When I went down to New Orleans last year to visit the World Horror Convention, I had just a few things on my to-do list. I wanted to see the town, sample its cuisine and take in some jazz–promote The ‘Geisters, the book that I had coming out that year, as much as was graceful–and also, talk a bit about race.
Specifically, I wanted to talk about race as it pertained to H.P. Lovecraft’s writings.
It seemed like the thing to do. The organizers of World Horror had found me a panel to sit on, moderated by Lovecraftian scholar, critic and anthologist S.T. Joshi, called Lovecraft’s Eternal Fascination. My first novel, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, is the only pseudo-Lovecraftian book I’ve written, and one of my aims with that book was to deal with Lovecraftian xenophobia from a post-Martin-Luther-K
ing perspective–to tie Lovecraft’s horrible eugenic notions together with the genuine and just as horrible eugenic fallacies that were making the rounds in early 20th century America. As Eternal Fascinations went, I thought race might rate.
When the panel started it became clear: not so much. I brought up the topic early and affably in the panel, and just a little later but also affably, Mr. Joshi shut it down with a familiar canard: Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia must be viewed in the context of Lovecraft’s considerably less-enlightened time. I recall gently objecting that Lovecraft’s views may have been more mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s yet were still not universal–but, not wanting to be seen as hijacking the panel, letting things go.
A few months later, I found myself on another Lovecraftian panel in San Antonio at Worldcon–this one about Lovecraft’s international appeal. There, in the midst of an excellent and exhaustive power point presentation about Lovecraft’s portability to Japan, I tried again to talk a bit about race. One of my co-panelists straight-facedly claimed she had seen no hints of racism in the Lovecraft that she’d read and wasn’t sure what I was talking about. I cited a few obvious examples–the proto-Tea-Party anti-immigration text (one can hardly call it subtext) of “The Horror at Red Hook,” the horrific take on miscegenation at the heart of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and a particular poem with a title that cannot be spoken, typed or spray-painted on a garage door in polite company–but didn’t push it much further.* Instead I spent most of the rest of that panel sitting back and taking in all those lovely slides of Lovecraftian manga panels and illustrations for translated stories.
Because really, it fast became clear that last year at least, not very many people at Lovecraftian panels wanted to talk about race as it pertained to Lovecraftian fiction.
Is it any different this year? The petition going around to have Gahan Wilson’s bust of H.P. Lovecraft replaced with one of Octavia Butler on the World Fantasy Award is certainly generating considerable talk. Mr. Joshi, somewhat less affably than I remember him a year ago, made a Modest Proposal for an alternative to the statue on his blog — to which the petition’s author Daniel José Older rather definitively replied.**
But I’d submit this talk about race in the fantasy-writing and -reading community, while a vitally important talk to have, is not one of race in Lovecraft’s fiction. And as long as Lovecraft remains such a foundational influence in so much fantasy, horror and especially weird fiction, that’s a talk that, as uncomfortable as it is, is also very necessary.
I’d make the case that Lovecraft’s fiction–and Lovecraftian horror–depends on the xenophobia that was endemic to Lovecraft’s work to the point that without it, many of his stories lose their unique and uniquely profound effect. “The Horror in Red Hook” is a direct channelling of Lovecraft’s loathing of newcomers to New York City; the real horror of “The Call of Cthulhu” is not the octopus-headed demigod that emerges out of his underwater city to kill all the people, but the people themselves–all either eugenically unfit denizens of the bayou or “primitive” island cultures whose religious practises amount to a kind of proactive nihilism. The manifestation of Nyarlathotep in the eponymous story is that of a black man bearing trinkets, who seduces the good white folk of America into authoring their own demise.
There are other things going on in Lovecraft too: there’s the bestiary/pantheon of fantastically alien gods and monsters; that overheated prose that veers so easily between the sublime and the leaden; his fearful, bookish characters. But those are characteristics, aesthetics; not fundamentals. They are not the agenda.
The agenda in Lovecraft’s fiction is clear, and woven deep into the bones of his stories.
This is an uncomfortable thing to face, for practitioners of Lovecraftian tradition of weird fiction. For most of us who write and read the stuff, the attraction is toward the aesthetic. And as borne out by Lovecraft’s early disciples, that aesthetic wasn’t always quite enough.
British author Ramsey Campbell was a very early disciple, coming across Lovecraft stories as a 10-year-old 14 year-old boy, in a sweet shop in the 1950s. Little Ramsey grew up to be one of the preeminent authors of horror fiction of the 20th century, and you won’t find me calling him out on his craft in later works. But have a look at “The Room in the Castle,” the story chosen to open his PS Publishing collection The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants.
It tells the story of Perry, a fellow who after a visit to the forbidden books section of the British Museum, gathers sufficient information to determine there is something awful going on in a little English village: a demonic creature described in its full Lovecraftian glory, that first menaced the countryside but was eventually imprisioned in a cellar, where its master fed it on unwary travellers. And then, Perry heads off to check it out. Why? Even Campbell doesn’t know, and expresses his frustration in the opening lines:
“Is there some lurking remnant of the elder world in each of us which draws us toward the beings which survive from other eons? Surely there must be such a remnant in me, for there can be no sane or wholesome reason why I should have strayed that day to the old, legend-infected ruin on the hill, nor can any commonplace reason be deduced for my finding the secret underground room there, and still less for opening the door of horror which I discovered.”
Indeed, through the text of the story no proper motivation for Perry emerges. There is nothing about Perry beyond a schoolboyish curiosity to put him in contact with the eventually fabulously-described creature in the cellar room. There is not a hint of subtext, other than a general admonition against curiosity where terrible monsters are concerned.
Would Campbell’s story have been better if he’d shot it through with the old-time Lovecraftian racism? No–partly because although I don’t know Campbell personally, I’ve seen no evidence that he harbours those views himself, so the insertion would have been dishonest–and in larger part because, as I should probably emphasize, I don’t think that added racism makes for a better story. But Campbell’s collection-opening short story has a hole in it where Lovecraft might have stuffed a big wad of bigoted neuroses–a hole that the mythos-dazzled young author hadn’t felt it necessary to fill.
The Cthulhu Mythos continues to dazzle more contemporary writers. And why wouldn’t it? The creatures Lovecraft described and hinted at are magnificent things, and the secret-history-of-the-world is an excellent sandbox for thoughful writers, particularly ones who’re willing to fill the holes in it with something else.
Charles Stross has good fun with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos in his Laundry books, without appearing to draw on anxiety much deeper than a solid recollection of a bad time working I.T. Where Stross blends espionage adventure with the Mythos, Laird Barron blends noirish elements with pseudo-Mythos tropes to explore themes that are nearer to Jim Thompson’s brand of nihilism than Lovecraft’s. Thomas Ligotti cheerily swaps out xenophobia for all-out misanthropy.
Some manage to keep closer to Lovecraft’s more specific anxieties, without embracing Lovecraft’s awful conclusions. Catalan author Albert Sanchez Pinol, in his 2002 novel Cold Skin, delved into the same dank eugenic chambers as did “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”–dealing this time not with the progeny of a racially-mixed marriage, but with the inter-racial sexual politics between the potential parents, as his narrator-protagonist finds an uneasy erotic union with a female creature of a species very similar to Lovecraft’s amphibious Deep Ones. It is, if you will, a xenophillic novel, with a dash of post-imperialist critique.
For me, the xenophobia angle remains the most interesting, and perhaps the most relevant. The legacy of racists like Lovecraft is still very much in play in contemporary society, from the Obama birthers to the Ferguson cops and most points between… and the discussion as to how to contain that legacy is far from over. In a perverse way, Lovecraft’s retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature… not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we’ve been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods.
It’s a telling thing in our little community of weird fiction afficionados, that as much as we fetishize those immense and indestructible beasts and beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, the one monster that we cannot bring ourselves to face is the frail and fearful one who put it all together.
* Those interested in a more comprehensive accounting of Lovecraft’s racist proclivities should check out Phenderson Djeli Clark’s excellent survey of his writings right here. And (EDIT AUG. 27): As has been pointed out to me in the comment section of this blog, PDC’s survey is not the only instance where discussion of Lovecraft’s racism has come to the fore. Essays by Nicole Cushing, Bruce Lord, Betsy Phillips and Zoe Quinn (who came up with this chilling online quiz comparing Lovecraft’s words to those of Adolph Hitler) are some excellent online resources I’ve been able to come across immediately. I’ve also had Michel Houellebecq’s critical work H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life recommended to me, although I’ve not had opportunity to read it yet. In a similar vein, I would welcome seeing other citations that I haven’t been able to find myself, posted in the comment section.
** For the record, I think that Older’s at least half right, and Lovecraft’s bust shouldn’t be gracing an award that honours creators of all kinds of fantasy from all over the world. Lovecraft’s racism, and also the specificity of his sub-genre (the weird tale) implies at least an outdated hierarchy of people and theme, and ought to be discarded in favour of… something else, I’d say, rather than someone else. But that’s for another blog post.