“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 the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  

While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.