Victor LaValle: People who moved to New York always make the same mistake. They can't see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn't here. This wasn't all bad though. Some New Yorkers had learned how to make a living from this error in thinking. Charles Thomas Tester, for one.
Tanzina Vega: That was author Victor LaValle reading from his 2016 novella The Ballad Of Black Tom. Victor wrote the story as a way of responding directly to H.P. Lovecraft, a writer from the early 20th century, whose influence can still be detected throughout the fantasy and hard genres today.
Victor: I was about 11 the first time I started reading him, and one of the central themes of his writing for me is about feeling small and powerless, and being enraged at the universe's indifference to your will and that feels a lot like being 11 years old. There was a way that I felt really connected to the characters he was writing about, except of course, they were grown men acting that way and I was 11.
Tanzina: Once Victor got older, he discovered a much more troubling side of Lovecraft.
Victor: At around 15 or 16 though when I reread these stories that I had devoured without any critical lens, I suddenly noticed all these ways that he would just outright say racist and antisemitic things and I was just shocked at what I hadn't seen when I was younger, or what I'd glossed over when I was a kid. In my teenage years, it was no longer possible to just overlook that stuff.
Tanzina: Today, Lovecraft's bigotry is well documented, which has inspired a new generation of fantasy and horror writers to grapple with that legacy in their own fiction.
Sylvia Moreno-Garcia: I first read Lovecraft when I was a teenager and I just quite loved it. I had read Edgar Allen Poe, so he was the second horror writer that I read and was one of the writers that got me both into horror and the early pulp fiction of the, what we would call the weird masters. He was like a gateway drug.
Tanzina: That's Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, another author who was re-examined Lovecraft in her work. This weekend, the series, Lovecraft Country premiers on HBO. It's based on a book by writer, Matt Ruff, which takes place in the Jim Crow South and combines Lovecrafty and horror with the actual terrors of racism. Ahead of the shows release, I spoke with Victor and Sylvia to get a sense of why so many writers, particularly writers of color are engaging with Lovecraft today. Sylvia started off by explaining how she first learned about Lovecraft's racism.
Sylvia: Later on in my late teens I started reading, not just his stories, but his biographical work that had been done on him, and his letters because he had a vast network of correspondence. It's one thing to read his stories and some of them don't have racial stuff that sticks out very clearly. Some of them do, but if you read for example, The Colour Out Of Space, well, that's just a color out of space and that kind of stuff. Some of them don't have things that you can see very clearly. Others have more explicit stuff, but when you read some of his letters, some of his letters are very funny and very friendly like he likes ice cream a lot.
Then you get to the parts where he's talking to Robert E. Howard and he's talking about superior and inferior races, and that's when you realized like, "Oh, okay, well that explains some things," that you read maybe in the stories and that you didn't quite get, but I didn't quite get a lot of things in the beginning. For example, I was pretty surprised that it wasn't until I was doing my thesis, I think because of the translation that I read in Spanish. When I was doing my thesis in my 30s about Lovecraft, I realized that a character in The Dunwich Horror is described as black, as the black brat, Lavinia's black brat.
It's a Rosemary's baby kind of story, where in the end the paternity of of this person turns out to be half-supernatural, half-human. I had never clued on to the fact that this child is described as swarthy as black, that it is probably a metaphor for a mixed race, African American child. I didn't realize that when I first read it, I think maybe it was a translation. I think it might have been translated as morena, which is my last name, as brown instead of black. Yes, when I read it again in English, I was like, "Okay, I missed that one."
Tanzina: Victor, in 2016, you published a novella called The Ballad of Black
Tom, which is directly based on Lovecraft story called The Horror at Red Hook. Why that story in particular, why did you choose to reimagine Lovecraft in that way?
Victor: Well, there were two reasons for using that story and the first is that most of Lovecraft's stories take place in New England. I'm a kid from Queens, New York, I don't know anything about New England, and so I didn't feel like I could challenge him as a writer on his home turf, but The Horror at Red Hook takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn. If you read it, you can tell he doesn't know a thing about New York, or a thing about Brooklyn beyond maybe some street names.
I felt like, "Okay, this is my territory. I think I have a little greater mastery like the landscape and the people." Then the second reason is because it's probably his most overtly and extensively xenophobic story. It's anti everybody and every kind of immigrant, every kind of whatever you want to name that is not a white male Protestant. There's got to be a line in there denigrating that group. I really thought like, well, this is the one that is the concentrated dose of Lovecraft's worst impulses, so this is the one I want to wrestle with.
Tanzina: Sylvia, you've edited anthologies of stories inspired by Lovecraft. I wonder if any of the writers of color that were contributing to these anthologies were even conflicted about contributing to an anthology inspired by Lovecraft who, as we said, was xenophobic and had other issues.
Sylvia: There were a few people who, when I asked them, they were concerned like, as in, "Well, does my story have to praise Lovecraft or does it have to be a Lovecraft pastiche?" My answer always was, "No, it doesn't have to be." When you think about something like Shakespeare, we have multiple adaptations and retakes of Hamlet and nobody believes, "Oh, well, we have to do it exactly like Shakespeare did." It was the same idea. I would just tell them Lovecraft is a launching point, you might be interested in that. Then most people, or I think everybody actually said, "Yes, I would. I would like to do that."
They went in wildly different directions. Some were using queer characters, some were using characters of color. Some were doing things that were funny, comedic, which Lovecraft wouldn't have done, and some were going in very bleak places and very serious explorations of race, and history, and and womanhood, and sexism, and all of these kinds of things. The good thing about Lovecraft's Mythos and Lovecraft fiction is that it has been for many, many decades. It's like a Lego kit. You can grab the Lego blocks, and you can build a spaceship, but somebody else can build a castle.
Tanzina: I have a question for both of you, why even bother trying to find inspiration from Lovecraft today rather than just leaving him behind entirely and allowing people, and just creating your own stories without any contact with Lovecraft? Is he that critical to the genre or just curious, Sylvia?
Sylvia: Literature is a conversation between authors and between books. There's just some people that keep getting our attention for some reason or another. There's something that they said there that still speaks to us. I think Lovecraft, unlike other writers who had been forgotten of the time period, really does say things that jive with our modern experience.
Not only the questions about living in a world that is fathomless and unforgiving, and where your life might have no meaning, but also the fact that some of his stories are peppered with issues of race, I think is why we keep looking at him. Because he is one of the writers that actually has that baked into the story, and we can actually use those blocks to build something new. You can't do that with other writers so easily.
Tanzina: Victor, what about you? Why even bother using Lovecraft as a starting point or an inspiration? Why not just create things without having to refer back to him?
Victor: I often think of literature as an enormous family. The books you read when you're young, the books that influence you, the artists that influence you, they get into your DNA. They become a part of your way of thinking and seeing the world. As a result, they influence who you are, in the same way that they were influenced. I would echo Sylvia that Lovecraft didn't invent the genre of cosmic horror. There are artists that were inspiring him, like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, whose work is still read, but he added to that genre.
To my mind, the worst thing would be to say that kind of writing or that genre, it's only for white dudes, because when I was growing up, I said, "I love this." I knew lots of writers of color, lots of women who also love this. The idea that we would have to give up a whole geography, simply because someone who was a big part of it was a problem, I feel like then you'd have to talk about realism and Herman Melville. You'd have to talk about almost every single genre. Some of the writers who are foundational were also awful people.
The question is, do we give up everything or do we find a way to revitalize it, regenerate it and perhaps make something good out of some land that was, at times, a little bit poisoned or a little bit fallow, let's say it that way.
Tanzina: Sylvia wanted to ask you about this summer's Hugo Awards, which honor science fiction and fantasy writing, where Lovecraft got a retroactive award. What did you make of the decision to do that?
Sylvia: I think all the retro awards are ridiculous. Why do we care what somebody did, 80 years ago when they were extremely famous, as in the case of H.P. Lovecraft. It's not adding anything to recognize him at this point. He is dead. Shouldn't we be looking at other people who are alive and well, and maybe didn't get as much attention?
I remember when Charles Saunders wrote what is a rip-roaring African sorcery in the 1970s and '80s, and it was not very well known. That those are the kind of people that I would like to see and getting awards. There's board games inspired by Lovecraft's work. There's a film festival. Why does he need that award? Of course, this coming after they changed the World Fantasy Award from being a Lovecraft, a Howie, to something else, it just feels really quite pointless. If we are going to be doing that kind of looking into the past and giving awards like that, we should be doing it to more interesting people that were forgotten.
Tanzina: Wondering, Victor, if you can recommend any sci-fi or fantasy writers today who are tackling things like racism and sexism in their work? Is there anyone you would recommend?
Victor: Yes, for sure, there's a few. There's a writer named Ruthanna Emrys, has a series of books that starts with a novel called Winter Tide that talks about Lovecraft stuff, particularly from the point of view of women in the Lovecraft in fictional world. There's a writer named Cassandra Khaw who has a novel called Hammers on Bone, and then a writer named Caitlin Kiernan who has a novel called Agents Of Dreamland. All three of them are excellent writers and wrote excellent books in this vein.
Tanzina: Sylvia, are there any sci-fi or fantasy writers today that you would want to recommend?
Sylvia: Stephen Raham Jones just released The Only Good Indians, I think it is an excellent novel that has all the flavor of Stephen King's It or Peter Straub's Ghost Story, but it feels fresh and exciting. I also read a book in translation recently that is called Tender Is The Flesh. It's a dystopia in which human beings are being farmed for meat consumption. Those are just two horror books that have come out recently, that I think are very exciting. There's always interesting work going on in the magazines and the small presses.
Nadia Bulkin's collection, She Said Destroy is just amazing and there's all kinds of stuff that is happening that I think if you like horror, we are, I hope, entering a renaissance after it being dry out there. Where horror wasn't getting as much attention in the literary sphere and you would be told, "Well, don't write horror. It'll never sell." I think we're finally heading into an era in which that might not be true anymore.
Tanzina: Don't write horror it'll never sell if you're not Stephen King, or don't write horror, it'll never sell because people aren't interested?
Sylvia: Well, I was told don't write anything set in Mexico, because nobody will read anything in Mexico. If you want to get more specific about my situation, that was mine. In general, I was also told that horror is not something that agents or editors would like, and it is true. It's one of those things that you don't see agents running out and begging you for horror books.
There were other things that they might want, like epic fantasy was the big thing, patented after George R.R. Martin and Game Of Thrones. That was like the hot stuff that the people were asking. If you said, "Well, I've got a horror book," it's like, "Okay." Then if I said, "It's set in Mexico," then they would've just like, "Well, no, that's definitely no."
Tanzina: I suspect that might be starting to change Sylvia.
Sylvia: Well, I wrote a book called Mexican Gothic and it's a New York Times bestseller so I just thought that'll show them.
Tanzina: Victor LaValle is the author of The Changeling and Sylvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of Mexican Gothic. Thanks to you both.
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