HP Lovecraft 101: The Call of Cthulhu

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image credit: Florian Bertmer (c)
image credit: Florian Bertmer (c)

Disclaimer: This post does not discuss H.P. Lovecraft or the views he held in life and it’s not meant to be an endorsement of him. These are my reflections on his short story, The Call of Cthulhu, which I had to read for a class online.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

So begins the short story The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft (1928). I had to read this story for an online class and it’s the beginning of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

I previously read his novella At the Mountains of Madness because I’d heard his name for many years and wanted to check out his work. I didn’t quite get into it as much as I’d hoped. I did, however, seem to enjoy Lovecraftian works that bore the author’s influence–so in other words, when other people wrote stories that referred to Cthulhu or other parts of Lovecraft’s works, I was more inclined towards them.

In fact, I didn’t find out until years later that one of my all-time favourite video games, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, featured what I have since recognized as very distinctly Lovecraftian themes and tropes, particularly with the character of the Elder God (who, incidentally, was voiced by the remarkable and inimitable Tony Jay).

But anyway, let’s get on with my impressions of The Call of Cthulhu.

Impressions, Part 1: 

  • Although Lovecraft’s style and wordiness often left much to be desired in terms of narrative flow, the plot elements he introduced at the beginning–a young man finding out a terrible secret, the existence of Cthulhu, to be more specific–were intriguing.
  • Lovecraft was a master at building up dread in the reader and injecting a sense of dreariness and hopelessness into his stories and The Call of Cthulhu is no exception. Basically, he’s a big fan of suggesting that we’re all doomed (we as in humanity).
  • Ahem, looking past the racist references…
  • Lovecraft uses the trope of forbidden knowledge–things characters shouldn’t know but they find out about, often at great risk to themselves–effectively
  • When I was reading through the story, I could clearly see the influences Lovecraft had on modern masters of horror, including Ramsey Campbell but also Clive Barker (particularly with The Hellbound Heart).
  • Another common device that figures prominently in Lovecraft’s other works is the use of bas-reliefs and other artistic depictions of Cthulhu and Cthulhu-like creatures, particularly anything squid and octopus-like

Impressions, Part 2:

  • Funnily enough, the setting isn’t Britain. In fact, most of Lovecraft’s works are somehow based in or connected to Providence, Rhode Island, which I found to be surprising.
  • Eventually, the narrator of Call tells the reader that he finds witnesses who have seen the magnitude of Cthulhu-related events and cults. He builds intrigue and suspense into making the reader wonder just what the heck is going on.
  • In the second part of the story, we find out about a police officer from New Orleans, Inspector Legrasse. He brought a statuette to an archaeology meeting and asked the academics there to tell him what the heck it was. He thinks it might be connected to voodoo only to find out it’s connected to something much darker and more sinister.
  • There’s mention of “devil-worshipping” cults, a supreme elder devil, aged wizard-priests and more delightfully weird things.
  • “…dead Cthulhu waits dreaming“: So, I don’t know about you, but I find this to be both sinister and creepy. In all Cthulu stories, there’s a trope of people who are working to unearth an ancient evil (or who are working to unearth something like an object that inadvertently causes them to unleash this ancient evil, usually something with tentacles that is thought to be a destroyer of worlds)
  • Lovecraft’s work features the recurring theme of fear of unleashing a great and terrible and always apocalyptic evil, usually somehow related to Cthulhu, onto humanity

Impressions, Part 3: 

  • Some of Lovecraft’s descriptions are very striking: “…habitation a depression which every malformed tree and every fungous islet combined to create…”
  • Ahem, looking past yet more racist references…
  • The stronger theme I got from this story was: we are not alone in the universe. There are evil, malevolent aliens and creatures who are going to wipe humanity out one day.
  • The main character learns to suspect early on that his great uncle didn’t die of “natural causes” as he thought, and he thinks it’s connected to this whole cult of Cthulhu thing. He thinks his great uncle knew too much or was likely to learn too much–and he knows he’s screwed, because the same thing has just happened to him.
  • He does a lot of searching and travelling to find out if the cult is real, and he gets a lot more than he bargained for. So, it’s a guarantee that he’s pretty much never gonna sleep again.
  • Lovecraft tries to convey how fearsome and loathsome Cthulu is with little descriptions here and there, including “…a stench as of a thousand opened graves…” and “…that nameless sky-spawn…”
  • Even though I found the ending to be a bit anti-climatic, because the main character essentially leaves things off by saying that he thinks he’s a goner because the cult of Cthulhu is going to find out that he knows about them, and therefore they’re going to come after him, it wasn’t clear if he would take action against this or if he would try to find a way to stop them. But it ends on a creepy, unsettling note with the “big reveal” at the end, so all things considered, it was an entertaining story.

What do you think, readers? Have you ever tried Lovecraft’s work? What did you think of it? Do you like elements of the Cthulhu mythos? Sound off below!

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6 thoughts on “HP Lovecraft 101: The Call of Cthulhu

    Naomi Clark (@naomi_jay) said:
    9:36 am at 09:36

    I’m a huge Lovecraft fangirl and Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourites. I’d agree that the ending doesn’t quite fulfill the promises made earlier in the story, but that’s a hallmark of his work. (Read Dagon – the ending would just not fly today, and my fiance often yells the closing lines at me out of the blue to make me laugh). I think he was more interested in creating that sense of nihilism and impending doom, and leaving the reader to imagine the true horror, than in showing us the horror.

    Liked by 1 person

      A.E. Siraki responded:
      10:02 am at 10:02

      Thanks for the feedback, Naomi! Good point–I’ve noticed that trend in Lovecraft’s work, and you’re spot on with him wanting to create a sense of impending doom and imagined horror (although even in this story, he does a pretty good job of delivering some frights with the action).

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    sskorkowsky said:
    9:11 pm at 21:11

    Lovecraft took me a little while before I got into him. Then I listened to the album Necronomicon by Nox Arcana. They have little bits of the lore sprinkled in and it got me very interested. Then I saw the Call of Cthulhu silent film and fell in love with the mythos (btw, if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you find it and watch it). Read all of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos stories. Shadow Over Innsmouth is my favorite of the stories. I love how he creates this enormous mythology by only showing us little glimpses here and there in different tales. It makes the reader feel almost like a detective as they go though Lovecraft’s work, piecing together this terrible secret about the world.

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      A.E. Siraki responded:
      9:28 pm at 21:28

      Hi Seth!
      Same–ah! Nice to know you also like Nox Arcana! They’re one of my favourite bands. I will have to hunt down the silent film of Call of Cthulhu too! Very nice–and I agree about the reader feeling like a detective as we make our way through Lovecraft’s tales. Thanks for the comment!

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    jmh said:
    12:46 pm at 12:46

    I’m not a fan of Lovecraft, but to be fair, I didn’t give him much of a chance. However, I adore Cthulhu. I used to have a stuffed one that I named Squidy. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      A.E. Siraki responded:
      2:15 pm at 14:15

      Thanks for the comment, Holli! Lovecraft is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but glad you like stuffed Cthulhu 😉

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