Winner of the 2019 WTM Riches Essay Prize


H.P. Lovecraft once claimed that “[t]he heritage of American weirdness” is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “to a most intense degree,” adding that Hawthorne “saw a dismal throng of vague spectres behind the common phenomena of life” (“Supernatural” 557). However, if there is a heritage of American weirdness it must also include Lovecraft himself, whom Faye Ringel asserts is “heir to Hawthorne” in his concern with a declining New England (268), their home region. Both authors focused on New England, evoking its past and the impact it had on wider American history. Yet, though Lovecraft also saw “vague spectres” behind the everyday, he did not credit Hawthorne as an influence; Simone Turco correctly highlights that “[i]f one were to search” in Lovecraft’s writings “for direct references or even mild hints” at his influences, “Hawthorne’s name would hardly be found.” Instead, Lovecraft outwardly looked to European authors such as Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen, and such European-influenced American authors like Edgar Allan Poe (179).

Yet, as Lovecraft wrote in a 1926 letter, his self-identity was tied to the region, and to a certain outsider status which he also saw in Hawthorne: “To all intents & purposes I am more naturally isolated from mankind than Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, who dwelt alone in the midst of crowds … I am always an outsider … but outsiders have their sentimental preferences in visual environment. I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have—in some form or other” (qtd. in Joshi, Dreamer 236; original emphasis). The conflation of Hawthorne with New England is not accidental. Donald Burleson stresses that “until Lovecraft took up an interest in Hawthorne, his own fictional creations showed no marked tendency to be set in his native New England” (“Hawthorne” 36–37). Though Lovecraft read Hawthorne’s work at a young age (Lovecraft, “Confession” 18), his centring of New England and rewriting of Hawthorne began in his late thirties and coincided with a shift in his worldview beginning around 1930, changes that would not entirely take hold before his untimely death in 1937. Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931) contains many similarities to Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831), [1] including plot points and themes, such as the investigation of identity, self-knowledge, and kin, but by expanding on the skeletal frame of Hawthorne’s economically constructed short story, Lovecraft allows for a greater confusion of information, privileging the unknowable. This confusion of information troubles systems of knowledge that purportedly construct a single and comprehensive American identity while also allowing Lovecraft to embrace a way of thinking beyond his previously restricted and reactionary worldview. Both authors were often hampered by their own Puritan history. If, as Lovecraft claimed, Nathaniel Hawthorne was “a gentle soul cramped by the Puritanism of early New England” (“Supernatural” 556), Lovecraft’s rewriting of Hawthorne reaches beyond this cramped, enclosed New England, allowing for a rewriting of restrictive American ideologies and identities, including his own.

Throughout much of his life Lovecraft espoused opinions that ran from conservative to reactionary, including the support of what he called an “Anglo-American reunion,” meaning a return to colonial America under British rule. “I believe,” he wrote in 1922, “that the entire existing civilisation depends on Saxon dominance” (Lovecraft, “Confession” 22). These views, in which “other people are reduced to something less than human, even something monstrous” (Corstorphine 65), must be confronted in every discussion of Lovecraft’s work. In the words of Kathleen Hudson, “[a]ny critical or cultural conversation on reading H.P. Lovecraft in the twenty-first century must at some point address his pervasive racist ideologies, for they are foundational to his construction of a ‘weird’ universe” (186). They are also part of his understanding of history, for, in Docherty’s words, “Lovecraft was a New England Yankee of English descent who was morbidly obsessed with his background, and had fascistic fantasies of himself as a Nordic superman” (4). Scholars are now grappling with this legacy, on which Lovecraft based much of his exploration of monstrosity, Otherness, and the Cosmic in his work.

Though there is no evidence that these racist views ever fully diminished, there are still indications that there was a shift toward a type of tolerance and a more accepting worldview around the time Lovecraft wrote “Innsmouth,” in 1931. For example, in a February 1937 letter to science fiction author Catherine L. Moore, [2] written just over one month before his death, Lovecraft discusses the death of Capitalism and possibilities for Socialism before calling himself “an antiquated mummy who was on the other side until 1931! Well—I can the better understand the inert blindness & defiant ignorance of the reactionaries from having been one of them” (Letters V 407). Lovecraft tells Moore about rereading a letter he had written in 1924, in which he repeated his views of Saxon dominance mentioned above and called himself “a nearly six-foot chalk-white Nordic type—the type of the master-conqueror.” He also called himself “a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who curs’d the Fourth of July from the age of three,” situating himself as external to American identity, even outside of human community when he added that he was “not of the world, but an amused and sometimes disgusted spectator to it. I detest the human race,” he added (“Baird” np.). On reading this letter in 1937, Lovecraft admitted to Moore that he was shocked: “There was no getting out of it—I really had thrown all that haughty, complacent, snobbish, self-centred, intolerant bull, & at a mature age when anybody but a perfect damned fool would have known better!” (Letters V 407).

It is crucial that Lovecraft identifies 1931, the year he wrote “Innsmouth,” as a turning point in his development. In fact, at this time “[w]orld events […] began to force changes upon his antiquated social and political outlook.” The Great Depression, which began in 1929 “and did not begin to reverse its course until around 1937, the year of Lovecraft’s death” (de Camp 338), had an impact (see also Joshi, Providence chapters 9 and 19). In general, the America of 1931 dealt with such traumatic events by constructing ideologies of community. For example, the concept of the American Dream “came into common use in the 1930s, when it was also most sharply questioned” (Dickstein xxi; see also Samuel). In fact, the phrase itself “was coined in 1931” (Samuel 2). Despite its eventual use as a vehicle for American Individualism (9–10), the American Dream was codified, by historian James Truslow Adams (13-14), while the “initial sense of crisis and personal isolation” caused by the Depression was starting to “g[i]ve way to a dream of community, a vision of interdependence,” in both politics and culture (Dickstein 523). In his 1937 letter to Moore, Lovecraft bemoaned that “[o]ur particular age is indeed one of decay & chaos & transition … why should this force all artists … to devote themselves to the job of portraying decay & chaos” (Letters V 396). Though Lovecraft may claim that he is not responding to his immediate time, both “Innsmouth” and “Molineux” are concerned with the construction of identity and community in America, past and present. Lovecraft rewrote Hawthorne’s tale of the early days of America during a time when constructed ideology was reinforcing, even entrenching, a sense of communal belonging.

This was also a period of change for Lovecraft’s approach to writing, including the aforementioned attention to Hawthorne as influence. The broader Lovecraft’s world view became, the more he focused on his immediate surroundings, but this was not the only shift. In a letter from 20 November 1931, he writes, “I am using the new idea as a basis for what might be called laboratory experimentation—writing it out in different manners … in an effort to determine the mood and tempo best suited to the theme” (Letters III 435). Though by 9 December of that year he would deem the experiment a failure (441), “Innsmouth” comes out of this time of change and uncertainty that allows for a renegotiation of identities. By comparing Hawthorne’s “Molineux” with “Innsmouth,” we can investigate how Lovecraft’s interest in Hawthorne allows him to open a way out of the closed system of Puritan guilt and history that restricted Hawthorne, a way that reduces American exceptionalism to a speck in the cosmos. At the same time, “Innsmouth” allows Lovecraft to make New England a portal for the cosmos through which he can explore a posthuman hybridity that hints at his shifting worldview.

It is vital to note that while many scholars compare Lovecraft with Edgar Allan Poe, and even Lovecraft claimed Poe’s influence (see, for example, Lovecraft, “Eyrie” 82; “Confession 22), very few read Lovecraft in tandem with Hawthorne. [3] While the stylistic influence of Poe is clear in early tales such as “The Outsider” (1921) (see, for example, Joshi, Dreamer 108), L. Sprague de Camp finds one inspiration for “The Outsider” instead in Hawthorne’s The Journal of a Solitary Man (151). Burleson argues that Hawthorne’s “influence” on Lovecraft “runs more along thematic than stylistic lines, and that even in the thematic realm there are important divergences” (“Hawthorne” 35), as we will see below. Turco writes that “[f]ormally, the only connection between Lovecraft and Hawthorne is their Puritan background” (181), pointing again to their mutual fixation on history. In his 1927 survey of the literary supernatural, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft praises the embryonic “weird tales” that fill up Hawthorne’s notebooks (558). Indeed, Burleson finds the basic premise of “Innsmouth” in those notebooks (“Hawthorne” 38): “A mortal symptom for a person being to lose his own aspect and to take the family lineaments, which were hidden deep in the healthful visage” (Hawthorne, “American” 623). Lovecraft’s “Innsmouth” is similarly about a traveller who visits a mysterious town full of a strange, fishlike people who happen to be his kin, ending with “the family lineaments” overtaking his external “aspect.”

Lovecraft also looked to Hawthorne for inspiration beyond theme or plot, including the aforementioned turn to New England as his primary setting (Burleson, “Hawthorne” 36–37). Lovecraft called his own later works, including “Innsmouth,” “studies in geographical atmosphere requiring greater length” (qtd. in Joshi, Dreamer 307), with a distinct focus on the atmosphere of New England. As a fan of Poe, Lovecraft was no doubt aware of the theory of “the unity of effect or impression” which Poe argued was paramount in any composition, a unity “which cannot be thoroughly preserved” unless works can be consumed “at one sitting” (298). However, Lovecraft chose to break this unity and create longer and more involved texts because, “for a more meaningful exploration of his chosen themes,” which were developing simultaneously with this shift to New England, “Lovecraft simply needed more room” (Burleson, “Glass” 141). Though increasingly focused on their native region, Lovecraft’s work often pushes beyond the regional in other ways, as he refuses to be constrained by the Puritan history and its legacy which is Hawthorne’s primary focus. By complicating and obfuscating knowledge, Lovecraft allows for transformation beyond that local history.

Hawthorne begins “Molineux” with part of this history: the imposition of British governors onto the American colonies and the subsequent colonial revolts. Hawthorne situates his story through reference to Thomas Hutchinson’s real text, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts (1764), including historical examples from Hutchinson. He then completely destabilises the authority of historical fact when he writes that “[t]he reader … is requested to dispense with an account of the train of circumstances” on which his story is based. Hawthorne thus negates the importance of the history already related, which “may serve as preface to the following adventures” (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1276), further so by the use of “may” here: the reader may take this history as background of the narrative or may not. David Timms argues that “Hawthorne’s works as a whole” have “no sure authorial personality immediately evident” because he desires “a relationship with the reader that is collaborative, not dictatorial” (58). This collaborative storytelling process here allows us to forget any real-world affiliation as we proceed through the text, leaving gaps in our understanding of the journey that echo the main character’s wider gaps in knowledge.

By contrast, Lovecraft begins his story with tales of a raid not by a distant empire but by a government seemingly attacking its own people. This introduces the concept of America as enemy. There are hints throughout that Innsmouth refuses American authority; the accumulation of these references equates the town with something external to America. The raid is also very present in time: Hawthorne’s story is set in the colonial past, but Lovecraft’s starts only four years before its opening. In “Innsmouth” there is still a confusion of source for the information given. The narrator cites no source for his information about the government’s “strange and secret investigation of certain conditions,” a phrasing as unclear as the “vague statements about disease and concentration camps” [4] that surround these “conditions” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 329). Rather than quickly undermining the necessity of history, Lovecraft presents a confusing mix of newspapers and tabloids, public opinion, “liberal organisations” (329), and local people “mutter[ing] a great deal among themselves” (330). When compared with Hawthorne’s collaborative process, these equivocations explode the very idea of objective truth and obfuscate rather than tell the story, just as we learn “what was found” by the government “might possibly have more than one explanation” (330). When the narrator finally admits that “[t]he Deep Ones,” or eternal creatures ostensibly found in the raid “could never be destroyed” (391), he further renders this government action and its different possible readings pointless. Lack of any sort of evidence or certainty haunts the text.

In fact, Lovecraft builds uncertainty into his stories as a function of fear, as “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft, “Supernatural” 521) and lack of clear definition sustains the unknown. As almost a manifesto of Lovecraft’s work, an Innsmouth local declares, “‘nothin’ never gits def’nite. Nobody’ll believe nothin’” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 363), a series of negatives that eternally defer meaning, delivered in a dialect that further confuses the reader. The narrative voice is essential to Lovecraft’s strategy of uncertainty, but choices in narration reveal how both authors control information. Hawthorne’s story is about a youth named Robin who is looking for his kin, governor Molineux, unaware that he has walked right into a colonial revolt against Molineux and everything he represents. Thus, Hawthorne’s third person omniscient narrator is often at odds with the protagonist. For example, the repeated description of Robin as “shrewd” betrays an ironic attitude, as “Robin’s shrewdness … consistently le[ads] him astray” (Wallins 175-76). Consequently, there is a tension in the story between what the reader understands and what Robin (mis)understands about events. Lovecraft widens these gaps, his story told by a first-person narrator looking back on events from a later point of knowledge. This distance adds uncertainty through the narrator’s own doubts, present in statements such as “I must try to tell what I thought I saw that night” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 384; emphasis added). He begins his story by stating, “I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me” (330), thereby undermining both his authority and the many iterations of the “tale” he hears within the text. Consequently, the tension here derives not from gaps in knowledge between reader, narrator, and protagonist, but between one man’s knowledge and perception and what he is willing or able to remember or relate.

This uncertainty extends to the narrator himself, “who, significantly, and unlike some other first-person narrators in Lovecraft’s fiction, is unnamed.” [5] His “namelessness symbolizes his ambiguous identity or nature” (Burleson, “Glass” 145), an ambiguity exacerbated by the lack of details about him at the beginning of the story. Similarly, Hawthorne introduces his character as a “youth, one of whose names was Robin” (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1277), a statement that points to his last name “Molineux” but that also implies a possible multiplicity, or lack, of name, and thus a multiplicity or lack of identity. Some critics highlight that Lovecraft originally named his narrator “Robert” (Joshi, Dreamer 305; Burleson, “Glass” 145; Klinger 573). Interestingly, the name Robin “originat[ed] as a pet-form of the male forename Robert” (“Robin, n.1”). Whether Lovecraft’s choice of “Robert” was meant to imply a version of Hawthorne’s youth is unknowable; it is telling, though, that Lovecraft first named him this specific name and then unnamed him, leaving him with very little identity at the start.

One fact revealed about Lovecraft’s narrator at the beginning is that he is “celebrating [his] coming of age by a tour of New England” (“Innsmouth” 330), proof that he and Robin are both young and both at a point of transformation, seemingly only into adulthood. We also learn that his mother was born near Innsmouth, information presented as coincidental but that foregrounds his genealogy and foreshadows the eventual revelation of his Innsmouth kin. Interestingly, the ticket-agent who tells Lovecraft’s narrator about Innsmouth says, in a confusion of the aural and visual, “‘I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk’” (333; emphasis added). However, the reader gets no physical description of this narrator and does not get to “see” him until his physicality transforms in the climax of his story. It is as if he doesn’t fully exist until then, or that he exists only in his “talk,” the telling of the tale. By contrast, Hawthorne foregrounds the visual by placing a “very accurate survey” of Robin in the second paragraph, even drawing attention to it with those words. This detailed description attempts to place Robin within a family history: his stockings betraying the “incontrovertible handiwork” of a female relative, his “hat … had perhaps sheltered the graver brow” of his father (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1276). His identity is anchored in the clothes provided by his family. The tavern patrons reduce this lengthy description to only a list of Robin’s clothing. The innkeeper then revises the description further, reinscribing Robin with the clothing and therefore identity of a wanted criminal (1279). This reduced identity is soon reinforced, and reduced further, by the watchman who deems him a “vagabond” (1281). These varying views of Robin inscribe him with shifting and diminishing identities that belie his supposedly visible and stable identity as a “country lad” (1279). Hawthorne’s narrator allows these gaps in understanding of the protagonist to build towards a rebirth: Robin’s identity as Molineux’s kinsman is stripped away to make room for something new. Conversely, rather than losing his identity, Lovecraft’s narrator starts with very little definition, recovering it only after passing through Innsmouth.

Regardless of identity, both protagonists are on a quest for kin, though for different reasons: Hawthorne’s as a means to power, Lovecraft’s as an almost inconsequential part of his coming-of-age tour. Their quests take them through what Manuel Aguirre calls “the world of the sublime, terrifying, chaotic Numinous which transcends human reason.” Movement through and return from the Numinous is a common plotline in horror and the Gothic and “could easily be invoked to illustrate” a “rite of passage” (3). Though Robin is ostensibly entering Boston, “the little metropolis of a New England colony” is not named (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1277), and references to Massachusetts Bay in the shunned historical opening are easily forgotten. Andrew Loman argues that “readers attentive to classical allusion” will read Robin’s arrival by ferry as movement “into a mythological underworld” (351), but even without knowledge of such allusions the space is coded as Other, as we will see. Likewise, Timothy H. Evans refers to Lovecraft’s indiscriminate mixing of real and invented people, places, and beings as a “postmodern fusion of the real and the virtual” that “leaves most readers not knowing where ‘real’ ends and ‘virtual’ begins.” Evans deems “Innsmouth” an “excellent example of all this fusion” (123). Lovecraft’s narrator moves from Newburyport, a real city, to Innsmouth, an “evilly shadowed seaport of … blasphemous abnormality” (“Innsmouth” 330), invented by the author. It is telling that the narrator’s way out of Innsmouth is towards another fictive Lovecraftian place, Arkham, implying that he does not leave the Numinous world at all. The fact that his mother is from Arkham solidifies the connection and points to his eventual movement into knowledge of his kin. In a similar way, at the end of “Molineux,” Robin temporarily remains in the sublime space, with an invitation to rest there and begin anew.

The sublime Otherness of these spaces becomes apparent through various physical similarities between Hawthorne’s Boston and Innsmouth which serve to complicate the barriers between reality and fantasy. Both cities have comparable confusing architecture: Robin “bec[omes] entangled in a succession of crooked and narrow streets” (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1278), while Lovecraft’s narrator takes a “half-bewildered tour of Innsmouth’s narrow, shadow-blighted ways” (“Innsmouth” 349). Additionally, both places are infused with moonlight, which in Hawthorne “adds to the phantasmal quality of Robin’s perceptions” (Miller 57). In fact, the initial description of Robin is in the light of “the newly risen moon” as he enters Boston (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1276). Moonlight in Hawthorne creates “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other” (Hawthorne, “Scarlet” 327). In Lovecraft, moonlight allows glimpses of what exists fully beyond our knowledge, shifting a sense of unreality onto the “real” world within which we live. One example of this is in “The Outsider” when the narrator “recognize[s] … the unholy abomination” before him as his own reflection and “know[s] that light is not for [him], save that of the moon” (158). Therefore, Lovecraft fixes Hawthorne’s mixing of “the Actual and the Imaginary” in a privileging of the fantastic.

In addition to space and light, both places contain representative residents of the fantastic, who are physically “accursedly abnormal” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 384), or “striking almost to grotesqueness” (Hawthorne, Molineux” 1279), and who are separated from the protagonists by language and meaning. Robin moves through a landscape devoid of meaning aside from the one talismanic name of “Molineux,” yet that name does not signify the same thing to everyone. Robin’s interactions “d[o] not at all enlighten his perplexity” as citizens only “utter a few words in some language of which Robin kn[ows] nothing” (1282). Because he “does not know the password to the evening’s plans and arrangements” (Colacurcio 143), he misreads every interaction, deciding on the meaning for himself, as when we are told that he “th[inks] himself able to account for the mystery” (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1277). He is consistently wrong.

Lovecraft echoes and magnifies this “indistinctness” of language in multiple ways, building from Hawthorne’s story while also building multiple viewpoints into his own. Escalating the confusion of language, the residents of Innsmouth eventually engage in “apparent hoarse barkings and … croakings” that “b[ear] so little resemblance to recognised human speech” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 370), extending the unintelligible into an inhuman sphere. But even human speech is confused. To begin with, the narrator engages in a series of interviews that provide a glut of contradictory facts and confused meanings from various informants, unlike in Hawthorne where there is a lack of information. Evans notes that the narrator “makes two interview attempts,” one “with a recent arrival,” a grocery manager, another with a “local” named Zadok Allen, discussed below. Evans claims that these two interviews “move from a kind of objective ‘mapping’ of place by an outsider, without cultural significance, to an oral narrative by a knowledgeable local, one that gives us the meaning of the place” (123). However, Evans neglects to mention Lovecraft’s first informant, the Vermonter ticket-agent who, though from New England, is not from the same state. This affords him an in-between-ness that complicates his information. His initial description as “shrewd-faced” evokes Robin’s ironically labelled “shrewdness” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 331); if we read him as shrewd like Robin, this casts doubt upon the tale he then tells. Lovecraft allows the Vermonter multiple pages to speak directly to the reader (331-335), as the narrator quiets his own voice to privilege the outsider’s narration. Despite his long report of gossip, the Vermonter stresses, “‘you mustn’t take too much stock in what people around here say’” (332). He adds that the town has “‘all gone to pieces in the last hundred years or so’” (331) since 1846, which is also approximately when the locals started “‘telling things about Innsmouth’” (332). [6] Which came first? The decay or the whispers? Cause and effect are confused. Most of the ticket-agent’s references are repeated in the other interviews (e.g. with Obed Marsh) or are echoed and magnified in the narrator’s own experiences (e.g. in the hotel), an example of Lovecraft building from elements of his own story as he builds from Hawthorne’s, but in ways that counteract or confuse the Vermonter’s original statements.

Additionally, the second interviewee, the youth in the grocery (345-48), is not merely a “recent arrival” (Evans 123), but from nearby Arkham and therefore part of Lovecraft’s fictive Numinous space, local yet also not local. He is not directly quoted, his words filtered through the narrator’s perception, a fact that disproves arguments of objectivity. Most importantly, this interview functions to dismiss Zadok Allen, the next interviewee, as unreliable. Zadok is a “very aged but normal-looking man” (347; emphasis added), meaning, though a native, he lacks the visual markers of the “Innsmouth look” that signify descendants of the Deep Ones and is therefore somehow still an outsider. The narrator relates the opinion that “little useful data could be gained from [Zadok], since his stories were all insane, incomplete hints … which could have no source save in his own disordered fancy” (347; emphasis added). Sources for information grow ever harder to place here. The narrator “had been assured” of the uselessness of Zadok’s stories, and “had been warned” not to speak to him (352), the passive voice erasing the source of information and blending into the disembodied whispers, the mutterings of locals, we’ve heard from the beginning. Like the “occasional sounds from indeterminate sources” (350) or the “low, dull dreamy sound, compounded of many noises” (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1283), in both stories confusion of information eventually becomes unintelligible noise with no known source.

Lovecraft escalates this confusion until even the sources of his narrator’s actions are unclear. Though the town is “rapidly becoming intolerable” (Lovecraft, “Innsmouth” 351), warnings do not stop him from abandoning his plan to leave early so that he can stay and interview Zadok. “It must have been … some sardonic pull from dark, hidden sources—which made me change my plans as I did” (352; emphasis added); he echoes that “pull” in his announcement that, though useless, Zadok is a “lure that no amount of reason could make me resist” (352). The language here asserts the dominance of the unreasonable and evokes the image of the narrator as a fish on a line, “lured” a certain way by his hidden source, his fishlike Innsmouth blood. The narrator justifies his actions by claiming the possibility of some useful kernel of information within the madness (352), a ridiculous assertion considering his own privileging of uncertainty from the start. His internal, posthuman blood pushes him to know while externally, humanly, he refuses the knowledge.

The narrator’s interactions with “informants” so far have built up an ever-shifting landscape of the believable and the unbelievable, just as confusing as Robin’s lack of information. However, Zadok’s extended story (354-365), again quoted directly, shifts the responsibility of knowledge onto the narrator and, like moonlight, makes the unreal real. The reader recognises that Zadok’s tale, twice dubbed an “insane yarn” (359, 367) and relegated to the realm of “a sort of crude allegory” by the narrator (359), is completely truthful, the useful kernel he is looking for. Yet unlike Robin, whose lack of information must undermine his understanding, Lovecraft’s narrator is given too much information and refuses to integrate any of it into his worldview. In fact, he ignores Zadok’s frenzied advice (written in dialect) to “‘get aout fer your life! Dun’t wait fer nothin’’” (365), continuing, instead, his lackadaisical architectural investigations and returning to his hotel room. He resembles younger Lovecraft, insisting on his closed, reactionary reading of the world. The narrator is, as Zadok says, “‘[b]eginnin’ to see’” (360) but when Zadok directs him where to look he insists “[t]here was nothing that I could see’” (365; emphasis added). Robin at least “endeavor[s] to define the forms of distant objects” as the story escalates, yet he fails to cohere the “ghostly indistinctness” into something with meaning to him (Hawthorne, “Molineux” 1283). Unlike Robin, Lovecraft’s narrator refuses even the attempt to see, but like Robin he privileges his (incorrect) interpretations over direct visual evidence. He assumes the inevitable attack on his hotel room is revenge for his “obvious sightseeing” (“Innsmouth” 369), but he is not truly seeing anything. Others who see his eyes begin to recognise them as part of the Innsmouth line (355, 387), eyes that “cud read folks like they was books” (355), but while within the space of Innsmouth he denies the sight, until forced to confront it.

This occurs at the moment when the tension between fantastic events and the perceived surface “reality” explodes in a carnivalesque rupture, a turning point in both stories. In “Molineux” this rupture is the night-time procession that exposes the tarred and feathered Major Molineux, the absent signified finally made flesh “[r]ight before Robin’s eyes” (1287). Just as he is able finally to distinguish individual voices, Robin sees the truth; the tension of possible violence that haunts him is released at the symbol of external authority, and in the laughter at “his kinsman reviled by that great multitude” (1287). The “contagion” of laughter “seize[s] upon Robin” (1288), in a communion like that offered to another of Hawthorne’s early American heroes, Young Goodman Brown. Brown ventures out to meet the devil in the woods and finds his whole community at an ostensibly evil gathering: “he recognize[s] a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity.” (“Goodman” 1295). He “fe[els] a loathful brotherhood” as they invite him “‘to the communion of [his] race’” (1296), but ultimately Brown rejects this communion. Unlike Brown, Robin embraces his communion and his “shout [is] the loudest there” (“Molineux” 1288), his laugh healing the rupture and signalling his entrance into understanding. If this laughter is a “contagion … spreading among the multitude” (1288), that “coincides with the protagonist’s rebirth as a democratic American” (Downes 31), then this moment solidifies a new American identity, creating a society of “every man” together, but together as distinguishable individuals. Robin is stripped of his old familial identity and reborn into a community, no longer a stranger but now “‘my good friend Robin’” who is called “‘shrewd’” once more, this time sincerely (“Molineux” 1288).

The violence in Lovecraft instead explodes more slowly, in an attack on the narrator and a resulting pursuit, the organisation and “purpose” of which the narrator can “form no idea” (“Innsmouth” 376). Indeed, the chase seems instigated by Zadok’s sharing of knowledge, but the narrator’s refusal of that knowledge and the later revelation of his kinship complicates this reading, another example of Lovecraft’s obfuscations. Regardless, the narrator’s escape begins a slow passage into understanding, beginning with a foreshadowing of his heritage when he “imitate[es] the typical shamble of the Innsmouth folk” to escape detection, walking “in the shambling gait of an average Innsmouth native” (376, 380), which he will soon be revealed to be. The moonlight that allows him glimpses of the truth also exposes him to view, yet he insists, “I did not look especially noticeable” (376), proving his increasing visual similarity to the Innsmouth populace. He also sees more in the moonlight, though still “half-determined not to look” (380). He finally looks, and sees, when the populace of Innsmouth parades by him in a scene that echoes Robin’s visual recognition of Molineux, within a procession that moves “like fiends that throng in mockery round some dead potentate” (“Molineux” 1288). Significantly, it is on the border of town as he is about to leave that Lovecraft’s narrator admits, “I could no longer keep myself from sampling whatever horror that leering yellow moon might have to shew [sic]” (385), opening his eyes to what moonlight reveals. Hawthorne’s “contagion” of laughter here becomes uncertain speculations of “contagious madness” (384), but the narrator must finally see the “limitless stream” of kin and finally admit that “they were not unfamiliar to [him]” (385), double negatives again confusing meaning as the narrator also, more slowly, begins to see and accept communion.

In the end, for Robin the rupture of insurrection is healed by laughter, and he enters a new community, coded as the American nation. For Lovecraft’s narrator, the escape from Innsmouth proves to be no escape at all. His dreams lure him back, becoming his one and only source of information that clears away the obfuscating gossip and finally points him towards the truth. A dream is also integral to Robin’s transformation, though Hawthorne places it before the carnivalesque eruption. In comforting himself with thoughts of what he left behind, Robin slips into a dream-like vision of his family as they “go in at the door; and when Robin would have entered also, the latch tinkled into its place, and he was excluded from home” (1284). Roger Wallins reads this dream as “symboliz[ing] a break with his past” (176), but the break is not only with his past but with his former kin. Robin awakes, asking, “‘Am I here or there?’” as “his mind ke[eps] vibrating between fancy and reality” (“Molineux” 1284). Like the refashioned and reduced description of Robin earlier in the story, the dream removes Robin’s definition. He must be stripped of his identity because he cannot live in both the past and the present, in both fancy and reality.  The laughter signals an end to this oscillation, though Hawthorne does not specify if Robin’s new American identity ends in “fancy” or in “reality,” just as the story ends before we learn if Robin will stay in the town or move on. One hint lies in the odd narrative detail that the “cloud-spirits pee[p] from their silvery islands, as the congregated mirth [goes] roaring up the sky! The Man in the Moon hear[s] the far bellow” (1288). This hint at cosmic or “unreal” forces lends the fantastical to Robin’s final state, but his redefinition into a new American citizen provides certainty to his uncertain identity.

Unlike Robin, Lovecraft’s narrator has numerous dreams, all after the irruption of the Numinous, which also escalate the hint of the cosmic given in “Molineux.” Tellingly, for Lovecraft’s transformation discussed above, these dreams begin “[i]n the winter of 1930-1931” (“Innsmouth” 390). These dreams are not of the life he has known but of “[g]reat watery spaces” peopled with the shapes he saw in that moonlit parade: “[b]ut during the dreams they did not horrify me at all—I was one with them.” Instead of refusing sight, he now “find[s] [him]self at times almost unable to shut [his] eyes,” and finally announces that “the mirror definitely told me I had acquired the ‘Innsmouth look’” (390, 391; emphasis added). He finally accepts Zadok’s story as fact, using it as a basis for genealogical understanding. His language becomes certain for the first time, including a forceful repetition of “I shall” that announces determined action: “I shall seek,” “I shall plan,” “[w]e shall swim” (392). His new understanding, though, lies beyond the boundaries of his former identity, beyond even the land itself. If Robin is born into the American body politic, into the New England that trapped Hawthorne in guilt and history, then Lovecraft’s unnamed narrator is reborn into a hybridity beyond the human, and thus beyond American identity. If, as has been noted, “Lovecraft continually returns to hybrid creatures as a source of horror” due to his “desire for purity, as if the world could be cleansed of its flaws through the avoidance of miscegenation” (Corstorphine 66), allowing his narrator in “Innsmouth” to rewrite Hawthorne’s American community as including and celebrating the Other reveals Lovecraft’s movement towards a new tolerance.

Both Lovecraft and Hawthorne saw “vague spectres” behind the everyday, an assertion evident in their work, particularly evident in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” both of which embrace vagueness. While Hawthorne’s tale starts in confusion and ends somewhat in American certainty, Lovecraft foregrounds uncertainty and then escalates it until there is no central truth to which the reader can return. Where Hawthorne’s protagonist wanders unreadable streets and unknowingly stumbles into new community, Lovecraft’s at first refuses knowledge of an already extant connection, the final acceptance of which moves him into something outside of reality. Both authors are products of their time and place, “[b]ut Lovecraft was able to take their common foundation—New England, its physical state, its history and mind-set—and extend it beyond the everyday” (Eckhardt 99; original emphasis), just as he extends Hawthorne’s themes and plot into a hybridity that privileges the unknowable to allow space for redefinition. As such, Lovecraft’s rewriting of Hawthorne is part of his renegotiation of beliefs, and an experimentation with hybridity and posthumanity. Lovecraft complains that Hawthorne “cannot cease to cherish and mourn” flawed humanity (“Supernatural” 557), so Lovecraft’s extension in “Innsmouth” moves beyond the human, his cosmic, posthuman vision providing a map for thinking beyond stifling American identities, no longer looking to the past, as Hawthorne does, but forward to something new.

Writing in 1922, Lovecraft claimed, “[m]y attitude has always been cosmic, and I looked on man as if from another planet” (Lovecraft, “Confession” 22), but “[i]n Lovecraft’s life, as in his work, the intimate is cosmic, the cosmic intimate” (Setiya 151). By allowing his narrator to embrace hybridity with the Other, that distant, cosmic view comes down to Earth. Lovecraft thus releases Hawthorne from the New England past that haunted him, just as Hawthorne allows Lovecraft a framework for acceptance of his American identity as well as a transformation beyond his own cramped, reactionary worldview.


[1] Because “Innsmouth” was not published for many years, dates are of composition not publication, meaning Lovecraft composed his story exactly one hundred years after Hawthorne. A deeper exploration into the historical contexts of both stories would be an obvious direction for further research.

[2] This letter to Moore has recently received critical attention regarding Lovecraft’s racism, and more work needs to be done on Lovecraft’s changing views. However, this letter and critical work focusing on it should not forgive Lovecraft his very evident racism and xenophobia, which some past critics have done. Nor should Lovecraft’s views be seen as just indicative of his time, as writers like de Camp have done. De Camp does not forgive Lovecraft for “f[alling] hook, line, and sinker for the pseudo-scientific Aryanist cult” which he then “used … to rationalize his ethnic hatreds.” He adds, however, that “[i]t is not surprising that Lovecraft should have started with this viewpoint, since before the First World War it was widespread among Old Americans … Militant Anglo-Saxonism slowly declined during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s … It has not completely vanished even yet,” as he was writing in 1975 (250-51). This equivocation serves to nearly forgive Lovecraft for what were even then considered extreme views. There is now interesting critical work being done on Lovecraft’s racism, and creators of colour like Victor LaValle and Misha Green have been rewriting and adapting his mythos from their point of view. More critical work on Lovecraft’s changing perspective in the 1930s is necessary, though it is beyond the scope of this article, which argues only that the shift is relevant to how Lovecraft approaches Hawthorne, New England, and American identity.

[3] Donald R. Burleson is the critic who has done the most work on these two authors. To my knowledge, in the time since the original drafting of this article in 2019 only one piece of new criticism extensively comparing Hawthorne and Lovecraft has been published, Simone Turco’s 2020 article “On Hawthorne’s Unwitting ‘Children’: The Strange Case of H. P. Lovecraft.” Turco’s piece notes that “the comparative study of Lovecraft and Hawthorne … has not been carried out to a satisfactory degree” (179), introducing their similarities as New England authors. Turco reads “Innsmouth” alongside Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Catalina Bonati’s 2023 article situates Lovecraft’s concerns with what we now call the ecogothic in “The Shunned House” (1937) as building on a tradition established, again, by Hawthorne’s Seven Gables, though the comparison is not central to their argument (see Bonati, “Out of Space.”).

[4] The term “concentration camps” had a different connotation in 1931, before the Second World War, which shows how Lovecraft’s meaning continues to shift in unplanned ways.

[5] Lovecraft even names many of his other tales after protagonists or central characters, for example “Herbert West—Reanimator,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” or “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”  This practice centres their identities, by contrast further negating this narrator’s unnamed identity.

[6] As this conversation takes place in 1927, a hundred years previous is closer to the year Hawthorne wrote his story, 1831, than to the year of Innsmouth’s decline in 1846. 1846, though, is the year Hawthorne began working in the Salem customs house. Interestingly, Bernard DeVoto claims that 1846 is “a turning point in American destiny” (4). Again, further work is needed to explore these historical intersections and why Lovecraft chose specific years.

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