Saturday, October 8, 2011

Watchmen and "The Call of Cthulhu"

In Robert Bloch's novel, Strange Eons, H.P. Lovecraft is portrayed as an investigator of horrors, a man who wrote thinly disguised fiction as a warning to humanity. The documentary nature of "The Call of Cthulhu" would seem to bear that out. A note of introduction states that the story, if you can call it that, was "[f]ound among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston." It was left to Lovecraft to discover the manuscript, prepare it for publication, and submit it to Weird Tales. The timing was just right: Thurston, who would have spent most of the year 1927 investigating the Cthulhu cult and crisis, must have died late that year. His manuscript must have been discovered immediately after his death. As the discoverer, Lovecraft would have recognized its importance and the great need to have his discovery known to the wider world. Within a short period of time, perhaps a month or two, the story was in print and being read by thousands. In effect, Lovecraft was saying to his readers, "Look, people, this just happened!" The immediacy of "The Call of Cthulhu" contributes to its force and effectiveness.

Another plot involving a Cthulhoid monster was hatched sixty years later and documented by another investigator. There's a question as to whether his manuscript reached the reading public, though. That story took place in Watchmen, a comic book series published by DC in 1986-1987 and later collected in a trade paperback. In the last chapter of the series, a mastermind named Ozymandias destroys New York--killing millions in the process--by dropping an immense creature on the city. The creature--a bloated, repulsive monster with numerous tentacles--originated on an earthly island but is said to have come from another planet. The resemblance to Cthulhu is unmistakable. One difference between Watchmen and "The Call of Cthulhu" is that--despite Lovecraft's dark view of the world--Cthulhu recedes as a threat and humanity is safe in the end--at least for now. In Watchmen, the plot succeeds. In addition, Lovecraft includes genuine heroes in his story, ordinary men who go to extraordinary lengths to protect their fellow human beings. The so-called "heroes" in Watchmen are morally reprehensible and complicit in a Utopian scheme in which millions are murdered. Ozymandias, who could be interpreted as a stand-in for the author, Alan Moore, emerges in the end triumphant. More evidence (in Ozymandias, not his creator) that the true monsters among us are human. (1)

The truth behind the plot--whether humanity will learn what has been done to them--is left hanging in the end. Rorschach, another "hero" in the story, has kept a diary of events, including the unfolding of Ozymandias' plot. (2) He submits that diary to a rag of a newspaper, where it ends up in the slush pile. In the last panel of the story, an office boy reaches toward the pile. Will he read the diary? Will word get out into the world, as it does in "The Call of Cthulhu"? The possibility that it could is one of the few signs of hope in an otherwise bleak and cynical narrative. Despite his dark view of the world, I'm not sure that Lovecraft ever reached similar depths.

(1) To be fair, I should point out that Moore gives Ozymandias (see Shelley's poem of the same name) an ironic name and by so doing, maintains an ironic distance from him.
(2) Rorschach proves himself heroic in the end because he is the only character who refuses to compromise himself by remaining silent. For that, he must die.
Copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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