Authors,  Books,  Deep Dives,  Movies & TV,  Social Commentary,  Writing

Lovecraft Country: Who was Lovecraft anyways?

Readers-mine, some of you may not know who created the world that the book and series title references, so I feel like I need to let you in on some English-teacher knowledge. Beware, while Lovecraft was brilliant, he was also someone I would have had words with over his treatment of various groups. Part of what makes Lovecraft Country so revolutionary is that the author of that particular book and then the television team took both the good and the bad from well-known literature and turned the whole thing on its head in order to address current issues in our society. To understand what I mean, you need to know who Lovecraft was as a person as well as a writer.

Howard Philips Lovecraft (20 August 1890-15 March 1937) was the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, a writer of weird fiction, and a master of horror. He wrote for pulp magazines and focused in on the idea of where humanity fits into the universe, a genre that has come to be known as cosmic horror. One thing’s for sure, his more fantastic elements make it clear that he thought anthropocentrism, humanity as the most important being on Earth, to be a rather fragile idea. He has influenced just about every major English-language writer of horror that I can think of and, I’m sure, horror authors who write in other languages as well. He was, after all, a brilliant and creative writer who created his own genre.

One interesting thing to note about him: even though he now inspires tabletop games, video games, and anthologies of new writing (as seen in the gallery above), he wasn’t famous until after he was dead. That said, he covers all sorts of topics and themes: religion and superstition, the risks of centering society around science, fate, non-human influences on humanity, and forbidden knowledge, just to name a few. All of these come up in Lovecraft Country as well as in his stories. Lovecraft was decidedly anti-modern in his thinking and believed the Western society of the early 1900s to be both decadent and damaging. As a result, many of his protagonists are educated men from Miskatonic University who are corrupted by an obscure influence or magic that is often described to be in their blood. Sometimes, it is an entire mini-community that follows this pattern.

The most controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy isn’t the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche or even the way he has posthumously skyrocketed to fame. It is race. Lovecraft may have been a visionary, but he was also rather racist and elitist. He was, to put it mildly, disparaging to various non-Anglo-Saxon races and cultures, but not in the way we typically think of it today. The lines that he drew around various groups were more typical of his time and make me supremely glad that we grow and change as a society. It gives me hope that we will continue to change in positive ways.

Not surprisingly, Lovecraft thought particularly well of the English and those of English descent, however, he also praised both Hispanic and Jewish people whom he felt adapted to the American upper crust more easily. He, in fact, married an ethnically Jewish woman, Sonia Greene, that he thought of as “assimilated.” She was an author in her own right and wrote both pulp stories and a play. To learn more about her, check out this Wired article. Over the years, Lovecraft developed a serious focus on people being self-ennobled by learning and the arts, and his wife, who he never quite finished divorcing, fit his image in that way.

That said, he was not kind to black people, Irish Catholics, or German immigrants (though he was fine with Germans who stayed in Germany and thought rather highly of them). Yep, you read that correctly, readers-mine, he did not consider all non-WASPS the same and, like many of his peers at the time, was particularly anti-Catholic. We actually have a history of that in this country. There are reasons J.F.K. is our only Catholic president even though Catholics make up the largest single Christian denomination in the country.

Don’t believe me, readers-mine? In 1844, there were even ethnic and religious rioting in the streets of Philadelphia. Catholics, Protestants, and the local militia fought it out. Sixteen people died and a whole bunch of buildings were demolished. A group you may remember from high school history came into being as a result: the Know Nothings, an anti-Catholic and pro-nativist group that wanted to extend the length of time it took to become a citizen and prevent foreign-born citizens from ever holding public office. If you want to know more, check out this exhibit by Villanova. By the 1850s, nativists were in charge of governments in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire and the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments were still part of the social fabric of those states when Lovecraft was alive.

Lovecraft argued for strictly following “the color line,” a term first used by Frederick Douglass in his article of the same name and then repeated by W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk. If you aren’t familiar with the term, readers-mine, you should know that it showed up during the Reconstruction Era right after the Civil War and describes the separation between former slaves and white people in the South after slavery was forcibly ended. In Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro, he states, “In all walks of life the Negro is liable to meet some objection to his presence or some discourteous treatment; and the ties of friendship or memory seldom are strong enough to hold across the color line” (325). If you want to learn more about the concept, there are whole books and websites devoted to it. If you want to see it in action, you can also read or watch Lovecraft Country as both are essentially studies in what happens when that line is crossed.

Despite his marriage to a Jewish woman later in his life, he was blatantly anti-Semitic in his writing. He was also pretty transparent about his views on the rise of fascism and the fact that he actually liked Hitler: though he thought of Hitler as a bit of a clown, he agreed with the Fuhrer’s politics. He thought that races and cultures should be preserved for their own sake and that cultural integrity was incredibly important, even if it meant oppressing part of society. He does, at times in his letters and writings, use the terms “Aryan” and “mongrelization.” Not surprisingly, after delving into the man’s personal writing, one of his biggest fears was the mixing of the races.

This is what makes Lovecraft Country particularly brilliant: our hero is H.P. Lovecraft’s fear personified and the story addresses all of his themes from the other side of the color line that he was so fond of arguing for. More on that in the episodic deep dives.

For now, know that, while Lovecraft was an amazing writer and a creative genius, he was also a deeply flawed individual with tightly-held prejudices. Lovecraft Country uses both his brilliance and his flaws to build a compelling story about today that is set in the 1950s.

If you want to learn more about Howard Philips Lovecraft, you can either fall down a Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit hole or see the following articles and books:

Next up, the meaning behind various character and place names. Be well until then, readers-mine.

Leave a Reply