Sunday, August 7, 2016

Economic Horrors

Well known authors of pulp fiction like Lovecraft, Howard, Smith and others almost never referenced in their work one of the most salient disasters of their lives, at least not directly.  This would be the Great Depression, which began in the fall of 1929 with the collapse of the stock market in the USA.

By 1933—the worst year of the downturn—the unemployment rate reached 25% of the labor force, and over 5000 banks failed.  Personal income decreased markedly, along with tax revenue, profits, and prices.  Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods.  The disaster left an indelible impression on the nation’s psyche—it is why the comparatively mild downtown in 2008-2009 was given the emotionally resonant label the “Great Recession.”

The anxiety and uncertainty the Great Depression are reflected in its cultural products—music, literature, visual arts—but scarcely at all in its speculative or weird fiction. This seems an interesting omission, given the prevalence of financial hardship that was a part of the daily lives of those writers, especially that of Lovecraft.  
The first few years of the catastrophe saw the publication of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), “From Beyond” (1934), “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936), “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936)—several of the author’s most accomplished stories.   

His younger colleague Howard published “The Children of the Night” (1931), “The People of the Dark” (1932) and “The Haunter of the Ring” (1934), and Smith produced notable works like “The Hunters from Beyond” (1932), “The Devotee of Evil” (1933), and the two-part series featuring “the Singing Flame” (1931).  Admittedly this is not an exhaustive sampling.  But the absence in this fiction of any direct reference to hard times is suggestive of some pattern of denial or avoidance or disconnection with contemporary concerns.  

The protagonists in several of these horror stories—Randolph Carter, Professor Kirowan and John Hastane, among others—are nearly always well-to-do, with plenty of time to devote to their supernatural investigations.  They do not have to work, much less struggle as the rest of us do, or as their creators did, in order to get by.  These characters lack for nothing, and seem oddly distant from the economic turmoil of the late 1920s and 1930s.  In some respects, a Carter or a Hastane is a stereotype of the scholarly heir and dilettante, famous among their wealthy peers for arcane investigations—the model may be William Hope Hodgson’s famous psychic detective Carnacki.  (See also Carnacki, Kolchak, Mulder, Scully)  Is this the fantasy lifestyle to which Lovecraft, Howard and Smith aspired?  

Admittedly, Robert E. Howard, the most prolific of the three, developed a much more diverse set of characters in his stories.  Conan is an outlaw who might have made it into the working class were it not for his attitude—hostile to institutional authority—and his excessive violence.  Some critics have suggested that Conan is in fact a representation of Howard's attitude toward the monied interests and politics of his time.  Howard’s scrappy fighter Steve Costigan, hero of his cycle of “fight stories”, seems a more contemporary descendant of the famed Cimmerian.    

On the other hand, Howard’s Solomon Cane, one of the author’s more literate creations, may have risen to the ranks of the middle-class but for his religious extremism and his peripatetic calling as an instrument of Divine justice.  So these characters are perhaps exceptions.

The wealthy, sheltered lives of gentlemen scholars is very much in contrast to the fiction of David H. Keller.  His stories, often published in Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, are frequently infused with anxiety about earning a living, adapting to social and economic changes, and trying to attain the good life with limited resources.  The influence of the Great Depression is conspicuous in several of his stories.    

Keller was a psychiatrist who in later life turned to fiction writing.  It may be that his occupational history brought him into closer contact with the financial and emotional challenges faced by everyday people during the early 1930s.  This experience is reflected in his work, particularly in his cycle of “science-fictioneer” stories.

An example is his “Free as the Air” (1931), which combines social satire and parody into a cautionary tale about America’s vulnerability to oligarchy.  It was original published in Amazing Stories.  The story is interesting as a period piece and a thought experiment.  What would happen if a handful captains of industry and finance conspired to replace the national currency with corporate scrips, redeemable only at company owned establishments?  The ensuing evil and enslavement of this practice is highlighted in the famous Merle Travis song, “Sixteen Tons” (1946), (“I owe my soul to the company store”).  But the conspiring capitalists in Keller’s story want to apply this nationally to virtually all citizens, and seize control of the nation.   
For Keller, this was not strictly speaking science fiction, as the practice of debt bondage via scrip systems had already been implemented in a number of industries, among them trucking and mining.  Debt slavery has been outlawed—at least theoretically—since the early 20th Century, but forms of it continue to exist in the USA among immigrant populations and in the developing world.  In Keller’s story, the evil trio—which includes a banker, a manufacturer, and a gentleman “who controlled the food stuff of the nation”—succeed for a time at reducing most of the citizenry to peonage. 

A spurious lawsuit allows the nefarious trio to set a precedent that later gives them a monopoly over the air ways—much in demand now that there are no more pedestrians and air travel is the principle form of transportation.  As in Keller’s “The Flying Fool” (1929), flight serves as a metaphor for escape from harsh economic conditions.  The preoccupation with legislation and court decisions that lead to political oppression and cultural decline—from a reactionary point of view—is often a feature of Keller’s work.  A parallel series of ominous legislative efforts creates the dystopia in his 1928 story “A Biological Experiment.”

A criticism some readers may have of Keller is that it is never clear whether he intends his fantasy as serious social criticism, as advocacy for reform, or is merely playing his exaggerations for laughs.  Certainly there were other writers of his time who were more uncomfortable with the desperation of ordinary Americans, more likely to argue for change than to find humor in the wake of an economic collapse.  

There is a happy ending of sorts:  a lowly office clerk overhears the plotting of the big three and later conspires to have them kidnapped and taken to what amounts to a re-education camp in the Adirondacks.  They are then threatened with starvation and suffocation—they have to pay for the air they breathe—after which they capitulate and dissolve their massive economic holdings.  Keller has an odd streak of cruelty that shows up in some of his work, for example, his 1934 story “The Doorbell”, (see also Industrial Strength Conte Cruel).

“Free as the Air” ends amiably enough at a Christmas celebration, with the three treacherous capitalists now repentant and redeemed, their greed well under control.  It seems they got off easy—isn’t this often the case with white collar criminals?  Meanwhile, back on the earth that we know, the redistribution of economic and political power has often been considerably more violent and uncertain, and remains so.


David H. Keller’s work has been discussed in several earlier posts.  See also the following:

Vermiphobia (The Worm)
Look Both Ways! (The Revolt of the Pedestrians)
Nonlethal Biological Warfare? (The Yeast Men)
Invasive Species (The Ivy War)
Industrial Strength Conte Cruel (The Doorbell)
1. Various Cellar Dwellers (The Thing in the Cellar)
The Effects of Gravity (The Flying Fool)
A Place for Everyone; Everyone in Their Place (The Psychophonic Nurse)
Eugenics in Early Science Fiction (A Biological Experiment)


  1. Interesting post.

    Lovecraft: I suspect he was always so poor that the Depression didn't make things much worse for him -- though there's the story about him working as an usher in a Providence movie theater.

    CAS: He was slaving away as a fiction writer to support his parents and living poorly in a cabin in the mountains. (Brian Stableford has argued that fiction served as an escape for CAS during that time as well as an income source.)

    RAH: Don't know that much about his life and not very well read in his works. But wasn't he the richest guy in Cross Plains due to his pulp work?

    The more I read about Keller the more interested I am in getting to him. I've only read his "The Revolt of the Pedestrians".

    This anomalous dearth of Depression references in weird fiction seems a bit like what seems to be not many references to WWI. Perhaps a general retreat and escape from mundane horror and struggle to the cosmic sort and interesting exoticism explains both.

    As to company stores, I just read an account of the Homestake Mine which had a company store for employees -- with goods so low other merchants in town couldn't compete. But I think that was an anomaly.

  2. "The Revolt of the Pedestrians", "The Psychophonic Nurse", "A Biological Experiment", and this story take place at different times in an imagined future, but are linked thematically and express Keller's somewhat reactionary view to changes in his society--especially in the relationships between men and women--circa the late 1920s and early 1930s. Thanks for your comments.


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