THIS JUSTIN: Let’s Talk About Lovecraft’s Racism

Few figures in the realm of horror fiction cast a shadow like that of H.P. Lovecraft. His influence can be felt in almost every medium of entertainment. Lyrics inspired by his writing can be found everywhere from death metal classics such as Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness to Metallica’s magnum opus Master Of Puppets. Stephen King, the modern titan of horror fiction, cites Lovecraft as one of his biggest influences, and references to Lovecraft can be found peppered through his work. Supernatural, one of the longest running television shows in history, is packed with nods to Lovecraft. At the end of the summer HBO is set debut the series Lovecraft Country, a series produced by Jordan Peele and based on the novel of the same name. And in horror cinema it’s almost impossible to overstate just how deeply rooted many popular aspects of horror films are in concepts that Lovecraft first dabbled. Pop culture as we know it wouldn’t be drastically different without Lovecraft, but it would be different. Jeffrey Coombs and Barbara Crampton would never have blessed us with their onscreen presences together!

There is, unfortunately, a price tag to this. Yes, I’m going to talk about Lovecraft’s very thoroughly documented history of very real and pervasive racism. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but as a near lifelong white fan of Lovecraft, I feel it is something of my duty to throw my hat in the ring and say something. So, here we go.

From the top I want to say a few things as clearly and concisely as possible. First, Lovecraft was absolutely a racist. He didn’t just have a few questionable views. He didn’t merely say some things when he was younger that would come back to haunt his older, more progressive self. He was a true believer in white supremacy who absolutely despised people of color and did so throughout his life. Secondly, he wasn’t merely a product of his times. Lovecraft’s problematic nature isn’t just hand-wringing liberal ninny goats viewing his fiction through a modern “woke” lens. Lovecraft’s racism was of a deeper and far less reflexive nature than that of your average New Englander at the turn of the century. Rather than the instinctive (and still inexcusable) “birds of a feather” mentality that was the default setting of way, way too many people, Lovecraft’s racism was a vast and intricate attitude that was entrenched in everything about him. His belief in the otherness of non-white persons was as solid of a foundation that could be found. It was something he thought about constantly, and it was something he was absolutely sure of. Finally, his attitude on race spawned from the same qualities of his personality that have led to there being something of a mystique around him in the decades since his death, namely his intense social awkwardness and reclusiveness. I’m not going to talk about what he named his cat. I’m not going to bring up the ghastly poem he wrote when he was younger. All of those things are low hanging fruit and don’t really bring anything new to the table. Google them if you want.

So, let’s do this. Lovecraft’s early life was beset by a series of disasters that would set the tone for the rest of his brief miserable life. His father died of neurological syphilis when he was a small child, and his childhood was besieged by many strange illnesses, which he referred to as “tics and seizures” and may have been symptoms of mild epilepsy. Because of this, he frequently missed school and never graduated with a high school diploma nor did he attend college. His family came from money, but that fortune was squandered due to mismanagement by the family lawyer. At the age of fourteen he and his mother had to move out of the opulent Victorian house and into a shabby (and much smaller) apartment, something Lovecraft greatly resented. Some accounts say he made friends during his infrequent attendance at school, but the voluminous number of letters he wrote suggests that Lovecraft was far more comfortable keeping these “friends” at a distance and that he enjoyed his own company best of all. Stephen King described Lovecraft as man who, if alive today, would be delighted at the invention of email and texting, as it allowed him to stay in contact with people but minimized human contact. This sense of isolation and alienation is telling. Clearly, Lovecraft had a hard time connecting with people, nor did he understand them very much. Again, Stephen King remarked in his memoir On Writing that Lovecraft very rarely wrote dialogue in his stories, and when he did it was often cringeworthy and stunted. King surmised that this was because Lovecraft so rarely actually spoke with people that he genuinely didn’t know how people talked. His well documented love of cats, horribly named or otherwise, influenced some of his stories and was likely a symptom of his disconnect with people. Perhaps he empathized with the aloofness of cats. Or he was just a weirdo. Either way, he was a man who was most comfortable when he was away from people and was deeply terrified of the unknown and the unfamiliar, of anything outside of his comfort zone coming in. His quote about man’s oldest fear being that of the unknown wasn’t far off the mark from an autobiographical point of view.

This adherence to the familiar and similar is likely what led to his views on race. While he glorified Anglican culture and spoke of it in ridiculously melodramatic terms, he used that same silver tongue to condemn non-whites. He wrote of men with “swarthy sinister faces” who spoke “unfamiliar words”. In one of his famously venomous stories, “The Horror Of Red Hook”, he writes of an Arab man with a “hatefully negroid mouth” and trains full of “sneering greasy mulattos” and “hideous Negros that resemble gigantic chimpanzees”. He yearned for a gust of cyanide to cleanse the city of the “puffy rat faced Jew” and the “subhuman Mongrel”. Here is a brief passage from one of his most famous short stories, “Herbert West: Reanimator”:

The [boxing] match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. 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—but the world holds many ugly things.

How charming. Clearly, his was a racism that was deep, deep, deep down in there. What sets his flavor of hate apart from the average person at the time is that while most people in American weren’t exactly keen on immigrants, Lovecraft was obsessed with the concept of race and seemed to truly believe in the very core of his being that that these people, these Asians and Arabs and Black people, were completely Other. To Lovecraft, the idea of white supremacy wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark he made once in a letter, or some dumb joke he made when he was younger, or anything of that ilk. It was a rigid and fixed aspect of his own personal reality. Non-white people were not of the same substance. Their cultures were flawed and doomed to fail, and they were destined for servitude to the Anglo-Nordic culture/race that Lovecraft was rock hard to rant about. Black people especially were viewed by him as subhuman, and he viewed their integration into “proper” white society as impossible due to their sheer alien nature. Furthermore, he positively dreaded what would happen if races mixed. A brief skimming of his fiction reveals this fear. Just look at “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, a short story about a race of fish people that are the result of humans breeding with “The Deep Ones”, a race of amphibious creatures who live in the ocean. Or “The Dunwich Horror”, in which a human woman has given birth to ghastly twins after coupling with an ancient god. Cleary, Lovecraft was obsessed with the consequences of two separate races mixing. It was a great source of dread for him and something he was actively opposed to. It would be one thing if he only wrote about it in his letters and the idea never leaked into his fiction, or vice versa. But his work is absolutely laden with references to miscegenation, and never in good terms. A common theme of his is atavism, an obsession with bloodlines and people paying for the sins of their ancestors. The unspoken extension of this line of thought is that a pure bloodline had nothing to answer for.

It’s been suggested that Lovecraft was only against cultures that refused to assimilate to American culture, but this falls short of exonerating him. Even if that was a reasonable excuse, Lovecraft didn’t want other cultures mixing at all. When his frequent bouts of anti-Semitism (side note: this is a great read from a Jewish perspective on the love/hate relationship many non-white fans have with him) are brought up, his defenders point to the fact that he married a Jewish woman and had several Jewish friends, including Erich Weiss (aka Harry Houdini). Sure, he claimed New York City was swarming with sinister “mongoloid Jews” but he had Jewish friends! Likewise, charges of homophobia against him are met with similar objections: yes, he called homosexuality a “perversion” and seemed to believe gay men were child molesters, but he can’t be a homophobe because he had gay friends! And it’s true: he was quite good friends with a gay man. But even this is flimsy at best. After all, what is a common retort when confronted with being racist? “I can’t be racist, I have a black friend!” Or even when someone is an out and out racist, oftentimes they’ll say something like, “yeah all black people are lazy, but my friend Tom is alright.” Strom Thurmond had a child with a black woman and that doesn’t make him any less of a beshitted ghoul. Saying such a thing is only an indication that your racism and bigotry is completely ill-founded, and you don’t actually know anyone from another race aside from the one friend you have, but if you did, you’d realize you were an asshole because they’re all fine.

Defenders will also point out that he was against foreign cultures, and not foreign races. And he had no problem with other races and cultures acting American (whatever that means), he was just against multiculturalism. He wrote that races and cultures could fit in when they assimilated properly (except for Black people), but his definition of assimilation seems to be so absolute that it was almost Borg-like; any distinct sense of identity would be eradicated. He didn’t seem to be advocating for a “melting pot” style society so much as he was a society that forced other cultures to take on the qualities of one superior culture, in this case his. I don’t need to explain how that does nothing to exonerate him of being racist. All it means is that his mindset is actually that he doesn’t trust anyone who isn’t like him. Once he gets to know someone, no matter what the race, if they’re cool, they’re cool, but it’s the unknown that he despises. It’s how so many racists use their one black friend as a shield, not realizing that it only makes their views look even dumber and more illogical. Lovecraft’s horrible social anxiety and lack of connection to the world narrowed his view of people down to “people like me are good, people who are different from me are bad.” And that broadly held. Of course, when he got to know them, he realized they were fine, but his attitude still held firm on a macro scale. His broad views of racism were perfectly in line with the other personality traits of his that are never disputed. And, as I mentioned, you can argue until you’re blue in the face that it was just unassimilated cultures that Lovecraft was skeptical of, but he also was deeply and absolutely against the mixing of cultures and races.

There’s sometimes talk of Lovecraft’s expressed admiration of Hitler based on a letter he once wrote, but in all fairness this letter was from 1933 when most Americans opinions of Hitler was “eh yeah he’s…he’s kind of an asshole but he did bring Germany back from the brink so there’s that. Also, we may or may not hate Jews. ANYWAY.” It was something he said years before word of Hitler’s atrocities became widely known, so it wasn’t likely that Lovecraft was voicing any real admiration for Hitler specifically. But, that said, even if Lovecraft didn’t openly express support of the views of Hitler’s Nazi Party, he still held beliefs that Hitler also held. Katherine Avery cites the following passage of Lovecraft’s as evidence of his strict and intellectual adherence to the theory of racism and white supremacy:

Altogether, many of the most ethically indefensible wars – like the snatching of the two Americas from the Indians – have been of the greatest value to the white race and its culture; giving it ampler room for development and expansion, increasing its natural resources, and providing a setting for the growth of new and beneficial cultural variants. Who would truly wish North America restored to its aboriginal tribes, or Australia to its blackfellows, or South Africa to its negroes? Many technically ‘unjust’ wars are waged against races so low and degraded or mutually murderous that the conquered people are actually benefited in the end by the change (Selected Letters V, 249)

Avery uses this passage to argue how Lovecraft adhered to a sort of “white man’s burden” style of racism, a sociological justification for colonialism. But replace “aboriginal tribes” and “blackfellows” with “Poles”, “Slavs”, or “Russians”, and you basically have a softened version of lebensraum, the colonialist philosophy adopted by Hitler in which a superior race required room for expansion at the cost of “lesser” races. It was an idea that preceded Hitler by decades, and one that was echoed in the concept of “manifest destiny” here in America. The difference between this idea and manifest destiny, of course, is that Lovecraft’s idea of racial expansion and lebensraum were both firmly rooted in race, whereas manifest destiny was more of a cultural and sociological idea. Again, I cannot stress enough that Lovecraft was not a Nazi, but rather something of a cousin ideologically to nationalist socialism. His obsession with race and racial superiority was something he shared with Hitler and serves to highlight the very real insidious nature of his beliefs.

H.P. Lovecraft was an amazing writer, and his contribution to horror fiction certainly needs to be recognized. Without him, horror would not be nearly as vast and amazing as it is today. There would be no Stephen King, no Stuart Gordon, no Supernatural, no Metallica as we know it without Lovecraft. But we cannot deny the problematic nature of his views. I’m not advocating for a flight away from Lovecraft’s fiction, nor will I deny being a gigantic fan of his work myself. All I’m saying is that his views on race need to be acknowledged and confronted, not brushed under the rug and justified by fawning fanboys like S.T. Josh or outright ignored by angry “man yells at cloud” types like Bryan Moore. It’s dangerous to ignore such views. If Lovecraft were some uneducated backwoods yokel yammering on about “the blacks”, that would be one thing. But Lovecraft was anything but stupid. His views are dangerous in the same way that the views of men like Richard Spencer are: because they arrive in a palatable package. Spencer is a well-groomed, well spoken, good looking guy who spouts absolute venom in such a way that it almost sounds appealing to the uninitiated. He adds a ton of sugar to make the poison go down easier, and such rhetoric can easily slip past the guard. Lovecraft was dangerous for the same reason. While stories about horrors dwelling beneath the ocean or under the Antarctic ice seem silly and harmless, Lovecraft couched his own racial views in these stories, and because of that it could be easy to miss for to a young kid discovering his work. In his letters he might call Black men “greasy chimpanzees”, but his actual literature is far more subtle and far, far more dangerous. We (white people) have the tendency to view racism in stark and bold imagery: Klan hoods, fiery crosses, swastikas, sieg hiel salutes, iron crosses, toothbrush mustaches. But far too often we miss out on the slick and sinister examples of racism because we focus on the blatant and shocking examples of it. An eleven-year-old kid discovering Lovecraft might understand why lynching is bad, and why Nazis are bad, and why the KKK sucks. But…he might not understand the subtext of a white new Englander losing their mind over the impure bloodline of a seaside town filled with fish people hybrids. In this day and age it’s especially dangerous for a kid to be led down the path to white supremacy. Don’t stop reading Lovecraft. I love his stories. You can too. Just don’t pretend that he wasn’t a horrible trash person who held some abominable and dangerous opinions.

 

Further reading

 

Justin Lore
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