Why African American Writers Should Not Read HP Lovecraft
by Jeff Carroll
Amidst the debates around diversity in the Hugo Awards, I said on a panel at the 2015 World Horror convention that I don’t read HP Lovecraft. Now, at a horror convention that comment fell like a pin dropped, everyone went silent. I went on to explain why I don’t think black horror or Sci-fi writers need to read Lovecraft to become good horror writers. There is a big difference between African American concepts of horror and that of HP Lovecraft. They differ in their interpretation of what death is, what are dead people and what should we do to the dead.
First, let’s define what HP Lovecraft horror is or better what Lovecraftian horror is. HP Lovecraft is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in his genre. His style of horror is one of the most revered. Lovecraftian horror is a subgenre of horror fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown. Its basic tenants are Unanswered questions, Detachment from society and, Helplessness and hopelessness all with an Antiquarian writing style. While everything in horror isn’t exactly like Lovecraft, he is the poster child for Western horror. It was a bust of him which was used as the World Fantasy awards trophy from their inception through 2015.
Let me use my book It Happened on Negro Mountain to illustrate my hypothesis. In my story, Negro Mountain (a real place in Maryland) is protected by the spirit of an escaped African during the time of American slavery. The story follows a young girl who becomes emotionally terrorized by her father in the presence of her mother. As the father’s (a drug dealing gangster) threats and other activities become more prominent the ghost of the dead African comes to the aid of the little girl. The story follows as the ghost terrorizes and kills anyone who does bad things on the mountain.
My story while it sounds good, it is very unique among horror stories. What makes it so unique is that it is a good ghost story and still a scary horror story. You can count on one hand, the amount of good ghost stories that have achieved commercial success. In fact, I only know of two stories with good ghosts that have succeeded in popular culture. Casper the friendly and Ghost the movie with Whoopie Goldberg are the only two I know. That said, the difference between the elements in my story and that of a western horror story is the difference of cultural interpretation of death.
In western Lovecraft stories, concepts like ghosts and dead things are equivalent to evil and bad. Even the use of the word dead is synonymous to evil. However, in African American culture or its root African cultures dead and spirits are more good than bad. In African cultures when humans die they become ancestors. Africans view their ancestors as protectors and sources of aid and assistance. They are able to do both good and bad. This is a fundamental difference between horror interpretations.
As with all of Lovecraftian concepts they depend on this different interpretation. Instead of praise for the dead Lovecraftian stories depend on fear and hate of the dead. While African cultural stories seek help from their dead western Lovecraftian stories run from and fight their dead.
I wind this up by saying as we seek diversity in science fiction and horror we must not allow for variations to be blurred. If African American writers begin to study HP Lovecraft and start writing Lovecraftian stories then we are really missing out on all of what we have been asking for. With my book It Happened on Negro Mountain I have proven that good ghost stories can be just as scary. The motto of Negro Mountain is it is a place where bad things happen to bad people. I ask everyone to join me in enjoying this expanse of the beloved genre of horror and ask African American writers to keep away from HP Lovecraft.