Nathanial Hawthorne was probably a racist. Frankly, how could he not be? He was living in a time and place and culture where racist ideas were widely held and widely accepted. In his work, there is a distinct sense that anything outside of the Euro-centric villages, anything of the forest or the Caribbean or the African slaves present in some households, anything exotic at all, was a place where devils hid just past the horizon, where witches congregated and evil visions were found. Those who lived with the Natives and returned to society, like the jilted husband of The Scarlet Letter, carry a danger with them in part alluded to because of that exposure to non-white cultures and societies. We still read and encourage the reading of Nathanial Hawthorne. Herman Melville’s classic sea adventure, Benito Cereno, is hard to read today. It involves a slave rebellion on a ship from the perspective of a rival captain who encounters the vessel at sea in distress and how that rival captain figures out that the slave ship was being run by the slaves, who had outwitted and overpowered their masters. At the end of the story, the intelligent and well-spoken slave leader is executed, and all the slaves are sold. Yet, it is a text attempting to subvert a lot of racist notions in its own time, to present an African man as a crafty, cunning, and effective leader who very nearly gets away with his escape. So, though it is very hard to read because of the racist lens and racist material and racist ending, it is actually working to subvert racism in its own time. But, again, to the modern reader, this is very hard to read. So on the one hand, we continue to read and encourage the reading of Nathanial Hawthorne, who was most likely a racist, of his time. We also do not necessarily encourage the reading of Benito Cereno even though it is an anti-racist text, and instead choose other works by the same author to read, instead, most of the time.
So, Lovecraft is different.
I had reached out to various authors and editors attempting to write a sort of “MindMeld” like they used to do at SFSignal, where a lot of smart people discuss an issue important to the day. That issue was going to be whether Lovecraft should be used as an introduction to the work of Weird Fiction, and if not, who should be that introduction? What I heard back was that there were Lovecraft fans who were so passionate that any efforts to openly discuss Lovecraft’s racism, and whether he should continue to be read, would be too much trouble and leave authors and editors open to negative comments and mild cyberstalking and trolls. So, Lovecraft is different. No one is going to go out of their way to troll over reading Benito Cereno or not. No one is going to troll about The Scarlet Letter. It has been widely reported that Lovecraft’s racism is part of the heart of his work, for his cosmic horror seems to be rooted in a fear of non-white cultures and non-Christian deties and worldviews. It is no coincidence that the Necronomicon was written by a mad Arab, and not a mad Druid. The sense of isolation in a lot of those distant New England towns and communities carried with it the dread of the unknown reminiscent of racist ideas, and the different cults and tribes presented horrifically display a fear of exoticism in every aspect of the horror. The fear of miscegenation permeates the texts of Lovecraft. He wasn’t just a racist of his time, on par with his time; he was a celebrant of lynch mobs and wrote often and openly about such matters. There was no subversion of the racist ideas of his time. It was just racism.
Okay, so I’m going to call it and answer the question that I was going to ask others, and I’m going to answer it this way.
Question: Should we recommend newcomers to Weird Fiction begin with Lovecraft, one of the founders of the form?
Answer: No. We should not do it because there apparently is a group of people roving the internet looking to stamp out any criticism of Lovecraft, and newcomers should not be exposed to that much cosmic internet horror.
Question: What should readers looking for an interoduction to Weird Fiction read instead?
Answer: There are three books that come to mind. The first is Michael Cisco’s Chttps://amzn.to/2ZUaIwmelebrant, which is likely the most accessible of his dense and gorgeous works of strange fiction. It proposes a hideous bird god encountering previous incarnations of itself before it was reborn into a divinity. The second recommendation to the cosmic horror genre that I recommend instead is Amanda Downum’s book Dreams of Shreds and Tatters that echoes the classic stories of the King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers set as a mystery quest where a woman searches for her lost friend in a city that gets stranger and darker by the page. My final recommendation to beginners to weird fiction is Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This book is often described as magical realism but the line between genres is fuzzy, at best, and many of the unknown and unknowable cosmic dreads that carry through the dark and ominous works of more horror-prone authors is present in this book where cats talk and gods slip out of their skin and back. Because it is a bit lighter on the “horror” aspects, it is a more accessible beginning text down the path of Weird Fiction than many others for some readers.
So, should one bother with Lovecraft at all? I think it shouldn’t be the beginning of the journey for anyone, anymore. I also think that the many authors that came after provide a wide and diverse field of literature that offers plenty to read without bothering to continue supporting the work of such a profoundly racist author. I’m not proposing censorship, but perhaps that some authors and works, like Benito Cereno, are better addressed in an academic setting where experienced educators can frame the work in such a way that it can be appreciated despite the aspects that are very hard to read for a modern audience.