Daniel Jose Older has written a lovely long essay on the work of the author HP Lovecraft, a vicious racist who was perhaps the most influential horror/sci-fi writer of the early 20th century. Older gets it exactly right when he says we read Lovecraft not in spite of his racism but because of it, and I just want to take a few words to echo and expand on that analysis. (I was going to livetweet the essay as I read it, but as I leaped in I realized that not much of what it sparked in me was going to fit into 140-character bites.)
As Older suggests, Lovecraft’s racism — his paranoia, his xenophobia, his visceral disgust with Other People — lies at the heart of his genius. He’s not merely a racist writer, he is a virtuoso of racism itself. Racism is his art, and he’s a hell of an artist.
An example: When he lived there, Lovecraft described Brooklyn as a giant vat “crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness.”
It hasn’t burst yet, note, but it will, and soon.
Lovecraft’s voice is the voice of the embattled, outnumbered, doomed paragon fighting desperately to stave off the annihilation of everything he cherishes. Lovecraft the writer despises humanity’s benighted past, fears its degraded future, and doesn’t hold out much hope for its present.
The standard weak defense of the offensive comedian is that he (or she) is an equal-opportunity offender: “He hates everyone!” It’s rarely true, of course, and even when it’s true it doesn’t mean very much. Making cruel fun of the powerful and prominent doesn’t carry the same illicit charge as the one that comes from kicking the already-down in the ribs. They’re not the same kind of thing, and doing one doesn’t balance out the other.
Lovecraft has no interest in balance, and he doesn’t pretend to hate everyone. He, much more honestly, and much more potently, hates everyone who’s not like him. He’s repulsed by immigrants and upcountry New Englanders, by city folk and rural townspeople, by Africans and Asians and Italians and half-human-half-fish monstrosities.
We, as a species, gross him out.
And this, I think, is why his racism strikes such a powerful chord with the reader. We’ve all been trained to hate the Bull Connors of the world, the men in power who are beyond the reach of those they grind down. We understand and we reject the racist in the mansion and the Klansman on the horse and the redneck sheriff.
Lovecraft isn’t that kind of racist. He’s the creep who thinks he lost his job because his black boss has it in for him. He’s the jerk who bends your ear about how the Jews are running the world into the ground. He’s the fantasist, the conspiracist, the scapegoater, the whiner.
He’s us. He’s the worst of us.
That’s what makes him scary. That’s what makes him important.
And that, weirdly, is what makes him great.