Friday, December 16, 2011

H.P. Lovecraft in "The Call of Cthulhu"

"A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously."
Albert Camus

Howard Phillips Lovecraft never finished high school and never attended college. He seldom held a job outside his own home, and although he was married and lived in New York City, he retreated from the city and his wife, back into the arms of his native Providence and the very small circle of his family. Although he traveled widely and enjoyed friendships with men and women all over the United States, Lovecraft more or less shrank from the world. He was often the sole character in his own life's story.

As he matured, Lovecraft came to know himself better, as we all do. He also began to turn more outward and to develop a sense of irony, learning in the process to see himself a little more honestly and perhaps a little too critically. "The Outsider" (1921) is an early and very revealing story, but like much of Lovecraft's early work, it shows a writer who seems to have been sunk deep within himself, his only subject being himself.

I don't think it would be correct to say that the narrator of "The Outsider" was Lovecraft. The first half of Camus' epigram could be brought to bear here. A story like "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), with its wider range of "characters" (or more accurately perhaps, character-like devices), may support the proposition made in the second half.

I heard someone say once that all the people in a dream are actually the dreamer in disguise. That may or may not be true. In "The Call of the Cthulhu" though, most of the characters possess some aspect of their author and creator. The investigators--George Gammell Angell,  William Channing Webb, Francis Wayland Thurston--are scholarly New Englanders, solidly Anglo-Saxon right down to their triple names. They are rationalists, scientists (or at least science-minded), and not given to wild thoughts or leaps into the irrational. The artist and aesthete Henry Anthony Wilcox, though he shares their background, is on the other hand sensitive--"neurotic and excited" as the narrator describes him. I have already drawn parallels between him and the author Lovecraft. Click here for my posting of October 5, 2011, "Biography and 'The Call of Cthulhu'."

There are of course non-Anglo-Saxons in the story. John Raymond Legrasse falls into the category of the rational investigator, like Lovecraft himself, while the Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen is acceptably Nordic. It's to his credit also that he lives in an old part of his native city. Lovecraft was after all an antiquarian as were so many of his protagonists. Moreover, Johansen plays the part of Lovecraft in that, having escaped from an island of horrors (R'lyeh/Long Island), he puts pen to paper in an attempt to record his experiences if not to inform the world of what he has seen. Even Castro steps into the role of narrator, telling the story of the Old Ones and their age-old migration to earth. Finally, there is Cthulhu itself, a creature utterly alien to earth and isolated from its inhabitants. Lovecraft must have shared some feeling of alienation and isolation with his grotesque creation.

Good writers don't consciously set out to create symbols in their work. (1) Symbols arise from the author's effort to put a vibrant and meaningful narrative on paper. I'm sure that H.P. Lovecraft didn't create his characters to represent little pie-pieces of himself. I'm equally sure that his work was an expression of himself. Taken together, the products of his imagination tell us a great deal about the man who imagined them.

(1) I read a quote once by--I believe--Katherine Anne Porter regarding symbolism in the work of an author. I wish I could find the quote again. If anyone knows of it, please send word my way.

H.P. Lovecraft's own drawing of Cthulhu, from a letter to his future literary executor, R.H. Barlow.

Postscript (Jan. 5, 2014): A quote from Edgar Allan Poe: "The supposition that the book of an author is a thing apart from the author's Self is, I think, ill-founded." Quoted in Edgar Allan Poe by Roger Asselineau (1970), p. 22.

Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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