HP Lovecraft has gotten a fair amount of bad press lately. Salon, the Atlantic and several others have published pieces questioning his legacy. The World Fantasy Award discontinued the use of his image as their trophy. Numerous blogs have discussed and dissected his views, with an eye toward how modern readers (and writers) should deal with them.
I’m not going to disagree with any of that. Lovecraft was a racist. Period. Full stop. Even for his day, his views were on the fringe. You don’t really need my opinion on this, and I’m hardly going out on a limb by saying it, but his attitudes were quite frankly abhorrent. Anyone with a conscience should disavow that sort of naked ignorance—then or now.
Does that mean it’s time to dump ol’ HP and everything he wrote, now and forever? Is there anything about his work that is worth preserving, or even continuing? My answer to that isn’t going to surprise you much either, given that I just released a book so heavily steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos that it features one of his creations in the title. But how can that be reconciled? Is it really possible to take anything from the writing apart from the writer himself, and if so what is there about Lovecraft that really is worth saving?
For one, I think that his conception of the cosmos is enduringly fascinating, more so now than ever—and probably for different reasons than he thought.
In Lovecraft’s work, the universe was a vast, cold and amoral place dominated by forces beyond our understanding, and humanity’s role was insignificant, at best. Much of the horror in his fiction comes directly out of that viewpoint, and it’s a totally different idea than the more traditional “good vs evil” approach. All the terror in the Omen or the Exorcist is rooted in the notion that powerful forces are at work in the world, dedicated to evil ends, and very much interested in corrupting humanity. Satan has to have at least some interest in us in order to want to harm us, right?
To me, Lovecraft’s ideas are far more terrifying, because if there’s a Devil, there’s also a God. If there’s a force of evil there’s also a force of good. But what if there are none of those things? What if those powerful forces don’t care about us at all? It seems much scarier to me to be adrift in a universe that wouldn’t even notice our annihilation.
Maybe his bleak social views brought him to such a bleak cosmic view. Maybe the two were linked somehow in his mind, I don’t honestly know. But the fact is, however he got there, Lovecraft arrived at a cosmic perspective that turns out to be much more relevant today than he probably could have imagined.
In the modern age, with a wider and deeper view of cosmology in the public consciousness than ever before, plenty of people (myself included) do see the universe as a vast ocean full of powerful forces in which humans occupy no special place in particular. But most of us today come to that conclusion by virtue of rational inquiry and the scientific method. In other words, you can believe what Lovecraft believed about the universe and be an inveterate racist, like he was—but you can also come to that same viewpoint from a very different angle, and without any such baggage. The two are not inherently linked.
Today’s readers, raised on a steady diet of science popularizers like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, might be much more inclined to see the universe in terms that Lovecraft imagined (tentacled monsters aside) but entirely divorced from any particular social views, let alone explicitly offensive ones like he espoused.
So is it possible to separate Lovecraft’s racist views of the real world, as awful and backward as they were, from his views of the fantastical and the cosmic? I absolutely think that it is. Not only that, but by coming to the same general concept of a cold, amoral universe—just from a very different path, we’ve already done it.
Second, the fictional universe he created was always intended as a shared, ongoing project. He invited other writers in his day to add to it and to expand it. In the decades since his death, that process has continued, with some of the best writers of the succeeding generations trying their hand at Mythos tales. In that spirit, deepening and broadening the legacy of the man’s creation (and not necessarily the man himself) has now become something of a time-honored tradition.
There’s a little more to it though. Beyond just simply furthering his creation, the best part of that tradition is to be found in taking the Mythos and using it to tell stories that carry it beyond the narrow, dim prejudices of its creator. Today we can use Azathoth and Cthulhu as a framework to tell stories that appeal to modern readers, rooted in modern sensibilities. That’s what I’ve tried to do, to tell a story of cosmic horror for our world and our time.
Lovecraft, with all of his flaws and prejudices, gave birth to the Mythos, but it belongs to us now. We can, and should carry on with it, but we should use it to tell our tales, and to reflect the values we hold today.
Frank Cavallo’s latest novel Rites of Azathoth was released in January 2017, published by Bedlam Press (An Imprint of Necro Publications).
“Rites of Azathoth is an occult-thriller rooted in the H.P. Lovecraft tradition, or what is sometimes called the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a book that will appeal to general horror audiences, especially any fans of Lovecraft himself, as well as fans of Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Jack Ketchum,” says Cavallo.
F.B.I. criminal profiler Diana Mancuso doesn’t do field work anymore. Not since a tragic mistake that cost innocent lives. But when notorious serial killer Luther Vayne escapes from prison and resumes his campaign of brutal murders, the Bureau convinces her to take one last case.
To catch him, she must understand him. She must delve into the arcana that fuels his madness, risking her life and her sanity to follow his twisted path.
The trail plunges her into a shadowy world of occult rituals and unspeakable horrors, leading to a secret cabal operating at the highest levels—and a plot to summon the darkest of all powers, to bring forth an evil that does not belong in our world—to enact the Rites of Azathoth.
About the Author:
Frank Cavallo is a horror and dark fantasy writer. His previous works include Eye of the Storm, The Lucifer Messiah, The Hand of Osiris, and the Gotrek & Felix novella Into the Valley of Death.
He was born and raised in New Jersey. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in Communications in 1994 and he earned a JD from the Cleveland Marshall College of Law in 2001. His life-long fascination with the darker side of human nature has led him to devote most of the past 15 years to a career as a criminal defense attorney, at the Cuyahoga County Public Defender Office, in Cleveland, Ohio. There he has come face-to-face with some of the truest horror in this world. Murder, rape, burglary, drugs. That’s his bread and butter.
To learn more, go to http://www.frankcavallo.com/