The Horror of What We Do Not Know…Yet: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulu”

Cthulu“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Phew.

Those are the kinds of haunting sentences you’ll encounter in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulu” (which can be found in the omnibus collection of his tales where I first found it). Like many great short stories, one of the wonders of this one is how vast it feels, but that is especially true here. Lovecraft’s stories tend to deal with “deep time”, or history on a cosmic, billion-plus year scale. But rarely is it as well-done as in “The Call of Cthulu,” which is one of the vastest, chilling, and memorable I’ve ever read.

I wouldn’t dare spoil this story for you because one of the joys of reading it is that it is a strange-sort of mystery. Rather than dealing with a simple crime, though, we’re dealing with eons of history and secrets that threaten to shatter our entire worldview. If all this sounds vague or odd, well, I agree, but another one of the joys of this story is that it knows just how much to reveal to the audience.

Briefly, this story is about Cthulu, a figure idolized in a statue made from a material not found on Earth, worshipped by a terrifyingly-described cult, and ruler of a city whose “geometry…[is] all wrong.” As the narrator learns more and more about this fearsome creature, the more the real horror of the story sets in – specifically, our world, in comparison with Cthulu and the other things out there, beyond our knowledge or imagination, is absurdly, laughably small.

Slasher movie villains may scare us, but Cthulu inspires not just dread but awe. The language used by his cult is indecipherable to us (a small example – “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”) and the very “non-Euclidian” structure of his city baffles those who see it. Don’t get me wrong – this story isn’t all speculation and hints. Lovecraft writes in a rich, baroque language that is the exact opposite of Hemingway’s stripped down, simple prose. This style is perfect for his purposes, and what Lovecraft describes is describes perfectly. But, again, the real power of the story lies in what is not seen. “The Call of Cthulu” is like the tip of an iceberg that is infinitesimally small compared to what we cannot see below. Then again, by the end of the story, what we’ve seen is more than enough to make us understand our helplessness in the face of what lies out there, waiting.

This is not, however, a depressing story about what we can’t do. Rather, it is a striking portrait of a man who is learning more than he ever imagined he could about our not-so-empty cosmos. Like a modern Oedipus, whose quest for knowledge leads him to ruin, the narrator risks his life and sanity as the full, devastating truth looms ever closer.

This is a powerful, and extremely original, story that spawned the entire genre of “cosmic horror” and influenced scores of writers, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.  And once you finish it, I guarantee that you’ll never look up at the darkness all around you on a clear night quite the same way again.

So go read it. Now.

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