American Dread: Alan Moore and the Racism of H. P. Lovecraft

American Dread: Alan Moore and the Racism of H. P. Lovecraft
by Bobby Derie — 2015

The World Fantasy Award was initiated in 1975 at the first World Fantasy Convention. Cartoonist Gahan Wilson designed the award statue, modeled as a bust of H. P. Lovecraft. In 2015, following an acerbic internet dispute and a petition on the nature of the award, it was announced that the World Fantasy Award would no longer be a likeness of H. P. Lovecraft. The key reason for the dispute is Lovecraft’s racism.

It is a fact that Lovecraft was a racist. In his private letters he expressed prejudices against immigrants, blacks, Jews, women, and homosexuals, among other groups; he subscribed to the racialist scientific theories of his day; he sometimes expressed sympathy and approval for racist organizations such as the Confederate States of America, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazi Germany, though not necessarily their policies; and some of his racist and racialist views found expression in his writing, most notoriously in stories like “The Street” and “Medusa’s Coil,” as well as the notorious poem “On the Creation of Niggers.” These are the facts, which are neither hidden nor denied by scholars who study Lovecraft’s life and fiction. It is also true that these materials form the minority among Lovecraft’s creative output, and should be understood in the context of his time.

H. P. Lovecraft lived during the nadir of race relations in the United States, a period when scientific racialism and the eugenics movement were endemic, segregation was in full force, the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan reached its height, and the Nazi party was rising to power in Germany. People of color and homosexuals were discriminated against by law, immigrants flooding into the American melting pot stirred nativist resentment, and media circuses surrounding incidents like the Massie Case and the Scottsboro Boys highlighted the United States’ almost obsessive grappling with the issue of race.

The pulps, including Weird Tales, regularly included stories featuring the casual racism of the era, and the perceived domination of the New York pulp market by Jewish publishers (including the notoriously tightfished Hugo Gernsback of Wonder Stories) fed antisemitism among pulpsters. This is the context in which Lovecraft conceived and wrote his stories of cosmic terror and dark fantasy, many of which bear the stamp of those prejudices, even if they don’t include the n-word.

It is an aspect of Lovecraft that Moore comes to grips with in his introduction to Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated Lovecraft:

In this light, it is possible to perceive Howard Lovecraft as an almost unbearably sensitive barometer of American dread. Far from outlandish eccentricities, the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world. Though he may have regarded himself, in accordance with the view held of him by his readership and even those that knew him personally, as an embodiment of his most emblematic fable, “The Outsider,” in his frights and panics he reveals himself as that almost unheard-of fluke statistical phenomenon, the absolutely average man, an entrenched social insider unnerved by new and alien influences from without. This, it might be suggested, is the underlying reason for our ongoing absorption in his work, a fascination that seems only to increase as Lovecraft and his times recede into the past: In H. P. Lovecraft’s tales, we are afforded an oblique and yet unsettlingly perceptive view into the haunted origins of the fraught modern world and its attendant mind-set that we presently inhabit. Coded in an alphabet of monsters, Lovecraft’s writings offer a potential key to understanding our current dilemma, although crucial to this is that they are understood in the full context of the place and times from which they blossomed. (Moore xiii)

The question that stands before every fan and scholar of H. P. Lovecraft is how to deal with the reality of his racism, and so forms a small part in the ongoing question of how we all deal with the historical reality of racism, and its enduring presence and effects on our own lives.

Panel from Planetary/Authority: Ruling the World. Art by Phil Jimenez
Panel from Planetary/Authority: Ruling the World. Art by Phil Jimenez

Few works in any media have striven to give an accurate depiction of Lovecraft’s prejudices as they were, despite the availability of considerable material in the form of his published fiction, letters, essays, and biographical and critical studies on Lovecraft. In comics and graphic novels, the subject is often either ignored or caricatured to absurd degree, as in Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener’s Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time (2009) and Warren Ellis and Phil Jimenez’ Planetary/Authority: Ruling the World (2000). In his own Lovecraftian comics, Moore has never shied away from the underlying current of racism, though his approach to it has changed.

In “The Courtyard” (1994, adapted to comics in 2003), the first lines of dialogue are “See them lights, boy? Them’s nigger-stars. Make a wish.” The protagonist Aldo Sax is a white male whose casual prejudices are made explicit in throw-away references to “spear-chuckers” and “kikes”—and this in a story set in 2004, not Lovecraft’s 1930s. The reader has to ask themselves if Sax’s internal monologue immediately sets him apart as a throwback to an earlier, uglier America; or whether such sentiments still exist, buried and codified beneath a veneer of political correctness, and here Sax’s uncensored thoughts are laid bare to the reader.

It is easy to overthink this kind of thing. The long history of the United States with issues of race and prejudice, from black slavery and Native American genocide to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, means that there’s a lot of material out there for this kind of conversation. “Nigger,” “kike,” “spade,” and “spear-chucker” are taboo in casual American speech, simply because of their associations with racism and antisemitism. Using these words immediately sets the tone of the story, and creates preconceptions about the character that uses them. Sax, for his part, is aware of his prejudices. He’s not conflicted by them, not even when Carl Perlman describes him as a “smug little Nazi.”

Sax fulfills the role of the Lovecraftian protagonist in “The Courtyard,” his prejudices and high intelligence something of a caricature of 1930s casual racism dropped into a (then) near-future setting. Red Hook fulfills the role of the Lovecraftian setting. “The Horror at Red Hook” was written during Lovecraft’s stay in Brooklyn, the first time he was living on his own away from home, and the frustration of trying (and failing) to find employment in the city and general travails heightened his inherent prejudices and xenophobia to their height, and the story reflects that in its depiction of foreigners as criminal, filthy, alien, and strange. The kick is that in “The Courtyard,” the opening asides on Farrakhan Day and hearing “the spear chuckers partying from under the Harlem Dome” have to be set against Johnny Carcosa and his mother—Lovecraft’s hideous reality of inhuman foreigners brought to life.

Seven years after the success of The Courtyard, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows collaborated on Neonomicon (2010), and Moore’s approach to racism in his Lovecraftian comic grew more nuanced:

So that was one of the initial ideas, another one was to actually put back some of the objectionable elements that Lovecraft himself censored, or that people since Lovecraft, who have been writing pastiches, have decided to leave out. Like the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, the sexual phobias that are kind of apparent in all of Lovecraft’s slimy, phallic or vaginal monsters. […] So I thought, let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in. Let’s come up with some genuinely ‘nameless rituals’- let’s give them a name. So those were the precepts that it started out from, and I decided to follow wherever the story lead. It is one of the most unpleasant stories I have ever written. It certainly wasn’t intended as my farewell to comics, but that is perhaps how it has ended up. (“Alan Moore: Unearthed and Uncut”)

Gordon Lamper, a black man, is a prominent character for the first half of the series, and to borrow a concept from Courtyard almost seems to highlight the wza-y’ei of racism in the series. There are no racist epithets (except possibly one instance where a character fawningly describes Lamper as a “black boy”); Aldo Sax’s anti-semitism is mainly expressed through a swastika carved in his forehead—a multilayered symbol which most characters in the story mistake for a Nazi reference, or a callback to Charles Manson, but actually refers to the Elder Sign in Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—back before the swastika had been tainted by its association with Nazis and the Holocaust. Overt racism isn’t needed in Neonomicon; Lamper’s presence is enough to raise its ugly spectre for readers familiar with Lovecraft. Feature a black man in a Lovecraftian comic and people look for the racism that must be there.

Moore has played with these kinds of concepts before, in his other comics. Racism is a fact of the Victorian fiction that forms the basis of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and he is well aware of it:

The nature of The League is that almost all of the interesting characters from fiction – or at least, all of those characters interesting to us – can be seen as problematic from a contemporary viewpoint. In our attempts to reinterpret these characters and to make them viable for a modern narrative, we have arrived at some solutions which, inevitably, some individuals are almost certain to find offensive. And while such individuals are of course entitled to their opinion, I don’t see that this should necessarily influence decisions made by a work’s authors who are likely to have thought about the matter at length and to have come to different conclusions. (“Last Alan Moore Interview”)

Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence, currently on issue 5 as of this writing, addresses the prejudices in Lovecraft’s fiction in part by emphasizing the context of the times. Set in 1919, the protagonist Robert Black is a closeted homosexual and non-practicing Jew, passing in a society that is largely and consciously white, Christian, and heterosexual. Legal discrimination is underscored by reference to the police raid on the Aniston Baths in 1903 to arrest homosexuals. The nuance of Black’s position as an outsider echoes Lovecraft’s own vision of himself, and colors his perception of the people that he meets, sympathizing with the racial discrimination experienced by the Deep One hybrids in Salem (Providence #3) and class discrimination towards the Wheatleys in Athol (Providence #4). The case of the mixed-race peoples of hybrids is especially poignant, because on the surface while they are odd-looking, they are generally friendly, helpful, and receptive to Black, and clearly faced with discrimination by reason of ethnicity and religion; the twist being, if Black really knew the details, he might not be so accepting.

Panel from Providence #3. Art by Jacen Burrows
Panel from Providence #3. Art by Jacen Burrows

Likewise, Black’s weird dream in the latter half of issue #3, connecting and contrasting the internment and concentration camps in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” with images of the Holocaust—which Lovecraft never lived to see—horrifies him. Against the sympathetic surface portrayal, however, Moore hints at the a much more complex and scary reality—as with Aldo Sax’s swastika in Neonomicon, Black’s surface perception of prejudice have to be balanced against what the darker aspects of things that the reader is aware of, but Black is not. The racial epithets of The Courtyard were blatant and evoke the popular image of Lovecraft as a racist; Providence is more subtle and echoes the way that Lovecraft’s prejudices subtly colored his world views, though Moore has yet to directly present Lovecraft’s prejudices on race in any depth. Robert Black, after all, is not H. P. Lovecraft, and his prejudices are not Lovecraft’s, but he lives in a world similar to the one that Lovecraft inhabited, and that shapes his views and reactions.

There is much about Lovecraft’s views on race which Moore has not yet addressed, either in his Lovecraftian comics or elsewhere; it may be he never will. Unpacking what Lovecraft believed and why is a complicated subject, and it is unfortunate that the popular image of Lovecraft as a writer and a character has been so caught up in the caricature of him as a racist, rather than the reality, and shows the truth that the American dread, as Moore put it, is still very alive and relevant today. It is to Alan Moore’s credit that he has addressed something of the more complicated nature of Lovecraft’s prejudices, and we look forward to see what he may yet say on the subject.

Works Cited