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.