This is a lunchbreak’s worth of thoughts on Lovecraft prompted by the thread that starts with this tweet.
It’s a good thread. As somebody who has read a lot of Lovecraft and Lovecraft-adjacent writing, and who is straight and white and male and has made all of the errors of thought described and implied above, it has helped me sketch out where I stand with regard to him now. Specifically, why I still find it useful to remain mindful of his life and work — why I might still suggest that people read him, albeit critically.
Lovecraft’s horror is animated by a cocktail of white nationalism, sexism, economic hardship, unquestioned privilege, and isolation. These are not isolated phenomena that happened to drive this one strange man a hundred years ago, and they were not buried with him. They are at large in our culture. They propel the alt-right and men’s rights activism. Lovecraft’s worldview isn’t unusual: only the way he expressed it.
These beliefs did not transform him into an unfathomable monster, even though they are a reliable source of monstrosity. Lovecraft was more than his writing, because all writers are. Pop culture hasn’t done a good job of preserving the HPL that loved Sonia Greene, or endorsed FDR, or sustained a years-long discussion about poetics with Elizabeth Toldridge, or mentored Zealia Bishop, or died alone of bowel cancer.
Yet that doesn’t excuse him. The traditional reflex here is to grant him the great-tortured-white-man get out clause. Indeed, he desperately wanted that kind of legacy.
He wanted to be allowed to be contradictory, to ‘contain multitudes’ as Whitman put it. A lot of commentators indulge that notion while trying to redeem Lovecraft, but in and of itself the idea that the right white writer can possess a tragic multifaceted interiority is a racist cliche.
Lovecraft’s horror is pessimistic Emerson. The notion of a benevolent divinity binding the enlightened man to nature is twisted into a malevolent omnipresence afflicting the enlightened man with knowledge of his smallness. These two contrary perspectives emerge from a shared set of assumptions.
Emerson fits the traditional literary notion of a ‘great’ writer more easily than Lovecraft does, but this is nonetheless the tradition he wanted to belong to. Being stuck selling stories to the pulps was an accident of his time — another way in which modern America had failed him, another source of privileged animus.
His horror is another form of writerly self-gratification in this context, indulging a belief in enlightened preeminence within an explicitly racist, white nationalist framework.
And Lovecraft really did believe this, felt it deeply, while also being largely decent to his friends and writing some good monster stories and some bad poetry. It was the part of himself that he did not question, and he had a lot of questions.
And it still doesn’t get questioned, even as those same animating forces rise up in others, in isolated young white educated frustrated and cynical men everywhere, producing monstrosity in the world we live in. Monstrosity worse than a racist parable sold for a couple of dollars to Weird Tales.
That’s why I think Lovecraft remains worthy of study and, if you’re white and straight and male and like his work, why he should prompt important self-reflection. His is a demonstrative performance of the thing that is wrong with you, or could be wrong with you. Lovecraft’s best monsters are only ever revealed on the final page, and they are always intuited, glimpsed between the lines of the text, and the threat they pose is always existential. Well, there’s your monster.
I used to think about Lovecraft a lot because the structure of his thought process, as a bookish white dude, was complimentary to my own. I would have been horrified and defensive if anybody suggested that this meant I shared his racism: I believed you could have one without the other. Or more accurately, I believed that you could embrace one and ‘that’s unfortunate but…’ your way out of the other.
I don’t believe that now, and coming to a better understanding of Lovecraft played a role in that change. His life and work can unlock some hard truths, in that specific sense. Just not the ones most people are thinking of when they see his name.