the shadow over lovecraft and his alien creations
H.P. Lovecraft was a remarkable, creative mind. He was also a fiery xenophobe and racist. And that unsavory combination made his iconic stories what they are.
You probably know that H.P. Lovecraft was not known for his health, wealth, progressive views, or success in life, In fact, anything positive that happened to the man took place long after he’d been buried in obscurity. Today we know him as the creator of the sci-fi horror genre, a classic inspiration for ancient alien theories as we know them today, and yes, a virulent racist who had immense distaste for anyone who was not a white, male, wealthy Protestant with English roots, and drew on it to create alien monsters who ignored his protagonists at best, or would pray on them with a bizarre indifference. Society’s views have evolved since his lack of a heyday, and a lot of his creations found new lives in an entirely new genre. But the creator of these creatures still has to be acknowledged with all the vile cultural baggage this brings, which leaves his fans with a dilemma: accept the flawed man for his work alone, or find a way to reconcile the stories with his eloquent but vicious insults peppered throughout the thousand of letters he wrote.
Personally, I’d argue for the latter. Had Lovecraft been accepting and open-minded, there’s no way his tales would be as alienating and so focused on the “others” who, in the tradition of old, typical Puritan lore, hid in woods and caves far away from civilization. Venture away from what you know, trust, and find comfortable and familiar, and monsters who do unspeakable things in the shadows will find you if you don’t find them first. Science fiction isn’t really about predicting a future as much as it is about working through the authors’ concerns when writing. Lovercraftian horrors are emblematic of the collective American panic over the rapid changes brought by the sudden industrialization of the country and its rather unique geopolitical situation as an isolated empire too distant and expensive for many people to visit, yet too alluring to stay away. We can whitewash the xenophobic paranoia underneath it to make liking the stories seem to be a little more acceptable, but we’d be taking away from how they ultimately came about and why.
Flawed authors, like flawed characters, offer more depth because they can take us into a really uncomfortable place in which we can second guess our emotions and add depth to their stories in a way others might not have. Lovecraft had written a few parables about immigrants taking a small New England town over in a plot not at all dissimilar from the anti-communist commentary known as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, true. But in most of his work, the aliens he feared were not actively evil for the sake of being evil or actively menacing. They simply came from far off places with no care about anything beyond themselves, and their malevolence was simply a means to an end, not a source of joy or a purpose in and of itself. His fatalism about how often these “others” were welcomed to America surely contributed to the nihilistic conclusions written for his characters. They witnessed insanity, barbarity, evil, and malevolence, yet no one seems to notice, much less do anything about it. Lovecraft’s mind manifested immigrants as monsters from the stars and their cultures as archetypes of “Satanic cults.” And it’s compelling.
In fact, consider the descriptions of what hooded figures did behind closed doors as detailed by the inciters of the Satanic Panic, then compare them to Lovecraft’s lurid narrations of the black masses held by those who worshiped the Old Ones. Chanting to awaken a scaly, winged entity or unspeakable horrors from beyond? Check. Sacrificing infants or young virgins, offering pure and unspoiled blood to the monster before whom they prostrate? Check. Orgies, intoxication, a great deal of nudity, and uncontrolled violence brought on by the malevolent effects of evil they summoned? Check again. It may not have been conscious, but it certainly seems that “experts” on Satanic cults, who were either frauds or deluded activists, heavily borrowed from Lovecraft’s stories, or at least reached into the exact same fears he used to build his underworlds. Similar patterns apply to the followers of the ancient alien theory, whose description of the Anunaki is a spiritual retelling of stories involving the Elder Things, who built their cities on Earth and created humans as both an obscene joke, and a source of useful slave labor to mine resources.
What we can take away from this is that while there’s no excuse for xenophobia and racism, no society is immune from the same fears of those who are different, and they all resort to virtually the same tropes to describe why those others are evil and should be shunned, if not fought. As our exact fears and ideas about the world change, however, we find new meanings for stories written long ago and adopt them to signify something else. Lovecraft was not ahead of his time but very much a product of it, and its environment and flaws. It’s just that his tales are uniquely styled and their villains so vague, indifferent, and sinister enough not to be cartoonishly evil, an entire generation of people raised in a connected world with many friends from the nations and ethnic groups their beloved author very vocally and actively despised, can dust them off to read their own fears, worries, and sense of alienation into them. Perhaps that’s Lovecraft’s greatest success as an author, managing to distill the literary formula for pure, simple human fear.