“There lay Great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear into dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. All this Johansen did not suspect, but God knows he soon saw enough!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I was planning on concluding the illustrious “The Call of Cthulhu” this week, but it turns out I had waaaay to much to say, so we’re going to push the conclusion to next week!
Last week we finished with a few thoughts about Cthulhu himself (itself? herself? theirself?), and the beginning of Detective Legrasse’s story. Remember how he went into the swamps of Louisiana and found a bunch of cultists effecting a ritual around a ring of fire and in the center of that ring was a monolith with a statue of Cthulhu on it’s apex? Well there was a tussle as the police broke up the ritual, “Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made…”
In the end the police captured “forty-seven sullen prisoners” and “The image on the monolith (the idol of Cthulhu)…was carefully removed and carried back by Legrasse.”
Initially the police thought this gathering was just a particularly nefarious voodoo cult. They let their prejudice guide them in their approach because, “Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that somethign far deeper and older than negro fetichism (sp) was involved.”
The police did everything they could to get more information out of the worshippers beyond that they prayed to “The Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men,” and that “This was a cult,” who “...had always existed and always would exist… until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.”
The cultists said they were innocent of any killing. All those missing people, all the dead bodies that led the police to execute the raid were denied. The cultists said the ritual “…killing had been done by Black Winged Ones which had come to them from their immemorial meeting-place in the haunted wood.”
This strikes me as incredibly atmospheric. The thought of the old Spanish Moss trees, hanging down over the swampy foggy ground where hidden dark winged aeon old creatures lurk, just tickles my imagination in the best possible way. The description of the raid is short, but the set up is effective enough and then as we continually look back at the events surrounding the raid, it gives you a more and more grotesque point of view of what they actually walked into.
They finally get one of the cultists, “Old Castro,” to give them a bit more information. “There had been aeons when other things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. The remains of Them… were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific” (this is important later in the story), and “there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.” because “They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought their images with them.“
That is an interesting statement. “Brought their images with them.” Castro tells us that the Great Old Ones “had shape… but that shape was not made of matter.” Then he gives us the most important and interesting line of the story:
When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.
Shortly there afterward we get “the much discussed couplet” from the Necronomicon:
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.
Lets put all this together. We are told that Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones are dead and trapped in their great city of R’lyeh under the Pacific Ocean somewhere, because at some point on ancient history the city sunk. How can They be asleep but dead and have form but no matter?
The Great Old ones are immortal so we know that even though we are told Cthulhu is dead under the ocean, He is also immortal thus he cannot die. We also know that They are from the stars and made from the stars. So then we go back to what Old Castro told us, “They brought their images with them.”
The Great Old Ones came from the stars with form, but those forms were just shells, just fantastic images of what they projected themselves as. What we think of as Cthulhu, dead and sleeping under the ocean is in actuality just a shell. Cthulhu and the Other Great Old Ones ascended back to the stars at some point, and because they are formless (and maybe just concepts?) they left their shells to remain on Earth for the time when they need or want to come back. So that’s why Cthulhu can be both dead and sleeping at the same time. It is just the shell and He can be awoken through a ritual when the stars align, giving Him a causeway to earth.
When reading through Lovecraft the couplet is in many stories, and is something which always confused me. This story made it terribly obvious. Cthulhu is immortal, thus eternal, thus he cannot die; “That is not dead which can eternal lie,” ok that makes sense, but then what does the second part mean? “And with strange aeons even death may die.” Oh. Given time and multiple universes (and dream worlds) even death, the ultimate absolute can die. Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones, are more powerful than what we understand as the ultimate absolute.
Cultists for these types of beings never really made sense to me before. There is certain subset of the anarchists who want to set the world on fire, but Castro describes the resurrection of The Great Old Ones this way:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.“
So I can see how there might be a very small amount of people who could believe that this is the way to go. But the volume of people? That ceremony that Legrasse broke up was hundreds of cultists. They all want to burn the world?
Then while digesting this story and the infamous couplet brought me to a realization. Yes, there are people that want to burn the world, but there are a far higher population which are terrified of death. If the return of the Great Old Ones means that the followers will be granted eternity, than there probably is a huge amount of the population who would be willing to take part, damn the consequences. Death is supposed to be the absolute, but what if it didn’t have to be?
Beyond this the couplet brings up what Lovecraftian horror really means. Cosmic horror is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around and it’s specifically built that way. The couplet gives us a glimpse into what this really means; where we truly stand in the world. I remember showing my wife the reboot of the show “Cosmos” narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson. When they showed the earth in comparison to the galaxy and then in contrast with the universe, she made me turn it off because it gave her the willies. It was too much for her to understand that our entire world means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is the same concept with cosmic horror except more theologically. Death is where we all head, but there are things so far beyond that. Things that are “miles tall” that cannot die. Things which have lived billions of years and will live for billions more.
It’s no wonder Lovecraft was agoraphobic, if he just sat around thinking about these concepts all day.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Just a few more thoughts if you’ll indulge me. While reading about the section on the raid I had a conceptual thought about Lovecraft in general. In the story Lovecraft uses a thematic approach that describes the action in a single line, then when recalling the events Legrasse goes into much greater detail. After reading as much Lovecraft as I have, I can say that he did this because he’s not great at writing action, however his strength is in the feel of the piece. Legrasse is able to go far more into detail and flush out his feelings at the time and his disgust with the cultists, but during the raid all he could muster was direct and emotionless fact.
Our human brains work this way. When we look back on a time frame or an event, it almost always comes out more emotional that it was during the event. If it was traumatic, the events are colored much darker when you recall them. If it was inconsequential or happy, the events usually are colored much brighter and happier while recalling them. This is known in psychology terms as the reminiscence bump.
I’ve been reading Lovecraft now for nearly two years. I do a critique and analysis on a story every week (or, as in this case, over multiple weeks). I saw a thread on Twitter asking people what their favorite Lovecraft story was and I couldn’t come up with one. I thought back on nearly every story with fond memories, even though I know for a fact that I didn’t always like the stories that much while I was reading them. That’s the reminiscence bump.
Lovecraft is a master of atmosphere, despite his terrible action sequences and dialog. But atmosphere is what you truly remember when thinking back on a story. How the story made you feel. Individual action sequences and dialog are no longer aren’t what stick in long term memory, so what bubbles to the surface is the atmosphere you experienced while reading. When I think back on Lovecraft’s works I feel almost universal love. That’s a really strange thing to say, because about six months into this project it felt like a slog and I remember feeling bored, but now I cant remember which story I was bored with because I liked them all so much!
The more you read Lovecraft the more you like it. He’s insidious in that way. At first the language is a bit of a barrier, but once it starts to flow, your mind creates and atmosphere and experience greater than you read on the page.
“But at this time it was all horribly real, and nothing can ever efface the memory of those nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.”
Wow, what a wild ride this story was. This was probably the scariest and most classic horror of any H.P. Lovecraft that I’ve read up to date.
As the story begins we are introduced to detective Thomas F. Malone who is on extended medical leave for trauma. The first portion of the story describes how he’s living and dealing with this trauma, of which we are still ignorant.
The second portion of the story covers Red Hook. We get a call back to HE, as there is a similar tenement structure our narrator experienced there. This story also takes place in New York, which is absolutely unique for Lovecraft. It does not hold the same atmosphere as much of his work, but from the start of this story the tone has a much darker and sinister feel. The basis in New York gives Lovecraft the ability to explore different themes than the usual fantasy/cosmic horror that he frames in New England.
The third portion of the story is the introduction to Malone’s quarry, Robert Suydam. “Suydam was a lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” and he purchased a space in the run down, twisting alleyways of Red Hook. After a strange trip to Europe, Suydam began to deteriorate. His personal hygiene took a hit, he lost friends, and “When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’ and Samael’.” And there it is. We have three demons from the Kabbalah and Christian religions. The text has gone beyond the normal Lovecraft, no longer in the world of the cosmic horror. We are no longer in the dreamlands (though there is a little bit of dream stuff to come), we have now crossed over into religious horror. To me this raised my hackles. I find this subject matter far more terrifying that anything I have yet come by within Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
The fourth section of the story delves into the police work. Trying to uncover just what strange dealings that Suydam has been up to. They raid his home, which is empty, and they come across blasphemous art work and things that Malone simply “did not like”. They also found an inscription:
O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoices in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!
I had no idea what this meant. Though obviously a atmospheric quote, I believed it had deeper meaning. Lovecraft infuses lots of Greek mythology and heritage within his work. There is a certain amount of admiration he obviously felt for the culture and the artwork. He loves the idea of marble structures and busts and even includes some of that iconography in this story as well. So when I came across this quote, it was no surprise to me that it was about Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the underworld, ghosts, and magic. This story was not going to deal with cosmic horror, it was going to deal with something closer to home. It was about Hell.
The next short section of the story tells of a journey Suydam takes across the sea, where he dies. He instructs that his body be conveyed to the bearer of the note provided.
Then we move into the Horror. Malone goes to Red Hook and investigates, noticing a melee. He goes to allay the fight and finds strange sounds and smells while all the participants of the battle flee. Malone suspects something nefarious behind a large door, so he takes a stool and breaks the door open, “whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.“
Malone is sucked into Hell. He experiences some truly horrific scenes, perfect for any fan of this type of fiction, and much more evocative than anything I’ve experienced from Lovecraft. We see Suydam giving himself over to a demon, finally getting what he was after, and becoming one with hell.
The final section explains how the mysterious group brought Suydam’s body back to that experience and how Malone could hear that same refrain from some “hag” speaking to young children about Hecate. The knowledge of the fate of Suydam and that whatever devious magic caused it is still alive and well in Red Hook is what truly throws Malone over the edge.
When I think of Lovecraft I don’t generally think “disturbing”, but I have to say that this one was up there. That penultimate chapter covering Malone’s experiences in Hell were truly unsettling.
What do you think?
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars.” – Walt Whitman
“If youth knew, if age could.” – Sigmund Freud
“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
Ah the origin story. The tales where we uncover the history of the characters we follow, and find out what makes them tick; why they are the way they are. Here we have the dreamlands. What brings King Kuranes and Randolph Carter to the dreamlands? What made King Kuranes a king??
Welcome back to another blind read! Sorry for the limited blogs, but I’ve been extremely busy with writing and vacations (hey! Vacations are work too!). To make up for my truancy, I’ll be covering two short stories this week. Celephais and The Silver Key. But first, a brief synopsis:
Celephais: Kuranes creates the city of Celephais while being a child dreamer. Then as he grows old, he goes to the dreamlands and becomes a King over the city that he created (keeping it simple, but this is pretty much it!)
The Silver Key: Randolph Carter used to dream all the time as a child. He would travel constantly, but as the story begins Carter is 30 and has been unable to get to the dreams that he once had. That is until he meets a man at Miskatonic University (there is a brief description of the events of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” [ Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Statement of Randolph Carter ]) which opens his eyes to the world that he once knew. He starts to dream again and has a dream about his grandfather who tells him to go back to his childhood home, and look for a box in the attic. He goes and finds a box with arabesque designs. When he opens it he finds a parchment with symbols reminiscent to what he saw in the Necronomicon, and inside of the parchment is the eponymous key. His dreams become more vivid and more reminiscent to what they once were. He goes to the place of his childhood, and there he goes into a crevice, holding the key. He then enters a dream state. The story ends how Carter, beginning at the age of ten, when he found the crevice, knew glimpses of the future that he could not possibly know. We also find that a narrator has been telling us this story, a narrator who is a king of a city that he hopes to see Carter in one day.
So there you have it! The origin stories of Kuranes and Carter! Celephais seems more like a fragment from “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, than an actual story, just a little more illumination of Kuranes, whereas The Silver Key seems much more like a full story, not to mention, it looks like it’s continued on in the next story of the book “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”, even though that’s a collaboration.
There are some major links between these two stories, that both seem to link with Lovecraft’s personal life and ideals, and to the evolving dreamlands. Take youth for example. There is a romanticizing of what it means to be young in both of these stories. The innocence, the ignorance. It reminds me of all those horror stories back in the eighties (yes I know they continue on now, but that’s because it’s a trope. I would be interested in researching this and finding out where it actually stems from), where the child could see or interact with the supernatural element, but the parent could not. Seemingly because of the lost innocence, and lost open mindedness. The stories deal with this in two different ways:
Celephais is a lamentation of the innocence. Kuranes moves forward with his life, but regrets his decisions, and thus in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” he reverts Celephais to a version of Cornwall, so that he may re-live his past experiences.
The Silver Key is an effort to spurn the vagaries of everyday life and get back the mystical nature of youth. In fact Carter actually goes back in time and becomes himself as a 10 year old, to re-establish those experiences and memories.
This seems allegorical to Lovecraft himself (There is even a portion of “The Silver Key” where the narrator tells us that writing helps get back the mystery, through opening of one’s mind). Both of these stories show that at some point, there was belief in wonder, belief in the mystical, that came from Lovecraft’s youth. But then, like with many of us, life happens. You grow up. You have responsibilities that take away time and energy from the mysteries of life, making it easy to become bitter, hardened, or ignorant of the fantasy that can be apparent in life. I really felt as though Lovecraft was saying in these two stories that writing saved his life. He was getting bogged down with the stresses of everyday life, bills, housing, love and intimacy, but when he was able to sneak away into the worlds that he created he no longer feared about these mundane issues. He freed his mind in his fantastic worlds, just like Kuranes and Carter did in their dreaming.
Another interesting factor is drugs. There is a finite stigma against all drugs, but there is a certain amount of research that proves that in controlled environments that drugs can be helpful. For example LSD, and marijuana (or Hashish in Kuranes’ case). In modern medicine, these drugs are used as a better alternative for treating things like PTSD and anxiety disorders, and at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, they would be far more prevalent if Big Pharma didn’t get their hands into government pockets and stymie their progression. In Lovecraft there is countless mentions of drugs helping dreamers get back to their “dream state”, of characters opening their eyes to the actual world that is around them, instead of believing and trusting in the veil. I think this subject is probably better suited for an entire post later on, but I think it very worth noting here, because of the content of these stories and the stigma of drugs. Is it considered juvenile? Irresponsible, to take these drugs to try and open up your consciousness? Is it ignoring your responsibilities or reverting, to try and recover youth? Or is there in fact a veil, that needs to be punctured, and we must attempt this in any way possible?
What do you think?
Join me next time for a blind read of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”!
I’m going to start this one with a little rant. This is a blurb about this story from the back of the book: A crazed murderer blames his crime on beings from another dimension. Wild ravings from an insane man turn to prophecy when the Truth is revealed.
This is the problem with most writing. It isn’t the writing itself, but it’s marketing. The only thing about the above sentence that is true is the fact that the man (Joe Slater) is a murderer. Nothing else is true, and it begs the question if the person who wrote the blurb actually read the story. If they had, then it is a much greater crime to purposefully mislead the reader to try and get more sales, by outright fabricating the plot.
Slater never blames his crimes on beings of another dimension (in fact there are never beings, in plural, but ever only one being who “did him great wrong”). Then the author of the blurb deigns to use the buzz word “prophesy”. There is no prophesy. The ravings of the mad Joe Slater are heard by the narrator and the narrator has an interest in dreams, so to see what Joe is seeing, he hooks them both up with a skullcap to see what he is seeing. Which he does. That’s it.
Ok sorry. Now to the nitty gritty of the story.
This is one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories and supposedly has no correlation to the later works. I see quite a bit here that would lead to that however. Again we have these strange green northern lights. Again we have madness derived from exposure to a cosmic deity. Again we have the unreliable narrator. Again we have the remote local. And to top it all off we have Lovecraft’s trademark superiority complex (He names the madman’s neighbor Peter Slader, where the madman’s name is Joe Slater. He mentions many times that they are all backwoods yokels who have no knowledge and intimates that they inbreed. Only to verify that claim by naming the characters of the mountains with such close names as to subliminally castigate them).
Where this shows as an early work is that he actually shows his god. The narrator goes “Beyond the walls of sleep”, and into the cosmic realm that drove the simple Slater mad. the Narrator himself (though it is never discussed what he actually does, or how he acts) is offered a leave of absence, because he is “working too hard” after the experience he gained from Slater’s mind.
But perhaps the most provocative aspect of the story, is why the cosmic deity would come down and inhabit a backwards “white trash” (Yes. Lovecraft actually wrote the words “White Trash” in 1919) yokel, who doesn’t have any brains. Maybe because the idea was to make a transformation?
“His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life.”
Meaning he was not intelligent enough to understand how to make the transition. But the narrator can ascend and we are left feeling slightly off kilter, as if this were not a choice, but now that the cosmic deity has found an appropriate zygote he will being his proliferation.
This is supposedly the first story written by Lovecraft, and it flows perfectly into his predilection for madness. The story follows Jervas Dudley, the quintessential unreliable narrator, in his descent into madness.
Jervas states at the beginning of the story that he loves reading ancient tomes; books that no one else ever reads, who’s subject matter is strange and malignant. He has no social life and he derives much of what he understands about life from these convoluted books.
Then one day he happens upon a tomb. It is in the location of his neighbor’s (The Hydes) burned down house. He begins spending much of his time there, hiding out and sleeping in front of the partially ajar, padlocked tomb.
One day a voice from the tomb tells him to go to his attic, where he finds a key to the padlock and enters the tomb. He spends much of his time there, but at the same time, his father becomes concerned for his mental well being, so he sends a “spy” to watch over him. Listening in on the conversation, Jervas is confused to hear the spy tell his father that he spends all his time sleeping outside of the tomb, not inside as he knows to be true. He also develops a fear of lightning and storms, which is what destroyed the Hyde’s mansion in the first place.
Then while in the tomb he attends a party held by the Hyde’s and everyone seems so realistic and the mansion is back to its former glory, that is until Jervas’ Father and the spy grab him. In the struggle lightning started to flash and it exposed a box on the ground with the initials J.H. and inside was a statue of a young man with an uncanny resemblance to Jervas.
The story ends with one of the servants, supposedly going into the tomb and finding a coffin with the name Jervas on it.
This can be read in two different ways. The first is that the narrator, who is confined to a madhouse, has pushed his brain into thinking about the strange dealings of the netherworld by reading all those tomes instead of interacting with others. Then his half sleep for weeks on end in front of the tomb, his mind played games with him and he imagined everything.
It is easy to correlate that the Hyde’s were his ancestors, and once the mansion was destroyed the family built a new one close by. It stands to reason that during that time there was a young man by the name of Jervas Hyde (J.H.) who’s coffin the servant found at the end of the story. Because of this Jervas Dudley thinks everything is about him, because he has no other basis in reality.
The other way to read it (and the one I quite prefer) is that Jervas found something in the attic, that began to possess him. It made him desire to be with his ancestors, and the spirit of Jervas Hyde had somehow begun to merge with Jervas Dudley. They began to see and experience the same things. One could even conjecture that Jervas’ father knew this was happening, and that is why he was relegated to the asylum.
In either case, it was a fun read, though much shallower than the other Lovecraft I’ve read to date. This was supposedly in his straight horror days, which people say is uninspired, but it has a beautiful reminiscence to Poe and tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher”.