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Reading H.P. Lovecraft in 2018

The more one reads the horror master, the less his work can be considered apart from his racism — especially in the age of Trump.

Portrait by Dominique Signoret via Wikimedia Commons

Shortly before the New Year, I discovered two podcast feeds providing free audio recordings of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Like many writers of speculative fiction, I enjoy a good Lovecraftian tale, but I confess that I find his signature style, intentionally antiquated and oblique, difficult to read on the page. As a result, I’d not read the bulk of his work. Audio recordings are the perfect solution, and to my delight the two feeds (Mike Bennett’s Vault of Lovecraft and The Complete H.P. Lovecraft) employed readers who added drama and pacing that improved the experience.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Howard Phillip Lovecraft was an early 20th century author of science fiction horror. His idiosyncratic and distinctive style inspired generations of authors, and he’s often credited with creating a subgenre (generally called “Eldritch Horror” or “Weird Tales,” after the magazine that published much of his work) and a literary philosophy, cosmicism. His Cthulu Mythos, a pantheon of wholly alien deities dismissive or hostile toward humankind and built upon by contemporary authors after Lovecraft’s early death, formed the basis for hundreds of books, stories, movies, video games, tabletop games, etc. To this day, countless authors (including Yours Truly) create fiction emulating and paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King has cited Lovecraft as one of his greatest influences. Also, Lovecraft was incredibly racist.

That last fact, of Lovecraft’s racism, is somewhat controversial. Some fans, among them Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, have defended Lovecraft’s attitudes around race, insisting that readers consider the era and society in which he wrote. This past August, Joshi canceled participation in Necronomicon, the annual convention celebrating Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction, citing his opposition to panels critiquing Lovecraft on race.

For my part, until a few weeks ago, I viewed Lovecraft’s racism as something in the background, an attribute of the author that was generally omitted from his work. Having now consumed more of his writing, I find racism and white supremacy to be incontestable elements that inform and intrude upon the majority of his work. A reader can still enjoy reading Lovecraft— his distinctive style, influential inventions, and mastery of suspense make for a delightful experience — but it would be irresponsible to consume his work without recognizing and reckoning with the bigotry that inspires it.

The very first audio story I played was “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” about a British nobleman descended from an explorer. Like most of Lovecraft’s work, it slowly lays out its story, luxuriating in a mounting sense of dread and building to a climactic reveal — in this case, that the titular character’s great-great-great-grandmother was not a human at all, but a mysterious “white ape” from the Congo. The revelation explains the mysterious self-immolation of Arthur’s grandfather, who apparently made the same discovery. At the climax, Arthur follows his grandfather’s example by dousing himself in oil and setting himself alight — the reader is, I suspect, meant to see this as a reasonable response.

This fear of miscegenation (or “corrupted blood,” in Lovecraft’s parlance) is the engine that drives many of his works, none perhaps more conspicuously than “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a seminal entry in the Cthulu Mythos. One of Lovecraft’s longer works, the novella depicts the visit by our nameless protagonist to Innsmouth, a seaside town in Massachusetts that is studiously avoided by everyone save its inhabitants. Once again, most of the enjoyment of the piece is in the slow reveal of details gradually more grotesque, but ultimately we come to learn that the residents of Innsmouth interbreed with a society of immortal fish-frog-man creatures called “Deep Ones.” As they age, Innsmouth residents eventually transform into Deep Ones themselves, and return to the sea to live out their undying lives. Nearly half of the novella consists of a chase, as the Innsmouth residents pursue our narrator in hopes of killing him. In the denouement, the narrator reveals that he, too, is descended from Deep Ones, and plans to embrace his fate and return to the sea.

Along with the theme of grotesque miscegenation, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is a perfect illustration of how Lovecraft’s horror derives from the fears of the white American hegemony in the early 20th century. His defenders are right to point out the racial dynamic of Lovecraft’s era, though wrong to cite it as a defense. Lovecraft lived at a time when scientific racism — the post-Darwinian idea that certain races were more highly evolved than others, with whites atop the ladder — was generally accepted as fact. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s saw an increase in the immigrant population of the United States, and growing racial antipathy from whites who not only saw themselves as superior, but regarded interbreeding between white and non-white people as a threat to genetic advancement. The eugenics movement, which sought to control reproduction in the interest of advancing human progress, was widespread and generally seen as reasonable — its vocal supporters included Helen Keller, W.E.B. Dubois, Winston Churchill, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

In 1919, amateur anthropologist Madison Grant published his highly influential book, “The Passing of the Great Race.” Grant not only considered white people superior to other races, he further sorted so-called ‘Caucasians” into four categories of “genetic advancement.” The highest of these were the “Nordics,” who populated northern Europe around the Baltic Sea, western Great Britain, and the portion of Ireland conquered by Oliver Cromwell. Grant advocated a strong eugenics policy to protect and advantage Nordic ancestry. His theories informed policy in the U.S. and Europe, and Grant received a personal thank-you note from Adolf Hitler, who called the book “his Bible.”

This is the world in which Lovecraft wrote, and the audience he addressed. Lovecraft, a devout Anglophile who no doubt counted himself among the Nordics, peppers nearly every work with slurs against other races, and rarely does he mention a non-white character or quality without demeaning it. A character in “The Horror at Red Hook” is “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.” The titular character of “The Transition of Juan Romero,” a Mexican miner, is described as “One of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans.”

“Ignorant and dirty, he was at home amongst the other brown-skinned Mexicans; having come (so I was afterward told) from the very lowest sort of surroundings.”

But beyond his antipathy toward other races, Lovecraft’s horror is often seated in a perceived degradation of societal norms. Reading “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” we’re brought to understand the sinister nature of this place through long and detailed descriptions of its decaying streets and buildings. Homes sit unpainted, and lawns untended. Rooves sag above walls with missing shingles — and, most suspicious of all, attic windows have been boarded up. If not for Lovecraft’s skill at presenting such things as macabre, this would read as little more than it is — a New England WASP’s disgust at a lack of proper home upkeep.

Lovecraft himself came from a wealthy New England family, but by the time of his childhood his parents had fallen on hard times, and he lived a life of near-poverty and died almost penniless. Readers often cite his parents’ mental illness (both were permanently institutionalized during his lifetime) but seldom is his childhood — spent watching his once-wealthy family fall into ruin, laying off a staff of servants and moving from a family mansion into meager apartments — presented as inspiring his dread of poorly-maintained real estate. Many of Lovecraft’s protagonists come from great wealth, and frequently his stories present their lineage in detail. In some cases, as with Arthur Jermyn, that lays the groundwork for the eventual reveal of an ancestral doom. In many others, it is the unfortunate encounter with the evils from a far-away land that doom the affluent Caucasian hero.

How could anyone think this face was racist?

Said far-away land might be a forgotten undersea necropolis, as in his early work “The Temple” or the later Cthulu stories, on the moon, or in one of the “Dreamlands,” vast fantastic continents in another dimension. Almost as often, however, Lovecraft’s horrors come from Africa or Asia, and many of his heroes befall evil fates after reading his infamous Necronomicon, the magical grimoire authored by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred.

While Lovecraft’s pantheon of despotic deities is one of his most memorable and inspiring creations, there too he makes certain to connect his other-worldly beings with the more earthly evils he perceives. Often, the human avatars of his Elder Gods and Great Old Ones are Arabic or African. The human cults that worship them always originate in “primitive” lands — the Deep Ones first come to Innsmouth, for instance, after a local sailor encounters a cult of Dagon among natives in the South Pacific. The names of beings like Yog Sothoth, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep appear inspired by or derived from the language of ancient Egypt — and I’ll leave it to you to dissect the etymology behind Shub-Niggurath.

The seat of Lovecraft’s fear lies less with a mysterious and unknown “other,” and more with the same familiar “other” decried by contemporary white racists. The same fears of white Americans in the early 1900s, terrified by the spread of “inferior” immigrants, echo in 2018. Innsmouth’s sinister Cult of Dagon is a near relative to modern fears of “Sharia law.” The Deep Ones’ plot to interbreed with humans until they overtake the world sounds a bit like the Trump voter’s fear of a white minority.

Should you think I’m pushing the connection too far, Lovecraft’s early work provides a clearer insight into his literary motivations. Take “The Street,” one of Lovecraft’s less entertaining works, written in 1919. This is literally the story of a single street in an unnamed city, as it evolves from a simple path to a well-kept avenue of family homes and well-kept gardens, and then with the arrival of immigrants to a run-down slum. It’s a short piece, and I recommend you read it — not because it’s entertaining, but because it so perfectly portrays white fears of immigration. Reading it, one can almost hear residents of The Street complaining about their “property values.”

At the end of “The Street,” a “vast band of terrorists” plan some kind of attack against the United States on July 4, but the houses on The Street all collapse and kill them first. The bad guys? Anarchist Russian immigrants.

In the end, I do still think it’s possible to enjoy the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but to be honest, the more of his work I consumed, the harder I found to do so. Yes, the man created a mode and a genre of writing that have shaped and inspired some of the greatest authors who followed. But reading his work today is like talking with a racist old grandpa — no matter what the topic, you can count on at least one random interjection about how other races are inferior and ugly and stupid. I will not stop reading Lovecraft, or appreciating his positive contributions to genre fiction, but never again will I be able to consider his work without reflecting on the consuming bigotry and xenophobia that informed its creation. Lovecraft’s racism is not something one can dispute, or set aside from his fiction — it is intrinsic to and inseparable from everything he created. He was not merely a product of his time, he was himself a virulent and hateful racist, obsessed with the threats of modern life against his “superior white race.”

For those of you who might still doubt my conclusion, I present you with a poem Howard Phillip wrote in 1912, without reserve the single most loathsome poem I have ever encountered — so offensive, in fact, that I will not here provide its title. Consider yourself warned before you click the link, some people will find this bit of racist doggerel triggering.

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