Cyclopean Horror

Until yesterday, I had never read any H.P. Lovecraft. I know, I know. I don’t really have any good excuse. I’d heard of him before I’d heard that he was a racist, so he could have easily sneaked into my reading list back then. He just never did.

But it became so dreadfully apparent than I was missing out on a major cultural touchstone among people whose work I love that I felt like I had to rectify this.

So, yes, for starters. He’s not just a racist. This isn’t “Oh, he’s a man of his times with some unexamined attitudes.” No, this is a man who named his favorite cat a racial epithet and then named a cat in a story that same name. This is a man who generates a lot of horror through the idea that non-white people and, possibly, the French are going to aid in infecting perfectly good white people with horrors beyond their imagination.

He’s a racist. Like when people try to deny that they doing something racist, it’s someone like Lovecraft they have in mind for what counts as “really racist.”

I wish I’d been a little better prepared for that.

But my god, you can’t deny that the man has talent. I did get a little tired of reading the words “Cyclopean” and “horror,” but I’m going to cut him some slack because he wasn’t writing a collection of short stories. He was writing connected short stories that appeared in individual issues of magazines. Some use of repetitive phrases to remind your reader of this story’s connection to other stories is probably wise. I think I’d have found it less annoying if I were reading these stories six months apart as opposed to in one big gulp on a Saturday when I was feeling a little sick.

For me, reading Lovecraft this late in life was a little like finally putting a puzzle piece in place I didn’t quite even know was missing. Clearly, so much of what I enjoy about our culture is so steeped in Lovecraftian tropes that it’s easy for a person like me to pick up on them without realizing where they’re coming from. But damn, once you see what he’s up to, it’s impossible to deny how far his reach is.

It’s not just the horror tropes, it’s that you realize that every episode of Ancient Aliens is an homage to Lovecraft–there were these beings, who may return, who are so much smarter than us, who were worshiped by primitive civilizations who didn’t quite understand what they were seeing, and only I, who have the ability to combine these far-flung facts and correctly interpret them, know the truth, even if you might think I’m quite mad. Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters are operating in a paradigm Lovecraft set in stone–that you go to the haunted site and investigate at night, that you learn as much history as you can, as much legend from the neighbors, and then, even then, you’re only going to catch half-glimpses of things. Hell, I’d argue that the show that comes on after Ghost Adventures, with the psychic and the detective is even moreso, since the psychic is all the time picking up on things that aren’t human and have never been human.

I doubt Lovecraft was the first to do this stuff, but he’s the one who codified it and moved it into the public imagination.

I really enjoyed “The Shunned House.” I think that was my favorite. (Racism caveat: French people ruin everything.) And I really liked “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (Racism caveat: the people of Innsmouth are disgusting like Southern rednecks, and disgusting for being too culturally infected by non-white people, and willing to interbreed with non-people people, thus corrupting their bloodlines.) I also liked “The Color Out of Space.” (Racism caveat: I don’t remember much, but there is a lot of “Oh, these stupid hicks”ism.) (I mean, seriously, who does Lovecraft like? Old white non-French New England families with the proper amount of education, who shun contact with the outside world except through libraries and museums and letter-writing?)

I read the Tales of H.P. Lovecraft edited by Joyce Carol Oates, but I only got as far in her introduction as her theories on the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction before I had to give up on it. I just don’t believe that literary fiction is somehow lacking in tropes, unlike genre fiction.

This all does reaffirm my question–where is the South’s The Haunting of Hill House? Haunted houses, as a thing, happen all over the country, but haunted houses as a genre happen in New England. And I wonder why that is. I mean, take “The Shunned House.” We have farmhouses built into hills. We have towns that have grown out into the countryside. We have Indian burial grounds and random French families.

I wonder if it’s because the South had slavery. The kind of house appropriate for haunting has to be very old. There’s usually some kind of original sin on the land that causes it to be haunted. I think it could be that the obvious original sin down here is slavery. But I also wonder if it’s not a hair more complex than that. Even if slavery isn’t the original sin. Even if it is, like it is in “The Shunned House,” a problem brought on by French people, you still have to go back through history to get there

You have to imagine the unspoken things that happen in a household, the ways that the people in that household secretly suffer under the curse of that original sin. You kind of have to be able to openly empathize with people for whom the past sucked.

And when you have a culture, like the South’s, where the dominant narrative is actually the opposite of that–seriously, from the moment there were people writing in the South, they were writing about how glorious the lost days of yore were. I’m sure that, if Christopher Newport told any stories that first night in Jamestown, it was about how wonderful life had been on the boats.–maybe it’s just very unlikely that you’d have a definitive haunted house story among the dominant people. It’s very hard to have glorious olden days with a secret core sin.

You see Faulkner making that motion, but he’s Faulkner, you know? There’s a reason he’s a literary genius. Damn you, Faulkner for dying before you realized we needed a haunted house story!

But I think it also points to the notion that it may be someone Southern who’s not from the dominant group that pulls it off. Someone like Harry Crewes (though obviously not him, though that would be a hell of a ghost story) or Chesya Burke.

 

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11 thoughts on “Cyclopean Horror

  1. I don’t know that this is exactly what you had in mind, but the opening line of Beloved is springing urgently to mind (paraphrased): Number 212 was haunted. Haunted by a baby’s ghost.

  2. Toni Morrison speaks eloquently of her debt to Faulkner. So, yeah. Someone that talented can do it.

    And yet … B, one thing that makes me a little uncomfortable is the way the original crime our country is built on, north and south, gets erased in the way you’re discussing this. I get it that Lovecraft didn’t see the disappearance of Native Americans as an issue, but don’t we have to today?

  3. Jess, I think of BELOVED as a ghost story, not a haunted house story. Maybe that’s just a distinction in my mind, but to me the haunted house is a specific sub-genre of the ghost story in which a vital part of the story is that the building itself is haunted and the narrative force comes from a person unrelated–or not directly related–discovering the nature of the haunting.

    BELOVED is a ghost story. If Denver’s great-great granddaughter came back to the house for some reason, that would be a haunted house story.

    NM, yeah, that was sloppy of me. But I don’t think that the disappearance of Native Americans is absent from Lovecraft’s writing. I think he clearly acknowledges that folks are missing from a landscape they named and shaped. He just doesn’t see that as a problem.

    And I don’t think that there’s such a taboo against Southerners fitting treatment of the Native Americans who were/are here into the myth of the Glorious Yesterday. That doesn’t go against the cultural narrative.

    So, I don’t think that’s what’s standing in the way of a good Southern haunted house story, except insofar as the haunted house story is built on the idea that there’s some secret original sin that must be discovered, if possible, and the dominant Southern narratives are not of secret original sins; they’re of glorious times past.

    Maybe the issue is, in part, that none of the South’s secret sins are actually hidden. It might be impolite to talk about them, but they’re not hidden.

  4. I had never heard that Lovecraft was racist, and between reading him mostly as a teenager and the stories being so very, very odd, I never picked up on it myself. I will have to re-read a few, to see if it stands out to me now.

    Another person to to whom we can trace some of the “odd” stories and themes in our culture (perhaps “Ghost Hunters” and such) is Charles Fort. I don’t think that that many people end up as an adjective, so “Lovecraftian” and “Fortean” are probably strong identifiers that these guys left their mark.

  5. You don’t think so? I think unacknowledged is different than hidden. Or trying to be forgotten or rewritten is still different than hidden.

    I mean, think of the exact set-up in “The Shunned House.” How could anyone in the South with that same level study as the narrator be surprised to learn a Frenchman had first owned the land?

    In order for the dynamic to work with the change in geography, you’d either have to have a narrator with much less historical knowledge–since there’s not the same level of “The only white people here ever were us WASPs” mythology–or you’d have to have a really different ethnic background for that original family.

  6. Oh, cool, then carry on. I am wondering if the difference would indeed be that you could have the exact same set up–man returns to family home to address strange goings-on that prevent the house from being rented and harken back to the house’s sad history, discovers that it’s being haunted by a vampiric/werewolfish/French ghost who was the first white settler on the land, and thus vanquishes it–with the difference being not that this history had to be discovered, but that he could not get the history acknowledged.

    Maybe he could not even get the haunting acknowledged.

    Or the house at all… Oh, oh, oh.

    Oh.

    It’d be like if the house I found outside of Gallatin really was Allenwood, but no one would admit it. “No, no, that got torn down.”

  7. I really like that idea! I think that’s why all the other characters think Lovecraft’s clear-seeing protagonist is mad…because they have been so thoroughly deluded that they can’t perceive reality as it is any more. History is an act of faith (mostly….I mean, there are a few seminarians and rabbinical sorts that rummage about in the original texts and debate their meanings, but for most people, they just know what they think they know or what they’ve been told is so, or what they want to be true) and if you’ve placed your faith in a distorted truth, well then.

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