“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)


H. P. Lovecraft (writer).


A myth written in sync with its own time but valid for the modern world.


In Lovecraft’s commonplace book he wrote, “Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.” This implies that The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) inspired Lovecraft to invent the cult of Cthulhu. He was not afraid to show this inspiration. On the contrary:

The other manuscript papers were all brief notes, some of them accounts of the queer dreams of different persons, some of them citations from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), and the rest comments on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references to passages in such mythological and anthropological source-books as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

Lovecraft took these earlier ideas, plucked out the core of religious anthropocentrism, and put in science fiction. Murray’s Frazerian horned god became Lovecraft’s sophisticated extraterrestrial. This change, however brilliant, is sadly incomplete. Though green and tentacled, Cthulhu is anthropomorphic, merely theriocephalic. Indeed, it behaves “like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus”.

With the allusion to The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE), Lovecraft opens himself to a classicist reading. His framing device is one of tragic irony, reflecting Oedipus Rex (ca. 429 BCE). The narrator, opening his grand-uncle’s locked box and investigating the contents to his own detriment, takes the role of Oedipus. He falls into existential dread, but not over a personal error. As he writes, “If heaven ever wishes to grant me a boon, it will be a total effacing of the results of a mere chance”.

This element of chance is crucial to Lovecraft’s revolutionary modernization. In Lovecraft’s myth there is no penitence to compensate for chance, no parallel with the reconciliation of Orestes. Whereas Oedipus in the drama personally investigated his own past, what the narrator here discovers is defined mainly by its extreme impersonality. The narrator—Oedipus—does not pluck out his eyes, and Cthulhu—Polypheme—does not lose his. Lovecraft’s horror is disconnected from Sophocles’s dramatic plane and notion of sin. It is about something bigger than the individuals.

There are plenty of archaeologists in this story. This, too, is an important feature of how Lovecraft updated literally ancient motifs for the 20th century. As with Murray, he was being trendy. The discipline of archaeology was popularized rather abruptly when Howard Carter found King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Compare “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (1924), which was even more current.

At the time, archaeologists were threatened by a “curse of the pharaohs”, a supposedly supernatural punishment for entering the old tombs. If that notion had any validity it was probably just bad air: dust and fungal spores that could make people sick if the tombs were not aired out between breach and entry. The contemporary superstitious idea of the archaeologist taking a personal risk to uncover the past is built on the pattern of Oedipus, but it substitutes human history for personal taboo. Lovecraft reworked that symbolism, positing that shared history is as bad for you as was Oedipus’s personal history.

So, the movement goes from Oedipus uncovering his own crimes, via real archaeologists suffering the pharaohs’s curse to lay their puzzle, to archaeologists in the story finding evidence of humankind’s relative insignificance. This movement points forward, to any modern human discovering our humble place through science. The result, an informed atheism, is inevitable in the same way that Cthulhu’s reawakening is inevitable. Hence the opening paragraph:

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.

Reality, of course, is not so frightful. The sleeper seems terrible to the narrator and the atheist seems terrible to the theist because humans are delusionally self-absorbed. Compare the personality of Abraham’s god: Jealous, petty, devious and hungry for genocide. Abrahamic fundamentalists will often argue that such a god is good precisely because it punctures human self-importance. Cthulhu is a better deal.

The story is in part a remake of “Dagon” (1919). Interestingly, although Lovecraft clearly expresses his deplorable racist convictions here, this is only obvious from the context of his other writings. There is little unambiguous evidence for racism in the individual text. The first time I read it, I thought it was just a historical coincidence that the cult was big in Asia and that Angell’s killer was black.

References here: “He” (1926), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927).

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“The Call of Cthulhu” (2005) IMDb