The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction
© 2004, Bruce Lord
Note On Citations
Some books that are heavily cited will be referred to using the following abbreviations within the body of the paper; full citations can be found on the works cited page.
MM: H.P. Lovecraft, At The Mountains Of Madness.
Dagon: H.P. Lovecraft, Dagon And Other Macabre Tales
Dunwich: H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror And Others
SL I-III: H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters volumes I-III
H.P. Lovecraft's racism, if recent publications are an accurate indication, is slowly being understood to be not merely an embarrassing personal failing, or the product of a conservative New England upbringing at the turn of the twentieth century. Early apologists viewed Lovecraft's racism as an unimportant element that occasionally surfaced in the background of his literature; today it is viewed as a key element in understanding Lovecraft's fiction and the nature of the world he created with it. There has been much writing dealing with the presence of atavism, hereditary memory and biological determinism in Lovecraft, and his racism thus surfaces as a means of understanding how these forces work in his fiction. However, another of Lovecraft's unconventional views (though by no means as initially apparent or bombastic as his racism) intersects at this point. What is glaringly conspicuous by its absence in Lovecraft's tales of degeneration and cursed ancestry is the very means by which these themes come into being. In a word: sex. Lovecraft's anxiety over sex and women has been well documented and pondered over by his biographers,1 yet it is rarely discussed in connection with his fiction, apart from the occasional note that Lovecraft excluded women in his stories because of the confusion and apprehension he felt towards them. More importantly, the subjects of women, sex and reproduction are almost never connected with Lovecraft's tales of degeneration and the racism that underlies them.
It is my contention that Lovecraft's anxiety concerning racial degeneration and his anxiety concerning all matters sexual intersect at several points in Lovecraft's body of work, and that together they cast a new angle of light on Lovecraft's conception of humanity and its fate. In Lovecraft's vision of humanity in decline, sexual reproduction causes an effect exactly opposite to Darwinian evolution: negative biological traits propagate whilst positive ones become extinct. For Lovecraft, the ‘natural' act of reproduction is not equated with life, but with degeneration, decay, and eventually death. Lovecraft's primary conception of humanity as an insignificant species dwarfed by the sheer scope of the universe and the indifferent horrors that occupy it thus is coupled with another, equally horrific fate. Humanity, as portrayed in Lovecraft's fiction, is not only incapable of resisting the impact of racial and hereditary degeneration, but also incapable of maintaining itself ‘properly' via sexual reproduction, an act that for Lovecraft gives birth to nothing but nightmare.
The despicable mechanism and the divine hatred of life: sex and degeneration in Lovecraft's life
It is odd that so little has been written on the role of sex in Lovecraft's fiction and his anxieties regarding women. Sex is conspicuous by its absence in the majority of his work, and when it does appear, it does so in conjunction with some of the primary themes of Lovecraft's fiction. However, in his own words, Lovecraft felt that he "could not write about ‘ordinary people' because [he was] not in the least interested in them," and that "man's relations to man [did] not captivate [his] fancy" due to his cosmic perspective. As such, what he termed the "humanocentric pose [was] impossible" (Joshi, 181-82) for him to adopt. In light of this it should not surprise us that Lovecraft did not make reference to sex (I refer here to the entire subject of sexuality itself, not merely sexual activity) as a means of detailing characters, establishing context or even drawing the reader into accepting and believing his stories (Lovecraft typically used scientific detail for this purpose). Far from an emotive or romantic subject,2 Lovecraft saw sex as just another component in his mechanistic materialist philosophy (which I will outline shortly), specifically a very unpleasant and awkward one.
Lovecraft's introduction to the subject of sex came at age eight, when, recognizing a veiled but predominant subject in literature which adults were unwilling to explain to a child his age, he researched the subject in anatomy textbooks. As to how he felt when he made his discoveries, Lovecraft describes his experience in this way:
"The result was the very opposite of what parents generally fear - for instead of giving me an abnormal and & precocious interest in sex (as unsatisfied curiosity might have done), it virtually killed my interest in the subject. The whole matter was reduced to prosaic mechanism - a mechanism which I rather despised or at least thought non-glamourous because of its purely animal nature & separation from such things as intellect & beauty - & all the drama was taken out of it."
Regardless of how much of this statement is the reflective result of the constructed persona of a prudish old man (Lovecraft was signing letters as "Grandpa Theobald" by his mid-twenties and berating his correspondents for young and faddish behavior), or how much of this sentiment should be attributed to the clinical introduction Lovecraft had to sex or to his existing psychology at eight,3 this is a remarkable statement for anyone to make. Rather than simply ignoring the subject (as many of his critics have), or making the excuse that such matters are simply not suitable for discussion (Lovecraft almost never passed up an opportunity to cast himself as a moral puritan), Lovecraft here makes a point of stating his direct opposition towards one of humanity's most basic drives that is as key an element to the human condition as any. Additionally, should be noted that Lovecraft connects his thoughts on sex (which by his own admission range from indifference to disgust) to his philosophical position of mechanism, which is seen unanimously as the dominant ideology behind Lovecraft's fiction not only by his critics past and present, but by Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft's tales and letters are rife with references to mechanistic materialism, the most famous of which declares the inextricable connection between his personal world view and that expressed in his literature: "all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large."4 (SL II, 150) Sex, for Lovecraft, is clearly one such trifling interest. Furthermore, Lovecraft places sex in direct opposition to intellect and the pursuit of intellectual ends. Intellectual pursuits, whatever form they might take, were the hallmark of civilisation for Lovecraft, who remained what might be termed an amateur intellectual throughout his life, forever attempting to maintain a historically complete and contemporary grasp on all matters scientific and artistic.5 A more refined declaration of Lovecraft's view of sex and the intellect as polar opposites can be found in a letter to Frank Long in which he differentiates between Puritanism (ie, moral Puritanism) and intellectual Puritanism:
"And as for Puritan inhibitions - I admire them more every day. They are attempts to make of life a work of art - to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence - and they spring out of that divine hatred for life which marks the deepest and most sensitive soul...An intellectual Puritan is a fool - almost as much of a fool is an anti-Puritan - but a Puritan in the conduct of life is the only kind of man one may honestly respect. I have no respect or reverence whatever for any person who does not live abstemiously and purely - I can like and tolerate him...but in my heart I feel him to be my inferior - nearer the abysmal amoeba and the Neanderthal man..."
(SL I, 315)
In addition to describing his views on (sexual) morality and the intellect, Lovecraft here introduces the themes of degeneration and misanthropy which figure greatly in his fiction. In the world view Lovecraft puts forth, a clear dichotomy can be drawn, with intellectual pursuits and moral chastity on one side, and physical pursuits, intellectual backwardness and degeneration on the other. Perversely, the very concept of life itself also seems to fall into the latter category, if we are to give Lovecraft's comments on the "divine hatred for life" any weight. This seems to indicate that Lovecraft is aware of the problems his condemnation of sexual pursuits creates; although sex is necessary for the propagation of life, life itself is just as distasteful as the means by which it is generated, and only the pure pursuit of intellectual matters can provide any solace to "the deepest and most sensitive soul."
If this dichotomy is the basis upon which individuals and societies are to be judged, Lovecraft does not refrain in passing that judgement on his own society. Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft's letters are rife with laments for the lost Georgian customs and values he highly idealised and emulated6 and the decadent and degenerate modern times he inhabits. What is surprising is that Lovecraft is not content with regarding the colonial days of America as the pinnacle of human civlisation. Lovecraft instead looks further back to classical Greece and Rome to find the epitome of human art and science. In an amateur journalism article called "The Case For Classicism" Lovecraft states:
"I cannot refrain from insisting on the permanent paramountcy of classical literature as opposed to the superficial productions of this disturbed and degenerate age...The literary genius of Greece and Rome, developed under peculiarly favourable circumstances, may fairly be said to have completed the art of science and expression...which all succeeding time has been powerless to excel or even to equal."
Joshi notes that the implications of this statement for all human cultural production are staggering: "there is nothing left for subsequent writers to do but imitate."7 (Joshi, 83) When Lovecraft's statement concerning classical culture are taken in the context of the dichotomy discussed above, the classical peak in cultural development stands against a process of degeneration along intellectual, sexual and moral lines that humanity has been unable to break free of. Thus we can see that Lovecraft's tales of successive inescapable degeneration are not only an extension of Lovecraft's own philosophy of culture, but also implicate a connection between degeneration and sex.
The subterranean peril: Lovecraft's racism
Cultural degeneration is typically associated in Lovecraft's letters and fiction with immigration and the subsuming of ‘proper' cultures by the ‘mongrel hordes' Lovecraft feared so much. A great deal of Lovecraft's substandard fiction incorporates this simpler form of cultural degeneration without implicating sex. There is an unfortunately large amount of Lovecraft's fiction that predominantly focus on simplistic racism. By simplistic I mean that the racism espoused does not make use of metaphor or communicate anything other than the inferiority of nonwhite races, and plays up the paranoias of foreign invasion via immigration or ‘Yellow Peril.' These stories, in addition to being poorly written, have not aged well and often blur together in the mind of the reader simply because of their indistinct and repetitive racist proselytizing. To give brief examples of Lovecraft's simplistic racism, I will quickly gloss "The Street" and "Horror At Red Hook," although numerous other stories could take their place (such as "He" or "Medusa's Coil"). "The Street" is a brief allegory written in 1919, in which the titular street represents the entire United States. After initial colonization by "good, valiant men of our blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea," (Dagon, 343-344) trouble comes to The Street in the form of "swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words, and placed signs in known and unknown characters upon most of the musty houses." (Dagon, 346) The newcomers plot to "tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America - the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation...[in which] many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more." (Dagon, 347) The night before this heinous revolution is set to occur, The Street implodes in on itself, killing all of its sinister inhabitants, its foundations having grown rotten and weak with decay and degeneration. Strangely enough, the image of American buildings seemingly voluntarily collapsing on foreign devils is repeated in "The Horror At Red Hook," which uses an occult mystery formula rather than stilted allegory. It is in "The Horror At Red Hook" that Lovecraft is perhaps at his racist worst. The two years Lovecraft spent in New York were the most miserable of his life for several reasons, but Lovecraft never failed to credit his unhappiness to the heterogeneous population of New York in the 1920s; the slum of Red Hook thus represented everything Lovecraft feared and loathed, and Lovecraft apparently saw little need to include much in the tale other than description in order to create what was, for him, a real life horror story. The descriptions of the immigrants in "The Horror At Red Hook" are virtually indistinguishable from those found in his letters from the same time. Lovecraft pads the lacking plot of "Red Hook" with reams of paranoid description. A brief excerpt: "From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky...occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguished lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through." (Dagon, 248)
In an infamous and particularly venomous letter to Frank Long, one can almost hear the bile as Lovecraft writes about the inhabitants of New York slums: "monstrous and nubulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoids and moebal; vaguely molded from some stinking viscous slime of earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilites." (SL I, 333-334) In "The Subway And The Shoggoth (Part I)," Robert H. Waugh discusses a popular American legend contemporary to Lovecraft's time revolving around a multileveled subterranean labyrinth that lay below San Francisco's Chinatown. Waugh notes similarities between this legend, cemented in the Fu Manchu fictions of Sax Rohmer, and Lovecraft's own fears of immigrant ghettoes teeming with unseen masses dwelling beneath the ground. While Waugh is discussing the underworld legend solely in connection to Lovecraft's fear of Asians in particular, "Red Hook" contains a smorgasbord of Lovecraft's racisms. While for the most part Lovecraft observed differences in the races he viewed as inferior,8 no such distinctions are found in "Red Hook": "the population is a hopeless tangle and enigma." (Dagon, 247) By name he mentions Syrian, Spanish, Italian, negro, Scandinavian, Asian, Arabic, Mongoloid, Persian, Kurdish, and Greek elements in Red Hook's population and does little to distinguish between any of these undesirables. The plot of the story, so much as there is one, culminates in a detective discovering a vast underground cove beneath the slums where occultists have been conducting their unspeakable rites. The detective's quarry, who has died under mysterious circumstances, is resurrected at an altar to an ancient demonic fertility goddess. The number of gods and religious traditions that are referenced in the chanting of the cultists are too numerous to mention; it is enough for Lovecraft to simply include whatever "foreign" and ergo evil tropes he can collect. In a frustratingly confusing ending, the reanimated corpse somehow upsets the ritual, and, much like in the case of "The Street" the houses above, "doubtless long rotten with decay in its most insidious form" (Dagon, 263) collapse9 while the detective faints in true Lovecraftian form. In both "The Street" and "Red Hook" no attention is paid to the long-term effects of the immigrant populations they depict; Lovecraft's imploding buildings kill them off before they become too settled, and so Lovecraft's anxieties concerning miscegenation and the sexual act remain unexplored in these reductive racial allegories.
Spawning, multiplication, and snarling chaos: sexuality and degeneration in Lovecraft's fiction
In contrast to these simplistic racist tales that are as lacking as they are offensive, Lovecraft's fictions include several tales in which Lovecraft's racial paranoia is examined not through simple racist bombast, but through the numerous alien and inhuman species that are now viewed as one of the hallmarks of his work. Of further interest are the topics of miscegenation and degeneration that these stories touch upon, begging the question of the role played by Lovecraft's other great fear: sex. As a corollary, women should be included alongside sex as Lovecraft's other fear; female characters are a rare occurrence in Lovecraft's fiction, and when they are discussed in any depth it is always with regard to their reproductive capacity. I can think of no Lovecraft story featuring female characters of significant importance in which women are not used as a device by which themes of reproduction, and inevitably degeneration, may be introduced. Whether Lovecraft's fear of women extended from his youthful disgust with the sexual act, or whether the overbearing matriarchs in his life (his mother, then after her death his two aunts) contributed to his anxieties regarding sex is a wholly speculative question and not pertinent in this case.
Lovecraft's tales of familial degeneration are often discussed in relation to the racist tropes they touch upon; "Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn And His Family" alludes to early eugenic theories regarding the similarities between ‘lesser' races and simians, while "The Lurking Fear," in keeping with Lovecraft's near-maniacal devotion to the ideal of aristocracy, warns against breeding with one's social inferiors. Bennett Lovett-Graff, perhaps the only Lovecraft scholar thus far to devote any real attention to the role occupied by sex in Lovecraft's fiction, has written on both stories. Lovett-Graff views "Arthur Jermyn" as a terrifying meditation on what Darwin's discoveries (the aftershocks of which were still being felt by Lovecraft's generation) reveal about human sexuality.10 "The Lurking Fear," in Lovett-Graff's estimation, examines what happens to the immigrant hordes Lovecraft depicted so vilely in "The Street" and "Red Hook" (in which their arrival and presence was horror enough); specifically, what happens when those immigrants begin to breed and produce second, third, and further generations?
"Arthur Jermyn," written in 1920, is the first of Lovecraft's tales of degeneration to hint at the mechanism required to produce the degenerate horrors Lovecraft feared so much. The story hinges upon a discovery made by the titular character: his great-great-grandfather married a "white ape goddess" worshipped by an African tribe he discovered while exploring the Congo. It is from this bizarre pairing that the Jermyn's legacy of madness and peculiar physiology stems. Upon seeing his own features reflected in the utterly simian remains of his great-great-grandmother, the younger Jermyn burns himself to death. In "‘Life is a Hideous Thing': Primate-Geniture in H.P. Lovecraft's ‘Arthur Jermyn'," Bennett Lovett-Graff presents sex as a key aspect in the biological determinism that drives so many of Lovecraft's tales:
"Like the eternal cycle of feeding and breeding implicit in Darwin's theory of natural selection, the source (as Lovecraft never forgot) of humanity's origin, the recycling of the biological past of the Jermyns erupts with a savage force that is broken only by a suicidal act of immolation that terminates the family line. What began with the metaphorical heat of Wade Jermyn's sexual desire in the sultry, sweltering tropics of the Congo ends in the self-incineration of his progeny. This looping of genetic inheritance culminates in the image of an overheated sexuality that literally reduces its final descendant to ashes."
While "Arthur Jermyn" certainly contains racist elements, it contains none of the white-supremacist posturings of "The Street" or "The Horror At Red Hook"; instead, it shows the capacity of even the noblest of lineages to degenerate to the lowest common denominator contained within them through sex. While the story is focussed intently on Darwin's discoveries and their ramifications for humanity, it also adopts a sort of counter-Darwinian position in which maladaptive (or at least less advanced) genes not only are not effaced by the effects of more advanced genes, but persevere and outweigh those genes. As Lovett-Graff puts it, "[i]nstead of having the intrusive simianism...dissipate over the spread of five generations, Lovecraft, with a heavy-handed emphasis on the power of heredity, has it prevail." (Lovett-Graff, 380) In "Arthur Jermyn," sex is responsible for a sort of genetic entropy or drag, a concept as irrational to our sensibilities as the urges that led to it were for Lovecraft. The horror of Wayde Jermyn's act is not its transgressive element, but the ease with which miscegenation is accomplished, which is where the racist elements resurface: "[b]y emphasizing the capacity of whites and apes to interbreed, a phenomenon typically reserved for nonwhites, Lovecraft transforms his white ape goddess into a far more frightening figure. Instead of mediating white evolutionary ancestry through blacks, Lovecraft goes for the reader's racist jugular by suggesting the inherent power of physical reproduction to drag even the most ‘advanced' human species down to the level of their primate ancestors." (Lovett-Graff, 378) Paul Montelone, in "‘The Rats In The Walls': A Study In Pessimism" is wrong in suggesting that the horror of "Arthur Jermyn" "concerns one man and his progenitors with little or no implication for the rest of the world." (Montelone, 18) The scope of the horror of "Arthur Jermyn" is as far reaching as any of Lovecraft's most cosmic works, at least from humanity's perspective: the entire human race is utterly doomed if everyone whose ancestral past includes an ape is best off immolating themselves. As has been noted by many critics, Lovecraft's characters often fall into two camps: those capable of comprehending and coping with the human race's lack of purpose on a cosmic scale and that the sheer chance of human evolution is mechanical and without purpose, and those who are driven mad by the scope of Lovecraft's cosmic reality and the futility of searching for some meaning to humanity's existence. In this light, the elder Jermyn simply falls into the former category, merely consummating the relationship proposed by Darwin, while his great-great-grandson, by falling into the latter, is in fact a cultural as well as genetic throwback, an atavistic flaw incapable of dealing with the modern world's placement of humanity alongside its simian ancestors.
"The Lurking Fear," written in late 1922, expands the scope of familial degeneration beyond its impact upon a single character to encompass an entire clan. Joshi notes that while "[n]o one is likely to regard ‘The Lurking Fear' as one of Lovecraft's masterworks," (Joshi, 160) it is not without merit. Stylistically it carries few of the painfully antiquarian aspects of "The Street," and as far as its effectiveness purely as a tale meant to inspire terror it far outstrips "The Horror At Red Hook." The narrator of the story is drawn to Tempest Mountain in the Catskills where stories have erupted of a monstrous horror that preys upon the mountain's pitiful inhabitants: the descendants of Dutch immigrants who live in shantytowns on the mountain, whom Lovecraft continuously refers to as "squatters." The horror is said to inhabit the Martense mansion atop the mountain; the narrator researches the history of the wealthy Martense family and uncovers a sordid story of murder and degeneration. We learn that the "Martense mansion was built in 1670 by Gerrit Martense, a wealthy New-Amsterdam merchant who disliked the changing order under British rule." (Dagon, 190) Over the course of the years, the Martense family grows increasingly withdrawn, sullen, and degenerate: "[t]heir social contacts grew fewer and fewer, till at last they took to intermarrying with the numerous menial class about the estate...and merg[ing] with the mongrel population which was later to produce the pitiful squatters." (Dagon, 191) The Martense clan's story culminates in the murder of the young Jan Martense in 1762 by his clansmen, who is reviled as an outsider after returning from six years of military service. The scandal is brought to light by a friend of Jan's who, upon arriving at the mansion to visit his friend, is disgusted by "the unclean animal aspect" (Dagon, 191) of Jan's ancestors, although a lack of evidence prevents legal actions. Activity in the Martense mansion peters out, with the squatters failing to notice any signs of life after 1810; the lack of corpses implying that the family has simply vacated the premises for good. After establishing this back story, Lovecraft's narrator considers the possibility of the vengeful ghost of Jan Martense being responsible for the attacks (a clichéd supernatural horror motif that Lovecraft himself held in low esteem), before discovering the more disgusting, yet pragmatic truth. The Martense family, after generations of inbreeding, has degenerated to "dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes - monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe." (Dagon, 198) The sheer number of the beasts is just as horrifying to the narrator as their appearance, and the eruption of the things from beneath the Martense mansion incurs some of Lovecraft's most purple prose: "and then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life - a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption...Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress...God knows how many there were - there must have been thousands." (Dagon, 198) This passage shares with the aforementioned letter to Long on New York's immigrants a conception of the offending hordes as almost a viscous gestalt entity, bereft of individuals or any real mind. The narrator's language becomes philosophical as he studies the face of a dying member of the Martense clan: "the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life." (Dagon, 199) In "Lovecraft: Reproduction And Its Discontents," Lovett-Graff observes that the passage is nothing less than a dark fantasy about "the reproductive capacity of America's degenerate populations...From the unrestrained sexuality of those reduced by isolation to interbreeding, and then inbreeding, Lovecraft paints a horrific portrait of the plethoric vitality of degeneration." (Lovett-Graff, 337) In "this frightening image of overflowing life," (Lovett-Graff, 337) we can see illustrated the "hatred for life" Lovecraft sought to align himself and his writing with against anti-Puritanism; in this case, unrestrained, animalistic reproduction. Rationality, civilisation, proper sexual practice (which amounts to little or none, as far as Lovecraft was concerned) cannot withstand the reproductive frenzy of the subhuman. The creatures already well outnumber the ‘real' humans in the surrounding area;11 it is only their willingness for cannibalism which has until now kept them from feeding on the surrounding populations. Lovett-Graff observes in them "an organic will-to-live that supersedes limits of human morality"12 (Lovett-Graff, 339); the very baseness of the creatures is what gives them an edge over less degenerate humans and allows them to prey on their genetic superiors at will.
In spite of their shared depiction of the degeneration of the nobility to primitive levels, "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Lurking Fear" situate their respective horrors in differing locations. In "Arthur Jermyn," giving in to degenerate sexual practices results in only a static and minor, if enduring, type of degeneration: the "facial angle, and the length of the arms" (Dagon, 78) of the Jermyn family. This degeneration is not total, nor does it even extend beyond the physical; Arthur is learned, capable, sensitive, and possesses a "poetic delicacy." (Dagon, 78) While these primitive traits (which constitute only a small genetic minority of Arthur's being) remain instead of being effaced over time in defiance of Darwinian natural selection, they do not overpower and eclipse the traits and characteristics of the aristocracy. The horror of the tale is not located in the body of Arthur, but rather within its origin: the mummified remains of Arthur's simian ancestor. The end results of other degenerate sexual practices in "The Lurking Horror" are far more extreme and immediately horrifying. The degeneration of the Martenses is all-encompassing and occurs at a phenomenal speed. Within barely two hundred years the Martenses are reduced to "filthy whitish gorilla thing[s] with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur." (Dagon, 199) In an inversion of the scant enduring traits in Arthur Jermyn's body that hint at his degenerate origins (the "facial angle" and long arms), the only remaining indication of the Martenses' pasts as dignified, evolutionarily superior beings lies in the endurance of the differently coloured eyes that are the family's hallmark (which could possibly be read as a degenerate trait in and of itself). Unlike "Arthur Jermyn," the titular horror of the second tale is firmly located within the present, and is wholly physical. Beneath the primary horror of the amount of damage and death such a large group of creatures can inflict lies the the secondary, yet equally physical and awful horror of the generation of such large numbers. Lovecraft's language, without ever being explicit, forces the reader to imagine centuries of mindless, animal copulation teeming beneath an emblem of conservative and regulated social conduct (an aristocratic mansion).
"The Dunwich Horror" stands in stark contrast to "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Lurking Fear" in both its overall scope and its treatment of sexuality. While the latter two stories offer complex depictions of humanity's role in a world determined by evolution, "The Dunwich Horror" is a simplistic and reductive story of good (represented by chaste and stalwart academics) combatting evil (represented by sorcery and horrors from beyond). A wizard in the backwoods Massachusetts town of Dunwich summons Yog-Sothoth, one of Lovecraft's Elder Gods (who are not gods at all, but rather inter-dimensional alien entities of unfathomable power), who impregnates the wizard's daughter, Lavinia Whateley. One of the progeny of this coupling, Wilbur Whateley, attempts to continue his now-deceased grandfather's occult studies, but is killed while trying to obtain a copy of the Necronomicon (Lovecraft's ubiquitous tome of eldritch lore) from Miskatonic University. Wilbur's inhuman anatomy alerts a group of professors at the university that all is not well in Dunwich; the right-minded academics are able to destroy a rampaging invisible force that is laying waste to Dunwich. The creature responsible turns out to be Wilbur's twin brother, who simply "looked more like the father than [Wilbur] did." (Dunwich, 198)
While the monsters of "The Dunwich Horror" come into being via sexual intercourse (of some description), Lovecraft does not problematize sex the way he does in "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Lurking Fear" by casting it as an uncontrollable, animal and utterly destructive force. The sexual act and the abominations it creates are not the result of ‘natural' (if horrifying) biological imperatives, but instead must be literally called out of the ether in a conscious act of "wicked[ness]," (Dunwich, 197) as one of the professors reductively describes the Whatleys' motivations. Lovecraft's racism is not felt to any real degree in "The Dunwich Horror," and so instead of giving rise to themes of miscegenation and degeneration along racial lines, sex is simply a means to an end in an isolated instance of degeneration that says nothing about humanity as a whole. Perhaps because of this oversimplification, Lovecraft does all he can to mask not only sexuality in "The Dunwich Horror," but also a full half of the biological requirements for procreation: women. While the old wizard Whateley and his grandson Wilbur are given ample room in the story to prophecy menacingly and cast various spells, Lavinia Whateley occupies little to no role in the story other than in the birthing of Wilbur and his brother, likely because Lovecraft simply could not conceive of any other role for a woman to play in a story. Lavinia exists solely as a vessel for impregnation;13 the reader never discovers her emotions or thoughts regarding a forced coupling with Yog-Sothoth, nor is she capable of expressing anything other than some mild motherly pride in and concern for her son before vanishing entirely.
If there was ever an instance of Lovecraft's depiction of sex as a ‘there but not' phenomena that always occurs outside of the narrative scope of his tales, it is "The Dunwich Horror." The crux of the tale is dependent upon the union between an alien daemonic entity and a human, yet essentially no information regarding this union is given. While many pulp authors would milk the violation of a woman by a monstrosity from outer space for as much horrific voyeuristic effect as possible,14 Lovecraft could never do such a thing. Some might say that this could either stem from an ironic feeling of disgust at dealing with such unseemly matters in his writing, or out of the hapless presumption that no one would find such details captivating. However, despite his cultivated ignorance of most matters sexual, Lovecraft was aware of humanity's fascination with sexual activity (as the earlier examination of biographical evidence indicates), even if he could not share or even relate to that fascination. It is likely that the avoidance of any description of the sexual act between Lavinia and Yog-Sothoth would, in Lovecraft's mind, too closely approximate writing about "ordinary people" (Joshi, 181) (even if, in this case, said people are in extraordinary circumstances). Neither does Lovecraft capitalize on the presumed feeding of the mother to the more monstrous of her offspring for all its symbolic value. Instead, once the offspring of the union are born, Lovecraft must destroy as much evidence as he can of the union in order to maintain a narrative free of sexuality. The fruit of this union is the story's anti-hero, Wilbur, whose import and presence cannot be diminished, so Lovecraft does the next best thing; he erases the female component of the union. Thus, as Lavinia Whateley and the female presence she represents is slowly effaced from the world of "The Dunwich Horror," Lovecraft purposefully ignores the mechanism necessary to the creation of even his most simplistic horrors.
Perhaps Lovecraft's most-lauded story, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" incorporates many of the same themes as "The Lurking Fear": the degeneration of large communal groups via miscegenation and the unchecked reproduction of immigrant populations as a source of terror. However, more than any of the other stories discussed thus far, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" incorporates the character and psychology of the narrator into its themes of degeneration to a degree paralleled by very few of Lovecraft's stories.15 The narrator, searching for traces of his maternal ancestry, becomes stranded in Innsmouth, a coastal Massachusetts town whose inhabitants are distinguished by a peculiar, fishlike physiognomy. The narrator learns the history of the town from an aged drunk, Zadok Allen, who is untouched by the "Innsmouth look." The people of Innsmouth have interbred with the Deep Ones, a race of immortal icthyoid sea-dwellers. The secrets of the Deep Ones were brought to Innsmouth by a sea captain who met a south Pacific tribe, the Kanakys,16 who had already interbred with the sea-dwellers. In exchange for breeding with them, the Deep Ones provide humans with bountiful fishing and gold from their undersea homes. As the offspring of human and Deep One couplings age, they grow increasingly fishlike, until they move into the sea and enjoy the immortality of their forebearers. The narrator escapes the town, but not before fainting at the sight of a parade of fishy horrors searching the town for him. After his escape, the narrator learns that the ancestry he was researching includes an Innsmouth resident on his mother's side, and that he himself is starting to develop the "Innsmouth look." The story closes with the narrator comfortably resigned to his past, as well as his future beneath the waves with his Deep One brethren.
Zadok Allen's history of the Deep Ones and the narrator's closing description of the instincts calling him to the ocean do not only reflect Lovecraft's stated racist views and the anxieties he felt regarding sex examined thus far, but also imply a more subtle fascination with the sexual habits of his vilified foreign hordes that is not present in any of his other stories. As in the case of "The Lurking Fear," the story's language regarding the threatening, inhuman race makes explicit mention of the size of their population. Zadok explains that "they cud wipe aout the hull brood o' humans ef they was willin' to bother," (Dunwich, 331) implying that it is only due to a lack of interest on the Deep Ones' part that humanity has survived thus far unmolested. However, the Deep Ones' interest has since become piqued, and Lovecraft's positioning of that interest is most telling. The Deep Ones are immortal, and have a society far more advanced and wealthy than any human one. The only thing they want for, it seems, is what Zadok calls "hanker[ing] arter mixin' with the folks" (Dunwich, 331); in other words, it is the sexual drive of the Deep Ones that motivates their slow, genetic conquest of human culture. This "hankerin'" amounts to the most explicit mention of sexual desire ever presented in Lovecraft's fiction, and certainly seems to be the only instance in which sex is depicted as an act having some intrinsic value or pleasure, and is not simply the means necessary to the end of reproduction.
In "Shadows Over Lovecraft: Reactionary Fantasy and Immigrant Eugenics," Bennett Lovett-Graff notes the similarities between the fear of encroaching outsiders and the pseudo-science of eugenics that was gaining popularity at the time of the story's creation (1931) and which Lovecraft enthusiastically embraced as the perfect synthesis of his racism and his mechanist materialism. In addition to the obvious racial paranoia of the "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" that holds much in common with stories such as "The Lurking Fear," (the mechanisms and import of which having already been discussed) Lovett-Graff finds in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" several characteristics that suggest the story, and specifically the origin, psychology and fate of its narrator, hold much more in common with Lovecraft's thoughts and anxieties about himself as a racial and sexual being than any of his other tales. Lovett-Graff details Lovecraft's dismay upon learning that he was not entirely of the teutonic lineage he loved to brag about;17 his great-great-grandmother was a "Welsh gentlewoman of unmixed Celtick blood." (SL I, 183) Situating Lovecraft's anxieties in an era in which the minutiae of one's ancestry was becoming a subject for increasing scrutiny in North America as well as the more known example of Germany, Lovett-Graff sees this "Celtick" ancestor as the source of no small worry for Lovecraft, who was increasingly ascribing to the theory of Aryanism at the time. The parallels between this biographical example and the fate of the narrator who inherits "the Innsmouth look" and its incredible bequeathment of undersea immortality from a single female ancestor are striking. This comparison recalls our own earlier examination of the implications of the reproductive powers of women and immigrants in Lovecraft fiction; just as in "Arthur Jermyn," a single female Deep One ancestor is enough to override the narrator's human genealogy. The implication is not only that female and immigrant sexualities are somehow connected and ergo mutually degenerate, but also far more potent than any other sexuality: "[l]ike the ancestral white ape mother...whose simian heritage decides the mate of her (notably all male) weaker descendants, it takes only one Deep One...to overwhelm the rest." (Lovett-Graff, 188) Since Lovecraft could not draw any suitably male and Anglo-Saxon virility from his own experience to inject into his stories, the only sexualities he seemed to be aware of, or at least interested in, are allowed to run unchecked, and eventually dominate the world.
In the narrator's final decision not to end his life, but to return to the ocean that is the home of his ancestors, Lovett-Graff sees Lovecraft attempting a reconciliation with his origins not as a possibly racially tainted person,18 but as a sexually tainted person. As has been shown, female sexuality and the very act of reproduction itself are markers of degeneracy in Lovecraft's work, and this presents Lovecraft with a problem. In addition to being (fractionally, at least) of "Celtick" origin, he is also of sexual origin, having been born by a woman as a result of the sexual mechanism he "despised" (Joshi, 30) by his own volition. Upon learning of his Deep One ancestry, and after ruling out suicide as an option, the narrator "feel[s] queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-depths instead of fearing them," (Dunwich, 367) which Lovett-Graff describes as "a yearning safely ensconced in the protective aura of fictional fantasy," a yearning for "the family past and its promise." (Lovett-Graff, 188) As the narrator comes to terms with his icthyoid origins, so does Lovecraft come "face-to-face with his own degenerate origins (born of a woman and a diseased father19), for which the only surcease is to fantasize a return to the womb." (Lovett-Graff, 188) While near-Freudian readings of Lovecraft should be approached cautiously, the symbolism of the narrator's journey of discovery20 (which, as in Lovecraft's youthful discovery of his own sexual origins, connotes disgust) and eventual homecoming is difficult for anyone reading Lovecraft critically to miss. Regardless of how the narrator's acceptance of such a miscegenated past and future may have consciously denoted horror to Lovecraft's racist sensibilities, the stylistic difference between the close of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and Lovecraft's other stories of cursed ancestry provide additional support for Lovett-Graff's reading. As "Arthur Jermyn," "The Lurking Fear" and many other stories indicate, Lovecraft's stories typically end with narrators being worked into a verbose frenzy of hyperbole as the true nature of the horrors they encounter is finally revealed to them. If Lovecraft meant the final paragraphs of "Innsmouth" to evoke horror in the reader at the narrator's complicity in his fate, (rather than setting himself alight as Arthur Jermyn did upon learning the truth of his ancestry) and not the voyeuristic escape into a sensual, prenatal world of comfort proposed by Lovett-Graff, then "Innsmouth" is the only one of Lovecraft's tales in which the reader is intended to view with disgust not only the narrator's surroundings, but the narrator himself. As we have seen, however, Lovecraft's stories repeat themselves stylistically as well as thematically,21 and it seems far more likely that the subconscious concerns (or, in the case of the anxiety surrounding his racial origins, decisively conscious concerns) of Lovecraft were incorporated into the "coda," (Lovett-Graff, 188) as Lovett-Graff appropriately terms it, of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
Alternatives: asexual utopias and the hideous continuation of self
If sexual reproduction is inextricably connected with degeneration and the decay of "pure" racial stock for Lovecraft, what hope can be are afforded to the survival of species, human and otherwise, in Lovecraft's fiction? Surprisingly, as pessimistic as it typically is, (Lovecraft would of course deem it "mechanistically realist" from a philosophical standpoint) Lovecraft's fiction is rife with examples of societies and individuals that propagate themselves using means other than sexual reproduction, and are thus able to circumvent the pitfalls of degeneration. Perhaps not as surprisingly, in the majority of these instances, asexual reproduction is cast by Lovecraft as a preferable and more ‘advanced' or ‘superior' means of propagating a species (by this point it should be clear that terms such as ‘advanced' and ‘degenerate' hold a great deal of currency in Lovecraft's descriptions of his creations when positioned against the seemingly inescapable path of degeneration that plagues humanity). In "At The Mountains Of Madness" and "The Shadow Out Of Time," Lovecraft continues his agenda of supplanting assumptions of humanocentricism by envisioning societies capable of operating without the detrimental effects of sexuality. Additionally, in "The Thing On The Doorstep," Lovecraft presents us with one of his most complex tales with regards to sex, gender, and attempts at circumventing the perils of reproduction via sexual means.
The muting and vanishing of women Lovecraft accomplishes in "The Dunwich Horror," (which is moreover accomplished to a different degree in his entire body of work by simply ignoring women) cannot be performed on the scale of an entire society. As such, Lovecraft is presented with a challenge while trying to depict entire alien civilisations in "At The Mountains Of Madness" and "The Shadow Out Of Time." In the detailed ethnographies he writes into both stories, he resorts to drastic measures in order to avoid sexuality: he eliminates not only sexuality, but sex entirely. Several of Lovecraft's stories feature ancient alien races, (which must be differentiated from the unique and even more alien Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth who operate on no social axes) all far superior to humanity in terms of technology, art and culture, that reproduce asexually. While all of these tales derive some typical horror fiction effect by exploiting the "otherness" of the aliens, Lovecraft does not introduce alien races into his stories purely for the purpose of shock but, as countless critics have argued for years, as a means of demonstrating the inconsequential role played by humanity on a cosmic scale (which is why Lovecraft scholars often argue for a differentiation between Lovecraft's horror tales and his science fiction tales). One of Lovecraft's chief means of accomplishing this in his depictions of alien worlds and societies is by demonstrating the possibility of societies that operate on axes, assumptions and principles entirely alien to humanity. However, given Lovecraft's prejudices and disdain for heterogeneous, multicultural human societies that deviated from the "proper" colonial norms he tried to cling to, it would be too generous and naive to presume that Lovecraft's alien societies are simply imaginative forays proceeding from the question "what if?" that are devoid of any social commentary or reference back to human qualities. Patterns emerge in the Lovecraft's alien societies that reflect Lovecraft's own conceptions of what would most closely approximate utopia for humanity.
In both "At The Mountains Of Madness" and "The Shadow Out Of Time," Lovecraft spends an inordinate amount of the narratives detailing the social makeup of the Old Ones and the Great Race, respectively.22 The society of the Old Ones of "At The Mountains Of Madness" uses a "complex and probably socialistic" (MM, 65) system of government, although it is unclear what form of socialism would encourage the production of a subordinate slave class (the shoggoths). Similarly, the Great Race of "The Shadow Out Of Time" are governed by the principle of "fascistic socialism." (Dunwich, 399) We may never know exactly what Lovecraft meant to convey with this amalgam of two opposing extremes of political philosophy, but the genesis of this paradox can be traced biographically. In the later years of his life, the writings of Bertrand Russell and George Santayana persuaded Lovecraft to embrace humanitarianism and socialism, yet he was unable to completely let go of his thoughts concerning the necessity of strict authoritarian rule and the segregation of different races. A supporter of the New Deal yet an initial admirer of Hitler's early domestic policies,23 Lovecraft described himself as "a cross betwixt a fascist & an old-time non-bolshevik socialist." (De Camp, 375) When the description of the Great Race's "utopia" and the infamous pean to the fiber of the Old Ones' characters24 are considered, it becomes apparent that Lovecraft, despite whatever conscious intentions he might have had of creating entities that were alien at every level, is in fact bringing his own personal, sexless utopia to life. Of some relevance here is L. Sprague de Camp's observation that Lovecraft's declared standards for proper people (according to his views on both race and morality) were so restrictive that "[h]e would have felt at home only in a milieu wholly populated by H.P. Lovecrafts, and no such society exists."25 (De Camp, 252) Lovecraft himself claimed that the horror of his stories was located in the mental states of those poor humans forced to deal with the insignificance of their own race and fate in the face of the indifferent and astoundingly powerful alien forces they encounter. With this in mind, Lovecraft's asexual utopias can be seen as defiantly individual manifestos of self, in which the inhuman alien is not the subject of a self-loathing horror,26 but a powerful and self-sustaining entity capable of inspiring horror in the minds of those lesser beings unable to comprehend its way of life. Lovecraft reverses the direction of the loathing he misguidedly felt the world directed towards him,27 and confronts human society with the narrow-mindedness of the hyper-sexualized (and ergo degenerate) way of life it views as normal.
While "At The Mountains Of Madness" and "The Shadow Out Of Time" raise issues of the societal role of sex in the mind of the reader, the asexual creatures that are presented are so inhuman that there is no real horror in the fact that these creatures reproduce asexually; the bodies of the creatures are horror enough, and once that horror has passed, the societies of the creatures are examined in an intellectual and philosophical, rather than emotive manner (again, the distinction of these two tales as science fiction is important). In "The Thing At The Doorstep," however, Lovecraft imagines a far more complex and sinister way of avoiding sexual reproduction. Moreover, by situating this means within human bodies, the resulting story operates so contrary to accepted human understandings of sex that the horror it evokes is quite possibly the most profound (if also one of the most obfuscated) ever achieved in Lovecraft's fiction.
"The Thing On The Doorstep" is the story of Edward Derby, as told by his best friend, Daniel Upton. Derby, a young man interested in the occult, marries Asenath Waite, the daughter of a reputed wizard, Ephraim Waite. Over the years, Upton sees less of Derby as Asenath seems to take control of all aspects of his life. Abrupt and violent changes in Derby's personality begin to occur; he is frantic and eager to impart some sort of information to Derby, and then instantly becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. As is all too frequent in Lovecraft's fiction, the reader quickly surmises what takes the narrator far too long to realise or accept: Asenath is capable of exchanging minds with her husband, so that she occupies his body and imprisons Derby in her own. Even more horrific is the discovery that Asenath is not really Asenath: on his deathbed, Ephraim Waite supplanted his daughter's mind with his own, leaving her mind to perish in his dying body. Derby claims that he has finally escaped the clutches of his
‘wife,' but in actuality he has killed her. However, Ephraim's mind is capable of bodily exchange even in death. Upton is awoken in the middle of the night by a shadowy figure on his doorstep, which passes him a note informing him of all that has gone on. The figure disintegrates: it is the rotten corpse of Asenath, which Derby was transported into and escaped from the grave in in order to inform Upton. Upton, attempting to end the horror, kills Derby's body (now possessed wholly by Ephraim), but at the story's close is still terrified of the possibility that Ephraim may attempt to force himself into his own body.
Little critical attention has been given to "The Thing On The Doorstep." Possible reasons for this include its predictability and heavy-handed delivery (although these are not uncommon for Lovecraft), but a more likely reason is that it stands as an oddity in the larger framework of Lovecraft's world: it does not fit into the misnomered "Cthulhu mythos" stories, nor does it incorporate the themes of miscegenation and humanity as a base animal that occur so frequently. I hold that in addition to this, "The Thing On The Doorstep" deals primarily with the body and gender as uncertain and potentially dangerous constructs; themes that are almost postmodern in their concern, and not in keeping with the (legitimate) conception of Lovecraft as an author primarily concerned with humanity's interaction with science and philosophy that the majority of critics have established over the years. In addition to this, the implications of the sexual acts in "The Thing On The Doorstep" are particularly disturbing. Namely, they involve violation at several levels.
Asenath Waite, despite having been mentally and spiritually killed off before the story begins, is violated throughout "The Thing On The Doorstep": first by her father when he invades and steals her body, and then (unwittingly) by Derby as he presumably engages in intercourse with the Ephraim/Asenath gestalt over the course of their marriage. As we should expect by now, Lovecraft makes no mention of any such intercourse in the story, but any reader old enough to understand sex will almost surely imagine such intercourse, especially when Asenath's true identity is revealed.28 The problematization of sex and the situating of horror in the bedroom is obviously a major theme in much contemporary horror writing (as well other media), but this was not the case in the pulp fiction magazines that Lovecraft was published in. To any reader capable of making this slight inference, the horror of sexuality in "The Thing On The Doorstep" far outstrips whatever chills the animated corpse decomposing on Upton's doorstep manages to evoke. It is also, to our current sensibilities, the most disturbing event related to sex in all of Lovecraft's fiction, with the possible exception of Lavinia Whateley's impregnation by Yog-Sothoth; as was mentioned earlier we are never given a clear enough picture of Lavinia Whateley to determine what her role in or attitude towards the actual act were, regardless of her apparent pride in her offspring. The two other cases of inter-species coupling, Wayde Jermyn's marriage to the white-ape goddess29 of "Arthur Jermyn" and the coupling between the Kanakys, and later the people of Innsmouth, are both mutually consenting acts.30 In "The Thing On The Doorstep," human sexuality is a blurred and terrifying realm in which consent cannot be given, because the conditions under which that consent is given are uncertain and riddled with horror.
It is interesting to note that of these examples of sexuality, Ephraim's violation of his daughter (and later Upton), as horrifying as it is, is not merely the only act that does not involve any miscegenation (contrary to the multiple instances in Lovecraft's fiction in which the two forces are inseparable), but in fact deals with its direct opposite. Ephraim's actions (like the best of Lovecraft's work, "The Thing On The Doorstep" leaves open the question of exactly how long the horror has existed or been perpetuated) ensure not only the preservation of a single blood line, but the preservation of a single mind for perpetuity; the unspoken ideal of the fanatic racist bent on preserving as much of themselves and their "heritage" as possible for eternity.31
While discussing the allegorical presence of gender in the textual behavior of Lovecraft's work (drawing from Johnson's work on Shakespeare), Donald R. Burleson claims in "Lovecraft And Gender" that Ephraim "represents the female principle, the principle by which he may give birth - to himself - over and over" (Burleson, 23) and notes that his name denotes fruitfulness in Hebrew. But Ephraim's sorcery cannot be oversimplified to simply connote the universal symbol of female fecundity, and there is obviously something remarkable about the fact that Ephraim is not a woman. Surely the fact that he gives birth to himself is just as remarkable as the concept of a man giving birth? Ephraim does not represent fecundity in the traditional, cyclic sense in which new life replaces old, but rather the instinct for self-preservation (which, if one cares to attribute motivations to gender, is decidedly male in comparison to the image of the mother sacrificing herself for her children). Ephraim absorbs multiple lives (specifically, lives younger than his own) for the sake of preserving his own life; in the most basic quantitative terms he is consuming more than he produces. In Ephraim's birthing process, there is neither the mechanically laborious and (for Lovecraft) emotionally traumatic sexual act, no painful birth accompanied by blood and embryonic fluid, and most importantly, no danger of any degeneration or tainting of the bloodline along racial lines. Ephraim need never worry about the mongrel hordes which caused Lovecraft so much anxiety during his years in New York, nor the possibility that some transgression of his ancestry might spell atavistic doom for him (as in "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Rats In The Walls"), because he is his own ancestry. It should be noted that Lovecraft does not ignore the classic metaphysical argument of the relation between the body and mind in "The Thing On The Doorstep"; he implies (in this story, at least) that the mind holds sway over the body. While occupying Asenath's body, Ephraim "wanted to be a man" in order to feel "fully human" (Dunwich, 288) again,32 but the primary explicit source of horror in the story stems from Upton's observation of the sudden and profound change Derby undergoes while being possessed by Ephraim:
"Then the thing happened. Derby's voice was rising to a thin treble scream as he raved, when suddenly it shut off with an almost mechanical click. I thought of those other occasions at my home when his confidences had abruptly ceased - when I had half fancied that some obscure telepathic wave of Asenath's mental force was intervening to keep him silent. This, though, was something altogether different - and, I felt, infinitely more horrible. The face beside me was twisted unrecognizably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion - as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality."
Thus, the body strains to match the needs of its now dominant mental force. This conflict between mutually opposed drives in a single body has its roots in Lovecraft's view of race relations: Lovecraft envisioned that certain racially inferior people were capable of being culturally assimilated, and ergo there was no hypocrisy in marrying a Jew as long as she adopted a properly Anglo-Saxon identity.33 It is not the strain on the body, however, that results in death in "The Thing On The Doorstep," but the horror and incongruency with our conception of being that a being without body presents us with. Such a being can inhabit whatever it pleases, and even engage in the sexual habits of those it hides amongst, but only as a means of social masking; Derby engaging in sex with the sexless Ephraim being is hideously comic, utterly meaningless, and completely degrades the very means by which humanity sustains itself. After having soundly destabilized humanity's delusional positioning of itself at the center of the universe, (recall Leiber's description of Lovecraft as a "literary Copernicus") in "The Thing On The Doorstep" Lovecraft turns his focus from the cosmic to the inner, and finds our constructions of self as sexual creatures to be so rife with horror and danger that our very beings collapse into a heap just as Derby does. Humanity itself is the thing on the doorstep.
Bombastic hatred and subtle anxiety: conclusion
Lovecraft's racism is blunt, ugly, and unavoidable. One of the most accurate criticisms that has been made of Lovecraft is that he was far too willing to assume a position of informed authority on subjects he had some minor knowledge of via reading or second-hand learning, but no lived experience. I feel that this is how Lovecraft's racism can best be understood: as the ignorant blustering of a person who had few to no encounters with the races he claimed to despise, and was willing to inherit and emulate the prejudices of the culture he grew out of and sought to keep alive through his own affectations. As such, his fiction is decidedly marked by his racism, and readers are faced with the dilemma of being alternately disgusted by its crude and vitriolic aspects (as in the case of "The Street" and "The Horror At Red Hook"), and intrigued by the thematic depth and complexity it can achieve (as in "Arthur Jermyn," "The Lurking Fear," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"). The amount of work written dealing with Lovecraft's racism is a testament not only to its presence in his fiction, but also to the attempts of readers to integrate a vitriolic hatred with the image of an otherwise brilliant and sensitive writer whose genius and impact upon the fiction of the previous century are now finally being acknowledged within academia. The issue of sex, however, is not so polarizing amongst Lovecraft's readership. On the surface, sexuality seems to be the one area in which Lovecraft refrained from speaking outside of experience; at an equally surface level, his writing reflects this. The role of sex in Lovecraft's fiction does not present the reader with an immediate and unavoidable issue; it is entirely possible to read and enjoy Lovecraft's writing simply as entertaining and escapist horror fiction without ever considering how sex and gender are positioned in it. But as I have sought to show, just beneath the surface veneer of creatures from beyond and atavistic decay, Lovecraft's fiction is rife with examples of sex that are just as central and just as troubling as the racism they are often inseparable from. Whether sexuality makes its presence ominously felt without explicit mention through the degenerate horrors it gives rise to, or whether the lengths Lovecraft will go to purge it from his stories34 force the reader to hypothesize about its significance to the author, sex represents a profound source of anxiety for Lovecraft as a person, an anxiety which is duly reflected in his work. I hope that further work will continue to explore the relation between sex and racism in Lovecraft's work; understanding the primary fears of the past century's preeminent horror writer may help to uncover our own sources of fear.
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Burleson, Donald R. "Lovecraft and Gender." Lovecraft Studies 27 (1992): 21-25.
Davis, Sonia H. "Memories Of Lovecraft: I." Lovecraft Remembered. Ed. Peter Cannon. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1998. 275-276
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De Camp, Lyon Sprague. Lovecraft. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975.
Derleth, August. "Lovecraft's Sensitivity." Lovecraft Remembered. Ed. Peter Cannon. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1998. 32-37
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Lovett-Graff, Bennett. "‘Life is a Hideous Thing': Primate-Geniture in H.P. Lovecraft's ‘Arthur Jermyn'." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 8.3.31: 370-88.
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Montelone, Paul. "‘The Rats in the Walls': A Study in Pessimism." Lovecraft Studies 32 (1995): 18-26.
Nelson, Victoria. "H.P. Lovecraft And The Great Heresies." Raritan 15.3 (1996): 92-121.
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Schreber, Daniel Paul. Memoirs Of My Nervous Illness. Trans. Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter. New York: New Your Review of Books, 2003.
1 The psychoanalytical avenue is explored in a thankfully restrained fashion by Victoria Nelson in "H.P. Lovecraft And The Great Heresies."
2 In letters to Clark Ashton Smith in which he vaunts fantastic fiction, Lovecraft claimed that "The one form of literary appeal which I consider absolutely unsound, charlatanic, and valueless - frivolous, insincere, irrelevant, and meaningless - is that mode of handling human values and motivations known as romanticism." (SL III, 90) In more detail, Lovecraft sets himself in opposition to "sentimental terrestrial romance" and "the overcoloured representation of what purports to be real life...There is to me something puerile in devising a sort of conventionalised variant of life, with spurious & artificial thoughts & feelings, & then getting maudlin & excited & effusive over it." (SL II, 90) It should be clarified that by using the term "romantic" Lovecraft is not simply condemning literary concern with romantic love, or even the entire period and tropes of Romanticism, but the ages-old literary interest in the emotions of humanity. Furthermore, while Lovecraft loved to rail against the "new brood of despairing and horrified moderns [who are] seizing on the doubt of all positive knowledge...deducing therefrom that, since nothing is true, therefore anything can be true," (SL III, 53) the letters to Smith show him adopting the almost postmodern position that all fiction, no matter how ‘realistic,' is constructed and can never truly ‘be real.' Therefore, since fantastic fiction acknowledges this, it is just as suitable a means (and, for Lovecraft and perhaps others, more suitable) of communicating human experience as any literary mode.
3 To this day, psychoanalyses of Lovecraft's anxieties regarding sex still spark debate amongst Lovecraft scholars and aficionados, with some still perversely maintaining that there was nothing in Lovecraft's attitudes that was out of keeping with the social mores of his time (or more accurately, the mores of the Georgian period to which Lovecraft fancied himself a throwback; that such affectations should carry over into the bedroom should raise eyebrows in and of itself). The following remarks of Sonia Davis, Lovecraft's wife of three years, are indicative of the double-talk and confusion that mark the subject. Davis states in "Memories Of Lovecraft: I" that "[a]s a married man he was an adequately excellent lover." (Davis, 275) Preeminent Lovecraft scholar and biographer S.T. Joshi admits his bafflement at what an "adequately excellent" lover could be.
4 At least some understanding of Lovecraft's views on mechanistic materialism and how it affected his life and work is essential to anyone seeking to gain a better understanding not only of Lovecraft, but also the ways in which his fiction shifted the very location of horror and wonder in the majority of twentieth century horror and science fiction writing. For a basic grounding on these topics, I recommend Fritz Leiber Jr's "A Literary Copernicus" and Joshi's "H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction Of Materialism."
5 Lovecraft, like many people of his time, was fascinated by how advances in physics were changing human perceptions not only of space but of time. Unfortunately for Lovecraft, science was now advancing at a pace that far exceeded the capability of the average citizen to research and understand it completely while maintaining a general knowledge of other fields, as Lovecraft attempted with literature, art and politics. As a result, while Lovecraft's enthusiasm for the discoveries being made by Einstein and others is heartening, his attempts at incorporating such discoveries into his conception of the universe, and moreover his fiction were riddled with flaws. Lovecraft saw the concept of relativity as a physical validation of his philosophical tenet that the human perspective held no weight on a cosmic scale: "[m]y cynicism and scepticism are increasing, and from an entirely new cause - the Einstein theory...All is chance, accident, and ephemeral illusion - a fly may be greater than Arcturus, and Durfee Hill may surpass Mount Everest - assuming them to be removed from the present planet and differentially environed in the continuum of space-time. There are no values in all infinity..." (SL I, 231)
6 The degree to which Lovecraft sought to bring the past into his own life is staggering: from wearing his grandfather's clothes to adopting outdated speech patterns to making a point of murmuring "God save the King" under his breath whenever the anthem of the American ‘traitors' was sung, Lovecraft was an antiquarian through and through.
7 Written in 1919, the position Lovecraft takes in "The Case For Classicism" is eerily similar to a scene from "At The Mountains Of Madness," written twelve years later; as the geologists descend through a physical timeline of sculpture and art detailing the history of the society of the Old Ones, the later cultural artifacts they find are repeatedly described as "decadent," a term Lovecraft uses throughout his fiction to describe any culture, family or individual who has strayed too far from the boundaries of proper civilisation ("decadent" tendencies almost always precede the annihilation of the cultural offenders). Even further along, they discover the crude aping of the Old Ones art fashioned by the shoggoths: "This new and degenerate work was coarse, bold, and wholly lacking in delicacy of detail." (MM, 92)
8 Waugh notes Lovecraft's variety of racist opinions well: Jews, whose cultural and intellectual achievements were admirable, were capable of being culturally assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon race so long as they abandoned their zionist conspiracies, blacks were little better than animals (see Lovecraft's extended descriptions of a black boxer's simian nature in "Herbert West: Reanimator"), and Asians were soulless automatons bent on world domination (see the dystopian future glimpsed in "He").
9 It is worth mentioning here that Lovecraft demonstrated a great understanding of Poe and was the first critic of "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" to suggest that Roderick Usher, Madeline Usher and the house itself shared a single soul. Lovecraft's recycling of the metaphor of the house collapsing in these two stories, however, lacks the psychological complexity and impact of his predecessor.
10 It is doubtful that Lovecraft ever consciously realised that his tales were ever dealing with the subject of sex to any real degree. Instead, sexuality lurks behind more immediately threatening horrors in Lovecraft's fiction (the degeneration and monsters that the unpredictability of sexuality produces), horrors Lovecraft was likely not to look any further past while conceiving or reviewing his writing. Put more poetically, sex can be found in the shadow of the monster.
11 In this Lovecraft invokes the classic anti-immigrant fear of being outnumbered, as well as the unseen and innumerable masses dwelling beneath ground discussed earlier in connection with "The Horror At Red Hook."
12 Recall Lovecraft's "premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." (SL II, 150)
13 It is not too far-fetched to apply this role to women in general in Lovecraft's fiction. Narrators mention their wives in no real detail, and usually only in connection with their sons. In "The Rats In The Walls" and "The Shadow Out Of Time" Lovecraft introduces the theme of father-son relationships to no small degree, while essentially bypassing the husband-wife relationship. Lavinia Whateley may indeed be the least insignificant female character in Lovecraft's entire body of work; the only possible exception, Asenath Waite of "The Thing On The Doorstep," is a complex and not entirely female character who will be examined at some length later.
14 If Lovecraft was ever tempted to ‘dumb down' his writing to common pulp fiction standards, it might have been in "The Dunwich Horror", a tale portrays "good" and "evil" in their most banal conceptions.
15 While "The Rats In The Walls" is likely Lovecraft's most psychologically complex story, it is much more indebted to Poe than Lovecraft's more original works, and avoids the subjects of racism and sexuality.
16 Throughout Lovecraft's fiction, people who are racially "inferior" are also inevitably closer to the horrors Lovecraft populates his world with (the cultists in "The Call Of Cthulhu," the mountain-dwellers in "The Lurking Fear," even the native Americans in "The Mound"). Thus, the pattern of degeneration in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" follows a racist pattern; from the Deep Ones to the Kanakys to white Americans. The Kanakys are lower on the evolutionary chain in Lovecraft's racist world model, and ergo slide back into primordial waters of the gene pool earlier than their racial superiors.
17 In several letters that were likely intentionally comedic, the thin and gaunt Lovecraft who could not stand the cold attempts to channel Norse myth: "By day we kill and seize...old towns we shall burn, stout men shall we slay, wild beasts we shall hunt..." (SL I, 275)
18 The simplest readings of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" see the narrator's decision as a switching of sides in the impending racial conflict between the Deep Ones and humanity, between immigrants and Americans. Considering the major role that biological determinism and genetic destiny play in Lovecraft, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this reading; it merely accepts the story at face value and assumes that Lovecraft was consciously aware of all of the themes he introduced from his stories. As this examination of the role of sexuality (and its frequent absence) in Lovecraft's fiction has shown, however, Lovecraft's avoidance of certain topics often speaks to more than his inclusion of others.
19 The possibility that Lovecraft's father, who was institutionalized in the years leading to his early death, was in fact afflicted by syphilis is a hotly contested issue amongst Lovecraft scholars. The majority opinion seems to favour this theory, but the question is not, and will likely never be, completely resolved.
20 A similar psychologically allegorical journey can be seen in "The Rats In The Walls." In his excellent case study, The Roots Of Horror In The Fiction Of H.P. Lovecraft, Barton Levi St. Armand presents the tale as a Jungian story rooted in the discovery of and exploration of the most basic and terrifying human archetypes. Especially fascinating is a dream of Jung's in which a subterranean journey is paralleled by historic regression, just as in "The Rats In The Walls." Even though Jung and Lovecraft never read each other's work, the similarities are nothing short of astounding.
21 Victoria Nelson compellingly argues in "H.P. Lovecraft And The Great Heresies" that through the repeated delving into of the same dark themes, Lovecraft was making an eternal, Sisyphean attempt to reach the core of his psychological trauma (which Nelson locates in his father's mania and death) and in doing so cure himself of it.
22 The primary complaint from readers when "At The Mountains Of Madness" was first published in serial format was that a full third of the story amounted to essentially nothing more or less than an ethnography, a criticism that still holds today for those who, perhaps misguidedly, read Lovecraft expecting tightly woven plots and page-turning action or horror.
23 Accusations of Lovecraft being a Nazi in the post-war/post-Holocaust sense of the word are debunked by Joshi's anecdote of a German friend of Lovecraft's, who left America for her homeland in 1936. The friend quickly returned to Providence, horrified by the treatment Jews were being subjected to. Lovecraft was reputedly equally horrified upon learning of this, and his support for Hitler dissipated. (Joshi, 361)
24 "Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn - whatever they had been, they were men!" (MM, 96) It's worth noting that in attributing the term "men" to a sexless alien race and describing them as "scientists to the last," (MM, 96) Lovecraft aligns the Old Ones with his own precise definition of what constitutes humanity in his stories: the host of male, yet essentially neutered academics who discover the Old Ones, and who moreover populate the majority of his stories.
25 It should be noted that much of Lovecraft's apparent misanthropy was, for the most part a rhetorical and ideological construct rather than one he enacted literally in his life. As not only his staggering correspondences but also the numerous trips he took to visit his correspondents show, Lovecraft was not the reclusive loner many early critics cast him as. His marriage to Sonia Greene shows he had some difficulty applying his professed anti-Semitism, and his friendship with Samuel Loveman also shows the incongruities between his prejudices and his social life. Loveman was a homosexual poet whose work was greatly admired by Lovecraft. Lovecraft, while cautioning Loveman against the "Bohemian, near-Oscar-Wilde sort of circles" (Letters To Samuel Loveman & Vincent Starrett, 18) the latter might encounter in New York, had nothing but praise for Loveman's poetry, which shared much with Wilde's own homoerotically-charged work. Robert H. Waugh's "The Subway And The Shoggoth (Part I)" examines Lovecraft's reactions to Loveman's poetry in detail as well as his association with Loveman. While I do not subscribe to the theory proposed (too reductively) by some that Lovecraft was a repressed homosexual, (I find viewing Lovecraft to be simply asexual more accurate) Lovecraft's apparent (and likely subconscious) tolerance for homosexuality presents some interesting possibilities. Firstly, homosexual relationships are not incumbent upon women (always a social conservative, Lovecraft unsurprisingly viewed women as being secondary and somehow lesser beings than men). Secondly, homosexuals, unlike women and those of inferior races, did not reproduce and thus contribute to the horrors of miscegenation and degeneration that Lovecraft feared.
26 Self-loathing in Lovecraft's fiction is perhaps most immediately found in the "The Outsider," but as our examination of Lovecraft's tales of sexual degeneration has shown, humanity is often cast as a loathsome object due to its reliance upon sex (both as the means necessary for survival and also as the point of a species-wide obsession that befuddled Lovecraft). The individual loathsomeness of the narrator is often implied by this, especially (as has already been shown) in the case of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
27 For a period of his youth Lovecraft perceived himself as being markedly ugly and continued to bemoan his admittedly large jaw for all of his life, owing to his mother's bizarre conviction that her son was "so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him." (Derleth, 34) Crediting the origin of "The Outsider" entirely to this peculiarity somewhat simplistic, but the similarities between Lovecraft's life and fiction are too striking to ignore on this occasion: a hideous creature whose guardians intern it for the sake of others as well as the wretched thing itself.
28 As is seen throughout "The Thing On The Doorstep," Ephraim/Asenath is capable of casually performing bodily transportation with ease; people feel disturbed around Asenath as being near her often "give[s] the...distinct feeling of exchanged personality." (Dunwich, 281) The possibility of such transportation occurring during the sexual act is all too easy to imagine (the father is thus able to physically violate his daughter after mentally violating her). Additionally, this possibility connects with the much remarked tendency of Lovecraft's male narrators to go into an emasculated faint when confronted with a higher power. In Victoria Nelson's "H.P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies," the transfiguring encounter with an alien yet parental power is observed in both Lovecraft and Daniel Paul Schreber, a nineteenth century German psychotic who recorded his own astoundingly intricate cosmology in his Memoirs Of My Nervous Illness. Schreber experienced transfiguration at the hands of a malevolent father/sun God, contact with which "transformed him into a woman, both sexually and in the sense of a passive receptor." (Nelson, 99) It is this same transformation that is the core of the horror of "The Thing On The Doorstep."
29 The idea of an animal being able to consent sexually in the way a human can is simply wrong to our way of thinking, yet Lovecraft portrays the relationship between Jermyn and his wife as a legitimate marriage. She is described as having a "violent and singular" (Dagon, 74) disposition, and the wife is of a type of ape "infinitely nearer mankind" (Dagon, 82) than any recorded species; the story's focal point, after all, is that there is precious little that separates human from ape.
30 Sam Gafford has claimed that the emotive horror of "Innsmouth" lies in the willingness of the Kanakys, the people of Innsmouth and finally the narrator to "welcome" (Gafford, 13) their slide down the evolutionary ladder. If this is the case, the subdued and peaceful tone that marks the end of "Innsmouth" represents a radical departure from Lovecraft's style, and as was previously argued, is likely indicative of a legitimate desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts Lovecraft felt over his origins.
31 Consider Lovecraft's cultivated persona of "Grandpa Theobald," the name he used in correspondence with countless people. Lovecraft's attachment to the house not only of his childhood but of his family for several generations is well known, and its loss after his grandfather's bankruptcy is as likely a candidate for the source of Lovecraft's much-theorized childhood trauma as any. Still attempting to keep some vestiges of the past alive, Lovecraft took to wearing his grandfather's clothes, which by then were legitimate antiques. In "The Thing On The Doorstep," one does not just inherit the father's clothes, one inherits the father.
32 In addition to furthering the case for Lovecraft as a misogynist, this passage indicates that Lovecraft also understands the mind to be a gendered entity.
33 Referring to her husband's apparent hypocrisy in marrying a Jew while remaining a virulent anti-Semite, Sonia Davis cites the following exchange in The Private Life of H.P. Lovecraft: "When I protested that I too was one of [New York's ‘mongrel hordes'], he'd tell me that I ‘no longer belonged to these mongrels'. ‘You are now Mrs. H. P. Lovecraft of 598 Angell St., Providence, Rhode Island!'" (Davis, 11)
34 Consider the chaste, almost asexual world inhabited by Lovecraft's intrepid academics who venture into realms of horror; in The Philosophy Of H.P. Lovecraft, Timo Airaksinen attempts to salvage the reputation of "The Dunwich Horror" by recasting its Manichean battle of good and evil as a cultural struggle between the familial, fecund and religious Whateleys and the clinical, bureaucratic and rigid academics of Miskatonic. (Airaksinen,129-135)
Copyright 2004, Bruce Lord.Back