From the Dark

Before Hollywood moguls will have a chance to take Lovecraft moviedom from obscurity to glamor, Italian filmmaker Ivan Zuccon will have another celluloidal shot at the Lovecraft corpus, this time obviously at The Colour out of Space. Rather than exploiting the story’s hyper-realist explicitness (and note the occurence of the there is no need to speak– paradox here) –

There is no need to speak too exactly of what they found.

Merwin and Zenas were both there, in part, though the vestiges were mainly skeletal. There were also a small deer and a large dog in about the same state, and a number of bones of small animals. The ooze and slime at the bottom seemed inexplicably porous and bubbling, and a man who descended on hand-holds with a long pole found that he could sink the wooden shaft to any depth in the mud of the floor without meeting any solid obstruction.

– into a Gordonesk splatter parade, Zuccon’s new movie Colour from the Dark seems to use the symbol (from space – in Lovecraft’s story the eponymous color drops from the sky, representative in its formless-ness of all his alien horrors from the sky) to explore the horrors of history. To quote the Meath Chronicle, see the link above

Director Zuccon has set his version of the story in Italy, in the 1940s, during World War II.The central characters in the film are members of a rural farm family who accidentally disturb some supernatural force that had been buried in a well on their farm. The movie follows how the married couple and the sister of the wife on the farm are affected by the water from this well where they have disturbed the spirit, and the inexplicable events that happen around the farm.

And –

Shanahan plays their neighbour, Giovanni, who lives next door with his granddaughter, and who tries to save the family from the destruction and havoc being wreaked on them by the evil force. He is also harbouring a Jewish girl in one of barns, as she hides from the Nazis in wartime Italy.

Interesting – the thought that Lovecraft’s code of horror symbols can be politicized, seriously (or so the preview seems to imply) made to work in a political context. That adds to the only apparent conjecture that his work must be a-political, simply because his politics were so ridiculously gestured and unreflected (at one time or another, and even at several times – post 1922 and 1933 – he applauded and clapped to the honor of Mussolini and Hitler, but swung back, more sensibly, to an embracement of FDR when it was about the politics back at home). Lovecraft’s fiction, and that movie that rises from it with it, makes the case for the Gothic as a social force, or rather, as an effective mediator of social forces.

And where would you ever need it as such if not in Lovecraft’s prose output. In a letter dated November 22, 1934 (no. 741 in the fifth of the five-volume Selected Letters) he writes –

Thus the Nazis in Germany want to get rid of every trace of Jewish blood, while other groups believe that the highest intellectual qualities in all races come through prehistoric & forgotten infusions of Semitic blood! Amidst such a confusion of objects, what single policy could ever gain an effective ascendancy? However – this is not to say that eugenics will remain utterly neglected. There are, of course, certain lines of action where virtual unanimity exists; & along those lines considerable progress may be expected. It is, for example, agreed that hereditary physical disease & mental inferiority ought not to be transmitted – hence within the next half-century the sterilisation of certain biologically defective types will probably become universal throughout the western world, thus cutting down the prevalence of idiocy, epilepsy, haemophilia, & kindred inherited plagues. The Nazis have already put such a policy into effect.

The curse of the apocalyptist: unity (“virtual unanimity”) will only be achieved in annihilation and destruction, – until then, the call of the day goes out for observation, study, scrutiny. The other will be contained and thus eradicated by scientific means, whose most convinving raison d’être is their efficiency: they actually work, and that is more than can be said about other parts of modern 1930s life.

Lovecraft’s politics are most productive in his fiction. That is not to deny weight to all the nonsensical charlatan politics in the letters – just because he didn’t have a swastika sown to his lapels, his politics are not unreal – they may be stifled, thwarted, but nevertheless historical and own to the context in which he chose to be a racist dick – but still it’s his fiction where his politics are realized. It is here they become open to interpretation, that they lose their unambiguousness – here that they must be interpreteted, because they are fused into ambiguous symbols of race and ethnicity. In interpreting them and in reading symbols like the shoggoth we do not necessarily enter into a state of complicity with the author, but rather we come to see the symbols as actively working and engaged and functional in a context. They are creative of meaning (the formless-sprawling shoggoth maybe more than other members of the man’s teratology) and dive right into history, violently – rather than trying to stand apart at a convenient breathing distance from where it is possible to lecture on and advocate the benefits of eugenics.

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The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (II)

I find the idea of the Fidèle as a theatrical stage a little tricky to maintain when the novel moves into the topic of Indian hating & killing.

I find it tricky – what position would it provide to the extended chapters on Indian hating? Would it make them a tragic interplay in an otherwise comedic comedy, infuse some brutality into a story normally as light in tone as it is bitter and sardonic in import? Melville certainly creates a sense for how outré the whole Indian hating episode appears in the whole of the novel – he adapts for it, famously or infamously, passages from James Hall’s Sketches, Life, and Manners, in the West….and leaves out all the important parts, it seems at first (a short comparison between the treatment of Indian hating in Melville’s novel and Hall’s work is here, give or take the cheap advertisement) . The Indian turns into a demonic figure, unadressable and irremediable in his evil –

” As the child born to a backwoodsman must in turn lead his father’s life — a life which, as related to humanity, is related mainly to Indians — it is thought best not to mince matters, out of delicacy; but to tell the boy pretty plainly what an Indian is, and what he must expect from him. For however charitable it may be to view Indians as members of the Society of Friends, yet to affirm them such to one ignorant of Indians, whose lonely path lies a long way through their lands, this, in the event, might prove not only injudicious but cruel. At least something of this kind would seem the maxim upon which backwoods’ education is based. Accordingly, if in youth the backwoodsman incline to knowledge, as is generally the case, he hears little from his schoolmasters, the old chroniclers of the forest, but histories of Indian lying, Indian theft, Indian double-dealing, Indian fraud and perfidy, Indian want of conscience, Indian blood-thirstiness, Indian diabolism — histories which, though of wild woods, are almost as full of things unangelic as the Newgate Calendar or the Annals of Europe. In these Indian narratives and traditions the lad is thoroughly grounded. “As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.” The instinct of antipathy against an Indian grows in the backwoodsman with the sense of good and bad, right and wrong. In one breath he learns that a brother is to be loved, and an Indian to be hated. (chapter 26)

Innate evil is fought by innate good: the backwoodsman is as genetically biased against his opponent as is his opponent, and neither religious intervention (the Quakers, of course, being the archetypal ally Native Americans had among white settlers), nor education (“little from his schoolmasters”) would change anything about that. Melville Indian-slayer Colonel John Moredock treads the steps not so much of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo (Leatherstockings has his serious issues with the native population, but never quite seems able to surrender his idea of their inherent goodness and noble savagery), but rather those of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Jibbenaynosay – featured in an 1837 novel of quite some rarity these days. I wouldn’t even know it, most likely, had not my adviser dealt out the whole story, copied, to his seminar one day.

[These were exceedingly many names to store in one single sentence. Here is for some entertainment, before the argument resumes – provided by Dominique Signoret – and off, again, goes the argument.]

Rather than carry a peace corps spirit to the frontier, Nathan”Jibbenainosay” Slaughter, aka Nick of the Woods, takes his battle axe instead and massacres whatever Indians come his way – a genuine evil charm to protect the white frontier population. The novel makes for an excruciating, but highly interesting read, if you manage to claim one of the rare copies.

Nathan, and that makes him more than just a maniac on a killing binge, is a Quaker going the killing way & no longer searching for the “Christ within” the Indian. In short: he is as ruthless as Melville’s Colonel Moredock – whatever Indian crosses his way, automatically slides on his personal black list. Both Bird and Melville don’t seem to grant any plot devices into their narration that would allow at least some sympathy engendered for the Indian – in fact, anything but. By transporting hatred against Indians as not only a coincidental experience, but a pre-condition for survival at the frontier at all, both inscribe an agenda into their slayers’ register and make their reading audiences sign it: the western expansion, it goes, was possible exactly because backwoodsmen braved the Indian danger and thus guarded the white settlers from their encroachment. This is not so much a romanticized introspection into a patron-customer-relation, but rather a justification of a territorial expansion that was still rolling on when Melville and Bird wrote their novel.

[to be continued]

The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (I)

Some two weeks ago, after I had taught a class session on Melville’s The Confidence Man, I needed to do some grocery shopping, and who would I meet, right there at the register, if not a student of mine, who was just about to act a practical lesson in charity: a customer had run out of money and needed some change to pay for the few odd wares she had lying there. The money was procured, offered, accepted – and she went away, slowly, staggeringly, intoxicated or just out of her wits (and most likely both).The sight is not too unusual in that place which an old acquaintance of mine once refered to as having that “quaint anti-social charme”, – a pretty roughed urban discount grocery store and a drop-in popular with all the boozers living close by.

Obscurely enough, the woman had to make a choice, when she was standing at the register, all flustered because a dozen or so customers were queuing in line, waiting nervously for her to make a move. Even with some money proffered, she had to make a decision between a bunch of beer bottles and a bag of candy – and finally chose the candy.

All the while, I was standing there, mildly amused, and repeated to myself, silently -“Give me your confidence! -…now give me 23 cents!” – several times over, until she had cleared the area and the chance to crack a real good insider joke (that exactly two people would have appreciated at the time) was gone with her.

The joke would have been on the tag line of Melville’s protagonist, of course, of whom I have yet to find any image, at all – Give me your confidence…now give me 100 dollars!.

The details have been told to familiarity, how Melville based his con man on a real life model, who had cheated confiding people for their watches – and how Melville made his novel into an April Fool’s Joke – published in New York on April 1, 1857 and set on April 1 – an excruciatingly bitter joke that has been ringing for 150 years ago. It tends to be one of these books that (academic) readers rate high exactly because they understand just enough of it to get a glimpse of its richness – not quite as “unread, but talked about” as Joyce’s Ulysses (guilty on that count) or Finnegan’s Wake (and on that) or Homer’s Iliad (though not on that), but almost there. It’s a complex read, and saying that is to sweet-talk the experience, – all the more did I find it great to read it with second year undergrad students who are not yet beyond saying they don’t understand, when they don’t understand – and since I just barely got a teachable hold on that one, the experience was one of shared bewilderment and confusion…

…and it didn’t transmute into easier going, when we finally came to the Indian hating cavalcade in chapters 24-28.

I now realize my frantic attempts at comprehending the novel as, explicitly, apocalyptic were doomed as long as I didn’t also involve the downriver voyage of the Fidèle as a frontier experience. The application of the apocalyptic label, as brought forward, most systematically, by Jonathan Cook, is strongest on the The Confidence Man when it operates with structural – “stage” – devices that stress the theatricality of the plot: action almost being excised from the novel, the characters move into various conversational constellations, and the confidence man plays the anchorman and tries to get his play onto the stage. Notably, the curtain rises and falls with him –

AT sunrise on a first of April there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis. (ch. 1)

and:

“I have indifferent eyes, and will show you; but, first, for the good of all lungs, let me extinguish this lamp.”

The next moment, the waning light expired, and with it the waning flames of the horned altar, and the waning halo round the robed man’s brow; while in the darkness which ensued, the cosmopolitan kindly led the old man away. Something further may follow of this Masquerade. (ch. 45)

Something further may follow of this Masquerade. – naturally, that does not refer to any sequel, or the possibility thereof. Melville quit the novelistic writing treadmill after the apparition of the con man and helped make New York a little safer by serving the city as a custom officer. Strange how custom offices can literally kill off creative drives, isn’t it?

The final sentence, of the paragraph and of the novel, opens the historical timeline, flexes it and bends it into a circle – the Fidèle’s stage apocalypse, opened and consummated so nonchalantly by the con man (and realized, prepared, and set in countless references to the biblical apocalyptic: Cook really does a fine job and gropes all of Melville’s threads in that direction apart in his careful study), will be rewound and repeated. The actors will cast off their masks, and the play will begin anew.

This looks bold, reads bold and very self-confident, in an abstract, metaphysical way – is Melville here anticipating Nietzsche’s idée fou and introduces the eternal recurrence, before the German even had the chance to? Nietzsche is difficult to handle on that point. It seems most tightly and comprehensively argued for in The Gay Science, paragraph 341

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!”— Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you; the question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? — (Nietzsche’s emphasis in cursives, mine in bold print)

The notion is an affirmation of life, all of it, including pain: the eternal recurrence becomes thus a baptism of fire: you have to comprehend and appreciate your life in the fullest sense possible, so as not to be driven down the road of insanity by the thought of living it again and again, and then some more, along exactly identical routes. This may not be plausible in the domain of quantum theory, but it helps define Nietzsche’s stand on history – brave it, you’ll never get rid of it, anyway.

The character cast on the Fidèle, that good steamboat going down the big river from St. Louis, is not quite up to it – yet.

In comes the confidence man, in various disguises (and apparently somewhat unimaginable: or is it just me who cannot find images of the Melville character on the net?), but always acting as a Nietzschean prompter – teasing the travellers into re-affirming their biases and positions and prejudices (and greeds and compulsions…), but never changing their course.

“SO you are a philanthropist, sir,” added the barber with an illuminated look; “that accounts, then, for all. Very odd sort of man the philanthropist. You are the second one, sir, I have seen. Very odd sort of man, indeed, the philanthropist. Ah, sir,” again meditatively stirring in the shaving-cup,” I sadly fear, lest you philanthropists know better what goodness is, than what men are.” Then, eying him as if he were some strange creature behind cage-bars, “So you are a philanthropist, sir.”

“I am Philanthropos, and love mankind. And, what is more than you do, barber, I trust them.” (ch. 43: “Very charming” – the barber is conversing with the con man).

He has to be philanthropic at least in so far as the characters, “mankind” as far as it is represented on the boat, are his to direct – he cannot quite be as devastating to them as, say, Goethe’s Mephisto – also, like the con man, a tempter, deceiver, trickster – is to Faust. Unlike Faust, the people on board are never aware of who it is they are communicating with – they are naive, slow to react, and in need of protection. And the con man grants as much to his personnel inventory.

I find the idea of the Fidèle as a theatrical stage a little tricky to maintain when the novel moves into the topic of Indian hating & killing.

1/1000

The Constructivist questions the benefit of color-blindness, and proposes thus –

I want to question the assumption that to “stop” doing any of these things is a simple and easy process. I want to question the assumption so endemic to “color-blind” thinking on race that the best way to fight racism is to attack the notion of race by showing it to be a cognitive error.

Be sure to read all of his insightful reflection (and mind the helpful bibliography at the bottom). The above sentence made me think, spontaneously and from there: not so spontaneously and more directedly, on the logical relation, as it is presented and written out in Lovecraft’s prose (fiction), of race as a biological fact and race as a construct.

There is a very definite sense in which race is available and necessary as the former – these cognizant, rational, hyper-intelligent, space-travelling aliens in his works cry out “Other! Other! Other!” with every tentacle of their polymorphous (and only very occasionally: anthropomorphic) physical bodies. Critically then, Lovecraft’s characters still cannot quite bring themselves to bring up a dichotomy of human vs. alien in their confrontations with Cthulhu & Co. – more specifically, they habitually, instinctively?, narrow it down to white human vs. alien. I must have made that point before, remember making something like it when I discussed The Call of Cthulhu (a call that, notably, goes out not only to the great white male narratorship and characterstock) and its violent police raid on the feasting, “bastardized” worshippers of grand Cthulhu – and will make it at greater length, & discuss it as a central conflict.

Not quite coincidentally, I will teach a class on the Harlem Renaissance in the upcoming (and still very far removed) winter semester, and having George Hutchinson’s (I’m sure) excellent (but still unread, by me) study on The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White standing on the shelf and all waiting to finally be read – I wonder, if I might not sneak Lovecraft in there as a WASP exponent and counteragent…sort of as a running gag: the seminar has not yet been devised that I cannot integrate Lovecraft into.

The table of contents I spun up in the previous post is, now that I look at it, extraordinarily biased toward a frontier approach, almost toppled over by the “weight of the frontier” (googled for, that phrase chokes up six results, and only two of these seem in any way pertinent on literary-cultural-matters: treading the near-neological, as a scholar of ultra-encyclopedic Lovecraft probably shouldn’t) – I feel this is one approach I can take to the concept of Gothic Apocalypse I would like to write up for Lovecraft in my work. In that first chapter I would like to generally weigh and measure gothic, frontier, and apocalypse against each other, to see how their respective rhetorics go together for me. I could also point to an anthology from the mid-90s that got me thinking on the gothic frontier – Frontier Gothic, edited at the time by David Mogen, Scott P. Sanders, and Joanne B. Karpinski.

So. Melville is waiting. The confidence man is waiting.


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.

Race and Decay (VIII)

Over at Table of Malcontents, John Brownlee makes an excellent case for the obligatory inclusion of a Cthulhu rubber mask into the preparations for your next date. Thank goodness I have mine always with me, together with the authentic Cthulhu tentacle replica that I bought of the mad Arab…eh…I mean, my tentacle dealer earlier this year.

____________

Bringing in Thomas Hobbes now, dragging him basically to the trough because I would like to move this discussion of Race and Decay on in a way that is reminiscent of productive work behavior, – so, dragging him, I find that not a little canonized quote helpful in my attempt to account for the political status of Lovecraft’s characters, if ex negativo –

THE final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants, and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters (Leviathan, ch. 17).

Lovecraft’s characters cannot live in Commonwealths because they are in a perpetual state of war, and to Hobbes the term is especially charged and obstructed into the way of the common wealth. One of the laws of nature he mentions, see above, is laid out in chapter fourteen of the book, where he draws up the dichotomy of jus naturale and lex naturale,

natural right

THE right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.

and

natural law

A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.

respectively.

It is, the argument goes, nature’s law that prescribes man the task of self-preservation and nature’s right that allows for his self-realization. Bringing the two together without any restraints equals chaos, a war of everyone’s interest against everyone’s interest – hence, Hobbes includes self-restraint to purposefully curb the extent of self-realization, and as long as all men go in accordance with self-restraint, war will be avoided. If some men, however, turn a forgetful eye to that obligation, bang!, war it is, in self-defense then. I’m not trying to paraphrase Hobbes’ commonwealth theory just for the exuberant heck of it – rather, I’m trying to find a slot to fit Lovecraft’s character inventory into.

Thesis I: The Lemming

Lovecraft’s characters – and I include here narrators, protagonists, antagonists: the whole inventory of human/half-human/not so very human-signifiers, but, naturally not: the ethnical/alien other opposed to them in various constellations – do not subscribe to the lex naturalis. Self-preservation is simply not in them, neither on a purely individual, nor on a communal level (I still think of these lazy Dunwich bums going on strike while Yog-Sothoth is rampaging through their town).

Thesis II: The Intellectual Lemming

His characters also overwhelmingly refer their epistemologies to mainly two knowledge-generative sources, science and art. Both are effective in approaching the other, but only one – art – installs the possibility of actually merging with the other, and from the merger result: madness, freak anatomies, and bad skin. Richard Upton Pickman, protagonist-artist in two stories, namely Pickman’s Model and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, is a prime example here – in moving swiftly and with lust from painting ghouls to being with ghouls to being a ghoul, a movement baptized in the story as a sardonic evolution. I’ve doted on the Pickman figure and its implications for quite a while in the chapter of my dissertation work I’m just writing, and it’s growing ever more important to me, it seems. Oh yeah, don’t just paint decay – be decay! Go, Pickman, go!

Race and Decay (VII)

I’ll go a little deeper into what I just scribed the outlines of in my previous post: into evil it is. The point I wanted to render into some kind of permanent memory for my ongoing discussion of Race and Decay, the second chapter of my guerre avec Lovecraft’s use of race, an exceedingly long chapter because I keep adding layers of bricks as I go along – this point was that evil, in Lovecraft’s prose, is strictly individual, centered on the subject in a genetic mode of transference: in short, it’s a genetic, biological trait, not a behavioral pattern assumable and sheddable at will. As such it rests in a logical symbiosis with race – it’s dangerous to be outside the aryan spectrum that Lovecraft had in mind when he fabulated (thank goodness and the influence of great and mighty Cthulhu – not so much in his prose, and more in his letters) on the heroic, axe-wielding Teuton he imagined when he reflected on racial wholeness and health. It’s dangerous because it comes to be co-terminous, almost intuitively, with being evil: you’re other than white, you’re evil by definition. I listed an example for that annoying logical relation when I wrote about the swamp cultists that the narrator of The Call of Cthulhu places at the epicenter of decay –

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.

Another, way more…shall I say: more endemically dimensioned, example is found in The Shadow over Innsmouth.

As Dunwich, Innsmouth is a tradition-laden, history-burdened New England town whose city boundaries are also geographical containers of decay – it neatly stops and starts at the border line as it exists in the imagination of the narrator, who is drawn to it via its notoriety, to begin with:

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.

The place makes an ideal holiday resort for apocalyptic sects, priests, and other representatives of the species in some way in love with the end –

“Innsmouth? Well, it’s a queer kind of a town down at the mouth of the Manuxet. Used to be almost a city – quite a port before the War of 1812 – but all gone to pieces in the last hundred years or so. No railroad now – B. and M. never went through, and the branch line from Rowley was given up years ago.

“More empty houses than there are people, I guess, and no business to speak of except fishing and lobstering. Everybody trades mostly either here or in Arkham or Ipswich. Once they had quite a few mills, but nothing’s left now except one gold refinery running on the leanest kind of part time.”

Never heard of the Manuxet River, of Arkham, and indeed – of Innsmouth? Most likely not if you’re not somewhat familiar with Lovecraft’s fictive New England geography – these places are very real and New Englandish in their feel (not fantastic landscape fantasies, although Lovecraft uses these, as well), but still not bound to a map – It is not down in any map; true places never are, as Melville’s Ishmael has it of Queequeg’s native-fictional island Kokovoko – still, his stories don’t end up as escapist fantasies of the Lord of the Rings-type. He rather installs a perfect simulacrum of this world – and then steadily destroys this simulacrum to subvert our sense of security in this, our world: hail to the Gothic apocalypse. This is at least, admittedly, somewhat escapist in so far as it takes a merely nostalgic, but not a historical/historicizing perspective – it allows him to impose social and political networks on the plot, or rather: to weave them into the plot as he pleased, running a highly selective politics. What is overwhelmingly amiss in all of his fiction is any figure of the Leviathan – any sense of community in a politically effective way.