Skip navigation

There’s a devotion to Lovecraft that strikes me as improbable and amazing. There have been so many amazing horror writers in the last century but, so far as I can tell, none of them boasts the strange communal legacy that Lovecraft has developed. A lot of it, I’m sure, was derived from Lovecraft’s tendency to correspond with and encourage his fellow struggling writers as they all banged out oft-rejected horror for the pulp magazines. Some of it relates to the rather prosaic fact that the gods and creatures Lovecraft developed lend themselves to experimentation more effectively than the characters created by other horror writers: it’s hard to, say, write “Return to the House of Usher” when by the end of the original two of the principle characters are dead, the third has fled and is probably going to go mad really soon, and said house itself has been subsumed into the living earth, or whatever.

But I feel like there’s more to it than that. And I don’t have a great handle on Lovecraft yet, but (obviously) it’s a subject I love to think about. Lovecraft has undoubtedly influenced modern horror tremendously, so what was it about Lovecraft’s horror that proved to be so fertile? He died in 1937, for Christ’s sake. How many other 1930’s writers inspire so much popular thought in 2015? And, within his twisted pantheon, what leads to popular success? I’ve read maybe one mythos story about Azathoth*, but…

…I’ve been beating around the bush for two paragraphs now, so I might as well just come out and get to the topic of today’s post:

I have NO IDEA why everyone is so impressed by Cthulhu.

On my ever-growing shelf of Lovecraft horror, I see (and these are just for starters): On the Black Wings of Cthulhu I through III. Acolytes of Cthulhu. The New Cthulhu. The Book of Cthulhu I and II. But:

  1. Squids are not particularly scary.
  2. Adding bat wings and legs to a squid does not make it scarier.
  3. There’s exactly one Lovecraft story in which Cthulhu features.
  4. He gets wiped out by a dude who drives a boat through his head.
  5. He’s not even a particularly powerful god. (See #4)

I’m not saying “The Call of Cthulhu” is a bad story. On the contrary! You’ve undoubtedly heard the opening sentence thousands of time, plastered at the start of every other mythos story in existence, but in my opinion, the entire paragraph is startling in its bleak assessment of humanity’s path:

“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 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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

We’re ignorant, yes, cozy in our false sense of isolation and certain of a security built on an imaginary foundation. But if that were the sole source of the horror in Lovecraft, we’d surely have moved on by now. In a few (surprisingly clear, uncluttered sentences), Lovecraft mercilessly pinpoints the source of our doom: our insatiable curiosity. As much as we crave coziness and safety, we keep digging. Despite everything, we keep digging. The only outcome possible is our destruction, and (and! Not but, but and) we keep digging.

The inevitable self-destruction, the curiosity that overcomes our innate, tragically weak sense of self-preservation is one of the most powerful currents in Lovecraft’s work. It continues to inspire horror writers today.

And as we read further, we’re introduced to another key Lovecraft trope: the manipulation of humanity’s shared consciousness. We may live on a placid island of ignorance, but we’re shockingly weak against outside forces that wish to make their presence known. They will be known, regardless of whether we’re the lowest cult worshipper or a foppish, rather delicate young artist. They poison our dreams. They are inescapable.

Part II, I would say, is excellent as well. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse introduces the reader to the worshippers of the Great Old Ones, the backwater practitioners of unspeakable rites performed to please their dead and dreaming masters.

And then…and then…we come to Part III. (Trigger warning: apostasy ahead!)

To a group of sailors that come to a mystical isle, and, after encountering a multitude of slimy rocks and grotesque obelisks, encounter a most dreadful beast. It emerges from its lair, “visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings” (all right). It grabs the poor sailors with its “flabby claws” (huh). It slides into the water, this dreadful “pursuing jelly” (I…okay) , but our brave Norwegian protagonist (whose yellow hair was whitened by this encounter) still has the presence of mind to drive his boat into the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers”, which results in a collision typified by the “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 could not put on paper” (ewwww). And then Cthulhu is dead, but he was dead all along so maybe he’s not dead (but, I mean, he is dead, maybe just temporarily stymied and dead, not dead-dead).

It’s not a bad ending, by any means. I just don’t think it’s worthy of the two parts that preceded it. And I certainly don’t understand why Cthulhu remains the most recognizable (and, arguably) beloved of the Lovecraftian pantheon. He’s certainly recognizable. (Although, it must be pointed out, the hideous tentacled behemoths are perhaps a far cry from what Lovecraft himself had envisioned, as you can see from his sketches.)Lovecraft's cthulhu

And it can’t be denied that while I might be somewhat unimpressed by the visuals, a lot of Lovecraft’s characters suffer from similar or worse impediments. A friend of mine pointed out that Cthulhu is the only mythos character that isn’t actively, you know, stupid-looking. (Fighting words, for sure, but when the horrible civilization-ending Shoggoths are compared to both subway trains and luminous bubbles in the same breath, you can’t ignore the fact that the argument holds water, at least slightly.)

While my perception of Lovecraft’s fiction is constantly in flux, I would say that the real horror of Lovecraft’s work isn’t derived from its villains itself. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite: the lonely and horrible realization that the villains aren’t really villains, per se, because a villain takes an active interest in its prey. Lovecraft’s most immortal monsters are as indifferent as they are powerful. And the identification and creation of a mascot with a tentacle-y head and little flappy wings diminishes the impact of this conclusion.

The Cultist

*”The Sect of the Idiot”, Thomas Ligotti

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure everyone would agree with you about squids not being scary. They’re certainly pretty alien for most people.

    I wonder if part of Cthulhu’s recognizability is due to the wide spread of a particular set of artistic depictions of it (by better artists than Lovecraft). Is there perhaps one artist who gave us the Cthulhu we know and dread?

    I’m not sure this question is readily answerable, but it would be interesting to know if Cthulhu was always considered as iconic for the Mythos as it is now.

    These thoughts come from a crowded Red Line car and a state of too little sleep, so I apologize if they’re on the inarticulate side.

    • Not inarticulate, but fair…I dunno, squids are pretty alien, but not THAT alien…I mean, they are food. Delicious, rubbery food you can dip in lemon aioli. But I take your point. I found a Reddit comment a few months ago (and I wish I had saved it) claiming that the “tentacles” in Lovecraftian mythos aren’t really tentacles, but rather reflect our inability to see all the dimensions they occupy. So, for example, if we were the 3D Old One terrorizing a 2D populace, we’d only ever be in their particular plane for a few seconds at at time–and, for their part, they wouldn’t experience our arm as we do, but rather they would see a single slice–a cross-section with bone, muscle, parts of veins, etc. So, they might see it as a tentacle–but it would be unfathomably weird and incomprehensible. So perhaps that’s what we’re actually seeing when we interact with a 5-dimensional tentacled beast…but I don’t think we can give Cthulhu a pass for that. He’s pretty clearly tentacled as we know tentacles.

      Actually, as I found out, Cthulhu’s star power owes a *lot* to one man alone, August Derleth. He definitely wasn’t considered super-iconic initially–what we call the Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft would have preferred to call Yog-sothothery. But Derleth rebranded them with Cthulhu as the central figure, and added a lot of his own creation…and I actually have a post about this coming next week, so I’ll not spoil it further at this time!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *