Cannibalism and H.P. Lovecraft

Cannibalism is considered one of the more abhorrent acts by humans and HPL has utilized this concept in a number of his tales. While briefly cited in stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Herbert West: Reanimator,” and an important component associated in the study of ghouls, these stories and subjects will be covered sometime in later the future. This article will focus primarily on a scientific, sociological and cultural decision of cannibalism with upcoming articles focusing on the subject of cannibalism in “The Picture in the House” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Narratio_Regionum_indicarum_per_Hispanos_Quosdam_devastatarum_verissima_Theodore_de_Bry

Depiction of cannibalism by Theodore de Bry

Cannibalism is quite common in nature but data on the extent and importance of it in ecological interactions has been ignored and even suppressed due to the general attitudes on this subject (Perspective’s in Ecological Theory – editors Jonathan Roughgarden, Robert M. May and Simon A. Levin, 1989). Indeed many species utilize cannibalism as a means maximizing sexual selection, recycling nutrients and ensuring the survival of the reproducing individual or offspring. However, cannibalism tends to be more common when resources are limited, which increases intra-specific competition (that is, competition between individuals within the same species).

Cannibalism can also be practiced by parents when resources are low or under added environmental stress. For example, it has been shown that based on environmental changes the male sand goby, a small fish that protect and cares for the fertilized eggs, will consume some of the eggs as dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations decline. The lower the DO concentration, the more eggs he will consume. This is to make certain that there is a sufficient amount of oxygen for the existing eggs. This maximizes the changes of a successful hatch of fewer individuals, rather than having a lower change of a successful hatch for a larger number of individuals (The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer, 2010).

easterngoby_portphillipmarinelife.net.au

Eastern spotted goby (www.portphillipmarinelife.net.au)

Many species of spiders exhibit cannibalism, where the male is eaten by the female immediately after sex. While this is obviously detrimental to the individual male spider, it does substantially increase his chances of transferring his genes to the next generation. Thus, one can see from an evolutionary point of view, where natural selection operates at the level of the population and not the individual, how such a strategy can be considered successful. Other animals known to exhibit cannibalism include praying mantises, scorpions, Mormon crickets, snakes, and rats. Sibling cannibalism has been documented in baby sharks while they are still in the womb and varying degrees of cannibalism have been documented in other animals including saltwater crocodiles, lions and even chimpanzees (www.discovermagazine.com).

Mormon_cricket_cannibals

Cannibalism among Mormon crickets

As previously mentioned, humans consider cannibalism to be a particularly heinous act, similar to incest and murder. While this repulsion is rooted in the evolutionary make-up of our species, it also has large social connotations. Thus, when cannibalism occurs it is extremely shocking and disturbing, even when humans are not involved. An example of this is the stocking of Nile perch in Lake Victoria, located primarily in Tanzania and Uganda but also boarders Kenya, Africa. The Nile perch were originally stocked in Lake Victoria to provide the local communities with a stable source of fish; however, the stocking of this species has had a devastating impact on the large community of native cichlid fishes as well as having other ecological and economic impacts. More to the point the Nile perch exhibit a high degree of cannibalism and when many Tanzanians learned of this they were horrified and decided not to eat the fish for the fear that cannibalism is contagious (Darwin’s Dreampond by Tijs Goldschmidt, 1996). Ironically, as reported in August 2014, illegal fishing and overfishing have put the Tanzanian Nile perch on the verge of extinction (www.busiweek.com).

nile-perch-colour

A large Nile Perch caught in Lake Victoria, Africa

In the essay “Loathsome Objects: George Romero’s Living Dead Films as Contemplative Tools”, Matt Cardin makes the case that the occurrence of cannibalism associated with zombies has three sociological / cultural impacts (Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin, 2010). First, there is the loss of one’s “self” – that is, the boundary between you and “the other” is lost. Second, there is the embodiment of the most basic, animalistic primitive urges of humanity – that is, the need to feed. Third, the horror of opening up ourselves to show we are nothing more than tissue and organs. In a society that frequently places a high value on appearance over substance, exposing this beauty as nothing more than blood and gore elevates the level of the horrific. Essentially, the value of the outside beauty means nothing since inside we are all the same, composed of the same meat and organs.

darkawakeningsbig450

Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin (www.mattcardin.com)

Based on HPL’s tales, particularly the two we will be discussing in upcoming blogs, there is a fourth sociological / cultural impact associated with cannibalism. In both “The Picture in the House” and “The Rats in the Walls,” as well as other tales of HPL’s, cannibalism was an outcome of being isolated from society from both a sociological and genetic perspective. Part of this came from his perception of Puritans and how they seemed to isolate themselves from the world. In particular HPL saw the Puritans as being “the only really effective diabolists and decadents the world has known; because they hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living.” (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013).

To HPL completely cutting off one’s self or family from the world breeds decadence, which included cannibalism; this will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming blog articles. However, to conclude, it is also important to point out that many of the instances of cannibalism in HPL’s stories are associated with either staying home or going back home. This idea of finding horror in one’s backyard was identified in Kenneth Hite’s briefly essay on “The Picture in the House” in his Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011). However, more on this subject in the next article. Thank you – Fred.

On a final note if you are interested in more Lovecraftian Science, please support our Kickstarter at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/lovecraftian-science-volume-1.  Thanks again – Fred.

AwkZO41

Based on many of HPL’s stories isolating one’s self or family from the rest of the world can lead to extreme decadence, including cannibalism

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Cannibalism and H.P. Lovecraft

  1. I think you’re missing a line up there by the May and Levin reference.

    One thing you may have overlooked is /sacred/ cannibalism; the symbolic (or sometimes, not-so-symbolic) act of consuming a part of a person or deity to take on their attributes. It doesn’t appear very often in Lovecraft – although Brian McNaughton made relatively more of it in his HPL-inspired Throne of Bones stories – but it’s probably telling of Lovecraft’s relation to both materialism and religion that it is so often absent from his works; where Huysmans and other writers like to parody the Catholic Mass for example, there’s no real comparison in Lovecraft’s work.

    Then of course, there is “The Mound”…

    1. Hey Bobby – thank you for pointing that out. I made the correction on the May and Levin reference (that’s what I get for pasting from Word into WordPress!).

      I will be addressing some of the other ideas you mentioned relative to cannibalism (such as humans in desperate situations and religious / symbolic reasons) in the next few articles. For this current article I wanted to focus on some of the more modern interpretations of cannibalism as well as one of the ideas conveyed in HPL’s stories. The next few articles will cover The Picture in the House and The Rats in the Walls. The topic will come up in subsequent articles when I talk about other stories – for example The Mound (good call on that story!). That story itself will be covered through a number of articles; also, my future discussions on ghouls will also include cannibalism.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      Fred

      1. Absolutely! I briefly mentioned both Herbert West and “The Lurking Fear” as other stories where cannibalism is present. I will need to examine both of those stories (as well as others) in greater detail in the future. Thanks again – Fred.

  2. I think a case could be made for including ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ in this study. While Joseph Curwen is not explicitly described as having perpetrated anthropophagy, there are hints in that direction.

    We already know his diet was firmly slanted towards meat and blood, and plenty of it. We see mention of the “disproportionate orders of meat from the butcher’s” and Curwen’s own insistence that he “must have it red for three months” — and we also know he was responsible for vampiric attacks in Providence once he was resurrected. Human blood would certainly be less convenient to obtain, but was very much preferred, I think.

    But for all his vampirism, did he ever partake of human flesh? Not explicitly, but certain lines from the text have led me to suppose that he did. He certainly wouldn’t be so squeamish as to shrink from the idea. We know there are no depths to which Curwen, Hutchinson and Orne would not stoop!

    Consider Curwen’s unnatural youth and longevity:

    “At length, when over fifty years had passed since the stranger’s advent, and without producing more than five years’ apparent change in his face and physique…”

    Simon Orne and Edward Hutchinson (himself set up in vampire country, lest we forget!) were similarly long-lived, albeit old. But even if their aging had been slowed down by a factor of ten they’d still look old after nearly two and a half centuries had passed, added to their (at least) thirty years back in the 1690s.

    So what? One might say. But stick with me here. Vampirism. Extreme carnivorous tendencies. A preference for human blood over animal. A slowed aging process. Now, consider again the robustness of that ancient man from the Miskatonic valley!

    “They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same.”

    1. Great points Phil – “The Picture in the House” also has the theme of possible unnaturally long life due to cannibalism. Dexter Ward is one of those stories that will require multiple articles, which I may do this year. Thanks again! Fred.

  3. Thank you very much for your articles. I will be reading my entire H.P. Lovecraft collection all over again. I am so addicted to it, and your work is making me enjoy this much, much more. I will now read your recent article about The Hounds Of Tindalos. Thank you very much, again 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s