Vacation Necronomicon School, summer 2010 reading assignment for 5th August 2010: “The Cephalopod” (essay).

“There is no official writing assignment today, though you may report your opinion on any aspect of this essay [ on ] the Cephalopod from H+ Magazine.”

TASK TEN: 5th August 2010.

It is composed of ever-winding labyrinthine strands. It has a narrowly-focussed eye. It sometimes has a hard cover about its body. It is filled with black ink. Are we talking about the Cephalopoda, or a book? There seem to be certain odd parallels between the two. Possibly Lovecraft never noticed these parallels. But we know that he loved one and loathed the other…

“I can not tolerate seafood in any form, […] The very sight and smell of it nauseate me” — letter by Lovecraft.

“Rhode Island is almost as famous as Louisiana for sea-food. But all this doesn’t mean anything to my palate. From earliest infancy every sort of fish, mollusc, or crustacean has been like an emetic to me.” — letter by Lovecraft.

In what context did he come to loathe the Cephalopoda? New England was of course deeply connected with the the life of the sea, and one might guess at an early unfortunate childhood experience. Perhaps a visit to a harbour fish-market or fish-shop, in which the denizens were all-too fresh.

Did these sea creatures then invade the dreams of the young Lovecraft, and in larger versions? There would have been ample reason for this to happen, since New England abounds in myths and even eyewitness reports of sea-serpents. The antiquarian Lovecraft may have learned of a spate of sightings in 1817-19 — a special committee of the Linnean Society of Boston was formed in 1817 to produce a report on the topic. An unexplained wave of giant squid strandings occurred on the beaches of Newfoundland from 1870 to 1880, one of the biggest the world has yet seen — engravings of these may have appeared in the popular annual publications of East Coast life collected in Grandfather Whipple’s library. Such groundings and other sightings appear to have been absent during the period 1880—1905…

“All was quiet on the sea monster front for New England for almost 30 years until Major General H.C. Merriam saw something near Wood Island, Maine on August 5th 1905.” — Exploring New England shores: a beachcomber’s handbook (1974).

“Its head was several feet above the surface of the water, and its long body was plainly visible, slowly moving toward our boat by sinuous or snake-like motion…. It had no dorsal fin unless it was continuous. The color of its back appeared to be brown and mottled, shading down to a dull yellow on the belly. The head was like that of a snake, and the part shown above the surface—that is the neck—appeared to be about 15 to 18 inches in diameter. If it had any pectoral fins we did not observe them. I estimated its length at 60 feet or more.” — Major General H. C. Merriam of the U.S. Army (1905, letter to the director of the American Museum of Natural History).

It is possible this sighting may have been reported in the newspapers, and thus come to the attention of the young Lovecraft, who was then writing his first ‘macabre’ stories.

Cephlapods may also have been seen by Lovecraft in engravings for illustrated scientific books, such as Sketches of Creation : a popular view of some of the grand conclusions of the sciences in reference to the history of matter and of life (1870), the sort of book that might have been in Grandfather Whipple’s library.


Illustration from Sketches of Creation (1870).

Also in circulation were books such as The Cephalopods of the North-Eastern Coast of America (1879-1881), although this is a dry scientific treatise and has only a few significant illustrations. This one has a vague kinship with Lovecraft’s Elder Things…

The much more vividly written Sea-shore Life : the invertebrates of the New York coast and the adjacent coast region (1905) may have been far more likely to have been seen by the young Lovecraft, but the publication date meant it would not have been in his grandfather’s library. It may however have been in the local public and school libraries. Its text, seemingly written for older children, certainly paints a gruesome and even proto-Lovecraftian picture of the “repulsive” Octopus…

Lovecraft may also have seen illustrations of sea-stories and poems featuring the Kraken. Most notably “The Kraken” (1830) by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Other possible literary influences for Cthulhu are mentioned in my essay on “Call of Cthulhu”).

There is also the decorative octopus tradition in the ceramic art of the ancient Mycenaeans of the classical world. Lovecraft may have seen examples of these in books in his grandfather’s library or the public library, and pondered on the possibility of ancient cultic worship of the octopus…

There is the Cthulhu-like Jabberwocky (1872) of Lewis Carroll, as envisaged in the famous illustration by Tenniel. Its long face-feelers and tentacle-like neck-tail certainly suggest a vague kinship with the Cephalopoda…

Sadly the young Lovecraft was unlikely to have read New England author Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), featuring a monstrous white whale. The novel was apparently deemed a very obscure work until the 1920s, and was only re-printed in 1930 as a very expensive three-volume set (with magnificent Lovecraftian illustrations by Rockwell Kent). The by then impoverished Lovecraft may not have seen it, except perhaps via a public library. (Update: he did read it, although it is not listed in Joshi’s Lovecraft’s Library. See Letters from New York, p.122)

Although there were pulp examples as early as 1923, and similar octopuses can be tracked back to the Munsey magazines of the 1910s and no doubt earlier…

…the covers of the pulp magazines don’t appear to have taken up the theme in any big way, until just before the Great Depression…

At around this time, and as the Great Depression deepened, organised crime became a real menace. ‘The octopus’ was at that time widely used as a metaphor in describing the grip of gangsters on American cities…

Lovecraft may have also encountered the creatures in magazines such as National Geographic (1888-today), since the 1889-1922 period was a high-point of biological discovery in the ocean depths. For example, I examined National Geographic contents pages for 1906-1909 and found there were stories such as: “Our Fish Immigrants” (June 1907); “Some Giant Fishes of the Sea” (July 1909); and “Hidden Perils of the Deep” (September 1909).

There are also deep-sea sponges to consider. Lovecraft’s uncle Franklin Chase Clark had published “A Curious City” in Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, April 1878 (pages 385-390). The text appears to start off as a speculative utopian description of a mysterious ‘communist’ future or past city, and the reader then realises that this is an essay on the sponge/corals and the mysterious cities they build in the deeps. There would appear to be a possible origin here for the underwater cities that Lovecraft would use prominently in his stories?

“[sponge] palaces surpassing in elegance and beauty the works of the most famous artists upon earth. These little architects and builders, working miles below the surface of the great ocean, building up quietly and silently in darkness their fragile houses, must remain for ever the wonder and admiration of man.

What beauties, what wonders, then, are found miles beneath the sea? The great steamship, the Challenger, sent out for a four years’ cruise by the English Government, has now returned. It has brought back with it the story so long concealed in these darksome and almost fathomless depths; the story of that great and strange and hitherto unknown country stretching for 140,000,000 square miles beneath the dark blue waves.”

And is this, illustrating the article, a ‘proto-Shoggoth’? …


Further reading:

“The New England Sea Serpent” in the Boston Society of Natural History’s journal The New England Naturalist (1938).

The Great New England Sea Serpent: An Account of Unknown Creatures (2003), by J.P. O’Neill.

Podcast:

Monster Talk: biologist P.Z. Myers talks about Cthulhu’s biological inspiration, discussing the weird alien biology and physiology of cephalopods.

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