“Oh my God, terrifying vistas of reality and our position therein are being opened up to us all. This is the worst thing that’s happened to mankind and in the studio they’ve opted for a new dark age but your commentator has gone stark staring mad.” New Dark Age by Rudimentary Peni.
It is fairly well-established that H.P. Lovecraft was a devout racist. The HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, an inversion of a number of Lovecraftian tropes, set many fingers to typing about the blatant and unapologetic hatred, even terror, that he felt toward black people. Therefore, it’s pretty unimportant to repeat such a widely known and irrefutable fact. But, I don’t think it covers all the bases.
There are other currents of hatred and fear throughout his work. Like many of his characters, Lovecraft’s internal world was plagued by sinister dreams that were animated by the fears of empires long gone. He was a man of state, but the wild kind, haunted by the possibility of a radically altered world.
For myself, I first read Lovecraft at twelve. Expecting kids to be deep readers seems overly ambitious, but maybe this just reflects the low expectations, shitty education and dumb adults that I was exposed to. In a time where we consider the things people post on Facebook to be statements of unadulterated fact I think I’ll forgive myself for being blind to the hatred and fear that animated Lovecraft’s writing. Or maybe it resonated because I was being trained in the very same hatreds.
Much of his writing is (debatably) in the public domain, which has allowed numerous editions of his work to circulate, distinguished from one another only by cover art, and the book I picked up delivered in that regard. It was a splash page of terrifying figures rendered in shades of gray and red. Odd pieces of anatomy, strange doors and stairs and windows… I was catching on, slowly, to the fact that cool book jackets could disguise shitty books, but I went for it. A family day trip to Vermont was a perfect opportunity to refine a migraine by reading in a moving vehicle, and the relief of vomiting on the side of the road and then passing out wasn’t even a thing I really disliked.
I dug in. The book was a collection of his more refined (and probably more financially viable) stories. There was none of his bad poetry or his shit about Kadath, just endless descents into madness by various doomed protagonists and awakenings of incomprehensible beings.
It scared the fucking shit out of me.
It was seductive. Underneath the mounting paranoia of the inevitably white and tweedy heroes (or something… they were rarely if ever heroic) there was a love of the mystery and a fascination with the exterior. The world I was growing up in was known. The earth was mapped, the sea would be too, and space was sterile. Things were gridded and I didn’t like it at all. The beings of Lovecraft’s pantheon were terrifying, but they came from somewhere else- another dimension of space. I felt something like hope when I read about these impending nightmares.
Regardless, after reading The Dunwich Horror the treeline became a place where indescribable creatures with frightening appetites could be hiding. Since dogs hated these things I felt comforted by the obese lab that came along, and I didn’t fall asleep until late into the night.
I got older. An encounter with a shoggoth would have been preferable to day to day life. I didn’t reflect on the politics of Lovecraft until much later.
Around the age of twenty I was fortunate enough to read Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. It was another book that revealed a hidden dimension, in this instance the junctures at which the people working under the various lashes of power to establish a global capitalist economy attempted to bust through the ‘strange geometries’ that so threatened the order of a Lovecraftian world.
These people, their resistance to regimes of exploitation, and their dreams of something better circulated on ocean currents. In their lives and their deaths they were mutilated. Pirates and slaves sought freedom under threat of death. Women claimed rights so offensive that they were burned or drowned to banish them. Indigenous people fled, or hid on ships that would go pirate if only the crew would seize the captain’s blunderbuss. And ‘anabaptists’ preached the heresy of a kingdom of God on Earth, another assertion that was worthy of a violent and public end.
In a classic fashion, the economy of the revolutionary Atlantic had brought together its own grave diggers. In their numerous manifestations they were tied as metaphor and as death sentence to the realm of monstrosity, and the hydra was the most common referent. The chief theorist of the monstrosity of the working class was Francis Bacon, who appropriated the myth of Hercules and his labor of defeating the creature, to illustrate the disciplinary project faced by the masters of the nascent global economy.
With poetic flair he named the Hydra’s heads, each one representing a threat to order and reason: Indigenous people, steeped in tradition and landed knowledge, their relative wealth a lure to the miserable colonists; dispossessed commoners, with their own traditions of cooperation- the Irish, the African, and the travelling people; pirates were the third head- both those preying on the shipping lanes and those simmering aboard the Virginia Company ships, waiting to mutiny; the fourth terrible head was comprised of what Marx would call the ‘lumpenproletariat’- those who relied on petty crime to survive;head five, the scourge of nobles, was the assassin; ‘Amazons’, rebellious women, also required ‘putting down’- they led the bread riots that characterized the food crises of 17th century Europe, and could be witches as well, fit for burning and unfit for work; and finally, considered the most dangerous head of all, were the anabaptists, who threatened all order with talk of a ‘church from below’, where the paternal authority of protestantism would be overthrown by the urgings of the spirit. (p. 61-65)
The parallels between Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones and Bacon’s use of the hydra as parable provide a glimpse into the mind of the reactionary, both in the 17th century and the 20th century. The people who represented a threat to the functioning of a very specific type of society take on monstrous dimensions: They are threatening, mysterious, and unpredictable. And they are everywhere.
Lovecraft’s stories take place in numerous locales, though Arkham is his most notable setting. From there one can head on a number of directions.
Out in the country, in the village of Dunwich (unsurprisingly the setting of The Dunwich Horror), you might encounter the Whatelys, specifically the ‘decadent’ Whatelys, the spawn of respectable farmers gone to rot. There, amid fallow fields, below stone tables upon which the otherwise invisible ‘Indians’ of Lovecraft’s world dance, Lavinia Whateley (who is, God forbid, an albino, physically disabled, and worst of all unattractive) gave birth to two children. Her father, ‘half-crazed’ but steeped in esoteric knowledge (you could call him an ‘organic intellectual’) presided over the births.
The more precocious (debatably) of the two boys, possessed of “thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears”, dared seek knowledge that he should be denied. After being refused access to a book, Wilbur breaks into a library seeking said book, and is justifiably mauled to death by a dog.
What’s the ‘horror’ that came to Dunwich? Ugly people? Different people? There are several of the Hydra’s heads reared up in this story: The self-taught scholar; the rebel woman whose womb produces strange and unpredictable children; the ‘Indian’; the child who seeks knowledge above his station. Lovecraft’s villains are the victims of the revolutionary Atlantic.
Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulu, follows a similar course: The narrator’s uncle, a professor of Semitic Languages at Brown, dies mysteriously after being jostled by a “nautical looking negro”. As the protagonist pours over his uncle’s papers he comes upon a bas relief of a fantastical creature. Sculpted after troubling dreams by the “neurotic” son of an “excellent family” (it is interesting that the heroes of these stories can’t even stand thinking about stuff that the swarthy, deformed and wild minds of the minor villains think about all day), the young man seeks out the uncle and delivers the sculpture.
Later, the hero reads of one Detective Legrasse, a policeman who raided (read “suppressed”) a purported Voodoo meeting who turned to the protagonist’s uncle for information about a similar statue. Among the learned men who assembled to examine it, one asserts that a ‘deliberately bloodthirsty and repulsive’ group of devil-worshipping “Esquimaux” possessed and worshipped a similar statue. Mind-blowing stuff. It really “disclosed an astonishing degree of cosmic imagination among such half-castes and pariahs as might be least expected to possess it”.
Then there’s an interlude of a police massacre in which 47 religious celebrants are arrested and seven killed extrajudicially by police. But because the modern world is merciful, only two of the celebrants were sane enough to be hung. The rest were sent to institutions.
The story goes on in this fashion. There’s talk of “half-castes”, “mulattoes”, “waterfront scum”, and “negroes” throughout. Again, Bacon is summoned. The indigenous people, religious heretics, and nautical proletarians are attempting to subvert the ordered world of academics, who keep history in the past where it belongs, and police, who shoot those people who have escaped relegation to the dustbin of history. The villains are villains because they want to turn the world upside down. Their diversity makes them dangerous- the terror of miscegenation in Lovecraft’s writing is paramount. People who challenge categorization are not just worthy of distrust, but of extermination altogether.
Lovecraft is Francis Bacon for the early 20th Century. Less respected, perhaps, and certainly less well-connected, but dreaming the same nightmare: That all those hydra heads are out there. The dockworkers, the ignorant and pitiful rural working class, the people who have failed to adequately mix their atheism with their puritanism. The opus is teeming with a desire to hang on to the power relations of the contemporary age.
The things that are worth mentioning in regard to Cthulu are that (I’m going to assume that Cthulhu is gender-fluid and not human) it is a chimera. Cthulhu is an assemblage of animals thrown together. Cthulhu’s incomprehensible nature, the terror it inspires, the shocking thing about Cthulhu, is its size and the diversity of its elements. The second thing is that Cthulhu doesn’t die. It may be inactive for spans of time, sleeping, dreaming, but eternal.
For Bacon such monsters are a call to action. Exterminate them or break them. It was a new day for an ascendant class and hacking heads off was just another hero’s labor, not to be shirked or shied away from.
For Lovecraft it’s a form of paralysis. There are monsters everywhere. Fail to know them adequately and you’ll miss the moment that you’re held in their mouth; know too much about them and you might turn into one. Past and future are terrifying, as is the present, always teetering towards one or the other. It’s only the random violence of policemen’s guns that can clean up the mess.
In both men’s summoning of the monstrous, it was the blasphemous coming together of social forces that was the key threat to the societies that they envisioned as just and correct. It was, and is, the working class in all its manifestations that should be feared and, ultimately, killed. But the cosmic horror that both men face is that you can’t kill the monster. The story doesn’t work without it.
So for the specter of class war. There are so many of us. We are so different. Our cults exist in far flung places. Our icons and our statues get torn down or buried in museums, but we dream beneath the waves, waiting for the stars to align, to once again sow terror among respectable men of state.