Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 22: As For Red Hook -- It is Always the Same

by Glenn Kenny

The complaint of H.P. Lovecraft, Michel Houllebecq implicitly argues in his exceptional critical study H.P Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life (published in English translation by, some will be amused to note, Believer Books), is essentially a social one. While the Rhode-Island born Lovecraft was the son of a man who made a living as a traveling salesman, his deeper roots were in what Houllebecq calls “the puritanical Protestant old bourgeoisie of New England.” Hence, Lovecraft was “reactionary in every regard” and “particularly old-fashioned.” (Emphases Houllbecq’s.) “It seemed evident to him that Anglo-Saxon Protestants were by nature entitled to the highest positions within the social order.” To read this sentence and then look at any of the extant photographic portraits of Lovecraft, including the one on the dust jacket of the Library of America edition of his Tales, a 21st-century American almost has to laugh: this was clearly one VERY clenched-up fellow.

The apartment building on 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn is an unextraordinary and entirely unthreatening structure on the rim of Brooklyn Heights, now one of the borough’s most, um, elite and inarguably expensive neighborhoods. For Lovecraft, who occupied that building in 1925, it was either a portal to hell on earth, or hell on earth itself. The writer’s brief sojourn there gave him a wholly human hook on which to hang his visions of “cosmic” horror. It revealed said horror for what it was, what the title of Houllebecq’s study points out: that what Lovecraft was truly repelled by, truly feared, was indeed life itself.

When the 35-year-old Lovecraft perched there, the subdivisions of neighborhoods stretching from Brooklyn’s Borough Hall down past the Gowanus Canal and into the Erie Basin and so on were not so widely acknowledged as they are today, if we read Lovecraft’s 1925 story “The Horror At Red Hook” correctly:

Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hills from wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall.

Well, while we are here, we might as well let Lovecraft go on (in quoting him I’m retaining the British spellings featured, I presume, in his originals and reproduced in the LOA edition):

Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call "Dickensian". The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma: Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill.

That last sentence is particularly crucial as it embodies a reactionary paradox that directly informs what ends up being the nihilism at the heart of Lovecraft’s work and its horror. That is, its romanticization of the past, with its “clear-eyed mariners” and “homes of taste and substance.” Ah, those were the days, indeed. And yet the past is also the temporal space in which the ancient evils summoned by Robert Suydam, the proto-hipster (you raise an eyebrow, but the case is supportable, I insist, and will provide evidence to that purpose a bit further down) villain of “The Horror At Red Hook.” If the old days were better…the older days were worse…and the forces that were tamped down in the older days cannot be tamped down, even were one able to suppress figures such as Suydam.

Continuing to wax (feigned) nostalgia for the salad days of a vicinity he most likely cannot wait to be shot of, Lovecraft writes:

One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.

After the elegiac, wistful touch, Lovecraft cuts to the more or less present:

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion. The clang of the patrol is answered by a kind of spectral silence, and such prisoners as are taken are never communicative. Visible offences are as varied as the local dialects, and run the gamut from the smuggling of rum and prohibited aliens through diverse stages of lawlessness and obscures vice to murder and mutilation in their most abhorrent guises. That these visible affairs are not more frequent is not to the neighbourhood’s credit, unless the power of concealment be an art demanding credit. More people enter Red Hook than leave it—or at least, than leave it by the landward side—and those who are not loquacious are the likeliest to leave.

Into this morass wanders the story’s hero, a police detective named Malone, who, at the story’s outset, is revealed to have retired to Rhode Island, where he lives in a state of occasional horrific nervous agitation—post-traumatic stress, we might call it today. By Lovecraft’s account, Malone did not much venture from his Flatbush precinct to check in on Red Hook, but when he was obliged to walk among its red-brick houses, “he seemed to see in them some monstrous thread of secret continuity, some fiendish, cryptical, and ancient pattern utterly beyond and below the sordid mass of facts and habits and haunts listed with such conscientious technical care by the police. They must be, he felt inwardly, the heirs of some shocking and primordial tradition: the sharers of broken scraps from cults and ceremonies older than mankind.”

His reasons for investigating the area have to do with the aforementioned Suydam, whose background is replete in Lovecraft-approved bonafides, as it were; he is “a lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” and said family settled in Flatbush “when the village was little more than a pleasant group of colonial cottages.” But Suydam’s family sues to have Robert institutionalized, because he grows “shabbier and shabbier” as a result of his “unaccountable hauntings of disreputable Brooklyn neighbourhoods.” Suydam’s self-defense is that “[h]e was […] engaged in the investigation of certain details of European tradition which required the closest contact with foreign groups and their songs and folk dances.”

I referred above to Suydam as a proto-hipster, but his nominal rationale is that of the anthropological hipster, the one in search of authenticity. In recent years the sort of “hipster” that has blighted, say, Carroll Gardens, a subset of what Lovecraft calls Red Hook, imports his or her simulated remnant of cultural authenticity and cloaks it over what living space he and or she may be able to afford. “Authentic” Carroll Gardens culture as it was known twenty or thirty years ago was in and of itself at least partially reactionary, with deep roots in Italian-American idiosyncrasies; the new would-be inhabitants come in to this relatively quiet and peaceful neighborhood and sneer at the “tackiness” of the shrines to Pio of Pietrelcina that decorate some front lawns, not particularly caring that these benighted Catholics are also responsible for the features of the neighborhood that make it so pleasant. It is a scene that would confound Lovecraft, who in a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long deplored the “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” hordes of New York’s Lower East Side, and perhaps have a hard time accepting that the interlopers in the above scenario sometimes sport mustache wax.

Make no mistake: for Lovecraft, what New York’s most ineffectual mayor (that would be David Dinkins) referred to as a “gorgeous mosaic” was an “awful cesspool.” In “The Horror At Red Hook,” Lovecraft cites as explanatory (though not mitigating) circumstances Malone’s observation (“as one who united imagination with scientific knowledge”) that “modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances.” One can intuit in the following clause the affinity between Lovecraft and his hero in this tale: “he had often viewed with an anthropologist’s shudder the chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men which wound their way along in the dark small hours of morning.”

In the climax of “The Horror At Red Hook” the reader discovers that Suydam was not, in the 1920s, really up to anything that Alan Lomax would soon be doing in the deep south, but rather enacting rituals which would first bring back his lost youth, then transform him into one of the looming, slobbering, moistly bulging black terrors which Lovecraft’s fiction fairly teems with. What distinguishes Lovecraft from other writers who held racist perceptions is his ability to give his hate a literary form that is at least partially detachable from the specific sources of that hate. “What is indisputable,” Houellebecq insists, “ is that Lovecraft […] was full of rage.” Before making this observation, Houellebecq cites the French critic Francis Lacassin: “The myths of Cthulhu draw their cold power from the sadistic delectation with which Lovecraft subjects humans punished for their resemblance to the New York rabble that humiliated him, to the persecution of beings come from the stars.” Lovecraft felt humiliated by said rabble’s very existence; they didn’t even need to do anything to him. While Lovecraft would never admit it even were he able to recognize the quality in himself or his work, the combination of his fear and resentment make him, in a sense, an exemplary literary nihilist, one of the few genuine ones the art has produced.

And as for Cthulhu, it is worth noting that Lovecraft only invented him after living in Brooklyn. (Who’s to say that the mythical being is not, somehow, a character in Hubert Selby, Jr.’s harrowing first novel? ) So there’s just one more thing that literature owes Kings County for, you could say.
Glenn Kenny, a writer, has lived in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn since the late 1980s. His critical study, Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, will be published by Cahiers du Cinema next spring.


testingwithfire said...

As I was reading the Lovecraft excerpts in this post, I thought, "Wow, this sounds frighteningly like Hubert Selby at times!" And then I read the last sentence. Day made.

Selby of course seems to have had nearly boundless empathy for his characters and their inspirations, while Lovecraft shied away. But there are definitely echos of Lovecraft in Selby's prose.

The Terrible Old Oregonian said...

“What is indisputable,” Houellebecq insists, “ is that Lovecraft […] was full of rage.”

I'm always happy to disagree with this sort of hater on the subject. Change the word 'rage' to 'fear' in the above quoted sentence and I think there's a much richer and more realistic discussion to be had about this complicated man and his work. From these excerpts, book's premise seems a heard-it-all-before take-down job meant for people who either don't know the first thing about Lovecraft's life, or perhaps those wishing they had other methods for dismissing the writing itself. Love the subject, but as someone who has read biographies of the guy before, this sounds like a hater-wallow. Thanks for the heads-up, but I'll be skipping this one!

bill r. said...

It's my understanding that Houllebecq is quite fond of Lovecraft's work.

Jonathan Stover said...

There is some sort of development in HPL's racism and bigotry as time goes by, however, a pronounced lessening in the fiction. By the time of "The Shadow Out of Time", Australian aborigines are the only humans with the sense to stay away from the ruins of the Great Race; by "The Haunter of the Dark", it's up to the ethnic Italians and Irish to hold off Nyarlathotep with their candlelit vigil. The difference between what happens to the characters in "Arthur Jermyn" or "The Rats in the Walls" when they discover their horrifying secret lineage (madness and/or death) and what happens to the narrator of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (ultimate acceptance and transformation and, assumedly, acceptance into a community for one who was previously an Outsider) also suggest something shifting in Lovecraft's fiction away from abject horror at the hideous degenerate masses...

John said...

1925, just around the time my people arrived and settled down in Flatbush, too. That might explain a lot.

I don't get it. Isn't "houllebecq" one of those words Lovecraft made up? As in, ia ia cthullug houllobecq fthgan misshuguna nathlaq baggaraaaa!!!

Anyway, a fun read, but I still tend to think the racist (or maybe more accurately, "xenophobic") aspect of Lovecraft's work gets blown way out of proportion more often than not., and this French guy is really going for the gold here. This story (which I don't remember well) aside, it's an insignificant element at most in the stories he's remembered for, most of which exhibit a clear sympathy for their hapless protagonists and for sad, doomed humanity in general.

ThatFuzzyBastard said...

If you've read Houllebecq, you'd know he means "full of rage", "nihilistic", and "against life" as compliments!

Btw, I love this idea of Suydam---a man with a name so old-New-Amsterdam that there's a street with it in Bushwick---as a proto-hipster, in a doomed quest for authenticity.