Written by Annie Diamond
H.P Lovecraft is best known for his contribution to horror fiction, especially with his creation of an eldritch mythos which is the origination of Cthulhu. His writing delved deep into the aesthetics of the alien (featuring non-Euclidean geometry) as well as themes of unknowable knowledge and the inevitable decline of man. Lovecraft’s legacy is vast—influencing everything from the literary (Joyce Carol Oates mentions him as an influence in the horror short story and Borges dedicated a story to him) to the more pop-culture-y (Batman’s Arkham Asylum is a Lovecraft reference; there’s a Lovecraft tabletop roleplaying game; and the Mountain Goats wrote a song about him.) His works might soon reach an even bigger audience as Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Torro cites Lovecraft as a huge influence, and has been trying to make an At the Mountains of Madness movie for years.
However, Lovecraft, in all of his glory, was also a horrible racist. Not in the sense that he was simply a product of his time for a man born in 1890 and who died in 1937, but in the sense that he was pretty bad for his time. Lovecraft’s work often features themes of xenophobia. The worshippers of the horrific sea god Dagon are inbred Pacific Islanders who bring their evil with them when they immigrate to America. Lovecraft was also terribly afraid of miscegenation and it shows throughout his texts. The shadow in The Shadow Over Innsmouth is racial mixing. If all of that is too subtle, then Lovecraft’s poem On the Creation of N***ers (not originally censored) lays Lovecraft’s racial philosophy flat: “A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,/Filled it with vice, and called the thing a…”
Well, you can guess the rest.
Lovecraft’s troubled racial record has come up recently in the context of a fantasy book award. The World Fantasy Award—nicknamed the Howard after Howard Philips Lovecraft—traditionally gave a bust of Lovecraft to the winners of the award. Many authors involved with the award criticized the prize for its honoring an author who would not want to see many of the non-white authors receive the award. In 2014, the award discontinued the Lovecraft bust tradition.
The question really boils down to this: can you separate aesthetics from author? The genealogy of thought ne’er did run smooth and some of the very basic fundamentals of Lovecraft’s writing are rooted in racism. At the same time, much of the appeal of Lovecraft’s writing has nothing to do with Lovecraft’s (rather purple) writing. Instead, it’s the aesthetic and tone of Lovecraft’s writing that hits upon people’s imagination. The smallness of humanity, the allure of forbidden knowledge, the appearance of the alien are all interesting concepts that Lovecraft did do a decent job imagining. The person of Lovecraft is complicated. He never made a living off his writing; he had a troubled childhood with both of parents being committed to an asylum; he himself struggled with mental and physical health. His closest friend committed suicide; his wife divorced him; and he died young and in terrible pain. The man behind the mythos is at the same time strange, tragic, and pathetic. He was small-minded with big ideas and it’s ambiguous to how a modern-day reader is supposed to interact with his works.
But if you want to read about giant alien penguins he’s still good for that, I guess.