AMERICAN HORROR writer H.P. Lovecraft passed away unpopular and impoverished in 1937, yet his fiction survived to inspire generations of cult and horror creators. Incomprehensible and inhumane, his inventive monsters birthed the genre of “cosmic horror” and are constantly reproduced in games, film, and books. But a dilemma looms in all Lovecraftian fiction: the author’s undeniable racism.
“Cosmic horror” deals with the fear of the unknown, a vital component in Lovecraft’s universe. Lovecraft created dozens of deities and aliens in his fiction that were enough for his readers to conjure a pantheon, though he never specified their relations and origins. All are malignant to human beings, who are either inconsequential or expendable means to achieve their own goals. This relative insignificance towards humans forms “cosmic indifference,” the principal attraction in Lovecraft’s works.
Cosmic indifference presents deities and monsters as indifferent to humans and their interests. Lovecraft’s pagans receive no clear favors from the gods, and characters’ attempts to understand the gods or alien beings either are futile or are lead to madness. For example, one of Lovecraft’s short stories “The Color Out of Space” features an alien color that kills because of its nature. Both the protagonist and the reader constantly grapple to understand what they are seeing, as it is immensely difficult to describe or envision a color one has never seen. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” unfriendliness to human perception pervades the descriptions of Cthulhu’s temple, as the humans are hindered by juxtapositions such as “non-Euclidean* structures” and “acute but obtuse” corners. Cthulhu himself is a Great Old One, a space-time transcending god slumbering in his underwater temple and worshipped in pagan rituals. Such surreal imagery intentionally confounds readers while rousing as much fascination as horror.
Anti-humanism from cosmic indifference
As creative and mystifying Lovecraft’s mythos may be, his fans are recognizing the need to address his racism. Lovecraft, writing from Rhode Island in the 1920s, openly expressed his severe aversion to racial minorities. In one of his poems titled “On the Creation of Niggers,” gods create blacks “to fill the gap” between Man and beasts. In “The Horror at Red Hook,” immigrants populating Brooklyn live within a “maze of hybrid squalor near an ancient waterfront,” a space “leporous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds.”
Lovecraft fans are largely aware that such racism needs to be filtered out when utilizing Lovecraftian lore, but this is easier said than done. Oftentimes, Lovecraft’s creatures themselves are highly reminiscent of immigrants and incorporate cosmic horror in their apparent incompatibility with humans. For instance, the Deep Ones, humanoid fish-like “lesser ones**,” sacrifice and mate with materialistic townspeople in the short story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The Deep Ones swarm onto the New England coast from the east—much like immigrants in the United States during the 1920s—and horrify the protagonist through the revelation they are in part his ancestors. Upon this discovery, the protagonist quickly loses his humanity and sanity, joining the other Deep Ones undersea. The human and the “non-human” are incompatible for Lovecraft, and thus their confrontations create horror and destroy humanity. From a critical standpoint, merely subtracting these racist elements fails to grapple with the connection between Lovecraft’s racism and the cosmic anti-humanism that defines his horror***.
“For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”
Lovecraftian creators and fans have employed various methods to overcome such racism of cosmic horror’s progenitor. On Jan. 18, 2020, Evil Hat Productions, creators of the online tabletop role playing game (RPG) Fate of Cthulhu, announced on Twitter that they are including a “Content and Consent” page in their rulebook. This forewarning declares Lovecraft’s works as racist and recommends fictional works which reverses such racism. Several Lovecraft fans criticized the statement, denying the writer’s racism and claiming his questionable elements were indelible components of cosmic horror. The creators responded, "If you don't like the politics included in our games, don't buy them...We are committed to diverse and inclusive gaming****." Few Lovecraftian comics and games have included such disclaimers so far, so reviewers and fans have generally positive views on Evil Hat Productions’ decision.
Others such as the action RPG Bloodborne have eliminated racist elements in Lovecraft’s stories through selective modifications. Set in a world resembling “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” the game retains the element of cosmic horror by having “Insight,” a necessary function that allows players to gain knowledge about their surroundings, connected to the character’s sanity meter; the more knowledge you gain about the monsters, the more insane you become. Whereas the conniving materialism of the grotesque hybrid townspeople was the primary vice in the original “Innsmouth,” Bloodborne changed this fatal flaw to be the pursuit of knowledge, eliminating the racism associated with their vices.
The most acclaimed adaptation of Lovecraft’s works is Victor Lavalle’s novella Ballad of the Black Tom, an adaptation of the notorious “The Horror at Red Hook.” Tom Tester, a black hustler in the 1920s, is commissioned by a wealthy white man to play music during a convention intended to rouse and worship Cthulhu. Tom resents the racism and cruelty of this group, proceeding to defy his employer and lead Cthulhu’s rise himself along with New York’s racial minorities. Tom’s choice is based on a realization that “cosmic indifference” does not have the same indications for all humans under discriminatory systems. Faced with dealing with a racist, oppressive majority and an indifferent god, Tom decides to support the latter and thus damns all of humanity*****.
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Lovecraft’s fictions are arguably easy to adopt, as the fantastic villains require no rationale for their antimony nor existence. However, contemporary creators have been advancing elements of his fiction to make entertaining and progressive works that even critique societal issues. Upcoming works such as the much-awaited HBO series Lovecraft Country directed by Jordan Peele, the acclaimed director of Get Out, promises more thought-provoking creations inspired by Lovecraftian terrors.
*non-Euclidean: geometry not based on a two-dimensional scale
**lesser ones: Lovecraftian aliens less powerful than gods, but with enough power to manipulate or overwhelm humans