LOVECRAFT MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY





BY CODY GOODFELLOW







THE LATEST LOVECRAFTIAN MORAL CRISIS/TEACHABLE MOMENT has peaked and rolled back under the weight of countless other cultural controversies, but it’s useful to reflect on it in anticipation of the next time we have the same fight, and perhaps to get some of those still staring daggers at each other across an arbitrary scrimmage line to recognize their real, common enemies.​For a while, it looked as if HPL was going to get his proper respect. With a Library of America collection curated by Peter Straub and a run of Penguin editions edited by HPL biographer S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft was poised last decade to take his place alongside Poe as a defining force of modern American letters. The archetypal cult author, Lovecraft was already the wellspring of a thriving underground sub-genre, the face of the prestigious World Fantasy Award (by way of Gahan Wilson) and an icon for weirdos everywhere but at long last, it looked as if he’d finally become an accepted staple of the American canon. But then he walked into a conspiracy of critical and social media buzzsaws that has left the previously radically inclusive cult of Cthulhu in a state of perpetual internecine warfare. After a rocky debate, the World Fantasy Award now looks like the bonsai tree logo for Mr. Miyagi’s karate dojo, and Lovecraft has been banished back to the hinterlands of cult obscurity.


Staunch HPL fanatics largely forfeited the debate by falling back on the same dismissive rhetoric that had served in the past. HPL’s racism was a product of his times, which still tolerated Jim Crow and saw African natives on exhibit alongside primates in many zoos. HPL’s racism was a byproduct of his cloistered, abusive upbringing and penurious, degrading failures in adulthood but he was beginning to evolve and might well have become a progressive had he lived long enough. He (eventually) rebuked Hitler! He traveled to Florida (once)! Lovecraft was a gentle soul who never uttered an unkind word in public. And most of all, Lovecraft’s racism was written off as largely irrelevant, given the plurality of Lovecraft fans he probably wouldn’t have wanted to share a cab with.


Weak sauce indeed, and offered under duress, with the impatient disingenuousness of not wanting to have the argument at all. Many Lovecraftians who never faced charges of racism were confronted with parsing that separating the artist from the art is a trick only possible for white magicians, and were not up to the task.


Lovecraft’s racism was as extraordinary as his prose, and inseparable from his fiction. However difficult was his life experience, dumber, more deprived folks than himself had awakened to the intellectual cancer of racism and evolved past it in considerably fewer than forty-six years. And while he never called anyone n****r or kike to their face or participated in an Alabama cross-burning, he exhaustively promoted his overtly racist views in amateur editorials, letters and much of his fiction, giving aid and comfort to more tangibly racist readers.


A few unapologetically reactionary critics like Robert Price have burned bridges in the community by embracing Lovecraft’s xenophobic rhetoric, in chilling resonance with the nativist hate-mongers of the modern alt-right. But if the majority of Lovecraft’s fans were not themselves racists (and I will bet my tentacle miter that the bulk of us land solidly in progressive political turf), they simply didn’t want to be reminded of Lovecraft’s racism, or to acknowledge the privileged position of being able to take innocent pleasure in tainted art. What does it matter if Lovecraft was racist? We’re not… (Are we?)









So the art and the artist can’t be separated without serious self-delusion. And it should be. He can’t be rehabilitated by even the most sincere arguments of minimize his racism, which are as wishful and silly as revisionist fantasies that place him as the heroic gumshoe absent from his stories. And he shouldn’t be. But with all due respect and sympathy to those who are done with HPL, I propose that, rather than relegate Lovecraft to the dustbin of dead white males, he should remain in the backwaters of classic literature but the forefront of outsider literature, of discordant voices whose false notes are as illuminating as their best.


That a self-taught and fiercely independent intellectual like Lovecraft could succumb so thoroughly to racist notions is an eloquent testimony to the virulent nature of racism as an intellectual pathology. It lends its cold, ugly comfort to the educated as well as the innocent by assuring the bigot they know everything they need to know about the Other, and need not feel strongly for them. The unwillingness of the modern Lovecraftian to confront the racism at the heart of his favorite stuff is an unwillingness to confront the racism and white privilege still baked into daily life almost a century after his death. It hurts to find out you’ve been wrong, and it can be devastating to find out that, hard as it’s been, you’ve always been protected.


​I learned more about the insidious corrosion of racism from reading Lovecraft than from any number of history books on the subject, and in writing my own contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, I’ve been challenged to examine my own assumptions about everything that goes into my fiction, to consider as often as possible an audience as different as conceivable from myself, and to invite them inside. But I can’t pass this off as more than a rationalization for my own quite unreasonable obsessions, and I wouldn’t seek to wave away the misgivings of people who find his work insupportable. But it’s worth examining why we even if we might not love Lovecraft anymore, we still need Cthulhu.


For one thing, it is worth considering the paradox of the radically inclusive cult of Cthulhu. While not much more diverse than any other subgenre of geek culture, the Lovecraftian community has no organized right wing like the sad puppies, no vocal alt-right or anti-feminist elements taking up the fallen standard of Lovecraft as a conservative icon, which is kind of weird. Radical conservatives already live in a fantasy, and they need somebody, anybody, more approachable than Hitler to snap off their stupid salutes to, and yet there seems to be little or no overlap between the Lovecraftians and the loudmouth assholes making a dog’s breakfast of every SF authors gathering.


One reason for this is, we don’t tolerate them. When Bob Price espoused nativist rhetoric in his lamentable keynote address at Necronomicon in Providence in 2015, he was roundly denounced by the convention’s organizers, by a blazing majority of the programming participants and attendees, and by me at that weekend’s Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. He hasn’t been invited to subsequent cons or to the Lovecraft Film Festival since, and reactionary Lovecraft defenders have largely ceded the field of debate and become entrenched in social media bunkers, while the rest of us continue to foster inclusivity and embrace the more progressive evolution of the New Weird.


Another reason is, Lovecraft isn’t much of a red-blooded poster-boy for the kind of bellicose, alpha-male empowerment alt-right glibertarian geeks look for. Unlike Robert E. Howard—who has never faced the same scrutiny as Lovecraft but could easily be conflated into a redneck Mishima by muttonhead wingnut fans—HPL’s mythos diminishes all human agency and sneers at their religious faith, indeed suggests that maybe the inscrutable Other, with his salacious rhythms and savage rituals, may be the one with all the answers. Solipsistic to the end, they need to remain at the center of a subservient universe, and the gibbering of passive academics unhinged merely by discovering the pseudopod-heavy secret face of nature is sort of a drag.











And why would any of this appeal to anyone, exactly? Lovecraft’s pulp existentialism put faceless faces and vowel-challenged names to the creeping fear that the universe is alive teeming with intelligence, but none of it is for us. It captures and turns to lurid new purposes the emptiness of ennui, and puts a deliciously paranoid spin on contemplation of the centerless void that is our universe. In a world where no joke can keep up with the news, HPL’s hysterical solemnity, his protestations of repulsion that go so far beyond too far as to become a kind of fetishistic hate-fucking of the unknown, are phenomenological implosions of rationalism so potent they somehow retain their capacity to inspire awe even after their histrionic, anachronistic style, disinterest in characters with agency or organic desires, and yes, parboiled racism, have been dealt with.


Modern cosmic horror writers and artists look to all that Lovecraft feared and reviled, that miscegenated, mutated polymorphous perversity that is the Other, and we say, “Yes, please.” We embrace the Other not because it is awful, but because it is wondrous in its terrible beauty. We embrace and dissolve ourselves in the exotic and alien because the world is far stranger than any self-educated white New England Yankee’s wildest fever-dreams, and we are a part of it. We embrace Otherness in all its forms, even in its most inimical and enigmatic face, when it looks at us in the mirror. The apocalypse we look forward to is not an end of old things, but an end to lies and the rise of beautifully weird new things, which shall not command but intrinsically earn, our devotion and worship.


Without endorsing any of his political beliefs, HPL’s self-appointed champion S.T. Joshi has famously short-circuited critical debate on Lovecraft’s racism by famously dividing the weird horror community into loyal purists and “Lovecraft haters,” vilifying the work and sensibilities of all who find fault with the sage of Providence’s blinkered worldview. The resulting circular firing squad has left many reasonable weird fiction fans checking out in disgust.


As we struggle to evolve towards a more inclusive society and yet see forces of divisiveness redefining our nation plodding towards corporatist dystopia, we are experiencing genuine cosmic horror, true existential angst. The fear of being erased, of being trapped in an inimical, mindless universe, is all too fucking real. If corporations are people, then people are not even amoebas, according to the new discourse. Safer, cleaner and more entertained than ever, yet somehow the modern world sucks like never before. So it becomes all the more essential for our fantasies to reflect our ideals and speak more respectfully to a wider audience. When you have to suffer racists and sexual predators to harangue you from the White House, why let them colonize your imagination, too?


​​​​​Why indeed, but to dismiss cosmic horror as fantasy misses a cardinal point in the complex and problematic Lovecraft issue. If we define fantasy as escape into an impossible dream, Lovecraft’s oeuvre is almost anti-fantasy. Even his early Dreamlands fantasies are mired in the poignant irony of the disparity between awe-inspiring dreams and shitty waking life. And his Cthulhu Mythos is the ultimate anti-fantasy, the crushing blow not only to dreams of individual derring-do, but of the effectuality of the entire species, the whole empty, meaningless game. In tone, it is closer to the morbid pessimism of Kafka, Celine and Sartre (to whom Colin Wilson, in a caustic biographical entry on HPL, compared Lovecraft, whom he also called “sick” and a “bad writer,” despite a pernicious lasting influence on his own work), than to any other fantasist, and closer to fantasy or science fiction, than any horror writer.







As Michel Houllebecq so astutely points out in Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life, Lovecraft’s racism was a mainspring of his fiction, but it was only the banal face of his greater, raging misanthropy. Seen even in the context of all literature as a rejection of waking, consensus reality, Lovecraft’s fiction is a particularly bitter pill that reduces humanity to toiling ants in an unseen master’s garden, and offers no refuge or remedy for the disease of amorphous chaos which is the true state of the universe. If his projection of fear and repulsion on people of color as agents of the Other was a prevalent feature and not a bug, he was hardly unsparing of the white Eurocentric culture which was his self-proclaimed birthright. Even in “The Rats In The Walls,” which claims for HPL the kind of bucolic British aristocratic inheritance that he longed for in life, the foundations are revealed to be rot, abomination and insanity, and the principal antagonists of his key stories, while guilty of the supreme crime of miscegenation, are almost invariably white guys, with no savior of any color waiting in the wings.


Without getting dragged into a biography, it must be noted that Lovecraft’s traumatic upbringing instilled in him an irrational terror of corruption and promiscuity that perhaps isn’t so irrational, given that both his parents died in the madhouse of untreated syphilis. He went on to scrape out a bare existence as a ghostwriter and controversial but largely unloved pulp stalwart, but his body of work seethes with a nihilistic, misanthropic stew of which the racism is only the most acrid, superficial flavor.


Lovecraft himself said it best and proved himself a prophet after all, even when he was just trying to freak himself out.


At the closing of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the narrator finally devolves to acceptance when he learns that the awful taint of the alien abominations he narrowly escaped can never be purged, for it runs in his own blood.


The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-deeps, instead of fearing them. I hear and do strange things in sleep, and awake with a kind of exaltation, instead of terror…stupendous and unheard-of splendors await me below, and I shall seek them soon. Ia r’lyeh! Cthulhufhtagn! I shall not shoot myself, I cannot be made to shoot myself!


We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to cyclopean and many-columned y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the deep ones, we shall dwell in wonder and glory forever.


It’s not what Lovecraft represented as a model to be emulated, or as a trustworthy guide in realms of dream, that keeps his work and controversy alive. He never should have been the face of a literary prize, nor should any mortal artist (but the Karate Kid trophy still kinda sucks). It’s precisely because his howls of atomized entitlement so vividly depict the violent dislocation of the rational western mind when confronted by the indifference of the cosmos, that he is so inexhaustibly inspiring to others who don’t share his prejudices, indeed to many who categorically reject his characterization of most of humankind.


Though most of weird fiction has evolved past Lovecraftian pastiche and even explicit use of Mythos tropes, and rightfully so, discarding Lovecraft and relegating him to the margins would encourage Waffle-SS cosplayers to come out of the woodwork and claim him, and by extension the roots of cosmic horror itself as their own, and the Cthulhu Mythos would go the way of Pepe the Frog and tiki torches. If you’re sick of Lovecraft now, wait until the alt-right claims Cthulhu as a meme. Once that happens, the party’s over. The LA punk scene had to work tirelessly to call out Nazis and skinheads to stop them co-opting what they built, to keep a vital outsider scene from falling into the hands of elimationist imbeciles.


We may not unconditionally love Lovecraft, but we still need Cthulhu, damn it. (If you’re offended, go home and make up a better mythology, then we’ll need you, too.)









If Cthulhu did not already exist, it would be imperative to invent it, and over and over again, people have. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, absurdist parody of religious extremism, is only the latest shapeless cosmic sphinx to put a saucier face on the same set of tropes.


By a unique quirk of fate, Cthulhu is the great anti-brand, a cultural signifier ready-made for poking at human arrogance. Though he wore his influences on his sleeve, Lovecraft synthesized the deepest anxieties of the era into a coherent form and, whether by accident or design, gave it away to his fellow writers and the culture at large. While American fantasy icons like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Walt Disney fiercely commercialized and policed their intellectual property, Lovecraft gave away the keys to his small but rich kingdom and so unwittingly created, in this age of total brand awareness, an open-source mythology as robust as any indigenous folklore, but as powerfully modern as any chain-smoking French philosophy.


This, as much as anything else, insures that the Mythos will never become tentpole Hollywood fodder, because no self-respecting hydra-headed corporation would put down hundreds of millions for intellectual property it can’t exclusively own and exploit. In spite of hacky fanfic anthologies and plushy, cuddly overexploitation, Cthulhu continues to command a place in the hearts of people who love, rather than loathe, the strangeness of our universe.


While Lovecraft has rightly been pilloried for his failings as an artist and human being, he can’t respond. He’s dead. He shouldn’t be held as an ideal, but as a progressive with more than a few appalling racists who should know better in my own family I’ve had to learn how to navigate the straits between the lovable and loathsome territories in a single heart, to learn even from the worst.

While Lovecraft falls out of fashion largely due to political fatigue, Cthulhu recedes even now from the market because of overexposure, its mystery largely depleted by cheap and lazy pastiche and cut-and-paste hack-work. But as you cruise these pages and delve into the stories, you’ll see how, in the hands of sorcerers such as the inestimable Mr. Dubisch and the amorphous cabal of literary magi assembled herein, the mystery itself is inexhaustible, waiting only for the proper signs, invocations and sacrifices, to be reawakened.





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