Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Vacation in Atlantis – or Was It R’lyeh?

This month, my family and I returned to one of our favorite vacation spots: Atlantis in the Bahamas. On the plane ride there, I decided to read a short story by H.P. Lovecraft called “The Temple.” It’s about a German U-boat commander whose sinking vessel settles upon the ruins of Atlantis after madness claims his crew. Having finished the story, I decided to read one of Lovecraft’s most famous tales, “The Call of Cthulhu.” This is something I’d been meaning to read for many years, and now that I’ve done so, I’ve realized something quite disturbing about the supposed “paradise” of this Bahamian Atlantis.
The Casino or the Mouth of Madness?

The Horror in Stone

My knowledge of this thing began on the first night of our trip, after my wife and daughter retired to the room and I wandered off to the casino. It was there, amid the smoky haze of a blackjack table, that I encountered Wilcox, a twenty-something Rhode Islander with an appetite for rum runners. Wilcox was seven runners in and $3,000 down, yet he was so distracted he didn’t seem to care. He spoke in a dreamy, stilted manner, muttering about something “calling him.”

“Can’t you hear it?” he asked me more than a few times.

I felt relieved when he left, and may never have thought of him again until I spied a man standing chest high in the Baths Colonnade Pool, staring at one of obelisks that rose fifteen feet out of the water. The column looked as if it had been ripped from the ruins of some ancient Egyptian shrine, crawling with hieroglyphs. To my surprise, the man was Wilcox. I waded in after him, fearing his penchant for rum runners may pose a problem for a disoriented, half-submerged man in a large swimming pool. Despite my calling his name, Wilcox just stared at the obelisk, muttering the same two words over and over. “Cthulhu fhtagn, Cthulhu fhtagn.” I figured his ramblings were the product of far too much rum.

But perhaps I was wrong.

The Tale of Inspector Legrasse

The next night I met Legrasse. He was sitting at the sushi bar of Nobu, right outside the casino. “Anything but the squid,” he told the man behind the bar, before pouring himself a cup of sake from the bottle clutched in his hand. He said he was here on vacation from New Orleans, where he had once served a police inspector. The whole time we talked, his eyes kept darting to the lamps hanging outside the restaurant, each one shaped like an octopus enveloping an orb of light. “They don’t warn you about it,” he said.

“Warn you about what?” I asked.

 “About what that really means.” He pointed a thick finger toward one of the hanging lamps. Then he asked if I’d been to the cove.

Of course, I replied, the cove was one of my favorite places on the island.

“Been there at night?”

I shook my head. That’s when he told me what he witnessed there just two nights ago: a throng of people engaged in a wild Bacchanalian ritual. His eyes grew wide and more crazed as he spoke. “Animal fury and orgiastic license whipping themselves to daemonic heights, with howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through the night like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell!” Then he raged about a monster in the cove, a “huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes!”

I was grateful when this hyperbolic Cajun got up and left, certain he was drunk on sake. But then I noticed the words scrawled on the napkin beneath his cup. 

Ph’nglui nglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
The next morning I returned to the cove and found no evidence of the Bacchanal ritual Legrasse spoke of, save for an empty solo cup cast along the sand. Nor did I encounter any huge polypous creature. Yet a question still nagged: What had inspired such strange thoughts in both Wilcox and in Legrasse?

The Madness from the Abyss

My concerns intensified later that day when I met Johansen. He was a Norwegian of some intelligence, sprawled on a lounge chair with a near-empty bottle of Captain Morgan by his side. He seemed barely coherent, gazing at a building that rose above a line of palm trees, which he referred to as “The Temple.” It was a massive stone structure of Cyclopean masonry, and Johansen seemed awed by the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon. I asked him about his fascination with this structure, and in reply, he told me of the terrors he’d experienced there last night.

A Temple or a Tomb?
Johansen and his six crewmates had arrived the morning before on a two-masted schooner named Emma. Following a long night of gambling and rum, they decided to sneak into the Temple after finding one of its iron gates unlocked. They climbed a winding, internal stairway until they reached the top. There stood a massive, crypt-like structure with a portal that opened like a gaping maw to the abyss. One of Johansen’s crewmates called down into the black void. Johansen seemed unsure about what happened next. “An awful squid head,” he said, “with writhing feelers reached up from the blackness!” It pulled five of his friends into the portal, while Johansen’s last mate went mad, laughing shrilly as he ran off, never to be seen again.

Casino sculpture or the Maw of Cthulhu?
The Norwegian drained the remains of his rum bottle. “Death would be a boon,” he said, “if only it could blot out the memories.”

I left Johansen passed out on the lounge chair, and despite his tale, found myself drawn to the Temple. I too scaled the many steps to the top and found the tomb-like opening. Sucking in a breath, I leapt into the abyss, plunging through mist and darkness until I landed with a thunderous splash into a water-filled cave surrounded by aquariums. I saw no sign of Johansen’s crew.

As I left the Temple, however, I could not ignore the similarity between the architecture of this place and the strange tales these men told, and even today I question whether some of what they said might be true. For if so, perhaps this place called “Atlantis” is really R’leyh, where Cthulhu still lives in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young.

Either that, or Johansen really needs to lay off the rum!

The Great Old One Himself by H.P. Lovecraft
Note, the italicized prose for this little parody was quoted or paraphrased from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Call of Cthulhu, which is a worthwhile read. It’s not Lovecraft’s best story by any means, but it’s clearly one of his most famous and it provides a core piece of the mythology that forms the basis of so many of Lovecraft’s tales. The story, while told in the first person, is really an account of prior writings about three men – Wilcox, Legrasse, and Johansen – each of whom had some connection to Cthulhu, whether it’s a bas-relief of the creature’s head, a grotesque idol worshiped by cultists in Bacchanal rituals outside New Orleans, or a soggy encounter with the Great Old One himself. Needless to say, there is way too much “telling” instead “showing” in this narrative form, and it removes what could have been a good bit of suspense (let’s just says it’s a far cry from Stephen King). But after nearly ninety years it’s become a classic, and, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

2 comments:

David Maxwell said...

Just finished reading Enoch's Device. It was a fast and exciting read. You obviously did a lot of reading and research for this novel. It was the best read I have done all year. I hope there is more to come. Dave Maxwell

Joseph Finley said...

David - I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! Thank you for your kind words, and, yes, book 2 is in the works.