At 13, I became a born-again fan of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. One moment I had been a misty-eyed Tolkien acolyte, the next I was seized by the kind of newfound fervor that sends evangelical missionaries to Papua New Guinea—fitting for an author whose best stories concern unholy cults and their alien gods. I hadn’t even liked horror as a genre. Hell, one of my earliest memories is cowering in terror at Where the Wild Things Are—an inauspicious start for a dark fantasy writer. But a trashy Del Ray anthology with the florid title The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror & the Macabre and wonderfully lurid Michael Whelan cover art changed all that.
Nowadays, H.P. Lovecraft’s star shines much brighter in our cultural astronomy; references to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, his invented pantheon of madness-inducing alien gods with letter-salad names like Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep, have seeped into everything from Batman to South Park. It’s an ironic development for a man who hated pop culture and viewed himself as an 18th-century gentleman in the midst of the Jazz Age. Born in 1890 into a fallen blueblood family from Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft never knew his adulterous father, who died of neurosyphilis in 1898. His disturbed mother isolated him, insisting he was too ugly to go outside except after dark.
A child prodigy, Lovecraft immersed himself in astronomy, biology, chemistry, and history as well as literature. His letters reveal a mind as neurotic and haunted as it was brilliant. Highly critical of his own writing and dubious of his ability to live as an independent adult, he nonetheless cultivated a circle of friends and fans as passionately dedicated to “the weird” as Lovecraft himself, including genre luminaries like Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.
There’s a definite formula to the typical Lovecraft story: a New England intellectual pries too deeply into ancient secrets and comes away broken by things mankind wasn’t meant to know. With Lovecraft’s extraordinary imagination, it never gets old. “The Call of Cthulhu” envisions a worldwide cult to a dead, tentacled god-monster destined for a rebirth at once messianic and apocalyptic. In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the inhabitants of a dying Massachusetts village interbreed with marine monsters to revive their town’s waning fortunes. At the Mountains of Madness, one of his only novels, features an expedition to Antarctica that uncovers the ruins of a not-quite-extinct pre-human civilization. And “The Colour Out of Space,” his masterpiece, describes one of the most memorable and terrifying aliens in all of science fiction. Through it all run themes of decay, dark family secrets, and forbidden knowledge. Not for nothing did Stephen King call him the greatest horror writer of the 20th century.
HPL (as we fans affectionately call him) is so much more than the sum of his parts. With overwrought prose and nonexistent character development, he shouldn’t be this good, but he is. As the narrator of “Pickman’s Model” says about the work of a mad painter inspired by inhuman beings:
I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
You could say the same about H.P. Lovecraft. Fun as all the monsters are, a deeper philosophy undergirds Lovecraft’s writing that takes him beyond simple pulp. Pre-HPL, horror was largely based in religion: deals with the devil, crucifix-hating vampires, and witches’ sabbaths. Science, not the fear of damnation, animates Lovecraft’s stories. Incorporating the latest discoveries of his day, he painted a universe dominated not by the struggle between good and evil, but by nihilistic indifference. Lovecraft’s beasts are so far beyond us that we just don’t register, or as he eloquently put it, “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”
This emphasis on humanity’s cosmic insignificance makes Lovecraft’s overt and passionate anti-Semitism that much stranger.
“The population of [New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight,” he wrote in 1931. If the WASPy Lovecraft took pride in one thing, it was his “Aryan” heritage—a heritage he feared would be diluted by immigrants and “alien” cultures. And like many an anti-Semite before and since, he agonized about Jewish control of the media, writing in 1933:
it is not so much that the country is flooded directly with Jewish authors, as that Jewish publishers determine just which of our Aryan writers shall achieve print and position. … Taste is insidiously molded along non-Aryan lines—so that, no matter how good the resulting body of literature may be, it is a special, rootless literature which does not represent us.
Good writing, then, is secondary to promoting a properly “Teutonic” mind-set. Most damning, however, is a letter from the same year in which Lovecraft comments on the political situation in Europe:
There is a great and pressing need behind every one of the major planks of Hitlerism—racial-cultural continuity, conservative cultural ideals, & an escape from the absurdities of [the Treaty of] Versailles. The crazy thing is not what Adolf wants, but the way he starts out to get it. I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!
Unlike blacks, who Lovecraft believed to be genetically inferior to whites, he seems to have felt that Jews were culturally dangerous but not a threat to the biological integrity of his beloved Teutons. Here’s where it gets weird:
The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. … Jewish Folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction.
Thus wrote HPL in Supernatural Horror in Literature, a sweeping critical examination of the history and highlights of the genre. Coming from Lovecraft, this is high praise indeed, and his subsequent discussion of golems and dybbuks lacks all trace of paranoia about Jews corrupting “Aryan” literature. As, for that matter, does his mentoring of young Jewish writers, including the superbly talented Robert Bloch, who corresponded with Lovecraft as a teenager and went on to author the novel Psycho. Or the sudden appearance of 14-year-old superfan Kenneth Sterling on his doorstep, an uninvited, “little Jew boy about so high as my waist. … Damme [sic] if the little imp didn’t talk like a man of 30—correcting all the mistakes in the current science yarns. … I wouldn’t for the world discourage him in his endeavours.”
Nor were Bloch and Sterling isolated cases, as Lovecraft’s long and intense friendship with Jewish poet Samuel Loveman demonstrates. Upon first meeting, HPL described Loveman as, “an exquisite boy of 20 who hardly looks 15. He is dark and slight, with a bushy wealth of almost black hair and a delicate, beautiful face still a stranger to the Gillette.” So much for repulsive Mongoloids. The two bonded over a mutual love of Edgar Allan Poe, and Lovecraft went on to dedicate the (kind of long-winded) story “Hypnos” to this “exquisite boy.”
The intensity of Lovecraft’s affection for Loveman (who was gay) has spurred some speculation that the relationship between them was more than platonic. While you could confuse “Hypnos” for a love letter, all evidence indicates that Lovecraft was more or less asexual. We know this from the woman who introduced the two men: Lovecraft’s Jewish wife, Sonia Greene.
Lovecraft met Greene through an amateur journalistic organization and found in her the rare companion who could keep up with him intellectually. Greene was like your scrappy grandmother in her youth: vivacious, tough, enterprising, and irrepressible. Born in Russia in 1883, she emigrated to the United States and established herself as a milliner. Her two-year marriage to Lovecraft, which took him away from his beloved Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City, is probably one of the strangest chapters in his life—and certainly one of the most revealing.
As she reveals in her memoir, The Private Life of H.P. Lovecraft, Greene knew about her spouse’s anti-Semitism, but HPL seems in all cases to have brushed aside her identity as a Jew, assuring her that she was no longer one of the immigrant hordes—now she was a Lovecraft! Despite this assurance, he asked that “Aryans” predominate whenever the couple entertained guests, to shield him from excess Semitism. Lovecraft was a distant husband who seems to have been distinctly uncomfortable in a romantic relationship; he never told Greene he loved her, and interlocking pinkies seems to have been the only voluntary expression of his affection. Despite this, Greene found Lovecraft, a virgin when he married at 33, “an adequately excellent lover,” though the marriage ended amicably after two years.
At 14, it seemed an unfair quirk of space-time that I hadn’t been alive 70 years earlier, so I could have been Lovecraft’s protégé, like Bloch and Sterling. I could picture the kinds of letters he would send me: astute, generous critiques of my awkward little horror stories, erudite meditations on history, reflections on the great horror writers who preceded him and “in-universe” answers to all my questions about Cthulhu and his fellow “Great Old Ones,” patient to a fault with my fanboy exuberance. Would he even have realized I am Jewish, with the comically Anglo name of “Hunter C. Eden?” And if he got the whole truth about his star-struck correspondent, the matzo-chomping but secular son of a Jewish father and a Norwegian/German mother, who grew up lighting candles on Hanukkah and eating latkes on Christmas Eve, what then? Would I be the high-grade and assimilated child of an unfortunate but passing instance of “race-mixing?” An Asiatic half-breed? Would it even matter when we had all of horror to discuss?
Lovecraft and his legacy have recently become yet another skirmish in our interminable culture wars. Is it OK to admire the work of a man who held such vile opinions? How central was his bigotry to his visions of cosmic alienation and hereditary decay? Within HPL fandom, there’s a growing fatigue with these questions, in part because we’ve been debating them for decades. Lovecraft fans have their apologia for all this: It was a common attitude at the time, he never advocated violence, he softened as he got older, etc. None of these attempts to logic away HPL’s bigotry mitigate the raw fact of his prejudice. I couldn’t blame a black reader for hating Lovecraft, and I’m disturbed by the sprinkling of neo-Nazis who openly admire him for his racism.
But I don’t believe Lovecraft’s fictional universe to be an elaborate racist metaphor. With a few minor exceptions (like “The Horror at Red Hook,” a tedious and nonsensical screed masquerading as a horror story), when Lovecraft’s racial attitudes appear in his work, they tend to surface as little asides: Just so you know, these depraved cultists are mulattoes. You roll your eyes, think, “Get over it, Howard,” and then you’re back with the warped fish men of Innsmouth and the Escherian geometry of Cthulhu’s tomb. It’s not Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Turner Diaries; it’s the literary equivalent of a cringeworthy reference to “darkies” by an older relative who you otherwise love spending time with.
The biggest question for me is not, “Is it OK to read Lovecraft?” but “Why?” How did a man of his incredible intellect fall prey to such childish prejudices? Before Lovecraft’s death in 1937, anthropologists had already definitively proved that purported racial differences in intelligence were a pseudoscientific falsehood. For a man who embraced such then-new theories as relativity and continental drift, HPL’s ethnographic ideas were rooted firmly in the 19th century. Why did he at once obsess over spreading Jewish influence in the media and then encourage and enable young Jewish authors? Why did a man who believed in the evils of Aryan “mongrelization” marry a Jewish woman? If he believed that the only good Jew was an assimilated Jew, why did he admire the traditional Jewish imagination?
I have no answers. Like so much of the forbidden knowledge and alien monsters that fill Lovecraft’s stories, bigotry is by its nature irrational, contradictory, and more than a little insane. His anti-Semitism seems illogical because it was illogical, the product of personal factors and frustrations about which we can but speculate. I don’t think Lovecraft’s prejudices make him and his legacy irredeemably evil. His letters reveal a sort of kooky male cat lady, exuberant and eccentric and brilliant and generous and kind. And an admirer of Hitler. Who made me want to write not just as a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning, but as my life’s purpose.
Hunter C. Eden is a Denver-based essayist and dark fantasy writer whose work has appeared in Weird Tales, City Slab, and Ravenous Monster Horror Webzine.