The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Part Two)

Continued from previous post: The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Part One).

It looks like my plan of reading the (almost) complete fiction of Lovecraft over the next few months is a pretty tall order. I’d planned to read a few more stories, or maybe even finish Volume I, before I made another post, but I’m going away on holiday next week and don’t imagine I will spent any time catching up on any weird Lovecraftian stories then, so I’ll leave this here for now and resume when I’m back from my trip.

The Call of Cthulhu (Written Aug-Sep 1926, published Feb 1928)
The narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, is given the task of arranging the papers, reports and documents of his late great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic Languages at Brown University. Amongst the documents and correspondence, Thurston discovers a small sculpture of a monstrous idol, which appears to resemble something akin to “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature”. It transpires that the sculpture was created by an artist named Wilcox, who had been suffering with horrendous vivid dreams of giant, ancient cities which inspired him to create the hideous sculpture. Thurston also discovers references to mania, paranoia and insanity, occurring globally, at roughly the same time as Wilcox’s dreams. These weird discoveries pique Thurston’s interest and he begins to uncover more unsettling truths about the sculpture, the dreams, and the cults of Great Cthulhu.

This is probably the first Lovecraft story I’d ever read, and it’s possibly his best known and best-loved work. I think it’s still a good, effective horror story, but it’s very hard to ignore the racial bigotry of which Lovecraft was so fond that exists on almost every page of the story. The story is split into three parts, each concerning a different case regarding the discovery and worship of the worldwide cults of Cthulhu. Personally, I find the first two chapters to be the most effective. The initial discovery of the artist’s representation of Cthulhu in clay, and the subsequent discovery of Inspector Legrasse’s investigation into the deities of a “voodoo cult” in New Orleans in 1908 are wonderfully unsettling, and Lovecraft effectively allows the reader to gradually learn minor, but important details of the “great priest Cthulhu”. The third chapter though, whilst being very important within the Mythos as the only Lovecraft tale which describes a first-hand account of the terrible being, ultimately falls flat and can leave the reader slightly disappointed.

One of the most interesting aspects of this tale is the suggestion that the “reawakening” of Cthulhu causes mass panic and insanity on a global level. As I’d written previously, I’m no expert on Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, but I don’t recall reading anything with the clear concept of the worldwide breakdown of humanity. I know the ultimate suggestion of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is one of sheer impotence and futility of humanity, but it was interesting to read that apparently one of the side-effects of the coming of Cthulhu was the destruction of the minds of poets, artists, the police, Levantines and inmates of insane asylums. This is referenced later in the story: “When […] the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams.” In doing this, Lovecraft creates a global hysteria, so we are able to read about the madness of people in America, Europe, Asia and the Arctic, rather than just reading about one singular incident in a village on the east coast of the US. The downside to this is that Lovecraft appears to take this opportunity to tar as many races as possible with the same brush. In the story, he refers to “degenerate Esquimaux”, “mongrel Louisianans” and “negroes and mulattoes” of “a very low, mixed-blooded and mentally aberrant type”, as though they were all one part of one giant racial “other”, unfit for description other than to say they are deficient, or possibly malicious in some way. Some could argue that Lovecraft deliberately painted these characters in such a way, so as to support his claim that the cults they are involved with are ultimately nihilistic and evil, but it’s hard to move away from the suggestion that Lovecraft actually held racist ideals close to his heart, and wanted to present this as such on paper.

With the creeping dread and mystery of the first two chapters, it’s hard not to be disappointed with the third and final chapter. This chapter concerns a sailor named Gustav Johansen who meets Cthulhu face to… face(?) in the Pacific ocean. As in Dagon (1919), we are given a description of a black, slimy mass appearing as an island in the remote Pacific, and we also read of strange Cyclopean monoliths and rocks, a place where “the geometry is all wrong”. The descriptions are made plain enough so that the reader can understand the alien architecture of the island, but are regrettably vague (probably partly due to Lovecraft’s desire to partially describe the indescribable, and his inability to do so effectively). Cthulhu himself is described in a similar fashion – vague, indistinct, and menacing. Lovecraft even writes “The Thing cannot be described.” The image of Cthulhu is now so well-known that it’s hard not to imagine the green, tentacle-faced, winged monster that adorns the covers of many editions of Lovecraft’s work, but going off Lovecraft’s descriptions alone, we get mere suggestions of a flopping, pulpy, sticky thing, with no real sense of scale save the suggestion that the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht.” Despite the awakening of an ancient deity, which has been dead and dreaming for aeons, and despite the global panic and insanity surrounding this cataclysmic event, it seems Cthulhu is defeated by Johansen bravely smashing his boat into its head, which explodes, effervesces and ultimately reforms. After that, there are no more first-hand accounts of the monster. It just, well, goes away. Lovecraft vaguely suggests that “Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose”, but the risen city in the ocean has now disappeared once more.  Johansen returns home, and dies in a similar manner to that of the narrator’s uncle: in a suspicious accident purportedly caused by a mysterious person, possibly a member of one of the shady cults. The story ends with the narrator in fear for his life, certain that he too will share the fate of those who discovered the cults of Cthulhu before him.

I briefly researched the wider Mythos canon regarding the effects of Cthulhu’s reawakening within the canon, but there is little to be found. One site suggests that this event causes increased Mythos activity, but nothing is said of Cthulhu’s activities directly following this incident. I know other writers, like August Derleth, have expanded the Mythos considerably, but it seems as though Lovecraft was content to leave the story here, with no real conclusion to the fate of the cultists and their hideous deity.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (Written Jan-Mar 1927, published May/July 1941)
Charles Dexter Ward is a young man from Rhode Island, who has increasingly been showing signs of mental disturbance and madness whilst researching an ancestor of his from the eighteenth century. His ancestor, Joseph Curwen, was a social pariah and alchemist who was suspected of practising evil magic in Salem and Providence in the 1700s. Ward discovers that Curwen met his supposed end after a raiding party stormed his farmhouse and were met with inhuman shrieks and strange lights. The raiding party were sworn to secrecy and Curwen eventually faded into obscurity. Ward, however, begins to uncover the history of his ancestor, and starts to collect his writings, correspondence, journals, and even an unsettling portrait of the alchemist which he decides to hang in his library, located in the attic of the Ward family home. The Wards’ family doctor, Dr. Willett, begins an investigation into the strange habits and practices of the young Ward, and endeavours to understand the strange world of alchemy and black science that now surrounds him.

This was my first time reading this story, and I very much enjoyed it. Whilst it is considered to be one of the major tales of the whole Cthulhu Mythos, I felt as though it was effective enough to be read as a simple, macabre tale of necromancy and possession. The style is undeniably Lovecraftian, but the brooding descriptions of Providence, the weird vampiristic attacks, the vagaries of ancient formulae and the mysteries of the notorious Joseph Curwen also owe a great debt to classic gothic horror.

After we have been told of the mystery of the disappearance of the titular Ward, the first section of the story concerns the youth’s growing fascination with history and antiquarianism, especially regarding his native New England and especially Providence. He is shown to take long walks around the city, noting all the historical sites and buildings, and he is known to spend much of his time in the city’s libraries. This section (as does much of the rest of the text) reads like a fond tribute to Lovecraft’s beloved Providence, containing seemingly unimportant details of street names, buildings and the geography of the city. I suspect some readers might be put off by Lovecraft’s waxing lyrical about his home town here, but there are many elements of mystery and dread that creep into the narrative even at this early stage. The constant reminder that the youthful Ward is to imminently undergo a drastic mental and physical change is enough to keep the casual reader engaged, I think. The unsettling character of Joseph Curwen is as an apparition here, a mere folk figure in modern times, but one who is also gradually revealed to be so much more as the story develops.

It seems that Dr Willet and other physicians (or alienists, as Lovecraft refers to them) are attempting to agree on a definite date or year when Ward truly descends completely into madness. There is apparently no professional consensus on when Ward changes from the history-obsessed young man to emaciated, terror-stricken recluse, and it’s this uncertainly which initially drives Willet to investigate the strange situation. This was one of my favourite elements of the novella – Ward’s complete transformation. The story shifts tenses, and the plot spans centuries, so it’s easy to be caught off guard and it can be tricky to remain aware of what state of transformation Ward is currenly in. I also think that Ward’s transformation throughout the story is written very well – we are not witness to many of the subtle changes first-hand, as they are usually described by shocked family members, terrified servants or curious townspeople, and the potentially unreliable reports of the strange noises and awful odours coming from his profane library are made all the more chilling as a result. The same device is used when we read of Joseph Curwen’s downfall in the 1700s – the account is made up of piecemeal newspaper reports, neighbours’ journals and other long-forgotten documents. Again, we are never fully aware of what exactly transpires at Curwen’s mysterious farmhouse, but in true Lovecraft style, not knowing, or understanding, makes it that much more effective.

The climax of the tale, in which Dr Willett explores the subbterranean dungeons of Curwen’s farmhouse, is wonderfully creepy, and Willett’s revelations in the dark tunnels makes for some of Lovecraft’s most realised horror fiction, in my opinion. It’s this chapter where we start to make some sense of Curwen and Ward’s immoral use of magic throughout the story, and the inclusion of “YOG-SOTHOTH” as part of an evil invocation is almost a sudden reminder that yes, you are reading a Lovecraft story after all. Without the inclusion of the name of this particular being, it’s as if we are reading a particularly grim tale of clasutrophobia and night-terror written by Poe or Bierce. The conclusion to this chapter is deliberately ambiguous: Willett  uses ancient invocation rites to conjure the presence of a particularly important person, but it is never explicitly revealed who it could be. A quick search on Lovecraft message boards confirms that this mystery is still unsolved some seventy years on. 

There are so many other elements of this story that I would like to write about but I want to keep this (already incredibly wordy) review as concise as possible(!) Aspects of the story such as Curwen’s historical and present-day correspondence with his fellow ghouls, or the grisly vampire attacks in the middle of the story, or the contents of Curwen and Ward’s containers of “essential Saltes” are all deserving of consideration and analysis, but I think I would prefer to read the story again to form a complete opinion about these themes. Maybe when I have finished the rest of Lovecraft’s fiction, I’ll get round to it.

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2 comments

  1. Good review. You’re right, the racist stuff is hard to swallow. To think Lovecraft was that backward in that aspect while being such a visionary as a writer …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yeah it’s not good, such a shame he was that was inclined. At least we have his writing.

      Like

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