In the new HBO series "Lovecraft Country," a young Black Korean War veteran named Atticus "Tic" Freeman (Jonathan Majors) explains why he loves the sci-fi novel "Princess of Mars" even though its protagonist is a Confederate soldier. "Stories are like people," says Tic, who is on his way home to Chicago. "Loving them doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws."
This tension is at the heart of "Lovecraft Country," which follows Tic, his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and other family members as they encounter monstrous racists — as well as literal monsters — in the early civil rights era. The drama is primarily set in the North — a region that was technically integrated but where discriminatory housing policies, sundown laws and the specter of violent intimidation meant that de facto segregation was widespread — and like "Get Out," uses horror to confront deeply rooted bias in all corners of American society.
The high-profile series is based on the novel by Matt Ruff and boasts big-name executive producers including Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. And it has brought renewed attention to the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential genre writers of the 20th century — as well as a virulent racist, white supremacist and anti-Semite whose dread-soaked writing is animated by fear of the Other.
“His influence in horror-fan culture is huge,” said showrunner Misha Green in a recent Q&A released by HBO. “And you can definitely tell he was a racist from his work. It’s hard to miss those troubling themes.”
Here’s a look at Lovecraft’s life, legacy and how present-day fans are grappling with his racism.
Who was H.P. Lovecraft?
Though he spent most of his life in Providence, for a few miserable years he resided in Brooklyn, an experience that seems to have heightened his xenophobic impulses. His work was published sporadically in pulp magazines and he sometimes helped edit other people’s writing, but he was never steadily employed and lived for many years on an allowance from his wife. He died, penniless and obscure, in 1937.
In the decades after Lovecraft’s death, his cult following grew, thanks to the efforts of fans, critics and academics.
Why is he such a big deal?
“He was beginning to write at a time when science was making vast and profound discoveries,” says Klinger. “What he came to believe, I think deeply and honestly, was that human beings were insignificant little dust motes in this enormous universe and that eventually we would discover that we were not particularly significant.”
He was affiliated with a group of writers known as the Lovecraft Circle, who freely borrowed imagery from his work and helped establish the system of lore called the Cthulhu Mythos, a fantastical shared universe of alien deities. The best-known of these creatures is Cthulhu, a many-tentacled, bat-winged octopus-dragon hybrid that has inspired countless other horror-movie monsters. Other Lovecraftian tropes include the Necronomicon, a.k.a. the Book of the Dead, a fictional book of magic.
Lovecraft and his peers “created the shared mythology at a time when modern horror and science fiction were coming into being and it got passed down into the DNA of the genre,” says Matt Ruff, author of “Lovecraft Country.” “Lovecraft was the ultimate meme generator."
Long after his death, the author influenced a host of contemporary writers and filmmakers, including Stephen King (who called him “the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”), Guillermo del Toro, George R.R. Martin, Ridley Scott, Alan Moore, John Carpenter and Neil Gaiman. His work has been adapted into video games and movies, including the recent Nicolas Cage vehicle, "Color Out of Space."
And Lovecraftian imagery pervades contemporary pop culture, from “Stranger Things'" insidious Mind Flayer to the terrifying Spaghetti Monster (a.k.a. the Yellow King) from the first, existential dread-laden season of “True Detective” to “South Park’s” very own Cthulhu. And he has spawned a merchandise empire, encompassing stuffed animals and Christmas ornaments.
Was he racist?
Lovecraft’s bigotry is most evident in his voluminous correspondence. (He wrote somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 letters in his lifetime, according to Klinger.) In his letters, he candidly expressed contempt for Jews, Black people and non-white immigrants and voiced an overwhelming fear of "miscegenation." He praised Southerners for “resorting to extra-legal measures such as lynching” in their efforts to keep the races separate. “Anything is better than the mongrelization which would mean the hopeless deterioration of a great nation.”
But Lovecraft’s racist views are also easy to discern in his creative writing.
In 1912, he wrote a poem called “On the Creation of [N-word],” which imagines Black people as “beast[s]” wrought by the gods "in semi-human figure filled with vice.” (He also had a cat named [N-word] Man.)
Even Lovecraft’s most committed apologists have struggled to defend “The Horror at Red Hook,” a short story about an Irish detective investigating a sinister devil-worshiping cult of immigrants on the Brooklyn waterfront in which he uses explicitly racist language. (He refers to the “Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island” and “squinting Orientals.”)
Racist sentiment also seeps into Lovecraft’s more celebrated tales, say his critics. His novella, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” follows a student who gets stuck in a strange seaside village populated by monstrous fish people who try to kill him; he survives by impersonating their movements. “It’s his not-very-subtle way of dealing with race-mixing,” says Ruff.
For many decades after Lovecraft’s death, the genre was “dominated by white folks and white critics [who] tended to just completely overlook the racist aspects of his fiction,” Ruff adds. “Of course there were always Black science fiction fans as well but their voices weren't necessarily heard. They just sort of had to deal with the fact that they loved this genre that didn’t love them back.”
How do contemporary writers feel about Lovecraft’s racism?
For decades, the World Fantasy Award — dubbed the Howard, after Lovecraft — was a stylized bust of the writer. In 2011, World Fantasy award-winner Nnedi Okorafor wrote of her conflicted feelings after realizing the extent of Lovecraft’s bigotry. “A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer."
Writer Daniel José Older started a petition to replace the Lovecraft trophy with a statue of the late Black author Octavia Butler because, he wrote, “It's time to stop co-signing his bigotry and move sci-fi/fantasy out of the past.”
In 2015, a new trophy — depicting a spooky but inoffensive tree — was introduced.
But a backlash to the backlash predictably ensued. Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi, who is Indian American, returned his two “irremediably tainted" World Fantasy awards in protest and called the decision "a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness." A white nationalist publisher also responded by creating a Lovecraft literature prize for writers “who transgress the boundaries of political correctness.”
And controversy over Lovecraft’s legacy continues to rage within the world of genre literature. Author George R.R. Martin came under fire this month when he hosted the virtual ceremony for the Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy and kept talking about Lovecraft (while mispronouncing the name of winner Rebecca F. Kuang).
Should Lovecraft be canceled?
“He’s speaking to universal themes but also to very specific pathologies of his own,” says Ruff, who is white, “and that’s what makes him to me still resonate even though his personal worldview is really loathsome.”
He cites “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as an example. “It is a very specific story about a white man threatened by this mixed-race horde but it’s also one of the most effective tales of attempted lynching I've ever read. Lovecraft captures the fear brilliantly. I can learn from that and do interesting things with it while rejecting the underlying idea.”
Within the science fiction and horror community, debate continues over how to acknowledge Lovecraft’s contributions without reinforcing his racist worldview.
Some Black authors have chosen to directly confront Lovecraft’s legacy in their own writing, including Victor LaValle, whose book “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a response to "The Horror at Red Hook” and focuses on a young Black man in 1920s New York.
LaValle revered Lovecraft as a young boy but as a teenager grew more critical of the author’s willingness to express racist ideas in various forms of writing. “If you were walking down the street and somebody said that, you'd smack them in the mouth. So why did I say that it was OK on the page? And yet by this point, I already loved the stories, so it made for these very conflicted feelings,” he said in a 2016 "Fresh Air" interview.
N.K. Jemisin, a three-time winner of the prestigious Hugo Award for science-fiction writing, has been outspoken about racism in science fiction and, especially, Lovecraft’s writing.
“It’s frightening to look into the mind of a true bigot and realize just how alien their thinking is, just how disturbing their ability to dehumanize their fellow human beings is,” she said in an interview with "The New Yorker Radio Hour" this year. Her recent novel, “The City We Became,” portrays New York as a vital living being, not a place filled with monsters, as Lovecraft did.
But Jemisin doesn’t think Lovecraft — or his canon — should be canceled. Instead, she has argued that readers should acknowledge the potential harm of his writing, then engage with it “when they are strong enough” to do so. “You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists, and that’s what you want to engage with,” she told the New Yorker.
Likewise, Ruff was partly inspired to write “Lovecraft Country” by Pam Noles essay “Shame,” about the pain of being a Black “Star Wars” fan. "I was trying to think of a different kind of reader who may want to love Lovecraft but just can’t get past this stuff because Lovecraft didn’t even regard them as fully human," he says. "That's a story to be told too."
For the record:
3:51 PM, Aug. 13, 2020: An earlier version of this article story misspelled the last name of the writer Pam Noles.