Sometimes, it’s not easy being a fan of HP Lovecraft.
I love the Lovecraft aesthetic. The horrid tentacled beasts, the amphibian terrors, the shapeless mass of the worker-shoggoths. The cosmic, atheist terror underlying it all, the horror of the idea that mankind is an insignificant speck on the ass-end of existence, all our great works amounting to nothing in the vastness of space-time. Douglas Adams could make jokes about that sort of thing fifty years later, but when you read Lovecraft you’re wrestling with the cold hard truth of the void.
But that’s not the bad part. That’s why I’m a fan. No, what makes loving Lovecraft so hard is… well… passages like this:
Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor… The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art…
From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.
Hoo-boy. So… Basically… Red Hook was a place of happiness when rich white people lived there and built pretty things. But now it’s all immigrants and people of color, who are different and therefore bad.
The above was taken from the Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook,” which I called vile, racist, and indefensible in a recent post. A reader called me out on that, which made me go back and re-read the story to see just what, if anything, caused my intense negative reaction. When the above passage popped up on the second or third page, I knew precisely what had set me off. And that got me thinking about Lovecraft, racism, and why we read what we read.
On a generous day, I’ll excuse much of the racism in Lovecraft’s writing as the ignorance of a time long past. It generally doesn’t define his work. Usually it turns up in descriptions, or as an outdated assumption common in his day (the 1920s and 30s) that society no longer believes in. Lovecraft himself moved past some of these attitudes later in his life, and so usually I treat the racist elements as a learning experience about the author’s life and times. It’s troubling, but it doesn’t render the writing worthless to me.
“The Horror at Red Hook,” however, is another thing entirely. The story’s villain may be a white guy, but it’s the hero who routinely describes the people of Red Hook with the attitude of fear, loathing, and condescension that I find so nauseating. In addition to that lovely little ball of hate above, they’re referred to as mongrels. Their habits and customs are described as primitive, and yes, he even compares some of them to apes.
Now, I think I understand where this is coming from. HP Lovecraft had lived a very sheltered life in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Having grown up a bookish child with an over-protective mother, he married a more cosmopolitan older woman in his 20s and moved to New York to be with her. But the marriage was short-lived, and Lovecraft was soon left alone, with no job and little money, his life disintegrating around him. Under those conditions, the melting pot of the New York slums was overwhelming. He’d scarcely ever encountered anyone who wasn’t an average white American, and now he was living among people who were anything but. It was too much for someone of his nervous sensibility to take in at one time, and he responded with fear, prejudice, and paranoia. I almost feel bad for the guy.
But then I read “The Horror at Red Hook.” The racism is not just an off-hand description here, or an unfortunate element in a story that’s about something else entirely. It’s woven into the fabric of the story itself. Lovecraft was a master of environmental horror, quite capable of imbuing a building or a town with unnameable dread to wind his readers up in preparation for the more supernatural elements lurking beneath the surface. Here he does it with the supposed horrors of black people and foreigners, and it’s too much to forgive.
That said, there’s stuff here to like. Lovecraft’s attempt at a hardboiled protagonist is fun. And the story’s climax features one of the more bizarre and unsettling examples of cult activity in his whole body of work. The “naked, tittering, phosphorescent thing” at the center of the scene is truly horrid, as is the animated corpse. For once, I can understand why the hero might faint. So it’s unfortunate that you have to wade through so much ignorant hate to get there.
I’m not sure I have much of a larger point here. “The Horror at Red Hook” is perhaps the worst of a handful of Lovecraft stories where the fear of the unknown points toward a very real and entirely knowable human culture. Some might argue that Lovecraft’s racism was always at the forefront of his work, wrapped up in symbolic “others” that it’s safer to hate. But it’s a long way from “loathsome fish-men with plans to overtake the human race in the name of their ancient monster-gods” to “black people and immigrants are scary!” The former is good fodder for a horror story. The latter… is vile and indefensible, and only of interest from a historical perspective. No matter how cool that naked phosphorescent thing may be.