As I previously explained in my initial column on H.P. Lovecraft, I am far from an expert on the father of modern horror or the impressive myriad of fictional worlds and creatures he dreamed up. This is also true of Lovecraft’s most famous creation, the Old God Cthulhu. I’m almost certain that I’ll learn as much from some of the comments left on this post as you will from me on this fascinating character, provided of course that we keep on topic and don’t allow the discussion to be derailed once again by people hell bent on getting into another full blown pissing match on Lovecraft’s racist past. I hope that’s not too much to ask.
First things first, let’s talk about the spelling and pronunciation of this ancient deity’s name before we get too far into his origin story and ultimate purpose. Since he was first introduced in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” which was originally published in the popular pulp magazine Weird Tales back in 1928, Cthulhu has also been spelled as Clooloo, Tulu, Cthullu, Clulu, Q’thulu, and various other interesting and wholly unpronounceable ways. His name is often proceeded by such lofty amplifiers as “The Great” or “The Mighty” or even “The Dreaded.” There has been plenty of discussion over the years on how the ancient deity’s name was meant to be properly pronounced. Even in his own time people didn’t know how to say the name, which led to Lovecraft writing to a colleague in 1934 and letting him know that the name was meant to be broken into two syllables, then, with the tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth, to be spit out. The end result would sound something like “Clue-loo” instead of “Cuh-thew-loo,” which is how most people pronounce it today, owing in no small part to the Call of Cthulhu board game officially sanctioning that way of saying it. Lovecraft went on to explain that the name was of alien origin and not designed to be properly pronounced by human vocal chords in the first place. In essence the moniker was never intended to be more than a harsh, guttural sound meant to represent a being beyond what human minds could ever comprehend. To make matters slightly more confusing, Lovecraft himself pronounced it different ways over the course of his life, despite that oh so helpful letter.
Now on to the origins of the great and terrible God. Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price (yes that is a real thing which sounds totally awesome and must look amazing on business cards!) argues that Cthulhu was inspired by Lovecraft’s obsession with the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem ‘The Kraken’ about an enormous squid that slumbers on the ocean floor in between attacking ships. But it wasn’t just Tennyson that went into making up the underwater leviathan. Elements from William Scott-Elliot’s ‘The Story of Atlantis’ and ‘The Lost Lemuria,’ which Lovecraft read in 1926 shortly before he began working on ‘Call of Cthulhu,’ are also noticeable in the story. And any discussion of Lovecraft without mentioning his obsession with the works of Lord Dunsany would be remiss, since the master of horror’s early work heavily relied on Dunsany, who he deeply admired as a writer. Dunsany’s ‘The Gods of Pegana’ tells a tale of a god being constantly lulled to sleep to avoid the horrific apocalyptic consequences of it awakening. ‘A Shop in Go-by Street,’ written in 1919, has a passage that reads “unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber” – which obviously played a role in Cthulhu’s development.
Although Lovecraft’s early work almost certainly would serve as a precursor to horror’s most famous cephalopod, Cthulhu himself began as little more than an idea the author had sketched out during his miserable days in New York while he was living in Red Hook. It wasn’t until the summer of 1926 that Howard began to develop what would be his greatest legacy, and it was during this incredibly productive period of his life (shortly after he had moved back home to the safety of Providence) that he dreamed up the monster that legendary horror director Guillermo del Toro would later call “a combination of cosmology, anthropology and horror.”
Originally appearing in 1928 in Weird Tales (the publication where Lovecraft did most of his publishing under his own name — with the exception of Amazing Tales, an experience that left him feeling slighted according to later reports and only reinforced his opinion of writing exclusively for the former) Cthulhu is described as being part man, part octopus, and part dragon. H. P. Lovecraft describes him as “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” He is hundreds of meters tall with human arms and legs but has tentacles ringing his terrible mouth.
He is considered a Great Old One within the pantheon of Lovecraftian cosmic entities. Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as both massive and purely evil, which explains why those who worship him are generally insane cultists who crave the end of humanity. The malevolent entity hibernates in a state that is like being “dead but dreaming” within a fictional underwater city in the South Pacific called R’lyeh, which is known for its non-Euclidean architecture. There he remains imprisoned and dreaming of the day he will return to our world and wipe us all out. His deranged followers chant “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” which translates into “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Meanwhile the rest of us feel a constant subconscious anxiety as we blindly wait for this terrible fate to befall mankind.
Lovecraft even went as far as to create a detailed genealogy for Cthulhu which, was published later as “Letter 617” in his Selected Letters. Cthulhu appears in many of his other works in fact, including the short story “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” which hints that one of his characters knows the creature’s origins by saying, “I learned whence Cthulhu first came, and why half the great temporary stars of history had flared forth.” The 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness refers to the “star-spawn of Cthulhu,” who warred with another race called the Elder Things before the dawn of man.
Still, were it not for a close circle of writer friends, including August Derleth (Lovecraft’s first publisher and close confidant) the great beast might have never made such a significant impact on modern day pop culture. Lovecraft encouraged other writers to take the monsters, aliens, Gods, and other creatures he created – including Cthulhu – and write their own stories using them. August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith were just two of the numerous writers who continued to write stories inspired by Lovecraft’s characters. In fact Derleth expanded on Lovecraft’s vision by creating an entire cosmology which included a war between the Elder Gods and the Outer Gods. He also named the system of lore employed by Lovecraft and those who would follow in his literary footsteps, the Cthulhu Mythos, which is still very much alive today. Clive Barker, [A href=”http://www.escapistmagazine.com/tag/view/stephen%20king?from_search=1&&os=stephen+king”]Stephen King[/a], Neil Gaiman, and hundreds of modern day writers continue to keep the slumbering monster alive by referencing Cthulhu or his lineage in their writings. Horror author CT Phipps (whose upcoming Cthulhu themed book ‘Death May Die’ is set to release from Ragnorak Publishing early this summer) captures the sentiment of authors still obsessed with Lovecraft’s creation.
“People asked me why I write Lovecraftian fiction,” Phipps admits. “I tell them that ‘Call of Cthulhu’ is a great metaphor for the struggles we humans have to go through in life. As much as we like to think we’re in control of our lives, all manner of inexplicable absurd and utterly out-of-our-hands events happen all the time. Great Cthulhu is the symbol of that to me and others.”
And of course it’s not just literature that Cthulhu continues to permeate. He’s also squirmed his way in various forms into movies, heavy metal lyrics, board games, bumper stickers, anime, porn, cartoons, merchandising, internet memes and more. There’s even a Dr. Seuss style parody of Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers. Considering the current cultural obsession with post-apocalyptic scenarios, it may be fair to say we are finally entering the era of Cthulhu. It’s just a shame Lovecraft didn’t get to see it in his lifetime.
In my next column, I’ll get into the dreaded fictional grimoire called the Necromonicon which explains the various forms the Old Gods take, including Cthulhu, and how to summon them.
Until then… stay scared!
Devan Sagliani is the author of the Zombie Attack! series, The Rising Dead, A Thirst For Fire, and the UNDEAD L.A. series. Devan also wrote the original screenplay for the movie HVZ: Humans Versus Zombies. Visit his website to learn more.