For those who saw the meme and couldn’t help but google it, HP Lovecraft’s cat has stirred up much controversy, despite being dead for the past 120 years. For those who haven’t seen the meme, the gist of it is that the godfather of weird fiction had a dearly beloved cat who he “affectionately” called N-word Man. The cat with the racial slur for a name was his childhood pet who went missing in 1904 when he was 14 years old, the first of a series of tragic events that would beset the struggling author.
The short answer to why his cat was named a racial slur is that HP Lovecraft was racist. His family, who originally named the cat, was racist. The majority of 19th and early 20th (and late 20th and early 21st) century America was racist. Naming pets after racial slurs was just a trendy thing to do.
It was so on-trend, in fact, that white people would also use racial slurs to name plants, mountains, celestial objects, and even sports teams. To his neighbors and contemporaries, a cat with this name wouldn’t have been unusual at all. In fact, it would have probably been considered rather uncreative.
HP Lovecraft’s Views on Race
HP Lovecraft wasn’t just casually “a man of his times” racist, though. He voiced his opinions loudly, to whoever he could find to listen. He held tight to a rigidly elitist worldview where the English were at the top and everybody else was not only inferior but actually inhuman.
He argued often and vehemently for racial purity and suggested that non-white human beings were actually beasts shaped sort of like humans. He wrote letters to his friends. He published articles in newspapers. He talked about it at parties. He wrote poems about it. He simply would not shut up about it.
While none of his views would have been especially shocking at the time, they were still unequivocally and inexcusably racist.
The good news, though: the cat itself probably wasn’t racist.
10 Other Weird Fiction Books to Read Instead of HP Lovecraft
If the realization that the man behind The Call of Cthulu, At the Mountains of Madness, and other iconic works of horror was racist is making you feel uneasy about that Complete Fiction of HP Lovecraft sitting on your shelf right now, don’t despair. You can expand your weird fiction collection by adding these other weird and fantastic tales by black writers:
Weird Tales by Turn of the Century Black Writers
All too often, the way we tell history and talk about literature creates the mistaken impression that African Americans just spontaneously picked up pens for the first time at some point in the 1930s. In reality, the African American literary tradition stretches far earlier than the Harlem Renaissance. Here are some of my favorite examples of early speculative fiction by black writers:
The Conjure Woman by Charles W. Chesnutt
Published in 1899, The Conjure Woman is considered one of the first works of speculative fiction by an African American writer. The book is a collection of short stories which are all framed by a common narrator. Both entertaining and poignant, the stories represent a blend of hoodoo folklore and Greek mythology.
The narrator is a white Northerner who heads to the South because his wife is ill and has been prescribed a warmer climate as a cure. While there, he meets Uncle Julius McAdoo, an African American, who begins telling him fantastical yet tragic stories. The stories come with moral lessons and plenty of jabs at white people that the Northerner completely misses—although his wife picks up on them occasionally.
Imperium in Imperio by Sutton Elbert Griggs
This utopian fiction published in 1899 is set in the Jim Crow era South and tells the story of Imperium in Imperio, a shadow government of African American rebels plotting to overthrow the U.S. government by taking over a Naval base in Texas.
Within that storyline, readers can explore the complicated relationship between the black community and post-Civil War America, as the characters debate whether the nation should be overthrown entirely or whether people should, instead, reform what is already there. The book gives no definitive answer to this question, leaving it to readers to decide whether they’re going to take up arms or go to law school.
Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self by Pauline Hopkins
This cross between Sci-Fi, horror, and mystery was first published in 1903 (just one year before HP Lovecraft’s cat went missing).
The story follows Reuel, a mixed-race student who drops out of medical school to go on a treasure hunt that begins in a haunted house in Boston and leads to a secret, technologically-advanced civilization in Ethiopia.
The genre-bending tale is rife with social commentary and reads like something that Jordan Peele will eventually adapt into a mind-bending limited series.
We can only hope.
Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois
This book is a collection of essays, poems, and other writings by W.E.B. Du Bois but there’s one short story, “The Comet,” that warrants including it in this list. In that story, a comet (obviously) plows right into the heart of Manhattan, unleashing a toxic gas that kills everybody except for two people: a black man named Jim and a white woman named Julia.
The story follows their shared quest to find out if there are any other survivors and Julia’s side quest of trying to reconcile her racism with the fact that her fate is now intertwined with that of a black man.
Weird Tales of the Modern Age
While it’s fascinating to explore some of HP Lovecraft’s contemporaries and interesting to see how these early black writers used speculative genres to explore social issues, there are also dozens of newer black authors, who wrote equally compelling speculative fiction. Here are a few of my favorite:
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is a time travel story modeled on early slave narratives. Dana, a black woman in present (1970s) day California is abruptly transported to a plantation in Maryland where her ancestors, an enslaved black woman and the white planter who raped her, live. She continues bouncing between present and past, each time the stays in the past getting longer and more dangerous.
True to the Sci-Fi and slave narrative forms at its roots, the style is a blend of 19th century sentimentalism and the more lucid prose of science fiction. Readers who prefer eloquence without all the flowery dressings of earlier literature but still want to dive into that earlier time will feel right at home in Butler’s work.
Octavia E. Butler is counted among the greatest Sci-Fi writers of all time. She wrote multiple fantastic series and short story collections so if you pick up Kindred and become obsessed, you have plenty of fuel for your newfound obsession.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Nisi Shawl is a prolific and intensely talented speculative short story writer whose first full novel came out at the end of 2016. Everfair is a steampunk speculative tale set in the African Congo at the turn of the century.
In their novel, Shawl imagines an alternative history in which British Socialists team up with a group of African American missionaries to launch a new, technologically-advanced nation in the Congo. This new nation is named Everfair and becomes a kind of utopia where African natives and people escaping slavery or oppression in other parts of the world come to seek refuge and a better life.
The story is told from 11 different points of view, giving you a diverse range of perspectives both on the oppression of different groups in the African diaspora and on different visions of what a utopia should be.
Their beautiful prose and deft ability to write from a variety of voices creates a rich and complex narrative that Shawl uses to fill readers with both hope and insight into a tragic period of history.
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
Set in a variety of alternative pasts, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads tells the story of three black women from three different eras and places. One is a midwife enslaved on a plantation in 18th Century Haiti. The second is a dancer in 19th Century Paris. The third is a sex worker in 4th Century Egypt. What connects them is that they are all being possessed by Lasiren, a Ginen fertility god who possesses each of the women to help them in their struggle for freedom.
Nalo Hopkinson offers readers a distinct voice that is both powerful and deeply empathetic. Readers become immediately invested in the vivid characters she creates and the deeply researched historical detail immerses you in each century that you visit in the book.
For readers who prefer character-driven stories with meticulous detail, Nalo Hopkinson is sure to become your new favorite author.
Return to Neveryon by Samuel R Delany
Return to Neveryon is a series of eleven novellas, all set in the fictional land of Neveryon, a civilization that reigned in prehistoric times on Earth, though the exact location is unclear. Most of the novellas feature different characters but all of them are in Neveryon and all are connected to the overarching storyline which centers on Gorgik the Liberator.
While the storyline and rich worldbuilding inherent in the series make it a classic sword and sorcery tale, Delany’s dense prose defies the fantasy genre, reminding you more of Tolstoy than Tolkien. At times, the prose is lyrical and lush as any fantasy should be. At other times, it becomes analytic and introspective, creating space for the reader to reflect and breakdown the themes of the story.
For those who love rich world-building and sprawling epics but also want some substance, strong character development, and fuel for introspection, Samuel R Delany’s work is the stuff for you.
The Between by Tananarive Due
Part psychological horror, part detective fiction, The Between is a gripping story of a man who is suddenly plagued by macabre nightmares that may or may not be a terrifying alternate reality. At the same time, his wife, a judge in Dade County, Florida, begins receiving undoubtedly real and racist death rates from a man she once prosecuted.
As the couple becomes embroiled in the fight to survive both this racist threat in their waking world and the more supernatural threat of the man’s nightmares, the nature of reality is called into question.
Due’s work often leans supernatural, with haunting prose and storylines that keep you in uneasy suspense until the very end. For horror and mystery fans, her books are a must.
Easy Rawlins Mysteries by Walter Ellis Mosley
For some classic hard-boiled crime fiction fun that doesn’t rely on racist stereotypes or caricatures like Lovecraft (or Chandler, for that matter), Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series is the perfect choice.
In Devil in a Blue Dress, the first book in the Easy Rawlins series, Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins unintentionally becomes a detective when the woman he goes home with one night ends up dead the next morning and Rawlins become the prime suspect in her murder. To prove his innocence, he must find the real murderer himself.
The case takes him through all the twists and turns that readers relish in crime fiction and, ultimately, leads him to becoming a full-time detective, solving cases over the course of 15 books.
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