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January 3, 2019

“Both the Gods and the ideal city are always out of reach”: on the dream cities of H.P. Lovecraft

By Mark Clapham

HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) is what we often call a problematic or controversial figure, which in this case is a nice way of saying that he was a massive racist. A fear of the foreign, the alien, interbreeding, inbreeding and various other racially motivated, morbid phobias run through his entire canon, along with disturbing feelings towards the ancient, the modern, sex, the opposite sex and, bizarrely, penguins.

Lovecraft really doesn’t like very much of anything, although most of all he doesn’t like people who aren’t white and representative of some kind of anglophile ideal of male academic refinement. This is a constant theme which bubbles up in all sorts of ways and adds an unintended cautionary element to reading him: if you feel yourself responding to his work with a chill of sympathetic horror, chances are it’s not a very pleasant impulse at work.

Nevertheless if we go in with a certain self-awareness and willingness to be honest about our responses, then there’s a lot that’s highly inventive and hugely influential in Lovecraft’s feverish, morbid work. This being Citymetric, for our purposes, what’s most interesting in Lovecraft’s work is the way that his fears and prejudices are reflected in the urban landscape. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are almost tours of locations, real and imaginary, in which tension builds as the protagonist becomes aware of some fearful and unreal secret.

H. P. Lovecraft in 1934. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lovecraft was born and lived for much of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, and he wrote many stories set in real and fictional New England locations, a semi-real territory often known as Lovecraft Country. Providence itself features in some stories: The Haunter in the Dark centres around a sinister church in the Federal Hill area of the town. The story’s protagonist, Robert Blake, is a typical Lovecraft lead: white, male, academic and nervous. Living in a respectable Georgian house near the university, Blake sees the church from afar, and sets out to explore the predominantly Italian neighbourhood to try and find it.

While the Italian immigrants of Federal Hill aren’t responsible for the horror that lurks in the boarded up church – once Blake has inadvertently set it loose, they maintain a vigil around the church to try and keep the creature contained – the portrayal of Federal Hill is a stereotypical caricature of an immigrant neighbourhood, with a dank atmosphere established through descriptions of its narrow streets and collapsing houses.    

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Lovecraft, an early 20th century anglophile who yearned for the 1800s, feared both the ancient past and encroaching modernity, and often explored what he perceived as the tension between the upstanding, academic white male world of fine houses and ordered streets and the squalid rookeries and rural decay of poorer areas. The most famous fictional towns in Lovecraft Country are expressions of this tension: Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth. If you don’t recognise the names from popular culture – Arkham gave its name to Arkham Asylum, the Gotham City secure hospital from Batman comics and their adaptations, while Dunwich is the setting for Lucio Fulci’s Lovecraftian horror movie City of the Living Dead – you will almost certainly recognise the horror trope written in their streets.  

Arkham, Massachusetts is a New England vision of colonial houses and stifling mist, a damp place where the rooftops sag and the poorer districts are awash with old stories about the eras of witch trials and other occult history. Fundamentally though Arkham is urban – and urbane – enough to be home to the more well-heeled and educated gentlemen who make up most of Lovecraft’s protagonists. It has fine houses fit enough for the like of respectable families to own, a historical society and most significantly Miskatonic University, home to a library of arcane tomes and sponsor of inadvisable expeditions.

While Arkham has its very dark corners and secrets, it nevertheless is a bastion of civilisation compared to Dunwich, a village nestled in a valley just down the Miskatonic River from the city. Dunwich has a similarly antiquated architectural style to Arkham, but with a notably higher number of deserted and collapsing buildings. There’s a “faint, malign odour” about the village street, and visitors are keen to get out of Dunwich if they can’t afford passing through it at all. This decay is a reflection of the inhabitants, who are portrayed as dull witted in-breds, incapable of wrestling with the fact that a family in their midst has been breeding with cosmic entities, and a group of gentleman academics from Miskatonic University have to intervene to expel the cross-breed creature that gives the story its title, The Dunwich Horror.

Similar wrong doings are afoot on the streets of Innsmouth, but on a far larger scale. The coastal twin to Dunwich, Innsmouth is a dilapidated former ship building town in a state of near constant collapse, whole streets boarded up and the docks that were once the lifeblood of the town in total decay. The Dunwich Horror was built on fairly generic prejudices against country folk as inbred and depraved, but The Shadows Over Innsmouth has created an extremely distinct sub-genre of horror concerning isolated fishing towns where the locals have developed an overly close relationship with ancient, long forgotten and demonic creatures that live beneath the waves.

Much of the story is taken up with the narrator’s walking tour of Innsmouth, and his steadily building unease, which is only released as he escapes the town; as such, Innsmouth is one of the most precisely described locations in the Lovecraft canon. The narrator criss-crosses specific streets both on his tour and in his escape, and particular locations linger in the mind – the deserted warehouse district, the old churches converted to the local Dagon cult, and the overgrown, deserted railway line that cuts through the marshes and allows the hero to escape, only to find that his ancestry has doomed him all along.

The idea of deserted and collapsing buildings, of a desolate urban landscape fallen to ruin, is a recurring motif both in Lovecraft country and further afield. It embodies both the writer’s fear of everything he considered alien and inferior, but also the overwhelming cosmic despair in his work: the morbid sense that everything falls to decay, that nothing matters.

Outside of Lovecraft Country, out in foreign lands, there are even more desolate cities that reflect that cosmic sense of pointlessness, proof that civilisations far older and more advanced than mankind have been and gone leaving minimal trace. The Nameless City, in the story of the same name, is little more than a pile of weathered, sinister stones in a desert in the Arabian Peninsula, the few surviving buildings being temples with disturbingly low ceilings and altars. Although the narrator resists the idea at first, he eventually accepts that the small, reptilian beings he finds mummified in a tunnel deep beneath the Earth are the true occupants of the Nameless City: a race which long before the time of man retreated underground to evade the encroaching sands of the desert, eventually ascending into a ghostly form residing in a glowing mist down in the depths.

If Lovecraft Country is a relatively tight area in New England, then the lost cities of predecessor races are much more scattered, reflecting early 20th century ideas of where hidden places might still exist in an over-explored but pre-satellite imaging world. As well as the Nameless City beneath the desert sands, there’s R’lyeh, a sunken city of great green dripping blocks that briefly rises to the surface of the sea off the coast of New Zealand in The Call of Cthulhu. Again the proportions of R’lyeh are at a scale disturbing to human eyes, albeit at one far larger than human scale rather than one far smaller. R’lyeh is where great Cthulhu – a sort of giant and terrifying cosmic squid – lies dreaming, and his city infects the dreams of those who hear about him, with its horrible hieroglyphs and monumental green stones, the very geometry suggesting creatures from beyond our reality. 

Cthulhu before Rlyeh: an artist’s impression. Image: Bendukiwi/Wikimedia Commons.

The most lavishly described of Lovecraft’s ancient, deserted cities is the one found on a plateau in a colossal mountain range in Antartica in At The Mountains of Madness. Home to the Elder Things back when that frozen continent was a jungle, the deserted city may – or may not – be the fabled plain of Leng. What is for sure is that it’s a monumental sprawl “boundless miles” wide, with five pointed towers connected by walkways, and cube-like temples clinging to the mountain tops themselves. Made of “prodigious blocks of dark primordial slate”, the city is again of a scale and geometry disturbing to human eyes, not surprising as the Elder Things looked like a cross between a cactus and a jellyfish, with tiny wings allowing them to float around.

Curiously, while Lovecraft’s characters are alarmed by the alien qualities of the Elder Things and their city, a sneaking admiration creeps in. Like the academics of old Arkham, the Elder Things are essentially civilised beings, and like mankind they were prone to sliding into degeneracy and self-destruction. Lovecraft reserves the true terror and loathing for the Shoggoth, huge lumbering beasts engineered by the Elder Things to do the grunt work of building the city. Even in Antartica, Lovecraft’s own prejudices come to bear – the Elder Things’ greatest failing was not keeping their ‘slave race’ under control. 

As ever, for every mysterious environment uncovered there’s another one just beyond. The Elder Things, devolved and retreating from both the encroaching ice and rogue Shoggoths, disappeared into a sunless sea beneath their city. That sea itself is fed by waters from an even more ominous mountain range overlooking the Elder Things’ deserted city.

Even the Elder Things feared these mountains, speculated to be the home of Kadath, home of the Gods and the destination of Randolph Carter’s dream quest in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. In that story Kadath has been deserted, the Gods moving out to the glorious, golden city they saw in Carter’s dreams, itself a memory of his childhood in Boston. Both the Gods and the ideal city are always out of reach, just as the mysterious deserted cities Lovecraft’s characters wander through hide access points to even more mysterious places. 

For Lovecraft, the city represented the peak to which civilisation could reach, a peak which any civilised epoch would inevitably gloomily plunge off into decadence and eventual annihilation. Not one for large scale action or shocks, it’s these urban environments that live on in the imagination after reading him, far more than any specific events. In the shadow of those looming buildings, evoking our own complex feelings about the life of the city, we face our fears – and sometimes our own prejudices.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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