Many of you will likely remember that late last year Charles Baxter wrote an evaluation of H. P. Lovecraft for the New York Review of Books that I characterized as elitist and, largely, wrong. Baxter expressed his distaste for what he perceived as Lovecraft’s antisocial, adolescent fans, and he applied a Freudian reading to Lovecraft’s fiction that reduced the Cthulhu Mythos to, essentially, abject terror of vaginas. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi was incensed at Baxter for a different reason, and he wrote a letter to the editor of the Review blasting Baxter for factual errors in his piece as well as what Joshi claimed was an overblown emphasis on racism.
Well, the Review recently published Joshi’s letter alongside a rebuttal from Baxter and another perspective from Mark Halpern (if it is the famous one, I do not know). Baxter summarized Joshi’s letter thusly: “One would think, reading S. T. Joshi’s response to my book review, that I had attacked the object of a cult.” Joshi had another fit of apoplectic rage and delivered one of his increasingly common blog posts denouncing those who disagree with him. In the first half of his January 29 blog post, Joshi analyzes Baxter’s rebuttal sentence by sentence, oblivious to the irony that his actions only confirm Baxter’s impression of Joshi’s cultish devotion to Lovecraft.
It’s hard to root for either Baxter or Joshi here. Baxter’s original analysis was wrongheaded (“grotesque slander,” Joshi calls it), but Joshi’s reaction is more that of the offended true believer than the scholar attempting to correct the record.
But this sniping doesn’t interest me as much as a point Joshi started to make in response to Baxter but develops more fully in response to Halpern. He disputes both men’s readings of the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos as expression of Lovecraft’s racism and his fear and dread of ethnic minorities. “Well, lordy me!” Joshi writes. “I confess to be guilty as charged—because there is little or no connection between Lovecraft’s racism and his creation of the ‘gods and monsters’ in his fiction.”
I’m not sure if Joshi is purposely being obtuse or if he is really so blind to the concept of symbolic expression that he cannot see behind the literal shape of Mythos beings to the forces that animate them. For example, Joshi claims that Cthulhu himself can have no literary relationship to the debased minorities who worship him because he is, pointedly, not African or Latino and therefore isn’t a minority: “Uh-oh—Cthulhu is green! Maybe this means that he is a stand-in for ‘people of colour’! If you believe that, there’s a bridge nearby that I’d like to sell you.” He similarly explains that Shub-Niggurath is not “a stand-in for HPL’s disdain for black women who breed a lot.” Nyarlathotep, he said, isn’t even “Negroid” despite having black skin in his human(ish) form.
Has Joshi never met a symbol? Symbols, by definition, are not the thing they symbolize.
Lovecraft makes very plain that the Old Ones are closely associated with the primal, the primeval, and the primitive. They are the wild, unhinged, and uncontrollable forces that (white) civilization seeks to suppress and deny. Throughout Lovecraft’s fiction, he makes excessively plain that ethnic and racial minorities, as well as white people who have abandoned the façade of Western civilization to embrace the primitive, have special access to the Old Ones because they are wholly degenerate and given over to the wild and the irrational that is the opposite of civilization. Joshi sees no special reason that the cultists in “The Call of Cthulhu” are “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type,” but Lovecraft made the cultists into a group of blacks and Latinos because he wanted to link the Old Ones with his conception of the primitive, as expressed through scientific racism. This doctrine, which Lovecraft embraced, held that people of color were more primitive than Anglo-Saxons and thus closer to the apes—that they were less human and less civilized. Thus, we find that the people who have regular contact with the Old Ones, special knowledge of them (positive or negative), or actually worship them are blacks, Latinos, Chinese, and Eskimos (in “Cthulhu”), Pacific Islanders (in “Shadow Over Innsmouth”), Italians (“Haunter of the Dark”), and Middle Easterners (in “Horror at Red Hook” and any mention of the “mad” Alhazred). In Lovecraft’s revision work the connections are often even clearer, with Native Americans (“The Mound”) and sub-Saharan Africans (“Winged Death”) specially connected to the wild, primitive, and uncontrolled Old Ones.
Joshi’s counterexamples prove my point. He cites the white people with such knowledge in “The Lurking Fear,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Rats in the Walls” to show that Lovecraft did not single out minorities. But here in all three cases it is the white people’s degeneracy—their abdication and rejection of the conventional norms of Anglo-American civilization through their embrace of “primitive” sexual or culinary mores—that connects them with the Old Ones. That, for Lovecraft, is the greatest fear: That the civilization he associates with white Anglo-Saxon culture is fragile, decomposing, and threatened at every side by uncivilized minorities and their strange rites and unrestrained sexuality.
Granted, there is generally a divide between Lovecraft’s earlier stories and his more cosmic later stories (though not a complete one), and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness have virtually nothing to do with minorities, instead serving themselves as symbols of white Anglo-American civilization under assault from minorities (Cthulhu spawn) and their own hybrid offspring (the shoggoths), who undermine their culture from within and without. Surely even Joshi can see that Lovecraft meant for the Old Ones’ decline and fall to symbolize the crumbling of Depression-era Western civilization. The Old Ones even had New Deal-style socialism!
Joshi instead maintains that the original flavor Old Ones—the gods, not the Antarctic monsters—represent “immensity,” as though they can have only one meaning. Like most symbols, they derive their power from being multivalent, from having multiple meanings depending on the angle from which they are viewed. Not for Joshi, though:
Those hostile critics seeking to maintain some intimate connection between Lovecraft’s racism and the creation of these alien entities will have to put forth more than mere assertions to make their case. In my mind, the evidence is overwhelmingly against them.
I get the feeling that Joshi could watch the classic Outer Limits episode “The Children of Spider County” and miss the fact that it’s a story about the social pressures faced by interracial romance because the two actors playing the alien and human lovers are both white.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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