How It's Written: Call of Cthuhlu


Today I'm going to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, an author who is one of the great well-springs of the horror genre. And if you want tl/dr on the horror -- there's Poe then Lovecraft and then everybody else.

I'm going to dive deep into two stories, Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. Shadow over Innsmouth is one of my favorites, but Cthulhu is really worth thinking about because it sparked the entire Mythos.

In a nutshell here is how a Lovecraft story works.

  1. An Investigator seeks out secret knowledge.

  2. He finds truth

  3. Which drives him mad.

Someone is looking for trouble. Intellectual trouble, in fact. And they find truth, as much as they can understand, anyway. Which drives them mad in the end.

Madness turns out to be the correct understanding of things. Because the Lovecraftian truth is a universe in which humanity is utterly insignificant. This is a very modern anxiety. We live in a time, the last 150-200 years or so when old belief systems have collapsed or are collapsing and nothing has replaced them. We don't have a good story of why we are here and what we are supposed to do. And every expansion of our knowledge in the physical sciences has pointed to our greater and greater irrelevance.

The threat, the menace the thing that drives men mad -- the thing that dangles the thread that the investigators must follow deep into the maze of their own insanity -- is always one of the Great Old Ones. They are a pantheon of unpronouncables. Yog Sothoth, N'ylarlathotep, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Ithaqua, Tsathoggua, Hastur (the Unspeakable) who, paradoxically, is the most speakable of all.

Now, screenwriters like to talk about how important story is -- and it is -- if the story is broken in film, it doesn't work. That's because screenplays are blueprints. And if a blueprint doesn't work the house falls down. But a story or a novel is NOT a blueprint. It's the actual thing. It's a habitable structure constructed, not from light and sound, but from words and the creative response of the reader.

So just outlining the story doesn't explain why Lovecraft is great. And that's why you should stick around for the rest of this video. Lovecraft is actually something like a prophet. He's not writing a saga. He's no poet. He's writing revelation -- wild and disturbing visions of how things really are, or could be. And it's at the level of the image that he succeeds. And why he's worth reading.

And the thing that I get with Lovecraft, that I don't get anywhere else, is this lingering sense that madness is the correct understanding. Lovecraft doesn't scare me when I read him, not really. But Lovecraft scares me years later, when I see or hear something I don't understand and it suggests to me the hidden depths of chaos in which we all unwittingly dwell. And whatever other criticism you might level at the man and his writing -- lots of them are justified -- I don't know of anything else like that in literature.

Lovecraft echoes through everybody who comes after him. And, as we will see, much of what came before him echoed through him. As the saying goes, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal."

And, for me, it's tremendously worthwhile to go back to read the things that have inspired generations of people. I gain power as writer by going to the source of the river.

But before we dive into the story we have to deal with two things. The Mythos and the Racism. They are tightly linked, and maybe not in the way that you think.

The Mythos

So, Lovecraft created what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos. It includes a pantheon of unpronouncables. Yog Sothoth, N'ylarlathotep, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Ithaqua, Tsathoggua, Hastur (the Unspeakable) who, paradoxically, is the most speakable of these great old ones.

The writers who wrote in this mythos after him started to take if very seriously, but Lovecraft didn't. He referred to it as "Yog Sothothery" (Jesus, Yog Sothothery! - it's like he made this whole thing up to troll dyslexics and people with speech impediments)

The point is he didn't engage in obsessive "world-building". A term which I've always found to be a bit much, because if you scratch the surface of any fantasy "world" you will find an actual historical time/place/personage with dash of fresh paint and costume jewelry. At best you're mushing a few of those together.

For example, Captain Kirk = Horatio Hornblower. And that's straight from the original pitch for Star Trek. And, in turn, Hornblower is based on Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald.

Game of Thrones is the War of the Roses. Westeros is England.

To become obsessed with the world or the mythos. Is to become distracted from the point of the stories. Nobody enjoys backstory, unless the backstory is also a great story. Don't believe me? I defy you to read The Silmarillion. In fact, I defy you to even skim the Wikipedia page without your eyes glossing over.

But especially with Lovecraft, the Mythos isn't the point. It's how he conveys his point.

The Racism

And with Lovecraft, the racism isn't the point either. Oh, he was very racist. And I don't want to downplay it and disguise how very racist both he and the past were. I don't think it's good to downplay the colossal moral errors that things like slavery, racism, prejudice, tribalism, and bigotry really are.

But, for Lovecraft, I don't see that racism is even a secondary concern in his stories. He uses the Other and the Unknown to display his primary concerns. And, whatever he felt personally, he's playing on the contemporary fears and stereotypes of his day to get the effect he wants. This isn't a justification, it's an explanation.

And I can only observe, if you demand ideological purity and essential good hearteness from the artists you engage with, well, you are not going to get it. I mean, after you're done watching Mr. Rodgers and reading Neil Gaiman, who’s left? Saints are very rare. Good writers are also rare. And the intersection of the two is vanishingly small.

For me, what Lovecraft seems to be worried about is two-fold:

1) The universe is immensely vast and complicated and we don't matter in it at all.

2) The only thing that even somewhat protects us from this chaos is culture -- which is decaying and becoming corrupted.

These two fears are quintessentially modern. Insignificance and lack of a grand narrative -- a structure of meaning - a myth to inhabit -- is our condition. And we're one of only a very few generations of humans that have lived like this. And I have to think it has something to do with the fact that 1 in 5 Americans are on antidepressants. And the CDC reports that 42.4% of Americans are obese. One way, or another, it seems an awful lot of anxiety is getting swallowed.

And while I don’t thing the way Lovecraft uses race and the Other to symbolize degeneration and disintegration is appropriate, I have take #2 seriously. As Jung said, "Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand."

And Lovecraft keenly felt the decay and collapse of that something we cannot see. You can partially track this as a collapse of the Church in the west. Tolkien felt this too in response to WWI. The old ways were shattered. In fact, the shock of this cultural change has created and inspired some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century. And whole philosophical movements, most notably existentialism.

It's a valid concern. And it powers Lovecraft’s horror. To play cheap racist gotcha games with this, might signal virtue, and it is certainly right in places, but don't let it get in your way of understanding. Because all story uses one thing to symbolize another. And the question is: Do you use your symbols well or do you use them poorly?

But still it's tough. Because yeah, you can read racism all over the place in his work. But Lovecraft is hugely influential and you can't pretend he doesn't exist.

Lovecraft Country

I think author Mike Ruff did a great job of handling all of this, without slighting any of it, in his book Lovecraft Country ( I haven't seen the show). I really enjoyed the idea of the book and the book itself. It’s fine work. But I didn’t find it to be a Lovecraftian story. Nobody goes insane or dies and the character you become attached to survive and even triumph. Never happens in Lovecraft. It’s way more optimistic. But it is remarkable because it’s a horror tale told with the quintessentially American horror of slavery and racism.

It’s also very interestingly structured, it's an interlinking series of short stories. Which is a form I really like and don’t know why we don’t see more of. Maybe Mike part of changing that.

Anyway, you won’t go wrong if you check it out, but this video isn’t about Lovecraft Country, it’s about actual Lovecraft.

Call of Cthulhu

The story is like a Russian nesting doll. It’s told by Francis, but Francis does nothing but tells us the stories of Professor Angell, Inspector LeGrasse, and Mate Johansen. It’s a story within a story within a story. The best example of this kind of thing I find in Jorge Luis Borges the Argentinian Short story writer.— Who is truly amazing and 10x the writer Lovecraft was — he wrote these amazing stories within stories, and conveyed a depth of meaning even in the shortest of stories, that can be dizzying. And it turns out he was inspired, at least in part, by Lovecraft. And that’s the thing, Lovecraft inspired everybody as we shall see.

This is the first line in the story.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday 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.

I could stop the video here because we’ve got all of it in the first sentence. An investigator of secret knowledge goes mad in the end because he’s learned too much about the truth of things.

The start of the story is the death of Francis’ Great Uncle. Francis has to settle the estate. This would never fly today. And it’s strange that it worked in a pulp story. I mean really? It’s not very inciting. It really feels like the inciting incident in a tale called Adventures in Probate Court? But in that, there’s some horror too. Everyday, ordinary events lead people into madness.

Now it seems like the old professor had a heart attack. But there is a weird hint here.

…his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many. Locally, interest was intensified by the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end. At the time I saw no reason to dissent from this dictum, but latterly I am inclined to wonder—and more than wonder.

Francis allows that the professor was old so the most reasonable explanation is that his heart just gave out. But, at this point we do have two competing theories of death. Heart attack. The “Nautical-looking Negro” theory. Our narrator Francis dismisses the idea — at first. And that’s another feature of Lovecraft, his narrators argue for the most reasonable explanation, and when they fail in their argument, they go mad.

So, Francis' Great Uncle Angell has died under mysterious or perhaps obvious circumstances and our man Francis leaps into action. Does he pursue this suspicious, nautical-looking negro? No. Because racism isn’t the point. Lovecraft is setting up a symbol to use later. At this point, even Francis doesn’t believe that there was anything untoward with his Great Uncle’s death when it happened.

So he jumps right in and reads his uncle’s papers. Which is weird, because EVERY other thriller and detective story would have him chasing the murderer. And as he pursued the nefarious evildoer the story would unfold. But murder isn’t the point in this story. And neither is ACTION. Because in the second installment.

HE READS MORE! But fear not, part three is where it gets really exciting for Francis. And by exciting I mean he stumbles across a newspaper clipping - reads it (obviously) goes to NZ finds nothing, Goes to Norway tracking a man named Johannsen, only to find that he’s already dead.

This time the murder involves two Lascar sailors. And as Lascarii are Indian, we now have more nautical-looking brown people. Or brown-looking nautical people. Because after everything he’s read, and the strange cults he’s learned about, it’s all starting to fall into place. So now, having grasped the sinister outlines of the shadowy conspiracy, Francis, man of action, CONTINUES READING — he sits right down and reads Johannsen’s diary. And, at the end of all this reading, he’s left with marginal sanity at best.

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

So what we have is a guy who has uncovered knowledge. Written it all down. And now believes, because he knows too much, he will now be killed by a cult of sinister, degenerate nautical-looking foreigners, and DOESN’T WANT ANYBODY TO READ HIS STORY! What The Actual F’thgan? This is bizarre. On the surface, it seems, bad. Why is Lovecraft a thing?

As we will see, in the second part of this series The Shadow Over Innsmouth is more conventionally structured story — and, I think, a better tale all around — but the structure isn’t what makes Lovecraft great.

BECAUSE Lovecraft isn’t writing a thriller, he’s writing a revelation. Like a prophet.

It’s apocalyptic literature. Not in the sense of the end of the world, but in the sense of the word we get apocalyptic from. The greek word Apocalupsis — which means an uncovering or a revelation. And Lovecraft stories, the truth is revealed to the characters — and the truth doesn’t set them free, it destroys them.

He’s writing stories that work in part like religious texts, and this is especially true and easy to see with Call of Cthulhu since it’s not plotted like a conventional thriller. And the useful question to ask is, how does this oddly structured story pull the reader through it at all? What keeps someone interested?

Because somehow it has to work. It was a serialized story, published in three consecutive issues of Weird Tales. So what makes us want to continue reading the story after the first part? Now, the answer could be “Because I heard Lovecraft was good” But that’s certainly wasn’t the answer this was first published.

And what drives us here is not the interest in the murder of the Great Uncle, but in what the hell is going on below the surface of this story?

Professor Angell must have employed a cutting bureau, for the number of extracts was tremendous and the sources scattered throughout the globe. Here was a nocturnal suicide in London, where a lone sleeper had leaped from a window after a shocking cry. Here likewise a rambling letter to the editor of a paper in South America, where a fanatic deduces a dire future from visions he has seen. A despatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some “glorious fulfilment” which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March. Voodoo orgies multiply in Hayti, and African outposts report ominous mutterings. American officers in the Philippines find certain tribes bothersome about this time, and New York policemen are mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22–23. The west of Ireland, too, is full of wild rumour and legendry, and a fantastic painter named Ardois-Bonnot hangs a blasphemous “Dream Landscape” in the Paris spring salon of 1926. And so numerous are the recorded troubles in insane asylums, that only a miracle can have stopped the medical fraternity from noting strange parallelisms and drawing mystified conclusions.

How is this all connected? If this paragraph was a scene in a movie it would be straight conspiracy wall. Pictures, yarn, everything. And Francis’s story is merely the instrument of revelation. He’s John of Patmos. He’s receiving and relaying the message.

And he’s skeptical.

A weird bunch of cuttings, all told; and I can at this date scarcely envisage the callous rationalism with which I set them aside. But I was then convinced that young Wilcox had known of the older matters mentioned by the professor.

He’s the character who, though he hints at awful things right from the word go, is skeptical enough to allow us access to this story. He allows the reasonable perspective and the simple answer the whole way through. Until he can’t anymore.

So what does Francis read about that drives him nuts?

Well, his uncle is obsessed with something called the Cthulhu Cult. And has been ever since a Police Inspector showed up an American Archeological Society meeting with a crazy statue. Described like this

It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.

The aspect of the whole was abnormally life-like, and the more subtly fearful because its source was so totally unknown. Its vast, awesome, and incalculable age was unmistakable; yet not one link did it shew with any known type of art belonging to civilization’s youth—or indeed to any other time.

Its very material was a mystery; for the soapy, greenish-black stone with its golden or iridescent flecks and striations resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy.

The characters along the base were equally baffling; and no member present, despite a representation of half the world’s expert learning in this field, could form the least notion of even their remotest linguistic kinship. They, like the subject and material, belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it; something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.

So they ask the inspector, what is this thing. And where did it come from? So the Inspector tells a tale of raiding a strange cult in the swamps outside New Orleans. Including this --

In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous with its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.

So good old Inspector LeGrasse hauls them down to the station. And learns all about the Great Old ones and Cthulhu.

Including the meaning of this unpronouncable chant.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

And the punchline to all of it?

Only two of the prisoners were found sane enough to be hanged, and the rest were committed to various institutions.

Which makes me (and the reader) want to know. What the hell is a cthuhlu anyway.

And I don't mean within the context of the Cthuhlu Mythos. What I mean is what is this thing symbolically? Where did it come from? Why does it seem to resonate with everyone? The first answer I have is a poem called

The Kraken, by Tennyson

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Lovecraft sacked this poem like the Vandals and the Visigoths sacked Rome. The Kraken sleeps below the waters. Cthulhu sleeps below the waters. Tennyson even gives us polyps -- and, just like swimming in a swamp and getting leeches, you can't read very far in Lovecraft without getting polyps all over you.

But the Kraken is a form of a much older water Dragon/sea serpent concept. In the Bible, we find it as Leviathan. This from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah Chapter 27 verse 1

In that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.

And this from Revelation Chapter 20 verse 2

And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

And the threat of Cthulhu is that sooner or later, he's going to be loosed for a little season.

But even before Leviathan, we have all kinds of Dragons who live in the sea. Jormungandr from Norse Mythology and Tiamat from the Enuma Elish -- the Babylonian Creation Epic.

It's worth thinking of Lovecraft in Mythical terms, because I think that's where his stories really succeed -- at the level of the image. Using religious archetypes in strange new ways.

In part three, Madness from the Sea, we get the story of Mate Johannsen — after he’s dead. So there’s zero suspense. R’yleh rises from the bottom of the ocean and they stumble across it.

I suppose that only a single mountain-top, the hideous monolith-crowned citadel whereon great Cthulhu was buried, actually emerged from the waters. When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith.

Johanssen survives this encounter by driving a ship through Cthulhu’s face

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. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where—God in heaven!—the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.

And then he goes mad. Which, in turn, drives Francis mad because he now knows what’s really going on.

That was the document I read, and now I have placed it in the tin box beside the bas-relief and the papers of Professor Angell. With it shall go this record of mine—this test of my own sanity, wherein is pieced together that which I hope may never be pieced together again. 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. But I do not think my life will be long. As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so I shall go. I know too much, and the cult still lives.

Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

And that's it. Hardly even a story by modern standards of plot. Nothing happens to the main character. So why does this work? I see a couple of ways. One, this is more like a history channel show than a thriller. Secrets of the Ancient Egyptians. We found this crazy thing out. And then we found another crazy thing out. Could be on the verge of unlocking the lost secret of Tututkhamen? And you're drawn into the next part. It's informational suspense, rather than dramatic suspense.

While we don't see this device much in fiction anymore, we see it all the time in non-fiction. And I've read some fantastic non-fiction books and listened to some great non-fiction podcasts that use this to propel you through the story.

The second reason is the revelation. The true nature of the universe is revealed to the reader through Francis. And this kind of revelation story is strange to us now, because, in a way, things aren’t obscured in the same way. If this story happened now, wouldn't have to stumble on clippings to put it together, I could go to the USGS website and scrape earthquake data around the world to pinpoint where R’lyeh was, and exactly when it rose. And we'd probably have shaky cellphone video of the ship driving through Cthulhu's tentacle'd face. And somebody would have gotten the whole thing on an undersea survey, or a satellite photo.

But the story and the revelation still work, because the underlying horror is our meaninglessness in the Universe. This is only more true, the more we can observe. I heard an interview with Neil De Grasse Tyson said, “Every new leap in understanding has made us less unique and less important in the universe.” And the interviewer asked, if you came across a theory that suggested that man was more important or unique than we think now. And with hesitation he said, I suspect it would be wrong.

But in one sense it doesn’t matter what we think of this story of Lovecraft now. Call of Cthulhu rang people, and particularly, other writers like a bell.

And I think this eerie, quasi-religious revelatory quality is the source of Lovecraft’s lasting impact. He gave people their myths and archetypes in a way they immediately recognize but yet manages to be totally new and speak to modern anxieties in a way nothing had before. He kicked off the conceptual driver of modern horror.

The effect that Lovecraft has had upon imaginative fiction is immense. This story was the spark that set it off. Which is why it’s worth reading and studying. In part two of this series, I’m gong to look at the story where I think Lovecraft is at his absolute best — The Shadow Over Innsmouth.