For forty years the World Fantasy Convention has been awarding authors with statuettes of H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century. In November 2015, this tradition came to an end. The event organizers announced that the Lovecraft statuettes will be replaced. This comes after years of complaints from writers who protested Lovecraft’s depiction on the World Fantasy Award because of his explicit racism.
Like any change, there will always be those who agree and those who disagree.
On one side, there are authors who agree and believe that an award that celebrates diversity in the world’s best speculative fiction should not offer a platform for Lovecraft’s views on race and culture.
Authors who disagree claim that the change insults Lovecraft’s legacy and that his racism was a social norm of his time period and therefore should not detract from his achievements.
Despite these attempts to defend the author, there is evidence that his racist views stemmed from a deeper place than just social conformity.
When Lovecraft moved to New York in 1924, he wrote two of his most explicitly xenophobic short stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He”, both of which have protagonists who are face hostility from the city’s population of non-white immigrants. His other works hint that non-Western cultures are the cause of evil: The Shadow Over Innsmouth depicts those with a racially mixed heritage as aligned with supernatural beings, while The Call of Cthulhu specifically antagonizes African-Americans as worshippers of ancient evil. Perhaps his most infamous display of racism was naming a cat after a racial slur in his short story “The Rats in the Walls”, a detail that did not serve the story’s plot in any way.
While it’s possible to argue that these perceptions within Lovecraft’s stories belong to the protagonists and not to the author himself, the frequency of these degradations are more than just coincidence. His personal journals and letters reveal his fear of multi-racialism and his desire to preserve ‘pure bloodlines’ by adhering to strict rules which forbid racial mixing. As an author of the early 1900s, it’s easy to label him as ‘a man of his time’. However, Lovecraft deliberately inserted racist elements into his stories even when they weren’t integral to the plot. The author’s private documents also overturn claims that he was just trying to appease an audience that accepted racism as a social norm. Lovecraft wasn’t just influenced by the zeitgeist—he was passionately against races and cultures that were not Western.
Although there are racist themes in the majority of his work, it’s undeniable that his extensive imagination has influenced generations of writers and continues to inspire media today. If you were to remove Lovecraft’s influence from the world, countless artistic works that were inspired by his stories would probably be detrimentally affected. Authors like Stephen King and Thomas Ligotti would be missing the cosmic terror their horror stories evoke; manga artist Junji Ito’s grotesque illustrations would lose their menace; Ridley Scott’s Prometheus would make even less sense; FromSoftware’s videogame Bloodborne would be devoid of Eldritch Secrets; the band Black Sabbath would be missing some of their best songs; and the universe would be a heartless place without adorable Cthulhu plushies. Lovecraft’s imagination has permeated time and space, but what about his racism? Fortunately, for the most part it seems that the twenty-first century has put his work through a filter, removing the bad parts while keeping the good.
It’s impossible to ignore Lovecraft’s legacy, but his racism should not be glanced over due to his success. By removing his depiction from their awards, the World Fantasy Convention has shown that the speculative community values diversity and that Lovecraft cannot possibly be an exemplar of fantasy literature from around the world. It was a difficult decision that continues to garner debate and is part of a larger argument that has gripped the speculative world as various parties have clashed time and time again. One of the viewpoints can be seen with events such as the hijacking of the Hugo awards by dissatisfied white male authors and the backlash from men’s rights groups after the empowered portrayal of protagonist Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. However, the World Fantasy Convention’s decision to change the statuette shows that the speculative community is moving away from a past that was dominated by straight white male authors and is moving towards a future where anyone can pick up a pen (or a keyboard) to craft their dreams. The future refuses to reward these brave writers with a bust of man who would have been revolted by their presence, and instead chooses to honour them with a symbol that truly accepts them.
But now for the important question: who will replace Lovecraft for the World Fantasy Award? The organizers of the convention have yet to announce a replacement, but personally I think no author can fully represent the entirety of fantasy and horror. Hopefully they’ll just stick a dragon on it and call it a day.
–Contributed by Lawrence Stewen