Lovecraft Story by Story: “Polaris”

Dealing with an unfortunate aspect of Lovecraft's writing

I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with the stories of H.P. Lovecraft for the last 23 years. I’ll spend a few months reading him regularly, then put him down for years; and I’m generally as likely to re-read a story I already know as to venture into untested waters. So, despite having been a fan for the better part of a quarter of a century, I probably haven’t read more than a couple of dozen of his works.

I’ve decided to correct this. I’m going to start working my way through his stories and reviewing them, at a rate of roughly one per week (though I may slow down a little when I get to longer works – I do intend to keep reading other authors, after all).

So far, I’ve covered “The Beast in the Cave” (1918), “The Alchemist” (1916), “The Tomb” (1922), and “Dagon” (1923).  Now, my mind slips back in time to…


“Polaris” (1920)

I’ve been wondering since I started this series how I was going to handle the first occasion of racism or xenophobia rearing its head in one of these stories.  I mean, my basic stance on the issue is this: Lovecraft grew up in a time when such attitudes were largely regarded as acceptable, and in a social environment that bred said attitudes into him, and those are shameful truths about our own society.  Being a fan of his work doesn’t mean one endorses these attitudes, nor should it require forgiving them.  Those attitudes need not dominate the discussion, because they were just one aspect of select portions of a massive body of work, but they do need to be included in the discussion.  Racism and xenophobia informed Lovecraft’s work, they are a reprehensible aspect of that work, and examining his work means talking about them when they are prominent in a story.

What I didn’t want to do was skip over the other significant details of a major work the first time I had to address the issue.  Fortunately, “Polaris” is not an especially complex or layered story, and it doesn’t offer up that many other topics for discussion.  The basic concept, of a man becoming possessed through his dreams by an ancient ancestor, is not that far removed from what had already been done better in “The Tomb;” most of the word count is Lovecraft running through details of an ancient world which he never develops in any depth.  Some of it is pretty writing, and some of it just feels like strings of silly made-up fantasy names.

But then we come to the fact that the Inutos, the race presented as the vicious invaders of the city of Olathoë, are clearly established as Inuit.  Lovecraft has, in a sense, put forth a fantastical justification for manifest destiny by inventing a history in which the people – described here as “the squat yellow foe” – native to the polar regions of North America and Greenland stole that land away from an ancient Caucasian civilization.

One of the most problematic currents of the horror genre is the reactionary labeling of the racially and culturally “other” as innately monstrous.  It is easy to find racism, misogyny, nationalism and homophobia painted in broad strokes over the history of the genre, sometimes reflecting the sensibilities of the artist, sometimes simply as a repetition of generic form.  When these matters come up in Lovecraft’s work, there is generally no mistaking them for mere adherence to convention; they are a direct representation of opinions Lovecraft held, and they demean the story.


Hopefully I’ll have something nicer to say next week.  Meanwhile, there’s lots more about horror literature, film, music, and video games here at The Blood Shed.  And check out our Facebook page!

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