On August 20th, we celebrated the birthday of Howard Philips Lovecraft, a pioneer and world-changing visionary in the realms of horror and speculative fiction. His impact is undeniable; Lovecraft’s fingerprints can be found all over popular culture. His visage literally represents one of the highest honors in genre fiction. And yet, any serious study of the man and his works inevitably must address both the subtle, and blatant, racism presented in those works.
In Lovecraft’s case, we have the totality of his reletively brief life’s work through which to judge him. That the author’s hideous attitude was a product of the time and circumstances of his birth fails to remove its stain from his legend. Its ugliness can neither be denied nor excused. But the same is true for his writing talent and the products of his unfettered dark imagination. It is a paradox that fuels further study of his life and literary legacy.
It is interesting to note that many of these works were published in the venerable magazine Weird Tales. Why interesting?
Because, on the same day, Weird Tales experienced a kerflufle on der interwebz regarding their decision to serially publish* a controversial self-pub novel with racism as its central theme. The novel, Revealing Eden, purportedly seeks to turn racism on its head by presenting a dystopian future in which the most folks of the Caucasian persuasion have been wiped out and are ruled by their dominant dark-skinned overlords. The problem, by most accounts, is that the story is a clumsy attempt at presenting “reverse racism”, using every ignorant stereotype available to, in fact, reinforce such stereotypes. Then Weird Tales editor Marvin Kaye issued a statement defending the work and the magazine’s decision to print it. This caused quite the brouhaha, resulting in a subsequent backpedal by the magazine’s publisher. There are some excellent blogs detailing the mess here and here.
A rather ironic connection, no?
Is Weird Tales an inherently racist magazine based on this connection? No–the magazine has undergone many changes in its long history and, until recently, was considered to have resurrected to prominence in the field by editor Ann VanderMeer and Stephen Segal. It’s just one of those odd intersections of coincidence and history that make you go hmmmm.
But I do think the whole affair illustrative of the fact that, despite the great strides that we have made since Lovecraft’s day, we obviously still have a long way to go. No legitimate press would have the testicular fortitude to publish such a screed as this today–we’ve gone beyond that. Being dubbed a racist can be a career-killer for the modern professional author–not so back in the early 20th century. But subtler forms of racism–racism that springs from ignorance and privilege–is still alive and well.
Unlike Lovecraft, I doubt the principals involved in this case are hateful people. In fact, I attribute much of what they’ve done to more to incompetence and ignorance than to malice. But that’s what so insidious about it. It’s the invisible blot on one’s character that, once warned against, you can fight. But, if one chooses to be willfully ignorant, it grows, unseen and unheard, until it’s entrenched in the heart. Much like the primordial dread of the Great Old Ones, it lies dormant until woken and then wreaks havoc.
I came across an excellent quote the other day that touches on this:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? — Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Or, if you’d rather a more geeky quote, recall the wise words of Merlin the Enchanter, when asked where evil dwells in the kingdom: “Always…where you never expect it. Always. “