Cthulhu Is Actually Quite Fragile

So there’s this idea that gets passed around a lot wherever Lovecraft fans lurk that Cthulhu is some kind of unstoppable mega-monster against whom all human weapons are useless, that he and his kind are so indescribably powerful, so beyond our ken, that they would hardly even notice us trying to kill them and would wipe out all human civilization just to get rid of the clutter.

Cthulhu lost a fight with a steam boat.

Not, like, a battleship or anything. It was a civilian ship that successfully defeated Cthulhu by ramming him. That’s a pretty trivial amount of force it takes to put him back to sleep. He does begin reforming again immediately afterwards, but given how incredibly easy it was to reduce him to that state, it doesn’t actually matter. You can have a guy hang out above R’lyeh and continue ramming Cthulhu every time he gets up on a daily basis and it’d be fine. Considering the last time he was awake was somewhere between two hundred thousand and several vigintillion (yes, that’s a real number) years ago, he could wake up a thousand times faster than he did the first time and in the most pessimistic scenario that gives us until the 2100s to figure out how to get another steam ship into ramming position. Cthulhu is so much a manageable problem that you wouldn’t even want to bother notifying a head of state about it. Some guys a notch or two below the head of national security and/or disaster management can take care of it. Forget a threat to all mankind, Cthulhu’s not even a threat to Australia. He’s a mild strain on Emergency Management Australia’s resources, and that’s mainly in making sure to keep knowledge of the problem around for long enough that someone’s around to ram the sucker when he finally wakes up again.

A lot of other Lovecraft stories are actually the same way. People like to talk about the horror of Lovecraft as though doom is absolutely inevitable, but the actual horror of Lovecraft is that the universe doesn’t care to destroy you, which means it’s possible that the galaxy-spanning Mi-Go empire will demolish our planet to make way for a galactic bypass one day and the only thing we can really do about that is colonize Mars in a hurry and hope they don’t need four lanes. Speaking of the Mi-Go, people like to talk a lot about how the Lovecraft universe is full of horrors that can’t be countenanced, but then there’s the Mi-Go, who are a galactic-spanning civilization, and the whole point there is that even if humans do stick around long enough to become a galactic-spanning civilization of our own, we won’t be the first or last and there still won’t be anything special about us for having done so. It’s not that we can’t win, it’s that nobody cares whether or not we do.

It’s not like Call of Cthulhu is the only Lovecraft story where the eldritch horrors got hit in the face and humanity walked away suffering only the loss of one poor sap who witnessed events first hand and went nuts. Shadow Over Innsmouth? US military denies deep ones a foothold on the shore and is even able to retaliate with some torpedoes. The Dunwich Horror? Yog-Sothoth’s offspring doesn’t even manage a double-digit bodycount before three academics show up and kill it. Even when the horror isn’t killed, losses on the human side are trivial. At The Mountains of Madness? One Antarctic exploration party is mostly killed, with the protagonists as the only survivors. The Colour Out Of Space? A single farm gets destroyed before the alien infection gets bored and leaves. The Dreams in the Witch House? One man and one child are killed, and in exchange an Azathoth cultist bites it. It is unclear what effects the successful completion of an Azathoth ritual have, but he doesn’t seem to have woken up, what with the world still being a thing and all.

This kind of thing happens every time someone writes a story in which humanity in general and/or the protagonists in particular simply don’t matter. A significant chunk of the story’s most rabid fans, incapable of comprehending the idea that anyone could be indifferent to them, mangle the idea into the world being somehow actively hostile. Rather than being apathetic, they assume the universe is antagonistic, but also so confident in victory that it’s not really sweating it too much, and justified in that confidence. That’s not how Lovecraft works. Apathy means apathy. When you ask the Mi-Go why they’re going to destroy all humans, their answer isn’t that humans are insignificant and that our destruction will be the latest in a long line of conquests. Their answer is “what’s a human?” And after you explain that, they will say “why would we bother with destroying them?”

The horror in Lovecraft is not about humans being doomed or even about humans being hopelessly outmatched at every corner. It’s about humans not being special, a horror that is apparently so genuinely incomprehensible that many of his fans actually do recoil from the idea and reframe the stories into a narrative where humans represent one side, even if hopelessly outmatched, in a cosmic war for survival.

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