Welcome back! (Look at me, typing as if I’m welcoming you back from a commercial break or something. I’ve been watching too much Conan.) Given the big ol’ “Guest Geeks” up there at the top of the page, the more attentive among you have likely already picked up on the fact that it’s time for another guest to the blog who will help me fill it up with something geeky. This time we’ve got Lovecraft fan and fellow writer K.M. Alexander, who I met for the first time at Norwescon in April after learning of his writing from the Seattle Geekly podcast folk. Here’s here to talk about everyone’s favorite Lovecraftian insanity-entity, Cthulhu… So let’s give a big “Ai! Ai! Alexander fhtagn!” and read on, because he makes a very good point about…
Cthulhu the Wimp
We see Cthulhu everywhere. In art, he’s usually rising from the ocean on the back of his ruined city. His narrow glowing eyes stare at the viewer. His face draped with writhing tentacles. Membranous wings stretch from his expansive back. It’s an engaging image and it has seeped into pop culture. From fan art to toys, from toys to plushies, from plushies to video games, Cthulhu is everywhere. His terrifying visage has certainly ubiquitous among Lovecraft’s creations. He’s the de facto and beloved mascot for the mythos. But, what if all this love and terror is based on false presumptions? What if I was to tell you that Cthulhu wasn’t all that terrifying. That he’s more a product of good marketing and overzealous rumormongering? What if Cthulhu is, in fact, a wimp?
Cthulhu, despite his popularity, only appears in one story. The much lauded Call of Cthulhu. It’s a great tale, and I encourage you to read it before continuing on as this article will spoil a few key points. Yes, Cthulhu gets mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness, The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Dunwich Horror but in first stage Mythos his only starring role is in the single narrative bearing his name.
So, why Cthulhu? Why are we drawn to him? Well, Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” The Call of Cthulhu is one of the best examples of that. As a rule, the best horror story never reveal the monster right away. The idea of the monster, the concept of the lurking fiend hiding around the corner, that is far more terrifying than the fiend itself. This is what draws artists, musicians, and writers to Cthulhu, the ideas invoked by that anticipation are strong. They’re engaging. For ninety percent of his book gets described as this terrifying and madness inducing creature. It’s palpable. The characters feel this growing sense of dread. But, his legend really only exists in that anticipation. And this is where the trouble lies, because despite the reputation… Cthulhu isn’t all that impressive.
In the first chapter, we find Cthulhu has forced himself into the dreams of the sculptor Wilcox making him create the horrific idol featured at the beginning. But Wilcox isn’t alone. Cthulhu invades the minds of others. As a result, they go mad, and stories of riots come from over the world. Later in chapter two we discover Cthulhu has somehow coerced a cult in the swamps of Missouri to make human sacrifices to him. It’s all scary stuff. There is something about being able to set yourself up as this terrifying creature that can drive folks mad. However, the problem with Cthulhu is his follow through. He’s this enormous titanic beast and when he’s discovered by a group of sailors in chapter three you expect him to destroy them. It’d makes sense, he’s gigantic, he’s monstrous, he drives folks mad from afar! But he can’t get them all, a few make it to their yacht, the Alert, and… well… Cthulhu gets ran over.
There at the end of The Call of Cthulhu, we witness the Great Old One’s defeat at the hands of a pleasure boat. The creature who has terrorized the globe gets ran over by the Alert and the chase ends. The boat escape. As if there is some mystery to be added, the story ends with speculation about the health and location of Cthulhu but come on… he was run over by a yacht.
Remember what I was saying about follow through? Cthulhu is set up as imposing, but I find it concerning that a great beast the size of the mountain can be disrupted by a small boat. We were told that he was something terrible, but he goes down so easy. The story explains that even though his head bursts, it reforms. So if everything is fine, why not continue giving chase? Was Cthulhu left in such a state that he just couldn’t keep it up? Heaven forbid he face a cruise liner.
Now, I do appreciate our tentacle-faced pal. I like that his popularity has helped expose a lot of people to weird fiction and all the twisted tales therein. The lesson of using the anticipation of the bang to draw the reader through a story is a good one. But, I’ve never been able to shake that slight feeling of disappointment when I get to the end of The Call of Cthulhu… and… I mean… he’s hit by a damn boat.
ABOUT THE GEEK
K. M. Alexander is a Pacific Northwest native and novelist living and working in Seattle with his wife and two dogs. He is an avid hiker, wannabe cyclist, and self-proclaimed beer snob. His work explores non-traditional settings within speculative fiction, bending and blending genres to create rich worlds and unique approachable characters. His first novel The Stars Were Right—a thrilling Lovecraftian urban fantasy—is available in paperback or as an ebook and arrived in 2013. His new novel, the sequel, Old Broken Road arrived on October 14th, 2014.