At the opening ceremonies of this year’s NecronomiCon Providence, held at the First Baptist Church, Biblical scholar and Lovecraft expert Robert Price ended his talk with a reference to the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook,” exposing the difficulty if not impossibility of celebrating Lovecraft, the writer of weird fiction, while distancing oneself from Lovecraft, racist.
In his short talk Price noted Lovecraft’s role as metaphorical prophet, claiming that Lovecraft accurately foresaw the modern rise of atheism and the rejection of religion in the West. Price praised this rise of rationalism but warned, “as rationalism ascends here, it declines there. And Lovecraft foresaw that too and very clearly.”
If we can manage to look past [Lovecraft’s] racism, we will manage to see something deeper and quite valid. Lovecraft envisioned not only the threat that science posed to our anthropomorphic smugness, but also the ineluctable advance of the hordes on non-western anti-rationalism to consume a decadent, euro-centric west.
“Superstition, barbarism and fanaticism would sooner or later devour us. It appears now that we’re in the midst of this very assault. The blood lust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization and the effete senescent West seems all too eager to go gently into that endless night. Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology cynically redefining truth as ideology. Logic is undermined by the new axiom of the ad hominem. If white males formulated logic, then logic must be regarded as an instrument of oppression.
“Lovecraft was wrong about many things, but not, I think, this one. It’s the real life horror of Red Hook.”
Putting aside the problematic idea that white males are under threat from a new age of political correctness that rejects logic and his irrelevant attack on affirmative action, Price alarmingly used one of Lovecraft’s most potent and vituperative pieces of racist writing, “The Horror at Red Hook” to make his points about jihadist Islam.
“The Horror at Red Hook” was written by Lovecraft during one of the lowest periods of his life, during his brief marriage to Sonia Greene and his three year stay in New York. Lovecraft hated New York, because it was filled with non-white people. “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage,” his wife wrote, “He seemed almost to lose his mind.”
In his story, Lovecraft describes one character as, and I apologize in advance, “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.” This is simply the most obvious example of the racism in the story, since the entire piece is obsessed with the idea of miscegenation and steeped in white supremacy.
I wrote to Robert Price to ask him about his comments. Price seemed to think the problem was a politically correct reaction to his criticism of Jihadism.
“I still don’t know what was so controversial about what I said,” wrote Price, “and no one who found it controversial told me why they did. What is controversial about lamenting the outrages of Jihadism? Is someone accusing me of ‘Islamophobia’? I didn’t even use the word ‘Islam.’ Islam and Jihadism are not the same thing. To criticize Jihad is not to criticize Islam, and it is the one who clucks about ‘Islamophobia’ who is conflating the two, not me. I do not blame all Muslims for Jihadism, but some refuse to condemn Jihad because they think that would implicate all Muslims. Not me.”
Niels Hobbs, the organizer of NecronomiCon Providence, spoke eloquently about difficulties of holding an event celebrating Lovecraft the writer of weird fiction as separate from Lovecraft, the writer of racist rants. At the panel discussion, “Racism and Lovecraft,” Hobbs stated the problem in stark terms, saying, “If there’s ever going to be another NecronomiCon, if there’s going to be a good, positive future for weird fiction… we need to embrace these things and talk about them and move forward, see how we can use these things to grow and make a positive, diverse and active community that still acknowledges Lovecraft as one of the people that started it.”
Regarding Price’s Red Hook reference, Hobbs said, “I’ve kind of been bombarded all day from the blow back from the things that happened at the First Baptist Church on Thursday night, which, for those of you who were there I actually really want to personally apologize to you for some of the things that were said that I am deeply hurt by, actually, myself. And they are not things that we believe as organizers, by any means. And it’s not the kind of community that we want to have as people that want to be an entrance point for everybody that’s interested in weird fiction and people that enjoy Lovecraft of all backgrounds… If I can thank Bob Price for one thing, I will thank him for this, for laying it out there that this still an issue in this country. I don’t think any of us, if we even remotely watch the news, can avoid the fact that racism is a problem in this country right now.”
I wrote to Hobbs about Price’s comments. Hobbs replied, “I tried really hard to look past what Price said and give it the very best light I could, but given his unnecessary (at best) comments on affirmative action, etc… to have it end with his Red Hook comment – a VERY clear reference to anyone who’s familiar with Lovecraft – more than washed away any hopes I’d had for this merely being an oddly and unfortunately placed commentary on violent Islamic extremism.” (ellipse included)
Writers and fans of weird fiction and science fiction have been grappling in recent years with an influx of diversity, including women, LGBTQ and people of color venturing into genres traditionally dominated by white males. Two recent controversies are of note.
First are the recent discussions surrounding the “Howies,” the World Fantasy Award statuette given every year for achievements in weird fiction. Because of Lovecraft’s racism, many feel the award, modeled after Lovecraft’s likeness, should be changed, especially since it puts writers and creators of color in the unfortunate position of receiving an award in the likeness of a man who lived his entire life believing he was genetically and culturally their superior. An online petition sought to have Lovecraft’s likeness replaced with Octavia Butler’s, a pioneering black woman science fiction writer. (For more on this read HP Lovecraft’s Madness by Phenderson Djèlí Clark)
The second recent controversy concerns the Hugo Awards, given by fans for excellence in science fiction writing. This year a group of mostly white, mostly male fans called the Sad Puppies tried to counter the recent trends that seems to favor giving the coveted science fiction awards to “women, gays and lesbians, and people of color” by stacking the nomination slate. The efforts of the Sad Puppies failed spectacularly, as all their nominees lost to, “No Award.”
Lovecraft once famously asserted, “I am Providence” and after his death a group of fans raised the money to put these words on his tombstone, but Lovecraft is not the Providence I know and love.
The Providence I love is filled with all kinds of people, representing a spectrum of beauty that was unknown to Lovecraft, whose imagination, praised as being so expansive and creative, was curiously and tragically constrained when it came to his views on race and sex.
Weird fiction and Providence will forever be associated with Lovecraft, but the future of the genre and the city need not be constrained by this man or his racism, antisemitism and misogyny. The world is changing, for the better. This is not a white male world anymore, its a human world, and white males are just a small part of it.
I look forward to the next iteration of NecronomiCon Providence, (if that’s what the organizers decide to call it), as it becomes ever more diverse and sets the tone and the standard for all such literary events in the future.