I know it’s been a bit of a refrain recently, but it has become rather difficult to find new and interesting things to write about. I thought about saying something on Trump judicial nominee Brett J. Talley, who is a ghost hunter and a horror novelist since he has some rather odd views about his professed influence, H. P. Lovecraft. But, really, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been discussed far and wide. Basically, he doesn’t know how to define Lovecraftian fiction: “The subgenre of Lovecraftian fiction, I feel like is not really that well defined,” Talley said in 2013. “What makes stuff Lovecraft? And I think really if you asked people, you’d get a lot of arguments about this.” Not really, but it’s just not something worth spilling ink (or pixels) over.
But on a somewhat related note, I decided it might be worth discussing S. T. Joshi’s latest feud, in which he attacked a horror writer, Brian Keene, viciously and seemingly out of animus at anyone who criticizes Lovecraft, only to receive in response a ridiculous counterattack predicated on the notion that horror critics should cheerlead rather than criticize to avoid “negativity.” Some of it can be found in his blog entries of November 2, 6, and 15, and Brian Keene’s take on events can be found here. There is more from other writers, including the aforementioned criticism of negativity from self-described “Yakuza of the Written Word” William Ochse. The whole thing is sad and stupid, and Joshi should learn to keep his mouth shut.
Brian Keene is a World Horror Grandmaster and a Bram Stoker Award winner, all without ever writing anything I’ve ever heard of, which is quite the accomplishment in and of itself, but not a rare one. I had also never heard of Ochse, whom the American Library Association described as a “major” horror writer, according to his website. I guess that since publishers put out more than 150,000 titles each year in the U.S. alone, it’s impossible to keep track of every contemporary author.
Let’s start by acknowledging that I am somehow involved in this, albeit quite tangentially. Back during the summer, the NecronomiCon organizers put out a statement saying that a person whom other sources identified as Joshi had withdrawn because he had refused to participate in any conference that included authors who had spoken out against Lovecraft’s racism and who had criticized Lovecraft’s life, not just his work: “Recently, we were pressured to exclude certain voices from the discussion, and delivered a truly unfortunate ultimatum if we did not abide by this demand,” organizers wrote. Joshi made a statement to his online fan community saying that inviting anti-Lovecraft speakers was “pretty much like inviting the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to an NAACP meeting” and saying he would not participate, a statement since locked behind a privacy wall. I wrote a summary of these public statements, and Keene cited my post in his posting. Joshi now claims that he has no idea how Keene could have come to such a conclusion. “Where Mr. Keene got the idea that I threatened to boycott the 2017 NecronomiCon if there was a panel on this subject, I cannot begin to imagine,” Joshi wrote this week. This is a bit disingenuous: The obfuscation is in the word “panel.” Joshi did not object to the panel discussion per se, only the people who would be allowed to speak, though it amounted to the same thing.
The trouble is that Joshi’s position is a difficult one for me because he is half right and half wrong, and disentangling the two halves is hard. The wrong side is much easier to identify: Joshi is wrong to argue that meanness for meanness’ sake is an artistic choice that forwards the art of horror criticism. It does not. Satirical criticism, as he dubs his style, works only when the satirist is genuinely funny and can employ humor and hyperbole to good effect. Joshi wants to dress meanness in the clothes of satire to ennoble viciousness. He is no Ambrose Bierce.
He is also wrong that Lovecraft’s racism is ultimately a minor concern. This is a bit more difficult to parse, and the problem is essentially this: Joshi views Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic indifference as the defining feature of his life and fiction, so racism by definition must be of lesser concern. Others see the cosmic indifference as a gloss placed over an existential dread of miscegenation, immigration, and cultural change, and therefore racism is at the heart of Lovecraft’s life and work. I would tend toward the second view, though not wholly. Here it helps to separate Lovecraft’s fiction, which used indifference as art, from his life, in which his materialism was mitigated by his belief that culture and tradition can give life meaning. This, of course, was a synecdoche for WASP culture, in which whiteness was inseparable from the cultural traditions Lovecraft believes were (a) the pillars making life worth living, and (b) under attack from non-white and non-WASP cultures, a situation that occurred largely because there was no god and the universe simply did not care for Lovecraft and his preferences.
But Joshi does make some good, if incomplete, points. He describes Dracula as a xenophobic fantasy: “In a certain well-known literary work, a loathsome immigrant from Eastern Europe comes to England and begins preying upon helpless English women! What a horrible example of racism—and misogyny to boot! It is obvious that we should ban Dracula from the canon and rename the Bram Stoker Awards. Who will have the moral uprightness to take up such a just cause?” At the grossest level, though, Dracula’s position as a white, (ex-)Christian aristocrat puts him in the category of the European elite, so it is not quite the same thing. But the point is well-taken that many works of the past contain racist undertones, though Lovecraft, you know, explicitly called out specific non-white and non-Teutonic peoples as genetically inferior, which is a whole other level of racism.
Joshi also rightly notes that many other authors were terrible bigots, too, “such as T. S. Eliot (anti-Semite), Ezra Pound (notorious anti-Semite), George Orwell (homophobe), Jack London (anti-Asian), Robert E. Howard (racist), Ambrose Bierce (misogynist), Bram Stoker (racial and religious bigot), Robert W. Chambers (anti-Asian), John W. Campbell, Jr. (racist), Roald Dahl (racist and anti-Semite), and countless others one could mention.” The difference, though, is that racism was not quite as central to their literary work as it is in the themes and motifs of Lovecraft’s own. No one denies that any of these other writers were racist, and I’m pretty sure that this material is discussed quite frequently. The issue, as I mentioned above, is that Joshi prefers to see racism as ancillary to Lovecraft’s fiction rather than the source of its power. If an uncaring cosmos were all that made the Cthulhu Mythos powerful, then any atheist could have created everlasting horror simply by depicting the nothingness of being. It is, instead, the hybrid monsters and he encroaching crumbling of every temporary world order—themes born of racism—that give power and mythic grandeur to his atheist cosmos.
Joshi made one other point that is difficult to deal with:
Mr. Keene goes on to say that he admires Lovecraft the writer but not Lovecraft the man. Well, he is entitled to his opinion—but I humbly suggest that he doesn’t know enough about Lovecraft the man to make this kind of judgment. Can he be ignorant of the fact that Lovecraft’s friends and correspondents have almost uniformly expressed the highest admiration for him? Robert Bloch, whom Mr. Keene cites favourably in his screed, has written that, had he known that Lovecraft was dying, he would have crawled on hands and knees from Milwaukee to Providence to be at his side (and this was written long after Bloch knew about Lovecraft’s racial views). Does that make Robert Bloch a shameful apologist for Lovecraft? The opinion of Ernest A. Edkins—that Lovecraft “remains enshrined in my memory as a great gentleman, in the truest sense of that much abused term”—is shared by nearly everyone who ever knew or met the dreamer from Providence.
Hitler’s close associates spoke well of his kindness to staff and to dogs, but that doesn’t make him a good person; the argumentum ad populum is not a logical assessment. Everyone has someone who thought him a good person, however few they might be. But Joshi’s point is a fair one: Can a person be a good, or at least admirable, man while harboring views we today find repugnant? The answer is that people are multifaceted, and the decision whether to classify them as good or bad is highly subjective, more of a question of good for me than objectively good, which is impossible to define universally. Lovecraft has in his favor this: His racism was largely theoretical, confined mostly to overwrought words. He never lynched anyone nor set a cross alight on a front yard, and that alone makes him more admirable than all the Confederate generals who fought to enshrine forever the inferiority of one race and whose statues stand in so many southern city squares. He never actually acted on his hatred nor went out of his way to cause harm to anyone different than him. His was the hatred born of fear, and like most cowards he lacked the courage of his convictions, kind of like the stereotypical internet troll who splatters the internet with hateful invective but in person smiles and acts quietly polite.
Ultimately, we cannot know what lies within another man’s heart. We have only impressions—written records that might be exaggerated, memories that are biased. How we evaluate these is personal. No one can tell us whom we should admire or why, and it would behoove Joshi to note that and recognize that he can’t make others love Lovecraft as a human being.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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