient legendry and horror. This man, Joseph D. Galvez, I later met and questioned; and he proved distractingly imaginative. He indeed went so far as to hint of the faint beating of great wings, and of a glimpse of shining eyes and a mountainous white bulk beyond the remotest trees—but I suppose he had been hearing too much native superstition.”
At this point, our narrator, reading all this once locked-up stuff of his great uncle, remains skeptical, though obviously the whole conundrum is drawing him in, as he begins to actually interview some of these people on his own. According to accounts, the voodoo cult is actually a global cult that worships a Great Old One Cthulhu who was from “dark space”, is older than humanity, and is dreaming deep under the sea until the god rises up to reign in the world again. The cult waits, passing its tradition down generation by generation until the stars are right again. At that time worldwide, independent, cultish tribes will perform the necessary ritual to reawaken Cthulhu. The cult will always be waiting, we are told.
The narrator begins to suspect that his great uncle, who died under strange circumstances, might have been murdered by members of this cult, even if the cult is neurotic and essentially fake. It is interesting that this information is revealed by the narrator telling his great uncle’s story who is telling the investigator’s story, who is telling the story of one of the voodoo cult members. Four stories deep here. A very innovative way to present the story elements.
The final part of the story is how the narrator, sometime later, having dismissed the information in his great uncle’s safe, came across a newspaper article accidentally. It is about a Norwegian sailor who was attacked by another ship near New Zealand. It turns out that, once again, a strange idol is involved in the attack and the narrator decides to make an attempt to contact the lone Norwegian sailor who survived the ordeal. Venturing to Norway he discovers the sailor has died under mysterious circumstances as well. But, he left behind a written account of what happened, which was in English because the sailor’s wife did not know that language. The sailor wanted to record his experience in a way his wife would not know, to keep her safe from the knowledge.
The narrator reads the account which turns out to be an action-packed encounter with Cthulhu itself. This encounter takes place near the date of the earthquake which was felt in New England and which, apparently, caused all these weird dreams globally and the young artist’s original rendering of the bas-relief which started all this. This earthquake did not cause the Norwegian’s ship to drift off course, however; that was due to a massive storm that struck on the day of the quake.
Leaving out many details for the sake of brevity, the Norwegian miraculously survives an actual encounter with Cthulhu (though many men are killed). In the end our narrator is fearful for his life because he feels, just as his great uncle knew too much, and as the Norwegian sailor knew too much, both dying mysteriously, so, too, now the narrator has this dread hanging over him. End of story.
Next to, perhaps, The Dunwich Horror, The Call of Cthulhu is Lovecraft’s most famous work, the true birth of the Mythos he himself opened to other authors. It is an epic story well told in a little over an hour’s read. In it he uses a lot of rather obscure (today) words like “eldritch” and “gibbous”. Those occur often in his tales usually with several other words as just as archaic. Lovecraft's writing has a Late-Romantic quality that I thoroughly enjoy.
Structurally, the story consists of fragments pieced together and the existential fear of the narrator for his own life now that he understands the cosmic basis for reality which is ultimately under the sway of a dead God dreaming, whenever it returns. As fantastic as that is, it is just as much an expression of postmodern anxiety. That type of spiritual terror is so precisely relevant to these uncertain times right now, as of this post. With the economy uncertain, especially the impact of future budget cuts to public benefits. Relations with North Korea and Iran uncertain. Uncertainty about cyber war. Uncertainty about climate change as we were once uncertain about nuclear war. There is this pervasive, underlying, feeling of dread transcending mindful society and extending into cyberspace. Lovecraft understands the overwhelming sense of indifference by superior forces at work in our lives. This is outstanding literature.
In the next post I’ll cover another favorite story and try to wrap this Lovecraft obsession up (for now).