Classics, horror

The Call of Cthulhu

III.

The Madness from the Sea.

If heaven were to grant me a wish, I would erase the moment my eyes fell on stray piece of paper on the shelf. It was nothing I would naturally have stumbled on during my daily rounds, for it was an old page of an Australian journal, the Sydney Bulletin for April 18, 1925. It even escaped the cutting board which my uncle used enthusiastically while collecting material for his research.

I mostly focused my inquiries into what Professor Angell called the “Cthulhu Cult”, and was visiting an educated friend in Paterson, New Jersey; he was the curator of a local museum and a well-known minerologist. One day, examining the reserve specimens on the storage shelves in the back of the museum, my eye was caught by an odd picture in an old paper spread under the stones. It was the Sydney Bulletin, for my friend has connections all over the world; and the picture was of a hideous stone image almost identical with the one Legrasse found in the swamp.

Eagerly clearing the sheet of its contents, I scanned the item in detail and was disappointed to find it moderately short. What it suggested was of ominous significance to my quest, and I carefully tore it out. It read as follows:

MYSTERY DERELICT FOUND AT SEA

Vigilant Arrives With Helpless Armed New Zealand Yacht in Tow.

One Survivor and Dead Man Found Aboard. Tale of Desperate Battle and Deaths at Sea.

Rescued Seaman Refuses Particulars of Strange Experience.

Odd Idol Found in His Possession.

Inquiry to Follow.

The Morrison Co.’s Freighter, Vigilant, bound from Valparaiso, arrived this morning at its wharf in Darling Harbor, towing the disabled but heavily armed yacht Alert of Dunedin, N. Z., which was seen April 12th in S. Latitude 34 degrees 21’, W. Longitude 152 degrees 17’ with one living and one dead man aboard.

The Vigilant left Valparaiso March 25th, and on April 2nd was driven considerably south of her course by heavy storms and monster waves. One April 12th the derelict was sighted, and though apparently deserted, was boarded and found to contain one survivor who was half delirious and one man who had been dead for more than a week. The living man was clutching a horrible, foot-tall, stone idol of unknown origin. Regarding its nature, the authorities at Sydney University, the Royal Society, and the Museum on College Street all admit complete bafflement, and the survivor says he found it in the cabin of the yacht, in a small, carved shrine.

This man, after recovering his senses, told an exceedingly strange story of piracy and slaughter. He is Gustaf Johansen, a Norwegian of some intelligence, and was second mate of the two-masted schooner Emma of Auckland, which sailed for Callao February 20th with eleven men. The Emma was delayed and thrown south of her course by a great storm on March 1st, and on March 22nd, in S. Latitude 49 degrees 51’, W. Longitude 128 degrees 34’ encountered the Alert, manned by a strange and evil-looking crew of Pacific Islanders and other foreigners. Captain Collins refused orders to turn back, and without warning, the strange crew began to fire savagely upon the schooner with heavy brass cannons. The Emma’s men fought, and though the schooner began to sink from shots beneath the waterline, they managed to pull alongside their enemy and board her. Fighting the savage crew on the yacht’s deck, they were forced to kill them all. Though the savages held superior numbers they fought clumsily.

Three of the Emma’s men, including Captain Collins and First Mate Green, were killed; and the remaining eight, under Second Mate Johansen, proceeded to navigate the captured yacht, continuing in their original direction to see if any reason for being ordered back existed. The next day, they landed on a small island, although none is known to exist in that part of the ocean. Six men somehow died ashore, though Johansen is strangely withdrawn about this part of the story and speaks only of their falling into a rock chasm. Later, he and one companion boarded the yacht and tried to manage her but were beaten about by the storm on April 2nd. He remembers little from that time until his rescue on the 12th and does not recall when his companion, William Briden, died. Briden’s death reveals no apparent cause and was probably due to excitement or exposure. News from Dunedin reports the Alert was well known there as an island trader and bore an evil reputation along the waterfront. It was owned by a curious group of hybrids whose frequent meetings and night trips to the woods attracted much curiosity; and had set sail in great haste just after the storm and earth tremors of March 1st. Our Auckland correspondent gives the Emma and her crew an excellent reputation, and Johansen is described as a sober and worthy man. The courts will establish an inquiry on the whole matter beginning tomorrow where every effort will be made to convince Johansen to speak more freely than he has so far.

This was all it said with the picture of the hellish image; but what a train of ideas it started in my mind! Here were new sources of data on the Cthulhu Cult, and evidence it had strange interests at sea as well as on land. What motive prompted the hybrid crew to order back the Emma as they sailed about with their hideous idol? What was the unknown island on which six of the Emma’s crew died, and what was known of the noxious cult in Dunedin? Most marvelous of all, what deep and unnatural connection of dates was it that gave a dark and now undeniable significance to the events carefully noted by my uncle?

March 1st – our February 28th according to the International Date Line – the earthquake and storm came. From Dunedin the Alert and her noisy crew darted eagerly forth as if summoned by royalty, and on the other side of the earth poets and artists began dreaming of a strange, damp Cyclopean city while a young sculptor molded the dreaded form of Cthulhu in his sleep. March 23rd the crew of the Emma landed on an unknown island and left six men dead; and on that date the dreams of sensitive men were vivid and darkened with dread of a giant monster’s evil pursuit, all while an architect had gone mad and a sculptor lapsed into delirium! What about the storm on April 2nd – the date which all dreams of the damp city stopped, and Wilcox emerged unharmed from his strange fever? What of all this – and Castro’s hints about the sunken, star-born Old Ones and their coming reign; their faithful cult and their mastery of dreams? Was I tottering on the brink of cosmic horrors beyond a man’s power to handle? If so, they must be horrors of the mind alone, for somehow the events on April 2nd put a stop to whatever monstrous menace began its siege of mankind’s soul.

That evening, I said goodbye to my host and took a train to San Francisco. In less than a month, I was in Dunedin; however, I found little was known of the strange cult-members who lingered in the old sea taverns. Waterfront scum was far too common for special mention; though there was vague talk about one trip inland the mongrels made where faint drumming and red flames were noted in the distant hills. In Auckland I learned Johansen returned with yellow hair turned white after a cursory and inconclusive questioning at Sydney. After returning, he sold his cottage on West Street, and he and his wife returned to his old home in Oslo. He would tell his friends no more of his experience than he told the officials. All they could do was give me his address in Oslo.

After that I went to Sydney and talked to seamen and members of the court but learned nothing. I saw the Alert at Circular Quay in Sydney Cove, now sold and in commercial use, but gained nothing from it. The crouching image with its cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal was preserved in the museum at Hyde Park; I studied it long and hard, finding it a thing of menacingly exquisite workmanship, and having the same mysteriously aged and unearthly strangeness of material which I noted in Legrasse’s smaller specimen. The curator told me Geologists found it a monstrous puzzle; they vowed the world held no rock like it. Then I shuddered, thinking of what old Castro told Legrasse about the primal Great Ones; “They had come from the stars, and had brought Their images with Them.”

Shaking with a mental revulsion I had never known before, I now resolved to visit Mate Johansen in Oslo. Sailing for London, I once again embarked for the Norwegian capital. One autumn day I landed at the wharves in the shadow of the Egeberg. I discovered Johansen’s address lay in the Old Town of King Harold Haardrada, which kept the name Oslo alive during the centuries the greater city masqueraded as “Christina”. I made the brief trip by taxicab and knocked at the door of a neat, ancient building with a racing heart. A sad-faced woman in black answered the door, and I was stung with disappointment when she told me, in poor English, Gustaf Johansen was dead.

His wife said he did not survive his return, for the events at sea in 1925 broke him. He told her no more than he had the public but left a long manuscript – of “technical matters” as he said – written in English, evidently to protect them from the dangers of causal readers. During a walk through a narrow lane near Gothenburg dock, a bundle of papers falling from an attic window had knocked him down. Two Indian sailors immediately helped him to his feet, but he died before the ambulance arrived. Doctors found no adequate cause for his death and blamed it on heart trouble and a weakened constitution.

I now felt a gnawing inside me at the dark terror which will never leave me until I, too, am dead; “accidentally” or otherwise. Persuading the widow my connection with her husband’s “technical matters” was sufficient to entitle me to his manuscript, I took the document away and began reading it on the London boat. It was a simple, rambling thing – a naïve sailor’s efforts at a diary after-the-fact – and tried to recall day by day that last awful voyage. I cannot attempt to transcribe it verbatim in all its redundance, but I will tell its gist enough to show why the sound of water against the boat’s sides became so unbearable to me that I stuffed cotton into my ears.

Johansen, thank God, did not know quite all, even though he saw the city and the Thing, but I will never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk endlessly behind life in time and space, and of those unholy blasphemies from elder stars that dream beneath the sea. Horrors known and favored by a nightmare cult ready and eager to set them free upon the world whenever another earthquake heaves their monstrous stone city into the sun and air again.

Johansen’s voyage began just as he told it to the authorities. The Emma cleared Auckland on February 20th and felt the full force of the storm caused by the earthquake, which must have freed the horrors at the bottom of the sea that filled men’s dreams. Once more under control, the ship was making good progress until held up by the Alert on March 22nd, and I could feel the mate’s regret as he wrote of her bombardment and sinking. He speaks with significant horror of the swarthy cult-fiends on the Alert. There was some peculiarly abominable quality about them which made their destruction seem almost a duty, and Johansen shows naive wonder at the charge of ruthlessness brought against his party during the court of inquiry. Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht, the men saw a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47 degrees 9’, W. Longitude 126 degrees 43’ came upon a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the physical substance of earth’s supreme terror – the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, built eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults, and after countless cycles, finally sending out the thoughts that spread fear to dreams of the sensitive and called the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. Johansen did not suspect any of this, but God knows he soon saw enough!

A single mountain-top, the hideous monolith-crowned citadel where great Cthulhu was buried, emerged from the waters. When I think of the extent of all that might be brooding down there, I almost want to kill myself. Johansen and his men were awed by the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon of elder demons and must have guessed without guidance it was nothing of this or any sane planet. Awe at the unbelievable size of the greenish stone blocks, the dizzying height of the great carven monolith, and the stupefying identity of the colossal statues and sculptures with queer images found in the shrine on the Alert, is obvious in every line of the mate’s frightened description.

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of the vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and godless with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox told me of his awful dreams. He said the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal and loathsomely suggestive of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing while gazing at the terrible reality.

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered over slippery, oozing blocks which were no mortal staircase. The very sun seemed distorted when viewed through the polarizing stench welling from this sea-soaked perversion. Suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carved rock where a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity.

A fright came over all the explorers before anything more definite than rock, ooze, or weed was seen. Each would have fled had he not feared the scorn of the others, and they searched half-heartedly for souvenirs to bring home, but found nothing.

It was the Portuguese, Rodriguez, who climbed up the foot of the monolith and shouted he found something. The rest followed him and looked curiously at the immense carved door with the now familiar squid-dragon imagery. It was like a great barn-door; they all felt that it was a door because of the ornate top, threshold, and jambs around it, though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trapdoor or slantwise like an outside cellar-door. As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure the sea and ground were horizontal which made the relative position of everything else seem questionable.

Briden pushed at the stone in several places without result. Then Donovan felt delicately around the edges, pressing each point separately as he went. He climbed interminably along the grotesque stone molding, and the men wondered how any door in the universe could be so vast. Then, very softly and slowly, the great panel began to give inward at the top, and they saw it was balanced. Donovan slid himself along the jamb to rejoin his fellows, and everyone watched the strange recession of the monstrously carved portal. In this fantasy of prismatic distortion, it moved in an unusual diagonal way, so that all rules of matter and perspective seemed suspended.

The opening was black with an almost physical darkness. That darkness was a positive quality indeed; for it obscured parts of the inner walls that would have otherwise been revealed and burst forth like smoke from its eon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken sky, flapping on membranous wings. The odor rising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there. Everyone was still listening when it lumbered into sight and gropingly squeezed its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness.

Poor Johansen’s handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two died of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such an abyss of shrieking and lunacy, such sinister contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, awoke to claim his own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors did by accident. After countless years great Cthulhu was loose again, and hungry for delight.

Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. They were Donovan, Guerrera, and Angstrom. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging over endless vistas of green-crusted rock, and Johansen swears he was swallowed by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an acute angle that behaved as if it were obtuse. Only Briden and Johansen reached the boat, and they pulled desperately for the Alert as the mountainous monstrosity flopped down the slimy stones and hesitated, floundering, at the edge of the water.

The steam had not gone down entirely despite all hands going to shore; it took only a few moments of feverish rushing between wheel and engines to get the Alert under way. Slowly, among the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene, she began to churn the lethal waters while the titan Thing from the stars drooled and babbled like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus. Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began chasing them with vast strokes of cosmic potency. Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly, and continuing to laugh at intervals until death found him in the cabin while Johansen wandered deliriously.

Johansen had not given up yet. Knowing the Thing could overtake the Alert until steam was at full speed, he tried something desperate. Setting the engine for full speed, he ran lightning-fast onto the deck and reversed the wheel. There was a mighty swirling and foaming in the noisy waters, and as the steam mounted higher, the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a demon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting, like an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness, a stench of a thousand graves, and a sound that the writer would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was fouled with an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething at the back of the ship; where – God in heaven! – the scattered pieces of that nameless sky-spawn were reforming to its hateful, original appearance as the Alert widened its distance with every second it mounted steam.

That was all. After that Johansen only brooded over the idol in the cabin and attended to a few matters of food for himself and the laughing maniac at his side. He did not try to navigate after the first bold flight, for the reaction had taken something from his soul. Then came the storm on April 2nd, and his mind became clouded. There is a sense of spectral whirling through liquid gulfs of infinity, of dizzying rides through reeling universes on a comet’s tail, and of hysterical plunges from the pit to the moon and from the moon back again to the pit, all livened by a loudly laughing chorus of the distorted, hilarious elder gods and the green, bat-winged, imps of Tartarus.

Out of that dream came rescue – the Vigilant, the courts, the streets of Dunedin, and the long voyage back home to the old house by the Egeberg. He could not tell – they would think him crazy. He would write what he knew before death came, but his wife must not know. Death would be a gift if only it could blot out his memories.

That was the document I read, and now I have placed it in the tin box beside the sculpture and papers of Professor Angell. I will put this record of mine with it – this test of my own sanity, which has pieced together that which I hope may never be pieced together again. I have looked at all the horror the universe holds, and even the skies of spring and flowers of summer must forever be poison to me. But I do not think my life will be long. As my uncle and poor Johansen went, so will I go. I know too much, and the cult still lives.

Cthulhu still lives, I suppose in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed to the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still sing, dance, and kill around idol-clapped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped, sinking while inside his black abyss, or else the world would already be screaming in fright. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come – but I most not and cannot think of it! Let me pray that if I do not survive this manuscript, my lawyers will put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

 

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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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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