“The Call of Cthulhu”

The Lovecraft series continues.

Raw Feed (2005, 2012): “The Call of Cthulhu“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1926.Dunwich Horror and Others 

This is it, perhaps Lovecraft’s keystone story, certainly the one that not only leant its name to the Cthulhu Mythos, but also the first that seemed to have combined his cosmic horror and New England setting.

Reading it again in 2005, for the second time, I was struck how this is Lovecraft’s most frenetic tale in the sense that its plot covers not only a lot of time — not that unusual for Lovecraft who liked to frame historical horrors in a modern narrative — but spatially as well.

The action hops from Boston to New Orleans to the Pacific to England and Norway.

The cosmic horrors are portrayed through three subplots separated in space and (in the case of New Orleans and the rest) time.

The narrator’s grand-uncle investigates the odd dreams of a certain artist in Providence. A police inspector in New Orleans uncovers a sinister cult. And both those stories are linked to the appearance of Cthulhu in the Pacific when R’lyeh rises. Surprisingly, Cthulhu is stoppd by the turning wheel of a steamer, but the cosmic horror of what his presence reveals haunts the narrator.

The justly famous (perhaps the most quoted bit of Lovecraft) ‘opening about

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

sums up the boundary which Lovecraft’s scholar-heroes constantly transgress to their doom.

(Actually, the story opens with an epigraph from Lovecraft’s hero Algernon Blackwood.

Here it is a physical doom as the Cthulhu cult kills the narrator.

It talks of legends and myths telling of the survivals of monsters and gods.

Only lacking any mention of Lovecraft’s fictional geography of Kingsport, Arkham, Innsmouth, and the Miskatonic, this story otherwise everything associated with prime Lovecraft. A scholarly narrator learning too much, his tranquility shattered if not his sanity. There is an impending doom as he fears assassination by the Cthulhu cult. There are those books of occult lore including a quotation from the Necronomicon. There are portentous dreams and strange art.

In 1926, with this story, Lovecraft arrived at the type of story that made his reputation.

On reading the story a third time in 2012, I discovered new things.

There is the unnamed friend of the narrator who is really James F. Morton, Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent. (He’s the mineralogist in Patterson, New Jersey.)

I was struck by how many items and things Lovecraft throws out which explains this as the ur-text of the Cthulhu Mythos.

There are references to sleeping gods not only under the sea but in the earth.

The story alludes to many global locations: the Pacific, Norway, Louisiana, Boston, New Zealand, New York City, London, Haiti, the Philippines, South America, California, Greenland, and Ireland.

I think I somehow missed or forgotten the mysterious white shape seen by Legrasse and his men in Louisiana.

The famous “the stars are right” is a rhetorical device uttered in many variations though, I think, not too many.

Given the responses of Neil Gaiman (the allegedly bad structure of the story) and Gardener Dozois and critic Gary Wolfe about Lovecraft’s allegedly adjective heavy style, I paid attention to those elements.

As to the bad structure, that is a gripe without merit. This story is about the conflict of a man trying to maintain his old, rational vision of the cosmos as it is assaulted by what he learns — in essence, it’s a mystery story where the solution is hideous and damaging but is reached. He reaches the solution by assimilating and correlating the experiences of others.

The adjective criticism has a bit more merit. Usually, Lovecraft puts no more than two adjectives to each noun and the density per sentence is about six. However, one sentence definitely breaks that pattern:

There is a sense of spectral whirling through liquid gulfs of infinity, of dizzying rides through reeling universes on a come’s tail, and of hysterical plunges from the pit to the moon and from the moon back again to the pit, all livened by a cachinnating chorus of the distorted, hilarious elder gods and the green, bat-winged mocking imps of Tartarus.

“Hilarious” is an odd adjective in this context.


More reviews of Lovecraft are indexed on the Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

22 thoughts on ““The Call of Cthulhu”

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