Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at “The Horror at Red Hook,” written in August 1-2 1925 and first published in the January 1927 issue of Weird Tales. We read it so you don’t have to, but if you really want to it’s here. Spoilers ahead, and also bigotry.
“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.”
Dublin-born Thomas Malone is a writer playing at detective work in New York when a nasty case in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook earns him a rest cure in bucolic Pascoag, Rhode Island. Unfortunately he wanders into a village with one commercial street. Its brick buildings, reminiscent of Red Hook, send him into shrieking panic. Locals wonder that a fellow so robust should succumb to hysterics. What happened in Red Hook?
Well, first off, Syrian and Spanish, Italian and negro “elements” have turned the trim resort of sea captains into a “maze of hybrid squalor,” and a “tangle of material and spiritual putrescence.“ The newcomers smuggle rum! They harbor illegal aliens! They commit murder and mutilation! Police have given up keeping order and work instead to confine the foreign contagion. Malone, however, senses more than mundane lawlessness afoot. He’s read Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe and knows that hellish vestiges of old magic survive among degraded and furtive folk.
Ironically, it’s Robert Suydam, a “lettered recluse of ancient Dutch family” who stirs up big trouble. He’s a corpulent and unkempt old fellow who’s read himself into a “really profound authority on medieval superstition.” Suydam’s relations endure his eccentricities until they blossom into wild pronouncements, occult tomes and a house in Red Hook, where Suydam entertains foreigners and participates in secret nocturnal rites! But Suydam impresses judges with his reasonable manner and explains his oddities as the result of folklore studies. He retains his freedom, but the police, Malone included, keep close watch on him.
It seems Suydam associates with illegal “Asian dregs” who turn out to be Kurds, probably Yezidis, the “last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.“ They attend a tumble-down church and do much shrieking and drumming. Malone thinks he hears an organ, too, but muffled, as if underground. Informants say the Kurds use a hidden canal leading to a subterranean pool. They’ve come because some god or priesthood has promised them that the streets in America are paved with supernatural glories, about which the informants remain tremulously vague.
A bureaucratic conflict takes Malone off the case. He nevertheless follows Suydam’s astonishing metamorphosis, parallel to a wave of kidnappings. The old recluse sheds poundage, slovenliness and (seemingly) years to become a dapper social presence. He refurbishes his mansion and hosts estranged relatives and acquaintances.
Shortly after Suydam’s engagement to the socially impeccable Cornelia Gerritsen, Malone investigates the Red Hook church. He doesn’t like the Greek inscription over the pulpit, which concludes “Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favorably on our sacrifices!”
Suydam marries and departs with his bride on a Cunard liner. The first night, screams erupt from their stateroom. An investigating sailor runs out of the room mad. The ship’s doctor sees the open porthole clouded by a strange tittering phosphorescence. Mrs. Suydam lies strangled, with claw marks on her throat. On the wall the word LILITH flickers and vanishes. Soon after, a tramp steamer approaches the liner. Its “swart, insolent” crew have a letter from Suydam, demanding that his body be turned over in case of accident. They bear off Suydam’s corpse, and bottles evidently full of Mrs. Suydam’s blood—the undertaker will find her drained to the last drop.
Simultaneous with this tragedy, three more children disappear. The excitement in Red Hook grows palpable, and Malone leads a raid on Suydam’s house. It disgorges “throngs of mixed foreigners in figured robes.” Spattered blood is everywhere. Malone descends to the basement and finds outre books, a charnel odor, and a cat of such peculiarity that one glimpse haunts his future nightmares. He batters open a locked door, only to be sucked inside by an icy wind “filled with whistles and wails and gusts of mocking laughter.”
What follows must be a dream. So say all the psychiatrists. Malone enters an otherworldly space where sticky water laps onyx piers and where a tittering phosphorescent thing swims ashore to squat on a gold pedestal. Every blasphemy of legend comes to a “Walpurgis-riot of horror.” Then a boat rowed by dark men approaches. The phosphorescent thing paws their bedding-wrapped gift, and the men unswath the again corpulent and aged corpse of Robert Suydam.
An organ sounds in the blackness, and the thing leads off the abhorrent company, carrying Suydam’s corpse. Malone staggers only briefly after them, but he still hears the distant ceremony. It ends with the shout “Lilith, Great Lilith, behold the Bridegroom!” Moments later Suydam’s corpse, gangrenous but animated, runs into view, chased by the phosphorescent titterer. Suydam gets to the golden pedestal first, obviously the center of the dark magic. He shoves the pedestal into the water, then collapses into a “muddy blotch of corruption.” Malone finally faints.
The last thunderous crash he hears must be the collapse of three buildings overhead. Raiders and prisoners die, but searchers find Malone alive deep below, by the edge of a black pool. Dental work identifies the nearby jumbled decay as Robert Suydam.
Later searchers find a crypt under the tumble-down church, with an organ, chapel and seventeen maddened prisoners. Among them are four mothers with deformed infants who die when exposed to light. The golden pedestal goes unfound—it probably sank into a well too deep for dredging.
Malone departs to his rustic retreat, but he doesn’t suppose the horror’s over in Red Hook. “Apes,” he believes, “danced in Asia to those horrors, and the cancer lurks secure and spreading where furtiveness hides in rows of decaying brick.”
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing—for Howard, New York’s grand architecture inspires disgust rather than terrified awe. The relatively pedestrian word of the day, appearing no less than four times, is “squalid.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Where to begin? Suydam is in fact Dutch, and apparently degenerate—a degeneracy made clear by his association with a ring of foreigners who help illegal immigrants past Ellis Island. Devil worshipping illegal immigrants, no less, who speak many languages. Beyond that, approximately 60% of Horror’s word count consists of purple, paranoid rants about New York and its inhabitants. Random sample: “the poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors.” In context, one suspects that “varied” is intended to be the nastiest word in that passage.
Mythos Making: All immigrants worship an amorphous pantheon of dark gods who seem to get along remarkably well.
Libronomicon: We get quotes from Poe’s “Man of the Crowd,” Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies, and Martin Anton Del Rio’s Disquisitionum Magicarum: Libri Sex, Quibus Continetur Accurata Curiosarum. Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe is mentioned as an authority. Suydam apparently wrote a pamphlet on Kabbalah and the Faustus legend, which sounds fascinating though it’s not at all clear that Lovecraft knows anything of Kabbalah beyond “scary Jewish magic.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Malone suffers from cosmic-horror-induced PTSD and a phobia of tall buildings. We also get a rare instance of a clear “sanity points” calculation in an original Lovecraft story: the doctor who enters Suydam’s honeymoon stateroom is quite certain he didn’t see the figure of the demonic killer, and for proof points to his continued mental equilibrium.
The things I do for you guys, man. This is another first read for me: up until this point I avoided “Horror” based on its (as it turns out, well-deserved) reputation. I want a cookie (and maybe the previously offered Lilith scholarship rant?), for getting through this squalid and batrachian monstrosity that not even S. T. Joshi can love. Red Hook’s horrors include: illegal immigration, people who don’t speak English, skyscrapers, music, and people of good birth who spend too much time around illegal immigrants who don’t speak English. Dead babies, apparently, are just a relief once they’ve been mutated by exposure to said horrors.
I take this story a little personally. My grandparents and great-grandparents were immigrants in New York about this time, living in run-down tenements and eking out a living and generally speaking not worshipping eldritch horrors from beyond space and time, nor kidnapping and sacrificing small children. I love New York even though I don’t live there myself, and what I love about it is everything Lovecraft hates.
He’s not the only one—Lovecraft’s racism may stand out from his peers, but such extremities are of course far from dead in the modern day. A story about an “imaginative, sensitive” cop who looks at people with brown skin and sees nothing but the face of horror… let’s just say it’s hard to dismiss this as merely a revolting period piece.
I read this on the DC metro, surrounded by a crowd worthy of New York—except for the height limit on the buildings, Lovecraft would have despised modern Washington every bit as much as he did Red Hook. He sees wild diversity as a front for the monolithic Other, all part of the same dark and dangerous conspiracy. Everyone who doesn’t share his culture, class, and looks, must be collaborating behind closed doors, sharing the same sordid mélange of half-understood eldritch myth, making blood sacrifices to dread and ancient gods. It’s hard to fit in around getting the laundry done, but we persevere.
Here we get the nadir of Lovecraft’s nastiest themes. Civilization—modern, Aryan civilization—is the only bulwark against primitive (but all-too-accurate) cults and superstitions and sacrifices—and the least tolerance of variation will let those things slip into the cracks and destroy the world. “Superior minds” are best kept ignorant of this stuff entirely, lest their understanding “threaten the very integrity of the universe.” Not to mention the horrible traffic.
There’s also a bit of… not even sure whether to call it sexism. But I can’t help suspecting that Lilith (assuming that’s what the tittering creature is supposed to be) is some weird expression of resentment at Sonia Greene for her role in getting him to the Big Apple. Very weird—I’m still not sure what Lovecraft thought he was doing with that final scene in the (notably cross-cultural) demon realm, and I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know. I’ll leave exploration of the story’s pseudosexual aspects to Anne, below—I keep getting distracted by the gibbering.
I can find something to like in most of these stories. I appreciate Shadow Over Innsmouth’s clever biblical allusions and its ultimate sympathy with the monstrous viewpoint, even if my sympathy is considerably greater than the author’s. I enjoyed the manic energy of The Lurking Fear even while hating the premise (as an aside, is it a coincidence that Suydam lives on Martense Street?) But I can’t find anything to forgive about this one. It’s just a splorch of puked-up fear and bigotry. Cookie. Now.
My favorite part of this story is the incantation: “O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favorably on our sacrifices!” Though reminiscent of the Necronomicon snippets with which Lovecraft favors us, the incantation isn’t his—he evidently scavenged it from an article on magic in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Its original source is Refutation of All Heresies by the 3rd century Christian theologian, Hippolytus. Gorgo, Mormo and thousand-faced moon may refer to the tri-partite version of Hecate, though it’s the demon Lilith who dominates “Red Hook.”
Jason Colavito discusses the incantation in fascinating detail in his blog.
I first read “Red Hook” in grade school, and I didn’t reread it until preparing this post. Apart from the obvious nastiness—nowhere is Lovecraft’s racism more blatant—I remember finding the story muddled. It does read like the sweaty outpouring of two summer days (August 1-2, 1925), and the author himself thought it rambling.
Yet there’s something deeply scary here. The xenophobia is in your face, crawling all over the surface. In a way it distracts from a less strident, dare we say furtive anxiety, and that is one based in the shadowy realms of the psychosexual. Ah ha! An early companion piece for ”The Thing on the Doorstep?“
Among the many offenses of Red Hook’s residents are “obscure vice,” the “indecent dialogues” of the loungers, the orgies Malone associates with fertility cults. No details, but much is implied. Parker Place, Suydam’s Red Hook address, is a ”teeming rookery,“ and what happens in rookeries if not animal reproduction? The evil church doubles as a dance hall, and even its religious rites are marked by ecstatic shouts and drumming. The secret vault beneath is found to imprison four women with monstrous infants, and where do infants come from? From sex, that’s what! Maybe even incubus sex!
Then there’s Robert Suydam. If there’s a degenerate Dutchman to match the Martenses, it’s him. He proves Malone’s theory that it’s a mercy most highly intelligent people scoff at the occult. Bad enough “varied dregs” indulge in sorcery (you’d expect it of them), but a “superior mind” could take it to the point of threatening “the integrity of the universe.” Yes, superior minds like those of Joseph Curwen and his friends! Like those of Ephraim Waite and even the Whateleys! Is it a double-edged racism that only white men can cause epic Mythos trouble? Even in “The Call of Cthulhu,” where dark men play the biggest roles, they’re basically glorified (or to-be-glorified) door-openers.
We’ve got to wonder how Suydam rejuvenates himself from unsavory old guy to suave man-about-town. Lovecraft associates his metamorphosis with kidnappings, so child sacrifice? What can you put past someone who’d marry a high-born virgin in order to let Lilith ravage her on the wedding night?
Lilith, supposedly Adam’s first wife and the consort of archangels! Here she’s sexuality in its most terrifying and least sensuous guise—she has become it, not even female, a naked and leprous thing. That titters. A lot. And paws. And quaffs virgin blood. And hauls male corpses around with insolent ease. Plus phosphorescent is so not the same as radiant or beaming, as a bride should be. Phosphorescence is what mushrooms put out, or rotting things, a fungal light.
Sex is death. In fact, the bridegroom’s a rotting corpse that goes to pieces at the climax, like Edward Derby in Asenath’s long-buried body.
Imagery. The phallic gold pedestal on which Lilith squats is the center of Red Hook sorcery. What does it mean when Suydam’s corpse rushes from his second “wedding” to tackle the pedestal into a well too deep for dredging? Is this a consummation of his union with Lilith, or is it a last-second repudiation of it, a breaking of magic that would have consumed the world, or at least Brooklyn? Lilith and buddies don’t seem to want Suydam to reach the pedestal first, to cast it from erect pride of place into sinking impotency, eventually to be given a cement chastity belt.
Another Lovecraft marriage that doesn’t work out, that’s for sure. “Blind laws of biology” may lead others to finish what Suydam started, however. Probably those virile young loungers, who don’t get the danger Machen mentions in the epigraph, that “man may sometimes return on the track of evolution.”
Which is a whole other, if related, anxiety!
Next week, we appreciate the morbid artistry of “Pickman’s Model.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.