August 20th marked the birth in 1890 of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, owner of his very own adjective (“Lovecraftian”) and easily the most influential figure in horror and dark fiction writing of the 20th century. All of which would have come as a surprise to the mild and retiring New Englander who was safely in his grave before feeling the slightest whiff of fame – and controversy.
In his 124th year, we already have a Change.org petition to the World Fantasy Award to “Make Octavia Butler the WFA Statue Instead of Lovecraft,” on the grounds that HPL was “an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith.” That second point is a matter of much debate still; the first one depends on how you want to take “avowed.” Lovecraft was an overt racist in private life – but was he in his fiction? Against Poles and other immigrant non-WASP groups in inter-war America, clearly – but it’s his private opinions about people of color expressed mostly in letters and private notes that folk seem to object to most. And you have to look hard to see any explicit racial caricature in his work that looms as large as the Polish grotesques in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Lovecraft certainly never produced anything like D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation.
Which is exactly the example that Ed Kurtz brings up in his blog post on the debate. Kurtz emphasizes “the impact and influence Lovecraft has had on horror and SF/F literature … Weird fiction has even broken well out of the confines of pulp genre fare and into the mainstream with the success of True Detective, and Lovecraft has quite a lot to do with that.” However, he acknowledges that “it is pretty well known that Lovecraft was a racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic jerk.” Even with this in mind, he reels out a list of other writers who were racists and otherwise held objectionable opinions. As he observes, “I do know if I start looking for repulsive qualities in authors and artists my boycott list will never end.”
So even 124 years after his birth, Lovecraft is still a matter for debate, and potentially due a reassessment at some time. The pendulum swing from death in obscurity to having toy figurines modeled after your creations could be so drastic that a correction is necessary. At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, which for some reason did not mark the event, Jeff VanderMeer told me: “I’m very much about the underdog, and at a certain point, Lovecraft was the underdog, but now he has become the dominant thing, so I tend to push back against Lovecraft. He embodies all the contradictions we’re talking about, the good and the bad. There’s an ongoing conversation in the genre about various attributes he did or didn’t have, whether he was a good fiction prose writer. On that level it seems fascinating, because it feels like part of a larger discussion about genre, especially as the field grows more diverse, because we have a lot of international voices speaking up with different opinions on all these subjects. It’ll be interesting to see what people have to say in ten or fifteen years: the field may have changed again.”