The Call of Cthulhu (originally published in Weird Tales 1928)
by H.P. Lovecraft
The short story begins with a short diatribe on the mercy of ignorance written in the first person of the narrator (presumed to be Francis Wayland Thomas of Boston). He is the great-nephew of the deceased Doctor George Gammel Angell, Professor of Languages at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island (note of trivia: this is Lovecraft’s hometown). The narrator is Professor Angell’s sole heir and executor. While searching through the deceased files and and boxes, the narrator discovers a lock box without an obvious key. Curious, he solves the puzzle of where the key is found opens this box to discover various manuscripts, articles, and papers on people having strange dreams and even more bizarre cults as well as a clay bas relief of modern construction of exceedingly ancient hieroglyphics and design.
Among the papers and manuscripts in the lock box is the account of its sculptor an Anthony Wilcox of the Rhode Island School of Design written in his dead great-uncles own hand. It seems that Wilcox created the bas relief after a fit of nightmares of a strange city of unimaginable size with colossal lumbering things miles in height. In this terrible city Wilcox heard a language unknown to him but didn’t seem human. The only words he could make out were, “Cthulhu fhtagn.” Wilcox later falls into a strange fever-like delirium for more than a week where the young man plagued terrible visions of this same strange place with the sounds “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh” are most repeated. When the fever breaks, Wilcox hads no memories of the previous days. The narrator’s uncle learns that Wilcox malady was isolated as many poets, painters, and other artist had similarly fallen a fever-like delirium with similar accounts all occurring within the span of little more than a month. And all stopping on April 2 the same day as Wilcox’s recovery.
The next bit of evidence found within the lock box the narrator introduces is that of an account from Inspector John Raymond Legrasse of the New Orleans police. He was investigating a strange statuette that had seized after what most called a voodoo cult. However, what Inspector Legrasse saw during that raid was far more sinister than he could imagine in the blackest part of Africa. The statuette was craved to look-like a thing with a vaguely humanoid form with a octopus-like head with a mass of tentacle feelers and narrow wings. The work seemed to be centuries old yet no expert could recognize the school or culture it cold be part of. Even the soapy green stone with flakes of gold seemed unlike anything known in modern geology.
It wasn’t until Inspector Legrasse collaborated with a Professor William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton made any sort of connection. Professor Webb while touring Greenland and Iceland to study the native peoples, came across a similar strange tribe or cult of West Greenland to that of Inspector Legrasse. Both cults were chanting the same phrase, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” which the professor had translated as, “In the house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
The Call of Cthulhu is an interesting way to structure a story with much of it done via the narrator relating the artifacts and notes to the reader as he finds and examines them from his dead great-uncle’s lock box. Lovecraft also selects some fantastic locations for many of the accounts within the story such as the swamps of Louisiana, the tundra of west Greenland, and even the south Pacific. Even today these places invoke a sense of mystery and isolation from the rest of the world. I also enjoyed how Lovecraft feeds the reader just a little more about Cthulhu and what is occurring slow building the story and giving everything involved, such as the dreamers and cults, a grounded surrealism to it. The way that Lovecraft chooses to tell the story is genius; as the reader and the narrator investigate the clues and evidence before engaging in humanity’s fight against Cthulhu. Lovecraft alludes to the idea that like the narrator, Francis Wayland Thomas, finding his deceased great-uncle’s notes and thus becoming involved. We the reader, having read his account and seen the evidence, take his place as he took his great-uncle’s in death.
It has been some years since I read this story, and I will honestly say I forgotten nearly all of the first chapter. What remember most about this story was the raid of the cult in the swamp and the encounter with the sailors near the end. The Call of Cthulhu is not one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. Unfortunately, I did find the framework of the story more interesting than the story itself. However, if you like the idea of the Cthulhu mythos this story is mandatory reading.
Bottomline: It is a very innovative way of telling a story. Lovecraft outdid himself in attempting to create a coherent series of events of near end of the world. I give The Call of Cthulhu 6 out of 6 elder signs sealing the ancient one away until the stars are right once again.