Next month, the East Village will host the 6th Annual H.P. Lovecraft Festival. The event, at the Kraine Theatre, will involve no less than 10 performances of some of the most famous tales by the acclaimed master of the weird, including the seminal “Dagon,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (which I also saw brought to life in a remarkable performance earlier this year by the Wildclaw Theatre in Chicago), and perhaps the granddaddy of them all, “The Call of Cthulhu.” The fest also seems poised to perform ancillary works known to have influenced Lovecraft, such as Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool.
Alas, the excitement that Lovecraft fans—like me—tend to feel this time of year has lately been tempered by a new sortie of indignantly critical articles chastising the author and his fans. It probably began with Phenderson Djeli Clark’s assertion on Racalicious that “Lovecraft’s modern-day fans seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to deal with this ugly side of his life” and that “for some Lovecraft fans, it would be more preferable to go swimming with the Deep Ones than mar a single hair upon the author’s hallowed head.”
Earlier this month, Laura Miller’s article in Salon seconded the notion that Lovecraft’s contemporary fans either truculently deny his bigotry, or insist that it was/is not a problem.
In both of these pieces, very little evidence is provided of actual Lovecraftians taking these alleged positions. (Clark points to Bryan Moore, but Ms. Miller must stoop to quoting an anonymous internet commenter[!] to make part of her case.)
We can all agree on the following: H.P. Lovecraft lived 100 years ago, and—for most of his life—held opinions that we would today call racist and bigoted. Nobody disputes this. He also singlehandedly galvanized the uniquely American genre of “weird fiction” and crafted a legacy of horror, fantasy, and science fiction stories that have made generations of fans fall in love with him.
So what do you do when someone you love holds opinions that are archaic and deeply offensive? This is not an abstract question. Most of us face it each year during the holidays, if not more frequently. Almost all of us have someone in our family who holds views we find abhorrent and backwards.
When people—people we love—do or say (or write) things that are bigoted, it hurts us personally. It makes us feel frustrated and betrayed and exasperated. It challenges us to reevaluate our relationships to them.
And it should.
This is the dilemma faced by every admirer of Lovecraft’s creative work.
Do I personally have all of the answers? Do I know exactly how a contemporary fan “should” feel about Lovecraft? No, I don’t. But when considering the problematic aspects of his life and work, I have found it helpful to remember the following four things…
1. The case for Lovecraft’s sins is unusually airtight.
As a culture, we seem to be able to acknowledge that many beloved figures have sometimes done inexcusable things. But—vitally—in most cases, we have only secondhand accounts of these transgressions.
For example, there is no HD video footage of John Lennon’s admitted beatings of his romantic partners—or of Norman Mailer stabbing his wife. We don’t have hi-res photography of any number of U.S. Presidents repeatedly committing adultery. We don’t have recordings of the unpardonable, offensive things that so many of our most beloved cultural figures have apparently said. Does learning about these awful things secondhand—as opposed to actually seeing or hearing them—make them easier to swallow? My suspicion is “almost definitely.” Consider what role the presence of visual documentation likely had in the punishment recently handed down to Ray Rice, for example.
In the case of H.P. Lovecraft, we have entirely firsthand examples of his transgressions. In his teens and twenties, Lovecraft was racist in a way that is almost hard to imagine today. He held a kind of Bioshock Infinite-worldview in which only a certain strain of British Protestant ancestry is acceptable, with the rest of the world’s population forced to occupy varying strata of unwashed subhuman. For Lovecraft, African Americans were “biologically inferior,” Jews were “capable of infinite nastiness” and there were “wide physical, mental, & cultural differences, why great numbers of the Chinese ought not to mix into the Caucasian fabric.”
If Lovecraft’s early writings and personal correspondence had been lost in a fire—and we had been left with only anecdotal allegations that he “once wrote a racist poem when he was twenty” or “he sometimes said bigoted things in letters”—I daresay that we would not be having this conversation today. I certainly would not be writing this article.
But the worst things Lovecraft ever did have been preserved for all time in vivid black and white, each poisoned word as troubling today as it was 100 years ago.
We have to acknowledge this, and ask where we go from here.
2. Lovecraft probably adopted racist ideas out of a need to feel superior…because his own world had been destroyed.
The tale of the Lovecraft family is one of Buddenbrookian decline.
Lovecraft was born in 1890 into an aristocratic New England family that began to deteriorate almost the moment he came onto the scene. His father was committed to a mental institution when he was three, and died five years after that. This left Lovecraft’s aging grandfather to provide for the family. When this grandfather passed away in 1904, it was revealed that the family wealth had been mismanaged and squandered. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move out of their house into an apartment. Then, in 1919, Lovecraft’s mother was herself committed to a mental institution, where she died two years later. After a marriage that went south, Lovecraft was left to subsist on funds from a small inheritance that was never adequate. In his last years, poverty forced him to move in with his aunt.
Lovecraft felt like a born aristocrat, but his increasingly modest surroundings always insisted to the contrary. For Lovecraft, this was crushing. As T.E.D. Klein notes in A Dreamer’s Tales: “race relations provided another outlet for Lovecraft’s Romantic self-pity.” Just as some Americans might “cling to guns or religion” out of frustration with their lot, Lovecraft clung to backwards nineteenth-century ideas of race superiority. It was clearly appealing for him to imagine that the increasing diversity of the United States was somehow to blame for his family’s decline. . .as opposed to mental illness, financial mismanagement, and his own inability to get a job.
Nothing makes prejudice okay. Nothing excuses racism. However, it is helpful for me, in understanding Lovecraft, to get a sense of why a bigoted worldview was attractive to him.
At least initially. . .
3. Lovecraft became less racist as he aged. By the end of his life, he may not have been racist at all.
In the debate about Lovecraft, it seems that nobody can ever be bothered to address the fact that Lovecraft became demonstrably less bigoted as he got older. I don’t know why this point is almost always neglected, except that it makes the arguments on both sides necessarily more nuanced and difficult to advance.
Any thorough reading of his personal correspondence (mine includes the 2,000-page Arkham House Selected Letters series) makes clear that Lovecraft’s bigotry was in full, gleeful bloom in his late teens and early 20s, but that it gradually shriveled away as he got older—as, crucially, his opinions in other areas also began to change. If Lovecraft was not exactly anti-racist by the end of his life, he was a least bored with it as a subject. ( when his correspondents try to bait him into a discussion of race, he comes across like an old dog who has tired of chasing that particular ball.)
In his final years, Lovecraft realized that many of the notions he’d found charmingly “antiquarian” in his younger days were flatly asinine. This shift is perhaps best encapsulated in a letter he wrote—just a year before he died—to Jennie K. Plaiser. A salient passage reads: “…I realised what an ass I had been. The liberals at whom I used to laugh were the ones who were right—for they were living in the present while I had been living in the past.” Lovecraft had gone from being an unintentional parody of a British Tory to a who was interested in policies that would benefit everybody, not just “aristocratic” whites.
An exhaustive index has yet to be compiled chronicling exactly when—and with what frequency—the bigotry can be charted as dropping off from Lovecraft’s letters, but I would encourage any willing scholar to undertake the project.
Was Lovecraft very bigoted at some points in his life? Absolutely, yes. But it’s inaccurate to give the impression that Lovecraft held the same views throughout all of his 46 years. The truth is more complex and interesting than that.
4. Lovecraft fans take this seriously.
Contrary to what some recent articles have alleged, most Lovecraft fans acknowledge that there are troubling elements to the Old Gent’s legacy. We’re not happy about it. Nobody thinks it’s good. Instead, it’s a shame. A horrible, horrible shame. We feel absolutely awful about it. Explaining it to people is, at the very least, a constant pain in the ass.
Why did a person capable of creating such magically transcendent fictional worlds also choose to spend his time advancing backwards, bigoted nonsense? We will never know. We can only conjecture.
But conjecture we do. And I think the internet is full of good examples of Lovecraftians having reasoned, reasonable discussions of how to reconcile the writer’s creative work with his repugnant prejudices. Lovecraft fans don’t always agree with one another, but most Lovecraftians have used this occasion to further thoughtful discussion.
The greatest Lovecraft scholar—living or dead—is S.T. Joshi. In one of his blog entries connected to this recent wave of controversy, Joshi—who is Indian-American—shares the following:
In the early 1930s Lovecraft wrote in a letter: “The more one thinks about India, the more one wants to vomit.” What is a plausible reaction of an Indian to this remark? Well, my first reaction was to laugh. My second reaction was to attempt to understand why Lovecraft said it.
To understand. This is what is missing from so many of the recent articles about this greatest of all weird fiction writers.
We live in times when many important cultural arbiters are interested in identifying and rooting out racism—which is good. Yet sometimes participants in this project can display an intellectual laziness that leaves them satisfied with merely declaiming “Racist!” or “Not Racist!” and then dropping the subject entirely. Their project becomes lumping everyone—and everything—into one of two categories.
But racism is not a binary. Someone can be a little bit racist, or very racist. And, crucially, someone’s views can change over time.
Regrettably, this laziness has poisoned what might otherwise have been a penetrating and enlightening discussion of the underpinnings of Lovecraft’s reprehensible bigotry, and, more largely, how one ought to reconcile the personal failings of great artists with the great art they have created.
Instead, we have a strain of dialogue that, ironically, does—intellectually, at least—just what bigotry itself does: put people into categories in order to dismiss them.
In Anti-Semite and Jew, his brilliant screed against prejudice, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre chronicles the nefarious actions of Parisian anti-Semites. Chief among their crimes is their utter dismissal of anybody who is Jewish, regardless of what he or she brings to the table as a person. According to Sartre, the anti-Semites feel they “know” the capabilities—and deficiencies—of a Jew, sight unseen.
That person you’re telling me about is a Jew?—says the bigot. Or a Muslim? Or an Asian? Or an African? Well you can stop right there. Because I know their kind. I understand all about them.
And so, according to Sartre, a French Jew of the 1940s is left feeling: “Whatever he does, his course has been set for him. He can choose to be courageous or cowardly, sad or gay; he can choose to kill Christians, or to love them. . .” but to the bigot, says Sartre, he will only ever be a Jew.
This impulse is fundamentally uncurious. It stifles the urge to delve deeper. It insists that there is nothing more to be learned.
This, in the end, may be why contemporary Lovecraft fans bristle so powerfully against the reduction to clickbait of their hero’s worst moments. It is a response to bigotry with another kind of bigotry. Even more troublingly, it creates a very real danger that thousands of potential readers will elect to dismiss Lovecraft sight unseen. And that would be a tragedy.
For thousands to elect never to enter the marvelous world of this most-remarkable author of horror, fantasy, and the uncanny. . .
That would be truly horrific.