Walking a Tentacled Tightrope: My Challenging Relationship with HPL

The other day my friend, Clinton Cronk (talented cartographer and author of a really awesome, nuanced, and well-edited Forgotten Realms adventure that will be on sale very soon), posted a link to an article on my Facebook wall and asked for my thoughts, given my writerly inclinations and interest in matters Lovecraftian.

I started drafting a response and quickly realized this was a far deeper question than a mere FB reply could handle.

I can usually separate the artist from their art, and appreciate a creator’s work on its own merits in a detached manner, even if I find said creator to be a loathsome human being. I don’t know if this is a “normal” thing to do, but I can do this quite easily.  Maybe this is because in most cases said piece of art, unless it deeply moves me, is a thing—possibly even a lovely thing—that someone else created.  Or perhaps my being able to compartmentalise in this way is a product of having worked more than 20 years in government, where in order to succeed one must occasionally check one’s personal beliefs at the door in order to faithfully carry out the commands of our political masters.  Despite all this, Lovecraft and his views present a challenge to me.

It is generally accepted now that Lovecraft was bigoted even by the standards of his time (he was called out for it on several occasions)—we see evidence of this in his work, and accounts from his ex-wife and friends all paint a picture of a man who hated immigrants, despised (and feared) intermarriage, and held romanticised notions of a white colonial, Georgian America that never existed.  Sadly, many tendrils of these ideas are found in his works, which I won’t expand on because it’s done in many other places.  I didn’t notice these unsavoury aspects when I first picked up Lovecraft in my teens—he was the first horror author I ever read—and I was enthralled by his mythology surrounding the Great Old Ones, his portrayal of advanced science as fantasy to those who cannot comprehend it, and above all his “cosmic indifferentism.”(1)  By the time I finished high school I’d read all of his fiction, plus that of many of his circle of writerly friends from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and he became a yardstick.  More than that, it was Lovecraft’s Mythos and the deep history behind it that gave me a strong nudge on my writerly path.

As I got older and became more socially aware, and after I’d read annotated stories and critical essays about him, I came to see the other side of the author.  The more I saw, the less I liked, and as I read more by other horror authors I began to look at his writing more critically.  His florid prose, while evocative at times, was not masterful, and his reliance on portraying horrors as being “indescribable” increasingly came across as being lazy.  Lovecraft may have been kind to his friends, he may have offered encouragement and support to up-and-coming authors, and he may have ardently loved cats, but I doubt anyone would say he was a particularly “good” person in the sense we consider it to mean today.  After starting on the writerly path in my 30s I began attending conventions where Lovecraft and his racism were discussed, and on several occasions participated in panel discussions about it.  I met other authors on different creative paths who interacted with Lovecraft’s works very differently—or not at all.  How could I reconcile the truth of the man with the fact that I still enjoy his fiction (which was partly responsible for me becoming a writer today)?  I also knew I had to take a stand because, rightly or wrongly, some in the writing community see me as a “go-to” person about Lovecraft and his work, and if I am to fulfill that role honestly I have to view it objectively.

I looked inside, and knew that I couldn’t compartmentalise this so easily.  I had been inspired by the Mythos, and it’s a fountain I return to on occasion.  It’s helped me write published fiction and gaming products that I know people out in the world enjoy.(2)  In some way, it’s part of my creative self.  And that’s when I decided how I would address the shambling cephalopod in the room:  I made the conscious choice to dislike the author for his politics, to acknowledge the presence of his unsavoury ideas in many of his works, and, should I create something in a Lovecraftian vein, to do so consciously.  My Mythos works may be inspired by Lovecraft’s creations, but I tell my stories from my own perspective that is informed by our time.  Where possible, I try to build my own additions to the Mythos.

This makes writing harder, but I hope doing so produces stories that carry far less baggage.

(1) That the universe is basically a great, unfeeling, unknowing machine and humanity is ultimately insignificant within it.  This notion resonated with me greatly at an impressionable age.

(2) Which is interesting because Lovecraft despised games—which would probably be a shock to many Call of Cthulhu fans.

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For What It’s Worth

Although I work a day job, I try to advance my creative endeavours in fiction and gaming whenever I can. It’s a long slog peppered with occasional setbacks, but I’m determined to realise my dream. One motivational tool I use is to pin up copies of all of the covers of the roleplaying modules I have written, as well as the anthologies and magazines that have featured my work as a reminder of how far I have come. I don’t trumpet it to my co-workers or brag about what I have done; I let the covers speak for themselves (and I have a few more to put up…)

gallery

Last week a co-worker came by my office to talk about something, and noticed my collection. The conversation went something like this:

Colleague: “Hey Geoff, what are all those pictures in your office?”
Me: “Those are covers of all the anthologies my stories are in.”
C: “You write? Cool! I’d love to read them!”
Me: “I’ll send you the Amazon links if you like. All I ask is that you post a review.”
C: “Oh. I was hoping to be able to read them online.” (shuffles away)

******

Like anything else that is worthwhile, art takes a lot of time to create and even more to master. On the latter, I see the skillful demonstration of any craft as being analogous to an iceberg—the part you see is tiny compared to what lies hidden. Basically an iceberg squared, if such a thing could exist. Whatever creative endeavour one pursues, it’s work—and a lot of it:

It’s stewing in one’s creative juices trying to come up with something worthy of making into art.

It’s the first abortive attempts that seem awesome at first, and then appear totally worthless as our confidence and initial creative euphoria erode in revision runoffs.

It’s finally, after many twists and turns, making something that seems to match what we had in our heads…and then submitting it for scrutiny (whether by an editor, a gallery, etc.), only to find ourselves on another emotional rollercoaster where we often question our integrity and value as artists until our work is either accepted or rejected.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

All this to say, any form of artistic expression, whether it is done “for the love” or because the artist is trying to make some money from their craft, requires sacrificing a great deal of time and energy from an all-too-finite pool. And that sacrifice is, in itself, a gesture of love towards one’s craft.

As an artist’s friend, colleague, partner—or even if you’re a complete stranger—you should not, out of respect for that love of craft, dismiss their work out of hand. Approach their work with a curious eye or accepting ear, and above all an open mind. If, in the end, you don’t like their work then give honest, respectful feedback and explain why. Likewise, if there was something about the artist’s work you did like, give them the affirmation they need and tell them so—and post a review.

Above all, if the artist respectfully tells you that they aren’t about to give you their art for free don’t scurry away, because in doing so you are telling them how little value you place on their work.