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 “He,” written in August 1925, and first published in the September 1926 issue of Weird Tales. You can read it here.
“So instead of the poems I had hoped for, there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness; and I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before—the unwhisperable secret of secrets—the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life. Upon making this discovery I ceased to sleep comfortably….”
Summary: Our narrator, an aspiring poet, wanders the night streets of New York to save his soul. His first sunset glimpse of the city thrilled him, for it appeared “majestic above its waters, its incredible peaks and pyramids rising flower-like and delicate from pools of violet mist.” But daylight reveals squalor, architectural excess, and swarms of “squat and swarthy” foreigners. The terrible truth, the unwhispered secret, is that New York is dead, a corpse infested with “queer animate things” alien to its former glories.
Now narrator ventures forth only after dark, when “the past still hovers wraith-like about.” He chiefly haunts the Greenwich section, where rumors have led him to courtyards that once formed a continuous network of alleys. Here remnants of the Georgian era persist: knockered doorways and iron-railed steps and softly glowing fanlights. Around 2AM on a cloudy August morning, a man approaches him. The elderly stranger wears a wide-brimmed hat and out-dated cloak. His voice is hollow—always a bad sign—his face disturbingly white and expressionless. Even so, he gives an impression of nobility, and narrator accepts his offer to usher him into regions of still greater antiquity.
They traverse corridors, climb brick walls, even crawl through a long and twisting stone tunnel. From the growing age of their surroundings, it’s a journey back through time as well as space. A hill improbably steep for that part of New York leads to a walled estate, evidently the stranger’s home.
Undeterred by the mustiness of unhallowed centuries, narrator follows the stranger upstairs to a well-furnished library. Shedding cloak and hat, the stranger reveals a Georgian costume, and his speech lapses into a matching archaic dialect. He tells the story of his—ancestor—a squire with singular ideas about the power of human will and the mutability of time and space. The squire discovered he’d built his manse on a site the Indians used for “sartain” rites; his walls weren’t enough to keep them out when the full moon shone. Eventually he made a deal—they could have access to the hilltop if they’d teach him their magic. Once the squire mastered it, he must have served his guests “monstrous bad rum,” because he was soon the only man alive who knew their secret.
Anyhow, this is the first time the stranger’s ever told an outsider about the rites, for narrator is obviously “hot after bygone things.” The world, he continues, is but the smoke of our intellects, and he will show the narrator a sight of other years, so long as he can hold back his fright. With icy fingers, the stranger draws the narrator to a window. A motion of his hand conjures New York when it was still wilderness, unpeopled. Next he conjures colonial New York. Then, at the narrator’s awed query of whether he dare “go far,” the stranger conjures a future city of strange flying things, impious pyramids, and “yellow, squint-eyed” people in orange and red robes, who dance insanely to drums and crotala and horns.
Too much: the narrator screams and screams. When the echoes die, he hears stealthy footsteps on the stairs, muted as if the creeping horde was barefoot or skin-shod. The latch of the locked door rattles. Terrified and enraged, the stranger damns the narrator for calling them, the dead men, the “red devils.” He clutches at the window curtains, bringing them down and letting in the moonlight. Decay spreads over library and stranger alike. He shrivels even as he tries to claw at the narrator. By the time a tomahawk rends open the door, the stranger is no more than a spitting head with eyes.
What barrels through the door is an amorphous, inky flood starred with shining eyes. It swallows the stranger’s head and retreats without touching the narrator.
The floor gives way under him. From the lower room he sees the torrent of blackness rush toward the cellar. He makes it outside, but is injured in his climb over the estate wall.
The man who finds him says he must have crawled a long way despite his broken bones, but rain soon effaces his trail of blood. He never tries to find his way back into the obscure, past-haunted labyrinth, nor can he say who or what the stranger was. Wherever the stranger was borne, the narrator has gone home to New England, to pure lanes swept at evening by fragrant sea-winds.
What’s Cyclopean: The New York of the author’s imagination, before his arrival and disillusionment, holds cyclopean towers and pinnacles rising blackly Babylonian under waning moons.
The Degenerate Dutch: This is one of Lovecraft’s New York stories, so brace yourself. Aside from the usual run of OMG IMMIGRANTS AND BROWN PEOPLE, we also get dark arts that could only be a hybrid of those practiced by “red Indians” and THE DUTCH!
Mythos Making: A glimpse of far-future New York looks suspiciously Leng-like, plus there are hints that He might be involved with the same research circles as our old friend Curwen from “Charles Dexter Ward.” Not to mention yet another winding back street impossible to find once fled—there seem to be a few of these in every major city.
Libronomicon: This story could use more books.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Does massive xenophobia count? How about irrational terror of languages you don’t speak?
I’m writing this on Thursday June 18th, and really not inclined to be sympathetic to racism. In a hundred years, people will excuse certain moderns by saying they were just products of their time, and as ever it will be both an unwitting condemnation of the time and an excuse for precisely nothing.
I’ve already expressed my profound irritation with Lovecraft’s reaction to New York, in “Horror at Red Hook” and to a lesser extent “Cool Air.” This is more on the Red Hook end, though it has some minor redeeming features that Red Hook lacks. But first, the narrator (Howard, we could call him, choosing a name at random) whines about how the city lacks history(!), how it’s full of horrible immigrants with no dreams(!), how it’s so oppressive and terrifying that the only thing for it is to wander around in dark alleys all night and occasionally talk to the suspicious people you meet there, because Pure Art. Tourists, ugh.
If the presence of people who are a little different from you oppresses your art, you maybe need to reconsider your life choices. Just saying.
So, right, he meets this creepy guy in a dark alley who offers to show him historical sights for the truly refined—also he has candy. Eventually He leads the narrator home, where they share secrets that cannot abide the light of day—the subtle symbolism of which I should probably leave to Anne. But he does all this because the creepy old necromantic vampire seems like the friendliest, most familiar thing in this city full of weird people who speak other languages. This is also the sort of thing that should make you reconsider your life choices.
Setting aside the bigoted whining and the artistically pretentious angst, the inclusion of Native Americans in the back story brings an irony that I’m not entirely sure was unintentional. Vampire dude stole the secret of immortality from the local natives, then gave them “bad rum” (read “smallpox blankets,” and I wonder if Howard was familiar with that historical tidbit, which at one point was taught more frequently and with greater approval than it is now). And then the spirits of those natives (we’re not particularly scientific this week) rise, attracted by his timey-wimey showing off, and have their vengeance. (Sure, he blames the screaming, but what’s more likely: ancient enemies summoned by your audience yelping, or by your own unwisely ambitious magic?)
One is minded that New York was itself stolen from Native Americans (though not the ones who sold it, of course). Admitting that would, of course, involve admitting that the city does have history, and rather a lot of it. But the parallel seems unavoidable. And a great part of Lovecraft’s racist fears, shown plainly in “Shadow Out of Time” and “Doom That Came to Sarnath” and “Under the Pyramid” and… I’m not going to list them all because word count, but my point is that when you’re on the top of the heap, the idea of the people you’ve “justly” conquered getting their due is pretty terrifying. Vampire dude isn’t the only character in this story with something to worry about.
Vampire dude’s timey-wimey show is interesting, the best part of the story. New York of the prehistoric past, New York of the distant abomination-overrun future… these themes are played out far better elsewhere, but it’s odd to see them here, where the thing they place in dizzying perspective isn’t something the narrator likes. Does Howard find it comforting to think that the modern city will eventually fall to eldritch ruin, or is that Leng-like future city just what he sees as the logical end point of the world outside his Red Hook window?
Fleeing the horrors of New York, our narrator heads home for New England—where as we know, he should be just fine, provided he avoids bike tours, abandoned churches, run-down houses, municipal water supplies…
Lovecraft admits to the dream-origin of a number of tales; still more have the feel of dream-origin. “He” is one of them, but it appears to have been the product of a waking dream. In August, 1925, Lovecraft took a night-long walk through New York streets about which the past still hovered, wraith-like. He ended up taking a ferry to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he bought a notebook and wrote the story down. Feverishly, I imagine, with a cup of cooling coffee on the park bench beside him.
The opening paragraphs read like overwrought autobiography, a cri de coeur of loneliness, disappointment and alienation. Our narrator’s romance with New York was brief. That first sunset glimpse recalls Randolph Carter’s ecstasies over the Dreamlands metropolis of the day, but further acquaintance reduces the city to something more like the soullessly colossal towers of the Gugs, coupled with the squalor of Leng. Even the so-called poets and artists of Greenwich Village are no kindred souls, for they’re pretenders whose very lives deny beauty. Bohemians and modernists, I guess, no better than that Sherwood Anderson who had to be given a come-uppance in “Arthur Jermyn.”
I wonder that Lovecraft should have found New York so shocking. In the early twentieth century, Providence was hardly a paradise of preservation, and Lovecraft knew it. By the time Charles Dexter Ward was able to begin his famous solitary rambles, Benefit Street was becoming a slum, its Colonial and Georgian and Victorian houses going to seed as the well-to-do retreated higher up the hill. Immigrants had begun arriving en masse by the mid-nineteenth century; Providence had a Chinatown, and Federal Hill hosted the Italian neighborhood Lovecraft would describe with distaste in “Haunter of the Dark.” And when Charles eventually ventured all the way down College Hill to South Main and South Water Streets, he found a “maelstrom of tottering houses, broken transoms, tumbling steps, twisted balustrades, swarthy faces, and nameless odors.” Sounds kind of Red Hookish to me.
Familiarity does make a difference, though, especially to us Rhode Islanders. We’re infamous for sticking to home ground. This very afternoon, I took a friend to Swan Point Cemetery, which he found a place of novel wonder, one he’d never explored despite living and working within walking distance most of his life. There’s also the truism that Rhode Islanders pack a bag to go from Pawtucket to Cranston, a distance of, oh, ten miles. Like Charles, Lovecraft must have been able to overlook Providence’s flaws, at least enough to feel a lift of the heart upon every return. Home is home, first Providence, then New England, whose beauties are consolidated in the sunset city of Randolph Carter’s longing.
New York, though! There Lovecraft’s a stranger in a strange (and much bigger) land. As a new husband, he’s also on unfamiliar interpersonal ground, nor can he take comfort in stable finances. Any dream connected with his move has turned dingy, and he’s no Randolph Carter, able to speak the languages of creatures as diverse as Zoogs and ghouls. Hence “He.” Hence “Red Hook.” Hence “Cool Air.” Noise! Crowds! Smells! Foreigners so unreasonable that they speak in foreign tongues! And they don’t have blue eyes. Though, to be fair, neither do all Anglo-Saxons. Even in New England. But at least they speak English.
Mid-story, autobiography becomes wishful musing—the narrator’s nocturnal prowls bring him to the edge of old New York, disjointed courtyards that hint at a hidden realm. Then a stranger comes along to guide him into the very heart of the ghost-city. So what if you have to traverse an obscure labyrinth of streets into growing antiquity, as in the later “Pickman’s Model“? So what if you have to surmount an improbably steep hill, also into antiquity, as in the already penned “Music of Erich Zann“? So what if your guide speaks in an archaic dialect? It’s still English. Familiar, with the deeper familiarity of racial memory. The ghost-city and manse themselves soothe with racial memory, even if the manse does smell a bit—rotten.
And anyway, familiarity isn’t all. Reality itself is empty and horrible, right? Wonder and mystery are powerful lures to the poetic mind. It’s not so bad to see the unpeopled past of New York. It’s pretty cool to see its colonial past. If only the narrator had stopped there, because the far future he asks to preview turns out to be his worst nightmare: New York taken over by “yellow, squint-eyed people” who dance to weird music. Like the beings of Ib! Like the men of Leng! Like the mindless Outer Gods themselves! Lovecraft does not approve of dancing, it seems.
Epiphany! That vision of the far future? I bet it’s the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, and what’s so cruel about it is that the Emperor makes everyone dance to ear-aching tunes. Horribly. Ooh, and that amorphous and inky conglomeration of ghosts? With its constellations of shining eyes? Isn’t that a protoshoggoth?
Funky little story. So many tropes that other stories use more effectively, even brilliantly. The parallel world hidden close to mundane reality. The accessibility of past and future. The attractions and dangers of magic. The inadvisability of showing someone scary stuff when a scream is likely to summon hungry and/or vengeful nasties.
These poets and poet-wannabes. They may faint. They may crawl blindly off, unable to remember how they escaped the nasties. But they will always, always scream.
Next week, we explore the terrifying nexus of old houses and cosmic chasms in “Dreams in the Witch House.”
Two additional notes: First, as we run low on the really well-known Lovecraft stories, we’re going to start interspersing some Mythosian classics by other writers, starting later in July with “The Hounds of Tindalos.” Audience suggestions welcome, bearing in mind that older works, freely/legally available online and with deceased authors who can’t object to a sharp opinion or two, are preferred.
Second, while we failed in our search for a cover that included the title of this week’s work (“Lovecraft He” is a lousy search term no matter how you vary it), we learned that there’s now a Lovecraft-themed restaurant and bar on Avenue B. Mock New York if you dare; it’ll get you in the end.
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.” (And if you check back on Wednesday, “The Deepest Rift” will be up as well.) 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.