Lovecraft’s Hate (2009)

Here’s one of three pieces I wrote about my favourite Weird Fiction writers – HP Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson and Clark Ashton Smith. This one, on Lovecraft, appeared in Death Ray 17. Boy, did I get a lot of flak for this. It’s not about his work, see, so much as the fact that, as talented as he was, he was a terrible racist. I still rate his stories very highly, but we shouldn’t gloss over the man’s prejudices. He was of his time, that’s true, but the hysteria with which he approached those different to he rivalled that with which he described the dreaded Old Ones. There’s something there, methinks.

The master of horror had one big problem: other people, especially if they were differently coloured.

Lovecraft’s stories of ancient evils from beyond the stars have given the frights to generations of readers. But behind the spine-tingling cosmic horrors lurks an unpalatable fact: H.P. Lovecraft was a racist.

Lovecraft was closeted, nervy and afraid of the unknown, and his racism went hand in hand with this fear. Non-whites are depicted as irrational, degenerate, superstitious and savage. His stories are full of shifty characters with racist characteristics, like the Arab with the “hatefully negroid mouth” in ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ (1925), or the “low mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant” cultists in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1926). His description of the first test subject in ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ is particularly shocking: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that 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.” Once reanimated, the corpse goes on the rampage, which the story suggests as being a direct result of its racial heritage.

In ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family’ (1920), Jermyn finds that Africa’s draw on his family is the result of their interbreeding with a civilisation of white apes in the distant past. Upon discovering this fact, members of the Jermyn clan have killed themselves and their offspring, as Arthur does in turn. So histrionic is the prose in the story, so overblown the denouement, and so obvious the hysterical fear of miscegenation that the author and story seem quite ridiculous.

Lovecraft was, at least, inclusive in his unease with those different to himself. Hispanics, Dutch, Portuguese (the Jermyn family puts its odd appearance down to having Portuguese blood!) Jews (his wife constantly had to remind him she was Jewish when he made anti-Semitic comments), Germans and more all come in for the H.P. sidelong glance for not being white Brits, the one group he did adore. (So much so that he often dated his letters two hundred years before the present, so he could pretend that the War of Independence had not happened).

You might suggest perhaps that we should not judge him too harshly, that his cat being called ‘Nigger-man’ would not have raised eyebrows during the time he was writing. It is true that in the early 20th century widespread segregation and imperialism based on barmy notions of racial superiority were the norm, while head-measuring scientists were cheerfully brewing up charts of bogus racial classifications all over the globe; Lovecraft was in broad company. But he was outspoken even for his age. Worse, the miserable spectre of resentment hovers around his pronouncements. His time in New York was darkened, so he felt, because as a supposedly privileged native white he could get neither work nor money, while the streets teemed with profitably bustling immigrants. He was not merely misguided.

Enjoy his scares by all means, but we should never lose sight of Lovecraft’s unpalatable views. His stories are an important part of the horror genre, but they are also a window into less enlightened times.

  1. Cavan Scott says:

    Have you seen the excellent ‘Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown’ documentary. They deal with this thorny subject quite well…

  2. Cavan says:

    It’s pretty good you know. I think it’s also free to watch on that Internet thingy somewhere. Legally too.

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