A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

It never before occurred to me that “Innsmouth” is a narrative of colonization by a civilization that is largely superior to us. Recall Jared Diamond’s explanation of why he wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel: to answer a question put to him by Yali, a Papua New Guinean man.

Two centuries ago, all New Guineans were still “living in the Stone Age.” That is, they still used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousands of years ago, and they dwelt in villages not organized under any centralized political authority. Whites had arrived, imposed central government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as “cargo.”

… [Yali] and I both knew perfectly well that New Guineans are on the average at least as smart as Europeans. All those things must have been on Yali’s mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Like Englishmen offering glass beads to Native Americans, the Deep Ones entice Obed Marsh and the Innsmouthians with gold, an element that to our undersea imperialists seems both abundant and useless. The real technology upgrade — the steel axes and machetes and firearms — is something worth even more.

“… Them things told the Kanakys that ef they mixed bloods there’d be children as ud look human at fust, but later turn more’n more like the things, till finally they’d take to the water an’ jine the main lot o’ things daown har. An’ this is the important part, young feller — them as turned into fish things an’ went into the water wouldn’t never die. Them things never died excep’ they was kilt violent.”

Immortality implies resistance to disease and the ability to heal from common injuries; a lengthening of the telomeres and an immunity to aging. If an alien race landed upon our shores and told us we could live forever and never grow old or sick, and all we had to do was splice their genes into ours (and maybe contribute to their kitchen pantry from time to time), some would be horrified. To those people it would be a Faustian bargain, a loss of their humanity mixed with the revulsion many native cultures probably felt when the Christian missionaries eroded, slowly and surely like glaciers, the indigenous beliefs that had always comforted them — the same revulsion felt by Our Hero toward the Esoteric Order of Dagon. But others would be tempted by the offer; and still others would accept. Lovecraft predicted transhumanism and its arguments for and against by decades.

Lovecraft is often characterized as a turgid writer but rereading “Innsmouth” impressed me with his ability to write action: the growing anxiety as Our Hero’s entrapment in the Gilman House becomes apparent, his escape onto the rooftops and into the darkened streets, the claustrophobia when he realizes the roads out of town are patrolled. Poe was obsessed with being buried alive; Bierce by mysterious disappearances. Lovecraft, for reasons of his own, was morbidly fascinated by the withered fruit of dying family trees. Commonplace critics see this as proof of his phobia of racial pollution; but I suggest those critics are too fortunate and naive to empathize with a man’s very real concern that familial mental illness might reach out on lonely nights to tap him on the shoulder. In stories like “The Lurking Fear” or “Arthur Jermyn,” family roots flower into degeneracy and devolution; but in “Innsmouth” they are at worst a mixed blessing. Unlike the suicides and asylum incarcerations that await most of Lovecraft’s protagonists, “Innsmouth” has a happy ending of sorts, a plan for action followed by an eternity spent with cousins and great-grandmothers “amidst wonder and glory for ever.” Our Hero doesn’t want to run away from his family but instead be reunited with them.

“Come back! I just want to be inside you!”
“Come back! I just want to be inside you!”

The beer itself is quite nice, an English-style pub ale with a bitter finish. Narragansett calls it “our interpretation of the select stock ales served at taverns and roadside inns both found in Olde England and Olde New England, much like how we imagine the very inn that the unnamed protagonist visits in Lovecraft’s story,” though I’m not sure what inn that could be, since Our Hero, like Lovecraft himself, is too much of a fussy eater for table service, subsisting instead on crackers and canned vegetable soup. Regardless, violating the Volstead Act was the least of the crimes committed at the mouth of the Manuxet so if there was a tavern in Innsmouth, I’m sure Narragansett was on draft.

The can’s incredible artwork is by well-known Lovecraft illustrator Jason C. Eckhardt — and no, so far prints aren’t available.

Me on the first entry in Narragansett’s Lovecraft Series here.

SCOTUS to Cops: Time to Face the Music

On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal (pdf) filed by police officers who participated in the 2008 raid on the Easton, Connecticut home of Ronald Terebesi, Jr.

If you recall, the SWERT tactical team composed of officers from six neighboring towns raided Terebesi’s house in response to a tip from an exotic dancer who said two men were smoking crack cocaine in Terebesi’s living room. The raid — which involved all the usual hallmarks: flashbangs, battering down the front door, setting the house on fire — ended with cops shooting and killing Terebesi’s unarmed friend Gonzalo Guizan. Paraphernalia and less than a tenth of an ounce of a suspicious substance was recovered from the house. Terebesi completed a brief drug program and was never charged with any crimes.

Both Terebesi and Guizan’s estate filed civil suits against five of the towns (Westport being the outlier) and the individual officers involved. The Guizan family settled with the towns for $3.5 million. In Terebesi’s case, the cops argued that their acting in their official capacities as town employees granted them qualified immunity and requested summary judgment. Both the District Court and the US Court of the Appeals for the Second District disagreed, and now SCOTUS has tacitly done so too.

The case is headed to trial in New Haven and currently assigned to Judge Janet Bond Arterton, the same District Court judge who wrote the scathing decision denying the officers’ qualified immunity in the first place:

[Monroe police sergeant Jay] Torreso maintains that he is entitled to qualified immunity because his personal conduct was objectively reasonable. However, Torreso is alleged to have been personally involved in what is plausibly described as an objectively unreasonable raid, given the minimal threat posed, the extreme force used, and the circumstances surrounding his no-knock entry. … Therefore, he has not shown that he is entitled to qualified immunity at this stage.

Arterton, who has a reputation for dropping the hammer, has presided over a number of high-profile cases; she recently sentenced former governor John Rowland to 30 months for campaign fraud and conspiracy. And I’m sure the judge will turn a fond eye upon the testimony of William Ruscoe, one of the SWERT cops named in the suit, who’s currently serving time for raping a teenager.

Terebesi’s lawyer, Gary Mastronardi, believes the case will go to court this year. “Because of the age of the case, the judge will be riding roughshod over the lawyers to move this quickly,” he said.

As for his client’s chances, Mastronardi said, “Both rulings in the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court were expected. Evidence is the evidence and they can’t make the evidence disappear.”

Short News, Altering the Past Edition

Danaus plexippus

Down the Memory Hole. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the only proper response for historians toward Hillary Clinton is a loathing both total and complete. The Clintons’ contempt for government transparency and the work of anyone who has ever stepped foot in an archives shouldn’t have come as a surprise even before she admitted using a personal server for her emails as Secretary of State or her lawyer’s confession that — surprise, surprise — said server was later wiped clean. Some of us have memories long enough to remember Sandy Berger’s plea bargain (and $50,000 fine) for stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives that dated to the final years of Bill Clinton’s administration — an action I’m sure Berger did at his own instigation, right?

No Gods or Kings, Only Matzo. Unlike BioShock Infinite, which was a slice of awesome no matter which way the cake was cut, the first two BioShocks were mediocre games buoyed by their amazing environmental graphics and a superb backstory. Creator Ken Levine revealed in a recent interview how the Jewish heritage of a number of BioShock characters — a Soviet refugee, a Holocaust survivor, New York doctors and artists — was integral to driving the storyline. To me it’s a great example of weaving together 20th-century history and experience to develop a very authentic alt-hist world.

Top photo by Thomas Bresson CC BY.

JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!

The Mob Is Fickle

The Passive Voice is one of the few corners of the Internet where it’s worth reading the comments. In discussing a Salon interview with Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about survivors of social-media lynchings like Justine Sacco, a commenter referenced an attack on Andrew Smith. Smith, an author of YA books aimed at boys, was tarred and feministed after saying this:

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

I write about men and boys because I grew up with three brothers and I don’t know much about women and girls. I could freely say the same thing: my only sibling is a brother and my only friends growing up were boys, which is perhaps one reason why I mostly failed at dating as a teen; and as a married man what I know today about women wouldn’t fill the back of an envelope. But admitting that means I could just as easily be tied to the same stake as Smith, assuming anyone knew who I was.

This comes only days after another writer quit Goodreads in response to the Kathleen Hale brouhaha because — she was afraid of being stalked? A social-media assassination? I’m not sure; all I know is that even though both parties in the Kathleen Hale mess were female, somehow women are being targeted, and she was afraid it would happen to her.

(I admit the Hale story is bizarre in its mutual obsession; reading it is like watching Dracula and the Wolfman fight, although it’s enlightening that the profile of her troll — a physically sick or weak person working a monotonous, low-income job — fits that of many serial killers.)

A common complaint I read from agents and publishers is that many authors don’t have a platform before they show up on their doorstep with a manuscript. Of course, everyone can only offer advice on how to develop that platform in hindsight: just look at Trevor Noah, whose comedic work scored him The Daily Show gig while simultaneously inciting excoriation for jokes that fell flat years before anyone had heard of him. Twitter is chock full of Dalai Lamas who can tell us after the fact which gags Noah should have written and which ones he shouldn’t have, but in the long months and years of building a career, those same sages are always like Tenzin Gyatso in Tibet: absent.

Contrast Noah with Kristine Katherine Rusch:

Personally, I believe that a writer’s politics and religious beliefs (including beliefs about a favorite genre) should remain off-social media if at all possible, and that arguments in favor of one thing or another should be made in person, if at all.

I think it’s more important to incorporate your worldview into what you write and let the readers decide whether or not they want to read your work than it is to win an argument that will seem quaint fifteen years from now.

There’s certainly wisdom in restraint and choosing your battles, but advice like Rusch’s is a call to quietism and in any event impossible for those of us who straddle the worlds of nonfiction and fiction.

Thus we authors and writers, forced to develop our platforms, must also choose between self-imposed silence and abandonment of social media on one hand, of all-consuming insecurity like Hale’s on another, or of following the examples of Smith and Noah on a third, of trying to build the platform one day at a time, knowing that griefers lurk on the periphery, eager to burn the whole thing down the moment you drive one dissatisfactory nail into the wood. Or, in Smith’s case, of simply stating a truth about yourself.

Top photo by Caelio CC BY-SA.

Condemning the Past

Gordon S. Wood on the criticisms levied by academics against his fellow early American historian and mentor Bernard Bailyn:

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood is certainly not happy with this state of affairs. Yet it’s gratifying to see him correctly diagnose the disease — that academics wallow in “condemning the past for not being more like the present” — even if we disagree about the prescription.