Lovecraft is a super useful thing to use in classes about games and media. First, it’s a deeply thematic part of a lot of games culture. It’s also a way to introduce ideas of copyright and media ownership, there’s that. Then there’s conversations about accessibility and who the work excludes, because of how ornate and wrought the type of text is, and how you can overcome that with signalling and clear communication.
There is a way that he slows things down, though, because no matter how we cut it, bringing up Lovecraft means we tend to open with the dude was a massive racist, but, and then there’s a conversation about what we do with the work of bad people, and it just slows the conversation down. It’s understandable, mind you. Particularly, he was definitely racist as hell and racist themes are throughout his work; he was misogynist as expressed by the absence of women with agency in almost all his stories, and then you start to look for other axes he bothered to mention.
What’s particularly wild is the dude actually did manage to veer into transphobia, and not just in shaded tropes; given the way stories are normally structured in our science fiction and fantasy space, trans and cis status are normally subjects that require invoking information that we don’t get. It’s possible every Lovecraft protagonist is a trans man and we’d never have a reason to know, for example. That means bringing in transphobia involves going to something that you normally don’t have to bring up in order to kick it around.
In the story The Thing on the Doorstep, spoilers for a century old short story that’s not that good, but whatever, in The Thing on the Doorstep our narrator and kinda protagonist observes his best friend decaying in real time from a marriage to a woman that ruins him. Eventually he discovers that his friend has been married not to a woman, but rather, a man in a woman’s body, and that man then takes his friend’s body, leaving him in an older body it had, and that is the titular thing on the doorstep that the protagonist encounters. The horror of ‘what if the woman you got in a relationship with was actually a man’ is a very, very old, very well-worn trope, and it’s transphobic at root.
Lovecraft wrote about encountering alien minds and the strain it put on the human who was reading it to comprehend it. That there were certain mindsets – just ways of thinking – that were so fundamentally aberrant to humans that contemplating them could force the mind to adhere to alien programming and fall apart. There’s a twofold fascination that follows for me.
First, Lovecraft’s aliens and the horrors they represent are all things that a scientific mind can grapple with: There’s a thing I didn’t understand, and we can prove its effect, and so in cataloguing it, we can handle and understand that information. That means that the vision of rationality that Lovecraft had for his period of time was completely at odds with actual rationality – that information people couldn’t handle was in fact literally incompatible with their brains. For all the racism in his work, he paints there as being a whole category of people who can handle dealing with this information, and that’s the other. If you’re trans or queer or a person of colour, in Lovecraft’s world, you can actually handle that nonsense that wrecks white people from the mind out.
If you’re basically anything but a Prince of Privilege, in Lovecraft’s vision of the world, you are the monster. You are the beast from outside. You can move between mirrors, you can see the undersea places, you have the ancient knowledge and you can move amongst the most dreadful forces, and you’re fine. That’s wild. He’s so intent on dehumanising the nonwhite that it involves turning the white into the weakest, most pathetic type of person there is; completely unprepared and incapable of being alive in this dreadful world. It’s racist, sure, but it’s racist in a really pathetic way.
Here’s the other thing, though.
It is fundamentally hard, if not impossible, really, to get a grip on how Lovecraft thought this stuff. It really is. This dude was so racist he was able to get himself divorced for being racist in 1933. When we talk about the dude there’s this framing and apologetics about just bringing him up, as if we can’t let his racism pass without also making it an excuse to drop the topic.
Lovecraft’s racism is so utter and confusingly fearful that it’s kind of hard to really get. It’s hard to explain or explore it without a lot of deep reading of his work, and that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Lovecraft was so racist that trying to think like him now doesn’t make sense, because with the benefit of a century of hindsight, everything the dude thought is aberrant to natural, civilised, adult thought.
Lovecraft wrote about a world of alien, parisitic monsters that consumed humanity and destroyed you by following its thought patterns and did not care about what affect it had because it would outlast any one person it ended.
Lovecraft never realised he was the monster.