By Bailey Blaker ’18
The Harcourt Parish House isn’t home to just Friday Café. Kenyon’s newest chaplain, Rachel Kessler ’04, also resides there with her husband, Leeman Kessler ’04, a character actor most recognized for his recurring role as 19th-century horror writer H. P. Lovecraft in his YouTube web series Ask Lovecraft. The Kesslers moved back to Gambier earlier this year when Rachel accepted a position as Harcourt Parish chaplain, and they brought Leeman’s alter ego with them.
Leeman assumed the Lovecraft persona on Monday for a dozen or so eager students and community members as part of a dinner and lecture sponsored by Canterbury Kenyon. The informal discussion focused on Lovecraft’s infamous reputation as a white supremacist.
“We’re not talking your awkward great-grandmother who keeps a lawn jockey and is uncomfortable about the waitstaff at Chili’s,” Kessler said. “This is white supremacy and racism on a professional level, and yet there is a lot of discomfort in talking about it.” Kessler showed no discomfort in addressing common responses to Lovecraft’s racism.
According to Kessler, the presence of racial slurs throughout Lovecraft’s short stories and personal correspondences isn’t a detriment in the eyes of some fans. “There’s a non-zero number of Lovecraft fans for whom his racism is a feature and not a bug, and they send me troubling emails,” he said. “They’re a very, very small minority; most people are no more or less racist than, you know, a current candidate running for president.”
The up-front nature of Kessler’s presentation was refreshing for Paige Ballard ’18, who knew little of Lovecraft or his work before the event. “I thought it was really cool hearing [Kessler’s] take on it as someone so close to H. P. Lovecraft,” she said.
Kessler previously only knew the figure of Lovecraft through the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, released in 1981 by Chaosium. Decades later in 2010, he starred as Lovecraft in a stage production of Stephen Near’s Monstrous Invisible.
“It was a wonderful way to get into this mind that was in so many ways advanced in so many subjects,” he said of the play. “But at the same time [he] was mired in the poison of American white supremacy and was unable to escape from that.”
Kessler emphasized the importance of considering all sides of Lovecraft’s persona and being critical of both his work and personal life. This approach was especially appealing to Annie Devine ’18, who attended the event as part of Professor of English and Associate Provost Ivonne García’s horror-centric seminar titled Demons, Great Whites and Aliens. “Coming out of the lecture, I’d definitely like to see what [Lovecraft] is all about and get my own take on his writing,” Devine said.
As an actor, Kessler is continuously drawn to the character of Lovecraft because of the man’s complex motivations regarding race and social inequalities. These play out within Kessler’s YouTube series which explores Lovecraft’s character in the guise of an advice show.
The series includes an elaborate backstory featuring a reanimated Lovecraft and his not-so-evil twin brother, P. H. Lovecraft — Kessler’s own invention for critiquing Lovecraft’s more controversial views. In the show, the author considers pop culture references and problems in the modern world. Through his show, Kessler said, “H. P. Lovecraft is back from the dead, and since nobody reads anymore, he’s going into the profitable world of self-help.”