Monday, October 19, 2009

H.P. Lovecraft in Pop Culture Take and Eugenics

As Halloween approaches, I thought I'd try (emphasis try) to make a few posts related to horror and fiction. Some of the posts will be my typical dry commentaries, hopefully others will be my less dry commentaries.

To start it off, given the short amount of time before Oct. 31st, I thought I'd post an essay (dry) about the author H.P. Lovecraft and how the fear of eugenics, or what scholars term "popular culture" interpretations of eugenics found its way into his work. It is a work I presented at a conference several years ago.

As a bit of background, do understand that Lovecraft lived during the middle of the great American debate about eugenics. Many states had passed laws, and many were passing laws requiring the sterilization of "defective humans." The standards and conditions in each state varied. However, they often focused upon I.Q. tests, income level, education level, and sometimes physical appearance. Mind you, there were no standardized I.Q. tests, so all of these forms of measurement were farcical at best.

In any case, the concept of eugenics - of improving the human race - moved from the scientific realm, which was dubious enough, to the general public. There were protesters on both sides, for and against, and it was transformed into a bit like a Jerry Springer show. The end result was a generally misinformed public on a already misinformed science.

My point behind this lengthy prologue is to point out that several academic and fiction books had been published about eugenics before the 1800s. With the advent of motion pictures, it had moved into theaters, and was already frolicking in fiction - both literary and genre. The overall tone of the following essay is to point out the reoccuring eugenics theme in H.P Lovecraft's works, and how it was represented in popular culture.

And, if anyone is interested in referenced works, please feel free to contact me for a list.

The Reading and Misreading of American Eugenics:
“The Lurking Fear” in Popular Culture

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 story 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 writing in genre fiction. “The Lurking Fear” is not one of his most notable works, yet it is a tale that sets a theme he follows throughout his career, 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’s reception and re-interpretation of these scientific and pseudo-scientific notions that produces, mutates, and evolves into a broad eugenics movement in commercial fiction. 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 Kelves 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 vague, debated, and often generalized. Nonetheless, he is recognized as one of the influential writers “weird fiction” during the early part of the twentieth century. Although he died in 1937, his literary progeny have given life to a vast sub-genre in the contemporary commercial market, bringing with it the embedded notions of degeneration and eugenics, though usually disguised in the metaphor or symbols of “monsters.”

In Lovecraft’s “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 story’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 land surrounding the ruined Martense mansion produces a primordial environment. Embedded in this language is the Lombrosoian idea of atavism, although Lovecraft has applied it to plants, weather, and earth. It is Nature stagnated, if not regressing.
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 is to produce a sense of defective humans, clearly of degenerate stock. 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.

This is the moment where mass culture’s reading of eugenics as heredity intersects with Lombroso’s stigmata of the criminal man. Through the discourse of history, Lovecraft produces a narrative that explores the hidden aspects of the human animal. While on the surface the work is interested in locating a fiend, a monster stalking the remote regions of New York, beneath the narrative is the exploration of heredity and ancestry, the figuration of the criminal man:
Their life [the Martenses] was exceedingly secluded, and people declared that their isolation had made them heavy of speech and comprehension. In appearance all were marked by a peculiar inherited dissimilarity of eyes; one generally being blue and the other brown. Their social contacts grew fewer and fewer, till at last they took to intermarrying with the numerous menial class about the estate. Many of the crowded family degenerated, moved across the valley, and merged with the mongrel population which was later to produce the pitiful squatters [my emphasis].

The lack of symmetry (the eyes) and the intermingling with the “menial class” are elements that Martin S. Pernick describe as being examples of “defective” humans portrayed in the 1915 commercial film The Black Stork. This mass culture conception of eugenics is the device at work in Lovecraft’s story. It is the concern with the mixing of “stock” or “race” combined with an inferior heritage of the Martenses which results in the creation of atavistic humans. But, in order to bring about the rapid devolution of the Martense line, Lovecraft has their “menial” class progeny mingle with a local “mongrel” population. The result produces a narrative of superstitious, feebleminded people, capable of living in nothing more than shanties and “dug-outs” in the mountainside. Lovecraft has effectively reduced the squatters to the common notion of “cavemen.”

Of course, the hereditary trait of different eye color is a stigmata for the Martnese family. This allows the reader to mark them as defective, as a Lombrosoian criminal. In the story, it also serves as a portent of a darker fate for them. The narrator continues to delve into the mysteries surrounding the Martense family, eventually returning to the ruined mansion, which is located on Tempest Mountain. This spot is given to spectacular thunderstorms – and is in itself a commonly used literary trope of pulp fiction. When the weather is combined with the primordial landscape, the stage is set for what appears to be Lovecraft’s project: The representation of heredity as a lurking fear in human society. It is revealed to the reader that the Martense family was physically and mentally influenced by the prehistoric, atavistic location of their mansion. This is the cause for the rapid devolution of the family line. Lovecraft portrays this in his typical style. The narrator returns to the Martense mansion during a thunderstorm and attempts to put into words a horror that is beyond description – even doing so weakens the narrator’s sanity:
…then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life – a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity.

The language used to describe the devolved family does its best to avoid the use of “human.” Similarly, the adjectives flood the prose just as the Martenses flood the surrounding forest, exposing the horror that not only slumbers in tunnels beneath the earth, but the threat that sleeps in human ancestry and society. Undaunted, Lovecraft continues in an attempt to convey the scope of the peril:

Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents’ slime it rolled up and out of the yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress – streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forest and strew fear, madness, and death.

Eventually the suppuration of adjectives ends with the narrator describing the Martenses as “dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes – monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.” And like chimpanzees, the Martenses are agitated and aggressive during thunderstorms. In the last few paragraphs of the work, Lovecraft again describes the Martense family because they are the horror, the monsters of the tale. This time he uses the label “white ape,” and explains that they were “…the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground… .”

Even for the most imaginative of scientists studying eugenics, such a result is (hopefully) beyond their ken. Certainly this is an exaggeration of an already exaggerated theory. But as with most popular literature, the subject touches upon cultural fears, misguided or not. In Lovecraft’s tale of human degeneration, he is not experimenting like Zola in Nana, he is not writing a social critique, he is revealing a social fear, a “grinning fear that lurk[s] behind life.” The ancestral ghost that haunts this narrative is the unseen stigmata of the defective human. It is the symptom produced by years of debate over the “fit” and “unfit,” the superior and inferior, the great and the lowly. While those engaged in the debate about eugenics were secure in their status, insecurity seeped into mass culture. This caused a debate, already from dubious stock, to degenerate into a fear that was overlooked. Mass culture’s misreading of eugenics as science, transformed into a nightmare that continues to reoccur to this day.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good piece. The eugenics movement in the US is not very well known but it existed at the same time as the thinking was being exercised in Germany. My students are always amazed to find this out.

jeffwedwards said...

I realize that my comment has little to do with your post, directly... But as I read your essay, my thoughts drifted to John Frankenheimer's 1979 film, "Prophecy," and also "Gojira tai HedorĂ¢" ("Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster")-- movies in which pollution and waste inevitably led to mutation. But that is another topic entirely... I am going to recycle something now, or use some unbleached paper, or something.

Vesper said...

A very interesting essay, William. I wasn't really aware of this eugenics movement in the US, but now that you're mentioning it I think I can see aspects of it in certain films I've seen. I haven't read "The Lurking Fear" either, but I'll look for it.
Thank you.

Denise said...

It's a while since I read "The Lurking Fear" & I'd remembered the creatures as being the results of inbreeding--but you're right, it was the opposite, the Martenses' willingness to intermingle with 'inferiors' that created the monsters. I guess this is one of the aspects of Lovecraft we tend to edit out of our memories of the stories.

William Jones said...

Charles - You're quite right. Most people associate the eugenics movement with Germany, when it was, in fact, the U.S. that urged other nations to start it. Seems that part of history has been overlooked a few times.

Jeff - I think you're on topic. As it turns out, eugenics, both pro and con, took to films quite well. And they came in many strange forms. GATTACA is an obvious one, but HOLIDAY INN is rather unexpected. :) And not as overtly, the THREE STOOGES tended to represent the three classes of "defective humans." (Although they usually succeeded, so I'd count that as anti-eugenics.

My fear is the word eugenics has been transformed into "genetic engineering" today. But the stratification still exists within the notion (superior and inferior).

Vesper - I'm glad you enjoyed the essay. It needs proper formatting. And you certainly don't need to read "The Lurking Film" to find eugenics in popular culture today. The invention of the I.Q. test is a legacy from eugenic, and so is the notion of "if you're smart, why aren't you rich?" That was a test for "feebleminded people." Poverty level income meant they most likely were defective humans and needed to be steralized. Over 80,000 people, mostly females were steralizted in the program, and most were told made aware of the procedure until after it had been finished.

In any case, you can find many connections to this old attempt to improve humanity. And yes, I think it is overlooked in Lovecraft's work. But then he lived in an age when Women's Day magazine was for doctor's putting to death newborns who they felt (by physical sight - stigmata [head shape, distane of eyes, ear shape, etc] were defective humans). This mean upon delivery, the mother was given a moment to decide if she wanted to assist in the downfall of the human race. If not, then the infant was put to death right there, usually by allowing it to bleed to death. Now follow that with literature and films where humans devolve, and while an inaccurate understanding of eugenics, it was the popular understanding.

So for me, all of this makes "The Lurking Fear" a very scary tale.

Denise - The term "eugenics" was tagged by a British scientist. Turns out that Great Britian had a similar program. However, they refused to go as far as the U.S. with steralization without permission.

I'd imagine we could find countless films that deal with genetic engineering and eugenics (LOGAN'S RUN is a grand example).

And to appease everyone who was steralized and removed from their families, the Cold Water Eugenics facility in NY, recently publised a book about their eugneics program titled: A BAD IDEA.

Akasha Savage said...

Phew! That was a mommoth post...but well worth the read. Interesting stuff.

Vesper said...

William, what you've told me is much scarrier than any fictional piece...
I knew what happened in the ancient world, in Sparta, for instance, to newborns deemed unfit, and even during Hitler's reign, but the 20th century US is much too close to "home". However this is a fascinating subject. Thank you for adding more details to it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

You say eugenics like it's a bad thing.

By the way, I have been reading copious amounts of literature about the end of Nazi Germany (I don't know why). One of the things that continues to fascinate, of course, is how a nation bought into the concept of the Holocaust. There are some who will argue that Germans as a whole were ignorant and hardly supportive. Still, in most of the reading I've done, I get the feeling that while there it may have been under wraps to some degree, that people were fairly well versed that something was going on.

Eugenics would seem to be not only a rationale, in the case of the Nazis, but also something of a unifier for the populace. There is something cozy about such a blanket. When this belief is woven with national identity and religion, it becomes a power drug.

Rick said...

Hello, William. Very interesting piece. I've done reading over the years regarding the relationship of successful eugenics programs (horrible concept, isn't it?) to strongly centralized government. In each case, the ability of a strongly centralized government (Germany, Russian, and even the Netherlands) to implement such policies was rather frightening when compared to the more limited results of less centralized governments (Canada, the US, and Britain).

The importance of the Russian Eugenics Society (1920-1930) was particularly interesting as it existed within the Bolshevik movement. One of their articulated positions was that members of the Communist Party were biologically superior.

Oddly, as I've mentioned before, legislation re eugenics existed much longer in Canada (primarily the province of Alberta) than anywhere else. I believe it was on their books until the 1950's.

In any event, your essay brought back to life the horror of this perverted concept during a time when many would prefer to forget it ever existed at all.