Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
School of Arts and Humanities
Dr Vahri McKenzie
Dr Donna Mazza
Field of Research Code
The fiction of HP Lovecraft – known broadly as weird fiction and more specifically as cosmic horror – ushered in a genre that rejected the “clanking chains” inherent to the Gothic and supernatural fiction (Lovecraft, 2012, p. 28). The weird is defined by its “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”, and in Lovecraft's fiction the antagonist is the revelation of a cold and indifferent universe weighing down on the characters’ sanity and safety (Lovecraft, 2012, p. 28). This sense of a world in which humanity’s distinctly anthropocentric perspective, which positions everything “entirely in relation to the human”, manifests in Lovecraft's oeuvre in the form of unspeakable alien entities beyond the ken of human understanding (Clark, 2011, p. 3). These alien bodies imperil human dominance and existence, and in unison with Lovecraft's cosmicism, form a framework around which the author’s fictional universe holds fast. Lovecraft's work has been a seminal influence on this author’s own fictional output in terms of genre and the nature of the weird’s monsters, whose forms are untethered by the weight of existing mythic or folkloric antecedents (Miéville, 2009, p. 512).
However, as predicated on a cohesive worldview as Lovecraft's fiction is, it also unfortunately bears the weight of the man’s other driving ideology: a lifelong and passionate belief in the “biological inferiority of blacks” (Joshi, 2013, p. 504). Lovecraft's racial attitudes saturate his work, his fears around “hybridity, impurity … degeneration” and miscegenation manifesting as metaphor in the form of backward townsfolk breeding with creatures from the sea (Sederholm & Weinstock, 2016, p. 27). In other stories Lovecraft simply portrays non-white people as vile practitioners of the occult, carrying out their “patterns of primitive half-ape savagery” as a form of iniquitous heredity; robbed of agency, they commit evil for evil’s sake, and because it is intrinsic to their nature (Lovecraft, 2011, p. 317). In Lovecraft's two dominant ideologies – cosmicism and racism – we can see a drastic disconnect, an illogic in which the two contradict each other. Bullington (2014) suggests that “writing is always a dialogue with one’s literary predecessors. Authors push and pull against everything and everyone that came before” (2014, p. 7). The weird is an ever-evolving genre, defined from the outset by its unique monsters and methods of storytelling. But in order to continue this originality, the problems plaguing the genre’s past – and its most renowned practitioner – must be challenged. As a person of mixed race, and in light of current events precipitating a swell in white supremacy – such as the 2016 US election – there is a significant personal impetus in challenging the troubling and penetrating views of an author who was also a seminal influence on this author’s work. This position is not unique in the field of the weird. Several contemporary writers recognise their fractious relationship with Lovecraft, drawing elements from his mythos while subverting the more distasteful aspects for a modern reader. Of particular focus is Lovecraft's racism and lack of distinctive female characters. These issues are tackled in works such as The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016), among others.
Unravel bears the marks of this evolution, too; its narrator is mixed-race, the product of a white father and a black mother of mixed African descent, the inclusion of which challenges the exclusively white perspective of Lovecraft's protagonists. Unravel attempts to replace the xenophobic foundations of Lovecraft's fiction with an ecocritical framework that, firstly, challenges ideas of anthropocentrism, and secondly, presents humanity’s relationship with both the natural world and the notion of the monstrous, or other. Accompanying this is the exploration of racism in Lovecraft's fiction, as well as an examination of contemporary writers whose fiction directly challenges that racism, such as The Ballad of Black Tom. It goes on to examine the portrayal of the natural world and its relationship to the human in the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation (2014a). In both cases, Unravel is examined in comparison to these two pieces, and as far as it both challenges and is indebted to Lovecraft's work. Unravel destabilises the conflicting anthropocentrism in Lovecraft's fiction as well as challenging his racist worldview with explorations of both through Unravel’s characters. The novel breaks new ground for the weird, situating itself among works like Black Tom and Annihilation in their examination of both the shortcomings of the genre’s past and new foundations being laid for its future.
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Dadswell, A. (2019). Unravel. A novel – and – A diverse palette: Cosmic horror and weird fiction with/out Lovecraft. A critical essay. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/2179
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