It is frequently stated that there is a want of American existential thinkers and writers. Of the few which the country can claim as its own, they are largely fiction scribes while nary a non-fiction philosopher can be mentioned without a subsequent discussion focusing upon how such a claim is to be sustained. Irrefutably, one will have the greatest amount of difficulty citing a charter American theorist in this regard. However, in the fiction of American gothic writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), many themes commonly associated with existentialism may be found and, moreover, these ideas predate the more notable names within the field. This can be most readily witnessed in the author’s 1928 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
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“The Call of Cthulhu” is a convoluted, triptych tale posthumously told by Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston. For two-thirds of the text, the reader is presented with an anomalous icon before becoming privy to its source. In due course, we learn that Cthuhlu is a green, obese creature with an “octopus-like head whose face [is] a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings.” Cthuhlu is first encountered in the non-linear text in the form of a rectangular clay bas-relief, “less than an inch thick and about five by six inches.” The sculpture is the creation of a young artist named Henry Anthony Wilcox, who crafted it after an earthquake spurred unsettling dreams, dreams which served as catalyst to his artistic inspiration. A few months later, a one-foot statue is found among the refuse of a decimated Pacific crew that was rescued at sea. We witness another rendition of the beast, only 17 years earlier, when a New Orleans police inspector named John Raymond Legrasse enters the American Archaeological Society’s annual meeting, which is being held in St. Louis. He presents its attendees with a seven- to eight-inch idol that was confiscated a year prior during a raid upon cultists in the region (a miniature of what rested atop an eight-foot monolith found on the ritual grounds). During the consultation, William Channing Webb, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton, tells of a similar image witnessed in the form of stone effigy in Greenland 48 years before. It is with the third incidence in which we learn the greatest amount about the creature the various pieces are based upon.
Thurston’s uncle, the late George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Language at Brown University, was one of the many present during Legrasse’s appearance. Legrasse reports that, upon interrogation, the cultists declared they worship “the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky.” These beings are “gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men.” These are the same men whose ancestors founded the present cult. Included in their explication is a “great priest [named] Cthulhu” who will, when the “stars were ready,” rise from his watery enclosure, a sunken city called “R’lyeh” (where the Great Old Ones rest as well), which accounts for the ritualistic chanting by the cult of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” which translates as, “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” All of this information coincides with research conducted by Webb after he consulted with an occult tribe of Greenland Esquimaux (Eskimo) concerning their mirror idol.
One Louisiana detainee, Castro, adds that Cthulhu’s followers are vital in the Great Old Ones’ return for the creature-priest has preserved them in their temporary underwater tombs located in the Pacific. Their existences are tentative upon both parties’ participation (the cultists will use black arts to resurrect Cthulhu who, in turn, will free the Great Old Ones) and, moreover, that the Great Old Ones therefore are “not composed altogether of flesh and blood” though they had “shape,” but “not [shape] made of matter.” The human liberators’ reward will be their being taught “new ways” by the Great Old Ones, wherein they will learn to transcend good and evil and achieve an unprecedented level of freedom, albeit at the cost of many.
This data comes from Angell’s research, which he began collecting after he was contacted by Wilcox with the hopes that the learned man could aide the youth in understanding the inexplicable hieroglyphics which accompany his work. For reasons left unvoiced to Wilcox, Angell takes the boy into his confidence and begins exploring the dreams which served as the genesis for the sculpture. To Angell’s dismay, Wilcox eerily states that “dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon” before mentioning upon his own volition having vaguely heard the words “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh” in his dreams. During his discussion with Legrasse, Castro also specifies that the Great Old Ones’ “mode of speech was transmitted thought” and that they “spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams.” Angell, perplexed at the synchronicity of the events and circumstances, convenes with Wilcox until their meetings are interrupted due to the latter becoming bedridden. Thirty-three days after the artist appeared at his door, Wilcox suddenly recovers, all traces of his lucid dreaming and illness having simultaneously ceased.
Further exacerbating matters are interview notes found amid Angell’s papers which mention numerous individuals, largely artists, with whom he had conferred who had experienced disturbing, in some cases parallel, nocturnal visions. Such dreams also correspond with reports of heightened instances of mania during the period. According to Castro, subliminal transmission from the Great Old Ones is blocked due to the depths at which they rest but, at least during Wilcox’s time and for inexplicable reasons, the psychic barrier was temporarily segmented.
Thurston extends his uncle’s research and, in the process, substantiates what came before via actual events. He is given a manuscript by a deceased Norwegian sailor named Gustaf Johansen. It tells of its author having being accosted at sea by a vessel, the Alert. His crew aboard the Emma overwhelms what they believe to be pirates (they are forced to assume command of the former after the latter starts taking on water, thus accounting for why an effigy of Cthulhu is found in his possession at the time of his rescue). They then proceed in the direction the pirates appeared before discovering an uncharted island which houses geometrically-impossible buildings and encountering Cthulhu. Unaware of what lay before them, they ram the beast. Cthulhu retreats, presumably taking R’lyeh back into its oceanic depths since the ship which rescues Johansen, the Vigilant, twenty days hence, passes over the exact coordinates where the creature had previously appeared (47°9’S, 126°43’W).
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In respect to our study, Thurston comes to realize that humanity is not alone in the universe and, moreover, reluctantly acknowledges that we are not the most dominant beings residing on the planet. He attempts to reconcile himself to the fact that humanity’s hubris has created an anthropocentric ideology which is utterly unfounded for, though it is only suggested (which is verified in later Lovecraftian tales), human beings’ progenitor might not have been God, or even gods, in lieu of the fact that a small faction of humanity nevertheless deifies Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. It follows that, if humanity’s creators are not supernatural beings–i.e. gods–but rather semi-temporal extraterrestrials who are subject to certain laws (which is subtly foreshadowed and symbolically reinforced in that Hawaiian creation myth cites the octopus–which Cthulhu is described as resembling in part–as the last, lone remnant of a previous race within a now extinct universe), then people’s idolization of these creatures is misdirected. Likewise, the cultists’ application of the term “priest” to describe Cthulhu’s position and title is semantically-incorrect in its theocentricity.
Why would the cultists partially fabricate their roles and erroneously state they have an obligation in the cosmological process of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones? For much the same reason, despite what he has come to know, that Thurston has “visions of personal fame from researches into its [the New Orleans cult’s] origins and connexions”: An overwhelming inferiority complex goaded, not only by the fact that neither party is member to Earth’s supreme race, but because we have no control or even place in its existence. If anything, the extraterrestrials’ concern for humanity extends only so far if hostility is encountered while reinstating their sovereignty. Similarly, though the Great Old Ones have, and continue to, communicate with various select humans, we can presume that–given the circumstances–their motive in so doing, to put it bluntly, is boredom because, in their state of suspended animation as noted in the text, they have nothing else by which to occupy their time other than “think.” Granted, entities do visit the “faithful few,” but “these were not the Great Old Ones.” Rather, such callers are odd, “Black Winged Old Ones” which appear on the periphery of worship sites that, in turn, worship “a huge, formless while polypous thing with luminous eyes.” Neither entity can be definitely stated as having ties with either Cthulhu or the Great Old Ones. Thus, both Thurston and the cultists are vainly attempting to retain a modicum of self-importance in the wake of their egos and in the presence of absolute existential futility.
Such is coyly revealed in Lovecraft’s singular, seemingly innocuous yet revelatory note that “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.” This refers to one member of Johansen’s team, a character by the name of Donovan, breeching the uncharted island and, finding a doorway amid the geographic anomaly, innocently opening it (through which Cthulhu emerges). As such, no black magic is involved in the beast’s resurrection. Thus, though we are initially given to assume that those aboard the offending ship attacked Johansen and his men with the intent of protecting the god which they had recently called forth (its passengers are part of a “noxious cult” from Dunedin), we are forced to accept that they depart from R’lyeh out of frustration and perhaps a need for supplies (moreover, Wilcox’s mania does not begin for yet another day). As such, the cause of a parallel Pacific earthquake at the time of the Boston tremor is the coincidental result of the city beginning to surface because the stars were “right” and nothing else, i.e. not due to any degree of human intervention. To retort that this is a selective reading of the cultist’s disclosures eschews Johansen encountering Cthulhu, thus validating its existence, while the black arts play no role in its materialization.
Understandably, such not only usurps humanity’s humanistic outlook, but also repudiates many of its other cherished beliefs. For example, the Great Old One’s communicative mode conflicts with 20th-century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of the Universal Unconsciousness for it posits, not a united mental culture as the source of synchronized human experience, but a singular, physical foundation for such psychic activity. This is reflected in Wilcox’s dreams beginning when Cthulhu’s sarcophagus starts to surface, which obviously creates enough of a breech to allow the Great Old Ones to engage in telepathy with humans once again. His illness commences once Johansen forces the beast (and R’lyeh, home of the telepathic Great Old Ones) back into the sea (23 days hence), which abruptly ceases when it is fully submerged once more ten days later.
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“The Call of Cthulhu” was composed in 1926 and published two years later in the February edition of Weird Tales. Given its theme of existential futility, it compliments and parallels the work of both 20th-century French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. However, though the specific theory is more properly associated with the latter, his most well known texts in this respect, the novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger), and the essay, “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” (“The Myth of Sisyphus”) were both published in 1942, 14 years after Lovecraft’s short story. Even Sartre’s greatest contribution to the subject, L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) appeared 15 years after “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Why is H.P. Lovecraft not only not credited for being a founding member of existentialism–he was preceded by only two 19th-century authors: Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche–but also ignored as being one of the only American proponents of the theory? The motives are two-fold: One, he had very limited exposure in that he appeared almost exclusively in pulp magazines while, two, he was (and continues to be) victim of scholarly bias in respect to his chosen medium of horror.
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