I’ve decided to start up a new special on this blog. Through my infatuation with books, I’ve met many strange and unusual artists. I’d like to highlight how truly crazy literary giants can be and show that pretty much any weirdo can become a great artist if they put their mind to it. For the start of this series, and the start of October as well, I’ve decided there’s no better figure to get to know than cosmic horror creator H.P. Lovecraft.
Turns out the guy who created Cthulhu, the gigantic winged demon octopus god sleeping beneath the ocean, had a pretty strange life, punctuated by tragedy. His father died in an asylum when H.P. was only three years old, and so lil’ Lovecraft was raised by his mother and a number of other relatives looking to help out as well. When his grandfather died, the estate was poorly handled and as a result some serious financial problems would follow the family for the rest of their lives. That youthful trauma has got to equal at least one and a half Batman origin stories. Lovecraft’s got way more hang-ups than a guy who dresses up like a bat to fight crime, though, as you’ll soon see.
To start with, it’s a common bit of trivia that many of the monsters Lovecraft imagined came from his own nightmares. He very definitely suffered from sleep paralysis, a disorder that plagues people with horribly vivid hallucinations and nightmares. It’s a bit encouraging, really, to hear of an artist turning such a personal torment into the stuff of critically acclaimed legends, but it wasn’t that simple, not by a long shot.
Lovecraft wrote stories for pulp magazines. At the time, that’s all sci-fi and/or fantasy tales could ever be. Many writers feel Lovecraft’s work was a first step in getting science fiction writing recognized as a serious art, but Lovecraft probably didn’t think so. He was known for despising much of his own published work, and much of the stuff he wrote, including his only novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, was never published because of his refusal to promote his own art. This seriously hampered his well being, as even when he had to find work, his inexperience in anything other than a former well-to-do upper-class recluse trained in thinking most all work was below his ilk meant his stories were the only thing that could’ve supported him. Whether he was naturally a fearful recluse or still had some social hangups about how ready he should be to so gauchely promote himself as a pulp fiction writer in the public eye remains open for debate. Lovecraft certainly let much of his life be run by fear. While you could argue that this is what made him such an effective writer, you could also argue that you don’t have to be absolutely terrified of seafood and unusually racist to be a successful horror writer. Yup, here we go. Time to tackle the serious stuff.
Okay, can we start with something simple? Lovecraft really did refuse to eat seafood and was absolutely terrified of anything from the ocean. Keep in mind, he spent his entire life on the east coast, so that was probably a bigger obstacle than if he lived somewhere in Oklahoma. He felt the denizens of the ocean heralded something completely foreign and therefore terrifying, a degradation of everything the enlightened human race has tried to build. A bit extreme, you say? Well most people ignore this quirk as it’s soon overshadowed by the fact that he felt exactly the same about minorities and immigrants, especially those with a skin tone darker than congealed mayonnaise.
Yeah, this was the early 20th century, when even Italians weren’t considered fully human yet. Lovecraft, though, was still on the extreme side, even for his time. For reference, I’ll try to point only to the most succinct examples of his prejudice, omitting some words that I just won’t write on this blog. “The Horror at Red Hook” is one short story of his that perfectly illustrates his, “Them immigrants n’ colored folks, they’re savages in league with the evil sea gods” thesis that permeated much of his work. In the first Lovecraft story I ever read, “The Rats in the Walls” I was distracted from the mounting suspense Lovecraft was trying to build by a cat whose name was literally just the N-word. “Hey N-word cat, did you hear any haunting sounds from within the walls? Yes? Where N-word cat, where?” For me, this ridiculously casual racism was a way more frightening condemnation of the past than any of the freaky monsters the story’s protagonist dug out of his family’s basement.
I shall also point to a short poem Lovecraft wrote that most succinctly represents how freaking seriously he took his racist attitudes. It’s called “On the Creation of N——,” and very conveniently lays out just how little he thought of the African American population. I suppose Lovecraft felt better believing there was a whole population inferior to him. People could mock him for his weirdly intense phobias, his failure as a writer and lack of professional motivation and experience but he could say, “Yeah, well I’m not an immigrant so actually I’m better than all of you,” and continue to slowly die of malnutrition from only eating baked beans without any feelings of inferiority, or irony.
There you go. I wanted to give you a crazy writer and I delivered. It makes me feel better that today I can present Lovecraft’s intense nativism as a symptom of his mental instability and pretty much everyone would agree with me. Hopefully, whether or not you enjoy Lovecraft’s work, I’ve helped you gain a more in depth knowledge of his strange mind.