‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is a short story written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1926, and first published in Weird Tales in 1928. Forming one part of Lovecraft’s larger Cthulhu Mythos, this story tells the tale of Francis Wayland Thurston, who discovers notes left by his grand-uncle about a cult surrounding a monstrous being part octopus, part dragon. This leads him on a quest to find out more about both the cult and the monster, but he is made morbidly horrified of what he finds out.
Since his death, Lovecraft and his short stories have gained an immense cult following, to the point that Lovecraftian horror is its own sub-genre. I have thus been, for many years, curious to read some of his writing so that I could judge it for myself, but until now I have just never got around to doing it. I am, however, glad that I did so now.
While I wouldn’t usually review a single short story, I felt compelled to do it for this one: for one, because it served as a convenient way of setting down my first impressions of the Cthulhu Mythos before plunging deeper into it, and secondly, because I think this particular story serves as a good introduction to Lovecraft’s writing, and thus a review of it specifically would be helpful for others.
The first thing that meets the eye with this story is, of course, Lovecraft’s prose style, which combines–as put by S.T. Joshi in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories–‘scientific realism and evocative prose-poetry.’ This prose style has been, since these stories were first published, highly divisive. While I think it is impossible for any reviewer to give any indication as to whether any individual reader will enjoy the style without trying it out, what I can say is that I found the style the perfect match for the type of tale that Lovecraft is telling here. It perfectly represents Lovecraft’s attempt to represent characters in the real world learning of supernatural powers beyond their conception, and while the style is highly evocative, it, at least in this particular story, never gets in the way of the flow of the story.
The second thing that struck me about this story is how masterfully Lovecraft introduces the supernatural into the story. With such an outlandish being as Cthulhu, it can be difficult to evoke horror instead of ridicule. What makes the horror work so well here is that, firstly, the opening of the story makes clear the supernatural nature of the story as well as the narrator’s belief in those supernatural events. This is combined with, secondly, the bulk of the story being about the narrator’s gathering and corroborating of evidence relating to the Cthulhu and the cult surrounding It. This manages to signal to the reader what to expect from the story, while still representing the narrator as a rational and intelligent person. This makes the narrator’s horror all the more palpable for the reader when it finally does come.
The third thing that struck me about this story, and the final element on which the quality of this story rests on, is the type of horror represented. In this story, and in most of his other ones, Lovecraft seeks to evoke cosmic fear: a mixture of horror and awe at the existence of forces so powerful and beyond this world as to make human life seem utterly insignificant. In this I think Lovecraft succeeds marvelously in this story, due to the reasons I have discussed above. It is also a feeling that I have not yet received from any other story. While it can be hard to pin down why horror can be pleasurable, for me, with this story, being able to feel a feeling that I have not felt before is utterly fascinating and interesting, making me eager to read more of Lovecraft’s tales.
Those three elements are the strong elements that this story rests on. The other features of the story–such as plot, pacing, or character–are, to my mind, neither particularly weak nor particularly strong. In any case, it is the elements that I have outlined that are what a reader should think about when considering whether they would like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ or not. For my part, though, I heartily recommend that you try it out.