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Herbert West - Racist [Dec. 11th, 2011|08:39 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

I think I mentioned previously that one of the eBooks I downloaded to my Kindle Fire is a complete works of H.P. Lovecraft. Today, on the train back from our weekend in Philly (Amtrak train #666, I kid you not!) I turned on the Fire and read the serial novella "Herbert West - Reanimator." It's one of the few Lovecraft stories I haven't reread a million times, probably because of the film, which I saw before ever reading the story, and which remains one of my favorite horror films.

"Herbert West - Reanimator" is definitely prime Lovecraft, from the deliciously overwrought descriptions like "a horde of silent toiling things which only insanity--or worse--could create" to, er, this passage:

The negro had been knocked out [in the boxing match], and a moment's examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life--but the world holds many ugly things.

Oy yoy yoy. We all know Lovecraft was flamboyantly racist--how many swarthy, foreign manservants speaking exotic, devilish languages appear in his oeuvre?--but sometimes you forget and you stumble across a passage like this one, and it's like a cold, bracing slap in the face. And this probably isn't even the worst of his racism! That might arguable be found in his story "The Rats in the Walls," in which the narrator's black cat is named "Nigger-Man." (Lovecraft certainly isn't the only classic horror author to be this blatantly and astonishingly racist, either. Check out Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug" sometime and try to count how many times he uses the word "nigger" before your head explodes.)

It's tough loving the work of an author, or any creative artist, who comes across as an awful human being. This is why I've long advocated the practice of separating the artist from the art. One does not have to agree with, or even like, Mel Gibson to appreciate his work as an actor or director, for instance. In that same vein, I think Lovecraft is a brilliant author, though often more in his concepts than in his writing style, even if he would probably be seriously embarrassing dinner company.

Your mileage may vary, of course. For instance, I might feel totally different about Lovecraft or Poe if I'd spent a lifetime having the N-word thrown at me. For me, it was a bit of a shock when I read Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and came across the line:

We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England [and by] the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation...

Yikes! Luckily, I'm a native-born Jew and maybe would have been allowed to stay!

Anyway, separating the artist from the art. Sometimes it's hard. Now I think Chambers is a dick and unworthy of anyone's attention! But ultimately, I know that's not true, at least not the latter part. Maintaining that separation is worth it. Lovecraft might have been a racist prick, but the genius of his stories lives on, and much more strongly than the ugliness in them does.

[User Picture]From: readingthedark
2011-12-12 03:11 am (UTC)
As you might well know, Lovecraft's cat, in real life, had the same horrid and offensive name. The genius versus the ugliness is an interesting comparison, especially since there's no way to take the good of the Old Gent without the bad. Even without the letters, the stories themselves show a decidedly racist bent. Ferocious vision. Virulent and horrific vitriol toward so much that was human, especially people who were different. Yet all communicated in the voice of a deranged and lonely outsider. A gravely conservative streak that shaped everything he believed in...yet he believed in far less than most conservatives, of his time or ours. Sometimes I think he's most precious because if we didn't have him, we wouldn't be able to invent him.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-12 03:14 am (UTC)
All very well said. And I didn't know that about his cat!
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