H.P. Lovecraft Does Dunedin
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), famed horror writer from the era of pulp magazines, never left the United States. Indeed, he did not exactly travel great distances within the United States either. He also (obviously) did not have access to the Internet, for ease of research. If he wanted to find out about a city on the other side of the planet, he had to read about it in a book.
As such, it is a point of amusement (and pride) for me that one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu (1926) actually has multiple references to my home city of Dunedin, New Zealand. There’s even an actual scene where the protagonist visits.
It’s not every day that a small city like this finds a place in the canon of Horror Fiction. The funny thing is that we’re arguably suited to it, what with our Victorian Gothic Architecture, and a century of genteel decline behind us. Dunedin “does” decay, like few other places in Australasia.
(Dunedin was actually more prominent in Lovecraft’s era than today. Back in those days, it was still one of the key commercial centres of the country, a hold-over from the Otago gold-rush of the 1860s. Once Lovecraft decided that Cthulhu’s Island was somewhere in the South Pacific, I suspect he hunted around maps and encyclopedias for a prominent port city in the vicinity… and found Dunedin).
Anyway, the scene in question reads as follows:
That evening, after a day of hurried cabling and arranging, I bade my host adieu and took a train for San Francisco. In less than a month I was in Dunedin; where, however, I found that little was known of the strange cult-members who had lingered in the old sea taverns. Waterfront scum was far too common for special mention; though there was vague talk about one inland trip these mongrels had made, during which faint drumming and red flame were noted on the distant hills.
I’m having to resist the temptation to suggest he was talking about Otago university students. But, yes, Dunedin is a hilly place: Lovecraft got that bit right.
In addition, the story has a number of other references, in the context of the Alert, the steam yacht that is best known for defeating Cthulhu via ramming him. Why, yes, it was a Dunedin steamboat (as piloted by a Norwegian seaman) that took out an eldritch horror.
We find out a bit about the Alert during the course of the story:
The Morrison Co.’s freighter Vigilant, bound from Valparaiso, arrived this morning at its wharf in Darling Harbour, having in tow the battled and disabled but heavily armed steam yacht Alert of Dunedin, N. Z., which was sighted April 12th in S. Latitude 34° 21′, W. Longitude 152° 17′, with one living and one dead man aboard.
Cable advices from Dunedin report that the Alert was well known there as an island trader, and bore an evil reputation along the waterfront. It was owned by a curious group of half-castes whose frequent meetings and night trips to the woods attracted no little curiosity; and it had set sail in great haste just after the storm and earth tremors of March 1st.
This is the one place Lovecraft falls over a bit. New Zealand – even the New Zealand of the 1920s – was less fixated on race than he was, though to be fair, that isn’t saying much.
Early twentieth century New Zealand racism was definitely an ugly thing, especially towards the Chinese, who had a long history in the Otago region. However, hostility towards non-whites did not crystallise into full-scale categorisations of mixed-race parentage. 1920s New Zealand was the sort of place that discouraged non-British migrants (and actively discouraged Chinese migrants), but classing the owners of a steam yacht in terms of “half-caste” status was not the sort of thing they would do.
(Sadly, replace “half-caste” with “Chinese”, and it is something the authorities in 1920s New Zealand would very much do).
Anyway, here are Lovecraft’s other Dunedin quotes, for completeness:
What had the vice-admiralty’s investigation brought out, and what was known of the noxious cult in Dunedin?
March 1st—our February 28th according to the International Date Line—the earthquake and storm had come. From Dunedin the Alert and her noisome crew had darted eagerly forth as if imperiously summoned, and on the other side of the earth poets and artists had begun to dream of a strange, dank Cyclopean city whilst a young sculptor had molded in his sleep the form of the dreaded Cthulhu
Out of that dream came rescue—the Vigilant, the vice-admiralty court, the streets of Dunedin, and the long voyage back home to the old house by the Egeberg.
So the story features a murderous bunch of Dunedin “half-caste” cultists (of unknown ethnic make-up, since I doubt Lovecraft bothered to research the 1920s demographics of this city), aboard a Dunedin steamboat. And the protagonist visits Dunedin. Exciting.
The Call of Cthulhu is quite possibly the most internationally famous Dunedin-centric story ever written, all courtesy of an author who never set foot in New Zealand. On the other hand, it isn’t the most famous literary story set in the South Pacific. That honour probably goes to Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a text produced by an author who wasn’t aware that New Zealand even existed.
As an aside, I can’t be the only person who has realised that Dante’s Purgatory and Lovecraft’s R’lyeh are roughly located in the same area? The image below indicates where Lovecraft placed Cthulhu’s sunken city. The ‘Nemo’ point is the place furthest from land:
(For comparison, Dante’s Purgatory is situated at the antipodes of Jerusalem. In other words, here).
Addendum: Given this strange (eldritch?) literary heritage, you would have thought that Dunedin would play up Lovecraft for tourism purposes. It doesn’t. Lovecraft is basically unknown among the movers-and-shakers of this city, and even most geeks I have encountered are surprised to learn that The Call of Cthulhu has a Dunedin connection. It’s actually quite depressing.