I am providence the life.., p.95
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 95
—to Johansen’s spectacular encounter with Cthulhu—
There was a mighty eddying and foaming in the noisome brine, and as the steam mounted higher and higher the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper.
—the tale is a masterstroke of narrative pacing and cumulative horror. In 12,000 words it has all the density and complexity of a novel.
The true importance of “The Call of Cthulhu,” however, lies not in its incorporation of autobiographical details nor even in its intrinsic excellence, but in its being the first significant contribution to what came to be called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” This tale certainly contains many of the elements that would be utilised in subsequent “Cthulhu Mythos” fiction by Lovecraft and others. There is, to be sure, something going on in many of the tales of Lovecraft’s last decade of writing: they are frequently interrelated by a complex series of cross-references to a constantly evolving body of imagined myth, and many of them build upon features—superficial or profound as the case may be—in previous tales. But certain basic points can now be made, although even some of these are not without controversy: 1) Lovecraft himself did not coin the term “Cthulhu Mythos”; 2) Lovecraft felt that all his tales embodied his basic philosophical principles; 3) the mythos, if it can be said to be anything, is not the tales themselves nor even the philosophy behind the tales, but a series of plot devices utilised to convey that philosophy. Let us study each of these points further.
1) The term “Cthulhu Mythos” was invented by August Derleth after Lovecraft’s death; of this there is no question. The closest Lovecraft ever came to giving his invented pantheon and related phenomena a name was when he made a casual reference to “Cthulhuism & Yog-Sothothery,” and it is not at all clear what these terms really signify.
2) When Lovecraft claimed in a letter to Frank Belknap Long in 1931 that “‘Yog-Sothoth’ is a basically immature conception, & unfitted for really serious literature,” he may perhaps have been unduly modest, whatever he may have meant by “Yog-Sothoth” here. But as the rest of this letter makes clear, Lovecraft was utilising his pseudomythology as one (among many) of the ways to convey his fundamental philosophical message, whose chief feature was cosmicism. This point is made clear in a letter written to Farnsworth Wright in July 1927 upon the resubmittal of “The Call of Cthulhu” to Weird Tales (it had been rejected upon initial submission):
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.
This statement may perhaps not be capable of bearing quite the philosophical weight that some (including myself) have placed upon it: in spite of the very general nature of the first sentence, the bulk of the passage (and of the letter as a whole) deals with a fairly specific point of technique in regard to the weird or science fiction tale—the portrayal of extraterrestrials. What Lovecraft was combating was the already well-established convention (found in Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, and others) of depicting extraterrestrials as not merely humanoid in appearance but also in language, habits, and emotional or psychological makeup. This is why Lovecraft created such an outré name as “Cthulhu” to designate a creature that had come from the depths of space.
And yet, the passage quoted above maintains that all Lovecraft’s tales emphasise cosmicism in some form or another. Whether this is actually the case is another matter, but at least Lovecraft felt it to be so. If, then, we segregate certain of his tales as employing the framework of his “artificial pantheon and myth-background” (as he writes in “Some Notes on a Nonentity”), it is purely for convenience, with a full knowledge that Lovecraft’s work is not to be grouped arbitrarily, rigidly, or exclusively into discrete categories (“New England tales,” “Dunsanian tales,” and “Cthulhu Mythos tales,” as Derleth decreed), since it is transparently clear that these (or any other) categories are not well-defined nor mutually exclusive.
3) It is careless and inaccurate to say that the Lovecraft Mythos is Lovecraft’s philosophy: his philosophy is mechanistic materialism and all its ramifications, and if the Lovecraft Mythos is anything, it is a series of plot devices meant to facilitate the expression of this philosophy. These various plot devices need not concern us here except in their broadest features. They can perhaps be placed in three general groups: a) invented “gods” and the cults or worshippers that have grown up around them; b) an ever-increasing library of mythical books of occult lore; and c) a fictitious New England topography (Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, etc.). It will readily be noted that the latter two were already present in nebulous form in much earlier tales; but the three features only came together in Lovecraft’s later work. Indeed, the third feature does not appreciably foster Lovecraft’s cosmic message, and it can be found in tales that are anything but cosmic (e.g., “The Picture in the House”); but it is a phenomenon that has exercised much fascination and can still be said to be an important component of the Lovecraft Mythos. It is an unfortunate fact, of course, that these surface features have frequently taken precedence with readers, writers, and even critics, rather than the philosophy of which they are symbols or representations.
It is at this point scarcely profitable to examine some of the misinterpretations foisted upon the Lovecraft Mythos by August Derleth; the only value in so doing is to serve as a prelude to examining what the mythos actually meant to Lovecraft. The errors can be summed up under three heads: 1) that Lovecraft’s “gods” are elementals; 2) that the “gods” can be differentiated between “Elder Gods,” who represent the forces of good, and the “Old Ones,” who are the forces of evil; and 3) that the mythos as a whole is philosophically akin to Christianity.
It does not require much thought to deem all these points absurd and ridiculous. The notion that the “gods” are elementals seems largely derived from the fact that Cthulhu is imprisoned under water and that he resembles an octopus, and is therefore supposedly a water elemental; but the facts that he clearly came from outer space, and that he is imprisoned in sunken R’lyeh, must make it obvious both that his resemblance to an octopus is fortuitous and that water is not his natural element. Derleth’s attempt to make elementals of the other “gods” is still more preposterous: Nyarlathotep is arbitrarily deemed an earth elemental and Hastur (a name that is only mentioned in passing once in “The Whisperer in Darkness”) is claimed to be an air elemental. Not only does this leave out what are, by all accounts, the two chief deities in Lovecraft’s pantheon—Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth—but Derleth is then forced to maintain that Lovecraft “failed” in some inexplicable fashion to provide a fire elemental, in spite of the fact that he was (in Derleth’s view) working steadily on the “Cthulhu Mythos” for the last ten years of his life. (Derleth came to Lovecraft’s rescue by supplying Cthugha, the purportedly missing fire elemental.)
Derleth, himself a practising Catholic, was unable to endure Lovecraft’s bleak atheistic vision, and so he invented out of whole cloth the “Elder Gods” (led by the Britanno-Roman god Nodens) as a counterweight to the “evil” Old Ones, who had been “expelled” from the earth but are eternally preparing to reemerge and destroy humanity. Derleth seems to have taken a clue fro
By now there is little need to rehash this entire matter: the work of such modern critics as Richard L. Tierney, Dirk W. Mosig, and others has been so conclusive that any attempt to overturn it can only seem reactionary. There is no cosmic “good vs. evil” struggle in Lovecraft’s tales; there certainly are struggles between various extraterrestrial entities, but these have no moral overtones and are merely part of the history of the universe. There are no “Elder Gods” whose goal is to protect humanity from the “evil” Old Ones; the Old Ones were not “expelled” by anyone and are not (aside from Cthulhu) “trapped” in the earth or elsewhere. Lovecraft’s vision is far less cheerful: humanity is not at centre stage in the cosmos, and there is no one to help us against the entities who have from time to time descended upon the earth and wreaked havoc; indeed, the “gods” of the Mythos are not really gods at all, but merely extraterrestrials who occasionally manipulate their human followers for their own advantage.
This last point is worth examining specifically in relation to “The Call of Cthulhu,” to which we can now finally return. The outlandish story about the Great Old Ones told to Legrasse by Castro speaks of the intimate relation between the human cult of Cthulhu worshippers and the objects of their worship: “That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth.” The critical issue is this: Is Castro right or wrong? The tale when read as a whole seems emphatically to suggest that he is wrong; in other words, that the cult has nothing to do with the emergence of Cthulhu (it certainly did not do so in March 1925, since that was the product of an earthquake), and in fact is of no importance to Cthulhu and his ultimate plans, whatever they may be. This is where Lovecraft’s remark about the avoidance of human emotions as applied to extraterrestrials comes into play: we scarcely know anything about the real motivations of Cthulhu, but his pathetic and ignorant human worshippers wish to flatter their sense of self-importance by believing that they are somehow integral to his ultimate resurrection, and that they will share in his domination of the earth (if, indeed, that is what he wishes to do).
And it is here that we finally approach the heart of the Lovecraft Mythos. Lovecraft’s remark in “Some Notes on a Nonentity” that it was Lord Dunsany “from whom I got the idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by ‘Cthulhu’, ‘Yog-Sothoth’, ‘Yuggoth’, etc.” has either been misunderstood or ignored; but it is central to the understanding of what the pseudomythology meant to Lovecraft. Dunsany had created his artificial pantheon in his first two books (and only there), The Gods of Pegana (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906). The mere act of creating an imaginary religion calls for some comment: it clearly denotes some dissatisfaction with the religion (Christianity) with which the author was raised. Dunsany was, by all accounts, an atheist, although not quite so vociferous a one as Lovecraft; and his gods were, like Lovecraft’s, symbols for some of his most deeply held philosophical beliefs. In Dunsany’s case, these were such things as the need for human reunification with the natural world and distaste for many features of modern civilisation (business, advertising, and in general the absence of beauty and poetry in contemporary life). Lovecraft, having his own philosophical message to convey, used his imaginary pantheon for analogous purposes. But the critical revision Lovecraft made was to transfer this pantheon from an imaginary never-never-land into the objectively real world; in the process he effected a transition from pure fantasy to supernatural horror, making his entities much more baleful than they would have been had they populated a realm like Pegana.
What Lovecraft was really doing, in other words, was creating (as David E. Schultz has felicitously expressed it) an anti-mythology. What is the purpose behind most religions and mythologies? It is to “justify the ways of God to men.” Human beings have always considered themselves at the centre of the universe; they have peopled the universe with gods of varying natures and capacities as a means of explaining natural phenomena, of accounting for their own existence, and of shielding themselves from the grim prospect of oblivion after death. Every religion and mythology has established some vital connexion between gods and human beings, and it is exactly this connexion that Lovecraft is seeking to subvert with his pseudomythology. And yet, he knew enough anthropology and psychology to realise that most human beings—either primitive or civilised—are incapable of accepting an atheistic view of existence, and so he peopled his tales with cults that in their own perverted way attempted to reestablish that bond between the gods and themselves; but these cults are incapable of understanding that what they deem “gods” are merely extraterrestrial entities who have no intimate relation with human beings or with anything on this planet, and who are doing no more than pursuing their own ends, whatever they may happen to be.
“The Call of Cthulhu” is a quantum leap for Lovecraft in more ways than one. It is, most emphatically, the first of his tales that can genuinely be termed cosmic. “Dagon,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” and a few others had dimly hinted at cosmicism; but “The Call of Cthulhu” realises the notion fully and satisfyingly. The suggestion that various phenomena all around the world—bas-reliefs found in New Orleans, Greenland, and the South Pacific, and carved by a Providence artist; anomalously similar dreams had by a wide variety of individuals—may all be insidiously linked to Cthulhu makes Thurston realise that it is not he alone who is in danger, but all the inhabitants of the globe. And the mere fact that Cthulhu still lives at the bottom of the ocean, even though he may be quiescent for years, decades, centuries, or millennia, causes Thurston to reflect poignantly: “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.” It is a sentiment that many of Lovecraft’s later narrators will echo.
A rather trivial point, but one that has consumed the interest of readers and scholars alike, is the actual pronunciation of the word Cthulhu. In various letters Lovecraft appears to give somewhat different pronunciations; his canonical utterance, however, occurs in 1934:
. . . the word is supposed to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word. The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly u
In contrast to this, we have the (clearly inaccurate) reports of certain colleagues who claim to have heard Lovecraft pronounce the word. Donald Wandrei renders it as K Lütl-Lütl; R. H. Barlow supplies Koot-u-lew. The one pronunciation we can definitively rule out—even though many continue unashamedly to use it—is Ka-thul-hoo. Wandrei states that he had initially pronounced it this way in Lovecraft’s presence and received nothing but a blank stare in return.
From the cosmicism of “The Call of Cthulhu” to the apparent mundaneness of “Pickman’s Model”—written, apparently, in early September—seems a long step backward; and while this tale cannot by any means be deemed one of Lovecraft’s best, it contains some features of interest. The narrator, Thurber, writing in a colloquial style very unusual for Lovecraft, tells why he no longer associates with the painter Richard Upton Pickman of Boston, who has in fact recently disappeared. He had maintained relations with Pickman long after his other acquaintances dropped him because of the grotesqueness of his paintings, and so on one occasion he was taken to Pickman’s secret cellar studio in the decaying North End of Boston, near the ancient Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. Here were some of Pickman’s most spectacularly daemonic paintings; one in particular depicts a “colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes” nibbling at a man’s head the way a child chews a stick of candy. A strange noise is heard, and Pickman harriedly maintains that it must be rats clambering through the underground tunnels honeycombing the area. Pickman, in another room, fires all six chambers of his revolver—a rather odd way to kill rats. After leaving, Thurston finds that he had inadvertently taken away a photograph affixed to the canvas; thinking it a mere shot of scenic background, he is horrified to find that it is a picture of the monster itself—“it was a photograph from life.”
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