The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu

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The Call of Cthulhu is a short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 by American writer H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft --often credited as H.P. Lovecraft — was an American author of horror, fantasy and science fiction, especially the subgenre known as weird fiction....

. Written in the summer of 1926
1926 in literature
The year 1926 in literature involved some significant events and new books.-Events:*Bread Loaf Writers' Conference is founded in Middlebury, Vermont....

, it was first published in the pulp magazine
Pulp magazine
Pulp magazines , also collectively known as pulp fiction, refers to inexpensive fiction magazines published from 1896 through the 1950s. The typical pulp magazine was seven inches wide by ten inches high, half an inch thick, and 128 pages long...

 Weird Tales
Weird Tales
Weird Tales is an American fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine first published in March 1923. It ceased its original run in September 1954, after 279 issues, but has since been revived. The magazine was set up in Chicago by J. C. Henneberger, an ex-journalist with a taste for the macabre....

, in February 1928.

Inspiration


Cthulhu Mythos
Cthulhu Mythos
The Cthulhu Mythos is a shared fictional universe, based on the work of American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.The term was first coined by August Derleth, a contemporary correspondent of Lovecraft, who used the name of the creature Cthulhu - a central figure in Lovecraft literature and the focus...

 scholar Robert M. Price
Robert M. Price
Robert McNair Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including...

 claims the irregular sonnet
Sonnet
A sonnet is one of several forms of poetry that originate in Europe, mainly Provence and Italy. A sonnet commonly has 14 lines. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song" or "little sound"...

 "The Kraken
Kraken
Kraken are legendary sea monsters of giant proportions said to have dwelt off the coasts of Norway and Iceland.In modern German, Krake means octopus but can also refer to the legendary Kraken...

", written in 1830 by Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular poets in the English language....

, is a major inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's story, as both reference a huge aquatic creature sleeping for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from his slumber in an apocalyptic age.

S. T. Joshi
S. T. Joshi
Sunand Tryambak Joshi — known as S. T. Joshi — is an award-winning Indian American literary critic, novelist, and a leading figure in the study of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and other authors of weird and fantastic fiction...

 and David E. Schultz cited other literary inspirations: Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant
Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was a popular 19th-century French writer, considered one of the fathers of the modern short story and one of the form's finest exponents....

's "The Horla
The Horla
"The Horla" is an 1887 short horror story written in the style of a journal by French writer Guy de Maupassant.American horror writer H. P...

" (1887), which Lovecraft described in "Supernatural Horror in Literature
Supernatural Horror in Literature
"Supernatural Horror in Literature" is a long essay by the celebrated horror writer H. P. Lovecraft surveying the field of horror fiction. It was written between November 1925 and May 1927 and revised in 1933-1934. It was first published in 1927 in the one-shot magazine The Recluse...

" as concerning "an invisible being who...sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind"; and Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen was a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. He is best known for his influential supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. His novella The Great God Pan has garnered a reputation as a classic of horror...

's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895), which uses the same method of piecing together of disassociated knowledge (including a random newspaper clipping) to reveal the survival of a horrific ancient being.

Price also notes that Lovecraft admired the work of Lord Dunsany, who wrote The Gods of Pegana
The Gods of Pegana
The Gods of Pegāna is the first book by Anglo-Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany, published on a commission basis in 1905. It is considered a major influence on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, H. P. Lovecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin...

(1905), which depicts a god constantly lulled to sleep to avoid the consequences of their reawakening. Another Dunsany work cited by Price is "A Shop in Go-by Street" (1919), which stated "the heaven of the gods who sleep", and "unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber".

Plot summary


The story is presented as a manuscript "found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston
Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

". In the text, Thurston recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his granduncle, George Gammell Angell, a prominent Professor of Semitic languages
Semitic languages
The Semitic languages are a group of related languages whose living representatives are spoken by more than 270 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa...

 at Brown University
Brown University
Brown University is a private, Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. Founded in 1764 prior to American independence from the British Empire as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations early in the reign of King George III ,...

 in Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region...

, who died suddenly in "the winter of 1926–27" after being "jostled by a nautical-looking negro".

The first chapter, The Horror in Clay, concerns a small bas-relief sculpture found among the papers, which the narrator describes: "My somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus
Octopus
The octopus is a cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda. Octopuses have two eyes and four pairs of arms, and like other cephalopods they are bilaterally symmetric. An octopus has a hard beak, with its mouth at the center point of the arms...

, a dragon
Dragon
A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that feature in the myths of many cultures. There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern...

, and a human caricature.... A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings." The sculpture is the work of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design
Rhode Island School of Design
Rhode Island School of Design is a fine arts and design college located in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded in 1877. Located at the base of College Hill, the RISD campus is contiguous with the Brown University campus. The two institutions share social, academic, and community resources and...

 who based the work on his delirious dreams of "great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror." Wilcox frequently references the terms Cthulhu
Cthulhu
Cthulhu is a fictional character that first appeared in the short story "The Call of Cthulhu", published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928. The character was created by writer H. P...

and R'lyeh
R'lyeh
R'lyeh is a fictional lost city that first appeared in the H. P. Lovecraft short story "The Call of Cthulhu", first published in Weird Tales in 1928. According to Lovecraft's short story, R'lyeh is a sunken city in the South Pacific and the prison of the malevolent entity called Cthulhu.R'lyeh is...

, and Angell also discovers reports of "outre mental illnesses and outbreaks of group folly or mania" around the world (in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, "hysterical Levant
Levant
The Levant or ) is the geographic region and culture zone of the "eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt" . The Levant includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and sometimes parts of Turkey and Iraq, and corresponds roughly to the...

ines" mob police; in California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, a Theosophist
Theosophy
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

 colony dons white robes to await a "glorious fulfillment").

The second chapter, The Tale of Inspector Legrasse, discusses the first time the Professor had heard the word "Cthulhu" and seen a similar image. At the 1908 meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...

, a New Orleans police official named John Raymond Legrasse asked the assembled antiquarians to identify a statuette composed of an unidentifiable greenish-black stone, that "had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo
Louisiana Voodoo
Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, describes a set of underground religious practices which originated from the traditions of the African diaspora. It is a cultural form of the Afro-American religions which developed within the French, Spanish, and Creole speaking African American...

 meeting." The idol resembles the Wilcox sculpture, and represented a "...thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters".

On November 1, 1907, Legrasse had led a party of policemen in search of several women and children who disappeared from a squatter community. The police found the victims' "oddly marred" bodies being used in a ritual that centered around the statuette: almost 100 men — all of a "very low, mixed-blooded
Miscegenation
Miscegenation is the mixing of different racial groups through marriage, cohabitation, sexual relations, and procreation....

, and mentally aberrant type" — were "braying, bellowing, and writhing" and repeatedly chanting the phrase, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn".
After killing five of the participants and arresting 47 others, Legrasse interrogated the prisoners and learned "the central idea of their loathsome faith": "They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men...and...formed a cult which had never died...hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.

The prisoners identified the statuette as "great Cthulhu", and translated the chanted phrase as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." One particularly talkative cultist, known as "old Castro", named the centre of the cult as Irem
Iram of the Pillars
Iram of the Pillars , also called Aram, Iram, Irum, Irem, Erum, Wabar, Ubar, or the City of a Thousand Pillars, is a lost city on the Arabian Peninsula.-Introduction:Ubar, a name of a region or a name of a people, was mentioned in ancient records, and was spoken of in folk...

, the City of Pillars, in Arabia, and referenced a relevant passage in the text the Necronomicon
Necronomicon
The Necronomicon is a fictional grimoire appearing in the stories by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and his followers. It was first mentioned in Lovecraft's 1924 short story "The Hound", written in 1922, though its purported author, the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred, had been quoted a year earlier in...

: "That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die".

One of the academics present at the meeting, William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 at Princeton
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

, states that on an 1860 expedition "high up on the West Greenland coast" he had encountered "a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux
Inuit
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada , Denmark , Russia and the United States . Inuit means “the people” in the Inuktitut language...

 whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness." Webb claimed that the Greenland cult had both the same chant and a similar "hideous" fetish. Thurston, the narrator, reflects that "My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were."

The third chapter, The Madness from the Sea, concerns Thurston's own investigation into the cult. Thurston discovers an article dated April 18, 1925, from the Sydney Bulletin, an Australian
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 newspaper. The article reported the discovery of a derelict ship in the Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean
The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the Earth's oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south, bounded by Asia and Australia in the west, and the Americas in the east.At 165.2 million square kilometres in area, this largest division of the World...

 with only one survivor - Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen, second mate on the schooner
Schooner
A schooner is a type of sailing vessel characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts with the forward mast being no taller than the rear masts....

 Emma, which sailed from Auckland, New Zealand. On March 22, the Emma apparently encountered a heavily armed yacht
Yacht
A yacht is a recreational boat or ship. The term originated from the Dutch Jacht meaning "hunt". It was originally defined as a light fast sailing vessel used by the Dutch navy to pursue pirates and other transgressors around and into the shallow waters of the Low Countries...

, the Alert, crewed by "a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas
Kanakas
Kanaka was the term for a worker from various Pacific Islands employed in British colonies, such as British Columbia , Fiji and Queensland in the 19th and early 20th centuries...

 and half-castes" from Dunedin
Dunedin
Dunedin is the second-largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the principal city of the Otago Region. It is considered to be one of the four main urban centres of New Zealand for historic, cultural, and geographic reasons. Dunedin was the largest city by territorial land area until...

, New Zealand. Despite being attacked by the Alert without provocation, the crew of the Emma were able to kill the opposing crew, but lost their own ship in the battle. Commandeering the Alert, the surviving crew sailed on and the following day discovered an island in the vicinity of co-ordinates of 47°9′S 126°43′W — despite there being no charted islands in the area. With the exception of Johansen and another man, the remaining crew died on the island, but Johansen was apparently "queerly reticent" about the circumstances of their death.

Thurston realizes from the article that the crew of the Alert was connected to the Cthulhu Cult, and travels to New Zealand and then Australia, where at the Australian Museum
Australian Museum
The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia, with an international reputation in the fields of natural history and anthropology. It features collections of vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, as well as mineralogy, palaeontology, and anthropology...

 he views a statue retrieved from the Alert with a "cuttlefish
Cuttlefish
Cuttlefish are marine animals of the order Sepiida. They belong to the class Cephalopoda . Despite their name, cuttlefish are not fish but molluscs....

 head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed
Logogram
A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme . This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.Logograms are often commonly known also as "ideograms"...

 pedestal". Travelling to Oslo
Oslo
Oslo is a municipality, as well as the capital and most populous city in Norway. As a municipality , it was established on 1 January 1838. Founded around 1048 by King Harald III of Norway, the city was largely destroyed by fire in 1624. The city was moved under the reign of Denmark–Norway's King...

, Norway
Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

, Thurston learns that Johansen died suddenly after an encounter with "two Lascar sailors". Johansen's widow provides Thurston with a manuscript written by her late husband that reveals the final fate of the crew of the Emma.

The uncharted island was described as "a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less the tangible substance of earth's supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh." The crew also struggle to comprehend the non-Euclidian
Non-Euclidean geometry
Non-Euclidean geometry is the term used to refer to two specific geometries which are, loosely speaking, obtained by negating the Euclidean parallel postulate, namely hyperbolic and elliptic geometry. This is one term which, for historical reasons, has a meaning in mathematics which is much...

 of the city. When the sailors manage to open a "monstrously carven portal", they are confronted by a new horror: "It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway.... The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight."

Johansen describes Cthulhu as "a mountain [who] walked or stumbled..." and flees with the crew, almost all of who are killed by the creature or fall to their death in the heights of the strange city. Johansen and one crewmate return to the yacht and set sail, but note with horror that Cthulhu has entered the water to pursue the vessel. Johansen turns the Alert and rams the creature's head, which bursts with "a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish
Ocean sunfish
The ocean sunfish, Mola mola, or common mola, is the heaviest known bony fish in the world. It has an average adult weight of . The species is native to tropical and temperate waters around the globe. It resembles a fish head with a tail, and its main body is flattened laterally...

"- only to immediately begin reforming." The Alert escapes, with Johansen's fellow crewmate having gone insane and dying soon afterwards.

After finishing the manuscript, Thurston realizes he is now a target, thinking, "I know too much, and the cult still lives."

Literary significance and criticism


Lovecraft regarded the short story as "rather middling—not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches". Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright
Farnsworth Wright
Farnsworth Wright was the editor of the pulp magazine Weird Tales during the magazine's heyday.He was born in California, and educated in the University of Nevada and the University of Washington....

 first rejected the story, and only accepted it after writer Donald Wandrei
Donald Wandrei
Donald Albert Wandrei was an American science fiction, fantasy and weird fiction writer, poet and editor. He wrote as Donald Wandrei. He was the older brother of science fiction writer and artist Howard Wandrei...

, a friend of Lovecraft's, falsely claimed that Lovecraft was thinking of submitting it elsewhere.

The published story was regarded by Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Robert Ervin Howard was an American author who wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. Best known for his character Conan the Barbarian, he is regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre....

 (the creator of Conan
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian is a fictional sword and sorcery hero that originated in pulp fiction magazines and has since been adapted to books, comics, several films , television programs, video games, roleplaying games and other media...

) as "a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.... Mr. Lovecraft holds a unique position in the literary world; he has grasped, to all intents, the worlds outside our paltry ken." Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon regarded the story as "ambitious and complex...a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions", adding "one of [Lovecraft's] bleakest fictional expressions of man's insignificant place in the universe."

French novelist Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq , born Michel Thomas, 26 February 1958—or 1956 —on the French island of Réunion, is a controversial and award-winning French author, filmmaker and poet. To admirers he is a writer in the tradition of literary provocation that reaches back to the Marquis de Sade and Baudelaire;...

, in his book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is a work of literary criticism by French author Michel Houellebecq regarding the works of H. P. Lovecraft...

, describes "The Call of Cthulhu" as the first of Lovecraft's "great texts".

External links


  • The Gods of Pegana, Lord Dunsany; complete text at Wikisource
  • "The Horla", Guy de Maupassant; complete text at Wikisource
  • "The Novel of the Black Seal", Arthur Machen; complete text at Project Gutenberg of Australia