The Call of Cthulhu is a short story by the American horror-writer H. P. Lovecraft. Although written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in February 1928. Today it’s available as a free audio book read by British actor Garrick Hagon.
The audio book underlines a preface of time, giving insight to how some mysterious old mythical beings are still in existence. It goes on, explaining this universe is a vast empty space of unknown and is still an untold tale.
I. The Horror in Clay
Starting of, The Horror in Clay depicts a small bas-relief sculpture found among the papers, which the narrator describes:
My somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.”
The sculpture turns out to be the work of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design who based the work on his dreams of “great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” These images are associated in the dreams with the words Cthulhu and R’lyeh.
Wilcox’s dreams began on March 1, 1925, culminating in a period from March 23 until April 2 when Wilcox was in a state of delirium. During the same period, Angell’s research reveals, there were cases of “outre mental illnesses and outbreaks of group folly or mania” around the world — from Paris and London, Africa and South America, Haiti and the Philippines, western Ireland and India. In New York City, “hysterical Levantines” mob police; in California, a Theosophist colony dons white robes to await a “glorious fulfillment.”
II. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse
In the second part of the story, “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse”, Angell’s notes reveal that the professor had heard the word Cthulhu and seen a similar image much earlier. At the 1908 meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri, a New Orleans police official named John Raymond Legrasse had asked the assembled antiquarians to identify a statuette, made of an unidentifiable greenish-black stone, that “had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting.” The “statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was” closely resembled the Wilcox bas-relief:
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.
On November 1, 1907, Legrasse had led a party in search of several women and children who disappeared from a squatter community. The police found the victims’ “oddly marred” bodies being used in a ritual that centered on the statuette, about which roughly 100 men — all of a “very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type” — were “braying, bellowing, and writhing”, repeatedly chanting the phrase, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
After killing five of the participants and arresting 47 others, Legrasse interrogated the prisoners and learned “the central idea of their loathsome faith”:
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died […] hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.
The prisoners identified the statuette as “great Cthulhu”, and translated the chanted phrase as “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” One particularly talkative cultist, known as “old Castro”, named the center of the cult as Irem, the City of Pillars, in Arabia, and points out a relevant passage in the Necronomicon:
That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.
One of the academics queried by Legrasse, William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, points out that he had encountered, “high up on the West Greenland coast,” a similar phenomenon on an 1860 expedition: “a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness.” Webb said that the Greenland cult had both the same chant and a similar “hideous” fetish.
Thurston, the narrator, notes that at this point in his investigation,
My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were.
III. The Madness from the Sea
In the third part of the story, “The Madness from the Sea”, Thurston extends the inquiry into the “Cthulhu Cult” beyond what Professor Angell had discovered. He discovers by chance an article from the Sydney Bulletin, an Australian newspaper, for April 18, 1925, that reported the discovery of a derelict ship in the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor — Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen, second mate on the schooner Emma out of Auckland, New Zealand, which on March 22 encountered a heavily armed yacht, the Alert, crewed by “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes” from Dunedin, New Zealand. After the Alert attacked without provocation, the crew of the Emma fought back and, though losing their own ship, managed to board the opposing ship and kill all their attackers.
The article went on to say that the survivors encountered an island the next day, in the vicinity of 47° 9′ S, 126° 43′ W, even though there are no charted islands in that area. Most of the remaining crew died on the island, but Johansen is said to be “queerly reticent” about what happened to them.
Thurston realizes from the article that the crew of the Alert was connected to the Cthulhu Cult, and travels, first to New Zealand, then to Australia (where he sees a statue retrieved from the Alert with a “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal”) and finally to Oslo, where he learns that Johansen died suddenly after an encounter with “two Lascar sailors”.
When Johansen’s widow gives Thurston a manuscript written in English that her husband left behind, the narrator learns of the crew’s discovery of the uncharted island which is described as “a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh.” Exploring the risen land, which is “abnormal, non-Euclidian, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours,” the sailors manage to open a “monstrously carven portal”.
… And from the newly opened depths it lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway […] The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
Johansen writes that “The Thing cannot be described,” though the story does call it “the green, sticky spawn of the stars,” and refers to its “flabby claws” and “awful squid-head with writhing feelers.” Hinting at its scale, the story says, “A mountain walked or stumbled”. Johansen manages to get back to the yacht; when Cthulhu, hesitantly, enters the water to pursue the ship, Johansen turns the Alert around and rams the creature’s head, which bursts with “a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish” — only to immediately begin reforming as Johansen and William Briden (insane, and soon dead) make their escape.
After reading this manuscript, Thurston ends his own narrative on a pessimistic note:
Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.
He assumes that he will soon meet the fate of Angell and Johansen:
I know too much, and the cult still lives.
He also thinks that Cthulhu, whilst restoring his broken head, was dragged down again with the sinking city, thus keeping humanity safe until the next time, when the stars are right.
- I. The Horror in Clay00:50
- II. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse22:55
- III. The Madness from the Sea59:59
- NarratorGarrick Hagon