Last night the CBC’s Toronto-set period detective drama Murdoch Mysteries featured H. P. Lovecraft. It was … different. Set in the early 1900s, when Lovecraft was a young teenager, the episode imagined Lovecraft as a Goth youth spending a season with his Canadian aunt. In Toronto, he became something of an autistic necrophiliac (presumably in the manner of the story “The Loved Dead”) who had an obsession with a rotten corpse. The show also implied that he had the psychic power to project monstrous fantasies into women’s minds. While it was not the be most accurate depiction of Lovecraft, it does lead me to today’s topic.
Last fall, historian W. Scott Poole published In the Mountains of Madness, an informal biography and critique of H. P. Lovecraft in cultural context. I didn’t read the book at the time of its release, mostly because the publisher didn’t send me one. I suppose it was a good choice for them considering that I disagreed with most of Poole’s 2011 book Monsters in America. (See my review: Part 1 and Part 2.) I’ve started reading Mountains now, and I must confess to being somewhat baffled by it. The book is a fragmentary collection of impressionistic pieces on Lovecraft, organized into four long chapters and a smattering of back matter. It is neither strictly chronological nor entirely thematic, and I could discern no organizing framework. It is by turns a semi-scholarly look at Lovecraft’s life and work and an emotional defense of the author’s peculiar readings of Lovecraft stories, through which he sees the tropes of race, class, and gender played out.
I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t have a final judgment, but halfway through I did want to comment on a fundamental flaw that has perverted Poole’s judgment of Lovecraft’s work. He mistakes influence for plagiarism and therefore is blind to the history of horror contained in Lovecraft’s fiction.
To wit, Poole is a historian rather than a literary critic, and he seems intent on looking for specific pieces of past authors’ work as evidence of “influence.” He denies specifically that Lovecraft took any important influence from Edgar Allan Poe, and he accuses Lovecraft of conspiring to falsely cite Poe as an influence in order to increase the prestige of his own work: “Poe’s growing influence [in American literature] offered him a way to appear as something other than a not very successful pulp writer.” Indeed, he believes that the only reason most readers think of Poe as an influence on Lovecraft is because previous literary critics, and filmmaker Roger Corman, said so.
The tendency of Lovecraft enthusiasts to associate him so thoroughly with Poe largely came from a desire for their idol’s reputation to grow right along with Poe’s in the literary community. This has trickled down to Lovecraft fandom, where mentioning Poe and Lovecraft in the same breath has become de rigueur if you want to portray yourself as a sophisticated reader of horror fiction.
This is because he can’t see the forest for the trees. Poole looked for copied motifs and copied plots instead of looking at the more artistic elements that traveled over into Lovecraft’s prose. But if we must be blunt, let us start with the story that gave Poole’s own book its title. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is quite clearly a pseudo-sequel to Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. Not only in both do travelers to the Antarctic find a lost ancient civilization, but the strange cry “Tékéli-li!” appears in both tales, first as the cry of Poe’s Antarctic natives and later as the scream of Lovecraft’s shoggoths. Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valemar” offers a fairly direct predecessor to Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” where in both cases the failure of a preservation technique leads to the liquefication of a living corpse. In “The Horror at Red Hook,” Lovecraft directly quotes Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” and “The Shunned House” refers to Poe directly as having passed by the title property. To the last, Lovecraft kept it up. His last major story, “The Haunter of the Dark,” ends with an invocation of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” referencing Roderick Usher himself.
In other tales, though, the influence is seen in the use of language, which in Lovecraft’s early stories is a fairly clear echo of Poe’s. In Lovecraft’s poetry this is most clearly seen, for many of his poems, turgid as they are, contain fairly direct imitations of Poe’s subject matter and meter. In Poe, “The House of Usher,” and the American Gothic, Perry and Sederholm make a strong case that “Usher” contributed markedly to Lovecraft’s descriptions of old houses and ancestral estates in “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Strange High House in the Mist,” “The Shunned House,” and “The Colour Out of Space,” and that it also influenced Lovecraft’s penchant for stories of hereditary degeneration—something Poole attributes to Lovecraft’s father dying in a madhouse. “This partial list,” Perry and Sederholm write, “begins to suggest how thoroughly Lovecraft dissected Poe’s themes and images and used them as springboards to the creation of his own specific stories.”
There is the key: influence is not direct copying.
Poole dismisses all of this as “a false connection.” He prefers to see in Lovecraft the influence of Ambrose Bierce, a writer Lovecraft did not read until 1919, hypothesizing the Lovecraft’s grandfather read Bierce’s stories in the 1890s and told Lovecraft oral versions of them. Uh-huh. Bierce’s fiction is concise, almost to the point of being terse, the exact opposite of Lovecraft’s expansive style. His plots rarely echo Lovecraft’s except where both authors draw on the same models (such as the Frankenstein theme of “Moxon’s Master” and “Herbert West—Reanimator”). Lovecraft passes not a hint of the biting humor that colors Bierce’s tales. Poole also, and more plausibly, ascribes influence to Greek mythology and the Arabian Nights, but forgets that influences are not singular or mutually exclusive.
And God help me, but I actually have to defend Lovecraft on race. Heaven help us.
Caution: This section contains offensive language because Lovecraft named his cat a racial slur, and the historical context requires using the language to discuss it since Poole uses the language in his book.
Most of you know that I have no love for Lovecraft’s deep and profound racism, and I have called out the way his racism has played into the alt-right embrace of weird fiction. But here I draw the line. Poole delivers pages of angry diatribe against Lovecraft’s cat. His liberal pieties about race, on display in his earlier books, here move beyond parody, even for me. You see, Lovecraft’s cat was named “Nigger-Man,” because he was black, and while that is certainly a racist name, Poole wrongly assumes that it was somehow racist to a degree that sets Lovecraft apart and places him on par with lynch mobs (literally). “In short, it’s a willful denial of the larger context of Lovecraft’s life to use the ‘back then, that’s just how people thought’ argument, a favorite canard for those who wish to provide a retroactive forgiveness for a historical figure’s attitudes and actions about race, racism, and its practical effects on the lives of actual human beings in the past. […] This may seem a lot of weight to place on the name of a cat. And, frankly, I agree that a pet’s name might not mean so much if race did not seem to become something of a personal obsession for Lovecraft in later years…”
But the fact is that while Lovecraft was racist in a way that even racists back then were not, his cat was not unique and is unworthy of special criticism. Consider this contemporary article published in a major newspaper and reprinted in the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals magazine Our Dumb Animals in 1906:
CALLS CAT BY TELEPHONE.
I have a feeling that Frank Whipple may be one of Lovecraft’s relatives. His grandfather and mother were Whipples. Perhaps it was a family trait.
If it was, it was not just the Whipple family. In 1914, a ten-year-old girl from Montana named Eugeneia Weber wrote to The American Thresherman to say that her cat was named Nigger. Eleven-year-old Charlotte Shan of Ohio said the same thing in The Prairie Farmer in 1922. They had nothing on eight-year-old Aleida C. Rohrs, who had a cat of that name in 1895 and told the Illustrated Family Newspaper about it. Marguerite Chien Church had a cat named Nigger, and James Agee recorded one of that name in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Capt. Robert Scott took a black cat named Nigger with him on his ill-fated journey to the Antarctic. Jet magazine reported that the name was still being used for black cats in the liberal bastion of Los Angeles as late as 1991!
The point is that while Lovecraft was absurdly racist, his cat isn’t evidence of his special brand of racism since his cat shared his name with other cats found around the country and in respectable publications in that same era. We tend to underestimate the prevalence of casual racism in the 1900s. Lovecraft’s special form of racism was to heap violent fantasies on Black people and moan about how the non-white were going to destroy the purity of America. His cat, however, was just ordinary levels of racism for the time, just like all those “nice” boys and girls with their black cats all over (white) America. None of them should have named their cats that, but in this one area Lovecraft was actually quite in step with his contemporaries, who were all racists, and not way out on the limb of his burning cross.
But I’ve gone on too long now, and I don’t have time for the other topic in Poole’s book I wanted to discuss. So, tomorrow I will explore Poole’s contention that Lovecraft’s monsters have no precedent in history or literature and are therefore a completely original creation.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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