"The Call of Cthulhu" is one of H. P. Lovecraft's best-known short stories. Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in Weird Tales, February 1928. It is the only story written by Lovecraft in which the extraterrestrial entity Cthulhu himself makes a major appearance.
It is written in a documentary style, with three independent narratives linked together by the device of a narrator discovering notes left by a deceased relative. The narrator pieces together the whole truth and disturbing significance of the information he possesses, illustrating the story's first line: "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."
Price points to the parallels with Lovecraft's creature: a huge, octopoid sea monster, sleeping for ages at the bottom of the ocean (either "dreaming" or "dreamless"), and destined to emerge from his slumber in an apocalyptic age.
Price also considers the work of Lord Dunsany to be a major source for Lovecraft's dreaming god. Lovecraft himself noted that he read some Dunsany, an author he greatly admired, on the day that he conceived the plot of "Call of Cthulhu"; Price points in particular to "A Shop in Go-by Street", which talks of "the heaven of the gods who sleep", and notes that "unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber". Another Dunsany work cited by Price is The Gods of Pegana, which depicts a god who is constantly lulled to sleep, because if he should awaken "there will be worlds nor gods no more.
S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz point to a different set of literary inspirations: Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla", which Lovecraft described in "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as concerning "an invisible being who...sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind"; and Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895), which uses the same "piecing together of disassociated knowledge" (including a random newspaper clipping) to reveal a horrific ancient survival.
Other inspirations for Lovecraft's story are referenced in the story itself--for example, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and W. Scott-Elliot's Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, a work based on theosophy.
The story is presented as a manuscript "found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston". In the text, Thurston recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his grand-uncle, George Gammell Angell, a prominent professor of Semitic languages at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who died suddenly in "the winter of 1926–27" after being "jostled by a nautical-looking negro".
The first part of the story, "The Horror in Clay", concerns 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.
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 "idol, fetish, or whatever it was" closely resembled the Wilcox bas-relief:
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":
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 centre of the cult as Irem, the City of Pillars, in Arabia, and points out a relevant passage in the Necronomicon:
One of the academics queried by Legrasse, William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton, 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.
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 coast-line 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
Thurston (or 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 enters the water to pursue the ship, Johansen rams the creature's head, which bursts with "a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish" — only to immediately begin reforming as Johansen and a sole companion (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.
Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at Brown University who was "widely known as an authority on ancient inscriptions, and had frequently been resorted to by the heads of prominent museums." He died suddenly after being bumped by a black man (possibly a sailor) while returning from the Newport boat. At the time of his death, at age 92, he was a childless widower. His research notes on the worldwide Cthulhu cult were discovered after his death by his nephew, Francis Wayland Thurston.
Angell is an old Providence family name; Angell Street was Lovecraft's childhood address. He had an uncle named Gamwell, whose name was pronounced with a silent W.
Thurston is another old Providence name. Francis Wayland was the fourth president of Brown University, who did much to build up the institution. Thurston's name appears only in the story's subtitle, which originally appeared in Weird Tales but was dropped from later reprints until the 1981 Arkham House edition.
He is described, in terms that somewhat recall Lovecraft himself, as a
"Wilcox" is a name from Lovecraft's own family tree.
The Fleur-de-Lys Building is an actual building that still stands in Providence. Bernard K. Hart, a Providence Journal columnist who lived in the building, took mock-offense at its appropriation by Lovecraft, and threatened in print to send a ghostly visitor to Lovecraft's own address. Lovecraft's sonnet "The Messenger" is his response to this threat.
Horror writer C. J. Henderson wrote a series of short stories with Legrasse as their protagonist, which were collected under the title The Tales of Inspector Legrasse.
Legrasse also appeared as a friend and confidant of Justin Sabbath in H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu: The Whisperer in Darkness graphic novel, written by Mark Ellis.
Robert M. Price believes that Castro's name is based on that of Adolphe DeCastro--born Adolph Danziger--an author of "unbelievably bad fiction" who hired Lovecraft as a ghostwriter. Joshi and Schultz, however, report that Lovecraft did not become acquainted with DeCastro until late 1927.
While not strictly a character, Cthulhu does play a key role in the story as the antagonist. Cthulhu is the lord of R'lyeh, and the ancient being that came from the stars hundreds of millions of years ago, to destroy the elder beings on our world. After the task was completed, the god retreated to R'lyeh and became trapped in his sunken tomb.
At the end of the story, Cthulhu is awakened by the sailors, and proceeds to slaughter them. As two escape to their boat, the creature gives chase, wading into the ocean after them. A sailor then rams the boat into Cthulhu's head, bursting it; it immediately starts to reform, but whilst the creature is scattered, the boat retreats.
When it was published, however, some hailed it as a remarkable achievement. "Mr. Lovecraft's latest story, 'The Call of Cthulhu', is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature," Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) wrote in a letter to Weird Tales. "Mr. Lovecraft holds a unique position in the literary world; he has grasped, to all intents, the worlds outside our paltry ken. His scope is unlimited, and his range is cosmic.
Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon calls the story "ambitious and complex...a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions." It is, he adds, "one of [Lovecraft's] bleakest fictional expressions of man's insignificant place in the universe.
John Coulthart illustrated the story in 1988 and it was published in 1994 in The Starry Wisdom, a Creation books anthology and reprinted in H. P. Lovecraft's The Haunter of the Dark.
For references to Cthulhu in music and film, see Cthulhu in popular culture.