HP Lovecraft: Also A Dick

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

I should just do a series of pieces on dick writers throughout history. It’s not like I’d run out of material.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately, because I tripped and fell over a Collected Works. But I’ve been reading mainly the collaborations; stories he either wrote with other writers while he was alive, or left unfinished at his death and which were completed (some say appropriated) by August Derleth.

Lovecraft does somewhat crack me up. He was paid by the word and it’s really obvious; my favorite example is when he says “that room set aside for the preparation of food” rather than “the kitchen”.

It’s a struggle, having any kind of relationship to Lovecraft’s narrative these days. His presence in our culture is complicated. Certain characters and tropes from his stories have become so popular that they are touchstones even without their direct presence — much like Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet, you don’t really have to read the stories to know the general gist. You can buy Cthulu as a plush doll, and crack jokes about raising demons using his name; the idea of the dark, horrifying New England landscape permeates our consciousness of Lovecraft. The stories themselves have a loyal following, which I think is attributable in part to the cohesive nature of the universe — like Stephen King, Lovecraft’s stories generally sit within one narrative and share certain supernatural constants despite being outwardly set in “our” universe.

But even fans of the overall narrative of Lovecraft’s work are aware that Lovecraft’s writing contains very problematic elements, racism most prominently. These are not incorporated into the work unthinkingly, either; Lovecraft held active ideologies, racist and anti-immigrant, that he openly expressed and which clearly influenced his work. What I mean by this is that he wasn’t unthinkingly racist, which is still wrong but relates to the era in which he was raised and in which he lived. He was actively, consciously racist, with the firm belief that the white race (specifically Anglo-Nordic cultures) was inherently superior.

It manifested in one of the more insidious forms of racism, that of “cultural preservation” — segregation under a more anthropological-sounding name. The problem with racist “cultural preservation” is that it rarely seeks to preserve any culture but the dominant one it belongs to, which is permitted to corrupt or destroy all other cultures or given a pass on already having done so. This is very visible in his Innsmouth stories, which involve the corruption of a small New England town via the Polynesian wives that some of the town’s white sailor-residents bring back with them, who give birth to strange and monstrous water-dwelling children.

On a metaphorical level, Lovecraft’s narratives fail to distinguish between “different” and “other” or between “other” and “monstrous”. Different is not merely something to be feared, but an active corrupting influence. This is neatly turned on its head by a magnificent five-author round robin story, The Challenge From Beyond, in which Lovecraft immediately derails the story into his standard “aliens bent on invasion possess the body of a man” — if nothing else, one must say he commits. But the writers who follow him in completing the story, Robert E Howard and Frank Belknap Long, invert the story so that it is the human being, his consciousness transplanted into an alien body while the alien takes his, who becomes the Outside Invader. The alien, helpless to control his body, drowns; the human, empowered by human ambition in a nonviolent society, steals the aliens’ prize idol and becomes their god-king. I can only imagine Lovecraft’s reaction when he read it.

Unlike Ray Bradbury, I enjoy Lovecraft’s work in spite of the author being a dick. That said, I am always conscious of his politics when I do. In some ways, it makes for a more enjoyable experience, because on one level I simply enjoy the stories while on another I enjoy taking them apart critically to pinpoint flaws and failures, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy doing that?

I haven’t found, though I’m sure (I hope) it exists, a roundup of Lovecraft’s writings on race or an analysis of his works from a race-studies perspective. I did find one great article, Pop Culture’s Racist Grandpa, by Betsy Phillips, but very little otherwise is immediately visible, unless it’s an immediate track to something else. There is a thesis floating around that Lovecraft’s racism had a lot to do with his fear of sex and women, in that most of the racism in his work is linked to the concept of miscegenation, but while this is an interesting thought it’s a sidecar to the motorcycle of awful that is Lovecraft’s views on race.

It seems like a lot of discussions of Lovecraft start “Of course he was a racist, but — ” before moving on to talk about his literature, as if they were two different things; it’s not about apologia, at least not usually, but more about acknowledging his racism and then ignoring it as a part of his literature. (I am guessing most of these “racist-but” statements are  by white people.) I would like to see a criticism of his work and its relationship, directly, to his racist views, by someone who knows what they’re doing. But I suspect that person would be shouted down by people holding Cthulu plushies and rushing to tell them about that time Neil Gaiman wrote an HP Lovecraft-Sherlock Holmes mashup fanfic.

(Yes, I’ve read it. My professional opinion: Eh.)

Anyway: HP Lovecraft was a writer whose dickishness was so inherent and ingrained in his admittedly otherwise pretty great fiction that I can’t find it in myself to actually dislike him; he was just so sad and wrong about things. And he took so many words to be that way.


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