Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Horror Of...Lovecraft, Should I feel guilty?

Howard Philip Lovecraft. Where do we begin?

For those of you who are blanking on who Lovecraft is, let's start there.

Lovecraft is an early 20th century writer. Primarily he is known for his work in the area of horror stories. Though he also is remembered by some for his letters and poetry.

Lovecraft's impact on horror storytelling will long be remembered. His creations and tales shaped the thinking of many future horror writers, and still inform many stories being told and written today. While he was not a commercial success in his lifetime, his work become fundamental and widely lauded. (His work was mostly to be found in pulp magazines.)

The Necronomicon. Great Cthulhu. The Re-Animator. Arkham. All of these are creations of Lovecraft. From direct retellings of his stories to liberal use of ideas or characters, Lovecraft stays with us.

As well, Lovecraft was in active correspondence with other similar writers. These included Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. It was through this that he and other authors batted around ideas and concepts, offered ideas for stories, and shared concepts. As a result you can find similarities in some of their works, common settings or antagonists.

His writing style was distinct and affecting. And his stories could often be haunting, and disturbing. His reoccurring concepts came to form a Lovecraftian Mythos.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn." 
"In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."

Cover of Art of The Art of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos
- Drawn by  Michael Komarck

So why could there be any guilt?

Among the reoccurring aspects in Lovecraft's work is corrupt or alien species mingling with humanity (usually strange beings with origins from a time before humans emerged, or from other worlds/dimensions). They corrupt and create strange offspring which serve dark ends. These concepts can easily be read as a judgement on race. It could be seen as a condemnation of interracial relationships. And it can sound like a fear of outsiders or foreigners threatening "us".

But the idea is not that unusual. It's been present in stories going back to early myths. It affected writing of the day to some extent (Some of these aspects can be argued to exist in Lord of the Rings.). And it has stayed in many ways up into moderns horror, with movies like Species, I Am Legend, or The Hills Have Eyes. That may not stop these ideas from being problematic, but in horror rational and irrational (founded and unfounded) fear play a role. It could be argued that Lovecraft, and others, are just playing on human fear and paranoia.

It could be a question of how on the nose the idea is played out. And Lovecraft did not leave these ideas to aliens and fantastical beings. In his letter writing he did show a clear sense of bigotry. He showed in writing and communications that he had clear and negative ideas about nonwhites. Though it also seemed to grow more into a sense that it was about not being of English descent -- like Lovecraft -- was a large part of his issues. And his issues seemed to grow when he moved out of New England, and to New York. He would write hatefully, while living in New York, of the slums and the foreigners. His time in New York was a rough one for him, with isolation, poverty, and being surrounded by everything he feared/hated. He also wasn't found of Jewish people (Though he did end up being briefly married to a Jewish woman.) He did seem fear/hate things that were "alien" to how he lived. So he took things that felt foreign, and imbued dark intents to them. ...Which is a convoluted way to say he was a racist and bigot.

"The Horror of Red Hook" has become the clearest representation in his fictional work. It's considered his most racist story. It focuses in New York (and in the neighborhood that he lived in, and despised), and was about the dreaded foreigners and their evil deeds.

It was not a story I had gotten to in Lovecraft's lore, before learning of it's infamy.

Heck, some people, when starting a classic Lovecraft tale, can't help but pick up a clear racial subtext. It is just the privilege of the life I've had that I could read it for a while and be oblivious to the idea. For me aliens and monsters are just that. It can be convenient to be blind to it.

At the same time I feel the need to make the tired point that the era was not one known for racial sensitivity. He was a recluse, coming from a close knit New England family, full of elitist and racial attitudes. It's not hard to imagine he was raised with these attitudes as being common sense.

But this rationalizing on my part is convenient. For many people the idea of reading his work is reprehensible. The ideas are just disgusting.

It wasn't as if he lived in complete isolation. He was reclusive, but he was always open to debate and conversation by letter. And among those he corresponded were writers that saw these issues in what Lovecraft was saying and writing, and challenged him. It is sad that before the end that we don't really see any clear change or realization. (Some claim that he did change, but I need to see references in regard to that.) He was educated. He was informed, on some matters. But he was disturbingly blind on these social issues. But, I suppose we still see this crap even today.

So, here we are.

What do we do? As I mentioned, Lovecraft is with us, and will be for a long time to come. His ideas and concepts permeate horror writing and the imaginations of authors and fans. He is a pillar of 20th century horror and pulp writing.

Hey! They managed to make
him look MORE creepy.
He IS the World Fantasy Award. And it troubles many people. And this link has a quote from a 1912 poem that Lovecraft wrote...And Lovecraft manage to come up with a title (let alone the whole damn poem) that is actually worse than the original title of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. It is a fowl piece of writing. It's the thinking of 20 something year old bigot.

And so I can comprehend why people have their visceral reaction to the man.

But he persists. I agree with some that it would be fine to rework this statue. (At a minimum the award no longer covers horror, so it's outdated imagery.) But he is part of horror as a genre. He's left his indelible mark.

Three years after that 1912 poem, Birth of a Nation hit screens across the United States, giving a mythic telling of the origins of the Klu Klux Kllan. It was cheered. It was eagerly shown at the White House. And it is considered a pivotal piece of film history. It's also horribly racist, and false. But it stays with us as well.

We can't escape him, so we have to face him. Not just as a great writer, but as a flawed and hateful man, a fool.

Who Lovecraft was, what he wrote, and how he was shaped shouldn't just be allowed to be forgotten. Context should never be lost.

Like with me, it can be too easy for some to be or become blind to the racism inherent in Lovecraft's tales. We can become ensconced in our privilege, like Lovecraft allowed himself to be lost in his own narrow worldview.

And it's an issue wider than Lovecraft. There are many authors with troubling histories and attitudes that it is worth understanding. But often the choice is made to not look or know.

Yes, from movie to books to music, we sometimes just want to relax.

But that ethos is often hit or miss. One author or singer gets judged. Another gets a pass. Look at Hollywood, we have people who are pedophiles that still get to make the movies they want (Isn't it great you have to figure out which pedophile I'm talking about? No. No it isn't.). One actor abuses their spouse, or goes off on a racist screed, and is exiled, another gets an Oscar. We humans are messy, aren't we?

We need to be able to see and comprehend our literary history.

But then what? Look at Lovecraft's legacy. Over the years it has grown and grown. Yes, he's become a bit like Walt Disney, a bit of myth. But the mythos has stretched out beyond the man. It's no longer really Lovecraftian Mythos. It's Cthulhu Mythos. (Named after the most well known of the great entities that Lovecraft created.)

The mythos is strong, and detached from Lovecraft. After his death, rights to his work passed from person to person, and during this time people like August Derleth expanded on the mythos. They took some of Lovecraft's ideas and concepts, and added their own spin. They reshaped it. They created new stories and avenues for writing. (And people love or hate it. Nothing new there.) For Derleth, it was a matter of bringing some optimism to the mythos, having forces that made the struggle against doom possible. With Lovecraft, the forces of the Elder Gods and other beings seemed inevitable. Derleth, changed that. You can love or hate the change.

But change did come. And over the years, many have taken a hand at playing with the ideas. It emerges everywhere, from Metallica to Sherlock Holmes pastiches to Supernatural to The Real Ghostbusters. Each takes the ideas in their own direction.

"Now let's read the Necronomicon and get groovy."
Mythos bends and folds to each new author and audience. In the 70's we got the Dunwich Horror by way of satanic hippies. In the 90's In the Mouth of Madness (a play on the tale In the Mountains of Madness) gave us otherworldly horror emerging through the works of a mysterious author.

Authors of all races and nationalities are making the mythos their own. As one writer noted, if Lovecraft that wrote that poem knew of this, he'd be rolling in his grave. And that makes that author happy.

These stories and this mythos is now far more than a man that died 70 years ago. It has a life of it's own.

As an example, from Rod Serling's The Night Gallery. "Professor Peabody's Last Lecture" (You will need to sit through ads.):

Shout outs. References. An individual take.

As well, we've come to a point in discourse where we are better able to call out the flaws in Lovecraft's original work. And if and when those adding to the mythos tread into those problematic areas, we can call them out as well.

Alright. I hope I've informed you. Now, we go on to one of the many works inspired by Lovecraft.

I hope you'll enjoy learning about Catch A Deadly Spell.

I saw something ooze into the corridor—a pale grey shape, expanding and crinkling, which glistened and shook gelatinously as still-moving particles dropped free; but it was only a glimpse, and after that it is only in nightmares that I imagine I see the complete shape of Azathoth. 
"The Insects from Shaggai" by Ramsey Campbell

But if you want some more talk of Lovecraft, try this panel him, with Derek the Bard and Leeman Kessler.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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