A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft
by Joe Koch
If we speculate that all horror is body horror—and we may because the emotional energy experienced interacting with horror arises physiologically in the body—cosmic horror seems to be the exception. Body horror and cosmic horror stand at two opposite ends of a spectrum, the former associated with violence and grossing out the reader in the most carnal way, and the latter concerned with the mental horror of existential dread and terrible awe. When my Yellow Mythos novella “The Wingspan of Severed Hands” was called “cosmic body horror” by beta readers, the label sounded like a conundrum. I’ve thought about the contrast since then, and I’d like to share my impression of what unites the personal and cosmic by digging into Lovecraft’s body horror from a transmasculine perspective.
The horror of cosmic horror arises from the realization that humanity is insignificant in the universe. In Lovecraft, we are like ants under the crushing feet of indifferent elder things that intersect with our world from other dimensions. The threat of cosmic horror comes from outside the body, outside the mind, and outside of the entire framework of quotidian reality. There’s comfort in cosmic horror: the fact that an outside realm exists might mean escape is possible from the confines of the physical world. For anyone ill at ease in their body, the horror of cosmic horror holds a convoluted sort of hope.
Lovecraft’s stories create a world of escape from everyday concerns. Politics, economic struggles, romance, or any significant emotion besides terror takes a back seat to the moment of horror which comes at the end of a systematic mental journey of denial, analysis, and skepticism. The body with its immediate needs and routine desires is almost completely erased in Lovecraft’s fiction, except when the body itself becomes the location of horror.
I’m intrigued by how often it does.
Despite pervasive problematic views that make his work very hard to stomach as a queer, feminist, transmasculine person, what interests me in revisiting Lovecraft today is the very present question of the body. He seems to struggle with it. A nagging tension exists between the dysphoric body horror of his “reversion to type” tales and the fantasies of protagonists who escape their bodies by dreams, drugs, and alien intervention; a divergence between Lovecraft’s claims of scientific rationality and the utterly irrational astral travels he portrays with the veracity of desire.
Body swapping between humans and even alien entities in Lovecraft tales typically comes from the character’s desire to go beyond a given body’s limitations: to perhaps travel in space, interact with alien or forbidden technologies, or achieve a kind of immortality. Gender swapping occurs in “The Thing on the Doorstep” when the occult practitioner Ephraim steals his daughter Asenath’s body before his death, leaving her to perish in his corpse. Because he believes he needs a male body to achieve mastery, he romances and marries an older man while in his daughter’s body to gain access to the intimacy required for another body swap. Asenath’s female body is murdered after the swap, and the husband stuck in her rotting female corpse slogs around with his mind still alive trying to warn the narrator. The female body expires in a soupy mess on the narrator’s doorstep, fulfilling the horror of the title.
Just to be clear, this is no transgender person’s fantasy.
The most queer thing about “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the way Lovecraft reveals the multiple levels of body swapping. The layers covering up Ephraim’s true identity, layers of a possession within a possession, a mask within a mask, are peeled away one by one as the narrator realizes afterwards who he has been interacting with. The process of removing mask after mask rings true to me as a person who has gone through the rather shocking growth process of coming out to myself and then to others.
Gender nonconformity is presented in the story as an aberration, a belief shared by many conservatives today. The narrator shows disapproval and disgust when the female body of Asenath exhibits behaviors Lovecraft associates with masculinity. This external point of view is fixated on the binary and dwells on an impression of wrongness, evoking the fear that if we feel out of sync internally, others will see the mismatch and despise us for it, a fear gender nonconforming people often face. Some trans people overcompensate by performing their assigned gender so expertly as a cover up that they go through phases of self doubt, feeling like an imposter. Lovecraft gives Ephraim a hateful degree of misogyny as motivation for body swapping, with no room in his rigid view for gender fluidity.
Misogyny is a typical misconception about transmasculine people and transgender men. Reactionaries even frame it as an accusation against us, as if hatred of women drives our desire for self-expression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Misogyny is not the same as gender dysphoria in my experience. I’m a feminist. I express this strongly in my fiction. Yet if I could snap my fingers and wake up in a more masculinebody, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Not out of hatred or disdain; it’s a much more personal and intimate desire for outward presentation to align with my internal reality and to fulfill childhood visions of self.
The common term for what drives us to change is gender euphoria. When we are addressed using correct names and pronouns, and when we see ourselves represented in the body and external world as we know ourselves in our minds, we experience gender euphoria. Our motivation is not hatred but joy. We simply want to feel at home in our bodies, which I think is a very reasonable human wish.
From reading Lovecraft, I have the impression he didn’t feel very much at home in his body. He missed school often and failed to graduate due to a nervous breakdown (I Am Providence 1.97-102, 126-128). He confessed to suicidal thoughts in his letters several times, most explicitly:
The method was the only trouble. I didn’t like messy exits, & dignified ones were hard to find. Really good poisons were hard to get—those in my chemical laboratory (I reëstablished this institution in the basement of the new place) were crude & painful. Bullets were spattery & unreliable. Hanging was ignominious. Daggers were messy unless one could arrange to open a wrist-vein in a bowl of warm water—& even that had its drawbacks despite good Roman precedent. Falls from a cliff were positively vulgar in view of the probable state of the remains. Well—what tempted me most was the warm, shallow, reed-grown Barrington River down the east shore of the bay. I used to go there on my bicycle & look speculatively at it. […] How easy it would be to wade out among the rushes & lie face down in the warm water till oblivion came. there would be a certain gurgling or choking unpleasantness at first—but it would soon be over. Then the long, peaceful night of non-existence….
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 4 Feb 1934, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 222
He said that learning about human reproduction from a science book ended his interest in the subject of sex at an early age (“ I knew everything there is to be known about the anatomy and physiology of reproduction in both sexes before I was eight years old” Selected Letters 1.304). He died young partly due to his avoidance of doctors, seeking medical treatment for cancer when it was too advanced for anything other than palliative treatment. Clara Hess, a neighbor, recalled:
Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her unfortunate son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him. (Ave Atque Vale 166)
Lovecraft wrote stories such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Arthur Jermyn” rife with fear of being or becoming a monster hybrid. The discovery that they are genetically inhuman is the heart of the protagonist’s horror. An inherited “degenerative” element in the protagonist’s character triumphs over their intellect no matter how hard they fight, dragging them down the evolutionary ladder to engage in reprehensible, inhuman, and likely cannibalistic behavior. Intellect will be subsumed by madness because in Lovecraft, biological determinism always wins.
The monster is the body. The hero is the mind.
The mind of the protagonist, no matter how noble, is trapped in the body and doomed to express biology. Like modern gender critical theorists, Lovecraft claimed to believe only what science can objectively prove. This eugenicist point of view falls apart when the science of biology is not severed from the science of psychology and the larger body of the society, culture, and the full set of direct human experiences in which an individual’s gender is formed and reinforced.
I suspect if Lovecraft were alive today, he would tend to align with those who oppose transgender rights in a similar way that he aligned with the predominant view of his time classifying homosexuality as a perverse abnormality and crime. If he were interested in the subject of gender, and there’s not much to suggest he was beyond brief mentions in his letters of his repulsion for effeminate men (Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos 28-43), he would perhaps, like modern gender critical theorists, label people like me delusional.
There’s little in his work to welcome me, but ironically Lovecraft populated his work with portraits of body dysphoria that feel familiar. Gender dysphoria is the sense of unease or distress one feels when one’s gender identity and body don’t match. When it’s misinterpreted or denied, it may become extreme and debilitating. Lovecraft’s depictions of self-loathing, of the feeling of horror within the self and the sense of having inherited a biological curse that tortures a mind trapped in the wrong body strike a very similar tone. If torture seems too strong a word, check out the statistics for anxiety, depression, and suicide among transgender people who are denied medical care or who encounter familial and societal opposition to their mere existence (Transgender individuals at greater risk of mental health problems, Mental Health and the LGBTQ+ Community).
Feeling tortured by living in an incorrect body isn’t a universal transgender experience, but it’s a very common one. Shame and self-loathing can destroy quality of life, preventing a person from socializing or pursuing hobbies and career. I’ve had my share of days where like Lovecraft I “hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze on him” due to the burden of gender dysphoria.
Owning it and taking action lifts the burden. I picture poor Asenath’s liquifying body from the ending of “The Thing on the Doorstep” as a symbol of self-loathing: this corpse-like and “foul, stunted parody” of self, a self fetid with dysphoria that I dutifully lugged around for half a century before coming out. The corpse in the story can’t speak, and the man inside it dies silenced, able only to deliver a scribbled note. I’m glad that’s not my fate.
In the real world, we’re stuck with one body, no swapping allowed. As transgender people, we know real life body horror. Knowing the opposite—euphoria, groundedness, and a deep sense of being at home in one’s body—is definitive of the transgender experience. And while our concern in this essay is horror, I think it’s vital to contrast the horror discussion with the empowering reality of the health, self-acceptance, and immense happiness transgender people enjoy when they practice freedom of expression and have access to corrective care. Modern discourse focuses on the negative statistics to emphasize a need for change or vilify us as unwell monsters, but my everyday reality is not a struggle with illness or horror. I’m significantly happier and in much better physical health now.
The parallels with coming out in Lovecraft’s fiction keep the horror intact. A protagonist’s success in going beyond the limitations of a story’s physical world won’t negate Lovecraftian biological determinism, but will usually lead to a different kind of body horror. The consequence of crossing the border between worlds is the creation of a bridge: be warned, once the (closet) door is opened, it can never be closed. Once the protagonist’s mind has transgressed liminal space, the body becomes liminal and thus subject to invasion by entities or energies from non-human dimensions, an often unwilling conduit between worlds.
Considered outside of Loveraft’s fiction, the body as liminal and changeable is a mere fact of existence. Time will change all of us, like it or not, as we age. Food, exercise, medications; all of the subtle and bold chemical alterations we make to the body impact the moods and cognitive functions of the mind. The mind doesn’t reign in isolation as a detached godhead; mind and body dynamically interact. I’d personally go so far as to speculate the mind may be a myth dreamed up by the body. If self is an expression of interconnecting systems and body is the engine of impermanence, Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is simply a restatement of physiological fact.
Is it really a horror to know oneself as permeable and changeable? In contrast to the horror tales, Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter stories such as “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” depict flexibility as an asset. They show monsters and aliens as characters rather than unknowable forces. Carter can astral travel, time travel, and interact with other-dimensional spaces and entities. In navigating the dream world, Carter comes to know himself more fully as his quest sends him back to his childhood home, which may symbolically be the authentic body.
At the end of his story arc, Carter achieves a sort of immortality by inhabiting the liminal state of being neither alive nor dead. The horror of permeability fades with the explorer’s increased pleasure and mastery in negotiating a wider range of experience.
Transgender people tend to live, at least for some time, in a liminal state between the gender binary extremes, as neither male nor female. We may lack access to obtain care for aspects of medical transition, we may need to delay it for a variety of reasons, or we simply may not want it. Many nonbinary and agender people in particular seek no physical alteration to the body and continue to present according to society’s standards for their assigned gender. This is why one must never assume another person’s gender based solely on their appearance.
On the uncertain or transgressive borderline between things which can and can’t be known, things neither alive nor dead, we run up against cosmic horror that is not body horror. Lovecraft unintentionally captured the experience of body dysphoria in his work, and the yearning for transformation beyond physical limitations is a fantasy he engaged with in his fiction repeatedly. Whilewe can posit all horror is body horror because the mind is dependent upon the body’s processes for input and existence, I think this is too limiting. It’s as if we’ve given ourselves a diagnosis of awe as a mere chemical or physiological anomaly. Even the staunch biological determinist Lovecraft pointed to something much bigger in the scope of the cosmos.
Joe Koch (He/They) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and the forthcoming collection Convulsive from Apocalypse Party Press. Their short fiction appears in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Not All Monsters, Liminal Spaces, and many others. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.
Copyright 2022 Joe Koch.