One of the most divisive and important figures in the horror canon is H.P. Lovecraft (the H.P. standing for Howard Phillip). His impact has been unmistakable, heavily influencing the work of artists across countless genres and generations since his death in 1937. But his legacy is tainted. Lovecraft’s personal prejudices were and continue to be no secret, manifesting in his work in his depictions of Black and racialized people. Attempts to reconcile the genius of his creative contributions with his racist attitudes has been a source of constant tension for fans of the genre.
Lovecraft’s writings are the inspiration for Lovecraft Country, the upcoming HBO series scheduled to premiere in August. Produced by horror auteur Jordan Peele, and based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the series follows Atticus Black, a young Black man, as he embarks on a road trip to search for his missing father in the segregated Jim Crow America of the 1950s. The series hasn’t enjoyed the same buzz as other HBO titles, but it’s been a source of excitement for diehard fans of Lovecraft, like myself, and particularly those who take so much umbrage with the writer’s racist and xenophobic beliefs.
Lovecraft’s major contribution to the horror canon is not a single work, but the shared universe that tied most of his stories together, known now as the Cthulhu Mythos. In this universe, monsters are extraterrestrial entities that reside deep in the unknown reaches of the cosmos, summoned to Earth by chance or through demonic rituals. These entities are so grotesque and unfathomable that the humans who interact with them are often driven insane by the encounters. Of the small handful of Lovecraft’s protagonists who manage to survive their ordeals, most end up confined in mental institutions.
Lovecraft’s writing has inspired not only other works of horror, but countless comic books, video games, and speculative fiction stories. For decades, Rhode Island became the default setting for American horror stories as a result of his influence on the genre. Only when Stephen King was crowned the king of horror in the 80s did Maine inherit that distinction.
Lovecraft was also an open xenophobe and racist. One of the few human characters referenced repeatedly in his stories is Abdul Alhazred, known within the Mythos as the “Mad Arab.” Alhazred is the author of the Necronomicon, a sort of blasphemous scripture that details the rites and rituals needed to summon these cosmic horrors. Alhazred is supposed to have lived in the Middle East in the 7th Century; the book initially having the Arabic title Kitab al-Azif. Within the Cthulhu Mythos, the Necronomicon is still followed by a number of cults made up of dark-skinned folk who worship those monstrous entities in their hideouts in places like the slums of Red Hook and under the Pyramids of Giza. During Lovecraft’s lifetime, Islam was, from an American perspective, a mysterious fringe religion, followed by only a handful of poor, coloured folk at home or by the dark-skinned masses in European colonies abroad. Lovecraft’s monster worshipping cults and Alhazred himself were clearly the author’s grotesque caricatures of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, who also lived in the Middle East during the 7th Century.
Even more explicit were Lovecraft’s letters to magazines, poems, essays, and personal correspondence. In them, he openly disparaged non-white races and cultures. Black people were a frequent and especially intense target of his vitriol. While I won’t name it, a well known poem by Lovecraft makes plain his disgusting attitudes towards Black folks.
When I was first introduced to and became a fan of Lovecraft’s work in high school, I hadn’t yet developed the race consciousness necessary to see the issues with his depictions of racialized peoples; I was still, at that time, firmly under the sway of my own internalized racism. And it wasn’t until more than a decade later that I learned about his more explicit racist and xenophobic vitriol. Unfortunately, by then I was already a diehard fan and, regardless, unable to avoid Lovecraft’s influence across the entirety of the nerd canon. Admitting to being part of his fandom still feels like a thing of shame, a dirty secret.
This is why Lovecraft Country is so important to folks like me who love the Cthulhu Mythos but are troubled by its racist implications. Lovecraft is an inextricable part of the horror tradition. It would be impossible to excise him without unravelling the entirety of the canon. Knowing this, Ruff, Peele, and the series’ showrunners have adopted a different strategy. They’re creating a new canon that adherents of the mythos can enjoy without shame; one that simultaneously honours and hijacks Lovecraft’s legacy. That weaponizes the worst of the author’s beliefs and turns them against him.
Here, finally, is a story set within that universe where the human sacrifices required to summon those extraterrestrial monstrosities aren’t committed by mobs of dark-skinned malefactors. Instead, it is the very real history of anti-Black racism in North America that forms the necessary backdrop of violence. Here, finally, is a story set within that universe where the cults that worship these monstrosities aren’t thinly veiled depictions of Muslims. Instead, the already occult iconography and rituals of the Ku Klux Klan fill that role. For years, many of us have been agonizing over what to do with our ‘problematic faves,’ especially those, like Lovecraft, whose work has been so foundational. Lovecraft Country might provide such a template.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.