H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
The opening sentence of H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (not included in this book) runs,
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
Whatever you may think of this, Lovecraft clearly believed it, and his work is characterized by what my old Chaucer professor would have called the “inexpressibility topos” — whenever he reaches the cusp of describing the horrors stalking the characters in one of his stories, he falls back into saying that the horrors are so terrible that they can’t be described:
The colour … was almost impossible to describe…
…slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe…
…strange colours that could not be put into any words.
…things in the air which she could not describe.
…it had come in a way which could not be told.
There are things which cannot be mentioned…
All those quotes come from a stretch of about 10 pages in a single story, “The Colour Out of Space.” Clearly the theory is that whatever the reader imagines will be worse than anything the author can describe, but after a while this constant reliance on the same form of vagueness begins to seem more like the crutch of a weak writer than the habit of a strong one.
On the plus side, Lovecraft has several references to Canada.
Reanimating Corpses with the Canadian Army
From the story “Herbert West — Reanimator”:
In 1915 I was a physician with the rank of First Lieutenant in a Canadian regiment in Flanders, one of many Americans to precede the government itself into the gigantic struggle. I had not entered the army on my own initiative, but rather as a natural result of the enlistment of the man whose indispensable assistant I was — the celebrated Boston surgical specialist, Dr. Herbert West. Dr. West had been avid for a chance to serve as a surgeon in a great war, and when the chance had come he carried me with him almost against my will. There were reasons why I would have been glad to let the war separate us; reasons why I found the practice of medicine and the companionship of West more and more irritating; but when he had gone to Ottawa and through a colleague’s influence secured a medical commission as Major, I could not resist the imperious persuasion of one determined that I should accompany him in my usual capacity. (70-71)
The reference here is to Americans who joined the Canadian army in order to fight against Germany in the First World War before the U.S. entered the war — which it would not do until 1917. West’s reason for joining is not, of course, the desire to defend his way of life or protect France against Germany’s territorial ambitions, but rather to secure a supply of the freshest possible corpses for his reanimation experiments.
This passage points up Canada’s status as a British colony, which automatically entered the war on the side of Great Britain as soon as Britain did, and contrasts it with the more isolationist stance that the U.S. took at that time, wanting as much as possible to remain separate from European conflicts. It is also interesting when contrasted with the general impressions of our two countries today, with Canada usually thought of as a more peaceful nation, while the U.S. seems more war-like; at the time when Lovecraft sets his story, it was Canada that had entered into a world conflict while the U.S. held back.
The book also contains a couple of references to French-Canadians. From the story “The Call of Cthulhu”:
There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight. They said it had been there before D’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods. (151)
A helpful note, from editor S.T. Joshi, informs us:
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (1661-1706) was a French-Canadian who explored the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi River beginning in 1699, building several forts in the area.
If nothing else, an interesting reminder of the role French-Canadians played in the history of the United States at a time when North America had not been divided into the nations as we know them now.
There is also a passing reference to French-Canadians in “The Colour Out Of Space,” as part of a description of the uninhabited and mysteriously threatening area where the story takes place:
The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live near there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. (170)
We can’t conclude much about Lovecraft’s attitude to French-Canadians from that brief reference; he clearly thinks of them as foreigners, and lumps them in with European immigrants who have attempted to live in the part of New England he is describing, and then given up and moved on.
We can learn a little more, however, from a recent Atlantic essay by Philip Eil, The Unlikely Reanimation of H.P. Lovecraft, which discusses Lovecraft’s posthumous popularity (the stuff of every unsuccessful writer’s dreams: buy a Lovecraft Classic Thong or a Cthulhu Corset Top) and tries to reconcile it with the fact that he was also “a virulent racist.” The article fills out the picture of Lovecraft’s opinion of French-Canadians with this quote from one of his letters, about immigration to New England:
“undesirable Latins — low-grade Southern Italians and Portuguese, and the clamorous plague of French-Canadians.”
As in the passage from “The Colour Out Of Space,” Italians and French-Canadians are mentioned, though this time Lovecraft adds Portuguese immigrants instead of Polish ones. There is, however, quite a difference in the tone of the two passages. In the short story, no value judgment is made about the immigrants; they are simply mentioned as people who have tried to live in the area and then given up and moved away, as had the “old folk” (presumably native-born Americans) before them. In the letter, the “Latin” immigrants are directly called “undesirable,” presumably versus Anglo-Saxon ones, whom I suppose Lovecraft would have considered “desirable.” In terms of Eil’s question about how Lovecraft’s popularity can be squared with his racism, it’s perhaps worth noting that, at least as we compare these two strikingly similar passages, we can see that racist sentiments that he felt comfortable expressing in his letters are repressed in his fiction (in this case, anyway — I can’t claim to have read everything he ever published).
It’s interesting, too, that French-Canadians, as well as being classed among other “undesirable Latins,” are also given their own two extra modifiers: “clamorous plague”. The word “plague” imagines French-Canadians as a sort of disease, an idea that is common enough in the nativist imagination. But why are they “clamorous”? Do French-Canadians have a reputation for being particularly noisy? Does the fact that they speak French make them more irritating than Anglophone Canadians would be to an English speaker like Lovecraft?
I’m not sure we can answer that question definitively. We can, however, take note of a certain uncomfortable pattern regarding the representation of French-Canadians in books by non-Canadian authors.
Roberto Bolano, in 2666, has one of his characters say that “the worst swine from Canada are the French-Canadians“. In Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, the two main characters mock the accents and mannerisms of the French-Canadian tourists. And in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform, French-Canadian pensioners in Cuba are portrayed as savage almost to the point of animality.
It seems that, among writers from outside Canada, negative stereotypes about French-Canadians are surprisingly common. If we combine the portraits in Bolano, Moore and Houellebecq, we get an image of French-Canadians as ugly, loud, abrasive, rude, menacing, and even violent — a striking contrast with the polite image of Canadians in general. And in Lovecraft’s letter, at least, we see an analogous idea.