Despite having devoured fantasy and science fiction my whole life, I had somehow never read any H.P. Lovecraft. My daughter discovered his works when she was in high school, but as a fan of horror it was a logical progression for her. Until recently I only knew two things about Lovecraft: 1) He had a tremendous influence on many speculative writers of our age, including Stephen King and Ridley Scott. 2) He was a racist advocate of eugenics and an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
The latter would seem a good reason not to read his works. As a speculative fiction writer, however, it doesn’t seem wise to ignore a major influence in the genre. With “Lovecraftian” references surfacing repeatedly in my studies of the fantasy genre, I chose to examine some of the short stories and novellas of this pulp writer of the 1920s and 30s. I’ve now read some of his “classics,” namely “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Colour Out of Space,” and I’m currently working my way through “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
I use the verb working because Lovecraft requires work. There’s the overwrought prose, of course. I find it fascinating a 20th Century contemporary of Hemingway would use story structure and verbiage more evocative of a love child of 19th Century writers Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. More difficult to stomach, however, is the harsh way he describes non-whites, not just in word choice but in depiction. It's clear he viewed his fiction as a method to advocate against the dilution of the Aryan race.
Also fascinating (but perhaps not surprising) is how long it took for a full debate in the literary community to come to fruition over Lovecraft’s legacy. A must-read on the controversy is Wes House’s essay in Lit Hub, “We Can’t Ignore H.P. Lovecraft’s White Supremacy.” House writes of the “World Fantasy Award,” in which each year’s winner was given a trophy featuring a bust of Lovecraft’s head. Imagine the reaction of 2011 winner Nnedi Okorafor, the first black writer to win it, when after receiving the bust a friend pointed out a poem by Lovecraft titled “On the Creation of [pluralized version of the N word]” (Lovecraft, of course, used the word itself). Actually, you don’t have to imagine her reaction; Okorafor stated it eloquently in this essay.
We hear a lot about “cancel culture” these days. It is worth considering to what extent we want to “cancel” the legacy of influential individuals from the past. Did you support an armed insurrection against the United States as a Confederate general or politician? I’m ready to cancel you, and that was true twenty years ago when my apartment in northern Virginia was on a street unfortunately called “Jefferson Davis Highway.” Are you a former U.S. president who emancipated the slaves yet privately didn’t consider blacks your equal socially or politically? That’s a more complicated legacy to address. But we can’t let those shouting about the alleged evils of “cancel culture” prevent us from examining actual evil.
It might not surprise you that Okorafor’s essay didn’t lead to an immediate change in the World Fantasy Award’s trophy. It took another five years for a new version to debut, and even then the change came amidst “kicking and screaming” from Lovecraft defenders, as House documents.
Sometimes it can be more interesting to subvert rather than cancel. That’s what Matt Ruff did with his 2016 novel Lovecraft Country. Set in the Jim Crow era, the novel follows a black protagonist who loves science fiction and encounters Lovecraftian monsters in real life. I haven’t yet read the novel, but I’ve begun watching the HBO series based on it. I’m finding pleasure in imagining what Lovecraft would think in seeing his “shoggoth” monsters depicted as less terrifying than white supremacists. Oh, and I love that our protagonist mentions that N-word poem by Lovecraft in the first episode.
I consider myself fortunate I am not finding myself a fan of Lovecraft’s prose. It would be far more difficult to wrestle with dichotomies in authors who have greatly influenced me. I do believe you can never completely separate a writer’s works from his beliefs, particularly since every writer knows their worldview is present in everything they write. Sometimes the symbolism may be more subtle than Lovecraft—I get it, H.P., the “mongrel” fishermen in Innsmouth mating with sea monsters represent your horror of mixing white and black races—but one's conscious or subconsious intent is as much a part of one’s writing as nouns and verbs. It’s become clear to many of us in the last two years that humans possess a need to ignore darker parts of our past. It’s also become clear doing so is dangerous and harmful. So let the light in, and let’s discuss whatever is illuminated.
Become a "That" Slayer
Is Your Writing Full of Weasel Words?
Is the word that so bad? Perhaps not, but maybe it doesn’t need to appear 913 times in a 70,000-word manuscript. That’s how many appearances my Microsoft Word “find” feature found when scanning my urban fantasy novel-in-progress. In examining each appearance, I found (that) my use of the word that was either unnecessary or could be omitted with a quick rewrite more than 400 times. (See how the that in parentheses above isn’t needed?)
Novelist Matt Bell identifies that as one of dozens of “weasel words” we use as a crutch in our writing. In this exercise he encourages writers to search their manuscripts for them and consider whether they can be eliminated or rewritten. (Hat tip to Adam McOmber for sharing this post in the 2021 VCFA Novel Retreat.) Bell deleted 800 appearances of that in a 300-page manuscript, so I guess I shouldn’t feel so bad. A warning: I’m finding it quite painful to see how often I fall back on weasel words like always and really, so I would (always) suggest you (really) pace yourself.
A Final Word on Plotters vs. Pantsters
I had the distinct pleasure of presenting on the topic of plotters vs. pantsters (or as I prefer to call them, navigators and wanderers) last month before the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild. Thank you to those of you who attended!
I’ve written on the topic here before, so I won’t go into it in much detail here. Suffice it to say I sought to demonstrate the need to embrace both approaches in our creative writing. I believe all of us by default either welcome planning at the start of our creative journey or prefer to leave home without a map. The most successful plotters know when to go off the beaten path, however, and the most successful pantsters know when they need to apply some structure in revisions. Embrace who you are while emulating what works from those you admire. That’s a good approach to writing, and to life.
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