Dec 4 2009 4:33pm

Why We Still Write Lovecraft Pastiche

This is a photo of the author with Cthulhu on her head. It was taken at Eastercon 2006 by Feorag NicBridhe. I have an complicated relationship with Lovecraft.

There is so much that is problematic about his work—patent and occult racism, sexism, classism—bigotry of just about any stripe you like. His narrative worldview, while appealingly bleak and nihilistic, encompasses an uncritical acceptance of genetic determinism, the concept of degraded or “decayed” races, and a reliance on the idea that biology is destiny that I find, quite frankly, revolting.

And yet, over the years, I’ve found his oeuvre a powerful source of inspiration, the foundations of it like Hadrian’s Wall; full of material for mining and repurposing. My first professionally published story was a Lovecraft/Conan Doyle/Kipling pastiche (“Tiger! Tiger!” in Shadows Over Baker Street). This year, I was honored to receive a Hugo award for a Lovecraftian novelette, “Shoggoths in Bloom.” In between, I’ve written stories exploring many aspects of the world he originated.

I say originated because I can’t quite bring myself to say created. So much love and creativity has gone into illuminating Lovecraft’s universe—from Lovecraft himself and from the other authors, from Frank Belknap Long to Neil Gaiman, and from the creativity of fans and artists in other genres—that I think in many ways the Lovecraftian universe must be considered a collaborative effort at this point. (As I type this, I sit in a room that has a plush Cthulhu on the bookshelf; it is not the only Lovecraftian stuffed animal in this house. My favorite Lovecraftian story is not by Lovecraft at all—it’s James Blish’s “More Light,” one of the creepiest things I have ever read.)

How is it, then, that there’s still so much to admire and inspire in work that is also so uncomfortable, so problematical? Work that’s criticized for its style, for its purpleness and density and failures of structure—how is it that it still evokes such a potent response?

And why is it that I, and so many others, just cannot seem to stop playing in this sandbox?

Surprisingly, they’re not difficult questions to answer. Because authors are read, beloved, and remembered, not for what they don’t do wrong, but for what they do right, and what Lovecraft does right is so incredibly effective. He’s a master of mood, of sweeping blasted vistas of despair and the bone-soaking cold of space. He has at his command a worldview that the average human being, drunk on our own species-wide egocentrism, finds compelling for its sheer contrariness.

Lovecraft gives us a universe that’s not solipsistic at all; that has no regard or respect for human existence; a universe that regards us much as we regard any creature incidental to our lives. Dust mites, maybe, or Antarctic tubeworms. A universe whose reaction to the existence of the human race is well, what’s that got to do with me?

This is probably an accurate assessment of our place in the universe. And Lovecraft manages to make us believe, for a little while, of the vast indifference of heaven.

I say above that Lovecraft’s narratives are “appealingly” bleak and nihilistic, and what I mean by that is that there’s something about the way he presents the horror of this indifferent world that makes it engaging and almost escapist. Possibly it’s the air of confidently sitting in judgment that infuses his stories—the certainty with which he assigns people to decayed genetic pools, by implication excluding the reader—and perhaps it’s just that we like to be teased with the idea that we’re not the most important thing in the universe, as long as we don’t have to really believe it. He gives us a frisson of that universal meaningless, I suspect—just enough to make us feel like we’ve confronted something big. Like the fear you get from a roller coaster, it remains under control.

As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.

I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.

I want to pick a fight with him, because of what he does right, that makes his stories too compelling to just walk away from, and because of what he does wrong, and doesn’t not do wrong—for example, the way he treats people as things and the way he relegates entire species to object positions.

I don't pretend that my reasons for continuing to engage with his work are the only ones. I suspect there are as many perspectives on Lovecraft as there are writers and readers.

And in a lot of ways, I think that is what literature is about; these ongoing conversations. They are important, and I only hope that in eighty years, there are still writers around who want to argue with me.

Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction and fantasy writer who cannot escape the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft.

1. lkaesb
see this web site..

I challenge you to make a Cthulhu snowflake!!
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
I'm not sure I'd call "More Light" Lovecraftian. It draws on the writings of Robert W. Chambers, and Lovecraft also drew on those writings, but that makes it a cousin of the Lovecraft mythos rather than part of it. (Although, it's been a long time since I read the story, so perhaps it has some more definite link that I've forgotten.)
Michael Grosberg
3. Michael_GR
I believe one of the reasons writers like to write Lovecraft pastiches is actually because Lovecraft was not quite successful at delivering on his and promise.
Lovecraft's promise to the reader in many of his stories is that he is going to present us with something so horrific that it can drive a person crazy. That somewhere towards the end of the tale, we will be meeting something that will make us lose sleep at night, and fill our days with terror.
...And whatever he comes up with, it's never quite enough. It's creepy all right, but not lose-you-mind creepy. Or worse; it's not described at all, is "too terrible to describe". Is the reader supposed to do all the heavy lifting of supplying an object of dread?
The common reaction of any decent fan is "Oh, even I could do better!". And then you just have to try.

I also wanted to say (hoping it's not too much of a spoiler - but then "Lavinia Whatley" is mentioned at the very beginning) that I loved your story (along with Sarah Monette) Boojum. The Mi-go are my favorite Lovecraft race!
Blake Ellis
4. galaxyexpressed
My friend Doug and I often dwell on the inherent racism and bigotry in Lovecraft's work. We've come to the conclusion that it's good to be aware of that but to forgive him because in his time racism was the norm. Is that right? Not sure, but I do like to hear that someone out there (especially as talented as Elizabeth Bear) is confronting that part of his work and infusing it into her own take on that world. Cool :D

Fluff the Plush Cthulhu
5. fluffcthulhu
That is a very familiar looking Being in that photograph. Such a handsome Entity!
Megan O'Heffernan
7. omega_n
Modern readers are almost always going to have issues with the values and morals of turn-of-the-century writers. We simply cannot judge them by our own standards, but with authors like Lovecraft we can put our own twist on it, or transpose it into our own time. It can exist on its own merits, but there's plenty to tinker with.

@Michael_GR--what we scoff at may have been terrifying to Lovecraft's contemporary readership. Victorian horror often functions in the same way: allowing the reader's mind to fill in the most horrifying image they could come up with (see "The Beetle" by Richard Marsh). Think of fifties films like "King Kong"--I laughed at the stiff puppetry of Kong when I saw it in the late 90's at age nine, but my dad told me he hid under the movie theater seat.
8. EmersonThoreauSmith
I don't want to exonerate the racist assumptions that marred much of HPL's writing through the late 1920 's, but it isn't fair to label him a "biological" racist without qualification. He deserves some credit for reconsidering his prejudices inthe 1930s, so that by the time of his death in 1937 he assumed most differences among peoples were cultural rather than racial, and he tried to see these differences in relative rather than hierarchical terms. It is true that he never changed his mind about the biological inferiority of blacks and Austalian aborigines. But he had become less reactionary, and more progressive, in many of his social and political views. This marked change in attitude (which you don't see in many other writers who started off with such strong prejudices) is one reason HPL is so endearing, despite some really vile utterances and some lingering prejudices. Who knows how far he might have rethought his views had he confined to live into the next decades?
9. JRandomPerson
(Pause to contemplate the editor of the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson.)
10. Robert Adrian Sloan
This is beautiful. Thank you. I love the Lovecraftian universe and that scope always intrigued me.

There's another author who inspired me in some of the same ways, though not as directly as the immense collaboration of the Lovecraft Mythos. You've perfectly described how I felt going back to the much-loved Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of my childhood in my forties.

I remembered the dinosaurs. I remembered the Mahars. I remembered the great cats on Venus and that incredible woman with a sabertooth that Frazetta painted when he made Dian the Beautiful come to life. I forgot the stories were about intrepid little bands of white guys with a lot of ammunition shooting one of everything that moved and the way all the tribes that allied with them kowtowed to them and their guns.

The ones that last have something that transcends their times. Maybe my ideas will have that many holes in them for someone someday too, but that's all right.

I've got one other thing to thank Lovecraft for. One small line in his biography saved my sanity as a kid -- "H. P. Lovecraft was a sickly child." He was my hero for that. I was sickly, disabled, undiagnosed and hopeless, flunked gym steadily till at sixteen I finally got a diagnosis that got me doctor's note to get out of gym. Wound up on the honor roll after that without the F's dragging my GPA down.

That showed me that you didn't have to be Doc Savage, brainy but also good looking and brawny, to do something powerful and good. That it was okay to be a dreamer, whether the dreams were scary or lyrical like The White Ship. That being imaginative wasn't a bad thing at all.

So that's another side of Lovecraft too that sweetens the impersonal vastness of the cosmos -- the idea that aliens might not think of humanity as oh the greatest beings in the universe didn't really bother me. I'm not sure why, but that wasn't disillusioning to me.

The creepies weren't all creepy. Fungi from Yuggoth were just sort of science-geek types though had a healthy respect for what endangered them. The Great Race of Yith, that gorgeous group of rugose giant vegetable librarians exploring time through psychic contact, they were different but not repulsive. I never knew opening a Lovecraft story for the first time if I'd run into monsters or just really cool, interesting aliens.

The roller coaster goes back to the gut fears. Things that can eat you. Things that can step on you without noticing. Things that live in holes or drop out of the sky that could eat you or step on you. Then there's that feeling of being an insider once you know you really shouldn't go sailing over R'lyeh but you'd do fine discussing math or astronomy with the geeks from Yuggoth.

Maybe some of why it works so well in its new iterations is that it was shared right from the beginning and wasn't just Lovecraft's work but all the other authors who added to it. The Lovecraft Mythos is an immersive setting that's grown like a gigantic reef full of fascinating discoveries... and still has more yet to be made.
Elizabeth Bear
11. matociquala
David @2: It's a King in Yellow story, and at this point, for purposes of general subgenreization, I think Chambers has been subsumed under the Lovecraft umbrella. Blame the guys at Chaosium?

Michae1 @3, thank you very much. There's a ...not exactly sequel? story in the same universe?... to "Boojum" in Datlow's new LOVECRAFT UNBOUND anthology.

I think you're right about the holes, and that's one thing I was trying to express, though perhaps badly. I think it's the same think that invites fanfic--those appealing gaps in the narrative.

galaxyexpressed @4, I am not a scholar of the issue, but I get a sense that even for the time, Lovecraft (at least early in his life, and as it had an impact on his writing career) was on the extreme end of the range. It is easy to forget how many educated, professional persons of African and Afro-Caribbean descent were contributing to the arts and sciences worldwide throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Robert @10 : I find I have the same problem as an adult reading SF from the 1950s and 60s, not to mention earlier. The reflexive sexism and racism and the whitewashed worlds are so... prevalent. And I realize that as a child I never noticed.
12. Jim Henry III
I try to avoid describing a writer of the past as "racist" unless there's evidence that they were, not just racist by today's standards, but more racist than the average person of their time and place. With Lovecraft, I think you can make a good case that he was, at least early in his career. With some others who've been accused of racism (e.g., Mark Twain or G.K. Chesterton), not so much; it seems to me that, though at least slightly racist by today's standards, they were progressive by the standards of their own time and shouldn't be judged harshly.

Re: pastiche and fanfiction, it seems to me that the difference between writing pastiche of the works of an author whose stuff has fallen into the public domain, writing media tie-in fiction, and writing fanfiction, is primarily legal -- there's no inherent artistic or aesthetic difference, though such differences may arise as epiphenomena (e.g., fanfiction being published with few or no editorial filters because it can't be published for profit; media tie-in writers perhaps working on tight deadlines more often than other writers), thus giving fanfiction and media tie-in work a bad reputation.
Kage Baker
13. kagebaker
um... So classicism is bigotry?

Did you mean class prejudice? Or have you got something against Aristophanes?
15. XtremeCaffeine
It's easy (and fun) to make fun of Lovecraft.

But at the same time, although I can easily say that Lovecraft was not the most skilled writer, the fact is that what he wrote stays with you.

Of course, he was a racist, a bigot, and very much a man at war with the modern world, but his art sticks with you in ways that a lot of others' works simply don't.

So it's a bit squamous to both celebrate and vilify him, but on the whole, can we do anything but love him?
16. W. H. Pugmire
I continue to return to this excellent essay, and have to-day shared it on Facebook. As an author who is obsess'd with writing book after book of Lovecraftian weird fiction, I can only say that Lovecraft's superb fiction contains depths that reward new readings and deep thinking. He succeeded, brilliantly, in doing exactly what he wanted to achieve as an artist, despite his own protestations that he did not. His style is wonderful and poetic, and he was its complete master. I grew to love his personality from reading his delightful correspondence, but I admire him and exalt him as an artist, as an American Literary Classic.

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