Rewriting H.P. Lovecraft, Reclaiming the Mythos: A Writers’ Roundtable

kijGenerating blog content is all about capitalizing on trends, capturing the zeitgeist, joining the conversation. And if there is one conversation that has dominated science fiction and fantasy circles in 2016, it has been the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft. Once considered a two-bit pulp writer, later revered as a literary legend, Lovecraft and his Mythos cast a long shadow over the genres. But today, his work travels with troubling baggage, including a streak of virulent racism that can’t be excused as a symptom of the age in which he wrote, and a near total disregard for women in his stories. And yet: while he’s no longer the literal face of the World Fantasy Award, his influence looms with the presence of one of his shadowy elder gods, trolling the waters of the worlds between the stars.

While writers have long toyed with Lovecraftian tropes, this year brings a confluence of new works that look on the Mythos with new eyes, and wrestle with what is lurking there, both the vile and the transcendent. We asked three authors who have done just that—Kij Johnson (The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, out now), Cassandra Khaw (Hammers on Bone, available October 11), and Ruthanna Emrys (Winter Tide, out in April 2017)—to join us for a discussion of Lovecraft’s legacy, and what modern writers can do to decontextualize the troubling, enduring work of New England’s strangest son.

lovecraftroundtableWhen did you first encounter H.P. Lovecraft’s work?

Cass: In a high school library, while trying desperately to escape the drudgery of state-mandated literature.

Ruthanna: Sideways, through plushies and Call of Cthulhu jokes and the Principia Discordia—in college, Lovecraft was in the air, even though I have no idea how many people had ever read the original. It hit a nerve—probably the same one that made postapocalyptic novels and stories about nuclear war a weird sort of comfort food. Eventually I decided I should look at Howard’s own work. My wife Sarah read the “classic” stories aloud to me while I made dinner, and it definitely hit that nerve, and we enjoyed making fun of all the “cyclopean” language—but encountering the bigotry firsthand was a real shock.

Kij: I think I was nine or 10 on a trip to Chicago with my family. I had $10 to spend in the big Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and I bought, among other things, my first H. P. Lovecraft collection, which included The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. My other major purchase was Amphigorey, by Edward Gorey. I had never read anything like either of these, but they felt terrifically grown-up to me.

What’s your personal relationship to the Mythos? What influence has it had on your writing?

Cass: About six years ago, I started doing a lot and a lot of work-related travelling. Like, a new country/city/state every few weeks or so. In the beginning, it involved putting a lot of faith in people I’d never met, in friends that I only knew through the internet. I’ve gotten lost in places where I had no phone signal, no concept of the language. I’ve sat awake in airports till 6 AM, glaring at anyone who’d make the mistake of coming too close.

You learn a lot about fear that way.

I’d always known about Lovecraft and I’ve read plenty of his stuff growing up. (The Cats of Ulthar upset me so much as a child.) But it wasn’t until then that I found myself consuming his literature in bulk, and all the things that people wrote within the genre he’d made. In an odd way, it helped me frame the quiet, amorphous dread that followed me across dark city streets. The knowledge that you’re small and you’re alone and no one cares especially not here in this place where only the immigration officers know your name. It’s very easy to feel at home in your birthplace, to think you matter enough that someone would say something if you disappeared, but 12 hours away from everyone you know? That stops being true very quickly.

I didn’t start writing fiction until about two years ago but I think the memory of that time stuck. Many of my stories, including the ones that do not immediately involve tentacled horrors, explore the idea of that loneliness. Also, I’m going to stop talking now. Ahem.

Ruthanna: Lovecraft does have this power—that his own very specific fears manage to mirror something more universal—from that isolation you describe to the various looming apocalypses of the 20th and 21st centuries.

My personal relationship with Lovecraft is very much the attraction-repulsion his narrators feel for ancient tomes and inhuman intelligences. I love how he describes things that are truly unknowable, or dangerous to know. I love the scope and alien-ness of his cosmos, and the way he frames the terror of that scale. And yet, at just as bone-deep a level, I recognize that he described people like me—real people, in real places—in the exact terms he used for Deep Ones or Whatelies. I’m one of his monsters; he thought I was a vile, existential threat to everything he held dear.

In a weird way, that’s part of the appeal. Live bigots are actively trying to destroy my family and neighbors, and all the energy I’ve got to engage with them is devoted to trying to prevent that. Lovecraft’s at a safe distance—he helps me better understand what that mindset looks like from the inside, with enough awesome mixed in to make the encounter bearable.

And on the gripping hand, as a writer he’s been incredibly generous to me, even posthumously at a distance. As he was, in his own lifetime, to writers even from groups he despised. How many creators are willing to throw open their worlds so fully for others to play with? How many who find other people so terrifying make themselves so vulnerable?

So basically, personal relationship with Lovecraft = frenemies. Now I’ll stop talking.

Kij: Lovecraft always bugged me because he had no women. Zero. In the entire Dream-Quest, he mentions females I think once, a terrified farmer’s wife in a sentence somewhere. That said so much about how he perceived the world. He lived in our world, where (one assumes) the population was half female even then, and yet we were invisible to him, not even worth being wallpaper in his fiction. As a little girl and as a woman, this was and is infuriating. That’s true of many older works: one of my favorite SF novels of all time, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, has zero females. Ditto The Wind in the Willows. The Lord of the Rings has a paucity. And so forth. Mostly I dealt with this when I was younger by basically genderswapping characters as I read. Some books handled this better than others: it didn’t work at all with Lovecraft; there was just no way I could visualize Randolph Carter as anything but a man. As an adult, thinking this over, I realized that Lovecraft’s breed of casual sexism felt different than Clement’s or Grahame’s (but not Tolkein’s).

How do you separate the baked-in racism from what has become a foundational building block of horror/fantasy/SF?

Ruthanna: I don’t, mostly. I’ve enjoyed reading stories that just take the creepy cosmic horror and try to leave out the racism, but at some level I find them bloodless. Lovecraft’s fear of real people (and real houses, real oceans, and the real scale of the universe compared to his own family, in-group, and species) was at the core of his portrayal of imagined terrors. I find it more interesting to explore the baked-in racism, turn it inside out and upside down, pull out the guts, and engage in a little haruspicy.

Cass: Same here. I don’t think I can offer anything more intelligent—or eloquent—than what Ruthanna’s said, so I’m just going to echo it to that extent. Horror is very human, isn’t it? It is fear materialized into text, into words, into worlds, delicately wallpapered over with enough of the fantastical that the casual reader might think it was conjured out of thin air. Lovecraft’s racism was very much a part of him—as was the elements that drove his questionable views. And if you take that out, you lose him. Which is not to say that I condone his views. But like Ruthanna pointed out earlier, Lovecraft’s manifest terror offers a way of examining bigotry through a safe lens, almost. And I think that is interesting because even if we’re not bigots in the way he is, we’re all humans and we’re all problematic, and we all have little prejudices of our own. And when you start cutting into someone else’s problems to see how they tick, it’s inevitable that you start looking into yourself and sometimes, that produces an unsettling kind of insight.

(And this is where the internet secretly decides that I’m a xenophobic monstrosity in disguise, isn’t it?)

Kij: It’s hard to read the stories as an aware adult, though that’s true of almost all older fiction that engages at any level with race, but even when I was a little girl reading Lovecraft for the first time, he seemed overwrought about race to me. His fear was palpable, and as Ruthanna suggests, it feels fundamentally different than the cosmic horrors of his gods and Elder Ones.

Is H.P. Lovecraft worthy of redemption?

Ruthanna: That’s the wrong question. Unless he shows up reconstituted from Essential Saltes, Lovecraft is what he was, and what he said and did in his own lifetime. His *reputation* deserves to be exactly as mixed as it currently seems: he was brilliant and wildly creative and absurdly neurotic and frothingly bigoted, and none of those things contradict each other. The Mythos, on the other hand, deserves not redemption, but reclaiming.

Cass: I totally agree. I’ve heard people remark on the fact that Lovecraft became more tolerant as he grew older, but I don’t think that’s relevant. You can be a bigot and then you can stop being a bigot, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were a bigot, if you get me? All any of this means is that you learned something.

That said, I dislike the idea of redemption as a whole, mostly because people have a habit of using the word to erase the errors of their past. “I’m good now. It shouldn’t matter that I was bad before.” Because it does matter. It really does, if for no other reason than the fact it offers us a way to measure how far someone has come. To echo Ruthanna, I think that’s the wrong question to ask. I do think it’s worth asking if Lovecraft as an entity is worth impartial examination.

Kij: I don’t think it’s ever about redemption. Lovecraft’s fiction exists as what it is, an artifact of its time, the product of a man of his time, at a specific time in his life. Can we read it? Of course, unless and until we can’t. When I was in grad school, I worked quite a lot with a medieval poem called “The Seige of Jerusalem,” which was full of every sort of vile prejudice about Jews. It was hard to see past the hate language, yet the work was important to study not just as social commentary, but also because it was radically structured. As a writer, I learned things from the author’s structural and stylistic decisions that I could apply to create works that were less vile. This is more or less exactly how I engaged with Lovecraft’s worldbuilding.

How did you come to decide to write your own Lovecraftian story?

Ruthanna: As mentioned above, Sarah was reading the central “canon” of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories aloud while I cooked. Eventually we got to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” It opens by talking about the government raiding Innsmouth, and the inhabitants being sent to concentration camps—the narrator clearly thinks this is a good thing. Lovecraft clearly thought it was a good thing. After all, if you don’t lock up your weird neighbors with funny religions, they might try to breed with you…

With that as my lens going in, it really jumped out at me how little the narrator sees directly. He sees the townspeople acting pretty suspicious of him. He sees frog-like folk searching for him. And he hears a resentful grocery clerk and the town drunk rant about miscegenation and human sacrifice and strange religious customs. And I know blood libel when I see it.

The first Aphra Marsh story, now unlikely to see the light of day, was written in a couple of hours that night. It was a barebones narrative of her time in the camp, and didn’t do much beyond point up the problems with the original story. “The Litany of Earth” was intended as a sequel, but ultimately said everything I’d wanted to say originally, and added enough to be a story in its own right beyond critiquing the earlier work.

Cass: My Lovecraftian stories have always been a marriage of two things: cosmic horror and everyday abuse. A big part of it, of course, is because Lovecraft already went there, setting horrific going-ons in sleepy towns. In his work, bad things are always happening just a wall away from you.

And fact is indistinguishable from fiction, in that regard. Look at the news. There’s proof of it everywhere. Whenever we hear about a new atrocity, we’re conditioned to imagine monsters and crooks and people too vile to exist. But the truth is different, isn’t it? Many of the criminals who perpetrate those stomach-churning crimes are…astoundingly normal. It’s just that one thing that makes them into an abomination. One thing. You could spent ten years hanging out with them and not realize that they go home and beat the shit out of their children, because nothing’s amiss except for that one thing.

I suspect that weird blindness can be attributed to the fact that we as a species like normal and anything outside of normal is something we have to concentrate to understand. Sometimes, we don’t even succeed at that. If they were quiet enough about it, an interdimensional horror could eat its way through our neighbours before we knew what was going on.

So, long story short, I ended up wanting to tap into that, to talk about the kind of shit that happens behind closed doors in a way that people can wrap their minds around. Because tentacled monsters are somehow way easier to process than bad parents.

Kij: I was thinking a lot about the invisible women in literature, and wanted to write about them. All the master dreamers of the dreamlands are men, as though Lovecraft didn’t think women were capable of big dreams. Actually, it’s worse than that: women didn’t rise even to the surface of his awareness for him to discount. This mapped for me onto the challenges women have until very recently faced, being taken seriously as individuals and intellectuals.

Why do you think that there has been this sudden confluence of authors working to reinterpret Lovecraft through a modern lens? (Here, we’d also note the long-in-coming decision to banish Howard as the embodiment of the World Fantasy Award.)

Cass: I’m not sure if there’s a sudden confluence of people reinterpreting Lovecraft. I think Lovecraft has always been a source of incredible fascination for a lot of people. What I do think is happening is that a lot of good work was published lately and a lot of that work got a lot of recognition. (Looking at you, Ruthanna.) So now, people are mobilized and suddenly noticing that yeah, this is absolutely a thing.

Ruthanna: You have a point that it isn’t sudden. When Anne and I have looked for modern stories for the Lovecraft reread, we’ve found quite a few recent works that reinterpret to one degree or another. Joanna Russ was doing it brilliantly way back in the ‘70s; “My Boat” is among my favorite discoveries of the reread.

That said, this does feel like one of those moments of sudden condensation, or a feedback loop where interest leads to discussion leads to art leads to interest…

That discussion is key. In many conversations Lovecraft stands in for attitudes that should be outdated, but are also entangled with things that many people are genuinely and reasonably attached to. So when we argue about Lovecraft’s legacy, we’re arguing about whether it’s possible in other facets of society to disentangle and preserve the valuable things, and how far those things can change and still retain their value, and who they have value for… How to be a fan of problematic things, where everyone in the conversation is at some level aware that the problematic thing might be your country, your religion, or the place where you feel like you most belong.

Kij: I think that the discussion about the World Fantasy Award has been instrumental in this new awareness of what Lovecraft actually wrote.

Were you aware, when you began writing, that so many other authors were doing something similar?

Ruthanna: Not a clue. I’m somewhat startled at having managed to hit a trend. Is Cthulhu the next werewolf boyfriend?

Cass: Why, Ruth? Why would you put that image in my head? (Wait, we all write Lovecraftian fiction. I suppose the answer’s right there in the previous statement.) Anyway, the answer’s no.

Kij: I had no idea! I had been thinking about the absence of women in older works such as The Wind in the Willows, since I was writing a sort-of sequel to that work. I mentioned online that Lovecraft bothered me for the same reasons, and Jonathan Strahan said, “Well, what about it?” Until then, I had never expected to write a Lovecraft thing.

What should we call this burgeoning movement?

Ruthanna: I’ve jokingly referred to this subset of it as the Tor.com Lovecraftian Girl Cooties Posse. Though not in public, before, so everyone else is free to roll their eyes at me and call it something else. Also to include my co-blogger Anne M. Pillsworth, and Victor LaValle can have girl cooties too if he wants. (And so can Charlie Stross!) Beyond the Tor.com folks, I’ve heard people talk about a Neo-Lovecraftian movement—don’t know if that’s too general.

Cass: Lovecraftian horror, if we can’t have Lovecraftian Girl Cooties Posse. Jokes aside, I don’t know if we should be trying to distance ourselves from the genre? Many modern writers want to reclaim Lovecraft, to make sense of his bigotry. If we’re going to do that, shouldn’t we remain here in his genre? 500 years from now, I’d like academics to talk about Lovecraftian horror as something that began with a frightened man and then eventually transformed into something better and bigger. If we split off from his legacy, if we become our thing—historians are just going to point to the rift and say, “This is when a whole bunch of people went off and did X” rather than “this was kinda crazy-racist but also brilliant, and then it became just brilliant.”

Ruthanna: Agreed—I definitely don’t think of it as a split. That seems of a piece with the accusations that this new crowd is trying to erase Lovecraft from the canon. (By writing about him a lot and basing stories on his work. Isn’t that how you do it?) More of a sub-sub-genre to refer to a certain sort of take on Lovecraftian horror. Endless fractal genres.

This seems worthwhile both to better talk about what we’re doing, and because some readers are just looking for that thing. I’ve been fascinated by how Lovecraftian Girl Cooties seems to appeal in very different ways to people who love all things Lovecraft, people who really do hate it, and people who know nothing about it other than what they’ve absorbed from osmosis.

Kij: I never write the same thing twice, so I don’t know that I get a vote!

With the politics of racism very much alive in world politics, what catharsis does rewriting or recontextualizing Lovecraft’s racist tales provide? Have we really learned all that much over the last 70 years?

Cass: Well. Yes. We are very much less racist than we used to be—at least on a certain level. To put it delicately, eugenics isn’t really a thing that anyone respectable is okay with, these days. And we’re quite a far cry from the scientific research that gave us Caucasoids and Mongo—ugh. You get the picture.

But at the same time, racism isn’t exactly dead. Bigotry is still there. The big difference here is that the world has learned how to repackage its prejudice, as it were. “I’m not racist, but” is an opener that comes up with remarkable frequency. People hide their hate and their fear better these days and—I’m just going to stop myself there before I get on a soapbox and shake fists at the world.

I have never found rewriting or reading Lovecraftian stories to be cathartic. If anything, they’ve always been hard stories. They’ve always been about confronting hatred and fear, whether they’re a reflection of the writer’s own prejudice or an attempt at pointing a lens at such things. And that, I think, is why they’re so powerful. So, yeah, I don’t personally find writing or reading Lovecraftian fiction to be cathartic in any way. But I do feel like they make me want to go out there and do something about the things that have been said.

Ruthanna: Sometimes I think that people are better at hiding their prejudices now, and sometimes I read the news and think that Lovecraft was, to paraphrase the usual apologia, a man of our time. Although Lovecraft did at one point say that he kind of liked Hitler even if the man had his problems, which no one today would ever… oh, wait, just checked the news again. Well, at least no one today would outright dismiss entire races and cultures as incapable of civilized behavior… oh. Never mind. (ETA: It’s July 8th, and I’m scared to edit this paragraph lest the universe point out yet again that I’m still understating the case.) (ETA: It’s July 27th, and avoiding editing the paragraph didn’t help.)

But I won’t say we’ve learned nothing in the past 70 years. We have learned how far those attitudes can go if left unchecked, how dangerous it is to dismiss them as obnoxious but harmless, and what sometimes works to combat them. And we who’ve learned those things have also—with caveats, always with caveats—learned how to empathize better. There’s more encouragement for people who are on the side of justice and tolerance to be fully on that side, and more guidance and resources for how to do it. So the question isn’t just whether the low point has been raised, but whether we’re aiming at a higher target. That’s worthwhile too.

I do get catharsis out of writing Neo-Lovecraftian stories. Not in the sense of ease or reassurance, but in the old sense of going through something that’s emotionally intense and often hard, but that provides release by virtue of that intensity. I’m arguing with myself, or asking myself a question and then struggling through finding the answer or a more complex question. For me it feels like a natural and rewarding mode, because I’m not trying to send a message but… hell, this is hard to articulate. To write a world with all the complexity and danger and pettiness and glory that makes me awestruck and uncomfortable in the real world, and to have characters walking through it and confronting those things where they can’t be ignored or glossed over. I hope some of that comes through, and helps illuminate empathy for others as well as for myself.

Kij: It is not just Lovecraft we are re-engaging with, and not just his racism we are recontextualizing. A writer has unique opportunities for analyzing an author, when we get inside his or her work and interrogate it, word by word, line by line. Why did Lovecraft say this? Why did he choose that image, that language, that story element? What else might he have said? How much of what he is writing is systemic to the world he lived in, how much specific to himself?

We have been doing a lot of this sort of rethinking in the past decades: new novels re-engaging with Jane Austen, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe. At their best, these reinventions are asking: what is relevant here? What has changed, and how? When we challenge Lovecraft like this, we are treating him as a foundational writer, worthy of interrogating.

Where do you stand on the legacy of Lovecraft? Let us know in the comments.

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