HP Lovecraft’s Deepest Fear

Having just studied a bit about the eugenics movement, I’ve been thinking of HP Lovecraft and his xenophobia. Much of his horror writing centers on the Other, of course—be that something from another dimension, or the deep, or even the otherness in the self. One of the most chilling details I know about Lovecraft is that after spending his life obsessed about tentacled horrors, the man died at age 46, of that terrible invader, cancer. But a still more disturbing aspect of his stories is his fear of the other races within humanity—the swamp tribes, and the jungle cults, and all the other ululating “primitives.” And if that isn’t enough, check out Lovecraft’s poetry, which involves these lines from 1912: ” A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure/Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N-gger.”

I won’t say any more on the subject. I don’t want to. And if you know Lovecraft at all, you’re aware that there’s plenty more terrible where that stuff came from. My overall feeling of Lovecraft is that he is the antithesis of the Transcendentalist—someone who looks at the wilderness, and finds not an oversoul but an underspite, where humanity is not sublime but actually destined to be subsumed into the great awful (without the e). Lovecraft was part of the post-Transcendentalist movement that feared what nature held, where scientists (such as Henry Goddard) looked for bestial traits in the so-called lower races. In this way, Lovecraft both inherited and propelled the racist attitudes of his time. But with that anxiety, his fiction does an interesting thing. An anthropologist stumbles upon a tribe of brown people, and he discovers them in ritual conversation with a relic. He becomes imprisoned in their fecund swamps, and he finds them in contact with an Old One—the true reality—a god.

In other words, if much of Lovecraft focuses on the blissful ignorance that (white) humans enjoy while they build their civilizations on the surface of the deep, the ones who know (at least more of) the truth are Lovecraft’s social “degenerates.” More often than not, it’s the white man who doesn’t have a clue*.

Does this excuse Lovecraft? Not in the least. In fact, it makes him worse. Because this revelation pokes at the very anxiety that makes Lovecraft’s writing so dangerous. In other words, Lovecraft’s most persistent assertions show that 1) all along, the elite white man has been wrong, and that 2) the other man—the so-called degenerate man—has more power than Whitey can even imagine.

To the white supremacists, civilization belongs to them. They are the outpost against savagery. You can hear it even now in the Trumpers’ rhetoric about outsiders destroying our City on a Hill. They fear their temporality, their sudden overthrow, a return to a time when dominance does not belong to them. They fear when power rests in the hands of the people they ignored, at best—if not outright colonized and oppressed. Lovecraft’s greatest material still circulates in slightly-different verbiage on FOX News, where, these days, Cthulhu has something in common with Allah. And as the white conservative clutches her heirloom pearls and her blood diamonds, she fears for her culture, yes. But deep down, she also fears that everything she believes is wrong.

*But, you say, “The Dunwich Horror” is all about white New Englanders.  And that’s true, until you look at the cultists’ “fishy” physiognomy of bulging eyes and prominent lips. That, and although Lovecraft was concerned about preserving whiteness in general, he was especially interested in aristocratic whiteness. Hence his stories about pure families  cross-breeding themselves into squalor. It’s typical of bigotry how Lovecraft’s desire to protect whiteness narrows to his desire to protect certain kinds of whiteness.