Cthulhu on Lesbos (2011) by David Jalajel

The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder, but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Jostled negro come from of queer on hillside
Formed a short from waterfront home in Williams
Street. Physicians find but concluded after
Lesion of heart, by
—David Jalajel, Cthulhu on Lesbos 10

The earliest contributors of the Cthulhu Mythos were poets—H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Jr., R. H. Barlow, etc. all composed verse, of various types and quality. Weird Tales was more accepting of poetry than some of the other pulps, and the poetic sensibilities of the authors often found expression in the fiction itself, through Lovecraft’s curious couplet or Howard’s fictional poet Justin Geoffrey and his lines in “The Black Stone.”

This tradition was basically immediately continued by fans, from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman to “Yig Country” (1993) by Ann K. Schwader and “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel. Yet some poets aren’t content to stick to strictly traditional approaches. Some of them get downright experimental.

David Jalajel’s basic conceit in Cthulhu on Lesbos is pretty simple: he has taken the text of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and chopped it up into a series of Sapphic stanzas, so named for Sappho of Lesbos, arguably the most famous Greek woman poet in history, whose legend gave rise to the terms sapphic and Lesbian in reference to female homosexuality. More than this, Jalajel has subtly shifted the meaning of the text with certain insertions ([Lesbos], always in brackets) and erasures (“queer,” “Negro,” and “Chinamen.”)

Sailing for London, I reëmbarked at once for the Norwegian capital; and one autumn day landed at the trim wharves in the shadow of the Egeberg. Johansen’s address, I discovered, lay in the Old Town of King Harold Haardrada, which kept alive the name of Oslo during all the centuries that the greater city masqueraded as “Christiana”. I made the brief trip by taxicab, and knocked with palpitant heart at the door of a neat and ancient building with plastered front.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Sailing [Lesbos], one and at trim in shadow
Lay in Old Town King which alive the name of
[Lesbos] during all that greater city
Made the by knocked with
—David Jalajel, Cthulhu on Lesbos 46

The result is a weirdly altered narrative, one that transposes the action to the Greek island of Lesbos, but also tackles, subtly, an emphasis on issues of race and sexuality, simply by both highlighting and removing instances of “queer,” “Chinamen,” and “Negro” in the text. It makes for a challenging, disjointed read; sentences don’t resolve neatly at the end of stanzas, words rush together, disconnected and out of place, a paragraph whittled down to four broken lines…yet there is a bit of craft and art to how this is done, just as a collage has a certain aesthetic and order to what might otherwise be indecipherable fragments.

The premise and the technique are perhaps a bit more interesting than the result, for most Mythos fans. Those hoping for a homoerotic re-interpretation of Lovecraft will be disappointed. What jumps out upon a reading of the text is, shorn of context, the sheer poetic choice of phrase that Lovecraft employed in the story. His training as a poet always shown through in his fiction, but in this text, eroded as a stone on a Lesbian beach, select phrases stand out as particularly evocative and capturing and communicating the mood of the story.

Slowly, amidst the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene, she began to churn the lethal waters; whilst on the masonry of that charnel shore that was not of earth the titan Thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus. Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency. Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly as he kept on laughing at intervals till death found him one night in the cabin whilst Johansen was wandering deliriously.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Shore that earth the titan from stars and gibbered
Cursing fleeing ship of hen, bolder storied
Cyclops, great Cthulhu the water vast strokes
Cosmic and laughing 
—David Jalajel, Cthulhu on Lesbos 52 


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

2 thoughts on “Cthulhu on Lesbos (2011) by David Jalajel

  1. “Sapphos”? She was very much not male…

    I’m afraid that if a reader didn’t notice how poetic Lovecraft’s language can be, this text won’t made them to. And it’s a bit harder to take seriously author’s “emphasis on issues of race and sexuality” when the offensive faux Greek thing is used as a part of the cover design – “Lssvos” indeed.

    Like

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