Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born in Providence, Rhode Island, is perhaps the best known practitioner of “weird fiction”, which Lovecraft himself defined as “the literature of cosmic fear”, a literature that flouts the fixed laws of nature, that is infused with dread of the utter insignificance of humans in a universe populated with ancient gods and malign beings. His stories lurk in gothic terrain, many of them with a hint of science fiction. Across several of his stories, Lovecraft famously created the Cthulhu Mythos (see especially “The Call of Cthulhu”), which has enjoyed an enduring cult following in both written and visual media.
Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Weinstock begin their excellent collection of scholarly essays, The Age of Lovecraft with an invaluable introduction that lays out evidence of the resurgence of interest (especially in academic circles) in the once scorned “pulp” writer. It’s a fount of information about available collections of Lovecraft’s fiction (there are now editions of his work from the Library of America, Penguin, and Oxford University Press, testament to Lovecraft’s new respectability), as well as recent scholarly works of criticism and proliferating pop culture adaptations. (Brian Johnson has a provocative essay on Lovecraft’s influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien films, especially the recent Prometheus.)
Sederholm and Weinstock’s introduction, and indeed, their collection as a whole, emphasizes how Lovecraft has recently been taken up by those interested in the philosophies of “posthumanism” and “object-oriented ontology”, each of which decenter the human, piercing our sense that we are at the center of the universe. Object-oriented ontology, more particularly, puts “things” at the center of the study of existence, and the ruins and slime-covered rocks that are strewn throughout Lovecraft’s fiction are testament to how suitable this approach is to his body of work. (Weinstock’s essay, “Lovecraft’s Things”, is an exceptional introduction both to the new materialist philosophies, including object-oriented ontology, and to how “thing-power” permeates Lovecraft’s work.)
Several of the essays in The Age of Lovecraft, as well as the introduction, take up the reasons Lovecraft was left, for decades, by the wayside of mainstream academic and literary circles — principally, his “trashy” themes (monsters and madness), his excessive, florid style, and, most importantly, his notorious racism. In his essay for the collection, David Punter eloquently articulates the longstanding view of Lovecraft’s texts as “excessive, embarrassing, excrescences on the corpus of literature.” That view has clearly shifted, and all the essays in The Age of Lovecraft argue for the writer’s importance, though not without acknowledging his significant shortcomings and the ethical dilemmas he thus poses for those who read and study him.
Like the man it explores, The Age of Lovecraft is divided into two main strands of thought. One strand addresses the problematic beliefs — an abiding racism and sexism — in which Lovecraft’s reputation remains mired, views that certainly manifest in his fiction but which he also stated quite unequivocally in his voluminous correspondence. The other strand doesn’t disagree with Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, but places those beliefs within the wider context of what Brian Johnson helpfully calls his “cosmic indifferentism”, a belief system that renders all humans (not just some humans) utterly irrelevant.
In his contribution to the collection, Jed Mayer offers a quotation from Lovecraft’s “Cats and Dogs”, which he uses to illustrate Lovecraft’s divided being, and his consequently divided legacy: “I have no active dislike for dogs,” wrote Lovecraft, “any more than I have for monkeys, human beings, negroes, cows, sheep, or pterodactyls.” As Mayer points out, that Lovecraft separates “negroes” from “human beings” signals his appalling racism. On the other hand, by placing “human beings” within a list of (other) animals, Lovecraft also offers a profound challenge to human exceptionalism, to the idea that humans (any humans) matter much at all in the grand scheme of things. Mayer puts the conundrum of Lovecraft effectively when he writes that Lovecraft’s work challenges speciesism — privileging one species over another — while at the same time making claims that are clearly racist.
For those interested in Lovecraft’s troubling views about race, women, and sexuality, essays by Jed Mayer and W. Scott Poole adeptly tackle race, and Carl Sederholm’s essay takes up how Lovecraft not only “dreaded sexual feelings in his personal life but also avoided them in his fiction.” Sederholm explores one of Lovecraft’s best stories, “The Dunwich Horror”, as a dramatization of the writer’s “disgust” with sexuality specifically and the body more generally.
W. Scott Poole’s essay (one of the must-reads in the collection) offers an intriguing take on Lovecraft’s racism, rooting it at least in part in the writer’s avowed belief in an atavistic witch cult, going on to argue that Lovecraft’s inability to free himself from what are profoundly racialized conceptions of magic may lend the weight of dread to his stories but also makes him a “less-than-useful guide for philosophical reflection.” Poole is alone in this claim, since every other essay does see Lovecraft’s uses for contemporary philosophers. Poole, though, argues that Lovecraft’s fiction is tainted by its origins in a racially-charged “conspiratorial magic”, in a theory of witchcraft that embodied all of Lovecraft’s “creeping terrors” about race.
The other essays in The Age of Lovecraft argue for some version of a “cosmic indifferentism” as the driving force in Lovecraft’s fiction (something that helps liberate it from racism), and there are some undeniably compelling arguments; notably by Jeffrey Weinstock, Brian Johnson, David Punter, and Patricia MacCormack. Bottom line about this collection is that it wonderfully elucidates the central dilemma posed by Lovecraft: is he useful for his fictional cosmic visions in which humans are simply dwarfed by vast animate and inanimate forces? Surely this is a vision increasingly salient in the post-millennial era of global climate change and new astronomical discoveries. Or does his quite evident physical revulsion toward non-white and women’s bodies and sexuality in general irrevocably diminish his usefulness?
The Age of Lovecraft does not shy away from these questions and offers ample fodder for the reader to think them through. If you’re interested at all in H. P. Lovecraft, you need to read this collection of essays.