I spent last weekend down in the lovely Providence, RI, for the 2015 edition of NecronomiCon, a festival that celebrates the legacy and achievement of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the broader field of the weird in literature, art, and popular culture.
I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.
Having been an avid reader of Lovecraft since the age of 11, I first went to the Con in 2013 in a purely recreational capacity, enjoyed it immensely, and found that it renewed my interest in researching and writing critically on Lovecraft and his legacy (the forthcoming collections I’m editing, The Lovecraftian Poe and The Call of Cosmic Panic, not to mention my return to Lovecraft via the interest he and Poe shared in materialist/atomist philosophy, all came about in part because of the impetus NecronomiCon 2013 provided.)
I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library.
This year, I attended as part of the Armitage Symposium, a series of academic panels and talks co-organized by Niels Hobbs and Dennis Quinn. I participated specifically in a panel on the importance of ancient Rome and Roman writers for Lovecraft, drawing on a book-length study I’m slowly working on (tentatively titled Repulsive Influences) that charts the vestiges and influence of 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in/on Poe and Lovecraft. and through them, contemporary cosmic horror.
NecronomiCon 2015 was both fun and thought-provoking; it is, in many ways, a unique and wonderful convention, and this year’s was more ambitious and multi-faceted than its 2013 iteration had been. It was also much more unsettling.
ABOUT THE ‘CON
If you don’t know anything about the Con, it straddles the boundaries between pop-culture fandom and academic conference. It features gaming, cosplay, a bizarre bazaar offering everything from Cthulhu plushies to rare and first-edition books to contemporary weird and horror fiction titles (by indie and major publishers) and films, to on-site film screenings, podcasts, live theatrical performances, and….well, you get the idea.
It is, on the one hand, an unprecedented celebration of a single writer’s massive popular-cultural legacy (even Lovecraft’s beloved “God of Fiction” Poe, or his contemporary popular descendent Stephen King, doesn’t have anything comparable). On the other, it also strives to be a locus of weird/horror fiction more broadly, showcasing the work of many subsequent creators who work in Lovecraft’s shadow, or with the materials he helped shape into their modern forms.
These contradictions are part of what make the convention so singular, and so engaging. They are also, of course, what make it so profoundly problematic. Consider my phrasing, above, about contemporary creators of the weird working “in Lovecraft’s shadow,” and you may already get a sense of part of the problem, as Nnedi Okorafor famously did when she won the World Fantasy Award a few years back.
LOVECRAFT AND RACISM
Knowing I was at the Con, a friend shared a link to this Atlantic Monthly article about Lovecraft’s popular resurgence, and its relation to his more troubling social, and especially racial, views. The article’s aptness was highlighted for me by a number of things that happened at the Con.
On the one hand, there was a lot more open, critical dialogue about this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing and legacy than at the previous NecronomiCon, including a well-selected and attended panel on Lovecraft and racism. I didn’t make it to that one in person, but have watched it since – you can view it here.
Lovecraft’s xenophobic and racial views are hard to overlook (I would say impossible, if so many of his readers, imitators, and commentators had not tried, with varying degrees of success, to overlook them for so many decades), and this makes his celebrated status as a literary and pop-cult icon especially problematic.
These views are hardly incidental to Lovecraft’s writing, fiction or otherwise. In terms of his fictions, his anxious racial attitudes pervasively inflect his tales, becoming most overt in stories written during his time in New York city, including the spasmodic, gibbering tirades against urban ethnic hybridity which are “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook.” But they hardly disappear from the later fiction; like the invective that peppers his letters, they just become more understated once he returns to the relative ethnic and linguistic homogeneity of Providence.
In terms of his critical writings, Lovecraft even tended to assimilate weird fiction to his own racial typography, associating different strains of it with different aspects of his racial imaginary. In one example, from the first chapter of Supernatural Horror in Literature, he claimed that:
“In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, where the mystical Teuton had come down from his black Boreal forests and the Celt remembered strange sacrifices in Druidic groves, it assumed a terribly intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-hinted horror.”
Virtually every aspect of Lovecraft’s thought and writing is in some way coloured by his ideas about race and the relationship between genetics and culture, from his affectionate writings about cats to his readings of philosophical and historical works. As my ancient Rome co-panelists Dennis Quinn and Byron Nakamura both aptly stated during the panel on Lovecraft and ancient Rome, even Lovecraft’s identification with Roman writers is inflected by a tendency to align his contemporary white-Anglo-Saxon-Atheistical-Protestantism with both 18th century England and Republican Rome (an identification that echoes that made by Edward Gibbon and other 18th century British writers.)
Are these racial views ostensibly the reason most contemporary readers/writers are fascinated with Lovecraft’s stories? Of course not. One of the participants on the panel, Mexican-born Canadian author, editor and publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in her own reflections on the 2015 Con, writes:
“I’ve been asked (over and over again) why I’m interested in Lovecraft since he is so problematic. Nick Mamatas pretty much nails the answer in his essay “Why Write Lovecraftian Fiction?” which concludes:
“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.”
That’s my reaction, too.
Lovecraft was almost pathologically racist, brimming with biological anxieties which found their way into his stories. Even when he’s not afraid of other races, I would say he is afraid of genetic inferiors, constantly consumed with thoughts about degeneration, about lineages and disease.”
(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Moreno-Garcia here.)
Also among the panelists was Canadian novelist and journalist David Nickle, who notes:
“there are other things going on in Lovecraft too: there’s the bestiary/pantheon of fantastically alien gods and monsters; that overheated prose that veers so easily between the sublime and the leaden; his fearful, bookish characters. But those are characteristics, aesthetics; not fundamentals. They are not the agenda.”
(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Nickle here.)
Both are surely right that the vast majority of Lovecraft’s readers, myself included, are drawn to Lovecraft’s fiction by things other than his racist views. But critically, Lovecraft’s racism is, in certain respects, finally inseparable from his aesthetics, and Lovecraft scholarship has only recently began to examine the degree to which they are imbricated, and what the effects of this imbrication are.
Of course, the same is true for the history of Western aesthetics in general. Consider, for example, Plato’s foundational remarks on the beauty of whiteness (so aptly parodied by another dead-white-great American weird fictionist, Melville, in Moby-Dick). Or consider Edmund Burke’s comments on, and supposedly empirical evidence for, the natural repulsion “we” feel when faced with black skin, in his Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a text which informed much of Lovecraft’s thought (like that of over a century of Gothic writers preceding him), and seems to have particularly inspired the opening sentence of Supernatural Horror: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
In Lovecraft’s case, these imbrications are particularly vivid, and therefore can be especially illuminating. Weird fiction titan China Mieville and scholar Jeffrey Weinstock are among those who have recently, and persuasively, argued that the intensity of Lovecraft’s racialized anxieties contribute to the potency of his fictions. Some of Moreno-Garcia’s and Nickle’s comments, as well as their fictions, suggest that they think similarly.
In his Aug 25, 2014 blog post, “Don’t Mention the War,” Nickle observed:
“In a perverse way, Lovecraft’s retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature… not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we’ve been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods.”
Nickle explores Lovecraft’s racial imaginary, alongside that of his North American historical context, effectively in his novel Eutopia, as well as in many of his critical commentaries. Moreno-Garcia does so not only through her own fiction and her editorial and curatorial work, but also through her academic graduate work on Lovecraft and the American eugenics movement of his day.
These are tremendously valuable forays into an unpleasant, unsettling, but very necessary frontier; Lovecraft’s racism (and that of his contemporaries, and that of our contemporaries, and, ultimately, that we ourselves may experience and/or unwittingly propagate) needs to be not only openly acknowledged and discussed but studied, and re-examined not only through academic, but also through creative, lenses.
Doing so is not only necessary for developing our understanding of Lovecraft’s work, and its relationship to the history of racism in the 20th century. More importantly, it is vital for developing our understanding of the pervasive and persistent tendency to view alterity as a source of anxiety, and a site of exclusion and abjection. Lovecraft’s fiction is particularly apt in this respect, because it offers such a vivid and stark imagining of this tendency.
As Robin Wood pointed out in his classic essay “The American Nightmare” over 30 years ago, and as many theorists and writers have noted since, alterity forms much of the conceptual basis, and visceral appeal, of much, if not all, horror and weird fiction (hell, of human literature and culture tout court!). This is one of the things that led to Stephen King’s pithy remark in Danse Macabre that horror writers are as Republican as “a banker in a three-piece suit.”
THE PRICE DEBACLE
That brings me to the titanic “other hand -” the less positive way in which this NecronomiCon was a more unsettling experience.
Even though he wasn’t wearing a three-piece suit at the time, Robert M. Price rather embodied King’s stereotype during the Con. This is not only true of his controversial remarks during the opening ceremonies (here is a link to the video recording of them, Price’s speech beginning about 50 minutes in, with his “real life ‘Horror at Red Hook’ quip kicking up near the hour mark.) It was also evident during the short fiction reading he gave on Saturday, a Holocaust-exploitation story titled “It Came from the Ovens.” In a nutshell, the story re-invents Lovecraft’s character, Herbert West, Reanimator, by having him working alongside Josef Mengele’s Nazi doctors in a concentration camp, focusing in pulpy, sensational detail on the torture of Jewish prisoners, from whom he learns the secrets of the Kabbalah. After describing the sofas he assembled from the excised faces of prisoners and similar atrocities, the story goes on to portray West’s creation of a Golem which, in typical revenge-film fashion, then smashes up a bunch of Nazi guards before destroying the animating sigil on its forehead, returning itself to ashes.
Price likely had satirical intentions with the story. In a recent blog post aimed at critics of circumcision, he wrote:
“This is a terrible time for Jews. Vocal and virulent anti-Semitism is on the rise in once-civilized Europe. But of course it was cultured, enlightened Europeans who sent Jews to the gas chambers, wasn’t it? And it was effete, ever-optimistic, naïve Europeans who allowed the annihilation of Jews because they could not believe “Mister Hitler” could actually be such a medieval barbarian as he proved to be. Today things are no different. Bubble-headed Presidents and Secretaries of State assure us that Iran is just kidding when they repeatedly announce their intent to wipe out Israel in a repeat of the Holocaust they disingenuously claim never happened. What happened to “Never again!”? More like “Ever again!”
Price’s politics and his fiction feature some pretty crassly co-ordinated fear-mongering. His reading felt to me like a piece of tasteless and opportunistic provocation, especially when taken in light of his remarks at the opening ceremony, that contemporary North America is facing a real-life “Horror at Red Hook.”
As Niels Hobbs commented during the panel on Lovecraft and Racism, perhaps Price has performed a sort of service by throwing into such high relief what a continuing concern Lovecraft’s worst ideological aspects remain for contemporary readers. Certainly, it shook me out of my complacent tendency to treat many of Lovecraft’s racial and ideological views as essentially historical and textual concerns, and served to remind me that they continue to have a potentially toxic cultural and polemical afterlife of their own.
THE WEIRD – LOVECRAFT = ?
What does all of this mean, however, for the present, and future, of those literary registers in which Lovecraft worked? The deleterious consequences of the popular (con)fusion of Lovecraft with the broad spectrum of the weird is one that has been pointed out many times, and that many writers, editors and commentators have tried to clarify, notably including Ann and Jeff VanderMeer with their seminal anthology, The Weird. Their introduction to that collection makes the point succinctly:
“The Lovecraft Circle is represented in the early pages of this volume, but not to the exclusion of all else. Why? Because in other places a similar impulse was arising. At roughly the same time Lovecraft penned tales like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Jean Ray, in a Belgian prison, wrote stunning and sophisticated stories like “The Shadowy Street” and “The Mainz Psalter,” Japanese poet Hagiwara Sakutoro composed the hallucinogenic strangeness that is “The Town of Cats,” and Polish writer Bruno Schulz mythologized his childhood in weird stories like “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.
These non-Anglo versions of The Weird were not aberrations. In the 1910s, Ryunosuke Akutagawa published the Japanese contes cruel “The Hell Screen” and Franz Kafka, still to remain relatively unknown for decades, wrote the classic of weird ritual “In the Penal Colony,” while in India Rabindrath Tagore wrote his most supernatural tale, “The Hungry Stones” and in Italy Luigi Ugolini penned “The Vegetable Man,” a tale of weird transformation.”
Certainly, I think the organizers of NecronomiCon are making efforts to make the event more balanced and inclusive, and I suspect Price’s antics may be part of a reaction against that.
These efforts, however, need to go a lot further. In his recent reflections on NecronomiCon 2015, Nickle wrote:
“But you know something about all those talks? With a few exceptions, they were all conversations among white, privileged people in the U.S. and Northern Europe, about the extreme racism and xenophobia of a dead white writer. They were conversations that may not have consciously excluded the people of colour who Lovecraft so consistently libelled, but nonetheless didn’t really manage include them.”
Moreno-Garcia also emphasizes this situation, and has offered a few Con-specific suggestions for improving it; you can read her blog post here.
On a less serious note, I’d like to ponder what all of this recognition of politicization means for not only Lovecraft’s monsters, but also the profusion of “innocent” Lovecraftian kewtsch they’ve inspired.
Nested in Chloe Buckley’s recent review of Datlow’s collection, Lovecraft’s Monsters are some striking meditations on the cola-dark sea of Lovecraftian paraphernalia on which we are adrift:
“To Lovecraft literature scholars, the very idea of a cuddly Cthulhu might suggest the pernicious effects of late consumer capitalism on what was once a truly subversive modernist literature. S. T. Joshi, for example, decries the decline of Weird fiction, stating that ‘the amount of meritorious weird fiction being written today is in exactly inverse proportion to its quantity’ (2001, 1). Alternatively, to die-hard Lovecraft fans, the appearance of Cthulhu in children’s cartoons is an example of the inevitable “gushing up” to the mainstream of subcultural production. However, this polemic of radical art vs. conservative commodity, or, differently configured, transgressive subcultural form versus mainstream pop cultural work has always been to some extent resisted by the Weird tale and the Weird monster. Lovecraft’s work is neither properly modernist, nor properly post-modern; it is originally a pulp fiction that has accrued a (sub)cultural status, equated by some critics with outsider art; it is also deeply embedded in the highly commodified ‘geek culture’ that continues to become more and more mainstream.”
Innocuous octopi…or something far more sinister?
My thoughts about “tweird” HPL bric-a-brac went down a different track after David Nickle struck me with one of his characteristically incisive comments during a brief in-transit conversation at the Con. He suggested that sporting a Lovecraftian icon (say, a Miskatonic University t-shirt, or a plush shoggoth doll, or a Cthulhu-fish decal) could be perceived as a little like hanging a confederate flag above one’s mantelpiece.
Is it possible that, in the years to come, people are going to look back on the current Lovecraft craze, and its volcanic eruption of kewtsch, with the kind of fascinated horror with which most of us regard wooden cigar store Indians or those classic Disney cartoons from the 1930s, with the Bat Bandit, Chinky the Cook, and similar characters?
Is my six-year-old-daughter going to drag the pink-and-blue hand-knit Cthulhu we gave her in 2013 out of her closet in fifteen years, and groan, “DAMN, DAD, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING WITH ALL THIS LOVECRAFT CRAP?”
Somewhat more seriously, given the degree to which the monsters of our cultural imaginaries through the course of history are inflected by our own social and psychological anxieties and epistemological limitations, what might these mean for alterity-inflected monsters whose racialized context is a little less obvious?
Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner’s 1971 novel.
In any case, while I don’t think there is anything to be gained by denying Lovecraft’s importance, influence, or continuing power to fascinate (or in trying to quell the generative memetic quality his creatures have for cutesy caricature) the continued tendency to treat Lovecraft as a metonym, a personalized fetish, for the broad, dimly-lit, transnational, and even transhuman, field of the weird is disastrously misleading.
To awkwardly paraphrase Poe, “if in many of our productions weirdness has been the thesis, we maintain that weirdness is not of Lovecraft, but of the soul.”