Well, as promised, I will attempt to put into coherent form my own thoughts about that odd "something" which engulfs the titular character of "He"... and about one or two other things connected to that little tale.
I tend to agree with the idea that this "colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance" is the idea of the shoggoth slowly taking form (as does, apparently, Robert Waugh); but I think it also had already begun to emerge in rather different forms, in some of Lovecraft's other work. As the shoggoth is capable of taking on any form, so this "manifestation", if you will, is simply one of many of the basic idea. We saw something of a different, yet related, type in "The Shunned House", also one of his "New York stories", as it was written the first October that he was living there (though placed in Providence -- just one example of his growing need to return to the city of his birth and leave behind the foulness-- for him -- that was New York). What I refer to there is the amorphous, shifting form of the vampiric entity in the cellar of the house, even to the extent of not necessarily being solid or
vaporous, as well as the description of what the narrator sees when it engulfs his uncle Elihu Whipple:
Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in vague outlines half-human and half-monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and fireplace beyond. It was all eyes—wolfish and mocking—and the rugose insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist which curled putridly about and finally vanished up the chimney. I say that I saw this thing, but it is only in conscious retrospection that I ever definitely traced its damnable approach to form. At the time it was to me only a seething, dimly phosphorescent cloud of fungous loathsomeness, enveloping and dissolving to an abhorrent plasticity the one object to which all my attention was focussed. That object was my uncle—the venerable Elihu Whipple—who with blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me, and reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury which this horror had brought.[...] |
In that dim blend of blue and yellow the form of my uncle had commenced a nauseous liquefaction whose essence eludes all description, and in which there played across his vanishing face such changes of identity as only madness can conceive. He was at once a devil and a multitude, a charnel-house and a pageant. Lit by the mixed and uncertain beams, that gelatinous face assumed a dozen—a score—a hundred—aspects; grinning, as it sank to the ground on a body that melted like tallow, in the caricatured likeness of legions strange and yet not strange.
The images here are not really all that far from some of those in "He", yet they are different enough to carry a more complex series of associations. In "He", that inky entity does seem to carry the idea of the non-white engulfing the white, albeit a corrupted vision of both. Yet this monstrous influx is also similar to how Lovecraft described the inhabitants of the East Side in his letter to Frank Belknap Long of 21 March 1924, in what is one of Lovecraft's most pungent expressions of racism:
The organic things -- Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid -- inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely molded from some stinking viscious slime of earth's corruption, and slithering in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities.[...] I could not carry away the memory of any living face. The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating; which left on the eye only the broad, phantasmal lineaments of the morbid soul of disintegration and decay ... a yellow leering mask with sour, sticky, acid ichors oozing at eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and abnormally bubbling from monstrous and unbelievable sores at every point....
And this sort of imagery of such a fungous, formless, protoplasmic mass, it seems to me, is carried over into "The Horror at Red Hook" as well, though here it is oddly not directed at the "alien hordes", but at the nightmarish saraband of all the figure loosed from our deepest religious and superstitious urges and beliefs:
Avenues of limitless night seemed to radiate in every direction, till one might fancy that here lay the root of a contagion destined to sicken and swallow cities, and engulf nations in the foetor of hybrid pestilence. Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding. Satan here held his Babylonish court, and in the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved. Incubi and succubae howled praise to Hecate, and headless moon-calves bleated to the Magna Mater. Goats leaped to the sound of thin accursed flutes, and aegipans chased endlessly after misshapen fauns over rocks twisted like swollen toads. Moloch and Ashtaroth were not absent; for in this quintessence of all damnation the bounds of consciousness were let down, and man’s fancy lay open to vistas of every realm of horror and every forbidden dimension that evil had power to mould. [emphasis added]
Note, too, the "grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding". It would seem that Lovecraft's mind kept returning to and refining this basic image and its implications, over and over, but always in connection to non-whites and the fears and dreads of superstition and/or primitive forms of religion, which those same "aliens" continued to carry with them, like the seeds of plague.
Which, not coincidentally, ties in I think with the fact that in "He", "The Horror at Red Hook", and "The Street", we have another recurring image: that of ancient, venerable houses representing a proud American history suddenly crumbling and collapsing from a hidden rottenness veiled by their surface solidity... a rottenness always connected with the incursion of the alien and hybrid cultures which themselves engulf and absorb these "oases" of Anglo-Saxon (or at least Teutonic) influence.
Mind you, I am not at all convinced that Lovecraft himself had reasoned out the symbology here, or what it all meant; but I do think that these themes were revolving in his mind over and over (as evinced by his letters and even some essays of the period), and these particular images had an immense power for him, addressing such concerns while making them at least marginally
bearable for the time being. It is as if, by turning these fears and loathings into the language of dream (as Maurice Lévy pointed out), Lovecraft found a way to live with them without quite being able to come to understand or be comfortable with them, as he was, say, with the night-gaunts and the like.