Tuesday, May 08, 2007

American Eugenics in H.P. Lovecraft

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.

Part I: "The Lurking Fear" in the early 20th Century

In 1923, the pulp author H. P. Lovecraft published his short fiction work “The Lurking Fear” in four installments in Home Brew magazine. Since its publication, neither the story, nor the magazine, has had much critical attention. However, "The Lurking Fear" has proven to have great longevity in the domain of popular culture. Lovecraft, while starting his career as an author of scientific articles, has become known today for his fiction writings in genre fiction. “The Lurking Fear” is not one of his most notable works, yet it is a tale that sets a theme he returns to, and one that mirrors the mass culture reading of American eugenics in the early twentieth century.

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...)


Jeff Edwards said...

Have you read Tim Curran's "Eaters of Worms"? It's available in his chapbook from Rainfall Books, The Slithering & Others, and might interest you because it ventures into some of the same territory as "The Lurking Fear."


William Jones said...


Oddly enough, I have read "Eaters of the Worms." Maybe Tim will drop by and make a few comments about it himself.

My interest in later works -- particularly inspired by "The Lurking Fear" or similar tales by Lovecraft is the continuation of the ideas that are now mostly alien to modern society (in the present form). What I'm striving for with these articles is to connect some of the mass culture ideas present in Lovecraft's day, and both the perfection of humans and the degeneration of the humans were quite popular -- nearly 40 states passed eugenics laws. And these notions do live in Lovecraft today.

Kyle said...

The lurking fear wasn't one of my favorite HPL stories. It did stay tuned to the family and their becoming monsters. What comes to mind is the movie Congo. Not so great but when I saw it this story came to mind. I don't remember if the apes where humans or something skipped over by evolution.

Jon said...

I'm not a great student of Lovecraft, but in the stories I've read this theme seems to run through out. I had always taken it as a completely Victorian, class based world-view. Us and Them.

William Jones said...


There are certainly hints of the Victorian social order in Lovecraft's writings and the other writers of his time (U.S. authors). But what happened in the early 1900s is SIR Francis Galton's coined term/science "Eugenics" perhaps helped to provide some "scientific" support for "good breeding" (which is a part of social class order). In a letter to Galton from another British scientist (Karl Pearson), Pearson states: "You would be amused to hear how general is now the use of your word Eugenics! I hear most respectable middle-class matrons saying if children are weakly, 'Ah, that was not a eugenic marriage!'"

By the time Lovecraft is publishing, there is a concern in the U.S. about "improving" humanity. Many ideas were tossed about, but the notion of heredity and eugenic marriages are what started to appear in mass culture.