Sunday, June 25, 2017

"The Call of Cthulhu" (1928)

Read story by H.P. Lovecraft online.

H.P. Lovecraft's signature story takes a familiar route for horror fiction, making it about an investigation and certain key documents. Like Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde, it practically gets carried away with the conceit, creating busy thickets of circumstances. During a period of time in late March and early April, an artist is troubled by nightmare visions accompanied by strange hieroglyphics he doesn't understand but transcribes onto a clay bas-relief (because it was convenient?). He then takes this sculpture to a prominent professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, who is also his uncle. Uncle George recognizes the language and images from previous disturbing events in his life, which are then detailed. He also conducts a kind of survey and discovers that many people, especially artists, had similar dreams during that time. Slowly, the consistencies come into focus: the image of a hideous writhing head, the names "Cthulhu" and "R'lyeh," and a haunting phrase all the investigators interpret as "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." All the problems and pleasures I've had with Lovecraft are well represented here. The language is often stultifying, and the writing strategy hews uncomfortably close to word salad, relying on batteries of fantastic adjectives. Too often it tells rather than shows—even the showing is often a tiresome matter of telling too much detail. And the plotting is way too busy, a more general problem with horror of the past. Yet there's no denying a palpable sense of mounting dread oozing off this. Cthulhu is alien by definition—he is not of this planet, and never has been, though he has been connected with it longer than humanity itself has existed. It is not evil so much as infinitely cold and uncaring about humanity. He views us the way we view vermin. He can't quite stamp us out, but he's trying, and he's very powerful. It's hard to imagine what people thought when they encountered this story in a Weird Tales magazine in 1928. Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine that many even finished it. It's rather long, built out of big fat paragraphs with ponderous long sentences. It seems to do most of its work after the story is read and put away. It stretches the brain with its concepts of time. The hideous visage of Cthulhu is a bit like scenes from the 1933 King Kong movie, overdetermined yet vivid enough and redundant enough to get by the disbelief filters. Lovecraft's universe is vast, cold, and mostly empty, which isn't far from reality. The fact that there's a giant writhing octopus-head that means us no particular good lurking about the galaxies is unnerving in surprisingly penetrating ways.

The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

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