The Thing on the Doorstep: Reading Howard’s N-Word

I avoid reading The Classics. Not by desire or design, but I’m just so strongly opposed to the idea that there exists a Classical Canon that Serious People Ought To Read for so many reasons (too European, too white, too old, not enough lasers and dragons in them, etc.) that whenever I reach for anything with a Penguin on the cover, I hesitate. But rebellion has its price and the end result is that I haven’t read many of those books, for better or worse. When I moved to Sweden, I decided to do a little reading up on The Classics, if only because they’re books I don’t care as much about leaving behind when I move (which is a lie, because I absolutely must own every book I read, so the fact I can buy them for cheap when I get back helped that decision too). Having not read a horror story in a dog’s age (the last was probably The Wake, but horrifying for its existential bleakness than for any monsters, Norman or otherwise), I decided to start by reading some Lovecraft.

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When I finished my first foray into H.P. Lovecraft, I put the book down and had to think for a bit. If you don’t know, Howard Phillips Lovecraft is a controversial character, as well known for his genre-defining contributions to horror as his monstrous racism. So at first, I didn’t know what to think. I mean, it wasn’t that racist, but then I did some reading, and did some more, and tried to understand some of why modern thinkers really don’t like him. I was struck because I didn’t come away from my reading with a sense of revulsion or obvious discomfort, and as a result, I don’t know where to come down in the discussion. That makes me feel about as uncomfortable about when I read about a cat he owned named Ni**er-Man.

Lovecraft wrote in the 1910s-1930s, as heady a time for racism as any, and the fact that he didn’t really like Black people is hardly surprising. He expresses similar sentiments of Italian and Hungarian people, and I’m sure he didn’t like the Irish either. But do I care? Why would I be surprised? I’ve read tons of racists (which is a pretty uncomfortable thing to write, but oh well!). That’s what happens when you read The Classics, isn’t it? You participate in the great Post-Modernist exercise of finding out that thing you loved in the past is hideously racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or you win a bingo and it’s all of them. That’s just part of being alive and (a)woke in 2018, right?

But the discomfort comes from the defense. I’m trying to think of something to say to offer an opposing opinion, and all I’m coming down on are dog-whistle defenses of a man with indefensible ideas, because why read a racist, right? And such a vile racism it is (if there is such a thing as non-vile racism), one that balances on a worldview with Black and Coloured people as literal sub-humans! We don’t need more of that in our lives…but I would be lying if I didn’t admit I liked parts of Lovecraft. I feel like admitting that is a shameful thing, that one should have to skulk in the darkness if they want to whisper “Some of the Dunwich Horror was rather imaginative and evocative, and I was profoundly struck by the powerful horror of monstrous revelation, hiss!” as you scurry away. But some of his stuff was good and, I think, worth your time.

So should you read him? God, how can I recommend him?

Because I think you should! I think that if you like horror or dark speculative fiction, he is worth your time. But the racism puts me in a bind. Should I argue that you only should read him with context, then that’s a problem, because most people don’t like reading introductions and end notes, and although the racism is pretty openly monstrous (see above, re: the name of his goddamned cat), well, there’s also white nationalists running around most of the world these days so you’ll forgive me if maybe I think you can’t be too blunt about it. My edition of The Thing on the Doorstep mentioned Ni**er-Man in the footnotes, but wasn’t too bothered about putting it in context or making much of a deal of it. Their laissez-faire attitude almost made it seem as thought the racism should be ignored because it’s the 1920s and it was expected back then in them goodoldays.* But I can hardly do that because then I’m just ignoring racism, aren’t I?

There’s a trend among some of his fans to downplay his racism, or point to later changes in opinion as proof he was “enlightening” throughout his life. I reject that, both as unconvincing, but also as a desperate, underhanded ploy. The argument is, essentially, “yes, he was bad, but he was getting better, which should therefore obviate the bad”, an argument which does nothing to remove the bad, and hinges on an uncomfortable acknowledgement that he was pretty racist married to an attempt to hide it behind some veiled “improvement” that amounts to historical legerdemain. One can atone but that requires atonement, which the realization that one’s done wrong is only the first step thereof. It is a process, an active verb, not a one and done action. Even Catholic reconciliation doesn’t go that far! Of course I cannot reach into the past and pry open Lovecraft’s mind, but I remind you his cat was named “Ni**er-Man”. It doesn’t require a crowbar to peer inside that particular vault.

Not long before this, I read Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book with a Black protagonist and which deals with gender in a most unique way. But as I was reading the introduction (and if it’s a book that has an introduction by someone as clever as China Miéville, then you’d be well-served by reading both), Miéville goes out of his way to discuss the genealogy of the book’s criticism, as it reflects both good and ill on the author:

What’s striking is that Le Guin doesn’t revise the novel: rather, she lets it stand and supplements it with a growing palimpsest of reconsiderations. The result is a book astonishingly enriched, a text embracing its own metatext…This is a book both still and in motion.**

By coincidence, I spent most of the day today listening to Tracy Chapman’s beautiful album Crossroads.^ I walked around my neighbourhood, an immigrant community atop a mountain just outside the town, walking past beautiful children playing and laughing and fighting and being Black in a city that’s white white white and could never let them forget it. I couldn’t comprehend listening to music that beautiful and seeing children so normal and thinking of them both being ugly and vile and sub-human and worse. But I read a book by a man who thought like that, and wrote like that, and whose thoughts shaped the thoughts that I appreciated. That is an uncomfortable thought, nestled deeply as a grain of sand in my eye, a rot in my tooth.

But that’s the thing about racism, isn’t it? It is the monstrous, incomprehensible Other. That shoggoth of a shibboleth that will likely always scratch at humanity’s door, recognizable but only barely as human, more mockery than man. Anyone who’s paying attention these days should realize racism probably isn’t going away any time soon, which means that the struggle against it isn’t going away either.

Some say the devil be a mystical thing,
I say the devil he a walking man.

– Tracy Chapman, Crossroads

It was many years of my writing before I fully understood literary criticism (and I just retched a little writing that line): it’s turning reading into conversation. As I was writing this and re-read Miéville’s introduction, I was embarrassed by how pathetically unprepared for writing about Lovecraft. There are reams published about him and his racism, little of which I’ve read, and it behooves a critic to be well-prepared. But I don’t think the exercise was useless, because that’s how we grapple those monsters into submission. If I didn’t open up this dialogue, I would be ignoring Lovecraft’s racism, and that is a monstrous thing.

But nor do I dismiss him utterly. There’s a temptation to write off those bad and awful things of the past in a quick cauterization. Recognizing it’s from a very privileged position that I get to examine this racism, I think that’s too simple a reaction. The point of engaging with what we read is to remove the silence, and I don’t think replacing the silence of the enabler with the ghostly silence of the absence is any better. Like it or not, he inspired generations of writers, artists, designers, and more. (But are we slaves to the past? To what others enjoyed and were inspired by and our feelings be damned? I don’t know. I don’t like this, but I don’t know what to think here. Someone help me out, please.)

Read Lovecraft if you want, and avoid him if you want too. But if you do, you should think about him and his work, and think on it deeply. You owe it to yourself to grapple that monster, even if you fumble as much as I did.

Or read The Left Hand of Darkness or N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which are both books written about humans who think that other humans are monstrous. They’re both very good and have no cats in them, black or otherwise.


* This isn’t to call out whomever edited the collection, but this is The Now; saying “art =/= artist” is a cop out.

** As taken from the SF Masterworks edition, and that introduction is a brilliant argument for why you should always read the introductions.

^ And isn’t it just telling that searching “Crossroads Album” on Google brought up Clapton’s and Bon Jovi’s albums, relegating Chapman to the indignity of having to scroll down to find her. There’s something there about a Black woman being displaced by two white men, which I’ll leave to the reader to fill in the blanks.

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