Lovecraft & Racism
Many readers and bookworms can attest to the warm joy of getting their hands on a good book with an interesting premise that sounds unordinary and unlike countless other stories. It’s almost indescribable, as the writing and lore created by the author manage to take their readers into their world and bear witness to their vision. Roald Dahl, Frank Miller… there were writers who shared their perspective through their words and didn’t shy away from showing it in their books.
Especially authors who are openly racist and harbor a deep hatred and contempt for minorities. How many times have people read Margaret Mitchell’s superb Gone With the Wind and loved it without realizing that she wasn’t keen on equality between Black and White people and her opinion on the former was quite negative? How many French people have come to terms that Hergé, Tintin’s father, had been greatly inspired by colonialism because he lived during that time—which had been one of the most horrendous things to have happened to countries—but have enjoyed reading his works and keep enjoying Tintin because they have their reasons to do so? The same can be said about H.P Lovecraft and his views in his works.
In Lovecraft’s case, his work in the horror genre has both immensely influenced many other writers over the years even after his death and given a new meaning to this literary genre in terms of imagination. It has shaped this genre and is still very popular to this day, although the extreme racism and xenophobia in his books can’t either be ignored or overlooked. One could say and argue that his views helped him in writing his stories, no matter how offending, nightmarish and controversial they are, because Lovecraft merely implemented whatever he felt towards indigenous and black communities and how he saw them. The Horror at Red Hook, for example, is one of his straightforward stories where he depicts Blacks and immigrants as ‘bringers of chaos in American law and order’, ‘monsters’ or even ‘contagions’.
It’s important to note that this short story was written during Lovecraft’s tenure in Brooklyn from 1924 to 1926, which was a time of shifting demographics affected by the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the Midwest and the North. Apparently, Lovecraft even wrote a letter in which he described how living in Brooklyn was like ‘being imprisoned in a nightmare’. Such vitriol expressed towards minorities and immigrants is too palpable to be ignored. Nothing about H.P. Lovecraft and his works can be ignored.
Although The Horror at Red Hook is undeniably great and fascinating because of the writing and imagination behind it, the inspiration is deeply racist-infused. That fact can’t be denied or overlooked. And it’s mostly not—it’s acknowledged as the key to Lovecraft’s insane imagination and his gift in showing his vision through his words. While many have acclaimed The Horror at Red Hook as a great story of the horror genre, does it really mean that these readers have accepted the blatant racism, outlandish and fiendish representations of minorities and immigrants? In Lovecraft’s case, acceptance about his racism and xenophobia in his works is a double-edged sword where his fans might be able to separate the artist from his art whereas others might not because it’s the perfect representation of his vision, but can’t help but love his books and imagination.
The matter might sound more like a no-win situation for both parties: on one hand, one writer’s racist-infused vision towards minorities ended up becoming his inspiration for his works—which worked really well for him. On the other hand, said racist-infused vision is extremely offending and insulting towards the communities targeted, even years after the books have been published and the author has long since died.
Racism, Fear & Xenophobia as Inspiration
All authors have their inspiration coming from a certain source, be it positive or negative. Stephen King has his, Margaret Mitchell had hers, James Baldwin had his… so did H.P. Lovecraft. The type of inspiration may have people in awe as much as it can disgust them to the core, depending on the writer’s views of the world and people. So if an author, who is particularly loved for their talent in writing stories with an original premise and themes they’ve mastered thanks to their understanding of their own perspective, happens to use controversial inspiration to fuel their imagination on paper, then they might have a reason to do so. In Lovecraft’s case, not only have his racism and xenophobia been used as his greatest inspiration to create some of the most nightmarish horrors his mind could muster, but they’ve also been incorporated to be shown and show his vision in the best way possible—which is the most horrible way possible to Lovecraft. This was a matter of “Show, don’t tell” that he mastered. And he was fine with his interpretation of everything and his nightmares. According to him, he was only expressing himself.
Apart from his racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft was actually influenced by several other major writers due to reading a lot of weird fiction during the mid-to-late 1920s, such as Lord Dunsany, who produced fantasy fiction with The Gods of Pegāna (1905) that introduced this idea of an “artificial mythology”. Lovecraft seemed to have loved that idea, which he used to develop his own fiction and thus, Cthullu came to life. Edgar Allan Poe was also stated to have been a major stylistic influence.
“There are my ‘Poe pieces’ and my ‘Dunsany pieces’-but alas-where are my Lovecraft pieces?”H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, March 8 1929.
Next, Arthur Machen would be another critical influence for Lovecraft because of his works like The Great God Pan that had earned him popularity in the 1890s. Lovecraft referenced it in The Dunwich Horror. For The History of the Necromonicon, The King in Yellow written by Robert W. Chambers in 1895 was what inspired him to write it. Other great writers were also cited to have inspired Lovecraft, to the point that he’d praised them in his letters.
The point is that Lovecraft had bathed in many influences throughout his writing career, enough to tap into their potential and capitalize on it into his own works. By mixing it with his racism and xenophobia, he’d managed to write incredible horror stories that have built him an impressive reputation in the genre, have earned him fans throughout the years.
However, people shouldn’t kid themselves. Racism and xenophobia clearly aren’t acceptable, as it’s akin to a blinding sentiment fueled by an intense hatred and irrational fear of the unknown. When Lovecraft was writing his short stories and making up his infamous monsters, can anyone say that he once tried to befriend a Black person before assuming they were spawned by the devil? No one actually can. This is the same man who also proclaimed so many infuriating things, such as “the Negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races.” 1 or even stated that Hitler’s vision was ‘romantic and immature’, after the Nazi became Chancellor of Germany. He even said that he liked the man!
Lovecraft never attempted to conceal his bigoted views in his writing. He was very straightforward with his beliefs and ideology. In fact, his inspiration just can’t be magically wished away because minorities feel extremely insulted (as they should) when this writer’s contempt can run so much deeper; his 1912 poem “On the Creation of Niggers” depicts Black people as ‘semi-human’ creatures to fill the space between Man and Beast after the gods designed them. By the title alone, readers can already have a foretaste of Lovecraft’s honest opinion on Black people. Not only did he not see them as ‘men’ like white people were made in the image of gods, but he saw them as part-beast, part-human—never completely human, but a bastardized and insulting version of this writer’s perception of Black people. Minorities would never be on the same level as white people according to Lovecraft, and that perception may have been unlikely to change at first, whether it was in his literary works or in real life.
In short, Lovecraft felt validated in his perception of all minorities both in his stories and in his life. He truly felt like he hadn’t done anything wrong and was firm in his beliefs… but what does that mean for the fans of his works? Does this mean they actually and fully accept that Lovecraft was an honest racist and have come to terms with the true source of his inspiration for all of his stories and no longer have any problem with it—if they had any to begin with? Or are they actually content in ignoring and outright denying his racism? Whatever the answer, it can also be a personal decision of theirs.
Even if Lovecraft did end up changing his views about minorities, his previous views about strangers remained the same. It’s amazing to see how he managed to come up with so many plots and creatures that are both out of this world and a perfect representation of his fears and nightmares; choosing a literary genre is an important part of the writing process for any writer, because it would then guide them into gathering all the ideas to write each chapter, to formulate the plot and create the characters. For example, the mangaka Yukito Kishiro, creator of the Seinen manga Gunnm, has had several inspirations for his legendary works that can be considered in the same league as Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Blame: the mix of dystopia and philosophy and other themes are so well-developed in a way that people just can’t help but love these universes. So much that Yukito Kishiro’s Seinen has got its live action adaptation, titled Alita: Battle Angel (2019).
Just like Lovecraft, Yukito Kishiro felt validated in his perception and vision. The two are polar opposites on every field possible due to their psyche, but their inspiration is what drew fans to their works. Although Lovecraft’s might stem from extremely negative thoughts and views, they still worked out to give truly horrible monsters that have inspired others years after Lovecraft’s death. The Great Old One Cthullu seems to be a personal favorite, as the entity has been used as an inspiration in other forms of media, such as the series Love, Death + Robots in the eighth episode of the third season titled “In Vaulted Halls Entombed”. The gigantic and malevolent creature that’s been imprisoned deep in the cave where the American soldiers have ventured into to recover their target bears a very strong resemblance to Cthullu because of its inconceivable appearance, but also because of the apocalyptic and nightmarish vision it had sent to the remaining soldiers; the chaos and death that otherwordly monster would bring upon the world is enough to remind everyone of the mighty Great Old One created by Lovecraft.
Hearing that monster growl “Release me…” over and over like a mantra around the two surviving soldiers of their group—until there’s only one left standing—is extremely unnerving. And its appearance is more than horrifying; the multiple yellow eyes look like they can see deep into someone’s soul and strike sheer terror. Everything about that monster was enough to drive the last soldier alive insane, so much that she destroyed her eyes and eardrums with her knife to no longer hear or see the beast. It is unknown how she managed to get out of the cave alive, albeit permanently disabled without her sight and hearing, but the fact that she’d seemed strong-willed enough to resist the Cthullu-inspired monster’s voice and brainwashing to blind herself and destroy her eardrums for good is a strong callback to Lovecraft’s incredible imagination concerning horror.
Again, Lovecraft’s own inspiration for his works stemmed from his distorted and terrible perception of minorities, his racism and xenophobia that still aren’t acceptable to this day, but… can anyone who used his monsters as inspiration for their own works say that they aren’t grateful for the late writer’s imagination? Lovecraft’s literary work has been very influential throughout the years, so much that Cthullu’s mythos has been used and mentioned in so many forms of media from pop culture—films, games, video games, television, etc. One nod that’s quite funny is featured in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, where the episodes “The Shrieking Madness” and “Pawn of Shadows” guest-star Professor H.P. Hatecraft, who is the famous author of otherwordly horror stories. His name is a play on Lovecraft’s, which is still funny to this day. Even the Marvel and DC universes included some Lovecraftian horrors, such as Starro, Anti-Monitor, Nekron (DC) and Shuma Gorath, who’s part of the “Many Angled Ones” (MU).
There’s even a novel titled “Lovecraft Country”, with an adaptation that came out in 2020 where the protagonists end up confronting Lovecraftian monsters, all the while facing the racism of the Jim Crow era. There were even some shoggoths running around in a forest in Lovecraft Country. Although the series left some people a bit… confused, it had nothing to do with Lovecraft’s universe. That realization, upon watching the show, must have annoyed the real fans.
It would seem that, although all these people who’ve benefited from Lovecraft’s infamous monsters must have known about his racism and xenophobia towards minorities, they saw value in his works. They saw his imagination as something precious that should still be kept alive through other forms of media, thus accepting and seeing his influence as something positive for their own works. Maybe they’d managed to separate the art from the artist, have accepted the fundamentals of his inspiration (because these are what made his literary legacy extremely famous in the horror genre and they literally can’t do anything about it) and have decided to make good use of his talent to keep his entire legacy alive?
Separating the Art from the Artist
For some people, being able to separate the art from the artist might be very easy whereas it’s the opposite for others. The phrase “Separating the art from the artist” raises mixed and conflicted feelings when said artist in question is a person that’s done some unforgivable and unsavory things as a human being that are condemned while being an amazing artist. However… some writers, who are people of color, still seem to struggle with Lovecraft’s legacy to this day; in the article titled “Writers of Color Continue to Wrestle With Lovecraft’s Racist Legacy“, some of these writers of color took the liberty of speaking their opinions about Lovecraft and were quite open with their criticism of his works.
“The dude was a wild, rabid racist in a very racist time in a very racist country. He really did weaponize literature in a way that was very damaging to people who were reading it.”Fantasy author Daniel José Older said in Episode 237 of the Geek’s Guide Galaxy podcast.
Next, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia said that many writers of color were ‘reluctant to contribute stories’ to her anthology, which was a book of Lovecraftian fiction written by women. She’d recently won a World Fantasy Award for it. The reason all these writers of color were so reluctant was because of Lovecraft’s racist views.
“Some people of color would tell me no, no, Lovecraft was racist, so I can’t write that. And I would be like, ‘Well, yeah, but why don’t you put your own spin on it?'”Was what Silvia Moreno-Garcia stated.
In a way, people can see where Daniel José Older comes from by saying that Lovecraft weaponized literature in such harming way. It certainly does feel like he expressively used literature and the way of words to convey his negative feelings towards minorities, as if he truly wanted to show just how much his views bothered him to the core.
If people were to separate Lovecraft from his works in order to just focus on the books, there’s a possibility they would rather try to know the author through his creative writing, which is what has been done throughout the years. H.P. Lovecraft was a writer first, so the interest and curiosity would certainly prompt other artists in the same field to check out his works despite knowing his views regarding minorities. The love for art is what brings people sharing the same common interests together. Should some people find themselves unable to separate the art from the artist, that’s their right and belief. Nonetheless, the fact that Lovecraft’s work is still thriving to this day and is being used as an inspiration for other forms of media shows that people can accept that the author was a master at his craft and respect his talent for creative writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean they condone his views when he was alive, but now that he’s long dead, one question remains: should H. P. Lovecraft only be remembered for his racism and xenophobia or his talent for creating terrifying horrors that came to be dubbed as these infamous ‘Lovecraftian monsters’ that are being seen as an inspiration to so many people—such as Stephen King himself—in this day and age? Should he be shamed despite having died almost a century ago?
Is there even a right answer to this?
The man can be despised for his beliefs and views, but none can deny that something really good and valuable came out of him. Lovecraft became an inspiration and continues to be one for his work, which is good. He was quite unique in the horror genre, as his writing in itself managed to bring out fascination, dread and fear through his detailed depictions of his monsters and stories, their mythos that are otherwordly and unheard of and lore that has entirely been created by him. Shouldn’t Lovecraft be honored after everything he’s achieved as a writer and an artist instead of being destroyed as a man who had a very negative perception of minorities back then? He can’t defend himself anymore, but the past shouldn’t define his work nowadays. If Lovecraft can’t be celebrated as an artist, then maybe all artists who’ve been racists and xenophobic prior to their death should have their literary works trashed as well. Maybe Margaret Mitchell should be called out for her racism in Gone With the Wind and be shamed despite having died long ago.
Maybe Hergé should also be called out for having been inspired by colonialism to create Tintin and shamed for it.
People may fully disagree with their views and perception, but they can’t do anything about it. They can’t go back in time to force these writers to change their perspective—that would probably ruin their literary work and it wouldn’t feel or be the same. Gone With the Wind is loved the way it was written, Lovecraft’s literary work is also loved the way it was written, and Tintin seems perfect the way it is and that should be it. Inspiration comes from everywhere, even from the most unlikely people and places. Negative as it was, Lovecraft’s inspiration for his works actually turned out to have created something that can be seen ‘positive’, artistically speaking.
At the end of the day, no one can tell the minorities targeted by Lovecraft how to feel about the way they were depicted in his works and how they should process it. Not the fans, no one else. The fans of the genre might have accepted the fact that the writer was racist and xenophobic—which is something that can’t be controlled or can’t be changed because the books have already been written and published. They might have accepted it for their own benefit; either they don’t care what kind of man H. P. Lovecraft was and just cared about him as a writer or they’ve realized they’d never have his literary works the way it is nowadays had he never been racist or xenophobic.
- We Can’t Ignore H.P. Lovecraft’s White Supremacy: Lovecraftian Narratives of Race Persist in Contemporary Politics”, Wes House, September 26 2017. ↩
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