H.P. Lovecraft had more than a few monsters of his own. No, we’re not talking about the famous octopus-dragon-humanoid mashup, Cthulhu. Or any of the other creatures in his Old Ones pantheon. Lovecraft’s monsters were far more insidious and far more real than anything he could ever imagine. His blatant racism, homophobia, and misogyny are the true horrors.
With the release of the new HBO series Lovecraft Country, there’s been a resurgence of debate on H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy in light of his hideous views on race, sexuality, and women.
Welcome to Lovecraft Country By Way of Jim Crow
Lovecraft Country, helmed by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions on HBO is based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name. It was adapted for the screen by Misha Green starring Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey).
Ruff reimagined the mythos Lovecraft created and took it in an entirely new direction. In this retelling, the real monsters are the White supremacists carrying out acts of violence on the Black protagonists.
The monstrous entity emerging from the forest is background fodder to the real horrors of being Black in Jim Crow-era America.
Dripping With Racism
Lovecraft’s stories are dripping with racist subtext and, in the case of his short story “The Horror at Red Hook”, are directly stated.
The tale follows a detective named Malone investigating the wealthy figurehead Robert Suydam, who recently became mentally ill after spending time with the immigrants of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Lovecraft creates a horror landscape with creatures described as, “…unimaginative people of a horror beyond all human conception—a horror of houses and blocks and cities leprous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds.”
Clearing his name, Suydam moves to the town of Red Hook and an army of dark-skinned immigrants begins to form as Malone tries to crack the mysterious kidnappings in the area. It’s a story where the monsters aren’t some mythical beasts to be defeated but the “Syrians, Spanish, Italian and Negro[s]” of Brooklyn.
It’s impossible to ignore his anti-immigrant credo throughout and his affinity for the belief in a “master race.”
Making Prejudice the Real Monster
A brilliant retelling of Red Hook is “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle which takes Lovecraft’s world and flips it on its head.
Instead of a white protagonist, it’s a 20-year-old from Harlem named Charles Thomas Tester.
LaValle creates a world where the immigrants are humans not monsters, and the real horrors are the prejudices a Black man faces in Jazz Age New York. Taking his love for the Lovecraftian genre, LaValle creates a world where the minorities are exalted from the historical confines of literary bigotry.
A stand out quote from the novella that echoes the sentiment that the real monsters aren’t always mythical: “Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”
LaValle dedicates the book to Lovecraft with an inscription that states, “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”
Conflicted Feelings for Lovecraft’s Legacy
As one of the pioneers of Horror and Sci-Fi it’s hard to ignore Lovecraft’s influence in a multitude of works today.
The world that Lovecraft designed is so uniquely his own that it’s often referred to as “Lovecraftian Horror.” A genre with similar underlying thematic elements with a deeply nihilistic view on society and humanity as a whole. An imagination that created the horrific tentacled Cthulhu which is used in countless modern tales. A deeply troubled man who never saw the success of his work. And through it all, Lovecraft held conservative, disturbing views on the LGBTQ community.
In a series of letters exchanged with his publisher August Derleth, Lovecraft expands on his terrifying beliefs:
“If the…promiscuity of the earliest “new moralists” could be excused on the ground that our normal disgust is only “old fashioned prejudice”, it is not remarkable that nauseous and abnormal sodomy should make an equal claim. Next will come incest – people will clamour for “warmer, freer, more wholesome” relations betwixt brothers and sisters…and finally bestiality.”
Nick Jones of The Punk Writer points out the ironic impact Lovecraft had on the Queer Horror genre:
“However, despite these views, Lovecraft’s influence on horror is undeniable, and ironically his very fears of cultural and sexual others helped pave the way for a genre that became peopled by the very things its progenitor abhorred.”
Co-opting Lovecraft and Making it Our Own
For a comedic take check out “The Cultists”, a web series inspired by the Lovecraftian Horror genre created by Heath Robinson. It’s a mockumentary-style series, co-written and directed by fellow Avaaz contributor Brianna da Silva, following a young man who delves into the world of Lovecraft mythos against a suburban backdrop.
As a lesbian writer, da Silva, is actively co-opting a world created by a man that would have rejected her existence entirely.
“It’s hard to read his stories without coming face-to-face with xenophobia and fear of The Other, and this frustrates me,” da Silva said. “In many ways, Lovecraftian fiction is larger than Lovecraft. It’s possible to use his ideas, while injecting new values and perspectives into those ideas. I don’t know how he would have felt about that, but frankly, I don’t care! Lovecraft’s mythos belongs to all of us now.”
Enjoying Lovecraft’s stories can feel wrong when it’s created by such a hateful man. It’s an age-old question that artists and fans have struggled with, can art be separated from the artist?
Perhaps there isn’t a right answer but a solution, in this case, can be to retell Lovecraft’s stories through the lens of minorities, women, and queer folk. There’s this intimate space that exists between an artist and a fan.
It feels deeply personal and it’s a connection that is hard to sever. In the case of LaValle, Ruff and countless others they pay homage to Lovecraft the pioneering writer and boldly face his abhorrent fanaticism with an iron pen.