My panel presentation at the Society of Early Americanists 10th Biennial Conference went pretty well, although, in classic Woellian fashion, I put a spoke in my wheel by starting off by quoting a longish Whitman poem. I guess that baffled some people who where already a little surprised to hear about H.P. Lovecraft in an academic field that cuts its strings at 1800. So if you’re interested how everybody’s favorite racialist cosmic horror author connects to Orientalized colonial spaces of contagion and death (and let’s be real: who wouldn’t be?), what follows is the transcript of my talk. And no, I’m not doing sources or bibliographies or anything like that, this is a blog. Sue me…
“Horrendous Hybridity: Spatial and Linguistic Representations of the Occult Orientalist Other in H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’”
Facing west from California’s shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land
of migrations, look afar,
Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled;
For starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere, From Asia, from the north, from the God, the sage, and the hero,
From the south, from the ﬂowery peninsulas and the spice islands,
Long having wander’d since, round the earth having wander’d,
Now I face home again, very pleas’d and joyous,
(But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?)
Walt Whitman, “Facing West from California’s Shores”
In Whitman’s poem, the imagined westward movement of the narrator abounds with the metaphoric contents of the Orient that were prevalent in nineteenth-century America. On the one hand they outline Americans as enterprising explorers, “tireless, seeking what is yet unfound.” On the other hand, this vision of the nation as young, masculine, and dynamic is counterpointed with the Orient as a realm of “maternity,” a romantic space of inertia and meditation. In accordance with American founding myths like the errand into wilderness and Manifest Destiny, the Orient could thus be measured, explored, and conquered with the help of rationality. But the last lines of the poem “But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?” also hint at a sense of disillusion regarding this vision of the East. As a part of the wilderness, the Oriental was always an ‘Other,’ excluded from civilization, and thus an object of colonization and exoticized representation. It was a counterpart for Western identity and supposed proof of pseudo-sciences like phrenology and eugenics that served to stabilize the moral fundaments of white supremacy. In 1920, Lothrop Stoddard published The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, which warned against the dangers of immigration and a worldwide population explosion among nonwhite people; two years later, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West became a bestseller; ﬁction writers like Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft made conservative audiences shiver by touching on taboo subjects like miscegenation and genetic degeneration. The novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in particular uses Orientalized representations of Otherness, hybridity, and miscegenation to depict the threatening transition from the American Colonial period into the age of modernity.
“A town not shown on common maps”: The Horrors of Spatial Transgression
To begin with, both the private views and literary works of H.P. Lovecraft are matters of much ambiguity and debate. An outspoken antisemite and nativist during his youth in Rhode Island, he later married Sonia Haft Shaﬁrkin, a daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. During this marriage and stricken by ﬁnancial troubles, his lodging in a run-down apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn—a district with a large immigrant population—inspired him to produce some of his most controversial works, e.g. the short story “The Horror at Red Hook,” whose narrator describes said neighborhood as
a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another […]. It is a babel of sound and ﬁlth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistles. (128)
This passage emphasizes three central themes that pervade Lovecraft’s writing: 1. a profoundly felt fear of nonwhite peoples (“Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements”); 2. fears of miscegenation and racial degeneration (“a babel of sound and ﬁlth”), and 3. the rejection of modernity and industrialization (“the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistles”). Lovecraft’s later works also address these issues, yet encoded in more complex narratives and metaphors that sublimate a sense of cosmic Outsideness that consists in the descriptions of a radically alien nature, indecipherable for the human rational interpretative canons. The term Cthulhu Mythos has been coined for the ﬁctional universe of Lovecraftian lore in which ancient alien deities, the Great Old Ones like Cthulhu and Azathoth and their human worshippers upset the long-standing conventions of New England communities like Arkham and Innsmouth.
The latter provides the setting for the horror novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Innsmouth is an erstwhile prosperous port town, founded in 1643 and situated at the coast of Massachusetts, but has gradually vanished into economic recession and isolation from the outside world. Neglect has eroded the levees and allowed the sea to encroach onto the land, encumbering its crumbling houses and deserted streets with salty marshes. The story’s narrator Olmstead, is a young man on an antiquarian excursion; he picks up rumors surrounding strange cults and genetic abnormalities in Innsmouth and decides to take a detour and investigate the gossip together with the town’s famous colonial architecture. After arriving, he spots several persons who display the notorious “Innsmouth look”: “ﬂat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut” (“Shadow” 287). He then acquires a map and whiskey, which he uses to extract the secret history of Innsmouth from the ninety-six-year-old drunkard Zadok Allen, one of the town’s last remaining fully human residents. He tells Olmstead about Obed Marsh, a merchant who, after discovering an island tribe in the West Indies, learned about the natives’ relationship with the Deep Ones, a race of amphibious ﬁsh-like humanoids that supposedly populate nearly all of the planet’s ocean ﬂoors. They have the desire to reproduce with humans and produce hybrids that slowly turn into immortal Deep Ones and ﬁnally return to the sea. In exchange for the interbreeding, they provide for supernaturally crafted gold jewelry and an abundance of ﬁsh. So when times turn rough for Innsmouth after the Civil War, Marsh decides to summon them and coax the townspeople to mate with the sea creatures. After being forced to spend the night in a strange hotel, Olmstead discovers the truth of Allen’s story and barely escapes with his life after being chased by the monstrosities. However, when he examines his own genealogy later on, he ﬁnds that he too has ‘Innsmouth blood’ ﬂowing through his veins. After nightmares and thoughts of suicide, he ﬁnally embraces his transformation and decides to “dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei,” the capital at the bottom of the sea.
The spatial source of Innsmouth’s transformation lies in the West Indies, which seems to align with Edward Said’s assertion that the American Orientalist perspective differs from that of European colonial powers and “is much more likely to be associated […] with the Far East” (1). Port towns like Innsmouth appear especially vulnerable to intrusions from the Orient. They depend on trade with exotic locales and thus become entry points of Orientalized others such as “South Sea cannibals and Guinea savages” (“Shadow”). As is true for many horror narratives, the text is centered around the imaginary thresholds between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but also actual geographic boundaries and their transgression. Innsmouth acts like a frontier or buffer zone between the US and their internally deﬁned racial hierarchies (i.e. between the ruling whites, African Americans, Native Americans, and the various ethnic groups of immigrants) and a seemingly chaotic and ambiguous world that threatens to overthrow this ﬁnely tuned internal balance. In contrast to the premodern, Columbian perspective of divine exploration, proﬁtable trade, and exotic escapism, the Orient here becomes an unstable entity whose boundaries can no longer be controlled effectively.
As demonstrated by the Philippine-American War and many recent conﬂicts, mastery over the Orient necessitates violence and often comes at the expense of forfeiting one’s own moral standards, which were needed to justify the entitlement as a ruler over ‘uncivilized’ nations in the ﬁrst place. Thus, instead of existing as an imaginary location of exotic fantasies, the Orient appears as a source of horrors. Similar to Joseph Conrad’s depiction of the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness, it effectively becomes a breeding ground of contagion produced by the repercussions of colonialism and imperialism, by which the self-image of unstained whiteness comes apart. This coming-apart then threatens to spill over the shores of the homeland through immigration and the homecoming of traumatized merchants, sailors, and soldiers who might carry the actual or metaphorical ‘infectedness’ of the Orient, as suggested by Lovecraft. Although Innsmouth’s transformation has its spatial origin in the West Indies, it also comprises the ideologies and occult rituals that the merchants have adopted from the islanders. These contagious beliefs have set in motion a spiritual downward spiral of the town that precedes the physical transformation of its residents. In the story, the rituals of Christianity are superseded by the worshipping of the Deep Ones that demand human sacriﬁces and rites reminiscent of heretic cults of the the Middle Ages. As Christian places of worship are gradually abandoned, knocked down, or rededicated as temples of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, the transformation of the churches as key elements of Innsmouth’s colonial architecture is tantamount to the transformation of its population, and the alien religion abounds with Islamic symbolism.
Ultimately, the seductions of the ostensibly easy life of the Oriental worshippers cause the moral and racial degeneration of an Anglo-Saxon community, whose innocence has been compromised by the importation of Oriental culture and religion. In earlier centuries, when it solely worked as an outlet for accumulated domestic energies and tabooed sexual fantasies, the Orient was a relatively secure space that could be conjured or ignored at will. But accelerating industrialization, the opening of global commercial channels, and the advent of American imperialism have diminished the spatial distance needed to uphold these fantasies. This collapse of security is where Lovecraft’s depiction of the monstrous Oriental takes effect. Firstly, in the horrible realization that the monster, which we always locate in the body of others, also exists in us, as visible in Olmstead’s genetic hybridity. Secondly, in the insight that what makes the monster so threatening is that it undermines the stability of categories: What happened to the people of Innsmouth cannot be rationalized and normalized through pseudosciences like phrenology that try to extract distinct racial categories from interocular distances or cranial shapes. Those who bear the “Innsmouth look” elude any such categorizations that work through binary oppositions of either white / or other because of their “refusal to participate in the classiﬁcatory ‘order of things’ […]: they are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration.” For Lovecraft, towns like Innsmouth are cordoned-off ethnic conservatories in which any deviation becomes a source of outrage and horror. Traditions, conventions, and local idiosyncrasies lose their familiarity; categorical in-betweenness complicates the world: Innsmouth has transitioned from the safety of colonial society to the many crises of modernity.
The narrator’s embracing the loss of his white American identity in particular contributes to the ambiguous ending of the novella, visible in its wide range of possible interpretations. In a quite literal reading, one might interpret Olmstead’s transformation as hinting at the inevitable destruction of Anglo-Saxon identity, as even the most upstanding members of society become corrupted. An even more radical interpretation might see his changing and returning home to the place of his genetic origin as an argument to expel immigrants and force them to return to their communities of fellow aliens. However, Olmstead’s change could also be a humanizing of the Deep Ones and the recognition that foreign customs may be just as valid as New England traditions. Hence, although the story seems to mourn their loss, its ending and openness to multiple and contradictory readings at least hint at the possibility of changes in the fabric of American society and a future where ethnic and cultural diversity might be entirely mundane affairs instead of being the stuff of horror tales.