The ghost that haunts American literature: The genius & the repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft will make you believe in ghosts.

  The legendary “cosmic horror” author has been dead for 78 years, and yet he continues to get more controversial by the day.

The most recent flare-up began on November 8, in Saratoga Springs, New York, when organizers of the World Fantasy Convention announced that, after forty years, Lovecraft’s face will no longer appear on the World Fantasy Award trophy. 2015 is the last time writers will win a “Howard,” as the award is known.

Now if you’re just arriving to this conversation, there are two main things you need to know. First, Lovecraft – who wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space” and other influential tales of madness and “sentient blob[s] of self-shaping gelatinous flesh” – is one of weird fiction’s most celebrated authors. He is enshrined in the Library of America. Stephen King calls him “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” The author of the novel “Psycho,” Robert Bloch,once wrote, “Poe and Lovecraft are our two American geniuses of fantasy, comparable each to the other, but incomparably superior to all the rest who follow.”

Second, as Lovecraft’s letters – and, to a lesser extent, his stories – reveal, the guy harbored a fierce loathing for almost all non-WASPs. Blacks were “greasy chimpanzees,” in Lovecraft’s words. French-Canadians were a “clamorous plague.” New York’s Chinatown was “a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh.” And so on.

The tension between these two truths has gnawed at the World Fantasy Awards for years. In 2011, WFA-award-winning writer Nnedi Okorafor wrote a blog postruminating on Lovecraft’s infamous poem “On the Creation of  and what it means to receive an honor bearing the author’s likeness. Last year, the Brooklyn-based writer Daniel Jose Older launched a petition demanding the WFA statuette be changed. When news of WFC’s decision broke, Older tweeted

Not everyone was as thrilled. On his blog, Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi described the removal as a “ridiculous” move “meant to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors.” He included a letter he’d written to the WFC board co-chair announcing he would return his WFA trophies and do “everything in my power to urge a boycott of the World Fantasy Convention among my many friends and colleagues.”

A much creepier response came from the “white nationalist” site counter-currents.com, which reminded readers of its recently-launched “H. P. Lovecraft Prize for Literature, to be awarded to literary artists of the highest caliber who transgress the boundaries of political correctness…[a]s the Left continues to hollow out and destroy institutions, corrupt minds and culture, and denigrate white greatness.” In the words of fantasy/sci-fi/horror writer Scott Edelman: “Whoa.”

Now, there’s no quick answer to the question of how, exactly, we ought to approach a man talented enough to be the “King of Weird” and bigoted enough to casually describe his genocidal urges. (Lovecraft, on Jews: “I’ve easily felt able to slaughter a score or two when jammed in a N.Y. subway train.”) The conversation will – and should – continue long after this article.

But I do have a practical answer for the question of what to do with rejected or discarded “Howard” trophies: Send them to Providence, Rhode Island. Providence – founded in 1636; 2010 population: 178,038 – was Lovecraft’s hometown, and it’s where I’m currently teaching a semester-long class on the author at the Rhode Island School of Design. And no object better embodies the complexity of his legacy than these now-outdated trophies. They are the perfect teaching tool.

After all, Providence plays a major role in the Lovecraft story. It’s where he spent all but a couple years of his life. It’s a playground for the slithering, malevolent creatures he imagined. (See “The Shunned House” and “The Haunter of the Dark.”) And it’s a place that he loved with such fervency that he once declared in a letter “I Am Providence” – a quote now etched on his tombstone, in the city’s Swan Point Cemetery.

Lovecraft’s racial views are not irrelevant to his civic pride. In one letter, he wrote “New England is by far the best place for a white man to live.” In another, he added, “America has lost New York to the mongrels, but the sun shines just as brightly over Providence.”

For decades after his death, Lovecraft’s hometown love was mostly unrequited. But recent years have brought a long-delayed love-fest. Drive through Providence today and you’ll see “H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Square,” two plaques in his honor, and aLovecraft bust in the city’s famed Athenaeum library. The city has Lovecraft-themedread-a-thons, walking tours, research fellowships, apps, writing contests, and bars that serve Lovecraft-inspired drinks like the “Bittersweet Tears of Cthulhu” and “Lovecraft’s Lament.”