This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.
“When I was a kid, whenever I’d feel small or lonely, I’d look up at the stars. Wondered if there was life up there. Turns out I was looking in the wrong direction. When alien life entered our world, it was from deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. A fissure between two tectonic plates. A portal between dimensions. The Breach…”
Thus ran one layer of advertising for Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Yet that narrator voiced one of mankind’s long-standing quandaries.
Long before humanity turned to space, as the “final frontier”, the ocean depths stirred the imaginations of many would-be conquerors.
For centuries explorers such as Leif Ericson, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and untold others pied the face of the seven seas. The world grew smaller, as each succeeding generation of captains and commodores charted the salty surface of Poseidon’s realm.
There came a day when the maps of the world’s oceans were fixed and their boundaries fully charted. Since then, the popular imagination has stated that “the truth is out there”, in outer space. All that remains is for a new crop of explorers to transcend this earthly sphere, perhaps shedding their mortal bounds and taking on a new evolutionary identity as a spacefaring species.
Yet in our delusional vault into the star-choked heavens, we forget that fully 95% of the ocean’s depths remain unexplored. Man can no more fathom the oceans of salinity below than he can the oceans of infinity above.
Guillermo de Toro’s film told how 21st Century humanity came to terms with the forgotten mysteries of the oceans. But he wasn’t the first man to take that fictionalized journey of exploration.
Herman Melville, in his novel Moby Dick (1851), delved into how 19th Century men came to terms with the watery expanse and their place in that liquid cosmos.
Still later, Howard Philips Lovecraft, in his short story The Call of Cthulhu (1926), told how a 20th Century man discovered and later regretted knowledge of what lurked beneath the ocean waves.
In the following paragraphs, we will briefly examine Lovecraft and Melville’s careers, explore certain parallel themes found in both Moby Dick and The Call of Cthulhu, and compare selected elements of each story that echo HPL’s later Cosmicism.
Fresh pound the Drums of R’lyeh, as they echo forth their Master’s Call for a fresh apocalypse to satiate Great Cthulhu’s ravenous hunger.
Lovecraft and Melville: From Neglect to Notoriety
There were several parallels in the lives of Lovecraft and Melville that I would like to briefly touch upon.
First, both Lovecraft and Melville grew up accustomed to wealth, only later to face dire poverty.
Lovecraft’s Grandfather, Whipple Phillips, with whom young Howard Phillips and his Mom, Sarah Susan lived after his father’s death, won and lost several fortunes. The juvenile Howard grew up in the lap of luxury. Grandfather Whipple lost his last fortune and died from the stress on March 28, 1904, when Howard Phillips was thirteen years old (1).
Herman Melville’s father, Allan Melvill, worked as a commissioned merchant and an importer of French dry goods. However, he and his wife, Maria Gansevoort Melvill, lived an opulent lifestyle beyond their means. They did so by borrowing heavily from both their well-connected families. Bankrupt, and in debt $20,000 in 1830, Allan died two years later, when Herman was also thirteen years old (2).
So, both Howard and Herman, entered adolescence on an unsteady economic footing.
Second, both Lovecraft and Melville experienced their greatest success long after their deaths.
During his lifetime, Lovecraft largely published his works in Pulp magazines, primarily Weird Tales. He seldom made enough money from his fiction, his revision work, and a trifling stipend from a dwindling inheritance to live above the poverty line.
HPL truly was a starving artist.
Melville tried a succession of jobs – teacher, bank teller, and sailor – while gathering experiences for his later fictional works. Though he was able for a time to eke out a living as a writer, Moby Dick failed commercially. In his later years, he wrote poetry and prose largely for his own satisfaction, supporting his family by working as a customs inspector for nineteen years (3).
He died with another major work, Billy Budd, unpublished.
Third, the great texts that both authors were known for, stood misunderstood and unappreciated during their lifetimes.
The Call of Cthulhu was initially rejected by Weird Tales editor, Farnsworth Wright. Lovecraft, as often happened to a sensitive soul, was thrown into a characteristic funk by the rejection. If it were not for the intercession of one of Lovecraft’s disciples – Donald Wandrei – before Wright, The Call of Cthulhu might never have been published (4).
It would not be the first story that Lovecraft had to explain to the Weird Tales editor, before that person understood its intent and direction.
In the letter that accompanied HPL’s resubmitted The Call of Cthulhu, he made his now famous statement on Cosmicism:
“…I am resubmitting The Call of Cthulhu, though possibly you will still think it…too bizarre for a clientele who demand weirdness in name only, and who like to both feet pretty solidly on the ground of the known and familiar… Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity—and terrestrialism at the threshold…In practice, I presume that few commonplace readers would have any use for a story written on these psychological principles…” (5).
And as predicted, the readers of Weird Tales, weaned on tales of the Wild West, retold with Outer Space as the new frontier, treated The Call of Cthulhu to mixed reviews.
More than once, Lovecraft thought to swear off writing, because of the indiscriminate tastes of the puerile public. Lovecraft wrote:
“…I am well-nigh resolv’d to write no more tales, but merely to dream when I have a mind to, not stopping to do anything so vulgar as to set down the dream for a boarish Publick. I have concluded, that Literature is no proper persuit for a gentleman; and that Writing ought never to be consider’d but as an elegant Accomplishment, to be indulg’d in with Infrequency, and Discrimination…” (6).
There is debate among Lovecraft scholars as to whether The Call of Cthulhu is Lovecraft’s greatest work. However, many would have never heard of Lovecraft, except for the story, or the myriad of computer games Cthulhu spawned.
Moby Dick, as already noted, opened to critical disdain.
Moby Dick did not fit well in the Gothic world, where good usually triumphed over evil, “God” watched out for the good, and set the hounds of vile circumstances to wear down the evil.
Readers wanted to be whisked off to exotic literary destinations, reminisce of today’s Sandals or Club Med commercials, or yesterday’s Polynesian landscapes of Paul Gauguin – without having to give much thought to the story’s sentiments. Or in Gauguin’s case, the symbols in the paintings.
One contemporary reviewer of Moby Dick wrote disdainfully:
“…’This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact,’ wrote the London Athenaeum at the time. ‘The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed…’” (7).
So, the picture falls together, concerning Lovecraft and Melville. Both knew early luxury and later lack. Both knew brief moments of success, outweighed by months of questioning their achievements. Both faced obscurity in death, their life works thought forgotten.
Yet fame for both men arose out of such ignominious graves, as Captain Ahab and Craven Cthulhu took on lives of their own, and gained their own adoring publics.
Next, we will discuss a few literary elements that led to the reanimation of both tales.
Some Common Elements in Moby Dick, The Call of Cthulhu and Cosmicism:
One of the first subtexts to Moby Dick and The Call of Cthulhu is: knowledge does not always equal progress.
In fact, the arrogance of knowledge can blind one to the perils in some pursuits.
For example, Captain Ahab is undeniably the smartest man and most competent whaler aboard the Pequod. It is said of Ahab:
“…Ahab’s above the common; Ahab’s been in colleges, as well as ‘mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales” (8).
Unlike some people with degrees, Ahab is not afraid to dirty his hands when it comes to the hunt.
Yet despite Ahab’s great book learning, and grander whaling experience, in his egotism, the Pequod’s Captain ignores all reason, wise counsel, and common sense. Another Captain, who lost an arm to Moby Dick, warns Ahab of the danger of pursing the White Whale:
“…There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm [oil] in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?” (9).
Ahab’s pursuit of revenge and liberation from the White Whale will lead him to freedom in death, rather than life.
Also, for a time, the anthropologist narrator of The Call of Cthulhu thinks knowledge of the age-old cult, will bring him notoriety and the acclaim of his peers.
Only later does it dawn on him, unlike the delusional Ahab, of the peril in his intellectual pursuit:
“What I now heard…first-hand, though it was…no more than a…confirmation of what my uncle had written, excited me afresh; for I felt…I was on the track of a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note. My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as l wish it still were, and I discounted with…perversity the coincidence of the dream notes and odd cuttings collected by Professor Angell. One thing I began to suspect, and which I now fear I know, is that my uncle’s death was far from natural…I think Professor Angell died because he knew too much…Whether I shall go as he did remains to be seen, for I have learned much now” (10).
What each man thinks is going on and what is truly going on, exposes how the wisdom of the wise can blind each man to his own folly.
Mystic Places in the Maritime Environs:
Another subtext to Moby Dick and The Call of Cthulhu is that the ocean is not just another hillside to be mined for its riches.
The ocean is a graveyard for humanity since the dawn of time, a curtain of mystery that conceals many present and primal perils.
Melville writes of the ocean:
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of…its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider…the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began…” (11).
Then, consider how Lovecraft describes the dangers of sunken R’lyeh and the deep in the epilogue to The Call of Cthulhu:
“…Cthulhu still lives…I suppose…in that chasm of stone which…shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more…He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming…Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come – but I must not and cannot think!” (12).
Unlike Melville, the ocean depths were not a familiar element for Lovecraft. As one Lovecraft devotee describes the briny deep in HPL’s fiction:
“…The ports give onto the open sea, on unknown immensity, whence anything could come: the blue line on the horizon that represents the famous ‘Edge of the World’ so dear to Dunsany, beyond which…terrifying abysms of dream might lurk……its depths [are] more unsoundable, more primordial than…those of the earth, concealing nauseous horrors. It is inhabited by monsters who menace the peace of mankind and pull men in after them into their original element. Nothing is more abominable than a Deep One – unless it be…the deity they adore, Dagon, that gigantic, scaly, viscous entity, the mere sight of which makes lost navigators lose their reason. It does not do to explore the bottom of these liquid abysms…It is a setting strangely familiar and fabulously faraway, where a dream topography is superimposed on the real topography…” (13).
For instance, notice how ageless R’lyeh is not on any map. Yet, it was important before man emerged, before man charted the earth. And R’lyeh will be important after man goes extinct.
Not all the important places in the world are found on human maps. Even when longitude and latitude are quoted, man may only momentarily glimpse a mystic place.
Mythic places abound beneath the sea. History becomes legend and legend becomes myth. Old Atlantis and ancient Lemuria once reigned under the sea, and still exist in the hearts and minds of men.
Likewise, Queequeg’s home is also nowhere to be found on man’s maps. Yet it exists.
As Melville states (italics supplied):
“…Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island faraway to the West and South. It is not down on any map; true places never are…” (14).
True places – that of R’lyeh and Kokovoko, of Atlantis and Lemuria – appear on no man’s map. Yet like Shangri La, they exist somewhere, forming part of man’s racial memories.
Unlike timeless R’lyeh, man matters now, but will he always matter?
Will man always ply the oceans from which he emerged?
The Forces of Tradition through the Eyes of Lovecraft and Melville:
Next, let us examine the bulwark of tradition – the forces humanity uses to preserve the thin thread of civilization and his sense of specialness and license – against a backdrop of Cosmicism. How did Lovecraft and Melville paint these influences in their grand works?
Both The Call of Cthulhu and Moby Dick address the influences of tradition and stagnation.
The forces of tradition attempt to establish a continuity of culture. They try to create connections to the past, so as to preserve a sense of order in the present. The influences of the past work to establish identification with bygone heroic deeds by the populace, undertaken by the approved elite. They do so to sanction those acts that validate the past, even calling the mundane meanderings of continuity “heroic”.
Or they label present feats of heroism that challenge the past’s status quo as deviant, destructive, or diabolical.
Traditions concerning the idealized past need not be true or factual. Often, they are mythological and fictional accounts, to trumpet in the minds and emotions of the masses, what are approved behaviors and ways of thinking, inside sanctioned cultural lines and boxes.
The words, “Stay within the lines, the lines are our friends,” epitomize this appeal.
Often slogans and mottos replace a person’s ability to arrive at their own ideas and conclusions after calm and careful deliberation. They condition us to accept without question the values that embrace order and shun disorder.
Rites and rituals are not just the tools of religious traditions. Many a totalitarian leader or ideology has used such devices to maintain their place of power. Such secular sacraments solidify a uniformity of thought among the peons, who underpin the elites’ unattainable utopian visions of society. The hope of a heaven on earth allows the masses to endure their present, earthly sufferings – while the social elites enjoy the fruit of the proletariat’s labors.
But that egalitarian promise is never realized. It is one of the present-day opiates that helps blind the masses to their true plight.
Stagnation occurs when the forces of tradition and order exercise absolute control in a society or cultures. Some societies, dominated by religion, while other by rigid ideologies, declined.
Though there were pockets of intellectual and scholarly development during the Dark Ages, they were only along approved lines, and concentrated among the potentates and priests. During modern times, when Afghanistan was dominated by the Taliban, stagnation seized that country. While the 21st Century enveloped the world, Taliban rule returned Afghanistan to an 8th and 9th Century level of function. Women bore the brunt of the repression – everything from being denied education, virtual home imprisonment to sanctioned sexual violence (15).
In China, Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward forced an agrarian model of society on large sections of urban society. Ideological purities, not intellectual pursuits or efficient practices, were valued above all else. That situation was one factor that led to cronyism, corruption, and control by the few party elites over their proletarian many.
As a result, millions died (16). So-called People’s Court trials were reminiscent of tribunals held by the medieval Spanish Inquisition; where prosecution over ideological loyalty replaced persecution over religious purity. The Great Leap Forward was nicknamed the Great Leap Backwards that took China decades to recover from.
In The Call of Cthulhu, the agents of custom and culture are represented by Inspector Legrasse. Legrasse is the figure of control, of the regulations, the law and order man who tries to maintain the status quo of society. He tries to learn of the cult, but only to the extent that he can use that information to prevent the “Cthulhu” thing from spiraling out of control.
You can almost hear Lovecraft sneer, as he described Legrasse’s rather mundane reasons for showing any interest in the Cthulhu Cult:
“…It must not be fancied that Inspector Legrasse had the least interest in archaeology…his wish for enlightenment was prompted by purely professional considerations. The statuette…had been captured …in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a…meeting;…so …hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police…realize[d] that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown…and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles. Of its origin, apart from…unbelievable tales extorted from the captured members…nothing was to be discovered; hence the anxiety of the police for any antiquarian lore which might help…to place the frightful symbol, and…track down the cult to its fountain-head…” (17).
Inspector Legrasse’s professional interest in the Cthulhu matter is stereotypical. One, he hopes to gain enough knowledge of the cult, to trace it back to its “fountainhead” to use Lovecraft’s words. I presume Legrasse, were he to gain that level of knowledge, he would use it to destroy the cult, to wipe its deadly influence from the earth.
Two, law and order types like Legrasse work to create a portfolio on the Cthulhu Chaos, so that his kind will be better equipped to deal with such cultish activities, were they to break out again. There is no supernatural vision that guides the Inspector’s actions. Instead a utilitarian, “just the facts ma’am,” approach molds his plans.
Cthulhu is just an idol, not an extra-terrestrial entity, used to release the dark deeds that reside in the shadowy parts of man, those that sociology and psychology dare not probe too deeply. Those disciplines can no more exorcise the darkness in man, that the priest exorcise the demons of old that once explained that darkness.
Only in the chemical straight-jackets of modern psycho-pharmacology have the mind disciplines, the alienists of Lovecraft’s day, gained any modicum of success.
In Moby Dick, the First Mate Starbuck represents the forces of order and tradition. Unlike Legrasse, Starbuck’s motivations are religious. Listen as Melville describes the man and his motivations:
“The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent…A staid, steadfast man, whose life…was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds. Yet, for all his hardy sobriety and fortitude, there were certain qualities in him which…seemed well nigh to overbalance all the rest. Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman…with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life…strongly incline[d] him to…that sort of superstition, which…seems…to spring…from intelligence than from ignorance. Outward portents and inward presentiments were his… Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful…and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions…Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that…persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them…” (18).
Starbuck is the responsible one, the sane one, the one who confronts Ahab. He represents the interests of the owners, to keep the mission of profit foremost in Ahab’s mind.
Starbuck viewed the disasters that plague Ahab and the Pequod, as angelic warnings, not to continue on his Captain’s mad path to destroy Moby Dick:
“…Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone — all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:— what more wouldst thou have?— Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world?…” (19).
In fact, Starbuck considers Moby Dick, murderous as his is, as just another animal of God’s making, one driven by instinct, not malevolence. He sees the singular pursuit of Moby Dick, driven by the desire for revenge, as a blasphemous act against the whale’s Creator:
“’Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous’” (20).
In many ways, Starbuck tries to establish his whaling aboard the Pequod – the acquiring of whale oil that burned in the early lamps – as a part of the great venture of supplying light to dark cities. He argues with Ahab, for the economic interests of the ship’s owners and how Ahab’s desire for vengeance violates the trust the owners put in him, the Captain.
Yet, in the end, it is Starbuck’s reverence for Ahab’s authority – paralleling the King’s divine rights as ordained by God – that prevents him from carrying out the mutiny needed to prevent Ahab’s quest from destroying them all.
Ahab reinforces the unswerving tradition that handcuffs Starbuck by proclaiming, “’There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod…’” (21).
Cosmicism and the Forces of Tradition:
In the face of either man – Legrasse, the enforcer of society’s laws and order – or Starbuck, whose piety reminds others of their duties to God and man –Cosmicism laughs. Both men try, in their own fashion, to improvise a human order and meaning on forces of nature, on a universe that defies humanity’s reason and understanding. Moby Dick will no more die at the hands of Captain Ahab, than any other whaler of Melville’s day.
Likewise, Legrasse may have succeeded in wiping out a twig of the Cthulhu cult, but in no wise has he troubled Cthulhu.
In fact, long after Legrasse dies – for that matter, long after mankind no longer treads the earth – Cthulhu will continue to live, whether walking the earth, or dreaming in sunken R’lyeh.
Melville, in the pages of Moby Dick, made a striking comment on humanity’s transient appearance on the earth:
“…the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff…” (22).
Lovecraft’s Cosmicism inspired a similar thought, surrounding mankind’s tenuous hold on the earth:
“…the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’” (23).
In many western traditions, man is seen to have a divine mandate, to fill the earth and subdue every living creature on it. How quaint a thought, when viewed from a perspective of deep time, and sentient humanity’s brief appearance on that timeline.
Perhaps, Cthulhu will summon the earth’s next masters – the hardy coleopterous species that immediately follows mankind – or its last masters – the arachnid denizens of earth’s final age – to release the cephalopod demigod of the world’s first age from his watery tomb.
Man’s Reasoning against the Melville’s Unfathomable Seas and Lovecraft’s Unreasonable Cosmos:
The universe, whether in or beyond the earthly sphere, lies outside man’s reasoning. Lingering long over such thoughts lead to the complete breakdown of the human psyche.
We cannot fathom the infinite. We cannot even, as Lovecraft notes, understand what we already know:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” (24).
The cosmos is under no compulsion to follow man’s attempt to apply uniform rules to its operation. Humanity may uncover some basic mechanics of space that apply in certain instances – the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the string theory – to name a few.
But, the ideological and religious constructs used by some to dominate the many are meaningless superstitions held by a lessor primitive race known as man.
Also, we cannot expect rules of human behavior and morality – customs that have helped preserve civilization over the centuries – to be followed by either lower or higher intelligences that populate space.
In Star Trek, there was a device known as a “Universal Translator.” One feature of such a device is an attempt to find points of references between one species and another. Those points of reference became the basis for communication between ourselves and aliens.
What if no points of reference exist? We are primitives on the cosmic calendar of deep time, in comparison to elder races that have existed for uncounted ages. What if we are ants rather than equals?
Think about all the things that drive our morality, and how an Old One does not face such trite constraints:
- Cthulhu does not have to provide food.
- Cthulhu does not have to seek shelter.
- Cthulhu does not have to plan for old age.
- Cthulhu is not bothered by how to care for aging parents.
- Cthulhu is not troubled by young adults who fail to launch.
- Cthulhu does not face death or taxes.
- Cthulhu is not craven for revenge.
- Cthulhu is not inspired by love.
- Cthulhu is not driven by greed.
- Cthulhu is not guided by altruism.
- Cthulhu is not intrinsically good or evil.
During the thousand-thousand lifetimes of an Old One, such childhood fantasies and imaginary constraints have long been abandoned.
Melville saw the limits of science and the finitude of its answers and certainties against the uncaring and unreasoning seas. His words reflected a seminal understanding of Cosmicism:
“However baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet forever and forever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it” (25).
Replace a few italicized words -“the sea” with “space” and “frigate” with “ship” – and a statement that was applicable over two centuries ago, appears just as relevant for today.
Then, the Seven Seas were the great unexplored frontier. Today, Space is the final frontier.
Yet, Stephen Hawkings adopts a Cosmicism stance, when he warns of the dangers of contact with other space-based civilizations:
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans” (26).
Other species will view humanity in a utilitarian fashion. How can they best utilize man? Perhaps, they will pass around a book, such as the one from an early Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man.
The Old Ones will not handle us delicately, but harvest us as delicacies.
What is the “White Polypous Thing” in The Call of Cthulhu?
Next, I would like to examine what the “White Polypous Thing” is in The Call of Cthulhu, and its possible connection to Melville’s work.
I capitalize the term, since it is presented as a singular entity.
“’The region…entered by the police was one of…evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed …There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight. They said it had been there before d’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods. It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die. But it made men dream, and so they knew enough to keep away. The present voodoo orgy was, indeed, on the merest fringe of this abhorred area…” (27).
What is the White Polypous Thing?
The thing, and its black winged attendants are mentioned only in The Call of Cthulhu. The White Thing did not appear in one of Lovecraft’s earlier tales. And neither does it grace one of Lovecraft’s later works.
A Survey of Lovecraft’s the Great White What?
First, was the thing a Shoggoth?
There are elements that support that contention.
The White Polypous Thing’s formless bulk, ability to invade the dreams of men – mimicking telepathy or a form of hypnotic suggestion inherited from generations of discourse with its Star-headed masters – and its location – dwelling in a lake, which is reminiscent of the great underground sea, where the Elder Things last lived, and died of dismemberment by enraged Shoggoths – all those similarities point to a Shoggoth dwelling in the Outback Louisiana Swamps.
Likewise, Shoggoths were first bred in an aquatic environment. The same pool of primal ooze from which man’s ancestors first emerged, was a vat of cells also used to engineer Shoggoths.
And Shoggoths are associated with the dreams of men, per the Necronomicon:
“..These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the ‘Shoggoths’ in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb…” (28).
This is all conjecture, based on circumstantial similarities.
After all, there is the difference in the color between the White Polypous Thing, and a Shoggoth, which is described as a black, iridescent slime, whose bulk spanned a fifteen foot-wide tunnel and beyond. So while there are strong similarities between a Shoggoth and the White Polypous Thing, there is nothing definitive to solidify that identification.
Second, Donald Tyson suggested that the White Polypous Thing might be a manifestation of the god Nodens (29).
Primal Nodens, is an Elder God and Lord of the Great Abyss, first mentioned in Lovecraft’s The Strange High House in the Mist. Tyson makes the association, based on the fact that night-gaunts serve Nodens:
“He spoke…of the things he had learned concerning night-gaunts from the frescoes in the windowless monastery of the High-Priest Not To Be Described; how even the Great Ones fear them, and how their ruler is not the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…but hoary and immemorial Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss” (30).
However, the beasts that serve and worship the White Polypous Thing are never outright called “Night Gaunts.” They are called “bat-winged devils” or “Black Winged Ones,” which are reminiscent of phrases used to describe night-gaunts. But again, the winged denizens of the earth’s darkest and deepest caverns are never explicitly called “Night-Gaunts.”
There is also a great dissimilarity between the description of the White Polypous Thing and Primal Nodens, who is described in anthropomorphic terms:
“…And upon dolphins’ backs was balanced a vast crenelate shell wherein rode the grey and awful form of primal Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss… Then hoary Nodens reached forth a wizened hand and helped Olney and his host into the vast shell…” (31).
So, the Nodens’ association with the White Polypous Thing is tenuous and inconclusive.
Third, Fred Lubnow PhD, takes a functional view of the White Polypous Thing’s role in The Call of Cthulhu versus trying to identify whom or what the entity might be among Lovecraft’s Pantheon.
Dr. Lubnow writes:
“…What exactly are these things?…the thing in the lake makes men dream and so most people stay away from the area. If the thing is making men dream and the cultists in the area are worshipping an idol of Cthulhu there must be some connection. If the thing in the lake makes men dream maybe it …open[s] mental channels of communication between those with sensitive minds and Cthulhu. Maybe there is an entire ‘net’ of these things throughout the lakes, rivers, lagoons and seas of the Earth, collecting and channeling the…dreams to Cthulhu…” (32).
So, long before there was an internet, there may have been a string of white polypous things – a primal BIO-NET , you might say – used by Cthulhu to transmit his messages:
“…They knew all that was occurring in the universe, for Their mode of speech was transmitted thought. Even now They talked in Their tombs. When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals…” (33).
Have we Heard from Everyone Now?
And what of Freudian Psychoanalyst types? What would they make of the “White Polypous Thing”?
As a Lovecraft fan, I would love to tie up the identity of the “White Polypous Thing” in a nice neat package. Much in the same way, legions of Lovecraftians have tried to systematize the space aliens/gods from HPL’s many stories into a logical pantheon – a theology of the Old Ones. But such efforts are doomed to failure, as Lovecraft did not write his short works as individual chapters in a much larger, coherent tale.
He wrote them as largely stand-alone works, to foremost please himself.
That many of the Old Ones occupied the same place in the cosmos – advanced beings, who longevity, technology, and civilization placed them in the realms of “gods” in the eyes of primitives, such as ourselves – was a sometimes feature of Lovecraft’s weird fiction.
Towards the “White Polypous Thing” as Lovecraft’s Homage to Moby Dick:
Since there is no definitive identification of the White Polypous Thing, I would like to suggest one.
I believe the White Polypous Thing was an homage by Lovecraft to Melville’s Great White Whale, Moby Dick. I base that identification on a couple of elements.
First, Lovecraft read Moby Dick and held a positive opinion toward Melville’s Magnus Opus. Though Moby Dick is not in listed in S.T. Joshi’s definitive recounting of the volumes in Lovecraft’s library, there exists a few excerpts from HPL’s letters that indicate he read Melville’s The Whale in the spring of 1925 (34).
In one letter, when Lovecraft was to depart for Washington, 11th April 1925, he wrote:
“Kleiner and Loveman will wave tear-stain’d handkerchiefs after the tail-lights of the [train] coach that bears Kirk & me away. I shall probably wear my light overcoat, checking it at the Union Station in Washington, where I shall also check the book which is to beguile my hours of idleness — ‘Moby Dick, or the White Whale’, by Herman Melville…” (35).
Several months later, in a letter to his Lillian D. Clarke, 27th July 1925, Lovecraft again mentioned Melville’s worthy work:
“I had never imagined that so perfect an evocation of the old whaling days could be possible. The pictures were taken either actually in New Bedford or at sea, & shew the actual surviving houses, churches, wharves, ships, & accessories. To one who has lately read ‘Moby-Dick’ and ‘The Gam’, the film was incredibly impressive” (36).
Later references also establish Lovecraft’s sentiments toward Moby Dick.
Lovecraft spent time in New Bedford touring its waterfront streets. On Aug. 14, 1929, he wrote his friend, Elizabeth Toldridge, a disabled poet in Washington, D.C.
“Dear Miss Toldridge, I met young Long and his parents in ancient New Bedford, & we all did that quaint old port rather fully. The waterfront streets are still ineffably quaint despite the decline of the whaling industry, & the little Seaman’s (sic) Bethel on Johnnycake Hill described in Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is absolutely unchanged in every particular…” (37).
Years later, among Lovecraft’s non-fiction revision work, we find:
“’…Of Herman Melville at least Moby Dick deserves a hearing.’ ‘Suggestions for a Reading Guide’ (intended as the final chapter of Lovecraft’s revisory work Well Bred Speech, 1936)” (38).
If you were to construct a literary timeline, Lovecraft read Melville’s story of a timeless denizen of the deep four months before he wrote his own tale of a demon from the ocean depths and the dawn of time.
Again, the timing is coincidental. But authors often write based on the inspiration of what they recently read. I am not saying that The Call of Cthulhu was Lovecraft’s interpretation of Moby Dick. But I do contend HPL’s enthusiasm for Melville’s work may have stirred him to include a minor homage to that tale in The Call of Cthulhu.
The Great White What? in Moby Dick:
Second, consider the color of the White Polypous Thing and Moby Dick.
To Melville, white may symbolize “purity” in a religious world, but it means absolutely nothing in the real world.
Ghosts are traditionally portrayed as white. White is the color of another realm, a world of the shadows. To meddle with ghosts and corpses traditionally invites death. Melville writes:
“…while in the life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world…” (39).
Was the White Whale the Ghost of all the whales killed by men? Was that why the White Whale seemed invulnerable to men’s harpoons, and why he killed those who sought to kill him?
In fact, Melville called the White Whale a ghost, a beast from a different world:
“There she blows! — the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again…” (40).
Melville spends an entire chapter on the symbolism of the color white, besides references to Moby Dick’s albinism sprinkled throughout his book. In one instance, he attributes the whiteness of the whale to eternity:
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all – color of atheism from which we shrink?” (41).
So in one sense, the White Whale is the Milky Way, a creature of the worlds’ outside Man’s world, a figure of all that is unattainable in the universe.
That description of whiteness sounds much like Lovecraft’s description of the timelessness Polypous Thing:
“…They said it had been there before d’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods…” (42).
Both writers, Lovecraft and Melville, through the descriptions of their White Beasts, establish each entities as creatures of deep time. Though Captain Ahab tracks the White Whale, is there more to that animal than meets the eye? And if there is a White Polypous Thing, how long has it haunted the dreams of men?
Third, an untimely death awaits anyone who would pursue either creature. Moby Dick as a mirror, reflects man’s intents and madness.
Stubb sees economic gain in the coveted whale oil. Queequeg’s otherwise loving nature turns to savagery by the likes of the White Whale. Devout Starbuck looks on the whale as a dumb animal, which it is his religious duty to exploit.
To Ahab, the whale is pure evil, a demon that must be killed to free himself from the Great White Spector that haunts him day and night.
But all those meanings are meaningless.
As Lovecraft pointed out:
“…All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other…” (43).
For the crew of the Pequod, the pursuit of the White Whale means death to everyone aboard, expect for the narrator, Ishmael.
How could Ahab, unable to kill the Whale when he was whole, think he could kill the whale when he was half of what he was before?
By destroying himself, Ahab is freed of the madness that has driven him unreasonably for so long. Ahab is no longer haunted by the Great White Ghost. Instead, Ishmael become the haunted one, wondering why he was spared, when there may be no reason behind it, but the choice of chance.
In the grand scheme-of-things, the whale and the sea are iconic of a morally ambivalent cosmos. The fault of Ahab and the Pequod’s crew is their futile attempt to master a force of nature beyond their comprehension.
S.T. Joshi regards great Cthulhu much in the same light as Moby Dick:
“I…have come to believe that the pseudomythological elements are plot devices designed to convey the various philosophical aesthetic, cultural and even political themes Lovecraft was seeking to convey in his tales. In this sense…It might be better to say that The Call of Cthulhu is not only about Cthulhu; Cthulhu serves as a symbol for the vast, unknowable cosmos in which all human history and aspirations are as nothing…” (44).
Ahab’s final words hint at that eternal, but futile struggle, in which all humankind has participated:
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (45).
As Ishmael floats helplessly atop the ocean deep, he becomes the stuff of Cosmicism – a strikingly lonely image of humanity adrift in a universe neither good nor evil.
Death ends their misunderstanding, and negates their madness. The true madness of man is that of trying to apply a reasonableness to an unreasonable cosmos. If there is one, the raison d’etre of the universe is beyond man’s understanding.
Death frees us all from that madness.
In the same fashion, in the end, the scholarly narrator of The Call of Cthulhu sees death as the only salvation to the madness he discovers beneath the otherwise monotonous sea waves.
It is easy to see how Melville’s dip in an existential ocean, reflects Lovecraft’s later descent into an existential universe.
By definition, Lovecraft wrote of the Polypous Thing: “…It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die…” (46).
I think Lovecraft’s positive reaction to Moby Dick went beyond its references to New Bedford’s archaic architecture. I believe for the aforementioned reasons, Lovecraft created the White Polypous Thing as an homage to the portent cosmic shadows he saw in Melville’s Moby Dick. Not an Old One of the other spheres – such as the likes of Lord Cthulhu – but one of the elder things of the earthly sphere.
Final Thoughts Concerning The Call of Cthulhu and Moby Dick:
In The Call of Cthulhu, the signs that humanity is ready for the Advent of Cthulhu are:
“…The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom…” (47).
Captain Ahab purposely set out to turn his salty crew of whalers, into an unreasoning pack of wolves, following him, the Alpha Male, in a slathering blood lust to kill the White Whale:
“…Nor was Ahab unmindful of another thing. In times of strong emotion mankind disdain all base considerations; but such times are evanescent. The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man, thought Ahab, is sordidness. Granting that the White Whale fully incites the hearts of this my savage crew, and playing round their savageness even breeds a certain generous knight-errantism in them, still, while for the love of it they give chase to Moby Dick…” (48).
In some sense, had the crew of the Pequod lived, the fictional Ahab will have prepared them for Cthulhu’s Advent.
Since Moby Dick and The Call of Cthulhu were written, there have been hundreds of leaders who, stepping into Ahab’s fictional shoes, prepared their followers for the Advent of Cthulhu. Fresh pound the Drums of R’lyeh, as they echo forth their Master’s Call for a fresh apocalypse, then another, to satiate Great Cthulhu’s ravenous hunger.
Whether the Old Ones actually exist but in the mind of a Lovecraft, man organizes his monomania, his efforts at self-destruction as if Cthulhu, and others like Him do exist and endure in our ancestral unconscious.
Because of that, Moby Dick and The Call of Cthulhu remain relevant.
And Cosmicism endures in some circles. The philosophy allowed Lovecraft to stand outside the ebb and flow of the civilization of his day and speak to its deficiencies. And today, it gives a tool to the thinking person, one that helps cut through the cultural myths and illusions used by elites to keep the masses docile and in their proper places.
The late comedian George Carlin often spoke of the cultural straightjacket:
“…They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. That is against their interests. They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept it” (49).
John DeLaughter MS is a Data Security Analyst who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Riley, three dogs, two cats, and a chicken coop. He devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness in high school.
1) “Mommie Dearest: H.P. Lovecraft’s Descent into Maternal Madness,” by John A. DeLaughter, Lovecraft eZine, November, 14, 2013.
2) “Early Life,” Herman Melville, Wikipedia.
3) “1857–1876: Poet,” Herman Melville, Wikipedia.
4) More Annotated Lovecraft, by S.T. Joshi, p. 173.
5) “Lovecraft on Weird Fiction,” The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Editor S.T. Joshi, 1997, p. 337.
6) “Ritual Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, 1999, p. 39.
7) “Herman Melville books: At first, ‘Moby Dick’ was a total flop,” by Chris Gaylord, The Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 2012.
8) “Chapter 16: The Ship,” Moby Dick or The Whale, by Herman Melville, Konemann Edition, 1995, p. 108.
9) “Chapter 100: Leg and Arm,” Herman Melville, p. 482.
10) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, 1999, p. 145.
11) “Chapter 58: Brit.,” Herman Melville, p. 311.
12) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, p. 157.
13) “Dwellings and Landscapes,” Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, by Maurice Levy (translated by S.T. Joshi), p. 36, 40-41.
14) “Chapter 12: Biographical,” Melville, 81.
15) “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” Amnesty International UK/Issues, October 25, 2013.
16) “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine,” by Frank Dikotter, The New York Times, December 15, 2010.
17) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, pp. 132-133.
18) “Chapter 26: Knights and Squires,” Melville, pp. 141-143.
19) “Chapter 134: The Chase – Second Day,” Melville, p. 602.
20) “Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck,” Melville, p. 194.
21) “Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin,” Melville, p. 516.
22) “Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will He Perish?,” Melville, p. 501.
23) “Another Universe,” H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, 1999, p. 32.
24) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, p. 123.
25) “Chapter 58: Brit.,” Melville, p. 310.
26) “Shhh, Don’t Wake the Aliens, Warns Hawking,” Irish Examiner, February 14, 2015.
27) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, p. 137.
28) “At the Mountains of Madness,” H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Nobles, 2011, p. 771.
29) The Thirteen Gates of the Necronomicon: A Workbook of Magic, by Donald Tyson, pp. 118-119, 2010.
30) “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Nobles, 2011, p. 474.
31) “The Strange High House in the Mist,”H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Nobles, 2011, pp. 405-406.
32) “The Call of Cthulhu –The Louisiana Bayou Connection,” by Fred Lubnow PhD, Lovecraftianscience.com, October 19, 2014.
33) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, p. 141.
34) “Lovecraft and Moby Dick,” Tentaclii: H.P. Lovecraft Blog, by David Haden, July 22, 2013.
37) “Our South Coast Heritage: H.P. Lovecraft was here,” by Peggi Medeiros, South Coast Today, October 26, 2014.
38) “Lovecraft and Moby Dick,” Tentaclii: H.P. Lovecraft Blog, by David Haden, July 22, 2013.
39) “Chapter 69: The Funeral,” Melville, 345.
40) “Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up,” Melville, p. 469.
41) “Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville, 226.
42) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, 137.
43) “The Silver Key,” H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, Barnes & Nobles, 2011, p. 391.
44) “Introduction,” The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, by S. T. Joshi, 2008, p. 15.
45) “Chapter 41: Moby Dick,” Melville, p. 215.
46) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, p. 137.
47) “The Call of Cthulhu; by H.P. Lovecraft,” Houellebecq, 141.
48) “Chapter 46: Surmises,” Melville, p. 244.
49) “George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript),” http://shoqvalue.com.