I’ve been doing a lot of study lately on Lovecraft and his writings. Mainly because I enjoy Lovecraft’s fiction and the cosmic horror and the Cthulu mythos that he created. I really like the fact that he had so many other writers working alongside him writing their own fiction and amplifying each other by using details from each other’s writings in their own writing. A writer’s echo chamber if you will. It was actually pretty ingenious, and personally, I think it’s one of the reasons why Lovecraft’s writing sticks around so well. He really did make a major impact on the genre of horror and weird fiction.
All that aside-
Lovecraft was writing in the early 1900s, as were many of his contemporaries in his writer’s echo chamber. Modern analysts and critics of Lovecraft are constantly pointing out the inherent racism and ethnocentrism in Lovecraft’s writings.
On the one hand, it’s hard to disagree with these critiques. There is indeed both racism and ethnocentrism in Lovecraft’s writings, frequently being a major focus of a story for Lovecraft. He used both of these elements as a way of creating horror and suspense. He wasn’t doing it in a way to critique or to satire the time he was in. They were simply elements of society, and he knew how to use them in his writing, and did. It doesn’t look like there were many topics that were off-limits for Lovecraft when it came to his stories.
On the other hand, Lovecraft was a product of his time. People like to point out how weird, or odd, Lovecraft’s behavior might have been. They also like to overly focus on his opinions of society. We’re not even to talk about Lovecraft’s cat, mainly the name of said cat, which I will not be repeating here. What I am saying, though, is that Lovecraft’s behavior wasn’t exactly shocking for the time. And that many of his contemporary writers wrote the same way, using the same elements, to get the same effects.
The early 1900s were not exactly a bastion of equality and forward mindedness.
I’m not defending any of this, it is precisely because of the early 1900s and the Victorian era before it that the field of archaeology has such a problematic past. I’m just saying if you weren’t a straight white dude, you probably had a rough time in both of those areas.
Because of this, by the late 1900s, we start receiving sharp critiques of society. We get terminology that actually helped change the language of fields such as sociology, anthropology, and archaeology. All of the ologies. One such term that we get is Orientalism.
Orientalism is both a term and a book written by Edward Said. The book Orientalism was published in 1978, and in it, Said makes a harsh critique of how the Western world perceived what was called the Orient. Said focused on the Middle East and the Eurocentric and ethnocentric representations of the Arabic and Muslim cultures. Particularly focusing on the amplification of negative aspects of the participants of these cultures as being superstitious, ignorant, lazy, mystical, uneducated… Basically, he was calling out racism. Said also had things to say about what we would call today appropriation of the cultural aspects of the Middle East for atmospheric, literary, or mystical elements.
Said’s book was controversial when it first came out since it was a very harsh critique of several academic fields of study. That being said, the points he makes in his book and that he advocated for after its publication, did actually change the discourse around research and theory dealing with the Middle East.
And this ties back nicely to Lovecraft.
Lovecraft was constantly using images of the Middle East and the Muslim religion in his writings. Going as far as in his youth to give himself a Muslim sounding name and dressing like an Arab. He wasn’t the only person that did this, it apparently was a common thing among the upper class of the time, for some reason. I’m sure we can all tie this back to modern problems with ethnically white people pretending to be an ethnicity they are not. Lovecraft was doing his playacting out of a sense of fascination with the Middle East. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand the mental process behind it.
The alter ego that Lovecraft created for himself, he then turned into a character in his books and made the most famous author of the most famous non-existing fictional book in possibly modern history. Almost everyone knows the name of the Necronomicon.
Both Lovecraft’s alter ego, and the Necronomicon are products of Orientalism and cultural exoticism. The Necronomicon is supposed to be a book that allows for the communication with and control of Dijin. Dijin being closely tied to Pre and post Muslim culture and religion. You may find the mention of Dijin in some translations of the Old Testament as well. They were and, in some cases, are still believed to be spirits that dwell in the deserts of the Middle East. Most of us probably aren’t overly familiar with the true origins of Dijin or the real cultural implications of Dijin. The closest many of us even get to this concept is the genie from Aladdin. Which is a whole other topic.
But Lovecraft was fascinated with Pre-Muslim magical practices and the superstitions of Arabic culture. That’s not to say that he studied it in any deep capacity, or that he learned about it in any meaningful way. From what I can tell, Lovecraft did what many individuals do, and that is he learned just enough to be fascinated by it, and let his imagination fill in the holes.
This is almost perfectly what Said was describing as Orientalism.
Cultural exoticism is very closely tied to Orientalism. It’s effectively taking any culture that is other than your own and focusing only on the aspects that are strange, weird, or out of place when compared to one’s own culture.
That’s not to say these things truly are strange or weird. It’s because of someone’s cultural bias that it appears that way. Lovecraft took great advantage of this. He used things that appeared strange and weird to an early 20th century white European culture, and then blew them way out of proportion in his stories. Exaggerating the strangeness, the oddity of it all, and playing on the fears of his readers about foreign peoples and places to create horror and suspense in his short stories. It was incredibly effective.
It also wasn’t out of character for the time. I keep coming back to this point because I want people to understand that Lovecraft wasn’t existing in a vacuum. Lovecraft was writing the kind of things people at the time liked to read because, unfortunately, it reinforced their opinions of the world outside of their own. There are very strong parallels between the early 1900s and our own modern era. Especially in the early 2000s. That is a critique I will leave for others to make, but also you should be aware of my opinions on it if you read this blog.
Understanding the time that Lovecraft lived and wrote during, the influences on him by society at the time, and the reasons for the popularity of the elements of his horror are important in a variety of ways. None of them pardon racism and ethnocentrism, but I will caution people not to look into the past through a modern lens. You will not understand what is occurring, and it will cause erroneous conclusions to be drawn.
That being said, Lovecraft was a master of amplifying his readers’ fears and uncertainties and worries about the foreign or exotic world that they may or may not have had interaction with. That is the point of horror and sci-fi, which is to examine the world around us in a safe environment, that environment being the fantasy world. It’s not real; therefore, it can’t hurt us. It allows us to examine our fears and put an ugly face on it if we need to. We should also be taking the next step, and examining why these things are our fears, but a lot of writing never goes that deep.
Tying everything back up nicely here, Orientalism and cultural exoticism did not end in the 1900s. Both practices are alive and well today and can be seen openly being used in modern media, both fictional and nonfictional. It wouldn’t take very long to sit down with popular new sources and find a hundred or so stories that take advantage of people’s fears of the unknown, the foreign, and the culturally different. The same ethnocentrism and racism from the past is being used today. Perhaps the culture groups being targeted are different, perhaps the spaces that are considered exotic are different, but the elements are the same.
It’s important for us to be able to look back on aspects of our past to see the echo of those behaviors in our current day. It’s really the only way to open our eyes to it, be critical of it, and through that criticism work to change those behaviors.
Many people often ask if Lovecraft’s writings would be as impactful as they were if they weren’t written in the way that they were. I feel like this is a false question, there’s truly no way to know. In my personal opinion, however, I think that the elements that make Lovecraft’s writing truly impactful are not the ethnocentrism and the racism, but are the masterful use of fear of the unknown to create suspenseful stories that get under our skin. There is nothing wrong with using fears and uncertainties to write a story meant to scare the readers. But I think what takes a story from being a mere Penny Dreadful to a truly epic horror is the examination of those fears and the questioning and critiquing thereof in the story itself. Self-aware horror is more terrifying because you have to examine your own demons and justify your own fears, and sometimes those are the most horrifying things of all.
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