Reading Group #25 (Lovecraft: 'The Outsider' & 'The Call of Cthulhu')

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Reading Group #25 (Lovecraft: 'The Outsider' & 'The Call of Cthulhu')

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gen. 6, 2012, 9:44am

We've hit our twenty-fifth read: wow! Thanks, everybody, for making this reading group such a great place to discuss...clearly we're doing something right!

Here are some free etexts for those of us without a Lovecraft anthology:

gen. 12, 2012, 5:53pm

I haven't reread 'The Outsider' yet, but I thought I had better get the ball rolling on this thread; so, 'The Call of Cthulhu"...

The first thing to say, I think, and foreshadowing comparisons with 'The Outsider', is that this story is not Gothic. It's not, even, really a horror story. It's a thriller, a supernatural thriller if you like. Despite Lovecraft's wide vocabulary and archaic language, it was written for a pulp magazine that jostled for space on newstands with the likes of 'Black Mask Magazine'.

Not this this was anything new. Rather, a thriller might or might not have a supernatural element until some way into the 20th Century, when the horror and thriller/detection genres were separated out. As examples, the power of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', depends in large part on a supernatural explanation remaining in sight as a possibility; in the 20s or 30s Dorothy L Sayers et al set down rules that, inter alia, did for occult detectives like Carnacki.

Another angle on the relation between Lovecraft and the thriller is this: in a long article at the back of his Lovecraft/Len Deighton hybrid The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross draws attention to the fact that Deighton's Cold War espionage stories should be, or are, the true horror, because lying at the back of the plots is the real possibility of the end of the world. Lovecraft's stories - the Mythos stories at any rate - are structured as detective stories and give the reader the pleasure of a detective story. I doubt many people are actually driven to a horror of a hostile, Godless universe by reading Lovecraft. While you're reading them, these stories are fun.

As an adventure story, 'The Call of Cthulhu' seems to have a slightly awkward construction (the comparison that comes to my mind is with the Sherlock Holmes adventure 'Wisteria Lodge'), and yet it bears re-reading, and re-hearing (to prepare for this, I listened to the unabridged reading by William Roberts on Naxos Audiobooks. As good an attempt at Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn as you'll ever hear, in my opinion!).

There's a lot more to say, but I'll leave it there for now. I'll be interested to see where the discussion goes.

gen. 12, 2012, 9:07pm

#2 - I can't really comment in any depth because I've only read Part 1 of 'The Call', as yet. I will say, though, on your I doubt many people are actually driven to a horror of a hostile, Godless universe ..., that I remember reading it as a youngster (if it's the same one I'm remembering) and it chimed rather disturbingly with the angst engendered by my attempts to get to grips with the mind-boggling immensities of astronomy and astrophysics.

On the other hand, I have read 'The Outsider' (SPOILERS) and I found it a delightful little story. It's a reverse side, isn't it? The obverse being the story told from the point of view of the people of the modern castle, terrified by the sudden appearance of this horror from the family's or the castle's past. I wonder if that story actually exists elsewhere in Lovecraft's tales?

The climb up the ruined tower frightened the cr*p out of me. However, I thought it did have one weakness - I thought Lovecraft rather telegraphed that business of the mirror towards the end. I can't imagine anyone not seeing it coming.

gen. 13, 2012, 5:12pm

>3 alaudacorax:

On reflection, I was over-generalizing and overstating my case there, I think. However, there is some truth in what I said. Lovecraft has generated a sort of mini-industry, with fellow writers gleefully producing their own 'Mythos' tales from the '30s to the present day. Then there's his influence on creators in other media (I must have first seen the word 'Necronomicon' in a comic book, and for years took it to simply mean a magic book, like 'grimoire'), to Role Playing games, Live Action(!) Role Playing Games, dramas, soft toys...that's why the word "fun" came to mind.

Lovecraft is full of horrors coming up from the past - in one form or another.

gen. 15, 2012, 10:09pm

In regard to just how 'scary' 'The Call of Cthulhu' is, I have to say that I've always come out of it feeling more than a little jittery. As for 'The Outsider,' I find it less creepy than Lovecraft's more cosmic stuff, but it is a really wonderful little yarn, isn't it? Yes, we see the ending coming, but I don't think that that ruins any of the story's power. Very Poe-like, I think: decadent and crepuscular and full of doom and gloom and Lovecraft's baroque word-play. The Gothic element in 'The Call of Cthulhu' is mostly in the set-up, I think: a found manuscript, ancient horrors, the miniscule impact of man in contrast to the enormity of nature (with nature being more epic, of course, here than in say, Ann Radcliffe's work). 'The Outsider's Gothic elements are more in line with tradition, obviously, and probably don't necessitate comment. Beautiful stuff, in a way, if at times overwrought (like the rest of the Weird tradition).

And speaking of the Weird genre, in general, I think it's time I defended my inclusion of these works (Lovecraft, Blackwood, etc) on our Gothic reading list. I suppose I consider most pre- and post-Lovecraft weirdness (we'll go with that totally scholarly term, ha!) as a kind of branch of the main Gothic thread; it certainly bares only passing resemblance to Hawthorne or Walpole or Stoker, but that atmosphere of doom that runs uniquely through all English horror fiction is present more than in modern terror-lit, which I think gives it a claim to qualifying as 'Gothic.' I think the line where modern Horror fiction and the Gothic as it evolved into the Weird lies is somewhere in the reliance of revulsion as a technique for eliciting horror: from Walpole to Lovecraft, horror laid as much in atmosphere and a kind of careful, emotional approach to fear. With the moderns, it's more a case of how 'shocking' or disgusting something is, even if tempered with some pathos (and I'm not being critical of it, I certainly don't mind a little gross-out from time to time), and that's where I suppose the Gothic associations leave the picture. And so yes, it's murky to define Lovecraft as Gothic, but I think he (and perhaps Clark Ashton Smith) are transitional figures in horror fiction: the last to count as 'Gothic,' even if only in a spirit or a sense, and the first to count as modern Horror writers. We're going to try some Clark Ashton Smith after this, for comparison, before returning to Poe or Beckford or whoever (and with him we'll discover what I'd call 'Gothic sci-fi,' which should really get the old 'is this Gothic?' debate going!). Try to bear with me if you're not finding any Gothic elements in these reads: they're there, I'd say, but just...different.

This is a remarkably scattered post, so please forgive me. I'm a little tipsy... :D

Editat: gen. 16, 2012, 7:31am

#5 - This 'is it Gothic' business reminds me that I had a sense of Lovecraft playing games with the reader in The Outsider (just occurred to me to try Touchstones and surprised it worked - with a bit of tweaking). He obviously intended the opening to be stereotypically Gothic (ruined castle in the deep woods) just so he could have fun subverting expectations. I think I detect a note of sly humour in Lovecraft quite often, though it's rather elusive and not the first element of his writing that readily springs to my mind. I really do like this story despite what I said above about the mirror.

ETA - Why Egypt? Am I missing some relevance, there?

gen. 16, 2012, 6:20pm

I'm intending to do the 'compare and contrast' that you asked for at the end of the last thread, but here are some thoughts on/responses to the recent posts.

>5 veilofisis:

Isis, I hope you didn't think I was criticising your choices here - all I was doing was trying to analyse the story and understand how it works. I would find an unrelieved diet of 'mainstream' or 'proper' Gothic a struggle, to be honest... all those heroines in peril, incarceration, hopes of escape dashed at the last moment, letters intercepted... (generalising again) men's nerves can't take the strain! Only women are strong enough!

Why I don't find 'Call' scary, I think, comes down to my early and almost exclusive reading of science fiction, which rather than giving me 'Cosmic Agoraphobia', so to speak, gave me a 'Cosmic Claustrophobia' instead, such that being stuck on this one planet seemed like being little better than a rat in a trap. Where Lovecraft's cosmic perspectives do give me definite frisson is where time is involved - I think particularly the story 'The Shadow Out of Time' - I'll say no more, for the sake of anybody reading who hasn't encountered it yet.

> 6

'Why Egypt'? I think it's down to Lovecraft's personal mythology. This coda (if that's the right word) is where the story deviates from Poe (Lovecraft admitted that this story was influenced by Poe, my source is S.T. Joshi's notes in the Penguin edition). I take it that the narrator is dead, or risen from the dead, or undead in some sense. He may well be a ghoul, a concept that Lovecraft adopted and adapted from what my dictionary describes as 'Muslim legend'. This would make the Egyptian desert an appropriate destination for him (either because Egypt is a Muslim and an Arabic country, or because the Arabian desert is only a hop and skip away from it in the Western imagination). Also, Ancient Egypt was - still is - popularly thought to be a land of the dead and worship of the dead. Plus, Joshi states that Lovecraft had heard a reading of play about Queen Nitokris by Lord Dunsany - another of his early influences.

Veering massively off topic - anyone else read or heard the story of Dunsany shooting two Zebras in Piccadilly? It's in Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages by William Donaldson.

gen. 16, 2012, 7:28pm


No, I didn't think anybody was criticizing my choices, houseful! Just doing a little apologia now that we've gotten so deep into the cosmic stuff... :)

'Cosmic Claustrophobia:' I like the notion of that! And I agree on 'The Shadow Out of Time.' I literally just read that for the first time a few days ago. WOW, what a story... I have to say that Lovecraft doesn't exactly give me much in the nature of a 'thrill;' his stories creep me out mostly post-reading, when I have some time to meditate on their world-view (which is about as nihilistic as fiction gets, I suppose). Being a religious person, his entirely atheistic conception of things is humbling and, ultimately, troubling for me and seems to brew up as, at times, a kind of fear: call it a fear, even, of your own faith (personal delusion, a godless chaos out there, whatever). It's hard for me to explain precisely what I mean by this, but I figured I'd offer it for what it was worth.

A footnote: Has anyone ever taken majoun? That Moroccan confection made out of dates, figs, honey, and uh, marijuana? No, no, don't worry: you don't have to confess: just a knowing wink will suffice, haha. ANYWAY...I once read a Lovecraft yarn ('The Rats in the Walls') utterly under the spell of majoun, and THAT was perhaps the most terrifying reading experience of my life; it was enough to put me off both grass and Lovecraft for a long, long while. So if anybody doesn't find Lovecraft quite, er, creepy enough...well, I won't 'suggest' anything, but, uh... ;)

gen. 16, 2012, 7:29pm

And regarding Dunsany: wtffff?!?! :D

gen. 17, 2012, 2:15pm

I think you may have touched on something revealing about the Gothic in the last couple of posts. Could the movement away from Gothic to terror-lit have something to do with increasing secularism? I mean, if there are elements of religious awe or riskily defying the will of God in a Gothic tale, they will not resonate with someone who does not believe in a God, an Afterlife where he/she will be judged (or rewarded) for their actions, a supernatural element to existence, etc.

What would still resonate (perhaps more than it would with a person of faith) is physical threat, pain, injury, death, and ultimately you don't need a god or a monster to deliver on that threat - one human being can be sufficient to do it to another. An irate Jehovah, a Great Cthulhu, a Dracula, are simply overkill.

A lot of crime/detective dramas on TV or cinema today would have been classed as horror 30 years ago, I'm sure.

The nearest I've been to marijuana (I'm reminded of something I read recently: "We call it cannabis resin here, sir" - a policeman to Tony Curtis as he arrested him at Heathrow Airport in the early '70's, apparently) is standing in front of the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury (passive smoking unavoidable). Sounds like a question for The Chapel of the Abyss! However, I did know someone who took magic mushrooms before watching David Cronenberg's Videodrome on TV- really, really not to be recommended.

And Dunsany - here's the quote from his entry in the book. I haven't tried to verify it from other sources.
"...his consuming passion {was} the hunting of big game.

"Big-game hunting was an activity Dunsany followed as the circumstances allowed. In the 1930s the proprietors of Lobb & Co., the gentleman's shoe shop in St James's, advertised their premises by means of a trap drawn by two zebras. Never having bagged a zebra, Dunsany took up a position between Fortnum and Mason and Hatchards, the bookshop, and shot them both dead as they trotted down Piccadilly."

So there you are.

gen. 17, 2012, 3:54pm


In regard to the first part of your post, I think that's close to what I was trying to explain. Great observations!

gen. 18, 2012, 10:12am

#10 - I have my doubts about that Dunsany story.

Not because I have any idea whether he might or might not have done such a thing, but because I've read that zebra (zebras?) are quite formidable animals - trying to harness a couple to a cart might be a very dangerous undertaking.

If Dunsany ever did what is alleged, I strongly suspect he shot a couple of ponies with stripes painted on them.

gen. 18, 2012, 5:41pm

> You're probably right. I've had a quick unscientific look on the Net - a few blogs mention the story, but quote the same source as me, or no source.

And thanks for the warning about zebras - if I encounter one, I won't get too close.

gen. 18, 2012, 9:41pm

You gotta love this group...Lovecraft, zebra warnings, cannabis-infused readings... :D

gen. 19, 2012, 2:59am

>7 housefulofpaper: , 14.
Not Majoun, but Bhang, in India, and I was in no state to read anything. If you are going to indulge may I suggest this version of Cthulhu, even if not you cannot fail to enjoy it:

gen. 19, 2012, 10:48am

> 15

Absolutely brilliant!

Editat: gen. 22, 2012, 6:14pm

"Spoiler Alert"
The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu were both written and published in the 1920’s. In his notes to the Penguin selection of Lovecraft’s short stories, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, the editor, S. T. Joshi, places the composition of The Outsider in 1921. The Call of Cthulhu was probably written about five years later, but it is in many ways an extensive reworking of one of Lovecraft’s earliest published stories, Dagon (which was written in 1917).

Looking at the similarities between them, The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu are both told by first-person narrators who are also actors in their stories. Both stories begin with an epigraph and a statement or proposition, as if the composition were an old-fashioned essay, before leading into the story proper. Lovecraft’s predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe, also began more than one of his stories in this way.

Joshi’s notes to The Outsider point out that it is very much in Poe’s style, and quotes a 1931 letter in which Lovecraft admits as much.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - the one which yielded the damning judgement on Arthur Machen - has a long article on “CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH”. This is explained, in the context of science fiction, as the breaking down of a paradigm and its substitution with a new one - that is, with a new way of looking at and understanding the world. For example, the article cites the number of stories in which the world turns out to be a “generation starship” (the idea behind which is, denied faster-than-light travel, a colony to a new world would take several generations to get there. Given that such an enterprise is attempted anyway, the assumption is that the colonists will have to be fooled into believing they are already on a world - or never left Earth - rather than in a spaceship).

Depending on the story being told, and/or the disposition of the author, the new paradigm can be beneficial, or terrible, or anything in between. However, Science Fiction - certainly 20th Century Science Fiction, with the US pulp magazines setting the tone and being the motor for the industry - almost always takes the line that it is better to know. Whatever the consequences, it is better to know. And Lovecraft, by contrast? “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Ignorance, if not bliss, is “placid” - the best, it seems, that we can hope for; at least in Lovecraft’s estimation.

This is perhaps where Lovecraft’s claim to be part of the Gothic tradition is strongest. Taking a cue from the Encyclopedia entry, the set-up would be this: Enlightenment Rationalism thought God made the universe, ultimately, knowable and benign. so Man should seek knowledge. Romanticism, especially in its Gothic aspect or elements, was not so sure and, like the Medieval mindset, thought that perhaps “there are some things Man is not meant to know”.

Both of Lovecraft’s stories use the idea of conceptual breakthrough, and in each case “breaking through” is a terrible thing. The Outsider presents a narrator who believes he lives in a castle surrounded by a forest and surmounted by an enormously high tower. In fact, he has been living deep underground and the tower is a deep tunnel that leads to the surface. His realisation of this fact is a moment of conceptual breakthrough (and less obvious, I think, than the “surprise” ending that he himself is the monster from which the revellers have fled).

Before moving on to The Call of Cthulhu, I should point out that Joshi mentions the “irrational” plot and says some commentators have attempted to resolve the problem by concluding that the whole thing is just a dream.

I don’t think the dream explanation is necessary. I take it that the “trees” are either tree-roots or some strange flora native to a weird underground ecology that Lovecraft chooses not to elaborate on. The other plot holes (where do the books come from, who caters for the narrators needs, and how?) are covered by the flash of remembrance and forgetting when the narrator recognises his reflection. Authorial sleight-of-hand, perhaps, but we have to take it on trust that all would be explained if the back story had been given to us.

Finally, the story ends with a coda which is almost a happy ending, albeit of the revelling-in-one’s-own-misery variety.

The Outsider is a short story which in essence recounts the events of a few hours as they happen to one person. The Call of Cthulhu tells, through its narrator, the stories of several individuals and ranges over several years. As I said before, it is structured as a detective story, with the narrator gathering the evidence of murder, conspiracy (the actions of the Cthulhu cult) but also the conceptual breakthrough. In this case it is, of course, that an incredibly powerful alien has always been here, and will one day destroy our world. Such destruction was only averted by chance.

I was wondering if the behaviour of the island is consistent with the science of plate tectonics (which I gather was not accepted in the US until the 1970s) or is actually impossible. Similarly, I wondered whether the ship could be got up to speed and maneuvered in the way Lovecraft describes.

I should also say that I overstated my case earlier: this story is a bit creepy!

Editat: gen. 22, 2012, 3:03pm


Faaaaaaabulous post....! You should do a volume on this guy!

gen. 27, 2012, 5:13am

I believe it's time we moved on. Next read is another 'Weird' yarn, and, as promised, is a plunge into what I'd consider the fusion of very proper Gothic with science fiction. Clark Ashton Smith: 'The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.' New thread is up.

Editat: gen. 29, 2012, 4:58pm

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març 15, 2019, 7:25am

I got through one of these (Cthulhu) and will post comments on both once the second is finished (weekend?).

Happy Death Day HPL! Oh, and Ides of March, yikes.

Editat: març 15, 2019, 8:16pm

Wowsa, what a thread! I don't know where to start with comments so might just blurt now and edit extensively later...

1. Nope, no drug use or smoking whatsoever (allergies are handy for that) and the only time I drink is to keep warm outdoors, ie. skating the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, outdoor football games (CFL or Vanier Cup c/o wineskin), or dogsledding in Algonquin Park (again, allergies tormented me but I persevered). I don't get the draw at all, since my own imagination is enough to contend with. Vivid and without collar/cage. =)
2. I put zebras in the same category as camels and grizzlies; ornery, approach at your own risk, best left alone.
3. I have zero science fiction reading experience in my first 2 decades, but loved to watch Star Trek, which kept the horror element contained. Big on laughs with Shatner/Nemoy teaming. Bones and Scottie too. That said, I missed the whole pulp fiction horror/sci-fi/weird mania and have only in the past year tried to sort out boundaries of each. Not impossible, just time consuming.
4. The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow Out of Time might be my next Lovecraft bundle. Hitting Machen (The Great God Pan) and Blackwood first though. I have 3 Dunsanys set aside for after that.
5. I wish there was a list of wordcount for Lovecraft, similar to my Dickens approach. I found chronologically impossible, but it worked for Steinbeck and Hemingway. Alphabetical for Faulkner, just to mix it up!
6. I like the concept of claustrophobic horror, without realizing that's what it was. I loved little corners and nooks like staircase turns or closets under the stairs, with a flashlight to read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, but the vastness of the ocean or the atmosphere is ghastly. I will take the awe of a mountain over water or air any day!

(Disclaimer: I don't believe alcohol warms you up, I think it makes you forget you're cold.)

Editat: març 15, 2019, 8:17pm

Short and sassy that was. The Outsider was in two different Kobo collections but I didn't realize it was less than half the length of Cthulhu, thus was able to pin both down this week. I want to start The Woman in White soon so will abandon my short story binge for awhile.

The Call of Cthulhu: I believe I started to comment in The Weird Tradition group, but kept it to a minimum. I felt overwhelmed by not only the jargon (which takes getting used to) but by the overlap of the regional tales. This was not at all the case for The Outsider. Obviously, not only due to length, but because it felt familiar right from the start. Frankenstein-flavour. Bats, rats, spiders, damp, dark ... now we're talking! =D

I also read The Dunwich Horror this week, which placed an "abomination" theme in the back of my mind, even before the mirror clicked into place. It was clear (from the comments) that there was a big departure from gods lacking any coherent moral centre, which is Lovecraft's predominant style, and a good vs. evil storyline which is a mainstay of the Gothic. We all know which I prefer, but I am learning the subtleties of departure from one to the next.

Margaret Atwood started that wheel in motion with the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction when she was marketing The Blind Assassin, which I read for the first time last year. I hope to get to The Robber Bride shortly (and Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom).

If anyone has a poor man's access to references about these glaring or shaded points of contention, I would appreciate a peek. In simple terms of course, as I am no scholar, only inquisitive. It may only boil down to dates.

Speculative Fiction
Science Fiction

març 15, 2019, 5:40pm

>23 frahealee:

The encyclopedia of science fiction might be a good place to start. The first edition was an invaluable resource when I was just entering my teens and reading nothing but science fiction and fantasy.

The current, much expanded, edition is available online:

març 15, 2019, 8:03pm

>24 housefulofpaper: Thank you for that, I'll look into it. And you reminded me to include Fantasy in my list. I have more experience with that genre than with sci-fi but not much more.