Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Cthulhu?

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Image via Wikipedia.

Longtime readers may know that I, like most sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, enjoy the works of of H.P. Lovecraft.  Apart from his racial views–which are thankfully absent from most of his better stories–I like his writing,  his evocative settings and memorable, unique monsters.

That said, his plots frequently aren’t as good as they could have been.  The Shadow Out of Time needed to have the middle third edited out.  The second half of The Whisperer in Darkness gives away a certain critical plot twist way too early.  The Dunwich Horror is just bad.  Ironically, though Lovecraft wrote critical essays and letters asking for subtlety in horror fiction, his own stories often failed do this, and would clumsily reveal too much detail about his creatures.

The Call of Cthulhu is probably his single most famous work.  In fact, his Cthulhu creation may be more famous than he himself is, being a sort of shorthand for the ultimate evil in certain circles.

The problem is, Call of Cthulhu isn’t a very good horror story.  Well, to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are.  The opening paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in all literature.  But then we have the last third… (I’m about to spoil the story, so be warned.)

Part of the problem of the last third of CoC is that the first two parts are so good.  Lovecraft builds up to the horror gradually, hinting and letting his narrator–and by extension, the reader–glimpse and guess rather than just outright explaining  what Cthulhu is.  With all this weighing on his mind, we come to the the adventure of Second Mate Johansen.

The mere fact that anybody even found R’lyeh in the first place is a problem.  It would have been better if its existence had only been guessed at–perhaps in “old legends telling of a weird island that has since vanished”, or something along similar lines.  Having somebody actually find it eliminates a key element that is often underused in horror, but of which Lovecraft ought to have been cognizant: that is the element of uncertainty, of wondering if all the narrator’s suspicions might be merely incipient madness.

Even worse is the part where the sailors actually witness the awakening of Cthulhu.  No matter how overwrought Lovecraft makes his prose, he can’t possibly make this monster live up to the hype he’s given it.   So, it was a big dragon-squid, was it?  That’s… somehow disappointing.

But the worst of all; the fatal flaw that almost ruins the story for me, is what happens next: the last surviving sailor makes it back to his ship and rams Cthulhu with it.   And this actually forces Cthulhu to retreat!

This is just awful horror writing.  This Elder-God, this unspeakably powerful, incomprehensibly awesome creature can be defeated by one guy with a boat?  Why not just have the Navy station a battleship out there and repeat this every time the Great Old One becomes troublesome?  Actually, that’s not even necessary, because it apparently only wakes every few “vigintillion” years anyway, which means Johansen probably has saved humanity for the rest of its existence. This is such a classic mistake, there’s even a page on TVTropes named for it: “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

I think Lovecraft must have realized this was pretty weak, so he tried to imply at the end that the cultists (here are those blasted racial ideas of his creeping in) were going to sabotage all efforts at learning about the existence of Cthulhu or R’lyeh.  But the problem with that is, the cultists are repeatedly shown to be incompetent throughout the story. Johansen and his crew-mates were able to defeat their sentry ship without even realizing what they were doing.

All in all, what an awful way to ruin a potentially terrifying monster!  The lesson for aspiring writers: if you invent a Terrifying, Scary, Nearly Omnipotent Monster, don’t ruin it by letting it be defeated  easily.  And it’s best not to actually show it in action at all, but rather to just show hints of it.

8 Comments

  1. Two problems faced in his work derive from his target/market audience & his goal to create a truly cosmic horror. Lovecraft idolized the earlier writers of the 19th century, but was writing for a 20th century Pulp magazine audience. Stylistically he was trying to serve two masters. On one hand he had measured slow detailed introspective style & atmosphere of the 19th century prose, while on the other the hard two-fisted heroic action audience of the “Bloody Pulps”.

    As you point out, he starts out writing a ambiguous psychological metaphysical mystery and ends up with King Kong south seas monster adventure. Furthermore, he always intended for his creatures to be multidimensional beings that existed beyond the confines of space & time. What ever the witnesses saw was only part of the creature, because it existed in some sort of alternative space-time.

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    1. Very good point. That does go a long way towards explaining the problem–I suppose the typical pulp reader would want to see a climactic battle at the end.

      I read somewhere that, prolific though he was, no Lovecraft story ever got a cover illustration on “Weird Tales” magazine. Then I saw some of the “Weird Tales” covers, and saw why: they usually featured ruggedly handsome men and attractive women in exotic adventure poses. Clearly, as you say, it wasn’t really marketed to people who wanted intellectual, philosophical horror stories.

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      1. You described that marketing very well. Actually Robert E. Howard ‘s “Sword & Sorcery” template blended the Lovecraftian horror with pulp action heroics most effectively. I think his Bran Mak Morn tale – ‘Worms of the Earth’ captures the horror the best. Perhaps one of the best pulp heroic Lovcraftian tales is ‘Black God’s Kiss’ by C. L. Moore – a female protagonist writen by a female writer.

        I also think Clark Ashton Smith managed to better control the horror without falling prey to the pulpy macho expectations. His tales were wordy & could be overtly elegant.

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        1. I haven’t read much Robert Howard yet; I will have to give some of his stories a try. Smith had some very interesting settings and concepts, but I do find his writing style a bit tedious.

          Have you read Robert W. Chambers’ “The King in Yellow”? It was one of those 19th Century books you mentioned that influenced Lovecraft, and I’ve always thought some of the stories–especially the “Repairer of Reputations” and “The Yellow Sign”–are, in my opinion, very effective at conveying a subtle horror.

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          1. Yes, I’ve read Chamber’s King in Yellow series. Wonderful pieces of horror writing. The English master of the Ghost story & supernatural dread is M. R. James. Susan Hill’s “The Man in the Picture’ and “The Woman in Black” really capture & follows the M. R. James tradition. Her tales’ endings do not end happily..

            BTW I have been exploring some Lovecraft tropes in a couple of my posts, Kaleidoscope Doll &The Doll in The Wall . Also have ambiguous ghostly tale – Antique Impression: Lamp. 🙂

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