June 14, 2016
Behind the Book: Jeremy Bushnell’s The Insides
by Jeremy Bushnell
The two novels I’ve written for Melville House—The Weirdness, released in 2014, and The Insides, out today—are both works of speculative fiction. Although I hope they’ll appeal to readers who enjoy literary fare, these books draw much of their energy from genre writing, especially the genres of fantasy and horror. You can’t work in those genres without noticing the long shadow cast by H.P. Lovecraft, and part of what drove me to write The Insides was a desire to reckon with the troubling aspects of Lovecraft’s legacy.
I came to Lovecraft as a kid, by way of Dungeons and Dragons. TSR, the company that produced Dungeons and Dragons, mistakenly believed that Lovecraft’s weird beings and alien gods were in the public domain, and so included them in the 1980 edition of Deities and Demigods, a sourcebook of world mythology intended as a supplement to the original game. They appear in a chapter on the “Cthulhu Mythos,” which is straightfacedly treated as the equivalent of any other global religious tradition (the chapter, positioned alphabetically, falls right between the “Chinese Mythos” and the “Egyptian Mythos”).
In Lovecraft’s stories, a character’s first exposure to these eldritch beings is always dramatic, sanity-shattering: our doomed protagonists are never quite the same afterwards. And so it was with me, a monster-obsessed ten-year-old examining Deities and Demigods, poring over the descriptions of these creatures, feeling my imagination yawn wide to take in the impossible reality of their existence. Here’s a “huge pool of grey matter, 100 feet across” “intelligent and telepathically sensitive,” “constantly bubbling and putting forth mouths, limbs, pseudopods, and whole creatures.” Here’s something called Yog-Sothoth, “the key and guardian of the gate,” “a gigantic mass of feelers, legs, and stalked organs.” What weird kid could not be marked by such marvels, lovingly illustrated in nearly clinical detail?
And so for years I counted myself as a Lovecraft fan. When I designed my own nerdy game, Inevitable, I got permission from Lovecraft’s rightsholders to include a playable group of evil priestesses called the “Handmaidens of Cthulhu.” While visiting Providence once I went so far as to make a pilgrimage to Lovecraft’s grave (the only other celebrity graves I’ve ever stopped by were those of Andy Warhol and Emma Goldman). This is a little bit beyond just “casual fan” behavior.
But as time passed I began to feel a little more uneasy about my uncritical embrace of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s character Abdul Alhazred, the “half-crazed Arab” who authored The Necronomicon, seemed enticingly mysterious when I was a kid, but once I became an adult he began to seem like an exotic stereotype, or maybe something worse, something hateful. It became hard not to look askance at the descriptions of the “mongrel celebrants” at the “voodoo orgy” in “The Call of Cthulhu,” hard not to feel uneasy when Lovecraft describes how the Louisiana police “relied on their firearms and plunged determinedly into the nauseous rout.” Or take “Nyarlathotep,” a short piece about an enigmatic figure who thrills crowds with spectacles of an impending apocalypse: this seems pretty cool at first glance, but why do these visions feature “yellow evil faces peering from behind fallen monuments?” A helpful endnote in the Penguin Classics edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories blithely explains “The suggestion is that the ‘yellow races’ have overwhelmed Caucasian civilization.” Oh. OK. Got it.
As I looked more deeply into the details of Lovecraft’s life and correspondence, it became ever more clear that he hated a great many of the things that I think make life worth living. He was unhappy in the bustle of cities. He was disinterested in sex. And he especially despised any suggestion of heterogeneity, multiplicity, diversity, plurality. Today, I consider his work some of the most indelibly racist writing of the twentieth century. (It can perhaps be best understood as a fictional popularization of ideas espoused in Arthur de Gobineau’s nineteenth-century theories of race degeneration and Aryan superiority, or the discredited anthropological writings of early American race theorists like Samuel George Morton, Louis Agassiz, and Josiah Nott.)
So I embarked on writing The Insides with a question in mind: could I write a novel that engaged with Lovecraft’s legacy but wasn’t racist? Or—could I do better than that? Could I write a Lovecraftian novel that was actively antiracist? Could I write a novel that that utilized Lovecraft’s tropes but sought to undo some of the damage he did in the world? That celebrated our lively, messy, chaotic cities, that embraced a world ever richer in heterogeneity, diversity? The Insides, which tells the story of Ollie, a woman of mixed-race parentage who ends up pursued by members of a white supremacist organization, is my attempt.
During the drafting of The Insides, I was happy to hear a conversation about Lovecraft developing within the speculative writing community, led by progressive authors like Daniel José Older, Nnedi Okorafor, and Sofia Samatar. This conversation has had some heartening results—most notably, the World Fantasy Convention will no longer use a statuette of Lovecraft for its World Fantasy Award—but the conversation isn’t over yet. It’s an important one to have, and I hope The Insides will serve as one more voice in the chorus, one more participant in this beautiful rabble.
JEREMY P. BUSHNELL is the author of The Weirdness (Melville House, 2014) and The Insides (Melville House, 2016). He teaches writing at Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Dedham, Massachusetts.