“Both the Gods and the ideal city are always out of reach”: on the dream cities of H.P. Lovecraft

The Samuel B. Mumford House: the house Lovecraft inhabited at his death in 1937. Image: Will Hart/Flickr/creative commons.

HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) is what we often call a problematic or controversial figure, which in this case is a nice way of saying that he was a massive racist. A fear of the foreign, the alien, interbreeding, inbreeding and various other racially motivated, morbid phobias run through his entire canon, along with disturbing feelings towards the ancient, the modern, sex, the opposite sex and, bizarrely, penguins.

Lovecraft really doesn’t like very much of anything, although most of all he doesn’t like people who aren’t white and representative of some kind of anglophile ideal of male academic refinement. This is a constant theme which bubbles up in all sorts of ways and adds an unintended cautionary element to reading him: if you feel yourself responding to his work with a chill of sympathetic horror, chances are it’s not a very pleasant impulse at work.

Nevertheless if we go in with a certain self-awareness and willingness to be honest about our responses, then there’s a lot that’s highly inventive and hugely influential in Lovecraft’s feverish, morbid work. This being Citymetric, for our purposes, what’s most interesting in Lovecraft’s work is the way that his fears and prejudices are reflected in the urban landscape. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are almost tours of locations, real and imaginary, in which tension builds as the protagonist becomes aware of some fearful and unreal secret.

H. P. Lovecraft in 1934. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lovecraft was born and lived for much of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, and he wrote many stories set in real and fictional New England locations, a semi-real territory often known as Lovecraft Country. Providence itself features in some stories: The Haunter in the Dark centres around a sinister church in the Federal Hill area of the town. The story’s protagonist, Robert Blake, is a typical Lovecraft lead: white, male, academic and nervous. Living in a respectable Georgian house near the university, Blake sees the church from afar, and sets out to explore the predominantly Italian neighbourhood to try and find it.

While the Italian immigrants of Federal Hill aren’t responsible for the horror that lurks in the boarded up church – once Blake has inadvertently set it loose, they maintain a vigil around the church to try and keep the creature contained – the portrayal of Federal Hill is a stereotypical caricature of an immigrant neighbourhood, with a dank atmosphere established through descriptions of its narrow streets and collapsing houses.    

Lovecraft, an early 20th century anglophile who yearned for the 1800s, feared both the ancient past and encroaching modernity, and often explored what he perceived as the tension between the upstanding, academic white male world of fine houses and ordered streets and the squalid rookeries and rural decay of poorer areas. The most famous fictional towns in Lovecraft Country are expressions of this tension: Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth. If you don’t recognise the names from popular culture – Arkham gave its name to Arkham Asylum, the Gotham City secure hospital from Batman comics and their adaptations, while Dunwich is the setting for Lucio Fulci’s Lovecraftian horror movie City of the Living Dead – you will almost certainly recognise the horror trope written in their streets.  

Arkham, Massachusetts is a New England vision of colonial houses and stifling mist, a damp place where the rooftops sag and the poorer districts are awash with old stories about the eras of witch trials and other occult history. Fundamentally though Arkham is urban – and urbane – enough to be home to the more well-heeled and educated gentlemen who make up most of Lovecraft’s protagonists. It has fine houses fit enough for the like of respectable families to own, a historical society and most significantly Miskatonic University, home to a library of arcane tomes and sponsor of inadvisable expeditions.

While Arkham has its very dark corners and secrets, it nevertheless is a bastion of civilisation compared to Dunwich, a village nestled in a valley just down the Miskatonic River from the city. Dunwich has a similarly antiquated architectural style to Arkham, but with a notably higher number of deserted and collapsing buildings. There’s a “faint, malign odour” about the village street, and visitors are keen to get out of Dunwich if they can’t afford passing through it at all. This decay is a reflection of the inhabitants, who are portrayed as dull witted in-breds, incapable of wrestling with the fact that a family in their midst has been breeding with cosmic entities, and a group of gentleman academics from Miskatonic University have to intervene to expel the cross-breed creature that gives the story its title, The Dunwich Horror.

Similar wrong doings are afoot on the streets of Innsmouth, but on a far larger scale. The coastal twin to Dunwich, Innsmouth is a dilapidated former ship building town in a state of near constant collapse, whole streets boarded up and the docks that were once the lifeblood of the town in total decay. The Dunwich Horror was built on fairly generic prejudices against country folk as inbred and depraved, but The Shadows Over Innsmouth has created an extremely distinct sub-genre of horror concerning isolated fishing towns where the locals have developed an overly close relationship with ancient, long forgotten and demonic creatures that live beneath the waves.

Much of the story is taken up with the narrator’s walking tour of Innsmouth, and his steadily building unease, which is only released as he escapes the town; as such, Innsmouth is one of the most precisely described locations in the Lovecraft canon. The narrator criss-crosses specific streets both on his tour and in his escape, and particular locations linger in the mind – the deserted warehouse district, the old churches converted to the local Dagon cult, and the overgrown, deserted railway line that cuts through the marshes and allows the hero to escape, only to find that his ancestry has doomed him all along.

The idea of deserted and collapsing buildings, of a desolate urban landscape fallen to ruin, is a recurring motif both in Lovecraft country and further afield. It embodies both the writer’s fear of everything he considered alien and inferior, but also the overwhelming cosmic despair in his work: the morbid sense that everything falls to decay, that nothing matters.

Outside of Lovecraft Country, out in foreign lands, there are even more desolate cities that reflect that cosmic sense of pointlessness, proof that civilisations far older and more advanced than mankind have been and gone leaving minimal trace. The Nameless City, in the story of the same name, is little more than a pile of weathered, sinister stones in a desert in the Arabian Peninsula, the few surviving buildings being temples with disturbingly low ceilings and altars. Although the narrator resists the idea at first, he eventually accepts that the small, reptilian beings he finds mummified in a tunnel deep beneath the Earth are the true occupants of the Nameless City: a race which long before the time of man retreated underground to evade the encroaching sands of the desert, eventually ascending into a ghostly form residing in a glowing mist down in the depths.

If Lovecraft Country is a relatively tight area in New England, then the lost cities of predecessor races are much more scattered, reflecting early 20th century ideas of where hidden places might still exist in an over-explored but pre-satellite imaging world. As well as the Nameless City beneath the desert sands, there’s R’lyeh, a sunken city of great green dripping blocks that briefly rises to the surface of the sea off the coast of New Zealand in The Call of Cthulhu. Again the proportions of R’lyeh are at a scale disturbing to human eyes, albeit at one far larger than human scale rather than one far smaller. R’lyeh is where great Cthulhu – a sort of giant and terrifying cosmic squid – lies dreaming, and his city infects the dreams of those who hear about him, with its horrible hieroglyphs and monumental green stones, the very geometry suggesting creatures from beyond our reality. 

Cthulhu before Rlyeh: an artist’s impression. Image: Bendukiwi/Wikimedia Commons.

The most lavishly described of Lovecraft’s ancient, deserted cities is the one found on a plateau in a colossal mountain range in Antartica in At The Mountains of Madness. Home to the Elder Things back when that frozen continent was a jungle, the deserted city may – or may not – be the fabled plain of Leng. What is for sure is that it’s a monumental sprawl “boundless miles” wide, with five pointed towers connected by walkways, and cube-like temples clinging to the mountain tops themselves. Made of “prodigious blocks of dark primordial slate”, the city is again of a scale and geometry disturbing to human eyes, not surprising as the Elder Things looked like a cross between a cactus and a jellyfish, with tiny wings allowing them to float around.

Curiously, while Lovecraft’s characters are alarmed by the alien qualities of the Elder Things and their city, a sneaking admiration creeps in. Like the academics of old Arkham, the Elder Things are essentially civilised beings, and like mankind they were prone to sliding into degeneracy and self-destruction. Lovecraft reserves the true terror and loathing for the Shoggoth, huge lumbering beasts engineered by the Elder Things to do the grunt work of building the city. Even in Antartica, Lovecraft’s own prejudices come to bear – the Elder Things’ greatest failing was not keeping their ‘slave race’ under control. 

As ever, for every mysterious environment uncovered there’s another one just beyond. The Elder Things, devolved and retreating from both the encroaching ice and rogue Shoggoths, disappeared into a sunless sea beneath their city. That sea itself is fed by waters from an even more ominous mountain range overlooking the Elder Things’ deserted city.

Even the Elder Things feared these mountains, speculated to be the home of Kadath, home of the Gods and the destination of Randolph Carter’s dream quest in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. In that story Kadath has been deserted, the Gods moving out to the glorious, golden city they saw in Carter’s dreams, itself a memory of his childhood in Boston. Both the Gods and the ideal city are always out of reach, just as the mysterious deserted cities Lovecraft’s characters wander through hide access points to even more mysterious places. 

For Lovecraft, the city represented the peak to which civilisation could reach, a peak which any civilised epoch would inevitably gloomily plunge off into decadence and eventual annihilation. Not one for large scale action or shocks, it’s these urban environments that live on in the imagination after reading him, far more than any specific events. In the shadow of those looming buildings, evoking our own complex feelings about the life of the city, we face our fears – and sometimes our own prejudices.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.