[This post was initially written in 2017, a few months after reading a novella by Cassandra Khaw, but was never completed. Unfortunately I forgot about in a deluge of other work and responsibilities. So now I’m finishing it late, but the concerns about the “Lovecraftian weird are still relevant.]
After reading Cassandra Khaw’s latest novella, A Song of Quiet, months ago [now years ago!] I was struck again by the ways in which a number of contemporary authors from marginalized social positions have been appropriating Lovecraftian tropes to tell stories that are diametrically opposed to H.P. Lovecraft’s ethos. Considering that Lovecraft was a raving racist, that many of his monstrosities were projections of his fear and hatred of the other, the transposition of his cosmic horror and weird fiction into registers that are anti-racist, feminist, and politically progressive is not only interesting but feels a bit like a welcome vengeance against a man who spent his entire writing career despising nearly everything that wasn’t white. Moreover, these detournements of Lovecraft are by-and-large better written and more imaginative than the thousands of “Cthulhu Mythos” stories that are cranked out by fans who will eternally excuse Lovecraft’s chauvinism.
Something critical is added when the so-called “Lovecraftian” is mined by authors Lovecraft would have disliked for simply existing. With A Song of Quiet and the earlier Hammers On Bone, for example, Khaw channels Lovecraft through Barker and the Silent Hill franchise, dousing everything with feminism and anti-racism, to produce something that imparts the feeling of Lovecraft’s most evocative works while still feeling wholly new. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a more direct response, an appropriate “fuck you” to Lovecraft’s most racist moments that generates its own unique form of disquietude.
To this we can add the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, particularly her edited anthology She Walks In Shadows which hosts a plethora of Lovecraftian-against-Lovecraft short fiction that still remains marginalized by Lovecraft’s dogmatically faithful fanbase.
It is worth wondering why writers who come from communities that Lovecraft himself would classify as the Terrible Other would bother finding inspiration in his tropes. That is, if the reactionary undercurrent of his work is driven by the desire to exclude and otherize anyone who falls outside of white male categories, then it would indeed be logical to classify his work as thoroughly politically suspect. In some ways he doesn’t leave us another option: the meaning of his horror is based on everything excluded from whiteness and, once you realize that this is his worldview, you don’t have to work very hard to recognize that a story such as Shadow Over Innsmouth is merely an exercise of Lovecraft’s disgust for miscegenation.
But there is something else to be found in Lovecraft that is larger than his own backwards perception of reality. As one of my old internet comrades once pointed out, the Lovecraftian impulse that has defined weird fiction, which is larger than his squalid chauvinism, is about how small we are in the face of a pitiless cosmic reality. What we now call Lovecraftian, despite the pathetic beliefs of Lovecraft himself, is the possibility of the eclipse of our existence and reason by a reality that is unfathomably beyond human consciousness.
Such a Lovecraftian-beyond-Lovecraft is not helped by the defenders of Lovecraft-the-racist who work overtime to make excuses for his racism. Indeed, the greatness of LaValle’s take on the Lovecraftian weird is to turn Lovecraft’s racism into a moment of weird fiction. Is it odd that the best iterations of the Lovecraftian are actively opposed to the shitty fan base (and the crony critics such as Joshi) who actively reject any critiques of their racist idol? Hell, even Brian Keene has trashed the mindless critical defense of Lovecraft’s racism. I’m also reminded of the many times that Nick Mamatas––who created another great Lovecraftian-against-Lovecraft novel, Move Underground––has had to deal with the dogmatic defenders of Lovecraft who are upset that their saint could ever be accused of being the despicable chauvinist that he was.
The point being, I’ve always enjoyed the appropriation of the Lovecraftian weird more than Lovecraft himself. Even when my political understanding of Lovecraft was underdeveloped I was much more drawn to those works that built on his weird fiction than his weird fiction itself. That is, 20 year old me found John Carpenter’s The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness more interesting than The Mountains of Madness and Shadow Over Innsmouth; I also preferred reading Ligotti’s short stories to Lovecraft’s overwrought prose… And this was before I came to recognize Lovecraft’s racist ontology!
Ignoring the Lovecraft devotees who dogmatically refuse to accept that their saint was a racist piece of shit (because fuck them, and who cares what such unimaginative assholes think), the question(s) become(s): why does Lovecraft’s ghost linger in the work of authors he would have despised, who appropriate his genre against his ethos, and why is this appropriation meaningful? I don’t think I can provide a proper answer to this question aside from suggesting that what can be gleaned from the Lovecraftian ethos––how small we are in the face of a pitiless cosmic reality––translates properly into the smallness felt by marginalized communities in the face of a hegemony that presents itself as cosmic reality.
Which is why the appropriations of the Lovecraftian by writers from these communities, or writers who care about the struggles of these communities, are always more interesting than those who would abide by Lovecraft’s ontology. After all, Lovecraft saw the marginalized as a gross affront to his cosmic reality. That is, what he was describing was an attack on white hegemony and so he could not help but translate this attack into something of terrible metaphysical significance since it undermined his understanding of white supremacy––as all members of the oppressive class translate the challenge of their oppression into a cosmic insult. But in doing so he presented a series of tropes that, in the hands of those he excluded, could be transformed into an understanding of cosmic horror as white supremacy or, alternately, as a pessimistic panacea to white supremacy, or as something uncoupled from his warped understanding of reality and transformed into a metaphor for the collision between centres and peripheries. It is only when Lovecraft’s notion of the ineffable is delinked from his impoverished political outlook that it an be truly articulated, that we get a real approximation of what is truly horrific, that something far more interesting than a mythos of shoggoths and elder gods emerges.