Race and Decay (V)

And while these settlers disintegrate…they hear the sounds of a feast…in the night.

There were insane shouts and harrowing screams, soul-chilling chants and dancing devil-flames; and, the frightened messenger added, the people could stand it no more.

Evil is lurking in the Louisiana swamps, and the reactions would go down in the protocol like this:

1) Squatters – white – inside the swamp-decay

[“mostly primitive but good-natured descendants of Lafitte’s men“]

Fear & Inertia & Helplessness

2) New Orleans Police Department – white – outside the swamp-decay

[“Duty came first“]

Recklessness & Gunslinging & Prerogative of State-Power

The two collide just for a tiny moment – the trembling squatters retreat into their timeless twilight, and then the police force moves in…to clear things…the violent way. And the story is not reluctant at all to demarcate territorial claims along ethnic lines –

The region now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men.

Following the narrative, you can almost witness decay creep in & physical integrity creep out with every inch the police force is crawling closer to the abysmal center of the swamp –

There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight. They said it had been there before d’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods. It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die. But it made men dream, and so they knew enough to keep away. The present voodoo orgy was, indeed, on the merest fringe of this abhorred area, but that location was bad enough; hence perhaps the very place of the worship had terrified the squatters more than the shocking sounds and incidents. (emphasis mine)

That is – deliberately – imprecise (if the swamp was, indeed, the scene for a series of mere voodoo rituals or orgies, the squatters wouldn’t be mortally afraid), and as long as the site of horror is still a little off, Lovecraft can’t even grab it and call it unnamably horrific.

And no, there won’t be a Kurtz waiting in the backwardish backwaters of the swamp to mediate our conception of the wild: when there is a threat of assimilation with the racial other, it is countered by the most systematical brute force available.

What follows is one of the most insightful, and thereby: disgusting, expositions of race in Lovecraft’s fiction –

In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.

Yeah. You can often count on that in Lovecraft stories – that peculiar nausea you get out of the bad kick that results when you observe the shifts and movements of a carefully constructed plot, maybe even draw aesthetic pleasure out of it, only then to have passages like the above jump at you and gnaw the nerves off your face.

Their crime is their hybridity – and it is not human hybridity that is castigated here. Their ethnicity – non-white – has been implied throughout the story. But that is not their “crime” – their crime is to commit themselves to a hybridization with the alien other, which they are celebrating in a frenzy.

There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other. Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstacies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell. Now and then the less organized ululation would cease, and from what seemed a well-drilled chorus of hoarse voices would rise in sing-song chant that hideous phrase or ritual: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” – In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” – until someone comes to wake him up. And that someone is just dancing around in a bloodtrenched circle to complete the invokation of great and mighty Cthulhu. In the logic of the dominant ethnicity, here represented by the police force’s tag team, they lose by that committment what humanness they may have left, not just: animals, but aliens (and note that they master the jerky alien tongue), and with that – their claim on life. Now nothing will stand in the way of vengeful fury.

Actually, the horrified pause of the men was of comparatively brief duration. Duty came first; and although there must have been nearly a hundred mongrel celebrants in the throng, the police relied on their firearms and plunged determinedly into the nauseous rout. For five minutes the resultant din and chaos were beyond description. Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made; but in the end Legrasse was able to count some forty-seven sullen prisoners, whom he forced to dress in haste and fall into line between two rows of policemen. Five of the worshippers lay dead, and two severely wounded ones were carried away on improvised stretchers by their fellow-prisoners.

Killing unarmed men because they are dancing nude in a circle…sounds like outrageous police brutality. Well, of course, they also have plenty of bloody bodies stacked in their circle to implicate their brutal ritual crime. The police, as the text says, “plunged determinedly” – oh, do they ever.


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