Reading Room: H.P. Lovecraft and Racism in Literature
I recently started reading a compilation of body horror themed short stories, this being a part of the genre I find particularly fascinating. Among the contents is Herbert West – Reanimator by the legendary American writer of the weird, H.P. Lovecraft. Not a huge success in his time, Lovecraft has remained an enduring influence on both science fiction and horror, most especially for his Cthulhu mythos of ancient and terrible creatures. Herbert West – Reanimator, first serialized in 1922, is a sort of black comedy twist on Frankenstein. Herbert’s constant search for ever fresher corpses leads to some memorably macabre scenes, including a headless zombie set lose upon the world. It’s a vivid and entertaining tale.
It’s also wildly racist. One of the bodies reanimated is that of a black man. Lovecraft leaves us in no doubt that the narrator finds the man’s ethnicity makes him more horrifying than any of the other walking dead. He describes the body in terms that recall a gorilla, saying that it brings to mind the sound of tom-toms. The skin is treated with disgust.
None of this is untypical of Lovecraft. This is a man who said of Hitler that he ‘liked the boy’. His most acclaimed novella, At The Mountains of Madness, could be read as an expression of distaste for societies where races mix and intermarry. The Lovecroftian universe is one where any biological, physical difference is a threat. For god’s sake, he even thought penguins were grotesque.
And yet his stories are in many ways, very good horror. Lovecraft knew how to build up an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. The Herbert West narrative shows he had a sense of humour. How do we square his odious views with his undoubted talent? How much do we weigh one against the other?
It’s not enough to say the man was a product of his era. There were people living at the same time as Lovecraft who did not subscribe to his views and indeed before. Charles Dickens was criticizing the treatment of black people in America decades earlier. The situational justification also overlooks the fact that most dictators were products of their time. The Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism.
But nor can we entirely dismiss an artist because their talent is accompanied by unpleasant attitudes. I can see the inherent racial caricaturing in some of the Tintin books by Hergè. I still think that they are wonderful tales of adventure and friendship.
With artists such as Lovecraft, I feel we can recognise their ability and be entertained by their skill while at the same time not being blind to poisonous themes that run through their work. With political incorrectness increasingly seen as an automatic indication of supposed rebellion – even when it’s used to justify rancid crap like the Human Centipede ‘franchise’ – this may not be a popular suggestion with many. But political correctness and incorrectness are hollow, simplistic ways of looking at these things. We need to be able to hold two ideas at once.