Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.
Sometimes an evocative title goes a long way.
Written on September 16, 1919 and first published in 1944 in the Arkham House volume Marginalia. You can find the complete text of the story here.
“The Transition of Juan Romero” tells the story of an Oxford-educated Englishman who left his home, visited India and traded everything in for a new life in America. Now reduced to working in a mine, he is reluctant to share either his name or any of his personal history but a few telling facts nonetheless sneak through.
Given the contempt for working-class people that Lovecraft displayed in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, I think we can safely assume that the narrator’s moneyed upbringing has less to do with dangling narrative threads and more to do with the fact that Lovecraft didn’t want to tell a story from the point of view of an actual miner.
Our narrator is soon joined down the mine by a Mexican immigrant by the name of Juan Romero. Just as our narrator is ‘not like other girls’, Juan Romero is said to be superior in every way to your typical Mexican “peon” (that word gets used at least three times as well as a literal slur). Despite Romero and our narrator being colleagues, Romero assumes the role of a subaltern and refers to the narrator as “Senor”.
This, in and of itself, makes “The Transition of Juan Romero” something of a Lovecraftian milestone as while his previous stories dehumanised the poor and flirted with racial persecution fantasies, this is the first story to feature the kind of outright, unapologetic, skull-shape and callipers racism with which Lovecraft is currently associated. I mean get a load of this:
One of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first commanded attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation.
It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend.
I’m not that clued up on the exact details of Lovecraft’s racial hierarchies but I find it interesting that he views Mexicans as smelly savages but Aztecs as noble and civilised. Without falling into the trap of breaking out my own set of callipers, is the difference between Mexicans and Aztecs that a lot of Mexicans are of Spanish descent? Or is it just that the Aztecs were racially pure whereas modern-day Central Americans are not?
Anyway, Romero and the narrator work in the mine until someone does a bit too much blasting and uncovers an unexpectedly deep shaft. Later that night, the narrator is awoken by strange sounds coming from the mine but while he claims to hear only the coyote, the dog, and the wind, Romero claims to hear all of these things as well as a throbbing deep in the Earth.
This is also quite an interesting idea as it’s working on the theme of Romero being in touch with a heritage and a history that stretches back beyond the present moment. There’s a funny little riff on how Romero was raised by thieves but only after being found as a child in some mountain hut. Obviously, this is setting up the ending of the story but it’s also playing with one of Lovecraft’s recurring themes, namely the idea that people further down the social pecking order have a greater connection to the deeply-historical occult than white people. You can see Lovecraft playing with this idea in “Polaris” and more explicitly in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”. In “Polaris” the idea feeds into fantasies of racial persecution and the idea that the Eskimo are descended from a horde of knuckle-dragging orcs whereas in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” there’s a more subtle envy of the connection. Taken together, I think both of these strands feed into the racial dimension to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and, in particular, the idea that today’s social order might be contingent and time-limited rather than the natural order of things. While it’s possible to read that sense of contingency in quite a neutral way (the likes of Olaf Stapledon certainly played around with the idea of a future in which white supremacy is replaced by some other hegemonic idea), the idea of white people being cast down the pecking order and replaced at the top of the pile would have been a real source of anxiety for someone as racist and conservative as Lovecraft.
Romero and the narrator return to the mine only to hear a terrible drumming and chanting in the deep. After getting separated from Romero, the narrator manages to catch up with him only to find him shrieking in a foreign language while distant voices chant the name of the Aztec war god Huitzilopochli, at which point the narrator sees something indescribably horrible and passes out.
When the narrator awakens, he discovers that Romero has gone and the void they discovered in the Earth has seemingly been filled-in. There’s also a weird little bit about how Romero admired the narrator’s Indian ring and then the Indian ring disappears suggesting that Romero did not in fact die during the weird events in the mine.
According to Joshi, Lovecraft all but disavowed this story. Not only did he never submit it for publication, he also turned down any attempts to have it published during his lifetime (hence its first appearance in a weird Arkham house collection of Lovecraft-related stuff).
Having read some of the commentary on this story, people often describe “The Transition of Juan Romero” as either juvenilia or an unfinished work but I don’t think either label is all that appropriate. Yes, the story was written some time before his best-known stories but it was written after both “Dagon” and “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and you wouldn’t call either of them juvenilia. As to whether the story might be an unfinished early draft… I don’t really buy that either as the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end complete with characters and polished language. The sense of incompleteness comes primarily from the fact that certain elements of the story feel over-developed relative to their prominence in the story. For example, there are a couple of paragraphs about the “hindoo” ring only for them to pay off as a somewhat unsatisfying way of suggesting that Romero survived his ‘transition’. I mean… the pay-off is so dramatically unsatisfying that you could almost read it as a racist joke: Mexican co-worker gets turned into god and his first action is to rifle through someone’s foot locker in order to steal their shit.
Conversely, the “transition” itself feels weirdly under-developed as its presence in the title suggests it’s some central part of the story but when it comes time for the transition to happen, Lovecraft chooses to present it in quite an ambiguous way. Had the story not included the word “transition” I would not be leaping to the conclusion that it was all about a Mexican being turned into a god. That being said, it’s an interesting riff on the ideas explored in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and it’s also a notable story in so far as it shows Lovecraft trying to move away from using dreams as his primary writing queues. According to correspondence, “The Transition of Juan Romero” was only circulated to a small group of people and I suspect that the best way of looking at this story is to view it as an exercise in so far as Lovecraft wrote it quickly with neither a dream-based cue nor a source of obvious literary inspiration.