Six years ago, I started writing a horror novel. The idea was to create a contemporary parable that utilizes elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s canon of creatures and old gods — which places me in a long line of thousands who have used the writer’s public-domain ingredients to build stories. The thing that separates me from about 99% of the artists who engage Lovecraft’s literary bric-a-brac of ghouls, aliens, and existential dread is that I am Black. Lovecraft, you see, was not just one of the most influential figures in fiction of the last century, he was also an unapologetic White supremacist.
Lovecraft’s racism manifested more in correspondence with others (of which there are copious amounts) than in his art, but the two are inextricably linked. There are obvious examples: In the story “The Rats in the Walls” a character’s dog is named “N***er-man.” Lovecraft penned a poem entitled “On the Creation of N***ers,” which is as bad as it sounds. Other instances are more interpretive, but by no means a stretch once one accounts for the author’s prejudices.
Normally this would be a reason to turn away from an artist as an influence on your own work unless of course, you were trying to compose something in the vein of a racist. Being a social scientist as well as an artist, I could not help but poke at the intellectual possibilities of smashing together my politics, sensibilities — my very Blackness — against Lovecraft’s dark and cosmic creations. (That’s not to ignore the petty pleasure I derived from writing a book I was certain Lovecraft would hate.)
Lovecraft is coming to the cookout. We weren’t looking for him. No one was asking after him. Just the same, he’s coming and bringing all of his raisin-laden potato salad with him. The least we can do is be prepared.
When I started to write my own Lovecraft novel, I investigated the market, curious as to whether or not there was any work by other Black authors in the canon. A mere six years ago, Black writers were still almost entirely absent from the body of Lovecraft interpretation, which was coming up on a century old. This is even more exasperating when you consider that Lovecraft’s work is largely in the public domain, which means anyone can use his ideas — much of which is powerful fodder for fantastic stories. The list of artists who have not only been inspired by Lovecraft, but used elements of his work to create their own stories, is a who’s who of notable creators, and cross disciplines: authors Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and George R.R. Martin; filmmakers John Carpenter and Roger Corman; Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax… trust me when I tell you it’s a long list.
Every year that passed and my novel wasn’t on a bookstore shelf filled me with dread. Each season that passed I became more worried that I was inching closer to being lapped by another author who didn’t have any problem sitting down and executing a similar idea. When no one has really done the kind of book you’re attempting, you feel as though you’ve hit the lottery of ideas, able to backstroke in all of the potential a pioneering story promises. And yet one of the greatest fears of being a Black first is that the world will only make room for one of you. So when Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country was published in 2016, I was terrified. Ruff is White, but all of the protagonists of the book’s ensemble cast were Black, and the story was set in Jim Crow America. I hadn’t seen a minefield that ripe for a White misstep since Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. Ruff availed himself admirably — meaning he didn’t do anything overly untoward to his Black characters — and I was able to enjoy the book a great deal.
But White industries historically work in firsts-only, and publishing was no different, so I approached Lovecraft Country with a lot of fear. Was all of my work about to be for naught, not because my book wasn’t original, but because the largely White publishing industry finds it easier to market Black literature in boxes? Would I be outpaced by a White author, no less? It turned out I didn’t have anything to fear from Ruff’s book specifically — his book has almost nothing to do with Lovecraft or his work, and is more of a contextual metaphor than a riff — but other developments began to pop up on the horizon. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom delivered a pitch-perfect cultural remix of Lovecraft’s otherwise racist story “The Horror of Red Hook”; HBO announced that Jordan Peele would executive-produce a Lovecraft Country TV adaptation; every so often, a horror or fantasy anthology would feature a Lovecraftian short story by a Black author. Things are shifting. Black writers are seeing the possibilities in interrogating Lovecraft’s work.
Despite being filmed prior to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the resulting protests, HBO’s Lovecraft Country series seemed designed to resonate with the moment. Key scenes involving sundown towns, police abuse in general, and the massacre of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had America ensorcelled in its racial history and its implications. The show was hugely flawed (behind and in front of the camera) and arguably opened as many wounds as it sought to address, but it helped a collective Black pain cut through the pandemic and political noise of 2020, at least for a while.
Having been versed in Lovecraft for years and Ruff’s source novel, I steeled myself every week for a wave of questions that never came. HBO’s Lovecraft Country wasn’t the first Black take on Lovecraft elements (again: not a Lovecraft story), but it was the biggest splash to date. For better or worse, Lovecraft was in Black people’s business, or we were finally in his. But because the show didn’t really contend with Lovecraft or his work directly, there was a lot of confusion about what people were taking away. Some people thought the series was a Lovecraft work. Some wondered what the creatures in the show were, and how they related to Lovecraft. Some were trying to figure out why the show was called that if it didn’t have anything to do with the writer.
More representation, more questions.
A lot of people talk a big game when it comes to art we consider problematic. Their response to “What do we do with art we like that was created by racists?” often has the puffed tone of If-I-Had-Been-A-Slave debates, the idea being that they wouldn’t accept certain things, period, end of story. The reality, of course, is that we ingest problematic things all of the time, and not unconsciously. And thanks to a growing interest in Black-led efforts to interpret Lovecraft’s work, the writer has experienced an increased awareness in recent years. Even Spike Lee is getting in on the action, producing a forthcoming film entitled Gordon Hemingway & The Realm of Cthulhu. With all of the mainstream references and forthcoming projects making their way into the zeitgeist, the legacy of an unabashed racist who created cosmic fiction is looking up.
Let’s be clear, Black people: Lovecraft is coming to the cookout. We weren’t looking for him. No one was asking after him. Just the same, he’s coming and bringing all of his raisin-laden potato salad with him. The least we can do is be prepared. His influence on not just modern horror, but all things fantastic in the last 100 years is ubiquitous. Now is as good a time as any for a contextualized crash course into the Lovecraft mythos.
Lovecraft’s actual country
Despite Lovecraft’s space-facing reflections, a lot of his stories take place in a sandbox he created that is loosely referred to as “Lovecraft Country.” If the universe is his world, Lovecraft Country is his Compton circa 1989: a reimagining of his New England roots he used as the setting for a lot of stories. Some of the locations are real, some not. Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport are the most popular ones. I even have a shirt from his fictional Miskatonic University. For all intents and purposes, each of these burgs is a sundown town.
For once, I don’t mean his racism. I mean his cosmological outlook. Lovecraft was an atheist, and that belief infused his work with a powerful sense of existential dread. Earth was not special to him, and the people on it even less so. In his mind, the universe did not care about humanity, and that was assuming it was even aware of its existence. Conversely, a lot of Lovecraft stories feature two things: people losing their sanity upon encountering cosmic beings and elements, and unhappy endings. In short, his work is depressing and nihilistic, like the first time you heard Biggie’s Ready To Die and felt like someone had punched you in the gut. Lovecraft has a cold line that speaks to this: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Depressing bars, yo.
The Outer Gods and the Great Old Ones
A lot of writers have played with Lovecraft’s toys, so there are various interpretations of these beings, but a quick way to sort them out is to envision a large family reunion. The Outer Gods are generally ancient beings who hang out in deep space and don’t deal with Earth. These would be the old folks and your grown relatives who wear shorts and dress shoes, talking about the way things used to be.
Great Old Ones, on the other hand, are the next generation of cousins related to Outer Gods. Great Old Ones are all over the universe, though some hang out on Earth and play with people’s heads.
What’s important to bear in mind here is that while these beings are frequently referred to as gods, they’re really just advanced or infinitely powerful aliens. They don’t perform magic so much as they work the fabric of reality in a way that humans do not comprehend, as per Lovecraft’s science-based atheism.
The boss villain you’ve probably heard about but have no concept of. Cthulhu is the single most recognized figure in all of Lovecraft, which is a trip when you consider that he’s spent thousands of years sleeping under the Pacific Ocean, and only appears in one Lovecraft story, 1926’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Cthulhu is a Great Old One with the body of a man, the head of an octopus, and wings. He also happens to be anywhere from 50 to 1000 feet tall, depending on who’s writing the story. The story goes that if Cthulhu awakens, the world will basically end, but he’s so powerful he still has a telepathic effect on humans. He’s so popular he has his own chant: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” (“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”). He appears at the very beginning of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, and sticks around just long enough for Jackie Robinson to make him explode with a baseball bat.
A version of these creatures also appears in Lovecraft Country, though one that’s completely altered (which is saying a lot for a 15-foot pile of Jell-O). The Shoggoths were never pets, but a race of slaves created for the purpose of labor, and who were left behind in an ancient city in Antarctica when those masters passed on. Yeah, Shoggoths are a bit of a party poop.
There are a ton of other creatures and locations in Lovecraft’s mythos to explore if one is so inclined, but you’ll have to decide if it’s worth the trouble. The concepts above are the things you’re most likely to encounter when H.P. shows up trying to put his tired racist dish next to the ribs.