Reemerging and a new look at Lovecraft

The last six months have been a whirlwind of change, both within my personal world as well as the world around us all for obvious reasons.

My marriage unraveled a while back, leaving me to try to make sense of why, and the need for self-isolation over Covid-19 churned up a lot of soul searching and processing. I am still somewhat confused, but day by day more clarity comes and in the long run I’ve been coming to understand why it is, in the end, all for the best for both of us. We really were going in separate directions more than I acknowledged at the time. Now I’m finding my own path again and benefitting more than I’d have expected.

In my last post months ago, I expressed that I had an idea for a fun blogging project that I was going to undertake. That did not happen. It fell apart, ripped up like a bad manuscript by my then emotional storm, and it is perfectly fine that the desire went away given the heaps of projects I already have underway or planned. Book projects, film projects, art and everything in between. I’m good on projects, but I do need to get back to blogging a bit more, and I felt a need to kick it off by addressing situations in my work and how they are actually reflected in, or relate to, our society today.

It is important for me to consider obvious events in the world at large as I get back to these projects, and one in particular.

Corvus Rex is a novel series in which I use a young H.P. Lovecraft as a character. It is now no secret that Lovecraft was a raging racist for much of his life having left behind a written record of it in thousands of letters to colleagues and friends. We can say that he was a product of his times, and I do believe that it was somewhat programmed into him by his family from an early age as they viewed themselves as New England nobility and looked down not only on blacks but other nationalities and immigrants and the middle class in general. He lived in a time when the gross pseudoscience of eugenics was on the rise, influencing scores of simple minds eager to embrace support for their views and set back our evolution, and Lovecraft’s was one such mind.

I make no excuses for him. As an author, he had many opportunities to evolve and expand his world, and I believe he took at least a small step at one point in his life, which I will talk about more here later, but I am no apologist. I accepted this uncomfortable detail about him when I first undertook the Corvus Rex series as I feel his racist notions are a matter of history that should not be buried or sugar coated. I decided to take on the discomfort of it all as a challenge to myself as a writer. I recall how the first time his character used the “N” word in a casual way made me swallow a lump, take a deep breath, and press on, telling myself this is ugly, but it is unfortunately how he would have been and spoken. His views are actually mentioned in the opening chapter of the first novel. This was how uncomfortable it made me, that I nipped it in the bud from the start.

“I do not like this,” Yuri says to his companion, Kvasir, after having read young Howard Lovecraft’s mind to assess whether or not they should pursue using him as a sort of journalist for their tales. “His mind is a fragile mess, and he’s a bigot with an acute fear of foreigners and Negroes.”

The period is 1908, and Yuri Corvinus is a man who is not only 1,800 years old but a foreigner who is acutely aware that he will make his new audience squirm for reasons that do not always have to do with tales of terror. He does not like my accent, Yuri thinks as he starts to speak more to Howard, noting immediately that his own otherness (Eastern European) has provoked a scowl from the boy. Yuri’s attitude about racism is more or less to simply accept that it exists, whether he likes it or not, though occasionally he does counter it in his own way. He’s seen it for centuries and, at the opening of the series, when he witnesses it, especially in a seventeen year old man-child like Howard, his reaction is probably more likely to sigh and say to himself, “I’m too old for this shit.”

In the real and present world, we cannot be so dismissive. We need to actively stand up to it, embrace reform in ourselves and our society if we’re to grow. I have undertaken this project and I cannot change the choice I made in using Howard as a character, albeit a fictionalized one, nor will I as I feel it is important to show this disgusting side of history that has lingered too long and show it in this man whose works have now labeled him the father of modern horror. I choose to portray it for the absurdity of it all. Fictionally speaking, Yuri fights for humanity against things outside of our realm that could end us in a blink much like Thanos snapping his fingers in The Avengers: Infinity War. That he should have to witness the very humans he defends turning against each other over skin color or nationality would certainly be disillusioning and raise the question, “Why fight for them?”

As for the real Lovecraft that never met any such fantastical and immortal individual, he did leave us something to speculate on. He was friends with Robert H. Barlow, an author and anthropologist who was considerably younger than Howard and gay, who was named as Lovecraft’s executor of his estate. Whether Lovecraft was aware that Barlow was homosexual is another discussion entirely, but their friendship was interesting. More curiously, however, in 1924, he married Sonia Greene, a Jewish woman of Ukrainian descent. This is extraordinary and contradicts what we know of his anti-Semitism. Though that marriage did not last, it appears to have been partly over family interference (Lovecraft ended up living with his aunts who refused to allow Sonia to rejoin him) as well as Lovecraft’s growing xenophobia after living in New York and his unwillingness to pick up an actual trade other than writing (he did lament this later in life). Sonia divorced him and went on to live a long and presumably happy life. Lovecraft, on the other hand, would die of untreated stomach cancer in the spring of 1937 at the age of 46.

Lovecraft & Sonia Greene with Reinhart Kleiner

In the summer of 1936, in the gradually failing health of the last months of his life, he wrote an interesting commentary on the Great Depression, addressing his old views in a new light:

“I used to be a hide-bound Tory, simply for traditional and antiquarian reasons, and because I had never done any real thinking on civics and industry and the future. The Depression and its concomitant publicization of industrial, financial, and governmental problems, jolted me out of my lethargy and led me to reexamine the facts of history and the light of unsentimental scientific analysis; and it was not long before I realized what an ass I had been. The liberals at whom I used to laugh were the ones who were right, for they were living in the present while I had been living in the past. They had been using science, while I had been using romantic antiquarianism. At last I began to recognize something of the way in which capitalism works, always piling up concentrated wealth and impoverishing the bulk of the population until the strain becomes so intolerable as to force artificial reform.”

Lovecraft died a pauper and thus, ironically, on the same level of the classes his once elite family looked down upon, so his racist views saved him nothing. We all go to the grave and holding onto our hateful thoughts and regards for our fellow man will not prevent it.

Were it not for a handful of friends who persisted in publishing Lovecraft’s works, the great Cthulhu himself may have faded into obscurity along with his creator. Those contemporaries such as Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, founder of Arkham House Publishing, also wrote their own stories within the mythos that he inspired and not all shared his views of race and class, choosing instead to focus purely on his art and less on the man himself. Today it is impossible to name a horror author who was not inspired by his works from Stephen King and Clive Barker to Neil Gaimen and to my knowledge none of them have ever expressed anything other than a love of the mythos while completely distinguishing its original author’s views even when they rear their ugliness within some of his tales.

Given his marriage to Sonia, and his later changing views on capitalism, we can ponder whether these elements might have signaled a potential evolution and change in his thoughts on race had he lived longer, but that is all we can do, and as I said, I am no apologist. I would like to think that, but without certainty, all that remains is still purely speculation. I merely share all of this to make it clear how much more complicated the man was, but I would never use them as points of redemption where we have no solid answers.

Some associates of mine recently removed the description “Lovecraftian” from their own project. It was originally used more to describe a certain mood ascribed to the work and bore no relation to mention of any creatures in the storyline that are derived from Lovecraft’s mythos. The choice was made in protest to Lovecraft’s racist notions in the face of today’s trials and support for Black Lives Matter. I completely understand why they did it and support them on it. It is not so easy for me, however, as I most definitely am using a few of Lovecraft’s creations in my series, and just as importantly, Lovecraft himself. It is a case of it is what it is, but I will not pretend his attitudes were okay and I will never present them as okay.

Through this exercise, I will continue to step out of my comfort zone and thus challenge myself as a writer. Corvus Rex itself is meant to be an epic fantasy and horror romp in worlds unknown, but on the deeper side it is also a journey into our own very real dark psychological past, a thing we all need to face if we’re to evolve and, ultimately, preserve our humanity.

As was recently posted on the Facebook Page for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society:

We grapple constantly with the challenge of reconciling apprehensions about the man with appreciation for his artistic creations. We strive to recontextualize those creations for a new era. We fully agree that Black lives matter. We can’t change Lovecraft, but we can help change our world. We must evaluate the past unflinchingly, see the present honestly, and embrace changes to create a future that brings justice and equality to everyone.

For reference:

H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (Full Documentary)

I Am Providence by S.T. Joshi (A massive biography)

The Complicated Friendship of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Barlow, One of His Biggest Fans

H.P. Lovecraft, His Racism in Context

The Mysterious Love of Sonia Greene for H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Reinhart Kleiner

Many of Lovecraft’s other letters to his contemporaries have also been collected and bound and are available through Amazon and other book sellers via Hippocampus Press and others such as the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.