How writers are turning H.P. Lovecraft's racist work on its head

American short story writer H.P. Lovecraft is more popular now than he was in his lifetime. Part of the modern popularity of Lovecraft is in reaction to his racism. IDEAS examines why his brand of “cosmic horror” resonates in the 21st century, and how new writers are dealing with his racist legacy.

'My writing is not an ode to Lovecraft, it is more so a jab,' says sci-fi writer P. Djéli Clark 

Science-fiction writer P. Djèlí Clark says H.P. Lovecraft was very influential to the genre but says his racist legacy can't be ignored. Clark's new book, Ring Shout, is a cosmic horror set in 1920s America. The Klan is on the rise, aided by wretched monsters call Ku Kluxes. (Tordotcom Publishing/Le Image Photography | Brooklyn)

*This episode was originally published on January 22, 2021.

American author H.P. Lovecraft, known for his horror fiction, is having a moment. Despite being dead for more than 80 years, his work keeps climbing in popularity. 

There are movie adaptations such as the 2019's The Color Out of Space, and television shows directly inspired by his work like HBO's series Lovecraft Country. His ideas of malevolent cosmic forces also appear in shows like Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Stranger Things.

Kiernan Shipka plays the role of Sabrina Spellman in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In part three of the Netflix series, 'eldritch terrors' are introduced, inspired by Lovecraft's stories. (Getty Images for Netflix)

Part of the modern popularity of Lovecraft is in reaction to his racism, and the racism of the time. He was an explicit white supremacist and his racist views were apparent in his writing.

But writers and filmmakers of colour have taken Lovecraft's ideas and turned them on their heads. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle is a re-telling of one of Lovecraft's stories from the perspective of a Black character. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, uses Lovecraftian elements to tell a story about racism, eugenics, and bloodlines. 

Science fiction writer P. Djéli Clark says Lovecraft's work is incredibly influential. But he adds his racism leaves a difficult legacy for writers to deal with.

"I have a friend and he'd say: 'When you're a Black sci-fi writer, you have a lot of racist grandpas. When it comes to Lovecraft, you consume it, and you also know it comes with all of these poisonous elements.'"

'Not an ode to Lovecraft'

Clark's most recent book, Ring Shout, is a story of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, aided by dark sorcery and monsters. He says Lovecraft's own themes and ideas can be used against him — and white supremacy today.

"We took the stuff that you created, and in many cases you didn't have our characters at heart, you didn't have people who look like us at heart, you actually had us in very negative roles, and we're gonna take it from you. And we're gonna flip it around," Clark says.

"We're gonna do what we want with it, and there's nothing you can do about it. My writing is not an ode to Lovecraft, it is more so a jab."

Clark notes that while Lovecraft was a particularly extravagant racist, he says it's important to remember that racism is part of the lineage of the genre.

"When you are a marginalized person, you're often consuming …  through television or literature, little slights or cuts. Whether it was J.R.R. Tolkien speaking of Orcs that look like 'Black men from far Harad,' whether it was watching a Tarzan film or something of the sort, there was always these issues of race. There was always these slights, these biases," he says.

"If Lovecraft does anything I suppose, he simply blares them."

'Cosmic horror' in demand

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890. In his lifetime, he was never a mainstream success, but his stories like The Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and Herbert West: Re-animator, were published in the popular pulp magazine Weird Tales.

In the '20s, Lovecraft was writing in the genre of "weird fiction." But today, the genre is often called "cosmic horror."

So why is Lovecraft popular today?

According to Carl Sederholm, the co-editor of the book Age of Lovecraft, it's because today's world can feel Lovecraftian.

This photograph of H. P. Lovecraft was taken in 1930. He died in 1937 at the age of 46, mostly broke and unknown. (Wikimedia)

"What makes something Lovecraftian is this large sense of atmosphere that something is wrong. There's this growing sense you are about to discover that everything that you've ever thought about the world, your most confident sense of how things work, is about to be completely undermined. And chips away at your sanity."

Sederholm suggests Lovecraft's stories of dark, unstoppable forces, connect to real-world issues today like climate change,and politics. 

"There are upheavals in nature there, upheavals socially. There are riots, there's violence. And there's just a sense that we are teetering on the brink of something, but we don't know what it is or what to call it," says Sederholm.

"And to me, that's why Lovecraft resonates more and more with people, it's because we recognise the nervousness that his narrators are describing, because it feels like we're experiencing it."

Guests in this episode:

Leslie Klinger is the editor of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.

Minister Faust is playwright, journalist, and author of the books War & Mir and The Alchemists of Kush.

Alison Sperling is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry.

P. Djeli Clark is a writer and author of the book Ring Shout.

Carl Sederholm is the Chair of the Department of Comparative Arts & Letters at Brigham Young University, and co-editor of the book Age of Lovecraft.

* Written and produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder

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