An Australian Woman Looks At Lovecraft

An Australian Woman looks at Lovecraft
by Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer

My involvement with Lovecraft scholarship goes back some twenty-seven years. At one stage I was a huge Stephen King fan, and I found a reference in King’s non-fiction work Danse Macabre to Lovecraft (see King, 1982:132-5). I was studying English literature at Master’s level, around 1992/3, and in the realm of academia, historical writers were more acceptable research subjects than contemporary writers, so I approached the department about a project. The project was approved, but the resident Gothic expert was unable to provide supervision, and I struggled along against a curtain of institutional resistance regarding texts associated with popular culture. My assumption that as a ‘dead white male’ to quote the cliché, Lovecraft would be respected academically was incorrect, and instead he proved to be a controversial and polarizing figure. 

One thing that appealed to me about Lovecraft was his evocative ability which appeared to tap into Jungian archetypes. Motifs such as mysterious civilizations to be found under the sea in “The Temple”; forbidden underground activity in “The Rats in the Walls”, together with long-lived/reincarnated sorcerers in “The Alchemist” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” all fascinated me. I felt that these tales remained in the imagination long after the first reading and tapped into something in the collective unconscious. Lovecraft’s letters appeared to support my case, declaring: “There are certain standard stories invented before the dawn of history or later, which generations whisper about” including “Man changed to animal, diseases miraculously cured… vampire, dead man moving, ghost, premonitory warning of death &c.” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja, 435).

Another thing that appealed to me was Lovecraft’s references to women in his stories. Hold on–you are going to say–Lovecraft is known for having very few female characters! Remember, I was enclosed by academic conventions at the time, and the majority of the lauded writers were male, with their female characters being stereotypes and/or love interests. Moreover, some of Lovecraft’s contemporary writers, such as the popular Arthur Conan Doyle, had created dynamics where the “homosocial” friendship of males was the entire frame for the story. (McLaughlin 2013:11) Charming though some of these pairings were, the implications were that intellect was a male characteristic and women unwitting domestics.

Lovecraft’s women were different. Not represented in abundance, but with an astuteness and sympathy which biographically speaking, could have come from living much of his life with his mother and aunts. His letters recount his profound admiration of his older aunt, Lillian Delora Phillips Clark, and his dedication to caring duties when she became ill.

Let us look at a couple of examples of Lovecraftian references to women that I haven’t had the opportunity to explore elsewhere. In The Shadow Out of Time (which incidentally journeys to Australia) the narrator includes the names of a mother, wife, and daughter as identifying features in his brief biography. 

I am the son of Jonathan and Hannah (Wingate) Peaslee, both of wholesome old Haverhill stock. I was born and reared in Haverhill—at the old homestead in Boardman Street near Golden Hill—and did not go to Arkham till I entered Miskatonic University at the age of eighteen. That was in 1889. After my graduation I studied economics at Harvard, and came back to Miskatonic as Instructor of Political Economy in 1895. For thirteen years more my life ran smoothly and happily. I married Alice Keezar of Haverhill in 1896, and my three children, Robert K., Wingate, and Hannah, were born in 1898, 1900, and 1903, respectively. In 1898 I became an associate professor, and in 1902 a full professor.
–H. P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time

In this passage, possessing a wife, mother, and daughter receive equal acknowledgement with an education and career. The account contrasts sharply with patriarchal genealogies such as those found in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 5, Matthew Chapter 1, NKJV) that are only concerned with the male line.

A few pages later, we find that the wife has a mind of her own and astute judgment. “From the moment of my strange waking my wife had regarded me with extreme horror and loathing, vowing that I was some utter alien usurping the body of her husband.” The wife demonstrates independent agency by obtaining “a legal divorce”, then the “elder son” and “small daughter” also reject the father. The story will show the wife’s interpretation holds truth, receiving confirmation when Peaslee finds an ancient scroll written in his own hand.

The story then begins to detail the narrator’s occult research, travel, and descent into madness. One of the main points of interest in this section is the role female presence plays. At the height of alien possession, even female domestics are denied access to the house. “On the evening of Friday, Sept. 26, I dismissed the housekeeper and the maid.” For a brief time, only a policeman, “a foreign-looking man” and “Dr. Wilson” are allowed entry. On “Sept. 27” Peaslee’s consciousness reappears “just after noon” with “the housekeeper and the maid having meanwhile returned.” Thus, the metadata places madness and alien possession in the realm of the masculine, with normality and health in the realm of the feminine. It is a division of the genders, but it is one I don’t mind, as the mad-woman stereotype has had more than its fair share of exposure elsewhere.

Lovecraft is condemned for his racism. The period before the First World War and especially the years leading up to World War II were times of deplorable social prejudice; and I find in Lovecraft’s letters a record of societal attitudes that are both regrettable and cautionary. I also subscribe to the theory that Lovecraft’s extreme expressions of repugnance might have been products of mild Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum. I know this could upset some fans, but Gary and Jennifer Meyers Lovecraft’s Syndrome: An Asperger’s Appraisal of the Writer’s Life makes interesting reading.

Many people have negative attitudes that constitute racism, but Lovecraft’s reactions to crowded and dirty conditions were so extreme that he saw the stain embodied in visages, prompting ugly outbursts I prefer not to reproduce here. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926, Lovecraft wrote:

The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! (Selected Letters 2.68) 

This nauseated attitude does appear close to the level of disability. High intelligence and creative output are quite possible for some persons, while large-scale social interactions may remain stressful.

I was challenged to look deeper into Lovecraft’s racism and compare it to the Australian situation. In this country around 1930, significant minority groups included Italian, Greek, and Chinese immigrants. Lovecraft admits admiring the Greek and Roman civilizations more than his own “biological lines” in a letter to Robert Barlow dated 1936. (O Fortunate Floridian! 347) In a letter to Natalie Wooley he refers to “a Chinese gentleman”, and also calls Japan “one of the greatest and most influential nations in the modern world” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 200-2001). It appears that when a nation had produced significant cultural artifacts, Lovecraft became an admirer, at least in theory.

The remaining problem is his prejudice regarding Australian Aborigines. This attitude does appear irredeemable: “Equally inferior—and perhaps even more so—is the Australian black stock […] This race has other stigmata of primitiveness, such as great Neanderthal eyebrow ridges.” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 199)

This sort of talk is ignorant, reprehensible, and based on outmoded science. Lovecraft ought not to have been disseminating it. However, he by no means originated the heresy, and I would like to respectfully point out the harm similar beliefs have done when espoused by persons of influence and the ability to create policy.

The colonisation of Australia, which commenced in 1778, was largely motivated by the British Empire’s need to acquire space for its subjects. Eckermann (2006:17) suggests that there was a subsequent need to “rationalise and justify” supplanting the Indigenous inhabitants. Borch (2001:225) ) reports that according to Calvinist reasoning, countries ought to be ruled by Christian people. Moreover, following Darwin’s theories, the Aborigines represented a lower stage of the evolutionary scale than the European settlers. These theories and prejudices were solidified into pervading scientific and Institutional racism (Eckermann 2006: 8-12).

The Aboriginal people, who had maintained a complex custodial relationship with the land for thousands of years, were incorrectly perceived as unsophisticated “hunter-gatherers.” According to Locke’s beliefs property rights depended upon working the land, and the colonial government felt this justified applying a doctrine of “Terra Nullis” which violated Indigenous possession (Borch 2001: 231). Initial amiable relations involving trade soured, and conflict resulted in large-scale massacres of Indigenous people (Eckermann 2006: 14-15, 19).

Ramsland (2006:50-51, 55) observes the surviving Indigenous people were considered “a child race incapable of handling their own affairs.” Their autonomy was removed, and decisions were made for them by the so-called “Aboriginal Protection Board.” Between 1900 and 1950 Indigenous families were deliberately taken from their home areas and settled in remote regions, where they lived in overcrowded conditions. The policy of forced relocation failed to acknowledge the Indigenous spiritual connection to their traditional land, causing identity loss and emotional trauma (McMurray and Param 2008: 168; Crespigny et al 2006: 278).

Moreover, the residents of missions and reserves were denied the right to vote or own real estate. They also had limited access to medical attention (Forsyth 2007: 35-38). At an extreme, institutionalised abuse was performed, with Aurukun women reporting children separated from their parents and put into gender-specific dorms. Adults were also chained to trees, flogged and starved (Slater 2008: 6). The practice of “exclusion on demand”, which meant white families could request Indigenous children not attend community schools, resulted in the loss of educational opportunities (Tatz 2001: 32).

A change of government tactic led to policies of “assimilation and integration” being applied between 1950 and 1972. However, Indigenous savings accounts were controlled by the government, effectively quarantining any money they received. The living conditions on reserves continued to be poor, with disease sweeping through camps. An extreme administrative imposition required Indigenous people to seek permission to marry (Forsyth 2007: 38-40; Eckermann 2006: 27; Stolen Wages). In another scandalous social engineering program, Indigenous children were removed from their birth families and placed in foster homes in an attempt to ‘bring them up white’, so as to speak. Wilson (1997:177) details some of the detrimental effects of this program.

In 1967 a national referendum granted the Aboriginal people citizenship (Dugdale & Arabena 2008: 156). Some key improvements include the recognition of native title and land rights through the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, and the 1992 High Court Decision, Mabo v. Qld (Healey 2007: 2-5). On 13 February 2008 the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the Indigenous people regarding the “stolen generation” (The National Museum of Australia 2021).

Unfortunately, Indigenous people continue to experience high levels of unemployment, poor living conditions, and vulnerability to disease. The infant mortality rate is high, and Aboriginal persons have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general Australian population. (See Einsiedel et al 2008: 568; Healey 2010: 6, 8-14; Mathews et al 2008:613-614, 621-622) All this was sadly brought to reality to me a few years ago when an Aboriginal friend died prematurely, becoming another statistic.

So my point is, repeating prejudicial statements can lead to belief, and belief can lead to bigoted actionbut let us ask ourselves honestlyare we still at risk of perpetuating things which ought not to be disseminated?

Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has written a Masters paper on H.P. Lovecraft, and M. Lett. Dissertation on “Fairy Tale Motifs” in Nineteenth Century English novels. Cecelia’s poetry has been published in Spectral Realms (edited by S.T. Joshi) and PS: It’s Poetry compiled by the Poetry Soup community. Micro-fictions have appeared in the “Dark Drabbles” series published by Black Hare Press, and the “Scary Snippets” series produced by Nocturnal Sirens. Cecelia’s research interests include Gothic horror, fantasy and popular culture: including film & television.


Copyright 2022 Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer.

2 thoughts on “An Australian Woman Looks At Lovecraft

  1. Ms. Hopkins-Drewer describes a grim legacy of the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia, too similar to the history of those in North America. I wonder how much of the self-justification spurred by racists and paternalists is itself an attempt to assuage, if not guilt, but the ‘creeping fear’ that these ‘Others’ could someday re-assert their original dominions and even, one day, assimilate their colonizers?


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