The Refinement of "Crude Allegory": Eugenic Themes and Genotypic Horror in the Weird Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

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The insane yarn I was hearing interested me profoundly, for I fancied there was contained within it a sort of crude allegory based upon the strangeness of Innsmouth and elaborated by an imagination at once creative and full of scraps of exotic legend.

--H.P! Lovecraft, "The Shadow over Innsmouth"

H.P lovecraft begins his long essay SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE with the following oft-quoted observation: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" (12). This statement not only explains the appeal of works by authors Lovecraft discusses in the text (Poe, James, and Machen, among others) but also the enduring popularity of the essayist's own writings. More importantly, the proclamation provides us with insight into the writer's technique, as do other passages in the essay. Lovecraft's interpretation of the fear of the unknown suggests that we can better appreciate the author's approach by studying the types of unknowns he treats in his fiction.

Critics, best-selling novelists, and fans have commented at length on Lovecraft's existential tendencies, his predilection for courting sensual unknowns. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King praises the writer's capability for producing "outside evil" that alerts us to "the size of the universe we hang suspended in" (63). And in China Mieville's introduction to the new Modern Library edition of At the Mountains of Madness, the experimental fantasist similarly commends Lovecraft for his "career-long depiction of an indifferent universe in which humans are, at best, inquisitive grubs" (xiii). Most of Lovecraft's modern readers embrace the ways in which the author maps the limits of consciousness, knowledge, and even fiction. The bleak preambles to such stories as "The Call of Cthulhu" and "Arthur Jermyn" suggest that human signs will never capture the monstrous impositions of the real; and, to an audience firmly embedded in the post-structuralist era, this mode of play and deferral seems inviting, even expected.

But there are in the Lovecraft oeuvre some unknowns that seem more intellectually provocative than socially acceptable. The bulk of these is rooted in concepts of eugenics and race. After all, what epistemological problem could plague a eugenicist of the twenties and thirties more than the essential unknowability of the gene? Lovecraft was a eugenicist--a self-professed proponent of "eugenic control"--and he wrote at a time when Watson and Crick's discoveries were still decades in the future (Selected Letters 5.75). The nature of the gene was certainly more of a mystery to Lovecraft and his contemporaries than it is to us today. The double helix model of DNA demystifies genetic information by allowing it to be visualized, and the modern phenomenon of animal cloning demonstrates practical control of the gene. But in Lovecraft's time, the particulars of genetic transmission remained unknown, and there was no such field as genetics, per se. Instead, there was eugenics, a highly politicized movement dedicated to the improvement of the human species through selective breeding. Lovecraft was born in 1890, seven years after Francis Galton christened his early genetic work "eugenics." When the writer entered what many consider his greatest phase in 1925, Lothrop Stoddard's apocalypse-tinged study of race, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, had been in print for five years; Henry Goddard's notorious Kallikak family history was twelve years old; and some states had been forcibly sterilizing handicapped individuals for as many as eighteen years. In 1934--the year Lovecraft completed "The Whisperer in Darkness"--Nazis, too, had begun implementing eugenic sterilization programs. In the same decade, the U.S. government implemented restrictive immigration regulation laws that discriminated against would-be citizens of undesirable genetic backgrounds.

For the eugenicists, the gene was not a site of knowledge but of discourse. …