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The Horror at Clinton Street: H. P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn

This month, my map of H. P. Lovecraft's places of residence, unusual haunts, and surprising travels, Facts Concerning H.P. Lovecraft and His Environs, is released. To help it reach my fellow Cthulians, I'm posting this article, which first appeared in Fortean Times # 396 (September 2020), in which many places in the map feature. Cthulhu fhtagn!




Readers of H. P. Lovecraft’s disturbing weird fiction are often transported to some dangerous and disconcerting locales. There is, for example, Kadath in the Cold Waste, or the inaccessible Plateau of Leng, and perhaps most troubling – and unpronounceable - sunken R’lyeh, lost beneath the waves of the South Pacific, where sits, brooding and ominous, the unspeakable squid-faced Cthulhu. But in Lovecraft’s own short life- he died of cancer of the intestines in 1937 at the age of 46 - the most terrifying place he ever visited was somewhere altogether more mundane. Its location is well known and it is easily accessible via public transportation, unlike most destinations on the Lovecraftian map. And aside from the trouble-makers and riff raff that can be found in any town, its inhabitants are, for the most part, human. I’m referring to the largest borough of New York City, Brooklyn, USA.

         




Although for many years for locals Brooklyn was the butt of many jokes, and its reputation includes having its baseball team relocate to Los Angeles – who these days remembers the Brooklyn Dodgers? – in recent decades its profile has had a face lift. This was due in no small part to the rents in Manhattan skyrocketing to nosebleed heights, pushing out practically everyone who didn’t earn a high-end six figure annual income. Parts of Brooklyn itself experienced the same gentrification, often sending the hip and low-earning across Manhattan and the Hudson to the inhospitable shores of New Jersey, where the present writer grew up. Oddly enough, one patch of Brooklyn that has been so transformed is the neighbourhood where Lovecraft lived for a brief time in the 1920s.





Although his knowledge and appreciation of his fellow writer Franz Kafka – creator of horrors of a different kind - was most likely non-existent, the anxiety and despair that overcame Lovecraft during his time in Brooklyn Heights seems, to me at least, to warrant the appellation Kafkaesque. Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlothotep and HPL’s other cosmic creatures are indeed chilling. But the kind of angst that descended on Lovecraft while residing at 169 Clinton Street was of an existential, not extra-terrestrial stamp. Terrors from beyond space were mother’s milk for him. But when it came to humans, specifically non-white ones, of which, in Lovecraft’s time, his neck of Brooklyn’s woods were particularly full, his call was not that of Cthulhu, but much more like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: “The horror, the horror.”




         



Lovecraft landed in Brooklyn, leaving behind his beloved Providence, Rhode Island – a place to which he remained obsessively attached, and where he was born and where he died – through his marriage to his fellow amateur press fan, the older and more experienced Sonia Greene, an immigrant from Ukraine. In hindsight it seems obvious that both the marriage and the relocation were doomed from the start. For one thing Sonia, who had already been through one marriage, was a Jew. That the asexual, virginal Lovecraft would even consider marriage was perhaps as anomalous a phenomenon as any appearing in his stories. Eroticism, for him, was of the “lower order of instincts.” But that he would even contemplate a union with a member of the Semitic race, let alone go through with it, was, like many of the plots of his less successful stories, beyond belief. To the occasional reader of Lovecraft’s fiction, his deep racism and antipathy to all non-Nordic peoples may not be apparent. But a look at some of the many letters Lovecraft wrote – their number far exceeds that of his creative work – reveals that it is glaringly so.




I am a great and lifelong fan of Lovecraft and of his fellow Weird Tales writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, machismo incarnate. But I must admit that reading their exchange over the finer points of Semitic physiognomy turns my stomach more than last week’s milk. An idea of Lovecraft’s xenophobia – not uncommon among Americans of his time who could trace their roots back to the colonies – comes through in his assessment of foreigners as “twisted cat-like vermin from the ghetto,” and “rat-faced beady-eyed oriental mongrels.”[1] Blacks ranked no better, suggesting to HPL a likeness to “greasy chimpanzees.”[2]

Given remarks like these - and they are but a small indication of Lovecraft’s often manic dislike of non-white people – I am surprised that in our hypersensitive time, there have not been calls for his work to be chucked out of bookshops and for him to be given a prominent place among the ranks of the damnable politically incorrect. Perhaps the fact that Lovecraft wrote horror fiction and not something more “serious” has so far saved him from being banned. I hope that those with the power to do so do not read this article.

         




Lovecraft met his future ex-wife in 1921 at a conference on amateur journalism in Boston. Described as “tall, strikingly handsome” and of a “vigorous personality” – “Junoesque” is the usual adjective although some might also add “pushy” – Sonia was the eager partner in their brief union. She pursued the withdrawn, introverted HPL with patience and determination, finally bagging him on 3 March 1924 at a ceremony in St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Vesey Streets, in New York’s Wall Street district. Lovecraft, an atheist, chose the location for historical not religious reasons: the church dated to 1776, a monument to his beloved colonial age, although only just (Lovecraft himself identified with the redcoats and George III).


With all respect, Lovecraft did not cut a dashing figure, and the attraction for Sonia was most likely cerebral and not physical. After their separation, which happened in 1926 and his salvific return to Providence – they were eventually divorced in 1929 - Sonia claimed that Lovecraft was an “adequately excellent lover,” failing to explain how someone can be simultaneously “adequate” and “excellent”. Yet one wonders if she was overgenerous in her reminiscences. Once, before they tied the knot, when Sonia kissed Lovecraft, the purveyor of eldritch horrors and cosmic terror first turned beet red and then deathly pale: at 32 he had not been kissed since he was subject to the affectionate pecks of his mother and aunts as a child. If this was adequate material out of which to make an excellent lover, Sonia must have been a miracle worker.

She did admit that in their physical relations she was the active participant. That Lovecraft considered “the mutual love of man and woman” to be an “imaginative experience” in which the loved “bears a certain special relation” to the “aesthetic-emotional life” of the lover, seems to clinch it.[3] That the older and more mature Sonia came into Lovecraft’s life shortly after his mother, to whom he was deeply attached, died, suggests that his attraction to her, what there was of it, was of a psychological, not a sexual nature.[4] Sonia herself said that “love” was not a word in his vocabulary.[5]

         



Sonia lived in Brooklyn, and before their marriage Lovecraft had made the journey from Providence on more than one occasion to visit her, and also to visit friends and correspondents who also lived in New York. These visits were the occasion for the interminable walks Lovecraft persuaded his acquaintances to accompany him on, in his search for vestiges of old New York, that had them pounding Manhattan’s out of the way pavements until the wee hours. Lovecraft first saw New York in April 1922 and his initial response was positive, if not ecstatic. The “Cyclopean outlines of New York” were a “mystical sight in the gold sun of late afternoon; a dream-thing of faint grey…” “It was not like any city of earth…above purple mists rose towers, spires, and pyramids which one may dream of in opiate lands beyond the Oxus…” and so on in a rush of hyperbolic delight.[6]

Yet soon enough the skyline that “bloomed flower-like and delicate” and the bridges “up which fairies walk to the sky” would lead to remarks about “the bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect” that lived there,  and hopes that a “kindly gush of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion and… clean out the place.”[7]

         




In retrospect, it is amazing that as obsessive and habitual a character as Lovecraft could wrench himself out of Providence, a place with which he identified, we could say with some justification, with a pathological intensity. “I am Providence,” he once defiantly announced.[8] As it was, it was some time before Lovecraft could bring himself to inform his aged aunts, with whom he lived in Providence and who tended to his peculiar needs, about the wedding. In many ways though, when he and Sonia first set up shop in her apartment at 259 Parkside Avenue in Flatbush, it was not so much that Lovecraft had left Providence, but that he had brought a good patch of it with him to Brooklyn.






He had many of the household items he had grown up with sent to him, claiming that he “could not live anywhere without my household objects around me,” which included furniture from his childhood.[9] Throughout his stay, the only newspapers he read with any regularity were Providence ones, also sent from back home. He even sent shoes and other clothing that needed repair back to his aunts to patch up. The cheques he received from Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, mostly for ghost writing lesser writers work - among them Harry Houdini - and usually for small amounts – Sonia was the breadwinner - were sent to his aunts, who cashed them and sent him an allowance; he did not start a bank account while living in New York.[10]

He wrote long letters to his aunts each week detailing his daily activities, and in the early days of the marriage – after he had finally confessed to it – he invited them to come and live with him and “the wife.” Sonia, good mate that she was, expressed a similar desire although beneath her surface compliance one suspects that there was more than a little relief when the aunts declined.

         








In the first flush of married life, Lovecraft tried to adjust and compromise. An inveterate night owl, he tried to keep decent hours and curtailed the nocturnal excursions he led with his cronies trailing behind, members of the so-called Kalem Club, and the all-night jawing sessions with them that he had revelled in. He also tried, without luck, to find work, an effort he loathed, although the letters he wrote to prospective employers, self-effacing, hesitant, and orotund, were not ones best suited to land a job.[11]


One habit though he was not able to give up. Along with putting up with his other eccentricities, he asked Sonia that whenever they had company, to be sure that Aryans were in the majority. When Sonia reminded him that whomever they entertained, there would be at least one Jew in the room, herself, he replied that she was now “Mrs. H.P. Lovecraft of 589 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island,” as if with their marriage her ancestry had been wiped clean, as well as their geographical location.

Lovecraft soon claimed to be cured of his antipathy to non-Aryans but Sonia knew better. “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially-mixed crowds which characterized New York,” she later wrote, “Howard would become livid with rage” and “seemed almost to lose his mind.”[12] Not long after, when circumstances led to Sonia leaving Brooklyn, it rather seems that he did.[13]




Sonia supported them by working at a milliner’s shop on 57th Street in Manhattan. When that shop didn’t do well, she decided to open one of her own in Brooklyn. This did even worse. A bank collapse that decimated her savings added to her woes and at one point she was reduced to selling her piano to make ends meet. (No loss to Lovecraft who had no ear for music.) Her health suffered too; no doubt financial strain and marriage to an eccentric contributed to her breakdown. Eventually financial necessity, and Lovecraft’s inability to earn – at one point he turned down the editorship of Weird Tales - led her to accept a job in a department store in Cincinnati. Lovecraft refused to follow, saying that the only place he would move to was Providence. Failing this, he’d stay put.

He also rejected the idea of keeping her flat and having one of his friends move in. His aunts suggested he get a smaller place. Sonia would put her things in storage or sell them, which she did, and Howard could fill his new digs with the dilapidated furnishings from his childhood, which he clung to tenaciously. He was, he admitted, “unable to take pleasure or interest in anything but a mental recreation of other & better days,” an expression of what some have called his “neophobia,” or fear of the new.[14] Not the best attitude with which to meet a domestic crisis. To get him out of Providence was miracle enough. But to relocate to the Midwest? Impossible! So, at the end of 1924, Sonia headed for Ohio and, at 35, Lovecraft was on his own for the first time in his life.[15]






The bolt hole he found – or rather that his aunts did – was a studio at 169 Clinton Street, now a highly desirable neighbourhood. In 1925 it was rather less so. To call it a slum is perhaps going too far, but it was less salubrious than Parkside Avenue, on the other side of Prospect Park; “seedy” more or less sums up its character. In his new neighbourhood, Lovecraft found that he couldn’t avoid the “mongrel herd” made up of “Mongoloid Jews,” blacks, the “biologically inferior scum of Southern Europe and Western Asia,” who made it impossible for a “white man” to walk the streets “without shuddering & nausea.”[16]

Closest at hand though were Syrians, one of whom, he discovered to his dismay, was actually his neighbour. (Nearby Atlantic Avenue is still home to a large Syrian community.) Lovecraft never actually saw the person, but fantasised that he “played eldritch and whining monotones on a strange bagpipe” that made him “dream ghoulish and indescribable things of crypts under Bagdad (sic) and limitless corridors of Eblis beneath the moon-curse ruins of Istakhar…”[17] (Readers of William Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek will get the allusions.)   Never mind that Baghdad isn’t in Syria, Lovecraft admits that he wasn’t interested in the reality of his neighbour, whom he never saw, but only heard “loathsomely.” It was his “privilege” to “imagine him in any shape I chose…” This privilege led, we will see, to a paroxysm of disgust, a fictional catharsis that gave shape to his loathing in a tale that put Brooklyn – at least one section of it - on the Lovecraftian map.




Life was hard on Clinton Street. Lovecraft’s studio was home to mice. His Aryan stamina, however, could not face their corpses, and he took to throwing out the dead things, trap and all, an extravagance that must have cost him. For the most part Lovecraft subsisted on bread and baked beans, eaten from the can. He had no heating or stove. The one luxury he allowed himself was books. Sonia sent him care packages and money and his aunts continued his allowance, but poverty was no stranger. At one point he was burgled; among other things a fine suit Sonia had bought him was taken. The account by Lovecraft’s biographer, S. T. Joshi, of his travails hunting down a new suit that he could afford through New York’s discount clothiers would be funny if it did not make clear his obsessive-compulsive behaviour, at least in this department.

On top of all this was the fact that Lovecraft - for all his quirks a man of genius - spent most of his creative energy re-writing stories that, were it not for his part in them, would be rightfully lost with other forgotten pulp fiction.



Someone else in this situation may have taken direct action, and Lovecraft himself came close to it, at least in his letters. The “coarse faces and bad manners” of the “mongrel herd” led him to feel like “punching every god damn bastard in sight.”[18] A ride on New York’s public transport made him want to “slaughter a score or two [of Jews] when jammed in a NY subway train.”[19] What Lovecraft may have felt about his remark that Jews will soon be “killed off in some sudden outburst of physical loathing on our” – that is, the Aryans' – “part,” when it became a reality in Nazi Germany, is unknown. The kindest thing we can say is that in later life, his antipathy to non-whites abated, and his elitism turned into vocal support for President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included several civil rights initiatives.

But if Lovecraft did not, as a lesser character may have, turn his disgust and misery into actual violence – even against himself; he talked of putting a bullet through his brain and of swallowing cyanide - he did allow his imagination to relieve some of the pressure. The result was “The Horror at Red Hook,” which he wrote in July, 1925. It is not one of his best stories, but it captured his visceral revulsion at the world he inhabited and gave vent to the fantasies it inspired.





Today the Red Hook section of Brooklyn is a pleasant, quiet, waterfront neighbourhood, made up of clapboard houses, small shops, warehouses, and the trendy atmosphere common to once neglected areas taken over by the young, hip, and successful. It even has an Ikea. In Lovecraft’s day it was something different, a dark, dangerous part of town, home to many Southern and Eastern European immigrants, who worked the docks fronting New York Bay. For them it was a part of town they could afford to live in. For Lovecraft, it was “the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld.”[20] It was a maze of “hybrid squalor” and “dirty highways” and its population “a hopeless tangle and enigma,” with “Syrian, Spanish, Italian and negro elements impinging upon one another,” stifling the “fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant.” [21]

“A babel of sound and filth” assaults the ears and eyes and nostrils, as “blasphemies of a hundred dialects assail the sky.” “More people,” Lovecraft tells us, “enter Red Hook than leave it.” One who did leave it – horrified at what he discovered there – is Thomas Malone, a NY police detective – Irish, of course – who uncovered a satanic cult centred around a sinister church, responsible for a spate of kidnappings. At the story’s start, Malone is recovering from his ordeal in, all of all places, Rhode Island. He is a rather odd example of a New York cop, given to mysticism, with “the Celt’s far vision of weird and hidden things,” as well as being a graduate of Dublin University and contributor to the Dublin Review.[22] But then Lovecraft probably knew as much about real New York policeman as he did about his mysterious unseen Syrian neighbour.





Although littered with extra helpings of Lovecraft’s usual adjectives, “The Horror at Red Hook” is worth reading, and I will leave the reader this pleasure, or disturbance, as the case may be. But an outline here is necessary. The gist of the story concerns the strange activities of an aged scholar of Dutch descent, partial to the occult and esoteric, Robert Suydam, who becomes the leader of a cult of devil-worshipping Yezidis, smuggled into America, through the damp, slimy backways of Red Hook. Suydam lives in Flatbush, where Lovecraft had, and is an authority on Medieval superstition. Shabby, unkempt, and reclusive, Suydam comes to the authorities’ attention when his relatives raise alarm over his odd behaviour, specifically his spending large sums on ancient occult texts, and the suspicious goings-on in a basement flat in which he entertains “the blackest and most vicious criminals” – all of foreign origin – who engage in “strange cries and chants and prancing of feet.”[23] Understandably, the neighbours are concerned.



As a new wave of kidnappings terrorises the neighbourhood, Suydam appears, having gone through some mysterious transformation. He is now well-dressed and youthful and announces his engagement to a young society woman. Yet on their wedding night, at the start of their honeymoon voyage on a Cunard liner, a scream is heard from their stateroom while a tramp steamer draws aside the ship. Both Suydam and his bride have died some unspeakably hideous death, and the swarthy “ruffians” from the steamer, led by an Arab with a “hatefully negroid mouth”, have come to claim the bodies, armed with a letter from Suydam giving them the authority to do so. Later a raid on Suydam’s basement flat reveals that the kidnappings have been part of a cult of human sacrifice, involving the detested foreigners, and aimed in some way at granting Suydam dark nefarious powers.




As mentioned, “The Horror at Red Hook” is not one of HPL’s best efforts, nor is another work written at the time, “He,” which is set in the backstreets of Greenwich Village and also has its protagonist recuperating in New England. In “He,” Lovecraft writes that “My coming to New York had been a mistake.” Though expressed in a fictional voice, it uttered an obvious truth. As Lovecraft had when he first saw Manhattan, the protagonist of “He” had looked for “poignant wonder and inspiration,” but, as Lovecraft did, he had found only “a sense of horror and oppression” that threatened to “master, paralyze, and annihilate me.”[24] Although this is a fate suffered by most of Lovecraft’s protagonists, it was one he escaped. For him the horror at Clinton Street ended when, in late March 1926, he accepted his aunt Lillian’s invitation to return home. By this time, his marriage to Sonia was conducted mostly through the post. They would never live together again. One of her last wifely acts was to pack the furniture shipped out to him and which was now, like himself, returning to his ancestral home. As he confessed to Aunt Lilian, the “ghastly rashness & idiocy of 1924,”, was over.[25]

         

         


[1] Quoted in L. Sprague de Camp Lovecraft: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976) p. 6.

[2] Ibid. p. 265.

[3] Ibid. p. 208.

[4] S. T. Joshi H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996)p. 328.

[5] De Camp pp. 214-15.

[6] H. P. Lovecraft Selected Letters (Sauk City, WI, 1965) pp. 176-79.

[7] Ibid. p . 181.

[8] De Camp p. 273

[9] Ibid. p. 214.

[10] They had in fact spent their honeymoon re-typing Lovecraft’s rewrite of Houdini’s “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” after Lovecraft had lost the original MS en route to the wedding. No doubt a Freudian would have remarked on the slip.

[11] Joshi p. 337.

[12] Ibid. p. 216.

[13] In a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian near the end of his stay in Brooklyn, he speaks of “loathsome Asiatic hordes” who “trail their dirty carcasses over streets where white men once moved,” and how their “odious presence & twisted visage & stunted forms” will drive “proud, light-skinned Nordics” like himself to either “murder them” or be “carried shrieking to the madhouse.” Italians, Portuguese, French-Canadians, the Irish and Jews receive similar reflections. De Camp pp. 268-70.

[14] De Camp . 242.

[15] During the rest of Lovecraft’s reside in Brooklyn, Sonia did return and stay with him. She continued to find work out of state.

[16] Ibid. p. 265.

[17] Ibid. p. 250.

[18] Joshi p. 370.

[19] Readers of Colin Wilson’s Order of Assassins (St Albans; Panther Books, 1975) may recall that he likened Lovecraft’s anti-modern rage to that of Hitler’s in Mein Kampf.

[20] H. P. Lovecraft Dagon (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1965) p. 242.

[21] Ibid. p. 243.

[22] Ibid. pp. 241-42.

[23] Ibid. p. 246.

[24] Ibid. p. 230.

[25] De Camp p. 273.

5件のコメント


Yan Sawicki
Yan Sawicki
7月08日

The ground between remaining silent and speaking out is a dusty place and fortunately strewn with empty cans and countless options, possibilities.

I've been walking that strip for days, flanked by traffic moving in both directions.

Occasionally, a discarded wrapper has scored a direct hit, but polystyrene, even at speed, doesn't hurt much.

Overhead, on the gantry, your words were direction enough.

But, like Joe Biden, I wasn't going anywhere, anytime soon.

Perversely, the more I found out about the man, the less I wanted to know.

And the more I wanted to understand his allure to you and his followers.

I'm late to the party and aware that I'm reading about the author, before reading the books .

And…


いいね!

Nice work, as always, Gary! Fascinating and sad learning of his idiosyncrasies and disdains.

いいね!

I always found it hilarious that Lovecraft was completely okay with remaining married-by-mail, so to speak, but clearly Sonia was not into that, but those New York letters (racism aside) are very difficult to read. He was quite depressed, especially the last year or so.


The one Lovecraftian New York site I always wanted to visit is a courtyard that he visited with friends that is accessed by a narrow gap between two buildings and apparently has a "secret" courtyard further in that has to be accessed by a closed hallway (or even apartment?) that they were let into. I managed to find it on Google Maps many years ago, but it now has a heavy locked gate on the…


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返信先

Alright, you've convinced me to pick it up, especially if it's to that level of detail. I see it also references Kingsport/Marblehead, which I assume details the Yuletide path from "The Festival", which is a beautiful and historic walk, though bitterly cold during actual Yuletide. It looks like it would (incidentally) be a great reminder of some of my Lovecraftian treks in New England, one of the things I miss most living there. The bitter coldness not being one of those. I never did make it to Innsmouth/Newburyport, I'm afraid.

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