A tentacled monstrosity from beyond the stars shows up in your living room. Do you dissolve into gibbering madness? Or give it a hug?
Celebrated horror author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) always opted to have his characters dissolve into gibbering madness. His tales of cosmic horror, in which filthy creatures crawl and flap and spawn weird geometries, have twisted the tender sanity of acolytes from Alan Moore to Stephen King. In celebration of his gibbering, a Lovecraft bust has been presented to recipients of the World Fantasy Awards every year.
But no more. The WFA has decided to retire its Lovecraft bust and find another author to honor.
Why? Well, it turns out that Lovecraft felt much the same way about non-white people as he did about tentacled monstrosities.
He loathed them both in almost exactly the same way. His fantastic vile, degenerate, nightmare creatures are thinly disguised versions of black people and Jews and Asians, all of whom he viewed with paranoid, hyperbolic disgust.
“They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities.”
Lovecraft describing one of his monsters? Nah; that’s from one of his letters. He’s talking there about the ethnically diverse inhabitants of a neighborhood where he stayed in Brooklyn.
Lovecraft feared and hated difference. That’s where the "horror” in his cosmic horror comes from. He sees black people and people of color and anyone not WASP like him as “infesting worms.” And that’s why writer Daniel José Older started a (successful) petition to replace Lovecraft at the WFA. It’s why other authors like Nnedi Okorafor have spoken out against having him represent the awards. It’s not exactly an honor to get a bust of someone who thinks you are “some stinking viscous slime of the earth’s corruption.”
Older’s petition suggests replacing the Lovecraft bust with a bust of science-fiction and fantasy writer Octavia Butler (1947-2006). It’s a brilliant idea, not least because Butler was just as fascinated by cosmic horror and tentacled monstrosities as Lovecraft was. In her novel Dawn her human protagonist, Lillith, is captured by the alien Oankali—an alien race so terrifying she can barely bear to look at them.
“She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness. She found herself still unable to take even one more step toward him.
"Oh god,” she whispered. And the hair—the whatever-it-was—moved.“
Lillith is in the position of poor H.P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn—viscerally terrified and repulsed by the slimy, non-human yet sentient other.
Lovecraft’s response to that slimy other was rejection, hatred, fear and denunciation. Characters in Lovecraft who are attracted to all that degenerate filth, like the narrator of Shadow Over Innsmouth, turn into monsters themselves. To be different is to be evil.
Not for Butler, though. Lilith learns to accept and even to love the Oankali, and that acceptance and love are not a sign of her degeneracy but of her strength. It’s no accident that Lilith, like Butler, is a black woman. She knows herself what it is to be the vile, despicable, loathed, different thing—and that’s a resource that helps her to accept the Oankali’s difference.
Difference in Butler is not always warm and fuzzy. The Oankali are not necessarily to be trusted. That’s because their motivations are (like everyone’s) partly selfish. But it’s also because accepting difference does change you, just as Lovecraft feared. The Oankali are skilled genetic manipulators, and they want to mate with humans. Over the course of Butler’s Xenogenesis series, Lilith breeds with them, and has wonderful, frightening, tentacled alien children. To embrace difference is to embrace change, and, perhaps, to create a future that will terrify you.
S.T. Joshi, a well-known Lovecraft scholar, has returned his own WFA awards in protest at the retirement of the Lovecraft bust. The change, he declared, was ” a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness.“ He added, in high dudgeon, "If anyone feels that Lovecraft’s perennially ascending celebrity, reputation, and influence will suffer the slightest diminution as a result of this silly kerfuffle, they are very much mistaken.”
But no one wants to diminish Lovecraft’s reputation and influence—or at least, I don’t. Lovecraft is firmly, and I think rightfully, established in the sci-fi and horror canon. He’s not going anywhere.
But what does the WFA want to symbolize with its award? That’s the question. Do they want a vision of fantasy in which difference, and specifically writers and fans who don’t look like Lovecraft, are seen as disgusting, subhuman, tentacled monstrosities? Or would they prefer a vision in which difference is still potentially frightening, but also exciting, stimulating, inspiring and worth learning about? Are black people and people of color and Jewish people such as myself to be seen as infesting, degenerate worms? Or are they, and we, potentially, friends, fans, writers, teachers, learners, and collaborators?
A WFA defined by Lovecraft is a WFA that can’t accept Butler. But, contra Joshi, a WFA defined by Butler can certainly appreciate, and continue to learn from, Lovecraft. Lovecraft, after all, is surely one of the many fathers of Butler’s tentacled, frightening aliens. A new bust, whether of Butler or another author, won’t erase Lovecraft. It will simply illustrate the beautiful, terrible fantasy thing he has helped create—a thing which, perhaps, he would reject, but which is still him, and all the tentacled others, too.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.