The Horror at Red Hook

The Horror at Red Hook was written in 1925, during that period when H.P.  Lovecraft was living in Brooklyn after his marriage to Sonia Greene. New York City came as a culture shock to this retiring Providence boy, especially given the diverse ethnicity of immigrants who came from all over the world. The story expresses something of his suspicion of foreign people who didn’t look like the kind of people he was familiar with, enacting odd customs and speaking in languages he didn’t understand, as well as reflects his general, personal unhappiness with his surroundings.

Confidential Personnel Records: NYPDLovecraft’s original story is about a man named Thomas Malone, a New York police detective who has been sent to recover in a rural part of Rhode Island after a traumatic experience involving the collapse of a brick building and the deaths of a number of people in the slums of Red Hook. He can’t even abide the sight of a brick building.

In this Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptation, Malone (voiced by Sean Branney) is under a psychiatrist’s care during his enforced stay in the country. His story is told as part of his psychotherapy; the doctor urges him to speak of the horrors connected to that experience–everything he’s tried so hard to forget.

Malone tells the doctor that he wouldn’t understand. He lacks imagination.

“To hint to an unimaginative man of a horror beyond all human conception, a horror of houses, and blocks, and cities diseased with evil dragged from Elder worlds…  I’d be pacing inside a padded cell instead strolling country lanes.”

But of course the doctor insists on hearing it, and Malone’s story of what happened in Red Hook unfolds in flashback.

Malone had been working in the decayed and rough waterfront district of Red Hook, “a maze of hybrid squalor,” since his days as a young patrolman fresh from Ireland. The flashback scenes begin with his first day on the beat, and his first encounter with the dangerous people of the streets when he tries to roust a suspected streetwalker. During his work, he observes certain patterns and rituals that remind him of things he’s read concerning the survival of traditions from ancient religions in Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. But it’s during his career as a detective that the horror really starts.

An agent from the Federal Bureau of Immigration named Sutter* and two upper-crust New Yorkers from one of the old Dutch families have come to Malone’s captain. The two cousins are related to an elderly eccentric, one Robert Suydam, whose recent physical deterioration and peculiar behavior have alarmed them to the extent that they’ve tried to have him declared incompetent. If you read Lovecraft stories, you know the kind of behavior: spending money on rare occult books, moving to a dingy flat in Red Hook to conduct strange religious ceremonies with “swarthy, evil-looking” immigrants, babbling of “unlimited powers almost in my grasp” and name-dropping ancient gods and/or demons.

The Bureau of Immigration doesn’t like the sort of people Suydam’s been hanging out with either; some of them have nasty criminal records including the smuggling of illegal immigrants, “Asian dregs turned back by our boys on Ellis Island.”

Sutter has come to the local police for assistance, and Captain O’Hara assigns Malone to the case since knows the district and has met Suydam before. Sutter has an aversion to working with an Irish-born cop, not a real American.

Red Hook props

One of the nice little nods in this story about immigrants is reference to the prejudice against the Irish that was still common during the 1920s; the Irish cops themselves shrug this off as ignorant bigotry while speaking of “dirty foreigners” in the same breath.

Since he made the protagonist of this story an Irishman, Lovecraft must not have put the Irish into the same category as those other foreigners. However, he also made Malone “…a Dublin University man born in a Georgian villa near Phoenix Park,” a more highly educated man than the usual Irish immigrant of the era, to explain Malone’s knowledge of Greek and other ancient languages, as well as his interest in occult lore and legends. In this DART version, “I read books” is offered laconically by Malone to account for the surprising pieces of esoteric information he produces. Plus. it’s kind of cute hearing Lovecraftian phrases spoken with a Irish lilt.

It’s Malone who observes that the new influx of Asian immigrants, those of the most concern to Immigration, is from “somewhere in or near Kurdistan… the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.”

The investigation leads Malone and Sutter to a deconsecrated church that’s used as a dance hall, but where less cheerful music and ominous chanting and shrieks can be heard on other nights.

Malone also discovers connections between property owned by Suydam and the mysterious Yezidis immigrants. When he questions the ill-kempt old man about their activities, Suydam says he just rents the real estate and doesn’t have a thing to do with his tenants. His only interest in the immigrants of Red Hook is folkloric.

The investigation stalls there.

Some time later,  Robert Suydam makes a sudden reappearance on the New York social scene. He’s no longer ill-groomed and shabby–in fact, he looks better than he has in years and much younger. He’s renovated his home and begun to throw fashionable parties. And it’s not just his return to his senses that delights his relatives; Suydam has also become engaged to a young lady.

At this time, Malone is more concerned with an outbreak of missing children in the Red Hook area, and the case takes him back to the dance-hall church. The police find no sign of the children or any of the Yezidis immigrants inside, but there is a disturbingly stained basin on the altar, and a passage in Greek written on a wall.

Malone translates:

“Oh, friend and companion of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals. Gorgo,
Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favorably on our sacrifice!”

A subsequent raid on Suydam’s rental property turns up similar and more disturbing finds: Kabbalistic phrases, pentacles and other occult symbols, a basement storing gold ingots stamped with the same symbols and–most unsettling of all–laboratory equipment.

All of this tells us exactly what’s going on by clues and inference, and knowing the kind of thing people like Suydam in Lovecraft stories get up to. No one ever says the missing children are being sacrificed, but it’s clear that’s what happened to them. Lovecraft was never an author to shy away from child sacrifice. (See, for example, Dreams in the Witch House.) The gold explains how Suydam has funded the expensive refurbishment of his home, and the laboratory suggests how he’s able to make himself appear younger.

Newspaper announcement of Suydam's honeymoon trip

At this point in the story, one might think that–in spite of the xenophobia–the principle villain is actually an upper-class white man from a sturdy old New York family. But whatever deal he’s made with the Yezidis immigrants and the demons they worship, Robert Suydam is about to get more than he bargained for.

The rejuvenated and richer Suydam marries and embarks on a honeymoon trip to Europe, but neither he nor his bride live beyond the first night aboard ship. Malone reports on the gory details he learned afterwards from the ship’s doctor, who was a witness to the aftermath of the tragedy. Dr. Colson only saw the bodies and the name of the demon Lilith written in blood (and heard a creepy giggling sound just before he entered the Suydams’ stateroom). Another crewman who saw more never recovered his sanity.

Mrs. Suydam had been strangled by an inhuman hand. We don’t get exactly what happened to Suydam; immediately after his death, before Colson can examine him, “a horde of dark-skinned, insolent ruffians” on a tramp steamer come aboard to claim his body. They have a note written by Suydam permitting them to do so and, anyway, they get rough with anyone aboard the ship who tries to stop them. Colson discovered later, after they’d gone, that they had also drained Mrs. Suydam’s body of its blood.

This double death occurred on the same night that the police raided the church and Suydam’s rental property–a night after three more children were taken and in time to interrupt a cult ceremony at the latter location. The sound during the raid scenes is nicely done, the shouting of multiple voices, the commotion, and especially when Malone gets to the event that he doesn’t want to remember. During the raid, he locates and breaks down the locked cellar door.

What he discovers going on below is basically a big old Hell-party with inhuman acolytes of every kind of demon– Hecate, the Magna Mater, Moloch and Astaroth–“goat and satyr, incubus, succubi, twisted toad, and shapeless Elemental, dog-faced howler,” all crying out, chanting, and dancing to the music of “accursed” flutes . They’re led by a naked phosphorescent thing, whom I think we can assume to be Lilith, that takes center stage on a golden throne. We learn what the men aboard the tramp steamer wanted Suydam’s body (now that of “a corpulent old man with stubbly beard and unkempt white hair.”) and his wife’s blood for. There’s another wedding with another messy conclusion, and this one ending with a gross little sploosh!

Red Hook propsMalone faints at this point, but he’s far enough down in the tunnels beneath the houses belonging to Suydam to survive when they collapse.

Malone doesn’t believe that the monstrosities he’s witnessed are only a phantasmagorical dream, in spite of what doctors have been telling him–including the current psychiatrist who’s just heard it. He’s certain that, while the houses and the tunnels beneath them have been destroyed and some of the parties responsible are now in prison or deported, this kind of thing is still going on in, and beneath, the streets of Red Hook.

“The evil spirit of darkness and squalor broods on amidst the old brick houses, and prowling bands still parade on unknown errands past windows where lights and twisted faces unaccountably appear and disappear. Age-old horror is a Hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus.”

The psychiatrist thinks that Malone should stay on the country for a bit longer.

It’s a good thing there’s a catchy jingle from the sponsor, Bub-L-Pep (“The L is for Lithium!), after the narrator’s dire coda to Malone’s story. I’d hate to finish up the night with the chant of “Gorgo! Mormo!” stuck in my head.

As always, this Dark Adventure CD comes with a collection of interesting props:

Bub-L-Pep

  • A clipping from a Brooklyn newspaper, the Daily Eagle, with an article about the missing children taken from Red Hook. Among the items on the back is the Society announcement about the Suydams’ ill-fated honeymoon voyage.
  • A page from a scholarly journal featuring an article by Robert Suydam about the Yezidi folklore and practices he’s so interested in.
  • Identity papers for one of the Red Hook immigrants.
  • Detective Malone’s Rating and Fitness report, with typed notes from the unimaginative psychiatrist.

________
*A character not in Lovecraft’s story, but the name recalls the novelist Sutter Cane from In The Mouth of Madness.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.