Saturday, November 9, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Horror at Red Hook"

Spooky Synopsis: Despite a robust physique and a career spent fighting the criminal element, NYPD detective Thomas Malone finds himself felled by the mere sight of old brick buildings. He had been investigating a case in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn when the edifice he was in collapsed, so the origin of his phobia isn't the least bit mysterious. However, the case itself certainly is. An eccentric scholar named Robert Suydam had lived as a virtual recluse in Red Hook for sixty years, his day-to-day existence unmarked by anyone until distant relations attempted to have him declared legally insane. You see, some had spotted Suydam's increasingly dingy form skulking through the worst sections of the neighborhood and heard him babbling about ancient gods. Malone landed the case, yet at first he could only ascertain that Suydam had promised certain locals power beyond all imagining.

Lovecraftian Language: "Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor's Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call "Dickensian". The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistles."

Eerie Evaluation: "The Horror at Red Hook" prompts the same conflicted response in me as did "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family." From a strictly compositional perspective, it's a middling tale of cultic horror. Sure, it starts with a sigh and ends with a shrug, but the rising action has some moments of real tension and Malone's eventual encounter with the Things From Beyond features a few truly chilling images. Really, though, that's like calling a pig pretty because its owner smeared lipstick on its snout. "Red Hook" exists for Lovecraft to vent his spleen at anyone and everyone who isn't an English speaker of Anglo-Saxon descent. And vent it he does, penning wrathful descriptions of "squinting Orientals," "an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth," "mongrels in old brick houses," and "a very unusual colony of unclassified slant-eyed folk who used the Arabic alphabet." It would be bad enough if such verbiage merely betrayed personal prejudice, but Lovecraft has a bigger axe to grind: "Red Hook" suggests that such "lesser" races are intentionally nursing along a cosmic terror with a taste for human blood. That Lovecraft might've held such an opinion with anything approaching seriousness is far more terrifying than any fiction.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

Looking at it with literary blinders on, "Red Hook" might earn ...

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But as a human being with any sort of decency?

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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