The Frankenstorm and H.P. Lovecraft


I’d suppose we all need no greater horror story this weekend than the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency, or of the emergence of yet another Republican who has bizarre and frankly idiosyncratic views on rape. Then there is the prospect, for us sad East Coasters, of the devastation to be wrought by the — feels a bit flippant to say it since it did, in fact, kill people already — Frankenstorm. We’re being flippant about it, of course, because confronting the fact that people lose their homes and lives, that in some sense that mark is already upon them, is a bit too horrible to contemplate. We want acts of God to happen suddenly, I think. We don’t want three days to sit and contemplate the arrival. It’s be nice if this was more like a stealth guillotine.

Anyway, all the joking and whatnot I’m encountering everywhere — I just bought a candle at the run-down grocery store nearby, and the cashier said, “Prayer won’t do anything” — made me think of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser-known stories, “The Horror at Red Hook.” The story actually opens in Rhode Island but it is about a police officer, Malone, who is still recovering from a raid, and building collapse, in the district of Brooklyn where he’d formerly patrolled.

And now, as he reviewed the things he had seen and felt and apprehended, Malone was content to keep unshared the secret of what could reduce a dauntless fighter to a quivering neurotic; what could make old brick slums and seas of dark, subtle faces a thing of nightmare and eldritch portent. It would not be the first time his sensations had been forced to bide uninterpreted—for was not his very act of plunging into the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld a freak beyond sensible explanation? What could he tell the prosaic of the antique witcheries and grotesque marvels discernible to sensitive eyes amidst the poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors? He had seen the hellish green flame of secret wonder in this blatant, evasive welter of outward greed and inward blasphemy, and had smiled gently when all the New-Yorkers he knew scoffed at his experiment in police work. They had been very witty and cynical, deriding his fantastic pursuit of unknowable mysteries and assuring him that in these days New York held nothing but cheapness and vulgarity. One of them had wagered him a heavy sum that he could not—despite many poignant things to his credit in the Dublin Review—even write a truly interesting story of New York low life; and now, looking back, he perceived that cosmic irony had justified the prophet’s words while secretly confuting their flippant meaning. The horror, as glimpsed at last, could not make a story—for like the book cited by Poe’s German authority, “es lässt sich nicht lesen—it does not permit itself to be read.”

I think these days are best for exploring horrors mostly imaginary, so enjoy that one.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →