Racism in Lovecraft: A point of contention

by Adrian M. McGlinchey || Re-posted from original dated: July 30, 2006.

Image: H. P. Lovecraft 1890-1937  |  Photo Credit: Free Software Foundation [Benoît Stella 30 July 2006]

According to David Barnette (2013) of The Guardian, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, American writer of supernatural horror stories, is regarded as a racist bigot who indulged in fiction writing to express his “odious worldview”. Despite what the critics say, however, Lovecraft’s work still enjoys an immense popularity today, which has allowed the Lovecraftian mythos, usually referred to as the Cthulu Mythos, to permeate modern science-fiction films and cult festivals. Discussion about racism has its dangers, in that it is such a divisive and emotive topic that there is always a risk of people going with their gut instinct, which leads them off at a tangent and completely derails the debate. To remove some of the emotions from these issues, this essay will compare the implications of racial otherness in art and in life, and discuss how these two aspects apply to Lovecraft’s writings; I shall then proceed to argue the case that the depiction of perceived racism in art does not necessarily equate to the personal view of the writer or artist, and that Lovecraft’s preoccupation with alien monsters has far deeper implications for humanity’s place in the universe than Lovecraft’s views on ethnicity. This approach will show that Lovecraft’s stories do not deserve to be labelled as a thinly disguised metaphor for the xenophobic tendencies that Lovecraft, due to his upbringing, unfortunately may have had in real life. Although this racist tag has been applied in retrospect by some modern critics of H. P. Lovecraft’s writings, these views are ill-considered, as I am about to demonstrate. The present-day popularity of Lovecraft’s works and the fascination that his Cthulu Mythos still holds for popular culture make his works as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.

Much of the negative sentiment toward H.P. Lovecraft and his works is the result of looking back in time through the distorted lens of political correctness. An example of recent popular opinion can be found in an article from The Guardian (2013), in which David Barnett claims that the writings of H. P. Lovecraft express “unacceptable racist views”, and further adds that Lovecraft was a “terrible writer” whose works were full of “prejudices and stylistic shortcomings”. Barnett is looking back into the past and making judgments of an age gone by, from the viewpoint of his own modern perspectives and sensibilities. To be fair to Lovecraft, we need to compare his original works with the distortions in truth and logic produced by some contemporary critics like Barnett, who subscribe to a politically correct worldview, and to identify where Lovecraft’s works have been subsequently taken out of context. In contrast to Barnett’s views, Janet Albrechtsen, of The Australian (2011), comments on how political correctness, in today’s society, has been taken too far, and that groups who adopt the tactics of political correctness use “victimhood status, […] claiming their feelings have been hurt more than others”, which allows them to buy into the winning side of the argument, and gag the opposition.  Hyper-sensitivity, rather than logic, becomes the new currency in “what author Monica Ali calls “the marketplace of outrage”” (Ali in Albrechtsen – The Australian 2013). All these considerations when ignored, may put us at risk of arriving at some very dubious inferences that only serve to distort the truth.

Tracy Bealer,  in her article The Innsmouth Look: H. P. Lovecraft’s Ambivalent Modernism (2011), outlines the differences between Lovecraft’s real life concerns about immigration and his recurrent fictional themes of alien creatures from other dimensions invading and destroying our human civilisation. Bealer examines Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931) to show how the unnamed narrator, while investigating the strange race of fish-people who dwell in the town of Innsmouth, finds that he has some of the sea-creature in his genetic makeup through his grandmother who was part human and part sea-creature. This poses some issues for the narrator/protagonist, who must face up to the fact that his racial qualities do not come from a pure race at all; he is from a mix of two different sentient creatures.  In the end, the narrator comes to terms with the dilemma, and returns to the sea to be with the fish-people. Bealer (35–36) concludes that Lovecraft “frames his scenarios so that his aliens do not include humans”, which is liberating for Lovecraft, allowing him to deal with his deeply rooted fears of the alien other, without having to denigrate humans of different ethnic backgrounds.

In contrast to the story The Shadow over Innsmouth (1931), not all of Lovecraft’s central characters find acceptance of the alien other. In fact, some are utterly destroyed by their encounters with strange alien races or with powerful cosmic forces, as were the protagonists of Dagon (1917) and The Music of Erich Zann (1921). Most of Lovecraft’s tales were written in first person, with no name given for the narrator, and, in the two aforementioned works, the main characters are driven to death or insanity by what they have experienced. In other stories the characters are completely annihilated out of existence but the aliens they meet are simply there as a device to usher the central character into a cosmos that is completely inhospitable or at least indifferent to humanity. Such stories raise profound questions about the place of human kind in the universe. They are not intended to insult real living people in a racist way; instead they are meant to take the reader, led by the central character, on a journey into the unknown and make us confront our innermost fears. After all, Lovecraft (4) himself once wrote in his introduction to Supernatural Horror in Literature (1945), “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

The Woodward film documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008) offers valuable insight into Lovecraft’s life and writings, without all the distracting modern preconceptions. In this documentary a team of commentators examine, in context of the times in which Lovecraft lived, the earliest influences on Lovecraft’s childhood and young adulthood. Particular attention is given to the new wave of mass immigration to America that was occurring during the 1930s and how this influx caused concern among established Americans that this was an invasion of their culture and a threat to their livelihoods. It was not uncommon for Americans to have negative feelings on these matters. What was, perhaps, unusual with regards to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, was that he came from an aristocratic family line that had settled in New England with the arrival of the Mayflower stock in the New Americas. The well-to-do of 18-19th century America were, indeed, very afraid of inter-breeding with other races and mingling with other cultures; some to a point of being xenophobic. This is the world in which young Lovecraft was raised from childhood to adulthood, even though the social class of people Lovecraft belonged to was becoming a minority who were fading into history, and so, in his personal outlook at least, Lovecraft did have xenophobic tendencies, and he became an extremely introverted person who was fearful of the outside world. In his imaginative works, however, he populated his landscapes with aliens from outer space or from other dimensions because these aliens and the eerie landscapes were all props that served as a gateway to the greater universe, with all its perils that await humanity. Viewed in this context, this documentary offers a balanced critique of Lovecraft’s childhood experiences and how they affected his, Lovecraft’s, personal opinions in real life, and in his imaginative writings, which were not necessarily the same thing.

I digress at this point, so we can take stock of how xenophobia may impact on our own lives, even at a subconscious level. It may help us to look at our own attitudes toward racial, multi-cultural and immigration issues before making a judgement on how these matters influenced the writer H. P. Lovecraft. In his thesis, America Under Attack 1: The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, and ‘Media Sense’ (2003), Paul Heyer (10–12) explores the community panic, and the blame-game that the Welles & Bruns’ The War of the Worlds (1938) radio broadcast set in motion between various branches of the mass media, and the mistrust of factual news reporting that had gripped communities across America. Pooley and Socolow say the broadcast didn’t create the mass hysteria it was claimed to have. Stateside quotes historian Brad Schwartz to also play down the mass hysteria, but the Welles’ broadcast is still an important iconic moment in news media history because it was given so much attention by television and newspaper media, by way of follow-up commentary, that it got people talking about the power of the media and how the news media can manipulate our perception of the truth. This event in modern American history, not only taught us something about the electronic news media, but it also exposed the very real misgivings we may have with regard to alien cultures, human or otherwise, that we do not understand.

Closer to home, in more recent times in Australia, Natascha Klocker has analysed a questionnaire survey commissioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2002 that was put to the people of Port Augusta, South Australia in an attempt to gauge what the residents of Port Augusta thought about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. The survey was specifically aimed at finding out what the reaction of Port Augusta residents was to the construction of the Baxter Detention Centre to hold the refugees while they await processing. According to Klocker (5), Over 80% of the “questionnaire respondents identified asylum seekers as illegal immigrants”. Other descriptors such as “economic burden”, a “problem”, “unwelcome”, and “ungrateful” were chosen by over 70% of respondents (5). Clearly the public “perception [was] that their presence [the refugees] would be a detriment to the Port Augusta community” (5–6). Klocker (6) further finds that “over 40% of questionnaire respondents” have fears of “terrorists”, “diseased” people, and “[those who are] abusive to children” hiding in among the ‘boat people’. The 40% response is obviously smaller than the total other categories but is, no doubt, still significant.

Both of the previous examples, Paul Heyer’s thesis on The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Natascha Klocker’s survey analysis of community attitudes to asylum seekers, suggest that the fear of other cultures is still a dominant impulse in our collective consciousness. This fear of otherness needs to be dealt with openly and honestly if we wish to temper our irrational fears with compassion for others. We need to think about what lies beneath the surface of our politically correct mindset before we accuse people from history of being racist. Getting back to the writer H. P. Lovecraft, if we can put all of these factors into context, we can then separate our own tribal instincts from our capacity for rational thought. In order to make a fair judgement of artists, writers and intellectuals of the past, we need to realise that we are not totally immune to the duality of our own human nature, no matter how civilized we may profess to be. Klocker’s statistical evaluation of asylum seekers arriving in Australia, “The War of the Worlds” (1938) radio broadcast, and Paul Heyer’s analysis of the Orson Welles media event, all point to a more subtle kind of xenophobia than was prevalent in Lovecraft’s lifetime, and yet it is a fear that still lurks in the human psyche.

Returning our attention to the Woodward documentary, in the concluding segment the commentators sum up the influence that Lovecraft’s work had on modern popular culture and why it is still relevant today: Stuart Gordon tells us that in 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death, colleagues August Derleth and Donald Wandrei established Arkham House books initially with the intention of publishing all of the Lovecraft collection, and then moving on to the works of other writers in their circle. Many people bought the Arkham publications, and Arkham House was a great success, where previously sci-fi and weird fiction were marginalised genres that usually did not sell as well as mainstream fiction of the time. “Arkham House books became incredibly valuable […], not because they were rare, but because they were good!” says Neil Gaiman. According to S. T. Joshi, “Lovecraft’s books have been translated and published in over twenty-five languages, including Czech, Polish, Japanese, Korean, and even Bengali”. As Ramsay Campbell (in Woodward) points out, Lovecraft’s full collection of stories were eventually published in Penguin Modern Classics, “leav[ing] no question that Lovecraft is fully established [as a great writer]”.

Many writers since Lovecraft have borrowed from and expanded on the Cthulu Mythos, as is evident in the appearance of the multi-dimensional creature in Stephen King’s novella The Mist (1980), and the tentacle-faced creatures out of Davey Jones’ locker in the movie franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2011). Stuart Gordon (in Woodward documentary) concludes that, in modern popular culture, people are drawn to Cthulu-type games, movies, rock bands, and merchandising “even if they have never read [or heard of] Lovecraft”, because they can identify with this sense of a shadow of uncertainty that the vastness of the universe casts over the human condition. “Lovecraft used to say something like, ‘man is lucky to be ignorant because if he knew the truth, he would probably go crazy or he would kill himself’,” quotes Gordon, in the documentary. In our materialistic, science-dominated, and spiritually impoverished society, it is hard to be ignorant or unaware of this isolationist worldview of humanity, and so people can relate to their own fear of the unknown, a theme which is so pervasive in Lovecraft’s stories and mythos.

In this essay, I have attempted to deal with the racist tag that certain modern commentators so glibly attach to the works of H. P. Lovecraft. I have counteracted this form of unfair criticism by demonstrating how we sometimes misinterpret history when we project our modern sensibilities onto a previous era, as pointed out in my assessment of Barnett’s article on Lovecraft, and also in Albrechtsen’s responses to political correctness gone mad. I have examined some of Lovecraft’s stories and shown that the themes of aliens and other worlds are presented on a broad canvas that portrays a human response to the vastness of the universe. I have taken a closer look at xenophobia as it occurs in modern society, to prove that we are not as far removed from Lovecraft’s generation in our attitudes as we believe; although, the human race may be slowly evolving into a more tolerant, multicultural destiny. Lovecraft’s vision still has a ring of truth about it because his fiction transports us into dimensions that are either hostile or indifferent to humans, while at the same time exploring the fear that many of us have of the unknown. These stories also tap into our natural curiosity about our place in the universe, and they raise questions that are still being asked today about the universe and the destiny of the human species.

Woodward’s film mentions the astounding popularity of Lovecraft’s works, measured in sheer volume of book sales that continue long after the writer’s death. Along with the influence these writings have had on contemporary culture, this is a fair indicator that the author has struck a chord with younger generations of people and that his stories are still relevant today. This discussion has provided a comparative analysis of the topic racism/otherness in art and in real life, with the aim of dispelling some of the prejudices we may have about Lovecraft’s fiction. This is a necessary step, so that we contemporary readers may further explore and appreciate the Lovecraft legacy, without letting any preconceptions blur our judgement. The stories of H. P. Lovecraft have many layers of meaning still waiting to be explored; one such area is Lovecraft’s fascination with extra dimensions beyond time and space. Science is still unravelling these mysteries, which leaves room for revisiting Lovecraft from exciting and challenging new angles, well into the future.

Attributions:

Feature Illustration (top):

Title: “H. P. Lovecraft 1890-1937”
Author: Free Software Foundation  |  User: BenduKiwi [Benoît Stella 30 July 2006]
Website of Free Software Foundation: https://www.fsf.org/
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) License Summary
>> Full Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

Web Links – Further Information

Barnett D. (2013) The Guardian, “HP Lovecraft: the writer out of time”
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/03/hp-lovecraft-writer-out-time

Cthulu Mythos (Wikipedia)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu_Mythos

H. P. Lovecraft – His Life
http://www.hplovecraft.com/life/

Internet Archive – “The War of the Worlds” [Uploaded by Mr Bruns on 02/05/2006]. Streaming recording of the 1938 radio broadcast by Welles and Bruns.
https://archive.org/details/OrsonWellesMrBruns

Lovecraft’s Fiction – Chronological Order
http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/chrono.aspx

Works Cited:

Albrechtsen, Janet. “Mad March of Political Correctness.” News Article. The Australian. N.p., 3 Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Barnett, David. “HP Lovecraft: The Writer out of Time.” News Article. the Guardian. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

Bealer, Tracy. “The Innsmouth Look: H. P. Lovecraft’s Ambivalent Modernism.” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Diciplinary Enquiry 6.14 (2011): 38. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Heyer, Paul. “America Under Attack 1: The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, and ‘Media Sense.’” Canadian Journal of Communication 28.2 (2003): N.p., Web. 22 Aug. 2014.

Klocker, Natascha. “Community Antagonism Towards Asylum Seekers in Port Augusta, South Australia.” Australian Geographical Studies 42.1 (2004): 1–17. Wiley Online Library. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Dover Publications, 1945. http://store.doverpublications.com/0486201058.html

Pooley, Jefferson, and Michael J. Socolow. “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic.” Slate 28 Oct. 2013. Slate. Web. 13 May 2014.

Stateside Staff. “Panic in the Streets? How Orson Welles’ 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ Broadcast Really Went down.” News Article. Michigan Radio. N.p., 4 June 2015. Web. 13 June 2015.

Woodward, Frank. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Snag Films, 2008. Streaming Video, 1:29:30. http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/lovecraft_fear_of_the_unknown

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