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