Too hot to breathe today: the dark spirit of paranoia that possesses “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” by The Mountain Goats

Some years ago, when I was still involved in the teaching malarky, a student put forth the proposition that John Darnielle would be a suitable subject for a talk as part of a Lyrical Poetics program I was running under the auspices of Camena: The Poetry Society. To my embarrassment I knew little or nothing of John Darnielle and his band: The Mountain Goats, but J****, the student, kindly provided me with a CD of their latest album Heretic Pride to whet my appetite. And lurking deep within the tracks on an album stuffed with many monsters (Michael Myers, the Swamp Creature, the autoclave surviving bacteria, blood frenzied sharks, the Tianchi Lake monster and even Satan) was the one that I am going to make the focus of this week’s study – a different type of monster than all the other monsters, a monster that goes by the name of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”.

The monsters in Heretic Pride are generally housed in the deceptive grooves of upbeat, predominantly acoustic accompaniment. The unsuspecting listener is thus led like a lamb to the very brink of slaughter, with the only hint of what is to come the unsettling whispers of something not quite right contained in stray lines and phrases which escape from their harmonic prison:

Bells ring in the tower/Wolves howl in the hills  (“Sax Rohmer #1”);
 And they dig a trench in the main square right there/And they pick me up and throw me down (“ Heretic Pride”);
 I dreamt that I was perched atop/ A throne of human skulls (“Autoclave”); 
Ravens at the gates/ Frightening all the visitors away (“New Zion”);
 Ugly things in the darkness/ Worse things in store (“In the Craters on the Moon”)

but by that stage, as the frantic final chords of “In the Craters of the Moon” build in a frenzied full-on assault, it is, of course, too late.


Formed in 1991in Claremont California by John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats were initially a group in name only, being the vehicle for Darnielle’s songs. The early albums were all lo-fi affairs (deliberately so), but on 2002’s Tallahassee Darnielle adopted a more polished production, facilitated in part by the more traditional band line-up of bass guitar, drums and rhythm guitar backing his vocals and guitar. By the time 2008’s Heretic Pride was released a settled band line-up of Darnielle, Peter Hughes (bass), and Jon Wurster (drums) was established and continued through to the latest album, 2020’s Getting Into Knives.

In the shadows: The Mountain Goats promo photo for Goths 2016 – Jeremy Lange

Let us commence our forensic trawl through “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” by initially focussing on the twin elements of the title. The name Lovecraft, for it is indeed a name, will be familiar to, and thereby attract, individuals predisposed to horror writing, in particular the subgenre of weird fiction – for Lovecraft, or Howard Phillips Lovecraft to give him his full name, is recognized as the grandfather of Weird Fiction.1 In “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Lovecraft gives his definition of weird fiction:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.2

Mark Fisher, the British writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher, defined the ‘weird’ as “an entity or object […] so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here.”3 And strangely, whether by design or accident – most likely design – that’s what Darnielle does with his placement of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” in the track flow of Heretic Pride, where the whining feedback and thrashy cut of the intro identify it instantly as different to the preceding tracks’ deceptive acoustic thrum, to such an extent that it seems to be an interloper from some other artist’s metally stabbing thrust-music album – it should not exist here, and yet it does.4 If, having immersed themselves in the strange glory of the track, the listener then doubles back to revisit the preceding tracks with the knowledge of what is to come, the disparity between the light emanating from the uplifting quality of the music and the sulfurous darkness of the lyrical content creates a dissociation which is only resolved once the thumping flagellation of the intro to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” explodes once more from the speakers.   

Listen to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”


Lovecraft by DanielGovar available on Deviant Art here

Darnielle, in collaboration with songwriter/artist Jeffrey Lewis, provided a three-page comic book press kit for the Heretic Pride album – here is what Darnielle said about “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”:

American horror icon H.P. Lovecraft moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn to be with the woman he loved. He had never really seen any people who were not white folks from Massachusetts. Immigrants were spilling into Brooklyn from the four corners of the globe. Lovecraft’s xenophobia during his time in Brooklyn resulted in some of the weirdest, darkest images in all American literature; One must condemn Lovecraft’s ugly racism, of course, but his not-unrelated inclination toward a general suspicion of anything that’s alive is pretty fertile ground.

Peruse the Heretic Pride press kit

It is Lovecraft’s “ general suspicion of anything that’s alive”  which Darnielle channels to create the oppressive atmosphere of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”, which in turn feeds the paranoia of the song’s narrator.  The burgeoning population of Brooklyn,one of the five boroughs of New York, at the time of Lovecraft’s ill-starred sojourn there, has continued up to the present day; so much so that, with an estimated 2,648,403 residents in 2020, if the borough of Brooklyn was viewed as a city it would be the third largest in the US, after Los Angeles and Chicago. In his short story “The Horror at Red Hook”, written during his time in Brooklyn, Lovecraft wrote of 

the chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men which wound their way along in the dark small hours of morning. One saw groups of these youths incessantly; sometimes in leering vigils on street corners, sometimes in doorways playing eerily on cheap instruments of music, sometimes in stupefied dozes or indecent dialogues around cafeteria tables near Borough Hall, and sometimes in whispering converse around dingy taxicabs drawn up at the high stoops of crumbling and closely shuttered old houses. They chilled and fascinated him more than he dared confess […] for he seemed to see in them some monstrous thread of secret continuity; some fiendish, cryptical, and ancient pattern utterly beyond and below the sordid mass of facts and habits and haunts listed with such conscientious technical care by the police.                                    

H P Lovecraft: Lovecraft’s Fiction Volume I, 1905-1925, p552

This description reveals both the horror that Lovecraft felt and his rampant racism, and the combination of these two elements creates, albeit not intentionally, a heightened feeling of unease in the reader who is experiencing Lovecraft’s dread of the [to him] alien invaders, but is to some degree repulsed by his xenophopbic description of that group.The extent to which his experiences affected him is apparent in “He”, the companion piece to  “The Horror at Red Hook”,where the narrator describes his time in Brooklyn as a “mistake”, 

for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration […] I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.

                   H P Lovecraft: Lovecraft’s Fiction Volume I, 1905-1925, p564

Ironically, considering Lovecraft’s experience , the motto of Brooklyn is Unity Makes Strength. For Lovecraft it was a misguided sense of superiority and the related separation of the self from the whole, and the fear that engendered,  which dictated his experiences whilst there and informed his most successful writing, much of which succeeded his stay in Red Hook. 


“Somebody’s opened up the fire hydrant” Brooklyn 1960s – Life Magazine

In the opening line of the song, the oppressive heat [“It’s going to be too hot to breathe today”] hints at the oppressive paranoia which haunts both the song and the narrator.The juxtaposition of the next line, “cold water rushing out in sheets”, up against the overwhelming heat, not only serves to emphasise the extreme temperature, but also, in the source of the water, the opened fire hydrant, places the action, the narrator, and the listener firmly in the city – not so much the “hissing of summer lawns” as would be experienced in the suburbs [a reference to a profusion of suburban lawn sprinklers by Joni Mitchell, in her 1975 track and album of the same name], but the roaring gush of city streets. The tradition of opening fire hydrants, known as ‘uncapping’, appropriately precedes Lovecraft’s stay in Brooklyn. Here Cait Etherington explains how and why ‘uncapping’ started, and why it is still popular today.

New Yorkers have been uncapping with and without permission since the “Great Heat Wave of 1896,” which lasted 10 days and resulted in more than 1300 fatalities. On that occasion, the hydrants were technically opened to cool down the streets and help wash away accumulating piles of garbage, but this didn’t stop New Yorkers, especially the city’s youngsters, from running into the street to cool down. Over the coming decades, the practice of uncapping continued to gain popularity but not without complaints. These complaints would eventually lead city officials to ban this spontaneous form of summer fun.

Although uncapping was no longer legal, throughout the twentieth century, the practice persisted. As a result, in the late 1950s, six city agencies met to come up with a solution. They eventually agreed to start distributing free spray caps. To kick off the campaign, the Police Athletic League distributed 1000 free spray caps citywide in the summer of 1960. With each spray cap, a wrench was also given to an “authorized responsible adult” in the neighborhood to help turn the cap on and off as needed. With fire hydrants far outnumbering available spray caps, however, the problem was not solved. During one heatwave in the summer of 1972, so many children uncapped hydrants that water pressure started to drop in neighborhoods across the city. In an effort to lower water consumption, the Mayor’s office toured neighborhoods, encouraging residents to use spray caps instead, which release only 25 to 28 gallons per minute versus as much as 1700 gallons per minute. Unfortunately, just as most kids would choose a bigger rather than smaller waterpark, the same logic applies to uncapping. Why splash in a mere 25 gallons per minute when you can have 1700?


By the time we get to the seemingly throw-away third line [Some kid in a Marcus Allen jersey asks me for a cigarette] we are firmly entrenched on the sweltering street. But the importance of this particular line, to the setting, the oppressive paranoia of the narrator, and in making a direct connection back to Lovecraft’s experiences, far exceeds its simple descriptive power. To really understand the significance of this line, and to appreciate Darnielle’s genius as a songwriter – which is indeed encapsulated in this line – we have to learn a little bit about Marcus Allen. Allen was an All Pro running back with the Los Angeles Raiders from 1982 to 1993, during which he set many records and received numerous honours5; he was undoubtedly The Raiders most popular player at that time – as a result there were high sales of  replica Raider’s jerseys with Allen’s name and number 32. The significance, however, of the “kid in a Marcus Allen jersey” is rooted not in Allen’s name on the back of the jersey, but in the jersey itself – the L.A. Raiders jersey.

Marcus Allen goes airborne

From their origins, playing out of Oakland on the West Coast in the 1960s, the Raiders were known as an outlaw team, a team of hard hitting, at times thuggish, players; a team of black sheep who represented the dark side of the NFL; a team who wore their pirate badge with pride. This reputation was already well established when the owner, Al Davis, moved the team to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the 1982 season where the outlaw image was reinforced when “the gangs, particularly the vast Crips alliance, developed a passion for Raiders caps […] about the time they began to expand their drug-dealing and recruitment around the country.”6 A further boost to merchandise sales and to the thug image was provided by the burgeoning rap music industry, with groups like NWA popularizing Raiders fashion on their music videos, choosing to do so because of the already present darkness which surrounded the team.

“Raiders fans were gangsters way before we came into the picture,” Ice Cube said in an interview with KNBR. “We (NWA) came out in 1989; the Raiders had done a lot of damage, as far as leaning towards the outlaw mentality way before we came along. I can’t say we turned the Raider fans into gangsters, they were already dangerous.”

NWA with the attitude and the pirate badge prominent

By using a young person in a Raiders jersey by way of the association with the outlaw football team, street gangs and gangster rappers, Darnielle creates an implicit threat of violence which, because it is not realised, mirrors the threat perceived by Lovecraft in Red Hook, Brooklyn one hundred years previously. And here, Darnielle does what all great writers do, he freights the phrase/ image with several layers of meaning – and by this condensing down he lets a few words do the heavy lifting of many.

Even the “hubcaps on the cars” add to the oppression compared as they are  to “fun house mirrors”, a popular attraction at carnivals, designed to distort reality – mirroring here the mind of the narrator and giving a sideways glance towards the second  Stooges album of the same name from 1970, and to the distorting mirror which features in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen: a fairytale in seven stories, where at the start of the first story the devil makes a mirror

that had the property of reducing everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it into practically nothing, but whatever was fit for nothing and looked bad grew more pronounced and became even worse.[…] the best of people turned ugly or stood on their heads with no stomach, their faces became so distorted that they were unrecognisable, and if someone had a freckle, you could be sure that it spread out over both nose and mouth. It was most amusing, ‘the devil’ said.

Things take an all together darker turn, both literally and metaphorically, when “the sun goes down” in line six. As the “streetlights sputter out” making an “awful sizzling sound” , much like flies attracted to an electric fly-killer by long-wavelength ultraviolet light and then electrocuted, the streets are filled with “armies of the voiceless” who have discarded their bandages to roam the night on pavements covered in blood stains. But where exactly are we at this point? Driver Darnielle where you taking us? [And what do you intend to do to us once we get there?] If we briefly double back it becomes obvious that we have entered a world where the undead, or more accurately zombies, roam. Look at the clues Darnielle gives us:  Clue one- the sun goes down, a classic zombie trope (Night of the Living Dead, I Am Legend, Kingdom); Clue two – the armies of the voiceless – admittedly not as straightforwardly obvious as Clue one, but think about it…do zombies articulate their thoughts via their voice? No! And why not? Because their voice boxes, vocal chords, tongues, and brains have all turned to mush; and  Clue three- too many blood stains on the ground, [which begs the question – just how many blood stains are enough? ] created by too many zombies messily chomping down on too much living flesh, and splattering the pavements. And in the middle of all that lies the beautiful ambiguity of the awful sizzling sound: does it come from the dying streetlights or from the voiceless army of the undead? This is the hinterland of true Lovecraft territory [be patient, we will get there very, very soon] where his Zombie Stories lurk.

Lovecraft was no stranger to the idea of the zombie; but the zombie he wrote about in a series of stories was much closer to the revenants described in Ishtar’s descent into the underworld than the Zombi of Haitian voodoo. Ishtar was a goddess worshipped in Mesopotamia during the third century BCE- her most famous myth details her descent into Kur, the Ancient Mesopotamian underworld, in an attempt to overthrow its ruler, her sister Ereshkigal. As she approaches the gates of the underworld, she issues the following warning to the gatekeeper 

If you do not open the gate for me to come in,
I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
And the dead shall outnumber the living.

Ereshkigal Queen of the Dead and Ruler of the Underworld: British Museum

The uniqueness of the characteristics of Lovecraft’s zombie, and the cultural influence it was to have, is identified by Elizabeth Outka, 

A different strain of zombie-like creatures, however, had emerged earlier in the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. These zombies anticipate the ones George Romero would later depict in films like “Night of the Living Dead”: bloody, lurching, disheveled corpses intent on infecting the living and hungry for human flesh. A perfect incubator for these “viral zombies” were the grisly experiences the influenza pandemic brought to every community.

In his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft was surrounded by the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere. As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side”; the pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).

Lovecraft channeled this climate into his stories of the period – producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake. In his story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” for example, Lovecraft creates a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens – and that echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies.

When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide.7

By the time we enter the endgame, with the narrator waking up “afraid of my own shadow” and rushing to the pawnshop to buy a switchblade, in the sure and certain knowledge that

Someday something's coming from way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here, it'll store our brains in mason jars

Darnielle has abandoned us in the dark interior of Lovecraft territory with a direct reference to Lovecraft’s novella The Whisperer in Darkness, where aliens extract human brains and store them in jars – the safest way to transport them to their home planet. And even though when the “the girl behind the counter” asks the narrator how he feels, he replies “like Lovecraft in Brooklyn”, it is obvious that he is totally possessed by the dark paranoid spirit of Lovecraft – Darnielle has made sure of that – and that we are similarly possessed.

Further Down the Rabbit Hole

Listen to Julian Simpson’s brilliant modern take on HP Lovecraft, The Lovecraft Investigations on BBC Sounds

Visit the H P Lovecraft Archive website which has a fairly comprehensive library of electronic texts of Lovecraft’s writing here

Subscribe to John Darnielle’s podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats here or here

Buy Darnielle’s 33 ⅓ book Black Sabbath: Master of Reality here

Immerse yourself in all things Goat on the Mountain Goats website here

View Marcus Allen: A Football life on YouTube here

AFTERSHOCK

As part of the research for this piece, following links, making connections, experiencing synchronicities, I ended up listening to the Norwegian  black/thrash metal band Aura Noir’s song “Black Deluge Night” (off their 2004 album The Merciless), directed there because, according to Pitchfork, the online music publication, Darnielle sourced the Heretic Pride album title from this particular song: “Soaring demons now swarm the skies/ In awe and heretic pride”. Darnielle’s affinity with metal music of the most extreme kind is no secret: “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”, as already mentioned above, is the first track on the All Hail West Texas album and the first single off the upcoming Mountain Goats album Dark in Here, due to be released on the 25th June, is “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums”. Also, Darnielle’s first book was part of the 33 ⅓ series where each volume focuses on a particular album – background, production, legacy – Darnielle’s choice?   Black Sabbath: Master of Reality. However, uniquely he does not follow the non-fiction template of his predecessors; instead he writes a fictional account of a young man locked up in a psychiatric facility in the mid-1980s who is trying to retrieve his Walkman and  tape copy of the album which have been confiscated. Sounds slightly off the wall, and it is, but it is also, in its creation and realisation, absolutely brilliant. But, I digress. Back to “Black Deluge Night”. Immediately the vocals of Ole Jørgen Moe aka Apollyon cut through the apocalyptic storm of guitars and drums on “Black Deluge Night”, it becomes apparent that Darnielle was doubly inspired by the track: first in his use of the phrase ‘heretic pride’; and then in his doubling of the rhythm and phrasing of Apollyon’s vocals on “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”. Experience this for yourself by listening to the two tracks one after the other – if you suffer from an aversion to the sonically thrashing assault of extreme metal music [ie Aura Noir] you need only listen to a few lines to see the similarity. 

Footnotes

1 In The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, China Miéville defines weird fiction thus: “Weird Fiction is usually, roughly, conceived of as a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction, a dark fantastic (“horror” plus “fantasy”) often featuring nontraditional alien monsters (thus plus “science fiction”).”[China Miéville, “Weird Fiction”,in: Bould, Mark et al. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 510–516]

2 If you are moved to read more, Lovecraft’s essays can be found at: https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx

3 I will return to Mark Fisher and his conception of the weird and eerie in an upcoming blog.

4 This seeming possession should not really surprise anyone familiar with Darnielle’s oeuvre: on the sixth Mountain Goats’s album All Hail West Texas, the first track is “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” with its fade out refrain of “All Hail Satan”- which is even more surprising when you consider Darnielle’s Christian faith. If you would like to explore this album and Darnielle’s creation of it visit the first series of the I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast hosted by John Darnielle and Night Vale writer Joseph Fink.

5 The Raiders selected Allen, a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, in the 1st round of the 1982 NFL Draft. During the strike-shortened 1982 season, Allen earned AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was selected to 5 Pro Bowls as a Raider. Allen was named AP All-Pro 1st Team twice. He was named NFL Most Valuable Player for his efforts during the 1985 season. The Raiders all-time leading rusher gained 8,545 yards on 2,090 carries with 79 TDs. He caught 446 passes for 4,258 yards and 18 TDs. He set then-Super Bowl records with 191 yards rushing and a 74-yard TD run and was named Super Bowl XVIII MVP in the Raiders 38-9 win over the Washington Redskins. He spent five years with Kansas City at the end of his career. Allen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

6 See NY Times for full article at https://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/04/us/raiders-chic-a-style-and-sinister-overtones.html

7 Elizabeth Outka, Associate Professor of English Literature, University of Richmond Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature.
http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/syndicated/viral-zombies-influenza-pandemic-1919-fueled-h-p-lovecrafts-depiction-living-dead/

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