Roots Run Deep: Why this Spoopy Tree Matters

wfa

My favorite writer is H.P. Lovecraft.

I can remember a time when saying that garnered quizzical looks from most people, and the familiar owl-song of “Who?” Nowadays, being a lover of weird fiction and saying you venerate Lovecraft is like being in a metal band and citing Black Sabbath as an influence. It’s so much a given it’s virtually meaningless. For me, though, Lovecraft’s impact is not limited to a superficial aesthetic focused on tentacles, mystical tomes, and malevolent alien gods. For me, Lovecraft’s impact, though based in fiction, is evident not just in my creative endeavors, but in the very fundamentals of my worldview, the way I understand reality.

It was Lovecraft who introduced me to the idea of humanity’s ultimate insignificance in the grand scope of the universe, as well as the idea that the five senses and three spatial dimensions mankind can perceive are far from the limits of possible existence. Cosmicism. Atheism. Mechanistic materialism. These were radical concepts when I was still a kid reading Goosebumps books, rifling through paperbacks at a yard sale and fatefully finding an anthology of stories by Machen, Blackwood, LeFanu, and, yes, Lovecraft. In many ways, he helped make me who I am today.

Please keep that in mind when I say the following:

H.P. Lovecraft was an awful fucking person.

As a reader and wanna-be writer, I deeply respect Lovecraft’s work. I think he was brilliant, an artist misunderstood in his own time and often misunderstood still today. And there are many details of his life that are pitiable, unfair, and deserving of sympathy. Still, human beings don’t come in simple binary terms, just good or just bad, but rather shades of both. In many ways, Lovecraft was a good person. In just as many ways, though, he was an awful one. It is up to each of us, as individuals, to weigh his sins and virtues and come to our own judgements about whether he was one more than the other. But you cannot deny that he was awful in certain ways. And, my oh my, we’re not talking about bad hygiene here. We’re talking about racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism.

It doesn’t matter if Lovecraft “softened his more extreme views later in life” or if he “was just a product of his time.” It doesn’t matter that he eventually married a Jewish woman or befriended a gay man. He still penned poems about how grotesque and subhuman people of color were. He still supported Hitler, for fuck’s sake. No matter how much we hem and haw and try to undersell the contemptibility of it, the fact remains: Lovecraft is on the wrong side of history.

Separating the art from the artist will only get you so far here, because a huge and important dimension of Lovecraft’s fiction derives specifically from despicable prejudices. His fiction brims with subtext about the “purity” of races and the “horror of miscegenation.” Even his less overtly bigotry-laden pieces are affected by it (and, as depressing as it may be to acknowledge, they arguably even benefit from it). They all express a shrill, hysterical dread of “the Other,” a fear Lovecraft was able to write about like no one else before or since.

Of course, Lovecraft is hardly alone in his awfulness. Any writer dead long enough for his or her work to be considered “classic” has more than a few skeletons in the closet: Rudyard Kipling was racist, Norman Mailer was homophobic, Charles Bukowski was sexist, Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic, and so on and so on. The ugliness of an artist’s beliefs does nothing to diminish the importance of their art, but the importance of their art does nothing to diminish the ugliness of their beliefs either. Just as people are so complicated and multifaceted that we cannot simply boil them all down to just “good” or “bad,” our approach to thinking about the authors who came before us must likewise be complicated and multifaceted.

As much as we want things to be simplified, nothing is ever truly simple. We can put Lovecraft on a pedestal for his contributions to storytelling while also taking him down a peg or two for the prejudices which directly led to those very contributions. That’s not contradictory or hypocritical. It’s just complex. It requires nuance, but it’s the same as the ability to be happy with the person you are now while still regretting the mistakes you made in the past that hurt others. We can do both. We have to do both.

See, progress is not made from simply recognizing the errors of history and that’s it. We have to learn from them, too. You are happy with the person you are not just because you are aware that you once did wrong, but because you regret those wrongs and have vowed to not repeat them. You have become a better person. You have changed. Progress comes from change; change is necessary.

Which brings me to the reason I sat down at my laptop just now: The World Fantasy Awards.

I know, I know. This is old news. The debate over Lovecraft’s racism and the WFA bust has been beaten into the dirt by now and the last thing the world needs is one more jabroni jumping in to regurgitate a bunch of opinions that plenty of other people have already stated and that even more people have viciously ripped apart. But, fuck it, this is my blog and I haven’t had my say yet. I may be a nobody with (at the time of this writing) naught but a handful of small-press publications to my name, which may mean that no one gives a good goddamn about which side of the fence I’m even on. Nevertheless, it’s the year 2017 and that means every over-opinionated loudmouth with an internet connection on Earth gets to at least pretend someone out there is listening.

Well, I’m over-opinionated. I’m a loudmouth. I’ve got an internet connection. And I live on the planet Earth. So, here we go. Let’s pretend.

First a quick recap, for all you nonexistent hypothetical readers who actually give a crap but who somehow don’t already know the details: For years, the World Fantasy Award has been shaped like H.P. Lovecraft’s lantern-jawed noggin. In recent years, a campaign kicked off with an eye toward changing the award to something that, y’know, doesn’t perpetuate casual acceptance of institutionalized racism. This resulted in a schism between those in favor of the proposal and those against it. Eventually, the World Fantasy Convention, which oversees the WFAs, announced they would change the award. There was some more outrage, but the pro and anti camps gradually stopped squabbling as the memory of the whole thing faded into the background. Because, hey, there’s other bullshit going on.

Then, the day came. Just recently, the new WFA was finally unveiled and it was…

A tree.

A spoopy tree, with a moon behind it.

Obviously something to lose your shit over, right? I mean, it’s not like the U.S. president just bombed the ever-lovin’ hell out of Syria and Afghanistan is it? This is wayyyy worse.

In any case, the WFA is back in the limelight again and the pro and anti crowds are squabblin’ anew. Ah, just like old times.

For what it’s worth I personally like the WFA’s new look. I think it’s a lot of things: simple, elegant, timeless, primordial, atmospheric, evocative. Others say it’s meaningless, or that it looks like a cheap Halloween knick-knack. Whatever. At least it’s not a pewter dragon. Evaluating the aesthetic quality of the sculpture ultimately comes down to personal taste, and thus is an entirely pointless debate to have. There’s no reason to complain, unless you’re a whiny, Lovecraft-obsessed, fedora-tippin’ douche bag who thinks it’s an utter travesty that ol’ Howie got shown the door in favor of a piece of kindling. Boo. Fucking. Hoo.

By my tone here, I’m assuming you can tell where I stand on this whole thing.

Remember what I said about change and how important it is for progress? The WFA is a perfect example of that kind of change. It’s not just a shrugging compromise to them goshdarn politically correct snowflakes. I’ve made my feelings on this subject known before: I hate political correctness. Meaningful, respectful change made in the name of progress, inclusion, and justice, however? That I like.

Listen, making the award a bust of a single author was pretty dumb to begin with, regardless of why it was done (and, yes, believe it or not there is a decent justification for it beyond just “We loves us some Lovecraft,” just ask Gahan Wilson, the guy who designed it).

Besides the potential PR blunder of accidentally picking a vile goddamn racist, such an award becomes a celebration of the author it depicts more than the one receiving it (remember this point, we’ll come back to it later). What if the winner doesn’t like Lovecraft? Has never read Lovecraft? Is not influenced by him? Is completely ignorant of him? How does that honor Lovecraft or the award-winner?

What if the vein of fiction the winner works in has little to no connection to Lovecraft’s work? After all, “fantasy” is a pretty broad category. The idea that Lovecraft would be an appropriate representation of all possibilities that the word could convey is obviously ridiculous. It would necessitate someone asserting that Lovecraft embodies the entire spectrum of fantastic fiction on a fundamental level to such a degree that no living writer could ever not in some way be a reflection of him. And even I, the guy who attributes his entire understanding of his place in the cosmos to Lovecraft, won’t go that far.

“But what about the Oscars or the Grammys?” you say. “No one ever thinks changing them would be a good idea.” That’s true. Except the Oscar is a bald, naked knight and the Grammy is a friggin’ phonograph. Neither, you’ll note, are responsible for a poem called “On the Creation of Niggers.” Nor did either, to my knowledge, ever called homosexuality “repugnant” or refer to homosexuals as “damned sissies” and “cake-eaters.”

And don’t come at me with that “B-b-but the Hugos” claptrap; it was dumb naming them after some guy, too. Besides, the Hugos got all kinds of problems of their own.

Those of you who don’t know what it’s like, try this: Check your privilege for a second and put yourself in the shoes of someone who deals with racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia in a very real, painful way… every… single… day. Imagine that in spite of the systemic prejudices working against you, you accomplish something so extraordinary that it merits a prestigious award. Now imagine you get the award, and it’s shaped like the face of someone who famously, unabashedly derided you, and everyone like you, as repellent and barely human, and who advocated Nazi-esque eugenics as a way of purging your kind from existence. Imagine being asked to pose with that award and smile. Imagine being asked to put that award on your shelf and have it look down on you every day of your life, a reminder of just what kind of legacy you labor in the shadow of.

One last thing: Imagine being told that your feelings on this matter are irrelevant, that you should be grateful to get this much, because the integrity of a fucking paperweight is more important than your integrity as a person.

Tell me, would you feel celebrated? Would you feel respected? Would you feel honored?

That’s what an award is supposed to do, honor its recipients (see, I told you we’d come back to this).

If you want to honor Lovecraft, build a fuckin’ statue in your backyard. Do anything you want, that’s all about you. But awards are not about you. They’re not about famous dead guys either, I don’t give a shit how important they are. Awards are about the people who win them, period. They are about the present and the future, not the past. They’re not memorials. Making an annual award into such a thing, at the expense of the people living in the here and now, is indulgent, morbid, and gross. It’s a neverending act of masturbation, like an ouroboros circle-jerk.

Granted, some will say it’s not about honoring just Lovecraft, but rather the values Lovecraft symbolizes, i.e. the values that the aforementioned Gahan Wilson cited when explaining why he chose ol’ Howard’s ugly mug in the first place. Wilson said: “The point of the awards was, is, and hopefully shall be to give a visible, potentially usable sign of appreciation to writers working in the area of fantastic literature, an area too often distinguished by low financial remuneration and indifference.”

Notice how he said “hopefully” there? That’s because things change, even the meanings of symbols. Don’t believe me? Ask the swastika. Nowadays, Lovecraft’s face has a lot in common with a swastika in some circles, whether we like it or not. Them’s the breaks. Adapt or die.

Seriously, do you want to be a dinosaur when that inevitable meteor called progress comes hurtling towards this hunk of rock we call home? Do you want to be on the wrong side of history like your homeboy Howie was?

Time marches on. Change is vital for the betterment of culture. That’s not to say legacies don’t remain important, but not to a degree where we should cling to them to the detriment of evolving paradigms. If anyone should understand this, it’s people who work in the arts. The best art has always been about shaking up the status quo. Lovecraft himself did this, in his own way, by subverting humanity’s egoism and superstitious mysticism with his philosophy of cosmicism and tales of sanity-shattering extradimensional malignance.

Believe it or not, change does not automatically delete the past from existence. Making the new WFA into a spoopy tree doesn’t send a ripple back through time transforming the previous years’ awards into spoopy trees too. Nor does it erase all those contributions to genre fiction Lovecraft is responsible for. It’s just like a Hollywood remake of a beloved classic; stupid people will bitch and moan, but the original is still available on DVD, just as good as it ever was. Nothing is “ruined.” No one’s talking about wiping Lovecraft’s name from the history books, denying his influence, or revoking his “Inner Circle of Literary Icons” membership card. All anyone wants is to promote a more nuanced understanding of what Lovecraft represents in his totality, not just the parts we want him to represent. Understanding is more meaningful than unquestioning reverence, don’t ya think?

At the end of the day, as I said before, the WFA is a fucking paperweight. Is it really worth getting bent of shape over? Is it really worth alienating already marginalized sectors of the literary community?

Even Lovecraft knew the final truth: Humanity is but a dust mote lost in sprawling, indifferent universe. The entirety of Earth’s history adds up to little more than a fraction of a split-severed second when contrasted against the vastness of infinity. Our differences are trivial, and we ourselves are trivialities.

It’s not important. You only think it is.

Get over it.