How Can Writers of Color Reconcile H. P. Lovecraft’s Influence with His Racist Legacy?

A life-size wax model of H. P. Lovecraft

A model of Lovecraft from director Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection, as seen in At Home with Monsters at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Madeleine Vasaly

August 20, 2018, marks the 128th birthday of the polarizing American writer H. P. Lovecraft. A resident of Providence, Rhode Island, he is best known in fandom for his interconnected stories collectively referred to as the Cthulhu mythos—or Yog-Sothothery, as he is said to have preferred. A consistent joke is that the list of things he wasn’t afraid of was shorter than the list of things he was, and that is clearly reflected in his writing. He’s one of the most surprising figures of the early 20th century to survive into modern times, with much of his writing initially dismissed for any number of flaws by readers both of his time and of the present. Highlights include an often archaic and florid vocabulary, vagaries of description, and any number of plot holes and formulaic techniques that either thrill you or appall you. “God, that hand! The window! The window!” indeed.

Since Lovecraft’s death, we’ve seen numerous artists and writers cite his work as influences, including George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and more. Some have drawn inspiration with great reverence; others, considerably less so. In full disclosure, I’m one of those so influenced—I hold a lifetime membership in the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and I’ve written multiple books strongly featuring Lovecraftian poetry through a Lao American refugee lens. My award-winning poetry collection DEMONSTRA, which turns five this year, was released by Canada’s Innsmouth Free Press and responded significantly to many of the themes, ideas, and creations of Lovecraft and his fellow writers. My poem “The Pearl in the Shadows” opened the Martian Migraine anthology Cthulhusattva. And later this fall, my Lao Lovecraftian short story “A Model Apartment” is being reprinted in the Afrofuturist anthology Sunspot Jungle from Rosarium Publishing.

However, I certainly appreciate the opinion Dr. Nnedi Okorafor and others have that it’s impossible to separate Lovecraft’s racism from his legacy, and I absolutely think all writers should read some of the blistering critiques of his relationship to white supremacy and consider for themselves where they might stand on these issues. For a few strange eons, I was of the opinion that if someone was teaching themselves how to be racist by reading the work of Lovecraft, there was something pitiable about the matter, although it doesn’t always seem so outlandish a premise as it once was.

One of the interesting challenges for writers of color is how to reconcile with these elements of Lovecraft’s work. How do we turn a blind eye to it? Everyone will find their own level of water, certainly, and in my own experience I found it to be a continuum. Some days you just walk away entirely. Others you could feel compelled by some of the larger ideas he was aiming at and focus on those. Or perhaps you might try to draw inspiration for your work from the influences Lovecraft cited, like Lord Dunsany.

For me, Kurodahan Press’s 2002 release of the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series, collections of Cthulhu stories by weird writers of Japan, was significantly liberating for me. To see nonwhite writers besides myself taking on the material suggested that there could be ways to work within the Cthulhu mythos after all. I later came to work frequently with Silvia Moreno-Garcia as she and her fellow writers at Innsmouth Free Press wrestled with these and other challenges of what Lovecraftian fiction means to women and people of color. There were many interesting successes in working with the themes and the tropes without descending into the racist or the misogynist. Some critics may disagree, but for the five years it ran, I think they made a good go at Innsmouth Free Press to find a middle ground and to push the possibilities of the better ideas that could be salvaged. History will see who prevails, over time.

Demonstra cover art

Phaya Nak, 2013 cover art by Vongduane Manivong for DEMONSTRA depicting a traditional Lao mythological figure through a Lovecraftian lens. Author’s collection

Today you can go into any number of geek spaces and find them festooned with Lovecraftian objects. The author’s most notable creation, the Great Old One Cthulhu, largely descended into parody as an unusually buff squid god slumbering deep beneath the oceans in the alien city of R’lyeh. Acclaimed game designer Sandy Petersen has spent the better part of the 2010s completing his work of bringing to life Cthulhu Wars, a massive board game inspired by the monsters of the Cthulhu mythos, and he’s consistently received support to immortalize these terrors in plastic. And of course, Minnesota’s Fantasy Flight Games has a whole collection of Lovecraft-inspired titles. So although the World Fantasy Award that Okorafor wrote about replaced its Lovecraft bust with a different statuette starting in 2016, there’s little sign of interest in Lovecraft’s work waning any time soon, elder or otherwise.

But the question remains: how do writers like me work with the controversial nature of Lovecraft? I often ask myself this as I reflect on the imaginative needs I had as a young Southeast Asian refugee finding his way through the cosmos—or at least, the American Midwest in the 1980s. Earlier this year, the Cambodian writer Bunkong Tuong wrote about how the Cure helped him as a refugee when he first arrived in the US, and that resonates with me as I think about my odd relationship to the Cthulhu mythos, which began in the pre-Internet era.

In the 1980s, my first encounters with Lovecraft’s work were the very crude advertisements for Chaosium’s pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, even as no one around me could remotely tell me how to pronounce “Cthulhu.” I initially gave it very little thought. For some reason I ran into Lovecraft’s work years later when it was being passed around on the bus by several older high-school kids properly regarded as unpleasant, antisocial bullies. Now, 30 years later, I can’t really tell you why they let me borrow their copy of The Lurking Fear, or why I’d be interested at all in what scuzzy kids like those were reading. But to my surprise, I enjoyed the variety of quick, short reads in an eerie horror I’d never run into in school before. I still hated the bullies, but at least I had something new to read, and it gave us something to talk about, even as it was clear how contemptuous we were of each other. Life was weird back then.

While I do not condone their behavior with or without their reading of Lovecraft, I suppose there was a particular kind of mental gymnastics that made me hopeful that maybe terrible people having an interesting taste in art meant there was some humanizing form of hope for almost anyone. I’ll put together an essay on youthful naïveté another time. In the end, more of Lovecraft’s work slithered its way onto my bookshelves over the decades, from the art of Gahan Wilson to role-playing games and at least one Cthulhu Christmas card for some reason. Chaosium even issued a Miskatonic University student kit complete with a bumper sticker for the Fighting Cephalopods, which I have kept longer than the bumper stickers for my own real-life college. Go ’Pods!

As for the larger picture?

Over the years, as I’ve tried to do my part to rebuild a postwar Lao literary tradition among my fellow refugees, I argued for years, somewhat heretically, that the work of Lovecraft might be a better influence on our literature than many examples of contemporary writing, whether from the Asian American community or mainstream literature. Is it possible that The Shadow over Innsmouth might capture our experience better than toxic themes of affluence in Crazy Rich Asians? I still think there’s a conversation to be held on this. In my experience over the decades, most Lao much preferred an old ghost story to The World According to Garp or the angst of Dawson’s Creek. Films like Blade Runner and its diverse Los Angeles of 2019, a world complete with Cambodian street geneticists, seemed more daring than American Beauty or The Great Gatsby.

In DEMONSTRA, I wanted to test whether the language and tropes of Lovecraft might be effective for probing sensitive inner experiences of the Lao in diaspora. A central question I had been asking was, “What’s honestly scary to a 600-year-old culture that was secretly carpet-bombed and Agent Oranged during our bloody 20-year civil war?” When we see so many stories of the postapocalypse in American media, it’s a strange question, since Laos already had its apocalypse in the 1960s and ’70s. One Lao nonprofit organization, Legacies of War, points out: “From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years” of our conflict. Over 30 percent failed to explode immediately and still contaminate the Lao countryside 40 years after the end of that bombing. Through such experiences, a society emerges with a drastically different view of the cosmos, true horror, and the rationality of the world after this sort of thing.

Cthulhu fighting a phaya nak

Cthulhu vs. Phaya Nak by Amorn Setthithorn, depticting a theoretical clash between one of the most legendary Lao mythological creatures and Lovecraft’s best-known entity. Author’s collection

When I would read a story like The Shadow over Innsmouth, it felt more relevant to our journey than most of the refugee narratives on the market. Someone arrives in town to discover peculiar folks are nice at first, then turn into monstrous horrors who have bizarre traditions they want the protagonist to partake in? That’s an oversimplification, certainly, but the seeds are there to be sown. It can be sensitive to have a conversation on the real politics that ignited the Laotian Secret War, but a conversation on an alien war between Great Old Ones and Elder Things, with poor humanity caught between mindless horrors duking it out? There’s a tale that could be told, although not without its complications. Are the Great Old Ones NATO or the Warsaw Pact to Lovecraft’s Elder Things and Elder Gods? Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth appear in The Whisperer in Darkness; there, the reader learns these creatures take the brains of their victims to their distant planet in shiny metal cylinders. Simple science-fiction horror or an interesting metaphor for the cultural brain drain of a country as refugees board the metal cylinders of American planes to escape to safety?

To be absolutely clear, one should not look only to Lovecraft for interesting ideas, especially refugee communities. There are times I find elements of his writing stomach churning. But frankly, I also find no shortage of other writers to read, genre and nongenre, who have held dismissive, contemptuous, racist, misogynistic, ableist, nationalistic, and paternalistic views of my people and especially my students. It’s practically the entire body of world literature, despite the march of progress. But if I could find something to salvage from that body to help us speak to the human experience in even the lesser writers of the world, I felt there’s some worthy measure of hope for all of us. Considering the alternative of imitating mere stock colonial narrative, I felt we we were obliged to try.

If I encouraged my community to read only safe, respectable literature touching on Laos, we’d find our people depicted typically as the faceless, coolies, or the enemy. In the works of writers like H. P. Lovecraft, and others, I felt we could at least start to flip the script and assert our true authentic voice from an unexpected direction. When I began writing in earnest, I had a desire to avoid many of the colonial, imperialist, and feudal trappings that disempower us. I saw science fiction, fantasy, and horror as a way to discuss our journeys and to empower ourselves, even as there can be no doubt these genres are filled with any number of paranoid and small-minded figures who may know how to put a sentence together but not necessarily an inclusive core. But like any zone of literature, one works at it.

Laos needed art that engaged our experience without reinforcing clichés that painted us simply as Vietnam Lite or an iteration of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or the forgettable Air America, a Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. vehicle that remains one the biggest Hollywood movies to date about our war. If Lao American art merely looks and sounds like The Joy Luck Club run through a suburban blender, we’re not pushing ourselves when this is the precise moment to push.

Now that we have at last a more diverse body of works to respond to and grow from, the time may come very soon for Lovecraft’s place among the immortals of science fiction and fantasy to sink beneath the cold waves, and the stars might never be right again for his return. But I do thank him for opening up the doors to the many possibilities within his vast, uncaring, indifferent universe, for all of its forbidden horrors and unspeakable knowledge. That it could be glimpsed, expressed, and faced? For a Lao youth in a quiet corner of America, that acknowledgment was a strange and reassuring comfort—one that made all of the difference when it came to picking up his own pen.

Bryan Thao Worra and Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu and a Lao poet.

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