I want to try a thought experiment. Imagine if artists in a genre of music more normal than metal like hip hop or indie peppered their lyrics with references to one particular racist, misogynistic, paternalistic, and homophobic writer. The metal community would be outraged. You’d never hear the end of it. It would be like Ghostbusters all over again.
And yet, that’s what metal does and there’s nothing but silence. Since its inception, it has loaded itself up with tributes to the works of a racist, misogynistic, paternalistic, and homophobic writer. The writer I’m talking about, of course, is H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft is remembered best as the creator of so-called Cthulhuism, a religion based around demons and gods from another dimension with a book called the Necronomicon as its bible. “Creator” probably isn’t the right word; appropriator is more like it, since I’m willing to bet he just basically took existing deities and traditions from marginalized “exotic” groups familiar to him and repackaged them in this way. I will admit I’m not a Lovecraft expert, but why would I want to be? What possible appeal could a serious study of the works of the man who wrote this have for me?
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
Allegedly this poem was written when Lovecraft was a young man, but his paleolithic attitudes about everyone who wasn’t a straight white cis male continued for basically the rest of his life. Lovecraft died in 1937…and that’s AD, not BC, in case you think there’s some sort of chronological excuse for this. At a time when queer POC transwomen were literally fighting for their lives, Lovecraft was sitting in his white suburb writing stories about fish men and zombies for science fiction magazines. How out of touch can a person be? Or I guess a better question would be how much more invested in the defense and expansion of the racist patriarchy can a person be?
As far as I can tell, the first Lovecraft reference in metal was a song by Black Sabbath called “Behind the Wall of Sleep” in 1970. It’s similar to the title of a story Lovecraft wrote called “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” From the very beginning, then, this guy has been intertwined with metal.
And the references just kept coming. There are at least two Metallica songs — “the Call of Ktulu” and “the Thing That Should Not Be” — that are Lovecraft inspired. The further underground you go, of course, the more abundant the references become. Bands like Morbid Angel, Thergothon, Samael, Therion, and Nile have all used Lovecraftian themes. Even Electric Wizard — probably the best and most respected doom metal band other than Boris — has dabbled in Lovecraft. The English gothic grindcore band Cradle of Filth has made Lovecraft references. The German death metal band Sulphur Aeon is apparently exclusively Lovecraftian in theme — and they just started out in 2010! And all of this ignores the various bands named Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep (gods in Lovecraft’s religion).
Let’s face it: metal has failed to police itself. Oh sure, not every band writes songs about Lovecraft’s stories and gods, but you don’t see them rushing out to condemn the ones that do. This conspiracy of silence is like being an “apolitical” or “neutral” German in the 1930s. Neutrality is complicity and it is disgusting.
While metal refuses to step up to the plate, the same can fortunately not be said for the world of science fiction and fantasy. In 2015, the World Fantasy Convention announced that it would no longer use Lovecraft’s face as the template for one of its awards. While of course these genres of fiction have a myriad of issues not really worth going into here beyond Lovecraft, they’re at least on the right track to erasing one of the most detrimental influences on modern mass media.
So here we are now. What needs to happen is that metal as a community needs to make its voice heard and reject all forms of Lovecraftianism. And the thing is, so many people in metal talk about “scene tourists,” which is a sexist term for women who don’t listen primarily to metal but who want to explore it and who make the mistake of — gasp! — daring to speak up about all the fucked up stuff going on in it. Maybe it’s a genuine interest in getting to understand the music of men, maybe it’s morbid curiosity, maybe it’s for humor, who cares? They’re our ears, not yours. And frankly metal needs more “scene tourists” to get involved and aggressively speak up.
Gordon Ramsay — a celebrity chef and white male from the United Kingdom — made several TV shows based on going into restaurants that were failing and confronting the owners with the reasons why. It often takes an outsider’s perspective to understand why something is bad and to fully articulate the changes that must happen in order for that thing to improve. Metal needs a lot of work. And the first thing that needs to happen is for the genre to throw Lovecraft overboard and to close the book on the Necronomicon forever.