Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Reading: CALL OF CTHULHU

My first real introduction to the horror-being Cthulhu came from a most excellent Nintendo DS game called Scribblenauts. Scribblenauts, for those not in the know, is a highly addictive puzzle game in which the player enters the name of an object - just about any object there is - and it appears on the screen, allowing one to complete tasks. There was a time earlier this year when the game was basically with me all of the time, just begging to be screwed around with. I used flamethrowers to get starites down from trees, conjured up witches to turn obstacles into frogs and eat them, and rode a lot of unicorns. I spent hours' worth of my downtime just searching for new objects to call down. So it was that one dark and sleepless night I scrolled down to the very bottom of a particular shoreline level. And there, deep, deep down, under the layers and levels of the ocean, I gazed upon the horrible visage of...


There he is, folks. Sickly green, octopus-headed, vestigial-winged, capable of infecting the dreams of the sensitive and inflicting paralyzing, possibly life-ending fear on all who dare gaze upon him!

Also very useful for eliminating megalodons, dragons, and various bothersome beasts keeping you from getting to your starite.

Anyway, after making use of Cthulhu for my own nefarious ends for a while, I decided to google him. It was this search that led me once more to the works of HP Lovecraft and inspired a cursory investigation into Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos." I had encountered Lovecraft once before while looking for new graphic adventure games to play (it's becoming abundantly clear, I believe, exactly which sort of geek I really am), but had eschewed the various Lovecraftian games in favor of the excellent Gabriel Knight series and then forgotten to look back. Now here Lovecraft was again. And then I joined Twitter, immediately started following Neil Gaiman, and thereby discovered that he is a Lovecraft fan. And eventually, this all coalesced into me sitting in my room last night and reading THE CALL OF CTHULHU.

OK, so that's a little more like the Cthulhu you meet in Lovecraft's story. He's much bigger than his Scribblenauts counterpart ("A mountain walked or stumbled," the narrator says of his appearance) and probably a lot scarier. I think his wings actually work, too.

THE CALL OF CTHULHU is short, to the point, and dripping with horrified fascination. It makes an extremely effective introduction to the character of Cthulhu, whom I would guess figures prominently in Lovecraft's other "Cthulhu Mythos" stories. It's basically the account of a young man whose investigation unearths a horrible, human-sacrificing Cult of Cthulhu lurking in the forgotten corners of every part of the world. This cult worships an ancient, world-destroying being who sleeps beneath the ocean (OMG JUST LIKE IN SCRIBBLENAUTS), manipulating the dreams of the sensitive and waiting for his cult to come unleash him upon the world. Since the "sensitive" includes almost exclusively artists and poets, naturally no one believes that Cthulhu is real. But our intrepid protagonist (I don't believe he was ever named, unless I missed it) soon uncovers a first-hand account, proof that the terrible Cthulhu has walked upon the earth and waits to walk again.

Now, since monster-based horror is pretty much dime-a-dozen at this point, let me point out what sets Lovecraft apart. It's not just that Cthulhu is a gigantic, bloodthirsty monster, you see. He is an actual living nightmare. The real horror of Cthulhu is rooted in his strangeness, in the sheer awfulness of a rational brain confronting the irrational. Cthulhu's city, R'lyeh, is consistently described as "non-Euclidean," with a geometry that is "all wrong." This bears out in the described encounter with the place. The sailors exploring the recently unearthed island try to open a door that may or may not be horizontal, which they either climbed on top of or simply stood upon. As they run away, one man trips over an angle which "shouldn't have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse." This is not a nice, clean, geometrically-sound alien world like you find in Star Trek. This is the sort of sticky, slimy, incomprehensible hellscape you find yourself hopelessly trapped in during a fever dream.

It's no real wonder that there's never been a successful visual adaptation of THE CALL OF CTHULHU, though there have been several attempts at movies and video games and the like. R'lyeh and Cthulhu are meant to be so alien that a human mind can't even comprehend them, much less create them. A character-based investigative tale set away from R'lyeh itself would probably play better (even an original spin-off like the Interactive Fiction game Anchorhead, which I also played through this weekend). But if you really want a good look into the horror of Cthulhu and his city at R'lyeh, then you should just go ahead and read this one.

Beware the Cthulhu Cult, though! I thought they probably weren't real based solely on the unpronounceability of their chant, but then I came across one of these while driving home on Friday:

They are among us, I tell you! And their merchandise is available online!

PS: Now that you know about Neil Gaiman and Cthulhu, you should probably read Gaiman's delightful short story, I Cthulhu, which is available for free on his website.

PPS: I don't know who created the second Cthulhu image I posted above. If you know who the artist is, please please tell me so I can give credit where it is so evidently due.

PPPS: Super Scribblenauts, featuring the ability to add adjectives to objects, is available now! Buy it for me today!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:10 PM

    For whatever it's worth, you should check out the silent film version of Call of Cthulhu that was released a few years ago (it's available on Netflix streaming). The monster effects for Cthulhu himself are a little dated-looking (on purpose; they were going for a 1920s look) but the angle-that-looked-acute-but-acted-obtuse is done spectacularly.