This is a multi-part article that explores Lovecraft's tale "The Lurking Fear" as a metaphor for the social and cultural fears of heredity the early 20th century in America. While scientist of the day attempted to make a distinction between "heredity" and "eugenics," the popular belief was mainly focused upon heredity -- or so that is argued here. Of course, the science of eugenics in the early 1900s was more pseudo-science than real science, so little fault can be placed on a misinformed public when the experts driving the research had very little understanding of the subject themselves.
Perhaps distinguishing between the theoretical, scientific concepts of eugenics in the United States as opposed to the common cultural interpretation seems to be of little benefit – at least at first glance. But it is the public reception and re-interpretation of these scientific and pseudo-scientific notions that produces, mutates, and evolves into a broad eugenics movement in commercial fiction in the early 1900s. As argued by Martin S. Pernick in his text, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, the dismissal by Mark Haller and Daniel J. Kevles of “environmentally-caused conditions that are not really eugenic, but the result of the mass culture’s misunderstanding of heredity” is to over simplify the eugenics argument. Pernick argues that the eugenics debate is evident in motion pictures, demonstrating how the misunderstanding has become the tool of propaganda. However, the same germs of misconception and misinformation infected commercial writing as well. This is perhaps the most evident in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Because of the overwhelming lack of scholarly interest in Lovecraft’s writings, biographical information is limited, debated, and often generalized. Nonetheless, he is recognized as one of the influential writers of “weird fiction” during the "pulp era." Although he died in 1937, his literary progeny have given life to a vast sub-genre in the contemporary commercial market today, bringing with it the embedded notions of degeneration and eugenics, though usually disguised in metaphor or symbols in the form of “monsters.”
In “The Lurking Fear,” the language of degeneration and the concern with heredity are readily evident. Through a first person narrative, the decline of a Dutch family (the Martenses) is traced. The short story follows them from an early, pre-colonial Dutch settlement in New York State’s Catskill region to 1921. In the work's opening, Lovecraft creates a setting that is one of the causes for the devolution of the Martense family:
It was not a wholesome landscape after dark, and I believe I would have noticed its morbidity even had I been ignorant of the terror that stalked there… The ancient lightning-scarred trees seemed unnaturally large and twisted, and the other vegetation unnaturally thick and feverish, while curious mounds and hummocks in the weedy, fulgurite-pitted earth reminded me of snakes and dead men’s skulls swelled to gigantic proportions.
This description of the earth surrounding the ruined Martense mansion mimics a primordial environment. Embedded in this language is the Lombrosian idea of atavism, although Lovecraft has applied it to plants, weather, and earth instead of humans. It is stagnated Nature.
The conversation of eugenics expands when the focus shifts to a nearby “squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes." The narrator goes on to state that “Normal beings seldom visited” the squatters – clearly drawing a distinction between the poverty-stricken people populating the remote areas and the other inhabitants, such as local townsfolk and farmers. In fact, throughout the work, Lovecraft refuses to describe the squatters in any positive manner. Being an author known for his abundant use of adjectives, he always prefaces “squatters” with “degenerate,” “simple,” “pitiful,” or other labels indicating their inferiority. Occasionally, he forgoes the use of “squatters”; instead, the terms “animals” or “witless shanty-dwellers” or at best “mountaineers” are applied. The overall effect produces a sense of defective humans, clearly of degenerate stock (as labeled by the U.S. Eugenics movement). And it is through the squatters that the work’s theme of heredity surfaces in the ancestry of the squatters; they are the offspring of the Martense family.
(to be continued...)