I was browsing the local Barnes and Noble recently, when a compellingly evil cover illustration caught my eye - it turned out to be for an anthology of H.P. Lovecraft's horror stories. I had read and heard many references to Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, and I was vaguely aware of his historical importance to the horror genre, but I hadn't yet read any of his fiction. On a whim, I decided to buy it and educate myself. I was soon to find that the true horror of Lovecraft isn't necessarily his stories, but rather his appalling racism.
Now, I realize that racial perceptions were different in the early 20th century. I realize that we should be lenient about non-P.C. language in well-intentioned works by the likes of Twain, Faulkner, and Dickens. But Lovecraft's racism exists deep in the fabric of his horror; stories detailing the abhorrence of degenerative miscegenation; a passage blaming "negro blood" for the horrifying countenance of characters; and perhaps most amusing (in a kind of nauseating way), a main character's cat inexplicably named N*** Man. What what what?
If one can ignore his rampant racism, one can see how his writing had such an influence on horror. While his writing can seem antiquarian and overly turgid, Lovecraft does tap into some creepy, nightmarish themes, which were probably original at the time. Raising partially sentient bodies from the dead; secrets of a noble bloodline steeped in cannibalism; and of course the monstrous, mythological horror of Cthulhu and its stable of enormous and ancient creatures - these are ideas which I have to admire for their audacity and inevitable literary influence.
But can one separate an author's distasteful and immoral beliefs from his art? I can listen to Richard Wagner while mostly ignoring his antisemitism, but that is probably because his abhorrent beliefs aren't on display in the music or libretto. It is much harder to ignore racism that loudly proclaims itself on almost every written page in a work of fiction.