Holy Howie, What a Furore!

I’ve eaten so much popcorn recently my stomach hurts. Actually, that’s a bit of a fib. I’ve actually been reading the internet a lot and doing this:

jackson popcorn

The reason for this is that at the weekend’s World Fantasy Awards it was announced that the award in its present form, a bust of the great author H.P. Lovecraft, will be being changed. The reason for this change is that Lovecraft held some odious views that were rather extreme -even for the early 20th Century- and it was felt that an award which seeks to honour the best in the fantastical writing of the “world” shouldn’t be an image of someone who detested quite so many of the world’s inhabitants. I’ve written about this a wee bit in the past, see here and here and here and here, and so in this post I am probably going to tread over some things that I have already discussed.

The decision to change the form of the award has, tiresomely and inevitably, led to some in the weird fiction/spec lit community losing their proverbial shit. Something that I have found deeply amusing -hence the popcorn.

The complaints about the change in form of the award have a number of common elements that I’ll discuss briefly here.

  • Censorship: You’re trying to stop people reading Lovecraft!
  • Political Correctness: It’s gone mad I tell ye!
  • Chronobigotry: You can’t judge people of the past by our standards.
  • Pseudotradtionalism: The award has always been the old racist from Providence!
  • Generalised Historical Douchery: What about other problematic authors who have awards?

Once I’ve had a wee chat about the shit losing then I’ll talk about why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter that it’s changed, and the form I feel that it should take in the future.

Censorship

This argument, and here I use the term extremely loosely, goes something along the lines of: “By having the form of this award changed you are trying to erase Lovecraft from the canon of literature and stop people reading him.”  Now; I am sure that there are some people who would like to see Lovecraft erased from the canon and for people not to read him because of his virulent racism. These people are, however, extremely marginal voices: many of whom have probably read little, or any, Lovecraft and are simply reacting in classic internet style to things. The majority of people don’t want to stop people from reading Lovecraft -perish the thought- nor want to erase him from the canon. Even the most ardent of critics much surely agree that he has had a tremendous effect upon the writing of fantastic literature throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.

To censor something is to physically prevent someone from experiencing something: to prevent them from reading, watching, or hearing something. To have Lovecraft censored would mean to have his books pulled off the shelves, removed from libraries, not discussed in schools or universities. Something that is patently not happening, that is not going to happen, and that nobody wants to happen. Lovecraft’s books will continue to fill the shelves of bookstores, they will continue to be studied and taught, there will still be conventions inspired by and in honour of him. Even if censorship were truly possible at this moment in the 21st Century it is so palpably clear that there is no censorship going on with regards Lovecraft that this argument seems almost demented. Perhaps the works of old HPL were a little too effective on these particular fans?

Political Correctness

Political correctness has long been a phantasm for the right wing to rail against and it is an accusation that is often closely tied to that of censorship. To the right ‘political correctness’ is a weapon used by liberals and the left to silence those who hold opposing views. So strident have the right been in their domination of the cultural discourse around political correctness that the term itself is now rendered almost meaningless.

In the case of the World Fantasy Award and the Lovecraft fanboys this term is often wheeled out in conjunction with the term “Social Justice Warrior”. Social Justice Warriorism being a very vocal trend within, mostly, American, mostly, liberalism that has seized upon radical and semi-radical ideas but attempts to apply them to situations in a manner that is completely bereft of any wider, or deeper, class analysis. They are more concerned with the appearance of a problem than with addressing the structural issues through actual workplace or community organising.

With the brouhaha over the World Fantasy Award I daresay that there has been a large element of this. However the drive to change the form of the award was mostly fuelled by people who think that an award such as the WFA should be inclusive rather than divisive. Not to exclude those who are fans of Lovecraft nor those who write in the fantastically horrible universe he shared with the world.

I think that the English comedian Stewart Lee has it covered when it comes to political correctness so I’ll leave it up to him to explain why it isn’t a bad thing.

Chronobigotry

I think that I just coined a word. Chronobigotry is what I’m going to call it when people make bigoted judgements of people and cultures of the past. An example of this could be those who refuse to accept that ancient peoples were capable of great feats of engineering and so it must have been aliens that built the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and so on. Chronobigotry is also what those who are upset over the change in the form of the WFA are accusing those who sought the change of. That they/we are guilty of not taking into account the time and culture that HP Lovecraft lived in and so are overreacting to his views on race, class, and so on.

I would actually like to turn this accusation on its head and point out that it is those who are making this claim who are misunderstanding the times in which Lovecraft lived. It is the blanket assumption of the chronobigots that everyone was a massive racist dick in the early 20th Century and before and that Lovecraft was merely expressing the commonly held views of the majority of the populace. This doesn’t take into account however that many of Lovecraft’s close personal friends were astounded by his beliefs and some even pulled him up on them as being beyond the pale. His views were so extreme that they even managed to make the racist, and good friend of HPL, Robert E. Howard soften his own views on the matter.

There’s also the fact that the early 20th Century was a time of great social flux and there were many people who were trying to use race, as they ever do, as a means to weaken working class struggles. Something vigorously resisted by unions such as The Industrial Workers of the World who sought to organise all workers regardless of race.

Lovecraft may very well have been a “man of his time” but so were all the people fighting against racism. Their existence, and their successes, put to lie the excuses made by those in the 21st Century about the acceptability of Lovecraft’s bigotry.

Pseudotraditionalism

There are also those who have, as part of their complaint, the argument that the bust is “The Howie” and was always meant to be so. That it is an award in Lovecraft’s honour. This is simply not the case. The first meeting of the World Fantasy Convention was in Providence and so it was decided that the World Fantasy Award should, for that year, represent Providence’s most well known author of the fantastic: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It was never the intention that the award should remain in that form and the form was chosen because of the place of the conference rather than because of Lovecraft’s massive contribution to the field.

I don’t know why it didn’t change the next year -I’m assuming that organising a conference is quite a stressful and time consuming endeavour. This being the case I can quite imaging a stressed out and overworked committee having a meeting and deciding: “Fuck it, let’s just use the same one as last year.” Which is a fantastic tribute to the legacy of the man: “Fuck it…”

There’s also the fact that traditions can, and do, change and that some, for better or worse, disappear. In Holland there’s a tradition of people wearing blackface and dressing up as Schwarz Pete -Santa Claus’ assistant. This is, obviously, unacceptable and is a tradition that is best relegated to museums and textbooks. So the argument from tradition is one that misunderstands the origin of the award, does a disservice to Lovecraft, and in general hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

Generalised Historical Douchery

This argument is similar to the chronobigotry argument but it is specific to the various authors who have awards named after them who also held vile views or partook in vile activities. It generally goes along the lines of: “But X author was a racist and they have an award named after them!” A prime example could be The Edgar Allen Poe award given out by the Mystery Writers of America. Poe was a nonce. He married his 13 year old cousin. Which is extremely icky, to say the least. However Poe did not write stories littered with references to pubescent girls.

This is the issue with Lovecraft. That he was so extreme in his prejudice, so strident in his racism, that it does seep into his work, overtly and covertly, time and time again. His racism reaches down the decades long after his death and smacks us about the face.

There’s also the matter that the awards named for other ‘problematic’* figures are, in general, in other fields. We are talking about the field of the fantastical which is, broadly speaking, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror and all the bits in between these categories. So why people not involved in these other fields should be wanting to clean up other people’s houses, as it were, is beyond me. We focus on the things that we care about and those people who have been pushing for the bust to be changed clearly care about the field of the fantastic.

There’s also the rather awkward matter that the World Fantasy Award isn’t *actually* named after Lovecraft… Just sayin’.

Why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter, and what form the award should take

This one should be a no brainer to be honest, even leaving aside Lovecraft’s vile beliefs. The award is supposed to be the World Fantasy Awards, the emphasis here being on the word “World”. If the award is to be signifying the achievements of authors from all across the world then why should it take the form of a long dead white Protestant American man? Why should it take the form of any individual person from any country or culture when it is supposed to signify a global field of literature? The Poe award, at least, is only focussed on work published in America. The award should never have remained as Lovecraft after that first convention in Providence and that it has taken decades to address this is a failing of the World Fantasy Convention.

The reason that the changing of the bust doesn’t really matter is that, at present, the World Fantasy Convention is an almost solely anglophone affair. It issues awards to books published in English in English speaking parts of the world. To call itself the World Fantasy Convention is a joke. In its 40 year history the convention has only taken place outside the USA five times -in England and in Canada. Until the convention takes into account the rest of the world then it doesn’t really matter what form the award takes as it has little to do with the majority of the world.

Should the convention spread out from the anglophone world however, something that I would love to see, then it would be rather important what form the award takes and the form of a dead, racist, white American would not be suitable in the slightest. The award would have to represent the deep history and global scope of fantastical storytelling. Because of this, and as I have said since the brouhaha kicked off last year, I feel that the award should take the form of a cuneiform tablet bearing the opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The world’s oldest recorded fantastical story. A story from the cradle of civilisation. Which just so happens to be the Middle East which will, no doubt, piss off all the racists and douchebags no end.

So; yay, the award is changing and meh, who cares really? Well, I possibly do as I’ve just written a bucketload of words about it…

*God, I hate how the word ‘problematic’ has been ruined by internet douchebags.

Lovecraft’s Bust Mk 2.0

Daniel José Older yesterday published an article on The Guardian’s website where he again calls for the Word Fantasy Award to be changed from its current incarnation of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft. As I have written before I completely agree with him. I don’t think it should be a bust of Octavia Butler, as I have also said before, but it should definitely not be an image of a white American man. After all it is supposed to be the World Fantasy Award is it not?

However I do tire of Older’s insistence that Lovecraft was a bad writer.

Lovecraft was an uneven craftsman at best – his stories clunk along, overburdened with adjectives and stale characters. It’s his world-building and imagination that helped solidify his legacy, but even that is tainted by a failure of craft and humanity.

No, sorry Daniel but no. Lovecraft was a spectacular writer. He knew that characterisation wasn’t his strong point and so he played to his skills. His imagination and his ability to build a sense of dread. Also, I’m not really willing to give that much credence to the artistic sensibilities of a person who claims to be an author yet is seemingly unable to use a dictionary.

[Older on the use of the word “cyclopean”] (And why… why why why does this word recur in damn near every Lovecraft story? What image are we to take from this? Buildings with a single window at the top? Buildings built by one-eyed giants? It means nothing to me visually, yet it’s clearly one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives.)

Cyclopean

So, given the context in which the word is used, it should be fairly simple for a reader to discover quite what the author means. Hell, even before I looked the word up as a teenager I got the impression that it meant huge. When I also learned of the form of masonry, common to the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age as you ask, it added more to the story. Does Mr Older instantly discount an author who uses any words with which he is unfamiliar? In which case let’s hope that he never tries to read Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, Will Self.

He detailed his rabid, paranoid racism in many letters, and it permeates his mythos. Lovecraft peopled his fiction with hordes of swarthy, child-killing and abjectly stupid black and brown people, while women are almost non-existent.

Again, this is simply either not the case or not, completely, relevant. Lovecraft’s private correspondence does show his utterly wrong headed and vile opinions on race and class. However they do not permeate his work. They are there in some of his works (The Horror at Red Hook, Call of Cthulhu and Herbert West: Reanimator for example) but in his entire corpus they mostly feature not at all. I get the feeling that Older has not read much Lovecraft or has not done so since he was a teenager. Which would explain why only certain aspects of his work stand out in memory.

What I would argue is that Lovecraft’s bigotry (he wasn’t simply a racist) is apparent in his work in his fear that an old way of life is being wiped away by the new and emerging world. A fairly standard reactionary/right wing fear that we see reflected in the pages of The Express and the Daily Mail. The way that this fear manifests in Lovecraft’s work however is not in the explicit bigotry of works like The Horror at Red Hook but in the sense of the inevitable doom that comes with the return of the Old Ones. The fear of forces ‘outside’ civilisation that would wipe it away in a heartbeat. I would also tie this fear to the psychic rupture that was caused by the mechanised slaughter of the First World War. The war of 1914-1918 acted as a break between the old world and the new. A lot of Lovecraft’s writing, in particular his Mythos fiction, was a reaction to this break, this rupture, as was the work of many of the Modernist writers and artists.

Regardless of Older’s lack of familiarity with the work of Lovecraft, or his ability to use either a dictionary or Google, the bust is entirely inappropriate and could very easily be replaced. I just wish that folk would stop stating that Lovecraft was a bad writer and making false claims about his work. The reality of his bigotry is bad enough and needs no exaggeration.

More Lovecraft WFA Brouhaha

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.

gonnae no dae that

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. 🙂

Lovecraft’s Bust (fnar fnar)

It seems that the issue of the World Fantasy Award being a bust of H.P. Lovecraft is continuing to weave its way across the magical interwebs of the Fantasy/SF/Horror communities. Tor.com have an article about the discussion, and indeed there are 80+ comments on that article alone, and the discussion continues on Facebook and elsewhere (Tor.com are also having a re-read of HPL which will be running for months to come, you should definitely check it out). I recently commented on the blog of Daniel José Older who started the petition to have the award changed to a bust of Octavia Butler and blogged about this myself a couple of weeks ago. Whilst I can understand the reaction of some of HPLs fans, among whom I count myself, to the idea of changing the award to something else. It must seem to some that changing the award’s physical form would be somehow stripping HPL of his well deserved status as a giant in the world of fantastic literature. I don’t, personally, feel that this is the case. I do however think that changing the form of the award is rather important for a number of reasons. Primarily I don’t think that it is right that an author who would have been despised by HPL, be they Black, Jewish, Portuguese, Eastern European, or any of the other non-WASPs that Lovecraft expressed contempt for – both in his writing and in his personal communications, that they should be offered a likeness of him as an award. This goes beyond a lack of sensitivity and into seemingly mocking these great authors who are bestowed with the award. Secondly Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a white middle class American man. He is not representative of either the creators nor fans of fantastic literature as a whole. Equally Octavia Butler, as a black American working class woman, isn’t representative of the community. No individual author could be as the community is, despite protestations to the contrary, extremely diverse. This is the World Fantasy Award that we are talking about here remember. Not the American Fantasy Award. To be honest I think that it is a bit of a joke calling it the World Fantasy Award as it would be better named the ‘English Speaking World’ Fantasy Award but that’s for another blog post.

One of the points that I have seen raised recently against the changing of the bust was that, with regards Lovecraft’s racism, he was ‘of his time’ and that his opinions were the norm. As I have pointed out in my earlier post about his racism this is simply not the case. In my earlier post I point out that the radical worker’s organisation the Industrial Workers of the World were busy organising against racists like the Ku Klux Klan and breaking down the barriers of racism (for a good example of this see the film Matewan which is based on actual events). I would like to add to this that it wasn’t just groups like the IWW that weren’t racists, and that actively combated racism, but also writers – Lovecraft’s literary peers, who were not racist. At least not to the extent that HPL was. John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller were both strident anti-racists. As was George Orwell – to the point that he took up arms against fascism in Spain during the 1930s. I’m sure that, were I to take a short amount of time, I could probably name a hell of a lot more writers who expressed views completely counter to HPL who were living and writing at the same time and in the same, or a similar, culture.

It may be raised that Lovecraft felt himself a man out of time, that he was born into the wrong generation and, given his racist views, I would probably agree. However I was recently reading a collection of short stories by Ambrose Bierce and I encountered none of the racism that can be easily detected in HPLs works. Bierce may use words that shock today – references to niggers or negroes, casual references to slaves and so on. But with Bierce we can say that he most definitely was a man of his time, he was writing in the mid-1800s. His language may have been racist but in it we detect none of the viciousness that comes through in HPL’s work. This is the rub for me. When I encounter certain sections of his writing the shock at what he has just said can drop me out of the story in a way that it doesn’t in the writing of someone like Bierce.

“ He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that 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. ”

HPL describing the body of an African American man in Herbert West – Reanimator

“the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetishism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with suprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.”

Description of the “mongrel” cultists in The Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, it is a masterful piece of modernist pulp writing and his narrative style in the piece is utterly fantastic, as is his prose. Which is probably why the pieces of the text such as the one quoted above are so jarring. It’s like reading a work by Virginia Woolf only to have her all of a sudden have a paragraph long rant about the darkies before getting back to telling her tale. It may be true that HPL’s bigotry lessened as he got older, this is certainly the case according to Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, and so it is a real shame that he died early. It is a shame as we will never see how he would have developed his mythos and I really do think that his writing, for a modern reader at least, would certainly have benefited from a softening of his views on race and genetics.

If you want a more in depth look at the ‘man-of-his-time’ defence of Lovecraft you should head over to Nicole Cushing’s blog and read this piece which goes into much greater detail than I am willing to here. (And while you’re there you should pick up her novellas Children of No One and I am the New God. They’re frickin awesome.)

HP’s racism then was not of its time and it does stand in the way of him gaining wider appreciation for the genius that he was in his fashioning of tales of the fantastic. That, to me, is reason enough for the World Fantasy Award to be changed. If we add to that the fact that the bust of any writer is not going to be representative of either the current community or the tradition of fantastical tale telling then there is really no way that it can not be changed.

PS: I don’t think that I really have to state that I am a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft and regard him as a ground breaking genius, a giant in the world of the fantastic and macabre. I don’t want to run him down or sully his name. I just think that the World Fantasy Award should be inclusive of everyone within the weird and wonderful community of fantastical and speculative literature.

ETA: David Nickle has also written about this today.

World Fantasy Award Brouhaha(ish)

It seems that the brouhaha over the form of the World Fantasy Award has arisen again. Many people believe that having a bust of  H.P. Lovecraft, who is somewhat notorious for his highly conservative, racist and Antisemitic opinions isn’t really a sign of the world of Fantasy fandom being as  inclusive as it is/should be. Which, to be perfectly honest, is true.

Nnedi Okafur, who won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for her novel Who Fears Death, posted a couple of years ago about the unsettling feeling of having someone like HPL’s bust presented to them as an award. She has suggested that Octavia Butler replace HPL. Some hack called Neil Gaiman has also suggested Mary Shelley. Others have suggested a palantir, a magical device from Lord of the Rings, be used instead of a person.

I quite like the idea of using Butler as a) she has made a massive contribution towards genre fiction and b) she will seriously upset the racist/sexist douche bags of fandom. Both very good thing in my opinion. However, Octavia Butler is primarily known for her work in science fiction rather than fantasy. It is true that the WFA isn’t strictly for fantasy fiction but can be awarded to any speculative fiction author/artist but she is too SF in my opinion. Mary Shelley is another nice idea, though she is unlikely to upset the douche bags too much. One thing that is in favour of Shelley is that her writing precedes the development of genre in fiction and so she, by default, spans the genres the same way that HPL does. The main reason that guy, whatshisname, suggested using Shelley was because she goes right back to the beginnings of the modern fantastic.

I realise that for the people who run the WFA the idea of pissing off the racist/sexist/homophobic douches may not be too appealing as it will just create unwanted drama around the awards. For this reason having the award be an object rather than a representation of an individual seems ideal. I’m not too keen on the idea of the palantir however. JRRT may be the biggest name in fantasy but he is, in his fiction, a specifically fantasy author. His work defines the genre for many people. As the WFA isn’t rigidly a fantasy award I don’t think a palantir could represent the breadth of speculative fiction. For this reason I have my own suggestion for the form the award should take.

The World Fantasy Award should be a replica clay tablet featuring the opening verses of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

gilgamesh

The award would then symbolise the thousands of years of the tradition of people telling fantastical stories to one another. It is an object and so the personality of the author, who’s identity is lost to the sands of time anyway, is irrelevant and (for bonus points) it was composed in the middle east which would hopefully(for me) get up the noses of the racists who get all upset when anyone who isn’t a straight white dude tries to play in the sandpit that they think is theirs. So it would be a win win situation so far as I’m concerned. 🙂