The Posthumous Pornification of H. P. Lovecraft

Born 125 years ago today, the massively influential horror author with inexcusable politics has spawned an unlikely sexual empire.

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Aug 20 2015, 4:00am

Illustration by Elizabeth Renstrom

The legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft has been given many titles in the 78 years since he died: "The King of Weird," "The Copernicus of the Horror Story," "The 20th Century's Greatest Practitioner of the Classic Horror Tale," as well as "Popular Culture's Racist Grandpa."

Today, to mark his 125th birthday, I'm giving him one more: America's Unlikeliest Sex Symbol.

The so-called "Dark Prince of Providence" probably isn't the first writer you associate with doin' it. Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller, who was born 16 months after Lovecraft, and whom the New York Times credits with "ma[king] it possible for Americans to write about sex," is a more obvious choice. But the vast kingdom of Lovecraftiana is a lot kinkier than you might think. And this animated video of Lovecraft pole-dancing is only the beginning.

First, consider the merchandise: corsets emblazoned with Lovecraft's face; books and stories with titles like Cthulhurotica and "Booty Call of Cthulhu"; the sex-toy company named Necronomicox (a nod to Lovecraft's NecronomiCon), which sells 11-inch silicone dildos with "a mass of seething tentacles" and a "stimulating tentacle tail."

Then there's the 300-page treatise, Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, which covers everything from Lovecraft's views on pornography, to his father's hallucination-inducing syphilis, to the magazine Cthulhu Sex (1998–2007), to the appearance of sexual/Lovecraftian imagery in Japanese manga and anime.

And we can't ignore the movies. There seems to be an unwritten rule that Lovecraftian adaptations must have a gratuitously topless woman or some other sexual scenario missing from the original stories, which contain "virtually no women" (Joyce Carol Oates) and "virtually no sex" (Lovecraft biographer, S. T. Joshi). The psychedelic B-movie adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" gave us perhaps cinema history's first tentacle-rape scene. Re-Animator (an adaptation of "Herbert West—Re-Animator") delivered the brain-scorching image of a disembodied head attempting cunnilingus. And Dagon (an adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), includes a scene in which the protagonist—an unlucky guy named Paul who eventually lights himself on fire—makes out with a woman he encounters while being chased through a mansion by murderous fish-people. As the encounter heats up, Paul reaches under the woman's shirt and finds gills along her torso. A moment later, he sees she has two wriggling tentacles instead of legs.

All of this posthumous sexualizing is more than a little ironic, considering how non-sexual Lovecraft actually was. In 1945, the New York Times noted that his "loathing for fish was even stronger than his aversion to sex." His biographer, S. T. Joshi, classifies him "among the most asexual individuals in human history."

His disinterest apparently began as a young child, when, after reading anatomy books, he saw "the whole matter... reduced to prosaic mechanism—a mechanism which I rather despised," as he later wrote. Thanks to a number of additional hang-ups—persistent nightmares; a smothering love/hate relationship with his mother, who called him "grotesque"; a years-long mental breakdown as a teenager—this attitude never significantly changed. Lovecraft remained a virgin until his marriage to Sonia Greene, in 1924, at age 33.

The interest in Lovecraft and sex may also be stoked by the ever-intensifying conversation about his racism.

We know the intimate, depressing details of this ill-fated union thanks, in part, to a short essay by a Lovecraft scholar titled "Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sex: or The Sex Life of a Gentleman." Before the wedding, Lovecraft reportedly "purchased and read thoroughly all subject matter he could obtain regarding the marriage, sex, and the duties of a husband in the connubial bed." Nevertheless, Sonia later reported that, though the marriage wasn't entirely sexless, her husband was "squeamish and prudish about perfectly natural functions," and "the very mention of the word sex seemed to upset him." He also "never mention[ed] the word love," she later said, in a memoir. "He would say instead, 'My dear, you don't know how much I appreciate you.'" The marriage lasted less than three years.

'Booty Call of Cthulhu' (2015) by Wren Winter

So, how did this guy end up inspiring porn flicks called The Cunt of Cthulhu (google it) and a small shelf's worth of erotica?

Well, the short answer is capitalism. Lovecraft's stories—which earned him pitiful sums from pulp magazines like Weird Tales during his lifetime—have since spawned a multimillion-dollar merchandising empire. Lingerie and sex toys are just a tiny sliver of a market that includes key chains, coloring books, board games, mugs, T-shirts, action figures, and commemorative coins.

Furthermore, plenty of Lovecraft readers have found sex in his stories, even when—superficially, at least—it doesn't exist. Despite Joshi's claim that it's "mere armchair psychoanalysis to say that he somehow sublimated his sex urges into writing or other activities," Stephen King has called Lovecraft's work "a Freudian three-ring circus" in which, "when Cthulhu makes one of its appearances... We are witnessing a gigantic, tentacle-equipped, killer vagina from beyond space and time."

His biographer, S. T. Joshi, classifies him 'among the most asexual individuals in human history.'

The interest in Lovecraft and sex may also have been stoked by the ever-intensifying conversation about his racism. Lovecraft, in case you haven't heard, was a devout white supremacist who sprinkled his letters with impassioned diatribes about Jews, Asians, African Americans, French-Canadians, various European immigrants, and basically anyone else who didn't look like him. And Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos author Bobby Derie tells us, "It's difficult to really separate out Lovecraft's views on race from sex... because of how tightly they were intertwined with his understanding of evolution, biology, civilization, and sense of self." In one letter from 1930, Lovecraft called interracial sex a "melancholy and disgusting phenomenon" and encourages "placing the heaviest possible penalties on miscegenation."

But more than anything, the porn-ification of the "Father of Weird Fiction" seem less of an outgrowth of any aspect of his life, and more of a sign of his legacy's remarkable elasticity. His fame may not have surpassed contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but it's a hell of a lot more interactive.

The Lovecraft-inspired magazine 'Cthuthu Sex,' which was published from 1998–2007

Lovecraft left no children or grandchildren who might guard his name from being freely stamped on comic books and bumper stickers. And he probably would have told them not to bother, anyway, since he encouraged other writers to make use of his monsters in their own stories. (Who doesn't see untapped possibilities in "a sentient blob of self-shaping gelatinous flesh"?) Add this to the fact that Lovecraft's fiction is freely accessible online and translated into countless languages, and you start to understand how we have Lovecraft beer and hand-knitted Cthulhu balaclavas, and, yes, X-rated sequels to Lovecraft stories.

These days, some writers are actually using sex, gender, and sexuality to stretch and re-sculpt Lovecraft's legacy. Alan Moore says he gave his comic Providence a gay, Jewish protagonist specifically because that "resonated interestingly with some of Lovecraft's prejudices." And in the intro to Cthulhurotica, editor Carrie Cuinn describes the book as a missing piece to the Lovecraft puzzle. "When I read HPL's works, even when I was swallowed up by everything that he put in, I couldn't help noticing what he left out," she writes. "Where was the romance... Where was the secretary with the tight sweater and the heart-shaped ass?... What we needed was a book that showed off the potential in what he left out."

At NecronomiCon Providence—the "International Conference and Festival of Weird Fiction, Art, and Academia," in Lovecraft's honor, which starts today—there will be a panel celebrating female-written Lovecraftian fiction that will include Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a Canada-based writer who has co-edited a new all-female anthology called She Walks in Shadows.

Moreno-Garcia (who contributed a story to Cthulhurotica about a porn theater in Mexico City) has recently become a kind of spokeswoman for a more expansive concept of "Lovecraftian." When news of her all-female anthology broke, one Redditor said she was "tarnishing the legacy" of Lovecraft; another fan wrote an email calling her a "little bitch." She responded to the comment in a brilliant blog post (quote: "Cthulhu says no to sexism and harassment").

"Some fans want to erect firm walls to encircle the genre," Moreno-Garcia told VICE in an interview last week. "They want to define what counts and what doesn't count... However, whether you like or don't like a certain take on a sub-genre—whether it be Lovecraft's Mythos or steampunk—doesn't mean you get to determine whether it can exist or not."

NecronomiCon Providence director Niels Hobbs added that Lovecraft has been "completely open-source" from the beginning. The man who wrote nearly 100,000 letters was "generating his ideas with crowdsourcing, with conversing with myriad correspondents and bouncing ideas off them... and collectively generating this mythology," he says.

"So, from the start, it was already de-centralized," he said. "It wasn't just Lovecraft writing these stories."

Follow Philip Eil on Twitter.

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