Lovecraft’s “The Mound”: An Exercise in Eugenics, With a Side of World-Building

Spoiler warning and content warning for discussions of racism, eugenics, white supremacy, Nazism, torture, death, slight sexual content, and the usual Lovecraftian horrors… Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack here.

The Mound is a novella, but for me personally, reading Lovecraft often requires the same effort of reading a novel, even though his works are often quite short in length. This was one of those times. His style of writing is very dense and full of minute detail, with lots of build-up leading to oftentimes not-so climatic climaxes. I don’t read Lovecraft for his writing style, though– I read him for the amazing realities and unrealities he manages to carve into my imagination, flaws and all– and this is where his penchant for detail shines and, in my opinion, enhances his work.

Although, I guess I am rather Lovecraftian myself in that I too have a penchant for going on long-winded tangents, as I am going to do in this blog post. 😉

H. P. Lovecraft's The Mound, At Last.... - Dark Worlds Quarterly

First of all, I think it’s important to note that this work was written in collaboration with Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, who also worked with Lovecraft on The Curse of Yig and Medusa’s Coil. However, in the case of The Mound, Bishop hired Lovecraft as a ghostwriter, and he expanded the story greatly from her original idea.

El Espejo Gótico: Zealia Bishop: relatos de terror
Zealia Bishop– isn’t she pretty?

It is difficult to talk about Lovecraft without mentioning the problematic and harmful viewpoints he held, which unfortunately are clearly demonstrated in his writing. There is a lot of outdated, racist language in this novella, particularly regarding Indigenous Americans, which are depicted throughout this work as belonging to an inferior race compared to the, in Lovecraft’s eyes, much more “civilized, advanced” Europeans. Every Indigenous character is written as a caricature. Personally, I felt like the racism within this novella was a lot more blatant than in a lot of the other works of Lovecraft I have read. That does not erase the fact that more subtle displays of racism are just as dangerous. It did, however, particularly jar me upon my reading.

A prime example is near the beginning of the novella, as Lovecraft describes a supposed apparition who is seen haunting a mound outside of the town of Binger, Oklahoma, which our story is based around. He makes sure to emphasize the fact that this apparition is far too “civilized” to belong to an Indigenous tribe, after a pretty poor attempt at physical anthropology:

 Modern Indians are brachycephalic—round-headed—and you can’t find any dolichocephalic or long-headed skulls except in ancient Pueblo deposits dating back 2500 years or more; yet this man’s long-headedness was so pronounced that I recognised it at once, even at his vast distance and in the uncertain field of the binoculars…

As he paced back and forth along the top of the mound I followed him for several minutes with the glass… there was borne in upon me the strong, persistent conviction that this man, whoever or whatever he might be, was certainly not a savage. He was the product of a civilisation, I felt instinctively, though of what civilisation I could not guess…

From my research, I discovered the medical term “brachycephaly” actually refers to skulls which are abnormally short. This is caused by medical or genetic abnormalities in humans, such as Down Syndrome or craniosynostosis, and is not normal for any “race.” (The fact that race itself is a social construct is a discussion for another time.)

In anthropology, however, the controversial concept of the cephalic index refers to a method of characterizing humans based on the shapes of their skulls: dolichocephalic (long-headed), mesaticephalic (moderate-headed), or brachycephalic, or short-headed. Encyclopedia Britannica describes how “the cephalic index is the breadth [of the skull] multiplied by 100 divided by the length” and describes that dolichocephalic skulls “are typical of Australian aborigines and native southern Africans“; mesaticephalic skulls are “typical of Europeans and the Chinese“; and brachycephalic skulls are “common among Mongolians and the Andaman Islanders.”

Of course, you can imagine how this was used to justify racism. An example of this comes from Count Georges Vaucher de Lapouge, a French anthropologist who in The Aryan: His Social Role classified the “Aryan” race as being dolichocephalic and superior over the brachycephalic races, which he stated were “mediocre and inert.” In his eyes, a prime example of these “mediocre” brachycephalic races was found in the Jews. His theories later went on to influence Nazi doctrine. An interesting note is that Lapouge’s definition of dolichocephalic varies from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s modern-day definition, which defines various Indigeneous peoples as being dolichocephalic.

Cephalic index - Wikiwand

Returning back to The Mound: Following our narrator’s encounter with the apparition, he goes to talk to a leader on a reservation nearby Binger, who is named Gray Eagle. His dialogue throughout the novella is written as shown in the example below, and honestly took me multiple reads to decipher:

“You good boy—you no bother that hill. Bad medicine. Plenty devil under there—catchum when you dig. No dig, no hurt. Go and dig, no come back. Just same when me boy, just same when my father and he father boy. All time buck he walk in day, squaw with no head she walk in night. All time since white man with tin coats they come from sunset and below big river—long way back—three, four times more back than Grey Eagle—two times more back than Frenchmen—all same after then…”

I think that pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

However, once our questionable narrator discovers the manuscript of a certain “Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, gentleman, of Luarca in Asturias,” who the story and I will mostly refer to as Zamacona, we set most of the racism and eugenics aside temporarily. Here begins our narrator’s tl;dr of Zamacona’s manuscript. (In true Lovecraft fashion, it’s still pretty long.) This is where all of the cool world-building starts, because K’n-yan is, in my opinion at least, really fucking awesome– and definitely the salvation of a story that so far has been lacking in all areas except for bigotry.

The K’n-yanians themselves are an ancient race that Cthulhu (or, as they refer to him, Tulu) brought to Earth long ago, when the planet was still young. They end up building a giant civilization on the former continent of Mu, which eventually ends up sinking into the ocean, as Lovecraftian continents tend to do. The K’n-yanians see this as bearing resemblance to the sinking of Cthulhu’s once-great city of R’lyeh (which, in this story, is called Relex), which occurred thanks to the influence of primordial beings even more terrifying than the Great Old Ones, who the K’n-yanians refer to as “space-devils.” For this reason, they decide “No man not a slave of the space-devils… could live long on the outer earth,” and move their civilization underground. Their entrances to the surface world eventually fall into deep states of disrepair– and are no longer guarded as they initially were, resulting in pesky meddlers such as Zamacona making their way into K’n-yan.

Zamacona just wants to discover some golden cities and do fun conquistador things, but his plans are foiled when some of the beasts of K’n-yan (known as Gyaa-Yothn) discover his presence and report it to their masters. However, instead of committing unspeakable horrors to Zamacona (yet, anyway) the K’n-yanians decide to spend “almost a whole terrestrial day” telling him all about the history and mythology of their society, in return for his knowledge of the outside world.

Much to the surprise of Zamacona, the K’n-yanians communicate mainly telepathically. Zamacona, initally unable to communicate with them in any human language, quickly learns that “He could understand them merely by concentrating his attention upon their eyes; and could reply by summoning up a mental image of what he wished to say, and throwing the substance of this into his glance.” They are, however, capable of speech, but reserve it for “religious devotions and emotional expressions.” The K’n-yanians are able to control their slaves with the sheer strength of their mental force, and are also gifted at dematerialization:

This was the ability of the people of K’n-yan to regulate the balance between matter and abstract energy, even where the bodies of living organic beings were concerned, by the sheer force of the technically trained will. In other words, with suitable effort a learned man of K’n-yan could dematerialise and rematerialise himself—or, with somewhat greater effort and subtler technique, any other object he chose; reducing solid matter to free external particles and recombining the particles again without damage. 

Honestly, as far as Lovecraftian horrors go, the K’n-yanians are pretty cool folks. Sure, they spend their free time torturing slaves in Romanesque amphitheaters and having orgies in temples dedicated to eldritch beings such as Shub-Niggurath, Nug, Yeb, and of course, good ‘ol Tulu. But, at least initially, they really don’t seem to have any desire to harm Zamacona. In fact, they instead give him a decked out apartment, a library, and even assign him an affection-group to keep him company, all on one simple condition– he can never leave. It’s basically a communist paradise, and Lovecraft even describes the government of the main city of Tsath as “communistic or semi-anarchical.” Zamacona, though, is ever-ungrateful and attempts multiple escapes, culminating in his torture, death, and reanimation as a (basically) zombie slave known as a y’m-bhi, forever destined to guard the very exit to the outside world he tried to escape from.

Another interesting underlying theme in “The Mound” is the degeneration of society, as described by Zamacona, who begins to fear harm from the K’n-yanians more and more as his stay with them continues:

The omnipresent moral and intellectual disintegration was a tremendously deep-seated and ominously accelerating movement. Even during his stay the signs of decay multiplied. Rationalism degenerated more and more into fanatical and orgiastic superstition…

The ruling type itself had become highly superior through selective breeding and social evolution—the nation having passed through a period of idealistic industrial democracy which gave equal opportunities to all, and thus, by raising the naturally intelligent to power, drained the masses of all their brains and stamina.

I feel these excerpts serve as an interesting insight into Lovecraft’s world views, but since this post is already quite long, I will save that discussion for another time.

One of my favorite parts of this tale focuses on a mysterious and feared being known as Tsathoggua. Lying deep underneath K’n-yan exists the black realm of N’kai, shrouded in eternal darkness, and full of idols of Tsathoggua and the strange, formless blobs who worship them. This place is apparently so horrifying that even the K’n-yanians refuse to return for many years– perhaps even centuries. Eventually though, they decide to go back, but are never able to again find the entrance.

Tsathoggua himself is basically anything I could ever want in a man. (I am a lesbian though, so my standards for men may be a bit… off.) Clark Ashton Smith describes Tsathoggua as such in The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, written around the same time as The Mound:

He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague sensation of both the bat and the sloth. His sleepy lids were half-lowered over his globular eyes; the tip of a queer tongue issued from his fat mouth.
(Smith and Lovecraft were friends, so their works did influence each other. According to the sources I referenced, Smith is the original creator of Tsathoggua.)

Yes. You heard that right. Tsathoggua is a GIANT TOAD SLOTH BAT.
No analysis here, I just felt that was important to share with you all.

Art Credits to Jeff Russell

Tsathoggua is also pretty chill for being a Great Old One. He basically just sleeps and lounges around all day, waiting for his followers to bring him sacrifices to eat. Personally, I can really relate to that, much to the dismay of my girlfriend.

If you’re thinking of reading The Mound– honestly, just skip the first two chapters, unless you really want to read the entire thing. They’re not really that important and mostly full of piss-poor examples of archaeology. Seriously, the only eldritch horrors in the beginning of the story are racism and a complete disregard for proper archaeological fieldwork methods.

You can read “The Mound” and many of Lovecraft’s other works at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive, which also includes information about Lovecraft himself and the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s a great resource, so check it out!

The racist attitudes demonstrated by H.P. Lovecraft and many others are unacceptable, both then and now. To my fellow non-Indigenous people: I urge you to learn about the true history regarding Indigenous America and Indigenous people’s struggles worldwide. Learn about the people whose lands you inhabit. If you can afford it, pay land taxes. Learn about land rematriation and why it matters. Spread awareness about and fight back on issues Indigenous people face. There are many Indigenous organizations to donate to or get involved with. I have included a few below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list– it is just a place to start.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out my Ko-Fi, where you can support me for the cost of a coffee. ❤

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