Cthulhu Gets Woke: Confronting Lovecraft’s Legacy

It’s no secret that H.P. Lovecraft was about as progressive as Genghis Khan, but for many years that fact felt like the elephant in horror’s spacious living room. A grand tradition of authors playing in Howard’s sandbox has persisted, and indeed continues to produce much of the most interesting and challenging horror fiction around. Yet Lovecraft’s personal beliefs were long considered an embarrassing inconvenience to be ignored or forgotten.

h_p_lovecraft_aloneH.P. Lovecraft

Certainly we’ve had a lot of practice as readers in placing an author’s beliefs into a box marked “of their time” and attempting to enjoy their work guilt-free. This approach, however, simply doesn’t work with Lovecraft. Knowing that Charles Dickens was an anti-Semite won’t prevent you from enjoying Great Expectations. However, fear and mistrust of otherness, and of the self being diluted by contact with it, is such a potent theme in Lovecraft’s work that it becomes impossible to separate his personal views from what he produced. Lovecraft’s racism is not incidental to his body of work, it is in part the engine that drives it.

Nor is it possible to simply laugh off Lovecraft’s views as being “of their time”. Even for a white man at the turn of the century, separated from society by self-imposed exile, Lovecraft’s work and personal correspondence display a single-minded and focussed hatred for people of colour that goes beyond the simple disdain, distrust and indifference common to the period.

C201710-Fall-Culture-Preview-Nnedi-Okorafor-2-d29d9338Nnedi Okorafor

When Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for best novel it was for her simply the latest in a long line of accolades recognising her skills. Only when a friend showed her Lovecraft’s vile satirical poem On the Creation of Niggers did she begin to feel conflicted about having the bust of the man on her shelf. She took to Facebook to voice her feelings, and the conversation she triggered eventually lead to the World Fantasy Award design being replaced.

world-fantasy-awards-flickrBut her goal was not simply to have a more acceptable face slapped onto the award. It was to begin a discussion about Lovecraft’s place in the modern genre landscape and, by extension, the place of other notable figures whose work marginalised people are encouraged to admire, despite the hatred they exhibited towards them in life. In her own words:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that… as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.”

Whether Okorafor’s actions sparked a re-examination of Lovecraft’s legacy, or whether hers  was simply one expression of a changing tide, many authors of recent years have stepped up to interrogate Lovecraft’s works through fiction.

VictorLaValleVictor Lavalle

Authors including Victor Lavalle, whose novella The Ballad of Black Tom takes few prisoners, tackling Lovecraft’s most explicitly racist tale, The Horror at Red Hook, head-on. In his story Lavalle casts a black protagonist, reversing the perspectives normally found in Lovecraft’s work. He also repaints the multicultural communities of New York City as sources of strength and protection, rather than the sordid and terrifying visions that Lovecraft conjures.

Lavalle’s story is remarkable for how perfectly it mimics the beats of a traditional Lovecraft chiller, delivering all the cosmic horror, Lovecraftian tropes (books, cults and shoggoths, oh my!) and unsettling suspense that hardened fans have come to expect from the sub-genre. In Lavalle’s hands it feels as though Lovecraft’s own tools are being turned against him.

GettyImages-105098570China Mieville

China Mieville said of his own World Fantasy award:

“I put it out of sight, in my study, where only I can see it, and I have turned it to face the wall. So I am punishing the little fucker like the malevolent clown he was, I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back.”

This spirit very much infuses Lavalle’s book. It is a mischievous work, separating the monolithic reputation of the author from the worlds that he created, and making merry with them in ways that old Howard would have found infuriating.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft country features a scene that mimics Okorafor’s discovery of Lovecraft’s poem On The Creation of Niggers when its protagonist, a black Korean war veteran and Science Fiction fan, is confronted by his father with evidence that one of his favourite authors was a racist. The book itself is a hugely enjoyable adventure story that manages to juxtapose the imagined fears of Lovecraft’s world with the real terrors of navigating through Jim Crow era America.

Some of the story’s protagonists are authors of a book inspired by the real-life Green book, a travel guide for African-Americans that detailed places that were safe for them to stop for food, gas or board. What it omits are those places where no food or shelter can be found, and the notorious “sundown towns” where unwitting black travellers would themselves in grave danger after dark.

Ruff’s book highlights one of the great ironies of Lovecraft; that for a man who so keenly felt alienated, frightened and resentful of the society around him, he never actually experienced true alienation or had any real reason to fear. As a white man from a respectable family, the world that terrified him was arranged deliberately for his comfort and protection.

jordan-peele-lovecraft-countryJordan Peele

Both its themes and its episodic structure made us very excited by the news that Jordan Peele’s production company are considering it for adaptation to a TV series. According to Deadline, the proposed series will “reclaim genre storytelling from the African-American perspective.”

When it comes to queer representation, Lovecraft’s world has long been fertile ground for exploration. After all, two of the greatest writers of contemporary Lovecraftian fiction, Caitlin Kiernan and W.H. Pugmire, are genderfluid and a gay cross-dressing punk, respectively. It is very difficult to imagine the straight-laced Lovecraft meeting Pugmire without frothing at the mouth.

babsfagW.H. Pugmire

Kiernan’s work features a wealth of queer characters. In their masterful novel The Red Tree, a lesbian protagonist retreats to the country to get over her lover’s death, only to find herself transfixed by the grisly legends surrounding a tree on her property. The descent into madness is a long-standing Lovecraftian trope, but the way that Kiernan throws sexuality into the mix lends it a power that Lovecraft’s squeamishness would always bar him from.

Much like his hero M.R. James, sex itself is conspicuously absent from Lovecraft’s work. But the presence of peculiarly tactile monstrosities and glistening tentacles speak to repressed desires that modern authors are more than willing to explore.

Alan Moore was willing to go a step further in his Providence series. His protagonist, Robert Black, is a gay Jewish man who inhabits the thoroughly-researched (Moore cites the excellent Gay New York by George Chauncey) world of underground bathhouses and gentleman’s clubs in 1920’s New York. His desire to write the great American novel leads him to explore a subterranean clique of occult outsiders in New Hampshire.

The series explores the notion of “outsiders” in general. Black sees himself as a romantic rebel, an artist, but really he makes every effort to hide his queerness and fit in with mainstream society. Lovecraft, who appears in the tale as one of Black’s interviewees, would have liked to see himself as an outsider too, but really was just a mouthpiece for the very driest kind of middle-American conservatism.

tender-660x264Providence by Alan Moore

The delight comes, in part, from a comparison that Lovecraft would have loathed- setting the arch-conservative author next to a closeted gay man would be sure to raise his hackles.

Finally, there’s the issue of female representation. Lovecraft certainly didn’t regard women with the same distaste that he reserved for ethnic minorities, in fact it’s probably fair to say that he barely regarded them at all. Women are largely absent from the pages of Lovecraft’s tales, but a new generation of mythos writers have set to work correcting this imbalance.

Kij1-660x424Kij Johnson

Although Lovecraft is best known for his Cthulhu mythos stories, he also had a far more whimsical series known as the Dream Cycle. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson features a capable older woman as a protagonist, which is a rarity for fantasy fiction in general, let alone the Lovecraftian vein.

Johnson realised that the Dream cycle, far from presenting a fanciful flight of fantasy, is in fact a perfect analogue to the gender relations of America in the thirties:

“All of the dreamers are men, all of the gods are men. … So I really wanted to think about that. What does it mean to have a world where everything is male? I didn’t realize until after I had written it that these whimsical gods that change things all the time almost exactly map on to how it would have been for women in the ’30s—that they can shut down your college, they can beat you to death and not get arrested for it, they can do all these terrible things, they can take your goods and leave you destitute.”

By inserting a female character with agency and purpose into this structure, Johnson interrogates Lovecraft’s mythic vision, and exposes its glaring inequalities.

wintertide-cropThe Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Ruthanna Emrys’ female-led series The Winter Tide asks what happened to the citizens of Innsmouth after the government clear-up that Lovecraft described in his novella. The answer involves desert internment camps and government conspiracies. It may not have the same bite as some of the takedowns mentioned previously, but there’s something highlys subversive about using characters from Lovecraft’s xenophobic writings to explore the ramifications of America’s wartime policy of imprisoning Japanese citizens.

The book chips away at the modern iteration of his conservative, isolationist anti-immigration ideals. Much of the action takes place in a library or centres around literature, which protagonists Caleb and Aphra Marsh have been denied access to for most of their lives. It’s a poignant reminder of how a people can have have their teachings and culture systematically stripped from them and held to ransom.

John-LanganJohn Langan (right)

The new generation of weird fiction writers are doing vital work. They are tackling the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s legacy, and see it as an opportunity for fresh discourse, not a responsibility to be shirked. Modern weird fiction works, such as John Langan’s The Fisherman (which we maintain is one of the greatest horror novels of the millennium) are able to explore the outer reaches of the weird without the burden of Lovecraft’s shadow looming over them, and are no longer shackled to the hateful, limiting structures that underpin his worlds.


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