Lovecraft's racism

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Lovecraft's racism

Skarl the Drummer
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19 Oct 2016, 02:38 #1

A short while ago I had a very interesting and semi-heated argument concerning Lovecraft's merits as a writer and historical figure on account of his racism. Although the argument is thankfully and peacefully over, I'm still not quite over the subject, and so I'd like to know how others feel about it, what few people are active here anyhow.

In your personal opinion, opinions I will not argue against (except in the case of myths and inaccuracies about the man's life, but that is solely about facts and not about your personal feelings), should Lovecraft's creations be dismissed entirely because of his racism? Is it not possible to admire some aspects of him while also reviling other aspects? Surely the Elder Things and Outer Gods can be admired for what they are regardless of their creator's lousy beliefs.
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cecropia
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19 Oct 2016, 23:27 #2

there's this quote i heard, i can't remember it exactly but it was about how after long enough, your creations don't just belong to you, they belong more to the people they mean the most to, ie the fans.

so basically, lovecraft was a wonderful writer and i really enjoy his creations, but i don't agree with his views in the slightest. i just try to separate the art from the artist.

so that's my take on the whole thing
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Skarl the Drummer
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20 Oct 2016, 02:16 #3

That's a take I agree with.

And it's probably more true in this case than a lot of examples, considering that the Cthulhu Mythos, as it is known, was invented after his death, and is the playground for many creators of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and philosophic works to this day. Hell, even when he was alive several of his friends and colleagues would reference Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, Yog-Sothoth, etc. or outright use them in their stories. Robert Bloch comes to mind, who added a lot to the nature of Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath. And Clark Ashton Smith considered his Hyperborean stories, rich fantasy tales without any hint of racism in them, to be part of Lovecraft's loose mythology.

While Lovecraft's mind strongly resonates in his creations, I feel they also have a life of their own, which may have been something he intended too, since they're usually meant to represent things beyond even his own imagination, and he found his friends' interpretations of them amusing. The Dreamlands, Yuggoth, the Haunter of the Dark, those things almost feel like real legends, and their mystery can allow people's imaginations to run rampant in various ways.

(Edit: This is pretty off-topic, but I recall a few references to the Cthulhu Mythos in Digimon Tamers, off the top of my mind Yuggoth and Miskatonic University. And the D-Reaper definitely feel like digital eldritch abominations. Even works outside of the Mythos had been influenced by him in positive ways.)
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Drfleelix
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20 Oct 2016, 21:39 #4

I wasn't ever really the biggest fan of his stuff, his monsters were okay, but his stories are actually hard to read due to the fact that his attitude on these subjects is very prevalent and hard to ignore. It makes it hard for me to separate art from artist when the content of the art is so reminiscent of said artist.
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MantidMedley
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20 Oct 2016, 22:30 #5

Yeah, what fleelix said. I think that the whole "death of the artist" thing doesn't really apply when the concepts and narratives Lovecraft employs have the guy's name plastered all over them. We call narratives based around cosmic horror and weird, barely-comprehensible creatures lovecraftian, and that sets a laser focus on his specific set of ideas that wind up getting regurgitated over and over when people talk about pulp horror. It says to people enthusiastic about the genre, "you need to refer to this writer's ideas as fundamental and relevant not because they're so widely used by so many people up to today, but because they're lovecraft's ideas," and I think that intimidates most of the people who want to get in but are targeted by Lovecraft's bigotry.



not to mention the guy's prose alone makes me want to invent time travel just so I can take his lunch money
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Skarl the Drummer
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21 Oct 2016, 00:00 #6

While I understand why a lot of people can't get into his prose, and I don't blame them at all for finding it cringeworthy, I myself find it beautiful. It flows in such a hypnotic, rich way in my mind, and his style of narration has this cold, distanced tone I like in horror stories.

Granted, I don't consider Lovecraft the best horror writer ever, nor do I even consider him the best cosmic horror writer, as Algernon Blackwood and even William Hope Hodgson before him could evoke a sense of insignificance and vastness far better than Lovecraft could when he tried to get all melodramatic. And the great thing about Blackwood and Hodgson is that racism is (almost) absent from their work. And Clark Ashton Smith, who I feel is even more creative than Lovecraft and a much better person, far surpasses Lovecraft when it comes to the use of purple prose, no doubt because he was a prodigious poet even as a boy.

I do believe it's unfortunate that Lovecraftian has become a serious adjective, and when I was still new to horror literature I used it eagerly as well. After all, Lovecraft did not invent cosmic horror, and if something is Lovecraftian then that should imply the writing rather than the concepts. Generally I prefer the word cosmic, as it can't be attached to any one author, and can offer a diversity of forms.

As for the separation of art and artist, I suppose it's ultimately up to the individual, as some people say they can and others say they can't. Personally, I can do both. I can see them as works of art by a specific man, and I can also see them as concepts which transcend him, a view I rather like considering the "bigness" they're meant to represent.

To be honest, and if anyone finds me despicable for it I guess it can't be helped, I've learned so much about Lovecraft that's it hard for me to hate him entirely. There are things I deeply hate about him, and things I find hilariously stupid about him even, and I believe if I met him I'd never be able to get along with him (partially because I'm one of those "mongrels" he hated), but there are also things about him I admire, like his very lively relationships with fellow creators, his extremely entertaining geekiness in his letters to certain friends, and his support of the integrity of a creator's artwork. And I gotta give him credit, as childishly melodramatic as he could get, I like that his stories always very strongly try to emphasize a cosmic perspective, a perspective I find enjoyable to read. In regards to his monsters and cosmology, I just got easily sucked in. Heheh. It's childish but there's just this element of pure fun in his pseudomythology, especially when his friends added to it, and I see why so many creators like adding to it themselves (though I'm among those who prefer inventing their very own worlds. It kinda feels weird to me writing what is essentially a form of fanfiction).
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Skarl the Drummer
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23 Oct 2016, 22:32 #7

Rather off-topic-ish, I'll admit, but this doesn't really need its own thread and I don't think there are enough people on this forum to care. Heheh.

Awe and wonder have always been a major aspect of cosmic horror, even if most writers choose to downplay those things or smother them ultimately with fear and revulsion. But it just occurred to me, can't there be more stories which emphasize the wonders of the cosmos rather than just the horror? Or at least cosmic horror stories which more fairly incorporate other human reactions and feelings?

Lovecraft occasionally touched upon this, mostly in his very early stories, like his Dreamland tales, but for the most part of course he focused on how horrific and abominable it must be to live in an unimaginably huge universe full of weird things. I do agree that there is a certain level of horror in this, if you think a certain way or look for it, and many of the sights described by Lovecraft would probably overwhelm all senses and make some go mad. But even some ancient religions acknowledged the vastness of space and time, and even of their ultimate illusion as concepts of the human mind, and how one may be enlightened if they recognized this. So just as one may find horror in the cosmos, which I think is less likely in this day and age than it was back then, one may also find beauty, and feelings which resonate deeper than that. In a sense, Lovecraft can be considered both enlightened and stubbornly unenlightened in regards to his views of the cosmos.

Algernon Blackwood, in that sense, may be a better cosmic writer than Lovecraft because he acknowledged various different sentiments humans have towards the vastness of nature, and perhaps more clearly represented that vastness in his writing. Clark Ashton Smith too seemed more in awe of the cosmos than anything. The fact that in his letters he often expressed a desire to leave Earth, and the fact that his protags were often intellectual men who sought grander things in life than the small mundane human world are evidence of this. Sometimes these protags were met with a horrific fate, other times they achieved an ultramundane happily ever after, and other times the ending was ultimately neutral. All kinds of ways to explore the subject.

Hell, shockingly, the entire first half of Lovecraft's ghostwritten tale, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", is basically about how Yog-Sothoth is a benign being who represents enlightenment and the rending of the illusions of subjective realities. This wasn't entirely Lovecraft's story though, so I'm not sure how strongly Lovecraft felt about that view.

Point is, I'm suddenly inspired to write more stories and poems from that perspective. To some extent I already have, though they generally emphasized horror. Something a bit more varied or even positive could prove to be interesting. I'd love to see more of this type of story from authors, though admittedly maybe I'm just blind and there are in fact many such stories. Cosmic wonder, or cosmic enlightenment, or even just neutral cosmicism.
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Portia
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24 Oct 2016, 06:15 #8

Huge word dump, sorry. Both topics here are way up my alley.

Lovecraft's racism deserves to be confronted head-on, ideally with introductory essays by scholars of color who can put it in historical context and give readers an idea of what to expect. Some stories probably should be lightly edited to remove unnecessary racism (looking at you, "Rats in the Walls"). Collections of essays, letters and poems should probably drop the more egregiously racist content in mass market editions (with good critical examinations of them in more academic editions) along with more good introductions that explain what to expect and how it was in many ways both a product of its era and of its author's idiosyncrasies.

Lovecraft's racism does not explain his fiction at all. It stands in baffling contrast to both his fiction and philosophy. Lovecraft was a xenophilic xenophobe; that's just effing weird and complicated, and while "fear of the unknown" is the most well-known aspect of Lovecraft's work, it really doesn't readily translate into xenophobic anxieties as well as we like to pretend. Lovecraft's racism simply isn't something neat and easily tied up in any single way. Nor is it something unique. Discussions of it tend to either minimize it (which is bad) or pretend that it was somehow "worse" than the general cultural attitudes of early 20th century America (which is bad and wrong). Racism is pretty deeply rooted in US history, and Lovecraft's expression of it is only really unique in that it's so well-documented. Other, much more popular, media from the same period (or decades after L's death) is pretty rife with equally egregious racist attitudes and imagery, so it's not like this is unique to one person.

There is a super popular critical reading of Lovecraft that reduces every story to, "Racism Did It," and it drives me batty. While some stories like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" do include anxieties of "miscegenation," and many others include either egregious or subtle racism, these aren't really the only components or interpretations possible. "Shadow" is as much about the horror of rape is as much about freaky fish monsters as it is "miscegenation." For better or worse, Lovecraft had an absolutely remarkable imagination and one of a kind mind, and it's totally possible to get worlds of meaning out of his work without legitimizing racism in the least bit. Right now, most Lovecraft collections don't really address the racism at all, and it can be a slap to the face for many readers to just stumble over it ("This is great! Oh, wait, no, now the story thinks I'm subhuman. Whoops"). That sucks, I've been there, I think any one individual's experiences with that are valid, but Lovecraft is a pretty important writer and deserves to have his racism dragged out in plain sight where we can put it in context and still appreciate the writing itself.

Why, no, I've never had this conversation before! >_>
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Portia
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24 Oct 2016, 06:19 #9

Skarl the Drummer @ Oct 23 2016, 10:32 PM wrote:Awe and wonder have always been a major aspect of cosmic horror, even if most writers choose to downplay those things or smother them ultimately with fear and revulsion. But it just occurred to me, can't there be more stories which emphasize the wonders of the cosmos rather than just the horror?
As for this...

I've written a little about this, myself. Cosmicism is an ambivalent outlook: the universe isn't human-centric, or necessarily life-centric, but instead some big, weird thing just doing its own big, weird thing. There's a lot of room for beauty and wonder there. As you pointed out, Lovecraft's dream stories touch on that (especially "Celephais"), so do some of Lord Dunsany's, but it seems to be a lot rarer. John Michael Greer's "The Next Ten Billion Years" is something that really goes for "cosmic wonder." Ditto some of Gene Wolfe, Jeff Vandermeer and M. John Harrison. Some of Caitlin Kiernan's stories, too, maybe. I wish there was more stuff on this side of the spectrum.

oh dang, edit: I think Nick Mamatas' "Brattleboro Days, Yuggoth Nights" does a good job with this, too. It's a short story presented as a correspondence with Lovecraft about "Whisperer in the Darkness" that's more sympathetic to the aliens and their promises of cosmic wonders and what have you.
I love Vermont as much as you love your home of Providence, but were strange and alien beings to materialize at my door (being stranger than yourself and Mr. Cook anyway) with hints of a secret wisdom and displays of advanced machinery, I would give my all to ingratiate myself to them. I have no interest in the United States of the twentieth century—I’d be rightly pleased to never again wait for a streetcar in the rain along with the other dour clerks and workingmen. But space? Forbidden planets that under the night sky seem so close that, if I could just find a tree tall enough, I could touch them? Yes, I would go in a moment. I would betray my fellow man for the opportunity.
Sighhhh.
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Skarl the Drummer
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26 Oct 2016, 03:52 #10

Heheh, it's nice seeing someone else who's into Lovecraft and long-winded posts! The fact that it's spoken by someone with Mabel's face just makes it cooler!

I won't dismiss people's feelings towards Lovecraft. If they're repulsed by him or in love with him, I can see why in both cases. The man was very complex and vocal. Though I too don't like the way his racism is either downplayed or demonized by many. I've read many articles and essays by people who claim that his racism is the only driving force behind his work, and while I do believe racism plays a notable role, I also know that it isn't the sole driving factor, because Lovecraft also held a deep fascination for the grandness of nature and the cosmos, and was interested in weird or exotic things (he greatly admired Japanese art, for instance, even though he also showed some contempt for the Japanese). At the same time, I dislike it when his fans try sweeping his racism under the rug. S.T. Joshi does this a lot, and while I admire his deep respect for Lovecraft and the will to defend him, I also find him to be childish in how he treats other people who can't get past Lovecraft's unfortunate views. He tends to call anyone the ugliest and most vile insults for simply expressing a dislike of Lovecraft's work.

Basically, I agree. There's more to Lovecraft than racism. But even then, it's something worth tackling head on. I also normally dislike censoring old literature, but I do see great use in making editions of his stories without the useless references to his prejudiced views of people. And even though there are so many hacks today who worship Lovecraft even more than I do and shamelessly copycat him, the fact remains that Lovecraft was imaginative as hell, and quite a pioneer. Not to mention a preserver of old horror/weird literature. I swear, a lot of old horror writers became more popular today thanks to their connection with Lovecraft, whether as his inspiration or as a colleague.

I read "Yuggoth Nights" and have gone halfway through "The Next Ten Billion Years". Both of them are very fine, creative stories! The first feels so genuinely like a Lovecraft correspondence, and it has a deep feeling of cosmic wonder even if the story itself is grounded in a real world setting. I'd LOVE to have my brain taken by the Mi-Go. Were they even necessarily villains in their story? And the second story is all kinds of fun and imaginative. Great stuff!

Also, I actually did find a book collecting Cthulhu Mythos fiction which aims to explore cosmicism in a more positive, spiritually enlightening way. I'm not a big fan of the average Cthulhu Mythos fiction, to tell you the truth, because I've seen enough hacks and cheap gimmicks to make me puke. But there is some good stuff out there, and at least I can appreciate this book's earnest attempt at doing something different. Plus it's got a few positive reviews.
https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B01EVMC3 ... CW08KDAK4P
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