By John Tynes, © 1991
[The following column generated some interesting comments from readers, both positive and negative. It was my first attempt at formulating and expressing the philosophy that guides the magazine, the same philosophy (more or less) that guided HPL's writing. It may seem strange to speak of a philosophy guiding the content of a gaming magazine, but Call of Cthulhu is a strange game. — John Scott Tynes, 1994]
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. 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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
The above lines constitute the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu,” a short story by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I fully believe that it is one of the most striking and significant pieces of fiction to appear in this century.
Lovecraft was not the best of writers, certainly not from a modern appraisal. His writing, though endearingly archaic, is nonetheless often overblown and a trifle hard to accept. The `horrors’ of the Cthulhu Mythos are, in truth, more than a little shopworn. They often speak more of the racial and national xenophobia of Lovecraft’s time than they do of the otherworldly terrors they claim to represent.
With this in mind, let’s try a little experiment.
From the Koran, chapter 25, verse 29: “For mankind, Satan is Khadhulu.” What’s that? Cthulhu?
From The Golden Bough, by James G. Frazier (the original two-volume edition): “Similar priestly or rather divine kings are found … on the west coast of Africa. At Shark Point near Cape Padron, in Lower Guinea, lives the priestly king Kukulu, alone in a wood. He may not touch a woman nor leave his house; indeed he may not even quit his chair, in which he is obliged to sleep sitting…” Yes, The Golden Bough does exist (you can probably find it or order it from any large university bookstore) and it does indeed contain the above reference, curiously similar to Lord Cthulhu, dreaming in his house of R’lyeh.
Something wrong? Perhaps you hadn’t expected this. I regret to say it doesn’t end there.
From The Highest Altar, by Patrick Tierney (Viking Press, 1989): “According to Jose Huintrilaf, the cause of his withered leg is `a water creature,’ a type of snake called Chunufilu … Chunufilu means `Basket,’ and the vision of this creature reveals a multitude of snake heads all woven together like strands in a wicker basket. It’s a multi-headed snake monster, horrible to look at, a sort of Mapuche Medusa.” The Highest Altar, a book on human sacrifice in South America, makes only this brief mention. But it’s enough, isn’t it? Can’t you feel it now, the shivery uncertainty brought on by “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge?”
Well, you shouldn’t. Because it’s all bunk.
The Cthulhu Mythos is real only in the reader’s mind. Cthulhu and his ilk don’t exist; the above only represent phonetic coincidences, or more likely a demonstration of the common origins that languages and speech share.
The reason for my belief in the significance of “The Call of Cthulhu” lies not in the cheap spook-house horrors experienced by Lovecraft’s trembling academics. Let’s piece a few more things together, shall we?
I remember an afternoon spent with a friend of mine when I was a child. On the sidewalk in front of his home we found a baby bird, lacking feathers, lacking definition. It was a pink fleshy thing, its dark eyes clashing with the soft form they were joined to. It still lived, though apparently it had been injured in its fall from the tree. We debated over what we should do, and finally Ben reached a solution. He got on his bike and crushed the bird under its tires.
In Sunday school, there were two brothers I knew and played with during recess. One day the younger of the two told me how he and his cousins would spread hot sticky pitch on old planks of wood. They would then take stray cats they’d nabbed and press them up to the pitch where they’d get stuck helplessly. Then, he and his cousins would set the whole assembly on fire. The fur of the cats would catch flame quickly, and the cats would twist and jerk spastically as the fire burned down to their flesh, trapped by the sticky tar. Eventually — after a stretch of time — the cats would die. I asked him why they did it, and he said “because it’s fun.”
One of my housemates, Prima Wagan, has a friend who is a nurse at a local hospital. She described the case of a homeless man who was brought in suffering from exposure and a fever during one long cold night. Unbeknownst to the doctors, flies had lain their eggs in the man’s nose while he lay unconscious in a wrapping of dirty newspapers. The eggs hatched, and the larvae crawled into the man’s nasal cavity for warmth. As the man lay in bed, Prima’s friend realized that there were maggots crawling out of the man’s tear ducts. She was momentarily confused; when first glimpsed from the open doorway, they looked like tears.
Do you understand now? Do you understand the significance of Lovecraft’s story? HPL, a gentle nihilist at heart, recognized quite clearly and perceptively that humanity’s greatest threat was inhumanity, presented in his fiction as the great alien forces of the Mythos. Humans would not suffer from neglecting their prayers every night, nor from missing church for a few Sundays. Our eventual end — and Lovecraft refused to see it as anything other than inevitable and absolute — will be due to our own disregard for who and what we are. Ultimately, when we have lost sight of ourselves, we will be as one with Cthulhu and his minions in their writhing inhumanity. Lacking `Elder Signs’ of conscience and self-respect, we shall pass beyond the dark age we now live in and pass into the dead sea of non-existence. Expressing this in fictional terms is Lovecraft’s supreme accomplishment, bitter though it may be.
“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come — but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.” — H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”