“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft, published in 1926, is a seminal work in the horror genre, encapsulating Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic horror. The story delves into the insignificance of humanity within the vast, indifferent cosmos, a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s works. The narrative is constructed from various accounts and documents discovered by Francis Wayland Thurston, a man who investigates the mysterious death of his great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell. Through these documents, Thurston uncovers a hidden cult worshiping an ancient, monstrous entity known as Cthulhu.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In the winter of 1926-27, Francis Wayland Thurston, a diligent researcher and the narrator of this tale, finds himself sorting through the papers of his deceased great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell. Angell, a respected professor emeritus of Semitic languages at Brown University, has left behind a peculiar collection of documents and a locked box. Upon opening this box, Thurston discovers a strange clay bas-relief, inscribed with indecipherable hieroglyphs and depicting a grotesque creature that merges elements of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature. Intrigued and unsettled, Thurston begins to delve into his great-uncle’s findings.

The journey starts with the account of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a young sculptor who brought the bas-relief to Professor Angell in March 1925. Wilcox, an eccentric and sensitive artist, describes to Angell his vivid dreams of a cyclopean city of titanic blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and teeming with unspeakable horror. In these dreams, he hears a voice muttering the phrase “Cthulhu fhtagn.” Angell, intrigued by the sculptor’s dreams, notes that they coincide with a series of bizarre phenomena worldwide, where numerous individuals report similar visions of nightmarish landscapes and monstrous entities.

As Professor Angell investigates further, he uncovers a disturbing pattern. Wilcox is not alone in his dreams; artists, poets, and other sensitive individuals around the world have experienced similar visions. Angell’s research points to the existence of a hidden cult, worshiping an ancient cosmic entity named Cthulhu, who lies dormant beneath the sea in the sunken city of R’lyeh. This cult, scattered across the globe, believes that one day, when the stars align correctly, Cthulhu will awaken and reclaim the Earth.

The second part of Thurston’s investigation takes him to the account of Inspector John R. Legrasse, who in 1908 led a police raid into the swamps of Louisiana. Legrasse and his men discovered a degenerate and barbaric cult engaged in horrific rituals around a strange stone idol, remarkably similar to Wilcox’s bas-relief. The cultists, captured by Legrasse, revealed that they worship the Great Old Ones, ancient cosmic beings who ruled the Earth in primordial times and now lie dormant, waiting to be reawakened. The idol they worship is of Cthulhu, who they believe sleeps beneath the ocean in R’lyeh, waiting for the right moment to rise again.

Legrasse’s raid and subsequent interrogation of the cultists reveal chilling details about their beliefs. They speak of the Great Old Ones who came from the stars and ruled the Earth before human existence. These beings communicated with the first humans through dreams, forming a cult that has persisted in secrecy for millennia. The cultists’ rituals aim to keep the memory of these ancient entities alive and prepare for their eventual return.

Thurston’s own investigation leads him to a newspaper clipping from Australia, detailing the discovery of a derelict ship, the Alert, found at sea with one survivor, Gustaf Johansen. Johansen’s account, recorded in a manuscript, provides the final, horrifying piece of the puzzle. The crew of the Emma, a ship captained by Johansen, encountered the Alert, manned by a grotesque crew. A violent confrontation ensued, and the Emma’s crew, driven by curiosity, boarded the Alert and sailed to an unknown island, which turned out to be the risen city of R’lyeh.

In this city of nightmare geometry, where angles seem wrong and the architecture defies earthly logic, the crew unwittingly awakens Cthulhu from his aeons-long slumber. Johansen’s description of the creature is a vision of pure terror: a colossal, slimy, tentacled monstrosity that defies all rational explanation. The sheer sight of Cthulhu drives the men to madness, and in a desperate bid for survival, they ram their ship into the creature, dispersing it temporarily. Johansen, the sole survivor, manages to escape and later records his harrowing experience.

Thurston, having pieced together the accounts of Wilcox, Legrasse, and Johansen, is left with a profound sense of dread. The evidence he has uncovered points to the terrifying reality of Cthulhu’s existence and the ongoing activities of the cult dedicated to its worship. He realizes that humanity’s understanding of the cosmos is woefully limited and that ancient, malevolent forces lurk just beyond the edges of comprehension. Thurston’s final thoughts reflect his fear that continued investigation into these matters could lead to the same fate as those who came before him: madness or death.

Thus, the tale concludes with Thurston’s grim acknowledgment of the insignificance of humanity in the face of the vast, indifferent cosmos and the lurking horrors that may one day reawaken.

Main Characters

  • Francis Wayland Thurston: The narrator and investigator, Thurston unravels the mystery of his great-uncle’s death and the Cthulhu cult through his inherited documents.
  • Professor George Gammell Angell: A renowned professor who initially uncovers the existence of the Cthulhu cult and collects various accounts and evidence before his mysterious death.
  • Henry Anthony Wilcox: A young sculptor whose vivid dreams of R’lyeh and Cthulhu’s awakening bring him to Professor Angell’s attention.
  • Inspector John R. Legrasse: A police inspector who encounters the Cthulhu cult in Louisiana and provides a detailed account of their rituals and beliefs.
  • Gustaf Johansen: The sole survivor of a maritime expedition who witnesses the awakening of Cthulhu and records his terrifying experiences.

Themes and Motifs

  • Cosmic Horror: The story explores the insignificance of humanity in the face of ancient, cosmic entities. The revelation of Cthulhu’s existence and the cult’s activities underscores the fragile and limited understanding humans have of the universe.
  • Madness and Insanity: Many characters experience madness as they confront the horrifying truth of Cthulhu and the ancient cults. The knowledge of these cosmic horrors often leads to psychological breakdowns.
  • Forbidden Knowledge: The pursuit of hidden and ancient knowledge drives the narrative, with characters uncovering truths that challenge their understanding of reality and often lead to disastrous consequences.
  • Myth and Reality: The blending of mythological elements with reality creates a sense of unease and blurs the line between legend and truth, emphasizing the unknown and unknowable aspects of the cosmos.

Writing Style and Tone

H.P. Lovecraft’s writing style in “The Call of Cthulhu” is marked by elaborate, dense prose that builds a sense of dread and unease. He employs a formal, almost archaic vocabulary that enhances the story’s atmosphere of ancient, cosmic terror. Lovecraft’s descriptions are vivid and detailed, particularly when depicting the monstrous and otherworldly aspects of the narrative, creating a sense of the sublime and the grotesque.

The tone of the story is consistently dark and foreboding, reflecting Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism. The narrative conveys a sense of inevitability and hopelessness, emphasizing humanity’s vulnerability and insignificance in the face of incomprehensible, ancient forces. This tone is maintained through the meticulous documentation of events and the gradual revelation of the terrifying truth, culminating in a profound sense of existential dread.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer (if any)

When I am not working/watching movies/reading books/traveling, you can reach me via my Twitter/LinkedIn or you can contact me here

Categories: Book Summary