The earthquake in “The Call of Cthulhu” was purportedly what brought R’lyeh to the surface, as if a new island. But it was also an earthquake which really happened, striking the north-east of North America on 28th February 1925, followed by 55 aftershocks…


It’s an interesting example of ‘real-world intertextuality’ for the reader, in that in February 1928 his young readers would have remembered reports of the real quake three years earlier.

The more studious among his readers may also have remembered the earthquake-raised island that had been found in the Pacific by the famous explorer-biologist William Beebe [1877-1962] in early summer 1925…

“Beebe Discovers a New Island in the Pacific.

ABOARD THE S.S. ARCTURUS, May 2. — Mount Williams and Mount Whiton, the two volcanoes on Albemarle Island, Galapagos group, which broke out in violent eruption on April 10 while this deep-sea expedition of the New York Zoological Society was near by…” (New York Times, 3rd May 1925).

“William Beebe, a scientific investigator, is now on the Pacific Ocean in his good ship Arcturus. He reports the discovery of a new island in the Pacific. It was probably thrown out of the waves by the recent earthquake which shook Japan.” (wire report in Jefferson County Journal, 20th May 1925).

“He had discovered a new island and named it after Prof. Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History. He had caught, among other curious denizens of the deep, a fish with long, jointed, lighted rods issuing from its head.” (Time magazine, 11th May 1925).

The expedition was seeking things with tentacles, too. Which was probably why Ernest B. Schoedsack, co-director of the movie King Kong, was aboard for the duration with movie-camera in hand. The Arcturus was… “a properly fitted-out scientific research vessel that possessed the ability to dredge [deep-sea] animals from beneath the ocean”. It was meant to explore the depths beneath the Sargasso Sea — and Beebe told a newspaperman that he was especially keen that…

“We will go out to get a specimen of the giant squid,” he explained. “Nothing is known about these fearsome beasts except that whales have been seen fighting with them, engaging in terrific struggles that churned the water and dyed it red. A few remains of these octopi’ have been found in the stomaches of captured whales. In one case there is a record of finding an arm, or sucking tentacle, of one of these creatures 27 feet in length. This would indicate that the monster, whose limb it was, measured at least 58 feet across.” (Daily Princetonian, 16th February 1925).

But the expedition just couldn’t find the vast Sargasso (a 700 x 2,000-mile mass of surface-floating weed that moves around), and so while waiting for its return they appear to have repeated a previous Beebe expedition of 1923 which had been recorded in the book Galapagos: World’s End (1924), a book which became a long-standing best-seller. Due to copyright the book is sadly not scanned and online for free, but The Spectator review highlighted its incident of… “the terrible walking over the lava [on a volcanic island]— a mass of sliding, jagged fragments” — which seems rather similar to the treacherous geometry of R’lyeh. The Spectator review also noted that in the book was…

“[a] photograph which I have no hesitation in saying is one of the two or three most amazing I have ever seen in the field of Natural History — of acres of lava covered with thousands upon thousands of these great reptiles. In the foreground is a fissure, up which crawls a huge crab: it is a picture of a new circle in hell.”

Beebe’s later Arcturus expedition was chronicled in the book The Arcturus Adventure (1926), but that book was published too late to have influenced the conception of “The Call of Cthulhu” (which was plotted in the summer of 1925).