"The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is Curiosity."
-- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
-- H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror In Literature
The story "The Call of Cthulhu" is essentially about the collision between these two truths, from its own immortal first line about the merciful failure of human comprehension to almost the last: "A time will come -- but I must and cannot think!" Curiosity -- the "piecing together of dissociated knowledge" -- causes terror. The fear of the unknown drives us to investigate it, revealing that the truth is even worse. In Lovecraft's epistemology, just like his mythology, we begin and end with fear and loathing.
Lovecraft wrote from the Gothic tradition, but for the twentieth century; the threat to order isn't villainous, swarthy Catholics (although ...) but the actual circumstances of reality. Lovecraft has taken all the core Gothic tropes -- the alien (but powerful) Outsider, the threat of miscegenation, the inevitably corrupt ancient wisdom, the symptomatic disorder of Nature, the "haunted castle" or ruin, even the insipid hero, and -- often literally -- enlarged upon them. Made them vaster. And brought them out of the "shudder tale" and into the world of science, and hence into science fiction. For Lovecraft, the Gothic ruin is the cosmos, and vice versa. Reality -- Rutherford's primordial rocks and Shapley's unimaginably vast (and hence ancient) cosmos -- is itself the dead, "Gothic" survival intruding on our transient joys. Discovering that, seeing the huge ruins in which we dwell (and beneath which we will decay and become as nothing) is the climax, the "big reveal." As Stefan Dziemianowicz puts it, "The unique effect he reaches for here is not so much fright, but a sort of intellectual shock." But where in a standard Gothic, we ease the tension, punish the villain, and marry the couple off, Lovecraft ends the action with the villains uncompromisingly in charge -- "forget about it, Jake, it's R'lyeh."
In short, Lovecraft is working the Burkean Sublime for all he's worth. (Note that this could be either because Burke is right about the Sublime, or because Lovecraft was a Burkean. Honesty compels me to admit that as far as I can determine, Lovecraft doesn't seem to have owned a copy of Burke, and he doesn't mention his aesthetics in the Selected Letters or Supernatural Horror, but I refuse to believe HPL never read Burke's Enquiry.) Burke says, essentially, that the Sublime is different from the Beautiful, arising in not love and delight but in fear (especially the fear of death): "Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the Sublime." The Sublime manifests in (or is materially caused by) such aspects or concepts as vastness, infinity, obscurity, and power. Burke notes qualities such as unfinishedness (or ruination), magnitude, difficulty or impossibility, and even "sad and fuscous colours" as symptomatic of the Sublime. Sound familiar yet?
Another quote from Burke's Enquiry to seal the deal:
"The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature ... is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other."This Astonishment is one of the effects, of course, of seeing Cthulhu, whether in dreams or (as the unfortunate Johansen did) awake. Even language becomes deranged -- Lovecraft repeatedly resorts to seemingly weak similes and metaphors to describe Cthulhu or R'lyeh. ("A mountain walked or stumbled.") This isn't because Lovecraft is a weak writer, but because describing Cthulhu is supposed to be sheerly impossible -- the mind keeps asymptotically shooting off before it can fully connect. (This is also the role played by all that "non-Euclidean geometry" -- R'lyeh is simultaneously unfinished and ruined, ever-changing and extra-dimensional, too Sublime for comprehension within Reason.) Robert M. Price is fond of calling the Lovecraft Mythos an "anti-mythology" -- this, then, is anti-scripture. It's scripture that does not reveal the Divine, but cloak it. It even ends with the opposite of an evangelist Call -- Thurston urges his heirs to destroy the manuscript rather than promulgate it. Just as the divine Word of infinite meaning, the LOGOS, begins Creation, the anti-LOGOS of infinite un-meaning, "Cthulhu fhtagn," ends it. But creepily, "Cthulhu fhtagn" also begins each testament of the tale, sparking the Creation (of the sculpture) in Wilcox' dream, revealing itself as Prophecy in the cries of the cultists inspiring Legrasse to track their theology down, and (inferentially) announcing itself in the dreams of the cultists (the magi?) that the Alert accidentally intercepts in the South Pacific on their way to the Nativity/Incarnation.
And yes, Burke notes that the Divine is a lot more Sublime, at least as we experience it, than it is Beautiful.
I haven't even touched on the brilliantly complex, almost archaeological structure of the story, how it formally recapitulates its own telling by piecing together seemingly unrelated narratives, with Thurston almost vanishing into transparency as a reader-surrogate.
Or mentioned the weird black-winged things in the Louisiana swamp that "Old Castro" claims did all the actual killing for the Cult.
NEXT: "The Colour Out of Space"