As I later informed the students in my 100-level literature class, my goal in the first weeks of the semester was to manufacture an ethical dilemma. I assigned some readings by H. P. Lovecraft, a twentieth-century horror writer famous, on the one hand, for his stories about ancient, tentacled gods and infamous, on the other, for his racism. This latter fact I told my students up front but made little effort to render concrete. Instead, I used Lovecraft to drill them on the basics of literary analysis and to make space for them to explore what they liked or didn’t like about his writing. In fact, it wasn’t until we’d spent a full two weeks immersed in some of his classic stories, such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour Out of Space,” that I made a substantive return to the problem of Lovecraft’s racism. And at that point, I went out of my way to make clear just how bad, how deep and thoroughgoing and malignant the man’s politics actually were.
I’m not sure that what I did would be considered sound pedagogy. As I understand it, concealing things from students generally falls outside the domain of best practice. Still, as I explained to my students later, the reason I hadn’t been more candid about Lovecraft’s views was that I didn’t want to skew their reading too severely. I wanted them to enjoy Lovecraft’s monster stories first, so that when they had to reconcile those stories with the monster who wrote them, they would feel implicated. I wanted them to feel compelled to answer for themselves, earnestly and explicitly, the question: why, or why not, read Lovecraft?
Whatever the failings of my instruction, the question itself is a good one, and not just because it highlights the importance of literary criticism, or because movements like #MeToo have us asking similar questions about artists who do shitty things. Although Lovecraft has been dead for more than eighty years, his fiction and the shared literary universe he invented remain immensely popular among Western audiences. Celebrated writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and Michael Chabon have all contributed to Lovecraft’s so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.” Meanwhile, board games like Pandemic have been reimagined with Lovecraft’s gibbering menagerie of elder gods at their center, and video games like Bloodborne have raked in cash by trading on Lovecraft’s aesthetics, if not necessarily his monsters.
Which, of course, isn’t to say that the monsters don’t sell. As if Lovecraft’s enduring popularity needed further proof, the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 will bring us not one but two new video games set squarely within the Mythos.
So, we should ask again, and with renewed urgency: why Lovecraft? In the face of his cultural saturation and manifest awfulness, how do we account for and reckon with his appeal?
As I’ve been constantly reminded, undergrads are smart—my undergrads in particular—and playing finally with a full deck, they pointed out that one of the reasons Lovecraft appeals is because he imagines a world enchanted. Like so much classic fantasy, Lovecraft breathes magic and mystery into the ho-hum of the everyday. Granted, these mysteries, for Lovecraft, are always better left unplumbed, those magics better left forgotten. But like Narnia waiting beyond the wardrobe or Middle Earth beyond the round door of a hobbit hole, Lovecraft’s fiction assures us that the world, dear Horatio, is inevitably weirder than the one we’ve permitted ourselves to dream.
But he also, I’d wager, appeals because of the posture he takes toward weirdness itself, and it’s here especially that we should be on guard. At once fascinated and repulsed by the weird, the average Lovecraft story literally cannot imagine a response other than hostility toward the strange or different. In Lovecraft, to be strange or different codes automatically as monstrousness, and monstrousness, for Lovecraft, must be answered in one of two ways: eradication, or else a perverse transformation into the very thing we fear. Thus, even as great Cthulhu, slumbering beneath the waves of the Pacific, gives us license to imagine a world darkly enchanted, Lovecraft’s stories also indulge our baser, our most ungenerous impulses—the parts of us that, frankly, would prefer not to be bothered with otherness.
With Lovecraft, it’s always one short step from talking about the Great Old Ones to talking about racism.
I ended the Lovecraft unit by having my students read two stories, a novella by Lovecraft called Shadow over Innsmouth and a contemporary Mythos-novel by Ruthanna Emrys called Winter Tide. In the first, Lovecraft lets his fear of otherness take the bit, imagining an unfriendly New England town whose denizens—humans, at first blush—transform into hideous “fish-frogs” that lurk beneath the ocean’s depths. In classic Lovecraft fashion, the story ends both in eradication, as the government raids the town and torpedoes an underwater habitation, and metamorphosis, as the narrator learns of his own dark history with Innsmouth.
The second is different. In Winter Tide, Emrys thinks what for Lovecraft would have been unthinkable: a sequel. Set twenty years after the events at Innsmouth, Emrys imagines the consequences of the raid from the perspective of those who suffered under it. A story as much about trauma and community as it is about magic sigils and eldritch horrors, Winter Tide suggests that monstrousness is a matter of perspective—and it belongs as much to humans as it does to the Deep Ones.
Indeed, to think otherwise, the novel claims, reflects a failure of imagination.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.