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How H.P. Lovecraft speaks to our terrifying political times

H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H.P. Lovecraft

For every major political moment in the United States, there’s a writer whose work best captures it. In the current presidential cycle, one characterized by collective fatigue before this summer is even over, a shortlist of candidates would likely include names like Ezra Klein or David Brooks. The throwback choice for many conservatives would be Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged they hold out as a prescient forecast of the country’s class divisions. Sadly, as the divisive rhetoric of this most unusual horserace roils the nation, it’s beginning to look like the writer whose work most echoes our current state of affairs is H.P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is primarily known for two things: his terrifying works of supernatural fiction, which have had an outsized influence on the horror genre, and his virulent racism, which are especially harsh even by the standards of his time. There are numerous examples of literary titans whose legacies are tarnished by their poor characters. While many authors have bodies of work that exist somewhat independently of their unenlightened views, Lovecraft injected his racism into so much of his work that it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist. Volumes have been written about the intersection between Lovecraft’s views and his artistic vision, with the most scorn reserved for “The Horror At Red Hook,” a 1925 short story in which a white detective’s investigation takes him to a Brooklyn neighborhood full of dark-skinned monsters with supernatural origins. (A 1912 poem called “On The Creation Of Niggers” is far more direct.)

Were it not for his well-documented hatred of people of color, Lovecraft’s name would be routinely mentioned along with Stephen King, who counts Lovecraft as a major influence. Instead, Lovecraft’s work isn’t as well known as it is influential, and any conversation about him now includes at least a disclaimer about his racist views. That trend will likely be renewed soon thanks to Legendary TV’s recently announced Lovecraft-based anthology series, just as the conversation comes back up whenever Guillermo Del Toro restates his promise to adapt Lovecraft’s 1936 tome At The Mountains Of Madness.

Just as Lovecraft and his acute xenophobia are inextricably linked, so too are the presidential race and the fear and loathing undergirding it. Any effort to logic through the support for Donald Trump, possibly the most narcissistic and mendacious presidential candidate in history, is incomplete without mention of the anger, fear, and insecurity stewing in his base of supporters (a phenomenon described euphemistically in the political press as “racial resentment”). Trump has reached the cusp of the presidency by stoking those fears with the flair of a ringmaster. He’s also cribbed from some of Lovecraft’s most enduring themes, including Lovecraft’s exploitation of our common fear of the unknown and our anxiety about the unfathomable horrors to which we’re blind and powerless.

Take, for example, Trump’s tendency to resort to ominous vagaries when asked to comment on President Obama’s responses to acts of terror. “There’s something going on,” he always says, refusing to detail exactly how or why the sitting president sympathizes or aids lone-wolf attackers and leaving his faithful to draw their own conclusions. Those conclusions are terrifying given their provenance in Trump’s baseless insistence that President Obama lied about his place of birth. Trump held onto his Manchurian Candidate narrative long after all but the nuttiest tin-hatters had moved on, and he arguably did more than anyone else to undermine the country’s first black president. He’s been inconsistent with every message except one—the idea that the president’s superficial differences are evidence of his malice toward Americans and disdain for Western values. That message could serve as a synopsis for “The Horror At Red Hook,” and it’s safe to say that if Lovecraft were alive today, he’d have a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker on the wall of his remote log cabin.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country

The Lovecraftian undertones of Trump’s campaign have recently been echoed in pop culture. Matt Ruff’s brilliant novel Lovecraft Country, published earlier this year, makes this point powerfully, injecting literal beasties into what is otherwise an allegory about how black and brown people have survived the country’s dread of difference. It’s the rare example of a Lovecraft-influenced work that not only indicts the influential author’s views but also draws a straight line between his works of horror fiction and the real-life horror faced by people who share his views. Lovecraft’s racism—or Donald Trump’s, for that matter—is not merely a moral failing or potentially career-ending social faux pas. It’s a corrosive worldview that precludes harmonious societies, even as it yields tremendous works of literature and political reversals of fortune.

As many pundits have argued, Trump is the Frankenstein’s monster that the Republican party created, after years of their own efforts to invalidate Obama’s presidency have given rise to a lunatic fringe on the right. Instead of encouraging respectful disagreement—Senator John McCain’s defense of Obama at a 2008 town hall feels like a thousand years ago—the GOP stoked its voters’ suspicion of Obama’s “otherness” every opportunity it got. In other words, Republicans followed the Lovecraft playbook, inflating and making myth around their most mundane fears until those anxieties took on a life of their own.

Given the period he lived in, Lovecraft likely didn’t think of his views as racism, but instead as a natural, even evolutionarily beneficial, response to difference. When some Trump supporters, even the most hysterically anti-Obama among them, say they aren’t motivated by racism, they believe it. Racism, as it’s currently defined, is the refuge of the ignorant, uneducated, hateful, and malicious qualities no reasonable person would own. So they claim not to be racist, or to have any cognizance of race, even as they experience the same dread that led Lovecraft to write “Red Hook.” It’s the anxiety that comes of the world ceasing to resemble your fantasy of it and the insecurity that comes of tumbling from the top of a caste system that has always favored you. Racism is an embarrassing, mortal flaw. Fearing an evil entity intent on your destruction just makes sense, and to many, there’s no practical difference between the president and an ancient deity with an unpronounceable name.

The GOP is at its current crossroads because so many white, right-leaning voters have been gripped by Lovecraftian dread, and those feelings have been fanned by the party’s standard-bearer. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see a flap like Trump’s statements about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel and protesters at his rallies turned into a conversation about “racism,” with the word defined as an undesirable and unacceptable but mostly harmless mind crime. It’s frustrating to see the Black Lives Matter movement, a direct response to the country’s deeply entrenched racism, as some sort of radical fringe. The election isn’t just a race just as Lovecraft’s xenophobic works weren’t just stories. The stoking of racial resentment with a narrative that presents difference as mortal danger is a trend with real, harmful, and lasting effects on the culture.