One Hundred Years Of Weird Fear
On H.P. Lovecraft's literature of genealogical terror.
Ooze, Seep and Trickle
I was on a train going through Connecticut once, sort of writing a short story but really eavesdropping on a conversation between an excruciatingly proper old woman and an eager young reporter. "What," the reporter wanted to know, "is the main emotion that inspires you to write the books you write?"
The woman paused; I wondered who she was, if I'd read any of her books. The reporter leaned in. I stopped even pretending to be in my notebook and listened.
"Disgust," she finally croaked. "Disgust."
If any writer can be described as rooting his work in the inspiration of disgust, it is Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here he is in a letter written during his traumatizing and highly inspiring stay in Brooklyn during the mid-1920s:
The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They — or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed — seem'd to ooze, seep and trickle thro' the gaping cracks in the horrible houses ... and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. From that nightmare of perverse infection I could not carry away the memory of any living face. The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating; which left on the eye only the broad, phantasmal lineaments of the morbid soul of disintegration and decay ... a yellow leering mask with sour, sticky, acid ichors oozing at eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and abnormally bubbling from monstrous and unbelievable sores at every point…
The paragraph is worth mentioning in its entirety both for its sheer racist bombast and for how strikingly reminiscent it is of his fiction. Lovecraft, the ornery, peculiar literary godson of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker, is widely considered to be the father of the subgenre "weird fiction." Weird fiction could be placed somewhere between fantasy, horror, and science fiction — a pulpy combination of the three that generally is grounded in the real world. Between 1917 and 1935, he published an almost encyclopedic array of short stories, mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, that grow from general morbid absurdity to dreamtime hyperballads to detailed, collage-like dispatches of our crooked world's disastrous run-ins with the tentacled elder gods of a vast, highly conceptualized alternate universe. The mythos he created persists to this day in the movies, comic books, novels, video games, RPGs, and, most recently, a Thanksgiving struggle plate that went viral.
That Lovecraft was racist beyond even the excessive racism exhibited by other white writers of his time is not in question. The above paragraph is far from an aberration among his over 100,000 pages of letters, and he populates his fictional universe with slithering, swarthy-faced mongoloids and idiot, infanticidal black men (he almost never wrote about women of any race — an erasure that warrants an essay unto itself). As writer Phenderson Djèlí Clark points out in his excellent essay on Lovecraft, "It's always perplexing to watch the gymnastics of mental obfuscation that occur as fans of Lovecraft attempt to rationalize his racism." Responses tend to write off his racism as a product of his times and then be paradoxically surprised that it didn't hinder his success. "In spite of […] his overt racism," biographer Donald Tyson tells us, "he created a mythic world that continues to captivate the imagination of millions of readers." The phrase "in spite of" comes up a lot, as well as allusions to a vaguely presumed-to-be anti-racist, first-person plural that is of course appalled by such bigotry.
"Paradoxically," writes French critic Michel Houellebecq in one of the more head-on takes on the H.P. Lovecraft racism issue, "the character of Lovecraft fascinates us partly because his system of values is entirely opposed to ours. Fundamentally racist, openly reactionary, he glorifies puritan inhibition." It is the presumptive we that bothers me most here. This was written in 1991, the year of Rodney King, when black income in the U.S. was 57% of white income and race riots exploded in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as well as the Parisian suburb Val-Fourré. Ten years later, Houellebecq himself will be brought up on charges of inciting racial hatred by the French Human Rights League and a variety of mosques for his novel Plateforme; what magical post-racial we are we dealing with?
Here we have the one hand correctly contextualizing Lovecraft within a society that was founded on and thrives on racism, while the other hand is shocked that such an overt racist could endure in the collective imagination. The subtext here is, "anyway, moving on to brighter topics." Meanwhile, the only modern myths that have captivated the imagination of millions of white readers have been crouched in white supremacy. The "in spite of" phrase is a myopic, ahistorical fallacy. The Cthulhu Mythos endures not in spite of Lovecraft's racism but because of it.
Lovecraft wrote weird racist fiction in a racist time, and he did it extremely well. Of course it took hold. As a country, a planet even, we've still never truly reckoned with this past. But in the glossy white-empowered rewrite of modern times, racism becomes something that happened and then ended except for a few irritating little incidents in flyover states and the occasional massacre.
No Sleep Since Brooklyn
Writing pulled Lovecraft from the agoraphobic mire of a nervous breakdown. He hadn't written much until that point, a few short stories, though he always showed signs of an active imagination. In the early 1910s he became involved with some amateur writers associations, eventually putting pen to paper — he abhorred the typewriter — to contribute his own stories and then rising to prominence among his peers. His first submission letter to Weird Tales could be used as a tip sheet on what not to do when approaching editors: He's self-deprecating, and not humorously so; he's demanding, he's fussy, and everything is handwritten. When he got rejections he would immediately shelf the story and never send it out again. He felt that getting paid was beneath him, even as he slid into abject poverty toward the end of his life. He never wrote about sex or money in a corner of the industry where the magazine covers were splattered with naked women and hidden treasures. In spite of all this (yes, in this case, in spite of), Lovecraft got himself published regularly in the pages of Weird Tales and several other major pulp magazines.
These early and mid-career stories, "The Music of Erich Zann" and "Herbert West – Reanimator" for example, already show a masterful commitment to the sinister crossroads of imagination and the modern world, a quirkiness beyond the average pulp writer. But the experience of living in Brooklyn was a painful turning point. Lovecraft came to New York in 1922 with a swoon of "aesthetic exaltation" at the "innumerable lights of the skyscrapers, the mirrored reflections and the lights of the boats bobbing on the water, at the extreme left the sparkling statue of Liberty, and on the right the scintillating arch of the Brooklyn bridge." His seemingly loveless marriage disintegrated and his attempts to find a job failed at every turn. Lovecraft ended up alone and miserable in a boarding house on Clinton Street, not far from Red Hook, surrounded by the very immigrants he already harbored deep prejudices against.
Brooklyn is where Lovecraft's literature of disgust becomes rooted in something much closer to the human heart: fear. Aristotle says the two main emotions of drama are fear and empathy. In his seminal essay, "Notes on Weird Fiction," Lovecraft simplifies it to one:
Fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear.
His stories had always been creepy, but in Brooklyn all the writer's inner neuroses take human shape, outnumber him, interact with him on a daily basis and occasionally, steal his shit. Having lived fear, this intense, creeping claustrophobia and slow-gathering terror take new life in the later works. Lovecraft's melodramatic few years in Brooklyn are equivalent to Dante's first sighting of Beatrice: The writer has a vision; the vision is transformative, it does something to him on the inside. The writer will never be the same.
Lovecraft wrote "The Horror at Red Hook" in a fevered all-nighter after having his favorite overcoat lifted from his room. It's almost universally disliked; Lovecraft said it was "rather long and rambling. And I don't think it is very good," and critics don't include it in the final phase of his "major works," but here we have the seeds of the Cthulhu Mythos, even if the old gods themselves are not mentioned by name. I actually found this one of his more compelling works; the sinister plot unravels in a noir-like, slow-building frenzy. A burned-out Brooklyn detective with a "Celt's far vision of weird and hidden things, but the logician's quick eye for the outwardly unconvincing," looks into the suspicious doings of an eccentric millionaire and discovers an underground network of immigrants worshiping the goddess Lilith. There are nods to Stoker and the gumshoe masters and it all climaxes with a horrific mass slaughter of women and children in a Red Hook basement, which burns down, sparing only the deeply traumatized Detective Malone. It is appallingly racist, the "swarthy" immigrant cult members are preparing a massive child sacrifice to their devilish god, and the precursor to supernatural sleuths like Harry Blackstone and Dirk Gently.
But if we really want to get a sense of Lovecraft's complex relationship to New York, we have to look at "He" (1925). (I don't normally like to make assumptions about what an author's work says about their personal opinions, but Lovecraft himself said: "If you want to know what I think of New York, read 'He.'") A dull, intimidated poet wanders the midnight streets of the West Village, tantalized and inspired by its crumbling, cyclopean architecture. (And why… why why why does this word recur in damn near every Lovecraft story? What image are we to take from this? Buildings with a single window at the top? Buildings built by one-eyed giants? It means nothing to me visually, yet it's clearly one of Lovecraft's favorite adjectives.) He meets a stranger dressed in nondescript clothes that later turn out to be from another century. He follows the stranger through the (cyclopean) streets and into some quirky inner garden area, up some stairs to a creepy little room. Why does he follow the stranger? We never really know, but this unnamed, almost suicidally passive poet will find much like-minded company in the cadre of mild-mannered, ill-fated intellectual Lovecraft semi-heroes to come.
What follows is a peculiar scene so full of tension it is almost erotic. The stranger does a little magic and transforms the stunning cityscape out the window into New York of the distant past, then rattles off an alarming monologue about poisoning an entire tribe of Native Americans (he may have escaped from a Faulkner plotline), all the while getting closer and closer to our freaked-out narrator, finally grabbing his hand as he works himself up into a frenzy. Meanwhile, some unfathomable clamor makes its way up the stairs toward them and begins knock knock a-knocking, Raven-style, and then demands entrance. At the climax of the stranger's story, the unfathomable clamor reveals itself to be the very deceased tribe he'd spoken of. Since no one opens the door for them, they tomahawk their way into the room. "I did not move, for I could not; but watched dazedly as the door fell in pieces to admit a colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance starred with shining, malevolent eyes." They collect the stranger, who has himself depleted into an amorphous cloud, and continue on their way, theoretically exercising their vengeance on more otherwordly colonials.
There is so much wrong with this story, narratively speaking: It's basically a weird idea, vaguely dramatized. There is no real conflict, just a gathering tension that only kind of resolves into not much meaning. The protagonist is useless to us, a nervous witness to an event entirely unrelated to him, and when it's over not much has changed; he tears out into the night and is found the next day, bedraggled but otherwise unharmed. His only actions are to follow, watch, and then run.
Still, there is something here that gets to the heart of why Lovecraft resonates. Supernatural fiction, at its best, puts us in conversation with the tension-fraught relationship between history and the present. Ghosts are the personification of the idea that the past didn't go anywhere, we live with it on a daily basis. Lovecraft deploys his supernatural beings across the streets of New York, where they continue to play out the genocidal wars that our country was built on.
Has Lovecraft written himself in here as the uneasy witness to a terrible history, the passive poet and newcomer to the big city? Perhaps. But he also cultivated the appearance of one from another time: He fabricated a British accent reminiscent of his colonial ancestors and wore old-fashioned clothes. He certainly leads us, the readers, through darkened streets and demands we bear witness to supernaturally transforming cityscapes while diatribing maniacally about deep down xenophobic tragedies. So let's say he's both: awkward witness and phantom tour guide. Either way, he places himself at the embattled crossroads of history. And what is New York if not that very crossroads, alive and teeming with victories and tragedies with each new day? The city is always a crossroads — of the future and past, a mash-up of class, race, and gender dynamics all bumping mercilessly against each other, falling in love and committing mass murder — and so few urban fantasies today grasp that in any way beyond background noise. But here, in all its abhorrent messiness, is history and race, front and center.
The Writer As Elegant Demonic Archivist
"One can never produce anything as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about," Lovecraft wrote to fellow science-fiction writer James Blish. And indeed, most of what he offers up are tantalizing clues, that creeping sense of horror. In one of his final stories, "The Whisperer In Darkness" (1930), a professor from Lovecraft's invented New England school Miskatonic University is lured to the Vermont cabin of a crazed conspiracy theorist. During an all-night conversation with what turns out to be the decomposing body of his host, animated by alien beings, the professor learns presumably the entire mystery of this other realm, a thing we the readers never get a chance to fully know. In typical Lovecraft fashion, the knowledge nearly drives our protagonist mad: "Never was a sane man more dangerously close to the arcane of basic entity – never was an organic brain nearer to utter annihilation in the chaos that transcends form and force and symmetry."
Other stories such as "Pickman's Model" (1926), "The History of the Necronomicon" (1927), and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927) offer up the evidence we might find in the archaic archives of an unsolved crime: journal entries from unfortunate souls who fell afoul of the transdimensional monsters and their devotees, police reports, witness statements. Here is exhibit B, a most unusual and otherwordly item of jewelry on display at the Miskatonic University museum. Here in their locked-away collection you'll find the feared Necronomicon, written by the "mad Arab" Abu Aziz, a name that Lovecraft took on during his elementary school fascination with Middle Eastern lore. Here's the testimony of a heartbroken father whose son was possessed by an ancient worshipper of the demonic Yog Soggoth and then disintegrated.
There is something of Stoker in this collage of firsthand documents and local lore told with thick, regional accents. But Lovecraft and his denizens were never as lusty or glamorous as the count. The elder gods simply want to wipe the Earth clean so they can restart their own tentacled civilization, and the protagonists give nary a damn about love or money; their forward fire is lit by the deep desire for knowledge. Something is very, very amiss in the world and these mild-mannered college professorly types will stop at nothing to find out what.
But it's not from some heightened sense of justice or the need to save the world that compels them so much as a haunting, inexplicable desperation. They are afraid, and remain so throughout entire stories, right up until they meet their grisly end or, occasionally, outwit the demon gods and their worshippers and make it away only bruised and distraught. Lovecraft offers up no heroes, although we get several noble bands of vigilantes risking it all to lay waste to the odd gigantic invisible menace. Rather, we have the passively curious observer, usually doomed. Lovecraft's philosophy has been (hilariously) described as cosmic indifference, in part because he doesn't seem invested in the survival or nobility of his characters, but rather serves them over to get chomped up in ignoble, useless deaths.
Even when told without the use of firsthand accounts, Lovecraft's prose can take on a cautious, reportorial quality. This is the crouch. You get the sense he's only exercising such restraint to earn the inevitable rhetorical and conceptual explosions later on.
When he pounces, there is a palpable release of tension. Lovecraft is an overwriter, and when he gets excited the adjectives do tend to pile on. And what is exciting in the twisted world of elder gods and comely intellectuals? Usually, architecture. Cities and quaint New England townships shine in brilliant effervescence in the waning sun, horrific towers glare down on twisted inner sanctums of terror as unseemly denizens shuffle and ooze beneath. Even in his personal writings, biographer Donald Tyson points out, the height of Lovecraft's breathless prose is reserved not for his wife but the first time he glimpses the snow-covered roofs of Marblehead, Mass., a moment which he describes as "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence."
Amid this world of cyclopean towers and quiet, sunlit steeples, Lovecraft deploys his self-destructively curious professors, poets, and anthropologists. They brave horrific, gut-wrenching situations, keep coming back for more, but the greatest terror, the final Lovecraftian reveal is often one that turns inward, reaching back to the depths of family genealogy.
"In climbing towards the goal of making robots appear human," Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori wrote in 1970, "our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley."
The uncanny valley is that slim in-between stage, where characters look very real indeed but not quite real enough. The resulting weirdness has an unsettling effect on the audience — we don't know how to process these mutant neither here nor there monsters. As Mori states, "One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny." Animators soon learned the hard way that movies whose characters fell within the Valley (notably, The Polar Express) inevitably tank.
Lovecraft pitches a tent in the Uncanny Valley and releases more than a few of his unfortunate inbetweeners from there. Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family chronicles several generations of explorers: "The Jermyns never seemed to look quite — something was amiss." Indeed. After a sprawling enumeration of the various Jermyns, which keeps us intrigued only by virtue of occasional freakish details — Grandpa Jermyn killed an explorer who told him about a mysterious African city ruled by white apes, then killed two of his own children; the surviving son Alfred Jermyn became a circus trainer, had an unusually close relationship with a white haired ape, attacked it and was killed — we find Arthur Jermyn, who quickly sets himself on fire after receiving a mysterious package that turns out to be a mummified white ape that turns out to by his grandmother!
The Shadow Over Innsmouth begins as a travel log. It's restrained, matter of fact, almost bland but again stays afloat by way of masterful deployment of eerie details. As is typical of Lovecraft, we know from the opening lines that something horrible happens later: There's a government raid, folks barely make it out alive, chaos will come, he promises: "Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified raiders at Innsmouth." So we read on: Robert Olmstead, our mild-mannered narrator is fascinated by archeology and ends up in Innsmouth, this creepy little town that not even the residents of nearby Arkham, also a creepy little town, will venture to. The Innsmouth folks have a strange, fishlike quality to them: "Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald too, very young." By accosting the town drunk — the exceptionally named Zadok Allen — our narrator gets a lecture on the whispered ancient origins of these Uncanny Valley dwellers. It's all pretty standard horror story fare: Things get worse and worse and the possibility of escape bleaker and bleaker until all out chaos erupts and our hero is dashing through the midnight Innsmouth streets, enacting the curious hobble-walk of its fishlike inhabitants until he can make it out of town just as the FBI swoops in to tear the place up.
But the story doesn't end there. Lovecraft's value system for horror isn't satisfied by a mere chase and escape motif when there are deeper levels of disgust for which to reach. Having escaped Innsmouth, Olmstead's fascination, like Jermyn's and, in fact, Lovecraft's, turns to his own family history, which he eventually traces back to the very aquatic monsters he'd barely gotten away from. He doesn't just come to accept this fact; Olmstead embraces it. "I shall plan my cousin's escape from that Canton madhouse," he plots as the story draws to a close, "and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through the black abysses to Cyclopean and many columned Y'ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever."
Both of Lovecraft's parents died in an asylum and it's easy to imagine a line between this horror of genealogy and his fear of inheriting their mental illnesses. His characters, confronted with the slow-building horrors of supernatural mayhem, routinely call into question their own sanity as dream world and real world intermingle deliriously. Fortunately, the narratives themselves rarely leave ambiguous what really happened, even if the characters themselves get lost in their own inconceivable situations. The monsters are real; another world is not only possible, it's alive and tentacled, breathing menacingly in our neighbor's basement.
But Lovecraft's rabid xenophobia also seethes through this narrative of mutant family trees. As Robert Price points out, "what Lovecraft found revolting in the idea of interracial marriage [is] the subtextual hook of different ethnic races mating and 'polluting' the gene pool." The brainy, awkward Olmstead, besieged by half-breeds in this dilapidated Northeastern city by the sea is of course Lovecraft himself, surrounded by "swarthy" Syrians in that hated boarding house near Red Hook. The horror master knows that the self is the one thing we can never escape, we carry the victories and fuckups of our ancestors everywhere we go, like it or not, and once again history comes crashing into the present tense: The ultimate in fear is that which you fear being inside you, a part of you. It is inescapable so one can either embrace it and lead a secret aquatic life or set one's self on fire.
Lovecraft wrote in a time when Pace v. Alabama still allowed states to punish interracial marriage with two to seven years of hard labor. He was all for it: "There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end." Attempts to federalize the illegality of miscegenation looked like this:
That intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited; and the term 'negro or person of color,' as here employed, shall be held to mean any and all persons of African descent or having any trace of African or negro blood.
And in 1922, the Cable Act passed, retroactively stripping citizenship from anyone marrying an "alien ineligible of citizenship." The United States didn't fully legalize inter-racial marriage until 1967.
Lovecraft's inward-looking horror endures, stands out, persists, because it reflects white America's own tortured conversation with itself. Here, coded in legalese and legitimized by the mechanisms of the state, we have the same rippling fear of lineage that sends Arthur Jermyn into his self-immolating frenzy and Olmstead into an underground life of crime. In the opening years of the 20th century, white America was looking back at its own twisted history; The Birth of a Nation (1915) places the Klan as the heroic saviors of the South, protecting its maidenly virtue from lusty mulattos. Enter Lovecraft with his literature of the genealogical terror. Of course it endures.
Allow me to further contextualize: In the second decade of the 21st century, a hundred years after Lovecraft wrote his first short story, "The Tomb," in the age of Trayvon, Rinisha and Marissa, the troubled world of science fiction and fantasy is only beginning to come to terms with people of color being among its ranks. Sci-fi conventions and online forums continue to be in the thrall and fallout of one racist/sexist incident or another. Major publishing houses still whitewash characters of color on the covers; racial coding still rules the day and mainstream slavery narratives in fantasy literature still revolve around the mythical white savior. This is the legacy we're left with by not fully confronting the racism of our own literary lineage.
The World Fantasy Award, one of the industry's most prestigious honors, is a statue of Lovecraft, and one of the most honest and challenging angles on this is the dialogue between fantasy authors Nnedi Okorafor and China Miéville over their discomfort at receiving it. "I put it out of sight," Miéville writes of the bust, "in my study, where only I can see it, and I have turned it to face the wall. So I am punishing the little fucker like the malevolent clown he was, I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft's back."
Indeed. As writers, consumers of weird literature, creatures of imagination and insight, lovers of justice, can we face Lovecraft head-on, taking in his atrocious bigotry, and still find value in his work? We don't have a choice. The mythos endures, its legacy reaches into the heart of modern speculative fiction; the world we live in is complicated and imperfect, beset by tragedy and weighed down with lies powerful people have told us about ourselves. So we call it what it is, unflinchingly and not for the sole purpose of moving on but to sit with the painful resonance of this truth and proceed humbly, cautiously, with sharpened knives.
Daniel José Older is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and composer. Salsa Nocturna, Daniel's ghost noir collection, was hailed as "striking and original" by Publishers Weekly. He's co-editing the forthcoming anthology, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and his urban fantasy novel The Half Resurrection Blues, the first of a trilogy, will be released by Penguin's Roc imprint in January 2015. Daniel's essays and short stories have appeared in The New Haven Review, Salon, Tor, PANK, Strange Horizons, and Apex. His music, ponderings, and ambulance adventures live at ghoststar.net and @djolder.