As many of you may already be aware, I’m a huge Lovecraft fan. So once again I use the word review in the title of this blog lightly, as what is far more accurate a descriptor for this blog is an over-enthusiastic gush.
Today I am going to talk about The Call of Cthulhu.
The Call of Cthulhu was written by H.P Lovecraft in 1926 and was published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in February 1928. This is a marvellous story for a number of reasons, the foremost being that despite it being a ‘monster’ story it has it’s own unique take on the kind of fear that such a creature should inspire.
The story is told by Francis Thurston, it begins with the discovery of some notes & items let to him by his grand-uncle. In amongst these items is a small statue, Francis describes the depicted creature as an amalgamation of a human, dragon, and octopus. He is so moved by the statue that he goes to talk to its maker, an art student who has been suffering from the strangest dreams of a city.
Reviewing the notes there are frequent mentions of Cthulhu and R’lyeh (the city), and mass hysteria that seems to only affect certain kinds of people. There is also further discussion regarding another statue, this one made from black/green stone and resembling the statue Francis has. The notes go one to talk about an all-male cult, that was using women and children for …something. The cult worships the Great Old Ones and is awaiting the rise of Cthulhu.
Francis, now totally gipped by his investigation, discovers the story of the Alert, an Australian ship. It was found derelict with only one survivor, Gustaf Johansson. Johansson tells an interesting story of how his original ship was attacked and destroyed by the Alert but his crew killed the attackers and took the Alert as their own. They found an island where somehow everyone except Johansson and another chap dies. Francis decides to go and speak with Johansson, sadly Johansson dies before Francis can reach him. Fortunately, his widow can continue the story by handing over her late husband’s diary of events. This goes into a lot more detail than the aforementioned information, we find out the island held the city of R’lyeh, which had some super weird architecture and made everyone uncomfortable and considerably freaked out. The group accidentally released Cthulhu (as you do) and they all died save from Johansson and his buddy who tried to smash Cthulhu by ramming him with their ship. This did not work (really are you surprised?) but Johansson’s buddy lost his mind because he looked at Cthulhu.
The story ends with Francis realising he is being followed by a Cthulhu cult.
Why this story works
Unlike a lot of modern horrors, especially film horror, Call of Cthulhu works because it speaks to the fear inside nearly all of us that we cannot control the world around us. It highlights our own powerlessness in the world and the greater universe around us.
The narration brings us right in close to the horror, we experience it as Francis does, unravel the mystery as Francis does. From the moment he starts to suspect he is being followed right to the point where he realises the danger from his human foes. But the point that really sinks in with us is when he realises that there is absolutely nothing he can do, both regarding the cult following him but also Cthulhu. His moment of recognising his own powerlessness and the dread that comes along with it is profound and deeply effective.
The name Cthulhu is well known, even by those who don’t recognise the name, Lovecraft. He’s a ridiculously popular character in the horror genre, both as himself and as an inspiration for other creations and themes. For while Cthulhu is a creature (an elder god actually) what makes him work so well in the horror industry is that he’s more a state of mind, a feeling, a theme. He is synonymous with the feeling of hopelessness, existential dread and the realisation of our own impending smallness and insignificance. He gives form to the feeling that we just don’t matter, we aren’t important, everything we do is so minute that we don’t even register.
Despite being a terrifyingly huge, physical ‘monster’ the fear he inspires isn’t that we might get crushed under him but rather the deep-seated terror that we just don’t matter. Cthulhu is once of the few creatures to inspire an entirely non-physical fear and it is that uniqueness that has allowed him to stick so firmly in popular culture and the imaginations of millions.
But despite his ridiculous popularity, Cthulhu only physically appears in one story by his creator (though he is referenced in others such as Mountains of Madness).
Call of Cthulhu is a short story, I wish it was longer.