June 15, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Unnamable": Fiction, Fact and Humanoid Monsters

Trigger warning: if you don't want to read about monsters and some unusual romantic encounters, skip this post and come back next week! Now, here's the post:

I grew up reading the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, but they were sometimes a little more intense than I could handle. I can remember the first time I checked out a Lovecraft book from the library when I was very young, and being just too terrified to finish reading "The Dunwich Horror." The vivid description of Wilbur Whateley's bizarre body dissolving on the library floor and the scenes of a giant invisible whatsit eating residents of central Massachusetts were just too much for me to take.

I did ultimately finish the story, and haven't stopped reading Lovecraft since. Sometimes I still get a little creeped out by his work, but now I also appreciate the stories' humor, metaphysical overtones and, most relevant to this blog, references to New England history and culture. Sometimes it's hard to know where Lovecraft's invention stops and real New England history begin.

Let's take his 1923 story "The Unnamable" as an example. It's a relatively simple tale. Two men are sitting in an old graveyard in the Massaschusetts town of Arkham. One them, the story's narrator, is a horror writer named Randolph Carter. The other is Joel Manton, a high school principal who has "New England's self-satisfied deafness to the delicate overtones of life." 

The two are discussing the author's habit of using words like "unnamable" and "unmentionable" to describe horrible monsters. Manton feels it's a bit of a cheat that Carter (like Lovecraft himself) ends so many of his stories with a narrator driven insane by seeing some indescribable monster. Why can't Carter just describe what these monsters look like?

Carter responds by claiming that one of his most recent stories, "The Attic Window," was based on a real situation. "The Attic Window" tells how a cow in Puritan New England gave birth to a hideous humanoid child after a local man had carnal knowledge of the cow. The man is executed, but the half-bovine monster is raised in secret by its human grandfather in the attic. The monster grows to adulthood and creeps through town at night, peering in people's windows and murdering the occasional lone traveler. When its grandfather dies the monster remains locked in the attic...

Carter claims he based his story on a passage from Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, and also on an old diary he found in an abandoned house. The house was the same one where the monster supposedly had been hidden, and when he found the diary he also found a humanoid skull - that had four inch horns growing from it.

By this time the sun has set, and Manton asks "Where was this house?" Carter says, "Oh, it's right next to this cemetery." They hear the creaking of an old attic window, sense the approach of something through the darkness, and wake up the next morning covered in blood and hoof prints.

Unable to describe the creature (or ghost creature?) that attacked them, the story ends with Manton stuttering, "Carter, it was the unnamable!" The end.

Lovecraft has some meta-fictional fun with "The Unnamable" by blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The town of Arkham is a thinly veiled version of Salem, and Randolph Carter is Lovecraft's fictional alter ego who appears in several of his stories. The cemetery where Carter and Manton sit was based on Salem's Charter Street Burying Ground, and Manton is a fictionalized version of one of Lovecraft's friends. The story itself is a defense by Lovecraft against critics who didn't appreciate his particular style of cosmic horror.

But surprisingly, the central conceit of the story is not fictional at all. Fictional incidents of inter-species love do appear in a lot of Lovecraft's stories, like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (humans and hideous fish monsters), "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family" (humans and albino apes), and "The Dunwich Horror" (humans and amorphous extra-dimensional space gods).

However, for "The Unnamable," Lovecraft used a case of man and beast romance which really is in Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana. In book six of this epic work, Cotton Mather describes the following:

...There was a beast, which brought forth a creature, which might pretend to something of a human shape. Now, the people minded that the monster had a blemish in one eye, much like what a profligate fellow in town was know to have. This fellow was hereupon examined; and upon his examination confess'd his infandous Bestialities; for which he was deservedly executed...

Magnalia Christi is full of gruesome examples of sinfulness and divine punishment - this example of bestiality if just one of many unpleasant stories that Cotton Mather includes. Of course, modern genetics teach us that a man and a cow cannot conceive a child together, but folklore and mythology want us to think otherwise.

One of many paintings Picasso did of bulls and minotaurs.
 The most famous such child would be the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a bull/human hybrid that sounds strangely similar to the monster in "The Unnamable." The Minotaur is born to Queen Pasiphae of Crete after she and her husband refuse to sacrifice a beautiful bull to the god Poseidon. In revenge, Poseidon makes Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. Much like Lovecraft's indescribable bovinoid beast, the Minotaur is hidden away, but in a labyrinth rather than an attic.

A little closer to home, the Pigman of Northfield Vermont is sometimes said to be the offspring of a pig and an inappropriately amorous human farmer. Like the Minotaur and Lovecraft's monster, the Pigman is dangerous if not murderous.

Symbolically, I think these monsters represent taboos that have been violated and secrets that refuse to remain hidden. You can hide your secret monster babies away, but sooner or later they get hungry and need to be fed. Many of Lovecraft's stories are concerned with the boundary between the human and the inhuman, and the horrible things that happen when that boundary is crossed.

Was a monster really born in Puritan New England "which might pretend to something of a human shape?" I am very, very skeptical about the truth of Mather's story. However, it's also interesting that Mather never indicates what happened to the monster. The father was executed, but what happened to his child?

In the safety of my house on a sunny June day I can say Mather's story is false, but if you stumble upon a horned human skull while exploring an old attic, I'd suggest leaving as fast as you can.


Blue Salvucci said...

I thought I had read all of Lovecrafts stories but I've never read that one. His stories still spook me as well and rightly so. I love the Shadow over Innsmouth so much I did a series of Victorian mock silhouettes of human sea creature hybrids. I'm working on more over the summer. Wonderful article, as always!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment, Blue. I'd love to see some of those silhouettes, which I am sure Lovecraft would appreciate. Do you have any online?