I am providence the life.., p.87

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 87


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  The plot of “The Horror at Red Hook” is simple, and is presented as an elementary good-vs.-evil conflict between Thomas Malone, an Irish police detective working out of the Borough Hall station, and Robert Suydam, a wealthy man of ancient Dutch ancestry who becomes the focus of horror in the tale. Suydam first attracts notice by “loitering on the benches around Borough Hall in conversation with groups of swarthy, evil-looking strangers.” Later he realises that his clandestine activities must be masked by a façade of propriety; so he cleans up his act, foils the attempts of relatives to deem him legally incompetent by ceasing to be seen with those evil foreigners, and as a final coup marries Cornelia Gerritsen, “a young woman of excellent position” whose wedding attracts “a solid page from the Social Register.” In all this there is a rather tart satire (entirely unintended by Lovecraft) on the meaninglessness of class distinctions. The wedding party following the ceremony, held aboard a steamer at the Cunard Pier, ends in horror as the couple are found horribly murdered and completely bloodless. Incredibly, officials follow the instructions written on a sheet of paper, signed by Suydam, and insouciantly hand his body over to a suspicious group of men headed by “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.”

  From here the story takes a still more pulpish turn, and we are taken into the basement of a dilapidated church that has been turned into a dance-hall, where horrible rites to Lilith are being practised by loathsome monstrosities. The corpse of Suydam, miraculously revivified, resists being sacrificed to Lilith but instead somehow manages to overturn the pedestal on which she rests (with the result that the corpse sends “its noisome bulk floundering to the floor in a state of jellyish dissolution”), thereby somehow ending the horror. All this time detective Malone merely watches from a convenient vantage-point, although the sight so traumatises him that he is forced to spend many months recuperating in a small village in Rhode Island.

  What strikes us about this tale, aside from the hackneyed supernatural manifestations, is the sheer poorness of its writing. The perfervid rhetoric that in other tales provides such harmless enjoyment here comes off sounding forced and bombastic: “Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding. Satan here held his Babylonish court, and in the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” How the atheist Lovecraft could provide a satisfactory explanation for “cosmic sin” and the presence of Satan would be an interesting question; and the burden of this passage, as of the story as a whole, is the dread of being overwhelmed and “mongrelised” by those foreigners who by some miracle are increasingly ousting all the sturdy Anglo-Saxons who founded this great white nation of ours. Lovecraft cannot help ending the story on a note of dour ponderousness (“The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant”) and with a transparent indication that the horrors that were seemingly suppressed by the police raid will recur at some later date: the final scene shows Malone overhearing a “swarthy squinting hag” indoctrinating a small child in the same incantation he heard earlier in the tale. It is a fittingly stereotyped ending for a story that does nothing but deal in stereotypes—both of race and of weird fictional imagery.

  The unoriginality and derivativeness of this story are encapsulated by the fact that much of the magical mumbo-jumbo was copied wholesale from the articles on “Magic” and “Demonology” (both by E. B. Tylor, celebrated author of the landmark anthropological work, Primitive Culture [1871]) from the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which Lovecraft owned. He made no secret of this borrowing in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, remarking: “I’d like to draw on less obvious sources if I knew of the right reservoirs to tap.”[59] This comment is itself of interest, for it singlehandedly confounds the absurd claims of various occultists who have seen in Lovecraft a figure of great esoteric erudition. Many of his occultist allusions in later tales derive from Lewis Spence’s handy Encyclopaedia of Occultism (1920), which he owned.

  The borrowings from the Encyclopaedia Britannica in “The Horror at Red Hook” involve the Latin quotation from the mediaeval writer Antoine Delrio (or Del Rio), An sint unquam daemones incubi et succubae, et an ex tali congressu proles nasci queat? (“Have there ever been demons, incubi, and succubi, and from such a union can offspring be born?”), from the entry on “Demonology”; this citation evidently lent support to Lovecraft’s otherwise peculiar usage of succubus/i as succuba/ae (even though, of course, a succubus is a female demon, parallel to an incubus). From the entry on “Magic” Lovecraft derived both the invocation uttered at the beginning and end of the story (“O friend and companion of night . . .”) and the strange Graeco-Hebraic incantation which Malone finds on the wall of the dance-hall church. In a later letter he attempted to supply a translation of the formula, committing embarrassing errors in the process (the encyclopaedia entry provided no translation); for example, he rendered the celebrated Greek religious term homousion (“of the same substance”—referring usually to the belief that Christ is of the same substance as God) as “probably a decadent variant or compound involving the Greek Homou—together.”[60]

  The figure of Malone is of some interest, at least autobiographically. This is not to say that Malone’s character is based upon Lovecraft’s; instead, it is possible that some (perhaps superficial) details of his character are drawn from Lovecraft’s reigning literary mentors, Machen and Dunsany. The mere fact that Malone is Irish may link him to Dunsany; but it is also stated that he was “born in a Georgian villa near Phoenix Park,” just as Dunsany was born, not in Ireland, but at 15 Park Square near Regent’s Park in London. Malone’s mysticism, conversely, seems a tip of the hat to Machen. Perhaps Lovecraft imagined that he was investing New York with the same sort of unholy witchery that Machen had done with London in The Three Impostors and other works.

  Malone is interesting for another reason having to do with the possible genesis—or, at any rate, the particular form—of the story. Sometime before writing “The Horror at Red Hook” Lovecraft had submitted “The Shunned House” to Detective Tales, the magazine that had been founded together with Weird Tales and of which Edwin Baird was the editor. Perhaps Lovecraft felt that Elihu Whipple was enough of a detective figure that this tale might qualify for publication. And in spite of the fact that Detective Tales occasionally did print tales of horror and the supernatural, Baird rejected the story.[61] By late July Lovecraft was speaking of writing a “novel or novelette of Salem horrors which I may be able to cast in a sufficiently ‘detectivish’ mould to sell to Edwin Baird for Detective Tales,”[62] but he does not appear to have begun such a work. What this all suggests, however, is that Lovecraft was attempting to develop, however impractically, an alternative market to Weird Tales—and is calling upon the man who, as editor of Weird Tales, accepted all his stories to aid him in the attempt. Sure enough, in early August Lovecraft was speaking of sending “The Horror at Red Hook” to Detective Tales; [63] whether he actually did so is unclear, but if he did, the tale was obviously rejected. Lovecraft would later remark that the story was consciously written with Weird Tales in mind,[64] and sure enough it appeared in the January 1927 issue. But the figure of Malone—a much more orthodox detective than any character in previous tales of Lovecraft’s, or for that matter in any later ones—may perhaps have been fashioned at least in part with an eye toward Detective Tales.

  Otherwise “The Horror at Red Hook” is of interest only for some piquant local colour derived from Lovecraft’s growing familiarity with Brooklyn. The dance-hall church is very likely modelled on an actual church (now destroyed) near the waterfront in Red Hook. This church was, evidently, itself actually once used as a dance hall.[65] Suydam’s residence is said to be in Martense Street (very close to 259 Parkside) and near the Dutch Reformed Church (on which “The Hound” was based) with its “iron-railed yard of Netherlandish gravestones”; probably no specific house is i
ntended, and I cannot find one on Martense Street that might correspond to it. Another reference, not relating to topography, is to the fact that some of the evil denizens of Red Hook are of a Mongoloid stock originating in Kurdistan—“and Malone could not help recalling that Kurdistan is the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.” This, I believe, is a borrowing from E. Hoffmann Price’s fine tale “The Stranger from Kurdistan,” published in Weird Tales for July 1925, where mention is made of the devil-worshipping Yezidis. Lovecraft would, however, not become personally acquainted with Price for another seven years.

  “The Horror at Red Hook” presents as good an opportunity as any for discussing the development (if it can be called that) of Lovecraft’s racial attitudes during this period. There is no question that his racism flared to greater heights at this time—at least on paper (as embodied in letters to his aunts)—than at any subsequent period in his life. I have already remarked that the seeming paradox of Lovecraft’s marrying a Jewess when he exhibited marked anti-Semitic traits is no paradox at all, for Sonia in his mind fulfilled his requirement that aliens assimilate themselves into the American population, as did other Jews such as Samuel Loveman. Nevertheless, Sonia speaks at length about Lovecraft’s attitudes on this subject. One of her most celebrated comments is as follows: “Although he once said he loved New York and that henceforth it would be his ‘adopted state’, I soon learned that he hated it and all its ‘alien hordes’. When I protested that I too was one of them, he’d tell me I ‘no longer belonged to these mongrels’. ‘You are now Mrs. H. P. Lovecraft of 598 Angell St., Providence, Rhode Island!’” [66] Let it pass that Lovecraft and Sonia never resided at 598 Angell Street. A later remark is still more telling: “Soon after we were married he told me that whenever we have company he would appreciate it if there were ‘Aryans’ in the majority.”[67] This must refer to the year 1924, as they would not have done much entertaining in 1925. Sonia’s final remark on the matter is more damning yet. Sonia claims that part of her desire to have Lovecraft and Loveman meet in 1922 was to “cure” Lovecraft of his bias against Jews by actually meeting one face to face. She continues:

  Unfortunately, one often judges a whole people by the character of the first ones he meets. But H. P. assured me that he was quite “cured”; that since I was so well assimilated into the American way of life and the American scene he felt sure our marriage would be a success. But unfortunately (and here I must speak of something I never intended to have publicly known), whenever he would meet crowds of people—in the subway, or, at the noon hour, on the sidewalks in Broadway, or crowds, wherever he happened to find them, and these were usually the workers of minority races—he would become livid with anger and rage.[68]

  In a letter to Winfield Townley Scott, Sonia elaborates upon this comment:

  I reiterate once more, again on my solemn oath, that he became livid with rage at the foreign elements he would see in large number, especially at noon-time, in the streets of New York City, and I would try to calm his outbursts by saying: “You don’t have to love them; but hating them so outrageously can’t do any good.” It was then that he said: “It is more important to know what to hate than it is to know what to love.”[69]

  Again, there is nothing here that need surprise us; but Lovecraft’s attitude is nonetheless dismaying to present-day sensibilities. And yet, in spite of what his previous biographer, L. Sprague de Camp, has suggested, comments on aliens are relatively rare in the correspondence to his aunts during this period. One notorious passage deals with a trip Sonia and Lovecraft took to Pelham Bay Park, an enormous park in the far northeast corner of the Bronx, on the fourth of July: “. . . we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegana, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers!”[70] It is interesting to note that both Sonia and Lovecraft decided to make a hasty retreat—perhaps Sonia herself was not, at this time at least, as free from all racial prejudice as she seems to suggest in her memoir. A long letter in early January goes on at length about the fundamental inassimilability of Jews in American life, maintaining that “vast harm is done by those idealists who encourage belief in a coalescence which never can be.” When he went on to note that “On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types”[71] (the “our” is an interesting rhetorical ploy), he unwittingly reached the heart of the issue, at least as far as he himself was concerned: in spite of all Lovecraft’s talk about cultural inassimilability, what he really found offensive about foreigners (or, more broadly, non-“Aryans,” since many of the ethnics in New York were already first- or second-generation immigrants) is the fact that they looked funny to him.

  But some words must be said in Lovecraft’s defence at this juncture. Although I do not wish to treat his racism until a slightly later stage (for it is only in the early 1930s that he attempted a more broad-based philosophical and cultural justification of his brand of racism), it can be said here that this long letter about Jews is singular even in the correspondence to Lillian; nothing like it comes up again. In fact Lillian at some later date must have herself had some reservations on the subject, perhaps worrying that Lovecraft would take some sort of verbal or physical action against Jews or other non-Nordics; for in late March Lovecraft wrote: “Incidentally—don’t fancy that my nervous reaction against alien N.Y. types takes the form of conversation likely to offend any individual. One knows when & where to discuss questions with a social or ethnic cast, & our group is not noted for faux pas’s or inconsiderate repetitions of opinion.”[72]

  It is on this latter point that Lovecraft’s supporters base one of their own defences. Frank Long declares: “During all those talks on long walks through the streets of New York and Providence, I never once heard him utter a derogatory remark about any member of a minority group who passed him on the street or had occasion to engage him in conversation, whose cultural or racial antecedents differed from his own.”[73] If this is a contradiction with what Sonia had said, it may simply be that Lovecraft did not feel it politic to say such things even in the presence of Long, in spite of the fact that Lovecraft in his early January letter to Lillian remarked:

  The only company for a regular conservative American is that formed by regular conservative Americans—well-born, & comfortably nurtured in the old tradition. That’s why Belknap is about the only one of the gang who doesn’t irritate me at times. He is regular—he connects up with innate memories & Providence experiences to such an extent as to seem a real person instead of a two-dimensional shadow in a dream, as more Bohemian personalities do.[74]

  I am not sure Long would have welcomed this presumed compliment. In any event, it seems clear to me that Lovecraft may have at least considered taking more forceful action against foreigners than merely fulminating against them in letters, as a startling remark made six years later attests: “The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight.”[75] Nevertheless, this supposed absence of demonstrative behaviour—verbal or physical—on Lovecraft’s part in connexion with non-Aryans is at the heart of a defence that Dirk W. Mosig made in a letter to Long, quoted by Long in his memoir. Mosig adduces three mitigating circumstances: 1) “. . . the word ‘racist’ carries today connotations quite different from the meaning the term had in the first third of the century”; 2) “Lovecraft, like anyone else, deserves to be judged by his behavior, rather than by private statements made with no intention to injure another”; 3) “HPL presented different poses or ‘personas’ to his various correspondents . . . It is likely that he . . . appeared to his aunts as they wished him to be,
that some of his ‘racist’ statements were made, not out of deep conviction, but out of a desire to be congenial with the views held by others.”[76]

  I fear that none of these defences amount to much. Of course racism took on different, and more sinister, connotations after World War II, but I shall argue later that Lovecraft was simply behind the times intellectually in adhering to such views as the biological inferiority of blacks, the radical cultural inassimilability of different ethnic groups, and the racial and cultural coherence of various races, nationalities, or cultural entities. The gauge for Lovecraft’s beliefs is not the commonality of people of his time (who were, as are a good many today, frankly and openly racist) but the advanced intelligentsia, for most of whom the issue of race was simply of no consequence. And as for behaviour counting more than private statements, this is a truism; but Lovecraft cannot be acquitted of racism merely because he happened not to insult a Jew to his face or beat a black man with a baseball bat. The “private statements” conception carries over into Mosig’s third point, which is that perhaps he was saying in his letters to his aunts only what they wished to hear; but this too can be seen to be quite false by anyone who reads the existing correspondence systematically. The long tirade about Jews in January 1926 was clearly not a response to anything Lillian had said, but was triggered almost incidentally by some clipping she had sent regarding the racial origin of Jesus. It is quite likely that both Lillian and Annie, old-time Yankees that they were, were sympathetic to Lovecraft’s remarks and generally in tune with his beliefs on the subject; but Lillian’s own reservations, as reflected in Lovecraft’s response of late March, suggests that she did not feel nearly as vehemently on the issue as he did.

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