Review of The Age of Lovecraft
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
268 pp., illus, 3 b/w. Trade, $87.50; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9924-7; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9925-4
In the 1920s and 1930s H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories appeared regularly in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories, yet they gradually fell into obscurity following the death of the author and the decline of the pulp market. It wasn’t until the 1980s that S. T. Joshi began to edit a series of scholarly journals (Lovecraft Studies, Lovecraft Annual, Studies in Weird Fiction, and Weird Fiction Review) that brought Lovecraft’s work to the attention of literary critics. His stories have since reached a wider readership through numerous reprint editions, and in 2005 his work was even included in the prestigious Library of America series, which presented him as the modern successor to Edgar Allan Poe. In recent years the popularity of his work has grown even more thanks to comic, radio, film, and television adaptations as well as games and popular music, which have made Lovecraft’s name a household word—even among people who never read him.
If we are now living in the “age of Lovecraft,” as Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock argue in their new anthology, then this is due not only to his tremendous popularity but also the surge of interest in his work among contemporary theorists and philosophers—particularly in the field of posthumanist studies, where his work has been embraced for its anti-humanism or post-anthropocentrism. This aspect of his work was first recognized by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus praised Lovecraft for illustrating the “process of being as becoming—becoming animal, becoming monster, becoming other than a fixed and finished human subject” (7). However, the contributors to Sederholm and Weinstock’s anthology appear to have been more directly inspired by Graham Harman’s 2012 book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, which described Lovecraft as the progenitor of object-oriented ontology—a philosophical view that “posits a universe in which there is something in objects that always escapes knowing and in which human beings exist equally with other things” (5). Many of the essays support and extend Harman’s argument, such as Weinstock’s “Lovecraft’s Things: Sinister Souvenirs from Other Worlds,” which argues that Lovecraft’s fiction is set in an “enchanted world…in which the line between subject and object becomes muddled and obscured” (63). This results in a confusion of ontological states, as people “are treated like or become things” (63) and objects “exhibit agency, they intermesh with the human, they prompt reconsiderations of where the line between human and nonhuman actually falls, and compel a reconsideration of the place of human beings in the universe” (76). Brian Johnson’s “Prehistories of Posthumanism: Cosmic Indifferentism, Alien Genesis, and Ecology from H. P. Lovecraft to Ridley Scott” makes a similar argument by comparing Lovecraft’s stories to the Alien film series, which both illustrate “the breakdown of human exceptionalism” (104) by depicting “a cosmos that was at once indifferent and (for that very reason) menacing” (109).
Perhaps the most troubling and controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s work is its explicit and often excessive racism. Lovecraft’s biographers confirm that he was extremely disturbed by the influx of immigrants coming to America, and many of his stories reflect his fear that racial miscegenation was contributing to the degeneration of the Anglo-Saxon race. While early critics attempted to either ignore Lovecraft’s racism or dismiss it as simply a product of his time, French writer Michel Houellebecq’s 1991 book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life famously argued that his work was inextricably linked to his racist world view, and an understanding of the former was impossible without a consideration of the latter. Several of the essays in Sederholm and Weinstock’s anthology attempt to address this issue by arguing that Lovecraft’s anti-humanism undermines his racist agenda. For example, Jed Mayer’s “Race, Species, and Others: H. P. Lovecraft and the Animal” argues that Lovecraft’s stories often “subvert the hierarchies separating humans from other beings” (130) by depicting the transformation of humans into animals, monsters, or hybrids. According to Mayer, however, these transformations do not necessarily reinforce Lovecraft’s fears of miscegenation and degeneration, as they paradoxically become “the means by which his stories achieve intimate contact with the feared other” (131). Patricia MacCormack’s “Lovecraft’s Cosmic Ethics” similarly argues that Lovecraft “opens up the very possibilities of ethical alterity and encounters premised on the destruction of the privileged subject of the white male that are necessary in order to lead to liberation of all lives as unique emergences” (204). She thus claims that Lovecraft’s work promotes not racial exclusion but rather the “total inclusion of the overwhelming foreignness of the Universe, from the most intimately proximate to the most imperceptibly distant” (205).
The anthology concludes with an interview with English writer China Miéville, whose work is associated with a literary subgenre known as “New Weird,” which is often seen as inspired or influenced by Lovecraft. Miéville’s interview not only highlights the main themes of the anthology, but it also casts these themes in a new light. For example, he attempts to explain the current popularity of Lovecraft by arguing that it is related to “the relative bleakness of the past few years,” which has encouraged critical interest in “the impossibility of human agency” (236). Miéville thus reinforces the idea that Lovecraft’s anti-humanist tendencies make his work particularly relevant today, yet he also challenges the idea that these tendencies can be deployed against Lovecraft’s racism by arguing that “the antihumanism one finds so bracing in [Lovecraft] is an antihumanism predicated on murderous race hatred,” so “you don’t get to escape it by saying ‘well, we’re not really talking about humans’” (241). Miéville thus implies that the posthumanist trend in contemporary Lovecraft criticism—of which this anthology is the latest example—may represent an attempt to downplay the significance of Lovecraft’s racism by interpreting his work as blurring the boundaries between self and other or native and foreigner. Miéville also predicts that such attempts are doomed to fail, as “race hatred” will always remain an inherent part of Lovecraft’s philosophy. If we are currently living in the “age of Lovecraft,” as this anthology claims, then perhaps this is partly due to the increased visibility of racial hatred and immigration paranoia, which makes Lovecraft’s work relevant in ways that the contributors to this anthology clearly did not intend.