Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 4

The central events in "The Call of Cthulhu" take place between March 1 and April 18, 1925, and in investigations made by George Gammell Angell and, after Angell's death, by his grandnephew, Francis Wayland Thurston, the narrator of the story. In the course of their separate investigations, both men interview Henry Anthony Wilcox, a young art student and sculptor powerfully affected by the psychic force of Cthulhu's reemergence in the world. It's worth some lengthy quotes to get to know Wilcox:
Wilcox was a precocious youth of known genius but great eccentricity and had from childhood excited attention through the strange stories and odd dreams he was in the habit of relating. He called himself "psychically hypersensitive," but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city [Lovecraft's own Providence, Rhode Island] dismissed him as merely "queer." Never mingling much with his kind, he had dropped gradually from social visibility, and was now known only to a small group of esthetes from other towns.
[H]is genius is indeed profound and authentic. He will, I believe, be heard from sometime as one of the great decadents. . . 
He spoke in a dreamy, stilted manner which suggested pose and alienated sympathy. . . .
Dark, frail, and somewhat unkempt in aspect. . . . 
The youth was of a type, at once slightly affected and slightly ill-mannered, which I could never like. . . .
I don't think there can be any doubt that Lovecraft's model for Wilcox was Lovecraft himself.  If that's so, then the author reserved a special place for himself in the story, which may strike some as a kind of vanity, especially when he calls Wilcox a "known genius" and foresees a place for him someday "as one of the great decadents." I think it's more telling that--through his narrator--Lovecraft would admit that Wilcox was "of a type . . . which I could never like."

Lovecraft spent enough time with himself to know himself well and he came to regret some of the things he wrote or did in his younger days. He couldn't undo the virulent racism and nativism he put into his letters and fiction however. "The Horror at Red Hook," written when Lovecraft was living in Brooklyn and being jostled by immigrants (either in reality or in his imagination), was perhaps the low point in his fictional work. When he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu" a year later, Lovecraft's feelings on the matter were still in evidence, but more subdued. George Gammell Angell dies after being jostled by "a nautical-looking negro." In Greenland, Cthulhu is worshipped by "degenerate Eskimos," while the monster's cult followers in Louisiana are "very low, mixed-blooded and mentally aberrant types," including a "sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands." Almost everything the investigators learn of the Cthulhu cult comes from "an immensely aged mestizo named Castro," captured in Legrasse's raid near New Orleans. The crew of the Alert is made up of "swarthy cult-fiends," while Johansen, the lone surviving witness to the horror of Cthulhu, dies in the presence of two Lascar sailors. In short, all the Cthulhu cultists--everyone in the story who commits or is suspected of committing a crime--are foreigners or dark in aspect. (1)

We can mark some of that up to pulp conventions and American society of the 1920s, an age of jazz and wonderful nonsense, but also a time of nativism, eugenics, and a resurgent KKK. I think there's a simpler explanation. Coming from an old New England family that was in decline--physically, materially, even numerically--Lovecraft saw that the world he knew (or imagined) was coming to an end. Who better to blame than the antithesis of his beloved colonial New Englanders? The explanation may be simpler even than that. In the 1960s, Jim Morrison sang: "Women seem wicked/when you're unwanted." Cut off from the world, unable to participate in it, isolated (literally, "made into an island") and alienated ("made into an alien"), Lovecraft may have transferred the feelings he had for himself--feelings that were very likely unbearable--to another group. It's always easier to blame others for your situation than admit to your own faults and failings.

So on a March day in the mid-192os, Lovecraft (to Long Island and Manhattan) and Johansen (to R'lyeh) set out for islands where they would find a "strange . . . Cyclopean City" and encounter threats and horrors. Both returned safely to their home ports in April, Lovecraft of course happily, Johansen, a wreck of a man. (2) Lovecraft could probably not have finished "The Call of Cthulhu" in 1925 when he conceived of it because, unlike Johansen, he had not yet escaped from the island. Like the inhabitant of R'lyeh, Lovecraft was an alien living in isolation. But in Providence he was at home and connected to others. In Providence he was happy. (3)

(1) What Lovecraft failed to understand is that otherwise sophisticated and well educated people--many of whom would fall into the category of Eric Hoffer's "true believer"--are far more likely to fall for a dangerous and destructive faith than are the poor peasantry.
(2) The Freudian I mentioned before might have something more to say about a gaping doorway with its slick margins, emanating a "nasty, slopping sound down there," as Lovecraft's narrator describes the opening to Cthulhu's crypt in the moment before the creature in its "gelatinous green immensity" emerges ("green[e]" again). A Freudian interpretation of "The Call of Cthulhu" is probably the wrong path to take, though. Likewise, any similarity between the resurrection of Cthulhu and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is probably coincidental. I doubt that Lovecraft thought along those lines. Finally, a friend has pointed out to me the similarity between the encounter at R'lyeh and the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey. Thanks to my friend.
(3) We should note that Johansen presumably didn't finish his account--his own version of "The Call of Cthulhu"--until he too had returned home, to Oslo. And not just to Oslo, but to the Old Town section of the city. Perhaps he--like Lovecraft--was an antiquarian.
A final biographical point in "The Call of Cthulhu": The story's narrator discovers the final clue that leads him to Johansen and events in the South Pacific while visiting in a "local museum" in Paterson, New Jersey. One possibility that failed to open up in Lovecraft's job-hunting was in that exact place.

Copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley 

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