“Call of Cthulhu, The“
- Short story (12,000 words); written probably in August or September 1926. First published in WT (February 1928); first collected in O; corrected text in DH;annotated version in An2 and CC. The narrator (identified, only in the subtitle [omitted in many editions], as “the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston”) gives an account of the strange facts he has assembled, both from the papers of his recently deceased granduncle, George Gammell Angell, and from personal investigation. Angell, a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, had collected several peculiar pieces of data. First, he had taken extensive notes of the dreams and artwork of a young sculptor, Henry Anthony Wilcox, who had come to him with a bas-relief he had fashioned in his sleep on the night of March 1, 1925. The sculpture is of a hideous-looking alien entity, and Wilcox had reported that, in the dream that had inspired it, he had repeatedly heard the words “Cthulhu fhtagn.”It was this that had piqued Angell’s interest, for he had encountered these words or sounds years before, at a meeting of the American Archaeological Society, in which a police inspector from New Orleans named John Raymond Legrasse had brought in a sculpture very much like Wilcox’s and claimed that it had been worshipped in the Louisiana bayou by a degraded cult that had chanted the phrase “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”One cult member translated this outlandish utterance thus: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” A mestizo named Castro told Legrasse that Cthulhu was a vast being that had come from the stars when the earth was young, along with another set of entities named the Great Old Ones. He was entombed in the sunken city of R’lyeh and would emerge when the “stars were ready” to reclaim control of the earth. The cult “would always be waiting to liberate him.” Castro points out that these matters are spoken of in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.Scarcely knowing what to make of this bizarre material, Thurston stumbles on a newspaper clipping telling of strange events aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean; accompanying the article is a picture of a bas-relief very similar to those of Wilcox and Legrasse. Thurston goes to Oslo to talk with the Norwegian sailor, Gustaf Johansen, who had been on board the ship, but finds that he is dead. Johansen had, however, left an account of his experience showing that he had encountered Cthulhu when the city of R’lyeh rose from the sea-bottom as the result of an earthquake; but, presumably because the stars were not “ready,” the city sinks again, returning Cthulhu to the bottom of the ocean. But the mere existence of this titanic entity is an unending source of profound unease to Thurston because it shows how tenuous is mankind’s vaunted supremacy upon this planet. The story had been plotted a full year earlier, as recorded in HPL’s diary entry for August 12–13, 1925: “Write out story plot—‘The Call of Cthulhu.’” But the origin of the tale goes back even further, to an entry in his commonplace book (\#25) that must date to late 1919 or January 1920: Man visits museum of antiquities—asks that it accept a bas-relief he hasjust made— old& learned curator laughs & says he cannot accept anything so modern. Man says that “dreams are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx or garden-girdled Babylonia” & that he had fashioned the sculpture in his dreams. Curator bids him shew his product, & when he does so curator shews horror, asks who the man may be. He tells modern name. “No— before that” says curator. Man does not remember except in dreams. Then curator offers high price, but man fears he means to destroy sculpture. Asks fabulous price—curator will consult directors. ¶ Add good development & describe nature of bas-relief.This is the fairly literal encapsulation of a dream HPL had, which he describes at length in two letters of the period ( Dreams and Fancies [Arkham House, 1962], pp. 49–50; SL1.114–15). There are two dominant literary influences on the tale. One is Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” which HPL probably read subsequent to the dream of 1920; it was contained in Julian Hawthorne’s The Lock and Key Library (1909), which HPL purchased in 1922. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” HPL writes of it: “Relating the advent to France of an invisible being who lives on water and milk, sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extra-terrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind, this tense narrative is perhaps without a peer in its particular department….” The other influence is Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal” (an episode of The Three Impostors), which features just the kind of “piecing together of dissociated knowledge” contained in HPL’s story; there is even a newspaper clipping that plays a role in the coincidental assembling of information leading Machen’s protagonist, Professor Gregg, to confirm his suspicions of the existence of the “Little People” in Wales; the difficult-to-pronounce name Ixaxarsuggests HPL’s Cthulhu; and the Sixty stone itself suggests the bas-relief of Cthulhu.Another influence on the tale is theosophy. HPL cites a theosophical work, W.Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria (1925), in the story; the theosophists are themselves mentioned in the second paragraph. Castro’s wild tale of the Great Old Ones makes allusions to cryptic secrets that “deathless Chinamen” told him—a nod to the theosophists’ accounts of Shamballah, the Tibetan holy city (the prototype of Shangri-La) whence the doctrines of theosophy are supposed to have originated. Still another influence is A.Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” (1918), which takes place on or near the island of Ponape in the Carolines. Merritt’s mention of a “moon-door” that, when tilted, leads the characters into a lower region of wonder and horror, seems similar to the huge door whose inadvertent opening by the sailors causes Cthulhu to emerge from R’lyeh.The story contains are several autobiographical elements. The name of the narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, is clearly derived from Francis Wayland (1796–1865), president of Brown University from 1827 to 1855. Gammell is a legitimate variant of Gamwell (a reference to HPL’s aunt Annie E.P.Gamwell), while Angell is both the name of one of the principal thoroughfares in Providence (HPL had resided in two different houses on Angell Street) and one of the most distinguished families in the city. Wilcox is a name from HPL’s ancestry. Mention of “a learned friend in Paterson, New Jersey; the curator of a local museum and a mineralogist of note” is a clear allusion to James F.Morton. (The name Castro is, however, not derived from HPL’s colleague Adolphe Danziger de Castro, as HPL did not become acquainted with him until late 1927.) The earthquake cited in the story actually occurred. The Fleur-de-Lys building at 7 Thomas Street, residence of Wilcox, is a real structure, still standing. Bertrand K.Hart, literary editor of the Providence Journaland author of a regular column, “The Sideshow,” read the story in an anthology (see below) and was astounded to find that Wilcox’s residence and his were one and the same. Feigning offense, he vowed in his column of November 30, 1929, to send a ghost to HPL’s home at 3 A.M. to scare him; HPL promptly wrote the poem “The Messenger” at 3:07 A.M. that night. Hart published the poem in his column of December 3. “The Call of Cthulhu” is manifestly an exhaustive reworking of “Dagon” (1917). In that tale we have many nuclei of the later work—an earthquake that causes an undersea land mass to emerge to the surface; the notion of a titanic monster dwelling under the sea; and—although this is barely hinted in “Dagon”—the fact that an entire civilization, hostile or at best indifferent to mankind, is lurking on the underside of our world.On the pronunciation of CthulhuHPL gives somewhat different accounts in various letters; his most exhaustive discussion occurs in 1934: “…the word is supposed to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-humanword. The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats…. The actual sound—as nearly as human organs could imitate it or human letters record it—may be taken as something like Khlul?-hloo,with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The uis about like that in full;and the first syllable is not unlike klulin sound, hence the hrepresents the guttural thickness” (HPL to Duane W.Rimel, July 23, 1934; SL5.10–11). Various colleagues give very different, and clearly inaccurate, reports of HPL’s pronunciation of the word in their presence. In any case, it is not pronounced “Ka-thoo-loo,” as commonly assumed.Farnsworth Wright of WT rejected “The Call of Cthulhu” in October 1926. In May 1927 it was rejected by the obscure pulp magazine Mystery Stories,edited by Robert Sampson. The next month Donald Wandrei, who was visiting Wright in Chicago while hitchhiking from St. Paul to Providence, urged Wright to reconsider the story (just as HPL had asked Wright to reconsider Wandrei’s “The Red Brain”), slyly suggesting that HPL was planning to submit it to other magazines and thereby begin developing other markets for his work In early July Wright asked to see the tale again and accepted it. It appeared in T.Everett Harre’s Beware After Dark! (1929), thereby constituting one of the earliest appearances of HPL’s stories in hardcover.See Robert M.Price, “HPL and HPB: Lovecraft’s Use of Theosophy,” Crypt No. 5 (Roodmas 1982): 3– 9; Steven J.Mariconda, “On the Emergence of ‘Cthulhu,’” LSNo. 15 (Fall 1987): 54–58 (rpt. in Mariconda’s On the Emergence of “Cthulhu” and Other Observations[Necronomicon Press, 1995]); Peter Cannon, “The Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston: Lovecraft’s Last Dilettante,” LSNos. 19/20 (Fall 1989): 32, 39; Robert M.Price, “Correlated Contents,” CryptNo. 82 (Hallowmas 1992): 11–16; Stefan Dziemianowicz, “On ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’” LSNo. 33 (Fall 1995): 30–35; Michael Garrett, “Death Takes a Dive: ‘The City in the Sea’ and Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’” LSNo. 35 (Fall 1996): 22–24.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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