Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A few weeks ago, the world of young adult publishing was up in a tizzy over a then-forthcoming fantasy novel by a French-born Chinese author. Essentially, a few influential voices in the world of American YA literature read advanced copies of the book and accused the author of racist depictions of Africa-Americans.
Despite protesting that she had not grown up in the United States and took inspiration from indentured servitude in Asia rather than American slavery, and despite some readers pointing out that the allegedly black character isn’t black, the author asked her publisher to withdraw the book.
This storm in a teacup got me wondering: Should we not read literature by racist authors? Should we not read literature that condones racist attitudes? Naturally, considering this question led me to go back to another author, one whose racism was not in doubt: H. P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft was infamously racist, and it’s easy enough to see this in his writings. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” he describes Cthulhu’s worshippers thus: “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type . . . a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos.” In contrast, his heroes are always lily white WASPs.
But Lovecraft was also famously influential. Authors from Stephen King to Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman to William S. Burroughs have explicitly acknowledged his influence. All those monster-of-the-week X-Files episodes set in small town America recall Lovecraft’s vision of decayed small New England towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth. The Elders Gods and Hydra in the Marvel Universe seem inspired by “the Great Old Ones” and the star-spawn and their worshippers in the Cthulhu mythos.
And, as others have pointed out, the recent Aquaman film took explicit inspiration from Lovecraft. Early in the film, Arthur’s father the lighthouse keeper is shown to have a copy of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories on his coffee table. Later in the film Black Manta, notably a black character, quotes from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”
The entire Aquaman story, with its half-human and half-Atlantean hero, takes after Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In that story the narrator discovers that the townspeople of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, have been interbreeding with a fish-like race coming to them from the sea. Those of mixed blood seem perfectly human earlier in life. But by the time they hit middle age they start to exhibit increasingly ichthyic tendencies in both appearance and behavior, until one day they jump into the sea to join their water-born cousins. The narrator further discovers that an ancestor of his was of this marine stock. And at the end of the story he resigns himself to the gradual corruption of his body and soul and plans to head to the Atlantic, never to return.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is a clear enough allegory warning against miscegenation, down to the one-drop rule: The smallest percentage of African blood marked one as black in the racist history of America, so in the story the narrator begins to turn even though only his great-great-grandmother came from the deep. In other stories, too, Lovecraft seems disgusted by the idea of racial mixing. Besides the language of “mixed-blooded” and “mulattos” in “The Call of Cthulhu,” in “The Dunwich Horror” it is revealed that the albino (as white as can be) Whateley daughter bore children for the cosmic monster Yog-Sothoth.
Interestingly, Lovecraft lets a character spell out his own attitude in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” As the narrator purchases a bus ticket to Innsmouth, the ticketing agent, unaware of the intermarriages with the fish-people, explains why folks from neighboring towns avoid that place:
But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice — and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town…. [A] lot of our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ‘em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.
Even Lovecraft, then, acknowledged that his own attitude amounted to prejudice, even as he defended it in the same breath. He seemed helpless in the face of it. One senses in his stories a visceral revulsion against the mixing of DNA. And I would submit that he couldn’t have written his stories, couldn’t have been the influential writer that he was, without that revulsion, without that bone-deep racism. Xenophobia is born of irrational fear. So is horror literature.
Should we read racist authors, then? It seems to me that the answer has to be yes. Lovecraft was a great writer because of his racism. We can read him in spite of it.
After all, without Lovecraft, there would be no opportunity to subvert Lovecraft. The makers of Aquaman clearly tried to do this. Arthur Curry is a mixed-raced character in a double sense. The character is half human and half Atlantean. The actor who plays him, Jason Momoa, is of mixed racial heritage. And his parents are played by blindingly pale Nicole Kidman and New Zealand Maori Temuera Morrison. And he’s the hero.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."