I made my peace long ago with the notion that HP Lovecraft would consider me an inferior race born of a mongrel ethnicity. In his ideal world, I would probably have been expunged or forced into slave labor. (And just the thought of that makes me giggle, I must confess.) Actually, I don’t think I ever had to “make peace” with HPL’s bigotry, it’s just something I accepted which never got in the way of my enjoyment of his work. I’m sympathetic to those who are quite troubled by this, and understand those who choose to avoid HPL’s work as a result – but if I gave up on every creative mind who held highly objectionable biases and obsessions, I don’t think there would be many left in my personal pantheon.
And if I think about why I am so oblivious, why compartmentalizing the artist from the art is so easy for me, I find two reasons.
One, I know that deep down inside I harbor ideas and biases that are just as horrible, if not more so, than the artists whose works I respect. I am civil and courteous and kind to the people I encounter in everyday life, but I don’t deny that I can be a complete degenerate in my thoughts and imagination. Philip Roth has a great tirade in the novel Deception about the artistic drive being “the nose in the seam of the undergarment”; I used to keep a photocopy of that page taped up to my wall, and the idea still rings true to me today.
Two – and I am guessing this is related to the first point – I am a total slut for pop culture, especially its dark, trashy underbelly. If a book or movie or comic tickles my fancy and brings me delight, then my loyalty has already been earned. I don’t think I’m hard to please but it does take a certain gift, a unique perspective, to make the unpalatable into something transcendent. The very first book I fell in love with was Nabokov’s Lolita, the jackboot fascism of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns still gives me an undeniable thrill, there are sequences in Triumph of the Will that make me squee in kitschy delight. And you can tell me the people who made these woks are horrible for doing so or that they contribute to the tragedies in this world, but that won’t make me think any less of them. I have not only drunk the Kool Aid, I mixed extra batches and chugged those down as well.
All of which is to say that I not only enjoyed Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I think it is one of the best pulp works I have read in years. I first became aware of the book because I heard it looks at the work of HPL – and the pulps from that era in general – through the perspective of African Americans and the real shoggoths of oppression they had to deal with. It was tackling Lovecraft’s racism directly, placing it in a real historical context that could make HPL apologists like myself give pause. But the genius of the book is that it does this by delivering one solidly crafted tale after another, taking the ideological blind spots of pulp and using I as the material for newer, fresher takes on the form. In short, Lovecraft Country blew me over not only because it engaged the racism of HPL and pulp culture in a clever and insightful manner, but it was also outstanding pulp in its own right.
For me, one of the most subversive aspects of the novel is that so many of the main characters in the book – Atticus and his extended family and friends – are geeks who love pulp culture themselves. This made me realize right away one of my own inherent prejudices, the notion that the pulps were for “us” – us being white geeky males, which is fucking ironic since I’m not white anyway. The bias still stands, though – when I think of geek fandom from that era, it is a bunch of white dudes, most of them young, the rest in the throes of arrested adolescence. (And to be fair, pulp culture has a well-known progressive streak, especially science fiction. I immediately think of the EC Comics stories “Judgment Day” and “Master Race”, as well as Rico being Filipino in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.) This love of pop culture gives a nerdy edge to the protagonists in the stories of Lovecraft Country, provides an immediate way to bond with them and understand the world through a prism of shared experience. I have always thought of fellow comic book and nerd culture lovers as part of “my tribe”, and when I go to a comic shop or a comic convention there is a sense of shared community – one that encourages understanding and inclusion, that wants everyone to fly their freak flag – and it is gratifying to feel that same bond with Atticus and his extended family, even as they face difficulties I could never imagine for myself.
(One thing that deeply disturbed me, though, was the presence of a comic book specialty store in the 1950s. No amount of suspension of disbelief can make me believe that such a beast existed in those times. It was all spinner racks in drug stores and newsstands back then. That said, I did appreciate the shout-out to Superboy.)
Lovecraft Country led me to another book that directly confronts race and the writings of HP Lovecraft, Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad Of Black Tom. This novella looks at Lovecraft’s “The Horror Of Red Hook” from a different perspective, telling another story rooted within the source material, much in the same mode as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. In this case, a young black man who works as a musical con man is recruited by the main villain of Lovecraft’s story, Robert Suydam, and watched over suspiciously by the main hero / eventual survivor, Detective Malone.
Truth be known, Lavalle’s story is far superior to the original, and not because it better appeals to modern sensibilities. The Lovecraft story is undeniably xenophobic in its attitude towards non-white immigrants, but y’know, Lovecraft’s gonna Lovecraft and you gotta wear your HPL Goggles if you’re going to wade through it. More important for me as a reader is that the story is relatively slight and a bit too distanced to have any real horror. The best part about it is the opening which looks at how Detective Thomas Malone is sent into a hysterical panic by the mere sight of brick buildings. The thought of such an everyday inevitability causing such trauma is a great hook, but the plot that gets us there is rather pedestrian, at best. Lavalle’s story, in contrast, is filled with a palpable dread and a fear of consequences from beginning to end – much as I love HPL, The Ballad Of Black Tom is as strong a contender for cosmic horror as anything Lovecraft himself has written, and it does this precisely because it is rooted in experiences that are alien to HPL and his view of the world.
Reading Lovecraft County and The Ballad Of Black Tom together brings out the stark differences between the two, and I think it can be summed up by the difference between pulp adventure and cosmic horror. Pulp adventure often has huge stakes and sometimes has a meaningful message, but it is heroic fiction that makes the reader feel good and feel empowered. It is resourceful against overwhelming forces, it laughs in the face of extreme danger, and things tend to work out well in the end. Cosmic horror is the diametric opposite of such optimism: cosmic horror posits an uncaring universe filled with knowledge beyond base human comprehension, where individuals find out how impotent they are when forced to acknowledge their existential meaninglessness. It is meant not only to be horrifying and horrible, but also humbling – forces are at work which are near impossible to overcome, and the best one can do is accept that ugly truth and cope as best one can.
As a result, Ruff’s prose in Lovecraft Country generally feels lighter and more buoyant, though there are some definite moments of darkness and fear throughout. The most vivid is “The Narrow House” with its stories of families torn asunder and haunted, though I think there is a more unsettling existential undercurrent in the dilemma faced by Ruby in “Jekyll in Hyde Park”. However, Ruff also has moments of breathtaking beauty and wonder, most notably in “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe”, with its descriptions of astronomy and otherworldly encounters. I can see the faraway land of that particularly story, it has a Bradbury-esque glow to it, and that made me love it so much more. Ultimately, one may fear for Atticus and his extended family throughout Lovecraft Country, but the overall tone of the series makes clear that they will prevail by the end. As with other great works of pulp, it’s how they make it to the end which grips the reader more than the question of IF they make it to the end.
This is most definitely not the case in The Ballad of Black Tom; we know how it turns out and we know that it is disastrous for everyone involved. Lavalle’s writing alternates between kitchen sink low-key and the eerily magisterial, while his descriptions of horror similarly switch keys from the dread of being a constant target of racism to the supernatural forces that Tester comes into contact with as a result of his hustling. The glimpse into the wider cosmos and what it means for humanity does a great job of showing why it is both awe-inspiring and fearful, but the true horror Tester must deal with is at the hands of law enforcement who don’t give a damn about a black man’s life. Personal loss leads to a capitulation that takes on a cosmic scale, and Malone becomes the witness to both as the horror finally makes its presence known. Lavalle weaves the racism of the twentieth century to the cosmic scope of Lovecraftian horror in a way that is consequential, that forces the reader to pause and think “what if”, and which even finds some satisfaction in the violence and death-dealing that happens when bad men finally pay for their actions, even though they are not the only ones to suffer when sleeping gods wake. And in welcoming such carnage, the horror of the book is very much about the darkness within us all.
Lovecraft may not have wanted books such as Lovecraft Country and The Ballad Of Black Tom to be a part of his legacy, but no matter: both are significant works that are worth reading, that provide important re-assessments of the literature and culture they depict, and which provide all the thrills and dread that one needs to read such pulp and be satisfied. Each are signal achievements on multiple levels, and hopefully pave the way for more such works to come.