The Shadow out of Spain — Part 1

The people saw upon his wrists the scars of the racks of Spain.

– Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”

One of the unique aspects of the correspondence between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft is their relative openness and closeness of views—or at least prejudices—on race. None of Lovecraft’s other correspondents quite shared his prejudices, and indeed for many of them, such as J. Vernon Shea and James F. Morton, Lovecraft was forced to express and defend his views on race in some detail. If Howard ever had a comparable experience, the letters have not survived; indeed his views on race, while agreeing with Lovecraft in general prejudice, are much less developed, as Howard lacked the need to justify his beliefs to anyone else. With other correspondents who did not share their prejudices, both men generally curbed their speech, though they did not shy away from the subject if it was raised (and, indeed, sometimes raised it themselves). Somewhat ironically, this means that while both Howard and Lovecraft had little to disagree with each other on the topic of race, they were thus both more open to its discussion—or perhaps simply more unguarded in their conversation.

One of these areas of mutual interest involved the Spanish-descended population of the United States, both their persons and their contributions to the local culture and architecture. The Spanish diaspora was both of historical and anthropological interest to Lovecraft and Howard, involving as it did the early European colonization of the Americas, particularly the Southwest; immigration and the continuing interaction with neighboring Hispanic countries such as Mexico and Cuba were also of immediate interest for both men. Through their correspondence, we can gain insight both into their views regarding Spanish immigrants, Mexicans, etc. and the use and depiction of such persons as characters, which both Howard and Lovecraft made use of in their fiction.

In large part, Lovecraft and Howard’s views with regard to Hispanics were shaped by their different experiences. H. P. Lovecraft, on the East Coast, was primarily familiar with Spanish immigrants in New England, as well as Puerto Ricans in urban New York City and Cubans in South Florida (AMTF1.212), including a visit to the ethnic enclave of Ybor City in Tampa (AMTF2.889); his experience of older Spanish influence was largely limited to visits to St. Augustine and New Orleans, the former of which he took as a confirmation on his views regarding cultural assimilation (AMTF1.76-77; cf. SL4.250-254). Robert E. Howard, by contrast, spent his whole life in the Southwest, primarily Texas with trips to neighboring Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and across the border to Mexican towns like Piedras Niegras and Matamoros, where he interacted primarily with Mexicans and Spanish-Americans. This mutual interest but different focus can be seen somewhat in some of the fiction that both men wrote before they began their correspondence in 1930.

For Lovecraft, this fiction can be roughly divided between the fiction set in his New England milieu and that set in the Southwest. Something of an edge case is “The Very Old Folk” (1927), a dream-narrative of Lovecraft’s which is set in Roman Hispania, incorporated into Frank Belknap Long’s novella “The Horror from the Hills” (1931), and recalling one of Lovecraft’s most unusual comments to Howard: “The conquest of Spain, too, would have thrilled me—how inspiring to have been with Scipio under the walls of stubborn Numantia!” (AMTF1.211; SL3.413) Though Lovecraft’s affinity for Rome would eventually help spur the momentous argument on barbarism versus civilization between him and Howard.

The New England stories, “The Terrible Old Man” (1920), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), “Cool Air” (1926), “The Strange High House in the Mist” (1926), and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927) are concerned only very slightly with Hispanic characters to any degree, focusing primarily on either historical references to Spain’s colonial empire and maritime activities (such as the Terrible Old Man paying “for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago”) and more especially with recent Spanish immigrants to the United States, who are portrayed as lower-class and/or criminal. Manual Silva of “The Terrible Old Man” is a robber and “not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions”; the landlady Mrs. Herrero of “Cool Air” is described as “slatternly, almost bearded” and her lodgers as “Spaniards a little above the coarsest and crudest grade”; Captain Manuel Arruda of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” a gentleman of honor, yet also a smuggler of Egyptian mummies. The distinction here is not simply immigrant status but also of class, as exemplified by the exaggerated Spanish-inflected English of Mrs. Herrero, designed by Lovecraft to reproduce and parody the speech of a non-native English speaker:

“Doctair Munoz,” she cried as she rushed upstairs ahead of me, “he have speel hees chemicals. He ees too seeck for doctair heemself—seecker and seecker all the time—but he weel not have no othair for help. He ees vairy queer in hees seeckness—all day he take funnee-smelling baths, and he cannot get excite or warm. All hees own housework he do—hees leetle room are full of bottles and machines, and he do not work as doctair. But he was great once—my fathair in Barcelona have hear of heem—and only joost now he feex a arm of the plumber that get hurt of sudden. He nevair go out, only on roof, and my boy Esteban he breeng heem hees food and laundry and mediceens and chemicals. My Gawd, the sal-ammoniac that man use for keep heem cool!”

The educated and refined Doctor Munoz of “Cool Air” is a notable exception to this trend, and despite being an immigrant to the United States he is held in high regard by the nameless protagonist for his high intellect, education, and cleanliness:

The figure before me was short but exquisitely proportioned, and clad in somewhat formal dress of perfect cut and fit. A high-bred face of masterful though not arrogant expression was adorned by a short iron-grey full beard, and an old-fashioned pince-nez shielded the full, dark eyes and surmounted an aquiline nose which gave a Moorish touch to a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian. Thick, well-trimmed hair that argued the punctual calls of a barber was parted gracefully above a high forehead; and the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding.

Genetics was as yet primitive in the 1920s and 30s, as DNA as a vector for inheritance had not yet been discovered, and Lovecraft’s views on inheritance reflect that misunderstanding; much of his discussion of race in his letters use terms like “stock” and “breeding” taken directly from domestication of animals, and used in the same way. The idea that class differences—not just intelligence and physiognomy, but intangible properties like morality, aesthetic sensibility, and propensity for criminal activity—were an expression of inheritable traits was fairly common, and various “races” were assigned this or that trait based on stereotypes. Here in particular, you can see in Lovecraft’s reference to “Celtiberian” that he is implying a closer relation to the Anglo-Celtic peoples of the British Isles—whom Lovecraft identified himself with—than for the other Hispanic characters.

Lovecraft’s tales of the Southwest up to 1930 include “The Transition of Juan Romero” (1919); two of his ghost-written tales for Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig” (1928) and “The Mound” (1930); and two revisions for Adolphe de Castro, “The Electric Executioner” (1928) and “The Last Test” (1928). De Castro original stories, “The Automatic Executioner” and “Clarendon’s Last Test” or “A Sacrifice for Science,” betray the older prejudices of the 1890s, some of which is retained in Lovecraft’s revisions, but much was added or changed by Lovecraft, and in the case of “The Last Test” many of the original portrayals of Mexicans was excised to make room for Surama and the associated sub-plot.

Most of these tales betray at least a passing interest in Mesoamerican mythology and anthropology, and incorporate some of Lovecraft’s more familiar weird themes, of primitive survivals and shadowy ancient horrors. Still, Lovecraft’s conflation of class and race find expression, such as in description of the eponymous Juan Romero:

One of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first commanded attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation, being vastly unlike those of the average “Greaser” or Piute of the locality. It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend. But save for his face, Romero was not in any way suggestive of nobility. Ignorant and dirty, he was at home amongst the other brown-skinned Mexicans; having come (so I was afterward told) from the very lowest sort of surroundings. He had been found as a child in a crude mountain hut, the only survivor of an epidemic which had stalked lethally by. Near the hut, close to a rather unusual rock fissure, had lain two skeletons, newly picked by vultures, and presumably forming the sole remains of his parents. No one recalled their identity, and they were soon forgotten by the many. Indeed, the crumbling of the adobe hut and the closing of the rock fissure by a subsequent avalanche had helped to efface even the scene from recollection. Reared by a Mexican cattle-thief who had given him his name, Juan differed little from his fellows.

Again, the “low-class” characters—Mexicans in this case, rather than Spanish immigrants—are described a “unkempt” and “dirty,” ignorant, and inherently criminal (“cattle-thief”); Lovecraft would use very similar language when describing low-class characters of every race, from the rural white poor of “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Lurking Fear” to the teeming multinational immigrants of “The Horror at Red Hook.” In both “The Transition of Juan Romero” and “The Electric Executioner,” Mexicans are described as “peons,” a term that would later crop up in Lovecraft and Howard’s letters, expressly denoting the low status of Mexicans in Lovecraft’s fiction. Even among Mexicans, Lovecraft found room for further distinctions in terms of class, for example in “The Last Test” he described “the lower Mexican element whose lack of sanitation was a standing invitation to disease of every kind,” and the perhaps curious distinction from “The Electric Executioner”:

I hate greasers, but I like Mexicans! A puzzle? Listen to me, young fellow—you don’t think Mexico is really Spanish, do you? God, if you knew the tribes I know!

The slur “greaser” to refer to Mexicans was common during the era, but the distinction that Lovecraft makes here—and one which Howard would echo later—is the social as well as genetic distinction between Mexican nationality, class, and race as it stood in the early 20th century. As with Juan Romero, Lovecraft finds a greater interest in the unmixed Native Americans (“Mexicans”) and unmixed Europeans (“Whites”), than to multiracial peoples of the same nationality, and this conforms to Lovecraft’s general conception that mixing of race and cultures led to biological and cultural degeneration.

Language is a general marker for Lovecraft’s prejudices in this regard. In “The Transition of Juan Romero” the protagonist remarks:

Our conversation was necessarily limited. He knew but a few words of English, while I found my Oxonian Spanish was something quite different from the patois of the peon of New Spain.

And later in the same story:

And frightened as I was, I yet retained enough of perception to note that his speech, when articulate, was not of any sort known to me. Harsh but impressive polysyllables had replaced the customary mixture of bad Spanish and worse English, and of these only the oft repeated cry “Huitzilopotchli” seemed in the least familiar. Later I definitely placed that word in the works of a great historian—and shuddered when the association came to me.

A sentiment also expressed in “The Electric Executioner”:

They heard the same old names—Mictlanteuctli, Tonatiuh-Metzli, Cthulhutl, Ya-R’lyeh, and all the rest—but the queer thing was that some English words were mixed with them. Real white man’s English, and no greaser patter.

The distinction of “bad” Spanish, or degrading Mexican Spanish as a “patois” and “patter” displays the linguistic bias, subtly reaffirming the depiction of the character as ill-educated, but also tarring Mexicans in general as being different—and thus lower class—than their Castilian-speaking counterparts in Iberia, or the English-speaking “White” Americans. This linguistic bias, albeit applied to one of the original Spanish conquistadors instead of their American descendants, can also be seen in “The Mound”:

Almost immediately, however, the unrolling of one end shewed that the manuscript was in Spanish—albeit the formal, pompous Spanish of a long-departed day. In the golden sunset light I looked at the heading and the opening paragraph, trying to decipher the wretched and ill-punctuated script of the vanished writer.

“The Mound,” written based on a very brief story-seed provided by Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, is the longest narrative of a Spanish character in Lovecraft’s corpus, and Panfilo de Zamacona is one of the most curious of Lovecraft’s protagonists, an adventurer and associate of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, far removed from his typical academics and antiquarians, though still a polyglot and well-educated by the standards of his time. Zamacona’s narrative uses the legendry of surrounding the Spanish conquest—Coronado’s search for Cibola, and Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth—and the Aztec/Mayan mythology of Quezalcoatl and Kukulcan (identified with Yig both in “The Mound” and “The Curse of Yig”) as a framing device to explore the idea of an advanced precursor race to the Native Americans (in a descent worthy of, and possibly inspired by, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels or A. Merritt’s “The Moon-Pool”). This was in keeping with the theory, somewhat antiquated but still prevalent in Lovecraft and Howard’s day, that “the Mound Builders” were a race distinct from contemporary Native Americans.

Robert E. Howard also referenced the Spanish and Hispanics in his fiction prior to his correspondence with Lovecraft. For the most part, the nature of the references and depictions in Howard’s stories depends on the genre he was writing in: whole practically all of Lovecraft’s fiction belongs to the weird genre, Howard wrote for the sports, mystery or detective, spicy, western, historical and oriental pulps as well, and even tried his hand at confessionals. So it should come as no surprise that in writing Orientales set in Afghanistan or China, there are few references to Hispanic characters, while his Western tales, set primarily in Texas and surrounding states, deal with Mexican and Spanish-American characters fairly extensively.

“A Twentieth Century Rip Van Winkle” (1920) and “The Last War” (unfinished, date unknown) both concern visions of the future where the United States annexes Mexico, echoing a sentiment to Lovecraft that Howard expressed in a December 1930 letter as “that dream of a Southwest empire from Blanca Peak to Panama makes my mouth water” (CL2.127) and the old Southern dream of a tropical empire in Central and South America.

“In the Forest of Villefere” (1925) and “Wolfshead” (1926), two of Howard’s early sales to Weird Tales, contain both contain Spaniards—or characters that claim to be Spaniards, a fine point of historical ambiguity that Howard would develop in some of his later discussion of Hispanics; owing to the vast area and multiracial make-up of the Spanish diaspora, the mere affection of Spanish dress or name need not be indicative of a character’s racial identity. For example in “Apparition of the Prize-Ring” (1929):

This was “Mankiller Gomez,” and he was all that his name implies. Gomez was his ring name, given him by the Spaniard who discovered him and brought him to America. He was a full-blooded Senegalese from the West Coast of Africa.

Compare this sentiment with Lovecraft’s Juan Romero, and you catch a glimpse of the convoluted prejudices that affected race and identity politics with regards to Hispanics in the United States in the 1920s—both characters are given names associated with a primarily “white” European nation and culture, but are both not “white,” but very distinctly not a part of the European-descended population.

Despite the weird element, as with the later “Red Shadows” (1928) and “The Skull in the Stars” (1929), these are also tales of historical adventure, and the inclusion of Spanish ships, swords, and the like are elements of the setting rather than significant in to the plot, and this rather presages his approach to much of his historical and adventure fiction; Spanish and Hispanic characters being generally (but not always) absent from tales set in exotic locations such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

“Apparition of the Prize Ring” (1929), “The Pit of the Serpent” (1929), and “Winner Take All” (1930) are all boxing stories, and both “Apparition” and “Winner” have a colorful Spanish or Hispanic opponent for the Caucasian protagonist to duel with. For “Apparition” this is Mankiller Gomez, while for “Winner” this is Panther Cortez, whom Howard described as “a mixed breed—Spanish, French, Malay and heck knows what else, but all devil.” For all that these characters were antagonists, Howard liked to play up serious contenders as antiheroes as much as villains, attributing them with skill and character enough to give his protagonists like Sailor Steve Costigan at least enough trouble to chew on for a page or three. It’s notable too that Howard gave Cortez the weakness of being sensitive to his multiracial status, boiling over with anger when accused of being a “Porchugeeze half-caste!”

“The Pit of the Serpent” concerns a pair of itinerant sailors fighting over the charms of a Spanish woman, Raquel La Costa. Like Lovecraft, Howard was prone to let his non-native English speakers deliver their dialogue in a parody of their native accents (and, to be fair, he was just as likely to let his rural or ill-educated white protagonists peculiar accents come through in their dialogue), however by bizarre choice in this story Raquel’s dialogue has a characteristically French turn of speech:

“Zut,” said she, tapping us with her fan. “Zut! What is theese? Am I a common girl to be so insult’ by two great tramps who make fight over me in public? Bah! Eef you wanta fight, go out in ze woods or some place where no one make scandal, and wham each other all you want. May ze best man win! I will not be fight over in public, no sir!”

Howard, who had a tendency to re-use names in different stories, would also use the name “La Costa” to refer to a Frenchman in “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” (date unknown) and a character of no stated nationality in “Red Shadows”; “Raquel,” would later be used as name for a half-Irish, half-Spanish female pirate in “She-Devil” (1936) and the sequel “Ship in Mutiny” (1936). So it’s not clear if he made a mistake or whether it was a deliberate aesthetic choice. In the end she does choose “Don Jose y Balsa Santa Maria Gonzales” over either of the two sailors vying for her favors.

This then, is where H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard stood with regard to Spanish and Hispanic characters in their fiction when they began their correspondence in 1930.

Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5