In the background lore of the tabletop gaming/Dungeons-and-Dragons vein of Geekdom (Nerdingdom?)—and hence in the rising popular cutesy Geek merch—there is much reference to a cute, dire, dark, soul-eating, tentacle-faced being known as Cthulhu, whose job it is to wake the other Old Ones up from their aeon slumber to take over the world with soul-eating (did I mention that before?) mayhem when the stars come around again to the right positions.
As you can read on its Wikipedia page, “The Call of Cthulhu” was written by the down-and-out horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and was first published in 1928, and I’m sure there are lots of lovely links to trace its impact (as well as descriptions of how Lovecraft’s work never caught on in his lifetime, leaving him broke and miserable) on that Fine Site.
I now proceed with my review.
Lovecraft in General
I think this story might have made more of an impression had I not already read 693 pages of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. 693 pages is a lot to read in any one author’s style (I just checked; it’s from “The Long-Expected Party” in The Fellowship of the Rings to “The Taming of Smeagol” in The Two Towers), but in an author like Lovecraft, it leaves very little left to discover.
Lovecraft is enamored with the macabre and otherworldly. You can generally place all of his stories into one of two camps: discovering that alien Old Ones (generally horrific in nature and tentacled in body) in fact inhabited the Earth aeons before humans existed, or discovering that, in fact, witchcraft and demonic sorcery exist and are dabbled with to tortuous effect.
One of the reasons I was attracted to Lovecraft is his seeming wholehearted desire—if not belief—that at least one or the other of these must be true. I share the belief that there is a concrete—if beyond our empirical senses—existence of spirits, good and evil, and I’m always attracted to authors who explore that idea seriously to various extents.
And Lovecraft can write titillating horror. I don’t usually go in for horror (as a believer in the existence of evil spirits, I don’t relish ill-conceived notions of their effects as entertainment). Thankfully I found most of the stories to be too far outside my limit of suspended disbelief to do me much harm. (If you don’t like horror, do not read “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” I thought it would be better because of the math involved, but nooooo. It is creepy awful. Seriously.)
Lovecraft’s vocabulary seems to be both extremely wide (see the list at the bottom of the page) and a little stilted (the number of times “Cyclopean” is used—in reference to architecture, funnily enough—is laughable). In other words, he has words he likes, and he sticks with ’em. On the other hand, the guy can really turn a phrase:
. . . constantly tempted to shirk the details, and to let hints stand for actual facts and unelecutable deductions . . . [At the Mountains of Madness]
Non-Eucledian calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multidimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be free from mental tension. [The Dreams in the Witch-House]
and, my favorite:
. . . fabulous creatures which even Pliny might describe with skepticism. [Arthur Jermyn]
And I could read the drawn back, fluid style of “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (which I wholeheartedly endorse as it contains macabre elements but does not wallow in them, and the writing style allows for those elements to exist on an unthreatening plane) for hours.
I haven’t finished the third omnibus (yes, I read the first two and the first part of the third) because I was thinking enough already. Oooooh, scary spectral hound. I bet somebody DIES! And, frankly, I felt a little icky after I finished reading each story. (EXCEPT the “Dream Quest.” BUT! Don’t read the others in the “series” of the Dream Quest! They are not the same!) Lovecraft certainly has his eye on the spectral world, but he’s pretty convinced humanity’s going to die a horrible, cold, soul-sucking death.
There’s no redemption. There’s no other side. There’s just horror. And death. Lovecraft encompasses witchcraft, but not Satanism as such. He creates his own set of gods, and they’re not—nice. They’re not even good. He might consider them to be neutral, but they’re not neutral about humans. Humans will stay happy if they stay out of the gods’ notice.
And I just don’t enjoy that.
For alien, macabre, and human existential questioning, I prefer the short stories of Ray Bradbury.
“The Call of Cthulhu”
This is a very typical Old Ones Lovecraft, involving a long lead-up of documentation that climaxes on the discovery of The Event. This particular event was anti-climatic, since, as previously mentioned, I knew it was coming. What makes it singular is the description of the Cthulhu cult and the outright description of what would happen should The Event succeed (in most Old Ones stories, we are left to wonder and fear).
I disliked it because all the cult descriptions of his work—especially in the “Call”—hit too close to home: I do believe there are Satanic cults in existence. In fact, I think they are a lot more prevalent than our culture (both Christian and secular) is willing to believe.
And as I previously mentioned, it is a preview of an unredeemable, undeserved, unpreventable human future of horror and death. It may be horror but it’s not entertaining. Or, in my mind, accurate.
I’m glad to have punched my nerd-card, so to speak, but I’m done with Lovecraft.
At least for now.
But you don’t have to take MY word for it.
H. P. Lovecraft Omnibus Volume 3: The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales (ISBN: 9780586063231)
H. P. Lovecraft Omnibus Volume 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (ISBN: 9780586063248)
H. P. Lovecraft Omnibus Volume 1: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror (ISBN: 9780586063224)
I am trying to keep track of all the words I highlight on my e-reader that I don’t know. Some of these may be made-up; I haven’t looked them all up yet. I will update the list as I get definitions.
jocosely, denuded, transmontane, scmistable, transoms, anent, ululantly, paroxysms, mephitic, febrile, sedulous, amanuensis, stertoriously, beldame, infandous, charnel, ichor, necrophagous, marmoreal, pshent, porphyry, scorial, fane, supernal, niter, desiderate, hippocephalic, polypous
roysterers, patois, matutinal aberrations, eikon, effulgent, vendure, outre, parvenu, fulgently, refulgence, docs, column-cinctured, entablature, antediluvian, hyaline, tungsten, pelf, sec, anent, oriels, vermeil, pestiferously, opprobrious, atavistical, nadirs, propylae, aegipanic, naftha, bitumen, crotala, domdaniel, tenebrous, phantasmagoria, mendicant, sificlighs, farnotu, blue-chinned
serc, nepenthe, exculpate, heptarchy, tyros, mestizo, abysms, cachinnating