Friday, September 25, 2009

The Shadow over Lovecraft

Lovecraft's fiction has always made it evident that his racial views were less than progressive for his time, and as this review of his biography makes evident, the fiction didn't lie:
Lovecraft’s racial opinions were indeed strong even for the decade that saw publication of Madison Grant’s and Lothrop Stoddard’s work. During his life in New York, he wrote to a friend about a walk he and his wife took in the Bronx: “Upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons--nay, full nine out of every ten--wern’t [sic] flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering n–gers.” Similarly, six years later he remarked, “The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every g– d— bastard in sight.” These are only two more printable expressions of his views that are commonplace in his letters.
The similarity to Hitler in Vienna is tangible.

The reviewer, one Samuel Francis, won't buy that this has no connection to his writing:
Although Mr. Joshi tries to argue that Lovecraft’s racialism was largely irrelevant to his writing, that is not quite true.
So what is that connection?
Mr. Joshi is correct about the cosmic level of meaning in Lovecraft’s stories, but he largely neglects another, social level of meaning. On that level, Lovecraft’s stories are dramas of modernity in which the forces of tradition and order in society and in the universe are confronted by modernity itself--in the form of the shapeless beings known (ironically) as the “Old Ones.” In fact, they are the “New Ones.” Their appearance to earthly beings is often attended by allusions to “Einsteinian physics,” “Freudian psychology,” “non-Euclidean algebra” (a meaningless but suggestive term), modern art, and the writing of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. The conflicts in the stories are typically between some representative of traditional order (the New England old stock protagonist) on the one hand, and the “hordes” of Mongoloids, Levantines, Negroes, Caribbeans, and Asians that gibber and prance in worship of the Old Ones and invoke their dark, destructive, and invincible powers.

What Lovecraft does in his stories, then, is not only to develop the logic of his “cosmicism” by exposing the futility of human conventions, but to document the triumph of a formless and monstrous modernity against the civilization to which Lovecraft himself--if almost no one else in his time--was faithful. In the course of his brief existence, he saw the traditions of his class and his people vanishing before his eyes, and with them the civilization they had created, and no one seemed to care or even grasp the nature of the forces that were destroying it. The measures conventionally invoked to preserve it--traditional Christianity, traditional art forms, conventional ethics and political theory--were useless against the ineluctable cosmic sweep of the Old Ones and the new anarchic powers they symbolized.
As a summary of what Lovecraft probably believed, this is probably astute. One wishes, however, that Mr. Francis did not give the impression of agreeing with Lovecraft:
Lovecraft believed that his order could not be saved, and that in the long run it didn’t matter anyway, so be jogged placidly and cynically on, one of America’s last free men, living his life as he wanted to live it and as he believed a New England gentleman should live it: thinking what he wanted to think, and writing what he wanted to write, without concern for conventional opinions, worldly success, or immortality.
Well all right then.

I found Mr. Francis's article linked at NRO's Corner, by who else but John Derbyshire?


  1. I liked Lovecraft as a teenager for particular stories-- "Rats in the Walls," and one about a guy who runs a funeral home / cemetery and cuts corners by doing things like cutting corpses' legs off at the ankles to fit them in smaller coffins. He is in upper New England and doesn't do burials in the winter, and gets trapped in the building where he stores coffins late one day and bad things happen.

    The creepiness level of these stories really impressed me. But as an adult, I've not been able to find my way into any of his stories. I'm not sure whether I've tried the wrong ones (I haven't seen "Rats in the Walls" anthologized) or not given it enough of a chance. What I have tried, I've found unreadable. This includes a selection Joyce Carol Oates had some role in making.

    My memory of him from when I was reading a lot of the pulp science fiction and fantasy stuff in collections was good. The actual fact of him didn't compare.

    All that said, it doesn't surprise me that his views were pretty grossly unenlightened. It would fit how dark a view of everything about the world Lovecraft presents in his stories...

  2. To the extent that these issues may have made their way into Lovecraft's writing, I'm not sure I find Francis' interpretation convincing.

    Many of the Lovecraftian villains are primitives - cults, cannibals, throwbacks, degenerates... I think that racial elements (and to be fair, it's not something that ever occurred to me so I'm not sure they're really present) have more to do with the traditional racist view/presentation of others as inferiors. I suppose you could interpret the inevitable victory of those villains as saying something about the direction of society, but IMHO it's a pretty big stretch. Lovecraft (to my knowledge) never wrote true apocalyptic stuff - outside his stories and the dire consequences for the characters, life went on. Even bringing the Old Ones into it, they always end up still asleep or off somewhere. Given the aforementioned dire consequences for the "protagonists" in his stories, I tend to think that any societal impact would have been equally dire if he had intended them to be.

  3. Buhallin, I think Francis's reading has as much to do w/ his own racism as w/ HPL's.

    NMC, I read "The Dunwich Horror," one of the short-list HPL classics, aloud to my wife, and winced at not being able to skim over the worst patches of writing.

    HPL is one of those 2d-tier writers whose imagination exceeded his technical ability to accomplish what he envisioned. I would say the same of Ezra Pound.

    "The Shadow over Innsmouth," "The Call of Cthulhu," and "At the Mountains of Madness" might be other short-list ones.

    If you really want to try to like HPL and don't care much about his "Cthulhu mythos," then "The Colour out of Space," which nicely anticipates radiation sickness, is worth a look too.