Recently I read The Call of Cthulhu for the first time since adolescence, and the first thing I noticed was how psychotically racist it is. It's hard to believe I didn't pick up on this obvious fact as a young reader, but I had a tendency to airbrush out disappointing aspects of things I wanted to love.
Some Lovecraft fans try to shuck and jive their way around the racism so as to enjoy everything that's rewarding about Lovecraft without the unpleasantness (they do similar desperate workarounds for his frequently dismal prose style). But in Call of Cthulhu there's no getting around it; racism is at the thematic core of the story.
For those of you who haven't read it, the story is one of the most complex and successful iterations of a standard Lovecraft setup: an anxious young man's uncle dies, and the young man takes up the late uncle's research into a mysterious cult that seems to exist all over the world. Wanna find your local chapter of the Cthulhu cult? Just look for some people who aren't white. If they aren't in the cult, they'll be able to direct you to people who are. The cult is an open secret to everybody who isn't white and educated; the story follows the narrator's research into this cult (research plays the same role in Lovecraft that more direct investigation
does in most genre fiction, which helps explain Lovecraft's appeal to
bookish nerds like me), which worships a psychic leviathan that slumbers the eons away in an Atlantis-like sunken city. From time to time the island city bobs to the surface, and cultists have a chance to go there and awaken Cthulhu; during these times of opportunity, Cthulhu's psychic dreams are broadcast around the world, riling up all the cultists and troubling the slumbers of "queer" effete aesthetes, presumably because, despite being (in many cases) white and educated, queer effete aesthetes are on the fringes of "normal" society, and in a border zone between Lovecraft's people and The Racial/Cultural Other.
Lovecraft blood libels the hell out of nonwhites, and presents Cthulhu as a source of terror to anyone who isn't a murderous human-sacrificing cultist. The narrator's uncle died, seemingly of natural causes, after being bumped by a "nautical-looking negro" whom the narrator speculatively accuses of poisoning his uncle in order to prevent him from getting any closer to The Horrible Truth. Lovecraft never reveals exactly what Cthulhu is gonna do once it's awakened; one cultist, Old Castro, claims that cultist theology has it that Cthulhu will usher in something that sounds a bit like The Jazz Age as seen through the eyes of a blood-libeling racist, and a bit like what white nationalists, bitterly clinging to their guns and Turner Diaries, fear: nonwhites gaining more power and cultural cache than whites (One reason this story linger in the memory is its Saragossa Sea of nested narratives, with a multiplicity of narrators whose unreliability is left completely open). The story ends with a batch of white sailors massacring a shipload of cultists in one of the story's several exterminate-the-brutes racism orgies, then inadvertently awakening Cthulhu; this confrontation is memorably bananas, and the unveiling of information continues Lovecraft's clever play on the nature of research. For example, we learn the names of the 3 sailors Cthulhu scoops up, but we don't learn what happens to them afterward; as in real research, you get a surfeit of data, but not enough answers. Nerd canon has it that Cthulhu eats the sailors (leading to the internet slogan/joke "Cthulhu will eat us all," and if your response to that joke is to clutch your sides and shriek "I'm gonna pee! I'm gonna pee!" then by all means you should seek out as much Cthulhu humor as possible, because it's all that good) but there's nothing in the text to tell us what happens next. Perhaps Cthulhu adopts them as pets. That's a spinoff story waiting to happen: what it's like to be the hostage/pet of a slumbering psychic monster god.
I've read Moby Dick recently. It's interesting to read it through the lens of Cthulhu, since both stories involve a quest for a terrifying ocean monster, as well as racist depictions of nonwhite sailors. Moby Dick's racism is more complex than the narrow neurotic loathing in Loathcraft (see what I did there? Aren't you glad I'm blogging again?) and Melville at least seems to regard a multiracial society as more fun than an all-white one. He adheres to white supremacy, but with less certitude than poor pitiful Lovecraft. The early chapters of Dick throb with homoeroticism, as narrator Ishmael falls in love with his cannibal friend Queequeg. (Spellcheck recognizes Cthulhu but not Queequeg, which tells you everything you need to know about The Coding Class.) If Melville was submitting his manuscript today, the savvy modern editor would insist that the rest of Dick include a whole lot less in the way of essays on the cosmic overtones of 19th century whaling practices, and a whole lot more bunk sharing between Ishmael and Queequeg. Anyway, both stories end with a long-sought Monster rising out of the ocean, slaughtering almost everyone, and escaping. In Melville the Monster is a really big and really strong version of a real creature that just wants to be left alone; in Lovecraft the creature is a chimeric made-up "gelatinous" god, which either suggests Terrifying Breaches in the Universe or utter silliness depending on one's willingness to go where Lovecraft leads. Melville is unquestionably the greater writer with greater scope to match; he is willing to rhapsodize about the joys of life and, in equal measure, stare without flinching at real horrors; Lovecraft invents horrors that aren't necessarily there.
I'm also listening to an audiobook of Lovecraft tales, and many of his stories are reversible garments. If one reads with the assumption that Lovecraft is desperately blood-libeling his monsters, smearing his racist anxieties onto his imaginary Others, then the stories are wide open to positive reinterpretations; the horror drips away. (Another Cthulhu spinoff story waiting to happen (if it hasn't already):
Cthulhu as seen from a non-racist, non-blood-libeling perspective, in
which the creature is revealed as the harbinger of a golden age of
Dagon, an early embryonic iteration of the boilerplate Lovecraft narrative formula, is an effective chiller about a castaway who discovers amphibious intelligent life that appears to have religion, art, and writing of its own. The creature never threatens the narrator, merely appears and worships at a shrine, but the narrator, in telling this tale, frames it with a heavy dollop of "I'm suicidally despairing, and you'll understand why when I tell you my story." Well, no, I don't. Granted that different people respond to trauma in different ways, but suicidal despair doesn't seem like the most likely response to discovering alternative intelligent life... unless you're so super racist that you're racist against nonhuman intelligence. Sure, it'd be scary to encounter such a creature unexpectedly, but afterwards I'd think most people would say "Fire up the Bathysphere! Let's go say hi to our neighbors!"
Perhaps Lovecraft realized that he hadn't quite managed to harness his narrative engine to his neurotic thematic cargo, which led him to the healing power of blood libel. Way to problem solve, dude. Speaking of which, his story The Whisperer in Darkness is a hilarious example of what happens when someone who sucks at problem solving tries to plot a tale about an unsolvable problem. Basically, the main character's attitude is "To get away from the scary monsters, I'd have to go outside, but that ain't gonna happen." Maybe that's not so absurd; I know (heck, I've been) the guy who'd rather stay inside and be miserable than go outside and possibly find a solution to his problems, although my problems didn't come in the form of giant dog-killing bat-winged muttering crabs from space. If they had I woulda left, man.
Another intriguing Lovecraft tale: The Rats in the Walls. A cunning (and as usual, super-racist) riff on Fall of the House of Usher (of which Harold Bloom memorably claimed(on a Radio Open Source interview that I can't find online) that anyone could retell it better than Poe told it). This tale uses eclectic multi-culti architecture as an objective correlative for Miscegenation. Oh, Lovecraft. It's also a good read for anyone with house maintenance problems that extend underground.
Speaking of dodgy pulp writers, I'm listening to the audiobook version of V. C. Andrew's Flowers in the Attic. As better folks than myself have pointed out, it's really bad on a lot of levels, but I find it well worth engaging. Writer M. John Harrison once blogged (I'm paraphrasing from memory, here) that a writer/artist should give you a taste of an individual mind, and Andrews certainly does that. NO one else would say that a missing husband has "found another super-broad." The most astonishing thing about the book, more than the creepy incest/BDSM fantasies that throb through it, is just how ANGRY it is. I don't know much about Andrews as a person, but for all her sentimentalism and tenderness, she was really mad at somebody, and she poured all that scorching bile into her writing, to jolting affect. No wonder this book found an enthusiastic audience; it's steamy and sordid and naive and viscous. What teen could resist?