Confronting Lovecraft's racism

Award-winning horror writer David Nickle has been repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to have a frank and serious discussion of HP Lovecraft's undeniable racism; people want to hand-wave it as being a product of Lovecraft's times, but it is inseparable from Lovecraft's fiction.

Nickle's novel Eutopia is a chilling horror story about the American eugenics movement, which Lovecraft embraced. As he persuasively argues, Lovecraft's belief in eugenics was not mainstream by any means, even in his day, and it is infused through Lovecraft's work -- what would "Call of Cthulhu" be without the "eugenically unfit denizens of the bayou or 'primitive' island cultures whose religious practises amount to a kind of proactive nihilism"?

Nickle's essay on the subject is occasioned by a movement to replace HP Lovecraft's likeness on the World Fantasy Award with a likeness of Octavia Butler -- not to erase Lovecraft from the genre's history, but to acknowledge the long-neglected contributions of diverse writers to the field. As Nickle writes, Lovecraft's texts are foundational to horror and fantasy, but unless we confront and acknowledge the problematic aspects of them, we can't unpick them and understand them for what makes them tick.

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 and perverse 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.

"Don't mention the war." -some thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft and race

(Image: Jack Vance Website)

Notable Replies

  1. I'm not sure how this is exactly news. Yes, there's stories like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where the racism is subtext, but other stories like "The Horror at Red Hook" and "The Terrible Old Man" the racism is the text.

  2. Tavie says:

    As the daughter of a man who is basically obsessed with Lovecraft, I am so glad to see this discussion crop up. I finally did read some Lovecraft after many years of stubborn daughterly rebellion, and found the story ("The Call of Cthulhu") to be passably chilling but more striking for the shocking and casual racism in the text. Whenever I've tried to initiate a conversation about this issue with Dad and his Lovecraftian circle of friends, I've gotten a lot of eye-rolling and sarcasm and subject-changing and "he was a product of his time" and the usual bologna.

    I've also read quite a bit (though not all of) Octavia Butler's work. (Yes, I initially picked it up because we share a first name, but that's not why I went on to devour so many of her novels.) She's just a much stronger writer, in my opinion. I suppose it's not really apples to apples, but frankly, I'd much rather see her likeness on the award. It's more than time.

  3. "he was a product of his time"

    I would point out to your dad's friends that, even at that time, lots of people managed to have independent, enlightened, forward-looking, and even admirable traits, despite being surrounded by a society of, well, arseholes.

    These people should be remembered, praised, and obsessed-with.

  4. There's a major problem here that I think is our fault, rather than Lovecraft's.

    As has often been established, he was a misanthrope. This means he hated everyone, man/woman, black/white, young/old.

    Are his stories using insensitive/offensive stereotypes? Undoubtedly.

    Are they limited to misogyny / xenophobia? No.

    What we seem to have done in these "modern" times, is simply shift where our tolerances/intolerances lie. Smoking is being air-brushed away as easily as our racially hostile background seems to be.

    Lovecraft's work is important for a number of reasons; But a major focus of that is that it reflects a certain time and place that horrifies us now - And should continue to do so.

    Every one of us still harbours a darkness in our souls not only towards monsters, but towards our own people. And I think we should be confronted with that, rather than carefully delete those terrible scenes of what we used to be.

    Because we still are that sort of people. And the ones that deny it the most are usually the ones doing it behind closed doors - just like Lovecraft.

  5. Usually when people bring Lovecraft's racism I don't find it an interesting discussion. The man was a terrible, terrible racist - even racist by his own day's standards. I'm not sure what to do with that, though. For a contemporary author it would change how I felt about reading their work, but for a dead author with public domain works, there isn't much I can do about it. And I don't need anyone to tell me he was racist either, It's impossible to actually read Lovecraft and not notice the flagrant racism baked in.

    This article is more interesting in that it tries to tie Lovecraft's xenophobia in as a foundational piece of his work. I'm sure it was very important to him, but the foundational horror of Lovecraft isn't xenophobia, it's our insignificance. Lovecraft's characters encounter the Total Perspective Machine - that's why they go insane.

    I don't agree about horror of the At the Mountains of Madness. In fact, it contains the least xenophobic thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

    What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

    By calling the great old ones men, he eliminates xenophobia and replaces it with the idea that even star-spawned monsters are nothing. The spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-Go are the same - merely people. And Kadath reveals that even our gods are nothing.

    Lovecraft was sure that if we could see how meaningless we really were we'd lose our minds. The monsters are just metaphors for that. I think Lovecraft would have been able to write what he wrote without the racism (were he not racist) and it wouldn't have hurt the underpinnings at all.

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