Philip Eil, in the Atlantic, contemplates with unease the posthumous rise to fame and pop culture ascendancy of the visionary horror pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft, you see, was not just a pulp writer. He was a passionate, nearly hydrophobic racist and anti-Semite, whose letters are absolutely filled with expressions of distaste for the presence, appearance, physiognomy, and even the odor, of Jews, Negroes, Asians, and persons of Southern European origin. The sight (and the smell), when encountered on city streets, of the result of 1900-era mass immigration could make the Mayflower-descended Lovecraft literally physically ill.
Hence, the dilemma troubling Mr. Eil: today’s American establishment culture faithfully worships at the altar of fame and success, but it simultaneously wants to cast out and obliterate anyone or anything incompatible with its own fanatically egalitarian ideology. Some pretty serious chin-stroking is in order here.
[N]o tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the â€œcosmic horrorâ€ writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraftâ€™s final years were as bleak as anyoneâ€™s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, â€œI was never closer to the bread-line.â€ He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, â€œI have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.â€ Among the last words the author uttered were, â€œSometimes the pain is unbearable.â€ His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was â€œfull of errors large and small,â€ according to his biographer.
Nowadays, itâ€™s hard to imagine Lovecraft faced such poverty and obscurity, when regions of Pluto are named for Lovecraftian monsters, the World Fantasy Award trophy bears his likeness, his work appears in the Library of America, the New York Review of Books calls him â€œThe King of Weird,â€ and his face is printed on everything from beer cans to baby books to thong underwear. The author hasnâ€™t just escaped anonymity; heâ€™s reached the highest levels of critical and cultural success. His is perhaps the craziest literary afterlife this country has ever seen. …
My feelings on Lovecraftâ€”as a bibliophile, a lover of Providence history, a Jew, a fan of his writing, a teacher who assigns his storiesâ€”are complicated. At their best, his tales achieve a visceral eeriness, or fling the readerâ€™s imagination to the furthest depths of outer space. Once you develop a taste for his maximalist style, these stories become addictive. But my admiration is always coupled with the knowledge that Lovecraft would have found my Jewish heritage repugnant, and that he saw our shared hometown as a haven from the waves of immigrants he saw as infecting other cities. (â€œAmerica has lost New York to the mongrels, but the sun shines just as brightly over Providence,â€ he wrote to a friend in 1926.)
I havenâ€™t made peace with this tension, and Iâ€™m not sure I ever will. But I have decided that perhaps heâ€™s the literary icon our country deserves. The stories he conjured, in many ways, say as much about his bigotry as they do his genius. Or, as Moore writes, â€œCoded in an alphabet of monsters, Lovecraftâ€™s writings offer a potential key to understanding our current dilemma.â€