Monday, March 28, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Call of Cthulhu

Among gamers at any rate, "The Call of Cthulhu" is probably H.P. Lovecraft's most famous piece of fiction and rightly so. Firstly, this February 1928 novella inspired the title of the first (and still unsurpassed, in my opinion) RPG based on Lovecraft's writings. Secondly, "The Call of Cthulhu" is a very fine story, undeniably one of HPL's best, as the paragraph that evocatively begins this tale demonstrates:
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.
And while I have great sympathy for the purists and pedants who correctly point out that Lovecraft himself never used the phrase "Cthulhu Mythos" to describe his stories -- it's a coinage of August Derleth, whom I think often gets a disproportionately bad rap -- there's a sense in which it's a far better term than Lovecraft's own suggestion of "Yog-Sothothery," for "Cthulhu Mythos" recognizes the centrality of "The Call of Cthulhu" in enunciating the philosophy behind his cosmic tales.

The story itself is dense and complex, consisting of multiple, layered narratives that each contribute to the mounting horror of the piece. Subtitled "Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston," "The Call of Cthulhu" is thus ostensibly a text written by the aforementioned Thurston after his investigation into the death of his great uncle, George Gammell Angell, who was a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. Thurston's text itself consists of multiple, nested sub-texts assembled by Angell from the accounts of others. Consequently, "The Call of Cthulhu" is at times a challenging read, the thread of its narrative easy to loose amidst Lovecraft's moving forward and backward in time and place.

Nevertheless, the narrative that emerges from "The Call of Cthulhu" is a compelling one: over the span of many years, across the globe, there are signs -- dreams, cults, unexplained events -- that something is stirring, something that spells the doom of mankind, though not out of malice, let alone evil, but simply because man and all his works are but nothing in the cosmic scheme. It is this singular point that Lovecraft makes clear again and again throughout "The Call of Cthulhu" and it is the true source of its horror, not the monstrous octopus-headed Great Old One that rises at its climax in the South Pacific. Equally noteworthy, I think, is Lovecraft's prose in this story. He has largely cast off the sometimes-stilted, pseudo-Poe voice of his early tales and embraced an almost clinical approach that lulls the reader into a "detached" state of mind that leaves him ill-prepared for Lovecraft's stylistic shift late in the story toward impassioned, even frenzied prose-poetry.

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a landmark both in HPL's evolution as a writer and in the evolution of literary horror. Considering both its age and the degree to which it has been imitated over the later 80+ years, it's frankly amazing how well it stands up. If there was ever any doubt that H.P. Lovecraft is a writer of consequence, this story ought to banish such notions completely.

14 comments:

  1. Can I suggest a book for your reading list? Howard Andrew Jones "The Desert of Souls". Very Howard influenced modern take on Swords and Sandals. It even has zombie monkeys in it....

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  2. I own a copy already and thoroughly enjoyed it. I plan to post a review of it sometime soon.

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  3. To my mind, this and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are, if not Lovecraft's best, certainly his most enjoyable and accessible. They are the two I find myself going back to reread most often.

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  4. My first exposure to the ideas of Lovecraft was the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but I have to say that after I got a book of his stories and read them, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is more iconic. I read Call Over Cthulhu after reading dozens of his other stories, and while it's a good story it doesn't quite stand up to its reputation (mostly via the RPG?) of being the cornerstore of the Mythos.

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  5. There was a pretty good "silent film" pastiche of Call of Cthulhu made in 2005. I recommend it if you like the story or Lovecraft in general.

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  6. The silent film of "The Call of Cthulhu" is excellent, particularly when you consider that it was fan-produced with a limited budget and is probably the most faithful cinematic adaptation of any story HPL has ever received.

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  7. It is this singular point that Lovecraft makes clear again and again throughout "The Call of Cthulhu" and it is the true source of its horror, not the monstrous octopus-headed Great Old One that rises at its climax in the South Pacific.

    Cthulhu functions as a MacGuffin, much like Cesare the somnambulist in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". The real horror of these works lies in the alienation and the resultant distortion of perceived reality (all that "wrong geometry"). I recall reading that HPL hadn't seen "Caligari", but was aware of it.

    My personal favorite HPL story (the one I find most unsettling) is "The Colour Out of Space". I like to compare that to "Ethan Frome" (another tale of a NE family's dissolution), which is the most terrifying book I've ever read.

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  8. Have you seen Trail of Cthulhu? What do you make of it?

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  9. I have seen Trail of Cthulhu. My take on it is that it's an utterly redundant game if, like me, you've never had difficulty with the "flaws" some see in Call of Cthulhu. But I gather that others feel quite differently and, for them, it's a good alternative to CoC.

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  10. I have to say, although I like CoC up until that point, the ending is very weak indeed. I'll not go into it for those that haven't read it.

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  11. OK, yeah, but what really has my curiosity piqued is "Ghost Table." Can I roll on the Ghost Table?

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  12. "The silent film of "The Call of Cthulhu" is excellent"

    Assuming you mean this: http://www.cthulhulives.org/cocmovie/index.html I totally agree, it's an excellent film and very evocative of the original story.

    The story that really scared me was 'Rats in the Walls'- the house I lived in was mid 19th century in the UK with cavitys between the walls. The night I was reading it in bed some (I hope...) plater was falling down the cavity. Or was it rats?...

    http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/theratsinthewalls.htm

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  13. One of my all-time favorite stories, not just from Lovecraft, but fantastic literature in general. And I agree about the movie: it's a great adaptation. The HPLHS is about to release another film (a "talkie!"), this time adapting "The Whisperer in Darkness," which also appear promising: http://tinyurl.com/4so7bg2

    Lovecraft's work (particularly this tale, Shadow over Innsmouth, and Rats...) have had a great influence on my gaming, to the extent that I find it difficult not to inject elements of horror and ancient conspiracies, almost regardless of genre.

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  14. Great Book, At The Mountains Of Madness too!
    Thought you might like my Cthulhu machinima film
    The Highlander; Cthulhu Enigma
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdzezmqtHy4
    Ia Ia Cthulhu Fhtagn!

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