How To Get Ahead in Colonialism

(16 comments)

If you’d like to hear me read a Weird tale, click here and you’ll be able to download my reading of Edward Lucas White’s ‘Lukundoo’.  See below for some background.

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‘Lukundoo’, though originally written in 1907, wasn’t published until 1925, when it was accepted by Weird Tales.  A very appropriate place for it to first erupt.

A best-selling author of historical novels in his day, the writer of ‘Lukundoo’, Edward Lucas White, started out writing uncanny stories.  He is largely forgotten now - except for ‘Lukundoo’, the finest of those uncanny stories, and a classic of Weird fiction.  And even ‘Lukundoo’ increasingly fades from our cultural memory.  It was once a frequently anthologised tale, and thus widely read.  But the ghost story anthologies which kept it alive – once a crucial rite in the childhoods and youths of many people – have long been in decline.

It will be a shame if ‘Lukundoo’ vanished into the interior.  It needs to be resurrected and theorised in the same way that many of Lovecraft’s tales have been.  It stands the comparison.  But it should also be better known by the general reader.  It is a very good myth to think with – even if doing so is far from a comfortable experience.  It is a startling tale, beneath the somewhat conventional genre trappings it wears like bandages to cover its dirty secrets.  It is queasy, febrile, hypnotic, disturbing, suggestive.

‘Lukundoo’ is also, without a doubt, profoundly racist.  Consider that a warning, and please heed it if you need to.  But – like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written less than a decade earlier - it is profoundly racist because it is a profound examination of the psychology of colonialism, written from the anxious viewpoint of the colonialist.  It has nothing to say to us about the colonial subjects – beyond its assumption of their inhumanity.  Indeed, as in Heart of Darkness, such subjects are not subjects at all – at least not in the normal sense – but rather objects.  Objects of fear and loathing.  But ‘Lukundoo’ has interesting things to say about where such fear and loathing really comes from, and what it means.  It says more than it knows, because it knows more than it wants to.  China Miéville once described ‘Lukundoo’ as “the most unbelievably acute fiction of colonial anxiety – using monsters – I’ve ever read, and all the more remarkable because… I do not think [White] knew he was doing it at all”.  That ‘Lukundoo’ says far more to us than it is conscious of, is, of course, a large part of its unique, sickly, feverish power.

But I’m not going to tell you what ‘Lukundoo’ is about.  I hope you’ll listen to me read it and make up your own mind.  Alternatively, you can skip the experience of hearing me indulge my frustrated actor fantasies and just read it yourself, here.  I hope you enjoy it.  But I hope you’ll ponder it too. I submit that ‘Lukundoo’ has a great deal to say to us today.  We are not, today, innocent of horror arising from the skin.   

 

Comments

Przemek 1 month ago

Alright, I'm intrigued. I will definately check ‘Lukundoo’ out.

It's funny how one's culture alters one's perception of a given work. Conrad was born Polish and when we read his "Heart of Darkness" in our Polish literature studies class, our teacher spent quite a lot of time explaining that Conrad wasn't really that racist. She insisted that he's only perceived as racist in the western world because of the Chinua Achebe's essay that accompanies "Heart of Darkness" in most modern editions. This insistence was especially peculiar given the fact that although Conrad stayed connected to his Polish roots, he was a writer of the British Empire through and through. But I guess this is what happens when your predominantly, overwhelmingly white country is rather small and unimportant and you are desperate to take credit for anyone with Polish roots who's known and popular in the West. Can't have a racist in such a role, can we?

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Przemek 1 month ago

And that first line should read "definitely", of course.

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Eve 1 month ago

So this guy goes to Africa and he gets a horrifying curse put on him, but the curse itself says things that have only to do with how Stone jilted an old girlfriend.

It's a complicated and ludicrous metaphor for regret. Did it require an African setting? Maybe. Besides Darkest Africa and Eastern Europe there weren't many places in 1910 where a writer could set an Evil Ethnic Sorceror and have them be vaguely plausible. Central Africa was still a wild land full of mystery and magic to readers of the time period.

But the story contains only one mystery, whose magic has everything to do with the two women Stone left back in Europe and nothing, really, to do with Africa. Central Africa isn't really a setting any more than the African characters are characters; they're both backdrops. The whole thing makes the very bones of the story imperialist. Some English explorer goes to Darkest Africa without so much as a by-your-leave to the people already living there so he can die of mistakes me made in Europe. It's like Central Africa is the guy's living room that he can just waltz into and cry himself to death.

While leaving the much more interesting issue of the defeated witch doctor as a story to begin and end in a three-line throwaway passage. The author took a Donar-Oak type of story and wasted it for the sake of getting to the more IMPORTANT point about the consequences of Breach of Promise.

I didn't see anything in the story about Colonial Anxiety because I figured the author didn't actually care enough about the setting to get into that. I can imagine that the story might be construed as one of Colonial Anxiety IF it was clear that the defeated witch doctor was the one who laid the curse...but it wasn't clear. The curse itself talked about how Jilted Lover #1 would not forgive. The witch doctor couldn't have known about Stone being a two-timer, right? Who knows? The witch doctor probably had never heard the name "Lake Ponchartrain." Was the curse just to make Stone die of regret? Who knows? The witch doctor gets a paragraph, no speaking part, no way to explain their actions. They're not even a character, they're a damn plot device.

If it had been clear that the witch doctor had laid the curse, then it might be said that the story was one of colonial anxiety. But it's not clear, because we have no idea who actually laid the curse. More to the point, the fact that the curse is concerned entirely with Stone's actions towards his old girlfriends means that Europe overshadows the African setting.

I don't see anxious colonialism here. I see the author using Africa as a backdrop that's flat as a painted sheet behind a grade-school stage play. Far more rude for being thoughtless than anxious for being colonial. If the story had been about Colonial Anxiety then there would have been SOME MENTION of the setting as a colony.

But the white characters don't think enough of their African porters to worry about them, nor does the author think enough of the African characters to believe that they could cause a White explorer worry.

Ultimately, the story has very little, if anything, to do with its setting. The author could have told this story in multiple locations without missing the main point about regret.

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Jack Graham 1 month ago

Maybe I'll write something about why I think you're wrong on this one. ;-)

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Eve 1 month ago

I would love to see it.

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Doug M. 3 weeks, 2 days ago

I'm with Eve here. "Colonial anxiety" is maybe an element here, but I don't think it's central to the story. (And let's note that Mieville, while an interesting writer, has a mixed track record as a critic.)

-- Here's another perspective: Stone has committed sexual misconduct. His punishment? To play a female role -- lying on a bed and giving "birth", again and again.

Far fetched? Recall that Etcham is obviously in love with Stone. Note further that "Stone covers his body from shame" is a major plot point; the truth only emerges when they see him unclothed. And Stone is the only character that gets a description, and it's brief but lavish: "His head was even more leonine; his hair was still abundant, yellow and wavy; the close, crisped blond beard he had grown during his illness did not alter him. He was big and big-chested yet." Finally, note the metaphors of fertility in Stone's final words -- "the hydra was nothing to this", "What's soaked into the bone won't come out of the flesh, any more than what's bred there." (That last is a reference to the once-widespread folk saying: 'what's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.')

I wouldn't quite say that Africa is only a backdrop -- it's a body horror story, and part of the horror is that it's the WRONG sort of body. (Notice how a whole paragraph is spent describing the head and emphasizing how very *Negro* it is.) But that's /racist/ anxiety, which is not exactly the same thing.


Doug M.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 1 day ago

Yeah, that is closer to my impressions as well. Stone's main sin is clearly the affair he had, and that overshadows the colonial anxiety somewhat.

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Aylwin 1 month ago

I'm sure I am far from the first person to remark on this, but Heart of Darkness always seemed to me to have an extraordinary ring of Lovecraft avant la lettre about it, in almost every respect. It's even legible in Weird terms with regard to the supernatural, given the representation of the unfathomable forest as a conscious and active entity, holding (African) people as its puppets ("as if by enchantment, streams of human beings ... were poured into the clearing by the dark-faced and pensive forest"), and Marlow's implied inability to quite convince himself that the horned figure he sees silhouetted against the fire is human. The only thing that really doesn't fit is the gulf vaster than the quaking void between the all-devouring carcases of long-dead stars that separates the two authors' respective standards of prose.

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Aylwin 1 month ago

Should really be scare quotes on "supernatural" there.

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Jack Graham 1 month ago

There is something Weird about 'Heart of Darkness'. It's certainly a reactionary scream of incomprehension at modernity, obsessed with incoherence and the unknowable, and animated by racist loathing. And even on the issue of prose... standards are one thing, but there is a lot of the same "adjectival insistence" (noticed in 'Heart of Darkness' by F.R. Leavis) about Lovecraft. But then the Weird is an affect rather than a discrete genre and, between the 1890s and the 1920s, it gets *everywhere*.

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Robert S Martin 1 month ago

"'Weird' . . . certainly a reactionary scream of incomprehension at modernity, obsessed with incoherence and the unknowable, and animated by racist loathing."

Apt to this day.

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Przemek 1 month ago

Well, that story did not live up to the hype.

I'd like to read an essay explaining just why this one is so special, because I really can't see it. It wasn't bad, just... not all that thought-provoking.

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