Assignment Four, Vacation Necronomicon School: “Secrecy in horror”.

“Today’s assignment […] It’s difficult to have any amount of horror without secrets […] Without furtive whispers and things unseen, we would have very little to discuss here, so your assignment today is to discuss some aspect of secrecy in horror, using “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as a starting point.”

On Secrecy and Secretions

Lovecraft was among the first generation of human beings who were able to write and publish in a fully open manner on religion and ideas. He may have realised this, for he had spent much of his youth clinging to an attic life-raft made of books from the 18th century — a century during which secrecy and dissembling were basic health-and-safety requirements for those imaginative free-thinkers who created the Enlightenment. Codes, cryptic allusions, substitutions, hints, subtly indicative inversions and elisions, private-edition books passed covertly from hand to hand — all the subterfuges variously and routinely forced on writers by intolerant authorities who could forcibly “make windows into men’s souls”, if given a sniff of written evidence. From these 18th century writers Lovecraft must have learned more than style. He must also have learned some techniques for speaking the unspeakable.

When an old technology dies, it often becomes aestheticised by the young and made part of some new and curious bricolage. Literary and religious secrecy was a technology, of a kind. Lovecraft had seen established religion, and its tediously obstreperous counter-sects, start to fade in the light of science and the bedding down of the American experience of intellectual freedom. As a consequence, the counter-measures devised by the intelligent against religion were also increasingly obsolete. The way was open, and Lovecraft deftly aestheticised the old secrecy into new syncretic horrors.

Of course, the censor’s pen continued to strike out from little islands of moral panic until the mid 1960s — but even these would be washed away in time, revealing an abundant coral reef of beautiful queer fish and strange limpet-like creatures dwelling fixedly amid their abundant secretions. Lovecraft never lived to see that carnival of repressed secrets, and he was appalled enough by the fumblings of the literary avant-garde of his own time. So he was only able to deal with personal and psycho-sexual secrets in a hidden manner. Most of his implicitly semi-autobiographical fiction was thus a wash of simultaneous revealings and concealings — rather like a receding tide that reveals a hidden reef on which the reader can sometimes glimpse Lovecraft’s own lived experience flopping and writhing about, far off and forlorn. Lovecraft never expected that we would glimpse it, let alone that one day there would be a whole fleet devoted to trawling in his personal depths, using curiously-shaped contraptions to surface eye-bulging secrets never meant to be seen.

I increasingly think that Lovecraft may have kept another category of secrets. I think he had his own dark reef of influences and sources, a reef unspoken of and still hidden somewhere off the deep water of his imagination. In the 18th century a writer would have had trouble concealing his sources, since there were so relatively few of them. Those living and writing in the 18th century had a serious literature one could read through completely in about fifteen years, if one was keen, including the key works from classical antiquity. The outlets for publishing and intellectual discourse were few and populated by those who were inclined to be capaciously knowing, and this would also make it difficult to conceal sources. By contrast Lovecraft was living in a different world, for all that he pretended otherwise. He was immersed in the fecund abundance of early 20th century popular culture, much of it ephemeral. He was also familiar with the grave-robbers’ paradise of the New York used book dealers and libraries — in which the curious browser could pull down a dusty book and open a window into a dark vista unseen since the 19th century. This must have been a very tempting combination of environments for Lovecraft. Now, of course it would be ridiculous (although rather delicious) to suggest that Lovecraft kept a second, secret Commonplace Book filled with jottings about the tentacles of H.G. Wells (surely topping the Wandrei reading-list in Spring/Summer 1927) and obscure popular arcarna destined for insertion into his stories. Claiming a secret history for which there is no public evidence is exactly what Lovecraft’s work so delightfully pokes fun at. I have little or no evidence to back up my suspicion, and the evidence may never be found, even if there was any reason for it to exist. But I can’t help think that the secrets of writers, like secretions, sometimes leak out onto the printed page and leave stains.

Further reading:

Stahl, John Daniel (1996). “The Imaginative Uses of Secrecy in Children’s Literature”. IN: Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature. Oxford University Press.

Roberts, M. and Ormsby-Lennon, H. (Eds.) (1995). Secret Texts: The Literature of Secret Societies. AMS Press.

Calinescu, M. (1994). “Secrecy in fiction: textual and intertextual secrets in Hawthorne and Updike”. Poetics Today, Vol.15, No.3, Autumn 1994.

Liste-Noya, Josand (2011). American Secrets: The Politics and Poetics of Secrecy in the Literature and Culture of the United States. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Alliker Rabb, Melinda (2008). Satire and Secrecy in English Literature from 1650 to 1750. Palgrave Macmillan.

Pionke, Albert D. (2010). Victorian Secrecy. Ashgate.

Meyer Spacks, Patricia (2003). Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. University of Chicago Press.

Gunn, Joshua (2005). Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century. University of Alabama Press.