Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Horror At Red Hook

"The Horror At Red Hook",  first published in Weird Tales, April 1926.

This is the the fifteenth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

This is the first story so far that has what we might consider all the “Lovecraftian” elements in place: an investigative outline, references to ancient tomes and forbidden knowledge and febrile hysterical racism. It's this last quality that attracts the most comment, as this is probably the clearest expression of his dodgy views on race that HPL makes in his fiction.

Here's China Miélville with the case for the prosecution:

He's dead on with the phrase “fever dream of prejudice”, and in A Life, Joshi calls it “a shriek of rage and loathing at the 'foreigners' who have taken New York away from the white people to whom it presumably belongs”.

I think it's playing on a familiar note of discomfort for many of us, groups of “chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed, pock-marked young men. … One saw groups of these youths incessantly; sometimes in leering vigils on street corners, sometimes in doorways, playing eerily on cheap instruments of music, sometimes in stupefied dozes or indecent dialogues around cafeteria tables.” They're the same groups of youths, of whatever race, that inspire such fear and loathing among the Daily Mail set, and can cause a thrill of alarm in even the most liberal breast when one is travelling home alone by night.

The inhabitants of Red Hook have descended to a state of animalism. Malone ponders how “...modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery” It has something in common with The Lurking Fear, showing humanity at its most debased and corrupt. In that story it's a kind of natural force that has to be actively resisted, a devolution that takes control when we stop acting according to rules of decent society; in The Horror at Red Hook, it is an ancient pervasive agency that grows malignantly in places of racial miscegenation and deracination.

It's also unstoppable. You can feel it in the landscape of Red Hook, in the teeming sordid tenements, in Robert Suydam's dilapidated mansion, and most of all in the tunnels and underground rooms that lie beneath. At the end of the story, after the bust is made and the cult broken up, there's a sense that the evil can never be stilled: “As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are certain rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things.”

Joshi doesn't think much of this one: “What strikes about this tale, aside from the hackneyed supernatural manifestations, is the sheer poorness of its writing.” I think I'm with China, though. For all its faults. it has real power as the purest expression of HPL's transcendent xenphobia. 

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