His unhappiness about living in New York City is reflected in some of the stories that he wrote in these years. That he did not like the city is very evident in two of his stories which take place there: The Horror at Red Hook (1927), and He (1926). The Horror at Red Hook is essentially a long, elaborate metaphor about urban corruption and decay—brought about by recent immigrants to the city—and was discussed in a previous post. The story called He is altogether different. It is much more personal, with strong biographical elements.
He is unusual among Lovecraft’s fiction in that it is primarily a ghost story. It also contains time travel and just a slight touch of vampirism. These otherwise disparate elements hold together well, and the author shows off his mastery of setting to create a mood of uneasiness and dread. The story includes uniquely Lovecraftian themes: an older man serves as a guide who initiates the narrator into unknown mysteries, history and the past are worshipped, and the unfamiliar and the new are to be feared.
As the story begins, the narrator introduces himself as an unsuccessful and frustrated poet in New York City. Although he is initially excited and hopeful, he soon comes to see the city as “dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested…” He takes to wandering at night, avoiding the crowds and noise, to explore the more historic sections of the city. He is noticed—there is some creepiness here—by an otherworldly old man who offers to give him a tour of some really old districts. In fact, he leads the narrator by a circuitous route back in time, to his ancestral mansion in Greenwich Village. Lovecraft skillfully uses architectural details to seamlessly shift from the present to the past. The ancient house is at the top of a hill, and involves an ascent.
In the library of the mansion, the old man reveals the history of his family, who built the house on this place because of the supernatural influences present there. The Native Americans who lived in the area knew how to manipulate these strange forces, and in exchange for rum—which eventually led to their deaths—revealed the secret to the ancestor. The old man also goes on to expound a metaphysical belief that has been key to his family’s long survival: that the human will has a capacity to dominate not only the self and others, but can even have an effect over matter and natural forces. This idea also underpins Lovecraft’s story Cool Air, which appeared several years later. Cool Air and He have similar endings in some respects, because of this notion of the power of the will.
The old man draws the narrator to the window where he is able to produce visions of the city at various times in history. First, the primordial wilderness is shown. Then there is a bucolic view of Greenwich Village before it was overtaken by New York City. The narrator, a version of Lovecraft himself, clearly finds these two scenes agreeable. The narrator then asks if the old man can also see into the future. And then, horror of horrors, the city of the future is conjured. It is a pandemonium, overrun by “yellow squint eyed people” who are banging on drums and blowing on horns. He screams and even the ghoul-vampire is overwhelmed by the sight. (Diversity training is still 40 or more years in the future).
The narrator’s screams and the old man’s agitation summon from below the vengeful spirits of the Native Americans who had been poisoned so long ago. As in The Alchemist, one of the author’s earlier stories, the strange old man actually is the ancestor who is the origin of the horror. The angry spirits are amalgamated into a very Lovecraftian ghost—amorphous, dark and fluid, with multiple eyes. As the old man decays and blackens before the narrator’s eyes, the ghost falls upon what is left of him—flows over him would be more accurate—and carries his remains back down the stairs. The narrator narrowly escapes the rapidly deteriorating building, which crumbles as the powerful will that sustained it declines along with its mortal remains. There is equivalence between the old man and the house. They are in a sense the same entity. A very similar dissolution is found at the end of Cool Air.
The narrator finds himself in another part of the city, dazed, bloodied and with broken bones. He is soon on his way back to “the pure New England lanes up which fragrant sea-winds sweep at evening.” The sadness is palpable, as it is in The Silver Key, which he published several years later. Whereas a return to the past is successful in the latter tale, so full of wistfulness, nostalgia, and hope, in He the return is injurious and almost fatal. New York City, and the demands of adulthood, have literally broken him.
Though not as famous as stories in his ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, He is interesting because of its biographical comment on a difficult time in Lovecraft’s life, and as a snapshot of one man’s view of city life in the early twentieth century. This story has been given interesting graphic treatment in volume II of The Lovecraft Anthology (SelfMadeHero).