From its inception in 1975 through 2015, the World Fantasy Awards have given out trophies topped with busts of H.P. Lovecraft. Following a well-organized campaign spearheaded by many respected fantasy authors and fans, it was announced that this will be the last year that these statuettes will be used. While the campaign enjoyed broad support, of course there is a small but equally dedicated cadre of naysayers deriding it as “political correctness”.
The fact of the matter, though, is that H.P. Lovecraft was never actually a good choice for something called the World Fantasy Awards. It just happened that the first World Fantasy Convention was organized around and included a large number of his friends, fans, and proteges. The inaugural event had a Lovecraft theme, and primarily because of that, it stuck.
But H.P. Lovecraft was a notorious racist, and this makes him unsuitable not just because he had “the wrong opinions”, as some would have it. His racism is not unrelated to the work for which he’s honored, and it’s not a thing apart from the man, or the message sent when he is used as an ambassador for the excellence of an entire field.
His apologists have defended him with arguments such as “Yes, but he was a product of his times,” and “Yes, but what he thought in his private, day-to-day life is completely separate from his work,” but both these arguments are fairly easy to demolish.
H.P. Lovecraft was virulently and vociferously racist even for his time, and it came out in his work. Earlier this week I saw someone claiming that his racism and generally regressive viewpoints were a result of his belief in the universe as a bleak, terrifying place in which he and the entire human race along with him were essentially meaningless. I think this is garbage and that not only is it wrong, but it is exactly wrong; i.e., completely backwards.
We don’t write about fantastic threats and then have our day-to-day fears and prejudices shaped by them. Rather, the stories we tell reflect what we are afraid of. All of the “Aliens As Communist Infiltrators” stories that came out at the height of the Cold War did not create a fear of Communist infiltrators, but were created by such a climate. All the old folk stories and fairy tales that involve dangerous encounters with strange folks in the woods did not create a fear of meeting strangers in dark places but came out of them.
And H.P. Lovecraft’s disgusting beliefs on white racial purity and the inferiority of other people did not come from his habit of writing stories where unfathomably Other beings interbred with (white) humans and created monstrosities that threatened to destroy the world as we knew it; rather, the stories he wrote were allegories of his fears and prejudices.
But even without reading into the allegories of “cosmic miscegenation” within tales like The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow over Innsmouth, his naked and unallegorical racism is still there on the page. He treats the discovery of mixed heritage among human races as being exactly as horrific and mind-shattering a revelation as interbreeding between humans and primordial beings. He refers to other races as separate species and depicts them as animalistic. At one point in the Herber West, Re-Animator cycle, he wrote the following description of a Black boxer:
a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs
The entire point of this story, not incidentally, is to establish as a scientific principle that Black people are not only a separate race but a separate species, one between “true humans” and animals. This loathsome notion is also at the center of the one of few of Lovecraft’s works that is acknowledged even by his supporters as “Okay, yeah, maybe this one is a little racist,” a disgusting bit of doggerel verse called “On The Creation of [slurs]”.
I really hate to reproduce even one word of such patently racist text, but I feel like it’s important to show that even in one of Lovecraft’s most “mainstream” works, these ideas are present. It’s a major plot point in that segment of the story. He used his Herbert West story to advance a pseudoscientific notion that upheld his racist bigotry.
But you know what? Even if we can demolish the notion that his racism was informed by his “mythos” writing rather than the other way around, it ultimately doesn’t matter which came first. The fact is that the racism is there, not just in the man, dead in his grave, but in his work, as living and vital as it was when he first put it to paper. It’s there.
And every time someone was handed a trophy bearing his form and visage as a recognition of their outstanding work in the field of fantasy, they were being asked to tacitly cosign the idea that he is some sort of exemplar for this field, that whatever they wrote is only laudable because it measured up to his example.
I have my own thoughts about H.P. Lovecraft’s skill as a writer, and I know that even a lot of people who condemn him as a bigot disagree with me on this point, so I’m going to get into this. I will say that even if he had been the greatest writer who ever lived and even if you personally could get past the racism, he was still always a terrible choice to represent something like the World Fantasy Awards.
Why on earth would you ever pick someone so provincial (to use a more polite term than is warranted, but it better illustrates this particular point) in his outlook to represent the whole World? Why would you pick someone who was scared of the world beyond his picket fence, terrified of his neighbors, repulsed by his fellow astronauts on Spaceship Earth, and utterly horrified by the grandeur of the cosmos and the possibility of worlds beyond our senses to represent the best and brightest and most imaginative authors in the field of fantasy?
H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories where books could usher in the end of the world. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories where imagination would lead you to death and insanity. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories where curiosity didn’t only kill the cat, but made the cat pray for death to a cold and uncaring universe. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories where the only thing you’d find through the looking glass, at the back of the wardrobe, or out beyond the stars was madness, depravity, and despair.
These things have no existence apart from his racism. His fear of the unknown, of the different and the strange, cannot be separated out from his racism.
Even if you could ignore it—and why would you?—H.P. Lovecraft would still be the Grumpy Cat Macro of fantasy writers: “I had a flight of fancy once. It was horrible.”
And this man represents excellence in fantasy?
I don’t think so.