The Call of Cthulhu

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"The Call of Cthulhu"
Short story by H. P. Lovecraft
Title page of "The Call of Cthulhu" as it appeared in Weird Tales, February 1928. Illustration by Hugh Doak Rankin.[1]
Text available at Wikisource
CountryUnited States of America
Published inWeird Tales
Media typePrint
Publication dateFebruary 1928

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a short story by American writer H. P. Lovecraft. Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in February 1928.[2]


The first seed of the story's first chapter The Horror in Clay came from one of Lovecraft's own dreams he had in 1919,[3] which he described briefly in two different letters sent to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner on May 21 and December 14, 1920. In the dream, Lovecraft is visiting an antiquity museum in Providence, attempting to convince the aged curator there to buy an odd bas-relief Lovecraft himself had sculpted. The curator initially scoffs at him for trying to sell something recently made to a museum of antique objects. Lovecraft then remembers himself answering the curator:

Why do you say that this thing is new? The dreams of men are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon, and this was fashioned in my dreams.

This can be compared to what the character of Henry Anthony Wilcox tells the main character's uncle while showing him his sculpted bas-relief for help in reading hieroglyphs on it which came through Wilcox's own fantastical dreams:

It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.

Lovecraft then used this for a brief synopsis of a new story outlined in his own Commonplace Book at first in August 1925, which developed organically out of the idea of what the bas-relief in the dream actually might have depicted. In a footnote for his writing down of his own dream, Lovecraft then finished with the suggestion "Add good development & describe nature of bas-relief" to himself for future reference.[4]

Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price claims the irregular sonnet "The Kraken",[5] published in 1830 by Alfred Tennyson, was a major inspiration, since both reference a huge aquatic creature sleeping for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from its slumber in an apocalyptic age.[6]

S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz cited other literary inspirations: Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" (1887), which Lovecraft described in Supernatural Horror in Literature as concerning "an invisible being who...sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on Earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind"; and Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895), which uses the same method of piecing together of disassociated knowledge (including a random newspaper clipping) to reveal the survival of a horrific ancient being.[7]

It is also assumed he got inspiration from William Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904), which Lovecraft read in 1926 shortly before he started to work on the story.[8]

Price also notes that Lovecraft admired the work of Lord Dunsany, who wrote The Gods of Pegana (1905), which depicts a god constantly lulled to sleep to avoid the consequences of its reawakening. Another Dunsany work cited by Price is A Shop in Go-by Street (1919), which stated "the heaven of the gods who sleep", and "unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while he sleeps being still deep in slumber".[9][10]

The "slight earthquake" mentioned in the story is likely the 1925 Charlevoix–Kamouraska earthquake.[11]

S.T. Joshi has also cited A. Merritt's novella The Moon Pool (1918) which Lovecraft 'frequently rhapsodied about'. Joshi says that 'Merritt's mention of a "moon-door" that, when tilted, leads the characters into a lower region of wonder and horror seems similar to the huge door whose inadvertent opening by the sailors causes Cthulhu to emerge from R'lyeh'.[12]

Edward Guimont has argued that H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was an influence on "The Call of Cthulhu", citing the thematic similarities of ancient, powerful, but indifferent aliens associated with deities; physical similarities between Cthulhu and the Martians; and the plot detail of a ship ramming an alien in a temporarily successful but ultimately futile gesture.[13]


The narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his grand-uncle, Brown University linguistic professor George Gammell Angell, after his death in the winter of 1926–27. Among the notes is a small bas-relief sculpture of a scaly creature which yields "simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature." The sculptor, a Rhode Island art student named Henry Anthony Wilcox, based the work on delirious dreams of "great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths." Frequent references to Cthulhu and R'lyeh are found in Wilcox's papers. Angell also discovers reports of mass hysteria around the world.

More notes discuss a 1908 meeting of an archeological society in which New Orleans police official John Raymond Legrasse asks attendees to identify a statuette of unidentifiable greenish-black stone resembling Wilcox's sculpture. It is then revealed that the previous year, Legrasse and a party of policemen found several women and children being used in a ritual by an all-male cult. After killing five of the cultists and arresting 47 others, Legrasse learns that they worship the "Great Old Ones" and await the return of a monstrous being called Cthulhu.[14] The prisoners identify the statuette as "great Cthulhu." One of the academics present at the meeting, Princeton professor William Channing Webb, describes a group of "Esquimaux" with similar beliefs and fetishes.

Thurston discovers a 1925 article from an Australian newspaper which reports the discovery of a derelict ship, the Alert, of which second mate Gustaf Johansen is the sole survivor. Johansen reports that the Emma was attacked by a heavily armed yacht named the Alert. The crewmen of the Emma killed those aboard the Alert, but lost their own ship in the battle, commandeered the Alert, and discovered an uncharted island in the vicinity of co-ordinates of 47°9′S 126°43′W / 47.150°S 126.717°W / -47.150; -126.717 (R'lyeh fictional location (Lovecraft)). With the exception of Johansen and another man, the remaining crew died on the island. Johansen does not reveal the manner of their death.

Upon traveling to Australia, Thurston views a statue retrieved from the Alert which is identical to the previous two. In Norway, he learns that Johansen died suddenly after an encounter with "two Lascar sailors". Johansen's widow provides Thurston with her late husband's manuscript, wherein the uncharted island is described as being home to a "nightmare corpse-city" called R'lyeh. Johansen's crew struggled to comprehend the non-Euclidean geometry of the city and accidentally released Cthulhu, resulting in their deaths. Johansen and one crewmate fled aboard the Alert and were pursued by Cthulhu. Johansen rammed the yacht into the creature's head, only for its injury to regenerate. The Alert escaped, but Johansen's crewmate died. After finishing the manuscript, Thurston realizes he is now a target of Cthulhu's worshippers.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Lovecraft regarded the short story as "rather middling—not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches". Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright first rejected the story, and only accepted it after writer Donald Wandrei, a friend of Lovecraft's, falsely claimed that Lovecraft was thinking of submitting it elsewhere.[15]

The published story was regarded by Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) as "a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.... Mr. Lovecraft holds a unique position in the literary world; he has grasped, to all intents, the worlds outside our paltry ken".[16] Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon regarded the story as "ambitious and complex...a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions", adding "one of [Lovecraft's] bleakest fictional expressions of man's insignificant place in the universe".[17]

French novelist Michel Houellebecq, in his book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, described the story as the first of Lovecraft's "great texts".[18]

Canadian mathematician Benjamin K. Tippett noted that the phenomena described in Johansen's journal may be interpreted as "observable consequences of a localized bubble of spacetime curvature", and proposed a suitable mathematical model.[19]

E. F. Bleiler has referred to "The Call of Cthulhu" as "a fragmented essay with narrative inclusions".[20]

The story, published more than a decade before World War II, is interesting for its use of the word "holocaust" as a metaphor for a global massacre.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Publication: Weird Tales, February 1928". ISFDB. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  2. ^ Straub, Peter (2005). Lovecraft: Tales. The Library of America. p. 823. ISBN 1-931082-72-3.
  3. ^ Bruce Sterling (July 4, 2011). "H. P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book". Retrieved April 23, 2020.
  4. ^ H. P. Lovecraft (July 1994). S. T. Joshi; Will Murray; David E. Schultz (eds.). The H. P. Lovecraft Dream Book. Necronomicon Press. pp. 14–16. ISBN 0940884658.
  5. ^ The Kraken, The Victorian Web
  6. ^ Robert M. Price, "The Other Name of Azathoth", introduction to The Cthulhu Cycle. Price credits Philip A. Shreffler with connecting the poem and the story.
  7. ^ S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, "Call of Cthulhu, The", An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, pp. 28–29.
  8. ^ H.P. Lovecraft Archived January 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Fortean Times magazine
  9. ^ "Lord Dunsany (1878–1957)". Works; Short bibliography. Dunsany. December 2003. Archived from the original on November 30, 2018. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
  10. ^ Price, "The Other Name of Azathoth". This passage is also believed to have inspired Lovecraft's entity Azathoth, hence the title of Price's essay.
  11. ^ Lackey, Chris; Fifer, Chad; Leman, Andrew (May 12, 2010). "Episode 42 – The Call of Cthulhu – Part 1". The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. Archived from the original on August 3, 2021. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  12. ^ Joshi, S.T. (2010) I am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Hippocampus Press. 2 Vols. Vol II pg. 639
  13. ^ Guimont, Edward (August 2019), "At the Mountains of Mars: Viewing the Red Planet through a Lovecraftian Lens", Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 3: Papers from Necronomicon Providence 2017, New York: Hippocampus Press, pp. 61–63
  14. ^ Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", p. 139.
  15. ^ S.T. Joshi, More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 173.
  16. ^ Quoted in Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 7.
  17. ^ Cannon, pp. 6–7.
  18. ^ Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.
  19. ^ Tippett, Benjamin K. (2012). "Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific". arXiv:1210.8144 [physics.pop-ph].
  20. ^ E.F. Bleiler, Supernatural Fiction Writers Vol, NY: Scribners, 1985, p. 478


  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1984) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In S. T. Joshi (ed.). The Dunwich Horror and Others (9th corrected printing ed.). Sauk City, Wis.: Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-037-8. Definitive version.
  • Lovecraft, Howard P. (1999) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In S. T. Joshi (ed.). More Annotated Lovecraft (1st ed.). New York: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50875-4. With explanatory footnotes.
  • Price, Robert M. (1996) [1928]. "The Call of Cthulhu". In Robert M. Price (ed.). The Cthulhu Cycle: Thirteen Tentacles of Terror (1st ed.). Oakland, Calif.: Chaosium, Inc. ISBN 1-56882-038-0. A collection of works that inspired and were inspired by The Call of Cthulhu, with commentary.

External links[edit]