The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness, seminal exemplars of the Cthulhu mythos, are two of the most foundational and influential texts in the history of all speculative fiction. However, many have yet to discover the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, or so they think.
Lovecraft’s themes, pantheon, cosmology, and mythos of “cyclopean” scope have influenced countless writers, artists, and filmmakers. Some see this tradition as a loving homage, and unfortunately some appropriate Lovecraft’s essence without giving credit to the master. In any case, very few people have not been mesmerized and terrorized by a spawn of the inimitable mind of H.P. Lovecraft.
The Call of Cthulhu is a tale told by the grand-nephew of a deceased professor at Brown University. This innocuous narrator reveals what he discovers in his grand-uncle’s legacy. A carving of a creature with a “pulpy, tentacled head that surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.” A manuscript entitled “Cthulhu Cult.” The document is comprised of two sections, one penned by H.A. Wilcox of Providence and a second by Inspector Legrasse of New Orleans. These journals reveal an astounding story of a dangerous cult that worships sleeping gods who had “long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity.” Through the narrator’s dangerous journey of discovery, readers learn of the old ones who sleep hidden in their mythical city of R’lyeh, dreaming, perhaps sharing their dreams with mortals. Only the power of the mighty Cthulhu can call for the resurrection of the gods when the stars achieve a specific astrological alignment. These unimaginable creatures migrated to the earth from the stars, and hibernate, waiting for the day when the great priest Cthulhu will wake them with his call.
“What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.”
At the Mountains of Madness begins as a saga of scientific exploration. While parts of the Call of Cthulhu are told second hand via an examination of written documents, At the Mountains of Madness is a more of a first-hand account of a scientific investigation of the Antarctic by experts from the legendary Miskatonic University. Unlike the first tale, Mountains draws readers closer to the mystery because they get to read the narrator’s journal directly. At first, the explorers simply search for evidence of past life on the continent. However, unexpected, unexplainable discoveries soon cast a shroud over the explorers. Ice, wind, storms, and howling dogs become the least of their worries. What they found in the pre-Cambrian strata forces them to consider the fact that they just may have located proof of alien life that existed before humans walked the earth.
One hallmark of Lovecraft’s style is its subtle, contemplative, detailed, leisured pace. Lovecraft wrote in a different time when readers expected and wanted to luxuriate in details and mood. Hints of horror flickering at the corner of the eye linger, haunt, and engender an appetite for more. Lovecraft takes time to create a mood of foreboding that will linger long after a reader turns away. It could be said that mood in Lovecraftian fiction is a character in itself. In an age of flash, bang, instant gratification, this occasionally epistolary configuration may take a bit of getting used to at first. However, Lovecraft’s decision to privilege tell over show soon becomes comfortable because it supports his complex plotting and manipulation of mood. In addition, the human penchant for voyeurism will pull readers in as they peer over the shoulder of the narrator to examine arcane documents.
The human characters in these tales take a back seat to those who sleep unseen. Some of them exist only to transmit the mood and horror to eager readers. Instead of rooting for the human characters, many readers will find themselves holding their breath, praying that Cthulhu will wake and rise from R’lyeh to appear in all his horrific grandeur, even though legend says that the extraterrestrial Great Old Ones are so powerful and foreign that just a glance at them will cause madness or mass , perhaps a reasonable rational for the government’s long-held insistence on non-disclosure.
Arguably, the most stunning aspect of Lovecraft’s writing is his complete and total originality. Perhaps he was one of those who experienced dreams transmitted by the sleeping gods. Or perhaps he realized and articulated the fact that the search for the unknowable the unexplainable, is an inherent aspect of the human psyche. Readers owe it to themselves to read and enhance their ability to appreciate good horror that will haunt long after the text is concluded. After all, when the stars get right, The Great Old Ones just may wake and rise to return to greatness.