H. P. Lovecraft’s Odd Couples

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THE HORROR FICTION of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is best known for its tentacled monsters, demented occultists, and adjective-heavy phrases like “dissonances of exquisite morbidity and cacodaemoniacal ghastliness.” Lovecraft’s work appeared primarily in cheap pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and while he died penniless, he is now considered one of the world’s great horror writers. Toys, games, and movies based on his stories continue to pour out of the dream factories, and his writing has been the subject of academic conferences, philosophical treatises, and essays by Joyce Carol Oates.

            Despite all the recent attention, few critics have examined the homoerotic presence that pervades many of Lovecraft’s stories. Female characters are rare, and his male characters inhabit a homosocial world filled with same sex-pairings and attractions. Sailors, lonely academics, and sorcerers—all of whom can be read as gay—lurk on the outskirts of civilization, learning horrific secrets and threatening the social order.

            Ambiguously gay male duos appear frequently. The unnamed male narrator of 1921’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” spends seventeen years as the companion and assistant to the story’s titular physician. The two bachelors live together in isolated houses where they experiment with reanimating corpses. West is described as “blonde, clean-shaven, soft-voiced and spectacled,” but the men he raises from the dead are more butch. His first subject is a “brawny young workman,” and most of the others are similarly brawny. The narrator writes, perhaps jealously, of how West stares at men with healthy physiques on the street. It’s all in the name of science, right? West is ultimately dismembered by a horde of his undead subjects, led by one whose reconstructed face is “handsome to the point of radiant beauty.”

            A similar male couple appears in 1924’s “The Hound.” This time the duo are debauched æsthetes who, bored with romance and adventure, turn to grave-robbing to get their kicks. Lovecraft suggestively describes their nocturnal thrills as the “stimuli of unnatural personal experiences” that require them to increase “the depth and diabolism of our penetrations.” Like Herbert West and his unnamed assistant, this decadent duo live alone on the fringes of society, where they can indulge their appetites undisturbed.

            In the 1923 story “Hypnos,” an unmarried male sculptor finds his muse in a man who’s suffering from a convulsive fit in a train station. The man’s face is beautiful, his forehead is godlike, and he reminds the sculptor of an ancient Greek faun brought to life. “I knew thenceforth he would be my only friend,” the sculptor says as he brings the man home to live with him. He compulsively sculpts his handsome new friend before the two turn to “impious exploration” of astral realms (with dire results).

            Lovecraft dedicated “Hypnos” to his close friend Samuel Loveman, a gay poet and bookseller. Loveman was only one of several gay men in Lovecraft’s circle, the other most notable being one Robert Barlow, who was chosen by Lovecraft to be his literary executor. Lovecraft was 44 years old when they met; Barlow was only sixteen. Lovecraft made several visits to Barlow’s family home in Florida, where the two were inseparable and spent much time rowing and talking alone in an isolated cabin. A fictionalized—and explicitly gay—account of their relationship is the centerpiece of Paul LaFarge’s 2017 novel The Night Ocean.

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Peter Muise, who writes about New England folklore and legends, is the author ofLegends and Lore of the South Shore.

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