Lovecraft and the World Fantasy Award

HP Lovecraft (from wikimedia)
I've been following some of the debate around the World Fantasy Award trophy for various forms of fiction being a bust of HP Lovecraft. The controversy seems to have taken off when Nnedi OkoraforNigerial-American Nnedi Okorafor one the award for best novel in 2011. Another writer, Daniel Jose Older, began a petition for the bust to instead honor African-American writer Octavia Butler.

Why the controversy? As it turns out, Lovecraft was a racist. I would say he was one even beyond the standards of his time, a far from enlightened time, which saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (an organization he professed to admiring). You can sense his fear of corruption from mixing of the races throughout his works. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", probably my favorite Lovecraft work, is a particular example of this, with interbreeding between humans and Deep Ones. I'll let one of Lovecraft's poems speak for itself:

On the Creation of Niggers  (1912)by H. P. Lovecraft 
When, long ago, the gods created EarthIn Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;Yet were they too remote from humankind.To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Similarly Lovecraft wrote in a 1931 letter to James Morton:
Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness.

Was he a product of his time? I hear that a lot and I'm not so certain. Compare him with Samuel Clemens who, writing as Mark Twain, grew to abhor the American past of slavery and the racism which continued after it. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's article Mark Twain's Inconvenient Truths explores how Clemens grew to moral awareness as an adult concerning issues he had been ambivalent about. She writes:
When Twain began writing Huckleberry Finn he thought he was writing another boy’s book, a sequel to Tom Sawyer. But Twain soon found himself with several hundred pages of a manuscript like no book anyone had ever written before. It was about a child who grows up in a world in which no one—including that child—questions the God-given legitimacy of a society in which people who think of themselves as supremely civilized endorse a system that is uncivilized, illegitimate and inhumane.

One can argue that it is not fair to judge Lovecraft for not transcending the values of his day. For example, one can find a rather casual form of racism in Victor Appleton's Tom Swift stories. The African-American character of Rad fulfills a number of negative stereotypes and exists primarily to show how kind Tom Swift is to help out such a foolish and lazy character. At the time I suspect it was well intentioned but to modern eyes it can make for an uncomfortable read.
"What's the matter, Rad?" Tom asked. 
"Mattah, Mistah Swift? Why, dere's a pow'ful lot de mattah, an' dat's de truff. I'se been swindled, dat's what I has." 
"Swindled? How?" 
"Well, it's dis-a-way. Yo' see dis yeah lawn-moah?" 
"Yes; it doesn't seem to work," and Tom glanced critically at it. As Eradicate pushed it slowly to and fro, the blades did not revolve, and the wheels slipped along on the grass.
"No, sah, it doan't work, an' dat's how I've been swindled, Mistah Swift. Yo' see, I done traded mah ole grindstone off for dis yeah lawn-moah, an' I got stuck." 
"What, that old grindstone that was broken in two, and that you fastened together with concrete?" asked Tom, for he had seen the outfit with which Eradicate, in spare times between cleaning and whitewashing, had gone about the country, sharpening knives and scissors. "You don't mean that old, broken one?" 
"Dat's what I mean, Mistah Swift. Why, it was all right. I mended it so dat de break wouldn't show, an' it would sharpen things if yo' run it slow. But dis yeah lawn-moah won't wuk slow ner fast." 
"I guess it was an even exchange, then," went on Tom. "You didn't get bitten any worse than the other fellow did." 
"Yo' doan't s'pose yo' kin fix dis yeah moah so's I kin use it, does yo', Mistah Swift?" asked Eradicate, not bothering to go into the ethics of the matter. "I reckon now with summah comin' on I kin make mo' with a lawn-moah than I kin with a grindstone--dat is, ef I kin git it to wuk. I jest got it a while ago an' decided to try it, but it won't cut no grass." 
"I haven't much time," said Tom, "for I'm anxious to get home, but I'll take a look at it." 
Tom took hold of the handle, which Eradicate gladly relinquished to him, and his trained touch told him at once what was the trouble. 
"Some one has had the wheels off and put them on wrong, Rad," he said. "The ratchet and pawl are reversed. This mower would work backwards, if that were possible." 
"Am dat so, Mistah Swift?" 
"That's it. All I have to do is to take off the wheels and reverse the pawl." 
"I--I didn't know mah lawn-moah was named Paul," said the colored man. "Is it writ on it anywhere?"

Such controversy still continues with modern writers. For example, Orson Scott Card has written some fantastic science fiction, including the classic Ender's Game but at the same time I find his views against homosexuals reprehensible. I personally find it much easier to separate my enjoyment of Lovecraft's fiction from his racist views than I do with the works of writers who are still with us. Put simply, Lovecraft derives no personal benefit from my support. He's been in the grave for decades and left no heirs. On the other hand, every Orson Scott Card book I purchase provides him with some financial benefit.

As far as do I feel ok enjoying such works, absolutely. It is possible, in my opinion, to enjoy a work on some merits yet nevertheless disapprove of it or its author on others. I suspect D. W. Griffith felt that way about his own work, the KKK-praising The Birth of a Nation, as his next film was Intolerance, showing the effects of intolerance in different time periods.

As far as the World Fantasy Award honoring Lovecraft goes... I wonder if it is advisable to honor anyone aside from the winner in such an award. I absolutely understand this awkwardness and hurt this can cause winners. I've heard the argument "well they don't have to accept the award if it offends them" but I don't think that's fair - if writing is your profession you should not be in the awkward situation of refusing an award that can boost your standing in that profession. It would be one matter if a Lovecraft-themed organization were presenting an award but for a genre-based award it does not even seem necessary to me to tie the award to anyone. Again, make the award about the winner, not the racial views of a long-dead writer.


  1. I feel somewhat guilty for introducing you to the Tom Swift books. On the one hand I enjoy them for their incredible optimism and self reliance on the other I am horrified at the mindset revealed in them. If nothing else they have stopped me from being wistful for the "good old days" with all the ugly problems of today reading these lighthearted children's stories makes me appreciate that yes we are a better country today than in 1920.


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