Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law, The Last Weekend, and the forthcoming mystery novel I Am Providence. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Tor.com, Best American Mystery Stories, and many other magazines and anthologies. A significant number of his short stories are Lovecraftian—in addition to the ones collected in The Nickronomicon, he has pieces forthcoming in the anthologies Letters to Lovecraft and Shadows Over Main Street. After that, Nick will probably be done.
by Nick Mamatas
Why would anyone write Lovecraftian fiction? is a question that goes unasked in these days of renewed attention for H. P. Lovecraft. Perennially popular within the field of speculative fiction, Lovecraft has been, over the last decade and a half, canonized. He’s been published by both the Library of America and Penguin Classics, and derivations are ubiquitous. Throw a few tentacles into a short story, or the final boss of a video game, and a significant fraction of Lovecraft fandom will materialize and consume. They’ll kibitz and complain, mind you, but with a mouthful of suckers. Writing about Cthulhu or cosmic horror generally is in essence like writing about sensual vampires, or generation starships that have been adrift so long that their inhabitants no longer realize that their home is an ark and not a planet-it’s a set of tropes. And here I am, with a collection of my own tropey and ropey Lovecraftian fictions, The Nickronomicon, just as the issue of H. P. Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism are again coming to the fore.
For the record, I would be pleased to see the World Fantasy Award change its statue from a bust of Lovecraft to something else-in 2011, I recommended a chimera. After all, fantasy is a lot of things and awards are necessarily designed to honor their recipients, not their namesakes. At the same time, my two little “Howie” pins from my World Fantasy nominations bother me not at all, for reasons I hope to make clear. Plus, I have a book to sell you.
Lovecraft was not simply a product of his times, but a product of the right wing of his times. Lovecraft was more than just a simple racist. He was a xenophobe and a negrophobe in the truest senses of the word-he experienced an abject loathing of the Other. His marriage to Sonia Greene-a ridiculous failure of a relationship at any rate-does nothing to mitigate his antipathy toward Jews. It is almost a cliché that a reactionary man will eventually marry a woman he believes to be his inferior, as ten seconds Googling for customer chatter surrounding the mail-order bride industry will attest. After his marriage, Lovecraft said that 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 god damn bastard in sight.”
Lovecraft’s late embrace of the New Deal had no real impact on his racist attitudes, though many of his apologists are happy to claim that Lovecraft moved from conservatism to “socialism.” In reality, Roosevelt’s policies had little to do with socialism, and the entire world economy had shifted toward statification-the New Deal, fascism, and Stalinism were all attempts to deal with the widespread failures of markets in the 1920s. Ultimately, all that can be said for later Lovecraft is this: Lovecraft friend and fan Harry Kern Brobst remembers meeting Lovecraft in 1936, after Lovecraft’s neighbor Alice Shepherd returned from a visit to Germany with stories of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Lovecraft-who once said of Hitler “I know he’s a clown, but by God, I can’t help liking the boy!”-was incensed at what he heard.
Nor can Lovecraft’s attitudes be compartmentalized and thus divorced from his fiction. One can fruitfully read L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and see in them nothing of his calls for the genocide of Native Americans, which appeared in newspaper editorials and not in his fiction. One can even slap a hand over one eye whenever the “Tottenhots” show up in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and later in Rinkitink in Oz. Baum’s themes of unity, joy, and the wonders of diversity overwhelm and dilute his occasional forays into literary racism. Ditto Edgar Allan Poe, who likely supported slavery, but who only rarely wrote anything that dealt with race. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket features a ferocious and mutinous black cook and juxtaposed white (pure, good) and black (twisted, evil) imagery, but there’s much more to read of Poe if one cannot stand such depictions. Poe himself declared Narrative to be “a very silly book.” We can all agree and move on to the rest of his oeuvre.
The same is true of Orson Scott Card; his anti-gay sentiments are all but invisible in his earlier fiction, even Ender’s Game, leaving aside the perhaps coincidental and perhaps only subconscious nickname of the alien menace: the Buggers. If Card’s recent work is political or didactic, I wouldn’t know as I stopped reading him years ago. Not for ideological reasons, but simply because I’ve grown up.
But I’ve not grown up enough to leave Lovecraft behind, and his racism cannot be ignored. His anxieties are the crankshaft of his stories, his racism moves the pistons of plot and theme. One could, and I have, flipped the script by writing stories in which Lovecraft’s racist attitudes are interrogated, or ridiculed. In “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft,” which I wrote with Tim Pratt, a racist old collector meets…well, spoiler. In “Jitterbuggin'”, Lovecraft writes a letter to a young Jack Kerouac about a horrific jazz age nightmare he experienced in which…that’s another spoiler, but really, you should be able to guess what happens. This sort of stuff only takes a Lovecraftian writer so far. It’s a trick that can’t satisfy either reader or writer more than once or twice, and as far as anti-racist activism goes there’s little more pathetic than pointing to someone who has been dead for more than seventy years and saying, “Aha! You suck! Take that, and that, and that! The ol’ switcherooooo!” So Lovecraft’s racism we’ll have to tackle, not just reverse.
Normally coherent Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi recently defended Lovecraft against charges of racism by claiming that the stories some see as soaking in racism “depict cases of human degeneration-but the degeneration is clearly of white people.” To which one can only say, “Well, yes.” Lovecraft was a man of his times insofar as he was concerned about the racial survival of the “Nordic Aryan” people-he feared a weakening of the white “germ plasm.” Lovecraft wanted to expel from the United States people like me, as I have a “foreign” surname, writing at one point, “In excluding the swarms of Mediterranean and Asiatic vermin that now ooze and creep over all the landscape we could have avoided most of that very sense of intolerable repulsion which a foreign name now creates in us…”
Faye Ringel, another excellent Lovecraft scholar, presented a great paper on the subject a few years ago at a Lovecraftian event in Vermont. She explained that in the 1920s, thirty-one states had eugenics laws on the books, and popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Harper’s regularly published articles on the importance of racial purity. The fear of white degeneration is both a once-common pseudoscientific racist notion and central to Lovecraft’s gothic imagination.
In “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, the shocking twist ending is that Arthur Jermyn’s great-great-great-grandmother was not a mere Portuguese, but a “white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind-quite shockingly so.” For those tempted to argue that at least the ape was white, in “Medusa’s Coil”, one of his revisions with Zealia Bishop, ends with this revelation: “Marceline was a negress.”
A decade after “Jermyn”, in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the theme of secret subhuman ancestry re-emerges. The “Innsmouth look” of the local families is due to mating with amphibious outsiders. They worship Dagon, a god who was not one of Lovecraft’s creations, but which was a historical god worshipped in the Mediterranean. It hardly need be said that in Lovecraft’s time, many immigrants from the Mediterranean-non-white and disgusting according to Lovecraft-came to New England and took up fishing and other maritime work as their professions. For Lovecraft, the ultimate horror was that of the WASP hegemony being overwhelmed by older, darker populations, and civilization collapsing.
Time and again the use of aliens, Elder Gods, and ancient magic, were used as metaphors for this personal, seminal, fear. So we cannot simply extract the racism from Lovecraft’s fiction, as then there would be very little of his themes left. Any reader with some knowledge of Lovecraft’s life can go through most of his horror and science fiction, and see that racism and xenophobia utterly limn the work. It’s the racism and xenophobia that actually make the work frightening.
Whites in Lovecraft’s fiction fear degeneration into non-Nordic-Aryan forms, as in “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Lurking Fear,” and other stories. Cosmic horror involves outer space, and genetic horror involves inner space. Lovecraft frequently connected the two via the process of revelation: we think we are one thing, but we are another. We think the universe works one way, but it works in some other.
And that, of course, is why Lovecraft is worth reading, and Lovecraftian fiction worth writing. Yes, in many ways Lovecraft was forward-thinking, integrating new scientific concepts such as plate tectonics and new technologies such as air-conditioning into his work. And his racism was complex-it was both on the dubious cutting edge of the science at the time, and fueled by a visceral loathing that went far beyond the average level of white racism of the era.
Lovecraft’s racism works like his stories do: he takes rationality and careful thinking as far as he can, and then when he hits the black empty space beyond it, it’s time for an unfathomable horror. In “The Outsider”, the nameless and unmarked narrator sees “the foetid apparition which pressed so close” and then he gets even closer so that “in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness and hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch.”
The cosmic joke of cosmic horror, in “The Outsider” anyway, is that the foetid apparition is the narrator himself. The foetid apparition is Lovecraft himself. The man was a loser woefully unprepared for life in the twentieth century. All he had to hang on to was his family’s illustrious past, and like many a racist or nationalist or tribalist, he depended on ancient glories to cover up for present mediocrity.
Though writers are sick narcissists who struggle with simultaneous egomania and self-loathing almost to a person, we are also almost all mediocrities looking to transcend ourselves via our work. Writing fiction requires rationality, but also must jump the rails of reason at some point to be worth re-reading. Lovecraft left behind an extremely powerful template for writers and readers: the universe is enormous and we are very small. Our understanding of the universe’s size cannot save us. Nothing we are, in our smallness, can save us. The stories we tell ourselves about the bigness of our own powers and pedigrees cannot save us.
It doesn’t matter if these insights are true-plenty of believing Christians, scientific optimists, and techno-Utopians enjoy reading Lovecraft and writing Lovecraftian fiction-what matters is that these insights haunt us all in dark moments of existential doubt and fear. Luckily, we don’t have the WASP hegemony to kick around anymore (We won! Lovecraft lost!), but our own irrational cosmic fears stay with us. Joanna Russ, the feminist SF writer and critic who of course had little time for racism, said of Lovecraft: “he was able to fashion artistic images that express certain basic issues in human experience, issues that matter to all of us, though they trouble some of us more and others of us less.”
I presume the Lovecraftians are among the more troubled. Maybe it’s no surprise that Lovecraftiana has been overtaken by Lovecraft’s own nightmares. It’s a great irony that Lovecraft is championed by the Indian-American scholar S. T. Joshi; that the greatest Lovecraftian writers are Willum Hopfrog Pugmire and Caitlin R. Kiernan, who are both queer; that if there is ever a great Lovecraftian film to come from Hollywood it will likely be thanks to the efforts of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and Mexican-Canadian writer and publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a Lovecraft specialist, even going so far as to publish The Nickronomicon. And, of course, any number of writers and editors of Jewish descent such as Roberts Bloch and Weinberg have worked in the Lovecraftian idiom. A great irony, but no great surprise. Despite his attitudes, Lovecraft himself was unfailingly polite in person and in his many, many letters. History has come to pass as Lovecraft feared that it would-the WASP hegemon has collapsed, and we’re all multiculturalists now. Contra Lovecraft, society has only improved thanks to this. Modern writers are no longer frightened of Lovecraft, we’re frightened at Lovecraft. We’re frightened at ourselves and those places where we hit the own limits of rationality. Lovecraft filled the black space after rationality with a fear of blackness from which he could not turn away; we can fill it with other things. As far as what I personally fill it with, what alienage I see when I look into the outsider’s mirror, I don’t even know. I write Lovecraftian fiction in the hope of finding out, but you cannot examine a particular brain with the tools of that same brain. You’ll have to read my stories and tell me. (Yes, buy my book.)
The ultimate reason that the very people that Lovecraft would have despised have conquered Lovecraftian fiction is simple: Lovecraft’s enormous fear was coupled with longing for that outsider in the mirror. He was a rampaging anti-Semite who married a Jew; the man who said of meeting a gay man at a party, “I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it!” Well, he kissed it, after a fashion. Even “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” ends with a kiss of sorts-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 amidst wonder and glory for ever. Given the choice between life as a man, and as a damned and degenerate frog-faced abomination, the choice is clear. An abomination it shall be. So, here we are then.
Lovecraft hated blacks and Jews and “Asiatics”, but he was clearly obsessed with them as well. He couldn’t get them-us-out of his mind. Lovecraft considered himself a fine example of Teutonic stock, but also knew that he was weak-willed, a nervous wreck, someone basically incapable of holding a job or living on his own. With his family name and upper-class roots, he should have been the ultimate insider, but he found himself the ultimate outsider. He identified strongly with outsiders-thus his gay friends, his Jewish wife, his Communist penpals-even while he was revolted by his own sad decline, and what it might mean for the future of WASP civilization.
It’s a truism that in horror stories the monster is much more interesting than the victim. The pimply kids of the 1980s grew up cheering on Freddy and Jason as they tore through two dozen films worth of preppies and jocks, because Freddy and Jason were as awkward and ugly as the teens watching the films. And in Lovecraft’s fiction, the Lovecraftian figures are the least interesting parts of the stories. Far more vibrant and compelling are the monsters, the ancient tomes, the blasphemous wisdom. Far more enthralling than Lovecraft’s idiot racism and severe mental problems are his wonderful creations. That’s us. And we don’t need a phantom mea culpa from the author to make us feel better about it. We read Lovecraft’s work and write Lovecraftian fiction, but we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.