H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, simple and plain.
H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of the horror genre.
Both of these statements can coexist. To be disgusted by the fact of the former does not necessitate a disavowal of the latter.
This notion does not seem to have been given much consideration these days, in the midst of a rampant “cancel” culture with its rush to politicize/ostracize/erase. Case in point: the recent stoking of the flames of controversy by those who were offended by the awarding of a Retro Hugo (a retroactive honoring, in this instance, of fiction from 1944, a chosen year predating the existence of the Hugo Awards) to Lovecraft. I was alerted to this ostensible issue by a recent essay (more like an op-ed piece) posted by Meghan Ball on the Tor Nightfire website, entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists: On Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos.” I have no intention of defending Lovecraft–whose indisputable racism is indefensible–here, but I do feel that there are problematic aspects of Ball’s rhetoric that need to be addressed.
Ball takes unabashed umbrage at Lovecraft’s posthumous win:
Literally the most racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist jerk in the entire history of horror as a genre got an award. Even more galling, somehow, is that apparently he won for “Best Series” which is a thing he never even really wrote. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Haven’t we suffered enough?
First, it needs to be clarified that this Retro Hugo was awarded to “The Cthulhu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others.” The distinction was not given to Lovecraft alone, yet Ball is quick to cast Derleth and others aside here. Such singling out of Lovecraft (who, as the original creator of what has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos, no doubt deserves prime recognition) suggests someone eager to take shots at the genre’s easiest target.
The grouse that Lovecraft never wrote a series is mere semantics. What I find more relevant is the competition that the Cthulhu Mythos was grouped against for the Retro Hugo. Looking at the other nominees in the “Best Series” category, I don’t think this qualifies as an upset win. Nor do I think the award is the result of any sort of reactionary conspiracy by the voters.
Ball’s lament about suffering is a bit much, smacking of the hyperbolic and melodramatic. And before anyone accuses me of writing from a position of privilege, let me just say that as an Italian-American, I would have been tossed by Lovecraft into the same cauldron of nauseating vitriol. Personally, though, I don’t feel particularly damaged by the choosing of Lovecraft (and others) for the Retro Hugo, or deem it some torturous development for writers in the horror genre.
In the subsequent paragraph of her piece, Ball’s struggle to come to terms with the acknowledgement of Lovecraft continues:
This literally did not have to happen. The point of these awards is to highlight achievements in the genre that never got awarded. I imagine there was a group of very well-meaning people who thought maybe they could uncover lost gems or highlight authors who never really got their due in their lifetime. Instead, they appear to be a way to give the same few names more accolades, and seem rather alarmingly unconnected with what is going on right now in the genre. The phrase “read the room” comes to mind.
The operative phrase here is “I imagine”: Ball speculates on the intended spirit of the Retro Hugo awards. Her view skews toward the honoring not merely of the overlooked, but to the under-represented. Her comments speak to a seeming resentment of Lovecraft’s enduring popularity (honestly, would anyone be so outraged over him had he faded into obscurity along with his pulp brethren?), and implicitly interrogate anyone who dares to contribute further to it in any way. Even more bothersome is Ball’s complaint that giving such award to Lovecraft represents a dangerous disconnect with current goings-on in the genre. Does the citing of work circa the mid-1940s have anything to do with what is transpiring in 2020? Is it the obligation of the Retro Hugo Awards to “read the room”? I am reminded of the politicizing of the Oscars in recent years, where the recognition of intrinsic artistic merit has been eclipsed by the desire for gestures toward social justice.
Next, Ball professes:
I love Cthulhu as much as anyone else. That’s why I am here to say: enough is enough with Lovecraft. He has become the racist albatross around the neck of cosmic horror, and I am so sick and tired of it. It’s not “Lovecraftian horror,” it’s “cosmic horror,” because one man does not have a copyright on wondering what horrors lurk beyond the stars.
After having herself just focused exclusively on Lovecraft as the awardee (ignoring the other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos), Ball proceeds to call for a broadening beyond him. More off-putting is Ball’s arrogating to herself the responsibility for being the conscience of, and mouthpiece for, the genre.
Indeed, time and again, Ball enacts a disconcerting slippage between “I” and “we”:
As a community, we have outgrown Lovecraft. We’ve moved beyond him. While his influence will always be there, cosmic horror is undergoing a diverse and powerful transformation into something way beyond what ol’ Howard ever envisioned. […] Cosmic horror is being turned into something wonderful and new in the hands of talented women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors. It would have made Lovecraft hide under his bed, quaking in his boots, and I love that. That is what should be celebrated now, yet we keep picking at Lovecraft like someone picking at a scab, never letting it heal.
There is some vagueness here as to what Ball wants to celebrate: the emergence of new voices in cosmic horror fiction, or the imagined (in vindictive mindset) causing of distress to Lovecraft? That scab analogy is also interesting, considering that it’s the denigrators of Lovecraft who appear the most compelled to pick away and keep the putative wound fresh.
And allow me to digress slightly here to address what I believe to be a disturbing trend in the genre: the systematic discrimination against writers of perceived advantaged background. I am talking about the calls for submissions to anthologies and magazines that strictly limit the demographic; straight white males need not apply. This exclusionary measure offends on several levels, not the least of which is the suggestion that such writers are incapable of creating characters of different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than their own (these same writers doubtless would be excoriated for a lack of diversity in their cast if they failed to offer such representations in their work). These days, the author’s identity seems to supersede the fictional product itself. But as another genre giant once asserted, “It’s the tale, not he who tells it” (although, I am sure that today Stephen King would be loudly rebuked for employing such a masculinist pronoun).
Returning to Ball’s bouncing of Lovecraft:
I think everyone who considers himself a fan of horror or science fiction or fantasy is just tired. I know I am. […] We’ve also been going through so many terrible things the past few years, with revelations within the genre space of sexual harassment, racism, ableism, and homophobia. It has been a very long few years. That’s why the act of giving H.P. Lovecraft an award feels even worse: it’s just another step backwards. I’m not saying that you can never read a Cthulhu story again, you just shouldn’t be giving an award to the person everyone uses as the ultimate example of racism in the genre at a time when we are still very much dealing with racism in the genre.
Again, Ball problematically assumes that she can speak on behalf of “everyone.” Making Lovecraft the figurehead for everything that is wrong with the modern genre doesn’t seem very fair, either. The man has been rotting in his grave for nearly a century now; he shouldn’t be implicated in acts of sexual harassment, ableism, homophobia or even racism currently being committed by other genre figures. And how gracious of Ball to grant that we can still read Cthulhu stories (one suspects, though, that she does so grudgingly).
The disgruntled Bell, meanwhile, wonders whether the Retro Hugos shouldn’t just be dismantled as an awards program. She points out that “these awards seem to be doing further harm to a genre already reeling, and we do not need to keep flagellating ourselves like this. We don’t need to keep contorting ourselves and bleeding out on the altar of ‘proper canon’ created by dead white guys to show fealty to our chosen genre.” Earlier, Ball championed the positive developments in the genre; here she posits a “reeling” genre in serious crisis. The tendency appears to be to tout empowerment or alternately play a victim (admittedly, I find that elaborate masochism conceit a bit of a head-scratcher) whenever it best suits the narrative. Ball’s scornful dismissal of “dead white guys,” reducing genre history to a convenient, pejorative catch phrase, speaks volumes about her antagonistic perspective.
Ball concludes with the denouncing pronouncement that the “Retro Hugos, as well as the 2020 Hugo Awards themselves, were a massive step backwards, awash in the glorification of a past that was primarily white and male, dismissive of anything new, and borderline hostile to changes made for the better. How many people saw Lovecraft’s win and decided this wasn’t the genre for them?”
My immediate response to Ball’s overreaction is, how many people saw Lovecraft’s win (at a conference set in New Zealand, no less), period. How many genre fans really care about this year’s Hugo winners, let alone a retroactive award for the year 1944? I would venture that more–by which I mean a select cadre of–writers (determined to build their own platform by climbing up on a soapbox) than readers were chagrined by Lovecraft’s win.
In any event, the keyword here is “decided.” It links back to Ball’s opening paragraph, where the author declares it an “abomination” that “a group of people decided to give H.P. Lovecraft an award.” Ball clearly cannot accept that this award was the product of a popular vote–that others might actually hold a viewpoint different from her own.
I’ll say it again: Lovecraft was a flat-out racist. I regret his bigoted ignorance, and pity him for whatever biological/environmental forces warped his outlook so terribly. But I am quite capable of deciding for myself, without the influence of self-appointed genre spokespeople, whether or not Lovecraft’s benighted perspective taints my enjoyment of his fiction, or stymies my willingness to engage with his weird tales altogether.
Ultimately, Ball’s essay–emblematic of the Lovecraft bashing that has grown so fashionable, and so tiresome in its rehearsal of the same racism argument–ends up promoting the very intolerance of others that it bemoans. Perhaps the author should be more careful going forward about throwing Lovecraft statuettes from her own glass house.