Loving Lovecraft as a PoC
Anyone who’s ever heard me talk about inspiration knows my interest in Lovecraft. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of my apartment with its gigantic pile of tentacle and horror filled boardgames knows my obsession with Lovecraft. But as someone who both hides behind his fingers during jump scares and is avidly pro increased PoC representation in media, this presents an endless source of amusement and befuddlement for my sister. So what appeal does Lovecraft hold to someone like me who’s both a PoC and a hater of horror?
Short answer: the monsters.
Longer answer: Horror is about tapping into our primal fears. Fear of being hunted. Fear of the dark. A cheap and easy way to ratchet up these fears is to set the story in a dark place with the expectation that something bad is going to happen. Then start the slow drip. Have the camera take a step into the dark. Show our nervous character’s eyes darting back and forth. Cut the music as leaves rustle in the background. Our character whirls around with a scream, only to see a squirrel darting away. With a sigh of relief our character turns back around… only to be stabbed by the killer. Blood splatters across the camera as the scare chord screeches.
At this point, I leap out of my skin, shut off the tv, and take a lap around the room. Some people find the elevated heart-rate and the adrenaline boost liberating. Maybe it is. But I’d have to not die of a heart-attack first.
Thankfully, there are other forms of horror. Fear of the future. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown. Fear of one’s own insignificance. These are the fears that beset Lovecraft at night, the fears that strangled him during the day, the fears that led him to write an entire mythology about the secret things that (white) man wasn’t meant to know in a language that resembles the purplest (and I mean like #800080 purple) of English. Then his fear of octopodes led him to write turn all of his monsters into magic cephalopods. C’est la vie.
These are relatable fears, particularly the fear of one’s own insignificance. Strip away the tentacles and teeth and you’re left with stories about man wishing he hadn’t looked in the dark place because he found the secret of life. This secret? That nothing he has done matters at all, that he is as little as a mote of dust in the grand scheme of the universe. It’s the type of horror that doesn’t quicken the heart, but stew on it a bit and it’ll keep one up at night.
At the same time, it’s impossible for me not to notice his racism. Especially because he hated Chinese people. To be fair, he hated everyone who wasn’t English, so I suppose his hatred of Chinese people wasn’t anything special. Still though, it doesn’t feel good to be a part of “a bastard mess of mongrel flesh without intellect…” I’d be inclined to be offended if I could read the rest of his sentence without falling asleep. Really though, whole essays have been written on how his racism is impossible to ignore. A pair can be found here and here. Further, despite what some of his more ardent fans would say, his is not a “but if you squint really hard you can unsee it” sort of racism, nor was it a “he was a man of his times” sort of racism. His stories literally do not work without his fear and his hatred of others. They are the sort of stories that start off with the protagonist reading ancient stories from “the Orient” and end in the protagonist discovering some hideous secret like an ancient Chinese cult worshipping something that looks like our many tentacled friend above. This of course breaks their mind.
Let that sink in for a second. A white character reads some ancient myths, goes on a journey that ends with the uncovering of a new religion that isn’t god-fearing Christian. Their sensibilities are so offended that they start speaking in tongues.
So how’s a person of color to deal with these flaws?
I think the best way is that we remember that we can use his work as inspiration while still being critical of it. In fact it’s especially important given how unfriendly it is to us. Lovecraft was an unhappy man trapped by his neuroses. He was a great imagination trapped in a small, constrained mind. It is up to us as PoC to expand on his universe in ways friendly to us and point out that “yes, he really was that racist.”
Luckily, his most prevalent theme, the one about fear of one’s own insignificance, is still a universal one. One that I can safely use in my own work without feeling like I need to scrape off all my mongoloid flesh in disgust.
Another thing I like doing is twisting his racism back on itself. I take a particularly perverse pleasure in this. For example, the “Deep Ones.” In Lovecraft’s writing they are a people who have bred with the wrong “sort” that lead to them becoming a hybrid of fish and human. In my imagination, they’ve become a distinct culture with complex beliefs about their place in the world and their relation to other humans, a culture at the edge of an existential crisis that may require violent resolution. By exploring the possibility that these “others” that Lovecraft were so scared of have similar beliefs and fears to the rest of us, it helps to not only frame his xenophobia as his own insecurities, but also further cement his fear of one’s own insignificance as universal.
Finally, I can simply create characters who are PoC and set them in a Lovecraftian universe. Taking the example of “East Asian mysticism,” I can tell a story set in modern-day China. It can be about people who discover some ancient death cult. Then, as they begin to investigate the cult, they start to peer behind the veil and find something all too horrifying. Something that breaks their mind in the same way that it’d break a New Englander’s. After all, mind breakage in Lovecraftian fiction is universal.
And as a benefit, I still get to use my favorite monsters in all their tentacled glory.