Postmortem: The Call of Cthulhu

Bounce around the internet for a while and you’ll surely bounce into Cthulhu, that ubiquitous squid-headed eldritch abomination we’ve all grown to love so dearly. There are even Cthulhu plushies. (Aw …)

But despite all I’d seen and heard about this patriarch of horror, I had never actually sat down and read the original source text: “The Call of Cthulhu,” a story by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1928. So when I stumbled across the volume above at a local Books-a-Million — overpriced, but bargain-discounted to a more palatable cost — I had to have it.

The story itself is remarkably short, for how influential it’s become — just twenty pages in my copy. The complete text is available here, if you like. There’s little plot to speak of. An eminently forgettable narrator does some digging into some old papers, talks to some people, etc., and learns about Cthulhu. What he finds is Truly Horrifying™. Cthulhu is a cosmic, horrific, ancient being that came to Earth long ago. He sleeps beneath the waves, but one day he will wake and bring madness to the whole world. Also, he has a cult. That’s basically it.

I’ve read a little other Lovecraft before: the novella At the Mountains of Madness, a long essay about horror writing, and some small story whose name I’ve forgotten. So, how does “The Call” compare?

Well, it’s the best of his fiction so far, and it’s sort of a fun little read. But it’s still Lovecraft, and his horror is all starting to run together for me, virtues and flaws alike.

Lovecraft’s main virtue is this singular vision he has, that the day-to-day world we know — comfortable, or at least familiar, with our human ambitions and worries and notions of good and evil — is just an infinitesimal speck in the belly of a universe dark and vast and ancient beyond imagination. That much, at least, is simple scientific fact, but Lovecraft gives the darkness force and personality in the form of the Great Old Ones — beings, like Cthulhu, that are so old and strong and strange that we literally cannot imagine their true nature. Even the names we use for them are just feeble human approximations. They are not so much evil, in the mustache-twirling sense, as simply other, utterly indifferent to our desires. Amoral, rather than immoral — and the former is far worse, at least for Lovecraft.

This is a compelling vision, not least because it feels powerfully real. We don’t actually believe in squid-headed mile-high monstrosities, but we do sense that the universe is far darker, deeper, and stranger than our human-centric views might suggest. It’s that particular brand of unfathomable weirdness that survives today as the core of his legacy, and that makes “The Call” enjoyable.

The problem, though, is that Lovecraft is a little too focused on his vision. He hammers it into you endlessly, with every paragraph, every sentence. He is forever insisting that his darkness is so dark, so ancient, so strange, so far beyond mortal comprehension, that you just want him to take a breath and maybe have a beer or something. Certain words pop up over and over: unhallowed, nameless, strange, aeons, Cyclopean (which means “enormous,” only bigger). So many people are driven mad that you start to wonder if they just need better psychiatrists.

Every writer hears the advice “show, don’t tell,” and Lovecraft desperately needs this remedy. You don’t convey horror by saying that something is horrible, or dark, or twisted. You’ve gotta give details, and let the reader’s brain supply the horror on its own. Lovecraft does give details, but he doesn’t let them stand on their own, and honestly the details he gives aren’t super horrifying, especially compared to the over-the-top reactions they induce in all his characters.

That’s another thing. Nobody in a Lovecraft story can hear or see anything remotely connected to the Great Old Ones and just blow it off. “Pfft, squid-head statue, whatever. Did you hear what Stacy said that Molly told Howard about Mike’s promotion?” It’s always shuddering, shivering, whispering. Everyone in this world is as impressed by the mythos as the author himself. And the experts (archaeologists, biologists, linguists) are always baffled by any Cthulhu-related artifacts they find. It’s like nothing they’ve ever seen. Really? You’re telling me a room full of scientists, all trying to impress each other, can’t come up with any connection, even superficially, to anything they know? Lovecraft is trying too hard.

He’s also pretty snooty. He says that only sensitive, receptive people get visions of Cthulhu — fair enough. But he then says that this is all artists and poets (and presumably writers of fiction), whom he calls “aesthetes.” Thoroughly excluded from this group are what he calls “average people in society and business,” who are clearly incapable of grasping the profundity of his darkness. I mean, I get that creative types might be more receptive, but really? That whole lump of “average” people is just right out? You’d almost think he was projecting a bit. (At another point, the narrator refers to a sailor rather condescendingly as an “unlettered seaman,” even though he is currently reading the man’s diary.)

Above all, Lovecraft’s fiction is rife with purple prose. In one passage, he says a statue of Cthulhu “squatted evilly,” which is fun to try and visualize. Elsewhere he speaks of “unhallowed blasphemies” (as opposed to the hallowed kind?) and describes something “visibly darkening the sun” (a contrast to all that invisible darkening you hear about).

Here’s a sentence that so perfectly capture’s Lovecraft’s style that I have to quote it in full. (The “It” below refers to Cthulhu.)

Everyone listened, and everyone was listening still when It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness.

Now you know why Hemingway was so sparing with adverbs — Lovecraft took them all.

(By the way, Lovecraft’s nonfiction is far better than his fiction, because he’s not trying so hard to impress you.)

One perk of this over-the-top writing, though, is that you get some really killer vocabulary. The three words below, all of which my web browser has underlined in red, are just a sample of the treasure trove this story comprises:

  • abysm — means the same thing as abyss, but cooler
  • vigintillions — like trillions, but bigger — a vigintillion is a 1 with 63 zeroes
  • cachinnating — to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or convulsively, according to M-W

All criticism aside, though, Lovecraft’s dark-purple prose is fairly enjoyable in small doses — which is one reason that the twenty-page “Call of Cthulhu” is much better than the much longer At the Mountains of Madness. So if you’re curious about the origins of our tentacled, occasionally plush friend, this story is a fun way to spend an hour or two.

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2 responses to “Postmortem: The Call of Cthulhu

  1. Blasphemies are insults or other disrespects to a deity, so hallowed blasphemies would be disrespecting a deity in pursuit of religion; for example, the mocking of Loki or the excoriation of Daevas by Vedics.

    Visibly darkening is darkening enough to be noticeable, rather than a technical reduction in lumens too small for the eye to register.

    Clearly a man of commerce such as yourself would not comprehend the obvious yet unique truth of Lovecraft’s prose though.

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