THE DEEP ONES: "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft
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Discussion begins July 18.
First published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales.
The Call of Cthulhu
Black Seas of Infinity
H.P. Lovecraft: Tales
The 13 Best Horror Stories of All Time
*Actually, O'Donnell seems pretty good:
and the artist, C.C. Senf, does have a nice body of work...All I do is eat crow!!!
And a pdf on the house:
And...a Cthulhu sketch by Lovecraft:
For me, this story is the gold standard of the weird tale. The Willows sustains a mood better, but this story wins due to its philosophy and tight structure.
The opening paragraph sums up the human condition with wonderful concision. It's ironic that the rest of the story is an exercise in correlation which will doom the reader, as the narrator notes.
I like Lovecraft's method of being very specific. We get the exact dates of the events, instead of a coy reference to spring of 19--, for example. We even know precisely where R'lyeh lies: 47 deg 9 min South 126 deg 43 min West. Note to James Cameron: take your submersible and 3D cameras down there, but don't make loud noises or open any oddly-shaped doors.
There is some inconsistency in the metaphysics. HPL seems to be unsure on whether the Great Old Ones have supernatural powers or just sufficiently advanced technology. E.g., the reference to Cthulhu as a priest. Of course, this could be because these are the only terms in which the witnesses can understand what they witnessed.
The one weakness of the story is how easy it is to drive a ship through the 'gelatinous green immensity' of the big green guy (see Tim's haiku for the story). How tough can he be? I suppose the menace of Cthulhu is his power to manipulate human minds.
This passage is particularly fine:
There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other.
It is strong due to its simplicity and restraint. This suggests The Island of Dr. Moreau to me, but I can't find a specific passage similar to this in Moreau.
That first paragraph is a doozy, isn't it? It must be one of the grimmest, most downbeat outlooks in all of horror fiction:
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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
So mankind's future prospects range from madness to the "safety" of a new dark age? Things are not looking so swell!
I think the third section, "The Madness from the Sea" might be HPL's little homage to the sea-terrors of W.H. Hodgson, especially the details found in the MYSTERY DERELICT FOUND AT SEA article. The arrival of the "mystery derelict" in Darling Harbor reminded me just a bit of the Demeter arriving at Whitby in Dracula. In fact, the documentary approach used in "The Call of Cthulhu" also evokes the then-modern epistolary methods that Stoker used in his novel.
S.T. Joshi has called this story "momentous", and it's pretty hard to argue with that judgement. How many short stories have created a subgenre, not to mention one that is flourishing several decades after the author's death?
Main stylistic bugaboo: "Cyclopean". C'mon, Grandpa, don't you know any other words that mean "big"? I count at least four times where this one pops up in "TCoC". That's kind of a lot for a short story.
I was gonna talk a little bit about the ol' "fear of miscegentation" trope that comes up once again in this story, but I think we've covered that one pretty well elsewhere, so I think I'll mostly skip it. I just wanna say that, in the same fashion that Arthur Machen (apparently) genuine gynophobia/fear of sex helps make his tale The Great God Pan truly horrifying, HPL's irrational fear of people of color aids "TCoC" and other tales of his. (So, yes, I am actually stating that Lovecraft's horror fiction wouldn't have been as effective if he hadn't been such a racist dick.)
There's lots of unambiguously good stuff here, but as my time is limited, for now I'll just deal with what I think is the primary virtue of the story: concision. Bertilak nailed it in #15 - this is one of the tightest stories in the history of horror fiction, if not in 20th-century American literature. I have heard complaints amongst HPL fans that he was not as prolific as he could have been as a writer of fiction, but tales like the "TCoC" certainly show why that is: in this story's 12,000-odd words, there is nary a one that is wasted. This is especially impressive when one considers "TCoC" is the bringing together of three fairly complex narratives: the tale of Angell and Wilcox, Legrasse's adventures, and Johansen's ultimate encounter with Great Cthulhu. Each one could serve as fuel for entire novels by other writers, but here Lovecraft brings them seamlessly together for one truly horrifying short story.
Below the thunders of the upper deep;Robert Price suggests that this is a proximate source for "The Call of Cthulhu," and it's hard to argue against it.
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
"Cyclopean" is used seven times. It rolls off the tongue so nicely, though...
Speaking of the text, Black Seas of Infinity was used as the title of an HPL collection. Joshi reports that "A Mountain Walked" will be the title of an upcoming Lovecraft-themed collection from Centipede Press.
Later on, I'll check to see what ST had to say about the tale in I Am Providence. Will post any points of interest.
I can accept Cyclopean in a story that compares Cthulhu to Polyphemus. But I agree that HPL overuses it.
This is especially impressive when one considers "TCoC" is the bringing together of three fairly complex narratives: the tale of Angell and Wilcox, Legrasse's adventures, and Johansen's ultimate encounter with Great Cthulhu.
And the parts themselves are so intricately nested. We start with the fact a nameless someone found Thurston's papers, the narrator himself (who I presume to be Thurston but I don't think it's explicitly stated), who relates the papers of his grand-uncle, who recorded the tale of Legrasse, who's interrogating Old Castro. It has the potential to be exposition overload but it's managed expertly.
And then each tale ups the immediacy and the horror - from strange dreams, to unsettling rituals, to a ship full of violent cultists, to the confrontation.
> 8, 13, 15
The use of real world items - the house, Machen and Smith, the precise coordinates, giving actual dates, Murray and Frazer gives the tale a great sense of verisimilitude.
Ah "cyclopean". There ought to be a drinking game. On the plus side only one "decadent" and I give him bonus points for "vigintillions".
We start with the fact a nameless someone found Thurston's papers, the narrator himself (who I presume to be Thurston but I don't think it's explicitly stated)
The full subtitle of the story* is "(Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston)", so yeah, the narrator is Thurston.
The use of real world items - the house, Machen and Smith, the precise coordinates, giving actual dates, Murray and Frazer gives the tale a great sense of verisimilitude.
The Golden Bough in particular has got to be one of the most-referenced books of all time. It shows up in "TCoC", The Waste Land, Apocalypse Now, in the work of Joseph Campbell... the list is seemingly endless. (Note to self: I really need to read that one sometime.)
On the plus side only one "decadent" and I give him bonus points for "vigintillions".
"Vigintillions" is awesome. I still don't know what that means!
*Which, as S.T. Joshi notes in An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, is omitted in many editions
The three-volume second edition is the best, although we bibliophiles can't help drooling over the twelve-volume third edition. All single-volume copies are abridgments of various impairment, and even those tend to be monstrously long.
ETA: The 1922 single-volume edition and its reprints very deliberately remove many passages in which Christianity is treated on equal footing with other religions.
Concerning vigintillions: if million is the first in a sequence, billion is second, trillion is third (look at the prefixes), then vigintillion is the 20th. Each number is 1000 times bigger than the previous, so a vigintillion is 10 to the 63rd power. Not a googol, but getting there.
Actually I give HPL negative points for using this word, because, even based on the science of the 1920s there is no way the Earth could be that old.
I think I'd being doing well to read the single-volume abridgement, PA, but I will make it a point to avoid the '22 edition and its reprints. Amazon's blurb for the Oxford World's Classics edition reads in part:
First published in 1890, The Golden Bough was eventually issued in a twelve-volume edition (1906-15) which was abridged in 1922 by the author and his wife. That abridgement has never been reconsidered for a modern audience. In it some of the more controversial passages were dropped, including Frazer's daring speculations on the Crucifixion of Christ. For the first time this one-volume edition restores Frazer's bolder theories and sets them within the framework of a valuable introduction and notes.
Sounds promising, no?
there is no way the Earth could be that old
No, there isn't. That would be going back way before the time of the Big Bang, actually! :D
I actually appreciate the story more for Lovecraft's use of the word "vigintillions." It is a hardly known word that brings to the mind the passage of an unimaginable amount of time. I think that Lovecraft wasn't intending for this to be literal, but merely to evoke that sense of ageless cosmocism.
More importantly, and to address an earlier point made by someone about the specificity of the narrator's descriptions in this story, HPL breaks from his so far analytical depiction of events and facts to make the history of the Old Ones seem even more mysterious and terrifying. If we are to believe Castro that the Old Ones are so far beyond earthly comprehension that we can't even grasp that they aren't wholly made of matter but something outside of our normal preconceptions, who are we to claim that we know how long the earth has been around? Perhaps time flows differently for the Old Ones. Perhaps earth existed in a sort of primordial, slowed-down state when the Old Ones first seeped down from the stars.
My point is that if we accept that hideous, amorphous god-beings from beyond time and space lie dead but dreaming beneath the cold Pacific, then we can probably give HPL the benefit of the doubt that they've been here far longer than we think possible.
This momentous story - which introduced the ersatz mythology that came to be called the "Cthulhu Mythos" - was written in the summer of 1926. Lovecraft had come up with a plot synopsis as early as August 1925, but could not write the story until he returned to Providence. Several literary influences have been put forth - ranging from Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" to A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool" to theosophical writings - but Lovecraft has synthesized these multifarious sources into something entirely new. It was initially rejected by Weird Tales (and also by the obscure pulp magazine Mystery Stories ); but, upon Donald Wandrei's suggestion, Lovecraft resubmitted it to Weird Tales, were it appeared in the February 1928 issue.
Amazing to me that HPL was ready to give up so easily on one of his greatest stories. Did he really not care if it was published or not?
This is about the third or fourth time I've read this story, and I find new stuff each time.
Not only are Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith mentioned by name, but there is a reference to Lovecraft's friend and correspondent James F. Morton. He’s the mineralogist in Patterson, New Jersey.
This time I was struck by how worldy this story is as well as cosmic. The story alludes to many global locations: the Pacific, Norway, Louisiania, Boston, New Zealand, New York City, London, Hayti, the Phillippines, South America, California, Greenland, and Ireland. And the protagonist travels more than any of Lovecraft's other protagonists.
The famous “the stars are right” is a rhetorical device uttered in many variations though, I think, not too many.
This time I was particularly reading the story in the light of criticisms made against Lovecraft in general and this story in particular. Though he's worked in the Lovecraft vein, Neil Gaiman has criticized the allegedly bad structure of this story. Gardener Dozois and critic Gary Wolfe have griped about Lovecraft’s allegedly adjective-heavy style.
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 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 comet’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.” Twelve adjectives in that sentence with three in a row -- and “hilarious” is an odd adjective to use.
As for Theosophy, I think I have a Fortean Times article around here that traces the influence. As I recall, it's the basic supposition of older civilizations and races and secret books and received wisdom. E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft's friend and one-time co-author, was a Thesophist I believe.
...all livened by a cachinnating chorus of the distorted, hilarious elder gods and the green, bat-winged mocking imps of Tartarus.
Not that you would ever steer us wrong, Randy, but I actually felt the need to go and find that sentence in the story (it was, indeed, there). "Hilarious" is an odd choice - certainly not something you assosciate with Cthulhu and the like. My suspicion is that HPL was looking for a four-syllable word with a stress on the second syllable and "hilarious" was what came to mind.
PS You know you've truly gone off the deep end as a Lovecraft fan when you no longer have to check the spelling of "Cthulhu" before you type it. "Suspicion"? Yes. "Cthulhu"? No. :D
Seeing Cthulu in print (it took an effort to type that incorrectly) gives me the editorial bad-spelling gut-check feeling.
And you see that particular misspelling a lot, too; a Google search on "Cthulu"(sic) ( http://www.google.com/search?q=cthulu&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&a...) just now turned up over four million results. :/
"Cthulu", on the other hand, while of course it could have been such a variant, simply looks like a typo.
I know what you mean about sometimes having to spellcheck Cthulhu.
As to "hilarious, I suspect you're right about Lovecraft the poet looking for a word of the characteristics you mentioned. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one meaning as "cheerful, cheery, gladsome". The related "hilarity" is given the meaning "calm joy". I think that approaches what Lovecraft probably meant with the word. Wasn't Azathoth described as a blind, mad flute player -- another sort of menacing yet jocular image from Lovecraft?
It all sounds a bit festive -- for them: "cachinnating chorus of the distorted, hilarious elder gods and the green, bat-winged mocking imps of Tartarus". Just maybe Lovecraft was thinking of a cosmic version of the Masque of the Red Death or something out of The King in Yellow -- which I haven't read all of.
Toes are fine, Art. I still plan on posting some Joshi comments from IAP. I've been in house buying/selling hell, and the Brain Bats of Venus have left me with little time to spend online! Hoping that will change soon.
Good call on "Masque", Randy. I'd guess that Poe was very much in mind when HPL conjured that definitely odd sentence. Shrieking mad revelry!
Good. I figured you were still busy with the house stuff, so I thought I'd take the liberty
I don't think it does in TCoC, though. It occurs only with reference to cities, buildings and the like, so I expect HPL intended the architectural sense, in Wiktionary's words "fitted together of huge irregular stones".
It will take awhile to settle, since there is a lot crammed in and not much room at the heliport. ; D Science, ugh.
After reading a lot of Hodgson, I enjoyed the New Zealand aspect, the sailors, the boat names, etc. Tiny islands might sound like paradise, but they are terrifying to me in every story dating back to Robinson Crusoe. Vast references from New Orleans to 'Eskimos' and from NZ to Norway.
I will work my way through the comments, and circle back around, to see what leaves the strongest imprint.