Wading Through the Complicated Legacy of H. P. Lovecraft

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Howard Phillips Lovecraft never lived to see his name cemented among the literary giants of the twentieth century. 

Dead of cancer before his 47th birthday, his existence was so obscure that even his estranged wife was unaware of his death for more than eight years. His short stories – now recognised as ground-breaking developments in the genres of horror and science fiction – were not published on a commercial scale during his lifetime, appearing only in a few cheap pulp magazines that drew little mainstream attention. It was, in many ways, a life lived in the dark shadows he taught us all to fear.

A critical revaluation brought his work into the public eye. ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ are just a few of Lovecraft’s stories that have taken on lives of their own in contemporary popular culture, making his name synonymous with horror fiction. But beyond the boundaries of literary merit lies a far deeper, more complex legacy that is beginning to permeate studies of his work: Lovecraft’s views on race.

By modern standards, Lovecraft fits the definition of a racist pretty well. An Anglophile who spoke derisively of anyone not of English descent, his words go beyond the lazy stereotypes of the era into a level of bigotry that was extreme even for his time. It’s a horrifying legacy that bleeds into his work. The name of the cat in ‘The Rats in the Walls’, which I won’t name here, lingers in the back of the reader’s mind like an intrusive earworm. He wrote racist poetry as a young adult in which he referred to black people as ‘beasts’ and ‘semi-human.’ Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were not an uncommon theme in the thousands of letters he wrote over his lifetime, and he offered a serious (if somewhat lukewarm) endorsement of Adolf Hitler during the early 1930’s.

It makes for uncomfortable reading – and yet, to the general public, Lovecraft’s reputation remains largely unscathed. Seeing a Lovecraft omnibus on the shelf of a bookstore would not necessarily send a shiver down your spine, and Lovecraft’s fictional creations continue to be heavily referenced in modern media (with Lovecraft Country and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina being two prominent examples). Our ambivalence towards Lovecraft’s reputation does raise an interesting question: to what extent should an individual’s personal faults affect the value of their creative output?

The cultural worlds we immerse ourselves in almost always come with a dark side. It’s easy to get enraged when you see the words ‘produced by Harvey Weinstein’ in the credits of one of your favourite films, or when you watch an old episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show that was broadcast before the recent workplace allegations came to light. Had Lovecraft survived into the 21st century, and his bigoted views revealed to the world in a media exposé, his reputation would have been irreparably damaged. His death in 1937 – when such attitudes were common and rarely generated attention – has largely saved him from this fate. Instead of attracting a sudden onslaught of media attention, Lovecraft’s racism has been quietly lurking in the background, known to many but rarely discussed or challenged. 

It’s a proverbial elephant in the room that looms large in some areas but is hastily swept under the carpet in others. In 2015, the World Fantasy Awards committee announced that their award statuette – a caricatured bust of Lovecraft – would be retired and replaced with a new trophy. It was a rare acknowledgment of an ugly legacy. And yet, Lovecraft’s fame seems to be at an all-time high, with the last two years alone seeing at least one video game and two TV shows built exclusively around his terrifying creations. 

Lovecraft’s work still has merit, and I would argue that we can separate the worlds he created from the man he was. But his racism unquestionably complicates his legacy – and this is something we should not allow ourselves to forget.

Words by Dan Pearson

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