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.

The Horror at Red Hook (I)

Here’s the story. It gives us an episode from the life of investigator Thomas F. Malone (and his only appearance in Lovecraft’s stories) – he’s gone mad, of course, as have so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, tumbled into madness, while the narrators preserve their last vestiges of sanity, expending them in the process of story telling: drained of it, they may then finally follow into the dark. This story is quite concrete in its topography, refering to actual places, actual neighborhoods, such as the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY – and that is about it as far as realism goes. As usual, Lovecraft doesn’t funnel too much energy into his sociological strata – Red Hook just is, all decaying and steeming, and shall no character dare to mess with it: social immobility rules.

Not in that online version I’ve linked above, but in the printed edition, Joshi style, the story is preceded by an Arthur Machen quote, from a short story of his –

“There are sacraments of evil as well as good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.”

The first part is a little trifle at this place with all its theological gravity, more reminiscent of Machen’s topography, his rustling, lush hillsides full of unknown forces whispering in their goblin tongues, than of Lovecraft’s – the last sentence, however, is more to his points. Where does evolution go here? In a backward or in a forward direction? The “track of evolution” promises change, the way Lovecraft loved to implement it – as mutation into the terrible, as one last step to finish the descent from formal, solid civilization into material and/or psychological dissolution once again. There is no way to escape that fate, as the opening paragraphs immediately start to push the reader down there – “all are there, forever falling, falling lovely and amazing”, to quote Nick Cave in an undeliberate circumscription of Lovecraft’s poetics. Down then, it is.


Ech-Pi-El to Klarkash-ton: I am a bore

I’d like to divert attention away from this post and to this article by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (per http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/LovecraftScholars/) – a short, but insightful piece on one of Lovecraft’s closest buddies, Clark Ashton Smith, or Klarkash-ton, as Lovecraft transcribed the name in his regular epistolary follies. I just finished re-re-re-reading the five volume selection of Lovecraft’s letters (yeah, the price for the full set is whopping – my alma mater’s library may be a near total failure in Lovecraft terms, but at least they hold these five volumes, now semi-permanently shelved close to my desk), and once again they’re leaving me behind more perplexed than enlightened: can it be that the man was really such a complete bore?

I know, the five volumes offer a sparing empirical evidence, given the total number of his letters that ranks somewhere in the higher five figures, but the image one draws from the letters doesn’t get any more colorful in the more recent and complete selections mapped out by Joshi and Schultz. On what merits could one possibly build the assumption that Lovecraft’s place in the literary afterlife should be defined, more than anything, by his epistolary corpus?

His gentlemanly behavior? He was painfully polite to virtually all correspondents and doled out heartfelt encouragements to any rookie writer that might turn to him in search of advice.

The breadth of his thought? It’s a shame to say it but the letters, all of them, are highly redundant, buzzing around a small circle of topics that the man tackled again and again and again. Every now and then, a new correspondent from the wider amateur journalism and weird tales-realm would drop in, which would habitually provoke a new round on the favorite topics, aka obsessions: race, “cosmicism”, the New England site, and, oh yeah, race. He grew wiser with age, thank goodness, and the later letters from the 1930s are way milder and less nerve-killing to read than those of 20 years before, but even there he will make a very habitual case for the superiority of the “Teuton”, pared down to the late “insight” that alleged racial differences are mere cultural (rather than biological) differences, yet so insistently argued toward a strict segregation of races that it becomes a gesture. The prize for the WASP of the years 1915-1937 goes to…tadaa!…Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

It gets even more pathetic where issues are concerned that Lovecraft a) didn’t care about and b) didn’t know anything about – like female sexuality. To see him trying to explain that in a rash but helpless & clumsy manner really provides the strong feeling that he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

He had many bright moments, though. In fact, he’s sincere and most personal when he’s writing on his profound love for New England and Providence, in particular, planting himself into that soil time and again when he’s narrating how spryly he’s jostling to this and that backwood of the greater Providence area. It’s in these passages you get a feel for Lovecraft, the man – not Lovecraft, the machismo bigmouth – his various ways of relating to the site uncover, indeed, nuances of the personality better than the touchy issues he seems most confident about. Here he is most fragile, most volatile, most easily accessed. Here, and in the literature field, of course. He knew his weird literature to the core and provides real insights on authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and naturally Poe, his revered idol, and other such authors that pre-furrowed his personal field.

There is a very emotional passage in a letter to Frank B. Long from February 1931, featuring Lovecraft, the person – “Hell! If you ever had such a breath of reality, you’D forget all about the cute little sentences, literary, ‘inevitable’ words, kittenish mock-irony, & artificial sophistication, & just write, write, write like the devil – SINCERELY & SIMPLY – because of a creative demon within you & a sincere, bursting emotion which would suffocate you if you couldn’t get it on paper.”

Then, critically – “I wish I had the art to write out the stuff I want to get down on paper” – that was in early 1931, post-dating stories like The Music of Erich Zann, The Colour out of Space, The Call of Cthulhu, and slightly preceding At the Mountains of Madness, at a time, that is, when he had already established his corpus as the next great thing on the Gothic timeline. I’ll explore in another post how much genuine despair is in these (frequent!) appeals to his own literary inability and how far these are a realization of the modesty topos.