A Difficult Conversation

This Week’s Prompts:

  1. Educated m***tto seeks to displace personality of white man and occupy his body.
  2. Ancient n***o voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.

There is no Forthcoming story.

This research in part brought to you by our patrons on Pateron

Nothing is more essential to someone than their identity, a sense of self. Second, however, to a sense of self is a sense of community—both in time and in space. From community often but not always comes identity. It is thus no surprise than when understandings of self are threatened, many resort to their understanding of community, imagined or real, temporal or spatial. If these were secure communities, or places that were imagined more than real, there is a strong impulse to ensure they are authentic. That they are unchanged from what was once the font of identity. Sometimes this manifests in a want for fundamental restoration, other times as a culture of purity, other times as seeking real and living members of that community. There is a strong desire to return to apparent roots, even if they are buried deep in the ground and architecture. It is this want that animates the prompts above. It is also that want for community and identity in the face of oppressive adversity that gave Vodou in the Americas its power. It is a want that mobilized nationalizing forces in the Balkans cities, and a want that mobilized African Americans to enter into traditions of West Africa in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. It is a want that leads back to roots, and sometimes growth, sometimes death.

I have dreaded these two prompts since I began this blog. I hoped when I started out that by the time I got to them, I’d have some interesting or compelling piece to write. And what I’ve concluded…well, I’ll save that for the end. Today, lets talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft, folklore, “voodoo” narratives of the 1920s and 1930s, and more. It’s going to be a long ride.

We will start with a discussion of Lovecraft’s relationship with folklore and folk culture. These will be more relevant to his approach to stories, and in particular some…connective tissue I see between Lovecraft and Voodoo that the man himself wouldn’t want acknowledged. And frankly, this is a discussion needed for a blog like mine, where folklore is almost more common than horror these days.

Lovecraft was as much anti-modern as anything else. A member of his local historical preservation society, an avid investigator in architecture when he traveled, fascinated by linguistic changes and traditional forms,  Lovecraft had a love of regional culture and history. Not only was he invested in the preservation of art forms and traditions, he was interested in their evolution over time. He commented critically on many revival efforts that merely brought back architectural features, not expanding on fundamentals. Mr. Lovecraft once criticized this as restoring a land that never was, an idealistic copy instead of a continuation. His interest in folklore often appeared in his stories—by using architectural features or local folklore of places he visited, he felt he helped ground his stories. His interest in a fluid form of storytelling and connectivity is why the Mythos has become a Mythos and not merely a small story off in the corner. This interest in participation in a greater story, a temporally if not spatially, appears as a source of fear and motivation in many of his works.

This interest in regional purity, of course, leads us back to Lovecraft’s racism. It is an uncontroversial and increasingly commonly known fact that Howard was racist, and racist to a degree that was shocking for his time. Howard’s fear, manifest in New York most prominently, was that the mixing of diverse and regional groups would lead to the dissolution of culture, tradition, continuity, and thus meaning. “Impurity” was, to Howard’s mind, synonymous with death.  And this of course also meant a fear of miscegenation, a fear of the other ‘infiltrating’ or ‘decaying’ the culture of an area. There are a number of stories that Mr. Lovecraft wrote that focused on this fear—where immigrants entered into an area and brought about “decay”. That Mr. Lovecraft for the most part did not perceive the value in syncretism or co-habitation and growth in a more fluid line speaks to some understandings of folklore—ones that around his time also strove, for instance, in the Balkans to demarcate the exact origins and national character of peoples under Ottoman rule.  Purity and traditionalism, especially in identity building, are common bedfellows.

One of the clearest examples, and most relevant to this prompt, is the swamp-cult in Call of Cthulhu. Here we witness a scene that must have haunted Lovecraft: a swamp ceremony, with wild dances around a strange object, where all sorts of peoples mix and mingle with death and passion. To the puritanical and chaste Lovecraft, this entire event is an abomination. The end of this encounter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of violence by the white police department to put a stop to the child murdering cult, who’s conspiracy spread all over the world through distant dreams. It is the violent destruction of another terrible conspiracy that Lovecraft feared in large cities—we can examine Red Hook for a similar fear, including the strange immigrants and child murder.

This scene draws, I don’t doubt, from reports of Voodoo in Louisiana by journalists across the country. The emphasis on violence to women and children is a tell tale mark, as is the police raid and the dancing. These stories and articles were common during the Reconstruction all the way through the 1960s.  If you check the bibliography, you will find my sources are much more recent than normal. I have a tendency to rely on older works, especially folklore collections in the public domain or available through college libraries. This means many sources are from the 1800s to 1900s—although on many topics I will find more modern research (particularly if older sources have…suspect concepts or phrases), I don’t have the funds to purchase more recent collections of folktales. Such writings exist on Voodoo in Louisiana in abundance, but I consulted only two and cite none below. This is because writings from that period are, while telling and relevant for understanding these prompts, gross exaggerations to say the least.

These reports describe orgies, cannibalism, violence and human sacrifice, and other efforts to construct an image of blackness that is innately dangerous and primitive and infectious. Fear of miscegenation is clear with the many references of white women in particular being endangered—white men are rarely mentioned, and portrayed universally as low brow laborers. The image then becomes one of fear that white women will be stolen and children being murdered[1], and that the mixing of races is something that only occurs (if at all) among lower orders of society, who are too primitive to be considered.

But why?

To answer that question, we have to first answer what is Voodoo. In Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo:

 (a) Usually spelled V-o-d-u-n, it refers to the traditional religion of the Fon and Ewe people residing in today’s Republic of Benin, the former kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa; (b) spelled Vodou, it is the popular syncretic Afro-Creole religion of Haiti; (c) commonly spelled Voodoo (in the 19th century usually spelled Voudou), it addresses the Afro-Creole counterculture religion of southern Louisiana; (d) but as mentioned above, Voodoo is also the common term in American English for any African-derived magical or religious beliefs and practices, often associated with black magic and witchcraft.

Of these, b is the most common—and derives in part from a. The Vodun belief system of the Yoruba featured a number of divinities that had patron cities on the West coast of Africa. These divinities arrived in the Americas by way of the slave trade, often bought after being captured in war. These primarily came to Cuba. Vodou, as practiced in Haiti however, was not just the Vodun system of the Yoruba—in fact, in the 18th century, slaves from Yoruba were a minority. Instead, the Haitian system featured beliefs from the Kongo and the Yoruba’s often times enemies the Dahomey. The Kongo divinities often influenced Petwo. The Petwo include some particularly famous staples of Voodoo imagery—Baron Samedi (Baron Saturday) is the ultimate divinity of this court of the dead. Yoruba divinities, such as Legba-Elebga, appear with some frequency. Papa Legba stands as the ultimate spirit of the threshold, while Ogun (the lord of iron, blacksmiths, and warriors) becomes Papa Ogou and has his own cluster of smaller spirits.

There was a time when Haitian Vodou was considered the sole ancestor of Louisiana Voodoo, and a more spiritual form at that—antebellum New Orleans being more hostile than Haiti to the practice. However, recent work suggests Louisiana Voodoo had it’s own practices that evolved separately from Haiti’s, coming from neither Yoruba nor Dahomey sources but instead from the Kongo and Senegal basin. This resulted in comparable rites, but very different spirits. La Grand Zombi served here as the chief deity—the word zombi here not being the walking corpse, but rather a derivation from the word Kikongo nzambi (God, a term used in Bible translations). St. Anthony of Padua was also prominent—many of the enslaved already being Roman Catholic, and thus fond of the patron saint of the Kongo. St. Anthony is a common in other Yoruba traditions, especially associated with Legba. However, in Louisiana, Legba can be found as the only definite Yoruba divinity under the name Papa Laba and is associated with Saint Peter.

Haitian Vodou does have a more concrete connection to American Voodoo literature, however, than as origin. Haitian Vodou is often viewed as instrumental, by both detractors and proponents, to slaves in Haiti successfully overthrowing the existing plantation system there. This revolt, that defeated Napoleon’s armies, resulted in the Emperor of France selling Louisiana and other territories to Jefferson for an extremely low price. The fear of a similar revolt likewise informed antebellum Southern views of Voodoo—and in the post-war climate of New Orleans, fear that Voodoo and emancipation would permanently cast-off white male control of the country and the economy. The reports I mentioned earlier provided shocking imagery of what such a loss of control would mean—they painted an image of blackness as bestial and primitive, in order to define and justify white supremacy. These fears took on a sexualized nature in the post-war articles, instead of the more common police raid and political fears before. Hatian Vodou was an existential threat to the plantation way of life and understanding, for it granted power to slaves who many plantation owners believed were made powerless by God.

Voodoo was also, in Louisiana, a religion lead by women. The fear of a loss of control over women—particularly white women—was present in many of the reports that placed otherwise respectable women as bewitched or lured by passions into what was presented as primitive savagery. The role of these reports was then not only a violent assertion of white supremacy—and it was violent, playing into or advocating reprisals against imagined slights—but also of patriarchy. That women would leave the roles of society—even, perhaps especially, respectable women of class and means—was unacceptable. In a society focused on blood and purity, lest we forget the one drop rule that was common, loss of control of women was loss of control of the future.

Voodoo’s threat to the status quo then was granting the subaltern power and the ability to change the world, and by undermining the social structures of the existing governing bodies. As one writer put it “These religious practices and beliefs have provided practitioners with a way to ideologically order the world, negotiate bondage and exile, communicate with gods and ancestors, protect themselves and loved ones, solicit revenge or financial success, pro mote illness or recovery, influence love and desire, and challenge the exercise of white power in and over their lives.” As the modern state emerged in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, control over the populace—over the body and the future—was the growing preoccupation of culture. By the state, I do not mean just the overt functions of government. I mean the entire apparatus of social control. Vodou served a useful purpose, a subaltern group that could be kept at a distance and provide a definition of the community while at the same time justifying the expansion of state apparatuses. Stories of Voodoo provided justification for legal and violent assaults on African communities, in an effort to stamp out the emerging progressive movement.

One of the  articles I read while preparing this piece, however, drew me to a notion about Voodoo that I was unfamiliar with—the revival movement in the 70s and 80s, where a number of African Americans sought to reconnect with their roots in Africa to repair the damage of 500 years of active oppression. The logic and prospects are the same, on one level—Voodoo and traditional African religion provides a way to reconnect with an intentionally suppressed culture. These individuals rightly believed that securing political rights with the Civil Rights movement was not the same as achieving true equality, as their own cultural signifiers and traditions were not equal to the hegemonic white Christian ones. This scholarship that searched for meaning was often multi-layered—individuals would be initiated into multiple traditions, some in the Americas, some (finances permitting) in Africa. This was a search for a community and identity that was separate from the oppressive hegemony—one that was truly the members, that was authentic.

This search for self, for meaning and a sense of place in the world outside the current one, fascinates me in this context, because in a strange way it seems an echo of Lovecraft’s historical preservationist leanings. Now, let me be clear: the source of these anxieties is wildly different in scale. Lovecraft was not an oppressed minority, nor had he suffered centuries of deliberate cultural erasure. But nonetheless, part of his anxieties was the feeling that his regional identity was decaying—on the one hand, yes, by immigration but on the other hand by means of corporate expansionism and modernity. A modernity that sought to form a single hegemonic identity of “whiteness”, at the expensive of regional cultures and communities. One that to this day has such a dominance over popular imagination that it has to be combatted in the streets, where people very much like Lovecraft—who fear change and loss of place, and who have been socialized to blame the Other for their failings—persist in an almost pathetic way.

Lovecraft’s anxieties lead him to focus on purity and xenophobia, but it was an anxiety that worried about the fate later African Americans confronted—of having one’s own context stripped from them. In a way, Lovecraft was also looking for roots that he felt were dying. They resemble, to me, the movements in the Balkans towards nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century—which sought a romantic and essential character to the regions, that could be revived and made pure and bring about a new dignity. These found resistance in country sides, often to their confusion. Nationalists from the cities bemoaned the lack of existing national pride in their communities. Given the involvement of such romantics in folklore studies, this comparison is unlikely novel, but the result of such investigations and promotions are far less positive than elsewhere I feel. I wonder if the response of purity seeking, as opposed to seeking a plurality of traditions, is what leads to nationalist responses and dreadful results.

I’ve been told on a few occasions that Cosmic Horror is truly a horror only possessed by privileged people. The argument goes that there is, for the oppressed, nothing revelatory about being told you are insignificant. That the fear of lack-of-power or relevance is one that only matters to those who are a part of the hegemony. For those already oppressed, there is nothing strange or even unusual about a hostile world order trying to extinguish you, unrelenting and uncaring in its malice. There is truth to that—but at the same time, I do wonder if the idea of death of meaning, the death of even artificial meaning in the face of either time or active suppression and opposition, doesn’t cross that divide. Cosmic Horror I think is overly typified as “the fear of being dwarfed by the Other”. That the terror is only the scale of Cthulhu, the sheer size of the cosmos. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Lovecraft’s fiction is better typified as “the fear of being consumed/assimilated by the Other”. That other often takes the form of the past, of superstition, of the foreign, of the novel, of the alien and the vast. The story that is in a way most typical is not the story of the rising elder god at sea—rather, it is of the slow change by foreign customs, it is the gradual transformation into something accursed in your family home, it is to look into a mirror and see that you are a monster. It is more Pickman’s Model and Shadows Over Innsmouth than it is Cthulhu. I think in these contexts, to paraphrase H.Bomberguy on a similar topic, the marginalized and oppressed do see that uncaring and hostile cosmos Lovecraft could only attempt to describe.

While reading these articles, I was reminded of a recurring thought I’ve seen online—the struggle for young white men to find a cultural identity that is divorced from white supremacy. The period in which Voodoo was demonized also actively, particularly in the 20th century, sought to erase the regional and cultural differences among white American’s to create a single racial block that could enforce hegemony. This hegemony has cracked over time, as it always does. And as it cracks, those who’s culture was hegemony in large part—who’s identity was tied very strongly to the old order, or  It is little surprise then, that young white men (particularly but not exclusively well off) resort to fascism when they feel their status is threatened—and that those same demographics sometimes feel crises of identity when they move towards more progressive stances, attempting to reject the social order and system they were socialized in. While again, not nearly on the scale of African American cultural erasure and suppression, there have been suggestions to follow the example of “returning to roots”—of going back to the cultural forms that the Modernist and related movements erased in order to support empire. To correct the decay Lovecraft’s…shall we say regressive mind did understand. We can see this in a variety of places—some see it in neo-pagan revival movements, others in genetic testing and genealogy services, others in historical preservation.

These suggestions, to be personal for a moment, have never sat well with me. They feel…insincere at times. Or perhaps overly optimistic about the failures of Modernism. To me, the erasure has always seemed far more complete than supposed. I am fortunate to know a good deal about my family history, and to have had a few brief visits to places my family is ‘from’. Yet I would hesitate to describe myself beyond “White American”. I haven’t ever felt the pangs that some have described to me, where there is an emptiness that needs to be filled. I suspect a better solution lies in the other end of Lovecraft—perhaps we need not just a return to roots, but an attempt to create a new tradition, a new meaning when one has been lost.

These thoughts slosh around my head as I sit here, thinking on the prompts. I have spent over three years now working on prompts, knowing these were hanging over my head. I have written over two hundred thousand words on these prompts, and we are only this year approaching the half way point. I’ve already discussed twice now Lovecraft’s racism, his crippling hatred of the poor, of the immigrant, of the modern. There are other personages that people draw inspiration from, who are frankly disgusting people. Sometimes in their personal lives, sometimes professionally. To take a simple example, Aristotle’s feelings on women are well known, Plato’s totalitarian leanings more so, Carl Jung has a history of right wing disciples.

For all that, there is something different about Lovecraft. Lovecraft is…well, apart from terrible in the ways that have been publicly and privately demarcated, he isn’t exactly good. His writing is often overly verbose, many of his stories—fantastic or horrific—avoid character growth or dialogue, his structure is antiquated. It is clear, as one author suggested, that Lovecraft is more comfortable with buildings than persons. I did once aspire to write like Lovecraft, but why? Certainly I’ve stopped trying to imitate his prose, his format, and to an extent even his mythos—or at least the form as it currently exists, in some cases far to systematized.

Perhaps why I’m still writing about Lovecraft’s prompts is that want of tradition—that his stories, and the stories that are around him ‘feel’ like mine. They feel more like my experience of the world than most folk stories I do read—a world that is at times hostile, uncaring, and increasingly doomed by forces I cannot control and can barely fathom. Perhaps Lovecraft’s great trick, of seeding other stories with his own works to give the appearance of a folk tradition, work in his favor. Writing in ‘the Mythos’ feels like writing in something much larger than one story, in a way that is increasingly hard with corporate control over media and independent works. Perhaps it was the sense of discovery and exploration, of finding and learning and glimpsing the illusion of a greater story. The idea that there was this vast, barely seen thing full of wonder.  Something vast, terrible, and immortal. Something infectious, in away—something that, to make contact with would move one beyond the mortal world.

Please pardon me, if my words have become absurd. Back to the topic at hand.

In this case, however, I have to draw a line. The prompts, it is…transparent that these prompts embody all the worst fears of the Voodoo reports. The fear of white supremacy being overthrown, the fear of loss of control and power, specifically by supernatural means (the same supernatural that overthrew white supremacy in Haiti). I could write a research article on similar tropes in folklore—but these would be more revisions of a racist fear, simply in older clothes. Exchanging these prompts to discuss stories of Romani shape shifters or the like would not exactly be more tactful or appropriate, and I try to avoid feeding into tropes such as these.

While I have notions on how to write stories like this in an acceptable way—one could write a story, for instance, where the horror is discovering the true horrors of the replaced white man’s deeds, or something—they would by their nature be stories about race. And while, perhaps one day I’d feel confident in writing such a story…Not in a week. Not in three weeks, not in a month, not in a season. That is a topic that I would have to practice considerable more editing, sensitivity reading, and more before I attempted.  So, no story this week, I’m afraid. I can recommend (from the first 100 pages), for those interested, the book Lovecraft Country, for an examination of Cosmic Horror and race. I have heard good things about Winters Tide but have not made it far into the book. There is, I believe, a wealth of literature on the topic that delves deeper into some of Lovecraft’s character—I did not have the time or ability to read multiple biographies, letters, and more that would be required for this article, even with the extended deadline.

We will revisit some voodoo/vodou/Vodun practices later, in a month when we come to a…slightly less racially charged prompt. Next time, we continue an examination of cosmic horror—this time the idea of a vast witch conspiracy centered in Polynesia.

Yes, no political issues that might be related to a global conspiracy of witches. None.

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Bibliography

Evans, Timothy H. “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft”. Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2005), pp. 99-135. Published by Indiana University Press.

Fandrich, Ina J. “Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo”. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 5 (May., 2007), pp. 775-791 Published by Sage Publications, Inc.

Gordon, Michelle Y. “ “Midnight Scenes and Orgies”: Public Narratives of Voodoo in New Orleans and NineteenthCentury Discourses of White Supremacy” American Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 767-786. Published by John Hopkins University.

Mazower, Mark. The Balkan: A Short History. Modern Library 2002

 

 

[1] It is impossible to observe these obsessions and not consider the now infamous “14 words” common among white supremacists and fascists, as well as the Qanon and Pizzagate conspiracies. Somethings, it seems, do not change.

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