Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Call of Cthulhu Conclusion
“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47* 9′, W. Longitude 126* 43′ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror – the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time…I swear…This time we will finish The Call of Cthulhu! There is just far too much memorable and incredibly in depth material here to try and crunch it down, and I didn’t want to have two posts of 10k words a piece. Anyway here we go!
Last week we left off with the conclusion of Legrasse’s story of how he came across the Cthulhu idol and his raid of the cultists in the swamps of Louisiana. This week we start off by getting some connectivity between the two story lines (Wilcox and Legrasse).
Once Legrasse finishes his story, Angell takes the idol which was a remarkable resemblance to the one which Wilcox fabricated from his dreams. Both the narrator and Angell seem to be in denial, believing Wilcox must have somehow heard the story of the Louisiana raid, because Angell’s papers tell us that the idol “…was, no doubt, the giant shape he (Wilcox) had raved of in delirium.”
Our narrator goes to see his Uncle (Angell) who speaks of how the whole ordeal has effected him. “He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp cyclopean city of slimy green stone – whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong…”
We find that Wilcox “…had soon forgotten it amidst the mass of his equally weird reading and imagining…” and yet Angell seems to be followed by it. In fact our narrator tells us that “my uncle’s death was far from natural.” and yet still the narrator strives to understand what all of this actually means: “for I felt sure that I was on track for a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.”
There are two very interesting themes here if you’ll indulge me. The first being Wilcox’s apparent amnesia. How can it be that someone can experience such a breakdown and not remember much about it? Beyond that, how can there be such a great population across the world which experienced the Call and for that month had similar breakdowns, only to go about their normal lives? The answer? Disassociation.
We humans are excellent at putting things in buckets and adapting. If there’s something that’s a little too big for our minds to wrap around, we are able to put it aside and basically ignore that it ever happened. This is a theme that is so closely tied to madness that I’m surprised that I haven’t seen or heard about it in Lovecraft discussions already. We already know that the mere thought of The Great Old Ones can drive a person insane, but what does that really do to a person? How does that effect our narrative?
It’s disassociation which makes Lovecraft so prominent. How can these cults remain so hidden when they have such reach? How can The Great Old Ones be so influential, but no one knows about them? How can COVID-19 be so prevalent, but we still go about our daily lives? We as humans have an ability to ignore facts if they aren’t in our face, and then when they appear they can drive us to madness. This is the classic “I didn’t think it could happen to me!” syndrome. There’s a reason why people are scared of ghosts and things that go bump in the night, because in the back of their mind there’s the possibility the supernatural could be real. But of course we ignore that…until we are face to face with something we are unable to rationally explain.
The second theme which keeps presenting itself over and over again is character Hubris. Again and again we see these people go down the rabbit hole of chaos and end up paying the price. So what is it that makes them do it? We get the quote right in the text from the narrator, “I was on the track of a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.” Our narrator ignores all the signs of danger and actively participates in denial. Why did Wilcox forget about everything and his Uncle conversely get sucked in? Because Wilcox had a momentary lapse of sanity and Angell got old and couldn’t deal with the real life consequences of his pursuits? But of course, our narrator is young and strong, so nothing could possibly effect him the way it did his Uncle…right?
It’s something we see again and again in Lovecraft because it’s so endemic in our personalities as humans. If we want something, we’ll ignore the red flags, even the direct danger, because it’s something you desire. In both life and love this is a universal truth, but the denial of this truth is strong because the ends justify the means. In a relationship you’ll ignore red flags because you want to be with the person. In Hubris, you’ll ignore the dangers because the end result of the pursuit is that ever elusive power.
This pursuit leads our narrator to find a news article from the Sydney Bulletin which describes the freighter ship “Vigilant” who captured a ship with one living man and one dead man. The living man was Gustaf Johansen and his story brings together the reason why so many people went cuckoo that April.
While sailing in the middle of the Ocean on the schooner Emma, the crew came in contact with a yacht Alert, who had a very aggressive crew which attacked the Emma. Damaged, the Emma sinks and a number of the crew die, but the remainder now led by Johansen, boards and kills the crew of the Alert easily, “because of their particularly abhorrent and desperate though rather clumsy mode of fighting.”
“The next day, it appears, they raised and landed on a small island, although none is known to exist in that part of the ocean.” Johansen doesn’t seem to have a memory of what happened but the only survivors on the Emma turned out to be Briden and Johansen himself, with Briden dying of “…no apparent cause, and was probably due to excitement or exposure.”
The narrator comes to a realization. Right about the time Johansen and the crew get to the strange island in the ocean, is right about the time things started going crazy all over the world. To dig even further (Hubris) into this quandary, he decides to go and find Johansen.
Eventually he finds that Johansen has gone back to Oslo, but died shortly after returning. Apparently “Physicians found no adequate cause for the end, and laid it down to heart trouble and a weakened constitution.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the same thing Angell died of, but still our narrator ignores the signs.
Johansen’s widow gives the narrator Johansen’s journal, and finally we find the terrible truth.
The journey of the Emma started off with a vast earthquake and fast forwarding, after the fight and boarding of the Alert we find that the strange island they found (the quote from the beginning of this essay) is none other than the Nightmare City of R’lyeh, presumably broken free, or arisen from the depths because of the strange earthquake.
Johansen and his crew go aboard this strange island and are immediately ill at ease with its geometry; “He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”
We are met with the strange angles from such stories as Dreams in the Witch House and Sphere’s such as in the stories of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the Dunwich Horror. We know that these are the calling cards of the Great Old Ones, the architecture of madness which encompasses their culture, things which call Their attention which are too hard for our mere mortal minds to comprehend. For example “suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.” and “though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar door.“
The group tried to open the door to no avail, until suddenly the door opened by itself: “In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.”
From inside Cthulhu “…actually burst forth like smoke from it’s aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away inot the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings.”
“After vigintillions (which equals 1 with 63 zeros after it) of years Great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.”
So we know that nine men went aboard that island, but only two got back to the ship. Here’s what happened:
“Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; and angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.”
Briden and Johansen were the only two that made it to the boat, and as they fled “…the Titan thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme (more cylops references) cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus.“
“Briden looked back and went mad…But Johansen had not given out yet.”
“The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bow-sprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly.” And Johansen got lucky. He never looked back and never got a full glimpse of Cthulhu as It actually is. It seems as though for that brief moment Cthulhu was in our world, until it ascended back up to the stars, It sent It’s Call to our world. The empaths like Wilcox felt this Call and had a month long descent into madness, because at It’s core, Cthulhu’s essence is chaos. Briden stayed in that spot on the ship and died, not eating nor drinking, scared to death, because just seeing The Great Priest was enough to strip his mind.
Our narrator put the journal in with his notes and the idol into a lock box and set it aside knowing that what he felt while reading it, that strange otherworldliness, the odd feeling that what he was reading was not possible but was possible at the same time, that he vowed never to let that information see the light of day.
He knows that the cults still exists and he knows that one day Cthulhu may return, but R’lyeh was sunken again and so he just has to hope that while he lives the stars wont align to give a path back for the High Priest from the stars.
Join me next week as we read “The Terrible Old Man!”
It is really no wonder that so many of the games that have come out focus so much on this particular Lovecraft story and there are three reasons for this being so.
The first is that we actually get to see Cthulhu, unlike the other Great Old Ones. Sure, we get to see a bit of the Shoggoth, but that’s not nearly the same because they’re just the workers, the slave labor of the Great Old Ones. Because we have a idea of what this creature looks like and has abilities to do, we are able to put it into a gameable scenario.
This story has incredible imagery, but what makes it special is that it’s tied to specific places around the world, so that leads to the second point. Many games follow along with the investigative plotline, which is this story in it’s entirety. You have a narrator who is following clues, through cultists and strange happenings, to find…and hopefully stop…the ultimate horrible ending. The rise of Cthulhu.
Finally Lovecraft has a tried and true style which he uses in many of his tales to bring the reader into the story. It was made famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula, but Lovecraft uses it to perfection. This is the Epistolary model. The best way to make something feel more realistic and more impactful is to show the action as part of a letter or as part of a newspaper. These epistles show first hand experience rather than just a narrator (which in Lovecraft are primarily unreliable) telling us a story. This gives the reader something they can feel they could look it up themselves which gives the narration validity and trustworthiness, especially when dealing with the macabre and otherworldly. It’s no wonder that this style is so popular in spectacular fiction