This latest HPL brouhaha really is going on and on. Strangely it doesn’t seem to be gaining the momentum in the way that other such issues have. It certainly doesn’t appear to be transforming into the internet shit storm that some people probably hoped it would. Possibly this is down to the majority of fans of Weird Fiction, and Lovecraft in particular, having a slightly more nuanced appreciation for his work than simple fannishness. For sure there are some people who are extremely invested in Lovecraft to the point that they feel pointing out the flaws of the man are an attack on both themselves and Lovecraft’s entire body of work. From my experience most Lovecraftian’s are aware of his deep seated bigotry and, to one extent or another, how this influenced his writing.
Personally I feel that Lovecraft’s racism was important in the creation of his work and that it does permeate it. Not in the manner that some may expect though, especially those who either haven’t read Lovecraft or who haven’t read him since they were much younger. I have written about this elsewhere so won’t go on here. Suffice it to say that even if Lovecraft wasn’t explicitly referring to people of colour in the most derogatory of ways the fear and alienation from ‘the other’ does run as a theme throughout his work. It should also be highlighted that this ‘other’ wasn’t necessarily simply people of different skin colours to himself but also to Catholics, Eastern European, Portuguese, Italians, the rural poor and so on. From what I can read in his texts, rather than any biographical works, his alienation was rather extreme with regards anything that didn’t fit with his closeted upbringing.
The widely respected fantasy author Jim Hines posted an article yesterday on his blog about the brouhaha and, in particular, about a counter petition to keep the World Fantasy Award as a bust of Lovecraft. The petition itself is rather crude and, to my mind, offers a rather stunted understanding of both the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the reasons for wanting to change the form of the award to something aside from a bust of Lovecraft. I’ll come to the petition shortly. First I want to respond a little to Jim Hines and some of the commenters on his blog.
First of all, I’m sorry, but I find the trophy to be almost obscenely ugly. I get that it’s intended to be a caricature, and artist Gahan Wilson is obviously a skilled sculptor and artist. But Wilson’s style is described as “fantasy-horror” and “playful grotesque,” and I just don’t think one of the top awards in our field should be embodied by the word “grotesque.”
The World Fantasy Award was initiated by people from what developed into the horror fiction community. It does not belong to the modern ‘fantasy’ community any more than it does the modern horror community. The award was begun decades ago when the various genre fields were still evolving, merging, and separating into what we know today. The grotesque has always been a part of the literature of the fantastic all the way back through Tolkein, Lovecraft, Poe, Spenser, and right back to the dawn of literature. There is no reason, aside from personal aesthetics, for the award to not embody any particular aspect of the fantastic. I noticed a couple of people mentioning the possibility of changing the award to Aslan, the Christ figure from apologist C.S. Lewis’ Narnia children’s series. Why not just go the whole hog and have Jesu hanging above the hill of Golgotha? Now that would be grotesque.
Jim, quite rightly, dismisses the claim that Lovecraft was a man of his time with the scorn that it deserves. however he then goes on to say.
Lovecraft was a product of his time, and spewed an awful lot of hateful, racist shit in his fiction and in his personal writing. There are a lot of other authors who were a product of that same time, and they somehow managed to avoid dousing every page in fetid, over-the-top racism.
Now I’ve read, and re-read, Lovecraft many times over the decades and I can only think of a handful of examples of “fetid, over-the-top racism” -The Horror at Red Hook, Herbert West Reanimator, and a small portion of Call of Cthulhu. There may be others that I’m forgetting but not many. You see I notice racism when I read it. I find it really jarring when I stumble across some of his more vile references to those against whom he is bigoted and I haven’t noticed it dousing every page. A lot of his work, if you know what you are looking for, does convey the fear that fuels his personal racism but that requires a specific reading of the work that seeks to tease out and understand the heart of the work. In other words, a literary reading that the vast majority of people are not interested in partaking in. I’m thinking here of works like At the Mountains of Madness where the ancient alien beings and the relentless tide of cosmic time are a reflection of the author’s anxiety over the changes being wrought in his society at the time. I’m also thinking of The Shadow Over Innsmouth with his fear of a generalised acceptance of race mixing. I should also note that The Shadow Over Innsmouth can also be read, in the protagonists acceptance of his mixed nature, as an example of Lovecraft’s anxieties lessening.
Now to the petition…
Jebus H Corbett. OK, I’m always waxing on about how people in the Weird Fiction community, including Cosmic Horror/Lovecraft fans, are a much more nuanced lot that many would expect. Then stuff like this rolls along and I crack my head off my desk.
Steven Stevenson’s petition states that the desire to change the form of the award is
due to his ‘racism.’
‘racism’. Really? Sorry but as a reader and massive fan of Lovecraft there is absolutely no way on this meaningless blue rock that you can put the word racism in scare quotes when talking about Lovecraft. He was racist. His racism informs his work. he privately wrote some abysmally racist things. He was racist. There are no two ways about it. His racism was extreme, even ‘for his time’, and putting the word in scare quotes does a disservice to the man. After all a person should be remembered for who they are and what they did rather than who we want them to be and what we want them to have done. It also minimises the experiences of those who have been the subject of racism and bigotry.
Except in rare, very early, immature pieces, Lovecraft did not use his stories as a vehicle for racism. Claims to the contrary demonstrate a negligible knowledge of Horror literature, which aims to instil fear in its readers. One of the major human fears is the fear of that which is most different to ourselves.
Nope nope nope nope nope. Sorry. Whilst I readily accept that expressions of Lovecraft’s overt racism were rare; many of his stories reflect his anxieties about non-WASP populations. Also it was not exclusively his earlier stories on which his racism manifests. The Horror at Red Hook was written in 1925, The Call of Cthulhu ’26, At the Mountains of Madness ’31, The Shadow Over Innsmouth ’31, The Haunter of the Dark ’35. He died in 1937 so we can see that more than the last decade of his writing featured stories which were vehicles for expressing his bigoted anxieties.
It is true that the aim of horror literature is to instil fear and discomfort in its readers but this is rather besides the point. Poe, Bierce, and many more manage to write horror literature without that horror being based in a a fear of other races. Also he’s misquoting Lovecraft somewhat.
‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’
HPL story devices such as remote tribes making unspeakable sacrifices to alien gods, and isolated harbour village dwellers breeding with things-that-are-not-quite-right from the ocean depths, should be viewed as just that, fictional story devices promoting pleasant temporary unease, rather than as pro-racist treatises to be coldly dissected, abused, then banned by the politically correct, including non-Fantasy-loving control freaks. Many of us who oppose racism had read Lovecraft for years with no intimation of any discriminatory content.
See, he’s really not getting it here. Lovecraft’s work does promote a pleasant temporary unease. It really does. Unfortunately he also has a tendency to go off on one about people of colour occasionally which is rather discomfiting for the modern reader. I’ve been reading Lovecraft for around 20 years and I’ve always been jarred by his racism. Always. Whilst I didn’t know the full extent of his racism until recently it was always clearly there in some of the texts. The deeper narrative of much of his work is also, as I’ve said, permeated with xenophobia. It isn’t that they are ‘pro-racist treatises’, just that they reflect, sometimes candidly, the author’s racism. If you do not see any intimation of discriminatory content in his work then you clearly haven’t read it for a long time.
No one could accuse me of being a ‘non-Fantasy loving control freak’, not by any stretch of the imagination, yet I am fully supportive of the World Fantasy Award being changed from a caricature of Lovecraft. I’ll outline my reasons for this briefly below.
Firstly. The award is supposed to be given to those who produce the greatest works of fantastic literature in a given year. Many, many, of those works are going to be created by people whom Lovecraft would have despised. For that reason alone the award should be changed. it is not right to offer someone a bust of a person who would hold them in contempt. It is not inclusive and inclusivity is something that should be at the heart of an award that is supposed to be global in nature.
Secondly. The bust of Lovecraft was decided upon as the first World Fantasy Convention was held in Providence, Rhode Island. Lovecraft’s birthplace and somewhere that often features in his work. So for that first award it was fitting. However the field has grown and changed considerably over the decades and now it should represent both the long history of fantastic literature and the global scope of the work being created. A single person’s image could never do this.
Some of us are of the Left, yet oppose political correctness in its various forms as being deeply prejudiced philosophies aimed at the simple minded.
Whilst I would characterise many of the more vocal of the internet’s ‘social justice warrior’ crowd as being rather simple minded and only having a crude, at best, analysis of society political correctness is, at its heart, simply an attempt to not act like a dick and to treat people with respect. Handing someone who has been affected by racism and bigotry a bust of a racist bigot as an award is not treating those people with respect.
What would be correctly labelled as fascist acts if the equivalent was performed by the extreme Right too often goes lamentably unchallenged amongst the Left.
Translates as: the author here has no understanding of the terms Left, Right, or Fascist. Calling for the Word Fantasy Award to be redesigned is not fascist. It has nothing to do with the elevation of the nation state nor a fetishisation of the military. To be honest it doesn’t tick any of the boxes with regards the defining features of fascism.
So, as you may have guessed, I’ll not be signing that petition and I think that it is an embarrassment to the weird fiction community that this sort of attitude has any traction in the 21st Century. It’s true that the petition only has, at present, 179 signatories. That’s still 179 people making me face palm.
Anyway, keep it weird. 🙂