Like most gamers, I got my start with Dungeons & Dragons. However, my favorite RPG is most certainly Call of Cthulhu.
As I write this, there is a lot of controversy about numerous allegations that Zak S. abused women he was in relationships with. In the interests of disclosure, I find those allegations to be very credible. In the aftermath of this, Wizards of the Coast has removed his consultant credit from all future printings of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. I’ve read some people claiming this is a “slippery slope” – what’s next, banning Call of Cthulhu due to H.P. Lovecraft’s views?
It’s worth interjecting that the only person I can write for is me. I’m not speaking for other members of the Rolling Boxcars team and I’m certainly not speaking for Chaosium. It’s also worth noting that my own standing is minimal at best – as a white cisgender heterosexual male, I’m not much of a target for Lovecraft’s views – though I imagine he’d not have had much use for the Italian immigrants I descend from on one side of my family.
I find it difficult to believe that one could consider Lovecraft anything but a racist. His works are full of racist terms and attitudes – most notably a cat named after an extreme epithet for people of African descent in “The Rats in the Walls” – which was named after his own cat! (And no, I will not be using any such epithets myself). Here is a line from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward –
Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.
You can find many more references at pudding shot’s blog post; Lovecraft Was Very Racist: Six Passages To That Effect.
Was Lovecraft just typical for his day? Not really. His racism was called out by contemporaries. Science fiction writer Jason Sanford (Disturbed by Lovecraft, whose racism and hate weren’t merely a product of his times) wrote:
Lovecraft’s hateful views were a major concern of his wife Sonia Greene, who was Jewish. Sonia was extremely disturbed by Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism and repeatedly raised this issue with Lovecraft, as related in this Wired article which states “Greene told a biographer later that she kept reminding Lovecraft about her own background, but it didn’t seem to dissuade him from his fear of Jews and other immigrants.”
Sonia even once confronted Lovecraft on how she was a member of a group he despised, to which he responded by saying she “no longer belonged to these mongrels.”
Despite Sonia repeatedly raising these issues with Lovecraft, she later wrote, “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind.”
I do reject the idea that Lovecraft was a man of his time. So should he be condemned to the ash-heap of history?
Generally speaking, I would say no. Lovecraft, with his flaws, in many ways created the cosmic horror genre. And those views do indeed permeate much of his writings – it is sometimes difficult to separate the man from his work. For example, one of the abominations of the Cthulhu-cult is they are multi-racial and have people of mixed races. One of my favorite tales, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, is casually horrified at the mixing of the races – both humans with fish-men and white men with South Sea islanders.
But his influence is clear. Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, was part of “the Lovecraft Circle”. His influence on modern horror master Stephen King is undeniable. It is impossible to deny the influence he has had on the genre.
One thing which gives me comfort is H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for nearly a century — he realizes no financial gain from his writings and he left no descendants to do so either.
Another thing which gives me comfort is how it is possible to transcend Lovecraft’s racist views, telling tales of cosmic horror that address the evils of racism. Consider some of the following examples:
- Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark, an extremely rules-light RPG which focuses on people on the margins of society.
- Golden Goblin Press’ Heroes of Red Hook, a fiction anthology of Jazz Age horror whose “heroes and heroines are the outsiders who are most often blamed (wrongly so) for the actions of various alien horrors of the mythos. Our heroes and heroines are members of ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, independent free-thinking women, those with special needs, and members of the LGBT community”.
- Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound, a Call of Cthulhu supplement whose protagonists are African Americans in Harlem of the 1920s. Chaosium is developing a new edition of this.
- Mark Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, a collection of stories about an African American family of the 1950s dealing with both cosmic horror and the racism of America.
I certainly understand those who shun Lovecraft’s works and I even appreciate those who did not like his image being used in the World Fantasy Award’s trophy. Specifically, in 2015 the World Fantasy Award organizers dropped his image from their trophy after recipients began expressing their discomfort at receiving an award associated with such racist views.
That said, I believe it is is more than possible to acknowledge Lovecraft’s abhorrent views and how they can be found within his writings while still appreciating his genius – and even better yet, leveraging that genius against those views. He’d not be the first author needing such a treatment. I was recently perusing Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was reminded of how Igraine “made great joy” when she discovered that the man who had raped her and made her pregnant with Arthur was her now-husband Uther. And while little is known of Thomas Malory, a quick Google search will show a man with an extremely unsavory reputation, with accusations of rape, robbery, and attempted murder.
~ Daniel Stack