Time for yet another most delightful – if chilling my blood to the bone, as it rightfully did – short story by H.P Lovecraft! This time, we are going to focus on his famous tale of the Cthulhu entity – the central figure of a whole mythos.
Written in 1926 and published two years later in the pulp magazine ‘Weird Tales’, the story introduces us to Francis Wayland Thurston, whose uncle, George Angell, a late linguistics professor at the Brown university, has left behind a series of manuscripts after a controversial death.
Although it is claimed that Angell passed away because of a heart attack, Thurston doubts that and decides to investigate. Upon going through Angell’s documents, he chances upon a box containing a clay bas-relief with inscriptions of hieroglyphics and the image of a creature that resembles an octopus, a human and a dragon all together.
The documents contain information on secret societies and cults and dream memoirs, as well as a document called the “Cthulhu cult”, the first section of which – “1925—Dreams and Dream Work of H.A. Wilcox, 7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I.” – Thurston proceeds to scrutinise. The bas-relief, according to the document, has been brought to Professor Angell by a young man called Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student of sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design rejected by society because of his eccentric behaviour.
Wilcox gives Angell references to the Babylon, Tyre and the Sphinx when questioned about the object. He later rambles about a New England earthquake and mentions having dreamed of “Cyclopean cities” and “sky-flung monoliths”. Wilcox also remembers a voice in the dream that he attempts to transcribe with the letters “Cthulhu fhtagn,” as well as two words, Cthulhu and R’lyeh.
Around the end of March, Wilcox becomes feverish and delirious, and the family doctor reports he has rambled of an enormous monster “miles high” – the same creature inscribed on the bas-relief. But because the young man is feverish, the others do not believe him that such a sculpture does actually exist. About ten days later, Wilcox’s fever disappears without a trace and leaves him with no memory of the days of his delirium.
Then, we are led into a memory of the first time Professor Angell ever heard the word “Cthulhu” and seen such an image. During a meeting of the American Archaeological Society, a police officer, John Legrasse, looks for information on an ancient, grotesque stone statuette and questions the archaeologists. The statuette had been discovered some months ago in swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a voodoo cult that Legrasse took part in.
On November 1, Legrasse and his colleagues go in search for several disappeared squatters, which they later discover dead and their bodies used in a ritual where a hundred men are noisily chanting, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”. The men get arrested and questioned, and the police officers learn that they worship “the Great Old Ones, who lived before there were any men” in an evanescent cult, ” hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”
The men identify the statuette as Cthulhu himself and explain that their chant means, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming”. Old Castro, one of the cultists, claims that the center of their cult is the city of Irem, “the City of Pillars,” in Arabia. A professor of anthropology, William Webb, tells of “a singular tribe of degenerate Eskimos whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness” that had a similar disgusting chant and fetish.
In the third part of the story, Thurston reads an Australian news article reporting the discovery of a derelict ship in the Pacific with only one survivor on board, the Norwegian Gustaf Johansen, second mate on the New Zealand schooner Emma. The Emma encountered a yacht, the alert, with an evil-looking crew, and got attacked. Everyone on the yacht was killed, but the Emma crew lost their vessel, so they took the yacht and sailed to an uncharted island where everyone but two sailors, one of which Johansen, die.
Prompted by this story, Thurston travels to New Zealand, then to Australia, and visits the local museum to see a statue resembling the creature from the bas-relief. Afterwards he heads to Norway and finds Johansen’s window in Oslo. She provides him with Johansen’s notes telling of the fate of the Emma crew. The uncharted island has a horrifying terrain – “a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh”. Its queer geometry messes with the sailors’ minds, and they go on to open a portal that awakens Cthulhu: “It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed. Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway…. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years, Great Cthulhu was loose again and ravening for delight”.
Johansen sees Cthulhu as a stumbling, walking mountain, as he observes it before escaping the island with his fellow sailors. They all fail victims to the monster, and the Norwegian manages to get back to the yacht and escape with only one other sailor. Cthulhu gives pursuit and ultimately gets its skull crushed by Johansen’s boat. The two sailors flee from the island, and Johansen’s comrade loses his sanity, and, subsequently, his life, soon afterwards.
After having read the manuscript, Thurston realises he, too, might get pursued – “I know too much… and the cult still lives.”