H.P. Lovecraft is known for his baroque descriptions of creatures that are not merely horrifying but actually beyond comprehension. Take for example this description of a city overrun by aliens:
The organic things … inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They—or the degenerate gelatinous fermentations of which they were composed—seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses … and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness.
Are these Martians? Moon men? Fungi from planet Yuggoth? Hardly. These invaders are Italian and Jewish. Lovecraft, however, employs the same breathless prose to describe the immigrants of the Lower East Side as he does the amoeba-like Shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness.
A horror of anything not masculine, blue-eyed and heterosexual can be seen throughout Lovecraft’s personal letters, in which he complains about immigration in terms that make Alex Jones seem nuanced by comparison. In 1928, Al Smith, a descendant of Irish Catholic and Italian immigrants, challenged Herbert Hoover for the presidency. Lovecraft makes his assessment of Smith’s politics clear in a letter to his publisher, August Derleth:
I’m more interested in keeping the present 300-year-old culture-germ in America unharmed, than in trying out any experiments in “social justice” … Some people may like the idea of a mongrel America like the late Roman Empire, but I for one prefer to die in the same America that I was born in. Therefore, I’m against any candidate who talks of letting down the bars to stunted brachycephalic South-Italians & rat-faced half-Mongoloid Russian & Polish Jews, & all that cursed scum! You in the Middle West can’t conceive of the extent of the menace. You ought to see a typical Eastern city crowd—swart, aberrant physiognomies, & gestures & jabbering born of alien instincts.
Despite his wide-reaching influence on weird fiction, a xenophobe of Lovecraft’s caliber could not pass unscathed through the present era of Twitter puritanism. In 2015, following a sustained outcry, the World Fantasy Awards stopped handing out busts of Lovecraft to winners, substituting instead a statuette of a gnarled tree backlit by the full moon. Fantasy author Daniel José Older, who spearheaded the campaign to change the design, described the decision as a victory for writers of color over a “hateful human and a crappy wordsmith.” (Older also led a small crusade against the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, to less effect.)
It’s far too late, of course, to unperson Lovecraft entirely. His tentacles reach everywhere from films like The Thing and Hellboy to World of Warcraft, the Arkham Horror tabletop game and the heaps of Cthulhu-themed kitsch used by consumerist nerds to signal their tribal affiliation. Words like squamous and eldritch have taken on a distinctly Lovecraftian odor—few other authors can claim to have established effective ownership of a pre-existing word.
Lovecraft also has his literary defenders. S. T. Joshi, undoubtedly the most accomplished living Lovecraft scholar, has sought to minimize the significance of Lovecraft’s xenophobia by reminding us that he was a product of relatively xenophobic times.
This absolution of Lovecraft, however, can only be taken so far. Joshi identifies Roald Dahl, T. S. Eliot, Jack London and Raymond Chandler as influential authors of the period whose fiction also includes signs of racial prejudice, but who have not been subject to the same iconoclasm as Lovecraft. Joshi cites Chandler’s 1936 short story, “Pickup on Noon Street”:
The Negro was enormous in stature, gorillalike, and wore a baggy checked suit that made him even more enormous. He had come soundlessly on shoeless feet out of a closet door, and his right hand almost covered a huge black gun.
Chandler’s use of “gorillalike” would doubtless earn him a suspension from Twitter. But does this passage prove that Lovecraft merely reflected ambient levels of racial insensitivity? Compare Chandler’s language to the following passage from Lovecraft’s 1922 short story, “Herbert West—Reanimator,” also describing a black man:
The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
While Chandler employs the term “gorillalike” to emphasize the black henchman’s threatening physical power, Lovecraft obviously goes further. It’s clear that, despite Joshi’s protestations, Chandler does not display the same venomous racial disgust as does Lovecraft.
Joshi’s other attempts to contextualize away Lovecraft’s views also stretch thin. Joshi, for instance, points out that, while Lovecraft wrote 350 poems, only “perhaps three” express racist attitudes. This is true—however, it is also true that those three-odd poems are doozies. Take, for instance, Lovecraft’s poem, “On the Creation of Niggers”: “A beast they [the gods] wrought, in semi-human figure, / Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.” There is a difference between passingly using a word like “Jap,” as Chandler did, and devoting entire poems and paragraphs to wallowing in racial animosity.
Claims that Lovecraft complacently absorbed the ambient values of 1920s America are further repudiated by the sheer hot-bloodedness of his xenophobia. Lovecraft’s wife Sonia Greene claimed that he “seemed almost to lose his mind” at the sight of New York’s racially mixed crowds, and Lovecraft himself writes that the city’s profusion of “repulsive Mongoloid Jews” made him feel like “punching every god damn bastard in sight.” These are not the thoughts of a man passively swept along by the zeitgeist.
(Greene, incidentally, was a Russian Jew, though Lovecraft accepted that she had assimilated. Her husband’s horror of Jews and his patronizing affection for “handsome Adolf” Hitler discomfited Greene, though this may not have been the principal contributor to their eventual split.)
Perhaps Lovecraft is so easily forgiven because of the sheer silly effeteness of his tirades—a Klansman who hoists a burning cross on your front lawn is one thing, but Lovecraft’s panicked squeamishness over all things non-Anglo is more embarrassing than threatening. Lovecraft, as the satirical wiki Uncyclopedia notes, is “everyone’s favourite horror writer and hilarious racist.”
Other fans, rather than rationalizing Lovecraft’s prejudices, have sought to separate the art from the artist. “I want to still like and admire the quality of the work of H. P. Lovecraft, even if I have to do it while trying not to concentrate on the quality of the man,” writes Dungeons & Dragons novelist Philip Athans, on whose writing Lovecraft has been a lifelong influence.
This partitioning may be possible in some instances—it’s natural enough to listen to Kind of Blue without being reminded that Miles Davis beat his wife. Sometimes, as with Caravaggio, crime can gild the image of a roguish artist of yore. However, disentangling Lovecraft’s nativist beliefs from the Cthulhu Mythos is more challenging than it may appear. The basis of Lovecraftian horror is not fear of evil, exactly, but fear of the inhuman. Cthulhu is not Satan—Satan is, at least, impelled by comprehensible motives. It is precisely the illegibility of Cthulhu, the Shoggoths and the fungi from Yuggoth that makes them so unsettling. “The Colour Out of Space” features not an invading organism, but a color outside of the terrestrial spectrum, which arrives on a meteorite and contaminates the countryside.
Michel Houellebecq, another lifelong Lovecraftian, criticizes later Cthulhu Mythos authors who have cast Cthulhu as a “cosmic evil” locked in struggle with an equivalent “cosmic good.” For Lovecraft, writes Houellebecq, the universe is an arrangement of atoms devoid of human significance, rendering good and evil “pure ‘Victorian fictions.’”
Lovecraftian horror is xenophobia at its purest: fear of the strange. The merely malevolent—a vampire, a homicidal maniac, a demon—can be understood and perhaps even bargained with or outwitted. It’s no coincidence that the words “indescribable,” “nameless,” “unnameable” and “unutterable” occur with uncommon frequency in Lovecraft’s writings.
Can we plausibly detach this horror of incomprehensible alien beings from Lovecraft’s own anxiety over incomprehensible alien cultures? It doesn’t take a sharp eye to catch the similarities between Lovecraft’s nativist harangues and the reflections of the narrator of “Dagon,” who encounters a race of aquatic beings who threaten to overwhelm human civilization:
I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.
The horror of “Dagon” emanates not so much from a threat that the unnamed narrator could be killed by the “Deep Ones,” but from the possibility that they, with their strange monuments and indecipherable customs, could replace human society. Fourteen years later, Lovecraft penned The Shadow over Innsmouth, in which the Deep Ones are revealed to have interbred with humans and established a religious cult in coastal Massachusetts. The implications need not be spelled out.
Other qualities further entangle Lovecraft’s horror fiction with his personal ethnocentrism. As well as fear, Lovecraft’s creatures vividly evoke disgust and the threat of disease—they are “oozing,” “gangrenous,” “gelatinous,” “putrid” and trickling with “foetid greenish-yellow ichor.” Lovecraft was acutely sensitive to his own health, complaining throughout his life of various miscellaneous ailments: headaches, dizziness and “spells of poor concentrating power,” which at least some observers attributed to hypochondria. One can speculate, without being too reductive, on the influence of the death of Lovecraft’s father, apparently from syphilis, on his son’s preoccupation with illness and hereditary contamination.
What went unrecognized in Lovecraft’s time is that sensitivity to disgust goes along with anti-immigrant and right-wing political attitudes. One Virginia Tech study found that fMRI scans of individuals viewing disgusting images could be used to predict political orientation with 95% accuracy. Contamination disgust—concern centered on interpersonal disease transmission—is most strongly correlated with conservatism, according to a survey published by Social Psychological and Personality Science. The equation of immigrants entering a country to disease infesting a body can be observed directly in Lovecraft’s fiction: in “The Horror at Red Hook,” Spanish, Italian and Syrian immigrants are described as a “contagion” to be quarantined in ghettos by the police.
This association between contamination disgust and hostility to immigrants seems to spring from the behavioral immune system, a set of emotional and cognitive mechanisms that have protected us from disease by discouraging us from associating with unfamiliar or unusual people. An individual who believes he is vulnerable to infectious disease is more likely to exhibit xenophobic attitudes, according to an Association for Psychological Science study of the behavioral immune system. (Interestingly, the same study reported that women became more ethnocentric during their first trimester of pregnancy, during which the immune system is weakened.)
Again, we find that the essence of Lovecraft’s horror is not readily separated from his personal xenophobia. When the Cthulhu Mythos tales stimulate our dread or our disgust, they are operating the same psychological levers that motivated the author’s distasteful outbursts.
What, then, is to be done with H. P. Lovecraft? Shall we, like Daniel José Older, discard him as a scribbler of irrelevant ethnocentrist fantasies? To do so would be comfortable—I’m not a racist and I don’t like racist books—but the fact that Lovecraftian horror resonates so widely demonstrates that we too share the author’s cognitive vulnerabilities. To experience Lovecraftian horror is to experience the same loathing, anxiety and disgust the author did towards blacks, Jews and homosexuals. If we remain convinced that we do not share Lovecraft’s capacity for xenophobia, the nature of his horror will elude us altogether.