The genre of horror has always had a lot of subversive appeal. Much like punk rock and other artistic subcultures, it dwells comfortably outside of the mainstream (save for when it’s co-opted with usually dismal results), and many of those who live and breathe horror value it as a space where society’s faults and biases can be pointed out and confronted; see the social commentary rampant in George Romero’s DEAD series or the feminist subtexts of films like GINGER SNAPS and AMERICAN MARY for good examples. But it is important to remember that the kind of prejudices that infect society in general exist within our creative community as well; Those who thumb their noses at social dogma are not immune to its systemic influences.
Certain creators of some of the genre’s most beloved works, both on the page and on the screen, are prime examples of this. One of the easiest to point out, but ironically the least talked about, is the creator of Cthulhu himself — H.P. Lovecraft. The man’s name has become synonymous with the Horrors of The Unknown, and for good reason; Lovecraft’s prose is amazing in how much horrifying imagery it manages to invoke in a reader’s mind given how sparse his descriptions are. I’d like to recommend playing a drinking game wherein you take a drink every time HPL’s characters say something along the lines of “This thing I saw is so scary and maddening it is impossible to describe,” but I don’t want to be responsible for any deaths due to alcohol poisoning.
Lovecraft’s creations — not just Cthulhu (pictured above in the author’s own sketch), but Dagon, the Necronomicon, and so on — have become so ingrained in horror and pop culture lore as a whole that I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if Cthulhu supplants Satan as western society’s go-to caricature of evil and darkness in the coming decades. The dark deity has made appearances on shows like SOUTH PARK, and is available in cuddly plushy form from Etsy to Amazon. There’s even an eagerly-awaited video game based on the monster being dropped sometime late this year.
Films based on some of Lovecraft’s best-known stories, RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, have a cult status that only grows with each new generation… and yet, as Lovecraft’s cosmic, occult-styled mythos becomes more and more popular in our nerd-chic culture, another well-known but decidedly uglier aspect of him has been largely ignored up until very recently — namely, the man’s virulent racism.
Of course, the concept of Lovecraft being a racist isn’t all that shocking, considering he was born at the turn of the 19th century and enjoyed his success as a genre fiction writer in the heyday of 1920s pulp magazines; it would honestly be more amazing if a white male writer living in New England back then had progressive views on other races. But Lovecraft went above and beyond — going so far as to write racist poems about the existence of African Americans, and including not-so-subtle wording whenever referring to non-white characters, who were almost always minor players in his terrifying tales (the words “mongrel” and “mongoloid” pop up regularly in his fiction).
“Okay, we get it,” you might be wondering as you skim this article. “The man was racist. What’s your point?” Well, consider this: As horror’s popularity grows across various media, and newer crowds of young fans with multicultural backgrounds discover the works of classic storytellers, how are they supposed to handle the fact that some of the genre’s most iconic creators harbored hatred for people like them? There’s no easy answer for that — and another white male writer like myself is definitely the last person to offer up the best solution — but a good place to start is by confronting these dark and troubling aspects of Lovecraft’s history head-on.
The good news is that there is work being done on this: In 2015, The World Fantasy Convention announced that it would change its trophies from its then-current depiction of the author. This decision came after a petition that garnered over 2,500 signatures started a heated discussion about whether handing out an award made in Lovecraft’s image was sending mixed messages in a literary landscape that is in desperate need of attracting and supporting a wider array of voices. Notable authors such as China Miéville and Alan Moore have spoken and written about their decisions to acknowledge Lovecraft’s prejudices — the latter specifically chose to make them a blatant element of the dread and horror in recent pastiche stories like NECRONOMICON and PROVIDENCE.
I asked indie filmmaker Chris LaMartina — whose 2014 Horror-comedy CALL GIRL OF CTHULHU functioned as a love letter to Lovecraft’s mythos — if his knowledge of Lovecraft’s prejudice informed his approach with his narrative.
“Lovecraft is a troublesome figure,” LaMartina notes. “His work is incredibly influential from a standpoint of genre tropes and cultural importance in the realm of horror. However, the racism and xenophobia that permeates through a large portion of his work is upsetting to say the least. There’s a connection here that cannot be ignored… His fear of minorities and large absence of women within his fiction seem to highlight the insecurities of a man scared of the other.”
“When I set out to make CALL GIRL OF CTHULHU,” he continues, “I wanted to take my perception of Lovecraft’s own insecurities and explore a theme that he seemingly never wanted to address in his own work… the character of Carter in CALL GIRL was an extension of Lovecraft’s sheltered white male voice. Simply put, the movie is about adolescent male fears of female sexuality. People are still afraid by the other — an other they don’t understand or don’t even care to — and I think that’s the scariest part. We have to look at this ugliness and realize how it grew, both in our past and in our present.”
Nobody is suggesting that Lovecraft’s name be stricken from the canon of genre literature… but it’s important to remember the ugliness of hatreds past in order to prevent them from persisting into the future. We must keep a watchful eye for the subtle signs of racism and sexism that exist in art and media and call them out — not for the thrill of feeling morally superior, nor for the satisfaction of chastising the ignorant, but out of a simple desire to do better.
Lovecraft, for all his faults, understood better than anyone that the scariest thing is the unknowable — that which lies in the shadows just outside the edges of our understanding. But now, more than ever, we know that some the scariest things, thoughts and entities dwell within us. Bigotry, violence, and oppression are the true monsters in real life; they might not be as fun to talk about as Cthulhu, but they’re with us… and the only way to defeat them is to drag them out of the abyss.