Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow: The Creeping Discomfort

So, a few years ago in an expat bar, I found a pile of hardback books in the pile of books left for anyone to take. Since I’d left a few books there myself, and since I was so shocked, I grabbed the books and made them my own.

The books were the hardback Tor reissues of the Brian Lumley Titus Crow books–three volumes of them. About a year ago, when I was ill, I read the first trilogy, and, well, I didn’t really enjoy it. I packed up the books and took them to my office, putting them on the “read, or not going to read anyway” shelf.

But when I started thinking about writing a Cthulhu-mythos story/screenplay set in Korea, I started eyeing those books from across the room. Finally, I grabbed the second volume and shoved it into my bag, to dig into during (occasional) free moments. The second volume includes the short novels The Clock of Dreams and Spawn of the Winds, the latter  of which I happen to be reading.

Now, a while back a writer friend of mine said to me, “You know, when you’re writing about other people’s work, you really don’t need to be honest abut all your reactions… especially the negative ones. I mean, as a writer yourself, you know… it is sometimes wise to keep things to yourself.” This friend had a point. There are books I have picked up, read a little bit of, thrown across the room, and decided not to write about. In fact, The Clock of Dreams was one of those books. I shrugged, decided it wasn’t my thing, and left it at that.

And hey, it’s a fair response. Lumley is, after all, trying to recreate the kind of writing style we all know from pulp fiction of years gone by. The breathlessness of the action, the facile infodumping, the cheese which, occasionally, one longs for like a cheap milk chocolate bar. I suppose. I had fun, when I was younger, reading some of the Necroscope books, and I’d bet I’d see them now as pulpy too. And as Stephen Davis says in his review of the same Titus Crow book I’m talking about, “Brian Lumley is a fine writer, but Titus Crow: The Clock of Dreams & Spawn of the Winds is not fine writing.”

Still, now that I’m about halfway through Spawn of the Winds, I’m finding myself seriously discomfited. Not by the Cthulhoid beings, the creeping evil, not by a gibbous moon or a staring eye peeping from behind an angle that is somehow wrong.

Nope, it’s actually the handling of race.

Imagine you’re flying along happily in a little chartered plane when you are ripped out of spacetime and dragged, in a frozen coma, to another dimension, to find yourself trapped on an alien world where an evil air-elemental godling has trapped you and your crew (and your sister, who ended up being there, ha ha!).

Now imagine there are human beings there. Cultists, following the air elemental. Now, who do you think is going to be in charge of them? Yeah, a white Scandinavian dude. Oh yeah, he’s the head priest of the cult of the elemental, of course, and speaks all the languages of the cultists. Who are, well, they’re “squat” and “flat faced” and “round faced” and so on. They’re “Eskimos,” essentially and for the most part.

You can imagine how flat faces get kicked in combat, while the main interaction with the white guy is all verbal (so far, anyway–I assume he will get his just desserts eventually). But the absolute matter-of-factness with which the narrator describes kicking an “Eskimo” in the face–while he is doing something else, in fact– is just a little bit stunning.

There’s also a thing about how the air elemental, who is something of a sex machine, has a special taste for… yep, “white women.” I am not making this up. (And… aha, no wonder your sister ended up being on that plane!)

Now, I’m not calling Lumley a racist. I have no idea about Brian Lumley as a person, but it’s definitely a tricky thing to do, to accuse some author of racism because of what he’s written in a book.

A book I haven’t even read to the end, no less. So no, I’m not saying that.

I would say that the story seems to have some racist underpinnings, so far, with the caveat that maybe later on, Lumley overturns them, or critiques them. Or maybe he doesn’t. Either way I think it’s pretty unlikely he’s unaware of those racist things… the bit about the evil god jonesing for white women is just so up-front, so in-your-face, that I think suggesting he didn’t realize it would be equal to calling the author an idiot (and I am not doing that).

I don’t know yet how the racial issues play out, but I also don’t get the impression (from the few other Titus Crow novels I have read in full) that critique or reversal is a likely move, though of course it’s possible that Lumley decides to go there. However, at the moment I’m at, I am just registering a strong discomfort with the handling of race in this novel.

Now, I do know he’s writing in the Lovecraftian Mythos, and as we all know, Lovecraft had some discomfiting attitudes about race… attitudes that weren’t, after all, unusual in the world of pulp authors. (One Sunday evening not long ago, my writing group discovered an old pulp displayed as part of the decor at Shim’s Tapas and, reading excerpts aloud, were reminded about just how common racist portrayals of nonwhites were in so much pulp fiction… and maybe fiction in general, I guess.)

So here’s a question: if an author is trying to write in a particular style or form, and racist characterization is an absolute norm in that form…

  • how are we to grapple with apparently racist content in newer work in that style, from a reader’s perspective?
  • how ought writers to deal with race, in works that resurrect that style or genre, it from a writerly perspective?

Personally, I think as readers we should first recognize that it’s possible the racial weirdness is there because of the genre the author has chosen to work in: that the author may be doing what he or she is doing with race as a way of commenting on the racism in the pulps in general. Which is to say, it’s probably best to give them a chance to show that, yes, they’re aware of how it looks and they are conscious of the problems. Now, I may go on to read the rest of the book (though I don’t feel like it) to discover Lumley was actually attacking some of that racism, critiquing it through the twists and turns of his plot.

But I don’t think as readers, we are obligated to pretend we’re comfortable with it, much less to excuse or tolerate this kind of thing. Certainly, if an author does use the racist tropes not just ironically and self-consciously (which I suspect may not be enough), but also as a way of critiquing the racism of the pulps, of invalidating it, or mocking it, or whatever, then that’s one thing. This, I think, may deserve applause, though I think there are probably more constructive ways of doing it.

But in no wise ought we to pretend that it’s okay to be including straightforward racism in a text because it’s an homage to a genre of fiction where, in its time, straightforward racism was considered acceptable.

As a writer, though, my thoughts turn in a different direction. For one thing, of course it’s possible one could trot out the hoary old racisms, and then, just as Lumley’s protagonist and his crew do to the “Eskimos” themselves) machine gun them down. Er, wait… that came out wrong. I mean that I’d rather have the characters machine-gun down the racism than the “evil Eskimos,” if you get my drift. Er.

But that’s only assuming you have to have evil Eskimos at all. Instead of having the character trot out the old stereotypes, why not write a story that breaks the pulp rules from the beginning, or inverts them, or something else similarly unusual? What if it were an eloquent Canadian Inuit archaeologist who was the head priest of the air elemental, leading a band of savage descendants-of-Vikings or descendants-of-Calgarians? (People from Calgary, Canada.)

Or why not tell a story where the good-guys are Inuit, and the villains are Inuit, and white people, if present at all, are irrelevant, or minor characters?

This is an interesting question for me since I’m still thinking about how to write a Lovecraftian story set in South Korea, probably set in the postwar dictatorship era. Race was, in those days, a very conscious issue for most Koreans (in a hierarchic sense that rehearsed the hierarchies of geopolitics). After all, Korea was more homogenous, racially, in those days. But there was a regionalism that one might find quite analogous to the racism in Lovecraft’s apparent worldview. In Korea, a lot of people from other regions looked upon the folk of Jeolla province in a way reminiscent of how Lovecraft’s narrators seemed to feel about blacks, Jews, Indians, Eastern Europeans and other foreigners, or even inbred fisher-folk from coastal New England towns.

In some sense, I can see why Lumley would have felt the need to make race, and even Lovecraft-styled racial villany, a part of Spawn of the Winds: to leave alone the issue of race in a Lovecraft homage is to tacitly ignore the racism we can find easily in his work… or is it?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. It’s something to think about. But on page 205 of the hardback edition, I have to say, I don’t see any clear hints as to a way I think we should handle it. I may have different thoughts at the end of the book.

(If I do read the rest of it. Because, once again, I must say, it really isn’t my cup of, well… you know. But having written this, I really feel obligated to finish the book and update my reaction to it. Still, I’ll post this for now because it captures my reaction as a reader partway through the novel, and I think that’s worthwhile too.)

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