H.P. LOVECRAFT: THE WORK VS. THE MAN
I’ve been not just open about the influence H.P. Lovecraft has had on me, and on The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff in particular—I’ve shouted it from whatever rooftop I could find (including this one). But lately there has been a lot being said about the late Mr. Lovecraft that’s made me, and a lot of other fans of this dark fantasy icon, a little uneasy. And that may be an understatement.
Though I can’t say I didn’t notice an underlying racism in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and for that matter, his friend Robert E. Howard as well, but even as a teenager (or younger) when I first discovered these authors, I put that down to the day and age in which they lived. These stories were written in the 1920s and 30s—much less enlightened times, some thirty years before the Civil Rights Movement brought about its massive shift in American society. In some ways, it was as though I thought of these men as some kind of primitives, communicating from a simpler, less civilized time.
But H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Homer, or even Shakespeare. Both of these men, Lovecraft and Howard, were Americans, living and working in the 20th century. And yes, Howard lived in Texas, a state not known in that day as a bastion of racial tolerance, but Lovecraft was a Yankee, and of the two, you’d think he would have known better. But he didn’t. He was a racist. I cant and won’t deny that.
A lot of this started to blow up, by the way, just this past December, when the brilliant author Nnedi Okorafor wrote about her unease with the bust of Lovecraft that she was given—the World Fantasy Award—and the mixed feelings that that brought up in her.
Can I be a Lovecraft fan, and allow my own writing to be inspired by his, when it’s plain he held some beliefs that I find personally abhorrent?
Then something made me think back to when I first started at TSR and was talking to my then-boss, the late Brian Thomsen, and I mentioned that I was a huge fan of Harlan Ellison. Brian knew everyone, and had at least a passing acquaintance with Harlan Ellison, and let’s just say Brian had a few choice words for my idol. And Brian wasn’t the only one. Even other fans would tell me stuff like: “I like his stories, but I hear he’s a total dick.” My answer was always the same: “I don’t care if he’s a dick, his work is phenomenal. He’s the greatest short story writer in the history of mankind. Let him be a dick if he wants to be.”
But yelling at people (including, years later, me!) over the phone about some little detail of this or that, or loudly voicing his opinion for all to hear, is one thing, and being a full-on racist is another. Harlan Ellison is smart and funny, and he has something to say, and that sometimes comes from a place of anger and frustration, but not hate. Lovecraft seems to have been, by all accounts, a painfully mild-mannered chap, not at all like Harlan Ellison in temperament, and yet there seems to have been this underlying pool of race hatred there.
I can’t pretend to know why he was like that. Racists aren’t born, they’re made—educated in hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Somewhere in his life, H.P. went through that indoctrination, and never seemed able to change his ways. And that is harder to forgive than Harlan Ellison’s colorful but otherwise well-intentioned outbursts.
In a college film history class, we watched the unedited version of the seminal silent movie Birth of a Nation. This is the film that for all intents and purposes set the language for narrative filmmaking that’s still in practice today. But it is a full-on KKK propaganda piece that was so bizarre to watch it seemed as though it had to be satire—but it wasn’t. The film features the heroic KKK riding to the rescue of a nation in the grips of black-faced white actors acting like ape-men. It was bizarre and twisted, and it came out of the same era, a decade here or there, as H.P. Lovecraft. And yet there we were, in a college classroom in 1983 studying what was good about Birth of a Nation while trying not to concentrate on the content.
I want to still like and admire the quality of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, even if I have to do it while trying not to concentrate on the quality of the man.