New York Times, Aug. 23, 2011
"There had been a slight earthquake tremor the night before, the most considerable felt in New England for some years. . . ."
"The Call of Cthulhu," Weird Tales, Feb. 1928
"The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft is a seminal work in many ways. Published in Weird Tales in February 1928, it was the first of Lovecraft's stories to mention and describe Cthulhu, a great and horrifying creature from another star system, imprisoned in a drowned crypt at the bottom of the ocean. The tale was not the first in Lovecraft's so-called "Cthulhu Mythos," but it provided the central figure and a unifying theme for what might otherwise have been an inconsistent and non-systematic cycle. Lovecraft appears not to have used the term "Cthulhu Mythos." He was also not its systematizer. We can attribute the term and the system instead to his successor and champion, August Derleth. Nonetheless, Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos survives to this day, arguably one of the most successful and long-lasting of literary inventions, at least of the twentieth century.
"The Call of Cthulhu" is also an early example of Lovecraft's attempts to wed science fiction (a term not used in print prior to 1929) and supernatural horror. Although Cthulhu is a monster, it is a monster from another planet, transported to Earth by scientific (or pseudoscientific) means. There are elements of fantasy, horror, and even Oriental adventure in Lovecraft's tale, but every fantastic and horrifying event in "The Call of Cthulhu" can be explained in rationalistic and scientific terms--or at least the story's narrator so tries. (1) In "The Call of Cthulhu" as in much of Lovecraft's subsequent fiction, the world's secrets are uncovered not by a medium, psychic, or ghost hunter, nor by a two-fisted man of action, but by a scientific investigator. With this story, the material universe supersedes the supernatural as the origin of the earth's horrors.
Lovecraft claimed not to have been able to write a detective tale. He may have been ingenuous in that belief, or he may simply have wanted to avoid a genre that wasn't really up his alley. But what else is "The Call of Cthulhu" than a detective story? A practical, rational investigator stumbles upon a mystery--a series of seemingly unrelated events--and carefully reconstructs the relationship among them, thereby revealing the truth. In his non-linear narrative, Lovecraft may have unintentionally paralleled developments in what was then considered modern fiction. (2) He may also have been inspired by the first cover story for Weird Tales, "Ooze" by Anthony M. Rud (March 1923). As in "The Call of Cthulhu," the narrator of "Ooze" is an investigator, a man obligated by friendship rather than family ties or scientific curiosity to discover the causes of insanity, death, and destruction on an Alabama farm. Like Lovecraft's narrator, the investigator in Rud's story carefully reconstructs hidden events and solves the mystery. One difference, reflective of Lovecraft's somewhat darker view of the world, is that his narrator investigates the mystery from within, eventually to fall prey to it. The threat survives him. By the time the narrator of "Ooze" has entered the picture, the threat has passed and humanity is safe. (3)
One of Lovecraft's innovations in "The Call of Cthulhu" is the atmosphere of verisimilitude in the story. The author gets carried away at times with his own purple prose and the conventions of pulp fiction, but if you set those aside, "The Call of Cthulhu" has the appearance of an investigative article or--in movie terms--a documentary. There is little dialogue or characterization and not much of the pulse-pounding action so characteristic of pulp fiction. (4) The text is peppered with the names of real people, places, things, and events--or at least they sound like they could be real. Lovecraft even gives the exact location of Cthulhu's island city (South Latitude 47 degrees 9 minutes, West Longitude 126 degrees 43 minutes). This is no never-never land of past, future, or imagination: the main events in "The Call of Cthulhu" took place in the three years prior to the story's publication (three years to the month in fact), and Lovecraft provides all the dates as proof. Those events are so recent in fact that the manuscript of "The Call of Cthulhu" could only have been discovered among the narrator's papers shortly before Lovecraft submitted it to Weird Tales.
One of the reasons why "The Call of Cthulhu" rings true is that it was drawn largely from fact, either from Lovecraft's own experiences or from historical figures and events. The emotional atmosphere of the story may also have been drawn from the author's life. I'll talk about that in Part 2 of "Biography and 'The Call of Cthulhu'."
(1) It's interesting to note that five years before King Kong (1933) was released in theaters, a ship's crew landed on an uncharted island in the South Pacific and unwittingly loosed a large and terrifying creature on the world in the pages of Weird Tales. Godzilla shares something of his origins with Cthulhu and King Kong, as does the monster in the 2008 film Cloverfield. See Chris Perridas' blog, H.P. Lovecraft and His Legacy, for more on the Cthulhu-Cloverfield connection.
(2) For example, William Faulkner's finest novels of the 1920s and '30s, including his own non-linear investigation of a mystery, Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
(3) "Ooze" may also have been the inspiration for The Blob (1958), that quintessential teen monster movie of the 1950s, starring Hoosier Steve McQueen and Andy Griffith's girlfriend, Aneta Corsaut.
(4) Lovecraft also claimed an inability to write action scenes, yet the encounter with Cthulhu near the end of the story lacks nothing for excitement or suspense. The makers of the recent movie adaptation of "The Call of Cthulhu" (2005) captured that excitement very effectively in what must have been a difficult sequence to put on film.
|H.P. Lovecraft's own version of Cthulhu, drawn for the author's youthful admirer and eventual literary executor, R(obert) H(ayward) Barlow, dated May 11, 1934.|
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley