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Lacking Lovecraft

April 6, 2011

I have since discovered that a recent conclusion I came to regarding the highly-influential writer of horror fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, is in fact a long-established observation of the man and his work that has been discussed at length by critics. It makes perfect sense that I should have been beaten to the punch on this, given that he was first knocking out his tales of “cosmic horror” some 90 years ago and I arrived at this conclusion after reading only a single short story. Nevertheless, I’m in the mood to share.

H.P. Lovecraft is an author that I had been meaning to read since around my teens when I first became aware of his work. His influence was strongly apparent in the work of comic book writers that I had begun to enjoy, namely Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, but at the same time I wasn’t in much of a hurry then to read horror fiction. My personal position changed there over the years as my literary tastes broadened overall and it became something of a minor, trifling goal to get my hands on some Lovecraft, a goal achieved last week when I happened upon a Penguin Classics edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories in a bookstore. As the Cthulhu Mythos was the element of Lovecraft’s work I was most interested in, I decided to read The Call of Cthulhu first (and, as of this writing, it is the only story I have read).

Recently, the celebrated visionary filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro had been attached to make a film of At the Mountains of Madness, one of Lovecraft’s most notable stories. Del Toro had long cited Lovecraft as a major creative influence on his work and had displayed some adept handling of the writer’s cosmic horror imagery in the first Hellboy movie in particular. He seemed like the perfect director for a big-budget screen adaptation of a Lovecraft story and, sure enough, online communities of film fans were buzzing with excitement and anticipation. It proved too good to be true, however, as Universal Pictures balked at greenlighting a major film devoid of love interest, a happy ending and the ridiculous PG-13 rating they desired. It was one of the most bitterly disappointing pieces of movie news in recent times but it also prompted me to wonder why such an influential writer had not had his work more frequently and prominently adapted for the screen over the years. There have been films made from Lovecraft’s material, the most notable likely being the enduring cult classic, Re-Animator but these films have largely been B-movie horror flicks without any major star power or marketing behind them. It seemed reasonable to ask why our screens have been so lacking Lovecraft.

Upon reading The Call of Cthulhu, I believe I have my answer; H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction is very broadly and blatantly racist in parts. Although the specific manner of this bigotry could perhaps be explained on the page in terms of the time in which it was written (some critics have disputed this, claiming that Lovecraft held views on race that went beyond the norm of even his day) and the purpose that it serves in his work, it would be far too crude and outlandish for Hollywood. I may be rushing to judgement here, with only a single short story under my belt, but I have strong suspicions that the themes therein are fairly recurrent in the man’s writing. In The Call of Cthulhu there is an ancient cult that worships and protects the secrets of prehistoric cosmic/demon entities that reside in lost cities under the oceans of our comparatively young world. This cult is depicted as sinister, ruthless, malevolent, bloodthirsty and savage and it is comprised solely of non-white people. It is broad and diverse in its own way, with a preponderance of “negro and mulatto sailors” indulging in human sacrifice in dark recesses of Louisianan swamps and a far-flung group of evil Eskimos and some creepy Chinamen in the mountains of East-Asia who are at least credited with being wise, albeit in a somewhat sinister fashion. However, the innocent protagonists of this tale (and, I assume, many other such tales), taken to embody humanity and civilization itself, are all well-to-do WASPs from New England society or at the very least brave, good-hearted men of Northern European stock. I don’t consider myself a reader or viewer overly-concerned with the level of political correctness in works of art but when abject bigotry is manifested in such an obviously crude and paranoid fashion, it is unavoidable how utterly ridiculous and disappointing an effect it has.

Cthulhu

A faithful screen adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu would look like some weird blend of Godzilla, The Omen, and the more questionable parts of Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation. Scenes depicting learned scholars from the East coast of America traversing the globe in their curious naiveté and encountering all manner of wicked black and brown people who then gleefully murder them to please their dark hidden gods just wouldn’t play too well. A cursory bit of research I conducted this morning has revealed that there was indeed a low-budget film of The Call of Cthulhu made and released by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society in 2005. In an intriguing stylistic move, and no doubt in order to overcome major budget constraints, it was made to deliberately resemble a 1920s silent film with basic stop-motion animation, over-emoting actors and flimsy sets. It sounds like fun but it is worth noting that this film apparently omitted or changed certain scenes which just happen to correspond to moments in the original story involving a professor being murdered by African sailors and a skirmish at sea between heroic Norwegian sailors and the evil black and mixed-race crew of a boat belonging to the Cthulhu cult.

I intend to read further with H.P. Lovecraft but my initial experience of his fiction was marred by the stark absurdity of the obvious racial anxiety therein. From what I understand, he had similar pathological distress regarding his approach to women and sex which will likely provoke equally amused derision in my response.

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5 comments

  1. And look: The folks at io9 have delivered a topical top 10 that coincides with your post here:

    http://io9.com/#!5789501/10-of-the-most-embarrassing-racial-and-ethnic-stereotypes-in-science-fiction

    And as someone who’s never read any Lovecraft, the blatant racism is certainly as interesting as it is sad. Which is to say, he has notable fans such as the incomparable Guillermo del Toro, yet the racist stereotypes that pervade one of his most well-known stories haven’t gotten much publicity at all. Appreciate the write-up, as ever.


  2. Been a while since I’ve read any HP, and I’d almost forgotten about that aspect of his work, though I seem to remember Warren Ellis devoting a bit in Planetary to ridiculing him for it.

    However, I suspect that aspect is the least of Hollywood’s worries – they’ve hardly been shy about racial stereotyping over the years, and while they’re improving in that regard, they’ve got a way to go. See the whitening of Akira for one example. I’d wager that the general lack of romantic entanglements combined with a dearth of happy endings has more to do with their reluctance. Of course, it’s also possible that they just have shitty taste.


  3. As far as film adaptations go, can’t forget “From Beyond”. Never read the short story, but the movie is a classic. Flying brain worms! Protruding pineal glands! Inane dialogue! Its got it all.


  4. I’ve always wanted to see From Beyond. I used to see the box cover in the video shop when I was a kid and it freaked me the fuck out.

    I intended the above post to be a short simple paragraph explaining the bemused reaction I had to The Call of Cthulhu but it just kind of rambled into a thousand-word entry comprising little other than old news as far as Lovecraft goes. I enjoyed the story but the parts of it I liked the best I actually already knew having read up on the Cthulhu Mythos on and off over the years. I knew what Cthulhu was, that it sleeps in a submerged city under the ocean and all that but the unfamiliar stuff, i.e. virtually every non-white character being a murderously savage cultist engaged in an ancient conspiracy against good but naive white folks, was new to me and executed in such a silly way that I thought it worthy of comment.
    “The professor died shortly after being jostled by a negro sailor”, “the Norwegian captain was last seen being followed by two African seamen”. It was quite daft.


  5. […] so unsatisfying? Unlike the blogger at Wigfield’s Gibberonica, I don’t think it’s just the racism. (Funny, though, how the question of Lovecraft and film adaptation is in the air — […]



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