Answering The Call of Cthulhu
September 22, 2013
“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Sometimes, the dead can rise and take over the world. H.P. Lovecraft died at age 46 as a relatively unknown pulp author in 1937, but slowly, over time, his body of work grew in popularity and influence. Today, Lovecraft is viewed as one of the giants of early 20th Century speculative fiction and a major influence for Stephen King, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Mignola, John Carpenter, H.R. Giger, and even Metallica. Out of all of his extensive body of work, Lovecraft’s most enduring contribution to popular culture is the great and terrible Cthulhu.
“It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”
First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928, The Call of Cthulhu is a perfect distillation of Lovecraft’s favorite themes: cosmic horror and forbidden knowledge. In Lovecraft’s fictional Cthulhu Mythos, humans inhabit a universe filled with ancient, powerful, and amoral cosmic beings. These Great Old Ones regard humans in much the same way as we regard microorganisms. In other words, they would kill us all without batting so much as a transdimensional eyelash. These entities often take forms repellent to human senses, and the mere sight of one can push the viewer into a permanent state of insanity.
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn...In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."
Taking the form of a manuscript found among the papers of a dead man, the story recounts the investigation into a cult that worships a mysterious figure known as Cthulhu. Of course, this being Lovecraft, everyone would have been much better off if they had simply decided that the cult was all a bunch of hooey. Instead, the trail inevitably leads to the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific and the awakening of an enormous, hideous monster from beyond time and space.
"It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway.... The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight."
Today, Cthulhu is on the loose again, except instead of wreaking nameless horrors of mankind, he has taken up residence in the collective consciousness of pop culture. He has been proposed as a presidential candidate with the platform "why settle for the lesser evil?" One can buy plush Cthulhu dolls, Cthulhu hats, Cthulhu clothes, and Cthulhu role-playing games. Cthulhu has even become an Internet meme. My personal favorite is the story retold in the style of Dr. Seuss! Hopefully, Cthulhu has a sense of humor about all this, and won’t hold it against us when he wakes again.
“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”
All quotes from The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft.