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Sci-Fi Writer Talks Confronting H.P. Lovecraft’s Influence, Racist Past

Convention Organizers Rename Award Named After Author

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Writer H.P. Lovecraft’s influence still looms large over the world of science fiction — nearly 80 years after his death. However, this legacy isn’t without controversy, particularly, because of his well-documented racism.

This week at the World Fantasy Convention, organizers announced that the top prize for writers and editors, the World Fantasy Award, would no longer be modeled on Lovecraft’s face as his visage became an issue for the award’s recipients.Previous winners Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar both expressed disappointment that their joy in receiving the award was complicated by the face of the statue itself.

The decision to change the statue mirrors many recent initiatives by writers to confront the problems in Lovecraft’s work directly through writing. One such project is the anthology “She Walks in Shadows,” a collection of stories inspired by Lovecraft all written by female authors.

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Canadian writer Gemma Files is one of the authors in that collection, and she said that while it might not be possible to “reconcile” Lovecraft’s racism, it’s possible to refute him.

“I can’t reconcile his racism, any more than I could ever ask, or expect, anyone else to reconcile it,” she said. “You could point out that Lovecraft came from an incredibly inbred family, that he had physical issues which meant that he was in pain a lot of the time. And most of his hatred of the people he characterized as barely human was actually fear. But then you sound like you’re making excuses.”

However, what Files and many of her fellow authors have done is attempt to subvert Lovecraft’s work by reimagining his myths and characters.

“What we can do,” she said, “is commit to being inclusive and diverse and making our true monsters the human beings who want to treat other human beings like they aren’t.”

Files’ story, “Hairwork,” is inspired by a Lovecraft story called “Medusa’s Coil,” which was originally published in Weird Tales magazine in January 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death. Lovecraft co-wrote the story with a woman named Zealia Bishop. The story is about a woman named Marceline who is a sorceress with Medusa-like powers: her hair can literally detach from her head and strangle people. (Files describes it as “an enormous hair spider.”)

In the story, Marceline murders a plantation family who were once slave owners. But the story’s actual dramatic climax comes from a second revelation: Marceline was bi-racial. In the story, she’s the villain, while slavery itself is dismissed as a “pleasant institution.”

In Files’ story, those tables are turned. Marceline’s wig is made out of the hair of her ancestors, and her murderous actions are cast as the revenge of generations of slaves tormented and killed on the plantation.

“I wanted to do the ‘12 Years a Slave’ version, where you come out the back of it thinking that (the family) deserved everything they got,” she said.

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