The Call of Cthulhu

"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.[1]

"The Call of Cthulhu"
Cover of pulp magazine Weird Tales (Feb. 1928): first appearance in print of The Call of Cthulhu.
AuthorH. P. Lovecraft
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Horror, novella
Published inWeird Tales
Media typePrint
Publication dateFebruary, 1928


Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price claims the irregular sonnet "The Kraken",[2] written in 1830 by Alfred Tennyson, was a major inspiration for Lovecraft's story, as 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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".[6][7]

The "slight earthquake" mentioned in the story is likely the 1925 Charlevoix–Kamouraska earthquake.[8]

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'.[9]

Plot summary

The story's narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, recounts his discovery of various notes left behind by his great uncle, George Gammell Angell, a prominent Professor of Semitic languages at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who died during the winter of 1926 after being jostled by a sailor.

The first chapter, The Horror in Clay, concerns a small bas-relief sculpture found among the notes, which the narrator describes: "My somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.... A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings". The sculpture is the work of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, who based his creation on a delirious dream of "great Cyclopean cities of titanic blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror". References to both Cthulhu and R'lyeh are included in letters written by Wilcox.[10]

Angell also discovers reports of "outre mental illnesses and outbreaks of group folly or mania" around the world (in New York City, "hysterical Levantines" mob police; in California, a Theosophist colony dress in white robes while awaiting a "glorious fulfillment").

The second chapter, The Tale of Inspector Legrasse, discusses the first time the Professor had heard the word "Cthulhu" and seen a similar image. At the 1908 meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri, a New Orleans police official named John Raymond Legrasse asked the assembled antiquarians to identify an idol carved from a mysterious greenish-black stone. Legrasse discovered the relic months before in the swamps south of New Orleans, during his raid on a supposed voodoo cult. The idol resembles Wilcox's sculpture, and represented a "...thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters".

On November 1, 1907, Legrasse led a party of fellow policemen in search of several women and children who disappeared from a squatter community. The police found the victims' "oddly marred" bodies being used in a ritual where 100 men—all of a "mentally aberrant type"—were "braying, bellowing, and writhing" and repeatedly chanting the phrase: "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn". After killing five of the participants and arresting 47 others, Legrasse interrogated the men before learning "the central idea of their loathsome faith":

"They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men...and...formed a cult which had never died...hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him."[11]

The prisoners identify the confiscated idol as Cthulhu himself, and translate their mysterious phrase as "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming". One particularly talkative cultist, known as Old Castro, named the center of their cult as Irem, the City of Pillars in Arabia, and referred to a phrase in the Necronomicon: "That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die".

One of the academics present at the meeting, William Channing Webb, a professor of anthropology at Princeton, states that during an 1860 expedition in the western coast of Greenland, he encountered "a singular tribe of degenerate Eskimos whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness". Webb claims the Greenland cult possessed both the same chant and a similar "hideous" fetish. Thurston, the narrator, reflects that "My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were".

In the third chapter, The Madness from the Sea, Thurston reads an article dated April 18, 1925, from the Sydney Bulletin, an Australian newspaper. The article reported the discovery of a derelict ship in the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor—Norwegian sailor named Gustaf Johansen, second mate onboard the Emma, a schooner which originally sailed from Auckland, New Zealand. On March 22, the Emma encountered a heavily-armed yacht, the Alert, crewed by "a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes" from Dunedin. After being attacked by the Alert without provocation, the crew of the Emma killed everyone aboard, but lost their own ship in the battle. Commandeering their opponent's vessel, the surviving crewmembers travel on and arrive at an uncharted island in the vicinity of 47°9′S 126°43′W. With the exception of Johansen and a fellow sailor, the remaining crewmembers perish on the island. Johansen never reveals the cause of their death.

Thurston travels to New Zealand and then Australia, where at the Australian Museum he views a statue retrieved from the Alert with a "cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal". While in Oslo, Thurston learns that Johansen died suddenly during an encounter with two Lascars off the coast of Norway. Johansen's widow provides Thurston with a manuscript written by her late husband, which reveals the fate of everyone aboard the Emma. The uncharted island is described as "a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth's supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh". The crew struggle in comprehending the non-Euclidean geometry of their surroundings. When one of the sailors accidentally opens a "monstrously carven portal", he releases Cthulhu:

"It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway.... 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. After vigintillions of years, Great Cthulhu was loose again and ravening for delight".

Johansen described Cthulhu as "a mountain [who] walked or stumbled..." before fleeing with his crewmembers, almost all of whom are killed. Johansen and a sailor named Briden climb aboard the yacht before sailing away. However, Cthulhu dives into the ocean and pursues their vessel. Fortunately, Johansen turns his yacht around and rams it into the creature's head, which bursts with "a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish"- only to immediately begin regenerating. The Alert escapes from R'lyeh, with Briden having gone insane and dying soon afterwards. After finishing the manuscript, Thurston realizes he's now a possible target, thinking: "I know too much, and the cult still lives".

Literary significance and criticism

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.[12]

The published story was regarded by Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) 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."[13] 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."[14]

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".[15]

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.[16]

E. F. Bleiler has referred to "The Call of Cthulhu" as "a fragmented essay with narrative inclusions".[17]


Parts of the story were adapted in Eerie #4 by Archie Goodwin and Gray Morrow and in The Avengers #88 by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas, and Sal Buscema.

Alberto Breccia illustrated an eleven-page story in 1974.

The story was produced as a silent film of the same name in 2005, and as a 1920s-style radio drama, Dark Adventure Radio Theatre: The Call of Cthulhu, in 2012.

In 2005, the survival horror video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was released for XBOX and Windows PC.

Call Girl of Cthulhu, released in 2014, was an indie horror film directed by Chris LaMartina, loosely based on Lovecraft's writings.

Thrash metal band Metallica released an instrumental track called "The Call of Ktulu" on their 1984 album Ride the Lightning. In addition, they released "The Thing That Should Not Be" on their 1986 album Master of Puppets and "Dream No More" on 2016's Hardwired... to Self-Destruct, all dedicated to Lovecraft's Cthulhu.

In 2018, a survival horror role-playing video game called Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game was developed for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.

See also


  1. Straub, Peter (2005). Lovecraft: Tales. The Library of America. p. 823. ISBN 1-931082-72-3.
  2. The Kraken, The Victorian Web
  3. 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.
  4. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, "Call of Cthulhu, The", An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, pp. 28–29.
  5. Fortean Times Magazine - H.P. Lovecraft
  6. "Lord Dunsany (1878–1957)". Works; Short bibliography. Dunsany. December 2003. Retrieved 2012-01-26.
  7. 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.
  8. Lackey, Chris; Fifer, Chad; Leman, Andrew (May 12, 2010). "Episode 42 – The Call of Cthulhu – Part 1". The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  9. 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
  10. Lovecraft has stated Wilcox's residence in his story is actually the Fleur-de-Lys Studios in Providence.
  11. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", p. 139.
  12. S.T. Joshi, More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 173.
  13. Quoted in Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 7.
  14. Cannon, pp. 6–7.
  15. Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.
  16. Tippett, Benjamin K. (2012). "Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific".
  17. 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, WI: 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 City, NY: 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, CA: Chaosium, Inc. ISBN 1-56882-038-0. A collection of works that inspired and were inspired by The Call of Cthulhu, with commentary.
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