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)