Academics in Fiction: Colonialism, Exoticism and Lovecraft’s Professors
Few horror writers have had such a profound effect on culture as H. P. Lovecraft. While Stephen King or George R. R. Martin are better known, Lovecraft’s fingerprints, or perhaps tentacles, are all over their work. Unknowingly, we often include Lovecraftian paradigms in our fiction. Does a story feature an ancient force of unknowable form? That’s Lovecraft. Does a film contain a remote town that’s home to a secretive cult? Lovecraft. Does a rational character have to confront a maddening eldritch truth? Lovecraft.
It is this last point which I want to discuss. Lovecraft almost invariably wrote academics as the heroes of his stories, specifically the faculty of the fictional Miskatonic University. The narrator of Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, is an anthropologist; his rambling magnum opus, At the Mountains of Madness, is narrated by a geologist; and Henry Armitage, who battles an evil alien messiah in The Dunwich Horror, is “an aged scholar and librarian”. Lovecraft was himself an amateur scholar (he began publishing his own academic journal The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy at age seven) but he was, by all accounts, extremely bad at it. By the time he was writing his most famous stories, he had settled for being an admirer of science, and certain fashions in the academia of the 1920’s particularly fascinated him.
Lovecraft, however, was a vehement racist, eugenicist and fascist. There have been many attempts by biographers to diminish Lovecraft’s extreme views. They are all as watertight as a colander. Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence (he wrote over 100,000 letters in his life) describes his wish to personally commit genocide, his praise of Hitler and the details of his white nationalist fantasies.
Perhaps no other author so deserves to be cast onto the trash heap of history, and yet quite the opposite has happened. In a paradox worthy of mind-bending alien geometry, his work has only grown in popularity, and not among the markets you might guess. In fact, Lovecraft has a significant queer following, has been adapted into an insightful film about gay rights and has inspired powerful stories about racism in the American South through works such as Lovecraft Country and Ring Shout.
So, why should this bigot be taken to heart by people whom he would have despised? Well, perhaps the answer lies in the complex way Lovecraft talked about science. The use of academics in his stories deliberately frames the central conflict as being between a sane, rational, ordered world and an exotic, mystical other. There is no point in pretending; for Lovecraft this was code for Whiteness versus non-Whiteness. Lovecraft’s scholars are the epitome of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant scholarship in the early 20th century: detached, imperialist, aristocratic and staunchly conservative. All of Lovecraft’s scholars are, to a greater or lesser extent, reflections of a real man: Whipple Van Buren Philips, Lovecraft’s grandfather. Readers need not be reduced to guesswork. The storyThe Shunned House features Elihu Whipple, who is described as “a sane, conservative physician of the old school”, who sacrifices his life to burn the spiritual influence of an immigrant Huguenot family out of a New England mansion: not very subtle.
Lovecraft adored Philips, who sparked his creative habit. Philips was also a fanatical anglophile, living in luxury in Providence, with pretences of ancient aristocratic connections. The death of Philips coincided with a turn in the family’s fortunes, which saw young Lovecraft and his mentally ill mother move to a much poorer neighbourhood. It is clear from Lovecraft’s correspondence that this literal fall from fortune came to represent a perceived “fall” in American life, and that the cause, as he explained in his early essays, was the “corruption” of Anglo-Saxon culture by immigrants. His tenure as editor of the United Amateur Press Association was characterised by a fanatical obsession with “correct use of English Grammar”, which even his contemporaries found baffling. His justification was that “neologisms” were the result of English being “bastardised” by immigrants. This puts a thorn in the side of those who claim it is possible to read Lovecraft’s work in a racially neutral way. Even the very construction of his sentences is an act of racism.
However, unlike some other racist writers of the time, whose works have mercifully been forgotten, Lovecraft has a subtlety that sets him apart. As explicitly bigoted as his ideas about race, magic and mysticism were; crucially, Lovecraft’s scholars never win. In every story, bar one (and this is merely a pyrrhic victory), his paragons of the “Western Enlightenment” die or are driven mad by “the truth”. Lovecraft himself put it thus: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”.
It is interesting to note that Lovecraft seemingly believed that future science would not confirm the conservative world view of the New England scholars whom he chooses as heroes. Those whom Lovecraft “others” through his racist exoticism, are, in his stories, invariably correct about the nature of reality.
In some cases, Lovecraft seems to tacitly acknowledge the failure of his own ideology. The story A Shadow over Innsmouth features a historian on an ancestral quest in rural New England, who discovers a town of people who are half-fish. The story is openly intended to be about the “evils of miscegenation”, and if it ended there it would belong on the dumpster next to works such as The Horror at Red Hook. However, the end of the story takes a fascinating turn. The historian, who is an overt stand-in for Lovecraft, discovers that his own family hails from this town, and that he too is part fish-man. When he discovers this, he is at first horrified, then accepting, then joyful and begins to celebrate his newfound heritage. In later years, the concept of the Innsmouth folk has been reclaimed by some fans. A recent adaptation, The Sunken City, features an Innsmouth man proudly proclaiming his unique culture and decrying a world that discriminates against him. Even more strikingly in The Outsider, one of Lovecraft’s least known works, the first person narrator is horrified to encounter a monstrous creature in a castle, from which a crowd of well-to-do people flee in terror. As the story ends, the narrator tries to touch the creature, and discovers that they are staring at a mirror. As much as he framed others as monstrous, Lovecraft clearly saw himself as a monster.
A modern reader can see in Lovecraft’s work the worst ways in which turn of the century scholarship vilified anyone who did not fit their world-view, but they may also see, in the sense of insignificance and alienation Lovecraft captures, a reflection of the pain, exclusion and powerlessness experienced by those who are vilified by their own society. In a mythos where materialism, empiricism and positivism are repeatedly shown to be a layer of paint over a deeper and more fantastical world, readers may find inspiration to break down the assumptions and colonial modes of thought that still pervade academia, learning to find truth and beauty in approaches which may initially seem foreign and even threatening. Whether or not these elements are intended or accidental, whether they were part of Lovecraft’s vision or a modern interpretation, is not really important. Even if they were intended, they do not redeem Lovecraft’s extreme racism. If they are not, they do not diminish the inspiration modern writers have found in his stories.
Lovecraft’s scholars may have been a trashy, racially motivated depiction of 20th century White Anglo-Saxon academia, but Lovecraft’s stories manage, perhaps accidentally, to question the colonial assumptions underpinning this mode of scholarship. These stories can inspire us to reflect on our own ignorance, explore alternate views of reality which we may find uncomfortable and break out into the cosmic horror of unfettered investigation. The only difference is that Lovecraft and his scholars would view such intellectual liberty with terror, whereas we can view it with excitement.
The full writings of Lovecraft, including all his recorded letters and essays, are available on The Lovecraft Archive: www.hplovecraft.com