I’m a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. They evoke a sense of wonder, dread, and the allure of forbidden knowledge. As Neil Gaiman has stated1, “Lovecraft built the stage on which most of the last century’s horror fiction was performed.” He draws the reader into a world of arcane mystery and nameless horror, threatening his protagonists’ sanity and indeed their very lives with a sense of addictive fascination that practically flows out of the page. Lovecraft’s method of “describing the indescribable” with florid and evocative language has all but made him a genre unto himself.
While that never stopped me enjoying his stories, it is sometimes off-putting and makes much of his stuff difficult to read. It is tempting to contextualize this to the period he was writing (where such attitudes were expressed openly), but Lovecraft’s social and racial elitism was considered beyond the pale even for his times; though the tone of his arguments on this topic became more general over the years, they did not appear to change with the times. His correspondence (much of which has been collected and published by S. T. Joshi) bears this out.
But as I’ve re-read his stories over the years, something has dawned on me: the often wholesale embrace of “the white man’s burden” is not only a central metaphor in Lovecraft’s work, it often deepens the isolation of his characters and heightens their peril.
TW: Racist and imperialist language and themes, as well as ableist language and themes, after the jump.
In Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden, he famously argues that the need to “civilize” non-European cultures and to deal with the violent resistance of these cultures to imperialism is the unique and heavy burden of white western men. He repeatedly argues that it is a moral imperative to spread Western social values and Christian religious teachings to cultures he considers “savage” and that the esoteric gains from accepting personal risk and hardship in the name of eradicating “lesser” cultures are the ultimate mark of wisdom and worldliness. This perspective obviously ignores the fact that the burden faced by these cultures in confronting well-armed white men invading their homes is obviously the only real one. Nonetheless, this attitude is common not only to writers like Kipling and Hemingway but to Lovecraft.
For example, Lovecraft often describes groups of humans as “descended” and “animal-like” or uses alien genetic influence as a metaphor for racial mixing in humans. He also seems to suggest that the firmly held belief in “the natural order” of the universe as applied to human society is merely an illusion—one that, when dispelled, leaves his protagonists totally broken. It can be argued that Lovecraft’s own isolation and resentment fuels this. He was a brilliant writer and could trace his bloodline back to early colonial America and England, but he was consigned to writing for pulp magazines at low pay and living in Poe’s shadow.
Yet Lovecraft seems to have simultaneously thought academic inquiry and cultural advancement were of the highest virtue… and that they were ultimately a hollow path to madness and doom. His characters usually share that belief and view their greatest achievements as self-destructive, often leading them to implore others not to follow in their footsteps.
In examining how this plays out in his works and how that sense of inherent racial and cultural superiority serve to heighten the peril of his characters, it’s helpful to examine some of his best and most widely known works. For starters, let’s take a look at the “Innsmouth mythos”. While this fictional town, likely based on real life Newburyport Massachusetts2, is mentioned in several of his works as part of a larger mythology woven into disparate stories, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” most directly relate to the town and its secretive inhabitants.
In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, an unnamed narrator (likely based on Lovecraft himself) is taking a tour of the town’s architecture as a stop on his travels in old New England. As he explores the streets, he remarks on the decrepit state of the once majestic homes and the shambling dirty state of its inhabitants, at one point remarking on the “dirty simian-visaged children.”
“Almost every [person] had certain peculiarities of face and motion which I instinctively disliked without being able to define or comprehend them.”
—from The Shadow Over Innsmouth
While he finds the decayed and boarded up state of the classic buildings deplorable, he is more disgusted by the people and views them as inherently untrustworthy. The only person he can relate to is a clerk at the local chain grocery store, an out-of-towner like himself. After conversing with him, he is eventually led to the town drunk, Zadok Allen. In exchange for a bottle of whiskey, Zadok tells him the history of the town. Allen implies that the town’s patriarch, Captain Obed Marsh, gained access to occult artifacts and knowledge when trading with an African tribe. These secrets allowed him to summon ancient alien beings (“The Old Ones” from the Cthulhu mythos) who gave him and his town limitless wealth and food in exchange for adopting “The Esoteric Order of Dagon3” as their religion in place of Christianity and interbreeding with some of them to create a hybrid race. When he is forced to stay in Innsmouth overnight, likely due to sabotage caused by locals who became aware of his inquiries, the narrator is attacked and forced to flee from the town as angry mobs and alien beasts (the “Shoggoths” from many of Lovecraft’s stories) seek to kill him or worse.
Clearly the metaphor of cultural and genetic mixing as a consequence of imperialism is the driving force in this story. The idea that interacting with foreign cultures has turned an old New England town into a bastion of decay and violent corruption is between the lines on almost every page.
While he eventually escapes, the protagonist begins to look into his own family history and realizes his grandmother was one of Innsmouth’s hybrids, a direct relative of Obed Marsh and one of the Old Ones, and that he has that same blood within him. The story ends with him considering suicide, then realizing he would rather return to Innsmouth and embrace his dreaded lineage. Lovecraft seems to imply that this acceptance is a progression of the protagonist’s madness to a point even beyond suicidal ideation and that the madness itself is made inescapable by genetics, a common theme in much of his writing. Even though Lovecraft’s own parents had what he considered impeccable heritage, they also both died in an insane asylum. Lovecraft seemed incapable of reconciling these two facts and the possible connection between family lines and insanity is a common theme in many of his works.
But in Shadow over Innsmouth, we also see something often overlooked in most analysis of H.P.’s characters: acceptance.
While this tale revolves around revulsion at a society of people living in a “descended” culture that bears little in common with mainstream Western civilization and suicidal terror at the notion that his own lineage is mingled with that culture, we are ultimately shown a man who realizes that perhaps accepting his heritage and embracing it is the way out of madness rather than a path to it. The protagonist has been experiencing increasing self loathing and decreasing interest in his normal scholarly pursuits; he simultaneously becomes ever more curious about the advanced knowledge his half-alien family possesses and wonders if perhaps it is more worthwhile than anything he could study at Miskatonic University. While Lovecraft seems to view this line of thought as insane, his protagonist is motivated by the knowledge that remaining among his peers will ultimately lead to his death or imprisonment and that returning to Innsmouth is the safest course of action, a rational response by definition. He also states his intent to break his cousin (who he learns has been suffering from the exact same “madness”) out of an insane asylum to return with him.This is, perhaps, Lovecraft projecting a view that accepting one’s own family and confronting the source of madness itself is far less dangerous than continuing to hide from it.
We are left with a man who is eager to meet his half-alien grandmother and learn the secrets of his people’s ways. He walks away from his life and plans to return to those whom he increasingly believes may be better than those he is leaving behind. Given his parents’ fate, Lovecraft seems to believe that “madness” may be relative, at least in some cases, to the surrounding culture. Since his parents were of old blood and were considered insane by their peers, this is an instance where Lovecraft seems to directly invert the “white man’s burden” and see things from the other side; if those around him consider him mad due to who and what he is, he will leave them behind and live with those like him, those who truly understand.
However this can also be seen as a rejection of a trend towards cultural and racial equality. Lovecraft may in fact be saying that the culture of New England is becoming “savage” itself and that perhaps people like him and his family are the ones with the real burden in that world. While the attitude of cultural superiority persists in that analysis, the realization that the culture he has always considered superior may actually be the lesser one is somewhat unique to this tale and a rare instance of him directly confronting the relativity of the “white man’s burden.”
The second tale that heavily refers to the Innsmouth bloodline is “The Thing on the Doorstep”. This story has another distant relative of Obed Marsh, Asenath Waite, slowly taking control of her husband’s body in order to transfer her consciousness to a “male brain” which she views as inherently more capable of occult thought. We later find out that Waite’s grandfather had done the same thing, taking advantage of her “weaker” mind to live on past his rightful time using her body.
It can be argued that this is a parable about abuse; of the callously harmful actions of a selfish woman born of the abusive behavior of her grandfather. While this tale is one of only a few in which Lovecraft explores gender, the bulk of the narrative is still about culture and heritage. The point here is that the bloodline of Innsmouth was so corrupt and powerful that it led someone to sacrifice his own kin to gain immortality and ever greater power in service of strange alien cultures. Asenath becomes a pawn in a game where a questionable bloodline is attempting to infiltrate and destroy Western civilization.
Here, again, we see a trope about racial tensions (they’ll take our women and corrupt them) lead to death and madness as both Asenath and Edward are murdered to prevent the cycle from continuing. But the goal of power and domination at the expense of other “lesser” lives is one that is much more commonly associated with those same Eurocentric conquerors than those they conquered; an irony not explored in these or most of H.P.’s other tales. Unlike “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the only solution to the madness born of that bloodline that the protagonist of “Shadow on the Doorstep” will accept is the death of those spreading it.
There are numerous other examples of Lovecraft’s protagonists being isolated by racism and xenophobia, even as the horror they face is arguably a metaphorical defense of that bigotry. “The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Dunwich Horror” both feature protagonists who are unable to convince a group of culturally foreign and reclusive locals to aid them in their struggles against a sinister monster that is preying on the countryside. In both cases this reluctance is due to those groups’ superstition, which turns out to be more accurate than the scientific perceptions of the protagonists, and in both stories the monsters are the result of human bloodlines mingling with alien monsters and descending into violent predatory behavior. In these and many other stories we are simultaneously shown the horror that a protagonist experiences towards isolated and reclusive cultures with a mixed racial background and the inability for a protagonist to find support or companionship due to that same cultural insulation. Here, again, the “white man’s burden” is invoked by the narrative to the detriment of the main character. These men are unable to convince members of a community to aid in their own salvation and are left to struggle alone due to their unwillingness to tackle their problems from the perspective of anyone from a different culture.
It has been argued that Lovecraft and his protagonists are less concerned with actual race and more concerned with culture. In fact, two of Lovecraft’s longest (and arguably best) stories tackle this directly. In “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow out of Time” the protagonist gains sympathy for the alien beings they encounter, realizing that they are incomprehensibly advanced races suffering at the hands of a lower class hell bent on the destruction of their cultural superiors. These erudite humans are able to relate to tentacled flying mushroom beings and slithering flesh pyramids due to their belonging to a higher and more educated class which is being persecuted by brutish subordinates. These stories also both describe the true terrors as a sort of formless being. Many of Lovecraft’s other stories, mainly those considered part of the “Cthulhu Mythos”, employ these “Shoggoths” (or beings like them) as the true villain and ultimate terror. They are never interacted with directly and can’t even be described accurately; they are simply evil and dangerous to those they should be serving even though they were created as slaves. They can, perhaps, be seen as a metaphor for uncontrollable rage from those whom their masters consider little more than animals; yet another parallel to “The White Man’s Burden” where hostile natives threaten those who seek to “uplift” them.
“Take up the White Man’s burden—And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better. The hate of those ye guard.”
—Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden
These and many other of Lovecraft’s stories imply that the upending of the “proper social order” leads to indescribable terror and madness, often threatening the survival of the human race itself. They also, however, seem to suggest that desperately clinging to these racial and cultural hierarchies in the face of a universe that cares very little for such notions are the very thing that causes Lovecraft’s protagonists to suffer.
While there is a good deal more to Lovecraft than this analysis deals with, the notion of a “natural order” to things and the irrelevance of that order when viewed from the cosmic perspective is arguably his primary theme and most enduring literary influence. But I can’t help thinking that his characters would fare much better if they allowed their perspectives to broaden and evolve rather than be torn to pieces by the reality of their ultimate emptiness.
After all, what difference will our petty cultural divisions ultimately make when Cthulhu rises from his sunken city of R’lyeh?
Award winning author Nicole Cushing has a fantastic breakdown of Lovecraft’s racist and elitist ideas and thoroughly debunks the “man of his time” narrative often used to marginalize this aspect of his writing. It is well worth reading for any H.P. fan concerned with this aspect of the man and his works.
1. liner notes/blurbs in “H.P. Lovecraft: Great tales of horror” as well as several other Lovecraft collections.
2. according to the editor’s preface in “H.P. Lovecraft: Great tales of horror” which describes Lovecraft’s real life excursion to that town.
3. a reference to his proto-Cthulonic god in the story “Dagon.”