When Cthulhu Calls


I’M BEGINNING TO think smartphones are the tool of the devil.

I used to think it was glitter — one amnesiac night at a club and a decade later you’re still finding glitter in your hidden crevices! But I’ve changed my mind about it. I keep coming back to smartphones.

Among the great evils in the world, I’ll admit texting ranks pretty low. Ah, but as we strive to connect to more and more people simultaneously, we grow farther apart. As we try to hook into a worldwide nexus, we dissever. It’s in the empty space where the demons of the world find our weakness.

I wouldn’t give any thought to Lucifer, nor to the old, evil gods: Kali, Apep, Pazuzu. None of them has been particularly successful at Armageddon. We’re still here, aren’t we? See, while they’re busy offering apples, dancing with spooks from unhallowed graves, and trapping people in purgatorial elevators, Cthulhu just waits. It’s him I’d worry about.

Never heard of Cthulhu?

Oh dear!

Stay with me, now! Don’t start tweeting yet. Listen first.

Cthulhu (pronounced kuh-thoo-loo), is not the sort of demi-god who is easily sedated by prayers and holy wafers. Cthulhu is a malevolent behemoth created by horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft and introduced in his 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu.” Cthulhu is later referenced in other Lovecraft tales including “The Dunwich Horror” as well as in works by dozens of other writers and filmmakers. He even makes an appearance in South Park Season 14, Episode: “Mysterion Rises”. The Cthulhu Mythos, comprising the history and lore of this colossal beast, is nerdier and weirder than The Lord of The Rings, if you can imagine.


Trapped in a lair beneath the sea, presiding over a city of corpses called R’lyeh (soooo much debate over its pronunciation), and unknown to most humans, Cthulhu weighs on man’s subconscious merely through his existence, creating all kinds of disturbances from mass murder to nasty looks on the subway.

But he doesn’t do anything. He just exists… waiting to be called forth.

With a face-full of tentacles, wings of a bat and a body covered in scales, Cthulhu is a walking sashimi of evil, bigger and badder than the Devil. The puny devils of old Christianity would quake in their goaty-haunches since modern demonology has only been able to proffer gays and feminist nuns feeding the poor. Cthulhu is so cosmically bad there are people supporting him for President of the United States with the slogan, “Why vote for the lesser of two evils? Vote Cthulhu!”

In an uber-language to rival Tolkien’s Elvish, Lovecraft writes, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” The translation is enough to send chills down the spines of geeks across the universe:

“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming…”


At a recent lunch with a dear friend – probably one of my favorite people in the world –early conversation turned on smartphones and how awful it is that people are unable to leave them aside long enough to enjoy present company. If he wasn’t dropping a hint, I certainly was. I made it clear that I would set my phone aside during the meal unless an important work emergency erupted.

I’m in a business where last-minute scheduling is a necessary evil (there’s that word again) but Pavlovian response to my phone’s ringtone is kept in check by my desire to connect with my companions. I usually preface mid-afternoon lunch engagements with a caveat: it is mostly during the day that I set up appointments. So when vibrations, beeps or dings alert me, I will excuse myself – at a suitable break in conversation – to check my phone. In four to six seconds I can determine if it’s a work situation that needs immediate attention – rare – or a friend asking me about plans later that night. Very very often, even business calls can wait. In my years of owning a cellphone I’ve learned that almost nothing is so important that it can’t wait until your friend is using the restroom.

During this particular meal, however, my friend held his phone between his legs, peering down to his crotch repeatedly for the next 90 minutes. It was difficult to get angry with him. It was even more difficult to ask him not to do it. I confess, I think my manners are pretty darned good but I’ve probably done the same thing. Haven’t we all?

The advent of texting and its medium, the smartphone, have dragged manners beneath the waves straight into the waiting tentacles of Cthulhu. Lapses in attention are almost expected and accepted. No one is HERE. They’re always THERE. Or talking about HERE to people who are THERE. Twitter, in all its hashtagging confusion, feels like millions of solitary people in millions of empty parks shouting, “I just had breakfast with my best friend! Look at my donut!”

Meanwhile your best friend is eating (and possibly enjoying) his own donut. I just wonder: are you really enjoying a donut if, at the same time, you’re posting about it on Instagram?

Cthulhu looks for donuts on a passing cruise ship.

Cthulhu looks for donuts on a passing cruise ship. (From www.thelovecraftsman.com)

It’s because of the constant turning away that Phone Stack was devised.

Surely you’ve heard of Phone Stack by now. Invented by a blogger and hip-hop dancer named Brian Perez when he grew sick of mealtime interruptions, it’s a little game you play at dinner with friends. Everyone puts their smart phones on the table, face down. The first to touch their phone has to pay for the entire meal.

And here’s the most important detail – if no one answers his phone, you split the bill. You’re all in it together. I love that. No one touches a phone and you all win.

Though I have yet to suggest it at a gathering, the game suits my loopy need to have my friend’s (or friends’) complete attention when we’re…  oh…  I don’t know…HAVING A CONVERSATION!!!!

I find myself growing impatient with friends whose Facebook walls are overloaded with instant posts of vacations and talk of how much they are “loving this moment.” We step away from conversations as we make plans in favor of what we want to happen a few hours from now. We send pictures of meals before eating them. We catalogue our dates, vacations, weddings and baby’s first steps.

“This was the most delicious meal I ever ate in my whole life. Here’s a picture of it.”

“Look at my happy boyfriend while he holds my hand and looks out at the sea while wearing his cute bathing suit and petting our new puppy on the deck of this cruise ship in the Caribbean on the best day ever. I love you, Boobedoobeedoo!”

Shut the fuck up.

Because it is so easy (Instant, even!) we snap and post or stop, tweet before we resume. Conversations are interrupted by bells and whistles and clicks and, what’s worse, by our need to answer to them. Every snap, post and tweet is a disconnection from the actual activity. Who are you socializing with? Me? The Facebook community? A more interesting friend on the other side of town? Are we in the room all the time? Can we remain in the room for a whole meal, vacation, or date without touching our smartphones?

Please eat your burger and talk to me between bites. After you sip that Lambrusco, don’t tweet about it. Tell me about it. Share it with me while I’m here with you.

Phone Stack made the news for its minute and a half of fame, doing the rounds on Facebook before disappearing almost entirely. I’m making an effort to bring it back – throw it a life preserver, if you will, as it resurfaces for its last, dying gasps. I want it to survive. It could save us from ourselves.

Chernabog checks his tweets before calling on the souls of the dead.

Chernabog checks his tweets before calling on the souls of the dead.

If the fate of mankind came down to a game of Phone Stack, Cthulhu would win. My theory is that Cthulhu has figured out, during eons of Gigantic Cosmic Tetris or whatever it is gigantic, cosmic threats do to pass the time, a world divided is easier to conquer. That makes his job easy and maybe he’s gotten a bit lazy. Unlike Chernabog (Disney’s answer to Satan in Fantasia, who looks suspiciously like Cthulhu), Lovecraft’s beast doesn’t spend a lot of time making plans. He merely waits, dreadfully enough, listening to us NOT listen to each other. For all his posturing, wing-flapping, and tentacular suckering, Cthulhu is happy for us to lose touch through being in touch. It gives him less to do. He’s not at the table, with his enormous appetite, ordering a plate of North America with a side of France. He’s in the city of the dead, waiting as we play, waiting as we destroy ourselves, knowing one of us will be unable to resist the call.

The solution is so simple, though. When the phone rings – don’t answer. Stay in the room with your friends. Listen to them. Love them. But whatever you do, don’t answer the phone just because it’s ringing.

It might be Cthulhu calling.

We’ve awakened the dreamer.

And, oh! For love of The Old Ones! I am afraid.

cthulhu illo

About Tom Gualtieri

Tom Gualtieri (@TomGGualtieri)is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.
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3 Responses to When Cthulhu Calls

  1. Brian Eckert says:

    I think one line from this post sums it up effectively: “Shut the fuck up.”

    Please, everyone. Just shut the fuck up. You are no more interesting than you were before smartphones, FB, and Twitter.

    I’ve actually just written a lyrical essay on this subject, although it touches as well on the amount of (possibly useless) literature that’s out there.

    • Brian – there is a certainly a glut of information out there. It becomes overwhelming and I often long for a hermetic existence and think I would be happy with at least a few years away from technology, if not the company of my nearest and dearest. Can we all stop flapping our gums at each other long enough to listen? Thank YOU for reading! Yours, Tom

  2. Pingback: On Rape and the Culture of Monsters — The Good Men Project

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