I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to now it. (5)
So writes James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. The suffering of such pain in these words, pain caused by such hate. And this reads as horror, an unnatural malignancy. Terror as old as the hills. Hate and pain etched forever in Will Counts’ photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, pursued by white hate. Hate and pain intermingle throughout The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country. Cosmic horror and Jim Crow mix and stew together hate and pain. This is what makes the merging of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and racism in America a stunning and revealing recipe. One still playing out today with “The Thing in The White House.” But first, a pause.
Almost three months ago, I posted thoughts on Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom as the HBO series Lovecraft Country based on the novel by Matt Ruff began its run. Now the show has completed its first season, and I’m only getting to my second post. Well, my novel of sitting down to dinner with the dead took precedence and, of course, there’s still that funny little thing called Covid, and finally I started to see clients again in Stockholm. I like the sound of that . . . “clients.” Which for some reason, has me humming the Tom Waits tune What’s He Building In There?
So let’s begin this post with who is this Lovecraft fellow? And to do that let’s just dive into The Horror At Red Hook which is the basis for LaValle’s novel and offers the type of shuddering horror of the “masses” right at home with the “The Thing in The White House.” I have embedded a reading below and you can also peruse on your own at The Horror At Red Hook. And then, we’ll take a look at racial segregation since the late 19th century. A true horror series, by any definition.
Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.
Here is clear repulsion at a mix of ethnicities and races arriving in America–via slavery, human trafficking in its many guises and migrants fleeing economic disasters in home countries such as the million plus Swedes who left for Canada the States between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Note the horror at the mixing of these peoples. Other stories in Lovecraft’s oeuvre also contain this revulsion of miscegenation, such as The Shadow Over Innsmouth. We’re told of “clear-eyed mariners” who lived in Red Hook before, denizens who have “taste and substance” and “happiness.” We’ll consider that in a moment, but to return to the “masses,” the featured detective in the story, Thomas F. Malone, finds an even more disturbing reality in this New York neighborhood.
Malone found in this state of things a faint stench of secrets more terrible than any of the sins denounced by citizens and bemoaned by priests and philanthropists. He was conscious, as one who united imagination with scientific knowledge, that modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances; and he had often viewed with an anthropologist’s shudder the chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men which wound their way along in the dark small hours of morning.
Traces of eugenics certainly make their appearance, and the conclusions to The Horror At Red Hook and The Shadow Over Innsmouth directly state how this matter may be handled–imprisonment in camps and annihilation. Let’s take another look at words from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity. (8)
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. (101-102)
Now, let’s take a look at what crawled and creeped and tentacled its way through America and still tries to resurrect its slithering head . . . Jim Crow.
So, what novels like Lovecraft Country and The Ballad of Black Tom pose as question of survival is who and what do you fear more–the alien entity wanting to shatter your world and transform you or the white sheriff in a sundown county who wants to hang you from a tree? And then, what if it’s not a choice, it’s both?