The Call of Cthulhu

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"The Call of Cthulhu"
Weird Tales February 1928.jpg
Cover of pulp magazine Weird Tales (Feb. 1928): first appearance in print of The Call of Cthulhu.
Author H. P. Lovecraft
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Horror, Gothic, novella
Published in Weird Tales
Media type Print
Publication date February, 1928

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a short story by American writer H. P. Lovecraft. Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, in February 1928.[1]

Plot summary

In the text, narrator Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston, recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his granduncle, George Gammell Angell, a prominent Professor of Semitic languages at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The first chapter, The Horror in Clay, concerns a small bas-relief sculpture found among the papers, which the narrator describes: "My somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.... A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings". The sculpture is the work of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design who based the work on delirious dreams of "great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror". Frequent references to Cthulhu and R'lyeh are found in papers authored by Wilcox. Angell also discovers reports of "outre mental illnesses and outbreaks of group folly or mania" around the world (in New York City, "hysterical Levantines" mob police; in California, a Theosophist colony dons white robes to await a "glorious fulfillment").

The second chapter, The Tale of Inspector Legrasse, discusses a 1908 meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri, where a New Orleans police official named John Raymond Legrasse asked the assembled antiquarians to identify a statuette of unidentifiable greenish-black stone, "captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting", which resembles the Wilcox sculpture, and appears "instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy". It is then revealed that on November 1, 1907, Legrasse and a party of policemen found several women and children used in a ritual in which almost 100 men—all of a "very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type"— repeatedly chanted the phrase: "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn". After killing five of the participants and arresting 47 others, Legrasse interrogated the prisoners and learned "the central idea of their loathsome faith": "They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men...and...formed a cult which had never died...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.[2] The prisoners identified the statuette as "great Cthulhu", and translated the chanted phrase as: "In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming". One of the academics present at the meeting, William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton, describes "a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship…" had the same chant and a similar fetish.

In the third chapter, The Madness from the Sea, Thurston discovers an article dated April 18, 1925, from the Sydney Bulletin, an Australian newspaper, in which is reported the discovery of a derelict ship with only one survivor: Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen, second mate on the schooner Emma, which sailed from Auckland, New Zealand, and later apparently encountered a heavily armed yacht, the Alert, crewed by "a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes" from Dunedin. When attacked by the Alert without provocation, the crew of the Emma killed the opposing crew, but lost their own ship in the battle; commandeered the Alert; and discovered an uncharted island in the vicinity of co-ordinates of Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.. With the exception of Johansen and another man, the remaining crew died on the island; and Johansen does not reveal the manner of their death.

Thurston travels to New Zealand and Australia, where at the Australian Museum he views a statue retrieved from the Alert, akin to the previous two. In Oslo, Norway, Thurston learns that Johansen died suddenly after an encounter with "two Lascar sailors". Johansen's widow provides Thurston with a manuscript written by her late husband, wherein the uncharted island is described as "a coast-line 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". The crew struggle to comprehend the non-Euclidean geometry of the city, and accidentally release 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". Most of the crew are killed; Johansen and one crew-mate set sail, but Cthulhu enters the water to pursue the vessel, whereupon Johansen rams the creature's head, which bursts, "only to immediately begin reforming". The Alert escapes, but Johansen's crewmate dies. After finishing the manuscript, Thurston realizes he is now a target of the monster's worshippers.


Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price claims the irregular sonnet The Kraken,[3] written in 1830 by Alfred Tennyson, was a major inspiration for Lovecraft's story, as both reference a huge aquatic creature sleeping for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from its slumber in an apocalyptic age.[4]

S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz cited other literary inspirations: Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" (1887), which Lovecraft described in Supernatural Horror in Literature as concerning "an invisible being who...sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind"; and Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895), which uses the same method of piecing together of disassociated knowledge (including a random newspaper clipping) to reveal the survival of a horrific ancient being.[5]

It is also assumed he got inspiration from William Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904), which Lovecraft read in 1926 shortly before he started to work on the story.[6]

Price also notes that Lovecraft admired the work of Lord Dunsany, who wrote The Gods of Pegana (1905), which depicts a god constantly lulled to sleep to avoid the consequences of its reawakening. Another Dunsany work cited by Price is A Shop in Go-by Street (1919), which stated "the heaven of the gods who sleep", and "unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber".[7][8]

The "slight earthquake" mentioned in the story is likely the 1925 Charlevoix–Kamouraska earthquake.[9]

S.T. Joshi has also cited A. Merritt's novella The Moon Pool (1918) which Lovecraft 'frequently rhapsodied about'. Joshi says that, 'Merritt's mention of a "moon-door" that, when tilted, leads the characters into a lower region of wonder and horror seems similar to the huge door whose inadvertent opening by the sailors causes Cthulhu to emerge from R'lyeh'.[10]

Literary significance and criticism

Lovecraft regarded the short story as "rather middling—not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches". Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright first rejected the story, and only accepted it after writer Donald Wandrei, a friend of Lovecraft's, falsely claimed that Lovecraft was thinking of submitting it elsewhere.[11]

The published story was regarded by Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) as "a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.... Mr. Lovecraft holds a unique position in the literary world; he has grasped, to all intents, the worlds outside our paltry ken."[12] Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon regarded the story as "ambitious and complex...a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions", adding "one of [Lovecraft's] bleakest fictional expressions of man's insignificant place in the universe."[13]

French novelist Michel Houellebecq, in his book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, described the story as the first of Lovecraft's "great texts".[14]

Canadian mathematician Benjamin K. Tippett noted that the phenomena described in Johansen's journal may be interpreted as "observable consequences of a localized bubble of spacetime curvature", and proposed a suitable mathematical model.[15]

E. F. Bleiler has referred to "The Call of Cthulhu" as "a fragmented essay with narrative inclusions".[16]


Parts of the story were adapted in Eerie #4 by Archie Goodwin and Gray Morrow and in The Avengers #88 by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema.

Alberto Breccia illustrated an eleven-page story in 1974.[clarification needed]

The story was produced as a silent film of the same name in 2005, and as a 1920s-style radio drama, Dark Adventure Radio Theatre: The Call of Cthulhu, in 2012.

Heavy metal band Metallica released an instrumental track called "The Call of Ktulu" on their album, Ride the Lightning. Their song, "The Thing That Should Not Be," on the album Master of Puppets, was inspired by the short story "The Shadow over Innsmouth". They also recorded a song on the album Death Magnetic called "All Nightmare Long" that was also inspired by Lovecraft.

See also


  1. Straub, Peter (2005). Lovecraft: Tales. The Library of America. p. 823. ISBN 1-931082-72-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", p. 139.
  3. The Kraken, The Victorian Web
  4. Robert M. Price, "The Other Name of Azathoth", introduction to The Cthulhu Cycle. Price credits Philip A. Shreffler with connecting the poem and the story.
  5. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, "Call of Cthulhu, The", An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, pp. 28–29.
  6. Fortean Times Magazine - H.P. Lovecraft
  7. "Lord Dunsany (1878–1957)". Works; Short bibliography. Dunsany. December 2003. Retrieved 2012-01-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Price, "The Other Name of Azathoth". This passage is also believed to have inspired Lovecraft's entity Azathoth, hence the title of Price's essay.
  9. Lackey, Chris; Chad Fifer; Andrew Leman (May 12, 2010). "Episode 42 – The Call of Cthulhu – Part 1". The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. Retrieved 17 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Joshi, S.T. (2010) I am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Hippocampus Press. 2 Vols. Vol II pg. 639
  11. S.T. Joshi, More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 173.
  12. Quoted in Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 7.
  13. Cannon, pp. 6–7.
  14. Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.
  15. Tippett, Benjamin K. (2012). "Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. E.F. Bleiler, Supernatural Fiction Writers Vol, NY: Scribners, 1985, p. 478


  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1984) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In S. T. Joshi (ed.) (ed.). The Dunwich Horror and Others (9th corrected printing ed.). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-037-8.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Definitive version.
  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1999) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In S. T. Joshi (ed.) (ed.). More Annotated Lovecraft (1st ed.). New York City, NY: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50875-4.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> With explanatory footnotes.
  • Price, Robert M. (1996) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In Robert M. Price (ed.) (ed.). The Cthulhu Cycle: Thirteen Tentacles of Terror (1st ed.). Oakland, CA: Chaosium, Inc. ISBN 1-56882-038-0.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> A collection of works that inspired and were inspired by The Call of Cthulhu, with commentary.

External links