Literature: The Call of Cthulhu

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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
— Opening lines of The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu is arguably the most famous short story by horror writer HP Lovecraft, and is often labelled as the point where Lovecraft's style really started started to take shape (you might say this story is where the Mythos grew the beard). It is also the first story to refer to and the only piece written by Lovecraft himself to actually feature the famous Eldritch Abomination who would later name the Cthulhu Mythos as other writers took over.

The story is presented as a manuscript found among the belongings of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, which is used as a narrative which joins together three short stories, each bigger, darker, bleaker, and more memorable than the last. The first part begins with a document found by Thurston among the belongings of his late granduncle Professor Angell, which describes a series of conversations with a young sculptor named Henry Wilcox, who has been experiencing a series of strange dreams which have inspired him to carve a disturbing bas-relief. Over the course of several weeks, Wilcox and Angell meet, and the former describes his bizarre dreams in which he finds himself exploring the ruins of an unknown forgotten city. The next part reveals why this is of interest to Professor Angell.

The second story tells of Inspector Legrasse, a police officer in New Orleans whose investigation of a series of disappearances leads him to a rather sinister cult worshiping a strange idol. The cultists are immediately arrested and taken to prison and the idol is confiscated. Legrasse then shares the idol among various archaeologists, including Professor Angell, hoping to gain answers as to its nature. Eventually through one man's testimony and the questioning of some of the cultists, Legrasse learns that the idol is "Great Cthulhu", a being worshiped by this cult which has presumably lived for centuries.

In the third and final part of the story, Thurston encounters a newspaper clipping describing the rescue of the lone survivor of the crew of Alert, a Norwegian sailor named Gustaf Johansen. Thurston is eventually able to recover a journal Johansen wrote, which tells the tale of how he and his crew commandeered a yacht from a particularly sinister crew of men (implied to be cultists), and their arrival at the sunken city of R'lyeh, where Cthulhu himself is nearly released by mistake.

Adapted in 2005 into an impressive film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Incredibly faithful to the original text and presented in the form of a silent movie from the 1920's, a must-see for any Lovecraft or horror fan. There are also at least two radio adaptations; one by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and the other by Dark Adventure Radio Theater.

Not to be confused with the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, or the YouTube series Calls for Cthulhu.

This story provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Johansen manages to escape from R'lyeh while his crewmates are unable to navigate its geometry and fall to their deaths, gets back to his ship, and rams Cthulhu himself ''head on''.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Lovecraft himself sketched Cthulhu in 1937 with at least six eyes. Nearly all illustrators have given it two eyes, to allow facial expressions readable by humans. So we have aggressive Cthulhus, furious Cthulhus, comic Cthulhus, but in the author's view the entity had no understandable expression and it's completely alien.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The Dark Adventure Radio Theater version adds a framing device about two police officers who investigate Thurston's death.
  • Alien Geometries: R'lyeh is said to defy any known dimensions, to the point where the sailors can't tell if a door is supposed to be a conventional door that opens horizontally, or a trapdoor that opens vertically, and a sailor is killed by Cthulhu when he fails to get past a corner which appears to be acute but acts as if it was obtuse. This is downplayed in the movie due to the low-budget 1920's style, though strongly alluded to with frequent shots of strange angles.
  • Anachronic Order: The three stories are presented in the order which Thurston finds them. Chronologically "The Tale of Inspector Legrasse" would actually come first, while "The Horror in Clay" and "The Madness From the Sea" happen around the same time.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The story itself could count, since it is implied that everything that the narrator is caught up in leads to his murder by cultists. Gustaf Johansen's journal also comes close.
  • Apocalypse Cult: The cultists apparently want to raise Cthulhu from the depths.
  • Breakout Character: Considering the title character of the story had an entire mythos named after him.
  • Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu: Gustaf Johansen manages to survive against all odds and presumably stops Cthulhu from bringing about the end of the world. However, Cthulhu is still very much alive, and Johansen not only goes insane as a result of the experience but it is suggested that he was murdered by cultists.
  • Composite Character: The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company's adaptation has Thurston playing the role originally played by Gustaf Johansen.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: One of the original examples and possible Trope Namer.
    Was I tottering on the brink of cosmic horrors beyond man's power to bear?
  • Cult: The second part of the story involves a group of police officers arresting a cult of Cthulhu while investigating a series of disappearances - victims of said cult, sacrifices made for Cthulhu. It is strongly suggested that they are behind the murders of Professor Angell, Johansen, and possibly the narrator.
  • Cowboy Cop: Inspector Legrasse, otherwise described in the story as a very mundane man and police officer, is so impressed with the cult's monstrosity that he invests a lot of time, energy and money to discover what lies behind it. Lampshaded in the 2005 film, when he says to the archaeologists the investigation turned into his own personal crusade.
  • Death by Adaptation: Inspector Legrasse in the 2005 film, though his death happens off-screen and is only referred to at the end. Also Captain Collins did die in the book, but he was killed in the battle for Alert. In the movie the crewmen simply find the derelict ship abandoned at sea, meaning that Collins instead dies by the hand of Cthulhu himself.
    • Castro in the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company adaptation.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Invoked in the film in keeping with the style of 1920's cinema.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Johansen successfully prevents Cthulhu from ending the world though at the cost of his sanity and soon after his life.
  • Downer Ending: The narrator finally understands what is really going on, but he also realizes that both the cult and Cthulhu himself are still alive, and realizes to his horror that he may die very soon. The movie expands on this by showing him to be institutionalized, and the implication that his psychiatrist will soon follow the same path.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Sort of. Wilcox is influenced to create a disturbing bas-relief by a series of weird dreams. The dreams themselves don't actually predict the future, but the impact they have helps to foretell the inevitable rise of Cthulhu.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Cthulhu himself. A, if not the, Trope Codifier.
  • Eldritch Location: R'lyeh.
  • Foregone Conclusion: When we hear the story of Johansen, we already know from the newspaper clipping found earlier that none of the other crew members will make it, though one other man survives the actual ordeal only to die of fear afterwards.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: According to Old Castro, by the time the Great Old Ones awoke human beings would be very much like them, "free and wild and beyond good and evil", to the point that they'd welcome them as kindred spirits.
  • Gender Flip: Castro in the Atlanta Radio Theater Company Adaptation. The nickname is changed from "Old Castro" to "Mother Castro".
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Gustaf Johansen. The Trope Namer.
    • This also happens to Thurston in the 2005 film.
  • He Knows Too Much: Thurston notices that the cult apparently makes a habit of murdering those who get too close to the truth about Cthulhu, and he expresses fear that it might also happen to him too. The fact that he is listed as dead at the beginning of the story implies that it indeed did.
  • Island of Mystery: The island that pops up with R'lyeh on it.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: Taken to an almost mythical extreme. The principal narrator of the story is one "Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston", but much of the narrative is simply his relating the account of his great-uncle, George Gammell Angell, who at one point acts as the literary agent for an Inspector John Raymond Legrasse, who narrates the account of a sailor and cult member named Castro, who in turn claims to have gained his knowledge from immortal cult members in China, who, arguably, received their knowledge from Cthulhu himself. The final link in the chain is you, the reader, as the intro gently reminds us that Francis Wayland Thurston is in fact the late Francis Wayland Thurston, whose account closes with the ominous suggestion that anyone who reads these documents is likely to end up dead.
  • Karma Houdini: While a number of its members were arrested by Legrasse, the cult is still at large. It's also mentioned that the coroners examining both Professor Angell and Gustaf Johansen couldn't determine a cause of death, removing any chance of convicting those responsible. Cthulhu himself is only temporarily stopped, and it is said to be inevitable that he will one day rise again.
  • Posthumous Character: Professor Angell, the narrator's uncle.
    • The narrator himself, given the manuscript was simply found among his belongings.
    • Gustaf Johansen also turns out to be an example.
  • Ramming Always Works: Temporarily, at least. Cthulhu regenerates seconds after being rammed by the ship, but he's definitely knocked out for the moment.
  • Religion of Evil: The Cthulhu Cult is built up as such. In the 2005 film one of a swamp family even mentions that they normally don't want to associate themselves with the police, but are willing to do so at this point because of them.
  • Spared By Adaptation: The narrator in the 2005 film. Though the final scene implies that he won't last much longer.
  • Sole Survivor: It's stated early on that Johansen was the only surviving crew member when the Alert was found. Not that it lasted long.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The final lines of the story involve Thurston realizing that he knows too much, and that it is very likely that he will meet his end by cultists. Then suddenly you realize you now know too much.
  • The Unpronounceable: "Cthulhu" is an approximation of an alien language that humanity lacks the necessary body components to pronounce.

Alternative Title(s):

Call Of Cthulhu