A Jewish Neurodivergent Looks At Lovecraft
by Matthew Kirshenblatt
The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Nov 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 81
I have mixed feelings about H.P. Lovecraft. I remember when I was an adolescent seeing his works in bookstores, and wondering just what kind of writer would have a last name such as his. As I got older and more fascinated with horror I just assumed that Lovecraft was a writer that focused on murder and the macabre, not unlike Edgar Allan Poe. This quaint idea was challenged when I began to encounter the idea of Cthulhu in geek and alternative culture, but even then before I even knew what cosmic horror was about I wondered if something like Cthulhu made sense? I pondered just how Cthulhu, this being that seemed to be a giant humanoid with an octopus face and bat wings—this bizarre hybrid—fit into a genre that housed Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, and other elements of literary horror.
Eventually, I did make it to Lovecraft. It was while I was untethered during undergrad, going far beyond my original five-year plan and trying to regain my initial drive, that I began reading Joyce Carol Oates’ anthologies, where I found some of Lovecraft’s works. My first Lovecraft stories were either “The Tomb” or “The Rats in the Walls.” It was the latter story that made me realize that Lovecraft’s scope of horror was far beyond murder mysteries and the subtle uncanny, and it was more of a primer into a vast and inhuman universe shaped by either uncaring or malicious forces behind everything that humanity thinks it knows. Of course, “The Rats in the Walls” was also the same story that introduced me to a cat with a fairly unfortunate, and downright racist, name.
I came to The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death where, in an introduction written by Neil Gaiman, the latter flat-out writes: “He was a believer in unpleasant doctrines of racial superiority, and was an Anglophile.” To be honest with you, I actually have no idea where I first heard that Lovecraft was antisemitic but it was, and still is, always in the back of my mind even as I continue to immerse myself in the eldritch world that he left behind him.
I have already written about how I relate to H.P. Lovecraft and his work in articles such as Watching a Serial of Strange Aeons: Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence for Sequart, and My Favourite Lovecraft Story for my Horror Doctor Blog. As someone born into a Jewish background, and also being neurodivergent, my feelings towards the writer himself and his work are complicated. And some of these feelings lead to observations that are not always clear-cut.
For example, as someone who is Jewish, I think about “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and even “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” from the perspective of genocide. As much as I know now that Lovecraft is racist, it is fascinating to consider that at least with regards to those stories he doesn’t seem to be advocating for the extermination of other peoples. In fact, I tend to interpret “Sarnath” as a cautionary tale of genocide itself. It is true that Lovecraft goes out of his way to describe the people of Ib, who had been murdered and whose deaths were celebrated for millennia, as having “bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice,” which for me are characteristics reminiscent in stereotypical caricatures made about Jews, but he also takes great pains to describe how the people of Sarnath pay for killing them, and desecrating the god to which they once prayed. Perhaps the descriptions he wrote were not intended consciously to refer to Jews, or other ethnicities, but after being born into a culture that has been persecuted and labeled under similar words, I lean into that reading.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” describes the Deep One hybrids that live in that town as having “the Innsmouth look,” though while their “narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, staring eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. “Rough and scabby” seems less like semitic caricatures and more Polynesian or Far East Asian ones; I correlate it with what Lovecraft has said about “Mongoloid” features and “coarse faces.” Neither description in either story gives me a visceral reaction of feeling attacked or targeted with regards to my ethnic identity. Jews were not being used as the basis for the people of Ib, or the Deep One hybrids, but at the same time there are parallels there that I can’t particularly ignore.
I think about “Innsmouth” in particular a lot, and while Bobby Derie in his Deep Cut article “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys believes that the hybrids are taken to enemy internment as opposed to concentration camps, I like how other Mythos writers taking up Lovecraft’s legacy and reworking elements of it, such as Ruthanna Emrys in her “Litany of Earth” and the rest of her Innsmouth Legacy novels, actually go there. Emrys in particular, although she has Japanese-Americans eventually find themselves in the camps with the remaining hybrids, deals with the aftermath of “Innsmouth.” She fleshes out the Deep One hybrid families, what they suffered through in the detention centres, and what Aphra Marsh, as one of the few survivors of that genocide and cultural and historical erasure by a hostile government, is going through as she attempts to rebuild her life. The “monsters” are more clearly humanized in this retelling, and I can relate to them in this way due to our peoples’ history with this kind of collective trauma, and how they deal with that fact.
I relate to Lovecraft’s “Innsmouth” in another sense as well. I come specifically from a Conservative Judaic background. Though I don’t particularly practice the religious aspects of it as an adult, antisemitism has affected my life, and how my family wanted me to experience the world.
What I gleaned from my family was the idea that the world outside of our cultural bubble was inherently poisonous, or tainted: that one shouldn’t become too familiar with outsiders, or ingest anything that is meat-based outside my home, or not checked for the proper ingredients: otherwise you could get sick, or compromised. Growing up, I would have been castigated for eating something non-kosher, or having a relationship with a non-Jewish person beyond friendship. The world was made out to be a large and terrifying space when I was growing up and one in which I should interact with as little as possible unless I wanted to become ill, used, or abused by outside powers: that I should stay within a little island of structured rules, and remain safe.
This ties into a lot of the themes within Lovecraft’s fiction, but it comes back to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” again. Not only is Innsmouth insular and hostile to outsiders for a reason, and one that’s realized at the end of the story, but the protagonist himself realizes he isn’t a normal, or mundane person but one of the people he is afraid of, or never particularly understood. Robert Olmstead is an outsider trapped on the borders between worlds, social and metaphysical, even if he doesn’t know it: or doesn’t want to. Olmstead has to deal with a certain level of self-hatred for reporting on his people, and I wish someone like Emrys would revisit that character in her series as I feel it is a missed opportunity.
In attempting to live a secular life I’ve felt like I’ve had to “pass,” I don’t want to be determined by the prejudices of bigots and ignorant people, I do want to live my life away from the strictures and fears of my culture as I was brought up. In some ways, it feels like a betrayal to do so. Olmstead and I are not exactly the same in that regard. He never knew what his ancestry was until after the events at Innsmouth, while I’ve known about my ethnicity for my entire life, and no one ever let me forget it. However, perhaps there was a part of Olmstead that felt like he was outside of society, that didn’t fit in, even if he didn’t know why this was the case at the time. Perhaps this is why he was so keen on exploring his genealogy: to find out who he was, but to reassure himself of what he was too.
I think where we diverge is that Olmstead feels like he’s betrayed a people he doesn’t know, when he informs on them to the Federal government after his escape, and later when his transformation begins he feels like he needs to atone. Whereas while Olmstead had to fight his inner demons of revulsion towards something alien inside himself and came to terms with it by accepting it and that community, I feel like I have had to deal with those internalized elements—of feeling confined by a sense of insular identity, and a history of prejudice—by distancing myself from all of it, turning my back on it, and attempting to assert my independent self. In many ways, I feel like I am an outsider in more ways than one.
This ties into my neurodivergence, which informs how I experience life as a bit like the vast, weird, almost senseless universe of Lovecraft and the human world’s supposed place within that cosmology. In the North American education system, I have been considered learning disabled in mathematics and spatial areas: so essentially I have dyscalculia, and difficulties navigating or even understanding geography. In addition, I have anxiety and depression, for which I see a therapist.
Because of my neurodivergence, my family monitored me as closely as they could, terrified that because of my spatial difficulties I would get lost, I wouldn’t be able to understand the price of something in an interaction, or I would come across as “strange” to somebody else and be subject to ridicule or exploitation. Even to this day I fidget and do what is called “stimming,” where I rock back and forth. I talk to myself a lot. Social cues were something I had difficulty picking up on, and even learning how to read and speak took me a longer time to figure out than others. I wasn’t sociable, but I—and to my family’s express relief—learned how to “pass” enough. Until, sometimes, I didn’t.
Even now, I don’t.
Perhaps this is why Lovecraft’s sense of cosmicism is almost comforting. Instead of being in a reality where everything is sensible, and I’m not, perhaps it is this world that is inherently nonsensical, even volatile, where even most other people are hard to understand. It’s cynical, almost over the border of misanthropy, but it makes more sense than the alternative: especially when you feel like you are peering at it from the outside. In fact, you would think that “The Outsider” is an easy story for me to relate to based on my personal experience. However, it’s more than not fitting into a society or a group, but rather having the illusion of “being normal” or “passing” as such, getting broken when you look closely into the mirror of the world. The protagonist in “The Outsider” has forgotten who they are. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it is time that did it, a long solitary existence lost underground. Whatever the case, when the protagonist sees themselves—truly sees what they are—it shakes them to their very core.
For me, I have attempted to downplay my ethnicity for so long due to dealing with my insular familial environment and its attempt to ingrain a perspective of a world inherently prejudiced against me but—more than that—tried to “pass” as “normal.” Except that when I was confronted with having great difficulty getting employment and hesitating and procrastinating over doing the simplest daily things to survive, I realized I wasn’t normal. I’m not normal.
In Lovecraft’s “The Quest of Iranon” you have a wandering, seemingly ageless singer who is trying to find the beloved “Aira” of his youth amid people who don’t know where it is, or understand what he’s looking for, or why, only to find out towards the end that it never existed, that he made it up, that he’d always been this dreamy, lost, strange, child that couldn’t fit into the world such as it was, and this revelation leads to him giving up on everything completely. I know that Emrys herself in the TOR Review I’m Too Sexy For This City greatly disparages this story, but I think that I relate to it differently because of my spatial awareness, or the lack thereof, and that terrifying sense of impermanence: along with the need to be in a place—or make a place—where I can feel the opposite of that as neurodivergent person. “The Quest of Iranon” is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories because I have an affinity to that protagonist who, like me, started off from a place where he felt laughed at, or pitied, and just wanted to find his dream in a seemingly hostile world. In the end, he just wanted to find a sense of home. And if Iranon couldn’t use his disciplines to find this home, he could use them to make one: if only for a time.
One aspect about being neurodivergent, and arguably Jewish, is that I focused more on my strengths than my conceived weaknesses. My language and literary skills became my mainstays, and I became obsessive and fixated about stories and fictional worlds. I meander when I talk and write. I wander. Lovecraft’s references to mystical and literary texts within his works, and his usage of heightened diction directly appeals to me: even to the point where many sentences and words that he uses in his narratives—which might be seen as awkward and ostentatious—are elegant to me, and when I write something of them myself I feel a sense of power and sophistication that I didn’t have as a child. I love “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “The Call of Cthulhu” and other stories that reference “Easter eggs” to Lovecraft’s other works, and those of others because that knowledge makes me feel like I understand an inside joke, or possess a sense of importance in a world around us that might not be so obvious.
In spaces where I’d been seen as slow, or easily agitated by stimuli, or frustrated with motor-skill difficulty with basic tasks, I take my advantages where I can. In retrospect, I can only imagine the annoyance that the Great Race of Yith feels when they exchange minds with another being entirely, trying to operate their body and understand their existence through living it in “The Shadow Out of Time” or Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide. Sometimes I wonder if I am a Yithian that forgot my original purpose.
Nor are those the only Lovecraftian characters I can identify with. With my dyscalculia, I can appreciate the idea of something “non-Euclidean” and I possess great sympathy for Walter Gilman’s poor sensory experiences in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and wonder just how discordant and viscerally uncomfortable “The Music of Erich Zann” would feel in my gut as I hate sudden and annoying sounds now that I’m older. Yet there is one story in particular that jives with me the most, and I think it’s where Lovecraft and I actually meet.
“The Silver Key” is a progression of the depressingly real and banal, the senseless and the sad, where Randolph Carter doesn’t feel rooted anymore. All he can think about are the dreams of his childhood, as a counterpoint to cosmicism, and the place where everything made sense. For me, my childhood was alternatively a place where I was very enmeshed—even suffocated—but it was a small, golden island where everything made sense. I felt safe, and the rules were clear while my imagination could explore without limits. Over time, like Carter, I wandered, grew older, and I just felt … lost. When I was younger, I would put VHS tapes into my VCR, recordings of movies and cartoons from my youth, and watch them over and again: to try and escape the pain and uncertainty of this reality of the inevitably of loss—and to find that magic that made me so happy again. Obviously, that golden time didn’t really exist for me. A lot of my childhood was riddled with anxiety and fear of the outside world, especially at school, but in those films and animations, I felt peace. I actually felt happy.
I have thought about H.P. Lovecraft, and his background. I think about how his childhood had been spent at his Grandfather Whipple’s library, and how he lost it. I considered how his mother might have smothered him, and how he knew something of what happened to his father and, eventually, her—both dying in sanitariums. I contemplate the possible origins of his reactionary anger towards a world he didn’t really understand. I know he had a nervous breakdown that took him out of school, and he was precocious and oversensitive. I know many of his most intimate friendships existed mostly through correspondence, he was very selective about the work he did, and how it was a big step for him to leave his family and live with a woman not from his background, only to fail to find employment, to maintain that relationship, and have to go home with mingled humiliation and relief. As much as I am repulsed by his abhorrent beliefs, I feel empathy with this aspect of his existence, where I almost come to terms with him.
I wonder if, at the end of his life, Lovecraft finally found his Silver Key. If he found his foundation: his peace. If he found his own sense of home. Amid the chaos of this infuriating, sad world, I wonder if I will ever rediscover mine. Maybe I will be like Randolph Carter, and the journey will continue.
Matthew Kirshenblatt is a writer that lives in Thornhill, Ontario writing about fantasy, horror, and other elements of geekery in Sequart, his Mythic Bios, or The Horror Doctor Blogs. Even now, despite or because of everything, he is still trying to find his Silver Key.
Copyright 2022 Matthew Kirshenblatt.