Dec 2 2009 10:34am

12 Days of Lovecraft

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.

1. FluffyPanda
Surely the hyphen is perfectly acceptable. It's forming a compound word from two separate words. If you don't use a hyphen for that what do you use it for?

The casual racism wouldn't have been considered racist when he wrote it, so we should really take historical context into account here. If you don't then you have the rather unfortunate situation of having to edit the word "gay" into "happy" in every work of a certain age.

And "The nicest Jew doctor" doesn't sound anti-Semitic (doesn't this require a hyphen?) to me at all. Rather it seems that she's been born to an age when there were certain preconceptions, and is quite surprised to have discovered for herself that they aren't true. No bad thing.

Apart from those three points I also disagree with the rest of the post.

2. bookwench
Hmmmm.... yeah, his writing was racist, but so was Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle and pretty much everything written by a white guy at the end of the 1800's/beginning of the 1900's. They were also fairly horrific with regards to gender equality, as I recall. I don't let it bother me too much. It's like reading something from another country: it's shiny and interesting literature, but I don't think all of it applies to the reality I live in. I enjoy the harmless differences and mentally note the mistakes; I see racism and gender misjudgment as a mistake. At this remove so many years away, understanding more about how our society reached those attitudes and how they got (mostly) past them, it's difficult to call it anything else.

If someone wrote the same stuff today I'd be nauseous, but this is stuff from a hundred years ago. You can only hold a grudge against dead people for so long before you either recognize that you're never going to be happy again because you're never going to make something that far in the past right, or you give it up, enjoy the past for what it was, be grateful you don't live there and look forward.
chris lackey
3. clackey
Well put! We've discussed Lovecraft's racism quite a bit on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast ( and took a very similar approach, but you, sir, hit the nail on the head.

Well done!
4. Nick Mamatas
H. P. Lovecraft was a ferocious racist in his attitudes and rhetoric—much of which has been preserved in his correspondence—and though after a fashion "of his times", Lovecraft was certainly and admittedly a creature of the right for most of his life.

Toward the end of his life he recanted many of his views, both racial and more broadly political, as did many people during the beginning years of the New Deal.
Pam K
5. PamK

The casual racism wouldn't have been considered racist when he wrote it,

I'm pretty certain that word would in fact have been considered racist back then, if only by the people it was directed at. Or don't they count? It has never been a benign term.
Roland of Gilead
6. pKp
Not to forget the guy married a Jewish woman. Not bad for a racist, hey ?

More to the point...if you believe Sprague de Camp's Lovecraft : a biography, HPL's more shockingly racist works ("The Street" comes to mind - short one, go ahead and read it, it's free) stems not only from normal-for-the-time prejudices, but also from the hellish time he spent in New York just before his divorce (he moved there to follow his wife, who had found work there).

Now, try to put yourself in the guy's shoes. He came for a genteel little town in Massachusets, WASP all the way. He couldn't find work, constantly got lost, the city was too big, the buildings too high ("cyclopean", as he would have said), and - of course - there were too much people there, especially too much non-whites. I think he was more misanthropic than racist.

@2 : "They were also fairly horrific with regards to gender equality, as I recall."

Yeah, wherehas Lovecraft simply ignored the problem. The only female characters in his works are :

1) Witches (Dreams in the Witch-house)
2) Peasants (The Colour out of Space)

...which is to say either sur- or sub-humans.
Dan Layman-Kennedy
7. maestro23
It's not only that HPL carried with him the prejudices of his time and his upbringing; it's that his obsession with purity and his fear if the corrupting influence of the Outside infuse his work so deeply, and, indeed, contribute significantly to the themes that are compelling in his stories. So it's a little hard to untangle Lovecraft the racist from Lovecraft the cosmic horror pioneer, even setting aside the stories ("The Horror at Red Hook," frex) where that connection is at its most unpalatably strong.

And yet, he was also more complicated than that; as pointed out upthread, the partner in his brief marriage was Jewish (and he seems to have had nothing but love and admiration for her) and his white-supremacist, right-wing ideas began to dissipate somewhat as he got older. And even in his work, there are ambiguities; there's the outright statement "they were men" regarding the very literal aliens in "At the Mountains of Madness," and the end of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" isn't exactly framed as straightforward horror either. It would be easy to dismiss him as a writer of thinly-veiled racist diatribes, but that's at least as much of an error as glossing over the ways his xenophobia informs his work. He's problematic, to be sure, but there's a lot going on there beyond the epithets and the obvious squick for foreigners and slant-eyed hordes.

(And, of course, his most respected biographer and latter-day champion is himself nonwhite, which implies at the very least that his work is worth salvaging in spite of the unpleasant attitudes it reveals.)
8. FluffyPanda

I'm pretty certain that word would in fact have been considered racist back then, if only by the people it was directed at. Or don't they count? It has never been a benign term.

No, they didn't count to the white people using the term.

The widespread racism and slavery of the past was horrific, but you can't expect that every author of the period was enlightened enough to transcend it.

The word would undoubtedly have been hurtful to those it was used to belittle, but then so were the whips and the segregation. It doesn't mean that these things weren't commonly employed by rich white folk though and indeed thought of as perfectly normal.

In the case of Lovecraft, he lived in a time when slavery was only just abolished and segregation was still very much alive. We know what was going on back then was wrong, but we can't be at all surprised to learn that he didn't.
9. ceruleanshipper
I'm gonna have to defend Sir Arthur a bit on the racism front just for "The Yellow Face" and his work to exonerate George Edalji - he wasn't completely un-racist ("The Lost World" made me cringe) but he was miles ahead of Lovecraft.
10. Matt Carpenter
We discuss this periodically on alt.horror.cthulhu (the 3 or 4 of us who are active there anyway; all are welcome!).

HPL's most racist story for me was The Horror at Red Hook, where he vented his spleen about the immigrants and down trodden in NYC. For example, he uses phrases such as 'hateful negroid mouth' that are hard for an apologist to get around. Actually, Alan Moore's The Courtyard riffs on this and gets all the sensibilities just right. For me, HPL and race are all about historical context. I can understand it and see how it influences his writing without condoning it, and without turning away from what I really love about his stories.

In Tales Out of Dunwich from Hippocampus Press you can find the story "The Thing in the Woods" by Harper Williams, which Robert Price says was a major inspiration for "The Dunwich Horror." The casual vicious racism in this story makes HPL seem modest by comparison. In context it was all part of the pervasive dismal state of race relations in that era (James Loewen has written many interesting things on the topic, if you need a jumping off point.).
11. John Hyperion
H.P. Lovecraft was a vile racist, I'd say even for his times, but he's still one of my favorite authors. As a black man I find attempts by modern people to gloss over this fact far more offensive than anything H.P. Lovecraft wrote.
12. Mouldy Squid
@ #11

At the risk of sounding like an apologist . . .

HPL was not an exceptional racist even for his times. Read a bit more from the pulps of the era, the scientific texts (especially anthropological), and the average newspaper editorial or letters column and you will see racism far, far more vile than HPL.

He was average to low compared to the real racism expressed in the US in the early 20th century.
Dan Layman-Kennedy
13. maestro23
Matt Carpenter @10: I love "The Courtyard," and you're right about how well it nails the sensibilities; I think it makes clear how inextricable racism and xenophobia are from the way Lovecraft engaged with his mythology, and by transplanting those attitudes to the modern day, strips away any veneer of quaintness to show how ugly they are.

(Jacen Burrows' graphic adaptation makes the point even further by giving Sax - heh - more than a hint of HPL's angular Easter Island features.)
Ashe Armstrong
14. AsheSaoirse
If people are gonna all up in arms about that, then they'll need to for other classics. Hell, movies of the time too. Plus, the whole Whites should ALL feel bad movement is bullshit. The Irish were treated just as cruelly in the early 20th. I know this will be an unpopular view but, that's my stance.

Was Lovecraft racist? Yes. Legend has it he was also a fascist. If you love his stories, deal with the content from his era and enjoy yourself regardless of it.
15. Nick Mamatas
@12 From Lovecraft's own mouth he was an arch conservative in his worldview. That is to say, Lovecraft put himself as behind his own time when it came to his views on politics and race.

As far as his marriage to Sonya Green, it is almost a cliché that arch racists will marry a woman of a race they loathe, especially if she has a caretaker personality.

Incidentally, there are few surviving examples of the couple's correspondence because Sonia ultimately burned most of her letters from Lovecraft, as did Samuel Loveman, due to the vicious anti-Semitism in some of them.
Roland of Gilead
16. pKp
HPL was a conservative because he hated the world he lived in and idealized England and pre-Revolution America. He basically refused to acknowledge the political context of his time until late in his life.

Once he started paying a little more attention (around WW2, IIRC), he was actually kinda liberal, despised Hitler once it was clear what kind of madman he was, and was a big fan of Truman's and the New Deal's.

As maestro23 said @7, this informs his later works ("They were men", etc).
17. R.Dawsey
I noticed that no one has brought up an interesting parallel of recent times: the controversy over "Huckleberry Finn." Offense was so bad that many wanted this classic (considered to be the first true american novel by some) banned from libraries. But can anyone doubt Huck's friendship with the one he called "N****r Jim"? If you had confronted Huck about it, I'm sure he would have been shocked to think that the use of this term in any way diminised his friendship with Jim.

Just something to think about. Historical context is everything. If we start PC editing every classic document, we might wind up banning three fourths of the great literature of history.
Wesley Osam
18. Wesley
FluffyPanda @8: No, they didn't count to the white people using the term.

That's because they were racists. Just because they wouldn't have considered Lovecraft's casual racism to be racism, that doesn't mean that it wasn't racism. Many, many people would have recognized it as racism--not least the people it was aimed at.

R. Dawsey, #17: Jim is never referred to by that name in Huckleberry Finn. Many characters, including Huck, use that epithet, but those two words do not appear together.

It's true that Huck wouldn't understand what you were talking about if you confronted him about his language... but this is because Huck has been trained all his life to be an imbecile, utterly twisted by his upbringing. Twain (almost certainly deliberately) drives home the point when Huck falls under Tom Sawyer's spell in the last third of the book, and betrays his friend.

No one has mentioned wanting to ban Lovecraft's stories, or edit them for "political correctness." All Seamus Cooper is talking about is refusing to pretend that they aren't racist, or that they wouldn't have been racist at the time they were written. He's saying that enjoying the stories for what's good about them doesn't oblige us to pretend the faults don't exist, or that they're excusable.

I second Matt Carpenter's recommendation of James Loewen's books, especially Sundown Towns and Lies My Teacher Told Me.
19. Matt Carpenter
@15: I thought Sonia Green burned the letters in a dispute with August Derleth. I had heard she wanted to publish a book of his letters and Derleth said she couldn't without his permission, so she destroyed them. This is third hand, however.
Marcus W
20. toryx
I think a racist is a racist, no matter how vehement he or she is in their actions. One is or isn't and the shades of gray mean little to those who are experiencing the prejudice firsthand.

But that doesn't necessarily diminish the value of Lovecraft's work. It's a reflection of the world (nightmarish and otherworldly as the stories were) at the time that it was written and from a solely historical basis that provides a considerable amount of value. I can still appreciate a story that uses language or expresses values I don't agree with. So long as we don't use those types of stories (or art) as an excuse for continuing the prejudice it can't really do any harm.

In fact, I think it's important that the racist attitudes that exist in works from the past continue to be experienced and observed, if only so that we can remember there was a time when such attitudes were kept and to continue to examine our own shortcomings so that we can better ourselves.

I'm pretty big on remembering our history so that we don't go and repeat the mistakes of the past.
21. Hirgon Sadron
@6 & 7:

The fact that HPL married a Jewish woman merely indicates that his particular prejudices did not include anti-Semitism; it does not exonerate him for his racism, or make his racism any less acrid. In fact, one could argue that it makes his racism bit more noteworthy and maybe even more repulsive, as he clearly was able to move past one aspect of his WASP upbringing but kept the rest. To borrow from #20, "a racist is a racist" regardless of what prejudices the racist individual carries or does not carry.

Other than that, #20 basically said what I was going to post. This is going to be an interesting month here!
jman jman
22. jman
I won't go through all comments, I'll simply asnwer the author's question: no, it doesn't bother me.

And being Italian, I think that in theory I should be part of those that HPL feared ;)

HPL in my opinion was simply obsessed by his surroundings and this gave him material to invent his parallel worlds. End of the story.

We could also argue that Heinlein is a bit fascist in his writings, does anybody cares after all? I like him as a writer and that's all.

Please don't let literature be influenced by such 'modern' thinking, it is just a nuisance and completely out of context.

23. oroboros
I appreciate this thoughtful piece and the discussion here.

Last night I was putting together a list of my heroes. Among them is Edward Abbey. There is evidence in his writing and anecdotes of his personal life that he harbored both misogynistic and racist beliefs.

So as I compiled a public list, I felt like I needed to exclude him in part because of the other choices I made. He's still a hero of sorts, but for various reasons just didn't fit right into the company he'd be keeping on it. I don't want other people to think that I idolize him for those reasons (and this list isn't about any cult of personality but respect for integrity).

Another person on my list may need to drop off if I'm holding this same standard. Some of the views of Everett Ruess on natives are certainly not acceptable today. I guess I gave him some degree of historical pass that I probably shouldn't.

Rather than drop Ruess, I think I'll put Abbey on it and then start blogging about all of them so I can distinguish traits I admire from those I don't. No one is perfect, and by acknowledging this I hope to avoid falling into hero worship.
24. MisterNecro
This is an interesting discussion. It started with mention of the fictional kitty "Nigger-Man" so I'll start with that myself.

You do have to take into account that connotation, and what's considered unspeakable, varies by era. For instance, sexual crudities which get voiced even on TV today would never have been printed in our grandparents' day.

The point made here about Huck Finn's beloved "Nigger Jim" should be appreciated. "Nigger" was used casually, not necessarily hatefully, a century or so ago. A white Southerner might have spoken approvingly of the "good old nigger" everyone in town knew and liked.

A black man might have spoken casually about "white folks and niggers" as a matter of course. He probably rarely heard the word "negro" used, never mind "Afro-American" or "African American" or whatever might be the next approved term.

Lots of folks today would certainly bristle at hearing of blacks being called "colored people" but would beamingly approve of calling them "people of color", without ever stopping to think that the two designations are precisely analogous, or for that matter, that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: founded 1910) was by no means a creation of whites.

Times, standards, and senses in language do indeed change, sometimes within but a year, never mind a century. The "Nigger-Man" of "The Rats in the Walls" incidentally was inspired from life: Lovecraft himself, as a child, had a black cat thus named.

As much as "nigger" is condemned today as totally hateful and unspeakable, of course that isn't altogether true: some blacks in 2010 will call each other "nigger" just as some homosexuals will call each other "queer", and beyond that, if anything is ever to be discussed intelligently, as I think we're doing here, then we have to speak of what we're speaking of. We are speaking of "nigger" and it has more letters than just "n".

With that said, and otherwise, Howard Phillips Lovecraft could be simply hateful in the racist things he said, and that such sentiments were widely held in his times is no excuse for him or for those times.

Lovecraft once wrote a poem, known to few in his day but unfortunately still preserved, called "On the Creation of Niggers", which refers to the race as "semi-human." Nobody ever took "semi-human" as a casually friendly description.

Lovecraft wrote to friends he felt might sympathize with his view that he sometimes felt capable of slaughtering the throngs of non-"Aryans" he encountered in some areas of New York City.

Lovecraft, early in the Nazi era, defended the right of the German "Aryan" race to protect itself against Jewish and other "inferior" taints. (In this context, remember that eugenics, and its endorsement of racial segregation, miscegenation laws, and coerced sterilization of the "unfit", thrived best in the USA before Hitler brought it to the fore in Germany; and that it was white shame in the USA over its own racism, post-war and post-Holocaust, that finally gave the American civil rights movement a real chance.)

Lovecraft's wife Sonia was not unaware of his tendency to racial hatefulness and saw this as a neurosis in him. She tried to get the bug out of him but ultimately said it was the reason she gave up on trying to keep the marriage going. Sam Loveman, the poet and Lovecraft's long-time friend, also disavowed him after encountering some of Howard's hateful letters written to others.

What can one say about this? Sonia wasn't altogether wrong. Racism is a sickness. Lovecraft suffered with it, it can be said, but he was smart, and should have known better. His racism is just awful and hateful.

The why is tied to his general outlook. He was in love with England and with the American Colonial period and saw the "melting pot" as a threat to the traditional culture he held dear. This helps explain his rotten tendency but doesn't excuse it.

The worst things he said, he said when younger, and particularly when psychologically upset, as at the end of his New York City period, when he and his wife had suffered much, and he was feeling particularly a failure. He felt low so it felt good to say others were lower. How admirable is that?

He also said, in more moderate moments, that he respected persons of other ethnicities, but simply did not want them to overwhelm and bring about the end of the traditional culture he loved. He said "foreigners" of good character should assimilate culturally to be accepted.

On one occasion, when he downgraded "foreigners" to Sonia, she said she felt the need to point out to him that she, a Russian Jew, was part of the "horde" he cursed. He replied, "You are now Mrs. H.P. Lovecraft of ... Providence, Rhode Island."

It was nuts. Even as he said nutty things, he was friendly with numerous non-"Aryans", he described meeting black kids playing in the streets down South, and finding them a joy, he is universally described as kind and respectful to everyone he met, including black servants who at times worked in his household (and who probably knew "Nigger-Man").

A description of the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 'thirties, given by a neighbor who had visited there, is said to have truly horrified him. It's said he became ever more human, humorous, and tolerant as he grew older, and there is evidence for this, but it's a damn shame he ever said the nasty things he did.

I'd like to think he could have grown completely out of his racist sickness, but he died at forty-six, and I'm not convinced he had by then.

I started reading Lovecraft at about the age of twelve. His stories have always been favorites of mine. In later years I read more about Lovecraft himself. Learning about the racist blot on his character disappoints me a lot. I wanted to like him.

I like what was good about him. Mostly he was very good, brilliant, interesting, truly kind, and, if eccentric in various ways, also warm in most ways, and therefore engagingly unique. His flaws were woeful. His friends adored him. There was a lot to him.

The best of his stories ("The Colour Out of Space" is my favorite) are classic and even the schlockier ones are fun. Harsh racial references are only occasional in his fiction and indeed not that unusual for his times. It's odd things like the "semi-human" poem and some letters that tell the worst.

The foolishness of this very bright man is a true horror. He wasn't Hitler. There aren't many Hitlers. There are lots of fools. They're the folks that put Hitlers into power. That's what we have to remember; we can't be so damn foolish; most of us are too often and that's why there's always true horror in the world.

I don't forgive Lovecraft. You can't do that. His racism isn't forgivable because nobody's is in any time or place.

It's good to understand Lovecraft, though, and to see him for what he was: human, mostly good, while capable of being terribly bad. We all have to do better than we do.

I do love the good in Howard Lovecraft and of course now all of him rests in peace.
26. zefelius
Without reversing some of the great insights and observations laid out above, I think it should also be noted that much of Lovecraft's themes can be read as anti-racist. Quite often the other or the outsider in his fiction is deliberately shown to dwell within the protagonist. Before I had learned of Lovecraft's racism, my first impression of his stories included the insight that we are all monsters, mad, and completely other. Hence, if racist tendencies are to be found in his thinking, I myself would juxtapose them against his overall deconstructive narrative.
27. Phil2572
I'm not attacking or defending Lovecraft but I think the most dangerous thing any student of history is to apply modern values to a bygone situation.

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" Leslie Poles Hartley et al.....

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