Racism and xenophobia were integral to the creation of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’ could subvert that.
H.P. Lovecraft inspired many of our most popular modern storytellers, such as Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, and Stephen King. His writing and imagination have undeniably had a significant impact on the horror and sci-fi genres, with Lovecraftian elements pervading many notable films like Alien (1979), The Mist (2007), The Thing (1982), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Event Horizon (1997), and Bird Box (2019).
Alongside and imbedded within his fantastical stories about horrors unknown and sinister science were also his blatant white supremacist sentiments. His virulent bigotry and hateful distrust of anyone who was not white—his belief in a “master race” of white men—permeated his work and helped to create his nihilistic visions of lives torn asunder by the deviant and unfamiliar, often by literal aliens.
Perhaps his most well-known tale is “The Call of Cthulhu.” In this story, the Elder Gods—beings who exist somewhere on an unthinkable plane outside space and time itself—are said to be worshipped by “Esquimau diabolists and mongrel Louisianans”—colorful, offensive language to describe Black and Indigenous people, with “mongrel” being an ugly reference to those of mixed-race born through the dilution of a supposedly pure whiteness.
Lovecraft paints the world as a hierarchy where all other races are inferior to white men, and the only thing greater than white men are the terrors of the unknown—otherworldly beings, extraterrestrial alien forms, trans-/multi-dimensional space demons and gods too large for the human mind to even comprehend and with so much mystic power that the very sight of them will drive you insane or explode your brain.
In 1912, he wrote “The Creation of Niggers,” a poem that describes what Lovecraft imagined to be the origin of Black people.
“When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.“
It’s said that he grew out of these views later in life, but we cannot ignore what he put into his stories before this supposed change of heart. At the core of his work is his abiding fear that the white race would somehow be corrupted by the impurities of others, a sentiment white supremacists continue to hold and nurture in their shared delusion, with some explicitly heralding Lovecraft for his racism. To me, it makes “sense” that white supremacy would become such a significant part of horrific stories about the cosmos, creation, and gods. The hubris and narcissism of whiteness is never really a surprise.
This is why I believe—or, at least, I am very hopeful—that HBO’s Lovecraft Country will be a cathartic subversion of the Lovecraftian horrors created through and with racist sentiments. The show, helmed by Misha Green, Jordan Peele, and J.J. Abrams and adapted from a 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, will use the kind of monsters dreamed up by Lovecraft and buttressed by his racism to instead show white supremacy as the monstrosity that it is, while centering Black survival and resistance against it.
In 1954, Atticus Turner (Jonathan Majors) must embark on a journey to find his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). Accompanying him on his trek across the nation are his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). The three of them come up against the everyday terrors of the Jim Crow era, as well as otherworldly phantasms and hellions.
Lovecraft Country is a part of an assortment of stories that do similar work. “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys is a 2014 novella that upends Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” in which the anthropomorphic fish citizens of Innsmouth are written as inherently evil and immoral to represent the consequences of miscegenation. Emrys novella tells the story from the perspective of an Innsmouther, revealing that they are not villainous, but the victims of a violent white colonization which painted them as savages.
In Victor LaValle’s 2016 novella, “The Ballad of Black Tom,” takes to task Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” from 1925 and retells it from the perspective of a Black character demonized by Lovecraft’s deeply racist original story about a devil-worshipping cult in Brooklyn.
N.K. Jemisin is also planning a fantasy trilogy dealing with race and power that follows a multiracial group of New Yorkers who band together to fight Cthulhu. In an interview about the upcoming series, Jemisin said:
“This is deliberately a chance for me to kind of mess with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and horrible human being. So this is a chance for me to have the ‘chattering’ hordes—that’s what he called the horrifying brown people of New York that terrified him. This is a chance for me to basically have them kick the ass of his creation. So I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.”
Racism and xenophobia were integral to the creation of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. It’s woven into the stories themselves and his motivations as their architect. As a lover of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, I hope that this massive “Fuck You” to H.P. Lovecraft continues and grows into its own distinct anti-Lovecraftian subgenre. I’m looking forward to the premiere of Lovecraft Country and I hope it’s a cathartic experience for us.
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