Canadian author David Nickle has an interesting post on his blog about H. P. Lovecraft and the issue of racism, prompted by the recent petition by Daniel José Older to replace World Fantasy Award’s bust of Lovecraft with that of the Black female writer Octavia Butler because Lovecraft was an “avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith” while Butler challenged “our notions of power, race and gender.” Personally, I’d have objected on the grounds that Lovecraft is better suited to horror than fantasy, but boundaries blur at the edges of the forms of speculative fiction. I don’t really have a problem with the World Fantasy Award being a bust of Lovecraft, nor do I see it as an endorsement of racism, but the debate over Older’s petition has degenerated into parody of the kind of debates over racism we see in society today.
In the post, Nickle describes his trip to the World Horror Convention last year to participate in a panel discussion on Lovecraft’s “Eternal Fascination” moderated by Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi. Nickle said he came with the intention of discussing Lovecraft’s views on race and eugenics, but he quickly found that the panel was uninterested in the topic:
I brought up the topic early and affably in the panel, and just a little later but also affably, Mr. Joshi shut it down with a familiar canard: Lovecraft's racism and xenophobia must be viewed in the context of Lovecraft's considerably less-enlightened time.
Nickle participated in a second panel discussion on Lovecraft at Worldcon on the international appeal of Lovecraft. There he again tried to raise the issue of racism in Lovecraft’s work. “One of my co-panelists straight-facedly claimed she had seen no hints of racism in the Lovecraft that she’d read and wasn’t sure what I was talking about.”
Nickle therefore concludes that it’s important for fantasy writers to acknowledge and deal with the racism of older works like those of Lovecraft, not just to push them under the carpet or pretend they don’t exist. Lovecraft’s fiction, he says, emerges from racism and takes much of its power from fear of the Other, and this simply cannot be excised from the stories as an inconvenient fact. He provides the example of Lovecraftian pastiches that mimic the style but lack the effect because they are missing the fear and loathing that animates the original work.
He was reacting specifically to S. T. Joshi’s apoplectic response to Older’s petition, and, also, to author China Miéville’s claim to have hidden the WFA statuette away to avoid looking at Lovecraft’s racist visage. (Joshi does not have linkable blog posts; I am referring to the August 16 and 23, 2014 entries .)
Joshi was outraged at the petition, and penned a horrible “satire” on August 16 making the faceitious case for replacing Lovecraft with himself on the World Fantasy Award, including such noxious lines as “I have a fatal predilection for blonde Caucasian females, a trait I share with Arabs engaged in the white slave trade.” (Joshi, a native of India, recently married Mary K. Wilson, a blonde white woman.)
Apparently Joshi discovered that not everyone appreciated his post (least of all Oder), so he offered a second, this time criticizing Older, an emerging writer, for not being famous enough to question Lovecraft, penning a massive blog post to challenge the paragraph-long petition: “What lofty literary achievements, I wondered, gave him the right to cast such Olympian moral judgments on a writer against whom, from an objective point of view, he would seem like a flea on the back of an elephant?” He objects that Older has published only two books and lacks a Wikipedia page. But it gets worse:
Has he made any attempt to understand the sources—intellectual, social, familial, cultural—of Lovecraft’s racism? Is he content to hand down facile condemnations on a figure who lived a century ago without the slightest attempt to grasp the reasons why that figure came to his views? That would seem to be the act of a partisan hack, not an informed critic or scholar. […] Does Mr. Older have any awareness of the nearly uniform opinion of Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues that he was one of the most admirable individuals—kind, courteous, dignified without pomposity, witty, immensely learned and aesthetically gifted—they had ever met?
He concludes by saying of Older, “When he dies, it will have been as if he had never lived.” Therefore, his opinion is “preposterous kerfuffle.” Here is Older’s response.
Well, as it happens, Mr. Joshi, I am familiar with the source material, and I have conducted research in to the life and times of H. P. Lovecraft, published on the same, and have a Wikipedia entry on my work, so by your criteria I can therefore pronounce ex cathedra that Lovecraft was a racist, that his work is permeated with racist assumptions and ideas, and that it is impossible to understand Lovecraft’s fiction without significant engagement with his racist views. I will also assert that Lovecraft’s racism was an order of magnitude greater than the casual racism of the New England of the 1920s and more closely aligned to the Jim Crow South and to the Nazis, whom Lovecraft praised for promoting cultural purity. On Hitler, Lovecraft once wrote, “by God, I like the boy!”
Now I need to add a disclaimer since Joshi is rather quick to attack those who disagree: Joshi suggested the title for my first book, though to our shared publisher, not to me, and he has included positive references to my work in his own. He has also told me he never read my book, and he stopped talking to me after I asked for his assistance in developing my literary career. I haven’t spoken to him in at least seven years.
Let’s remind ourselves of Lovecraft’s racism. Consider some of Lovecraft’s work:
“… the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of Negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.” (“The Call of Cthulhu”)
And his personal thoughts:
Of course they can’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ’em out of sight or kill ’em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea. (letter of February 1925)
It’s true that other (usually lesser) pulp authors of the era had racist views, but their work isn’t continually reprinted, nor is it celebrated among the great accomplishments of its genre.
Joshi explains that he devoted 2% of his biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence, to racism, but that he considered atheism a much more important subject, superseding any need to devote more time to racism. He also notes that when he read that Lovecraft considered Joshi’s native India to be a nauseating place that made him want to “vomit,” Joshi immediately decided that it was a “perfectly natural” response born of love for the British Empire rather than hatred of India.
Joshi goes on to present several logical fallacies in absolving Lovecraft of responsibility for his racism, and the audience from the need to care about it. As noted above, Joshi expects us to take the esteem of Lovecraft’s friends as absolution, as though racists do not have friends and cannot be polite and even charming. He next presents an appeal to authority, arguing that Joyce Carol Oates’s praise of Lovecraft’s aesthetic style absolves the stories (and the man) of responsibility for their content, and that critical studies of the author justify the “intrinsic merits” of his work. But work can be meritorious while still containing repugnant ideas; Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is perhaps the most prominent example.
Here is the most problematic line in Joshi’s post: “The WFA bust acknowledges Lovecraft’s literary status in the field of weird fiction and nothing more.” On the one hand, this is strictly speaking true; the Edgar Award for mystery writing, for example, takes no position on alcoholism or child marriage despite taking its form from Edgar Allan Poe. But on the other hand, could we honestly give out an award in the shape of Arthur Conan Doyle for logic and reason? Sure, he invented Sherlock Holmes—his great contribution to literature—but he also was a crank who believed in fairies and psychics and actively tried to undermine science and reason in the real world. The personal and the political cannot be so easily separated, especially when the personal directly impacts the form and content of the work in question, as with Lovecraft and racism.
Joshi says “It would appear that Bram Stoker was a Christian (an Irish Protestant). I am an atheist. Would it be legitimate for me to feel uncomfortable accepting the BSA [the Bram Stoker Award for horror] because of my religious differences with Stoker?” But religious difference isn’t the same as racism. One can be religious without engaging in hatred, while one cannot be a racist without denigrating others. To equate them to is set up a false dichotomy. Racism involves the active hatred of the Other and the purposeful denigration of the same. Bram Stoker’s Dracula promotes Christianity to be sure, but it does not actively argue that people of other faiths are subhuman. Even if it did, religion is not an inherent quality of a human being; humans can and do change their faiths. Race, however, is an inherent characteristic, despite not being biological, because our culture has ascribed value to skin color, and (Michael Jackson aside), this cannot be changed.
I understand that Joshi has tied so much of his life and work to glorifying Lovecraft, but it does no one any good to minimize the man’s faults, especially when they play such a large role, paradoxically, in driving the very power that Joshi sees in Lovecraft’s mature fiction. There are fine arguments to be made for and against using Lovecraft on the World Fantasy Award, but arguing that those who are opposed to it are ignorant and/or not famous enough to take seriously are not among those arguments.
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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