Where Should We Bury the Dead Racist Literary Giants?

by Noah Berlatsky


H.P. Lovecraft is widely acclaimed as one of the great masters of horror. He created the Cthulhu mythos, a pantheon of hideous eldritch deities lurking outside of time that occasionally peep through into our reality to wreak havoc and drive men mad, is credited with inventing weird fantasy; and was a major influence on everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore. He was also, like many authors of the early twentieth century, really racist.

In a famous letter from a stay in Brooklyn during the nineteen twenties, Lovecraft described the ethnic diversity around him in the same language he used to describe nightmare horrors:

“The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities.”

Lovecraft isn’t talking about monsters or demons there; he’s referring to non-white people, whom he sees as “infesting worms” “pithecanthropoid and amoebal.” He expresses similar sentiments in the poem below, which doesn’t seem to have been published, but which he apparently sent to friends:

On the Creation of Niggers (1912)

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

These less public works aren’t outliers in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. As Phenderson Djeli Clark wrote at Racialicious, “Lovecraft’s racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories — from exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of ‘negro fetishism’ (Call of Cthulhu), to descriptions of a black man as ‘gorilla-like’ and one of the world’s ‘many ugly things’ (Herbert West — Re-animator).” This presents Lovecraft’s enthusiasts with a dilemma. How do you love a writer whose works are thoroughly infested with racism?

In a post that provoked some controversy earlier this year, Daniel José Older argued that the best thing to do with Lovecraft was to de-canonize him — implicitly relegating him to the same sort of backwater reserved for such works of racist pulp as Thomas Dixon’s contemporary, and mostly forgotten The Clansman. For Older, Lovecraft’s racism is central to his themes and his horror; his vision of hapless New Englanders besieged by degenerate chthonic monsters is insistently racialized, and the terror of the non-human in his work is inseparable from the eugenic disgust at the less-than-human.

Earlier this year, Older created a petition to get rid of the Lovecraft bust that is given to winners of the World Fantasy Award, one of the major awards given to authors of speculative fiction, along with the Hugo and the Nebula. Older suggests that the bust could be replaced with one of the widely respected science-fiction and fantasy author Octavia Butler, who is known for her thoughtful approach to issues of race and gender in stories like”Bloodchild” and the novel Kindred. Among the supporters of his petition are the acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor, who won the award in 2011 (and wrote about how upsetting it was to have Lovecraft glowering from her shelf), and previous nominees Kat Howard and N.K. Jemison.

Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft enthusiasts don’t support the idea that his work should be cast into the howling darkness. In August, S. T. Joshi, probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar, bristled at the suggestion that Lovecraft’s racism should disqualify him from reverence. According to Joshi, only five Lovecraft stories have racism “as their central core.” Besides, he argues, it is “a tad risky to judge figures of past historical epochs by the standards of our own perfect moral, political, and spiritual enlightenment.”

But Lovecraft’s racism isn’t some sort of quaint relic that can easily be bracketed off from his writing as a whole; it’s the engine for the loathing and nameless dread that are his trademark. Perhaps the best example is one of Lovecraft’s greatest novellas, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” from 1936. In the story, the unnamed narrator is touring New England to view unusual architecture when he happens upon Innsmouth, a coastal town with a bad reputation. When he approaches one of the residents of a nearby town to find out why everyone hates Innsmouth, he learns that the inhabitants of the cursed village have been mating with South Sea Islanders. According to the local source, “the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice — and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it.”

Lovecraft makes it clear that the “race prejudice” is justified, and that people are right to recoil at miscegenation in Innsmouth: The islanders are not just from out of town, they are amphibious creatures — the spawn of strange and evil gods. As the result of their interbreeding, the residents take on a fish-like appearance which is referred to in the story as the “Innsmouth look.”

His oddities certainly did not look Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine or negroid, yet I could see why the people found him alien. I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage.

Lovecraft, through the narrator, disavows the various racial groups in order to subsume them all into a single “alien” Other — and then link it to degeneration and animality. The residents of Innsmouth are foreign, which is expressed not through residence in a different place, but rather through their blank, oozing orginlessness; they are an indistinguishable mass of subhuman monstrosity. Later in the story, when the narrator flees in desperation, with the Innsmouth hordes at his heels, he catches a nightmarish glimpse of his pursuers:

I could see them plainly only a block away — and was horrified by the bestial abnormality of their faces and the doglike sub-humanness of their crouching gait. One man moved in a positively simian way, with long arms frequently touching the ground; while another figure — robed and tiaraed — seemed to progress in an almost hopping fashion….they passed on across the moonlit space without varying their course — meanwhile croaking and jabbering in more hateful guttural patois I could not identify.

The “hateful guttural patois” is unidentifiable; the world outside of the United States — or New England? — is a confusing, loathsome monstrosity. Non-white people don’t exist as humans, but as symbols, or markers, of a grinding fear lodged in the white hindbrain — a fear that somewhere, out there, someone else exists. Lovecraft’s timid protagonists, forever striving to not name the nameless terror before them for fear of going mad, are pitifully neutered expressions of genetically validated white manhood whose fear and weakness inevitably turns into a familiar orgy of violence: After the narrator escapes from Innsmouth he notifies the authorities, who come into town and exterminate everyone.

The story famously ends with the hero discovering that he has Innsmouth blood in his own genealogical tree. At first, horrified, he plans to kill himself, but then slowly begins to like the idea of becoming a fish monster. “I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-depths instead of fearing them.” The narrator determines to rescue his similarly Innsmouth-changed cousin, and the story concludes with one of the most beautifully written paragraphs Lovecraft ever penned:

I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton mad-house, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.

The narrator, and by extension, Lovecraft, become the racial degenerate monster, and the experience is ecstatic, religious, sensual; racism turns into fetishization. It’s as if John Calhoun woke up one morning and suddenly found himself transformed into Gauguin, or Eric Clapton. Lovecraft’s repulsive non-white world is a threat. But it’s also an opportunity; a dream that, someway, by some nameless horror, he can himself be debased.

Reading “A Shadow Over Innsmouth,” it’s clear that Older is right; Lovecraft’s racism is absolutely central to his work. His monsters are racist fever dreams; his terror of degeneration is eugenic; the disgusted desire for the loathsome thing that concludes “Innsmouth” is the disgusted desire of Orientalism. Given that, WFA should find a different bust for their award.

At the same time, focusing on race in Lovecraft can also lead to a greater appreciation of his work, and a better understanding of its horror. Joshi may think he’s protecting Lovecraft’s legacy by minimizing the role of race in his stories, but the truth is that, to the extent that Lovecraft is still meaningful, it’s in large part because of his portrait of his own racism. Lovecraft isn’t a great artist despite being a racist, as Joshi would have it. Nor is he a lousy artist because he’s a racist, as Older says. He’s a great artist and he’s a racist: Lovecraft’s world is one in which racism poisons everything, in which the fear of anyone who isn’t white is so overwhelming that it fills the seas and the skies and everything in between with gibbering demons and cosmic despair. The bleak, clotted hatred with which he renders that world is precisely what makes his work valuable.

Noah Berlatsky edits the online comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian, and his book on the original Wonder Woman comics will be out in early 2015.

Photo by batwrangler