“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
No story by H.P. Lovecraft has had a more pervasive impact on popular culture or done more to establish ‘old tentacle hugger’ as a major literary influence than ‘The call of Cthulhu’. As for the old star spawn itself, Cthulhu is without a doubt the most widely known of all Lovecraft’s creations. Cthulhu is simply everywhere in modern popular culture.
Just how widespread Old Tentacle Face is can be demonstrated by a quick look around my front room at home, which for the sake of pretentiousness I’ll call my study. I have in there a Cthulhu POP figure, a crocheted Cthulhu made by my friend Cal, a Cthulhu inspired piece of wall art (technically a page of the Necromonicon made by a Canadian artist), several Cthulhu T-shirts occasionally hang on the radiators to dry, any number of Cthulhu inspired books, Cthulhu inspired comic books, the Call of Cthulhu B/W movie on the shelf with other DVD’s, Cthulhu inspired board games, Cthulhu inspired card games, Cthulhu Dice, Cthulhu badges, and several RGP game books for everything from The Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark Ages, Cthulhu Romans, Cthulhu in Space. And remember this is just in my study, I did not bother looking for my Cthulhu cufflinks …
Old Tentacle Face is frankly everywhere in my house. Which is surprising because when it comes down to it, I am not actually a collector of Cthulhu memorabilia, this is just stuff that has accumulated over the years… Even if you bear in mind that I am a habitual geek who has a fascination with such things, it is safe to say that beyond just Geekdom itself, Cthulhu is everywhere in the modern cultural zeitgeist of western civilisation… So with that in mind, this is a tale with a reputation to live up to.
The story itself is told in three parts, which begin with our narrator, one of the endless unnamed, Not-Randolph’s who inherits the papers of a deceased wise old uncle… Stop me if you have heard that little nugget of plot before… Yes indeed, we are back in Not-Randolph’s discovering strange rites and mysteries, through the medium of an old uncle… I guess after reading ‘Cool Air‘ last week I should not be surprised by this, but let’s not get bogged down in that old trope once more. I covered it well enough last time out.
The three parts of this tale are titled The Horror in Clay, The Tale of Inspector Legrasse, and The Madness from the Sea. In many ways, you could treat them as three different tales all closely linked by a central thread. Unlike other episodic tales by Lovecraft, Herbert West being the example that springs to mind, this central thread really holds it all together and makes it the complete tale it is, and the threads left hanging by the first two parts are all sewn together in the final one. It is this that sets it apart for me over some of Lovecraft’s other long tales, for while he had tried to do this before in the likes of ‘The Lurking Fear’ he never really managed to hold the reader’s interest (mine at least) or build upon the foundations he had laid in the earlier parts of the story.
But ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is built on stronger foundations than anything he had tried before. Not only does it build on the foundations it lays for itself as you read it. It builds on the foundations of the best of his earlier tales and sits astride them, going all the way back to Dagon one of his earliest tales of all. Threads upon threads are in here. Cyclopean columns from the depths of the ocean, the ravings of everyone’s favourite mad Arabian, the Necronomicon itself, all that otherwise tedious wondering about in the dreamlands he is so fond of, all the mythos stories that came before this have all been building irrevocable towards ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. In some respects, this is where Lovecraft really starts to come together, and while I am aware I have said similar things with other tales, this really is the point Lovecraft starts to put all the pieces of his mythological jigsaw together.
As I said this is a tale in three parts, and while I have kept these witterings on Lovecraftian lunacy to one post a story in the past. With the occasional small diversion off topic. In the case of this one seminal tale, I am going to wonder a little further than normal, as its a tale in three parts I am going to review it, if what I do with these stories could be accused of being reviews, in three parts also. You may have figured that out from the title…
The Horror in Clay
So it begins, and our narrator another ‘Not-Randolph Carter’ sorting through the effects and papers of his deceased Grand-uncle George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University, Providence. The Uncle died in mildly strange circumstances, though nothing seemed to be untoward as such about his death, and the sorting of his old papers should have been relatively dull is studious activity. That is save for one box of papers, a set of papers filed under the strange heading “CTHULHU CULT”. Within these papers are documented evidence that centres firstly around a young sculpture who was suffering from strange dreams and making an even stranger object. A Bas-relief of a strange, impossible nightmarish creature. A creature with the head of an octopus, the wings of a dragon and the body of a man, with the script of an unknown language upon it.
The young artist who crafted this had been beset with strange dreams in the last week of March and the first of April. Which lead to him to the Professor and to make the Bas-relief. The professor for reasons which come to light later in this tale takes a great interest in this rather than kicking the young fool out the door. More so when he connects it to other events around the world at the same period of time. The young artist is not alone in suffering from strange dreams and odd compulsions.
This first part, as is the nature of first parts, spends a lot of time laying down the land and this part of the tale most closely matches the opinion expressed by Lovecraft’s himself of the story as a whole, which was:
“rather middling—not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches”.
While I’m no more inclined to agree with Lovecraft’s opinion than I normally am, it does sum up this first part rather succinctly. It is a bit of a trawl, interesting certainly, but hard going in places. But it does cover an impressive scope. While it tells the story of the artist and his compulsion to create the hateful little tablet, it also is full of hints and portents of something much bigger, indeed, global in its scope, linked to what would otherwise seem nothing more than a man being driven to near insanity by bad dreams. It is the scope of the uncanny that is going on which sets this story apart. For our artist is not alone, others around the world are taken be a strange madness, driven to create strange art and other oddities. Obscure little religious cults are oddly active. the inmates of asylums are restless causing concern among the medical community. All of this is played out in a collection of strange and otherwise unrelated cuts discovered among the professor’s papers by our Not-Randolph. Even then this seems a strange obsession for an academic who specialises in ancient languages… But this is not the first time he has comes across that strange ominous name, Cthulhu…
As a read goes, this first part is slow and it only really starts to build towards the back end of it all. But it does give a sense that something big has happened, something beyond the normal ken, and far beyond a simple ghost story. Which is the key, for me, to this story, both in this first part and as a whole. The idea that humanity is as nothing in the greater scheme of the cosmos, and there are things hidden from us that we should be grateful lay hidden. In the end, the opening paragraph of this story betrays the scope of it all, and with it the scope of what Lovecraft was attempting to convey in this story. And it is among the best opening paragraphs of anything Lovecraft ever wrote in my opinion… I defy anyone not to want to read on after reading it…
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.
So to the score, for this the first part of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. It’s not the best part, its weaker than the other two, but it lays the groundwork so well, I was tempted just to give it six and be done with it, but I have dropped a mark for trawl it feels in the middle… So five it is…
Part two, ‘The Tale of Inspector Legrasse.’
Part three, The Madness from the Sea