The Shadow out of Spain — Part 5

Brill could speak Spanish himself, and read it, too, but like most Anglo-Saxons he preferred to speak his own language.

– Robert E. Howard, “The Horror from the Mound”

Neither H. P. Lovecraft nor Robert E. Howard were ever fluent in Spanish, though both of them were at least somewhat familiar with it. The evidence for Lovecraft’s knowledge is fairly slight: the two passages in his story “The Mound,” which had been ghostwritten for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, both of which are largely accurate (the final portion was deliberately designed to appear somewhat crude) and speak of the aid of a dictionary and grammar.

Howard’s knowledge of Spanish was probably more utilitarian. In at least a casual way, Howard had picked up at least a small stock of Spanish and Mexican words—exclamations, terms of address, names of food and drink. Certainly when Spanish-speaking characters appear in his stories their English dialogue tends to be sprinkled with a few choice Spanish terms, although sometimes with some peculiarities of spelling; a common technique when Howard wanted to express something of the rural or uneducated nature of the speaker, though it’s hard to tell exactly sometimes if he’s doing it on purpose or not, as he seems to have relatively quickly dropped this tendency in Spanish. So for example in “Red Shadows” (1928) he writes “Senhor,” in “Winner Take All” (1930) he writes “Senyor,” but in “The Horror from the Mound” (1932) he writes “Senor.

In September 1931, back in Providence after his sojourn in Florida, Lovecraft broached a new subject in his correspondence with Howard:

We have almost no Spanish-speakers in New England, though New York has large Porto-Rican sections. In Southern Florida, Cubans are quite numerous; though they do not seem to present any unusual problems in law-enforcement. Key West is fully half Cuban, and some of the Latins there seemed very prepossessing—infinitely better than the swarms of Italians in the north. Nevertheless, the average Floridian wishes there were less. Just now there is much regret at the way they are trickling into Miami—hitherto all-Nordic. (AMTF1.212)

This prompted a response from Howard:

The main thing I dislike about Mexicans is their refusal to speak English. Most of them can speak our language—at least they can, but they wont. Of course, numbers of Mexicans will answer questions to the best of their ability, but lots of them—and especially when you get south of San Antonio where they swarm—seem to think they are subtly insulting a white man by denying all knowledge of the English language. Ask one of them something and very often he’ll look at you stolidly—”No sabe Englese.” You know he’s lying, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You restrain your impulse to strangle him, and go on. The average Texan knows as little about Spanish as the average Mexican claims to know about English. I guess its the Indian blood in them that makes them so confoundedly stolid and reticent.

I ran onto a white renegade once, though, that made me madder than any Mexican ever did. He was a white-bearded dissolute looking old scoundrel, clad in the slouch hat and boots of a cowboy, and he was apparently living in the Mexican quarter of a little South Texas town, not so very far from the Border. He refused to talk, also, or to answer a simple, civil question, and a fat Mexican woman leaned out of a window, squealing an hilarious string of Spanish, at which the brown-skinned loafers chortled and looked superior. I thought yearningly of San Jacinto, and left. It’s bad enough for a greaser to retire behind a masquerade of ignorance in order to avoid answering a civil question regarding directions, etc., but when a white man sinks so low he consorts with the limpid-eyed heathen and pulls that “no savvy” business, it rouses thoughts of massacre and sudden immolation. (AMTF1.227-228; CL2.268-269)

Lovecraft replied:

The Mexican habit of denying knowledge of English undoubtedly has its roots in an age-old peasant tradition—that of a furtive defensiveness which feigns ignorance and stupidity. It crops out in all well-marked peasant elements, and the peon psychology of the low-grade Mexican no doubt accentuates it to its highest possible degree. I can well imagine that the acme of exasperatingness in this line is reached when a white man “goes native” and adopts the “no sabe” pose himself. (AMTF1.235-236)

This passage illustrates one of the fundamental differences between Howard and Lovecraft’s approach to the same issue. Howard feels it is sufficient to lay the blame on “the Indian blood”—attributing the perceived reticence and incivility as an issue of race. Lovecraft’s response seeks to incorporate the behavior into a wider philosophy, and so blames class as much as race. In any event, something very much like this exchange occurs in Howard’s story “The Horror from the Mound”:

“Lopez,” said Brill lazily, “it ain’t none of my business, but I just wanted to ask you – how come you always go so far around that old Indian mound?”

No sabe,” grunted Lopez shortly.

“You’re a liar,” responded Brill genially. “You savvy all right; you speak English as good as me. What’s the matter – you think that mound’s ha’nted or somethin’?”

Brill could speak Spanish himself, and read it, too, but like most Anglo-Saxons he preferred to speak his own language.

Lopez shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s not a good place, no bueno?” he muttered, avoiding Brill’s eye. “Let hidden things rest.”

The phrase “he preferred to speak his own language” touches on the clash of Spanish and English languages in the Southwest; a part of the collision of cultures in the area, and language acted both as a barrier to communication and an element of shared cultural identity that set one group apart from another—because whatever ancestors an Hispanic person might have, they spoke the same language and partook, in some part, in the cultural heritage of Spain. For example, in “Pilgrims of the Pecos” (1936) there is the following exchange:

“Which camp was they goin’ for first?” I demanded.

“I dunno,” he said. “They talked mostly in Spanish I can’t understand.”

Here, the difference in languages acts as a barrier, helping to set the groups apart and heightening tension, as the plans of the Mexican bandits cannot be known for sure. Take another example, from “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance” (1936):

The presence of the black man was not inexplicable. Negro slaves, fleeing from Spanish masters, frequently took to the jungle and lived with the natives. […] “I came swiftly when I heard the drum,” he said gutturally, in the bastard-Spanish that served as a common speech for the savages of both colors.

Here, Spanish is acts as a convenient lingua franca, if not explicitly the basis for a common identity, than at least the basis for a common understanding. Again, however, there is a class distinction between Castilian and the “bastard-Spanish” spoken by the Cimarrones, much as Lovecraft felt the need to distinguish between “Oxonian Spanish” and “the patois of the peon of New Spain” in “The Transition of Juan Romero.”

If Lovecraft and Howard were not fluent in any Spanish dialect, they were more than conversant in the slurs regarding the Hispanic population. “Greaser” as a derogatory term for Mexicans was common enough for both Howard and Lovecraft, although ironically Howard used it more in his letters and Lovecraft used it more in his fiction, particularly “The Transition of Juan Romero” and “The Electric Executioner.” The harsher “spig” was much less common, and restricted to Howard, who used it exactly once in fiction, in “The Horror from the Mound,” in the thoughts of the casually racist Steve Brill.

Brill is perhaps the best example of the common prejudices expressed by Howard and Lovecraft, and which is given thought and voice in the white characters of their various stories. For Brill in “The Horror from the Mound,” prejudice is so easy and natural to him that it goes almost unnoticed and uncommented upon. He assumes the worst of his Mexican neighbor almost as a matter of course, suspects him immediately, and even when Lopez appears dead his immediate thought is that another Mexican committed the crime, thinking only:

Such crimes were revolting, but common enough, especially among Mexicans, who cherished unguessed feuds.

The reader never sees beyond the end of “The Horror from the Mound,” whether Brill ever comes to terms with the fact that he was wrong about Juan Lopez on all accounts, and that it was only his prejudices that had set in motion the events of the story. We will never know if he would examine his racism, and learn to fight the views that have comes so naturally to him. Perhaps not: Brill’s views were not very different than those held Howard and Lovecraft, and over the six years of their life and correspondence their basic prejudices changed little, though they certainly expanded each other’s knowledge of the Hispanic peoples and culture they had experienced during that time, and their correspondence affected their understanding of Hispanic peoples.

That in itself may be one of the great lost opportunities of their exchange of letters: for while they joked and debated, wove tales and traded facts, weighed each other’s arguments on dozens of points, on this issue neither of them seems to have reexamined their fundamental prejudices regarding Hispanics.

Works Cited

AMTF    A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)
CL        Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
(3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
SL        Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols.)

Art Credits: ‘The Horror from the Mound” by Jim Ordolis, The “Transition of Juan Romero” by David Reuss

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4