Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Reading Journal: The Call of Cthulhu

In August 1986, before I started graduate school at Brown University, I moved into a depressing three-story brick apartment building on Gano Street in Providence, Rhode Island. I was on the third floor. Directly below me, on the first floor, was a history graduate student named Mike who spent his free time listening to The Cure and pondering the Dark Arts. He was convinced that Providence stood at the convergence of powerful ley lines which made the city a focus of paranormal activity. One piece of his evidence was the fact that Providence was the home of H. P. Lovecraft, who was born there in 1890 and who died there in 1937.

Lovecraft was a writer of horror tales whose work originally appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and who was recently (and somewhat controversially) canonized by inclusion in the Library of America. It was in the Library of America volume of his Tales (2005) that I read what is probably Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” The story is presented as an account of the narrator’s efforts to piece together a story partially revealed in the papers of his late grand-uncle, who was a professor at Brown University. It’s a research thriller, like The Da Vinci Code or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, without much actual thrill. The narrator’s research uncovers the existence of an ancient cult that awaits the resurrection of the alien demon Cthulhu and the other Old Ones from their drowned city somewhere in the Indian Ocean (helpfully pinpointed as 47° 9’ S 126° 43’ W). The narrator learns that there are primal demons lurking in the earth who speak to humans in nightmares and will one day rise to make the world “flame with a holocaust of ecstacy and freedom.”

“Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep,” the narrator says, “and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.” The primal demons in the earth make H. P. Lovecraft’s world a hopeless and lonely place. Men die alone and empty, hollowed out by their terrible knowledge. Everything basically sucks.

I just finished watching the brilliant second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the season finale, Buffy’s evil ex-boyfriend attempts to revive an ancient demon with the Lovecraftian name Acathla, who with a single word will suck the entire world into a hell dimension in which all non-demon life will suffer eternal torments. But in the Buffyverse, demons tend to represent inner demons—the demons that plague our human psyches—and can be killed by self-knowledge, Christian humanism, and a well-aimed wooden stake. Buffy reaffirms human values like friendship, compassion, and forgiveness. In Lovecraft’s world, there is no slayer, only the lurking Old Ones and the nihilism of those who become aware of their presence.

But Lovecraft’s demons are no less metaphorical than those of the Buffyverse. He describes the devotees of Cthulhu as “mongrels” and “half-castes” and “degenerate,” and the return of the Old Ones threatens to turn the earth into what looks to Lovecraft like an orgiastic hell dimension of miscegenation. The vision drives a pedigreed white man like the narrator, one Francis Wayland Thurston, to despair. Lovecraft was a racist, and he created an entire twisted mythos out of his loathing of the non-white and his fear of what lurked beneath the thin white skin of Western civilization. “The Call of Cthulhu” was written in 1926, the year Jelly Roll Morton started recording for Victor, but it’s a good bet that H. P. Lovecraft didn’t have “Black Bottom Stomp” spinning on his old victrola. The central section of Lovecraft’s story is, in fact, an account of a police raid of a Cthulhu cult ritual in the swamps near New Orleans. Lovecraft describes the cult members as “hybrid spawn,” and describes the ritual like this: “Animal fury and orgiastic licence here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstacies that tore through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell.” I’m sure it would be easy to find similar descriptions of jazz clubs in the 1920s by writers of Lovecraft’s background and temperament.

No, I’m not a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, his racist and nihilist mythos, or his overwrought prose. But his influence is undeniable. Here’s a small example. Lovecraft describes Cthulhu as “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers.” At left is the head of Dalek Sek, the human-dalek hybrid from the most recent series of Dr. Who on the BBC. Lovecraft recoiled from “hybrids” and “mongrels,” and it seems significant that this human-alien hybrid seems to allude to the appearance of Cthulhu. But the ethos of most mainstream science fiction (especially Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is humanistic, and in Dalek Sek the dalek extermination machine is humanized and made to feel compassion and the desire for reconciliation.

At about the same time that I was hearing about ley lines from my neighbor Mike, Neil Gaiman was writing the Lovecraft parody, “I Cthulhu” (1986), a hilarious hybrid (the appropriate word) of Lovecraft’s peculiarly portentous style and the off-handed casualness of a celebrity interview. Here’s a small sample. Cthulhu is telling his interviewer about the rest of his demonic family:

To tell the truth I wasn’t all that fond of my cousins, and due to some particularly eldritch distortion of the planes I’ve always had a great deal of trouble seeing them clearly. They tend to get fuzzy around the edges, and some of them – Sabaoth is a case in point – have a great many edges.

I love how Gaiman works in the Lovecraftian adjective eldritch, meaning “weird, uncanny, otherworldly.”

Thanks to John Mutford for his Short Story Monday review of Neil Gaiman's "I Cthulhu."

5 comments:

John Mutford said...

Hmmm. I know so little about Lovecraft. I read a book by him way back when and I don't even recall the title (though I do recall it had something to do with evil mermen- he had a thing against the sea too apparently). The racist charges I've never heard, but you make a good argument. I think, after reading your review, I'm glad I started with the Gaiman story.

Penny said...

I was at Brown a few years earlier, with S.T. Joshi, an acknowledged Lovecraft expert even as a college student and ever since. I think he lived down the hall from me at some point. I still have never actually read any Lovecraft, but I can't hear of him without thinking of S.T. It's always fascinating when people have such a focused interest at a young age.

Jim H. said...

I wonder what my H.P. Lovecraft record is worth? A band from California expropriated Lovecraft's name in the 1960's and produced one album (I think only one). They modeled their sound on Jefferson Airplane and dedicated their lyrics to Mr. Lovecraft. I do not know why I still have this record or even why I got it in the first place. I will have to unearth it and maybe put some of their Lovecraftian lyrics on somebody's blog somewhere.

Jim H. said...

For the record:
Ten minutes of research showed that the psychedelic rock group HP Lovecraft produced three albums, not just one.

A few more minutes digging through the bin revealed that I own two of them.

And another few minutes of on-line searching confirmed that thay are worth next to nothing.

Still, it would be interesting to listen to some music inspired by a racist mystic from Providence.

Jason Mittell said...

For an updated influence of Lovecraft filtered through a goofy web meme, check out LOLTHULHU.