For every heartwarming tale of holiday hijinks and lessons in morality, there are just as many stories of clay giants, bloodsucking wraiths, and body-snatching spirits. Horror has a place throughout Jewish mythology and culture, commanding a sect of study all its own through the teachings of Kabbalah. Over the centuries, the influence of Jewish horror has secured a place as a guiding force within the genre.
Jewish horror also holds a place in the stories of HP Lovecraft, though not one nearly as flattering. Despite mentioning Kabbalah in several stories, and mentoring Jewish writers, including Robert Bloch, Lovecraft himself was a notorious xenophobe and antisemite. His one overtly Jewish character was a horrific stereotype, warmly referred to as “the gnarled old Levite” and twice simply as “the Jew” in his story The Descendant. He does mention Kabbalah in a few stories and credits it in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, but beyond that, Judaism doesn’t get much positive press. And why would it? We’re talking about the same writer who considered Jews an inferior race and wasn’t afraid to say as much.
So, how in the name of Azathoth could Lovecraft’s mythos, of all things, tie into contemporary Jewish horror? Scroll on, brave reader, for the answer.
The (Abridged) Story of Passover
Back in the day, approximately 13th century BCE, the Jewish people — known at the time as the Hebrews — were slaves in Egypt. According to the Torah, the God of the Hebrews freed them from Pharaoh’s cruel rule by besetting Egypt with ten unsavory plagues. Pharaoh released them after the death of every firstborn Egyptian boy but changed his mind soon after and amassed an army to put them back in chains.
The conclusion of the story is relatively well-known. At the last possible second, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea allowed the Hebrews to pass safely through and out of Egypt. As for Pharaoh, depending on which version you know, his place in the spiel ends with him either drowning under tons of seawater or marooned, army-less, on the far shore.
The bottom line: his power over the Hebrews ends with the splitting/parting/dividing/cutting of the Red Sea.
Nyarlathotep and the Black Pharaoh
Enter Nyarlathotep, one of Lovecraft’s most infamous creations. The “crawling chaos,” as he’s sometimes known, is a recurring figure in Lovecraft’s mythos, his forms varying from a conniving public speaker to a tentacular abomination from the stars. A master manipulator, Nyarlathotep holds the power to annihilate all life on Earth and withholds from doing so simply to watch humans suffer. Sounds like a lovely guy, right?
Unsurprisingly, his role in Lovecraft’s stories are more often than not antagonistic. He’s tormented adventurers, driven entire civilizations to madness, and brought about the apocalypse on more than one occasion. Thousands of years ago, he even manipulated Nephren-Ka, a talented sorcerer and the last pharaoh of the third dynasty of Egypt, into committing oodles of human sacrifice. Nephren-Ka’s name was struck from Egyptian records as a result, and in return for his servitude, Nyarlathotep turned him into one of his many avatars. As the Black Pharaoh, he appears as a swarthy traveler clad in all black, whose word alone can drive educated men to their knees.
The Eldritch Conclusion
Are cosmic dots connecting yet? Here we have two intersecting stories: there’s the tale of the Hebrew exodus and the pharaoh who released them only as the result of apocalyptic plagues after decades of enslavement, cruelty, and slaughter; and the tale of Nephren-Ka, favorite of Nyarlathotep, destined to become the Black Pharaoh for the atrocities he committed in the name of the Crawling Chaos. Two nasty pharaohs, one mortal, one anything but, both with famously lax views on human rights.
How to format that dark retelling? An abominable period piece? A spin-off of the mummy subgenre? A complete plot overhaul, where Nyarlathotep himself rains the ten plagues on an ungrateful Egypt, leaving the Hebrews to flee for their lives? Hmm, too treyf?
Bearing Lovecraft’s notorious prejudice in mind, this overlap is also a place to start for those Jewish authors interested in reclaiming some of the influence behind the renowned horror author’s work.
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