Classics, horror

The Call of Cthulhu

II.

The Tale of Inspector Legrasse.

The second half of the manuscript was composed of older matters that made Wilcox’s dreams and sculpture significant to my uncle. It appears Professor Angell saw the hellish outlines of the nameless monstrosity, puzzled over the hieroglyphics, and heard the ominous syllables that can be pronounced as “Cthulhu”; it is all so stirring and horrible a connection, it is a small wonder he pursued Wilcox with questions and demands for data.

The earlier experience came in 1908, seventeen years before, when the American Archeological Society held its annual meeting in St. Louis. Professor Angell, befitting his authority and achievements, had a important part in the deliberations; and was one of the first to be approached by several outsiders taking advantage of the conference by asking questions in search of expert answers.

The chief of these outsiders, and soon to be the focus of the entire meeting, was a common-looking middle-aged man who traveled all the way from New Orleans for special information he could not obtain locally. His name was John Raymond Legrasse, and he was a Police Inspector. He brought with him a grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient stone statuette whose origin he could not determine. Do not think Inspector Legrasse had any interest in archeology. On the contrary, his wish for enlightenment was prompted by purely professional reasons. The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been found months before in the wooded swamps of south New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting. The rites connected with it were so hideous, the police realized they stumbled onto a dark cult totally unknown to them and infinitely more diabolic than the blackest of African voodoo circles. Apart from the erratic and unbelievable tales told by the captured members, absolutely nothing was discovered of its origin; hence the inspector’s anxiousness for any antiquarian lore that might help place the frightful symbol and track down the cult’s leader.

Inspector Legrasse was hardly prepared for the sensation his offering created. One sight of it was enough to throw the assembled men of science into a state of tense excitement, and they lost no time in crowding around to gaze at the small figure whose utter strangeness and abysmal antiquity strongly hinted at undiscovered and archaic vistas. No recognized school of sculpture made this terrible object, yet it seemed to record thousands of years in its dim and greenish surface of unclassifiable stone.

The figure, which slowly passed from man to man for careful study, was between seven and eight inches in height, and of exquisite artistic workmanship. It represented a monster of vaguely human outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly rubbery-looking body, massive claws on front and back feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinctively fearsome with unnatural malignancy, had a bloated fatness, and squatted evilly on a rectangular pedestal covered with undecipherable characters. The tips of the wings touched the back edge of the block, the seat was in the center, and the long, curved claws of the folded hind legs gripped the front edge, extending a quarter way down the bottom of the pedestal. The cephalopod’s head was bent forward so the ends of the facial feelers brushed the backs of huge fore paws, clasping its elevated knees. The vision was abnormally life-like, and more subtly fearful because its origin was such a mystery. Its vast, awesome, and incalculable age was unmistakable; yet it did not show one link with any known type of art belonging to anyone. Totally separate, its very material was a mystery; the soapy, greenish-black stone with its golden flecks and striations resembled nothing familiar to geology or minerology. The characters along the base were equally confusing; despite a gathering of half the world’s experts, no member present could guess at the linguistics. Like the subject and material, they belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it; something frightfully suggestive of old, unhallowed cycles of life which have no part in our world or conceptions.

Yet, as members shook their heads, admitting defeat, there was one man who held a bizarre familiarity in the monstrous shape and writing, who shyly told the odd bit he knew. This person was the late William Channing Webb, Professor of Anthropology in Princeton University, and a well-known explorer. Forty-eight years before, Professor Webb was on a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of Runic inscriptions, which he failed to unearth; while high up on the west Greenland coast, he encountered a tribe of corrupted Eskimo whose religion, a curious form of devil worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness. It was a faith other Eskimo knew little about, and one they mentioned with shudders, saying it came down from ancient eons before the world was made. Besides nameless rites and human sacrifices there were certain strange hereditary rituals addressed to a supreme elder devil or spirit; Professor Webb took careful phonetic spelling from an aged wizard-priest, expressing the sounds in Roman letters as best he could. The fetish this cult cherished, what they danced around when the aurora rose high over the ice cliffs, was this image we now studied. It was a very crude sculpture of stone, consisting of a hideous picture and cryptic writing. As far as he could tell, it was a roughly the same as the bestial thing now in their meeting.

Received by the assembly with suspense and astonishment, this data proved doubly exciting to Inspector Legrasse; he began questioning the man at once. Noting an oral ritual among the arrested swamp cultists, he implored the professor to recall the syllables used amongst the Eskimo. They then exhaustively compared details followed by an awed silence when both men agreed they must be the same. What both Eskimo wizards and Louisiana swamp priests chanted to their idols was something very like:

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Legrasse was one step ahead of Professor Webb, for several of his prisoners repeated what older members told them the words meant. That meaning was:

“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

And now, in response to an urgent demand, Inspector Legrasse related his experience with the swamp worshipers; I could see my uncle attached profound significance to his story. It involved wild dreams of myth-maker and theosophist, and revealed an astonishing degree of imagination among outcasts who you would least suspect had it.

On November 1st, 1907, the New Orleans police received a frantic messenger from the swamp country to the south. The squatters there, mostly primitive but good-natured descendants of Lafitte’s men, were terrified of an unknown thing that stole upon them in the night. It was apparently a voodoo more terrible than they have ever known; some of their women and children disappeared since the malevolent drum began its incessant beating in the black haunted woods where no dwellers ventured. There were screams and shouts, soul-chilling chants, and dancing devil-flames; the people could stand it no more.

Twenty police filled two carriages and an automobile and set out in the late afternoon with the shivering squatter as a guide. When the roads came to an end, they splashed on in silence for miles through the terrible cypress woods where the sun never shone. Ugly roots and malignant hanging nooses of Spanish moss plagued them. Sometimes a pile of damp stones forming a rotting wall was intensified by its gruesome location, which was a depression every malformed tree and island of fungus combined to create. Finally, the squatter settlement, a miserable huddle of huts, was in sight; hysterical residents ran out to gather around the group of bobbing lanterns. The muffled beat of drums was now faintly audible far ahead; and a curdling shriek came at infrequent intervals when the wind shifted. A reddish glare seemed to filter through the pale undergrowth beyond endless avenues of forest night. Each of the cowed squatters refused to get any closer to the scene of unholy worship. Inspector Legrasse and his nineteen colleagues continued without guides into black arcades of horror where none of them had ever tread before.

The area now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil reputation, formerly unknown and untraveled by white men. There were legends of a hidden lake unseen by mortal eyes. Living there was a huge, formless, white, pulpous thing with glowing eyes; squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew out of earth’s inner caverns to worship it at midnight. They said it had been there since D’lberville, La Salle, Indians, and even before the birds and beasts of the woods. It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die, but it made men dream, so they knew enough to keep away. The latest voodoo orgy was on the border of this loathed area. The location was bad enough, but perhaps the very place of worship terrified the squatters more than the shocking sounds and incidents.

Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises Legrasse’s men heard as they marched through the black swamp toward the red glare and muffled drums. There are vocal qualities unique to men, and vocal qualities unique to beasts; it is terrible to hear one from the wrong source. Animal fury and orgy sounds whipped themselves to demonic heights with howls and squawking that echoed through those dark woods like a pestilent storm from the gulfs of hell. Now and then the less organized wails would stop and form a well-rehearsed chorus of hoarse voices chanting that hideous ritual:

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Having reached a spot where trees were thinner, the men suddenly came in sight of the spectacle itself. Four stumbled, one fainted, and two were shaken into a frantic cry that deadened sounds from the orgy. Legrasse splashed swamp water onto the faces of the men who fainted, and all stood trembling, nearly hypnotized with horror.

In a natural glade of the swamp there was an acre wide grassy island clear of trees and tolerably dry. On it was an indescribable horde of human abnormality, twisting together. Naked, this hybrid spawn was neighing, bellowing, and writhing around a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire. In the center, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flames, stood an eight-foot-tall granite monolith; on top of it, contrary to its small size, sat the toxic statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals around the flame circle, hung the oddly disfigured bodies of the helpless squatters who disappeared. It was inside this circle the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of their motion being from left to right in endless revery between the ring of bodies and fire.

It may have been only imagination or echoes which prompted an excitable Spaniard to think he heard musical responses to the ritual from a far and dark spot deeper within the wood of horror. I later met and questioned this man, Joseph D. Galvez; and he proved distractingly imaginative. He hinted of the faint beating of great wings, a glimpse of shining eyes, and a mountainous white bulk beyond remote trees – but I suppose he heard too much native superstition. 

The horrified pause of the men was comparatively brief. Duty came first, although there must have been nearly a hundred mongrels in the throng, the police relied on their firearms and plunged forward. For five minutes the resulting chaos was beyond description. Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made; but in the end, Legrasse was able to count forty-seven sullen prisoners. He forced them to dress in haste and lined them up between two rows of policemen. Five of the worshippers lay dead, and two severely wounded ones were carried away on improvised stretchers by fellow prisoners. The image of the statuette was carefully removed and carried back to Legrasse.

Examined at headquarters after a trip of intense strain and weariness, the prisoners all proved to be men of very low, mixed blood and mentally deviant. Most were sailors, and a few African, Indian or Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands gave the diverse cult a coloring of voodooism. Before many questions were asked, it became obvious something far deeper and older than sexual deviance was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, they held to the central idea of their loathsome faith with surprising consistency.

They worshipped the Great Old Ones who came to the young world from the sky and lived ages before there were any men. Those old ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies told their secrets to the first men in dreams, who then formed a cult which never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the great priest Cthulhu rises from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh to bring the earth beneath his sway again. Some day he would call when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would be waiting to liberate him.

Meanwhile no more must be told. There was a secret which not even torture could extract. Mankind was not alone among the conscious things of earth, for shapes came out of the dark to visit the faithful few. But these were not the Great Old Ones. No man had ever seen the Old Ones. The carven idol was great Cthulhu, but none can know whether the others were precisely like him. No one could read the old writing now, but things were told by word of mouth. The chanted ritual was not the secret – that was never spoken aloud, only whispered. The chant only meant: “In this house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

Only two prisoners were sane enough to be hanged, and the rest were committed to various institutions. All denied a part in the ritual murders, declaring the killing had been done by Black Winged Ones which came to them from there immoral meeting-place in the haunted woods. No coherent account of those mysterious allies could be attained. What the police did learncame from a very old Spaniard named Castro, who claimed to have sailed to strange ports and talked with undying leaders of the cult in the China mountains.

Old Castro remembered bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations made by men of the world. There had been eons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had great cities. Remains of Them were still found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died a millennia before men came, but there are arts which could revive Them when the stars once again align to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They themselves came from the stars and brought Their images with Them.

Those Great Old Ones were not made entirely of flesh and bone. They had shape – for this star-fashioned image proved it – but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could travel from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. Although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and earth are once more ready. But at the same time, some force from outside must serve to liberate their bodies. The spells that preserved Them likewise prevented them from making the first move. They could only lie awake in the dark and think while uncounted millennia passed. They knew all that was occurring in the universe, but Their version of speech was transmitted thought. Even now They talked in Their tombs. When the first men came after infinities of chaos, The Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by shaping their dreams; for only in this way could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals.

Then those first men formed the cult around small idols the Great Ones showed them; idols brought into dim areas from dark stars. That cult would never die until the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free, wild, beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside, and all men shouting, killing, and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout, kill, revel, and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep the memory of those ancient ways alive, and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.

In the old days, chosen men talked with the entombed Old Ones in dreams, but then something happened. The great stone city R’lyeh, with its monoliths and tombs, sank beneath the waves; and the deep waters cut off the ghostly connection. But memory never died, and high-priests said the city would rise again when the stars were right. Then black spirits came out of the earth, moldy and shadowy, full of dim rumors picked up in caverns beneath forgotten sea-bottoms. But old Castro would not speak of them much. He hurriedly cut himself off, and no amount of persuasion or subtlety could get him to speak more. He also curiously declined to mention the size of the Old Ones. Of the cult, he thought the center lay among the pathless deserts of Arabia, where Irem, the City of Pillars, dreams hidden and untouched. It was not allied to the European witch-cult and was virtually unknown beyond its members. No book hinted of it, though the deathless Chinaman said there were double meanings in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, which initiates could read as they chose, especially the much-discussed couplet:

“That is not dead which can eternal life,

And with strange eons even death may die.”

Legrasse, deeply impressed and bewildered, asked about the historic affiliations of the cult. Castro told the truth about it being secret. The authorities at Tulane University could not shed light upon cult or image, and now the detective came to the highest authorities in the country and only found the Greenland tale of Professor Webb.

The frenzied interest Legrasse’s tale aroused at the meeting, confirmed by the statuette, is echoed in the following correspondence of those who attended; although no mention occurs in formal publications of society. Caution is the first concern of those use to facing occasional frauds or impostors. Legrasse loaned the image to Professor Webb for some time, but it was returned after the professor’s death. I viewed it not long ago. It is truly a terrible thing, and unmistakably related to the dream-sculpture of Wilcox.

I was not surprised by my uncle’s excitement at the sculptor’s tale. What he must have thought upon hearing of Legrasse’s tale, then upon learning a sensitive young man dreamed of not only the figure, but the exact hieroglyphics of the swamp image and Greenland devil tablet and then came upon at least three words of the formula spoken by both Eskimo and Louisianians. Professor Angell’s immediate investigation was thorough and completely natural; though privately I suspected Wilcox had heard of the cult indirectly and invented a series of dreams to heighten and continue the mystery at my uncle’s expense. The dream-accounts and clippings collected by the professor were strong corroboration; but the rationalism of my mind and the extravagance of the whole subject led me to what I thought was a sensible conclusion. After thoroughly studying the manuscript and comparing theosophical and anthropological notes with the cult narrative from Legrasse, I made a trip to Providence to see the sculptor and scold him for fooling on an intelligent, old man.

Wilcox still lived alone in the Fleur-de-Lys Building on Thomas Street, a hideous Victorian imitation of seventeenth-century Breton architecture that displays a stucco front among lovely colonial houses on the ancient hill and under the shadow of the finest Georgian steeple in America. I found him working in his rooms, and immediately conceded his genius is profound and authentic as I saw his work scattered around. I believe he will one day be known as one of the greats; for he has crystallized in clay and will one day mirror in marble those nightmares and fantasies which writers evoke in prose, and artists make visible in painting.

Dark, frail, and somewhat unkempt in appearance, he turned slowly at my knock and asked my business without rising. When I told him who I was, he displayed interest; my uncle had excited his curiosity in probing his strange dreams, yet never explained the reason for his study. I did not expand his knowledge in this regard, but subtly sought to draw him out. In a short time, I became convinced of his absolute sincerity, for he spoke about the dreams in a manner no one could mistake. The events subconsciously influenced his art profoundly, and he showed me a morbid statue whose shape almost made me potently shake at its black suggestion. He could not recall seeing the original except in his own dreams, but the outlines formed beneath his hand unconsciously. No doubt it was the giant shape he raved of in his delirium. It was clear he really knew nothing of the hidden cult except what my uncle’s relentless questions told him; and again, I tried to think of a way he could have received the weird knowledge.

He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic way; making me vividly see the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone – whose geometry he said was all wrong – and hear the endless, half-crazed calling from underground: “Cthulhu fhtagn”, “Cthulhu fhtagn”. These words formed part of that dreaded ritual which told of dead Cthulhu’s dreams in his stone vault at R’lyeh, and I felt deeply moved despite my rational beliefs. I was sure Wilcox heard of the cult in some casual way, but soon forgot it amongst the mass of his equally weird reading and imagining. Later, by being so impressive, it found its way into his dreams, influencing his work on the statue I see now; His interactions with my uncle were innocent. The youth, both pretentious and ill-mannered, was a type I could never like; but I was now willing to admit he was honest. I left amicably, wishing him all the success his talent promised.

The matter of the cult still fascinated me, and at times I envisioned fame from researching its origin and connections. I visited New Orleans, talked with Legrasse and others from that raiding party, saw the frightful image, and questioned the surviving mongrel prisoners. Unfortunately, Old Castro had been dead for many years. What I now learned firsthand excited me anew, confirming the details written by my uncle; I felt sure I was on the trail of a real secret, ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note. My attitude was still of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were, and I discounted the coincidence of the dream notes and clippings collected by Professor Angell.

 

One thing I began to suspect, which I now know, is my uncle’s death was far from natural. He fell on a narrow hill street leading from the ancient waterfront swarming with foreign mongrels after a careless push from a sailor. I did not forget the mixed-blood and marine pursuits of the cult-members in Louisiana and would not be surprised to learn of secret methods and poison needles. It is true, Legrasse and his men have been left alone; but in Norway a sailor who saw things is dead. Is it possible, after learning the sculptor’s information, my uncle’s deeper inquiries were overheard by sinister ears? I think Professor Angell died because he knew too much or was likely to learn too much. Whether I will go remains to be seen, for I have also learned much.

9 thoughts on “The Call of Cthulhu”

  1. I think your translation of “The Call” works really well, and “sinister” is an apt substitution for “eldritch.” As far as coming up with a single-word translation of “theosophist”–that would be impossible as evidenced by the quotes under “New to Theosophy? What is Theosophy?” here: https://www.theosophy.org/ Quite the stew of high-flown verbiage, but it’s hard to disagree with Madame Blavatsky’s observation about dogma and faith.

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    1. Thank you!! Haha, yes indeed that one gave me a run for my money. I have the Lovecraft complete works in my Google library, and I found a lot of words easily just by clicking the in-app dictionary – but some things required a little more digging and Theosophy took me down some rabbit holes. The book used it so often I was just like “ahhhhhhhhhhhh”.

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  2. Wow really great job! This took a lot of work. You preserved the feeling of the original but made it feel modern. My one suggestion–translate “theosophist.” Not the most common word today 😛. I think.

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    1. Lol thank you!!! Funny story, I tried to translate Theosophist from day 1, but the only word I can really think to use is “Christian”. To me, that seemed fine, but I didn’t understand it enough to know if that’s somehow offensive to a religion so I chickened out 😬. It included words like “through spiritual ecstasy” and “movement founded in 1875” and idk. I’ve been infused with a healthy fear for upsetting religious folk – and I mean that in the absolute most respectful way.

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      1. Hah I like it. Also another good comment said “can’t do it with one word” and I realized I could possibly do more than one word. I’m seriously thinking about coming up with a few options and taking a vote lol. When I got into this I really didn’t expect to find something genuinely difficult to switch and then bam. Second try.

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  3. This was my first attempt at a full short story. I reviewed it several times, but some of those words were just plain crazy. If you notice a typo or word that may not be the best replacement I could have used, please, feel free to point it out. I would very much like to make any corrections needed. Thank you.

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