Earlier today, I read an interesting article on WIRED about how writers of color find it difficult to add to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, because of the inherently racist themes that pervade his body of work. Lovecraft is one of the most important horror writers of the 20th century, and being the avid fan that I am I can’t help but sink my teeth into this issue. For the uninitiated, this is an excerpt from one of his most notoriously xenophobic short stories;
“Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island (…) The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another (…) From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through.” The Horror at Red Hook, H. P. Lovecraft (1927)
So as you can see, he was pretty bad, even by the standards of the early 20th century. Lovecraft’s racism is one of the most common criticisms levied at his work, and has been a major stumbling block for the growth of his modern audience. This is a shame really, as it’s a relatively small flaw in an enduringly brilliant horror mythos.
Fortunately, a diverse range of modern writers are contributing to Lovecraft’s universe in a big way. Silvia Moreno-Garcia won Best Anthology at the World Fantasy Awards in October 2016 for She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of works written by women set in the Cthulhu mythos. Some of the works are even written from the perspective of female side characters from Lovecraft’s original stories (like Lavinia Whateley, the albino warlock’s daughter in The Dunwich Horror). I expect to enjoy it in much the same way I enjoyed reading Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife.
However, I don’t think all of the xenophobic elements in Lovecraft’s work are as negative an influence as his detractors claim. In fact I often feel that his blatant racism, coupled with his archaic use of diction and overuse of adjectives, give his stories an atmosphere of forbidden antiquity. In this sense specifically, I feel that it has almost become a distinct stylistic feature of his work.
This brings me to another important point, regarding the evolution of meaning in literary texts over time. The time period in which a text is published and the audience for which that text was originally intended should always be kept in mind when analysing a prominent piece of literature, and Lovecraft’s work is no different.
Lovecraft’s views were already quite extreme when he was actively publishing, so it’s no wonder that modern audiences find his work offensive. Another oft-forgotten point to keep in mind is that Lovecraft’s views gradually changed over his lifetime. The letters he sent to close friends and colleagues in later life showed that he deeply regretted his early beliefs.
The Shadow over Innsmouth (written 6 years after Red Hook) is often labelled as another atrociously racist work, but the prominent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi believes that much of the racism in the work is ironic, an inventive way for Lovecraft to criticise himself for the vulgarity of his earlier writing.
A key concept that the WIRED article focused on was how his intolerance “did weaponise literature in a way that was very damaging to people who were reading it”, and how this would ultimately affect his legacy. On the topic of legacy, I’d like to point to what doubtless many will consider an unorthodox example of modern Lovecraft-inspired fiction; True Detective.
I consider the first season of True Detective to be the most successful film-adaptation of Lovecraftian horror to date, and it more than deserves to be analysed separately (and I plan to). Its success lies in its focus on subtlety and gritty realism rather than mystic curses and tentacled horrors. True Detective focused much more on the white-degeneracy aspect of Lovecraft’s views on race, which lent itself very effectively to the Louisiana setting and detective narrative.
Ultimately, I feel that True Detective is an example of talented writers taking advantage of Lovecraft’s propensity for mythology and cosmicism, rather than his intolerance, and I think that this is representative of his true legacy as a literary figure.
But I could be wrong. All over the developed world, societal norms are changing to accommodate the rise of the political right wing. Racial tensions haven’t been this high in a decade, what with the outcome of BREXIT and the US Presidential elections. Europe is drowning in a sea of migrants, paddling desperately to stay afloat until the nationalists toss them a life preserver. Russia looms overhead and China rises from the waves, like great Azathoth and Cthulhu, who lay dead and dreaming but now have awoken. With foreign tides crashing upon familiar shores, the menace of our unknown fate haunts our every waking moment.
Maybe Lovecraft will be remembered for something else entirely.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft (1927).