conch chowder, for instance. It was still Prohibition so finding a bar was out of the question.
Lovecraft pronounced the place acceptable, and he and Tanzler took a table in a corner away from the noise of the other diners. The checkered tablecloth and the candles in wine bottles seemed a little too … romantic … for Tanzler’s taste but his guest had no apparent objections to either the decor or the menu.
At another table on the far side of the room, Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, relative newcomers to Key West, were dining on swordfish and salads. They had just bought a house only a few blocks away and were planning to settle there for the foreseeable future. Neither Tanzler nor Lovecraft were even aware of Hemingway at the time, and so would not have been star-struck at the proximity.
Having made a little small talk over the menu and the restaurant itself, Tanzler returned to business.
“You are familiar with some of the Latin traditions in this part of the world?” he asked Lovecraft.
“You are referring to the Cubans, who so seem to proliferate here?” “Yes. The Cubans and some of the people from the other islands.” “Well, I am familiar with voodoo. Perhaps more than most. I have just
come from a very interesting visit with a man who is an expert on voodoo.
We had many an enjoyable conversation on the subject. He, too, is an author of stories of the imagination and horror, and his time among the savages of St. Croix has afforded him much material for his work.”
“Ach, that is indeed interesting! You have many interesting friends, Herr Lovecraft. Perhaps he has told you about one such cult, one that has been operating in this part of the world for more than a century, at least. A cult that is as evil and degenerated as anything a civilized man could imagine.”
“Surely you mean voodoo, or some version of it?”
“Not at all. This cult is to voodoo what the Black Mass is to the Catholic Church. It is ancient, and widespread. It has been underground, in all meanings of that word, for centuries now. Perhaps millennia. But now it is threatening to reemerge and threatens us all with its depravity.”
Lovecraft could not help himself. He was making jokes because the content of the conversation was now circling around his own life and
making him very nervous. Tanzler was an odd duck; virtually everything he said in the past few hours had something to do with Lovecraft’s own concerns and the dark mysteries he had been keeping within himself. It was as if Tanzler was reading his mind and rummaging through the contents like a matron at a jumble sale.
“You may joke, Herr Lovecraft, but this is serious business.” “Perhaps too serious for this delightful chowder?”
Their dishes had arrived and both men, who each spent their lives in an almost continuous state of hunger, dug in.
The conch chowder was excellent. It was creamy, with an orange tinge of paprika. Not too heavily spiced, which would have bothered Lovecraft’s delicate constitution, but nevertheless flavorful.
The two men were silent awhile as they enjoyed their meal.
As their waitress cleared the plates and offered them tea or coffee, Tanzler returned to the subject at hand.
“Herr Lovecraft …” “Please. Call me Howard.”
“As you wish. Howard, have you heard of a cult named after its leader, a high priest called … how does one pronounce it … Cahthu-lu?”
And there it was. It had dropped on the table between them like a vile imprecation. There was no going back from this now.
“Count von Cosel, you know very well that I have. I published a story with that name.”
“Yes, of course. But you did not take the contents of that story seriously. You published it in a magazine devoted to the most vulgar form of literature.”
“How else should I have treated such an outrageous theme? Monsters, strange idols, orgiastic rites in the bayou …”
“Let us be frank, please. We both know the cult exists. We also know where you derived your information about it.”
Lovecraft leaned back in his chair, as if to put as much distance between himself and his memories—incarnated in this horrible little man—as possible.
“You named your source. You revealed all the basic contours of this cult. You were quite specific as to dates and places. You held nothing back, not one detail no matter how insignificant. This was not the work of a
fantasist, Mister Lovecraft. Howard. It was not a short story, a horror tale or a fantasy.
“It was an intelligence report.”
After the theft of the Cthulhu Cult file from his apartment in Brooklyn, Lovecraft wrote down as much as he could remember from the file. He included the information about George Angell but did not mention his visit to the old professor or, of course, his own theft of the Cthulhu File from the professor’s desk.
What he read in the file had amazed him. He was not given to conspiracy theory or wild speculations about international cabals of Satanists, but the news clippings and other data in the file provided a rare glimpse into a world of underground rites, exotic locations, and bizarre people. He realized that the file was selective in its inclusion of data and that there might be other ways of interpreting the same facts, ways that were not so terrifying or suggestive of supernatural causes. Yet, he could not deny the multiplication of coincidences that seemed to accrue around the events of the spring of 1925 that led the professor to some unsettling conclusions.
Lovecraft remembered that there had been a serious earthquake around that time in the region of the St. Lawrence River in Canada. The effect of the earthquake was severe enough that it caused buildings to rotate. In fact, it caused the monuments in cemeteries to rotate. Lovecraft spent time researching the event and came upon an article in The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada entitled “The Rotation Effects of the St. Lawrence Earthquake of February 28, 1925” by Ernest A. Hodgson that attested to this fact and noted its peculiarity. This rotation would seem to indicate a re-orientation of the affected tombs, as if the monuments over them were keys being turned in a series of locks. The implication of this fact unnerved Lovecraft, and he tried to push it out of his mind.
Then he came upon a notice from April 2, 1925 and thus only a month after the earthquake and two weeks after the psychological crisis suffered by young Henry Wilcox on the vernal equinox that year. This was a meeting of the French Surrealists that took place on that day in which they struggled with the direction of their movement: Surrealism or revolution. The first point, as reported in their Memorandum, was:
Before any Surrealist or revolutionary preoccupation, that which dominates their minds is a certain state of fury.
This state of fury was partially attributable to their support of a revolt in Morocco against the French colonial authority. Mad Arabs.
Lovecraft researched the Surrealists because artistic movements were expressly mentioned and documented in the Cthulhu File as being somehow linked to the massive, subterranean tensions that were rising as a response to the “call” of the impossible, or at least improbable, Cthulhu. He found that the Surrealists traced the origins of their movement and their art to the unconscious mind; that is, they considered themselves mediums (in all senses of that word) for the eruptions of unconscious material that were splayed across their canvases and their texts: the ejecta of psychosis, neurosis, nightmares and forbidden fantasies, and all the impedimenta of the new science of psychology. This was exactly what Professor Angell had been tracking, and how this being—this construct of demented vision
—called Cthulhu communicated with its followers on the Earth. The artists were the first to feel the effects, and they were followed in turn by the cults.
Cults. A concept difficult to describe or identify. Lovecraft went through all the usual sources for an understanding of this term, going back to the vicious attacks of Leo Taxil on Freemasonry to the slightly more reserved approaches of Arthur Edward Waite as well as the ravings of the French cleric Eliphas Levi. It would seem that, for all their apparent diversity, these groups shared a common origin, the same as the Surrealists, the fons et origo of psychic phenomena, artistic genius, and every sort of diseased invention: the unconscious mind.
This, this thing, this Cthulhu—“High Priest of the Old Ones”—existed in some kind of real relationship to the unconscious minds of human beings and was able to communicate with them. Perhaps the word “Cthulhu” was just a literary or scientific convenience, a term of art to describe the mechanisms of the process, a word culled from some obscure volume on mental hygiene perhaps. Yet, in addition, there was a demonstrable connection between the messages being sent and physical phenomena taking place on the planet, such as earthquakes and other natural disasters that seemed to be epiphenomena of these unconscious contacts.
The implication of this was not lost on Lovecraft. Had his mother been in contact with this loathsome creature? Had her rantings been nothing less than the actual speech of Cthulhu, straining to be heard and understood through the poor woman’s own weakened vocal chords? Had his mother been a medium for this evil Being?
And who was to say that he, Lovecraft himself, was not just such a medium? Had he not also an unconscious mind, subject to the same forces and machinations as his mother’s? As those Surrealists in Paris? As the masses of colonized people who were every day revolting against European civilization and their white masters, threatening to destabilize the world order?
How does one protect oneself against the possibility that one could be just such a medium for evil? An unconscious tool in the hands of sinister forces lurking behind every random thought, every unsettling dream, every uncontrolled emotion?
He had to know if there were others in the world who were tracking the same events, seeing the contours of an invisible threat beneath the surface dimensions of cult, religious fanaticism, political revolt, and artistic transgression. He had to know that he was not alone in this realization, and he had to know if others had developed any strategies for counteracting its effects. Most of all, he had to know if he was going down the same dark path as his mother and father, both of whom were driven insane. Was this the reason? Was manipulation by some heretofore undiscovered phenomenon of matter, some unseen physical force, some power that operated through the nervous systems of human beings which were—after all—like transmitters and receivers in a radio set, was this manipulation recognized, suspected, or even understood by other researchers in the field? Perhaps researchers who were afraid to publish in the peer-reviewed literature for fear of being ostracized or ridiculed?
And did this phenomenon have a name? And was it Cthulhu?
So he published. As quickly as he could. He wrote down all of it—all that he could remember—and it became his most celebrated effort. “The Call of Cthulhu” was his plea to others to contact him, to validate his research and that of poor murdered Professor Angell. It was his notice to those who
worked in the shadows that he was one of them, and that he was afraid. Not only for his own life and sanity, but for civilization itself.
In Key West, Lovecraft was silent. This was the first time that another human being had decoded his story and recognized it for what it was. There was no longer any profit in maintaining his skeptical façade. This man, this unlikely German count, had seen right through his pretense.
“What do you want?” Lovecraft asked.
“I want to know what you know. And in return, I will tell you what I know.”
Lovecraft looked around at the restaurant. The bull of a man with the thick black mustache and the slight, dark-haired woman with him— Hemingway and his wife, Pauline—had already left, but Lovecraft was still a little uncomfortable being out in the open and discussing forbidden topics.
“Let’s find somewhere else to talk.”
Tanzler was reluctant to go back to his place until he was sure he left enough time for his colleague to enter his home and search Lovecraft’s suitcase. So he decided to lead his guest on a circuitous walk around Key West which would eventually take him to his shack.
They wound up on Whitehead Street, which seemed to amuse the taciturn writer from Rhode Island.
“Oh, it’s just that I was visiting with a Reverend Whitehead before I came here. I merely noticed the coincidence.”
“This was the voodoo expert, ja?” “Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Was he able to assist you in your, ah, researches?”
“What is it you really want, Count von Cosel? Why am I here?”
They stopped at an intersection of two sleepy streets. The beach was close by, and there was a growth of ferns and palm trees that suggested the savage jungle of primitive tribes, the womb that gave birth to all humanity, was not really all that far away. The two men glared at each other for a heartbeat, and then the Count decided on the direct approach.
“Ach, so. You have written about the Cthulhu cult, and you have mentioned the existence of the Cthulhu File. No, don’t deny that it exists! We both know it does. My question to you is, where is the file now?”
“Why does this matter to you? What could you possibly gain from the file?”
“That is my business, Herr Lovecraft.”
The evening was pleasant enough. The moon was in its dark phase, so the sky was lit with stars. With the palm trees in the background and the sound of the ocean within walking distance, it seemed as if they were two actors on a stage with a magnificent backdrop. How often is the setting at odds with the set!
“I no longer have the file.” “Then, who does?”
“I have no earthly idea.”
“Then how did you write the story?” “From memory.”
“Do you have perfect recall?”
“No. The file was stolen from me. Immediately I sat down and wrote all that I remembered. Then I turned it into a story.”
Lovecraft sighed, and looked around for somewhere to sit, but there was nothing. Instead, he started walking again and Tanzler followed.
“I wanted to talk to Professor Angell about it. I wanted more information. But before I could convince him to talk to me he was murdered.”
“Was he? Murdered?” “What do you mean?”
“Curious, that you would say he was murdered when a search through the records of Providence, Rhode Island for the month in question reveals that no murders took place at all during that time.”