HP Lovecraft: love the craft, loathe the creed
Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are disciples of this master of horror but his racism has alienated many. Ed Power says we should not let this colour our judgment of his writing
The rejected World Fantasy Awards statuette of HP Lovecraft: he could be anti-Irish too. His hatred of “ethnics” flourished during an unhappy sojourn in New York, where he developed a passionate loathing for his Irish landlady. The Moon-Bog, a short story set in Meath, paints the natives as squalid and superstitious. It contains a bizarre reference to Tallaght – with the disturbing implication that west Dublin’s experience of ghastly horrors beyond the limits of human comprehension predates TV3’s Tallafornia
At the conclusion of HP Lovecraft’s most celebrated short story, the alien deity Cthulhu emerges triumphant from the ocean depths – a writhing nightmare of tentacles and existential terror. There’s a case that the spectacular denouement of The Call Of Cthulhu foreshadowed the rehabilitation of its author – who died in 1937 in impoverished obscurity but, like his iconic monster breaching the waves, has risen to dramatic prominence across recent decades.
That Lovecraft was one of the foundational voices of modern horror is indisputable. Stephen King has banged on about the New England writer’s influence almost since the beginning of his own career; other self-proclaimed acolytes include Neil Gaiman, and director Guillermo del Toro. In 2014, Lovecraft’s pulpy nihilism gained mainstream exposure via series one of HBO’s True Detective, which, in its gothic Louisiana setting, echoed The Call Of Cthulhu’s feverish depiction of cultists gibbering in the bayou, and whose ultimate bad guy was inspired by Wilbur Whateley, degenerate villain of The Dunwich Horror.
But Lovecraft’s influence goes beyond high culture. The Cthulhu “mythos” has colonised a not insignificant section of the geek industrial complex. Gazing down at me as I write this is a plush Cthulhu toy acquired in Seattle a decade ago. Last week I took delivery of Cthulhu Wars, a €120 board-game bundled with dozens of plastic miniatures depicting Lovecraft’s menagerie of nasties. You can purchase Cthulhu for President bumper stickers, T-shirts proclaiming fealty to Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University or play Cthulhu Saves The World on your iPad.
A HPL devotee since school – my first overseas holiday included a pilgrimage to his graveside in Providence, Rhode Island – I have watched Lovecraft’s rise with a mixture of fanboy elation and deepening discomfort. The wariness flowed from the knowledge that, blended with the cosmic misanthropy, was racism jolting even by the standards of the ’20s and ’30s,when Lovecraft was doing his most important work.
His early poem, On The Creation Of Ni***rs , provides an unhappy insight into his belief that the United States diluted its Anglo-Saxon heritage at its peril (“A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure, Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Ni***r”). Nor was it a formative misfire. Even Lovecraft’s best stories are often marinaded in prejudice: indeed, his arguable masterpiece, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, reads as an explicit warning as to the calamity that can befall a community when it allows the bloodline to be tainted (in this case by a cabal of “fish men” from the South Seas).
He could be anti-Irish too. Lovecraft’s hatred of “ethnics” flourished during an unhappy sojourn in New York, where he developed a passionate loathing for his Irish landlady. His early, Co Meath-set short story, The Moon-Bog, meanwhile, paints the natives as squalid and superstitious (the piece, moreover, contains a bizarre reference to Tallaght – with the disturbing implication that west Dublin’s experience of ghastly horrors beyond the limits of human comprehension predates TV3’s Tallafornia).
Inevitably, with a burgeoning profile has come renewed scrutiny and at the recent World Fantasy Awards HPL’s racism finally erupted into a full-blown controversy. Overshadowing November’s ceremony (at which west Cork-based David Mitchell won best novel for his slipstream odyssey, The Bone Clocks) was a row over the fact that the statuette presented to winners bears Lovecraft’s likeness. A groundswell of agitators has campaigned for his image to be replaced with that of the African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler – of far less literary significance than Lovecraft yet unburdened by similarly reprehensible opinions.
Defenders of Lovecraft responded by claiming the author has been singled out for excoriation. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is widely understood as a screed against immigration. Wizard Of Oz creator Frank L Baum advocated the extermination of Native Americans; Edgar Allan Poe was vocally pro-slavery. Where are the campaigns to banish these icons of speculative fiction? (The Edgar Awards remain among the most prestigious in crime fiction).
“The interpretation of Dracula as an anti-immigrant tract is highly plausible, even obvious,” wrote the Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi in his blog. “I am an immigrant. I have also won a Bram Stoker Award. If I were really upset at Dracula’s and, by implication, Stoker’s anti-immigrant stance, what should I do? The only decent and honourable thing, it seems to me, is to return the award. What is not decent and honourable is for me to agitate for the changing of the award merely because of my personal discomfort with it. That, my friends, is fascism.”
Yet the momentum against Lovecraft was unstoppable and the World Fantasy Awards duly announced that henceforth his visage will not adorn its trophies. Such a decision can on its surface be read as a straightforward victory for modern liberal values over antediluvian bigotries. What is troubling, however, is the degree to which anti-Lovecraft invective inevitably pivots into condemnation of his writing.
“While HP Lovecraft, whose head the current award is modelled after, did leave a lasting mark on speculative fiction, he was also an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith,” argued editor Daniel José Older, in the vanguard of the campaign for the WFA to disassociate itself from Lovecraft.
“He is a bad writer and, I think, a bad person. There have been other writers who have done more with the same ideas. They don’t get the same credit. I’m kind of tired with the attention he enjoys,” Joseph Fink, of the (yes, Lovecraftian) Welcome To Nightvale podcast, told me when we spoke in August.
Lovecraft detractors, it is tempting to conclude, dislike HPL not simply because he once deployed the n-word in a piece of nonsense verse. They disapprove of his current celebrity, regarding him as a hack elevated beyond his station. Such critiques conflate Lovecraft the author with Lovecraft the moral bankrupt. Critics are of course justified in recoiling from Lovecraft’s indefensible views on race. But to shun him – and expect others to do likewise – on the grounds that his writing is subjectively “terrible” is surely a pirouette too far.