I have in the past admitted that I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I have even, during one story announcement, made rather nervous shufflings about the implications of my fan status– “if I like him, am I like him?” and all that. In that earlier examination of the question, I didn’t do much of an in-depth handling of the matter, but merely denied. A few days ago, though, I read a small article in which another fan also touches on the problem of being a Lovecraft fan while being dead-set against racism, and I thought maybe I should also sit down and have a good wrestle with the matter. It is, after all, Freedom to Read week; the celebration of intellectual freedom isn’t just about shouting “I wanna read it and you can’t tell me I can’t!” There should be some probing of the urge.
I am, I should admit, a little hesitant to approach the matter openly, here on the treeless and gently undulating plateau of the Internet where everything can be heard and seen by everyone and for all time. I know that almost anything I say will be inflammatory in some precinct. However, I still think it’s a useful examination; the stakes of doing it in public will make me actually consider what I’m about. Right? Hopefully.
I had made a previous attempt to rationalize my affection for Lovecraft’s works that didn’t quite come to full rise, let alone get to the point where it could be even half-baked. What I thought to do was give a brief examination of each of his published stories, sift it for what racist content it might hold– indeed, even for what content might with a nudge be interpreted as racist– and discover whether there was so much of it after all and whether it might have improved over time. As you can see, I dropped it as foolish on a couple of fronts, and not just because I didn’t have the free time and depth of scholarship to do a proper job.
On the matter of asking if one story or another shows racism… well, there’s a certain subjectivity at work. Taking “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” as an example, one might say that it’s a work that underlines the wickedness of racism; after all, would Sarnath’s doom have befallen it if the people of that city had just left the funny-looking dwellers of Ib alone? That’s that, Hopeful Fan says, knocking figurative dust from his hands, and a job well done.
Except… the voice of Cynicism says otherwise. Apart from the descriptions of the Ib folk, which are clearly meant to provoke loathing in the reader, one can also say that the people of Sarnath were right to try and wipe out those flabby creeps because their evil was such that it could rise up a thousand years later to take unnatural revenge on their destroyers. The point of the story, says this voice, is to be thorough in your genocides– salt the ground, fill in the lake, don’t take any souvenirs home. It’s an easy argument to make, and gains support from all the overtly racist material that Lovecraft put forth. There’s no putting a shiny interpretation on the description (or even the name) of Buck “The Harlem Smoke” Robinson in “Herbert West – Reanimator“…
He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life….
…and one has to work very hard indeed to forgive the description of the sinister foreigners in “The Horror at Red Hook“:
The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another…. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.
From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares…, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.
That’s some overt racism, all right. No painting over that.
The bigger of my stupidities in that earlier exercise, in my view, was to give way to the frequent observation which runs along these lines: “Oh, sure, HPL started out as a mad racist, but he was getting better, just like he was swinging from monarchist to socialist.” I do, by the way, think there is a little truth in this position, although without a gifted trance-medium we can’t really know it was the case.
True or not, though, it just doesn’t matter. The stuff of his which I like doesn’t fall comfortably into one era of his life; I think after he fled New York City he did level up in his writing, but there is also stuff from before and even during his New York days that I think has merit. Even if it were incontrovertibly true, one couldn’t just say, “Well, he stopped being a racist in 1933, so I don’t have to worry about the views he held when he was writing in 1924.” After all, in 1937 he stopped holding views of any sort, so by that logic there’s no point at all to wondering how his thoughts ran during his life.
Also, as much as people like me hope that Lovecraft was mending his ways as he got older, the same problems of subjective interpretation arise as did with the attempt at sifting. In “The Shadow Out of Time“, Hopeful points out that the people of various times, races, and even species, all shoved for a time out of their own bodies by The Great Race, hang out and chat convivially. That same Hopeful voice points out in the climax of “At the Mountains of Madness” we find a Lovecraft protagonist saying this of hideous semi-vegetable creatures:
…poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence!… Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!
…by which he means “humans,” of course. Let’s not frolic off into a consideration of sexism in the early 20th century, as that’s a vast and noxious garden, too easy to get lost in. You can see how Hopeful’s thinking is running, but Cynical has a few things to offer to balance them away. The underlying horror of “The Shadow Out of Time” is not the ghastly things that chase The Great Race from past to future, but the fact that anyone may suddenly find themselves stuck in a body of something else. The Elder Things who have been admitted to the fellowship of Men built Shoggoths, which one in a mood to do injury might describe as “uppity slaves,” and the fact that H. sapiens might be at length descended from Shoggoths is one of the elements of fundamental horror in that story.
I’ve got a little aside on that last point that I’d like to pursue. It seems to me that however racist Lovecraft was at any given point in his life, he at least wasn’t trying to win people over to his point of view. A lot of his writing which runs in that direction presents other races and the prospect of miscegenation as simply scary in and of themselves. He’s not saying “Here’s why you should fear this,” but simply waving it around and shouting “Boo!” Now… that certainly doesn’t forgive racism, but it perhaps lets some of the air out of it and renders it a little more pitiful than malicious. It’s similar to a claustrophobe who hasn’t quite grasped that claustrophobia is not so deeply-felt in all people, and who includes in his horror fiction a lot of obligatory elevator rides– other claustrophobes will get a thrill, of course, but people without that deformity will just wonder at the strange literary tic.
If only, alas, people were as little hurt and offended by racism as enclosed spaces are by claustrophobia. I could stop right here. Since racism does hurt and offend, and it’s something of a virus of the imagination, even as relatively innocent an excursion as it seems Lovecraft made into it can’t simply be waved away. The aside now ends.
This little self-examination began gestating quite a while ago, in fact, and the article I mention above merely induced a long-delayed labour. As with most pregnancies, I had little idea of it being underway when I finished watching Wagner & Me, a film in which Stephen Fry (jewish) examined his enjoyment of the music of Richard Wagner (anti-semitic, rather popular with Nazis). In fact, I had sort of forgotten about that film until I started in on this little essay, but in remembering it, I remember some of the conclusions he came to, and they help me drag myself towards my own.
Art and its creator are not the same thing. At most, art reflects some aspects of the creator. To take an extreme example, one may look at a pancake and never be troubled by thoughts that the person running the skillet has a radically different opinion on the matter of same-sex marriage; the pancake is delicious, and that’s what counts. Art reveals somewhat more of the artist than a pancake does of its cook, but remember that it reflects only some of the artist, not the whole person, and sometimes inaccurately. Beethoven’s “Eroica” doesn’t tell us anything about his declining hearing nor of the change of opinion regarding Napoleon he underwent between starting on composition and the initial performance.
Ah, yes, says Cynicism, but these examples are not writing. Writing is words, not flapjacks nor instrumental music. Words convey direct meaning, and a writer shows more by choice of words than does a composer by choice of notes.
Granted, although I think someone with a strong foundation in music theory might take issue. Still, it is a distorted reflection, and we should be careful how much of the nature of the work we impute to the author. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle probably don’t want a large interplanetary object to actually smack into Earth, and yet they have written about it in some detail. At least twice.
Still… still, that doesn’t address the racism of Lovecraft, which does not only appear in his writing, but in his letters and in things those who knew him have recalled into posterity. That aside I made earlier is predicated on the acknowledged fact of his racism. How do we get around it?
Let me show you something. You may not like me for it.
It’s not great art, but it’s better art of its sort than I could manage, and I think we can all grant that within limitations it’s a pretty enough picture. The sort of thing one wouldn’t mind, perhaps, looking at for a month on the upper half of a calendar. It is not in and of itself offensive. However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who read what I’m writing would happily push the artist into a septic tank and hold him under until all bubbles stopped rising– the person who made that art was Adolph Hitler.
If you’re still with me after that ugly revelation, have another honest look at the picture. It’s still… kind of pretty. There’s no sign of the monster in human shape that brought it into existence in it (another aside– part of what makes Hitler troubling is that he was a human with many dimensions, and if he could be what he was then you or I could also, with the right shoves). I admit that it takes a strong exercise of compartmentalization to hold onto those thoughts, but the picture is blameless. What it reflects of its artist is only his skills and limitations as maker of graphic images. One could almost wish it were somehow repellent, but there it sits.
What I want to take from this, and what Fry more or less took from his peregrinations, is that it is possible to separate the whole and diverse artist from the artist’s work. In the case of Lovecraft, it takes a little more effort in certain works because the reprehensible is frequently side-by-side with the desireable. “The Horror at Red Hook” is held to be one of Lovecraft’s more offensive objects, and it is, but the last eight paragraphs of the sixth chapter are a joy, if perhaps not much better as art than the painting above. A taste, which I edit because it’s just so damn baroque and you’ve been reading a while now:
The corpse was gaining on its pursuers…, straining with every rotting muscle toward the carved golden pedestal…. Another moment and it had reached its goal, whilst the trailing throng laboured on with more frantic speed…. [I]n one final spurt of strength which ripped tendon from tendon and sent its noisome bulk floundering to the floor in a state of jellyish dissolution, the staring corpse… achieved its object and its triumph. The push had been tremendous, but the force had held out; and as the pusher collapsed to a muddy blotch of corruption the pedestal he had pushed tottered, tipped, and finally careened from its onyx base….
Purple, oh, so purple, but certainly not freighted with racism, even in the unedited form. That’s what I read Lovecraft to get at, or in part it is. His magnum opus, “The Call of Cthulhu,” when it’s not busy casting sidelong glances at people who are in any way browner than Lovecraft himself, is busily and in relatively economical prose giving a magnificent sense of the how little the vast immensity of all creation cares about people. White? Black? Humanity as a whole is less than an insect! That’s a wonderful and chilling concept, and that is also what I read Lovecraft for.
Let me end with an analogy, then, which is flawed as all analogies; please think of flavour and not of nutrition in what follows. Lovecraft’s stories may be viewed as a plate of food. The extravagant, adjective-crammed style is represented by a heap of mashed potatoes that are at least 15% cream and butter. The finely-crafted horror is a perfectly cooked and seasoned slab of prime rib. But then there are the overdone, leathery, unappealing Brussels sprouts of racism, revolting to all but a few insane people. I approach Lovecraft stories as I approach one of these plates. Aware of their nauseous presence but unwilling to assimilate them, I will pick around the Brussels sprouts to enjoy the rest of it. In some cases there is little meat indeed, and the sprouts are actually mixed in with the potatoes– “The Street” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” fall firmly into that category. Yes, I have tried it, and I still do not wish to taste it again. If you find that the mere presence of the sprouts on the plate makes you gag too much to even take up a fork, I understand entirely. I hope, if you are that way inclined, you understand that I’m here for the beef, I enjoy the potatoes, and I spit out any sprouts I encounter.