Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Horrors of Immigration

Despite its racist overtones, one of Lovecraft’s more important stories is The Horror at Red Hook.  For once, the hero of the story is a cop and not a bookish scholar or a member of the idle rich.  It contains the beginnings, in undifferentiated form, of what would later become Lovecraft’s own unique pantheon of malign deities.  It provides a snapshot of how some people felt about the effects of immigration on urban environments circa 1927, and also contains an early depiction of urban decay and the problems of urban youth.  It is relatively free of Lovecraft’s bad habits:  archaic language, overuse of italics, and ponderous historical back story.  It reads more like modern literature and less like Poe.

And, unique among much of Lovecraft’s fiction, this story contains women, two of them.  One is a lady of exemplary conduct and high social position, while the other is a rapacious; blood sucking she-demon.  Guess which one prevails.

In The News
The gist of the story concerns the investigations of New York City police detective Thomas F. Malone.  Malone suspects an ominous cultic conspiracy surrounding a rash of disappearances in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn.  The increasingly alarming reports appear to center around one Robert Suydam, who seems to be the leader of the cult.  Suydam, originally a reclusive scholar of “medieval superstition” goes abroad for eight years.  Not long after he returns he begins to deteriorate behaviorally, and relatives seek to have him committed to an institution.

But then his demeanor appears to improve; he loses weight and appears more youthful.  He spends more time in the Red Hook district, and engages in what he tells people are studies of European songs and folk dances.  In fact he is fraternizing with Kurdish members of a secretive cult, ("the Yezidi clan of devil-worshippers"), who appear to practice human sacrifice, among other nondenominational activities.  These illegal immigrants are busy conjuring up a veritable who’s who among evil Greek, Roman and Semitic deities. 

The cult members often meet in a debased old Catholic church that had at one time been a center of Nestorian Christianity, (an early heresy that had once been active in what is now present day Iran). In a Lovecraft story, horror and contagion often come from the sea or from underground.  In The Horror at Red Hook they come from the sea and by way of underground canals linked to the ocean.  The cult is not only engaging in the smuggling of immigrants and other organized crime; they are importing a vile heathen religion that is spreading in the economically depressed Red Hook district.

Suydam’s improved health and vigor coincide with increased kidnappings of children in Red Hook and neighboring areas.  His increasing attractiveness and celebrity allow him to marry Miss Cornelia Gerritsen—“a young woman of excellent position”.  He is moving up in the world.  The couple is featured in the society pages. She is one of the few women to appear in Lovecraft’s fiction, but regrettably not for long. On their subsequent luxury wedding cruise, she is clawed, strangled and drained of all her blood.  With the exception of screaming, she is offered few lines of dialogue.  (No one else has any dialogue either.)  Suydam is also attacked and perhaps killed.

While Malone spearheads a police raid on the apartments and old church that were haunts of the evil cult, the cruise ship is commandeered by a “horde of swart, insolent ruffians” from a tramp ship.  They demand Suydam’s body, and the authorities acquiesce.  (For another example of a similar kind of attack at sea, compare this episode to the one in The Call of Cthulhu involving the Norwegian sailor, Gustof Johansen.)

Meanwhile, Malone is at Suydam’s house in Flatbush, trying to break into the basement as part of his investigation.  He is literally sucked down into a subterranean maze of canals heading off in all directions.  He observes a host of evil entities and then sees Suydam’s remains arrive by rowboat.  A demonic resuscitation occurs as a result of a gruesome ritual, and it becomes clear that Suydam’s second marriage is about to commence.  The vision in the basement will shatter Malone’s sanity and forever change the way he views any urban architecture.

The Year 1927 “B.C.”—Before Cthulhu
The Horror at Red Hook is almost, yet not quite a Cthulhu Mythos story.  There is no Cthulhu, Yog Sothoth or Nyarlathotep making an appearance.  There is reference to Moloch, Lilith, and Satan, among other demons and deities.  Moloch was an ancient Canaanite god whose worship involved child sacrifice.  There is mention of him in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  His worship in Judah probably figured in the eventual downfall and exile of Jerusalem to Babylon.  Judah’s evil king Manasseh may have been a fan:

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.  For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them…And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers.  (2 Kings 21: 2-6)

In ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, possibly of Babylonian origin, who also consumed children.  One legend has it that she was the original, rebellious wife of Adam.  There are many ancient stories about her, often involving copious amounts of blood.

Satan is generally well known. 

Secure the Borders!

Many will be offended by the unfiltered bigotry in this story.  Lovecraft’s racism and social class prejudices are in full view here, along with his support for theories about Aryan racial superiority.  Some have attempted to explain the author’s animosity toward other ethnic groups by relating it to the American public’s concerns with immigration in the late 1920s.  Others claim that he moderated or disavowed these views later in life, though it is difficult to see how this would have come about.

For Lovecraft, fearful things often came from the sea, or across the sea, either emerging from the water directly or ferried across it in boats.  Almost a century later, America still struggles with racism, immigration and urban decay.  Illegal immigrants are now more likely to arrive by land than by boat, but the unreasonable and uninformed fear of the stranger that Lovecraft felt is still quite prevalent.

One could dismiss The Horror at Red Hook as hopelessly marred by racist drivel and cultural chauvinism.  But the story is an important demonstration of how one author struggled—not well, it seems—with rapid changes in a society to which he had otherwise grown accustomed.  Lovecraft’s tale contains a powerful metaphor for the effects of organized crime and corruption on a large city.  And his character of Robert Suydam can be seen as a case study and cautionary tale of what happens when races and classes—especially criminal classes—mix with the rest of us.  An individual may gain celebrity, appear more youthful and vigorous, and get to wear more stylish clothes, but he or she will still wind up “a horrible jumble of decay and bone” in the end.

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