Memories of the Lovecraft Wars

The cancellation of the Lovecraft World Fantasy Award statuette prefigured today’s culture battles

In 2014, a storm arose over whether winners of the annual World Fantasy Award should continue to receive a bust of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), designed by Gahan Wilson, in recognition of their achievements, or whether a more politically acceptable figure should be the emblem of the revered program.

The World Fantasy Awards have long been some of the most coveted prizes for authors who write stories and novels in the weird, horror, fantasy, and slipstream genres. The tradition of bestowing these awards began in 1975, at the annual World Fantasy Convention, and in the years since, luminaries such as Robert Bloch, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, Richard Matheson, T.E.D. Klein, Andre Norton, Ursula K. Le Guin, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Peter Straub, to name just a few, have won the illustrious prizes.

Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy visage no longer goes to the winners of the World Fantasy Awards.

Though few dispute that Lovecraft had an incalculable influence on horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction, and that the weird field as it exists today is pretty much unimaginable without that influence, the man wrote candidly in letters to friends about his hostility toward dark-skinned immigrants and his longing for a more stable and homogenous polity. Lovecraft was as politically incorrect as they come. His detractors deny that we should continue to recognize and venerate such a figure through the bestowing of his likeness.

Let’s not lie. H.P. Lovecraft unquestionably held ugly and ignorant views about Africans and Asians, and at times used abusive language in reference to them in the many thousands of letters he wrote to friends, colleagues, and admirers during his forty-six years. Reading these letters is a litmus test for anyone today who considers himself or herself enlightened and tolerant.

A world under attack

It would be silly to deny Lovecraft’s interest in racial controversies or his role as a forecaster of the tensions that would strain the political process as racial firestorms erupted and race came to dominate public discussion. As anyone who has dipped his or her toes into critical commentary on Lovecraft knows, there’s a school of Lovecraft criticism that emphasizes the social meaning of his work.

According to this school of thought, the basic scenario facing a typical Lovecraft protagonist, where the familiar world is under attack by ghastly, “unutterable” forces from another dimension, is plainly a metaphor for what Lovecraft thought of as the situation of the conservative white Anglo-Saxon male in an America of the 1920s subject to transformation through an influx of foreigners from wildly different backgrounds.

One Lovecraft story cited often in this connection is “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), where cosmic horror rears its head in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was in the 1920s, as it is today, on the fringes of white middle-class areas. In this passage Lovecraft is describing Red Hook: “The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.”

From the 1928 short story “Cool Air,” also set in New York: “It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady.” The rooming-house in question is a real place. You can find it today on 14th Street between Eight and Ninth Avenues in Manhattan.

The anti-immigrant and anti-refugee subtext in Lovecraft’s stories is worth examining in depth. As unpleasant as some of Lovecraft’s views are, it is eerie how directly certain of his tales point to contemporary concerns over the potential consequences of letting the wrong people into Western countries.

Lovecraft’s tale “Pickman’s Model” (1927) is about an artist in Boston who fills canvases with images of horrifying monsters and demons wreaking havoc on terrified citizens. The paintings are wild and disturbing, and readers don’t have the simple defense mechanism of consigning them to the realm of fantasy. We learn at the end of the story that the images in Pickman’s paintings aren’t just from the artist’s imagination. Rather, Pickman has actually observed these shocking spectres.

Here, the narrator of the story praises Pickman’s talents while describing one of the horrifying demon attacks that the artist has rendered: “Gad, how that man could paint! There was a study called ‘Subway Accident’, in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.”

Boylston Street, scene of the attack by demons in “Pickman’s Model,” was the scene of a very real atrocity of a quite different nature on April 15, 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing. Two Chechen immigrants, representatives of the forces of cosmic horror alluded to so often through metaphorical language in Lovecraft’s tales, carried out a cowardly, shocking, vile attack on unsuspecting victims.

How remarkable that Lovecraft’s story, part of a corpus of work that uses cosmic horror as a code to express concerns about immigration and demographic change, should name the very location of an actual attack, decades later, representing—in this interpretation—one terrible consequence of failing to vet foreigners entering the United States.

To be sure, most immigrants and refugees are not criminals or terrorists, but, to use the nomenclature of Lovecraft, there are some demons in their midst. Lovecraft’s prescience is nothing short of astonishing.

Repugnant but relevant

The subtext is there. We can ignore it, and read Lovecraft’s work literally as a corpus of tales about New England protagonists facing sorcerers, Pickman’s monsters, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and other assorted baddies, or we can recognize the subtext, but it’s there all right. We know how repugnant some of Lovecraft’s views were, but his work is of historical interest for this reason alone, like that of any number of writers of past decades whose biases or conclusions we today would probably reject.

One wishes that Lovecraft had adopted a more tolerant, respectful, and understanding attitude toward people from different countries and cultures. Bigotry is never pretty. But should Lovecraft’s unpleasant views overshadow his importance as a weird fiction writer?

The controversy is unresolved. On one side of the rift are writers such as Daniel José Older, who wrote the petition circulated back in 2014 arguing that Lovecraft’s views are too offensive for his likeness to be synonymous with the World Fantasy Award, and that a bust of a more suitable figure should replace Lovecraft’s. (The WFA award today depicts a tree in front of a full moon.)

At the other end is S.T. Joshi, widely recognized as the most erudite and authoritative Lovecraft scholar around. Joshi is a brilliant scholar with an incomparable list of publications in the field of Lovecraftian, weird fiction, and crime fiction studies to his credit, including critical studies of Lovecraft’s life, thought, and tales, as well as authoritative versions of Lovecraft texts. His biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence, is a 1,200-page masterpiece with few parallels in American letters. Joshi has offered many counterarguments to Older in his blog.

One of Joshi’s points is that numerous authors who are widely read and admired today held views on certain subjects that would be offensive to contemporary sensibilities, but that is hardly a reason to cease reading them or valuing their contributions to literature. Joshi asks, who are we to judge? We, today, cannot say with certainty that people in the future will look back on us and approve of all of our views and attitudes.

Moreover, whatever his political and social views, Lovecraft was a kind, courteous, and generous person, as well as a master of weird fiction. Lovecraft’s endearing personal attributes come out again and again in his correspondence with Robert E. Howard (the creative force behind the Conan mythos), Alfred Galpin, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Reinhart Kleiner, Maurice W. Moe, Robert Bloch, and others. He guided and mentored younger writers and shared thoughts and insights on topics as diverse as politics, economics, astronomy, poetry, and the history, culture, topography, and architecture of places of antiquarian interest like Quebec City and Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.

Carefully considering Lovecraft’s thought, and looking at Lovecraft’s work story by story, Joshi concludes that the question of Lovecraft’s racism isn’t central or even really relevant to an appreciation of the writer’s work. In the final analysis, racial topics and overt racism crop up in only a few Lovecraft stories. To quote from Joshi’s blog entry of September 13, 2014: “Lovecraft was a supremely gifted writer whose work was carefully crafted to convey the exact effects its author intended. And no, racism was not at the heart of his fiction, nor of his life or thought.”

Joshi has been reading and studying Lovecraft longer than I’ve been alive, and I couldn’t have put it better. Lovecraft fully deserves his stature as the most important and influential writer of weird fiction since Poe, a figure who has had an incalculable influence on the weird, slipstream, horror, and fantasy fields and who has inspired writers and directors as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges; Ramsey Campbell, the greatest living writer of weird fiction; Stuart Gordon, the late director who brought Lovecraft to millions of screens in Re-Animator, Dagon, and Castle Freak (a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Outsider”); and Richard Stanley, who brought us the well-received and visually stunning 2019 Nicholas Cage vehicle, Color Out of Space.

If Lovecraft were alive today, he probably wouldn’t share the stage with the organizers of an MLA conference or with any of the self-important radicals who fancy themselves superior on every level to people in earlier eras of American history.

Instead, let’s adopt the lingo of another idiosyncratic genius, Edgar Allan Poe. As Poe would say, those who think that Lovecraft’s political incorrectness is a reason not to read him, or to destroy his likeness, are dunderheads.

Too many Lovecrafts

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

9 thoughts on “Memories of the Lovecraft Wars

  • July 27, 2020 at 12:30 am
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    Thank you for writing such a well-balanced & thorough piece on these Lovecraftian matters. Refreshing contrast to past & present dunderheads.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 5:47 am
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    Good lord! Thank you very much for your kind comment!

    Reply
  • July 30, 2020 at 6:12 pm
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    WFA winners do not and have never received a bust of Octavia Butler; Daniel José Older suggested that as his personal preference for a replacement statuette, but that’s the extent of it. When the Lovecraft statuette was retired the award committee accepted submissions for possible replacements; the winning selection was a sculpture of a full moon rising above a twisted tree, which has been the award’s shape since 2015. Somewhat disconcerting that nobody caught this error before publishing.

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    • July 31, 2020 at 8:31 am
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      The copy has been updated.

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    • August 7, 2020 at 4:21 pm
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      In 2015 the Gahan Wilson figure was still being used. I was the Chair at that Convention. The new award was first used at the San Antonio WFC in 2017.

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  • August 7, 2020 at 12:13 am
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    The ironic HypocrAZY of it all is how many of these writers have and continue to pocket money based off of Said “HATED” Gentleman’s name. I can tell you from Jose Olders words that he is a Racist that is far more concerned about the racism of a man dead for 75 years than he is looking in the mirror and dealing with his own.

    Ghandi, Ali, Malcolm X etc all have racist pasts. All those street signs and statues and awards therefore must come down if one is to avoid the Hypocrisy of making ones Words ‘Worthless’.
    Knowing that everyone’s past is spotty is the only Reality that will set us free.

    P.S. All the awards have become Racial and Gender based awards, Go look at all the nominees and winner’s and try and draw a different conclusion (leading up to and specifically after the Lovecraft Bust Hysteria). And not to mention that World Fantasy Awards were created to Celebrate Lovecraft and his Fiction.

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    • August 7, 2020 at 3:09 pm
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      Because only white males can author stories worthy of awards?

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  • August 7, 2020 at 2:04 pm
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    You missed the boat. It wasn’t about reading Lovecraft, it was about giving an award in his name. That’s two different things. For my money, he isn’t worthy of either.

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