My favorite type of horror story is one that is symbolic of the darker aspects of the subconscious mind and The Call of Cthulhu definitely falls into that category. But the story is more than just a symbolic representation of the subconscious, it is also a study on parallel dimensions and realities which draws on occult philosophies and incorporates modern artistic ideas. The tale is nothing short of a masterpiece.
In the opening lines, Lovecraft asserts that there is more to reality than we can perceive and that we exist in a state of ignorance, unaware of what lies beyond our limited scope of perception.
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.
References are then made to several theosophical and occult texts, particularly W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuris, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Although it is not specifically referenced in the story, I would also add that Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine is implied, since references are made to parallel planes and cycles of aeons that figure prominently in Blavatsky’s book.
In this story, the mythical beings and the realms they inhabit represent our subconscious minds. This is the part of our collective psyche that often finds its “subconscious expression in dreams” and visions. Because this area of our consciousness is so alien to us, it can only be expressed artistically, and even then, it is only a symbolic approximation of that realm.
They and their subconscious residuum had influenced his art profoundly, and he shewed me a morbid statue whose contours almost made me shake with the potency of its black suggestion.
In describing the city of R’lyeh where Cthulhu dwells, Lovecraft draws upon cubist and surrealist art to represent the realm, which is appropriate since those artistic schools sought to represent the subconscious and the dream state through visual representation.
Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention this talk of angles because it is something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.
The realm of Cthulhu is thrust up out of the ocean as the result of an earthquake. The earthquake is symbolic of a mental shift or upheaval, and the island which surfaces is our subconscious mind rising out of the dark sea of the collective unconscious. In addition to the surreal architecture, there is an abundance of ooze representative of primordial consciousness. This is a motif that Lovecraft used in an earlier story, Dagon (click here to read my review of that story).
… a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in the measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.
We all exist in what we assume to be reality, but there is an infinity around us which we do not perceive. One would like to take comfort in the thought that the unseen universes that surround us are beautiful and benevolent, but that would be quite naive. We must at least accept the following possibility: “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!”