Timothy Reads The Call of Cthulhu

Greetings one and all and everyone. I am sure as sure can be that you are tired of dino-this and dino-that and would rather hear from an entertaining cat. Oh it may not be “PC” these days to talk about Hewlett Packard Lovercraft but I am not one to bow to the pressure of the “socialist justice” crowd. No sir! I am not about to censor our past and vandalise history by forever casting out a writer just because he was a man of his time who, like many fine people at that point in history thought that all sorts of people were out to get him and where constantly whispering about him behind his back. Frankly, as one of the foremost scholars of Mr Lovercraft I find the claims that he was anti-Semtic and anti-black, just because his works and letters are full of “slurs”, “stereotypes”, “prolonged racist rants” and “extraordinarily paranoid world views in which everybody who wasn’t a middle class anglo-saxon man from New England was probably all part of one or several satanic-like cults conspiring to get him and if you were a middle class anglo-saxon man from New England then you had probably been already driven mad by one or several satanic-like cults and now were also out to get him”.

By far his greatest work is The Call of Cthulhu. Now you might think this is about a phone call from somebody called Cthulhu or you might thing this is about the sound a cthulhu makes when it is lost in the woods after maybe you had got a pet cthulhu for Christmas but then decided you didn’t want it after all because you can’t handle the responsibilities of keeping a pet, so you take it out into the woods and abandon it and afterwards you here it’s plaintive cry as you run back to the car and tell you driver to drive away but when you get home you can still here the lonely cry in your sleep but no. That would be too obvious and that’s why I didn’t think those things, particularly not the last one. Lovercraft is just messing with your head with that title because that is how good a writer he is.

Now a lesser writer would just get to the point of his spooky story but not Lovercraft. No. The story starts with a narrator who knew a guy, I forget who he was, maybe his uncle. The uncle had a bunch of notes about a time he saw a statue or maybe the statue was with the notes or vice-versa. It doesn’t matter. The important thing was that there was a statue. The statue was really scary. I don’t mean like when you are quietly eating your dinner and somebody comes up behind you and says “TIMOTHY! That’s not your dinner, that’s a packet of chewable multi-vitamins I bought!” and you are so surprised that you jump up into the air making a banshee-like wail and then have to lie down for a couple of hours to get over the shock. The statue isn’t that kind of “oh my bejeezus” jump in the air scary more like very, very creepy like one of those pictures that follow you round the room or Piers Morgan.

Anyhoo, it so happens that there was this art student who I think might have been a beatnik or a hippy but which apparently is ‘anachronistic’, which I think is a kind of crossword puzzle. The guy is at art school and clearly on all the drugs so how that makes him a newspaper word puzzle and not a hippy I don’t know. He probably should have just started a band with his friends. This hippy had a freaky dream, as hippies do because of smoking too much catnip (we all know what THAT’S like!) and he wakes up and makes this clay statue. He still feels agitated I think, even though the story says the statue was a relief. The hippy gives it to the guy’s uncle and that’s why it’s in his letters. It was commonplace in those days to store random artworks be-quested by hippies in your collected correspondence — I know I still do because I am a cat of tradition. Anyway the hippy had a bad-trip, made a statue, freaked out for a bit and then quit drugs and leaves our story a happier man. Probably smartens up, leaves art school and studies something proper like Business Commerce and works for a bank now. So a happy ending.

Now a lesser writer would have left the story there as a salutary lesson on clean-living and making careful choices. But Lovercraft is a master craftsman, indeed a lovercraftsman. The letters go on to note that Americans find people bothersome in the Philippines, to which Cam says “seriously, how can you read this racist rubbish” and to which I say “bothersome” is hardly the worst thing you can say about people. Then Cam says “and what about ‘hysterical Levantines’ in the same sentence” and I’m not sure what that is, which means it can’t be racist. I mean, if Lovercraft was trying to be racist he’d have used words I can understand.

In chapter two, the narrator talks to a policeman. The policeman also had a wacky statue. This one was made of a substance that nobody could understand, like silly putty or something. He took it to a bunch of scientists and they were all like “what the heck is this!” and the policeman is like “I don’t know that’s why I was asking you guys because you are a bunch of scientists”. Anyway one of the scientists says that it is like something he saw in Greenland and the policeman is like “well I found it in a swamp”.

“Do I really have to keep reading this?” said Camestros at this point.
“Yes, you promised me a bed time story!” I replied.
“It’s 10 am,” he replied back chronometrically.
“That’s my bed time!” I explained. “I promise it won’t give me nightmares!”
“I’m more worried that it will turn you into a Nazi,” he said Godwins-Lawishly.
“Back to the story!” I said.
“OK, so the policeman is off into the swamp to arrest people for heinous crime of swamp worship without a licence…”

The policeman’s investigation had taken him deep into the southern swamp lands, a place so scary that squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns. “That would just be bats then, wouldn’t it?” said Camestros, “Scary looking creatures with bat wings that fly out of caverns are just bats.” Which is missing the point, these were very scary bats. Much scarier than usual.

Anyway, after shooting the swamp worshippers and arresting the one he hadn’t shot, the policeman discovers they are all part of the CULT OF CTHULHU! All the scientist agree that the policeman’s story must be true because he has a creepy statue and what other explanation could there be?

Is that spooky enough for you? Well any other writer would probably have left it just there and maybe looked at the word count and maybe said “I have no idea where I’m going with this!” but not Lovercraft! The narrator is so spooked by all of this that he does what any sane man would do and catches a boat to New Zealand. Everybody knows that New Zealand is the best place to start an investigation into spooky things. For a start everybody is very nice and helpful in New Zealand, so if something spooky happens they will help you out and give you tasty treats like pineapple lumps and call you “bro”.

From New Zealand the narrator goes to Sydney, which quite frankly is a tourist trap. He’d have been better off staying in Auckland or maybe Wellington and going on a Lord of the Rings tour. He then goes to a museum where the geologists have a monstrous puzzle — maybe another crossword or maybe one of those jigsaw puzzles and they can’t find the box with the picture on it. I bet the picture is a picture of Cthulhu but the narrator can’t stay in Sydney probably because the hotels are too pricey and AirBnB hadn’t been invented yet. So from Sydney he travels to the nearby city of Oslo in Norway. In Oslo he must have eaten some bad fish or something because he now felt gnawing at his vitals that dark terror which will never leave him till he, too, am at rest; “accidentally” or otherwise. I had a very similar experience in Norway. Do NOT trust them when they offer you the “special” fish “accidentally” or otherwise.

Anyhoo, toilet issues notwithstanding, the narrator spoke to a sailor in Oslo who told him about the time he was sailing and found a big city that was ancient but which had clearly been designed by art-deco architects from Italy. Which goes to show that Cthulhu may be an ancient demonic god-being whose very existence drives men mad but he is happy to invest in fancy Italian design.

Anyways, ooops! The sailors had accidental-like woken up Cthulhu who was a big monster. “Run away” they all shouted and got back in their ship and sailed off. Cthulhu jumps in the water shouting “Wait for me!” and starts swimming after the ship. This is so funny that one of the sailors laughs so hard that he goes mad and dies, The Cthulhu explodes and then he is all back together again but the ship has got away because Cthulhu may be an elder being from dimensions beyond imagining but he’s not a strong swimmer having skipped swimming lessons as a kid.

“I thought the ending would be scarier.” I said to Camestros.
“Oh, it’s plenty scary when you think about it.” he replied.
“How come?” I asked sleepily.
“Well this overlong, poorly structured, confused and rambling story which somehow manages to insult, belittle and demonise poor people from Greenland, North America, the Caribbean, the Middle-East and the Pacific, with a monster that does nothing but lurk and swim badly, is somehow a cultural touchstone for modern pop-culture. Now that’s scary.” He said.
“Oh shut up.” I said but by that point I had at last gone to sleep.

8 thoughts on “Timothy Reads The Call of Cthulhu

  1. I’ve noted elsewhere that “Call of Cthulhu” is more an outline of a story than a story proper.

    Lovecraft. If he stood head and shoulders above most of his competition in the pulps, well, that was largely because they weren’t very tall…

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  2. That’s pretty funny, and I’m not going to complain that this treatment is unfair to the story, because it’s not my favorite story and HPL sure did have issues. BUT:

    On a theoretical level (possibly this is the same as what Space Oddity means by “outline of a story”), I think the weirdly elaborate multi-layered structure of “The Call of Cthulhu” has a specific purpose that’s directly related to what the real horror in it is (at least, the only horror aspect of it that actually works). And that’s this: You hear about something creepy and intriguing, so you look into it, and step by step you keep getting a little more of the picture, and you could leave off at any step but there’s no reason *not* to keep looking, because it doesn’t directly involve you and it’s interesting. And then you get to the final reveal and it’s something so bizarrely arbitrary that you couldn’t possibly have guessed, and it’s also terrible news that no one can do anything about, so all you can do is wish you hadn’t found it out. The knowledge doesn’t actually drives you mad, and it’s not like the monsters will go after you specifically because you found out; the world will end the same for everyone either way. But now you’re doomed to think about it until then, and you have only yourself to blame, because you (either the protagonist or the reader) just couldn’t resist unwrapping those 99 frame stories. It’s like a shaggy-dog joke where the punchline is “You have an incurable disease. It wasn’t caused by the joke, but as long as you got to the end of the joke, I may as well tell you.”

    I don’t know how much of this was HPL’s intention, but I think it’s an interesting idea of horror as a purely intellectual experience. That’s why, for me, Lovecraft homages don’t work when they focus on supposedly super-scary details of the creatures (like, are things with tentacles inherently worse than things without them?)– it doesn’t matter what Cthulhu is or looks like, as long as it’s completely unrelated to any aspect of regular life and any kind of threat that was on your radar before.

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    1. Yes, for all of Lovecraft’s unquestionable issues, I think the structure of this story was completely deliberate.

      Being too explicit about his horrors and thus undercutting the, well, horror, was an error that Lovecraft himself was frequently guilty of.


      1. Yes. The core of his horror is unspeakability and it’s easy to see how that maps to his paranoia about others in general and non-English speakers in general. The more obscure or non-English (from Lovecraft’s perspective) the language of a group the more they are shown as having hidden secrets and connections with the monstrous.
        He’s like a mirror version of Tolkien.


      2. There’s a moment in one of his stories (I think it’s The Horror at Red Hook) which references “the fearsome Chaldee letters for Lilith”, and while the whole notion of a fearsome alphabet is really pretty awe-inspiring, even when I first read this story at age 12 or 13 or thereabouts there was a part of my brain that went “Wait, isn’t that just the alphabet used by people who spoke Chaldean?”

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