The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular object: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150-151
Shoggoths appear or are mentioned only three times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft: they appear on the page in At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936), and they are mentioned in passing but do not appear in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written 1933, published 1937). It is in the latter story that we learn there are shoggoths in Maine.
In “The Mound”, Lovecraft had shown how an “advanced” yet alien race had used biological science to enslave and shape living creatures to their use. Intelligent beings became beasts of burden and livestock. The shoggoths extended this conception: where part of the horror in “The Mound” (as with the earlier story “The Rats in the Walls”) was that the creatures of K’n-yan were part-human, the shoggoths were entirely inhuman in their conception. Biological robots in all but name, engineered lifeforms created to serve…and for anyone raised in the United States of America, as Lovecraft and most of his readers would have been, there are connotations there. Because for centuries the slave system of the United States had been based entirely on race.
Lovecraft knew this. He commented on historical slavery in his letters with friends. Like many white people in the early 20th century, he was misled by the Lost Cause propaganda of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School—and by his own prejudices—about the horrors of slavery. His view of the plantation system in the antebellum South (and his own native Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was an historical nexus for the slave trade) was rose-colored. The best example of Lovecraft’s line of thought on this matter, when he and his friend and fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard had fallen into a discussion of what we would call wage-slavery today:
As for peonage or actual slavery—that is hardly a practical possibility except with inferior or badly-cowed race-stocks. The whole psychological equilibrium which made it possible in mediaeval and ancient times has been permanently destroyed. But it really wouldn’t be so bad to enslave niggers, Mexicans, and certain types of biologically backward foreign peasants. I’m no abolitionist—in fact, I’d probably have been almost ostracised in New England in the hectic days of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Bostonese pharasaism in general. Of course, slavery ought to be regulated by stringent laws as to the treatment of slaves—laws backed up by frequent governmental inspections, and sustained by a carefully directed public sentiment as to humane conditions. In the 18th century, when we had negro slaves in Rhode Island, there was never any discontent or talk of ill-treatment. On the large estates of King’s County (estates duplicating the plantations of the South, and quite unique for the North) the blacks were in general simply contented—having their own festivities, and indulging in a kind of annual Saturnalia in which large numbers met and elected one of their number “King of Africa” for the ensuing year. One of my ancestors—Robert Hazard—left 133 slaves in his will. What caused slavery to decline in the north was the complex economic readjustment which rendered large-scale agriculture and stock-raising no longer as profitable as maritime commerce. When it no longer paid to keep niggers, our pious forbears began to have moral and religious scruples about the matter—so that around 1800 Rhode Island passed a law limiting slavery to black over 21, and declaring all others, and all subsequently born, free. Later this was amended to free the adult negroes—though most stayed right on with their masters as nominally paid servants. In the next generation, when slavery was defunct in the north but seen to be still a source of profit in the south, it occurred to northern politicians to become very Quixotic and devoted to the ideal of freedom—hence the impassioned frock-coated moralists of the abolitionist school, calling upon heaven to end the unrighteous curse of human bondage. But on the whole I don’t think slavery would form a practical policy for the future. Psychological conditions have changed. I don’t think inferior races, or persons of very inferior education or capacity in any race, ought to have the political franchise; but I think it is the best public policy to give them as much freedom as is consistent with the maintenance of the civilisation on an unimpaired level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, A Means to Freedom 466-467
Howard, for his part, concurred and cited his own family’s history of slaveowning—although as Rob Roehm pointed out on Howard History, Robert E. Howard appeared ignorant of the details of his own ancestors’ violence toward their slaves.
The shoggoths had rebelled.
Rebellion was the one great fear of all slave-owners; that the violence inflicted on slaves for years and generations would be returned. Lovecraft, writing in 1931, might have been inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) mentioned in books he read that year such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). The racial violence of that conflict was very clear to Lovecraft, and in discussing one of August Derleth’s voodoo stories of the period Lovecraft notes:
[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376
Shoggoths are not explicitly a metaphor for the Haitians throwing off the yoke of slavery, or of any African-American rebellion. Slavery in the pulps was not uncommon when it came to both historical and fantasy subjects, and the treatment was seldom sympathetic unless person enslaved was white, as is the case in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard—and that involves a very different set of racial stereotypes, though white supremacy is still implicit.
It is notable that in At the Mountains of Madness, none of the characters are explicitly African-American. There is no one in that story who might sympathize with the shoggoths through the lens of their personal history. No one like Paul Harding, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom.”
Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union Army after.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150
It is interesting to compare and contrast Harding with Theotis Nedeau in “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders. Both characters are Lovecraftian protagonists as they might have been. College-educated African-American men, with deep roots in American history. However, both Bear and Saunders take their characters further, exploring the black experience in the United States at the time. Throughout the story we get more hints of Harding’s background, his mother in Harlem, his experience with segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and even fighting prejudices from nominally sympathetic white Yankees like Burt Clay in Maine.
His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W. E. B. Du Bois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 155-156
There is no doubt that the Cthulhu Mythos needs more characters like Paul Harding, and more stories like “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Not because fans of the Mythos need to be beaten over the head with the historical horrors of racial violence and discrimination in the United States or any principle of forced inclusion as a form of political correctness, but because Harding brings a new and important perspective to shoggoths, both as a natural scientist and an African-American who remembered the scars of shackles around his grandfather’s back, and the dark lines of scar tissue on his back.
That is the advantage of inclusiveness: bringing in new points of view.
Bear makes this especially topical in that the story is implicitly set during the opening days of World War II—before there is a war, before the United States is in it. The Holocaust has begun, though the world may not yet know it. What can one man do, when faced with such a threat? Especially when the people around him seem devoted to doing nothing. To standing by while Jews are legislated against, forced out of public life and into concentration camps. This is a different tact than undertaken by “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. In those stories, the comparison between the concentration camps at Innsmouth and the Nazi efforts fall apart a bit because the Innsmouth folk are confirmed as at least partially inhuman; but in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” it is their common humanity that makes Paul Harding sympathize with the Jewish people in Germany. A victim of racial violence and discrimination all his life, he feels for them as a fellow-sufferer.
In 2009, Elizabeth Bear wrote an article titled “Why We Still Write Lovecraftian Pastiche”, where she writes:
As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.
I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.
Lovecraft is dead, so such an argument might strike readers as one-sided—but it isn’t, not really. Because people are still writing Mythos fiction and pastiche, still elaborating, reinterpreting, re-engaging with Lovecraft’s world and concepts. The context and syntax of the conversation changes, but it hasn’t stopped. People still find new things they want to talk about, and new ways to talk about it. That is in large part what keeps the Mythos alive as a mode of weird fiction.
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear won the 2009 Hugo award for best novelette; it was also nominated for a Locus award the same year. It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar 2008), and has been reprinted many times, including in The Book of Cthulhu (2011) and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), and it lent its title to Bear’s collection Shoggoths in Bloom (2012). Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the story may be interested in “How to Hack Lovecraft, Make Friends with His Monsters, and Hijack His Mythos: Reading Biology and Racism in Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”” (2016) by Anthony Camara.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).