Illustration by Michael Komarck; thanks Evie for finding this!
“The Call of Cthulhu” is H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous story, showcasing his most famous creation, the dreaming octopus-headed god-thing Cthulhu. A whole creative industry has spawned from the horrific mythos Lovecraft engendered, with this story at its apex. Lovecraft’s strange bestiary of deities and creatures, and his vision of humanity’s tissue-thin ignorance of our own insignificance, have inspired countless elaborations and homages and secondary creations.
Lovecraft was also guilty of embedding racism in his stories. While there is some argument about just how much the charge of racism can be applied to him at different times in his life, the words on the page in this story do not much help his defenders.
Despite its racist content, “The Call of Cthulhu” is an important and influential work of fiction giving rise to many derivations. As someone who is interested in building a new creation from the world in this story, I am forced to ask a question: can the racist elements of “The Call of Cthulhu” be challenged and reimagined without doing great violence to the text? Can we build on the exciting idea of a sleeping god and its weird cult, without also tacitly accepting the racist elements that surround that idea? Essentially: can “The Call of Cthulhu” be redeemed?
In this post I’m going to review what the story actually says about the cult of Cthulhu, and the provenance (within the narrative) of this information. Then I’ll consider whether the cult could be reimagined to preserve the fiction while rejecting the racist implications.
Note: all that follows is based on my own reading of the story; I am not referring to any secondary source. I expect that somewhere in the voluminous analysis and discussion of Lovecraft’s work, another writer has done something similar, and I would be delighted to compare my reading with theirs, so links are most welcome!
THE CALL OF CTHULHU
Unless otherwise specified, all quotes below are in the voice of the story’s narrator, one Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston.
The Louisiana Cultists
Thurston, summarising Angell’s account of a story by Inspector Legrasse:
- “The region now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men…”
- “a dark cult totally unknown to them, and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles…”
- “It was voodoo, apparently, but voodoo of a more terrible sort than they had ever known.”
- “The present voodoo orgy… Animal fury and orgiastic licence here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights… a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a ring-shaped bonfire.”
- “…the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.”
- Thurston calls them “Louisiana swamp-priests” and “mongrel Louisianans”.
- There was a cult in the swamps of Louisiana which was engaged in human sacrifice (although members claimed supernatural aides were actually responsible for the killings, all members participated in the ceremonies around the corpses).
- The ceremonies involved naked ritualistic dancing and drumming about a bonfire. A supernatural presence at the ritual was strongly implied but unconfirmed.
- The cult’s behaviour was not part of a known spiritual/mystic tradition such as voodoo, but was something different and less pleasant.
- Members were mostly mixed-blood (of varied ethnicities) and mostly seafarers. The cult had few or no white members, given it was in a location substantially unknown by white men.
The Greenland Cultists
Thurston’s summary of an account by Angell of a story told by Prof Webb:
- “…whilst high up on the West Greenland coast [Webb] had encountered a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux whose religion, a curious form of devil-worship, chilled him with its deliberate bloodthirstiness and repulsiveness.”
- “It was a faith of which other Esquimaux knew little, and which they mentioned only with shudders, saying that it had come down from horribly ancient aeons before ever the world was made.”
- “Besides nameless rites and human sacrifices there were certain queer hereditary rituals addressed to a supreme elder devil or tornasuk; and of this Professor Webb had taken a careful phonetic copy from an aged angekok or wizard-priest…”
- Thurston calls them “Esquimaux wizards” and “Esquimaux diabolists”.
- There was a cult in West Greenland with a native (Inuit) membership claiming to follow ancient traditions.
- Among its practices were reverence to an “elder devil”, and human sacrifice.
- This cult was shunned by other Inuit because of the unpleasantness of its practices, and as a result little was known of it.
- However, Professor Webb was able to get some information on cult ritual from an informant. It is unclear if the informant was a member of the cult sharing knowledge to one outside of it, or an outsider who was sharing the little information they had acquired. I think it is likely the reader is meant to assume the informant is an outsider, as the cult elsewhere is depicted as very secretive.
The crew of the Alert
As described in the text of the Sydney Bulletin, based on the testimony of the survivor Johansen:
- The crew were identified as “Kanakas” (people from certain Pacific Islands) and “half-castes” (people with lineage from Pacific Islands and white Europeans, typically traders ).
- Described as “queer”, “evil-looking”, “savage” and with a mode of fighting that is “abhorrent”.
- They were noticed by the Dunedin locals for being “a curious group of half-castes” who drew attention for their “frequent meetings and night trips to the woods”.
Thurston’s account of his own questioning of Dunedin locals:
- “…little was known of the strange cult-members who had lingered in the old sea-taverns. Waterfront scum was far too common for special mention.”
As described in Johansen’s own written account, interpreted and summarised by Thurston:
- Described as having an “abominable” quality that made killing them a necessity.
- Described as “mongrels” and “swarthy cult-fiends”.
- The Alert was an island trader with a non-white crew of Islanders, perhaps from Vanuatu or the Solomons or another such island associated with the derogatory label “kanakas”. Some members of the crew, perhaps the majority, had white ancestry as well, likely from traders or missionaries.
- The Alert‘s home port was Dunedin, New Zealand. While in port they spent time in taverns and made frequent trips inland.
- They drew suspicion for their non-white ethnicity and their expeditions inland.
- It is likely that some or all of their inland trips to the woods culminated in a ritual of similar character to that witnessed in Louisiana, given testimony of drumming and red skies.
- They somehow sensed R’lyeh’s rise, and immediately rushed to sea.
- They confronted the Emma when it was heading towards R’lyeh and ordered it turn back. When the Emma refused, they immediately opened fire with a brass cannon battery. The sinking Emma‘s crew boarded the Alert and killed all of them.
- Something about their behaviour in this battle impressed on Johansen that they were inhuman and deserving of death.
More about the cult
The cult’s origin and purpose is described by the Louisiana captives (and so this account is Thurston describing Angell’s account of testimony heard by Legrasse):
- The Great Old Ones were asleep in R’lyeh and communicated with the “first men” in dreams.
- The recipients began a cult, waiting for the right moment when “the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb” to rule the world.
- For a time, some cultists communicated through dreams with the Great Old Ones, but then R’lyeh sank beneath the water and this communication was cut off.
- The cult has maintained since then by handing down secret knowledge.
- The cultists believe that under Cthulhu’s rule, humans would live “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy… all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.”
There are further reports of its membership:
- Thurston gives an account of what happened to his grand-uncle Angell, saying he died after “having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro”.
- Thurston gives an account of Johansen’s last moments, insinuating he was murdered for the cult by two Lascar (Indian) sailors.
- Thurston gives Angell’s account of Legrasse’s description of the words of his prisoner Castro, an “immensely aged mestizo”. He claimed to have spoken with cult leaders in China, and that the cult’s centre was in Arabia, in the fabled lost city Irem.
- The story presents a global cult dedicated to worship of Cthulhu, anticipating a horrific kind of freedom upon his release (and note the similarity in descriptions for their hoped-for world and the Louisiana ceremony).
- The cult has a very diverse membership and reach, including: Africans, African Americans, African Caribbeans, Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Indian, and Arabic people. There is no evidence of membership by white Europeans.
- Membership appears to be primarily, or even entirely, male.
- A typical cultist is a man of mixed heritage who works on or beside the sea.
- Worship involves phrases and ritualistic behaviours that are common across these many groups, and are reputed to originate in ancient times. This worship is typically rejected as abhorrent by the communities within which the cult operates.
Others affected by Cthulhu’s emergence
The emergence of R’lyeh from the waters were felt around the world. Angell investigated the dreams of those around him, summarised by Thurston:
- “Average people in society and business… gave an almost completely negative result, though scattered cases of uneasy but formless nocturnal impressions appear here and there”
- “Scientific men were little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal.”
- “It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came… a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible toward the last.”
Thurston, summarises a collection of newspaper reports selected by Angell, indicating those potentially affected by R’lyeh’s rise:
- London: “a lone sleeper had leaped from a window after a shocking cry.”
- California: “a theosophist colony… donning white robes en masse for some “glorious fulfilment” which never arrives.”
- Ireland: “full of wild rumour and legendry”
- Paris: “a painter hangs a blasphemous “Dream Landscape” in the Paris spring salon”
- South America: “a fanatic deduces a dire future from visions he has seen.”
- India: “serious native unrest”.
- Haiti: “Voodoo orgies multiply”.
- Africa: “African outposts report ominous mutterings.”
- Philippines: “certain tribes bothersome [to American officers]”.
- New York: “policemen are mobbed by hysterical Levantines”.
- Many locations: “troubles in insane asylums”.
- Among white, first-world communities, the rise of R’lyeh has few effects except among artists and the like, who express themselves in dramatic but unthreatening ways.
- In colonial outposts and sites of immigration, behaviour of non-white communities becomes actively threatening to white authorities.
What is actually the problem here?
Lots of things. Here are some:
- The association of an abhorrent and deadly cult that threatens civilization with non-white and mixed-race individuals. (Note as well that all the named identification characters are white men, as are almost all the secondary “heroic” characters.)
- The descriptive language used for the cult, which deploys terms of racist caricature such as “savage” and “animal”.
- The heart of the described ritual is drumming and wild dancing around a fire, which is a commonplace ceremonial feature in many non-white cultures, and one that can seem threatening or unpleasant to observers who don’t understand it. Although the fictional ritual has human sacrifices and supernatural observers, it is clearly akin to this kind of traditional ritual.
- The effects of Cthulhu around the world seem to cause brutal and dangerous surges of uproar in non-white, colonised societies, while white societies experience the event with ennui.
Essentially, Lovecraft describes a cult that conforms in every respect to the notion that white civilization is threatened by primitive and savage non-whites.
This correspondence is never made explicit or absolute. There is no absolute statement that the cult contains no white people – there could be plentiful white people in the cult but excluded from this narrative. There could be other rituals that do not caricature traditional cultures. In fact, twice within the text the behaviour of the cult is repudiated by non-white cultures. If you want to argue that Lovecraft’s creation is not inherently racist, there are plenty of opportunities to litigate points like this.
However, the overall picture is clear: what we are told of the cult adds up to a racist imagining. This is a problem if we also wish to play in the world Lovecraft creates in this story. Blankly reproducing a century-old racist imagining is not responsible. Indeed, some creators have found the taint of racism in Lovecraft’s work means they can’t in good conscience build upon it at all. Is there another course?
Can it be ignored?
Many subsequent creators have simply ignored the racist elements of Lovecraft’s mythos.
This takes two general approaches. The most common is a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” method, where the creators choose to focus on other aspects of the Mythos and leave the problematic material aside. Notably, the extensive imaginings of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game have ignored near-entirely the cult presented in the story for which the game is named. (A parallel Cthulhu cult was invented for their Shadows of Yog-Sothoth narrative, comprised near entirely of moneyed white men.)
The second approach is to acknowledge or include the racist material but to provide no space for its problematic character. This is much more difficult to achieve. To again take an example from the role-playing game, the cult from the story does briefly appear in The Great Old Ones. Some of the unpleasant racial associations from the story are reproduced, but they are muted by the context – this information is surrounded by a bounty of other mythos world-building that does not reproduce racist fears of non-white peoples – and by the presentation – the chief antagonist, while being of a piece with those depicted in the story, is given greater depth of character and motivation. And, of course, the loaded language used in the original story is absent here. And yet the fact remains that the antagonist is a non-white person engaged in parodic “traditional”/”primitive” cultural behaviours, and actively threatening the established white civilization (in general, and as embodied in a specific white character). While I have only been able to give this text a cursory examination, I feel it doesn’t succeed in escaping the problematic aspects of the source material.
Setting aside this second approach then, let us consider the first. Simply ignoring the problematic content is fine, as far as it goes. There are legitimate questions about just how far the racist underpinnings of Lovecraft’s work can be ignored – some have argued his whole terrifying Mythos is a symbolic expression of xenophobic racism and fear of miscegenation, and if this is true, some of that imagery might be embedded in every Lovecraftian work. Such a concern is far beyond the scope of this discussion, however. I’m here talking about the much more obvious and blunt racism apparent in this story, which can be removed from the field of play (so to speak) by ignoring it.
However, this is not an all-powerful solution. Since the time Lovecraft was writing, many have assembled his narratives into a grand story-world in which they have developed their own tales. Should you take this approach, then ignoring the cult depicted in the central story of the mythos becomes increasingly difficult the further into the story world you go. Eventually you must either engage with this cult or accept that your own account of the Lovecraftian story-world must carry with it a notable blind-spot.
So, if ignoring the work only goes so far, the next question becomes clear: can we create new work featuring the cult from this story, but do so in a way that does not reproduce old racist tropes?
Strategies for subversion
Could the racism be all in the narrator’s head?
This story makes use of nested narrators. The narrative voice of Thurston puts into his own words the reports of Angell and Johansen, and Angell in turn has put into his own words the testimony of Legrasse and Webb; by the time we read the account of the prisoner Castro it has been rephrased by Legrasse then by Angell and then by Thurston.
With this in mind, is it possible to locate the racist content of this story within the narrators? Could the racist flavour of the cult arise through the biases of these multiple interlocuters? If so, then a new creation could present a fairer picture of the cult, one that preserves the fiction but also dislodges the racism.
It is clear that Thurston glibly accepts and reproduces a racist worldview that was common, although receding, at the time of writing. He happily describes people as savages and mongrels and in other dehumanising language. We should presume that some of this perspective comes through from Angell, simply because Thurston appears throughout to be attempting to provide a neutral and factual account, and it would be inconsistent for him to be editorialising a racist frame that was entirely absent from the source. (Additionally, the two men are related, and therefore are likely to share their cultural assumptions.) Beyond that, it is difficult to come to any conclusions about the prejudices inherent in Johansen or Legrasse.
So, if we give the cult of the benefit of the doubt, what can we suggest?
- The usage of words like “savage” and “mongrel” are immediately removed from consideration, as they reveal more about the narrator’s unpleasantness than that of the cult.
- Perhaps these narrators overlooked many white cult members, because they were not looking for such. The association of the cult with non-white peoples could be subverted. However, the scale of such overlooking is difficult to accept – we hear clear testimony of the cult’s presence in many different non-white enclaves, but no mention of white activity.
- Perhaps the narrators overstated the similarity of the ritual to traditional culture rituals, because of their racist assumptions. This is a tenuous claim – drums and dancing by themselves suggest such a parallel – but it could diminish this problem a small amount.
- The association of the cult with race-mixing is still harder to explain away. The half-caste description of the crew of the Alert is given in the newspaper report, and echoed in testimony from other sources. It is difficult to argue that this association is overstated if we are to take the story’s reports in good faith.
With all this in mind, it seems clear to me that simply saying the narrators were perceiving reality through a racist filter is insufficient to redeem the cult unless it is married with a significant re-imagining of what we were told by the story.
Could there be a broader picture that ameliorates the problem?
A story can only show so much, so there is always space in subsequent creative works to reveal more about something and, perhaps, change its character.
The section immediately above demonstrated some of these moves: it could be revealed that there are white people in the cult elsewhere, and the ritual is less similar to traditional practices than it seemed. Going further, it could be revealed that there are many other kinds of rituals, further diminishing the association with traditional cultural practice; and that white people are intimately involved in all levels of the cult (so they share responsibility) and the cult has some aspects of modernity and “civilization” as well (so the narrative of savage barbarians vs civilized white people is broken down).
It might even be possible to explain the way the cult was perceived in the original story as the result of a project of colonialism or racist messaging by some unidentified third party: in other words, the cult appears as a racist imagining because it suits the needs of those behind the scenes for it to appear so.
This kind of technique could substantially redeem what is given in the original story, but at some cost. Every such change puts pressure on a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Why should no white person have been mentioned in the story, if they are indeed part of the cult? How could the cult’s appearing as a racist imagining possibly achieve any sensible goal? Such questions can in turn be answered, but each layer of unlikely explanation undermines the whole, and eventually the whole project of subversion or redemption will collapse under such gamesmanship.
Could there be another explanation for what is given in the narrative?
With the right application of new information, reader assumptions could be directly challenged and understandings radically reversed. (This differs from the previous section, where reader assumptions were broadly confirmed, just explained with ever-greater layers of conspiracy below the surface.)
Here there appears to be only one case in which this technique could be applied: the crew of the Alert. They attempted to turn the Emma back from deadly R’lyeh. Could they be reimagined, and revealed in a new story creation, as heroes trying to avert disaster? Yes, but only with difficulty. Although their attempt to drive the Emma back from R’lyeh could be seen as a heroic act, it has to be balanced against their unprovoked rush to violence, their apparent participation in rituals akin to the human sacrifice witnessed in Louisiana, and their supernaturally “abominable” aura. Each of these elements could be explained away with further elaboration, but it is clear the simplest explanation is to accept that this group is part of the cult and exemplified its racist tropes.
Could the problem be looked at from another perspective?
It is possible that there is a clever way to reframe what is given in the story so as to change the message it communicates. Everything is as it appears, but because of our own biases as readers, we have not considered a different way of making sense of what is there.
I have not been able to devise a robust example, but this sketch should illustrate the point:
- Consider that Cthulhu’s rise is felt strongest by artists and aesthetes. These could be glossed as outsiders, liminal people, those attuned to a different way of thinking.
- Perhaps, then, other outsiders would also be most susceptible to the hidden tones of the cult. Outsiders such as seafarers, or those of mixed-race who feel imperfectly at home in either of their cultural settings, or (particularly) both.
- Consider also Cthulhu’s rise is associated with a dissolution of the social order. This is a political end: and who would be more invested in overthrowing society than those on the sharp end of it, the colonised, the enslaved, the blackbirded, the subjugated.
- Could, therefore, a narrative be constructed where the Cthulhu cult becomes a kind of magickal/anarchist revolt against white hegemony? Perhaps.
I’m not particularly convinced by what I advance above, but it indicates the kind of creative rehabilitation that is possible, should the right inspiration strike.
Where does this get us?
After all these words I feel only a small distance closer to knowing how to handle the Cthulhu cult in any creative works I might pursue. I think bits and pieces of every strategy could be useful: correcting for racist invective by the original narrators, gently expanding on what was shown in ways that diminish the racist elements, and looking for ways to reframe what we are told in a redemptive way.
Despite the racist patterns and ideas evident in Lovecraft’s work, the number of derivative creations continues to grow. Lovecraft’s public visibility is surely at an all-time high. Given this prominence, it seems to me that the racist content in Lovecraft is only weakly interrogated, and careful thinking is incumbent on us in the 21st century who wish to build new content in Lovecraft’s world.
I have found no easy answers, and no convincing difficult answers either. Perhaps there are no answers to find, easy or otherwise. Either way, as we build anew in the world Lovecraft created, we should not forget the problems in his most fundamental building blocks, and we should strive to find whatever answers we can.