Aug 20 2013 2:15pm

Why We Still Write Lovecraft Pastiche

CthuluI have a complicated relationship with Lovecraft.

There is so much that is problematic about his work from patent and occult racism, to sexism and 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—all of which 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), and I was honored to receive a Hugo award in 2009 for a Lovecraftian novelette, “Shoggoths in Bloom.” And I’ve written other 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 other authors such as Frank Belknap Long and Neil Gaiman, and from the creativity of fans and artists in a variety of genres—that I think in many ways the Lovecraftian universe must be considered a collaborative effort at this point. 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. (And 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.)

How is it, then, that there’s still so much to admire and inspire in work that is also so uncomfortable, so problematic? 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, these are 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.

Elizabeth Bear CthuluI 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.

And what is it about his world 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, both for what he does right and for what he does (and doesn’t not do) wrong—his stories are too compelling to simply walk away from, but he treats people as things and 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.

This article was originally posted during our 2009 feature, December Belongs to Cthulu.

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

j malcolm stewart
1. j malcolm stewart
Lovecraft's works endure because his vision was compelling and radical, not becuase of any personality traits he possessed. It is a case of the art being more compelling than the artist. In painting portraits of a period, world-building and writing in a style of horror, he's almost with out peer. But two things about someone can be equally true. Just becuase his fiction was compelling doesn't make him a good dude (especially by today's standards).
j malcolm stewart
2. lach7
I so appreciate Bear's perspective on Lovecraft. I wish more would follow her in this respect.

I personally don't have much patience for people who want to disregard authors simply because they do not live up to our own ethical and social views. We of course should point out where such authors, and their works, fall short in these areas. Nevertheless, we should still be able to appreciate what is good about these authors, especially in their works.

Thank you Ms. Bear for keeping this balance.
j malcolm stewart
3. Russell H
Regarding Lovecraft's attitudes about race, genetics, etc. as portrayed in his stories and personal letters: It should be remembered that the time during which he was most active, the 1920s - 1930s, was also the heyday of the "science" of eugenics, a time when it was taken seriously by many great scientific minds of the day, and was intensely studied at major universities. It entered popular consciousness through newspaper and magazine pop-science articles and was taken as "scientific fact" by much of the population at large, among both liberals and conservatives. It wasn't until the rise of the Nazis after 1933 that eugenics was finally discredited both scientifically and socially.

Lovecraft, according to the biographies I've read, was a scientific-minded person, and would most likely have been familiar with this. Looking at the themes of the dangers of "decayed races" and "inbreeding" and "interbreeding" in his stories in this historical light could indicate how his stories may reflect that then-widespread popular consciousness--what today we'd call a meme--of eugenics.
4. Maac
Of his time or not of his time, Lovecraft was that sort of racist where his racist friends would tell him to cool off because he was going overboard with it, while they covertly passed him handkerchieves to wipe the corners of his mouth.

There are a host of other writers of his time who simply relegated their nonwhite characters to invisibility or background roles, "proper servitude" and such, if such people were mentioned at all -- Lovecraft was obsessed, to the point where I think he might have had some sort of medicable disorder (had he lived in an era of appropriate medication).

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