Disturbed by Lovecraft, whose racism and hate weren't merely a product of his times

Note: I write a monthly column for the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1. The magazine's October 2016 issue is a special horror-themed edition and I was asked to write about the problematic heritage of H. P. Lovecraft. Which I did. The column caused a bit of controversy when it was published, with a few readers saying Lovecraft wasn't racist or was merely a product of his racist times. Below is the English version of the column in this month's XB-1 along with a follow-up response I wrote, which was published on the magazine's website.

Disturbed by Lovecraft

In the “foreweird” to the acclaimed anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Moorcock writes “the appeal of the weird story is precisely that it is designed to disturb.”

Perhaps no 20th century writer has disturbed more people than H.P. Lovecraft. While Lovecraft was relatively unknown when he passed away in 1937, his body of work — including the stories which formed the basis of the "Cthulhu Mythos" — lived on, as did the works of the Lovecraft Circle, a group of writers published in the seminal magazine Weird Tales with whom Lovecraft regularly exchanged letters. These writers used aspects of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories in their own works, keeping Lovecraft’s themes and ideas going.

One of these authors, August Derleth, even founded the publisher Arkham House expressly to keep Lovecraft in print. Derleth also wrote many stories in Lovecraft’s universe, even — controversially — using Lovecraft’s notes to create new stories, which Derleth then listed as being co-authored by himself and Lovecraft.

But more on other authors writing Lovecraftian fiction in a moment.

You may have noticed I’m not bringing up the themes and elements of Lovecraft’s fiction. The reason for this is there’s little need. Not only have far better writers than myself examined and critiqued Lovecraft’s fiction, the mythos behind his stories have arguably become more famous than his fiction itself. The entire world has embraced Lovecraft’s view of “cosmic horror” complete with tentacled elder gods and powerless humans and the wrath of an evil universe. These themes have become so well-known they’re almost cliches.

As Ann and Jeff VanderMeer wrote about Lovecraft in The Weird, he “believed that life is ultimately incomprehensible to human beings and the universe is a cold, hostile place.” This Lovecraftian worldview has permeated far and wide into the greater culture, just as the paranoid worldview of another famous genre author — Philip K. Dick — has likewise spread far and wide.

People who haven’t read Dick’s stories still know his worldview, even if they don’t know his name. The same with Lovecraft.

And Lovecraft’s reputation is intimately bound with stories created by other writers. As I mentioned, fellow Weird Tales authors wrote stories using Lovecraft’s tropes and mythos, a trend continued by even more writers after his death. Today the list of authors who both write Lovecraftian stories or have been influenced by Lovecraft read like a who’s who of horror and dark fantasy and includes China Miéville, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Gemma Files, Laird Barron, Storm Constantine, and many more. In addition, Lovecraft has also had a major influence on the visual storytelling mediums, from video games to films like Alien and Ghostbusters, both of which contain major Lovecraftian elements.

But despite this acclaim, Lovecraft has also never been more controversial.

Part of this controversy is because Lovecraft was not a great literary wordsmith — as proof, read his story "The Cats of Ulthar," which is more an idea of a story, a summary of a story, than a true story with fleshed-out characters, developed plot, and rising and falling action.

Yet the larger reason Lovecraft is so controversial has little to do with his storytelling manner. Instead, it’s the beliefs which formed the core of his own self and permeated into his writings. You see, Lovecraft was a hardcore racist and antisemite. Meaning he would have implicitly rejected many of the authors who have carried on the tradition of his stories, or authors who received the World Fantasy Award with his likeness on the award statue, such as Nnedi Okorafor.

And no, Lovecraft wasn’t merely reflecting the racism and hatred of his times. Some of his contemporaries were extremely disturbed by his racism and pointed out the issue to him, to no avail.

It is difficult to separate Lovecraft’s racism from his stories. For example, “The Horror at Red Hook" is both one of Lovecraft’s most well-known stories and one of his most racist, with Lovecraft describing Aryan civilization as being all that stands against the “primitive half-ape savagery” of lesser races.

This aspect of Lovecraft’s writing makes him a difficult author to totally embrace in this day and age. Author Victor LaValle grew up reading and loving Lovecraft’s tales even as he was appalled at the racism in Lovecraft’s life and stories. In response, LaValle wrote his powerful 2016 novella The Ballad Of Black Tom, which directly deals with all these issues even as it works the “The Horror at Red Hook” into something totally new, re-imagining the story and the Lovecraftian mythos so they’re seen through the eyes of a black man in 1920’s America.

Some Lovecraft fans complain about such re-examinations of Lovecraft’s racism, believing it is an attempt to remove Lovecraft from his place in the genre he helped build. But this view is nonsense. Lovecraft's influence on dark fantasy and horror isn't going to disappear merely because people are aware of the troubling aspects of his life and writing.

No, Lovecraft's legacy is secure because of all the authors and creators who took his ideas and ran with them. Most people are able to appreciate Lovecraft's influence on horror and dark fantasy while also acknowledging the negative aspects of his life and work.

You can see this dual attitude clearly in Nick Mamatas’ new novel I Am Providence, which is a murder-horror mystery set at a Lovecraft literary convention. In the novel Mamatas has one of his characters sum up Lovecraft’s influence as follows:

“What Lovecraft did do, better than anyone, was radically decenter the human experience from the art of fiction. Critics, or people who just don’t ‘get it,’ complain that Lovecraft’s characters are paper-thin cyphers who faint at the slightest hint of cosmic horror lurking in the ink-black sky. Correct, but that is a thematic strength, not an auctorial weakness. We are alone in an infinite universe, or so far from anyone else out there that it hardly matters. If we were to encounter alien life-forms … they might destroy us, accidentally or from an ethic of pure malevolence.”

I believe that quote sums of why Lovecraft’s vision still holds such power. And before anyone thinks Mamatas is fawning over Lovecraft, his novel also rips Lovecraft apart for the moral failings of his life.

Stories embracing Lovecraft's universe while also critiquing Lovecraft's views are how it goes these days, and that’s not a bad thing.


Response to those who say Lovecraft merely reflected the racism and hatred of his times

H.P. Lovecraft lived in what has been called the nadir of American race relations. Because of this many people attempt to excuse Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism as merely being a product of his time.

However, Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism went far beyond the norm even of those horrific times. And as times changed, Lovecraft didn’t change with them, instead sticking firmly to his racism and anti-Semitism.

Lovecraft’s hateful views were a major concern of his wife Sonia Greene, who was Jewish. Sonia was extremely disturbed by Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism and repeatedly raised this issue with Lovecraft, as related in this Wired article which states “Greene told a biographer later that she kept reminding Lovecraft about her own background, but it didn’t seem to dissuade him from his fear of Jews and other immigrants.”

Sonia even once confronted Lovecraft on how she was a member of a group he despised, to which he responded by saying she “no longer belonged to these mongrels.”

Despite Sonia repeatedly raising these issues with Lovecraft, she later wrote, “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind.”

It’s likely even Lovecraft knew his views were not the standard racism and hate of his day. Otherwise, why would he have worked so hard to defend his views? An example of this is related in S.T. Joshi's A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft and his Time. Joshi describes how Charles D. Isaacson wrote an essay on racial tolerance which also attacked the film Birth of a Nation for inciting “racial hatred.” In response Lovecraft wrote that “Mr. Isaacson’s views on racial prejudice … are too subjective to be impartial.”

Isaacson responded with an essay attacking Lovecraft, saying that the author “is against tolerance of color, creed and equality, upholds race prejudice…”

The year this exchange took place? 1915. Even that long ago people were willing to call out Lovecraft for his racism.

Lovecraft’s friend Wilfred Branch Talman also noted Lovecraft’s racism, although unlike with the Isaacson exchange Talman merely dismissed Lovecraft’s “racist viewpoint” as being part of the bizarre 18th century aristocratic pose Lovecraft affected. But the fact that Talman even noticed Lovecraft’s racism during one of the most racist times in American history speaks volumes about how bad Lovecraft’s views were.

The idea that Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism wasn’t merely a product of his times is also taken up by many of the people who have studied the author’s works in recent years. For example, in the intro to The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, editor Paula Guran writes “Lovecraft’s prejudice seems, at the very least, somewhat more pronounced than many of his contemporaries.”

Guran’s view is echoed by China Miéville in his introduction to At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition by H.P. Lovecraft, where Miéville writes “Two things are sometimes adduced to excuse (Lovecraft). One is that it was 'the time' — people were just 'like that' back then. This is an unacceptable condescension to history: people were emphatically not all like that.”

As I stated in my original XB-1 essay, despite Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism his legacy is secure because of the many authors and creators who have taken his ideas and run with them. In addition, most people are able to appreciate Lovecraft's influence on horror and dark fantasy while also acknowledging the negative aspects of his life and work.

But none of that means we should ignore or excuse his racism and hate.