Lovecraft and Racism

HP LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft was a unique artist with a powerful gift of imagination. Unfortunately, his wildest flights of fancy left him incapable of seeing past his ethnic and racial prejudices, which were extreme even for his time.

A writer who created worlds as fantastic and detailed as those of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lovecraft’s place in literary history is indisputable. His purple prose, thick and tendinous, can be difficult to read. But once you give yourself over to his words, relax into the soupy dread he cooks up, you cannot help but become a fan.

Lovecraft’s racism, bald-faced and stubborn, is nevertheless the gristle that irritates, oftentimes making his delicious prose otherwise unpalatable. Born of a genetic predisposition towards anxiety and possessing of an incipient xenophobia, his racism and ethnicism is the expression of a morbidly frightened man. Whatever the source of his racism, it matters little. It is the most odious thing about his writing. (He wasn’t particularly science-positive either.)

I could draw out specific examples — it’s frightfully easy. The poem that WFA 2011 award winner Nnedi Okorafor quotes in her petition to have Lovecraft’s name and visage removed from the award is a particularly horrifying example. “The Rats in the Wall” is nigh impossible to stomach for what Lovecraft chose to name the black cat that features prominently in an otherwise fantastic yarn. Even on the rare occasions where Lovecraft attempts some semblance of equanimity towards other races and ethnicities, it falls painfully flat, reading as the worst sort of backhanded pandering. “The Transition of Juan Romero” comes to mind:

It was not long after my arrival and employment that Juan Romero came to the Norton Mine. One of the large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first attracted attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation, being vastly unlike those of the average “greaser” or Piute of the locality. It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend. But save for his face, Romero was not in any way suggestive of nobility. Ignorant and dirty, he was at home amongst the other brown-skinned Mexicans; having come (so I was afterward told) from the very lowest sort of surroundings.

Juan Romero is noble, see, just not that noble.

It’s not my intention to beat up on Lovecraft. That’s the job of clickbait sites who have just discovered what fans have known all along, and who are trying to give an author who, three-quarters of a century after his death, has soared in popularity, the Mel-Gibson treatment. And maybe he deserves it.

The point is this: We know better. We can correct Lovecraft’s mistakes, apologize for his character flaws, and make some measure of amends as we create in the sandbox he left behind.

This is what we humans do: Celebrate accomplishment, condemn failings, and build on a reconciliation of the two. It was a slave-owner who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The history of my country has been one of building on the accomplishments of men who were all too fallible. The struggle goes ever on.

That is what we are doing with Miskatonic West. MW has a diverse cast representing a broad spectrum of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Lovecraft created a wildly heterogeneous cosmology. To meet it with a homogeneous cast would be a sin.

The first season also touches on the Pacific Coast Native American tribes, treating them not as the ignorant primitives of so many Lovecraft stories, but rather as brave human beings who stood up against the unspeakable unknown. Running the risk of cultural appropriation is a concern. We don’t want to go too far in fetishizing other cultures, pandering, or engaging in a superficial multi-culturalism for the sake of multi-culturalism.

Harry, Noah, and I can only go about this with the best of intentions, open honesty, and sensitivity. And by acknowledging that we are making reparations for where an otherwise incredible author fell horribly, miserably short.

It’s not difficult.  Writing for a diverse cast of unique characters is an absolute delight. We are all people with universally felt desires and fundamental needs. In a cosmic sense — certainly in a Lovecraftian cosmic sense — we are so excruciatingly small, painfully impotent, our differences are infinitesimal. Unnoticeable.

We all go mad in the end, no matter what we look like on the outside.

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