cthulhu

What do we do about Lovecraft?

The more I think about the issue, the more concerned I become about the honouring of H.P.Lovecraft in Horror, Fantasy, SF, weird and speculative fiction.

The argument has come to the fore again in my mind because of the furore at Weird Tales, which also roughly coincided with Lovecraft’s birthday. Lovecraft’s racism is not widely discussed even within his fandom, but has come increasingly to the fore, for instance in response to essays like Nnedi Okorafor’s here. But what has really made me consider the seriousness of the issue again is this review of Save The Pearls, the novel at the heart of the Weird Tales nightmare, here in The Guardian (for which I write regularly, by way of disclaimer) which incidentally links to this foul little ditty penned by non-other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself. I’m going to repeat this below because I think it is essential it’s read to understand the problem fully, and the click through on links is less than 10% on average.

On the Creation of Niggers (1912)
by H. P. Lovecraft

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Now I don’t intend to rehash the back and forth arguments about Lovecraft. I’m just going to state what at this point I take to be the facts. H.P.Lovecraft held racist opinions which he expressed overtly in rhyme, and which can also be identified in his fiction.

There are perhaps some valid responses to this. As a commentor on The Guardian blog notes, these were such widely held opinions in the early 20th Century that an authoritative source such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica repeated them. Many artists have objectionable opinions which we manage to separate from their work. Lovecraft’s stories are general expressions of deep seated fears, of which racism is one other expression. Often stated arguments, but not ones I entirely accept.

Imagine an average non-fandom type person encountering two facts. One; H P Lovecraft is hailed as a founding figure of weird fiction, thousands of fans still adore his work, hundreds of writers have worked in his Cthulhu mythos, dozens of anthologies are published in his name every year, and the World Fantasy Award goes so far as to give his head away as a trophy, all of which adds up to a remarkable kind of ancestor worship. Two; H P Lovecraft was a racist.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable of that average non-fandom type person to assume those fans are a bunch of racists as well.

Maybe not cross-burning white hooded lynch mob racists. And probably not even overtly ‘we don’t like your kind around here’ racists. But maybe, yes, the kind of racists who insistently claim they aren’t racist, and fully believe their own claims. Maybe the kind of racists that Avenue Q makes fun of in the lyric ‘everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes‘. The humour in Avenue Q’s joke is that everyone is a bit racist, but its the people who lack the self-awareness to identify and prevent their own racism who are the problem.

The problem for the community of people who ancestor worship Lovecraft, and indeed other equally problematic writers and artists of all kinds, is to approach these figures with self-awareness. We need, I believe, to include the discussion of Lovecrafts racism whenever we talk about his life and writing. It needs to be present in those anthologies. It needs to be reflected on and, where necessary, reacted against by writers taking up the Cthulhu mythos. And as for giving his head away as a trophy? Yes, not doing that might be one quite effective way of making it clear that we aren’t a bunch of racists.

9 thoughts on “What do we do about Lovecraft?”

  1. To answer the blog’s (perhaps rhetorical) question, I think we need to embrace cognitive dissonance when it comes to Lovecraft.

    Lovecraft wasn’t just a racist in the way that many of his contemporaries may have been, he was *obsessed* with white/”Aryan” supremacy. (For example, he made the request of his Jewish wife — a long story in and of itself — that when they entertained, the number of “Aryan” guests should always exceed the number of Jews…true story).

    Often members of the Lovecraftian fiction community will suggest that we need to separate the art from the artist in the case of Lovecraft, but I don’t think that necessarily works, either. The racism intrudes into the work. Often in a subtle way, but not-infrequently in a jarring, jaw-dropping, wince-inducing way. (The most egregious example I’ve found to date is HPL’s characterization of a black boxer named Buck Robinson in “Herbert West, Reanimator”. It’s probably the most offensive depiction of a black man ever to appear in American literature…ten times more offensive than anything you’d find in the worst minstrel show.

    And yet, white supremacy wasn’t the *only* thing HPL was obsessed with. He was obsessed with astronomy, and quite obsessed with a certain theme of the vast, ancient, unfathomable cosmos nullifying humanity’s central role in the universe. He wasn’t the FIRST author to explore this ground (Algernon Blackwood is the earliest I’ve read, and there’s probably authors long before him who explored this, too). But HPL is among the most persistent and imaginative cosmic horror authors of all time.

    Cthulhu isn’t an evil monster. Cthulhu is a cosmic force whose very existence nullifies humanity and renders all of human existence meaningless. Hence, the Lovecraftian trope of characters going mad upon experiencing a scientific revelation they would have been better off not knowing.

    Later authors (Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell, and Caitlin Kiernan, to name a few) were deeply influenced by Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and I think — if for no other reason than that influence — he’s important to the history of weird fiction. The mere fact that we might not have Thomas Ligotti’s fiction without the influence of Lovecraft leads me to place value in Lovecraft’s fiction.

    In my opinion, though, Lovecraftians would do well to educate themselves on HPL’s racism and really face it. I think there’s an instinctive flinching away from it, and the Lovecraftian community tends to try to make excuses for him. (I’ve discussed some of this in a recent blog post of my own: http://nicolecushing.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/lovecraft-racism-the-man-of-his-time-defense/).

  2. No question he was racist, or that it shows in his fiction (although I wasn’t aware of that charming little ‘poem’ before now).

    Whether this makes approaching his work any more problematic than, say, Ezra Pound’s anti-semitisn is a difficult question. But what is undoubtably more problematic is the genre’s ongoing obsession with him, as you make clear. By focusing on a single figure so much (at the expense of Poe, Blackwood, Kafka etc.) it’s hard not to get the impression that people want to turn a blind eye to his more questionable views.

    Of course HPL was and is influential, no question… but let’s face it a lot of the Mythos stuff wrote since his death is just plain derivative. Maybe if the genre acknowledged more of the great writers in its history, HPL could be viewed more objectively, warts & all.

  3. Uh yeah, I am a hardcore Lovecraftian fan and I am not racist. I don’t engage in any type of racism. Why is it, we can’t just enjoy a genre for what it is. If you remove all of the racism out of his work, its still great.

    So I guess Brian Lumely is also a racist now? I think he’ll appreciate that comment.

  4. “We need, I believe, to include the discussion of Lovecrafts racism whenever we talk about his life and writing.”

    Right, and we simply MUST discuss Martin Luther’s shit fetish when discussing the church he founded. In fact Every Lutheran church should have images of the man taking a shit on his custom toilet, carven on every sculpture and depicted in every stained glass window. Instead of Bibles, they should read from the detailed letters Martin Luther wrote to his friends about his bowel movements. He should have nailed THOSE to the church door.

    “I don’t think it would be unreasonable of that average non-fandom type person to assume those fans are a bunch of racists as well.”

    Anyone who would make such assumptions is far more ignorant than this essay assumes HPL to have been. People who criticize something they have no knowledge of should not be defended as having a right to state ignorant, wrong or mentally deficient opinions.

    In some way, we are all ignorant. HPL was wise enough to know this. A major theme of Lovecraft’s works is the irrelevance of humanity, the idea that our cultures and values might be meaningless or even repulsive to someone else. If his racism was necessary for him to create those brilliant works of art, than thank god for his racism.It cannot be surprising that a man who so valued architecture and the written word would have issues with cultures which had never mastered either, such as that of Africa and Native America. It is also apparent that he held illiterate whites in similar contempt as he held for blacks. Uneducated Irish, Polish, Canadians, French, and even Hitler’s Ubermenschian Dutch also receive a share of HPL’s ire, and not in scant proportion.

    There is also ample evidence, often overlooked, that HPL was not the hate mongering Nazi many wish to portray him as. He had a noted and documented love of Oriental and Arabic culture no Klansman would approve of, and while he may not have valued all aspects of those societies, he certainly idolized Egyptian and Arabic nobility.

    Oh, he also fell in love with and married a Jew, which in my mind should lay the issue of his supposed Nazism/racism to rest. Obviously his hatred for someone’s culture was not such that he could not see past it to the person that culture produced. Black racists like Malcolm X get this defense all the damn time. Why not HPL? At least his last name doesn’t involuntarily invoke mental images of a Speed Racer character.

    Lovecraft unapologetically hated the ignorant and all things that they produced. He very much COULD see past skin color, to dimensions perhaps unseen by most, and will be remembered as one of the U.S.A’s best writers, like Rome’s Seneca or Plato of Greece. Fittingly, his detractors will be forgotten. Like the clock and the compass, he is an example of something good white people have contributed to the world.

    1. Good comment. Lovecraft also has a short story (The Temple) making fun of Germans and German militarism, so I doubt he was a nazi. He was just a snob WASP, I think.

  5. Can you identify the person who is without flaw?
    Accept HPL for his body of work. You are not required to agree with his personal ethos. It will not stain you to read and enjoy his work. Be fearless, but Guard against self-righteousness and keep ALL things in context.

  6. I’d say it’s disingenuous at best (stupid at worst) to imagine it’s natural for the uninitiated to assume Lovecraft fans are racist. It’s also interesting that you lumped 5 different, very positive things about the man into one fact. I guess it makes it easier to hit people over the head with your point when you do the whole ‘on the one hand…’ thing.

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