Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lovecraft's Racism and the World Fantasy Award

Recently a controversy erupted when an online petition was posted urging the World Fantasy Convention to change the current award, a bust of Howard Phillips Lovecraft by cartoonist Gahan Wilson (the "Howard") to a bust of Octavia Butler.  I met Octavia Butler back in the 90's at the Foolscap convention in Seattle. I was totally unfamiliar with her work; but since she was guest of honor I introduced myself (as did Rosemary Jones and Kris Walberg) and we had a lovely and long conversation with her mostly about the Clarion West Workshop, which Octavia was of the opinion would benefit mostly young writers who are tabula rasa.  "If you have a body of work already," she opined "it may not be for you."  She impressed me as a lovely, kind, supportive writer of other writers and a genuinely approachable and friendly person.  Later I learned of her ouvre and how well regarded she was in the speculative, SF field and have never forgotten that encounter.  Later I happened to glimpse her in the downtown Seattle post office, and because she seemed busy and intent on her errand, I did not approach.

Fast forward to the petition.  My experience with Lovecraft was life changing.  I like many, saw those lurid covers on the Signet reprints of Lovecraft's work and had to find out what that was all about. This was in Iowa, back in the late 60's, early 70's when something that looked like THAT was unique and unbelievably counter to the cultural grain; however, I grew up in a very strange place--I need to write about that someday.  I submit that I was the ONLY 9th grader in the state of Iowa reading about Rosicrucianism and Wilbur Whateley.  Confession: I didn't read the Dunwich Horror at that time, I'd watched the movie, which enflamed my adolescent imagination with its highly weird juxtaposition of hillbillies, ritual magic and strange creatures from another dimension (and Sandra Dee's very, very sheer shroud)), and I devoured all things Lovecraft.

When the controversy erupted, I immediately assumed it was angry women of color complaining about honoring a dead white guy, which I suppose in all honesty, points to an implicit failing embedded in my own character.  I'd heard the "racist" appellation lobbed at HPL before, and I'd always considered it a reference to the "degenerate" tribesmen in such stories as The Call of Cthulhu. Then I wondered if maybe he'd written something in his voluminous collection of letters that might have been more explicit.  Nobody except scholars want to read those.  However, to my dismay and horror, I have just learned about Lovecraft's vile 1912 poem: On the Creation of N***s.  This was written when he was 22 years old, old enough to know better, and it's really no more than a few lines of doggerel.  While most of Lovecraft's work will be forever anthologized and collected and remain in print--this poem will also survive for an entirely different reason, and will likely never be included in any print publication.

If we are to take the poem at face value, we are to be assured of Lovecraft's explicit racism; not only does he call people of color subhuman, he suggested that they are evil incarnate.

At this point two other vile screeds come to mind: Richard Wagner's "Jews in Music" and Orson Scott Card's "The Hypocrites of Homosexuality."*  Both of which deny full humanity to the subjects in their titles.  My sympathies to those of Judaic heritage and faith who cannot and will not subject themselves to Wagner's operas.  Likewise, I fully understand gay people who will never, ever, purchase another work by Orson Scott Card. And I ask myself, would I ever accept an award named after Orson Scott Card?  And my answer is a definite no.  So my sympathies have extended to those of color who cannot abide the thought of being honored with a bust of HPL.  Since I will never likely win that award, I have no oar in these waters.  I believe that the bust should be replaced by something non-human. It can therefore avoid tokenism, which the Butler choice would surely indicate, and avoid enraging old white guys like me, who chafe at being accused of holding views by dint of racial association, which we do not, and would never, have.

*Lovecraft's poem is more egregious than these examples, as he used his art to fulminate his rancid views on race--neither Wagner nor Card are primarily essayists.  But Lovecraft was a poet who perverted his artistic sensibility to further an evil intent.

An award more importantly acknowledges the work of the living, Honoring dead, past masters should be secondary. Lovecraft's work is in no danger of ever being out of print, or ceasing to influence future generations of fantasists.  Let us preserve the sensibilities of all involved, and move past this.