Chris’s ‘Howard’ was awarded to him in 1996, for The Prestige. Although he was delighted to accept the award itself, he always considered the trophy to be a thing of unsurpassed ugliness, and until I went up there to fetch it so he could take this photograph, the unfortunate effigy was residing in our loft.
POINTS WORTH REMEMBERING THIS WEEK:
- The trophy is hideous – there’s no denying it.
- The World Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award trophy are not the same thing. The former is a highly regarded juried award, designed to recognise the year’s most outstanding works of fantasy literature. The latter is a pewter statuette on a wooden base.
- Changing the form of the latter does not in any way diminish, impugn or invalidate the worth of the former.
- H. P. Lovecraft was a horror writer, and a niche horror writer at that. He rarely travelled anywhere and when he did he didn’t enjoy the experience. His literary output was similarly restricted. He also held racist views that would be considered extreme by most standards. The idea that Lovecraft can be an appropriate emblem for ‘world fantasy’ is wrongheaded, and that’s putting it mildly.
- Given that an increasing number of readers, critics and above all World Fantasy Award nominees are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of Lovecraft’s image being used as the figurehead for the World Fantasy Award, it is difficult to understand how anyone who truly cares about the award as a standard-bearer for world fantasy can themselves remain comfortable with it.
A dear friend of mine won a Howard this week. Many other good friends and esteemed colleagues have either won or been nominated for Howards in previous years. I understand nostalgia – I’m British, for goodness’ sake, our engines run on the stuff. What I don’t understand is why there are people who seem to be conflating the current physical representation of the World Fantasy Award – Gahan Wilson’s bust of H. P. Lovecraft – with the award itself. Why many of these same people seem determined to read the recent WFCB decision to retire the Howard as an attack on Lovecraft’s literary legacy is beyond me.
I’m not a Lovecraft expert but I have read him. I consume his work sparingly these days – too much at once and the overblown, repetitive drone of it can become tedious – but there are things about his oeuvre that I find consistently inspiring. His disturbingly persuasive conception of ‘cosmic horror’, of course, but for me personally as a writer, Lovecraft’s obsessive portrayal of introverted scholars ferreting their way through dusty libraries and untold reams of obscure documents in their feverish search for evidence of Elder God involvement in human affairs awakens more than a shiver of horrified excitement each time I revisit him. Lovecraft’s influence on weird fiction is far-reaching and ongoing. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the kind of wilful negation of documented fact that tries to insist that Lovecraft the man wasn’t really a racist, but a product of his time.
H. P. Lovecraft was certainly a complex, conflicted and frequently misanthropic individual. There is an argument to be made that some of the more outlandish expressions of his racist views arose either directly or indirectly from his general loathing and mistrust of the human condition. But to pass off the views themselves as anything but egregious, to soft-soap them as little more than the ubiquitous background racism that was then endemic is an act of self-delusion, or to put it less kindly, a lie.
“The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.”
(Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926. More here if you can stomach it.)
We can choose to call this ignorance, we can choose to call this paranoia, we can choose to call this heightened sensitivity to social change. We MUST call it racism. It’s contemptible and vile and cannot be gainsaid. Admitting these things does not mean we have to consign Lovecraft’s oeuvre to the cultural scrapheap. Those who feel the need to constantly apologise for Lovecraft would be advised to ask themselves why they rush to do that. His work stands by itself – it doesn’t need our apologies. There can be no apology or excuse for the views on display in that letter to Belknap Long. These two facts stand side by side and we have to live with them. Any discussion of Lovecraft’s work that does not acknowledge the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s racist worldview is incomplete.
Far more worrying, at this point in time, than Lovecraft’s racism – Lovecraft died almost eighty years ago, remember, he’s beyond pamphleteering – is the number of notable voices in the field of horror fiction who clearly consider it more important to retain a particular incarnation of an award trophy than to work towards any kind of true understanding of why an increasing number of readers, writers and critics now find the signal that trophy sends inappropriate and offensive. That certain authors and editors should abuse the platform they are privileged to occupy by dismissing people’s rightful anger and discomfort with the Howard as shrill whining or malicious censorship is, quite frankly, appalling.
It is also the most urgent demonstration of the need for change.
ON LOVECRAFT: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq could hardly be cited as the most reliable witness in the case of Lovecraft’s racism, to say the least, but as one writer exploring his passion for another there’s no doubt that Houellebecq’s extended essay makes for mesmerising reading. As a bonus, it also includes an introduction by Stephen King and two HPL originals.
ON THE NEED FOR CHANGE: Lovecraft’s Racism and the World Fantasy Award Statuette by Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2011:
“I too am deeply honored to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It feels so so so right and so so good. The award’s jury was clearly progressive and looking in a new direction. I am the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel since its inception in 1975. Lovecraft is probably rolling in his grave. Or maybe, having become spirit, his mind has cleared of the poisons and now understands the err of his ways. Maybe he is pleased that a book set in and about Africa in the future has won an award crafted in his honor. Yeah, I’ll go with that image.”
World Fantasy Awards – what did I say? by Sofia Samatar, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2014:
“I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.”
THE NEXT GENERATION: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has provided inspiration for new writers even from the time HPL was still in the active process of creating it. Indeed, Lovecraft encouraged and welcomed the idea of others working in his universe. The Mythos is, if anything, more popular than ever before, with writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin R. Kiernan producing works that – to be perfectly honest – often outshine ‘the master’ in their psychological acuity and stylistic virtuosity. There is a lifetime’s worth of superb material to be explored here, but for new voices it’s worth checking out Paula Guran’s anthology New Cthulhu and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent all-women anthology She Walks in Shadows (gorgeous cover, too). For those seeking an instant online tentacular fix, Ruthanna Emrys’s ‘The Litany of Earth’ is a fine example of how skilfully Lovecraft’s prejudices can be turned on their head. The tale is of of one Aphra Marsh, and some deeply traumatic memories of a town called Innsmouth… Another favourite recent story comes from Michael Cisco, one of the most brilliant and consistently underrated writers in the field of weird. It’s actually an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Unlanguage, but reads perfectly well as a standalone short story. The Mythos isn’t referenced directly but it doesn’t need to be. Needless to say I am eager to read Unlanguage in its entirety.