In H.P. Lovecraft’s beloved ghoul cycle tale, “The Lurking Fear” (1923), the inhabitants of Lefferts Corners are victimized by an agitation of “a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity.” Disturbed by thunder and a bolt of lightning that breaks open their underground lair, a horde of voracious ghouls descends on a community of squatters, leaving 75 of them gruesomely disassembled and incomplete.
But the narrator is not so disturbed by the awful carnage or subsequent attacks. These unfortunates were, after all “a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes.” Consistent with Lovecraft’s horror of miscegenation, the antiquarian narrator’s most shattering moment comes when he discovers that a once great family has genetically devolved over the centuries due to a history of intermingling with a subterranean race. The discovery suspiciously parallels events in the history of Lovecraft’s own family, which steadily declined in stature and financial security following the death of his father, who contracted syphilis in his travels, and his grandfather, who may have succumbed to the stress of a business failure.
Meanwhile, to the west of the Catskills Mountains, over in Pennsylvania, the citizens of Lownsberry Corners are menaced by “a she-devil from Hell” in David H. Keller’s “The Bridle” (1942). Though published nearly two decades later, the fictional settings of the two stories are nearly cotemporaneous. Lownsberryites are described by the narrator early on:
As I became better acquainted with my neighbors I found that only two families were comfortably situated. The others, including the parson, stayed because there was no way of getting out. They were cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and hungry all the time. The storekeeper was king of finance at the Corners. The pastor received four fifths of his meager stipend form the Home Missionary Society of his denomination. The rest of us seldom saw a dollar.
As in Lefferts Corners, the people of Lownsberry Corners are poor; they reside in an economically depressed region. Keller’s backstory about the founding of the community is a textbook description of the demise of small agricultural towns that spring up, exhaust their natural resources, and then fade, trapping their least fortunate citizens in perpetual poverty. In Lovecraft’s remote Catskills region, the impoverished residents “sometimes leave their valleys to trade handwoven baskets for such primitive necessities as they cannot shoot, raise or make.”
The two stories are different from each other in several ways, but share an assumption common to the horror fiction of the time: that the appearance of supernatural and primordial evil is often likely to occur among the poor and uneducated. Its detection and perhaps its vanquishing depends on an intervention from enlightened members of the upper classes. Only recently in horror entertainment—perhaps since the 1970s—have authors of speculative fiction acknowledged that monstrous evil can come from the aristocracy as well, from malevolent corporations or wealthy megalomaniacs. (As always, it is the middle-class that suffers.)
Though problematic when implemented as a political or economic system, Marxist theory has been a useful analytical framework to apply to the cultural products of a given society, especially one undergoing economic destabilization or oppression. In José B. Monleon’s 1990 essay, A Specter is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic, the point is made that bourgeois society’s opposition to the increasing political power of the poor and disenfranchised is often reflected in the content of fantasy and horror literature. Insofar as the economically marginalized are perceived as a source of crime, disease, ignorance and violence, they become a ready source of nightmarish inspiration. Their separation from polite society contributes to the poor being perceived as other, as an object of fear.
This seems to be what is going on some of Lovecraft’s more xenophobic and racist passages. Readers may have come across examples of this perspective in stories like “He” (1926), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), and “The Call of Cthulhu”—that the poor and ethnically or racially diverse are either the source of, or are complicit with an emerging horror. It is interesting to note that in Lovecraft’s ghoul cycle of stories, a monstrous underground race—which may symbolize Lovecraft’s fear of diversity, “mongrel hordes” and loss of social prestige—actually evolves across stories. In “The Lurking Fear”, the creatures are
Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…
Could Lovecraft be talking about the proletariat? Immigrants? And yet, a couple decades later, in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1943), one of these creatures, a ghoul convert named Richard Upton Pickman, becomes an important ally of Randolph Carter in his quest to find his “gold and marble city of wonder.” Part of this evolution involves a shift from the abstract and general—“God knows how many there were…there must have been thousands…”—to the individual and personal, to Pickman.
Is it too much of a stretch to think that Lovecraft’s fear of the other was eventually replaced with a willingness to embrace it? Doesn’t this show, on a personal level at least, the therapeutic benefits of horror literature, of horror treatment? Does horror offer hope for the world? (It has been suggested by some that Lovecraft modulated his extreme racist and xenophobic views later in life.)
Speaking of treatment, David H. Keller—a practicing psychiatrist until he turned to horror writing later in life—also addressed embracing the other, in this case the feminine other, in his disturbing “The Bridle”. But here the prognosis is not as good as was the case with his younger contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft. “The Bridle” was discussed briefly in the previous post. The short story is essentially a misogynistic metaphor in which the narrator, who is suspiciously a doctor like the author, presumes to control a powerful and willful sorceress, literally “breaking her in” like a new horse. Could this story be autobiographical in any way? Keller often visited rural communities in his practice.
The story is effective and horrifying, but probably not for the reasons intended by its author. Contemporary readers will find the narrator’s motivations and methods uncomfortably dark and violent, in spite of the author’s demonization of the sorceress and use of conventional religious trappings to restrain her. He succeeds, at least temporarily. In the context of the story “bridle” and “bridal” are synonymous. But Keller leaves the matter open-ended, the conflict unresolved:
But I’m determined to conquer her. When I do I’ll again remove the bridle; she will be willing to be baptized and marry me, becoming a gentle, loving wife, and faithful…Of course, I realize she may kill me first, in an unguarded moment, kissing my body to death with blows from her hardened hooves. But come what may, I must have her with me, woman or mare, because I love her.
‘Physician heal thyself’ one wants to say, but of course he cannot do so, and this is the crux of the horror. Neither will escape this arrangement without violence, an especially dark depiction of relationships between men and women. Keller was quite reactionary, even for his time, but the concept of “bridling” a wayward bride is still not unfamiliar in many areas of the world, including our own.
But don't these sorts of things—ghouls, shape-shifting witches, the oppression of the poor, violence toward women—only happen in out of the way places like Lefferts and Lownsberry Corners?