Welcome to the H. P. Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today, not marking any particularly blogging milestone—the Great Race of Yith not-so-gently remind you that time is relative—we’re pausing to collect our thoughts and share our impressions of Lovecraft’s ouvre so far. Have we noticed any new themes? (Spoiler: yes.) Figured out the dread secret of the Necronomicon? (Spoiler: yes, but the world may be safer if we pretend we haven’t.) Gotten tired of saying “cyclopean”? (Spoiler: we have not.)
When I started this reread, I wanted to burrow (more or less feverishly, driven by the lunatic laughter of thunder) toward the roots of a paradox I sensed in Lovecraft’s work:
The unknown is terrifying; it’s the enemy!
The unknown is also fascinating, exhilarating; it could, in various senses, be our salvation. In fact, it could be US!
From our first story, I saw things in the much-read pages that I hadn’t noticed before, chief among them an abiding concern with identity. As far as this concern goes, “The Thing on the Doorstep” was the perfect place to start. Identity is all over the place. On the plot level, who is the Asenath Waite that Edward Derby marries? Who is the Asenath who, uncharacteristically, sobs in her library prison? And who actually animates the Asenath corpse that crawls to Daniel Upton’s doorstep? Answers: Ephraim Waite, wizard, who’s stolen his daughter’s body. And Edward Derby, mind-transferred into Asenath’s form so Ephraim can use Derby’s. And Derby again, transferred into dead Asenath, while Ephraim permanently takes over Derby’s body. Complicated enough? We haven’t scratched the surface yet. What about the questions of gender identity and sexual orientation all these transfers elicit? What about the tacit assumption that identity is entirely centered in the mind? Is Derby in Asenath still only Derby? Ephraim in Asenath only Ephraim? And is identity theft, then, the ultimate rape?
Identity. It’s obviously front and center in other stories we’ve read so far. Alienists believe that Charles Dexter Ward has lost himself through immersion in the past. The same diagnosis will fall to Jervas Dudley of “The Tomb.” Antiquarian and occult studies are dangerous things for the fragile ego! Heritage is dangerous, too. Turns out that Jervas is haunted by the ghost of an ancestor who wants to use him as a surrogate both in life and death. Whereas poor Charles is always Charles. The past that does him in is his ancestor in the reanimated flesh, who is his double in appearance. Identical except for accidental blemishes, as Jervas Dudley is the latter day physical double of Jervas Hyde.
That inheritance is part of one’s identity is undeniable, and the dark parts — the bad genes — can be deadly. Delapore (or, tellingly, de la Poer) of “Rats in the Walls” gets caught in a psychic torrent of family history, tumbling from identity to identity and dialect to dialect before returning to a permanently addled “self.” Ghoulishness didn’t descend on Richard Upton Pickman out of nowhere — he looks fondly back to many witches, and ghouls, in his line. Ditto to Randolph Carter, minus the ghouls. The vampiric presence in “The Shunned House” is less picky about whom it imposes its identity upon — if relations aren’t around, it will go for tenants. Hey, we humans are all related if you go back far enough.
Now, it’s bad enough when one species pretends to be another — that is, when aliens play human. We have the masked and cloaked worms of “The Festival.” The Yuggothian impersonating Henry Akeley (mask, hand-shaped gloves, blankets.) Yaddith wizard Z’Kauba (himself identity-suppressed by Randolph Carter!) going around as Swami Chandraputra (mask, turban, white mittens.) But it’s worse when aliens actually take over humans, as Nyarlathotep begins to do with Robert Blake in “Haunter of the Dark.” Then there are switches between humans and aliens. The Carter-Z’Kauba switch is actually a merger of identities in which one may sometimes dominate the other. Evidently this is even more disturbing, psychologically, than a straight-out transfer of identities, as the Yith practice it. Nathaniel Peaslee’s case is the most thoroughly developed of Lovecraft’s takes on identity and identity crisis. He is never other than himself (retaining his own mind), but he suffers drastic shifts in physical form and environment. Though he adapts to the shifts pretty well, they seem to affect his sense of self. In Yith form, he remembers humanity — and vice versa. You could say he’s been two Peaslees. Or three. Peaslee before mind-transfer. Peaslee during. Peaslee after his return to original body.
We humans can be touchy about identity even when no actual transfers are involved. In “The Nameless City,” our explorer-narrator ties himself into intellectual knots to avoid identifying the one-time inhabitants of the ruins as anything other than human—this despite those big-headed reptiles pictured in its murals and mummified in its tombs. Dyer will initially make the same assumption in “Mountains of Madness”—humans must have built the Antarctic megapolis and merely fetishized the barrel-shaped organism that monopolizes its art. Then there’s the narrator of “Picture in the House,” who’s most disturbed by the fact that an Africa-naive artist represents Africans (and cannibals!) as Caucasians. Turning back to identity on a species level, it would be better for humans to return to the rough comforts of a dark age than to realize that intelligence is not humanity’s alone. Possible ravening by the Old Ones aside, that realization would shatter the core of human identity, our claim to superiority over all other beings.
And yet. And yet. Wouldn’t it be a relief to know we’re not alone? Wouldn’t it be a wonder to see the amazing things other sapients have mastered? You know, like space and time travel. Yeah, even like mind transfer, done with reasonable benevolence, temporarily, right, not part of one of those genocides, er, mass migrations. We could enter a broader identity, as part of universal intelligence! Unless we got eaten or trod on like ants.
Back and forth again, wonder and fear. What if Randolph Carter is right to exclaim that “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity“? And yet, he gets over it. For a while. Theoretically. Until he’s actually a visitor in one of his other selves and finds the other way too alien.
Back and forth, wonder and fear.
Identity, the self. Not self, the other. All those heterogeneous foreigners who have taken over Red Hook, once the home of sturdy Anglo-Saxon ship-owners and captains. All those generally swarthy (and/or mongrel) cultists who are not from the gentle West. Naturally they’re cultists, linked to still more otherish others, like Lilith and her minions, or Cthulhu and his spawn, or Ghatanothoa the Beyond-Hideous. Some others are more shiveringly close to home, Anglo-Saxons who’ve gone bad, like the de la Poers and the Martenses. Like the Innsmouthers.
Innsmouth, oh yes. It all comes together there. Dark foreigners worship the Deep Ones. But so, in the end, do Captain Marsh and other stalwart Yankees. They hybridize their descendants right into the other, upping the ante on abandoned blood integrity by mating not with another race but with another species. Then, like so many others, they disguise themselves as long as they can. Hide themselves when they can’t pass any longer. Go all the way over to the alien, the not-selves. Well, the not OUR selves. Unless, like the narrator of “Shadow over Innsmouth,” we’re wrong about our identities. Confronted by the outre glamour of ancestral jewelry, he must rethink his identity, and isn’t that the ultimate horror?
Or the ultimate glory?
Fear and wonder. Bound up in identity, both. Somehow.
I’ve got to keep burrowing, to the lunatic laughter of thunder, and perhaps to the buoy-bells that sound in the aether beyond the Strange High House, which alters the visitor’s identity and makes him climb back down a different man. For worse? For better?
Prior to this blog series, my Lovecraft reading was sporadic—spread out over the course of years, and with serious gaps. Reading systematically has confirmed some of my opinions, added nuance to others, and undermined a few completely.
The biggest surprise? I’ve always enjoyed Lovecraft for his worldbuilding and hyperadjectival energy, but I’ve never thought of him as a good writer. But in fact, the over-the-top purple prose and hysterical rants mask a great deal of subtlety and nuance. On-point literary references to everything from Cotton Mather to the Bible, imagined libraries where you have to blink and then google to separate the real books from the clever inventions, and a remarkably effective vocabulary when he gets past the obsession with a few cyclopean, fungous favorites. Though with sorry-not-sorry apologies to Joshi, I still don’t think he’s one of the great prose stylists of the century.
Speaking of Lovecraft’s favorite words, I’m mulling over the gambrel/cyclopean distinction, and the obsession with architectures that typify particular flavors of horror. I make fun sometimes, both because of the overuse of those two words and because 99% of his “ancient” houses aren’t much older than the one I live in now. But the opening manifesto from last week’s “Picture” was insightful. Old New England houses aren’t scary merely because of age, but because of witness. They see all the sins that the “right sort of people” do behind closed doors, the Things We Don’t Talk About. (And how close cousins are those capitalized family secrets to Things Man Was Not Meant to Know? But I digress…) Gambrel roofs, covering your neighbor’s house and even your own, hide things that threaten preciously held illusions about who you are, and about who and what your people are. “Cyclopean,” by contrast, is nearly always applied to alien landscapes that threaten preciously held illusions about your place and permanence in the universe. Either way, you’re in trouble.
This gets at Lovecraft’s prejudice, one of my driving questions going into this project. I don’t enjoy reading modern bigots; what makes Howard different? At least for me, it turns out that he’s a good enough writer, or an un-self-conscious enough one, that I can see the bones of his fears. And much of it is the same as the architecture: look too long at the terrible other, and you’ll see yourself. Either because (according to the very, very wrong sociological theories of his time) all civilizations must rise and degenerate and guess what, yours is no different, or because you just can’t count on the purity of your bloodline, there are probably fish people back there, see if there aren’t. I’m still not particularly prone to forgive the fact that he sees me as a monster, but I can also see where he’s squinting to avoid seeing himself as one—and not always managing the trick.
That fuzzy boundary makes the knowledge that will destroy you always a temptation—knowledge from people as much as knowledge from forbidden tomes. Read the Necronomicon, and it might lead you down dark paths from which you never return, or it might just help you recognize that weird alien rune in time to save yourself from cosmic abomination. Talk to aliens from Yuggoth, or actual townspeople from Innsmouth, or your fellow New Yorkers, and there’s no going back. That, perhaps, is what made New York so terrifying for him—the impossibility of talking only to your own kind and preserving a narrow worldview that IS ALL THAT STANDS BETWEEN US AND THE CULTISTS OF CTHULHU AND THE SHOGGOTHS OH GOD THE SHOGGOTHS sorry, where was I?
That inevitable breakdown of comfortable illusion is a major theme running through Lovecraft’s stories. Relatively few of his characters actually end up in asylums—in many cases clear-eyed and sane understanding of the universe turns out to be a far worse fate. Watching from a safe-ish distance as his narrators go through that transformation is always a fascinating psychological study. In the final paragraphs of “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and in the delighted cosmological rambling of the brain canisters in “Whisperer in Darkness,” there are hints of—and at least an attempt to reject—the idea that such a breakdown might be a wonder rather than a horror. But even in the overly-tame world of “Gate of the Silver Key,” Carter shies from the consequences of the cosmic knowledge he sought without fear.
Readers, though, don’t need to be equally reticent. The wonder is there, and seems written to be appreciated. Particularly in later stories, a coherent—if coherently incomprehensible by mere human intellect—picture starts to emerge. Gods who got solo references early on start to come together in a pantheon, books that sat on separate shelves provide parallax on the same fearful secrets, and stories and artifacts trace back to common alien worlds. Even the Dreamlands, stylistically distinct (mostly), tie back into the central Mythos. And the stories get stronger as the Mythos gels. From “Whisperer” onward, most of my favorite stories sit in that final 1930-1936 period of writing.
I can’t help feeling, when I look at how both writing and worldbuilding come together in those last few stories, that we never got to the really good stuff. Here’s hoping it’s preserved somewhere in the Archives, or in a library in Ilek-Vad beyond the river Skai.
Join us next week as we finally tackle “The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath.” Cats! Zoogs! The dark side of the moon!
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.