By Simon Maass
In 1919, legendary horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft penned “The Street,” a short story perhaps more pertinent to the current political moment – from a conservative perspective, of course – than any of his other writings. Just over a century later, this is also one of his lesser-known creations, and connoisseurs who have come across it generally pooh-pooh the thing, which probably says less about the story itself than about their left-wing biases.The present review seeks to rectify this sad state of affairs and spotlight the enduring lessons this forgotten gem can teach us.
The plot is as follows. The titular street is constructed by early British settlers somewhere in coastal America, presumably the author’s beloved New England. Years pass, the settlement surrounding it expands into a city, and we are guided through the development of the street and its inhabitants. Fashions change and technology progresses. Underground piping is laid and the air is altered by industrial activity. Yet despite such superficial changes, the British-American spirit of the early days, which made people work hard and live temperately and decently and allowed the street to flourish, is preserved. This powerful Yankee soul steers young men as they valiantly join the First World War, described as a “struggle for civilization.” Yet by now communism, its infiltration of the United States accelerated by the Russian Revolution, has begun to erode the old values. We see the street degenerate into a virtually unpoliceable hotspot of crime, and its moral decay is reflected in the material degradation of its architecture. Gradually, the location becomes a bastion of bolshevik leaders plotting an revolt on a certain Fourth of July. Luckily, calamity is averted when the buildings’ physical deterioration culminates in a collapse of almost the whole street, crushing the would-be revolutionaries before they can execute their sinister designs.
Before we assess the actual merits of the story, let us examine the reception it has received from critics so far. That this has been overwhelmingly negative is hardly surprising, but the forcefulness of some of the condemnation is shocking nonetheless. Wikipedia lists only negative assessments of the story. For instance, S. T. Joshi, widely considered the world’s foremost Lovecraft scholar, is quoted as calling it “probably the single worst tale Lovecaft ever wrote.” The quote from Encyclopedia Cthulhiana author Daniel Harms is this: “If someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey Daniel, I think H. P. Lovecraft was a wordy, overly-sentimental bigot whose stories don’t make much sense,’ this would be the last story I would hand to him to convince him otherwise.” I may not be a widely recognized authority on Lovecraft, but even I can easily come up with an opus of his to which both these comments apply vastly better, namely 1925’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which Hunter C. Eden calls “a tedious and nonsensical screed masquerading as a horror story.” Harms’s critique is nonsensical overall, as he accuses Lovecraft of having the leftist insurrectionists in the plot killed by a “supernatural force.” Thus, he completely misses the point that their downfall results from their corrosive and immoral values, which are reflected in the increasing dereliction of the very houses they inhabit. One feels that Harms was too caught in his own worldview even to understand what message the tale was meant to convey.
Reviewers’ reactions to this beautiful piece of prose provide a sort of microcosm of leftist debate tactics: heavy use of words like “racist” in a manner so curiously inappropriate that one cannot but suspect it of masking some ulterior motive. To Lance Eaton of the By Any Other Nerd blog, whose record of posts leaves littledoubt about his hardcore leftism, “The Street” reveals Lovecraft as a “xenophobic bigot.” He opines: “The tale seems focused largely on the spread of communism at the end, but is a crudely hidden rant about the ‘foreigner’ and how they are going to undo the prestige and power of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.” This position is very representative of the general consensus. Let us break down what is wrong with it. True enough, this story places great emphasis on the grandeur of British-American culture. Not only is this message not “hidden” (nor, for that matter, is it conveyed as a “rant”), but wanting to preserve tradition does not make one a “xenophobic bigot.” Or perhaps, to Lance Eaton, it does. If so, that is the main problem in this whole situation. Although infiltration by foreign radicals – and not just foreigners as such, as Eaton’s characterization implies – is a major concern in “The Street,” Lovecraft expressly mentions that the conspirators are joined by some “faces like those who fashioned The Street and moulded its spirit.” And yes, of course there are racist undertones to the story. What is absurd, however, is to treat them as its most significant feature when the pivotal event in the plot is portrayed as arising from the replacement of tradition by revolutionary ideology. Lovecraft’s racism is also much more explicit in other writings which nonetheless represent some of his best-known and most popular work, such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “Herbert West – Reanimator.” To cite Hunter C. Eden again, the horror pioneer’s racialist beliefs “tend to surface as little asides: Just so you know, these depraved cultists are mulattoes. You roll your eyes, think, “Get over it, Howard,” and then you’re back with the warped fish men of Innsmouth and the Escherian geometry of Cthulhu’s tomb.” This opus is no exception – and yet its racist component is blown out of proportion even by a comparatively moderate commentary, an academic paper by a Jay McRoy.
Let us now see what merits “The Street” truly possesses. Inverting the normal order of things, I will first analyze the ways in which this piece of literature is relevant to the present day and then show why it deserves appreciation by Lovecraft fans, within the context of the author’s total oeuvre.
Firstly, the narrative shows how communist and other extremist movements (since the plotters’ ideology is in large part defined through its opposition to “America and […] the fine old traditions which The Street had loved,” one could well imagine them as Islamists, too) are prone to collapse under their own depravity and the built-in flaws in their Weltanschauung. Indeed, this early-twentieth-century parable feels like a precursor to “Atlas Shrugged,” which continuously stresses that its socialist villains meet their downfall because their philosophy simply does not work. This is also, of course, observable in every communist country ever: the Soviet Union, for instance, lost the Cold War and failed to spread Marxism worldwide because of its economic stagnation first and foremost. Currently, we are seeing a milder expression of this pattern in the deep ineffectiveness of the Biden administration, which has let itself be steered by the Democratic Party’s increased radicalism into attempting steps transformative beyond all feasibility and has built up a spectacular record of failures. Witness the miserable flops of the Build Back Better agenda, the overly hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden’s handling of inflation. Catastrophes like these are likely about to cost the Democrats Congress. CNN of all outlets writes of “a White House consumed by problems Biden can’t fix.” Once again, the radicals’ house is collapsing because of their own radicalism.
Another lesson is the importance of law and order. This may sound platitudinous, but I find it fascinating that Lovecraft describes the subversives’ ideology so minimally while devoting so much more description to their violent intent and disruption of the public order, including policing. This is insightful in two big ways. For one, it recognizes that a major goal of revolutionary struggle, despite stated lofty goals, is simple destruction and chaos. Catholic professor Paul Kengor has basically been making this point for years, highlighting the passages in the “Communist Manifesto” which state that communism’s “ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” and “Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” We may also look at the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ), the closest the United States has come to a communist or anarchist insurrection in many years. In 2020, Matthew Continetti observed: “It is not clear what [CHAZ] wants. Walter Duranty’s successor in the Times noted that one petition listed three demands, another five, and an online manifesto thirty. The consistent theme is abolition of the police” (emphasis mine). A further insight is that anarchy is more dangerous than communism. One of the greatest political books of this century is Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” because it so magisterially debunks the Rousseauian notion of the “noble savage” living in a pre-state commune. The absence of government and police, Pinker meticulously shows, invariably leads to astronomic levels of violence. So while the late Soviet Union was a livable, if stagnant, environment, a system like CHAZ could surely never have lasted for the USSR’s 69 years. Lovecraft even saw the importance of police morale. Compare truth to Lovecraft’s fiction: earlier this year, an investigation into problems with the Portland Police Bureau commissioned by the city’s mayor spotlighted “officers’ […] frustrations with the public[…] and general morale issues,” as reported in the Portland Mercury. In “The Street,” we read: “Many times came bands of blue-coated police to search the shaky houses, though at last they ceased to come; for they too had grown tired of law and order, and had abandoned all the city to its fate.” The parallel is almost eerie.
Then there is the finesse with which Lovecraft depicts the newly established communist power bases. Near the plot’s climax, he provides this delightful, yet simultaneously almost comical buildup: “So The Street slept uneasily on, till one night there gathered in Petrovitch’s Bakery and the Rifkin School of Modern Economics, and the Circle Social Club, and Liberty Café, and in other places as well, vast hordes of men whose eyes were big with horrible triumph and expectation.” Daniel Harms actually derides him for this: “Besides, how scary can a story be when it includes a cesspool of human degradation called that [sic] ‘Rifkin School of Modern Economics’?” Quite scary, in fact, because of its realism. This is precisely how revolutionary subversion works: radicals, often with violent intent, gather in groups and movements with names that sound innocuous, virtuous, or even academic. “Antifascism,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Critical Theory,” “Modern Monetary Theory,” “Social Justice” – the pretty buzzwords they use for cover are too many to count. Then they seek to pave the way to overthrow. Although people seem to have grown more cynical and disillusioned in recent years, they still often fall for such specious language, and therein lies part of the brilliance of “The Street”: by choosing venues with such respectable names as his hives of villainy, he makes his readers jarringly aware of how words are used to deceive them.
These are only some of the sparks of political wisdom to be gleaned from this profound parable, and every reader will likely have different takeaways. Now it is time to judge the story’s literary merits and situate it in the context of Lovecraft’s other work.
This tale is fantastic at what it does, although what it does may not be for everyone. The prose, as in everything from this writer’s pen, is gorgeous. Yet despite retaining that distinctive style mostly associated with the Cthulhu Mythos, the writing also maintains a flavor otherwise seldom seen in Lovecraft’s work. Jay McRoy correctly attributes to it “a tone that […] creat[es] an almost fairy tale-like quality” (p.337) and likens it to “an age-old yarn or fable” (ibid.). Anyone who has tried to write consistently in a fairy-tale style knows how challenging it is, but here it is flawlessly achieved. The most stunning example of this feature must be the opening sentence: “There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.” If that does not rope you in, I dare not say what will. The phraseology is a selling point in itself: if you like, you can take a step back and admire Lovecraft’s skill in portraying modern-day concepts in old-timey verbiage. For instance, to use the word “undercover” or “investigation” (let alone “stakeout”) would clash with his chosen style. Note how beautifully he gets around this difficulty: “With great diligence did men of hidden badges linger and listen.” The story also charms through concision,being no longer than necessary, and the author’s love of history is on full display via the vivid descriptions of various past ages. However, some readers may find the similarities to a fairy tale or fable unpleasant, such as the use of an omnicient narrator, the fairly summary storytelling and the lack of any “round” (or even named) characters.
The story relates to other Lovecraftiana in interesting ways. It may just be its writer’s most optimistic narrative, albeit in a typically twisted way. Scholar Benjamin E. Zeller sees in Lovecraft’s fiction an “anti-millennialism,” a subversion of “millennial” ideas that mankind was headed for some fundamental redemption or utopia. In contrast, the horror titan’s literary output tends to suggest that humanity is headed for downfall and destruction. Although, if Zeller is right, this “anti-millennialism” is a pessimistic spin on an optimistic tradition, “The Street” seems to provide an optimistic spin on Lovecraft’s pessimism – an inversion of an inversion, perhaps. The gradual moral and social decay portrayed in so much of his work in this case has a positive effect, preventing the villains from realizing their nefarious goals. It is even hinted that the weakened traditional values may be revitalized by the collapse of the revolutionary project. This story, consequently, provides a welcome (depending on the reader) change from the author’s customary doom and gloom. It is also curious to see him focus on the heroism of the First World War, whereas he uses it as a source of horror in “Herbert West – Reanimator” and details in his nonfiction essay “At the Root” how it has rendered him cynical about mankind’s prospects for betterment.
Lovecraft’s deep adoration of architecture, which he often uses in his fiction to set a tone or establish the character and history of a certain location, is nowhere clearer than in “The Street.” The narrator even spells out his sense that “things and places [may] have souls.” In addition to being contagious and giving us several fetchingly vivid descriptions, it makes this – in one respect – the quintessential Lovecraft story, which makes it all the fishier that many who are apparently interested in his art profess disdain for it.
Religion has more of a presence here than in most of the author’s writings, and certainly more of a positive one. While readers usually only get crazed cultists disgustingly worshiping horrible alien gods out of his stories, here Christianity is obliquely mentioned as one of the bedrocks of the early settler culture that made America prosperous. Such positive depictions are a bit of a rarity for Lovecraft, though another one occurs in “Herbert West – Reanimator,” with the implicitly Christian and heroic Dr. Allan Halsey.
“The Street” is ridiculously underrated, and my characterization of it cannot really do it justice. If you are a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, you should read it. If not, you should read it anyway. If you are looking for an introduction to Lovecraft, read another one of his stories first, as this one is somewhat atypical in style – but do read this one afterwards. Perhaps now more than ever, this pearl deserves not just a read, but a fair bit of reflection as well.