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Boogieman In Lavender: The Strange Bust of HP Lovecraft

(I wish to thank the folks at the Gahan Wilson website for their kind permission to use the photo of the World Fantasy Award shown here.)

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The World Fantasy Awards were established in 1975. The award is a bust of legendary horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, designed by mordant cartoonist Gahan Wilson (himself no slouch as a writer!) For about twenty years there was no fuss, but now Lovecraft is being replaced. More than likely because of racial attitudes which cannot simply be dismissed by the fact that this was a man born in 1890 who lived until 1937. But Lovecraft’s legacy is more complicated than that statement makes him seem.

We are in an era where some groups dismiss anything that smacks of civil rights or diversity as “political correctness and this charge has been leveled at the de-throning of Lovecraft’s image from the award, and Lovecraft’s racism should not be dismissed easily. But the man is owed an examination. Lovecraft’s attitudes show up in his stories, like “The Horror at Red Hook,” with its unflattering depiction of ethnic New Yorkers, and the famous “Herbert West—Reanimator” with its depiction of Blacks. Or the “N” word used as a dog’s name in “The Rats in the Walls.”

Nor can we ignore Lovecraft’s legacy as a writer of science fiction and horror. In his best stories (such as “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Pickman’s Model” or “The Color out of Space,”) Lovecraft shows a mastery of atmosphere, setting and imagery of the fantastic that have not let readers go in the decades since. It was this part of his legacy, the legacy of the imagination that the instigators of the World fantasy Award must have meant to honor. It is, after all, a literary award. Honorees in other fields have likewise complicated legacies, parts of which are frequently brushed aside and ignored. In baseball, Ty Cobb and Cap Anson are in the Hall of Fame despite Cobb’s off-field behavior including spousal abuse and Anson’s refusal to play with any Black or Latino players (this was in the 19th century.)

Lovecraft may seem an odd choice to cite as my favorite writer, as I am happily in an interracial, M/M relationship, something Lovecraft would not have approved any part of. So for this, we need some background: In the otherwise awful year of 1988 I finally got off my behind and began looking up Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who I was only vaguely familiar with. I lucked out at the library finding not only an anthology which included several of Lovecraft’s stories, but a book called “Lovecraft At Last,” by Willis Conover who, as a teenaged fan had corresponded with Lovecraft until H.P.L.’s death in 1937.

What surprised me the most was that the antiquarian Lovecraft was, in a way, a very modern writer in that he networked with other writers, long before the term entered our offices and business schools. He also networked with fans and aspiring writers including a teenage Robert Bloch whose career Lovecraft encouraged.

Lovecraft’s correspondence apparently resulted in at least two couples getting married, after they all shared addresses in those bygone days.

Lovecraft’s stories, the best ones, “Cool Air,” “At the Mountains of Madness” or “The Haunter of the Dark” grabbed me in the ‘80’s when I needed the entertainment offered by their power to captivate and delightfully terrify the reader and I found an influence for my own writing as well.

For that and for his generosity in life to other writers, while I stand against bigotry and prejudice (which did not vanish in the dim mists of the 1930’s, of course,) I can stand and thank Lovecraft’s legacy of fantasy while confronting the realities of the present day. I personally believe Lovecraft was worthy of being the face of the award. But as H.P.L. himself knew, all things pass.

Next month–something special!

Jeff Baker blogs about writing and reading sci-fi and horror and other sundry matters around the thirteenth of every month. He has been published in QueerSciFi’s “Discovery” among other places,and posts on Facebook as “Jeff Baker, Author.” He also blogs and posts fiction at http://authorjeffbaker.com. He lives in Wichita, Kansas with his Significant Other Darryl.

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