I’m just going to get this out of the way: The question of separating Art and Artist is never going to be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Whether we dismiss the art completely, or grant it begrudging respect, or make just make exceptions for our favorite artists, we can draw lines in the sand all day long just to watch the next tide sweep them away.
H.P. Lovecraft was a shitty human being in most respects. His grim view of humanity is reflected in the bleakness of his mythos, the cosmic void and eldritch gods negating the meaning of human existence. He directed the majority of his disdain at those of different races, being an obsessive anglophile. Yeah, he was a huge racist.
I’ve loved Lovecraft’s work for years and years, however much I feel the need to begin any adulation of his work with a disclaimer. “I know he’s a racist dirtbag, but…At the Mountains of Madness? I mean, can you even…?”
Instead of asking again about separating artist and art, I’ve been mulling over a more interesting question after reading a trio of books that in one sense or another, owe a great deal to the creator of Cthulhu.
All art is necessarily derivative, and writers, whether they admit it or not, pay homage, allude to, or just plain rip off the authors of previous eras,. So how do they approach someone so obviously problematic as Lovecraft while acknowledging how large a debt they owe to his universe?
Let’s see how three novels published within the last few years have approached it.
1. Let’s Just Put Some Tentacles on the Cover
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
In a novel full of allusions, the Lovecraftian references are oblique, never mentioned outright.
Four kids and a dog who used to solve mysteries are now are all grown up and massively effed up. They reunite to solve one last mystery! But when the meddling kids, now meddled-out adults, return to their old haunts to close the lid on their final case, there’s a whole bunch of weird, cosmic results.
There’s a mad doctor reanimating the dead, creepy subterranean creatures, an elder god looking to make a comeback and maybe destroy humanity. There’s also a character residing in Arkham Asylum where he meets a professor from Miskatonic University; all sorts of Lovecraftian shenanigans going on here.
The premise is cute, the story decent and occasionally funny, but the best character is the dog, and there are dull stretches of just talking, mostly about one character’s hair, that slams the plot to a halt more than once. Cantero wisely avoids copying Scooby Doo beat for beat; the characters have different names and characteristics, and the dog is not a Great Dane but a Pointer, and his name is Tim. That dog is EPIC.
2. Just Lay it All Out There
I am Providence by Nick Mamatas
I am Providence basically starts out with acknowledging Lovecraft’s racist assholery. The action takes place at the annual Summer Tentacular! A convention for Lovecraft buffs and writers to mingle, hold half-assed panels, and drink. The novel begins with a cool trick. The narrator is dead, yet somehow his neurons are still firing, and he’s very aware of the going-ons in the morgue where he is being held. His narrative alternates with another attendee of the convention who is trying to solve his murder. The narrative device is interesting for a while, until it requires a lot of action to take place in the morgue under the most contrived of circumstances.
Lovecraft’s problems with other races and also women recur throughout the novel, as we meet many zany and sometimes poorly differentiated characters, all of them being exactly the weirdos that “normal” people imagine attend these conventions. The character decisions in this book are some of the weirdest I’ve come across. Instead of the beats illuminating the characters, they are in clear service to the plot (the cops bring several murder suspects down to the morgue multiple times, because that is common police procedure…?)
Ultimately, the novel leads to an ending it doesn’t earn, although it never wavers on Lovecraft’s faults. It doesn’t seem to lead to any conclusions though, one way or another, preferring to make fun of nerds rather than create any bigger picture.
3. Build a Better World
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Lovecraft is only mentioned briefly in the beginning of this novel, a story about insane cultists, Necronomicons, and 1950’s Jim Crow America. If you’re going to tell a story about the ills of racism, H.P. Lovecraft is an odd choice, although “Lovecraft Country” is an apt description for the nightmarish reality of being black in the 1950’s.
Lovecraft Country tells its story episodically, each chapter focusing on a different character and their strange journeys that require them to fight not only discrimination and menacing small-town cops, but interstellar portals, creepy cults, and haunted chess boards. Especially striking is the saga of a black woman who is drugged by one of the cult leaders and wakes up as a white woman. Anyone who ever said white privilege doesn’t exist ought to read this story and reevaluate their opinions.
Lovecraft Country is at once an exploration of our country’s shameful history of discrimination and hatred, and a celebration of the weird. It is proof that we can take a terrible thing and use it to start a new dialogue.
And maybe that is how we can start a conversation around our problematic creators.
JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
DID YOU KNOW LOVECRAFT INVENTED TENTACLES???
*Colours Out of Space
- I stopped eating at Jimmy John’s when I found out the owner was a big game trophy hunter, which is disgusting. Following this logic, should I also stop reading Hemingway, also a big game trophy hunter? TRICK QUESTION! I don’t read Hemingway because he’s boring as shit.
- In Meddling Kids, there’s this recurring bit where someone will mention witches burning at Salem, and a character is all “Salem! Stop talking about Salem! It’s not always about Salem!” But what bothers me is the obvious historical inaccuracy: no witches were burned in Salem. Burning was more of a European custom. Those Salemites were all about hanging people and sometimes piling giant rocks on them.
- My favorite cutesy reference in Meddling Kids is probably the Zoinx River. I listened to this on audiobook, so every time the narrator said “Zoinx River,” I laughed out loud. Go ahead, try it. Zoinx River.
- There is an actual H.P. Lovecraft Convention held in Portland, OR every year called CthulhuCon