Classics, horror

The Call of Cthulhu

H.P. Lovecraft, first written in 1926; first published in Weird Tales magazine, 1928. Translated into modern English, but otherwise exactly the same. Chapters separated by page breaks. 

I.

The Horror in Clay.

I think the most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to connect all its contents. We live on a peaceful island of ignorance in the middle of an infinite black sea, and we were not meant to travel far. The sciences, each struggling in its own direction, have so far done us little harm; but some day, their discoveries will uncover terrifying vistas in our reality and reveal our fragile position in it. We will either go crazy from the deadly knowledge or flee into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle where our world and the human race form short-lived events. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms that would freeze your blood if not disguised as bland optimism. Yet they were not the ones who brought a single glimpse of forbidden ages that chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it. That glimpse, like all dreaded glimpses of truth, came from an accidental piecing together of separate things – in this case an old newspaper article and the notes of a dead professor. I hope no one else will accomplish this realization; certainly, if I live, I will never knowingly supply a clue to such a hideous puzzle. I believe the professor also intended to remain silent regarding the part he knew, and that he would have destroyed his notes had he not died suddenly.

My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-27 with the death of my grand-uncle George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Professor Angell was widely known as an authority on ancient inscriptions and often advised heads of prominent museums; he was remembered by many when he passed at the age of ninety-two. Locally, interest was intensified due to the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor was struck when returning from the Newport boat; witnesses say he fell suddenly after a nautical looking black man bumped into him. The man came from one of the strange dark courts on the steep hillside that formed a short cut from the waterfront to the professor’s home on Williams Street. Doctors were unable to find any visible cause, but after perplexed debate concluded a lesion of the heart caused by the elderly man’s brisk climb up a steep hill was responsible for his death. At the time, I saw no reason to disagree with this conclusion, but now I am inclined to wonder – and more than wonder.

As my grand-uncle’s heir, for he died a childless widower, I was expected to go over his papers thoroughly; for that reason, I moved his entire set of files and boxes to my home in Boston. Many of the materials I put together will later be published in American Archeological Society, but there was one box I found exceedingly puzzling, and felt a strong aversion from showing it to others. It had been locked, and I did not find the key until I thought to examine the ring my uncle always carried in his pocket. Then I succeeded in opening it but was only confronted by a greater and more closely locked barrier. What could be the meaning of the odd clay sculpture and disconnected writings and articles I found? Had my uncle, in his later years, become gullible to the most superficial deceits? I decided to find the eccentric sculptor responsible for this apparent disturbance of the old man’s peace of mind.

The sculpture was a rough rectangle less than an inch thick and about five by six inches in area; obviously of modern origin. However, its designs were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; although there are many wild, unusual interlocking planes, they do not recreate that cryptic regularity found in prehistoric writing. The bulk of these designs certainly seemed to be writing; though despite much familiarity with my uncle’s papers, my memory failed to identify this species, or hint at its remotest affiliations.

Above these hieroglyphics was an illustrated figure of purpose, though its impressionistic finish prohibited a clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a monster only a sick mind could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination simultaneously produced pictures of an octopus, dragon, and human caricature, I would not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head sat atop a grotesque, scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.

Aside from a stack of newspaper clippings, the papers that came with this oddity were in Professor Angell’s handwriting; they made no pretense to literary style. What seemed to be the main document was titled “CTHULHU CULT” in characters painstakingly printed to avoid the incorrect reading of a word so unheard of. The manuscript was divided into two sections, the first which was headed “1925 – Dream and Dream Work of H. A. Wilcox, 7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I.”, and the second, “Narrative of Inspector John R. Legrasse, 121 Bienville St., New Orleans, La. At 1908 A. A. S. Mtg. – Notes on Same, & Prof. Webb’s Acct.” The other manuscript papers were all brief notes, some were accounts of the strange dreams of different people, some were quotes from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria). The rest comment on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references in mythological and anthropological source-books such as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. The clippings mostly hint to weird mental illnesses and outbreaks of group mania in the spring of 1925.

The first half of the main manuscript told a very peculiar tale. On March 1st, 1925, a thin, dark young man of deranged and excited appearance came to Professor Angell carrying the clay sculpture, which was then very damp and fresh. His card read Henry Anthony Wilcox. My uncle recognized him as the youngest son of an excellent family he slightly knew, who had recently been studying sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design and living alone at the Fleur-de-Lys Building near the school. Wilcox was a precocious youth, his genius and eccentricity well known, and since childhood he had a habit of gaining attention through telling strange stories and odd dreams. He called himself “psychically hypersensitive”, but the serious-minded folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely “strange”. Never socializing much with his kind, he gradually dropped from the social eye, and was now known only to a small group of art enthusiasts from other towns. Even the Providence Art Club, anxious to preserve its conservatism, found him quite hopeless.

During the visit, the sculptor abruptly asked for uncle’s help in identifying the hieroglyphics on the sculpture. He spoke in a dreamy, strained manner, which made it difficult to sympathize with him; and my uncle’s reply was sharp because the clearly visible freshness of the tablet implied it was new. Wilcox’s reply impressed my uncle enough to make him write it verbatim, it was fantastically poetic and defined his whole conversation. I have since found it highly characteristic of him. He said, “It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than the brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or the garden-girdled Babylon.”

It was then he began telling a story that jogged a forgotten memory and uncle became interested. There had been a slight earthquake tremor the night before, the most considerable in New England for some years; and Wilcox’s imagination was greatly affected. Upon going to sleep, he had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities, titan blocks, and sky-high monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with dormant horror. Hieroglyphics covered the walls and pillars, and from some undetermined point below came a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation that only imagination could translate into sound, but he attempted to pronounce the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters, “Cthulhu fhtagn”.

This verbal jumble was the key to remembering what excited and disturbed Professor Angell. That night, after waking suddenly, he questioned the sculptor at length. Chilled and still wearing his pajamas, he studied the sculpture with almost frantic intensity. Wilcox later said my uncle blamed his old age for his slowness in recognizing both hieroglyphics and pictures. Many of his questions seemed highly out-of-place to the youth, especially those trying to connect the designs with strange cults or societies; and Wilcox did not understand the repeated promise of silence in exchange for admitting he belonged to some widespread mythological religious group. When Professor Angell became convinced the sculptor was truly ignorant of any cult or cryptic lore, he besieged the youth with demands for reports of future dreams. This brought regular information. After this first interview, the manuscript tells of daily reports where the youth relates startling dream fragments, each containing some terrible Cyclopean vista of dark and dripping stone with a subterranean voice or intelligence shouting in gibberish. The two sounds repeated most often are those made by the letters “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh”.

On March 23rd, Wilcox failed to appear; inquiries at his home revealed he developed an obscure fever and went to his family home on Waterman Street. He had cried out in the night, waking several other artists in the building, and has alternated between unconsciousness and delirium since. My uncle immediately telephoned the family and kept close watch over the case; often calling the Thayer Street office of Dr. Tobey, whom was in charge. The youth’s feverish mind was apparently dwelling on strange things; and the doctor shuddered as he spoke of them. They included not only a repetition of what he had dreamed before, but touched wildly on the gigantic thing “miles high” walking about. He never fully described this object, but occasional frantic words convinced the professor it must be identical with the nameless monstrosity he tried to depict in his dream-sculpture. Reference to this object always came before the young man’s collapse into lethargy. His temperature was not greatly above normal; but his condition as a whole suggested true fever rather than mental disorder.

On April 2nd, at 3 p.m. every trace of Wilcox’s sickness suddenly vanished. He sat upright in bed, astonished to find himself at home and completely ignorant of what happened in dream or reality since the night of March 22nd. Pronounced well by his doctor, he returned home in three days, but was of no further assistance to Professor Angell. All traces of strange dreaming vanished with his recovery, and my uncle kept no record of his dreams after a week of pointless accounts.

The first part of the manuscript ended here, but references to scattered notes gave me much to think on – so much, in fact, the only explanation for my continued distrust of the artist was the skepticism my belief system was made of at the time. The notes described dreams of various people during the same period as Wilcox’s strange dreams. My uncle instituted an impressive list of questions to nearly all the friends he could without being rude, asking for nightly reports of their dreams, and the dates of any notable visions for some time past. The reactions to his request varied; but he must have received more responses than any ordinary man could handle without a secretary. This original correspondence was not preserved, but his notes formed a thorough and significant account. Average people in society and business – New England’s traditional “salt of the earth” types – gave an almost completely negative result. Though scattered cases of uneasy but formless dreams appear here and there, always between March 23rd and April 2nd – the period of Wilcox’s delirium. Scientific men were little more affected, though four vaguely described cases suggesting glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case a dread of something abnormal is mentioned.

The answers came from the artists and poets, and I know if they had been able to compare notes, panic would have ensued. Lacking their original letters, I half suspected my uncle asked leading questions or edited the correspondence to match what he was determined to see. That is why I continued to feel Wilcox, somehow aware of my uncle’s old data, had been fooling the veteran scientist. These responses from artists told a disturbing story. From February 28th to April 2nd, a large portion of them dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity growing immeasurably stronger during Wilcox’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike the ones Wilcox described; some confessed a sharp fear of the gigantic nameless thing at the end. One case, which the note describes with emphasis, was very sad. The subject, a widely known architect with inclinations toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of Wilcox’s seizure, and he died several months later after incessant screaming to be saved from a demon escaped from hell. Had my uncle referred to these cases by name instead of number, I would have tried to personally investigate; as it was, I only found a few. All of these reviewed the notes in full. I have often wondered if all the professor’s subjects were as puzzled by his questions as these few were. It is good no explanation will ever reach them.

The newspaper clippings mention cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity during that time frame. Professor Angell must have used a paper cutter, for there was a tremendous number of articles from around the world. Here was a night suicide in London, where a lone sleeper jumped from a window after a shocking cry. A ranting letter to the editor of a paper in South America claimed a fanatic saw a horrible future in his dreams. A letter from California describes a theosophist colony as all wearing white robes for some “glorious fulfillment” that never arrives. Items from India speak cautiously of serious native unrest toward the end of March. Voodoo orgies multiply in Haiti, and African outposts report ominous whispers. American officers in the Philippians find certain tribes bothersome about this time, and New York policeman are mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22-23. The west of Ireland is full of wild rumors, and a fantastic painter named Ardois-Bonnot hangs a blasphemous “Dream Landscape” in the Paris spring salon of 1926. There are numerous troubles in insane asylums, only a miracle could have stopped the medical community from noting strange similarities and coming to mystified conclusions. All told, it is a weird bunch of clippings. I can hardly imagine the callous rationalism that caused me to set them aside, but I was then convinced Wilcox knew the older matters mentioned by the professor.