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 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.