The Horror At Red Hook: The Complete Lovecraftian #42

It was back in the 80’s when I first came across the literary universe of H.P Lovecraft, and I came across in it a way that many people fo my generation did, in the form of the Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game. To be more specific, I first encounter with Lovecraft was in an RPG magazine called ‘Imagine’, and took the form of a game scenario inspired by one of his stories. I could not tell you which story, in particular, inspired it, as I can’t remember a great deal about it. I can just remember reading the scenario and thinking it all sounded both bizarre and wonderfully interesting. It was also completely at odds with the majority of 80’s RPG fodder. Whatever Call of Cthulhu was, it was certainly not Dungeons and Dragons, Runequest or Travellers which were the big three RPG’s at the time. This was a game of investigation, madness, dark atmosphere and a lurking sense of doom. It was in a word, different. Which is I suspect why CoC is still incredibly popular today when so many DnD clones have fallen by the wayside. CoC is also responsible in part for the resurgence of interest in old tentacle hugger in the last thirty years. So indirectly responsible for this series of blog posts.


Which leads me to the subject of this instalment ‘The Horror at Red Hook‘, because if ever a Lovecraft story read like the background to a CoC scenario its this one. Which is also probably why it has been used for several over the years. It is quintessentially everything you could desire as a CoC player. A mystery set among the dank, dark streets of the Red Hook district of New York in 1920’s. A place ‘more people enter … than leave it on the landward side’.  A mysterious cult practising ancient rites in the cellars of dilapidated brownstone’s. Kidnappings and disappearances, an eccentric scholar, delving into old tomes and mixing with criminals and gangs. A police detective with a hobbyist’s enthusiasm for the occult investigating. Events moving towards a climax, with tantalising hints of dark secrets. An innocent draw into this world unknowingly as a sacrifice. Madness, dark events and the brooding suspension that despite all the events, in the end:-

… Red Hook—it is always the same. Suydam came and went; a terror gathered and faded; but the evil spirit of darkness and squalor broods on amongst the mongrels in the old brick houses, and prowling bands still parade on unknown errands past windows where lights and twisted faces unaccountably appear and disappear. Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are already rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things.

As a story, this tale has its detractors, quite a lot of them in fact. Not least of which is the old tentacle hugger himself, various critics say of ‘The Horror at Red Hook‘…

‘rather long and rambling, and I don’t think it is very good’ ~ H.P Lovecraft

“a piece of literary vitriol” ~ Lin Carter

“horrendously bad” ~ ST Joshi

But then Lovecraft and the rest of these critics never played Call of Cthulhu… So this may be the reason their views are not reflected by my own, and indeed the opinion of many others who came to Lovecraft through CoC I suspect because this tale is exactly what you would expect to find in almost every CoC scenario. Which is also something of a problem, however, because what makes for a good game scenario does not necessarily make for a good story. Yet ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ managed to be just that. A well-paced yarn that doesn’t dwell too long on any aspect of itself. It suffers from none of the problems of the last story I reviewed ‘The Shunned House’. It moves on at a steady but informed pace that lays the story out before in its entirety without ever languishing in excessive exposition. You can read between the lines to add your own ideas to the mix, but the story works. Which puts me at odds with the critics once more, but at least in a positive way this time.

The more damning criticism is probably that of  Peter Cannon who says of it…

“racism makes a poor premise for a horror story.”

Which is an unfortunately very valid point. There isn’t even an argument I put up against that view, and I wouldn’t even if I could think of one. Lovecraft was, as we know, a man whose racial politics were rooted firmly to the right, in an ear when the right was a fair step further to the right than in the modern era. I can forgive him generally as a reader, as I take the view he is a writer from a different time and social politics were very different. His views, abhorrent though they are, were far closer to the mainstream in the 1920’s, so he is a reflection of the times he grew up and was educated in. Despite the opinions held by some people when they discuss Lovecraft, his writings do not (for me)  stand out as any more racist or misogynist than the majority of writers of his era, at least most of the time. That said though some tales are nastier than others in this regard, and there is indeed much that can make the modern reader cringe uncomfortably about ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. A word or two here and there, the choice of description, his use illegal immigrants as the basis of his cult… Let’s just say this Lovecraft story would be popular in the Trump White House if the residents were inclined to read…

It is also noticeable that Lovecraft lived in New York when he wrote this story, which was also the inspiration for the next tale in this series ‘He’ which was written around the same time. He was not fond of the city because, as he stated in a letter to C.A Smith talking of his inspiration for this story,  of the…

‘herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere in New York’

Which is about as openly xenophobic as its possible to be. While the illegal immigrants he uses as the backbone of his cult in the story as stated as having been ‘rightly turned back at Elis Island’ and it doesn’t get much better in this regard going forward. But if you can get past the racist elements of the story, it’s a cracking tale. Certainly as an idea it of itself it has a lot of legs, and some of the imagery towards around the scenes in the improvised temple below the Red Hook streets witnessed by Thomas Malone the ‘hero’ of the tale are astounding, there is much to love about this…

flaming woman (1)

There is also much that could be made from the core idea of ancient cults still existing beneath the radar of society, strange rites being practised and encouraged by an antiquarian in search of ancient powers, it has echoes in more contemporary works like ‘The Wicker Man’. Its far from a unique idea in Lovecraft either, it is the basis of the plot for ‘The Festival‘ for a start… but this is one of the best examples of the idea in his work. It is also the kind of Lovecraft which most inspired the RPG version of his universe. The investigator slowly being drawn down into a world much dark and more terrifying than they ever imagined from the mundane facts they started with. Evil laying underneath society waiting to consume you should you misstep. Harbouring the knowledge that there is more going on than you can perceive and the darkness hold madness if you look too closely… it’s enough to make me reach for my dice…


So as you may have gathered from that, I like this story quite a lot. Even if old Tentacle hugger disagreed with my opinion. So I don’t really wnat to explain too much of the story, its one I would encourage you to read, which you can here…  It loses a point for the racism and comes with a definite warning about it, but it still gets five out of six little suckers covered tentacle from me. Enjoy, but be warned, what awaits you, waits for you in the darkness below the streets…

5out 6

As ever Further Lovecraftian witterings await you here

This entry was posted in amreading, book reviews, cthulhu, fiction, gaming, goodreads, Lovecraft, mythos, retro book reviews, rites, sci-fi and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Horror At Red Hook: The Complete Lovecraftian #42

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