Race and Decay (X)

Oh yes.

I began my inquiry into the topic of Race and Decay Lovecraft’s prose with the assertion that decay and also apocalypse depend on the historicality of their agents (Race and Decay I), that is: you have to somehow be on the historical timeline to be apocalyptized. I then went on into a closereading of Through the Gates of the Silver Key to analyze Lovecraft’s use of time (Race and Decay II), went on even further into the story and introduced the dichotomy of kairos (moment) and chronos (timestream) and argued that Lovecraft’s characters don’t have access to the kairos and therefore can’t render themselves historic: they are fleeting by (Race and Decay III). Taking up the dichotomy I made the case that this ahistoricality is very specifically the white man’s problem and a reading of The Call of Cthulhu fed me lines (Race and Decay IV). Looking deeper into race I used Race and Decay V and held that the racial and ethnic others are closely linked in one advantage they have over the white narrators and characters, their access on historical time. Adding some more layers, I went to contrast the Cotton Mather’s concept of public evil (Race and Decay VI) with Lovecraft’s concept of evil as subjective and genetically hereditary (Race and Decay VII). I then brought in Thomas Hobbes, developed the idea that, basically, Lovecraft’s white characters and narrators are anti-social in that they cannot participate in a state or any community, at all (Race and Decay VIII): they’re fighting on their own against a racially charged evil for which, they think, no absolution is possible exactly because it’s transmitted genetically-biologically.

And yesterday I was playing around a little, adding some Innsmouth links to procrastinate a little, just for the sake of it. No more. The Shadow over Innsmouth, it is, and no mistakes.


The story invites interpretation. It is rich, it is well-plotted, hell, it even builds suspense, which is not a very common thing in Lovecraft. My reading of it will argue along the lines I laid out in my previous chapters, see above, to argue for a concept of supremacist apocalypse.

It begins innocently enough. The narrator, who will become our confidant, guide and killer, hits on one of these places that aren’t on the map, and in Lovecraft being off the map, even to a small extent, equals decay inevitable: in that his understanding of the New England site is very Puritan, very laden with shadows of murdering barbarians and a sense of communal failure: here’s a failing colony to preach to! Cotton Mather would have a grand summer delivering sermons in places like Innsmouth or Dunwich, no doubt.

Any reference to a town not shown on common maps or listed in recent guidebooks would have interested me, and the agent’s odd manner of allusion roused something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike in it its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist’s attention. If it came before Arkham I would stop off there and so I asked the agent to tell me something about it. He was very deliberate, and spoke with an air of feeling slightly superior to what he said.

The place is just the right sort of playground to play with powers that are not worshiped in any regular denominational church – Captain Marsh, one of the forefathers, it goes, used to do things…on a reef…the Devil Reef, and no, it’s not god’s fallen angel he’s communicating with. Note that evil isn’t just there, it seems to be brought into existence by some kind of ritual passing on the reef –

“That is, sailors that didn’t hail from Innsmouth. One of the things they had against old Captain Marsh was that he was supposed to land on it sometimes at night when the tide was right. Maybe he did, for I dare say the rock formation was interesting, and it’s just barely possible he was looking for pirate loot and maybe finding it; but there was talk of his dealing with demons there. Fact is, I guess on the whole it was really the Captain that gave the bad reputation to the reef.

“That was before the big epidemic of 1846, when over half the folks in Innsmouth was carried off. They never did quite figure out what the trouble was, but it was probably some foreign kind of disease brought from China or somewhere by the shipping. It surely was bad enough – there was riots over it, and all sorts of ghastly doings that I don’t believe ever got outside of town – and it left the place in awful shape. Never came back – there can’t be more’n 300 or 400 people living there now.

That doesn’t stop Lovecraft from inserting a jab at the yellow peril, for the heck of it: dropping racially loaded comments, by numbers, Lovecraft-style.

If that was the intro, he’s shipping the tirade right away –

“But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice – and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know – though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk – what a lot our New England ships – used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ‘em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people. The place always was badly cut off from the rest of the country by marshes and creeks and we can’t be sure about the ins and outs of the matter; but it’s pretty clear that old Captain Marsh must have brought home some odd specimens when he had all three of his ships in commission back in the twenties and thirties. There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today – I don’t know how to explain it but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ‘em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst – fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ‘em – they used to have lots of horse trouble before the autos came in.

They are evil, they are backward – they are racially degenerated, these connotations merge easily and necessarily here. The idea of the ethnically diverse coastal town is not so very new – Melville’s Ishmael tries to give us a description of one before he boards the Pequod, foe example. Lovecraft expands the notion of diversity and leaves no doubt just what was going on that ominous reef: the Innsmouth folk are, for lack of a better word, fish people: Some of ‘em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. No, it’s not sloppy of him to bring that punchline so early on in the story as he does it – it’s important for the further development of the plot that the reader keep in mind that these Innsmouthians were not just miscenegating with the regular crew of seaboard expats. They are different…with a twist.

I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage.

When the narrator says that in description of one of the Innsmouth natives, the bias seems clearly positioned: decay is perceived as less threatening than alienage, the impingement from Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine or negroid influences. Of course, the Innsmouth version of decay is the result of an exchange with indeed another race, the Deep Ones – and strangely enough, this will be the alternative by far favored by the narrator. The bargain struck in Innsmouth is folksy, plain, straight: the Innsmouth natives hand over occasional human sacrifices to the Deep Ones, as well as a bounty of breeding and mating possibilities, and in return, they receive all the fish they could possibly ever wish for. This has something of the easy-going commercial structure outlined by Mather in defense of his belief in witchcraft as force to reckon with: witches/wizards give themselves up to Satan and are rewarded in due turn – supernatural strength, wealth, you name it. In Innsmouth, the deal is capped somewhat short –

As for business – the abundance of fish was certainly almost uncanny, but the natives were taking less and less advantage of it. Moreover, prices were falling and competition was growing. Of course the town’s real business was the refinery, whose commercial office was on the square only a few doors east of where we stood. Old Man Marsh was never seen, but sometimes went to the works in a closed, curtained car.

Still, there is no way to dissolve it – once it is struck, it will last forever: a sticky unison with the great, alien other that is so much more powerful and charming as a referential power than, say, the Christian God –

“Then’s the time Obed he begun a-cursin’ at the folks fer bein’ dull sheep an’ prayin’ to a Christian heaven as didn’t help ‘em none. He told ‘em he’d knowed o’ folks as prayed to gods that give somethin’ ye reely need, an’ says ef a good bunch o’ men ud stand by him, he cud mebbe get a holt o’ sarten paowers as ud bring plenty o’ fish an’ quite a bit of gold.

And in an odd movement – Lovecraft is offering assimilation, not without sabotaging it at the same time. The narrator, and that is the punchline the story is heading for, is one of the Innsmouth folks, as he explicates in a genealogical attempt: the whole horror of the place is suddenly gulped down in one embrace. And it is carefully built up, too – the narrator enters the city, is drawn into it, and is finally trapped in it: the night is coming and with it the promise of change.

Later I might sift the tale and extract some nucleus of historic allegory; just now I wished to put it out of my head. The hour grown perilously late – my watch said 7:15, and the Arkham bus left Town Square at eight – so I tried to give my thoughts as neutral and practical a cast as possible, meanwhile walking rapidly through the deserted streets of gaping roofs and leaning houses toward the hotel where I had checked my valise and would find my bus.

The bus will not ever leave – and why should it when the scene is so utterly promising? The Innsmouth fish people miscegenation varieté gives decay a whole new name, a cultural face that is looking into the future. In Dunwich, decay is finite, inertiatically stalled – white people were lounging back to observe their apocalypse – there also, a cross into the alien, racial other occurs, but is singled out as a magical-ritualistic occurence on a small scale and for one family, the Whateley clan. In Innsmouth miscegenation goes populist – and no doubt the community prospers. Its apocalyptic transformation is consummated – of course, Innsmouth is beyond all repair: it serves its purpose as breeding ground. The transformation goes from human to deep one, and the whole is joining it like there is no tomorrow in a human world, as indeed there isn’t. The procession is finally marching and moving in a dirge on human civilization –

And yet I saw them in a limitless stream – flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating – urging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal … and some were strangely robed … and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head.

The Deep Ones are lying, lying and waiting to reap their bounty –

For the present they would rest; but some day, if they remembered, they would rise again for the tribute Great Cthulhu craved. It would be a city greater than Innsmouth next time.


This, then, is the essence of Lovecraft’s racism – it is not about the rigorous defense of one ethnicity against another, it is rather about sharing in a dominant ethnicity – whatever it is – able to carry a quest for empires and territories that will subjugate heroically whatever other ethnicity is in its way, a wet dream of retribution that is here located into the town of Innsmouth. Humanity is failing – after it has bred its own destruction by ushering in a species as ruthlessly imperialist as itself but moreover having that not slight benefit of being immortal –

One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea. She lived in a phosphorescent palace of many terraces, with gardens of strange leprous corals and grotesque brachiate efflorescences, and welcomed me with a warmth that may have been sardonic. She had changed – as those who take to the water change – and told me she had never died. Instead, she had gone to a spot her dead son had learned about, and had leaped to a realm whose wonders – destined for him as well – he had spurned with a smoking pistol. This was to be my realm, too – I could not escape it. I would never die, but would live with those who had lived since before man ever walked the earth.

I met also that which had been her grandmother. For eighty thousand years Pth’thya-l’yi had lived in Y’ha-nthlei, and thither she had gone back after Obed Marsh was dead. Y’ha-nthlei was not destroyed when the upper-earth men shot death into the sea. It was hurt, but not destroyed. The Deep Ones could never be destroyed, even though the palaeogean magic of the forgotten Old Ones might sometimes check them. For the present they would rest; but some day, if they remembered, they would rise again for the tribute Great Cthulhu craved. It would be a city greater than Innsmouth next time. They had planned to spread, and had brought up that which would help them, but now they must wait once more. For bringing the upper-earth men’s death I must do a penance, but that would not be heavy. This was the dream in which I saw a shoggoth for the first time, and the sight set me awake in a frenzy of screaming. That morning the mirror definitely told me I had acquired the Innsmouth look.

So far I have not shot myself as my uncle Douglas did. I bought an automatic and almost took the step, but certain dreams deterred me. The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-deeps instead of fearing them. I hear and do strange things in sleep, and awake with a kind of exaltation instead of terror. I do not believe I need to wait for the full change as most have waited. If I did, my father would probably shut me up in a sanitarium as my poor little cousin is shut up. Stupendous and unheard-of splendors await me below, and I shall seek them soon. Ia-R’lyehl Cihuiha flgagnl id Ia! No, I shall not shoot myself – I cannot be made to shoot myself!

I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton mad-house, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through 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.


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