Somewhere at the top, there’s Lovecraft. He writes a story—a number he titles “The Call of Cthulhu”—and he sends it out into the world. There’s an author—Lovecraft—there’s a text—“The Call”—and there might even be a reader. If—you at home—if you’re the reader, you can be sure enough of those last two items. You’re probably willing to place a bet on the first. But that’s it. That’s all you know, and that’s all you’re supposed to know. With the first page—with the first breaks of fiction—it’s wise to stop placing bets.
That’s because Lovecraft begins by lying to you. And, yes, that’s what fiction writers do, but Lovecraft takes a different tact. Lovecraft doesn’t narrate his own work—and, yes, this is still standard practice, but this is where Lovecraft begins to deviate. Narration duties fall to one Francis Wayland Thurston—“the Late Francis Wayland Thurston”—who doesn’t tell a story so much as he compiles a series of facts into an argumentive essay (arguing only, in the end, that he “know[s] too much” and that, for it, he can’t “think [his] life will be long”).
And “The Call” isn’t just narrated by Thurston; it’s penned by Thurston. “The Call,” it turns out, isn’t fiction at all. “The Call” is a document with attested providence—albeit attested only if you really, really trust that parenthetical above the epigraph. In a way, the very existence of the document—in our hands, in our world—denies its fiction. “Found among the papers of the late” author, this text is the real deal. The situation’s simple. Thurston simply didn’t “survive this manuscript,” and his executors simply failed to “put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.” Lovecraft didn’t write it—no one knows how his name got to the top there. Rather, Thurston wrote it, and everything mentioned in the text is genuine, so long as you really, really trust this Thurston fellow.
Here, Lovecraft sets about to something strange. Instead of giving us the true account of an eyewitness to some terror—and he might have; it happens all the time in epistolary novels and fictional travelogues—Lovecraft gives us a series of newspaper clippings and journal excerpts, framed and paraphrased—though sometimes wholly reproduced—by Thurston, our faithful narrator. Lovecraft gives us Thurston, who gives us Professor Angell—“his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many”—who gives us Inspector Legrasse, “prompted by purely professional considerations,” who gives us a man captured in a Louisiana bayou, “immensely aged”—like cheese—who gives us the gospel according to undead men in China.
This does not inspire confidence.
Lovecraft sets Thurston up to fail. The reader doesn’t believe Lovecraft’s fiction, not because it’s fiction, but because, at this point, it’s being relayed fifth or sixth hand. At this point, it’s easy to deny, though for all the wrong reasons. Then—and this is the clever bit—when Lovecraft corroborates everything at the second hand level, the reader is suddenly impressed. He scratches his head—maybe there’s something to this Cthulhu business—and the reader forgets the fiction, lost beneath so much of it.