Friday, March 3, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #20: The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P. "The Call of Cthuulhu." Weird Tales, February 1928.

This article is part of my attempt to read the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.08/10
My Rating:         7/10

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

Following the death of his grand-uncle, Prof. George Gammell Angell, Francis Wayland Thurston inherits the man's papers. Prof. Angell was a celebrated authority on ancient inscriptions, and among his papers was a locked box that included what were possibly lunatic ramblings. Included also were some hieroglyphs of a strange monster, and some papers labeled "Cthulhu Cult." Thurston researches the items, and "The Call of Cthulhu" becomes a document he adds to Prof. Angell's papers.

The story is split into three sections: an introductory portion outlining the find as well as describing some interlinked dreams suffered by a handful of sensitive people, a police case involving the Cthulhu Cult in New Orleans, and finally a sea encounter with a horrible creature.

Though overall I enjoyed the story (this was my first read), I had some issues with the narrative. Narrator Thurston informs us that the final section is quoted from the Norwegian sailor's journal, claiming the man writes in a straightforward sailor's pen. However, during the watery climax the narrative becomes poetic, very unlike a straightforward sailor's pen, and we can imagine that here Thurston is embellishing the Norwegian's text, which would be unfortunate since as a historical document it would therefore be greatly flawed. Or perhaps the Norwegian sailor found his muse and elevated his style, which is highly unlikely. Essentially, despite the fact that these documents do exist, and among them are police accounts, Thurston here becomes unreliable, and because his own account, which encompasses his grand-uncle's experiences, become a document added to his uncle's papers, is itself not entirely factual, which in turn makes one wonder if the uncle's documents, or the sailor's journal, or any other narrative of Cthulhu within this narrative, is at all accurate. In other words, the melodrama Lovecraft inserts into the last scene weakens the credibility of the thirty or so pages I have just read.


George said...

I'm a big fan of "The Call of Cthulhu" and many of the Cthulhu pastiches. Lovecraft gets criticized for his writing style (and racism) but he created a world of dread and horror that persists.

Casual Debris said...

George, I found "The Shadow over Innsmouth," which I also only recently read, to be a far superior story. The geography, consistency and the protagonist's personal involvement in the mythos were well crafted. "Call" is good, but a lesser work I feel.

As for racism, or any other -ism, so long as it is not a part of the text I will likely ignore it. I'm reading & reviewing the text here, not the author. Sometimes an -ism (particularly sexism in early SF) is evident & mars the text, so the discussion there is appropriate. The only -ism evident in "Call" is the Norwegian sailorism, which I have addressed :)

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