How to Write an Homage

I’ve been reading a lot of stories written or inspired by one Howard Philips Lovecraft lately. It was only halfway intentional on my part: some of the genres I enjoy owe a lot to his contributions, so while I might not actively seek out Lovecraft-inspired fiction it happens to exist on the shelves where I look for pleasure reading, and I’ll pick up nearly anything with an interesting premise. The other part of it is that I’m going to be running a tabletop game campaign that explicitly pits the players against forces from The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, so I’ve been doing research on what kinds of things to throw at my players (spoiler alert: lots and lots of Deep Ones) and how to execute the plot.

The thing about Lovecraft is that he’s an extremely problematic writer. He’s infamous in literary circles for being racist and xenophobic in ways that go beyond being a product of his time, namely in that his views were more intense than those of the general population and never changed even when society around him did. While his fans might argue that his views pale in comparison to the worlds he builds, I’m not of that school of thought: when one of a writer’s recurring themes is the consequences of “tainted blood” on a character’s life that makes him less than the white English man that he believed himself to be, you can’t separate his views on race from the philosophy of the worlds in which his fiction exists.

This is why it’s so difficult to find a high-quality adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s work. Modern writers that are sensitive to the controversy surrounding Lovecraft, at least in my experience, either apologize for it so obviously that they pull you out of the story to present you with short essays on the topic; or, like the otherworldly creatures Lovecraft writes that are too horrible to describe in words, they completely ignore it and hope you won’t ask questions. Lovecraft-inspired pieces tend to only look at Call of Cthulhu and therefore feature a lot of tentacles, creepy cultists, insane people, and… that’s it. There’s not a whole lot to Lovecraft if you ignore the themes that make him so uncomfortable for modern readers.

Sure, tentacles are viscerally unsettling, cults are always in style, and we can’t get over stigmatizing people with mental illnesses even though we should, but without any of Lovecraft’s common themes the derivative works are so shallow. Creatures having influence over humanity can be done creepily and well, but it becomes horrifying in a different, uncomfortable way when you remember that the original author literally thought of other humans as “beasts” simply for not being white and English. Having something scandalous in your background might make an interesting twist, but having the “scandal” be a different race and/or ethnicity is a massive problem, not to mention outdated. It’s horrifying to think of life being threatened by forces that we can’t understand, but Lovecraft’s apocalypses were flavored with a fear of social and scientific progress that would allow “inferior” groups of people to upset the status quo.

So what’s a fan of Cthulhu that wants to write a Lovecraft-inspired novel do to? Ignoring the bad things about the man makes the work shallow, but outright embracing them is bad for a number of reasons. How are you supposed to write a quality derivative work?

You could do what Matt Ruff did in his novel Lovecraft Country. I mentioned it on the blog not too long ago, but I do want to talk more about how the novel works as homage.

I have yet to see a tribute to another writer that does what Ruff did for Lovecraft. He demonstrates an awareness of Lovecraft’s common themes, even the unsavory ones, that makes it very clear that he reads and loves the work: fear of “others,” inherited “impurities,” the dangers of religion and science, and things man wasn’t meant to know or comprehend are all present and accounted for. However, he acknowledges that despite the good that Lovecraft has to offer, there are still flaws, and while there’s no use in hiding from them a modern writer can do better.

He does this by setting the events of the story in the Jim Crow United States and featuring black protagonists. This allows him to address and deconstruct the themes from more than one front: he melds the racist mindset of the U.S. at that time with themes and elements from Lovecraft in order to tell the story about his characters fighting against threatening “others.” The big difference is that the narrative is turned on its head, featuring characters that Lovecraft himself would have reviled in sympathetic and heroic roles. It was immaculately put together, serves as one of the most satisfying “updates” of Lovecraft I’ve seen to date, and is arguably far more interesting than the original because the threats are way more human than alien (there is a pretty heavy supernatural bent to the plot, but the actual terror and horror were closer to home).

It’s a great novel that I recommend for American history buffs with a taste for weird and horror fiction. I also think it’s a good one for writers to pick up to see what homage can and should do. You can’t accurately call something a tribute if it’s a regurgitation or heavy edit of the source material: no matter what influences it has, it’s still your work and your voice. Imitation might have a reputation for being flattering, but a nearly direct copy is just that: it’s a copy. A tribute needs to create something new and different from the thing that it loves. Look at the themes through a different lens, pick them apart, and give them back in new, different, and exciting ways.

When you remodel your living room, you don’t just paint over that weird spot on the wall, vacuum, and move the furniture a few feet: you knock down a wall to open the place up a bit, get new furniture, and paint the walls a totally different color. The function of the room has not changed, and while it might be dusty and difficult to get there it will be a net improvement overall. You can stay faithful to the original thing that you loved, whether it was the parties you threw in your living room or the author that influenced you to become the writer you are today, but it can’t really be a different thing until you take the steps to make it really, truly yours.