Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Horror and Hope of Miscegenation

In stories like “The Lurking Fear” (1923), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921), and late in his career, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), H.P. Lovecraft used the concept of miscegenation—the marriage and cohabitation of Caucasians with members of other races, and more broadly, the intermingling of different races, social classes and cultures—as an engine of horror.  He may have done so intentionally or perhaps unintentionally, channeling his unconscious fear of being overwhelmed by “the other” into his moody, dark fiction.  Here is a passage near the end of “Arthur Jermyn”:

The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so…but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess…the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shriveled face applied with vivid, ghastly and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife.   

Similar content can be found in the climactic scene of Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”, when the narrator observes “the horror in the eyes”, a genetic link between a species of ghoul—which also happens to be “a filthy whitish gorilla thing”—and generations of the Martense family:

They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family:  the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.

Lovecraft’s racism has been well documented by numerous reviewers, the virulence of which cannot be entirely explained away by the prevailing attitudes of his time.  (L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1975 biography of the author, suggests that Lovecraft’s extreme views about race and ethnicity were connected to fluctuating mental health, at least at certain points in his life.)

In a similar vein—this one open and bleeding—Robert E. Howard uses a kind of miscegenation as a precursor to the unfolding terrors in “Pigeons From Hell” (1938).  This is a powerful and grotesque tale of revenge in which the cruel matron of a well-to-do southern family is turned into a zuvembie by an aggrieved mulatto woman.  This is a classic horror story about racial disharmony and well worth studying.  (See Justice via Zuvembie.) 

Lovecraft’s anxieties about race and ethnicity pertain to his personal fear of being supplanted by people who aren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  However, with Howard, in stories like “Pigeons From Hell”, “Black Canaan” (1936), and “The Dead Remember” (1936) the emphasis is on the possibilities of racial vengeance—also known as justice, depending on which side of the racial divide one is on—given the weight of an ugly history of oppression and exploitation.

Somewhat more nuanced are the West Indian stories of Henry S. Whitehead, for example “The Passing of a God” (1931) and especially “Sweet Grass” (1929).  In Whitehead’s stories the supernatural complications of applied voodoo are a metaphor for the chaos that ensues when Caucasians intermingle with people of African descent.  Though conventionally racist in tone, Whitehead is interesting because of his ambivalence about the superiority of white colonial power and his affection for and interest in the transplanted cultures of western Africa.

Around the time that H.P. Lovecraft published “The Lurking Fear” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921), an author in New York City wrote a short story with a completely different perspective on the possibilities of literal and figurative intercourse between whites and African-Americans.  W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” (1920) is a remarkable work, easily four or five decades ahead of its time.  It originally appeared in a collection of essays, poetry, autobiographical material and speculative fiction called Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil.  Du Bois hoped to “venture to write again on themes on which great souls have already said greater words, in the hope that I may strike here and there a half-tone, newer if slighter, up from the heart of my problem and the problems of my people.”  

It is difficult to imagine a story like “The Comet” being published anywhere during the heyday of Lovecraft and Howard, at least not in a popular fiction magazine.  Du Bois, a founding member of the N.A.A.C.P., wrote fiction that was often informed by his concerns with race relations, spirituality, and religion.  It is a shame that his work is only now becoming better known, given the important perspectives on American society that he offers.

In “The Comet”, the population of New York City has been almost completely annihilated by the toxic plume of a passing comet.  It seems for a moment that only two have survived: Jim an African-American man identified initially as “the messenger”, who works in the nether regions of a corporate office building, and a wealthy young white socialite named Julia.  All around them is the nightmarish imagery of a silent metropolis, strewn with dead citizens. 

Significantly, the two have no names until the very end of the story, when they become ordinary New Yorkers again, returning to what is left of normality.  But until then, as they travel in her car between Harlem and the “Metropolitan Tower” on Fifth Avenue, Julia and Jim experience each other’s worlds and become symbols of an expanded humanity.  Julia is the “primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life”; Jim is her “Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.”  The proximity and hope of a spiritually consummated relationship is rendered in these lyrical lines:

It was not lust; it was not love—it was some vaster mightier thing that needed neither touch of body nor thrill of soul.  It was a thought divine, splendid.  

Both Julia and Jim experience this momentary change in perspective, a kind of cosmic social consciousness, in the midst of a catastrophe. But it is only fleeting.  Du Bois never descends to the triteness of simply making his two characters avatars of Adam and Eve, bent on repopulating a destroyed world.  Something more mythological or archetypal is intended.  Nor is race the only boundary that separates Julia and Jim; Du Bois is also commenting on walls built by social class.  And he is not sentimental or overly idealistic.  In the end, the grim reality of American race and class relations noisily returns when Julia and then Jim are reunited with their families.

Until the last paragraphs of “The Comet”, Du Bois’ depiction of racial prejudice is subtle.  His suggestion, never overt, that a form of miscegenation might be a hope for a more egalitarian and just future, was much more prescient than the conventional bigotry of many other speculative fiction writers of his time.  On a technical level, his use of realistic dialogue and ellipsis to suggest what does not need to be said—allowing readers an opportunity to fill in the blanks—makes him a much more sophisticated writer in some respects than Lovecraft or Howard.  If there is anything still shocking about “The Comet”, it is that the questions it poses about human identity and justice are still incompletely answered today.


W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” can be found in the wonderful and aptly named anthology, The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

Race relations as depicted in early twentieth century pulp fiction has been a topic of numerous earlier posts.  See also:

A Racist Nightmare (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow of the Beast”)
Justice via Zuvembie (Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons From Hell”)
Lovecraftian Family Secrets (H.P. Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”)
4. Case Study: Homunculi Redux (Henry S. Whitehead’s “The Passing of a God”)
Stand By Your Man (Henry S. Whitehead’s “Sweet Grass”) 

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