Is Lovecraft’s racism central to the horror?

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with feminist writer and activist Laurie Penny about H. P. Lovecraft. Despite his reactionary and misanthropic world-view, she’s a big fan and stated that his massive racism and sexism are an intrinsic part of the horror.

You don’t have to read much Lovecraft to recognise that his work is shot through with racism. It’s not just having a cat called “Nigger Boy”; stories like the iconic “Call of Cthulhu” are filled with awful racial stereotypes, and a primal fear of miscegenation lies at the heart of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“.

Yet almost all Lovecraft fans I know are left-leaning in their politics and strongly anti-racist. This may just be a reflection of the sorts of people I hang out with online, but I can’t think of many HPL fans with robustly right-wing views. Certainly I’ve seen no evidence of hordes of Lovecraft fans who embrace his racism and sexism in the manner of a noisy faction of Robert Heinlein fanboys.

What are your feelings about Lovecraft? Do you or people you know find his racism too much to stomach? Are there hordes of ultra-reactionary Deep Ones that embrace his values who I’m blissfully unaware of?

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10 Responses to Is Lovecraft’s racism central to the horror?

  1. Sam Lewis says:

    I’ve never read Lovecraft’s work, but it’s probably more due to the fact that his work is almost 100 years old when those kind of views were the norm and accepted.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    It’s true that the early years of the 20th Century were far less enlightened, but Lovecraft was quite racist even by the standards of his time.

    Of course, some people never get past his dreadfully-dated prose style. Never use one adjective when you can use three!

  3. Sam Lewis says:

    I need to read some of his stuff tbh. I’ve listened to enough metal songs based on his work!

  4. Tim Hall says:

    There are several anthologies of his stories (He never wrote a full-length novel). My favourite is the novella “The Mountains of Madness”, set in Antarctica.

  5. Michael says:

    In the Lovecraftian universe you need lots of cardboard cutout characters and the less pleasant they are the better. After all they have very short life expectancies and the less you like them the less it hurts when they die horribly.

    I’m not a great fan of the genre myself, but I quite enjoyed John Ringo’s Princess & Queen of Wands, which are set in the same frame of reference.

  6. Tim Hall says:

    The ideal game of Call of Cthulhu often results in a Total Party Kill where the party take the monster down with them in the final scene. The objective of the game isn’t to gain experience points and go up levels, but simply to beat the monster. Character survival is a bonus, especially if Kev Dearn is GMing. And sometimes (quite often, in fact), the monster wins.

  7. John P. says:

    That’s the problem I found with CoC. You spent ages on the character generation and then 30 minutes in to the actual playing you’re a wibbling, insane wreck and it’s all over. Might as well have done something more fulfilling, like going to the toilet. Oh well, had to try it out.

  8. Tim Hall says:

    You need to sign up for one of Kev Dearn’s CoC games next Stabcon. I haven’t played one where characters die or wibble out early on, but half of them end up with TPKs in the final scene. They’re always great fun.

  9. Kev Dearn says:

    Well Call/Realms/Trail of Cthulhu and its many other variants are not for everyone. If your character was reduced to an unplayable wreck after only 30 minutes then you played with a very poor GM.

    Complaining about Lovecraft’s racism and sexism is a bit like trying close the stable door not only after the horse has bolted but after it is dead and buried and the stable has been demolished.

    I sometimes surprise people when I say I am not a fan of Lovecraft’s writing. The elephant in the room is that while he may have had a vision of cosmic horror that was ground breaking at the time, when it came to the craft of actual writing he was not particularly good.

    Lovecraft’s writing aside, the truth of the matter when it comes to Mythos fiction as a whole, 95% of it is crap. This has led me to seek out some of the material that inspired the early tales, which is often much better, though one must remember the time in which they were written, just like Lovecraft’s tales and those of his contemporaries .

    Statistically speaking, player characters are at greater risk from the other player characters in my games than they are from the proverbial “tentacled monstrosities”. It is the threat of the horror and the slow decline into insanity that makes a good Cthulhu game.

  10. Tim Hall says:

    I don’t think there are many people who think Lovecraft is a great writer. As you say, his vision of cosmic horror involving malevolent seafood from outer space was groundbreaking and is still powerful, but as a prose stylist he’s absolutely bloody awful.

    And I remember your game where one of the player characters was the monster, unknown to the rest of the party. She played it really wall, and not of the rest of us had any inkling of what was going on until right at the end.