Warning: wide spoilers ahead for season 1 of Carnival Row.
H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most imaginative, unique, brilliant and influential horror writers of all time. He is also one of the most openly, deeply racist. The fans and heirs of Lovecraft have that struggled for a long time asking how he can separate his specific view of cosmic horror from the visceral aversion of non-white people he expressed in his work.
In the past, authors such as August Derleth and Stephen King have usually tried to ignore prejudice, instead focusing on Lovecraft's vision of a grotesque universe focused on the destruction of humanity and the joys of its solidified, tentacular, Cyclopic prose. More recently, however, several writers have more directly involved Lovecraft racism. These makers turn Lovecraft inside out and expose its wet, ugly entrails for anti-racist purposes. The new fantasy series of eight episodes from Amazon Carnival Row is one of the first indications that this bundle of antiracist Lovecraft fiction travels from genre fiction and goes to more mainstream entertainment.
Some apologies, such as scholar S.T. Joshi argued that the offensive views of Lovecraft were only central to a few of his lesser works, such as the intolerable poem with a title that starts "On the Creation Of" and ends with a racist approach. However, those protests are not convincing. Racism permeates Lovecraft's work. The enormous, terrible cosmic atrocities that he wrote about are always linked to his fear that the pure, rising white race will be corrupted and flooded with dirty emanations of the less eugenically pure. In the classic Lovecraft story from 1926 The call of Cthulhu, for example, the older gods from space and time are remembered and honored by & # 39; Esquimau diabolists and bastard Louisians & # 39; – in other words by non-white people.
The main character of Lovecraft, on the other hand, is Gustaf Johansen, a white Norwegian sailor. And when he and his shipmates meet the non-white human followers of Cthulhu, they slaughter them in anger that Lovecraft enthusiastically endorses. "There was a particularly horrible quality to it (the worshipers of Cthulhu) that made their destruction almost a duty," writes Lovecraft. According to him, the imaginative story of mystical horror is also a call for genocide.
Most horror writers who channel the style or subject of Lovecraft have not interleaved their prose with lies or calls to wage war. But some contemporary writers now continue to write Lovecraftian horror that instantly recognizes and rejects Lovecraft's ugly bigotries.
Ruthanna Emrys is remarkable The litany of the earthis told from the perspective of a lovecraft fishing enthusiast from the story The shadow over Innsmouth. For Lovecraft, the residents of Innsmouth were bad because they were associated with racial mixing, which affected them and caused them to evolve. For Emrys, however, the shadow in Innsmouth is the bad white people who bring when their government murders the people of the city to be different for sin. The real horror in this story update are not fish people; it is violent prejudice, seen from the perspective of the monsters.
Matt Ruff & # 39; s novel Lovecraft Country takes a different approach to anti-racism. The book is set in the 1950s and the main characters are all black. In addition to the constant threats to life in an inherently biased, racist system, the various space creatures, curses, and ghosts encountered by the protagonists are almost a pleasant distraction. Lovecraft was imaginative and entertaining, the book suggests, but his racism and whiteness meant he didn't know much about fear. (Lovecraft Country is turned into an HBO series with the help of Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams.)
Novelist N.K. Jemisin is also planning a novel about a multiracial group of New Yorkers fighting Cthulhu. Like them put it in a publisher's interview: “This is an opportunity for me to mess around with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and terrible person. So this is an opportunity for me to have the "flapping" hordes – that's what he called the gruesome brown people of New York who scared him to death. This is an opportunity for me to actually let them kick the ass of his creation. So I'm looking forward to having some fun with that. "
Carnival Row is simply the newest story to reuse Lovecraft's tropics in an anti-racist story. Yet the way it uses Lovecraft's legacy is innovative, not least because it's so casual. The series is set in an alternative steampunk fantasy earth. Pixies, fauns, centaurs and other fairy creatures (or "critch") live in the separated neighborhood of Carnival Row in a London-like city. People generally hate the critch, and a man with a hammer has started killing them without distinction. Police detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is determined to bring the murderer to justice despite the indifference of his department for the murders.
Philo catches the killer & # 39; Jack & # 39; in the first episode. Cornered, the man begins to squirt ominous gibberish in the tried and tested way of much of Lovecraft & # 39; s half-crazy sailors touched by the elderly and riffraff.
"Do you think I'm crazy?" Jack's racing. “I know darkness. I have been to the twilight edge of the world and have sucked up things from the sunless depth that would make your blood cold. But nothing beats what I saw in the darkness under our feet. You are ill prepared for the darkness that lies before you. There is more here than you can fathom. As you lay down your life so that this small world is yours, a Dark God wakes up! "That is a beautiful baroque version of the famous Lovecraft line:" In his house R & # 39; lyeh, dead Cthulhu is waiting for dreams. & # 39;
So true, Carnival Row meet the dark god: a slimy, dwindling horror, with tentacles hanging on his face. It is a bit like Cthulhu fan art. But it also resembles Lovecraftian animals in other ways. The critics are marginalized people from a foreign country. In the series, they are a metaphorical stand-in for immigrants, sex workers and people of color – all the hopping hordes that Lovecraft hated. "They come from a dark place and they didn't come alone. They brought something, & warns Jack. Just like in Lovecraft's work, non-white people are a threatening indistinguishable mass embodied by the ugly cosmic atrocities that bring them to the healthy, rational foundations carefully constructed by white men.
Carnival RowThe dark god is a creation of critch magic. But it was not raised as a weapon against people. It was brought to life by one of those people. The Cthulhu thing is sewn together from dead flesh, but it's just a doll. Someone has to pull the strings in a magical way. It is a mask that some people wear, just as Cthulhu is a mask that Lovecraft wore.
Carnival Row make the public think that marginalized people have born a monster, in the standard Lovecraft way. But then it reveals that the real monster was built by those in power, who make an ugly caricature of the race they hate and then use that caricature for murder. The clear suggestion is that the true racism of Lovecraft, rather than its fictional monsters, posed a threat to a civilized society.
Lovecraft is not Carnival RowThe primary focus. Unlike Emrys and Ruff, the creators of the show treat Cthulhu and close them on the side of the most important romance and intrigues. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and the fantasy genre are all arguably more important influences on the series than Lovecraft.
But that makes the anti-racist twist on his work even more important. We seem to reach a tipping point in Lovecraft influence where even works that are not explicitly committed to tackling his racism must still fight against his legacy and find ways to acknowledge and undermine it. Carnival Row is more proof that the smartest, most successful use of Lovecraftian tropics does not avoid or ignore racism. Instead, they confront it and use it to enrich the story and surprise the audience. They make something bigger and better from his work.