101 Masterpieces: "The Call of Cthulhu"
H.P. Lovecraft keeps getting name-checked in pop culture. Here's why he matters.
By Britt Peterson
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was having a bad summer. Like many newcomers to New York City, the aspiring writer from Rhode Island felt overwhelmed and out of place. He was unemployed, living in a mouse-infested one-room apartment in Brooklyn, and steadily losing weight on a paltry diet of cold canned beans and spaghetti. To make matters worse, his wife, for whom he’d moved to New York in the first place, had taken a job in another city and left him to fend for himself.
It was the first time Lovecraft had ever lived alone— and he was spectacularly homesick. Born in Providence in 1890, he viewed his hometown—with its scholarly atmosphere and dilapidated 18th-century mansions—as an essential piece of his identity. “Providence is me—I am Providence,” he wrote his aunt from his New York exile, inspiring the title of S. T. Joshi’s authoritative biography, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. The city suited Lovecraft—a self-taught antiquarian obsessed with the contrasts of New England—in ways that New York could not.
Lovecraft grew up with a neurotic and stifling mother, Susie, and two aunts. (His father had died, probably of syphilis, after a stint in a mental institution.) The family had little of the capital but all the prejudices associated with old New England pedigree, and Lovecraft was never trained for any gainful employment. Nervous illnesses kept him isolated at home for long stretches, during which he joined up with “amateur journalist” groups: organizations of unpaid pamphleteers who—with their in-fighting, trolling, and political ranting that no one would ever hear—would likely feel at home in online forums today.
It was at a convention for such writers in Boston in 1921 that Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene, an energetic and attractive Eastern European Jewish widow from New York City, seven years his senior. Lovecraft, still reeling from the death of his mother six weeks prior, was not exactly a catch. He had no income besides a dwindling family inheritance and occasional checks from editorial temp work. He had the frame of a scarecrow, a protruding lower jaw, and a squeaky voice. He was also averse to sex, which he blamed on having read a scientific book as a child. “The whole matter was reduced to prosaic mechanism,” he wrote later, “a mechanism which I rather despised.” Not to mention, he was a virulent racial purist, outwardly disgusted by immigrants, tending to become “livid with anger” when he encountered foreign workers.
“I admired his personality but, frankly at first, not his person,” Sonia later admitted. And yet, for some reason, she pursued him for three years. The couple married in Manhattan in March 1924. Their first connubial night was spent typing up Lovecraft’s notes for a new story, after which, Sonia wrote in her memoirs, “we were too tired and exhausted for honeymooning or anything else.” Things went downhill from there. Lovecraft relocated to New York because Sonia had a lucrative job at a department store, but she lost it right before the wedding. He applied for work in the publishing industry, at a bill-collecting firm, and as a lamp-tester in an electrical laboratory, but his efforts proved fruitless. Eventually, Sonia had to look farther afield to support them both and moved to Cincinnati for another department-store job.
The relationship had never been that intimate. “One way [he expressed] his sentiment was to wrap his ‘pinkey’ finger around mine and say ‘Umph!’” Sonia wrote. But without her around to prepare cheese soufflé for breakfast and take him to Chinese restaurants, Lovecraft, who had ballooned to “porpoise” size in their early days, shriveled to a sardine. Spiraling into depression, he spent most of his time hanging out with friends and little of it writing. When he did write, his stories were mostly overwrought tales about dark happenings among the city’s immigrant populations.
Lovecraft’s early work was often racist, occasionally brilliant, and frequently bad. He was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and the British writer Lord Dunsany, but he struggled to find his own voice. He loaded his stories with thesaurus words (ichor, foetor, eldritch, daemon) and engorged sentences: "Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purpled fulgurous sky.” He was fervently absorbed by the theories of human futility and cosmic indifference. “By my thirteenth birthday I was thoroughly impressed with man’s impermanence and insignificance,” he wrote in A Confession of Unfaith. One wishes that other views—like his anti-Semitism and belief that African-Americans are biologically inferior—had evolved more after puberty.
Lovecraft didn’t think he’d gained much from his time in New York. In a short story set in Greenwich Village, he wrote: “For whereas I had looked for poignant wonder ... I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.” But then, early one morning at the end of that dreadful summer, he drafted a new story: a rambling epic alien fantasy that would take him in a new direction.
“The Call of Cthulhu”—which would take another year to complete—begins with a mystery. The narrator finds a strange bas-relief sculpture among his late great-uncle’s effects, in which “a pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.” There’s also a file marked cthulhu cult, containing two manuscripts. The first describes an uncanny meeting between the great-uncle and “a thin, dark young man of neurotic and excited aspect” who brings him the sculpture, which he had created based on a fever dream. The second tells the story of a New Orleans police officer who raids a Louisiana swamp cult and discovers a fetish object with “an octopus-like head ... and long, narrow wings behind.” The narrator becomes obsessed and sets out on a worldwide quest looking for answers. Soon, he learns that both sculptures depict an ancient cephalopod priest-god, a “Great Old One” called Cthulhu, who’s locked in an underwater city known as R’lyeh. For a long time, Cthulhu slumbered there rather peaceably. But recently, he’d been disturbed by an earthquake and unloosed from his rocky confines by an unlucky band of shipwrecked sailors.
The narrator learns all this secondhand, through news reports, personal narratives, and scholarly records. “Cthulhu” is really a story about reading: about tales that grip and possess you and pull you on quests into the depths of hell, from which you won’t return the same. Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, you are doomed to echo “The Call of Cthulhu”: to retell the tale, despite the risk to yourself and your listeners. For Lovecraft, the terror of knowledge is a basic human fact. As he writes in the story’s opening lines: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Indeed, Lovecraft would need to return to placid Providence to finish the story. He started lobbying his family for help that fall, and the following year his aunt funded a return to a rented room near Brown University. Sonia was an afterthought—and soon, barely a thought at all. The couple filed for divorce in 1929.
“Cthulhu,” published in Weird Tales in 1928, marked the beginning of a tremendous burst of productivity. As much as Lovecraft complained about New York, the town seemed to have worked like a corrosive acid, removing the worst flaws that stained his early writing. New friends, long hours spent discussing craft, and even the poverty and alienation he experienced there all contributed to a more mature, less effect-driven style. Until he died a decade later of cancer, Lovecraft continued revisiting and expanding the themes of “Cthulhu” in stories like “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “At the Mountains of Madness.”
Despite his output, Lovecraft never found success during his lifetime. Some of this was due to literary fashion—only a few magazines published horror stories—and some was Lovecraft’s lack of hustle. Rejection or criticism would send him into a funk, convinced, as he wrote in 1932, that “my fictional days are probably over.” By the end of his life, he had largely given up on finding an audience outside of his friends.
Luckily, he had some loyal friends. He counted among them Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, who along with others, started dropping Lovecraftian references into his work as a tribute. After Lovecraft’s death, friend and fellow horror writer August Derleth made the practice official. He set up a press called Arkham House, named for the fictional Massachusetts town where Lovecraft set many stories, and started publishing Lovecraft’s work. He also began composing new stories based on the author’s motifs—an early form of fan fiction. Derleth was the first to describe these stories as “the Cthulhu mythos.” They amounted to a much more structured pantheon than Lovecraft himself had left (and, some argue, a worldview that distorts his original intent). But all include Lovecraft’s original characters and place names, as well as his moral landscape: a mocking universe where the gods duke it out while humanity remains helpless.
The theme of retelling from “Cthulhu” has become essential to how fans experience Lovecraft. Of course, there are other reasons to enjoy his fiction: the bizarre plotlines, the echoed names and ideas that weave together into a tightly knit universe, the chance to peek into Lovecraft’s poorly ventilated brain, with its particular fixations. But more than anything, Lovecraft’s stories lend themselves to being rewritten. There are only a few settings—Providence, Boston, Arkham, and a fictional college called Miskatonic University. There are even fewer setups: Research scientist uncovers dark secret. Dark secret takes hold of small New England town. Effete learned man must uncover the truth. Ancient gods are invoked. Then there’s an epiphany about the horror of all things, and everyone dies or goes crazy at the end. Combine all these elements, and you’ve got a Lovecraft story.
As more famous authors penned tributes (Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Chabon, Stephen King), the formula gained steam. Lovecraft grew from a cult figure to a powerful influence on pop culture. But he remains a writer many people experience secondhand, mostly through other mythos-inspired writers and pop nihilistic horrors like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Detective. You may not have read Lovecraft, but you’ve probably encountered his work’s offspring.
It’s fitting that it’s online that Lovecraft has found his most enthusiastic following. With his fevered correspondence to his amateur journalist buddies, Lovecraft was an Internet junkie long before the medium existed. His plots and characters lend themselves to role-playing games, Internet memes, and fan fiction. The Cthulhu mythos features prominently on forums with short, spooky horror stories, like the one that came to light in June when two young girls in Wisconsin stabbed a friend in order to “impress” a meme character called Slenderman. Lovecraft would have been fascinated by the attack and how it hints at the sometimes brutal power of storytelling. In this case, as in his stories, the real and the unreal mingle uncomfortably close.