An Asian Writer Looks At Lovecraft

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.

Twitter: @granadamoon

Copyright 2022 N.C. Ortega

A Jewish Deadhead Looks At Lovecraft by M. I. Black

A Jewish Deadhead Looks at Lovecraft
by M.I. Black

The hi-fi system and the bean bag chair of my adolescent room were purchased with Bar Mitzvah gelt, the financial gain from the coming-of-age ritual marking the moment that thirteen-year-olds become accountable for their own actions in the Jewish community in which they are being raised. Most of my friends, visitors to my comfy chamber, were being raised Catholic or Protestant, and I understood from our dialogs that there was no precise equivalent to the Mitzvah milestone in Christianity. Religions—I was learning—were very different from each other. For example, there was no Jewish equivalent to the Christian concept of hell, other than—as the joke goes—New York City in August. As a counterpoint, ceremonies in which babies receive their names occurred in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet some have taken the ceremony’s gravity to the high heavens: my seventh-grade American history class taught me that the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards famously etched the importance of baptism when he professed, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of unbaptized babies.”

Sounded like an image from an H.P. Lovecraft story to me.

I would discuss hell with friends, who all thought Jonathan Edwards was an idiot, and we pretty much all agreed that hell seemed like a recruitment tool to get people to become Christian, at worst, or a warning to persuade people not to do evil, at best. None of our theological debates, however, were as long or as exhilarating as our battles in our role-playing games, such as pitting a Paladin against a rattle of ten Bone Devils.

Deities and Demigods, a reference book for Dungeons & Dragons, introduced Lovecraft to me, as well as the works of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. I still have the first edition of the now prized D&D tome; a later edition excised the Cthulhu and Moorcockian sections due to a complicated legal squabble about copyrights. To this day, the line art for Lovecraft’s section (“Cthulhu Mythos”) still lures me to read its entries. 

In high school, my friends and I began playing Dungeons & Dragons less and less and began reading books and listening to music more and more. I fell headfirst into the world of H.P. Lovecraft and fell head-over-heels for the songs of the Grateful Dead. The predominantly black and gray (with shattering reds and white) wraps of the Del Rey paperbacks called to me from the well-ordered shelves of a now-defunct chain bookstore in our shopping mall. I might have even bought Dead Set—a live, double-CD of The Grateful Dead—the same afternoon as The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories, my first Lovecraft book. To this day, I love the artwork of the album and the book, both famous for skulls and skeletons. I remain a fan of the graphical, as well as the auditory. And if what music I was listening to could somehow coalesce with what I was reading, more power to the successfully sound-tracked story.

In my bean bag chair, I soon discovered that I could not read Lovecraft and listen to the Grateful Dead at the same time. Despite the blanched bones, Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead did not sync up for me. Although lyrical in the sense of expressing deep emotions and observations, Lovecraft is not enthusiastic as, say, Ray Bradbury, whose writing could be paired up with several albums of the Grateful Dead. In contrast, Lovecraft begged for classical, to my ear, and I have heard that a few death-metal bands have been heavily influenced by his writing.

Why did I like Lovecraft’s stories? I loved how they created a universe of mythological deities and devices, not something you find in Poe, who I was also reading for pleasure way back when. The creatures of Lovecraft’s genius were indifferent to us earthlings at best, and at worst, they are malevolent with infinite, inescapable reach. His horror rang true for me.  The Romantic and romance can find no purchase in the world of Lovecraft. No one seeks out the healing power of escaping to nature, nor does any major character seem faithful to love, unlike Poe. 

Years later, while managing an independent bookstore in my twenties, I was surprised to read that Lovecraft had actually married. And in my thirties, another Lovecraft fan shared with me—as if unearthing something that should have remained buried—that H.P. was a racist and an antisemite though his former wife was a Jew. I seemed to recall stories that seemed to smack at racism, more so than the run-of-the-mill stories from that time period, but now with my new knowledge, these claims seemed more obvious in retrospect.

Soon I found myself struggling with how to handle this horrid information on Lovecraft, working through something like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. In mild shock, I told myself that if Lovecraft had lived longer, perhaps he would have outgrown the infantile compulsion that places one member of the human race over another. That Lovecraft was a product of a time—a victim of a puritanical upbringing—in which the insulated often deluded themselves into imagining that to belong to a higher rung in an alleged hierarchy is to live a life more supreme. Perhaps his trait, this reoccurring folly birthed of unfettered fear, retarded in Lovecraft any hopeful internal spark that may have illuminated him to achieve a happier life. Yes, I told myself that he was miserable, and this was the cause of his grumbling hate. If he had lived longer, experienced more of the 20th Century, the horrors of the Holocaust would have made Lovecraft dial back any theories he had about the Jews. And that the struggles of American Civil Rights would wrestle any bad beliefs on race.

In denial, I comforted myself by reading about Lovecraft’s mentoring and befriending a young writer, Robert Bloch, born a Jew, most famous for the novel Psycho, made more famous by the Hitchcock film. Surely, Lovecraft did not hate this Jew. Or, in Lovecraft’s eyes, it seemed a Jew could be born a Jew and then rise above whatever it was that Lovecraft did not like about the Jews. He had loved a Jew when he married his wife, right? They were happy, at least for a while. No, Lovecraft was not really an antisemite. Not a bad one. There were too many Jewish people in his life for him to be hardcore. The court of public opinion had an active imagination.

Then I read some more about Lovecraft, from his own letters.

What came next for me was the argument that art should stand alone, so who cares about the author, right?  I remembered my dad’s chestnut: “Don’t learn too much about your heroes; just concentrate on what makes them heroic.” Can we not engage the work of art as it is by itself, separating it from any intentions of the artist? There was no benefit in learning about the author, for it was the reader that created the text. Reader Response literary theory aided in my denial.

Most fans, of course, want to know a little about the creator of their affection.

So, I read more about Lovecraft. I grew angry. A dead ringer for Gomer Pyle, he allowed all the women in his life—it seemed to me—to bully him. Although fairly prolific, he could not make a living stringing gloomy nouns, adjectives, and verbs together to create his signature ether of impending doom. But how signature was his cosmos? You take a gigantic octopus and stick it on the body of dragon, and—presto—you have Cthulhu, like a platypus, but scary. Oh, and don’t forget, there’s no meaning to life, the bad guys always win, and the cosmos is dead cold. A triad of existential angst! Stunningly creative! Pure genius!

My fist-clenching phase proved short-lived. I still liked his work.

What if I just read the stories I’ve read before? Or just the authors who took his mythos and ran with it in their books? Just watched the movies based on Lovecraft’s works?

Bargaining puttered by in a fleeting stage.

Should we not keep Lovecraft buried? Ignore his faults? Or numb ourselves to the sins of nasty opinions that he may never have acted upon other than to drip some poison in his stories with a random remark of rancor, the sloppiness of stereotype, the temper tantrum of a theme against the mixing of races? I can admire him at his best and ignore his worst. Lovecraft is dead. And we are all going to die. What was the point really? Art does not matter. Nothing matters. There is no fun to be had. There’s no one to look up to. I’m depressed.

The stories of the Grateful Dead soundtrack made me less depressed.

It is my experience from the first story I read of Lovecraft’s, “The Hound,” narrated by a graverobber set on his own goal of unearthing another graverobber from his grave, that a Lovecraft story is often the Grateful Dead story in reverse. In Lovecraft, if you unearth something, there will be hell to pay. Grateful Dead folklore tells another story.

While trying to name the band, guitarist Jerry Garcia lowered a blind finger into an open dictionary and came down on an entry. This entry described the folktale form of a hero coming upon an unburied corpse, giving the dead a burial, and later “going down the road” completing a difficult task with the aid of a stranger, who is the spirit of the grateful dead returning a favor.

Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, acting as the Cthulhuian Book of the Dead, shares accounts of the Old Ones—Lovecraft’s cosmological dreaded deities from space. Deadheads over the last forty years that have pointed to a passage from an uncited “Egyptian Book of the Dead” to bolster the meaning of the moniker of the band:

We now return our souls to the creator,

as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.

Let our chant fill the void

in order that others may know.

In the land of the night

the ship of the sun

is drawn by the grateful dead.

Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey (2012), 40n6

In Lovecraft, the dead do not return to the creator to serve.  The dead or undead do not chant but moan. They do not draw the source of light but are forever drowning in darkness. Skeletons populate the worlds of both Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead, although, in one of these worlds, a skull screams as opposed to grins. Does Lovecraft now, who is still dead, scream on a level of hell that could be found in Dante’s cartographic efforts? Would he be on the Eighth Level of Hell, the realm of torment designed for Falsifiers? Maybe a part of him resides in hell. And the part of him that created a community of readers and writers, ironically through stories of dread and isolation, resides on some astral plane, high above the Inferno.

So, what is my role to play in the Lovecraft story? I will be the wandering hero, who has just found the dead body of Lovecraft, who will bury the bad thoughts of him and stated by him, and I will sing about what was truly deific in him and his work, to bring light up and to bury darkness down, to chant to all who will listen that we humans are complex creatures, given to contradictions, with a talent for winter growth, and I will eulogize that to err is human and to forgive divine. Atonement and forgiveness are not just for Yom Kippur, and someone does not need to ask for your forgiveness to receive it. And for the flawed mortal known as Lovecraft, if some essence of him is somewhere in a celestial plane and can find rest through my accepting the role as folk hero, maybe Lovecraft can be thought of as one of the grateful dead.


M.I. Black has written for advertising agencies, managed new and used bookstores, taught creative writing and media studies, and has worked as a communications officer in libraries. Copyright 2023 M. I. Black.

A Survivor Looks At Lovecraft

A Survivor Looks At Lovecraft
by James Harvey

Lovecraft’s protagonists are usually victims of severe trauma with lasting effects on their mental health. Given the cosmic scale of Lovecraft’s fiction, they are comparatively naïve in their level of awareness; as a result, they uncover information about and experience things that they are wholly unprepared for. Traumatic events are so jarring and out of the range of normal experience that they produce an existential crisis in the victim. Trauma in the real world can even cause effects that have many similarities to the supernatural: antagonists that can transcend time and space (flashbacks), hauntings and possessions (disassociation), even the ritualistic way in which survivors can manage symptoms and heal (grounding exercises, exposure therapy, mantras and verbal reinforcement).

What appeal does Lovecraft have for a survivor of trauma? Why would such bleak and frightening scenarios be of interest? Perhaps they won’t be, for some. Trauma has too many sources and effects to have a single author that can speak to all who experience it; I speak only from my own experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and my resultant post-traumatic stress disorder. When I first began to grapple with the memories and emotions that were tearing my life apart, I happened upon Lovecraft’s writing and found things that I didn’t understand about my own feelings articulated nearly perfectly by this strange dead writer from Providence. The metaphysics of the worlds he created held an uncanny resemblance to the chaos in my mind, and in those dark, early days of my recovery I was reading stories of people who seemed to feel the way that I felt.

The only saving grace of the present is that it’s too damned stupid to question the past very closely.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

Though I truly immersed myself in Lovecraft in my late twenties, I had heard of him before and forgotten. In high school, the abuse I had suffered for years finally at an end, I had decided to never think of it again. Almost giddy with freedom from fear for the first time, I resolved to put the years of suffering behind me and began more than a decade of avoidance. At the same time, a close friend told me about a weird story he had read in which an old man plays the “violin” at a garret window to keep “demons” at bay—”The Music of Erich Zann.” As I was already spending a great deal of time keeping certain intrusive memories and thoughts from my mind, the image resonated with me.

When I took Lovecraft up again years later, I came to blame myself rather less for not processing my trauma. Who could, knowing that inconceivable horror exists, think that any good could come from interacting with it? I don’t think Danforth dared to take a second look as he flew away from the Plateau of Leng in At the Mountains of Madness, and the “pledges of secrecy” he and Dyer took seemed like prudent measures.

In my worst times, I constantly feared I was losing my mind. Even after I broke my silence on what had happened to me, I had no words to explain the kind of places I went to in my nightmares. In the years when I could do nothing but keep my head above water, Lovecraft’s writing told me that someone else knew the same kind of fear as I. While I was in a place that could know little relief, there was at least understanding. I know now that there are many ways to connect with fellow survivors—SNAP and 1in6, to name only two—but being able to simply pick up a book and see something of my own experience was an easy and comforting way that I felt less alone in my pain.

As I read Lovecraft’s correspondence and heard more discussion of his worldview, I also felt that there was a place for my burgeoning sense of nihilism. I was afraid of and unused to the concept of a universe with no benevolent god or gods at first. To a devout believer in a benevolent god, the terrifying shifts precipitated by trauma can be particularly damaging. My parents had placed all of their faith in the wrong people and raised my brothers and I accordingly. I had built up a child’s sense of identity and self around religious concepts that would be hideously taken advantage of. 

For me, the horror comes from the destruction of self, not only through direct trauma but by the existential crisis that arose from realizing that the universe contains forces that are malevolent or at best uncaring. During the healing process I came to a happy peace with my new understanding of the universe, enjoying the “whimsical sentimentality” that Lovecraft spoke of: 

For my part—as a realist beyond the age of theatricalism and naive beliefs—I feel quite certain that my own known last hour would be spent quite prosaically […] I’d probably spend the residual minutes getting a last look at something closely associated with my earliest memories—a picture, a library table, an 1895 Farmer’s Almanack, a small music-box I used to play with at 2 ½, or some kindred symbol—completing a psychological circle in a spirit half of humour and half of whimsical sentimentality. Then—nothingness, as before Aug. 20, 1890.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Coryciani, 14 Jul 1936, Lovecraft Annual 11.144-145

While Lovecraft used his talent for writing to make beautiful compositions on the theme of cosmic nihilism, his intense fear of the Other manifested in racism and xenophobia throughout his life.

The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government.

H. P. Lovecraft, “In A Major Key,” Collected Essays 1.57

While his descriptions of helplessness and despair can evoke sympathy from survivors, his misplaced antipathy towards people of color is a bitter reminder of the many poor coping mechanisms trauma can encourage. Characters like Zadok Allen in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and the sailor from “Dagon” turn to substance abuse, but fail to escape their trauma-filled pasts and meet poor ends. Using the metaphor of cosmic horror to cope with my own trauma, I see these as cautionary tales for survivors to not lose ourselves entirely in our efforts to escape.

The question of whether or not Lovecraft personally suffered from a trauma-related mental illness is not at all clear. Even if Lovecraft had gotten professional medical care on a regular basis, the mental health resources of his lifetime were very limited. However, it is known that he experienced intense nightmares as a child and suffered from a nervous breakdown serious enough to prevent his graduation from high school, despite his obvious intelligence, enjoyment of learning, and stated intention to attend Brown University (I Am Providence 1.34-35, 126-127). I will refrain from attempting any posthumous diagnoses, but familiarity with fear, depression, and the overwhelming anxiety Lovecraft described could only make his writing more resonant to those suffering from PTSD; perhaps too much so, for some.

From the view of a survivor, I will say this about Lovecraft and the wondrous, terrifying, weird mythos that has sprung from him: it creates a rare sense of camaraderie to find someone who knows that the greatest magnitudes of fear are those that shatter your illusions and defy your ability to describe them. The oppressive role that trauma plays in a survivor’s life is softened by encountering someone else who has seen fear in a handful of dust… Or perhaps, essential salts. Lovecraft is a lifeline and a warning, a rare kindred spirit to the broken, and a solemn reminder that no matter the pain one feels, it is always possible to create works of beauty that can inform and inspire.


James Harvey is a playwright and academic writing tutor living and working in New Brunswick, Canada. His published plays can be found at https://www.lazybeescripts.co.uk/

Copyright 2022 James Harvey

A Jewish Poet Looks at Lovecraft

A Jewish Poet Looks at Lovecraft
by Norman Finkelstein

I

H. P. Lovecraft always seems to have been part of my literary imagination, but I must have begun reading him somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I still have my first paperback editions: the Lancer Books with exceptionally cheesy covers (“H. P. Lovecraft summons you to The Colour Out of Space…), the Beagle Horror Collection volumes (including stories by later Mythos writers), and the Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy series, with their charming but perhaps overly whimsical covers by Gervasio Gallardo. I read Lovecraft devotedly for a few years, while also reading a number of other fantasy and science fiction authors. Then I stopped, and began reading “serious” literature—Pound and Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pynchon and Roth. My interest in Lovecraft lay dormant for a long time, but looking back over a period of some fifty years, I realize that his stories provided me with my first, and still one of my most intense, experiences of what I now understand to be the uncanny [das Unheimlich]. 

I refer specifically to the concept as delineated by Freud in his phantasmagoric essay “The Uncanny,” a text which, as some commentators have pointed out, is itself an instance of what it seeks to explain. In regard to Lovecraft, I would stress three qualities of Freud’s uncanny that I believe I recognized even when I read him at an early age: (1) “intellectual uncertainty”; (2) a sense of that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light”; and (3) the pervasive influence of “silence, darkness and solitude.” Mark Fisher, who refines and extrapolates from Freud’s Unheimlich in his book The Weird and the Eerie, observes that Lovecraft is the preeminent author of weird fiction because his:

stories are obsessively fixated on the question of the outside: an outside that breaks through in encounters with anomalous entities from the deep past, in altered states of consciousness, in bizarre twists in the structure of time. (16)

Furthermore, “it is not horror but fascination—albeit a fascination usually mixed with a certain trepidation—that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird” (17). The fascination with the weird which protagonists in Lovecraft’s fiction experience is mirrored by that of the reader of his work: in “The Dunwich Horror,” for instance, Armitage and his colleagues cannot take their eyes off the body of the dead Wilbur Whateley, and likewise, we cannot stop reading their increasingly compelling story. That was certainly the case for me, though my fascination with Lovecraft seemed relatively short-lived. But that proved not to be the case.

In my late twenties and early thirties, having finished a dissertation on modern poetry and begun my teaching career at Xavier University, I experienced a desire to return to my Jewish roots. Raised in a somewhat observant but mainly secular and assimilated Jewish family in New York City, I had drifted away from Jewishness. Literature had become my religion, and writing poetry (and criticism) was the practice of my faith. My “return” to Judaism was not primarily religious—it was literary. As I read intensely in modern Jewish literature, certain authors stirred up a vaguely familiar sense. These authors, such as Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and I. B. Singer, brought hidden things to light for me. Hardly Lovecraftian, they nevertheless summoned a distinct sense of an outside, twisting my personal experience of time in strange but fascinating ways, and above all, challenging a sense of stable identity. In the modern world, Jews are themselves insiders and outsiders; their sense of history is simultaneously continuous and full of traumatic ruptures. For me, Jewishness began to entail a feeling of the uncanny; Jewishness, as I experienced it, was both familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich and unheimlich, ancient and contemporary.

Add to this my discovery of Kabbalah through the work of Gershom Scholem, and Jewish history and culture became much more mysterious than I had been previously taught. Reading Scholem and other scholars of Kabbalah, I discovered that the rituals and customs I had taken for granted while growing up suddenly became portals through which I could enter other times and places. I began to see a deeper Jewish vision of cosmology, while at the same time learning that Judaism was as suffused with myth as any other faith. The question of belief, always problematic for me, was further cast in doubt. In his magisterial The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle notes that the concept, as delineated by Freud: 

demands or presupposes a new way of thinking about religion….The experience of the uncanny, as [Freud] seeks to theorize it, is not available or appropriate to, say, a Jewish or Christian ‘believer.’ (20)

This accounts in part for the poems I began writing, poems that are also (in proper Jewish fashion) darkly ambivalent commentaries on the texts that proved so fascinating to me. Was I inside or outside of these texts? They blurred my sense of time and self, even as I wrote about them. These poems found their way into my first collection, Restless Messengers. However comfortable, however pleased I was with my “return,” it had also proved to be a little…weird.

Fast forward once again, this time another twenty or twenty-five years. I published a number of books of poetry and of literary criticism. I have written about Jewish literature, and about various other religions and belief systems as they are manifested in modern poetry. I spent years studying psychoanalysis at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. Increasingly interested in gnosticism and hermeticism, I began teaching works that engage the sacred and the transgressive, and, while still writing recognizably Jewish poetry, I incorporated elements of the magical and fantastic in my work as well. In an inevitable return of the repressed, my interest in Lovecraft came back to life, as I observed academic criticism engaging popular genres and authors with greater seriousness.

Reading Lovecraft with the same enthusiasm as my fourteen-year-old self, but now equipped with an array of critical tools, I have to acknowledge and come to terms with the ideologically unsavory aspects of his work, his neurotic prejudices and tragic life history. Needless to say, his racism and antisemitism are painfully troubling to me, though in some respects, no more or less troubling than the cases of Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Jack Spicer, to name the modern poets about whom I’ve written, and who have unquestionably shaped my own poetry.

In my reading experience, Lovecraft’s case is closest to that of Pound, but the sheer quantity of Lovecraft’s hateful rhetoric exceeds even that of Pound’s correspondence and notorious radio broadcasts. Thus the question now arises, as it has for many writers in the past:  what does it mean to admire and to acknowledge the influence of an author who detests and vituperates the beliefs, behaviors, and customs that have, to a great extent, made you who you are? Who excoriates your “race” and denigrates its history and culture? Who might well find you personally unlikeable if not downright loathsome? And—here is the heart of the problem—who expresses his feelings in language that is often so hyperbolic, and yet so closely intertwined with his most remarkable literary achievements, that it calls upon you to engage with it. We return to that moment when we stare down at the body of Wilbur Whateley, horrified but inescapably fascinated by something repellent and wrong. But in this case, we are looking not at a half-human monster, but at a human, all too human body of morally reprehensible prejudices. Both are equally malevolent.

II

“I am an anti-Semitic by nature,” writes Lovecraft in 1915; he continues: 

The Jew is an adverse influence, since he insidiously degrades or Orientalizes our robust Aryan civilization. The intellect of the race is indisputably great, but its nature is not such that it may be safely employed in forming Western political & social ideas. Oppressive as it seems, the Jew must be muzzled.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 10 Aug 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 39

Here, Lovecraft establishes the pattern for over twenty years of epistolary invective, though as has been observed by many readers, his racism and antisemitism grow increasingly vicious (and his prose grows more extravagant) after his sojourn in New York City and his firsthand experiences with the teeming streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In many respects, Lovecraft’s writing on race and ethnicity is an instance of the pseudo-biological and anthropological discourse that was prevalent from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries in both the U.S. and Europe, culminating in Nazism. He observes that: 

It is now definitely known that many allegedly Semitic types of today are not in reality Semitic or even white at all, but derived from Asiatic Tatar-Mongoloids who were Judaised by missionaries before their entrance into Central Europe from the Thibetan plateaux in the 8th or 9th century A.D. Of these are the queer-eyed, yellow-red, thick-lipped flat-nosed types seen in Providence’s North End and in many parts of New York.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

Like other American antisemites (again, I think of Pound in his correspondence), he sometimes affects a fake Yiddish accent, writing of Jewish merchants selling gentiles “ah nize pair uff $5.00 pents for $10.00” (A Means to Freedom 1.134). He maintains the longstanding belief, as prevalent today as it was then, that Jews control the media through their great wealth: 

I didn’t say that Jews own all the papers, but merely that they control their policies through economic channels. The one great lever, of course, is advertising.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 8 Nov 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 170

This power, in turn, leads to an undue Jewish influence on the nation’s literary culture: 

But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan. 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.134

And though he eventually came to disagree with Hitler and the Nazis in regard to antisemitic policy, and died before the Final Solution, he once unknowingly foreshadows the Holocaust. Writing of “the stinking Manhattan pest zone” full of “squint-eyed, verminous kikes,” he declares:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears… & the same goes for the dago slums!)

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 June 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 324

The complex historical and psychological reasons behind racial and ethnic prejudice vary for every individual; in Lovecraft’s case, his racism and antisemitism appear to arise from a combination of a deeply-seated sense of the superiority of the (increasingly threatened) New England “aristocracy” from which he believed he had arisen, which was exacerbated by personal circumstances, especially, as I noted previously, his precarious circumstances while living in New York. Simple ignorance of the ways of other cultures is always a contributing factor as well, and where there is ignorance there is usually fear. Lovecraft himself admits in his letters that he has no knowledge of Jewish customs or of the Talmud (Letters to F. Lee Baldwin et al. 117); instead, what he observes in New York are: 

assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

“Picturesque” Jews (Lovecraft is almost certainly describing Hasidim) versus “strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress”: this is the extent of Lovecraft’s vision of modern Jewish American life, except when he is raving about “squint-eyed, verminous kikes.” Sonia Greene, the Russian Jewish immigrant to whom he was briefly married during his New York sojourn, is described as “so volatile a Slav” when she first visits him in Providence; he refers to her as “Mrs. Greenevsky” and “Mme. Greeneva” (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 186-187,).  According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, in Lovecraft’s mind: 

Sonia was a properly ‘assimilated’ Jew, like his friend Samuel Loveman: she had adopted the mores of the prevailing Anglo-Saxon culture, so that her ethnic background was not an obstacle.

S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz, Lord of a Visible World 13

The one area of Jewish culture which Lovecraft engages without prejudice and stereotyping—but still with a great deal of ambivalence—is that of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Bobby Derie has recently examined Lovecraft’s fascination with S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, which he saw onstage in New York in 1925, and with the film of The Golem, based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which had not yet been translated into English. Lovecraft mentions both works in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and has this to say about Jewish culture: 

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Broadly speaking, Lovecraft’s understanding of Kabbalah as a complex mystical tradition that is both emanational and linguistic is fairly accurate, based on his readings in the tradition of Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic magic—as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then again, there’s also something rather silly in his typically portentous “dark glimpses” and “spectral glamour.” This stereotypically dark and mysterious view of Kabbalah, which had already been studied carefully by non-Jews since at least the Renaissance, reinforces both Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and his antisemitism. For Lovecraft, Jewish magic (and some Kabbalistic rituals are unquestionably magical in their intent) is dark magic.

III

Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” is an overt example of his prejudice regarding Jews and Jewish magic. The evil Robert Suydam, the subject of Thomas Malone’s ill-fated investigation, is known as the author of an “out-of-print pamphlet…on the Kabbalah and the Faustus legend.” Indeed, Suydam is something of a Faust figure. In the first part of the story, when Suydam is presented as old and decrepit, he is seen: 

loitering on the benches around Borough Hall in conversation with groups of swarthy, evil-looking strangers. When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’, and ‘Samaël.’

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

Later, at the time of Suydam’s wedding, when his youth and vigor seem to have been restored, Malone takes part in a raid of one of Suydam’s Red Hook properties, where horrifying paintings and words are found on the walls:

The paintings were appalling—hideous monsters of every shape and size, and parodies on human outlines which cannot be described. The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but whathe did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough. One frequently repeated motto was in a sort of Hebraised Hellenistic Greek, and suggested the most terrible daemon-evocations of the Alexandrian decadence:

HEL • HELOYM • SOTHER • EMMANVEL • SABAOTH • AGLA • 

TETRAGRAMMATON • AGYROS • OTHEOS • ISCHYROS • 

ATHANATOS • IEHOVA • VA • ADONAI • SADAY • HOMOVSION • MESSIAS • ESCHEREHEYE.

Circles and pentagrams loomed on every hand, and told indubitably of the strange beliefs and aspirations of those who dwelt so squalidly here.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

What Lovecraft calls “Hebraised Hellenistic Greek” is in some instances Hellenized Hebrew, or simply Hebrew. Without unpacking all the terms, we can note that “Sephiroth” are the emanations of the Kabbalistic Etz Hayyim (the Tree of Life), “Adonai” is Hebrew for Lord, frequently appearing in Jewish prayers; “Saday” is a corruption of “Shaddai,” Hebrew for “Almighty”; and “Heloym” is probably a corruption of “Elohim,” another designation of divinity, in the plural. “Iehova” (Jehovah) is an Anglicized pronunciation of the “Tetragrammaton,” in Jewish belief the unpronounceable four-letter name of God  (יהוה), and “Emmanvel” (Emmanuel) is a name associated with the Messiah, that is, “Messias.” “Samaël” and “Ashmodai” are indeed prominent figures in Kabbalistic demonology. 

Suydam’s associates, we are told, “were of Mongoloid stock, originating somewhere in or near Kurdistan,” which Malone notes “is the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.” The Yazidis are hardly devil-worshippers; their faith combines elements of Christianity and Islam, and they have been subject to genocidal persecution in recent years by the Islamic State in Iraq. Be that as it may, the black magic in “The Horror at Red Hook” seems primarily to be drawn from Kabbalah, despite Lovecraft having picked up these references from the Encyclopedia Britannica

The figure of Lilith arises during the crisis of “The Horror at Red Hook,” when Malone experiences what the “specialists” later call a “dream,” a dream that forces him to resign from the police force and leaves him with what today we would term PTSD. In a Tor blog post on Lovecraft’s story, the horror writer Anne M. Pillsworth flippantly but I think accurately comments on Lilith’s role: 

Lilith, supposedly Adam’s first wife and the consort of archangels! Here she’s sexuality in its most terrifying and least sensuous guise—she has become it, not even female, a naked and leprous thing. That titters. A lot. And paws. And quaffs virgin blood. And hauls male corpses around with insolent ease. Plus phosphorescent is so not the same as radiant or beaming, as a bride should be. Phosphorescence is what mushrooms put out, or rotting things, a fungal light.

The magically reanimated corpse of Robert Suydam flees from what appears to be his “wedding” with Lilith, destroying her golden pedestal (which Pillsworth accurately calls “phallic”) and dissolving into “jellyish dissolution”—whereupon Malone mercifully faints.

In his comprehensive article on Lilith (which appears in his compendium volume simply called Kabbalah), Gershom Scholem traces her origins to Babylonian demonology, and then on through thousands of years of biblical, Talmudic, midrashic, and kabbalistic texts. The common belief that she was Adam’s first wife, who insisted on her equality with him during sexual intercourse, is related in turn to her being regarded as a threat to women in childbirth and a strangler of infants. In Kabbalah, she eventually came to be seen “as the permanent partner of Samael, queen of the realm of the forces of evil (the sitra ahra). In that world (the world of the kelippot) she fulfills a function parallel to that of the Shekhinah (“Divine Presence”) in the world of sanctity: just as the Shekhinah is the mother of the House of Israel, so Lilith is the mother of the unholy folk who constituted the ‘mixed multitude’ (the erev-rav) and ruled over all that is impure.”

Lovecraft’s corrupt but essentially accurate understanding of Jewish concepts informs his sensational narrative, though it is Kabbalah itself, as a demonic set of figures, beliefs, and practices that comes to rule “over all that is impure.” Thus, the antisemitism which pervades his attitudes and correspondence insinuates itself into his fiction as well.

IV

Having briefly surveyed Lovecraft’s views of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish mysticism, and considered how these play out in one of his stories, I want to make a few observations about my engagement with Lovecraft in my own poetry. Lovecraft’s presence is different from that of other antisemitic writers who have had an impact on my work. Like most poets, I am in part an echo chamber, in which one hears the voices of those who have come before me, including such great but vexing modernists as Eliot, Stevens, and Pound. This is a matter of form or style: tone, cadence, turns of syntax, charged words, conscious or unconscious gestures and allusions. For me, Lovecraft’s poetry, with its eighteenth-century rhyme schemes and skillfully handled but deliberately antiquated rhetoric, is much less engaging than his fiction. Rather, I return again and again to his fascinating inventions, which means that it is the stuff of Lovecraft’s stories that I like to play with—selectively, gingerly, and no doubt due to its very loaded themes.

These occasional games coincide with my move, in recent years, to more narrative poetry. Unlike any number of recent writers in the Lovecraft tradition, I have not been inclined to directly revise his work in order to undermine and deconstruct his prejudices. But this is not to say that my appropriations have neglected to address his faults entirely. Irony is my mode, though there is always an underlying sense of transcendental desire. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, including its morbidities regarding race, ethnicity, and gender is turned inside out.  

One episode in my book From the Files of the Immanent Foundation involves Emma, an Afro-Caribbean psychic who is sent by the Foundation to a conference in the “Summerland.” There, in her astral form, she has a one-night stand with a handsome fellow who may or may not be related to Wilbur Whateley. When Emma, whose handler is none other than Armitage (now retired from his post at Miskatonic University), discovers how she was set up, she creates a computer virus that wreaks havoc with the workings of the entire Foundation. In my poem The Adventures of Pascal Wanderlust (in the collection In a Broken Star), Pascal, an androgenous adventurer and sorcerer-for-hire, has a disturbing vision:

…So Wanderlust ascends—

“Past Midnight! Past the Morning Star!” Her Voice

rushes by in the wind. The tzinorot beckon.

Each Face gazes outward as Wanderlust approaches.

These are the boundaries of the infinite spaces,

the non-Euclidean forms, studied in Antarctica

and Provence. Elder Things hanging with Shimon

bar-Yochai among the hills of Galilee. L’cha Dodi!

The throbbing in Pascal’s temples is more painful

now as the Book opens, floating in the silent void.

The Zohar, aka The Necronomicon. Sacred fantasy.

Drawings by Steve Ditko. Story by Stan Lee.

Later, Pascal, depressed, will take a walk on the beach and meet up with an old friend:

Wanderlust takes the new express from Innisfree

to Innsmouth. Settles into the cushy seat. Please

enjoy our complimentary Wi-Fi. Old-fashioned

Pascal prefers telepathy, tunes in expecting messages

from the beyond. Comes up with nothing but static.

The maggidim have been strangely silent. They have

nothing to say in the face of self-doubt. Negative

capability? Magic, they insist, is an art of the will.

So what will you do now? Wanderlust walks along

the strand, looking out to Devil Reef. An old friend

swims in for a brief visit. Stares at Pascal coldly.

“Nice to breathe the air of upper earth now and then.”

Pascal Wanderlust is nothing but trouble! Sorry,

but that’s what great-great-grandmother said to me

before I left. Tries to right the balance and upsets it

every time. I told them the design was flawed ten

thousand years ago, but why listen to us? We dwelt

in the Abyss before the Beginning. What do we know?

And honestly, Pascal, all those Miskatonic researchers

following your last visit. Former Foundation agents,

every one. Take some advice from an old school chum.

You were a goth with eyeliner and your first pair of Docs.

I was a rich kid from Ohio obsessed with my ancestry.

I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”

Looking at these verses now, it occurs to me that Pascal, a sweet Jewish boy-girl who had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah attended by Deep Ones and Elder Things—and about whom I’m still writing—is in one respect Lovecraft’s spiritual descendent. This does not make Wanderlust, or Wanderlust’s author, altogether happy. But as the aquatic being that was once Robert Olmstead says to his old friend Pascal, “I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”


Norman Finkelstein is a poet and literary critic. His most recent book of poems, co-authored with Tirzah Goldenberg, is Thirty-Six / Two Lives: A Poetic Dialogue. He edits and writes the poetry review blog Restless Messengers.

Copyright 2022 Norman Finkelstein.

An Australian Woman Looks At Lovecraft

An Australian Woman looks at Lovecraft
by Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer

My involvement with Lovecraft scholarship goes back some twenty-seven years. At one stage I was a huge Stephen King fan, and I found a reference in King’s non-fiction work Danse Macabre to Lovecraft (see King, 1982:132-5). I was studying English literature at Master’s level, around 1992/3, and in the realm of academia, historical writers were more acceptable research subjects than contemporary writers, so I approached the department about a project. The project was approved, but the resident Gothic expert was unable to provide supervision, and I struggled along against a curtain of institutional resistance regarding texts associated with popular culture. My assumption that as a ‘dead white male’ to quote the cliché, Lovecraft would be respected academically was incorrect, and instead he proved to be a controversial and polarizing figure. 

One thing that appealed to me about Lovecraft was his evocative ability which appeared to tap into Jungian archetypes. Motifs such as mysterious civilizations to be found under the sea in “The Temple”; forbidden underground activity in “The Rats in the Walls”, together with long-lived/reincarnated sorcerers in “The Alchemist” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” all fascinated me. I felt that these tales remained in the imagination long after the first reading and tapped into something in the collective unconscious. Lovecraft’s letters appeared to support my case, declaring: “There are certain standard stories invented before the dawn of history or later, which generations whisper about” including “Man changed to animal, diseases miraculously cured… vampire, dead man moving, ghost, premonitory warning of death &c.” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja, 435).

Another thing that appealed to me was Lovecraft’s references to women in his stories. Hold on–you are going to say–Lovecraft is known for having very few female characters! Remember, I was enclosed by academic conventions at the time, and the majority of the lauded writers were male, with their female characters being stereotypes and/or love interests. Moreover, some of Lovecraft’s contemporary writers, such as the popular Arthur Conan Doyle, had created dynamics where the “homosocial” friendship of males was the entire frame for the story. (McLaughlin 2013:11) Charming though some of these pairings were, the implications were that intellect was a male characteristic and women unwitting domestics.

Lovecraft’s women were different. Not represented in abundance, but with an astuteness and sympathy which biographically speaking, could have come from living much of his life with his mother and aunts. His letters recount his profound admiration of his older aunt, Lillian Delora Phillips Clark, and his dedication to caring duties when she became ill.

Let us look at a couple of examples of Lovecraftian references to women that I haven’t had the opportunity to explore elsewhere. In The Shadow Out of Time (which incidentally journeys to Australia) the narrator includes the names of a mother, wife, and daughter as identifying features in his brief biography. 

I am the son of Jonathan and Hannah (Wingate) Peaslee, both of wholesome old Haverhill stock. I was born and reared in Haverhill—at the old homestead in Boardman Street near Golden Hill—and did not go to Arkham till I entered Miskatonic University at the age of eighteen. That was in 1889. After my graduation I studied economics at Harvard, and came back to Miskatonic as Instructor of Political Economy in 1895. For thirteen years more my life ran smoothly and happily. I married Alice Keezar of Haverhill in 1896, and my three children, Robert K., Wingate, and Hannah, were born in 1898, 1900, and 1903, respectively. In 1898 I became an associate professor, and in 1902 a full professor.
–H. P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time

In this passage, possessing a wife, mother, and daughter receive equal acknowledgement with an education and career. The account contrasts sharply with patriarchal genealogies such as those found in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 5, Matthew Chapter 1, NKJV) that are only concerned with the male line.

A few pages later, we find that the wife has a mind of her own and astute judgment. “From the moment of my strange waking my wife had regarded me with extreme horror and loathing, vowing that I was some utter alien usurping the body of her husband.” The wife demonstrates independent agency by obtaining “a legal divorce”, then the “elder son” and “small daughter” also reject the father. The story will show the wife’s interpretation holds truth, receiving confirmation when Peaslee finds an ancient scroll written in his own hand.

The story then begins to detail the narrator’s occult research, travel, and descent into madness. One of the main points of interest in this section is the role female presence plays. At the height of alien possession, even female domestics are denied access to the house. “On the evening of Friday, Sept. 26, I dismissed the housekeeper and the maid.” For a brief time, only a policeman, “a foreign-looking man” and “Dr. Wilson” are allowed entry. On “Sept. 27” Peaslee’s consciousness reappears “just after noon” with “the housekeeper and the maid having meanwhile returned.” Thus, the metadata places madness and alien possession in the realm of the masculine, with normality and health in the realm of the feminine. It is a division of the genders, but it is one I don’t mind, as the mad-woman stereotype has had more than its fair share of exposure elsewhere.

Lovecraft is condemned for his racism. The period before the First World War and especially the years leading up to World War II were times of deplorable social prejudice; and I find in Lovecraft’s letters a record of societal attitudes that are both regrettable and cautionary. I also subscribe to the theory that Lovecraft’s extreme expressions of repugnance might have been products of mild Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum. I know this could upset some fans, but Gary and Jennifer Meyers Lovecraft’s Syndrome: An Asperger’s Appraisal of the Writer’s Life makes interesting reading.

Many people have negative attitudes that constitute racism, but Lovecraft’s reactions to crowded and dirty conditions were so extreme that he saw the stain embodied in visages, prompting ugly outbursts I prefer not to reproduce here. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926, Lovecraft wrote:

The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! (Selected Letters 2.68) 

This nauseated attitude does appear close to the level of disability. High intelligence and creative output are quite possible for some persons, while large-scale social interactions may remain stressful.

I was challenged to look deeper into Lovecraft’s racism and compare it to the Australian situation. In this country around 1930, significant minority groups included Italian, Greek, and Chinese immigrants. Lovecraft admits admiring the Greek and Roman civilizations more than his own “biological lines” in a letter to Robert Barlow dated 1936. (O Fortunate Floridian! 347) In a letter to Natalie Wooley he refers to “a Chinese gentleman”, and also calls Japan “one of the greatest and most influential nations in the modern world” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 200-2001). It appears that when a nation had produced significant cultural artifacts, Lovecraft became an admirer, at least in theory.

The remaining problem is his prejudice regarding Australian Aborigines. This attitude does appear irredeemable: “Equally inferior—and perhaps even more so—is the Australian black stock […] This race has other stigmata of primitiveness, such as great Neanderthal eyebrow ridges.” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 199)

This sort of talk is ignorant, reprehensible, and based on outmoded science. Lovecraft ought not to have been disseminating it. However, he by no means originated the heresy, and I would like to respectfully point out the harm similar beliefs have done when espoused by persons of influence and the ability to create policy.

The colonisation of Australia, which commenced in 1778, was largely motivated by the British Empire’s need to acquire space for its subjects. Eckermann (2006:17) suggests that there was a subsequent need to “rationalise and justify” supplanting the Indigenous inhabitants. Borch (2001:225) ) reports that according to Calvinist reasoning, countries ought to be ruled by Christian people. Moreover, following Darwin’s theories, the Aborigines represented a lower stage of the evolutionary scale than the European settlers. These theories and prejudices were solidified into pervading scientific and Institutional racism (Eckermann 2006: 8-12).

The Aboriginal people, who had maintained a complex custodial relationship with the land for thousands of years, were incorrectly perceived as unsophisticated “hunter-gatherers.” According to Locke’s beliefs property rights depended upon working the land, and the colonial government felt this justified applying a doctrine of “Terra Nullis” which violated Indigenous possession (Borch 2001: 231). Initial amiable relations involving trade soured, and conflict resulted in large-scale massacres of Indigenous people (Eckermann 2006: 14-15, 19).

Ramsland (2006:50-51, 55) observes the surviving Indigenous people were considered “a child race incapable of handling their own affairs.” Their autonomy was removed, and decisions were made for them by the so-called “Aboriginal Protection Board.” Between 1900 and 1950 Indigenous families were deliberately taken from their home areas and settled in remote regions, where they lived in overcrowded conditions. The policy of forced relocation failed to acknowledge the Indigenous spiritual connection to their traditional land, causing identity loss and emotional trauma (McMurray and Param 2008: 168; Crespigny et al 2006: 278).

Moreover, the residents of missions and reserves were denied the right to vote or own real estate. They also had limited access to medical attention (Forsyth 2007: 35-38). At an extreme, institutionalised abuse was performed, with Aurukun women reporting children separated from their parents and put into gender-specific dorms. Adults were also chained to trees, flogged and starved (Slater 2008: 6). The practice of “exclusion on demand”, which meant white families could request Indigenous children not attend community schools, resulted in the loss of educational opportunities (Tatz 2001: 32).

A change of government tactic led to policies of “assimilation and integration” being applied between 1950 and 1972. However, Indigenous savings accounts were controlled by the government, effectively quarantining any money they received. The living conditions on reserves continued to be poor, with disease sweeping through camps. An extreme administrative imposition required Indigenous people to seek permission to marry (Forsyth 2007: 38-40; Eckermann 2006: 27; Stolen Wages). In another scandalous social engineering program, Indigenous children were removed from their birth families and placed in foster homes in an attempt to ‘bring them up white’, so as to speak. Wilson (1997:177) details some of the detrimental effects of this program.

In 1967 a national referendum granted the Aboriginal people citizenship (Dugdale & Arabena 2008: 156). Some key improvements include the recognition of native title and land rights through the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, and the 1992 High Court Decision, Mabo v. Qld (Healey 2007: 2-5). On 13 February 2008 the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the Indigenous people regarding the “stolen generation” (The National Museum of Australia 2021).

Unfortunately, Indigenous people continue to experience high levels of unemployment, poor living conditions, and vulnerability to disease. The infant mortality rate is high, and Aboriginal persons have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general Australian population. (See Einsiedel et al 2008: 568; Healey 2010: 6, 8-14; Mathews et al 2008:613-614, 621-622) All this was sadly brought to reality to me a few years ago when an Aboriginal friend died prematurely, becoming another statistic.

So my point is, repeating prejudicial statements can lead to belief, and belief can lead to bigoted actionbut let us ask ourselves honestlyare we still at risk of perpetuating things which ought not to be disseminated?


Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has written a Masters paper on H.P. Lovecraft, and M. Lett. Dissertation on “Fairy Tale Motifs” in Nineteenth Century English novels. Cecelia’s poetry has been published in Spectral Realms (edited by S.T. Joshi) and PS: It’s Poetry compiled by the Poetry Soup community. Micro-fictions have appeared in the “Dark Drabbles” series published by Black Hare Press, and the “Scary Snippets” series produced by Nocturnal Sirens. Cecelia’s research interests include Gothic horror, fantasy and popular culture: including film & television.

Amazon: https://amazon.com/Cecelia-Hopkins-Drewer/e/B071G968NM  

Copyright 2022 Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer.

A Serbian Looks At Lovecraft

A Serbian Look At Lovecraft
by Dejan Ognjanović

I was born into a culture in which Lovecraft was not a household name: hell, he was not even a cult name. He came to my neck of Balkan woods pretty late. Yet eventually he ended up as the subject of my first, unfinished MA thesis, and one of the subjects of my (completed and defended) PhD thesis, and ultimately an author whom I translated and edited in his later appearances in Serbia. He is also a spirit looming above and behind many of my horror fiction writings, despite the fact that they are not set in New England but in Old Serbia.

In my childhood, in the early 1980s, during my initial investigations into the scarce horror fiction then available in Serbian, Lovecraft was literally unknown. Not a single story by him had been translated by my late teens, i.e. by 1989. Thus my first encounter with him was indirect – it was through the idea of Lovecraft, as re-imagined in an Italian comic series Martin Mystere, the episode “The House at the Edge of the World” (“La Casa ai confini di mundo”, 1982), which I read in the summer of 1986, when I was 13. It was love at first sight: for the first time I encountered the concept of houses haunted not by ghosts or any traditional monster, but by unnamable inter-dimensional entities; it also involved places serving as portals into non-Euclidean spaces, nameless cosmic vistas, alien temples and weird-looking gods/demons. Even from a distance of 35 years, I can safely claim that this episode is one of the most inspired, sinister, and clever comic adaptations of HPL’s writings, based more on his spirit than on any particular tales. Up to that point I had not been aware that one was allowed to mix real places and people (Lovecraft himself included) with the fictional ones. I was instantly enthralled by it, and it has remained my favorite approach in my own fiction.

Strangely enough, for more than half a century since Lovecraft’s death, none of his fiction had been available in Serbian, and then, out of nowhere, came a sudden boom in 1990-1991. Within twelve months three books were published: a slim and pretty random selection of mostly minor stories was followed by his two major novels, At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the latter accompanied by his essay on supernatural literature which, at the time, served as a more than welcome guide to authors and works then locally mostly untranslated. While Lovecraft was elsewhere, at the time, mostly relegated to the provenance of small presses and independent publishers, in Serbia all initial three books were published by major, state-owned publishers (Rad and Bigz), or at least state-and-local municipality-funded (Gradina).

The sudden boom of Lovecraft in this region was immediately followed by the explosions of Yugoslavia’s break-up in bloody civil wars. A coincidence? One is left to wonder… Later, when I started writing my own horror fiction, I used HPL’s large-scale entrance into Yugoslavia through Serbia just before the war as a springboard for a mixture of fact and fiction in a story titled “Necronomicon, The Third, Updated Edition” (“Nekronomikon: treće, dopunjeno izdanje”, 2014), where Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos, comes to the environment ripe for destruction and quickly joins forces with the local politicians.

My earlier story “Dagon, God of the Serbs” (“Dagon, bog Srba”, 2010) was a playful parable about a country in transition from one type of totalitarianism to an apparent “democracy” which, you guessed it, hides the cosmic evil in plain sight, and where “the new normalcy” of strange cults and weird worship is quickly taken for granted. Black-robed Orthodox priests are easily supplanted by the black-robed cultists who take over the Byzantine churches for human sacrifices and other rituals. The story’s title and central conceit is rooted in an actual medieval document which mentions that Serbs used to worship a god named Dagon (Karlovački rodoslov).

My most ambitious deployment of Lovecraft was in my first novel, In Vivo (Naživo, 2003). I have never been a fan of HPL pastiches or “Mythos fiction” written by his epigones, nor did I intend to become one myself. Therefore, in the plot dealing with the occult background of the civil wars and various brutalities in Balkan’s mid-1990s, Lovecraft is explicitly referred to only twice: in a cruel ritual invocation Yog-Sothoth is mentioned as just one of the many names for the Guardian of the Gate, equal to Choronzon (also named); and on the suggestive inscription on a mysterious man’s t-shirt, which after much divining of the hyper-stylized script, says: Nyarlathotep. What I strove for in that novel, rather than puerile winks and homage, was to apply Lovecraft’s notions of what constituted good storytelling, with painstaking realism in all aspects except the (suggestions of the) fantastic, with carefully placed hints alluding towards the bigger picture which is never explicitly delineated. Always having in mind Lovecraft’s ideals, I also strove to build a strong atmosphere of doom and gloom, for which Serbia in the 1990s, under sanctions, and affected by inflation, neighboring wars, and various forms of degradation, was all too perfect a background.

As can be divined from the above, Lovecraft’s fiction for me has never been just a repository of cool monsters, demons, and other paraphernalia: when I used them literally, it was in a tongue-in-cheek, openly satirical manner, but I mostly avoided them, or used them sparingly, when I was trying to say something more ambitious. It is sad, but true, that when I finally came across all of his writings in the mid-1990s, I found his pessimistic vision about humanity and the universe to correspond with what I’d already seen and felt in my own environment, but also, indirectly, in the rest of the world.

Yes, it took a full decade between my first encounter of the idea of Lovecraft, in a comic, and actually finding and reading all of his masterpieces, including “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” because it was pretty difficult or next to impossible buying books in English in Serbia during economic sanctions in the 1990s. However, when a friend brought me a few Lovecraft’s collections from London, my mind was blown. These stories were all that I imagined and hoped for during those ten years, and then some! This aspect may be hard to imagine for a today’s reader who is one click away from ordering anything by HPL through online sellers, or from accessing it online, across the web. But, in the age before the internet and before books in English became reasonably accessible, for Serbian readers Lovecraft was at least twice as esoteric. And yet, I must stress that in my case Lovecraft’s long unavailability was instrumental in whetting my horror appetites and my imagination: before I was able to read his best works, I imagined them, I thought about them and I dreamed them. 

I was aware of Lovecraft’s denigrating attitude to immigrants, including Slavs, especially Poles, among other races and nations turned monstrous in “The Horror at Red Hook.” I also came across his early story “The Street” in which an old Yankee narrator feels a particular repugnance caused by the appearance of a Slavic business venture, “Petrovitch’s Bakery,” in his beloved, ethnically pure WASP town and street. 

Of the various odd assemblages in The Street, the law said much but could prove little. With great diligence did men of hidden badges linger and listen about such places as Petrovitch’s Bakery, the squalid Rifkin School of Modern Economics, the Circle Social Club, and the Liberty Café. There congregated sinister men in great numbers, yet always was their speech guarded or in a foreign tongue.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Street”

Petrovitch is a common Russian family name, but it is also found often among Serbian surnames. This story, admittedly minor, exemplifies the author’s prejudice towards Slavic races, including Serbs, which can be found expressed more explicitly in his essays and letters.

For example, talking about “greater Serbia (Jugo-Slavia)” in a letter to Arthur Harris he describes “Jugo-Slavs” as “a relatively unknown Eastern race” (13 Dec 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner and Others 237). His ignorance of the region, and the race, are typical of his times, because Serbia, until the outbreak of World War I was perceived, if at all, as just another insignificant “land behind the great forest.” At least he was willing to admit as much:

I’d hate to admit how little I know about the Slavonic nations, the Tartars, and even of Germany. […] The Balkans certainly are a hopeless mess, with wide racial variations
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 16 Aug 1932, A Means to Freedom 1.367

A good example that Lovecraft was far from alone in such estimate, and with similar arguments, is found in Howard’s letter from 9 Aug. which actually instigated the above statement, where he says:

But what a tangled mess and confusion Balkan history is! And what a mixture of blood-strains the average Balkan must be! Celtic, Roman, German, Slav, Greek, Mongol, Turkish—no wonder they’re always ham-stringing each other” (ibid. 1.345)

A “hopeless mess“ is a phrase which could just as easily be used to describe Lovecraft’s anti-Slavic rant in his letter to the Gallomo, of 6 Oct 1921, in which he claims:

(I) do not think any Slav nation will rise even to semi-civilisation. Whatever the Slav conquers will be lost to civilisation, for the race-stock is deficient. Slavs are emotional and irrational… (Letters to Alfred Galpin 112)

Still, I did not mind the implications of his private rants nor his published, fictional diatribes, for several reasons. First, I do not self-identify as a Serb so fully and unreservedly that I would take such minor offences, clearly based on Lovecraft’s meager acquaintance with this subject (and on unfortunate race theories about Germanic and Anglo-Saxon supremacy, widespread in his times) as obstacles for my reading enjoyment, even in such a poor and shallow parable as “The Street.” Second, most of my favorite authors held some questionable views or had lifestyle choices which I may not fully condone (M. De Sade, E. A. Poe, L. F. Celine, W. Burroughs, T. Bernhard), yet it never occurred to me to “cancel” them or stop reading their fictions because of certain aspects of their thoughts or deeds which I did not share. Third, from reading HPL’s letters I realized the expanse of his mind, which included willingness to amend his ideas based on new findings, and felt certain that, if only he’d had a chance to meet some great Serbs who lived and worked in USA at the time, like Nikola Tesla or Mihajlo Pupin, he’d be more respectful, and perhaps even eager to enjoy some pita, or burek, from “Petrovitch’s Bakery.”

With only slightly more exposure to those “aliens,” he wouldn’t have perceived them as “sinister men” nor would he have feared their speech as “guarded” and “foreign.” After all, Tesla with his mysterious personality and public exhibitions of the new electric power may have at least partially inspired his conception of Nyarlathotep as a sinister “itinerant showman” with nightmarish exhibitions and performances… This connection, first suggested by Will Murray in his essay “Behind the Mask of Nyarlathotep”, is found by S. T. Joshi to be likely (see his “Explanatory notes” in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2002, 369). Had Lovecraft actually met Tesla, say, during his stay in New York, he might have even befriended the eccentric, reclusive and world-weary Serbian genius whose attitudes towards humanity, wealth and sex, among others, were rather similar to his own. Perhaps based on such an acquaintance a more benevolent character would have been created: someone closer to his good professors and scientists than to avatars of the Old Ones. 

In any case, when in 2008 the opportunity arose for me to edit the first ambitious selection of Lovecraft’s best horror tales in Serbian, in a large format 600-pages hardcover with original illustrations, titled Nekronomikon, I accompanied the tales with my introduction, a lengthy afterword, annotated bibliography, detailed author’s biography and chronology of his entire opus, so that Serbian readers could, for the first time, see the full scope of his poetics and the literary context which shaped it. This was continued in a series of books (twenty five so far), named “Poetics of Horror,” for which I edited two more selections of Lovecraft’s stories, plus I did a new translation of Mountains, and among the authors I presented, most of them for the first time in Serbian, were many of his major influences (Machen, M. R. James, Blackwood, Hodgson) and followers (Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein). 

Nekronomikon had three editions so far, each slightly different in content and design, and sold in almost 4.000 copies. His other collections are also in high demand. Serbs have embraced the scribe from Providence and his cult in this country is now quite strong. From a virtual unknown, thirty years ago, he grew into a cult figure in the 21st century’s first decade, while now his name on the covers guarantees sales comparable to those of better-known genre bestsellers. A nice feat for a spirit who, for more than fifty years after departing the body, evaded this part of the world. Once he was finally summoned to Serbia, he was not received as a foreigner and outsider, but as a long-lost prophet of doom whose bleak vision became immediately understandable and relatable.


Born and living in Niš, Serbia, Dejan Ognjanović received his PhD in Literature (“Historical Poetics of Horror Genre in Anglo-American Literature”). Writes reviews and articles for Rue Morgue magazine. In Serbia published three horror novels, three studies on horror cinema, two collections of essays and a book on Djordje Kadijević, pioneering director of Serbian horror films. Contributed to Steven Schneider’s 100 European Horror Films, 501 Movie Directors, and 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, and also to academic collections Speaking of Monsters (2012) and Digital Horror (2015). He is editor at Orfelin Publishing since 2015, where he edits the series “Poetics of Horror,” and writes reviews and articles for Rue Morgue magazine, who also published his booklet The Weird World of H. P. Lovecraft (Rue Morgue Library #11, 2017).

Copyright 2022 Dejan Ognjanović.

A Jewish Neurodivergent Looks At Lovecraft

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 hybridfit 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.

A Transwoman Looks At Lovecraft by Sophie Litherland

As someone who has had a passing familiarity of the Mythos through popular culture, upon reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft I was not expecting to find much representation of women like me. I was then pleasantly surprised to find themes and ideas within the works of H.P. Lovecraft that have resonated with my personal experiences as a transgender woman. While there is no typical trans experience, there are tales of discovery and the questioning of accepted reality that appear regularly in the works of Lovecraft, which have certainly struck a chord with my own transition. These tales within the Mythos have helped me reflect and understand my own feelings towards myself, my dysphoria, and our society. 

In this essay I have selected a few short stories to give a fresh perspective on, and how they are relevant to my lived experiences and perhaps by extension to women like me. I was in fact very disappointed to find that in “The Transition of Juan Romero,” Juan merely transitions from being alive to dead. Of course, I still enjoy works such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but much of that appreciation comes from the same place as that of other readers. Instead, I have picked on themes which may have been overlooked by a cisgender mindset. I hope my thoughts are both informative and entertaining for all audiences.

The details of a typical protagonist are often ambiguous and left to the reader’s imagination, but share the common theme of reacting in a human and relatable way when presented with something out of the ordinary. This does drag up memories, sometimes painful, of the early phases of my transition having been young, confused, and unequipped to deal with my own feelings towards gender. As Lovecraft favours the short story format, the process of discovery of the unknown as a direct consequence of the protagonist’s curiosity is a common theme that is visited often. This shedding of innocence towards the supernatural has many parallels to the “incredibly knowledgeable about transitioning” stage whilst I was struggling with denial.

One example of this feverish curiosity is that of the young man in The Music of Erich Zann.” While living in a flat in the Rue d’Auseil, he becomes fascinated with the music of the old viol player, Erich Zann. Not necessarily understanding the true nature of his obsession, he repeatedly seeks out the elderly musician, desperate to hear and make sense of the music coming from the penthouse flat. Upon discovering an unnamed horror behind the genius of Zann’s music, he flees and is relieved that he cannot find his way back to the Rue d’Auseil. 

I can envision myself as the naïve young student, getting a glimpse of something extraordinary and compulsively following the trail of discovery before realising that there is no way of unlearning that which has been learned. Instead of a haunted German viol player, it was the knowledge that I could and eventually should transition. Learning what transitioning involved and knowing that it was achievable, in my stages of denial there was definitely a feeling of regret that I had pulled that thread and where it had led me. In this sense, I had tried fleeing my own Rue d’Auseil and hoping that like the young metaphysics student, I could never return to what I had discovered. Where my story differs in its ending was that I did find my way back and in fact began to rationalise my discovery and take positive steps forward.

The use of dreams as a vector of worldbuilding and creeping horror is an iconic part of many of Lovecraft’s stories and by extension the mythos as a whole. Whether by having nightmares or particularly vivid dreams, I am sure I am not alone in having those nights of dream filled sleep that have persisted long into the waking hours and even into my long-term memory. Before I accepted my gender identity, dreams where I was female would give lingering pangs of guilt and confusion over my enjoyment and comfort, coupled by feelings of bitter disappointment upon awakening. Nowadays I mostly dream in my preferred gender role, however the most precious dreams are when physically everything is vividly correct. One of the most common phrases coming from people suffering from gender dysphoria is that they wish they could somehow awaken as the opposite gender, a phrase so common it is considered cliche. This is where the blending of dreams and reality prominent in stories such as “Celephaïs really hits home.

The story “Celephaïs” focuses on the main character Kuranes, a middle-aged man who is the last of a respected family line that has almost faded into obscurity. Visited by dreams from his youth, he pursues the land of Celephaïs within his periods of slumber. It is quickly established that Kuranes is not the character’s original name, but rather one he chose himself for this new venture of seeking Celephaïs. Kuranes then becomes obsessed with his dream world, spending the last of his wealth frivolously on narcotics to increase his periods asleep. Ultimately, the fate of Kuranes is a tragic one. Upon travelling with fanfare to his beloved Celephaïs, we are brought crashing back to the waking world with the body of Kuranes washing up on the shore. 

For me, the change of name really drives home the idea that in the dream we are unburdened by the roles and responsibilities that society has put upon an individual, instead we are free to be who we choose. As someone who has changed name, the gravitas of a character changing his name during his dreams says that Kuranes was so unhappy with his old identity that he felt it necessary to shed it entirely. Being the last of an esteemed family line, I imagine what little pride Kuranes had left existed in that name, so to rid himself of this hereditary pride shows complete commitment to abandoning his old life and starting anew in Celephaïs. 

The curious phenomenon that occurs within the tale of Kuranes is his inconsistent ability to reach Celephaïs, much like my inconsistent ability to dream in the correct gender. I have a particular sympathy with Kuranes when he starts spending the last of his wealth on drugs to extend his dreaming hours to further his search for Celephaïs. We, as a reader, may look upon Kuranes as foolish and desperate to take such actions. However, as someone who was desperately unhappy with my previous waking self, I can truly sympathise with the need to escape my physical self and pursue my own image in a dream. I am rather glad that in this day and age, I may instead work towards this existence in the waking world, instead of chasing a perpetual slumber to achieve transitioning. 

Continuing with the theme of dreams, I will next look at the short story “The White Ship.” Here, our protagonist is a third-generation lighthouse keeper, who boards a strange white vessel known to his family. Accompanied by an old man and guided by a bird of heaven, they visit many wondrous lands with the land of Sona-Nyl seeming like a paradise. The Keeper’s hubris is a central theme, where he pursues ever more lands until he is warned against venturing further to Cathuria. Refusing to heed these warnings, he insists on sailing onward, before the voyage ends in catastrophe with the white ship smashed upon the shores of Carthuria.  

When the keeper awakens with no time having passed, there lies the bird of heaven and a single spar from the white ship. Unlike in Celephaïs, our keeper has ended up here out of his own actions rather than the everyday event of awakening from a dream. Upon awakening, he gives no indication as to whether he regrets pursuing Cathuria and giving up the timeless paradise on the shores of Sona-Nyl. I personally resonate with the keeper when he looks at the bird on the shore and that scene really hit a nerve. 

As a reader, I feel two parts to observing our protagonist leave Sota-Nyl to pursue Cathuria. Initially, I feel a sense of superiority and smugness, thinking that I would never be so foolish as to throw away the golden opportunity of remaining in an idyllic land. On closer inspection however, what made them leave Sota-Nyl was what made this story special to me. When I first started transitioning, I understood that I was giving up an easier life with much less obstacles than that of a trans person. Without meaning to sound bitter, life is easier being cis and to give that up was an incredibly daunting journey to set out on.  Much like our lighthouse keeper, I too had many warnings and faced adversity in my choice of path and where it would lead me. So, to see our keeper stay true to his conviction and press on regardless, that gave me strength in my own journey. I can then fully understand the reasoning behind leaving what might seem a perfect world, because to people like me and the keeper, it was only ever the choice we ever had.

Lovecraft’s tales are often horrifying in nature and end in tragedy, they nonetheless have had the positive impact of exploring negative and self-destructive thoughts. By using the architecture of cosmic horror, it helps frame our thoughts and desires outside the norms of everyday life and rationalise them. I don’t wish I never pursued learning about transitioning, instead I see that curiosity is a common trait of humanity. I understand the futility of pursuing dreams as a substitute for existing happily in the waking world. Finally, I realise that like the lighthouse keeper, I would have been miserable upon the shores of Sona-Nyl and pursuing Cathuria to live what resembles an ordinary life was the best and only option for me. By reframing such tough introspections through the works of H.P. Lovecraft, these works have made me feel more comfortable with myself and my identity. At least until the old ones rise from the depths anyway.


Copyright 2022 by Sophie Litherland.

Sophie is a writer, stand-up comic, and presenter who tends to work with the sciences, but can’t keep her mouth shut on other subjects.

Twitter: @splitherland

A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith

History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or unpredictable
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body 1

The first time I read “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft, I was a nineteen-year old stroke survivor, confined to the couch in my mother’s living room, gripping the edges of an old library book like one loosened finger, one glance away would send me onto the floor. The works of Lovecraft came into my life at a time when I needed the utmost concentration to regain skills extending from the ability to read to being able to stand in front of the microwave without collapsing. It took months to be able to walk from the couch to the door, the door to the mailbox, the mailbox to the orange tiger lily in my mother’s garden. I had known disability since childhood, but never a horror quite like this.

It was cosmic horror that brought a fractured life back into focus. 

My first deep exploration into the character of Lavinia Whateley was for my final undergraduate research paper, exploring the depictions of disabled women in 20th century horror fiction. Historically, Gothic literature has portrayed variations of health and bodily form as monstrous, asserting that the disparate form and function of disabled minds and bodies are to be feared and othered. As Pang Shi Hua states in their contribution to the Glossary of the Gothic: Deformity:

Part of the reason for our irrational fear of disability is that in any moment, a healthy body is one broken blood vessel removed from becoming a body with disabilities.

That is to say that the disabled body in the eyes of the abled witness is a harbinger of perceived limitation and ultimately, social ostracization and death. The characterization of disabled women as objects rather than subjects within the origin of the horror genre may be examined through interpersonal, temporal, and narrative elements via a contemporary lens of feminist philosophy and the burgeoning field of disability theory. They may also be examined to highlight issues that are primarily overcast in previous studies, including issues of embodiment, bodily autonomy and violation.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Dunwich Horror” the character of Lavinia Whateley is an excellent subject to examine in this contemporary context. Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.

I do not have albinism, though I have several chronic and disabling conditions that made me empathize with Lavinia, and wonder as to the complexities that would arise in such a life. In my pursuit of analyzing her character, it was important for me not to medicalize her, since the foundational aspect of disability theory is in defining the social obstacles, rather than physical and biological ones, that make life difficult for individuals. People with disabilities are as different as snowflakes, and it was my intention to observe and analyze while avoiding any projection.

Disability is presented in the Gothic as a “direct response to the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human” (Hua). Associating the disabled more closely with monstrosity serves a social purpose in that it frees the individual from proximity and association with a person they feel represents an injurious threat to their own wellbeing. In Nancy Marck Cantwell’s “De-Composing the Gothic Body in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent,” she says:

We commonly bear witness to the abject when we are confronted by the inevitability of our physical dissolution. (33)

When it comes to women, this is particularly poignant. The developmental origin of the horror fiction genre is complex, with the presence of horror elements in texts dating back to pre-Biblical times. Women in Gothic horror fiction, defined in this essay as fantastic works with macabre and haunting elements that arose within the first quarter of the 20th century, are portrayed and perceived through a particular lens; one that interprets the cultural ideals of feminine personhood and disabled embodiment through objectification, “othering,” and in consideration of 19th century idealism. In Nancy Cott’s “An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology” she states that:

The late nineteenth century was an era of contention over female sexuality, physiology, health, dress, and exercise, and one in which medical opinion had become an authoritative sector of public opinion. (219)

The realities of feminine suffering and their aftermath go largely codified or unspoken, with the narrative voices being predominantly male, and disabled women being relocated to the silent poverty-stricken realms of society. 

The female body as “other” is a perspective with historical basis, as discussed in David T. Mitchell and S. L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse

The othering of the female body—through the vilification of femaleness, female sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth—is not a new occurrence. Aristotle, like Freud and Lacan much later, identified women as incomplete or deformed males. (55)

The pervasive belief in biological essentialism was a key tool in the oppression of women, and so not only the state of the mind, but the condition of the body were determiners of ability, status, and the eventualities of their lives. In Mary Poovey’s Feminism and Deconstruction, the idea that “neither sexuality nor social identity is given exclusively in or through the body, however it is sexed” (51), a concept explored briefly below, was absent from gender discourse at the time as well.  This is further discussed in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today:

In every domain where patriarchy rains, woman is other: she is objectified and marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values, defined by what she allegedly lacks and that men allegedly have. (87)

The dehumanization and “othering” of women was a means to maintain patriarchal power. In horror and fantastic tales that are largely narrated by men and written in an era of evolving gender and racial rights, there lies inklings of information that allow for contemporary interpretation which, in turn, elevate the humanity and validity of women disabled women, and their experiences beyond the stereotypical label of victim, among other terms denoting the inhuman.

For much of our cultural history, the female body has been viewed as imperfect: an aberration of the “perfect” male form and consequently repugnant or even dangerous, yet close enough to this “male default” to be familiar and even attractive. This has a destabilising force on both the male subject, who simultaneously experiences desire and revulsion, and the female object, when she discovers that she is being “othered” and is “no longer seen in her own right.”
—Jane Mitchell, Reclaiming the Monster: Abjection and Subversion in the Marital Gothic Novel 57

It is worth noting that there were authors that addressed themes of disability and sexuality in the gothic novel, namely Edith Nesbit, though this is a topic for another examination.

Disability imagery in the Gothic novel and short story often signifies “moral decay or the lack of a moral sense” (Longmore 1987, 67-68; Snyder and Mitchell 2000). This archaic view of the disabled individual denotes their use in society as a warning against that which may bring about disease and decay, but it also claims that those who are regarded as wretched on the outside are wretched on the inside, something we know to be unequivocally false. Contemporary disability theory recognizes disability as “an overarching, life-defining confluence of categories” according to Jan Grue in “Rhetorics of Difference : Julia Kristeva and Disability” (49). In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Chris Baldick observes that:

The representation of fearful transgressions in the figure of physical deformity arises as a variant of that venerable cliché of political discourse, the “body politic.” When political discord and rebellion appear, this “body” is said to be not just diseased, but misshapen, abortive, monstrous. Once the state is threatened to the point where it can no longer be safely identified (according to the medieval theory) with “the King’s body”—that is, with an integral and sacred whole—then the humanly recognizable form of the body politic is lost, dispersed into a chaos of dismembered and contending organs. (14)

Baldick’s passage supports the idea in Lucy Sheehan’s article “Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in ‘Mary Barton,” which states that:

A single body ‘embodies’ multiple objects, or, alternately, in which many bodies “embody” a single unified political consciousness. (37)

“The Dunwich Horror,” chosen to illustrate the central themes of this analysis, was selected for the presence of a female character that drives the narrative, inclusion or suggestion of the supernatural, and the cultural impact the stories have had on contemporary horror fiction. The only major female character in the tale is Lavinia Whateley, who shares her name with a character from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Born in 1878, she is the daughter of wizard Old Whateley and her late unnamed mother, who had a mysterious and violent death when Lavinia was twelve years old. 

Lovecraft establishes Lavinia immediately as an outsider through her appearance, playing into the historical reality as described by Rosemarie Garland Thomson in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body,  that the “visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings” (1).  Lavinia has albinism, which contributes to the alienation she already gets for being a part of a strange family. She is described as slatternly, and has inherited the weak chin of her relatives. Lavinia disappeared in 1926 on Halloween night. It is inferred throughout the story that she was a victim of matricide.

The mother was one of the decadent Whateleys, a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five, living with an aged and half-insane father about whom the frightful tales of wizardry had been whispered in his youth. Lavinia Whateley had no husband, but according to the custom of the region, made no attempt to disavow the child […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Lavinia’s depiction is as ableist as it is misogynistic. There is hardly a mention of her name that does not include a qualifier immediately before or after that she is deformed. Lovecraft’s characterization of Lavinia, meant to evoke horror and disgust, is also meant to be comparatively less offensive than the horror that is her son, Wilbur, a child described in both ableist and racist terms, as the “dark, goatish-looking infant who formed such a contrast to her own sickly and pink-eyed albinism” and “swarthy.” 

While I do not wish to medicalize Lavinia, as stated above, it is still important to put albinism in context for the contemporary reader. The understanding of the condition today is far more intricate than in Lovecraft’s time. Albinism is a genetically-inherited disease indicated by the absence of melanin; skin, hair, eyes are characteristically faint, having little color or intensity, and affects vision. Raji Ade Oba in “Albinism: A Silently-Growing Disability that remains largely uncategorized and ‘uncelebrated,’” states that:

A 2014 South African Medical Journal found that in Nigeria, albino children experienced isolation, dodged social interactions, and were less emotionally stable. In fact, it was reported that affected individuals were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, and be unable to find partners. 

Lavinia’s few interactions with characters outside of her family are strange, stemming from her limited exposure which most likely resulted from familial or self-isolation from the townspeople due to her albinism. Though it can be argued that this isolation could be, either solely or mixed with, the dark sorcery of the inhabitants of her house. 

The medical aspects of albinism are not described in the story. Lovecraft delivers observations about Lavinia that illustrate her as hideous for an audience of the time that was likely just as uneducated and unsympathetic regarding genetic disorders. A more accurate or nuanced depiction of a character with albinism may have incorporated any of the following aspects, as described in The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine:

People with albinism may have one or more of the following eye problems: severe  far-sighted or near-sighted, astigmatism, constant, involuntary movement of the eyeball called nystagmus, problems in coordinating the eyes in fixing and tracking objects (strabismus), problems with depth perception, and light sensitivity. People with a rare form of albinism called Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS) also have a greater tendency to have bleeding disorders, inflammation of the large bowel (colitis), lung (pulmonary) disease, and kidney (renal) problems.

How much Lovecraft knew of these details is unknown. His characterization lends credence to the idea that the disabled should not procreate, seeing that Wilbur and his monstrous twin are evil and destructive beings. Lavinia’s impregnation can be seen as an inverse of the holy conception of Jesus Christ. It is also a direct reference to Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, where the formula “Et Diabolus incarnatus est. Et homo factus est.” is a deliberate inversion of “And God became incarnate, and made man.”

Lavinia was learned, affirming that the acquisition of knowledge was regarded as a peculiarity or trait that accompanied the makeup of a woman who could destabilize the patriarchal system at hand. “She was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great, odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys” and “She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her” (“The Dunwich Horror”).

Lovecraft plays into the medical model of disability with his characterization of Lavinia, which “frames atypical bodies and minds as deviant, pathological, and defective, best understood and addressed in medical terms”, an idea described by Alison Kafer in her pivotal text, Feminist, Queer, Crip (5). While it is stated that she is a woman of some learning, even if it is occult learning or familial oral history, it is most critical that you understand her as “deformed,” and therefore “other.” But impairment at the time this story was conceived was different than modern times. “What we understand as impairing conditions—socially, physically, mentally, or otherwise—shifts across time and place” (Kafer 7). As feminists and fighters against ableism, it is critical that we review texts with disabled characters, and disability overall, as “a site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 9). Lovecraft’s characterization  of Lavinia also hearkens back to classical and medieval times, when, as Angela M. Smith discusses in Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema: 

[…] unusual bodies and behaviors were viewed as evidence of divine or otherwise unknowable forces and read as portents of good will or ill, or manifestations of “earthly malignancy and witchcraft.” (3-4)

Her son, Wilbur, even began to regard her with a “growing contempt” eventually implicitly committing matricide. “Poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.” Here we have a supernatural being with disdain for his mother so great, that he murders her. One might look upon Lavinia’s cherishing of the child and see great injustice in this. That a woman of limited but enthusiastic learning, who perseveres beyond the so-called limitations of her condition, and still has some indefinable but present faith, as a discardable being. In David Punter’s A Companion to the Gothic he says that “The gothic uses and abuses a woman’s body; in this genre, she is ‘moved, threatened, discarded, and lost’ (257-268).

Women in Gothic fiction of the present day are afforded greater humanity. Through the mobilization of modern disability discourses, including the re-framing of  disability as marginalized identity rather than defective being, and integrating concepts of disability futurity, it may be demonstrated that portrayals of disabled women in Gothic literature may be reframed with modern theoretical interpretations to cultivate nuance that better serves the future of disability discourse. That is an improvement that will benefit not only readers, but the people who inhabit the real world as well.


Farah Rose Smith is a fiction writer and scholar from Rhode Island. She has authored the novellas Anonyma, The Almanac of Dust, and Eviscerator, as well as the collections Of One Pure Will and The Witch is the Body. She lives in New York City.

Copyright 2022 Farah Rose Smith

A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft

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.