clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lovecraftian horror — and the racism at its core — explained

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He was also one of its most racist.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A Lovecraftian eldritch abomination.
Robert Coelho
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

His work saturates modern horror and literary fiction. He has directly influenced countless writers of modern horror, from Stephen King to Junji Ito to Guillermo del Toro. His monsters — and the men who encounter their cosmic evil — have left imprints everywhere from Alien designer H.R. Giger to the otherworldly tentacle monsters of Stranger Things to True Detective’s Rust Cohle. There’s a prehistoric sea cucumber named after his most famous creation, Cthulhu.

Yet H.P. Lovecraft and his works of literary horror are long overdue for a cultural reckoning — because Lovecraft may have been one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, but he was also one of its most gallingly racist.

Lovecraft leaves no room for a debate about separating the artist from their art. He injected many of his most famous and beloved stories with overt racist metaphors and frequent blunt literal racism. For the past decade or so, as the extent of his racism has become more widely known and acknowledged, horror and fantasy writers whose landscapes are saturated with Lovecraft’s influence have been trying to figure out what to do about him. Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country was one of the first attempts at an answer. By centering Black characters who were often the metaphorical villains of Lovecraft’s stories, the book allows for a new layer of meaning to map onto Lovecraft’s old fears.

With HBO’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country into a 10-episode drama, that broader, overdue cultural reckoning may have finally arrived. The series, helmed by Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele, places Black protagonists and horror nerds at the center of a proper Lovecraftian mystery. The story teems with all the typical Lovecraftian tropes: creepy New England villages, dark mansions with esoteric secrets, and tentacle monsters shipped direct from the cosmic void; but it’s also full of very realistic horror, in the form of the racist police violence and white supremacy our heroes must confront at every turn.

Necessarily, Lovecraft Country’s approach to Lovecraft’s legacy is simultaneously one of shrewd affection and resigned repugnance. For the problem with Lovecraft is that Lovecraft is everywhere. His influence is so ubiquitous within horror and fantasy that you simply can’t ignore it — nor is it always easy or simple to subvert it.

What we can do is explain it. With Lovecraft, it’s helpful to understand both how and why his stories were so influential, and why there’s been so much hand-wringing over how to think about and discuss them since.

Lovecraft grew up haunted by madness and death

H.P. Lovecraft was a turn-of-the-20th-century author whose works were a key part of the subgenre of horror that would come to be known as “Weird fiction.” Born in Providence in 1890, Lovecraft grew up with an agonizing fear of both death and mental collapse. When he was 3 years old, his father had a psychological breakdown, probably related to syphilis, and Lovecraft moved in with his mother’s wealthy family.

His father’s confinement in an asylum and his maternal grandmother’s death — which occurred not long after Lovecraft moved into the matriarchal family manse — were looming events of his childhood, and Lovecraft became obsessed with the fear that he, too, might experience a psychological breakdown. As a teen he suffered severe social anxiety and agoraphobia, and poured himself into voracious reading and studying, especially horror fiction and astronomy.

Although Lovecraft was extremely well-read, between his family’s financial decline in his boyhood and what seem to have been his own episodes of mental illness, he never graduated high school. By the time his mother also began to experience signs of psychological breakdown — perhaps also because of syphilis — Lovecraft was in his late 20s, and his fear of mental illness, his raging xenophobia, and his fixation on the cosmos as a reflection for all the dread he felt were well established through his writing.

(It’s not clear where Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia originated, though his upbringing may naturally have had a lot to do with it. Even his biographer and ardent supporter S.T. Joshi notes that Lovecraft’s love of science wouldn’t have supported his views, since “the brute fact is that by 1930 every ‘scientific’ justification for racism had been demolished.” What is clear is that by the early 1930s, Lovecraft was passionately espousing his racist viewpoints in letters to friends, defending white lynch mobs, and trumpeting Hitler with praise that may seem eerily familiar these days: “I know he’s a clown but god I like the boy!”)

By that time, he’d also established himself as a writer by contributing to the magazine medium commonly referred to as pulp fiction.

Pulp fiction made up the first wave of the geek magazine medium that would later become known as zines. Still popular in geek culture today, zines are a combination of fictional anthology and community bulletin, mailed or emailed to contributors and subscribers.

Prevalent throughout the early 20th century, pulp fiction titles were mass market, often distributed for free or a relatively low fee. They were full of stories and discussions of the day, and functioned as a kind of niche writing circle. Subsequently, within the speculative fiction community — horror, science fiction, and fantasy writing — they fostered most of the now-seminal literature of the first half of the century; Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Perry Mason were all characters who appeared first, and often only, in pulp fiction series. Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis edited a pulp, and nearly every 20th-century genre author you’ve ever heard of appeared in one at some point.

Lovecraft grew to become hugely involved in this community both as a writer and as an opinionated reader. One of the most popular pulps of the day was the popular Weird Tales, which ran from the ’20s to the ’50s and published hugely important genre authors like Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and many more. It also published many of Lovecraft’s own works — nearly all short stories — and helped him gain a following. The sprawling vast horror subgenre that Lovecraft codified and popularized ultimately became known as “Weird” fiction (the W is capitalized to indicate that it’s a genre) partly because of the pulp’s influence.

As a writer, Lovecraft was extremely generous. He frequently mentored and encouraged other writers, and fostered among his devoted cult of acolytes a “share and share alike” mentality that turned his stories into a kind of giant sandbox where everyone was invited to play. He freely gave every writer around him permission to write fanfiction of his works, be they remixes of his stories or new stories with crossover elements. Countless other horror writers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have set their own stories within the fictional universe Lovecraft created, often referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos or simply “the Mythos.”

This act — allowing people to share his ideas and his story elements — probably did more than anything else to help spread Lovecraft’s stories and his particular view of horror: what we call “Lovecraftian” today. But Lovecraft never reaped any broader acclaim for his work in his lifetime. He died penniless and unknown in 1937, at the age of 46, just before World War II.

Yet among his fans, Lovecraft had fostered such a loyal cult following of horror aficionados that his influence spread slowly and steadily throughout the remainder of the century. Legions of horror and fantasy writers who came after Lovecraft spread his influence further — until today his influence is essentially ubiquitous within the horror landscape.

Lovecraft had very specific visions of very vast cosmic horror

Excerpt from “The City,” published posthumously in Weird Tales in 1950.
Lovecraft Zine

Lovecraft is often credited with creating Weird fiction, and he did coin the term, but he emphatically didn’t invent the genre. He was writing within a broader tradition of supernatural fantasy that had been growing and evolving since the first works of gothic horror were published in the late 1700s. In particular, Lovecraft was working under the influence of a subset of Victorian and Edwardian authors, both British and American, who dabbled in the idea of nature as a source of existential dread. These writers, like Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and Arthur Machen, would all come to be hugely influential in the development of Weird fiction and specifically Lovecraft’s view of horror.

All of these writers tended to play with the idea that unnatural or supernatural elements, perhaps even entire worlds, lurked just outside civilization, often adjacent or right next door to it; their unassuming (white male) characters often stumbled into or encountered these worlds and supernatural forces by accident. Lovecraft, working within the tradition in fiction of borrowing from and remixing other stories, often directly borrowed story elements from many of his fellow writers. Several recurring images run throughout their collective works, such as Bierce’s fictional city of Carcosa and Chambers’s “the Yellow King,” both signifiers of encounters with other worlds and the unholy, unknowable monster who rules them.

What Lovecraft contributed to this general vibe was a deeply lush writing style, a throwback to the stylization of gothic horror and fantasy of the 19th century. He became known for gravely serious, detail-rich descriptions of untold “eldritch” horrors, often blended with existential wonder. These descriptions nearly always included his fictional characters confronting the idea of a cold, different, and perhaps even actively hostile cosmic universe.

Lovecraft’s confrontations usually involve his characters experiencing brief brushes with terrifying otherworldly phenomena. They’re rarely described in detail, but Lovecraft usually provides just enough description to make you feel, along with the characters, as though you’ve glimpsed the edge of a vast and overwhelming universe full of darkness and terror. One defining example is his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which the narrator writes, “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror.”

A Great Old One rising from the abyss
Cthulhu rising from the abyss.

Cthulhu — pronounced “kuh-THOO-loo” or sometimes “CUT-uh-loo” or “CLUE-loo” — is Lovecraft’s most famous monster, introduced in its aforementioned namesake tale. Lovecraft refers to Cthulhu with many different names, including “the Dread One,” “Tsathoggua,” and “Him Who is not to be Named.”

Cthulhu, a giant tentacle monster on a bulbous winged body, is far from a daunting figure these days — look at all these snuggly Cthulhu plushies I found on Etsy! — but to Lovecraft, he was the pinnacle of a race of monsters that Lovecraft called “Elder Gods” or “Great Old Ones.” Other gods in this vein included creatures Lovecraft dubbed yog-sothoth, “night-gaunts,” and various cryptically named demons. Even while slumbering ominously as he waits to awake and take over the world, Cthulhu has the ability to infiltrate your mind and drive you mad through a constant powerful summons to join him in his lair of darkness. Consequently, in many of Lovecraft’s stories, Cthulhu actually does have a cult of followers who are devoted to helping him rise.

There’s also an element of an incredible voyage inherent in these stories, which borrows from the influence of other pulpy 19th-century writers like Jules Verne. Often, Lovecraft’s characters are doomed travelers or explorers who make dark treks across the Earth — or even just across New England — to find a lost city, or to find and read a forbidden book.

The Arctic was a popular destination, since in the Mythos, many of Lovecraft’s monsters slumber in a lost city at the bottom of the world called R’lyeh. But Lovecraft also placed monsters throughout America — like in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky — and very frequently in fictional towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In fact, Lovecraft’s fictional universe was most often directly in his own backyard. His most famous fictional New England settings include the small, mysterious town of Arkham, Massachusetts, where one of his most famous characters, “Reanimator” Herbert West, lived and worked. Then there’s Dunwich, home to the “Dunwich Horror” and the fictional Miskatonic University, where one of Lovecraft’s most famous inventions, the Necronomicon or book of the dead, supposedly resides.

A diabolical copy of the Necronomicon, or Lovecraft’s book of the dead. This will definitely summon eldritch abominations.
Staffan Vilcans

Nearly all of these encounters with cosmic terror end up with Lovecraft’s narrators going mad, fearing that they will go mad, or — worst of all — realizing that they themselves are somehow directly related to the monster they’re afraid of, or slowly becoming the monster themselves. “The monster is me” is a staple of horror fiction these days, and Lovecraft unfailingly used it to turn his fears inward. In Lovecraftian fiction, the safe option for the narrator is ultimately madness — because to him, the far worse alternative is recognizing that you are the thing you hate.

And this is where Lovecraft’s writing turns both brilliant and inescapably racist. Because much of this metaphor is built not just around Lovecraft’s dread of the universe, but his fear of race-mixing.

Lovecraft’s racism left a long shadow over the genre he popularized

One of the problems with Lovecraft is that his work and influence was everywhere before most people knew he was anywhere. Despite the spread of his ideas among genre fans and writers, Lovecraft himself didn’t become more widely known outside of a cult following until the late 1980s and ’90s. Consequently, the popular culture he so thoroughly left his mark on was slow to really parse where that influence came from — or address the fact that the man at the center of it was an extreme racist.

And let’s make no bones about it. Lovecraft was an avid, loud, horrific racist — suffice it to say you’ll probably fail this “Hitler or Lovecraft?” quiz — and on top of his frequent racist rants in letters and discussions with friends, his racist fears infuse and inform nearly all of his work. Famous Lovecraft short stories like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (about a seaport town of murderous cultists who are secretly mating with terrifying fish people) and “The Horror of Red Hook” (a story full of textual xenophobia and horror at New York’s immigration influx and the “primitive half-ape savagery” of nonwhite New Yorkers) may be beloved and hugely influential, but they’re also built on overt racist metaphors. Often these metaphors involve his deep fear of miscegenation (race-mixing), hereditary evil, and his concern that he himself might have an impure bloodline, which all takes his “monster is me” trope in a terrible direction.

Throughout the decades, many of his fans have attempted to argue that actually, Lovecraft wasn’t that racist, and that he would have eventually turned away from his beliefs if he’d only lived longer. This is a terrible argument; Lovecraft’s form of racism was already profoundly more extreme than the “typical” racism of his time, and the assumption that he was growing more tolerant in his beliefs is based on wishful thinking. And as the genre has begun to diversify its scope over the past decade or so, more people have realized that.

This debate about how racist Lovecraft actually was, and what to do about it, has played out directly among the community of the World Fantasy Award — which traditionally, from its founding in 1975, awarded a bust of Lovecraft’s head as its trophy. In 2011, the Black writer Nnedi Okorafor won the annual honor, and only realized Lovecraft’s legacy after a horrified friend pointed out to her that the man whose head sat upon her mantle was a lifelong, virulent racist.

When Okorafor wrote a blog post about how conflicted she felt that “a statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer,” including in it Lovecraft’s most overtly racist piece of writing, she drew inescapable new attention to a subject that had largely been buried and forgotten.

For years, this hideous bust of Lovecraft was what you won if you won a World Fantasy Award.
Ravenous Monster

In 2014, writer Daniel José Older began a petition to change the World Fantasy Award to a bust of Black writer Octavia Butler. That same year, Black writer Sofia Samatar won the honor, and said in her acceptance speech, “I can’t sit down without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the controversy surrounding the image that represents this award.” The following year, in 2015, the awards finally retired Lovecraft’s image — which caused controversy both because many people felt the move was years overdue and because some were furious at what they saw as the erasure of Lovecraft’s legacy.

The conversations have been ongoing among horror fans ever since. Speaking at the “Shadow Over Lovecraft” discussion on Lovecraft’s racism, held in New York in 2019 by the Miskatonic Institute (a recurring panel series named for Lovecraft’s fictional university), Lovecraft Country author Matt Ruff discussed the ways Lovecraft’s fear of the other, even though it was rooted in racism, was also relatable on a basic level.

“In giving vent to his bigotry, he taps into a larger fear that I think we all have of people who are different from us and mean us no good,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons you can take his stories and repurpose them. ... He may not have realized the universalism of some of what he was writing about, but I can take that away from his work.”

In other words, there’s something timeless and universally appealing about much of Lovecraft’s fiction that keeps even reluctant readers coming back to him. That doesn’t mean one has to overindulge; “not reading Lovecraft’s letters is a form of self-care,” writer Ruthanna Emrys quipped on the same panel.

Still, there’s an extent to which all of this discussion has been taking place within Lovecraft’s niche community of genre writers — still well below the mainstream radar, away from the broader influence of his work. (As late as 2014, it was possible to read Lovecraft explainers in media outlets that made no mention of his racism.) That might finally be changing with HBO’s Lovecraft Country now spotlighting the conversation around the author’s racist legacy — but it also inevitably yields frustration because Lovecraftian imagery and themes are so embedded within the pop culture landscape.

“He’s so woven in, I think for horror as a whole, it would feel to me a little bit like removing an arm,” Black horror writer Victor LaValle, who often writes Lovecraftian fiction, told me. “And so instead I feel like an alternative choice is to identify the illness and then maybe you can save the arm.”

Poster for the cover of LaValle’s Lovecraftian novel The Ballad of Black Tom.

In many ways, as LaValle pointed out to me, sampling Lovecraft is also an important introduction to the fears that animate the landscape of white America. Whereas European writers often frame their supernatural horror as a kind of wrong turn into a strange place, the American version of that strangeness is usually much more aggressive. “The American versions of that are usually like, they’re out to destroy us. They’re out to get us. We have to fight,” LaValle explained. “Certainly one of the central ideas of America is like, we have to push back — we have to clear what’s here to make it civilized place.”

“It’s no surprise,” he continued, “that particularly so many white Americans would be driven somewhat insane by the need to be the light of civilization, but also, unfortunately they’re just human beings. So they’re filled with flaws ... [and] you see the ways that they throw that onto the groups they fear. This [other] group is criminal. This [other] group is thieves. This [other] group is oversexed. It’s all things that they fear in themselves.”

The solution, then, is to spread awareness of Lovecraft’s legacy alongside the work itself. LaValle told me that with a cultural influence that’s so fully saturated, the alternative is to educate and build off what’s already there, to try to create something new while still acknowledging what we love about what’s old.

“What that means is talking about things, shedding light on things, and beginning to teach the genre as a whole as a way to talk about things that are wrong or broken or outdated. And being able to say, ‘We can talk this thing through and then keep the best of it and identify the worst of it.’”

He also stressed capitalizing on Lovecraft’s love of fanfiction of his own stories to overwrite that legacy into newer, more progressive visions of horror. For instance, his award-winning Lovecraftian horror novella The Ballad of Black Tom largely revolves around the underlying premise that much of Lovecraft’s horror is predicated on ridiculous white privilege. That horrific realization that all Lovecraft’s characters undergo that the universe doesn’t revolve around them? That’s not a problem any Black character would ever have.

“If you’re Black,” he said, “you don’t think the universe as a whole thinks you are wonderful because all you have to do, if you’re a Black American, all you have to do is walk through America, and this country teaches you. ... The idea that you would be driven mad because you found out that the universe doesn’t think you’re special is a joke to me as a Black American.”

LaValle, published The Ballad of Black Tom on the same day as Ruff’s Lovecraft Country in 2016. Like Lovecraft Country, LaValle’s novel is also being developed into a TV series, but by AMC instead of HBO. He points to stories like Get Out and HBO’s Watchmen as a sign that modern Black creators are successfully subverting many of the racist tropes that fuel genre media. And genre, he said, is “the pleasant, pleasant casing that makes the medicine go down.”

Perhaps that means the universality of Lovecraft’s themes can also serve as the fundamental appeal that allows modern horror writers to subvert and ultimately transform his tropes into smart, aware commentaries on the very kind of racism he evinced.

And that’s perhaps the biggest Lovecraftian twist of all: the unknown cosmic terror, transformed into something as familiar and tawdry as everyday racism — and then vanquished with the light of understanding in favor of newer, better stories.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.