The Man Versus the Mythos: How do we deal with Lovecraft’s bigotry?

We need to talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He was enormously sexist and xenophobic, and his bigotry isn’t the subtext — it’s right there, front and center. His letters reveal that he believed in phrenology for much of his life and feared the intermingling of cultures until his death. His story “The Horror at Red Hook” is today interpreted to be about his fear of invading hordes of those he viewed as other. Some people might laugh off his old-timey racism against oppressed groups like the Italians or the Irish, but in a time when mass shooters target immigrants, Lovecraft’s hatred makes many blanch.

PVD venerates Lovecraft; he’s our mark on the literary map. But what do we do about his more repugnant views? NecromiCon plans to tackle the topic by offering various panels and lecture discussions on the internal ugliness of Lovecraft. For example, Ray Rickman’s Friday talk covers what fed Lovecraft’s beliefs (as does our article at motifri.com/lovecraftcontext/) and Saturday’s Investigators for Social Equity discussion tackles including diversity in the modern Lovecraft mythos.

Authors, especially those within the horror and sci fi genres, grapple with Lovecraft in different ways. Victor Lavalle wrote The Ballad of Black Tom, a reimagining of “Horror at Red Hook,” told from the point of view of a Harlem street hustler. The novella is dedicated to H.P. himself, “with all my conflicted feelings.” It won a truckload of awards.

“To me, dealing with the less savory aspects of Lovecraft is similar to dealing with the less savory aspects of my uncle or my mom or my grandparents, or myself,” said Lavalle. “They’re in there, it’s foolish to ignore them. And in fact, all it does is sort of continue legacies of ugliness and abuse, if you don’t address them explicitly. The only way you get better is by naming the devil.”

Many writers refuse to apply cancel culture to Lovecraft and ignore his writings entirely. “I would certainly never wish for people to forget Lovecraft,” says writer Paul Tremblay. “It’s always about recontextualizing it or re-exploring these other ideas based on what we know now, and what we’re living through now.” To writers of dark fantasy, science fiction or horror, confronting the outright racist or offensive parts of old works is part of a continuing conversation.

Nnedi Okorafor, author of the Binti series, won a World Fantasy Award (WFA) in 2011 for her novel Who Fears Death. The trophy at the time was a (questionably accurate) bust of Lovecraft, nicknamed “The Howard.” She had a realization when someone showed her a racist poem attributed to Lovecraft that the bust sitting next to her Wole Soyinka Award was of a man who would have loathed everything she was. In a now famous blog post she wrote, “This is something people of color, women, minorities must deal with more than most when striving to be the greatest that they can be in the arts: The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us.”

It was part of a larger series of controversies over the image and posthumous life of Lovecraft. In 2014, Sofia Sommator acknowledged how awkward it was as a person of color to accept a bust of Howard. China Mieville, author of the bong-kickingly good Bas-Lag novels and a prior WFA winner himself, expressed similar sentiments. The award was eventually changed in 2016 to a statue of a tree in front of a moon.

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it,” Okorafor wrote. “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.”

In the more than 80 years since Lovecraft died, he’s had one of the most productive post-lives of anyone in fiction. His work has inspired whole genres of fiction, vast swathes of video games and movies, and we can’t get enough of it.

So it appears we can separate the art from the man. Rather than look to Lovecraft as a moral authority who tells us how best to treat others, we can accept him as a visionary who created a vast, intricate and terrifying world that to this day inspires and fascinates us.

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