Reading H.P.Lovecraft in the Age of Trump

The other day I picked up a collection of Lovecraft’s short stories, and am now half way through. They are an enjoyable, off-kilter, read, plunging one into a world beneath the surface of which lurk ghouls, monsters and age-old satanic rituals. These are perpetuated by individuals and families who are partly unsuspecting, partly caught up in forces and bloodlines that are beyond their capacity to control.

Lovecraft’s stories seem to follow a broadly similar structure, whereby the world of science and reason happily ignores all evidence of somber forces and events. Only a few protagonists slowly recognize the danger: they do all they can to alert authorities and society to these existential threats, then give up. This resignation leads them either to madness, or to take matters into their own hands – vigilante justice – as these clear-headed sentinels of civilisation protect the unsuspecting world from unimaginable evil.

Joes van Craesbeeck, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1650)
https://www.buceriuskunstforum.de/en/exhibitions/terror-and-desire-the-temptation-of-st-anthony-from-hieronymus-bosch-to-max-ernst

All this is reminiscent of more recent non-fictional events. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, Saskatchewan’s ‘Satanic Panic’ (which in fact was a wider, North American, phenomenon) destroyed many families and reputations when ‘clear-headed’ people were convinced that parents and educators were celebrating evil and sexually perverted rituals with their children. More recently, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory consisted of ‘clear-headed’ individuals who were convinced that Democrat politicians were abusing children in Pizza parlours. Currently, the QAnon conspiracy theory consists of people – lucid and insightful, as always – who believe “that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump“. And, of course, many ‘clear-headed’ and ‘lucid’ people imagine COVID-19 to be a grand conspiracy, with Trump, our insightful ‘clear-head en chef ‘, blaming it on foreigners.

Indeed, there are other similarities between Lovecraft’s stories and current conspiracy theories. There is a definite racist undertone. Whilst Lovecrafts’ forces of evil are ancient and demonic, these forces are associated with more primitive people, i.e. immigrants, black people, and those who do not speak proper English (this comes out strongly in The Horror of Red Hook, but is a subtext to all the stories I have read so far). One senses that the author, Lovecraft, is pouring his cultural and racial insecurities into the pages of his stories, never quite equating immigrants and non-white ethnicities with evil forces, but certainly pointing out the association.

Racism (sometimes latent, sometimes overt) also seems to be part of the current surge of conspiracy theories, often propagated and amplified by Pro-Trump supporters and by those evangelical Christians who live in a world of Armageddon, apocalypse, sin, Satan and rapture. For them, the forces described in Lovecraft’s fiction are real, part of daily life. It is people like me – a researcher (who, like everyone, imagines he’s lucid and clear-headed…. well, aren’t I?) – who are delusional. Can’t I see the evil around me? Don’t I know that Satan lurks in every shadow? Don’t I want to be saved? Isn’t it obvious that unchristian immigrants and sexual deviants threaten our apple-pie, Sunday-school and patriarchal paradise, unsuspecting pawns in Satan’s grand strategy? Isn’t it clear that, for all his faults, only Trump will save us?

Anyway, reading Lovecraft in the midst of a pandemic and of the run-up to a US election that has all the hallmarks of Germany’s November 1932 election (which took place in an atmosphere of intimidation, violence, and Weimar ‘fin-de-règne‘ – Hitler eventually became chancellor in January 1933 by dint of his successful appeals to the working classes, scapegoating of minorities, alliance with corporatist industrialists, brown-shirt violence, and the promise of something new – draining the swamp?) is both illuminating and scary.

Illuminating because Lovecraft’s stories reveal the mind-set of conspiracy theorists: in the world he creates, conspiracies are real, and ‘rational’ people (such as myself) that do not see and believe in them are deluded and dangerous. Scary, because his stories show how difficult it is for dialogue to occur between people who believe in the occult, in primeval dark forces (and the need to take action against them), and those who don’t.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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