Sunday, October 2, 2011

Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 3

In technical terms, "The Call of Cthulhu" is a feat of planning and construction. The idea for the story first came to its author in August 1925 while he was living in Brooklyn. Although he wrote an outline at the time, Lovecraft must have set it aside to take up "Supernatural Horror in Literature," a project that occupied him for several months in 1925-1926. Forsaking New York (and for all practical purposes his marriage), Lovecraft returned to Providence in April 1926 and wrote "The Call of Cthulhu" several months later, in September and October according to L. Sprague de Camp. (1) The story must have gone through a revision sometime before its publication in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales, for some of its events occur after October 1926. In any case, Lovecraft may not have been capable of writing the story in its final form while he was living in New York. In all likelihood, a return to Providence was necessary for its completion. The reasons for that are not merely chronological.

"The Call of Cthulhu" is not a conventional, linear narrative. It may very well have been something new to pulp fiction, though not to mainstream literature. Lovecraft may not have intended to inject modernism into his work, yet the rudiments of the movement are there. As in a Cubist painting, the truth or essence of the work is not fully revealed until it is viewed from multiple angles in space and multiple points in time. (2) William Faulkner and countless other writers were at the time experimenting with non-linear narratives drawn from multiple viewpoints. And like John Dos Passos' magnum opus, U.S.A., completed in 1936, "The Call of Cthulhu" is built up from multiple sources, including letters, newspaper clippings, research notes, interviews, a ship's log, and the diary of a murdered sailor. (3)

In order to construct his story, Lovecraft would have had to carefully lay out a timeline of its events. Chronologically, the first event in "The Call of Cthulhu" (other than the age-old migration of Cthulhu to Earth) is William Channing Webb's expedition to Iceland and Greenland during which the first documented encounter with the Cthulhu cult is made. (4) The narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu" does not give an exact date for the expedition, but by simple subtraction, we can say that it took place in 1860. A researcher known by the Internet name Borrowind has identified a possible historical source for the expedition in the work of Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). You can read more about Borrowind's findings at Tentaclii::H.P. Lovecraft Blog, here. If Borrowind is correct, then the Greenland expedition is also the first event in "The Call of Cthulhu" with a historical basis.

The next event in the story is the raid on a Cthulhu cult ring in Louisiana, made by Inspector John Raymond Legrasse of the New Orleans police department on November 1, 1907. Legrasse attends a meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis several months later (thus placing that event sometime in the first six or eight months of 1908). Inspector Legrasse, described as a "commonplace-looking middle-aged man," is no wild-eyed witness to horrors. In the parlance of the game "The Call of Cthulhu," he still has all his sanity points. He just wants to know about the small statue he confiscated in the raid. William Channing Webb is also in attendance, thus the first connection is made between the events in Greenland and Louisiana, separated by half a century and the North American continent. As a result, a dim but ever-brightening light is cast upon the cult of Cthulhu.

In his or her blog entry, "Franz Boas in 'The Call of Cthulhu'," Borrowind has also identified a  source for Lovecraft's fictional meeting of anthropologists and archaeologists in the International Congress of Americanists in 1908. (Borrowind doesn't mention that the congress was held in a real-life drowned city, Venice.) As far as I know, there isn't and wasn't any such thing as the American Archaeological Society, but it sounds like it could be real. The society's named members, William Channing Webb of Princeton University and George Gammell Angell of Brown University, sound like they could be real persons, too. They certainly come from real places. Webb and Angell are in fact inventions, though Angell is named for a Lovecraft ancestor (Gammell or Gamwell) and the street on which Lovecraft was born (Angell). It's through these juxtapositions of fact and wholly believable fiction that Lovecraft built up the verisimilitude of "The Call of Cthulhu." (5)

The main events in "The Call of Cthulhu" begin in early 1925. On February 20, the Emma leaves Auckland, New Zealand, for Callao, Peru. In its journey, the ship will encounter another, the Alert, crewed by cultists and bound for Cthulhu's island city of R'lyeh. On March 1, 1925--February 28 on the East Coast--R'lyeh is thrust up from the ocean floor by a powerful earthquake, thus the Cthulhu crisis begins. (6) Over the course of the next six weeks, the crew of the Emma will endure horrors, culminating in their encounter with Cthulhu on March 23 and ending with their "safe" arrival in port on April 18. (Actually, only one member of the crew--Second Mate Gustaf Johansen--arrives at Darling Harbor in Sydney, Australia, on that date. All the others have died or have been killed.) March 1--two days before H.P. Lovecraft's wedding day. April 18--Lovecraft's first full day back in Providence after two years in New York. Throw away the years--1924 for his wedding, 1926 for his return to Providence--and the Cthulhu crisis fits neatly within Lovecraft's own personal crisis of marriage and exile.

Next: Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 4

(1) That would make the period in which I write this essay the 85th anniversary of the composition of "The Call of Cthulhu." Happy Birthday, Cthulhu!
(2) Lovecraft must have been acquainted with Cubism, though he referred to it as "futurism" in "The Call of Cthulhu." He made allusions to that recent movement in art in his description of R'lyeh, for example: "the geometry of the dream-place . . . was abnormal" and "crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity."
(3) Unlike Dos Passos, Lovecraft quoted only one of these sources at length in his story. Coincidentally, J.P. McEvoy worked along the same lines in "Show Girl," his saga of Dixie Dugan, which was serialized in Liberty magazine beginning in the same month "The Call of Cthulhu" was published.
(4) A Freudian might have something to say about an initial horrific encounter in Greenland, i.e., a land of people called "Green(e)."
(5) Such a thing had been done before, but maybe not so convincingly or with such sophistication. Lovecraft's innovation may have been his use of science and history as a framework for his fictional creations. (Contrast that with William Hope Hodgson's annoying, even terrible, framing devices, which he similarly used to lend some believability to his stories.) In his essay of the same period, "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Lovecraft explicated a genre. In "The Call of Cthulhu," he perhaps began to lay it to rest, at least in his own work. Although the term science fiction had not yet been invented when Lovecraft wrote "The Call of Cthulhu," the story begins to look more like that nascent genre and less like its predecessor, supernatural horror. It's interesting to note that the first science fiction magazine, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, bore a cover date of April 1926 and would have been on the newsstand at about the time Lovecraft quit Brooklyn and his marriage.
(6) The earthquake was also a real event and no doubt remained in the memories of many who read "The Call of Cthulhu" nearly two years after it struck. What Lovecraft called "a slight earthquake tremor" occurred at 9:23:30 p.m. on February 28, 1925. (The New York Times claimed that "New York City was shaken roughly" and described floors swaying, crockery breaking, and clocks stopping, hence the exact time of the quake.)  The earthquake was felt in the northeastern quarter of the country south to Louisville and Richmond and north into Canada. According to Dr. Chester A. Reeds of the American Museum of Natural History, the epicenter of the quake was located off the coast of Maine, about 345 miles from the city. (Thanks to Magister for pointing out that the earthquake in "The Call of Cthulhu" was based on a real event.)

Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sonia Greene in a snapshot taken in Boston in July 1921. It doesn't take an expert to see the sharp contrast between Lovecraft and his future bride. He is stiff, his smile is restrained. She is loose, happy, smiling broadly, her arm flung around him with affection. A little tighter and she would have him in a headlock. In response, Lovecraft leans away slightly, perhaps in the direction of Providence. (Photograph from the collection of Randal A. Everts.)
Factory in Horta de Ebbo (1909) by Pablo Picasso, an early work of analytical cubism. Lovecraft's description of Cthulhu's city suggests that the author was acquainted with modern art.

Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley


  1. "The story must have gone through a revision sometime before its publication in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales, for some of its events occur after October 1926."

    What are these events that so unequivocally point to a post-October 1926 revision? Is it not possible to write a story set in the near future??

    (One more thing: De Camp on Lovecraft. Not a reliable source.)

  2. Dear Magister,

    The narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu" writes: "My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-1927 with the death of my granduncle." That being so, his investigations would have taken place in the months following, culminating in his arrival "[o]ne autumn day" in Oslo. If George Gammell Angell died in the winter of 1926-1927, then his grandnephew, the narrator, would not have discovered the truth behind the Cthulhu cult until the following autumn when he read Johansen's account of the encounter with Cthulhu. The narrator's death presumably came in late 1927, leaving little time for his manuscript to be discovered among his papers and submitted to Weird Tales. It would then have to be read, considered, accepted, typeset, printed, and sent to the newsstand in time for a February 1928 cover date (which is usually later than the actual arrival of the magazine on the newsstand). I know I'm mixing fact and fiction here, but that seems to have been Lovecraft's aim. He certainly would have had a tight timeline for the story and its events. It would have been uncharacteristic of him (and risky) to depart from it.

    I agree with you that a story set in the near future isn't out of the question, but I think Lovecraft was shooting for plausibility and immediacy for maximum effect in "The Call of Cthulhu." It seems more likely that he would have revised the story to that end. The revisions, if there were any, may not have been extensive. They may have been just a revision to a couple of dates. I could be wrong, and I'll admit that I haven't consulted many other sources except for the story itself. But what more valuable source is there than the original work?

    The man from whom I bought my copy of de Camp's biography said that there are those who object to it. I'm not sure why. You say that de Camp isn't a reliable source. Can you expand on that?

    Thanks for writing. I look forward to hearing back from you.

    October 2, 2011 12:03 PM

  3. OK, I see your reasoning regarding the dates; still, I can't regard that as conclusive evidence of a revision. Weird Tales rejected the story in October 1926. Would the time-frame of the story have been laid much earlier in that version? I doubt that, since it would have given the plot a much shorter time to unfold. The date of the earthquake was fixed, since that was a real event.

    One more thing: Donald Wandrei said nice things about "The Call of Cthulhu" to Farnsworth Wright when visiting Chicago, prompting Wright to ask to see the story again, whereupon it was accepted. If there were new revisions, Lovecraft would have had to prepare a new typescript of the story, because the dates as given are present in the preserved typescript (I'm assuming, since the corrected version published by Arkham House in 1984 is based on this typescript and the dates are there). Since Lovecraft hated typing and "The Call of Cthulhu" is a very long story, it seems very unlikely that he prepared a new typescript; instead he must have used his old one -- the one that was rejected in October 1926 -- and this must be the T.Ms. that we have today. With the post-1926 dates.

    As for De Camp... For starters, it is now 36 years out of date. Lots of new information has come to light since then.

    Second, the errors. Without bothering to check the book itself, I remember that De Camp gave the wrong title for one of the De Castro collaborations, and when he quotes Lovecraft's and Fred Jackson's poems (the ones with which they put their feud to rest) he has obviously switched them. In one place, he corrects his source even though he provides no evidence why such a correction is necessary: When Clara Hess says that she sometimes met Lovecraft's mother at Theodore Phillips's place at Angell Street, De Camp corrects this to "Whipple Phillips", apparently unaware that Whipple's cousin Theodore indeed lived on the same street. And so on.

    Third, the notes. Mixing your sources into one big lump instead of providing one note per quotation is not how it's done. It is no help to the reader, and I have found quotations that do not occur in the sources where De Camp says (or seemingly says, since his references are so difficult to untangle) they occur.

    Fourth, the silliness in x-ing out the name of Lovecraft's friend whom Lovecraft described in a letter as a Nazi sympathiser, because the man was still alive at the time. De Camp leaves enough information to make a 99% certain identification of Alfred Galpin possible. I was able to figure this out years before the uncensored letter in question was published.

    Fifth, the supercilious style. We learn lots of things that Lovecraft did wrong, i. e., he did not do them the De Camp way. Thus, we learn more about De Camp's views and values than we learn about Lovecraft's. De Camp simply has no understanding of Lovecraft's views and therefore doesn't explain them very well.

    Sixth, the selectiveness. De Camp knew about Lovecraft's humorous stories, yet he never mentions them at all. Not even one word.

    I'd recommend Joshi's H. P. LOVECRAFT: A LIFE or its unabridged form, I AM PROVIDENCE.

  4. Dear Magister,

    Thanks for writing back. I agree with you that any revisions may have been only to a few dates. If Lovecraft (and not Farnsworth Wright) revised the dates, he would have been forced to reread the story for any possible errors where the logic or timing of the story would have been affected by changes in dates. That would have given him a chance to make other changes as well. Lovecraft was notorious for not wanting to retype his work. A large-scale revision was probably out of the question.

    I agree with you also that de Camp almost becomes a character in his biography of Lovecraft, mostly as a contrast to him. He spends an awful lot of print on Lovecraft's flaws, too. I agree with de Camp, however, that it was probably more advantageous for him to try a biography than for August Derleth to do it. It's just too bad that Derleth's death was what brought about de Camp's biography. In any case, Lovecraft, just like any biographical subject, should be looked at critically. He should not have his flaws glossed over or the facts of his life (or literary estate) obscured. A friend or strong admirer (like Derleth) might have had that tendency. To his credit, de Camp wrote a disclaimer: "Whether I was right in so thinking [that he had an advantage over Derleth] is for the reader to judge."

    Of course more has come to light in the decades since de Camp's biography was published, but I give him credit for a first draft of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. I'm a stickler for careful notes and careful research, but I can overlook those problems with Lovecraft: A Biography for its better qualities.

    Thanks again.


  5. Chris Jarocha-ErnstOctober 27, 2013 at 11:33 PM

    FYI, the Tentaclii blog is by David Haden. The posting you linked to has apparently been removed, but David talks about HPL and Boas in his "Walking with Cthulhu" book, so perhaps David is Borrowind.

  6. Chris,

    I just did a search for the article "Franz Boas in 'The Call of Cthulhu'" and came up empty. It looks like Borrowind is indeed David Haden and that he adapted or included the article in his book Walking With Cthulhu : H.P. Lovecraft as psychogeographer, New York City 1924-26 (2011). Interested readers should have a look at Mr. Haden's blog, Tentaclii::H.P. Lovecraft blog.


  7. Whatever may be the story but myself, just by seeing the cubism is impressed!!
    It's an amazing piece of