The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
The title is a provocation. “Negro” is still more tolerable in American society than the other N-word, but has largely passed out of polite usage, except in some noteworthy relicts like the United Negro College Fund. By selecting this title, the authors are deliberately invoking the specter of Lovecraft’s racism: the cult of Cthulhu in his most seminal story is deliberately multi-ethnic and multiracial, and this brief reference was meant by Lovecraft to imply to readers that a black seaman connected with the cult was responsible for the death of Prof. George Gammell Angell. As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, the title immediately invokes certain elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, prepping the reader for what they are about to read. That “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is going to be concerned strongly with race is reinforced by the opening quotation from Bierce’s sardonic The Devil’s Dictionary (1906):
Negro, n. The pièce de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: “Let n = the white man.” This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.
The authors know what they were doing. Both Peter Cannon and Robert M. Price were prominent in Lovecraft studies, having published many essays on Lovecraft, his fiction, and surrounding matters since the 1970s. “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is included among parodies and pastiches, it is probably closer to the mark to describe it as a lengthy literary in-joke, a variant account of the events of “The Call of Cthulhu” from the perspective of James F. Morton, a real-life friend of Lovecraft, and notable as an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and author of the tract The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906).
The blend of fact, fiction, and metafiction is probably lost on anyone that isn’t a terminal Lovecraft aficionado. In a strange turn of events, Inspector Legrasse and Morton end up looking for black sailors that might be connected to or know of the Cthulhu cult—and of course find them:
Legrasse was soon surrounded by a gang of blacks, who muttered menacingly in their dark language while keeping a respectful distance. When the detective asked if they had recently run into another white man who was wise in the ways of Cthulhu, or “Tulu,” eyes rolled. “That thing there’s bad magic, suh,” one of the Negroes said. “You best done throw it in deh harbor.”
—Cannon & Price, “Nautical-Looking Negroes” in Forever Azathoth (2011) 206
The prose of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is deliberately done as a pastiche, mimicking the form of Lovecraft’s style (without the amateur error of turning purple prose ultraviolet with an overabundance of adjectives); Price in particular has made something of a hobby of pulp pastiches, or original stories which read in the same vein as pulp fiction from the 1920s and 30s. While there is a commendable skill involved in capturing the correct tone, this approach has its drawbacks: notably, the stereotype-laden portrayals of non-white characters which were acceptable in original 1930s fiction are generally not acceptable today—nor should they be. Charles Saunders wrote of pulp authors like Lovecraft:
It is true that these men were products of their time, as we are products of ours. This argument can explain the racism of the Thirties. But it doesn’t justify it.
—Charles Saunders, Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature
Saunders was specifically taking aim at L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, two latter-day writers of pulp-ish fair, including Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and the Cthulhu Mythos, and decried their use of racist pulp stereotypes as throwbacks unconscionable in contemporary fiction.
The same argument applies to Cannon & Price. It is one thing to present the characters within a story as racist, especially when set in a historical period. George Macdonald Frasier’s Flashman is rather notorious for his authentic depiction of bigotry during the Victorian era, for example, but these are presented as the main character’s prejudices, not as unfiltered truth. There is some of that in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” when the character of Legrasse observes “fine-looking Nordic fellows, tall and fair,” or when Captain Baker dismisses a sect of the Cthulhu cult as “reserved for coloreds.”
The depiction of the actual black seamen is more problematic, at least on a surface level. The dialectic speech may be an example of staying authentic to Lovecraft: few of his black characters have speaking roles, but in “Medusa’s Coil” Sophonisba speaks in a very stereotypical Southern black dialect, and Lovecraft imitated such speech in some of his letters. Epithets like “dark language” and the general superstitious characterization of the black seamen are unnecessary, but deliberate echoes of Lovecraftian pulp. If there’s any faint praise to damn the authors with, it is that the black seamen do not appear to be part of the actual Cthulhu cult (though aware of it), nor are they in any way malicious.
A large chunk of the second part of the story is given over to a religious schism regarding points of doctrine within the cult—Price’s fingerprints, as a theologian and Doctor of Philosophy in theology and the New Testament, with a penchant for dragging (and dragging on) religion in his Mythos fiction—which is intimately bound up with an obscure piece of Mythos-lore, and serves as a tie between “The Call of Cthulhu” and an earlier Lovecraft tale, “Polaris”. This story contains elements of the Yellow Peril fiction prevalent around the turn of the century:
That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest.
Cannon & Price chose in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” to leave out the dog whistle and say the quiet part out loud: the “good-looking Nordics” (i.e. white people) explicitly are the Lomarians, out to defeat the Inutos (literally the Inuit in this case). The connection is helped by the fact that in “The Call of Cthulhu” the original Cthulhu idol is stolen from “a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux”; equating these with the Inutos has a sort of logic to it, from a Mythos scholar point of view, but the implications are rather ugly…the Lomarians commit genocide against the Inutos’ women and children…and the joke is only slightly turned on its head at the end of Legrasse’s statement, when the cartoon cannibal cooking pot comes out.
It is difficult to say how much of this race-baiting was deliberately intentional for the purpose of parody. Certainly, when the “Lomarians” opt to sacrifice Inspector Legrasse under the rationale that he “is of Mediterranean descent,” they are clearly following the lines of 1920s racialism rather than some obscure point of Mythos lore. The title and opening quotation are a knowing wink that says they are aware of what they are doing by directly incorporating and addressing some of the elements of racism in Lovecraft’s fiction into their parody. The issue is lampshaded with a return to Morton’s point of view at the end:
I have, for example, campaigned for Negro rights all my life. The treatment of these poor suffering people is a national disgrace, from the stereotypical darkies of pulp fiction to publicly sanctioned lynchings. They are human beings like the rest of us, and it is only through the sheerest ignorance and the blindest prejudice that so many otherwise intelligent and decent white folk view them as inferior—like my writer friend in Providence, with whom I’ve exchanged some heated words on the subject. If only they would get to know educated Negroes as I have, then they might regard the whole matter differently. But I’m afraid I’ll be long gone before there’s any real progress on this front, so ingrained is the antipathy to the black race in the American character.
—Cannon & Price, “Nautical-Looking Negroes” in Forever Azathoth (2011) 225-226
In the penultimate chapter, Cannon & Price decide to bring it yet one more thread from Lovecraft: Swami Chandraputra from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (a collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price). The appearance of the “Swami” is more in the way of a knowing wink than any comment on race; readers familiar with Lovecraft & Price’s tale might recall that it was one of the only Lovecraft stories where race prejudice was explicitly made an ugly, negative thing. Yet the encounter sets up the final and concluding pun, as a black merchant marine ends a story which an encounter with a black seaman began.
The nature of parody is exaggeration for comic effect; “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is firmly parody, although getting the layers of jokes requires a fair familiarity with Lovecraft’s life, fiction, and prejudices. For the jokes they hope to achieve, the authors tread a very fine line, seeking to exaggerate and emphasize the ridiculousness of racism both in Lovecraft’s fiction and in the real world. Yet to achieve the effect Cannon & Price play up to pulp stereotypes of race and racism. It is a tricky proposition: humor is an effective weapon to point out the illogical aspects of racism, but the danger is always that someone won’t get the joke, and a straight reading of the text up to Morton’s final statement can be pretty ugly, including as it does fantasy Aryanism, stereotypical racist depictions of black people, the genocide of a village of indigenous Greenlanders by blond conquerors with superior weaponry, and two white men being cannibalized by an indigenous tribe.
This is probably why in the final chapter James F. Morton is brought in to lampshade that the preceding stereotypes were stereotypes, to clue readers in that this is a joke rather than the throwback literature Charles Saunder decried. Morton the character is, as he was in real life, one of those individuals that turned out to be on the right side of history. His lack of prejudice saves him from the same fate as Legrasse and the self-declared Men of Lomar. It is through the character of Morton that Lovecraft’s original insinuation about a “nautical-looking Negro” is transformed into the “Nautical-Looking Negroes” of the title: what began as a discriminatory remark in “The Call of Cthulhu” ultimately inspires a white man and a black man treating each other as equals.
As a comment on racism and pulp fiction, Cannon & Price’s “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is an effort through fiction to address the issue of Lovecraft’s racism, and especially how that racism is expressed in his Mythos fiction. The story is notably a refutation, rather than a defense, of Lovecraft’s prejudices, both explicitly through Morton’s statement in the final chapter and through the exaggerated racism intended to highly the silliness of the beliefs. How effective this is arguable: anyone deep enough into reading the Cthulhu Mythos to get most of the jokes has already been faced with Lovecraft’s prejudices repeatedly.
It is worth asking the question whether half of the writing team, Dr. Robert M. Price, would have collaborated on the same story today. In recent years, Price has been more vocal regarding his conservative political views, which have shifted farther to the right and included opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, controversial views on Islam (which features in one or two of his Mythos stories), and the keynote speech that Price gave at NecronomiCon 2015, which included the comments:
Lovecraft envisioned not only the threat that science posed to our anthropomorphic smugness, but also the ineluctable advance of the hordes on non-western anti-rationalism to consume a decadent, Euro-centric West.
Superstition, barbarism and fanaticism would sooner or later devour us. It appears now that we’re in the midst of this very assault. The blood lust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization and the effete senescent West seems all too eager to go gently into that endless night. Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology cynically redefining truth as ideology. Logic is undermined by the new axiom of the ad hominem. If white males formulated logic, then logic must be regarded as an instrument of oppression.
Lovecraft was wrong about many things, but not, I think, this one. It’s the real life horror of Red Hook.
Price’s conservative turn is compounded by the partisan politics of the United States of America in recent years, where conservative politics especially have become a haven for white supremacists, dog-whistle racism, and the politics of hatred and fear. Even if his intellectual position were unassailable, equating his position with one of Lovecraft’s most xenophobic, anti-immigrant stories, with its shades of Yellow Peril, should have given Price pause. The prejudices of the 1920s led to outright discrimination, including the Immigration Act of 1924 (the “Asian Exclusion Act”), and contributed to the Japanese Interment Camps during World War II.
It is not to lambaste Robert M. Price or to attempt to offer a full rebuttal of his views that I bring this matter up: the point is that the views of the author can influence and find expression through their fiction, and that knowledge of the author and their views can in turn influence how readers interpret and appreciate their fiction. This is as true with Lovecraft and his views on race in “The Call of Cthulhu” as it is for Price’s views in “Nautical-Looking Negroes.” Price’s more vocal political opinions force a re-evaluation of his Mythos fiction.
In this specific case of collaboration, it is helpful to look at each writer’s contribution to the final piece. Peter Cannon writes in his introduction to Forever Azathoth:
A two-page outline by Robert M. Price helped inspire “Nautical-Looking Negroes,” a sequel to “The Call of Cthulhu.” Bob’s theological musings, in particular his book Beyond Born Again: Toward Evangelical Maturity, were also an influence. In addition, I owe Bob thanks for suggesting Captain Baker’s exhortation to the crew of The Polestar before their attack on the fiendish Inutos. This novelette is my attempt at an old-fashioned pulp adventure tale, complete with racist white males […]
“Nautical-Looking Negroes” was first published in Lore #5 (1996) under the byline of Peter Cannon and Robert M. Price. It was collected in Cannon’s Forever Azathoth (Tartarus Press, 2005), which collection was reprinted by Subterranean Press (2011) and Hippocampus Press (2012). Cannon and Price have written dozens of Mythos stories between them, and previously collaborated on “The Curate of Temphill” (1993).
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)