Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“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.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

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