Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: "The Call of Cthulhu"

Mark Twain once said that "Classics are things that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read". In this instance, that statement couldn't be more wrong. This is one of those pieces of work that I'd always wanted to read but never had. Well, I found a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories on Amazon and couldn't pass it up.

For those of you who have been under a literary rock for the last eighty years (seriously, it was first published in 1928 in Weird Tales. Crack a book.), the tale of Cthulhu is one of the most influential works of science fiction in the last hundred years, influencing such prolific writers as Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola (and if you've never heard of either of these titans, please go to wikipedia and brush up on your comic book writers).

The Call of Cthulhu opens in the office of a young man (Francis Wayland Thurstonwho has just received a shipment of items from his deceased granduncle's estate. In the process of sorting his granducle (George Gammell Angell)'s estate he uncovers a journal that outlines his uncle's obsession with a particularly strange bass relief sculpture. In Angell's notes, Thurston discovers that a sudden outbreak of worldwide delirium struck several people in countries all over the world between March 1st and April 2nd, 1925, one particular incident striking a young sculptor at the Rhode Island School of Design, possessing him to create a bass-relief sculpture of a colossal beast with a vaguely humanoid body, membrane wings and a head like a writhing octopus. On the date that the sculptor created his horrific masterpiece, a series of unexplained earthquakes shook the globe.

 Angell goes on to discover that a New Orleans police office found a similar idol at the gathering place of a cult responsible for gruesome human sacrifices in the Louisiana swamps. When Thurston reads his uncle's account of a ship that became lost at sea and came aground on an island on the date of the worldwide earthquake (in a portion of the Pacific where there should have been no island), Thurston takes it upon himself to meet the sole survivor of the tragic voyage.

My problem with classics is that, after a hundred years, sometimes literature begins to lose its elasticity. That is, the language and the subject matter begin to lose their relevancy in modern society. I had the same issue the first time I tried to read the Lord of the Rings; at 13, I just couldn't follow the singsong manuscript. I have to admit, though, I had no such trouble with The Call of Cthulhu (before I get all sorts of hate mail, I DID eventually finish the Lord of the Rings, and yes, I loved it).

Lovecraft's style of writing is very internalized. Even in the instances where one character is speaking to another, very often rather than use actual dialog the conversation will take place like this:
"And then he told me the story of the moment that the boat capsized, and the horror that seized him at that moment stripped every once of hope from his soul."
While this style of writing is a little difficult to get used to, I think that in the end it adds to the macabre tension that Lovecraft is so well known for. The creativity for which he has become so legendary is on perfect display in The Call of Cthulhu. If you've ever heard the name of the Great and Terrible One before and you've never read the original short story, I recommend it highly. In a manner of speaking, it is to modern cult horror what Lord of the Rings is to modern fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. I think that's an apt comparison. Lovecraft was one of the founders of a branch of modern horror as well as modern sci-fi (less in "Cthulhu" than in some of his other tales, like "The Color Out of Space" or "The Whisperer in Darkness").

    Glad you found it readable. Lovecraft has his own style which he derives from writers 100-300 years back, which he wished he were. It makes some of the stories a bit weird or tedious, but Cthulhu is one of the good ones. :)