Another look at a story I’ve already covered once, but it was this Deep Ones reading over at LibraryThing, so I thought I’d say a few more things about it and defend Lovecraft on some points.
Review: “He”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1925.
I was faint, even fainter than the hateful modernity of that accursed city had made me.
“He” is the second of what I call Lovecraft’s “I hate New York” stories.
It is also, after his “The Silver Key”, written in 1926, the most autobiographical of his stories, a hate letter to New York City and modernity.
The story opens with that cry from the heart of the narrator and continues:
I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.
The hero goes on long nocturnal jaunts to find the hidden historical curiosities of Old New York:
tottering Ionic columns and fluted pilasters and urn-headed iron fence-posts and flaring-lintelled windows and decorative fanlights.
S. T. Joshi, in H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, says Lovecraft sat down on a park bench in Scott Park in Elizabeth, New Jersey at 7 AM on August 11, 1925 and started to write this story.
Like his narrator, Lovecraft liked long nocturnal jaunts through the city. His hero encounters a man in Greenwich Village one night. Lovecraft, in fact, had traveled through that very area a few hours before.
The man, who turns out to be a sorcerer, takes the hero to his strangely antique home and reveals his long life and horrifying visions of the past and, famously, the future in this passage:
For full three seconds I could glimpse that pandaemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams. I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.
Lovecraft never used the Yellow Peril in other stories and doesn’t seem to have borne Chinese or Japanese any great antagonism.
But Lovecraft didn’t like the mixing of “culture-streams”. Joshi, in H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, has this Lovecraft quote from 1926:
Biologically, the Nordic is probably not superior to the best Mediterranean stock, or the unbroken and now almost extinct Semitic whjte stock; but just as the Chinese culture ought to be preserved where it is once entrenched, where the Nordic culture is once entrenched, it must be preserved.
Pretty abhorrent to most modern ears. Diversity is our strength we’re told. Except sociologist Robert Putnam showed it isn’t. Newspapers of most Western countries reluctantly hint in their stories of corruption, fraud, and violence it isn’t. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew noted the fault lines it produces in democracy.
After that vision of the future, the past, in the form of a black, ameboid blob comes crashing through the door of the old man’s house – complete with rather unnecessary tomahawk because the sorcerer got his powers from the study of ancient Indian rites performed in the past in the countryside now part of New York City. You could, if you squint your eyes, sort of see it as a proto-shoggoth, but it is more just a menace more generic to the pulp era.
Lovecraft has been criticized as a man for another line from the story:
So instead of the poems I had hoped for, there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness; and I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before— the unwhisperable secret of secrets— the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.
The foreign-born population of New York City in 1920 was 36.09%. As of 2011, 36.7% of London’s population was foreign born. Am I to believe that few native Londoners now stride its streets without similar thoughts? Why do we insist that only picturesque rural areas and exotic third-world countries are ruined by an influx of foreigners?
Joshi notes an interesting detail in that passage about future New York City, a foreshadowing of what would grow into the “machine civilization” theme of 1929’s “The Mound”.
That future city is, according to Joshi,
a reversion to the primitivism: a recrudescence of the ancient architectural form of the pyramid, a return to the elemental building substance of stone instead of metal or glass.
But the Greenwich of the past the narrator sees out the sorcerer’s window is described not as exclusively rural but urban, urbanity of a set time:
It was Greenwich, the Greenwich that used to be, with here and there a roof or row of houses as we see it now, yet with lovely green lanes and fields and bits of grassy common.
More reviews of Lovecraft related material are indexed on the Lovecraft page.