… As Ithers See Us: The Most Terrifying Thing H.P. Lovecraft Ever Wrote

It figures that the best Lovecraftian fiction set in Scotland tends to be written by Scots like Cameron Johnston and William Meikle.

The Rose of England

At morn the rosebud greets the sun
And sheds the evening dew,
Expanding ere the day is done,
In bloom of radiant hue;
And when the sun his rest hath found,
Rose-petals strow the garden round!

Thus that blest Isle that owns the Rose
From mist and darkness came,
A million glories to disclose,
And spread BRITANNIA’S name;
And ere Life’s Sun shall leave the blue,
ENGLAND shall reign the whole world thro’!

H.P. Lovecraft, The Scot, No. 14 (October 1916), 7. (Yes, seriously, that HPL writing about the Rose of England in a magazine called The Scot)

Among my many offline projects, one subject I’ve been researching is Scottish Pulp. Scotland has its own rich history with pulp fiction, and the Americas’ ancestral links to the hame country mean there are plenty of stories of Scotland and Scots to be found in the pages of Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Argosy, Adventure, and beyond.

One recurrent theme: American authors tend to like the Scots and Scotland a lot more than most Scottish authors. Even some of our greatest pulp authors seemed incapable of completely shaking the Cringe, or the more insidious and pathological “Caledonian Antisyzygy.” There are obviously cultural and historic considerations surrounding the age of pulps (two World Wars in particular), but the inferioritists who belittle Scotland and the Scots in fiction do not restrict their disdain to the Scots themselves. Just look at how a film about Scottish history that won 5 Academy Awards, 5 ACCAs, 3 BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, & a Writer’s Guide of America Award (among many others) is viewed by so many (though not, clearly, everyone): the Braveheart effect long predated that film.

Scotland does not have its own distinctive film industry or its own broadcasters, and our theatrical, musical, & literary institutions are heavily dominated by supposed “British” sensibilities to this day. The advent of radio and television broadcasting meant that this “British” culture – one as alien to the vast majority of English people as it was to the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish – could be projected into every household with a transceiver with an immediacy and power impossible with print. Thus, in the 20th Century, we often looked to those creators who are outwith that particular sphere of influence to present an outsider’s interpretation of Scotland and the Scots, be they members of the grand diaspora or not – from Talbot Mundy’s Scottish adventurers and Harold Lamb’s Nial O’Gordon to Diana Gabaldon’s 1990s’ novel (now turned television sensation in the 21st Century) Outlander.

On the other hand, sometimes you get folk like Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Photo taken just after someone said “Oi! Howie! INGERLUND INGERLUND INGERLUUUND!

In the novel Witch Wood John Buchan depicts with tremendous force a survival of the evil Sabbat in a lonely district of Scotland. The description of the black forest with the evil stone, and of the terrible cosmic adumbrations when the horror is finally extirpated, will repay one for wading through the very gradual action and plethora of Scottish dialect.
– H.P. Lovecraft, The Weird Tradition in the British Isles, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (The Recluse, 1927)

For fans of horror, fantasy, and general Weird Tales, Lovecraft needs no introduction, but for those not acquainted: H.P. Lovecraft was an extremely influential horror writer of the early 20th Century. Writers as diverse as Ramsay Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Félix Guattari, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and Stephen King have cited him as an influence, as have filmmakers (John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Guillermo del Toro) artists (H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Junji Ito) musicians (Fabio Frizzi, Martin Romberg, Ryan Ingebritsen, & too many metal bands to list). Lovecraft’s fiction centred around a deeply cynical & nihilistic cosmology where the Universe is a cruel, dark, merciless nightmare inhabited by terrors that humanity’s feeble mind cannot even visualise, much less understand, frequently evoking primordial and psychological fears rather than gruesome gore or physical danger. The Cthulhu Mythos, as it has become known, has become (predictably) popular in recent generations, disillusioned with humanity and our general place in the universe as we are. I am, of course, a huge fan of his work.

What surprised me most about Lovecraft’s fiction is the dearth of Scotland. Many of Lovecraft’s influences, such as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M.R. James, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Roehmer, Bram Stoker, & Oscar Wilde, wrote fiction set in Scotland or featuring Scottish characters: so too did his contemporaries & friends, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, & Manly Wade Wellman. Lovecraft himself even cited John Buchan’s Witch Wood – a story by a Scot, about Scots, taking place in Scotland – as a great example of the Weird Tradition in the British Isles in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and spoke highly of famous Scots authors James Hogg, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Defoe, George MacDonald, James MacPherson, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Two notable Scots are mentioned in Lovecraft’s fiction: the Jacobite portrait artist Cosmo Alexander, where he is compared favourably to his historical predecessor Henry Raeburn in “The Cast of Charles Dexter Ward,” and there’s an oblique reference to the legends of the “Scotch-Irish” in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

 

One could argue Lovecraft built an antipathy for our people thanks to one crabbit auld bauchle, G.W.P. of Dundee, who criticised The All-Story for its imaginative content (which is a bit like criticising the Sci-Fi channel for having too much science fiction). Lovecraft’s response filled me with pride, as only a fellow aficionado of the weird and the wonderful can:

In the present age of vulgar taste and sordid realism it is a relief to peruse a publication such as The All-Story, which has ever been and still remains under the influence of the imaginative school of Poe and Verne.

For such materialistic readers as your North-British correspondent, Mr. G.W.P. of Dundee, there are only too many periodicals containing “probable” stories; let The All-Story continue to hold its unique position as purveyor of literature to those whose minds cannot be confined within the narrow circle of probability, or dulled into a passive acceptance of the tedious round of things as they are.

If, in fact, man is unable to create living beings out of inorganic matter, to hypnotize the beasts of the forests to to his will, to swing from tree to tree with apes of the African jungle, to restore to life the mummified corpses of the Pharaohs and the Incas, or to explore the atmosphere of Venus and the deserts of Mars, permit us, at least in fancy, to witness these miracles and to satisfy that craving for the unknown, the weird, and the impossible which exists in every active human brain.

Particularly professors and sober Scotch men may denounce it as childish the desire for imaginative fiction; nay, I am not sure but that such a desire is childish, and righly so, for are not many of man’s noblest attributes but the remnants of his young nature? He who can retain in his older years the untainted mind, the lively imagination, and the artless curiosity of his infancy, is rather blessed than cursed; such men as those are our authors, scientists and inventors.

– H.P. Lovecraft, letter to All-Story Weekly (7th March 1914)

Alas, there is only one work Lovecraft dedicated to Scotland, and it was not even published under his own name: rather, he took the pseudonym Alexander Ferguson Blair, presumably because Howard Philips Lovecraft didn’t sound sufficiently “Scotch.” Lovecraft’s latent Anglophilia is quite understandable given the pride his family felt in their roots, and their little patch of the New World called New England. So proud was Lovecraft of his ancestral homelands, he wrote a paean to the old country, expressing a desire for “England” and “Columbia” to see past their old differences and realise their people’s inherent unity:

An American To Mother England

England! My England! Can the surging sea
That lies between us tear my heart from thee?
Can distant birth and distant dwelling drain
Th’ ancestral blood that warms the loyal vein?
Isle of my Fathers! hear the filial song
Of him whose sources but to thee belong!
World-conquering Mother! by thy mighty hand
Was carv’d from savage wilds my native land:
Thy matchless sons the firm foundation laid;
Thy matchless arts the nascent nation made:
By thy just laws the young republic grew,
And thro’ thy greatness, kindred greatness knew:
What man that springs from thy untainted line
But sees Columbia’s virtues all as thine?
Whilst nameless multitudes upon our shore
From the dim corners of creation pour,
Whilst mongrel slaves crawl hither to partake
Of Saxon liberty they could not make,
From such an alien crew in grief I turn,
And for the mother’s voice of Britain burn.
England! Can aught remove the cherish’d chain
That binds my spirit to thy blest domain?
Can Revolution’s bitter precepts sway
The soul that must the ties of race obey?
Create a new Columbia if ye will;
The flesh that forms me is Britannic still!
Hail! oaken shades, and meads of dewy green,
So oft in sleep, yet ne’er in waking seen.
Peal out, ye ancient chimes, from vine-clad tow’r
Where pray’d my fathers in a vanish’d hour:
What countless years of rev’rence can ye claim
From bygone worshippers that bore my name!
Their forms are crumbling in the vaults around,
Whilst I, across the sea, but dream the sound.
Return, Sweet Vision! Let me glimpse again
The stone-built abbey, rising o’er the plain;
The neighb’ring village with its sun-show’r’d square;
The shaded mill-stream, and the forest fair,
The hedge-lin’d lane, that leads to rustic cot
Where sweet contentment is the peasant’s lot;
The mystic grove, by Druid wraiths possess’d,
The flow’ring fields, with fairy-castles blest:
And the old manor-house, sedate and dark,
Set in the shadows of the wooded park.
Can this be dreaming? Must my eyelids close
That I may catch the fragrance of the rose?
Is it in fancy that the midnight vale
Thrills with the warblings of the nightingale?
A golden moon bewitching radiance yields,
And England’s fairies trip o’er England’s fields.
England! Old England! in my love for thee
No dream is mine, but blessed memory;
Such haunting images and hidden fires
Course with the bounding blood of British sires:
From British bodies, minds, and souls I come,
And from them draw the vision of their home.
Awake, Columbia! scorn the vulgar age
That bids thee slight thy lordly heritage.
Let not the wide Atlantic’s wildest wave
Burst the blest bonds that fav’ring Nature gave:
Connecting surges ’twixt the nations run,
Our Saxon souls dissolving into one!

Poesy, 1, No. 7 (January 1916), 62. 

Scotland gets the merest mention in another England Is The Best poem, this time about the complex history of General Lee, where “England’s banner” was raised across an empire “from Scotia’s hill bounds”:

Lines on Gen. Robert Edward Lee

… Attend! ye sons of Albion’s ancient race,
Whate’er your country, and whate’er your place:
LEE’S valiant deeds, tho’ dear to Southern song,
To all our Saxon strain as well belong.
Courage like his the parent Island won,
And led an Empire past the setting sun;
To realms unknown our laws and language bore;
Rais’d England’s banner on the desert shore;
Crush’d the proud rival, and subdu’d the sea
For ages past, and aeons yet to be!
From Scotia’s hilly bounds the paean rolls,
And Afric’s distant Cape great LEE extols;
The sainted soul and manly mien combine
To grace Britannia’s and Virginia’s line!

The Coyote, 3, No. 1 (January 1917), 1–2

It’s in this context we must consider Lovecraft’s sole “Scottish” work – though, in practise, it’s really just another Ra Ra England rhyme. Just a few years after his gleeful panegyric, All Hell was breaking loose in the British Isles.

H.P. Lovecraft made his contribution to the integrity of the United Kingdom:

North and South Britons

Man is so much with prejudice imbu’d,
That love and hate arise from latitude;
What else can cause such petty strife to breed
Along the Cheviots and flowing Tweed?
No sober sense could disagreement bring
‘Twixt Britons with one country and one King.
Beyond the seas, the Colonies are built
Alike by men of breeches and of kilt;
On fields of war, with blood of heroes dy’d,
Stand sturdy Scots and Saxons side by side:
In harmony the martial music comes
From Scottish bagpipes and from English drums;
Amid such scenes none stops to boast his birth
As being north or south of Solway Firth;
There Fife and Devon, Ayr and Dorset blend,
And all for one united land contend.
How strange that men, so brotherly abroad,
Cannot be brothers on their native sod!
Would that each Scot and Saxon might be free
From local feuds, and childish jealousy.
Who shall the one above the other place,
When both are mix’d in one imperial race?
Rule on, belov’d Britannia, rule the waves—
No Britons, North or South, shall e’er be slaves!

The Tryout 5, number 5, in 1919

As English Imperialists go, I’d dare say you’d be hard pressed to find a more devoted and loyal Anglophile than Providence’s own H.P.

Blood is thicker than water; we are all Englishmen, and need just such a leveler of political barriers as this to remind us of our common origin. Let the London reader reflect, that in Boston, Toronto, Cape Town, Calcutta, Melbourne, Auckland, and nearly everywhere else, his racial kindred are perusing the same stirring stories that delight them.

America may have withdrawn from the British government, but thanks to such magazines as The All-Story, it must ever remain an integral and important part of the great universal empire of British thought and literature.

– H.P. Lovecraft, letter to All-Story Weekly (7th March 1914)

Just as Lovecraft viewed “Columbia” as, effectively, a New England, the conquerors of Britannia called themselves the Anglo-Saxons to distinguish themselves from the Ealdseaxe, the “Old Saxons” of Saxony. Likewise, the Normans who conquered the Anglo-Saxons took on the name of the English themselves, distinguishing themselves from Normandy – especially after the Hundred Years War.

Perhaps that’s why “North and South Britons” is, for me, the most terrifying thing Lovecraft ever wrote. It’s one thing to write convincingly of otherworldly horrors that humanity’s tiny mind cannot understand. It’s another to speak so passionately, so naively, so blindly of an Empire built with the mortar of blood and ash, who simply cannot understand why some people who Lovecraft fancied to be “one imperial race” might not want to be a part of it any more.

4 thoughts on “… As Ithers See Us: The Most Terrifying Thing H.P. Lovecraft Ever Wrote

  1. Ian Smith says:

    Hi, there — an interesting though depressing (as I’m both pro-Scottish independence and a Lovecraft fan) article. I notice that one American pulp horror / fantasy writer you didn’t mention was the fantastically verbose Clark Ashton Smith. I was having a browse through an online collection of his fiction a while ago and discovered this little item that’s Scotland-related. Well, it’s not set in Scotland but it has Scottish characters (“lean-faced and close-lipped… thrifty to the point of penuriousness”) and a sound Scottish moral, which is that you should appreciate the genius of Robert Burns if you wish to prosper:

    http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/31/a-copy-of-burns

  2. murren59 says:

    Another in the long list of English / Bringlish Nationalists…

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