I’m taking a break from my Star Wars reading schedule to talk about another branch of fiction that has held me in its sway, albeit only recently – weird fiction. The names of Lovecraft and Cthulhu are of course well-known in pop culture, and even beyond, but I only seriously decided to investigate what all the fuss was about in 2012. As it happens, I bought the first volume of Lovecraft tales and left it on a shelf for five months before actually looking to see what it was all about.
The first story I read was, naturally, The Call of Cthulhu itself. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. Lovecraft has a wonderfully gothic, verbose manner that I really enjoyed from the off – lots of high-flung prose overflowing with adjectives and similes like nothing I’ve ever read before. While there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism to his works, such things must be looked at in context, and while this is not intended to excuse, I find it difficult to understand people who dismiss him now for writing what was accepted at the time. It’s the age-old thing of judging the past by the present.
However, what I found most unsatisfying with the tale was its presentation, I suppose. The story is basically one of the narrator’s investigation into the cult of Cthulhu, prompted following his discovery of some papers in the possession of his late uncle. As such, it jumps around a bit, from describing events in 1925, to events in 1908, then back to 1925. Essentially, the tale is one long report, because nothing really happens within the story itself – the narrator describes what he read among his uncle’s papers, which leads him on to describing a police raid some years previously, which leads him back to describing a diary he then read. While these events range from the bizarre to the terrifying, there is very little dynamism because we’re seeing them all through the narrator’s filter – and the narrator is clearly in no danger because the events did not feature him.
All in all, I was a little put-out. In particular, I failed to see how this tale could have proven to be the seminal work of gothic horror and weird fiction that it appears to have become, much less spawn an entire “Cthulhu mythos” around it.
That was all back in 2012.
Over the past two years I have, in fits and starts, returned to Lovecraft’s fiction, reading other tales from the three-volume Penguin series. In this time, I have come to gain a fantastic appreciation for Lovecraft as a writer, and also to completely re-evaluate my thoughts on this tale, which I read again this morning.
There are a couple of points which I think need to be understood about Lovecraft, in order for you to really appreciate his stories for the classics that they are. Aside from the fact that gothic horror, I would contend, is not meant to be ‘scary’ in the sense we have come to appreciate the word nowadays, a lot of Lovecraft’s work is first and foremost cosmic horror. He isn’t reliant on supernatural evil such as vampires and werewolves, but instead on the terror of the impossible made manifest, and the threat more to his protagonists’ sanity than to their actual physical well-being. Indeed, there aren’t a great many physical injuries described in the stories I have read thus far. Rather, it is the threat of insanity that is the biggest terror in his work. That, coupled with the fact that his protagonists are usually scholarly, professor-type characters, who are no doubt even more afraid to lose their grip on their mind, all adds to the creepiness.
We have become so much of a visual-based society in recent years that the power of words in the imagination seems to have lost its ability to work as effectively, I feel. Take, for instance, this first description of the god Cthulhu:
It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.
Is that better at conveying the horror of the story than, say, this:
Personally, I much prefer the written word. While it’s true that Cthulhu is a tentacle-faced demon god as per Lovecraft’s description, there are sufficient blanks in there to allow us to really creep ourselves out thinking about it. Particularly the eyes. But when we see it, it becomes a case of, “Oh, that’s freaky” and we move on. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lovecraft’s stories that seems to centre on this fact: his stories lead up to a ‘big reveal’ that invariably isn’t fully described because of the horror that the protagonist is experiencing (so far, all of the stories I have read have been first-person narrations), which leads reviewers to feel cheated. To me, this misses the point. Lovecraft’s work allows us to exercise our imaginations in ways that horror nowadays doesn’t require. He gives us just enough that we are left with a sense of deep unease. But anyway.
The story is also one of suspense. Split into three ‘chapters’, the first deals with the narrator’s description of an earthquake, following which an outbreak of group mania occurred within the international artistic community, alongside unrest among what are clearly meant to be more primitive areas of the world. One artist somehow sculpted a bas-relief in his sleep of Cthulhu, and its appearance is strikingly similar to an idol recovered on a raid of a voodoo cult in the Deep South some years earlier. A cult is described as worshipping the Great Old Ones, who are said to lie dreaming, waiting for the stars to align before they return to conquer the earth in a fiery apocalypse. During the period of mania, it transpires that a boat was caught in a storm off New Zealand, and only one person survived. The sailor professed to not recall what happened during the maelstrom, but the fact that he came through it clutching at a similar idol spurs the narrator to find his diary, which describes the boat coming upon an uncharted island of weird geometrical proportions. Unwittingly, the sailors awaken Cthulhu, who chases the ship but is driven off by the one surviving sailor. His heroics unhinge his mind, and he mysteriously dies when he returns home. The narrator, convinced that what he has learnt of the cult of Cthulhu means he too is not long for this world, locks away what he has discovered in a box, hoping that, when he too is inevitably disposed of, his research will remain hidden.
The suspense that is built up from the description of the bas-relief and the inexplicable collective madness, through the voodoo cult ceremony in Louisiana, and culminating in the description of the discovery of R’lyeh and the awakening of Cthulhu himself is quite masterful. I’m only sorry that it took me two years to realise that! But as I said, I feel that it is a greater knowledge of Lovecraft’s work that has enabled me to appreciate this tale more for what it is. To that extent, I would probably not recommend this tale as an introduction to his work – either The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow over Innsmouth are much better in this regard, being more classically-proportioned horror stories. You also need to be prepared for the previously-mentioned prose – take the description of R’lyeh, for instance:
Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.
It is wonderful, I have to say! As another blogger puts it, the words flow ‘with a life of their own’, and the result is an imagery that really does leap off the page.
The biggest horror, for me at least, is not in the half-described Shoggoths or other weird creatures that torment Lovecraft’s characters, but in the Ancient Ones themselves, and the fact that they just don’t care about humanity. While later writers would attempt to create a pantheon out of Lovecraft’s gods, for Lovecraft himself, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth have no interest in humanity. They will bring about the end of the world not because they’re evil, simply because they will. And often, there is little that can be done to stop them. In Call of Cthulhu, the Norwegian sailor manages to drive Cthulhu off while he escapes, and the subsequent storm once more pulls R’lyeh to the bottom of the ocean, but Cthulhu hasn’t been defeated – as the narrator himself tells us at the end of the tale:
Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cries of men.
Since Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928, there have been all sorts of tales published within the so-called Cthulhu mythos. While Lovecraft himself is reputed to have preferred the term “Yog-Sothothery” for his work, the label has stuck, and even today weird fiction is being produced that adds to the mythos. For me, my love of boardgames has brought me to such awesome incarnations as Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Call of Cthulhu LCG, Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, and it is a familiarity with the tales behind these games that makes them all the more enjoyable. It seems Lovecraft’s fiction has successfully permeated most aspects of pop-culture, frequently gaming, though he has never transcribed well to film. Perhaps because most of Lovecraft’s brilliance lies in the way he has crafted his stories through words?
(All extracts are from the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1999, ed. ST Joshi)