The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to turn on, tune in and drop out
August 27, 2010 2:27 PM   Subscribe

What if Lovecraft had Lived into the 1960′s? - recording from a 1978 WorldCon panel featuring Fritz Leiber, and S.T. Joshi. Bonus files: A reading by Donald R. Burleson of his story The Last Supper, and a reading of Fungi from Yuggoth. (via)
posted by Artw (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
He wouldn't have been happy about the Civil Rights movement.
posted by Falconetti at 2:29 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've read that he chilled out about race at the end of his life, but that may have been wishful revisionism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:34 PM on August 27, 2010

There has been much written about HPL's racism by some brilliant writers. I recommend Michel Houellebecq's "H.P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" which has a chapter addressing his racism and argues that it was part of the central motivating force in his writing.I just re-read it (starts on p. 105) and it's a great read.

He also regretted his earlier racism late in his life. If he had lived in a later period, his attitudes might have been very different.
posted by clockworkjoe at 3:23 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I just think it's funny that there's a "Yuggoth" tag.

I wonder what HPL would've thought of "A Shoggoth on the Roof" ?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 3:28 PM on August 27, 2010

It's not called the wheel, it's called The Dread Gyre Of Damnation.
posted by The Whelk at 3:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, because that is the most important thing about him and his work, that he had racial issues that weren't exactly inconsistent with others sharing his smear of spacetime, and history.

When they unthaw my frozen head centuries from now and, upon fixing me up and seating my decrepit brain (not unlike a decanted victim of the Mi-Go) in a fresh new body (hopefully not a brain cylinder), then I connect to whatever has replaced the Internet to pass the time while micromachines rebuild my synapses, only to find all commentary about media of my original time period being less than enthusiastic about the transcended cyberfurry culture, I will develop a device to re-sever my head and launch it, along with a curatorial probe, to Pluto and chill once more, to await dreaming the rise of criticism which takes things in their time and place.

With strange aeons, even a dearth of perspective might die.

Also, by then, Google will have some kind of Google Transcript function into which I can dump audio files. Probably still be in beta, though ... he said ... plodding through the recordings. Also, AI-pb will have something that will automatically add the mi-go tag to any post containing "Yuggoth."
posted by adipocere at 3:34 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Yes, because that is the most important thing about him and his work, that he had racial issues that weren't exactly inconsistent with others sharing his smear of spacetime, and history.

a) For his time, place, and circle of friends, Lovecraft was pretty shockingly racist. Or maybe it would be better to say that he experimented with variously shocking attitudes towards race throughout his life, with a significant but incomplete mellowing at the end. The Sprague deCamp biography contains some correspondences and quotes from his right-wing political writing that make this pretty clear.

b) I think it's reasonable to see his agoraphobia undeniable fear of people of other races as a significant contributor to a lot of his work. To me, these are fascinating insights into what motivated this guy to create these astounding works. This perception doesn't prevent me from enjoying his writing. YMMV, but you don't get to tell other people that looking into this angle is not interesting.
posted by gurple at 3:48 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think gurple's got it, and I'd add my own supposition that his acceptance and promotion of various racialist theories and political movements had less to do with those theories and movements themselves and more to do with Lovecraft trying to justify his xenophobia on an intellectual level even though it was really something he felt on a visceral level. It's that visceral horror that drove his racism and his stories.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some previous thoughts on Lovecraft and race.

And while I don't think it's exactly an uninteresting aspect of the guys work, it's kind of dull when it's the only thing anyone wants to talk about.
posted by Artw at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing I find fascinating - Lieber's idea that the publication of The Shadow out of Time could have derailed genre history to the point that "Science Fiction" wouldn't have come to be in the 50s.
posted by Artw at 4:29 PM on August 27, 2010

criticism which takes things in their time and place.

Lovecraft's racism went far beyond his time and place; he was the sort of asshole who will occasionally, for no apparent reason, bring up how ugly and stupid blacks are, to the point where his wife would occasionally remind him, after an outburst, that she was Jewish.

Anyway, it really is hard to talk about Lovecraft without talking about racism because xenophobia - fear of the unknown, if you're into Lovecraft quoting- is a central component in his work. Take out the xenophobia and a lot of his stories- The Shadow Over Innsmouth included- go bye-bye.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:57 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

One does wonder how Lovecraft would have reacted to the realities of the Holocaust. Would he have stubbornly retreated into his xenophobia, or been shocked out of it. Or would he have, after seeing the evil that men can do in a banal, workaday way, have decided (much as Adorno did about poetry) that, after that, it's impossible to go on about the unspeakable horror of tentacle-faced Old Ones and space fungi?
posted by acb at 5:06 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

One does wonder how Lovecraft would have reacted to the realities of the Holocaust.

Lovecraft was deeply conservative in the sense that he really loved old things. He was an antiquarian. He liked the seeming stability of old houses and old furniture and old ways of living. It's possible--though who knows, really,--that cognizance of the Nazi urge to destroy everything old might have made him reconsider some of the attitudes that he shared with them. Probably there's no plausible might-have-been that makes Lovecraft into a modern, ethnically speaking, but I don't think that it's unimaginable to think that WWII might've abraded his xenophobic and anti-Semitic edges.

Though, I think a more interesting what-if is "What if Lovecraft had gone on to college?" Which is to say, what if he hadn't been (and hadn't perceived himself as) such a socially and intellectually marginal figure? I like to think of this more intellectually confident Lovecraft as a minor (or maybe not-so-minor) Modern writer. A Lovecraft more deeply influenced by Eliot and Laforgue and the French moderns, maybe.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

There were plenty of anti-Semites in the USA who, either through patriotism after the outbreak of war or through a generally conservative dislike of revolution and demagogues, became solidly anti-Nazi. H.L. Mencken, for example, seems to have had clear anti-Semitic views:

The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world

The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display

but to have viewed Hitler as nothing but a larger and more vicious form of Klu Klux Klanner, and attacked FDR for failing to allow Jewish refugees to enter the United States.

There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?

I don't think Lovecraft would have been particularly fond of Hitler for the same reasons - his style, tactics, and the origins of his political power would have hit the anti-populist nerve so prevalent among right-wingers who took their ideological lead from Nietzsche and the more classist forms of Social Darwinism.

On the other hand, note the way in which various right-wingers today have managed to turn the Holocaust into a generic warning against traditional right-wing bugbears like progressive 'social engineering' (defined how one pleases) and overbearing government power. 'Death Panels,' anyone? That route was open to the anti-Nazi right as well.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:13 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The fear of the other was solidly established as a theme of horror fiction by the time HPL began writing. His stories were the most xenophobic and racist I had ever enjoyed until I read The Beetle, written when Lovecraft would have been about five. The villain was an Middle Eastern/North African person in England whose was described as so utterly repulsive as to be non-human. It came out in the same the same year, 1895, as another famous tale of reverse colonization, Dracula. I think Lovecraft's anxieties about race were a fairly prevalent meme in his time.
posted by Tashtego at 7:20 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Nazi tendency to believe old myths, and resurrect ancient pagan religions and practices, would have scared him right into a bombardier's seat on the next B-25 headed toward Berlin.

Plus, he would have been able to add the wrinkle of irony - that whites are the scariest and most barbaric people of all to other whites - that really would have kicked his stuff to the next level. Then, the Red Scare? That would be right up his alley... secret societies bent on world conquest, with the backing of a menacing, world-destroying power, the excuse to really, really hate liberals and foreigners, it would be a paranoid xenophobe's utopia. He'd also completely hate on the KKK revival, too, going extra bugshit after that Nazi symbols-and-rituals nonsense, and lock-the-doors-they've-come-for-me crazy at the rise of Neo-Nazis.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:45 PM on August 27, 2010

One does wonder how Lovecraft would have reacted to the realities of the Holocaust. Would he have stubbornly retreated into his xenophobia, or been shocked out of it.

There's evidence he would've been horrified by the Holocaust. Joshi's biography of Lovecraft suggests that he liked the idea of Hitler and Mussolini as sort of cultural archivists (Mussolini's fondness for classical Roman sculpture and that kind of thing), but was shocked and sickened at the actual persecution of Jewish people he heard about when a friend returned from Germany and told him about it. Keep in mind that this was well before the actual Holocaust itself, and well before most people thought of Hitler as a monster.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can't take the racism out of Lovecraft and still have Lovecraft, as much as our modern sensibilities might like it to be otherwise. What I find strangely heartening about his fiction w/r/t race is the number of stories that feature HPL stand-ins who realize not just that the triumph of "the other" is inevitable, with all the scariness that that implies, but that they themselves are the other, too. I hope I'm not spoiling anything here, but off the top of my head, "Arthur Jermyn," "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Lurking Fear" are all stories where either the protagonist finds that what he took to be a monster is in fact a "normal" human being, albeit somehow altered, or that the blood of the monster is in his veins as well. One almost gets the sense that Lovecraft was, um, trying to tell himself something here.

My sense of the matter is that Lovecraft had a great affection for (as someone said upthread) American antiquity, and saw those (mostly illusory) good old days slipping away forever as America changed around him; and while this is not meant as consolation, I think his racist views were really out-of-control, essentially phobic, culturalist ones. But given the inevitable denouement of any Lovecraft story, I think he knew that this change was inevitable, and while he may not have viewed it happily, I think he knew that "the other" was not so different from himself. He just, you know, totally hated that. Obviously, he wasn't too crazy about being around people of any race, save from the safe remove of correspondence, and...well...if you want to know why at least in part I think Lovecraft still speaks to us today, all I'll say is that motherfucker probably would have 160,000 twitter followers and be online 24/7, were he alive right now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:28 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

The fear of the other was solidly established as a theme of horror fiction by the time HPL mankind began writing.


For what it's worth, the elements of Lovecraft's horror which I find most affecting are not the ones in which the bad thing is out there but the ones in which the unspeakable is in fact an ordinary universal part of life and always has been, but which we have "most mercifully" managed to repress our awareness of (until the events of that autumn in…). You can draw a parallel to race, but I think you can draw an even stronger parallel to the social, cultural, philosophical, and scientific shifts in worldview which Lovecraft was living through at the beginning of the 20th.

I've always just assumed that this is part of the reason Lovecraft's popularity has been more enduring than that of the next writer of scary-monster-stories. Every time the modern world tears down one of our bedrock assumptions (physical law is deterministic? black people are natural slaves? man is distinct from animals? religion is the root of morality? mathematics is complete? the mind is distinct from the flesh? the world is knowable?) Lovecraft's themes regain a bit of relevance.
posted by hattifattener at 11:55 PM on August 27, 2010

the number of stories that feature HPL stand-ins who realize not just that the triumph of "the other" is inevitable, with all the scariness that that implies, but that they themselves are the other, too.

suppose it's possible to read them that way, but I am pretty sure that Lovecraft would have been horrified by the idea. He put this stuff into horror stories, after all, because it was the scariest thing he could think of. Here he is, in all his racial and social New England purity, which, to a large degree, was the only thing he had in his life that he could really call his own, and imagining what it would be like to discover that it was all a scam, that there was no purity at all, freaked him out in a huge way. I think this central issue is one reason why lesser stories with this theme fall so flat today -- "Arthur Jermyn" is just ridiculous (despite the awesome gorilla boxing sequence) because the big reveal is something that just isn't that scary to the vast majority of people today (and not to a lot of people in Lovecraft's day, either, I suspect. There are reasons that story isn't a classic). The effect is much stronger in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (although I think it was rather poorly received in the day) but I think that is more Lovecraft becoming resigned to his own decay rather than any embracing of the idea that "the Other is Me."
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:58 AM on August 28, 2010

Oh, I don't think that he liked it; I just think that he knew it. Had it been something that he embraced, he would have been a very different writer, and definitely a different person.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:35 AM on August 28, 2010

There are two broad modern ways of enjoying Lovecraft : First, you may read from the cold war realization that yes the world actually could be destroyed, thus finding his stories scary. Second, you could read from the comic book like perspective that damn that sounds bad ass. To me, neither sounds particularly racist.

All this talk about the racism of dead writers sounds like the debate over a gender neutral pronoun. I stopped listening to Cat Stevens because he basically continues to support the threat against Salman Rushdie, but they are both my contemporaries, and I'd never care if my grand kids my like Cat Stevens.

I'll also observe that Lovecraft's most tangible racism is actually against inbred country people, a racism we still whole heartedly embrace, well for humor at least.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:40 AM on August 28, 2010

jeff, have you actually read Lovecraft's work? His stories are full of swarthy, subhuman foreigners and degenerate cults of mulattoes. I'm not sure where you get the idea that his most tangible racism is anti-hillbilly; go read Pickman's Model or The Street or Arthur Jermyn. Lovecraft hated and despised black people and foreigners. It's in very nearly every story he ever wrote.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:58 AM on August 28, 2010

I think it was The Rats in the Walls that he had a character who'd named his black cat Niggerman. :-/
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:28 AM on August 28, 2010

Technically, Lovecraft's cat was named Nigger-man. The cat in "The Rats in the Walls" was named for his cat.

the more you knoooooow!
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:57 AM on August 28, 2010

Man, you guys never want to watch Dambusters.
posted by Artw at 11:52 AM on August 28, 2010

The Rats in the Walls scared the crap out of me when I read it. HPL was the master of building a sense of dread of what was coming that was worse than even the horror of came to be.
posted by Tashtego at 4:48 PM on August 28, 2010

To be fair, this was not an exceptional name for a cat at the time.

Lovecraft's racism was noticeable and remarked-upon by his contemporaries (including his wife), so it was out of the ordinary even for his time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:00 PM on August 28, 2010

More audio goodies...

Robert Bloch Speaks of Lovecraft and More from the Grave

(Though I still have a sneaking suspicion that nobody here actually listened to the first set)
posted by Artw at 4:15 PM on September 20, 2010

Though I still have a sneaking suspicion that nobody here actually listened to the first set

It's in my To Listen To folder!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:27 AM on September 21, 2010

Also, for fans of the endless racism debates:

Robert E. Howard was a racist. Deal with it.
posted by Artw at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2010

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