Lovecraft – Writer and Racist

From 2016 onwards, the World Fantasy Awards Trophy looks like this:

 

 It was created by sculptor and artist Vincent Villafranca and represents all the trees of mythology – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Norse giant ash Yggdrasill, the World Tree and India’s cosmic tree Asvattha to name but a few.

It has firm, lyrical roots in the world of fantasy fiction and is entirely fitting. Simply think of Tolkien’s Ents, including Treebeard, of Mirkwood and Fangorn. Think indeed of Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood marching against Macbeth. However, prior to 2016 the awards looked a little bit different.

 

 

In 2015 the World Fantasy award trophy looked like this:

It is modelled on the seminal, ground-breaking and legendary writer of horror. H.P. Lovecraft. There is a hint of characterture to the bust – designed by cartoonist Gahan Wilson. – but as any photograph of the man will testify there’s not much in the way of exaggeration going on. Lovecraft was an unusual man in many, many ways.

Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. He spent most of his life there before his death in 1937. He is in common literary parlance, a World Builder – he didn’t simply write stories, he created an entire history, culture and universe in which most of his stories took place. They were tales of old malevolent Gods, of hugely powerful malevolent beings to whom humanity were prey or even irrelevant. The many tentacled Cthulhu was one of these Elder Gods and taken together these stories are these were referred to as ‘The Cthulhu Mythos.’ This is the Lovecraft canon; a body of work unrivalled for its influence on the horror genre until Stephen King picked up his pen and started writing.

That’s Lovecraft the admirable writer.

Lovecraft the man was a racist bigot, even by the standards of his own time. He was a man who would think that modern white supremacist Steven Bannon is a wishy-washy racial apologist. Lovecraft hated and feared African-Americans. He hated and feared Jewish people. He hated and feared poor people. He hated and feared people who had the audacity to speak languages other than English. He hated and feared anyone who was not of his social standing. Essentially Lovecraft hated and feared anyone who wasn’t precisely like himself: his absolute fear and terror of humans who were not upper-class Anglo-Saxons pervades his fiction. The enemy is The Other.

As far as Lovecraft was concerned, his civilisation was always under threat. Be that from African-Americans or Hispanics or in fantasy from the pantheon of banished Elder Gods who were lurking, waiting to revenge themselves on us all. Western Civilisation, especially English Civilisation, was his touchstone. Poe was a major influence, but he also adopted a stiff, very English style of writing that can sometimes overwhelm his lesser works and yet add considerably to others he produced. He has a ‘voice’ in print which is recognisable and sometimes far too stifling, but it is a true voice.

Most times a reader can disassociate themselves from the author’s views or actions in life and appreciate the art for itself. This can problematical with Lovecraft not least because of his  1912 poem “On the Creation of N*****s” and we’re being very, very kind to call it a poem. Here his racism is in the open. It’s not ‘hidden’ in allegory, it’s not subtext to his slave race of ‘shoggoths’ who revolted against their human owners. Its out in the open air, taking a walk for all to see.

So consider Lovecraft the author, then consider the man. Then consider his massive literary legacy that helped define horror and fantasy as literary genres. Consider the author who directly inspired thousands of readers and authors.

Consider all of that and consider the fact that the World Fantasy Awards Trophy looked like this man:

This legendary writer, mythos builder and inspiration.

Who also happened to be a revolting, virulent racist and bigot with views that would make a Klansman worry that things were being taken a bit too far.

Now imagine everyone knowing this.

Now imagine being an African American writer who has just won a World Fantasy Award.

How on earth can you, in good faith, accept as an award the bust of a man who openly though your race to literally be ‘beasts’.

World Fantasy award winner Nnedi Okorafor, had to deal with his conflict.

When she discovered Lovecraft’s racist  poem mentioned above she blogged about how “conflicted” it made her feel.

“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,”

It is little wonder that the they decided to change the award. After all there is no reason why the genre’s awards need to be represented by Lovecraft.

To be true to Lovecraft he would have been utterly delighted to have been recognised by the literary world. An award in his name would have delighted him. However he would have been utterly horrified and outraged by the race and social backgrounds of most of the authors who won those awards. He would have been appalled that his writing was appreciated by and inspired such people. To be frank the cognitive dissonance would probably have made his head explode.

Critics of the change in the awards characterised it as an effort to ‘delete’ Lovecraft from the genre. This isn’t a viable stance to take. Not one person who lobbied, argued and voted for the change ever wrote or said a word against Lovecraft the writer. His work speaks for itself. It can be read in full knowledge of the nature and character of its author and the reader can then appreciate it, or otherwise, as with any other story.

Lovecraft and ‘The Cthulhu Mythos’ are still with us, but these days we can appreciate the writing while acknowledging the true awfulness of the author.

By |2018-08-23T06:50:01+00:00August 22nd, 2018|Book Reviews|