If the shelves at my local bookstores are any indication, anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction are all the rage these days. She Walks in Shadows is a recent Lovecraftian anthology, perhaps the first of its kind, with stories and illustrations all by women. (I wrote a partial review of this one for my post on my favorite books of 2015).
I'm a big fan of Lovecraft's work (see my post, "Weird Knowledge: Lovecraft as Science Fiction and Philosophy"). Few writers have managed to capture the absurdity (in Camus's sense) of our place in the universe like Lovecraft did, and nobody else did it with Lovecraft's eldritch cosmic horror and noisome flights of imagination.
Still, it's no secret that the man himself was a xenophobic racist bigot who didn't like women very much, either. That's why an anthology like this is so interesting: it uses Lovecraft's own ideas against him in a kind of horrific deconstruction. Some of the stories give voices to women characters from Lovecraft's canon, while others create new eldritch spaces free from Lovecraft's personal foibles. Why is this a good thing? I'll say more on that later, but first the traditional book review bits.
Favorite Stories and One Complaint
The besetting sin of most anthologies is unevenness -- some stories are great, others not so much. This one is mostly pretty good. I can't think of a single story I actively disliked, although some of them I enjoyed more than others. Some of my favorites are Jilly Dreadful's "De Deabus Minoribus Extorioris Theomagicae," which out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft when it comes to creating a fictional noisome tome on lesser outer goddesses, Molly Tanzer's "The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad," which delves into the fertile depths of Lovecraftian humor, Inkeri Kontro's "Cthulhu of the Dead Sea," which features scientists discovering a microorganism they jokingly call "Cthulhu," Priya Sridhar's "The Opera Singer," which has some hauntingly beautiful lines, and Valerie Valdes's "Shub-Niggurath's Witnesses," where people go door to door witnessing for Shub-Niggurath, the Lovecraftian goddess.
While a few of the stories were only so-so, that's to be expected in any anthology. Not everything is everyone's cup of tea. My only real complaint is that it would have been nice if each story had had a short introduction, especially for those stories that draw on specific details of Lovecraft's canon. This might help readers refresh their memories of Lovecraft's original source material, which would enhance enjoyment of the stories.
Rating: 90/100 (See also my Goodreads review).
Deconstruction and the Politics of Authorship
Last weekend at Con Nooga, I went to a panel on Orson Scott Card. Aside from a general discussion of his classic, Ender's Game, and its sequels, the discussion turned to Card's politics. For me the tragedy is that Card's works, especially Speaker for the Dead, delve deep into issues of how to encounter the other with respect and compassion, but the author himself is a vocal opponent of LGBT rights who contributes to political organizations that work to undermine those rights. I was personally disappointed upon learning about this, but I still love the books.
Lovecraft came up at this panel as another example of a person with repugnant views but brilliant work, although the difference is that Lovecraft has been dead for a long time and isn't actively harming anyone.
What to do? One option is to insist on the strict separation of the author and the work. That is, whatever Lovecraft and Card may think in their personal lives, we shouldn't let that affect our assessment of their work.
The problem, of course, is that it may affect their work in ways we don't initially notice. Some people have wondered if some of Card's opinions about homosexuality are subtly woven in his narratives, perhaps by the use of the word "buggers" for the aliens, as this review of the Ender's Game film wondered (for the record, I did eventually decide to see the film after hearing that Card would probably see little, if any, additional money from ticket sales).
I'm not sure what to think about Card, but in Lovecraft's case it's pretty obvious that his xenophobia is reflected in his stories. But, one might assert, surely Lovecraft was a man of his times and we can't blame him. Maybe, but I think Lovecraft was actually pretty racist even by early 20th century American standards. I don't think we should let him off the hook that easy. In fact, I want people in 70 or 100 years to judge us today, since that would give me hope that we might be making moral progress. But I digress.
If it's hard to separate the author from the work and we can't blithely dismiss Lovecraft's racism as a product of the times, should we stop reading him? While I completely respect anyone who doesn't want to read the stuff and I agree that we should stop honoring him in some contexts (like the World Fantasy Award statue), I don't think we need to give up on Lovecraft all together.
We might deconstruct him. I use that term loosely in the sense of Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who rarely clears things up. By "deconstruction" I mean finding elements within a text that work against the main thrust of the text. This idea has resonances with ancient Greek Pyrrhonian skepticism and the prasaṅga method employed by some classical Indian philosophers like Nāgārjuna.
Does Lovecraft have some awful things to say about people (or transdimensional entities, elder gods, etc.) who are different? You bet. But are there resources within Lovecraft's mythos that might welcome or even promote appreciation of difference despite his xenophobia? Maybe. And that's exactly what She Walks in Shadows is all about (and you thought I forgot this was supposed to be a book review, didn't you?).
So, what She Walks in Shadows shows us is that rather than eradicating Lovecraft from our personal mythos, we might instead deconstruct him. In doing so, we might come to better tackle the horrors of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Maybe having fewer Earthly horrors would free us to face head on the looming cosmic horror that threatens to devour our precarious human intellects.