Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Adventure classics -- Earth shakes, horror awakens

“The Call of Cthulhu”

by H.P. Lovecraft


On the morning of February 28, 1925, the Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake shook the Eastern coast of North America. Although the quake’s power had diminished to magnitude 4 by the time its tremors reached New York, it must have made an indelible impression on 34-year-old H.P. Lovecraft. He would soon incorporate the earthquake into his best-known story of horror from out of the earth’s depths -- “The Call of Cthulhu.”

The earthquake occurred at a time when Lovecraft probably felt more than usually stressed. He was recently separated from his wife (surprisingly, considering Lovecraft’s notorious racism, she was Jewish), leaving him alone in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, surrounded by immigrants whose foreignness made his Anglophile spirit recoil. (He would incorporate Red Hook into a horror story of its own.)

Now that Cthulhu’s gone camp, appearing on everything from t-shirts to Disney movies to crocheted amigurumi toys, it can be hard to imagine the horror the big green squid-face originally evoked.

Clearly, the editor of the pulp magazine Weird Tales had doubts about the green guy’s reception. The cover of its February 1928 edition, where Cthulhu debuted, featured an illustration for a story entitled “Ghost Table,” with a picture of a gun-toting hero threatening -- a table. A table was scarier than an alien monster? Or was portraying the monster simply beyond the ability of Weird Tales’ artist?

Lovecraft himself provided a sketch in 1934 which illustrates this post. Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the story. When Cthulhu called, Lovecraft could write a lot better than he could draw.

In case you need a reminder, “The Call of Cthulhu” is a tale of malevolent beings who
came to Earth from the stars, were worshipped as gods, and sank at last into the sea, perhaps one day to rise again -- as during the seismic shifts of an earthquake. In a technique reminiscent of William Faulkner’s in last Wednesday’s post (“How not to leave a lover,” October 24, 2012) Lovecraft takes pains to anchor his tale in realistic details. There’s the earthquake, which his readers would still remember; descriptions of the initial setting in Lovecraft’s native city of Providence, Rhode Island; and obsessive recitations of dates, places, even latitude and longitude.

The “facts” come from multiple, often impeccable sources -- a renowned professor, newspaper clippings, a police inspector, a “sober and worthy” old sailor.

The story takes place in a modern, everyday world -- people travel by taxicab, they talk on telephones -- until amid this normality a being appears whose essence is of such “abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy” as to defy description.

Of course, it also almost defies pronunciation. In case you wondered, as I did, there’s an “American” pronunciation of “Cthulhu” at

And since it’s in the public domain, consider reading it yourself this Halloween night, at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics transitions from October’s Halloween horror to November’s month of fantasy, with Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron.)


  1. This one is one of my favourites. I love the use of false documents in it to tell the story in different pov's.

    I write a bit of Mythos, myself.

    1. When I read it just for the technique, I was amazed at the level of craft.