They had done the same thing on other planets; having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs under hypnotic influence and thereby forming ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community. These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the “shoggoths” in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.H. P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”
Slavery was a part of Lovecraft’s heritage. While his immediate family never owned any slaves or showed any inclination to, the oldest of his aunts could remember the American Civil War and emancipation; Lovecraft himself was well aware of the part slavery had played in his own native Rhode Island, and liked to remind correspondents that his ancestor Robert Hazard had left 133 slaves in his will.
When Lovecraft wrote his alien entities, the two most detailed civilizations—the Old Ones in Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness and the people of K’n-yan in The Mound—they were both defined by slave ownership. Why isn’t exactly clear; the exact forms of slavery involved were both like and unlike the chattel slavery of the American system or the slavery practiced by civilizations like the Romans in antiquity. There was no way for slaves in Lovecraft’s stories to earn freedom, and in fact much of the economics and social ramifications of slavery are unexamined…except for one: as in the antebellum South, the Old Ones and K’n-yans lived in the shadow of a slave revolt.
Victor LaValle’s “Up from Slavery” is a riff on an uncommon theme; a companion piece in many ways to “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear. In both stories, the experience of Black people in America, who deal every day with the legacy of slavery, draws parallels with the plight of the shoggoths.
“You were born to serve,” he said. “It’s genetic.”Victor LaValle, “Up from Slavery” in Lovecraft Mythos New & Classic Edition 217
In many ways, the slavery of the shoggoths is closer to that of replicants in Blade Runner than to what is described in the first chapter of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901)—but the overall morality is identical. Whether a sentient being is kidnapped and forced into service, or grown in a lab and made to serve, the end result is the same. Because of this, slavery narratives work for shoggoth characters. No one has written Uncle Tekeli-Li’s Cabin yet, and maybe never will, but there is real empathy for shoggoth characters who run away from slavery, or fight back to avoid being returned to a state of slavery.
That is important because in a lot of ways the protagonist Simon Dust is unlikable. He carries a big chip on his shoulder, and not without reason. The world through his eyes is stacked against him because of his race. It colors his interaction with others, and his response to little things…people not sitting next to him on the train, muted anger at discovering he has a father after 29 years as an orphan who grew up in foster care, the white neighbor’s disbelief when he shows up. It is familiar territory; LaValle explored the Black experience in his novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) as well, and he is excellent at presenting an individual who has labored all their life under a sword of Damocles, and has to deal with a thousand little microaggressions every day or face the consequences.
It is weird to think that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) were contemporaries…but their lives did overlap, even if they did not intersect. LaValle’s use of Washington’s autobiography helps ground Dust’s experience, and that of the shoggoths. Up from slavery shows that being born into slavery may only be the first chapter of someone’s life, even if the experiences and scars of that first chapter stay with them. Likewise, we may say that though Lovecraft may have written slavery into his Mythos, that too is only the first chapter in the saga of the shoggoths, and there is much more that may be written.
“Up from Slavery” by Victor LaValle first appeared in Weird Tales #363 (2019) and was reprinted in Lovecraft Mythos New & Classic Edition (2020), The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 (2020), and Nightmare Magazine #100 (Jan 2021). The story won the 2019 Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction.