Vacation Necronomicon School, summer 2010 reading assignment for 30th July 2010: “The Call of Cthulhu”.

“Your short assignment today […] meditate on what makes Cthulhu the truly definitive Elder God. What, exactly, is the appeal?”

TASK FIVE: 30th July 2010.

The long story “The Call of Cthulhu” famously crystallises his proto-Cthulhu mythos, details it, and introduces the Old Ones.

Possible origins and influences — the 1925 eclipse:

The detailed plot of “Cthulhu” was written in the summer of 1925, while Lovecraft was living in New York. By 1925 New York was a city of over 1,000 towering skyscrapers, and the foundations of 30 more were being laid. This great crucible of modernity was plunged into darkness by a total eclipse of the sun in January 1925.

Lovecraft recalled in a letter of 1932…

“In 1925 (when I was in New York) some of us tramped up into the cold of northern Yonkers to see the January eclipse”

Le Sprague de Camp elaborated in Lovecraft: a biography (1975)…

“On January 24, 1925, he went with Morton, Leeds, Kirk, and Ernest Dench of the Blue Pencil Club to Yonkers, to see a total eclipse of the sun, beginning at 9:12 am. They had a fine view of the corona,”

The view of the eclipse was excellent from Yonkers, according to newspaper and astronomer reports. There was snow on the ground, and Lovecraft later recalled the cold of that occasion as a… “marrow-congealing ordeal”.

Manhattan seen from Yonkers. In the winter there would have been no leaves on the trees to impede a view of the city.

We might thus imagine Lovecraft finding himself looking across at the city’s towering black monolith-like skyscrapers, from whatever astronomer’s lookout he and his companions had found, and seeing New York as if it were a sunken city at the bottom of the ocean, in an ocean of semi-darkness and with all the stars shining especially brilliantly above…

“The great stone city R’lyeh, with its monoliths and sepulchres, had sunk beneath the waves; and the deep waters, full of the one primal mystery through which not even thought can pass, had cut off the spectral intercourse. But memory never died, and the high-priests said that the city would rise again when the stars were right.” — “The Call of Cthulhu”.

“he had had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” — “The Call of Cthulhu”.

It is also possible Lovecraft may have later seen newsreel cinema footage, and quality magazine pictures in National Geographic, of New York during the eclipse, which could have contributed to his ideas about the visual descriptions of R’lyeh.

What is the enduring appeal of “The Call of Cthulhu”?

But little of this explication of possible sources explains why “The Call of Cthulhu” is so potent for readers and its influence so long-lived.

In the first instance one can say that this story is the first that new readers of Lovecraft usually come to, and that it is the only one to substantially feature Cthulhu. “Cthulhu” is thus likely to be imprinted forever into the brain of the young reader who first encounters the literary Lovecraft. For this reason, many of his fans may look back on “The Call of Cthulhu” with a special fondness in later years.

There are other reasons why this story might be especially valued. The story sheds all trace of faery or the traditional ghost story, in favour of documentary reportage. By making this shift Lovecraft was tapping into the creative zeitgeist. In 1926/7, for instance, the American photographer Ansel Adams broke decisively with the soft-focus romantic painterly style of Pictorialism for the new hard-edged direct style that would make him famous. By 1927 International Modernism was in vogue among architects — stylish new buildings were full of austere straight lines, white walls, and had flat roofs. A new and gimlet-eyed phase of the Modernist vision was emerging from its early stages in America, and Lovecraft was right there alongside it. No doubt he was influenced in this by what he saw and talked about with friends during his stay in New York. His approach would keep the story feeling ‘modern’ to those reading it during the 1965-1995 period.

Yet there are also less obvious influences from pulp fiction. Despite the innovative structure Lovecraft keeps the young genre reader in familiar territory by adding adventure-story globe-trotting and ‘a detective on the case’. He also mixes the ‘voodoo swamp story’ with the ‘arctic tale’, the ‘tormented artist’ tale with the ‘mad cult bent on world domination’ tale; the ‘sea piracy story’ with the ‘giant monster trapped on a remote island’ story. There is something of the soap opera or even the Shakespearian story-structure here — a constantly close intercutting and contrasting of storylines so as to maintain the audience’s attention. “Cthulhu” not only fuses Lovecraft’s previous proto-Mythos ideas and elements, but it does so while successfully fusing and transmuting the various strands of pulp fiction as it then existed, and topping it all off with a potent dash of his own maturing philosophical beliefs for good measure. Above all the story fuses horror and science fiction. It is an intricate many-tentacled basket made of carefully woven genre and sub-genre story types, glued together with a Modernist sensibility. All of this makes it memorable.

The story is also a popular favourite because it is the one where Lovecraft first properly introduces The Necronomicon. The book’s author had first been mentioned in “The Nameless City” (1921), and then the name of the book itself appeared in “The Hound” (1922). After writing “Cthulhu” Lovecraft then felt impelled to develop the book’s background at length in the pseudo-scholarly essay “The History and Chronology of The Necronomicon” (1927). The Necronomicon was used again in “The Dunwich Horror” (1928). “Cthulhu” may attract many because it is so scathing about religion and belief, yet it makes us half-believe in things such as The Necronomicon. The story can thus act almost as a sort of ‘inoculation’ for the young, against superstitious religious belief.

Finally, the story is unusual in that it essentially ‘reveals the monster’ to the reader near the start of the story, but then builds to bigger and slightly different visual descriptions of the same monster while successfully retaining the pitch of horror. The story thus ‘layers’ the monster into — or in-between — the imagination of the reader, rather than suddenly springing it on them like a jack-in-the-box at the end. This approach is successfully interwoven into a cat’s cradle of stories-within-stories — a form that interestingly matches that of the very first novel of gothic horror in English, Beware the Cat (1533, 1584). This constant revealing of the monster is undoubtedly one that endears it to Lovecraftian film-makers — here is a story they can show to their sceptical funders and say: “Look, not all Lovecraft is ‘unseen and unspeakably unspoken’!”

Further open-access online reading:

Cthulhu and King Kong by Seneca Lapham.

Cthulhu Elsewhere in Lovecraft by George Gammell Angell.

A Mountain Walked or Stumbled : Madness, Apocalypse, and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (PDF link) by Justin Taylor.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and Eskimo folklore by T. Peter Park.

Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu (RPG game) by Kenneth Hite.