The Weird Physics of H.P. Lovecraft’s "Corpse-City," R’lyeh

iStock/Erin McCarthy
iStock/Erin McCarthy / iStock/Erin McCarthy

According to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, somewhere sunken in the South Pacific there is a “nightmare corpse-city” called R’lyeh, “built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.” In his house in this city, the great old god Cthulhu waits, dead and dreaming, for his return to power. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft’s most famous story, a crew of sailors accidentally discover a risen part of the city, an island with a “coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry,” accidentally wake Cthulhu from his sleep, and are either killed or driven mad.

Even if you ignore the monstrous god waiting in its vaults, the architecture and landscape of R’lyeh are enough to test one’s sanity. Exploring the island, the sailors soon discover that “all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset,” and they struggle to comprehend and describe their surroundings. “One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable,” one of the sailors, Gustaf Johansen, wrote in his log. Even when they discover a simple door, the sailors couldn’t tell if it “lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door” because the “geometry of the place was all wrong.”

Of course, none of it—the sailors, the city, the island, the dead-dreaming god—are real. If it was, though, would science be able to explain the weird geometry of the city? Benjamin Tippett, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the University of New Brunswick, gave it a shot. His playful paper, “Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific,” is a lot of fun and reads like a mashup of a standard science paper and one of Lovecraft’s own stories. Tippett isn’t shy about pulling out the Lovecraftian adjectives and cites the various letters and documents that drive “The Call of Cthulhu” like another scientist might reference previous research. In the process, he sort of becomes a Lovecraftian narrator himself, a scholarly man digging a bit too far into forbidden knowledge on his way to developing what he calls a “unified theory of Cthulhu.”

After poring over the clues and descriptions left by Lovecraft’s characters and employing his “mad general relativity skills,” Tippett thinks that the geometry of R’lyeh was all wrong—not because the architecture curves and angles in strange ways, but because of the space the city occupies. R’lyeh, he says, lies in a “region of anomalously curved spacetime,” and the bizarre geometry of the buildings and changing alignment of the horizon are the consequences of the “gravitational lensing of images therein.” 

In a region of curved spacetime, Tippett explains, light doesn’t travel in reliably straight trajectories, so objects beyond the curved region appear warped and skewed, and the relative positions of two objects, or the flatness of a large object, in the region are difficult to discern. A visitor to R’lyeh, he says, would “see the outside world (and other distant objects upon the island) as if through a large fishbowl. Thus, the horizon would no longer be reliably straight, and the sun and moon would swing wildly through the sky depending on one’s position.”

Tippett thinks his “spacetime bubble hypothesis” can also explain the oddities of how time is perceived in R’lyeh, and maybe even address the “central myth of the Cthulhu cult.” Time, he says, passes slower inside an area of curved spacetime than it does outside of it. This time dilation is probably what allowed the sailor Johansen to “survive adrift at sea for nearly two weeks … in a state of helpless dementia.” It could also mean that Cthulhu, whose cultists describe him as dead and dreaming, neither alive nor truly dead, is simply “in a position where it does not feel the passage of time.” At the center of the spacetime bubble, the god could wait, unchanging, for aeons.

As to what caused or created the curved spacetime bubble surrounding R’lyeh, Tippett can only guess. “An exotic type of matter with which human science is entirely unfamiliar is required for such a geometry to exist,” he says. “Indeed, this is the very species of energy which is theoretically required to build a warp drive or a cloaking device. Only a people capable of crossing vast cosmic distances could have constructed Johansen’s bubble.”

Or, as he says on his blog, “In proving Johansen wasn’t crazy I accidentally figure out that Cthulhu is probably real, responsible for the island … and I also figure out what he’s doing down there. Of course, as a brave man of science, I can’t go and admit that Cthulhu exists … but you can tell…”