Lovecraft’s racism: doubly ridiculous #curseofkerevesdere

When you write anything that touches on the Lovecraft Mythos (Cthulhu being among the most famous members), you are working with a large, collaborative work that has its basis in the mind of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Sadly, once you dig around in the that mind, you quickly run across his racist beliefs, which many have written of before. We think differently now about both casual and calculated racism, no matter how influential the author. Evidence of this is in the recent (and good) news that Lovecraft’s image is no longer a trophy that non-white people may hesitate to receive after winning one of the most prestigious writing awards for fantasy.

“A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honours as a writer.”

World Fantasy award winner Nnedi Okorafor, 2011.

No-one should have to receive a portrait or image of someone who despised or belittled them or their people at what should be a high point of their lives. We should not rely upon the oppressed and downtrodden to take time to carefully and delicately explain to us why we are doing something wrong, when even a modicum of thought says that some things of the past must be left in the past, if we are to find a better future. Learn and grow. Improve and be better, together.

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This is how many people voted to keep the Lovecraft bust Fantasy award as it was on a change.org poll. The request to change it garnered 2,668 votes. That’s a pretty clear desire for change. (I note that the change request was to make it Octavia Butler but I believe the final decision was to avoid making it a person.)

Racism is stupid. Race, as many understand it, doesn’t even exist in a measurable way and the dividing of humanity based purely on appearance is nonsensical. But Lovecraft wrote of giant monsters, unspeakable ancient gods, that were utterly indifferent to the humans that they terrorised and crushed. He set a frame where all of humanity could be seen in the role of victim, a natural container for unity rather than division, and then he placed stereotype representation and paranoia in the mix, focused on a subset of the humans. He used structures and terms that could not have been much more offensive in their construction. As Moore notes, Lovecraft’s fears of the erosion of his own position may have been the basis of much of the horror he would have found in his work. The brute, the other, the thing that isn’t white… all of these are the horrors that, in his mind, would overtake his world.

But how small a view to take through any lens. You are scared of the dark and thus you must blame … that man over there, because he looks a little different. How puerile.

My opinion is that Lovecraft, privately and publicly racist, missed the point of his own work. The monsters he conjured up do not need a stereotypical African-American or a villainous Asian figure to ground their terror. Corruption happens to people, not to all members of a loosely defined racial group. If anything, the sheer scale of what was projected as our enemy was so vast that all earthly issues faded into nothingness. Why would you care what the skin colour was of the person fighting beside you, if you were fighting together?

The same monsters I have employed in the narrative engine of my own work, inherited from Lovecraft and his collaborators and Chamber’s progenitive “King in Yellow”, are terrible and deeply inhuman. Set against the rise of the Nazis, I did not feel that I could meddle too deeply with known history because, sadly, we know that it took the emergence of the full fascist Nazi state and their march across Europe to galvanise opposition. But monsters, rising in the shadow of the Great War? They could unite and provide an opponent that any sane human being should oppose. Note the italics.

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Ah, I mentioned the King in Yellow. And thus he comes…

Thus, I have taken the path of reducing certain references in my work, despite knowing the terms that would have been used in a derogatory fashion. This is deliberate. There are early drafts with 1930s language, giving the villains the ability to appear more villainous. But I thought more on this, in the context of Lovecraft, and decided to remove them. There are references to corrupted humans in my work but I have tried to frame these as individuals who are following a path into darkness and, after their involvement with dark forces, have become something that is not human. It takes an anti-human mindset to unite with such innately destructive forces.

No, this is not realistic. But neither are giant monsters threatening London and the world, even if they are largely composed of allegory. If we can suspend disbelief for magic and Byakhees, then we can tolerate people being a bit less offensive and small-minded unless it is crucial to the plot. And, for this work, I didn’t feel that it was necessary. As noted in the Moore references above, sometimes a story revolves around the racism to frame the reaction of characters. This is, I believe, not such a work.

In summary, I do not condone or even really understand Lovecraft’s racism, given the frame in which he stated it. He put humans into a nigh-unwinnable war with an uncaring Universe and yet still focused on such petty quibbles as what someone looks like or the shape of their lips?

That’s farcically bathetic.

When we put it simply, we seem to all agree that we are one people and, in the face of a terrible enemy, we should face it together. I am always surprised that Lovecraft could construct such a terrible enemy and miss such an obvious point.

 

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