Few people in the history of fantastic horror have mastered the pure capacity for total dread like H.P. Lovecraft. The early-1900s fantasist is the father of the eldritch, the cosmic, the mind-shatteringly weird. (This, by the way, makes Dunsany and Poe grandfathers of the eldritch, etc. But I won’t track the lineage any further).
Lovecraft mastered the art of the horrible…and managed to be an occasionally horrible person at the same time. H.P. Lovecraft was, for all his wonderful writing, an utter, unabashed racist.
It’s hard to cope with a good author who is also a bad person. Some people choose to ignore his racism. Other more fanatic apologists do everything in their power to “contextualize” his views – he wasn’t that bad, they claim, or he also thought Jewish people looked nice in their little hats (no, really).
Back in 2014, Daniel José Older launched a petition to get the World Fantasy Award changed from a bust of Lovecraft’s face to a bust of Octavia Butler, largely because it’s hard to credit someone who was so profoundly racist. In Older’s words:
I absolutely don’t think someone as hateful as HP Lovecraft should hold such a symbolic place in the genre. Beyond that though, it matters that his writing suffered for it. His already stale protagonists defended themselves from sweltering masses of dull clichés: the same stupid, evil brown and black folks that white writers have been conjuring up for centuries to justify imperialism and institutional racism.
In response, S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft biographer and devout apologist, put tens of thousands of words on the Internet to explain why Lovecraft wasn’t really that racist, why it was okay that he was racist, and why it was just impossible that Lovecraft could in any way be anything other than a maligned saint of the genre. You can go read the September 2014 archives yourself; marvel at the passive-aggressive, snooty, and bent-over-backwards apologism. There’s a thousand ways to rationalize a racist, and they’re all in those Joshi archives.
But it’s not enough to rationalize Lovecraft’s racism. Every writer should grapple with the Good Author Bad Person problem. Because in learning why Lovecraft was racist, we can learn to be better writers ourselves.
Of course, in order to find out why he was racist, we’ll have to start with how he was racist. Let’s take a look at
SIX INCREDIBLY RACIST PASSAGES FROM LOVECRAFT
Number One: from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is classic Lovecraft. Set in sleepy New England, the story tells of a generational curse on the Curwen family, which is ultimately realized in poor Charles Dexter Ward. Ward becomes obsessed with his ancestor Joseph Curwen and his mad experiments to raise the dead – and things beyond death. In digging into the records on Curwen, Ward finds some details about the properties Curwen owned and the staff employed therein.
One location has a small staff of menservants:
Great Bridge idlers likewise had much to say of Curwen’s town house in Olney Court; not so much the fine new one built in 1761, when the man must have been nearly a century old, but the first low gambrel-roofed one with the windowless attic and shingled sides, whose timbers he took the peculiar precaution of burning after its demolition. Here there was less mystery, it is true; but the hours at which lights were seen, the secretiveness of the two swarthy foreigners who comprised the only menservants…
Okay, this isn’t so bad. Right? “Swarthy foreigners” is hardly white supremacy. Just you wait. Remember this quote later.
For what it’s worth, there are also strong parallels between Charles Dexter Ward and Lovecraft himself. Ward locks himself away in his laboratory to dabble with the forbidden arts; Lovecraft, for five years after leaving school, lived in isolation with his mother and wrote dark, weird poetry. Broadly, this is the case with a lot of Lovecraft’s protagonists. They tend to be moody men of New England with a penchant for reading forbidden tomes and stumbling onto terrible foreign religions.
With that in mind, let’s slide back into the tale of Ward and see what he finds out about Curwen’s other properties:
Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.
Yowza. One recurring theme here is that the eldritch, cosmic, mind-shattering horrors are always attended to by foreigners and, well non-white people. While mad Joseph Curwen, the leader and organizer of the dark rituals, was for all appearances a wealthy white landowner, the only people who will tolerate his darkness are the people outside of white middle-class Protestant society. This is almost universal through Lovecraft’s stories. Right now, I know that sounds like a baseless accusation. But honey, we’re just getting started. That was the tame stuff.
Number Two: from “Herbert West: Reanimator”
One of Lovecraft’s worst stories, “Herbert West: Reaminator” was serialized between 1921 and 1922, six years before “Charles Dexter Ward.” The story is an episodic series of escalating horror-adventures in which the demonic Herbert West tampers with Things Which Should Not Be Tampered With.
Obsessed with raising the dead, West faces a constant problem—need for specimens, and recently-dead specimens at that. As luck has it, he stumbles across one such specimen in Part III: Six Shots By Moonlight. After an ill-fated boxing match, West comes to retrieve a comatose specimen:
The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke.” The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
Once again, we see Lovecraft drawing a quick and definitive link between being black and being ugly. But he goes beyond just “ugly” here and indulges in some of the worst possible white supremacist rhetoric this world has ever seen. “Loathsome, gorilla-like thing” and “unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings?”
Maybe, like Joshi, you think this might be somehow more forgivable in the cultural context. As I said, this was written between 1921 and 1922. The context does not help. Scientific racialism, phrenology, and eugenics were all in high gear, so much so that public approval of eugenic programs in the United States was being codified into laws and court decisions. This racism wasn’t just ignorance or a weird naievete. This was aggressive, intentional. And it’s hard to find a mind more ripe for pseudoscientific racism than H.P. Lovecraft’s.
Lovecraft was a disadvantaged child by the privileged establishment’s standards. His mother traced her ancestry to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but by the time Lovecraft was born the family prestige was on the wane. He was raised by his aunts and grandfather following his father’s institutionalization and his mother’s recurring chronic illnesses. He suffered from sleep paralysis and night terrors. He was a child of a not-insignificant white Protestant middle-class heritage who grew up in a world that no longer seemed one-hundred-percent-white. And for some people, that’s enough to rationalize deep fears about being replaced, about falling from your pedestal in society. H.P. Lovecraft didn’t have the good life that a white Protestant middle-class dude might’ve enjoyed back in the good ol’ days. What better way to defend the privilege you believe you deserve than by dehumanizing everyone else?
Back to the story!
After Herbert West does his mad experiments on Buck Robinson, a young Italian boy goes missing (there’s some anti-Italian stuff in there too; you don’t need to read it to know that Lovecraft had a good deal of disdain for my ancestors too). In the thrilling conclusion to Part III, a monster comes knocking at West’s door:
Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
Yes, Herbert West literally transformed Buck Robinson into a zombie-gorilla, a racist caricature that ate a snow-white child.
Number Three: from “Medusa’s Coil”
If that wasn’t enough to get you thinking, let’s turn to a story set on a plantation. This story, “Medusa’s Coil,” is your basic spooky old ghost story with the classic Lovecraft twist (mentions of dread R’lyeh, for example). For full disclosure – Lovecraft co-wrote this story with Zealia Bishop. Bishop mostly wrote romantic fiction, but occasionally collaborated with Lovecraft on some really, really weird stuff.
The story is set on an abandoned plantation:
There had been, at one time, as many as 200 negroes in the cabins which stood on the flat ground in the rear—ground that the river had now invaded—and to hear them singing and laughing and playing the banjo at night was to know the fullest charm of a civilization and social order now sadly extinct.
Yes, a social order now “sadly extinct.”
The story – mostly a flashback told by the last survivor of this haunted plantation – is largely about this mysterious woman named Marceline. She’s Medusa, basically; she has a huge coil of evil hair that ends up killing a guy who tries to paint it. The slaves are present in the story, and Marceline spends a good deal of time with “Sophonisba,” an “ancient Zulu witch-woman.” When yet another white guy finally ends up killing Marceline, “Aunt Sophy” is distraught:
“It was wrinkled Sophonisba, the ancient Zulu witch-woman who had fawned on Marceline, keening from her cabin in a way which crowned the horrors of this nightmare tragedy. We could both hear some of the things she howled, and knew that secret and primordial bonds linked this savage sorceress with that other inheritor of elder secrets who had just been extirpated. Some of the words she used betrayed her closeness to daemonic and palaeogean traditions.
“‘Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Ya-R’lyeh! N’gagi n’bulu bwana n’lolo! Ya, yo, poor Missy Tanit, poor Missy Isis! Marse Clooloo, come up outen de water an’ git yo chile—she done daid! She done daid! De hair ain’ got no missus no mo’, Marse Clooloo. Ol’ Sophy, she know! Ol’ Sophy, she done got de black stone outen Big Zimbabwe in ol’ Affriky! Ol’ Sophy, she done dance in de moonshine roun’ de crocodile-stone befo’ de N’bangus cotch her and sell her to de ship folks! No mo’ Tanit! No mo’ Isis! No mo’ witch-woman to keep de fire a-goin’ in de big stone place! Ya, yo! N’gagi n’bulu bwana n’lolo! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! She daid! Ol’ Sophy know!’
You have to be careful when writing dialect. This is why. We’ve seen by now that Lovecraft’s racism was intentional, but this – this is drawing on the deep, dark tradition of minstrel shows. This is Lovecraft writing a Mammy character into one of his stories.
Oh, and the final twist? Marceline, the evil medusa is….
It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
Shock! Horror! Lovecraft loves ending his stories with a big twist or a big final zinger – he does it almost habitually, even when it requires that he drag out some major reveal for waaay too long. This is Lovecraft’s equivalent to “the call was coming from inside the house!” or “he’s been dead for seven years!” or “the hook was still on the door-handle!” This is his big horrifying ending: that a woman is black. And not only black – secretly, insidiously black. This is a horror story based on the One-Drop Rule, a famously racist principle which stated that anyone with “one drop of black blood” was considered legally black. Lovecraft here is taking that idea to its most preposterously racist conclusion.
Number Four: from “The Horror at Red Hook”
In 1924 or 1925, Lovecraft and his wife moved to Red Hook, perhaps best known these days as the birthplace of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. In those days, there was no Steve Rogers. Red Hook was an immigrant neighborhood, full of foreigners. Lovecraft struggled to find work in Brooklyn. While this was because he didn’t really have any work experience and had no marketable skills, he blamed this on the immigrants surrounding him. At one point while living in Red Hook, Lovecraft came back to his apartment to find it had been completely burgled and cleaned out. This, compounded with his fruitless job search, nestled deep as justification for prejudices. In August of 1925, Lovecraft wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” which, well, was pretty reactionary.
“The Horror at Red Hook” describes Robert Suydam, a Dutchman who infiltrates and destroys an order of evil monstrous foreign cultists, told from the perspective of Thomas Malone, a “Dublin dreamer” and hardboiled Brooklyn cop. There’s some incredible devil-imagery in this story; it’s pretty much the template for Satanist legends and myths in the modern canon. It’s also – shocker – really, really racist.
In this work it developed that Suydam’s new associates were among the blackest and most vicious criminals of Red Hook’s devious lanes, and that at least a third of them were known and repeated offenders in the matter of thievery, disorder, and the importation of illegal immigrants. Indeed, it would not have been too much to say that the old scholar’s particular circle coincided almost perfectly with the worst of the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island. In the teeming rookeries of Parker Place—since renamed—where Suydam had his basement flat, there had grown up a very unusual colony of unclassified slant-eyed folk who used the Arabic alphabet but were eloquently repudiated by the great mass of Syrians in and around Atlantic Avenue. They could all have been deported for lack of credentials, but legalism is slow-moving, and one does not disturb Red Hook unless publicity forces one to.
Yup, slant-eyed folk and Asian dregs. These are the problems with Red Hook. These are the cultists who – and this is crucial! – imported their evil religion. Sure, there’s some evil well in Red Hook that constantly seeps black magic…but the real subtext of the story is that the immigrants of Red Hook are to blame for the vicious cultery. Not to be confused with vicious cutlery.
During the raid the police encountered only a passive resistance from the squinting Orientals that swarmed from every door.
Yessir, “squinting Orientals.” There’s a phrase that rightly died out. These foreign immigrants – who slow-moving legalism has failed to evict – are smuggled in via a secret canal beneath Suydam’s house, and are plotting the destruction of all the normal healthy white people around them. Why, just look at the leader of a tugboat-load of cultists:
Suddenly the leader of the visiting mariners, an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth, pulled forth a dirty, crumpled paper and handed it to the captain. It was signed by Robert Suydam, and bore the following odd message.
There’s that ol’ Lovecraft touch: if someone’s ugly, it’s because they’re related to a black person.
Now, take a look at the final incident that brings the police down on Red Hook at last:
Three children had just disappeared—blue-eyed Norwegians from the streets toward Gowanus—and there were rumours of a mob forming among the sturdy Vikings of that section.
Blue-eyed Norwegians! Those poor children! This should remind you of the zombie-gorilla that ate a “snow-white” child. Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t solely negatively focused on immorality and ugliness. He also played up the virtuous, heroic role of Scandanavian and Norwegian people, and even Celts (to a certain extent). The POV is Thomas Malone, an Irishman with a heart of gold. Robert Suydam – who, in the end, destroys the golden idol of the mad subterranean cultists – is a Dutchman. Heck, to jump to a different story for a second, the man who temporarily defeats Cthulhu in “The Call of Ctuhlhu” is a Norwegian sailor able to fend of madness long enough to ram Cthulhu with a boat. Lovecraft wasn’t universally anti-immigrant – just anti-people-of-color.
Number Five: from “The Street”
Now this one is the key. Everything I’ve said so far about Lovecraft hating and fearing foreigners – it all makes more sense when you read this story. It’s a short one; go give it a read. “The Street” isn’t particularly good, but it’s intensely important to understanding where Lovecraft was coming from.
The story – inasmuch as this weird polemic can be called a story – is about a street. Any street. Main Street, USA. The street is built by the colonists, and the story starts with them. Well, once they’ve gotten rid of those troublesome natives:
There was war, and thereafter no more Indians troubled the Street.
The Street sees the good ol’ days of Protestant White Men Ruling Stuff come and go. And when those men go, they are replaced by:
New kinds of faces appeared in the Street, swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words and placed signs in known and unknown characters upon most of the musty houses. Push-carts crowded the gutters. A sordid, undefinable stench settled over the place, and the ancient spirit slept.
IMMIGRANTS! You guessed it! Those filthy foreigners with their un-American languages and unfamiliar facial features. But it gets better:
Of the various odd assemblages in the Street, the Law said much but could prove little. With great diligence did men of hidden badges linger and listen about such places as Petrovitch’s Bakery, the squalid Rifkin School of Modern Economics, the Circle Social Club, and the Liberty Cafe. There congregated sinister men in great numbers, yet always was their speech guarded or in a foreign tongue. And still the old houses stood, with their forgotten lore of nobler, departed centuries; of sturdy Colonial tenants and dewy rose-gardens in the moonlight.
Oh yeah. He’s going there. This is a story about anarchists. Anarchists were terror du jour of the late 1910s and into the 1920s. The Street was written in 1920, not long after the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. This is a story about the evil foreigners who are coming to the United States, fleeing their squalid home countries, and bringing with them dangerous and sinister plots to overthrow the Good Protestant White Man American Way of Life.
It was said that the swart men who dwelt in the Street and congregated in its rotting edifices were the brains of a hideous revolution, that at their word of command many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more. All this was said and repeated, and many looked forward in dread to the fourth day of July, about which the strange writings hinted much; yet could nothing be found to place the guilt. None could tell just whose arrest might cut off the damnable plotting at its source. Many times came bands of blue-coated police to search the shaky houses, though at last they ceased to come; for they too had grown tired of law and order, and had abandoned all the city to its fate. Then men in olive-drab came, bearing muskets, till it seemed as if in its sad sleep the Street must have some haunting dreams of those other days, when musketbearing men in conical hats walked along it from the woodland spring to the cluster of houses by the beach. Yet could no act be performed to check the impending cataclysm, for the swart, sinister men were old in cunning.
This is literally a story about a terrorist plot set to take place on the fourth of July, a terrorist plot that will be enacted at the hands of “many millions of brainless, besotted beasts.”
If you didn’t understand why I’m spending so much time telling you about Racist Lovecraft – do you understand now? This isn’t just old-timey, long-vanished, minstrel-show racism, because it’s easy to spot that now. We know better than to write minstrel-show stuff now, right? Sure, at it’s worst, Lovecraft’s racism is cartoonishly obvious. But this story proves: it’s not gone. It’s still here. This story could just as easily be written by a modern, contemporary racist. Replace some of the names – Petrovich’s Bakery might become a mosque, f’rinstance – and it’s still a fearmongering, hateful story written by a white man terrified of everyone who doesn’t look like him, and raised to believe he deserves so much more than all those other people.
Oh, and the story ends with all the houses on the street just collapsing on top of the anarchists. I told you it wasn’t a particularly good story.
Number Six: “On the Creation Of Niggers”
This poem, written in 1912, is presented without comment.
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
That About Says It All So Here’s The Conclusion
Does this mean we can’t read Lovecraft? No.
Lovecraft is still a master of the horror genre. His stories weave an incredible sense of existential dread into almost anything and everything. His use of the five senses in writing is masterful and should be studied by every aspiring writer – you’ll never find a better-described smell of horror. He was also a racist. A huge racist. But not an exception.
Alan Moore, in his introduction to “The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft,”, says:
Far from outlandish eccentricities, the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.
Sounds familiar, right? That’s not far off from the fear driving a lot of reactionary, racist political movements today. The real reason to look back and examine this aspect of Lovecraft is that, as I’ve said, his racism is not gone. It’s not something we can ignore as a relic of the past; we can’t treat it like a problem that’s already been solved in favor of applauding his literary legacy. His nativist terror is still felt today. His hatred of any black person is still alive today. Like the eldritch horrors his protagonists meet, this horror of our culture refuses to die. And it lives for the same reason now as it did then: fear. Lovecraft was raised in a white tradition that told him he was ancient, important, and On Top. When he was forced to face the possibility that that world-view might not be correct – when he saw people of color and immigrants succeeding while he failed, withered, and died – when he saw his privilege crumbling around him – he channeled that into stories of insignificance. He wrote of the ugliness of man because he believed that’s all there was. How could the world be good when his world wasn’t? As Lovecraft himself said, in his introduction to “Supernatural Horror in Literature:”
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
Read Lovecraft! Study Lovecraft! Heck, find your favorite Lovecraft stories, passages. Share them, cherish them, treasure them. But above all, criticize them. Criticize them as China Miéville and Nnedi Okorafor and Daniel José Older and so many others have. Understanding where Lovecraft’s intense, pathetic racism came from will help us all be better writers.
All stories are referenced via Wikisource
History/Other Links/Further Reading
Eugenics in the United States, via Wikipedia
Racial Integrity Act of 1924, via Wikipedia
Buck v Bell, via Wikipedia, a 1927 court case endorsing negative eugenics
One-Drop Rule, via Wikipedia
Anarchist Incidents, 1886-1920, from the Library of Congress.
Sacco and Vanzetti, via Wikipedia
Lovecraft’s racism & The World Fantasy Award statuette, with comments from China Miéville, from the blog of Nnedi Okorafor.
Change.org petition to change the WFA bust by Daniel José Older