An Asian Writer Looks Into Lovecraft
by Nicole Ortega
To me, “The Cats of Ulthar” is a wish-fulfillment story.
The story reads like a white community desperately wanting to get rid of poor immigrants in their neighborhoods. These neighbors kill cats and even dispatch their beloved pets. In real life, the local police would probably come and take away these cat killers; white people are known to love animals, especially their pets. There were no police and mobs but this town just sat in their fear of the cotter and his wife. I find it curious and baffling that they did nothing when the couple was isolated from the rest of the town and its people. I think of Lovecraft and his famous loathing for immigrants coming to his beloved town and contaminating the culture of white Protestantism that he wholeheartedly loves and seeing it from that viewpoint on the decision to do away with the repulsive cat-killing couple in Uther by another outsider; Menes from a traveling caravan.
The townspeople and the narrator feel helpless and unable to do anything about these notorious neighbors. Lovecraft renders his protagonists unable to confront the dangers of forces alien to them:
In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees.H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”
Lovecraft’s stories including “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” feature immigrants and place them as a central focus in the stories. Lovecraft clearly imbued his dual fear and disgust over immigrants in these stories. His fear of an outside force infecting and changing a wholesome white community is apparent in his letters and works of fiction.
Is this how Lovecraft felt in his personal life when people who do not belong to his accepted racial and cultural identity moved into his hometown of Providence? The cotter and his wife are symbols of Lovecraft and the white fear of the immigrant. In the story, when the cotter and his wife were suspected and witnessed by the town of catching and butchering cats, I feel that this was a reference to the racist stereotypes of foreigners; a marker of “othering” that is specifically designed to target Asians.
In the United States of America, there have been negative stereotypes of Asians as unhygienic and unsanitary. Asian cuisine, notably Chinese cuisine, was derided as dirty and the meat was rumored to be made of dogs and cats. This was tied to when Chinese immigrants set up restaurants and food stalls and were popular in the U.S. and so racist propaganda against them was made up to sabotage their businesses.
There was no mention whether the couple ate the cats or just killed them but I believe that the mention of cats and their status in the community has made me see them as a placeholder for Asian immigrants to a white community. In the story, the couple lived in a hovel near dark wood. As an Asian and family who are immigrants, I believe that the hovel was in a rough part of town where immigrants who were mostly workers, lower class or living underneath the poverty line come from. Lovecraft mentioned these communities in his letters and looked down on them:
We walked—at my suggestion—in the middle of the street, for contact with the heterogenous sidewalk denizens, spilled out of their bulging brick kennels as if by a spawning beyond the capacity of the places, was not by any means to be sought. At times, though we struck peculiarly deserted areas—these swine have instinctive swarming movements, no doubt, which no ordinary biologist can fathom. Gawd knows what they are—Jew, Italian, separate or mixed, with possible touches of residual Irish and exotic hints of the Far East—a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to eye, nose, and imagination—would to heaven a kindly gust of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery, and clean out the place.H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 97
To the white gaze; there have been much discrimination and prejudice regarding Asians and the Oriental thinking of white people surrounding food and hygiene.
Racists in the beginning of the pandemic sadly stoked the fires of anti-Asian prejudice. Hate crimes have been rising ever since; the Trump campaign and administration have made white rage and racism their base and it was proven to be sadly so effective that even today the consequences of such rhetoric have manifested into the undue attacks on minorities especially Asians because of the connections racists like Trump has made to them with the pandemic.
Donald Trump constantly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” even though experts said that this contributes significantly to anti-Asian sentiment. Racists connecting minority groups and diseases create pogroms. The elderly and/or women are the primary targets of anti-Asian sentiment. Attacks on Asians in public places and outright murder in chilling instances like the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings show how violence follows prejudice. Hate crimes against Asians have skyrocketed in the U.S. in the past year.
I am from one of those countries in Asia that rely on people going abroad where they are vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. There are many horror stories from migrant workers here about cruel employers and some even get trafficked as slaves. There is little to no protection offered by embassies or consulates because of the lack of resources and power of a government that is mostly apathetic. When Trump was elected, I feared for what would happen to Asians and other minorities and what happened was even worse than I could have imagined. Millions of people voted for this kind of administration and the support of white supremacist groups and ideology is ramping up even more.
It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. […] And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”
It is a very powerful and potent fear in the minds of white people to be displaced, subsumed —devoured by a strange and foreign culture. The feelings of intense revulsion and disgust the narrator and the townspeople of Ulthar can be likened to the white neighbour who complains too much about the immigrant neighbours. The town retains its innocence and the cotter and his wife are destroyed not by the town but another outsider. Revenge and murder are actions taken by both outsiders and not the white townspeople. Conflict is between different outside forces and not the good people of Ulthar. All is well in the end with the couple dead and Menes and the travelling caravan gone. A good ending is where no outsider lives among a white community. It is clear that the interaction of different groups of people brings discord, chaos and violence.
East versus West—they can talk for aeons without others knowing what the other really means. On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types, & when we try to be tolerant we are merely blind or hypocritical. Two elements so discordant can never build up one society—no feeling of real linkage can exist where so vast a disparity of ancestral memories is concerned—so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our own part.H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 11 Jan 1926, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.535
The townspeople didn’t try to reach out to the cotter and his wife and understand where they are coming from. Of course, they are butchering cats and all of them deem them really unpleasant but with the entirety of the town at odds with them, it is curious to see nothing to be done. It feels like the town of Uthar has made them into something inhuman, something that cannot be reasoned with or something they themselves cannot stop.
In the story, Ulthar was rid of the cat-killing poor and unpleasant couple without having to do anything by themselves. In the end, the orphan whose beloved pet was killed and who successfully did away with the perpetrator, did not come to live in Ulthar. Lovecraft believed that cultures in contact with one another have an inevitable way to be in conflict with one another and one dominant culture will surface with the other culture diminished or faded. This is one of Lovecraft’s fears:
Racial admixture—all apart from the question of superiority, equality, or inferiority—is indubitably an influence adverse to cultural & environmental continuity. It weakens everything we really live for, & diminishes all the landmarks of familiarity—moods, accents, thoughts, customs, memories, folklore, perspectives, physiognomical types, &c.—which prevent us from going mad with homesickness, loneliness, & ancestral estrangement. Thus it is the duty of every self-respecting citizen to take a stand against large-scale racial amalgamation—whether with newly invading groups, or with differentiated groups anciently seated amongst us. Of course, I realise that “duty” in the sense of cosmic mandate is a myth—but what I mean is, that this is the course which will be followed by every normal American who wishes to avoid spiritual exile & agony for himself & his descendants, & whose eyes are not blinded by the abstract ethical sentimentalities surviving from a naiver period of our intellectual evolution. My own motto is, ‘life in a pure English nation or death’.H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 29 Dec 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 260-261
The revenge of the foreign orphan and the cat-killing couple to me is one such clash. The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington posits a theory that civilizations or cultures are bound to clash with one another. The fear of the foreigner being a threat to white western culture is not new. Lovecraft was not unique in sharing this opinion. Look what Lovecraft talked about in his letters, he wanted cultures to be pure and find mixing of cultures to be a shame and a sort of destruction. The clash of cultures already exists at the beginning of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and at the end the town is “saved” from the presence of what I see as ethnic immigrants in a white town like Providence in which H.P. Lovecraft lived.
It is not explicitly stated anywhere that the cotter and his wife were Asians, but to me the descriptions and stereotype of killing cats and poor living conditions like hovels as described by letters of the author in which Asians are living in, I believe there is a hint of Asian identity to the characterization or the very least Lovecraft wanted to label them as “other.” Through the narrative and the character of the orphan, he got rid of the “other” by another outsider and thus bringing peace and stability to the community and in which the narrator and the townspeople need not have dirtied their hands or do any proactive role in trying to drive out the offending entities.
I believe this is Lovecraft wanting to maintain white innocence and zero culpability. We see this happening in real life: there is no reckoning on how white supremacy is coming back in full force because white feelings need to be coddled even at the expense of lives of minorities.
Even now, I am not comfortable traveling to the U.S. and other countries because of the reports of hate crimes and I have even asked my friend if I look “Asian.” I wonder if I could “pass” as white and blend in to avoid getting targeted. These are the things I have to deal with because this is what the feelings of white people like Lovecraft have; they want their communities to be pure and untouched by people like me. I remembered feeling numb and shocked when Trump was elected. To think, millions of people voted for him, saw what he was saying about immigrants and foreigners, and supported him. It was eye-opening to see the reach and breadth of that kind of hateful rhetoric today. By giving white supremacists a major platform in society increases violence against minority groups and allows the state to harm them through its institutions and policies.
In Ulthar, there are no people who harm cats anymore. There are no strange people who catch cats and kill them. There are no outsiders who call on magic to exact revenge. There are just the townspeople and the narrator who live happily. I am not advocating for the killing of cats but the town of Uther seems to be intolerant and unwelcoming to foreigners. They did not thank Menes at all or even welcome him and the caravan after the whole fiasco. I believe if Menes and his caravan had not left, they too would be looked upon with fear and revulsion by the people of Uthar.
N.C. Ortega is a writer and artist from Cebu, Philippines. They love horror, sff and romance. Bouncing from one interest to another, they hope to maybe create games, comics, and stories in various mediums and formats in the future.
Copyright 2022 N.C. Ortega
3 thoughts on “An Asian Writer Looks At Lovecraft”
Lovecraft adored cats, especially black ones. And he wrote a simple story that does raise questions. Did he intend anything more, or did that sneak in around the edges?
I always figured Ulthar as a medievalesque village between major cities. One of those small towns with unwritten rules of conduct. People suspect, but do not know for certain, that the cotters are guilty–or some other social constraint prevents them from taking positive action.
Then the mysterious wanderers (expies of those who were called ‘Gypsies’ until recently, with the Egyptian connection stressed) arrived. Menes had his one friend in all the world taken from him. Being a child, he did not simply bear the insult and injury: he called upon his gods.
Not that the people of Ulthar knew that he’d done this.
The cat-killing couple in the story are merely a sinister, isolated pair. Who’ve been living there all along, rather than immigrated. Every community, even if racially homogenous, has some nasty family in its midst. And so does every neighborhood. In lieu of obvious criminality, authorities can be maddeningly impotent.
From the essay: “There were no police and mobs but this town just sat in their fear of the cotter and his wife. I find it curious and baffling that they did nothing when the couple was isolated from the rest of the town and its people.”
Though not explicitly stated, might — as in “The Terrible Old Man” — this evil pair be thought to have supernatural powers? In Medieval villages, an old woman living alone could end up as the focus of witchy imaginings; become an object of fear.
The attitude that “Lovecraft hates all people who aren’t white Anglo-Saxons” becomes complicated:
One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams, and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a head-dress with two horns and a curious disc betwixt the horns.
There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sate playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.
On the third morning of the wanderers’ stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife, and of sounds heard in the night. And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming…
These folks are as foreign as can be; yet Lovecraft not only fails to cast these “dark wanderers” (clearly his version of Roma) in a sinister light, despite their “strange prayers” and what-not, but feels for Menes’ loss of his beloved kitten. Indeed, the boy uses his peoples’ magic to gain well-deserved justice upon the evil couple.
Rather than covering up racist attitudes, Lovecraft brings up the idea that the community would first tend to unjustly blame the “dark wanderers,” then move on to suspect more likely malefactors.
Old Kranon, the burgomaster, swore that the dark folk had taken the cats away in revenge for the killing of Menes’ kitten; and cursed the caravan and the little boy. But Nith, the lean notary, declared that the old cotter and his wife were more likely persons to suspect; for their hatred of cats was notorious and increasingly bold. Still, no one durst complain to the sinister couple.
This entry has raised plenty of points I’ve never thought of looking before. And I already was keenly aware of Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia, so I always expected that his views would have bled through the pages of anything he had written. But somehow, I still didn’t expect the Cats of Ulthar to be one of the stories to contain these things. Just goes to show how many layers his distrust and fear of foreigners and immigrants were, huh?
The idea of the cotter and his wife being coded as Asian based on their living conditions, the village’s treatment of them, and how Lovecraft described immigrants in his letters during the time he was alive, elicits a lot of feelings in me. On one hand: “Goddamnit, Howard, not again”. And on the other: “Of course you did, you silly goose”. I honestly don’t know what to say about that, aside from agreeing how his sentiments toward Asians and other minorities have greatly influenced the “unspeakable horrors” featured in his works.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this story because cats. HPL loved cats and I figured he did intend to write a story about just the cats, but somehow his prejudices once again dripped through his writing like viscous liquid in the form of introducing the “Other” as a threat. An Other that is non-white and from a different way of life, an entity he could never understand.
The other comments above me have interesting thoughts to share, but I feel kind of weird that they only popped up to explain more context on major parts of the story. It’s not going to erase the fact that Lovecraft’s letters and personal views regarding immigrants and foreigners were coming from a place of white supremacy (of the Anglo-Saxon kind), xenophobia, and the fear of which he does not understand.
But eh, I don’t disagree with them either. I do like the fact that some characters coded as immigrants and foreigners occasionally break out of the status quo in a few of his stories. Sure, it gets overshadowed by the many times that we are often painted as “evil little Orientals who follow abominable horrors unnatural to all life blah blah blah”. You could even interpret that the reason why POCs are often followers of eldritch gods is because white people simply can’t accept the reality of their situation and failed to break away from their biases and close-minded point of view, thus succumbing to madness (and this is just a post-Lovecraftian interpretation too).
In any case, the constant reminder when consuming all things Lovecraft is to take his racism and xenophobia with a grain of salt, and then analyze it deeply to understand where this is coming from, before ultimately yeeting his ideology and rhetoric away into the gaping maw of Azathoth where it belongs, but not before breaking it apart to reconstruct a narrative to empower those that he painted in all black. At least, that’s how I approach him and his creations.