Uncle Howard has gone respectable. He’s got nice trade paperback editions with classy covers, one of which is edited by Joyce Carol Oates, a writer actually best known for her non-genre work. He’s also got a Library of America hardcover edition, complete with classy font and black and white photo of his lengthy visage.
This represents a real triumph for Lovecraft’s work. When I came to it in the early 80s, I only knew of it from reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and when you could find it at all, it was only in Del Rey editions with covers that looked like a metal album. (Still in print, and still with awesome metal-ish cover art!) Now H.P. and the Old Ones are oozing their way into the literary canon, which means, figuratively speaking for those of us who love speculative fiction, the neighbors are coming over.
This causes me some stress. Because the things I love about Uncle Howard’s work will be on display and will hopefully capture people’s attention. But the stuff that makes me uncomfortable about his work is out there too. Take this sentence, for example, from “The Rats in the Walls,” the story that opens my Del Rey paperback The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: “My eldest cat, ‘Nigger-Man,’ was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts…” Oh, Uncle Howard. Racism and an unnecessary hyphen. If this were an isolated case, we might be able to write it off as a glitch, but race shows up as a preoccupation in much of Lovecraft’s fiction.
Let me be clear. I’m not some PC scold who’s going to tell you that we can’t enjoy all that’s awesome about H.P. Lovecraft’s work because of the racism in it. But we in the speculative fiction world do ourselves and the work we love no favors by pretending this stuff isn’t there, downplaying it, or, worst of all, defending it. Yes, these stories were written in the 20s, and yes, H.P. is far from alone among the pulp fiction practitioners of his era in using racist stereotypes, but, as the Specials remind us, it doesn’t make it all right.
Also, I neither know nor care whether H.P. himself was a racist; I’m only concerned with racism in his work. This is partly because I’m too lazy to do research, but also because I believe that any artist’s work has to stand apart from the artist’s personality. Pablo Picasso may never have been called an asshole, but he almost certainly was one, and that’s too much to carry around when interacting with his work. The work has to stand on its own. So no biographical qualifications, excuses, or explanations—I’m only interested in the work.
And I wonder (and would love to hear in the comments) if the racism is too big an obstacle for some readers. As a white guy, I can glide past a lot of the racism without feeling its sting personally. I can do the same thing when watching Sixteen Candles, but for some Asian Americans, it’s not so easy. (Question: do Asian Americans have a word analogous to “Uncle Tom” or “Stepin Fetchit?” And if so, is it “Gedde Watanabe?”)
Uncle Howard is family, and we love him. But that doesn’t mean we have to gloss over his flaws. I loved my grandmother dearly, and she was prone to saying things like, “I had the nicest Jew Doctor!” If I didn’t acknowledge to my Jewish friends my Grandmother’s propensity for casual antisemitism before they met her, I would have looked insensitive or even complicit. I loved her and I didn’t always like what she said. So it is with Uncle Howard. So in honor of Christmas with Cthulhu, I’m going to reread twelve of H.P.’s stories and report back with affectionate irreverence about what I find there. I hope you’ll join me!
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Nightshade Books, 2009). He lives in Boston, blissfully unaware of the horrors that lurk beneath the waters of his home state.