Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Johanson and the Monster

The old saying is that life imitates art. In 1926, H.P. Lovecraft composed "The Call of Cthulhu," a story that would become a classic of twentieth century horror and fantasy. Published in Weird Tales in February 1928, "The Call of Cthulhu" is a kind of mystery in which a scientific investigator attempts to reconstruct the events of a time only recently past. The key piece of evidence in his reconstruction is the diary of a Norwegian sailor, Gustaf Johansen, who was there when Cthulhu awoke from his slumbers on the island city of R'lyeh. Johansen was the lone survivor of that encounter, but even he has succumbed to the influence of Cthulhu before the story ends.

The fainting narrator is a cliché in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Alternatively, the narrator is driven insane by his experience, sometimes temporarily, often permanently. Even if his insanity is only temporary, the narrator must lie abed before recovering himself. Gustaf Johansen is not the narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu," but of all the characters in the story, he comes in closest contact with its horrors. Made of sturdier stuff than the typical Lovecraftian narrator, Johansen nonetheless falls into a state of depression or despair after encountering Cthulhu. In the end, he dies mysteriously, almost certainly at the hands of cultists.

Four years after the publication of "The Call of Cthulhu," the Swedish overseer of a rubber plantation in the Belgian Congo reported an experience like that of Gustaf Johansen, though admittedly not by degree. His name was J.C. Johanson, and on a hunting trip in the Kasai Valley, he and his bearer encountered a monster out of the past. Described as a lizard sixteen yards long, the creature was devouring a rhinoceros when the two men came upon it. Johanson is supposed to have taken pictures of the creature. The two images circulating on the Internet have been shown to be fakes. In any event, Johanson's reaction is familiar to anyone who has read a story by H.P. Lovecraft:
The experience was too much for my nervous system. Completely exhausted, I sank down behind the bush that had given me shelter. Blackness reigned before my eyes. . . . I must have looked like one demented when at last I regained camp. . . . For eight days I lay in a fever, unconscious nearly all the time. (1)
Even Johanson's expressions--"Blackness reigned before my eyes"--echo writing from the pulps.

I have never seen a Tyrannosaurus rex eating a rhinoceros or for that matter a ham sandwich. I can't say what my reaction would be to such a thing. But pulp writers and moviemakers don't seem to have a lot of faith in the psychological strength and stability of their fellow human beings. If Johanson was laid low by the sighting of a dinosaur in the African jungle, I don't think he should have been in Africa in the first place, so far as it is from a fainting couch. In other words, Johanson's story sounds like a story. I wonder if the man himself ever existed. And if it was just a story, I wonder if the person who thought it up had read "The Call of Cthulhu" not long before.

(1) Quoted in Monsters and Mythic Beasts by Angus Hall (1975), p. 87.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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