Big Machine, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Unknown

As I was re-reading sections of Big Machine by Victor LaValle, I couldn’t help but notice a reference to another work of literature. The character Lake has a name taken directly from “At the Mountains of Madness” by H.P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft’s short story, Lake is part of a group of scientists on an expedition to Antarctica who means his end at the hands of strange, and alien entities that he finds living there. While this might sound odd, I believe that Lake’s name is reflective of other “Lovecraftian” elements seen throughout the text.

First I will explain a bit about Lovecraft and what “Lovecraftian” means. H.P. Lovecraft was an influential horror writer who was active in the twenties through thirties. His work was written as a response to popular ideas about science from that time period, and presented a world occupied by strange, alien entities called the “The Great Old Ones”. The Old ones are presented as unknowable, and often malevolent creatures who think of humans as insects, something created by mistake or as a joke. His work emphasizes the unimportance of humanity and the belief that knowledge is only bringing people closer to realizing their own insignificance.

Another of the things that defined H.P. Lovecraft was his intensely racist and xenophobic worldview that often bled into his work. Take for example this passage from his short story, Terror at Red Hook where he describes a group of immigrants as:

“… a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another…It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistle”

This is a man who had a deeply, deeply racist and xenophobic world views, which makes LaValle’s inclusion of his literary elements all the more intriguing.

For all of Lovecraft’s flaws as a writer and as a person, his work challenges our usual notions of agency and consent. His worlds are occupied by otherworldly monsters; that hold inordinate amounts of power. LaValle taps into this theme and reflects in his characters and ideas. The Voice, for example, is the entity that the Unlikely Scholars have all heard at some point in their lives. While some of us in class have compared the Voice to god, I believe that it is an entirely different entity. The being that the Dean describes in the story of Judah Washburn is a fickle, foreign entity that blinds Judah after even after he does exactly what he’s told and does not seem to have the humanity that many people would associate with a god.

It is also important to consider who the Unlikely Scholars are in relation to the voice. They are all people who at some point or another have experienced horrific things and gone through challenging lives. Look at Ricky for example, a man with a history of heroin abuse who spent time in a suicide cult. To me, the Unlikely Scholars are people trying to understand the world, trying to contextualize it in spite of their circumstances. Despite this, they are in a fundamentally unfriendly world, following a cryptic entity they will never be able to truly grasp.

I believe that this is a commentary on race in America and the attempts by African Americans to find value and meaning in their lives in spite of a society that is fundamentally hostile and unfriendly to them. LaValle is using the work of a deeply racist writer to create a world where his protagonists are never completely at home and where the things around them are as alien and strange as the creatures in Lovecraft’s fiction.

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