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Interview: S.T. Joshi on Weird Fiction & Lovecraft

S.T. Joshi

S.T. Joshi is one of the foremost experts and a leading figure in Lovecraftian studies. An award-winning critic, he recently wrote what is considered by many to be the leading biography on H.P. Lovecraft, “I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft” (Hippocampus Press, 2010). His criticism and studies on other writers of weird fiction, including Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and M.R. James, continue to introduce them to new generations of readers. He is also the editor of the “Lovecraft Annual” (Hippocampus Press), devoted to publishing new criticism on Lovecraft and his works. Lynne Jamneck recently talked to Joshi about weird fiction and Lovecraft.

Weird fiction appears to have been going through a renaissance period the last couple of years. Why do you think this is?

Paradoxically, I think this renaissance has occurred precisely because the “horror boom” of the 1970s and 1980s has definitely collapsed. Since Weird fiction — or what passed for such — is not quite the marketable commodity it once was (except in the hands of the few bestselling writers who are left — Stephen King, Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, etc.), authors are now largely compelled to publish in the small press. The result has been a merciful end to the appalling array of schlock that caused the horror boom to die in the first place.

Of course, the elimination of schlock does not guarantee the production of good work; but the proliferation of small-press venues for weird writing, long and short, does allow for writing that does not have to cater to the reading habits of the lazy and the stupid. The small press may itself publish a certain quantity of rubbish — not all small-press publishers are gifted with editorial acuity — but it also has published work that is vibrant, vital and innovative. The number of supremely talented writers in this field is legion — we have to begin with Caitlín R. Kiernan and Laird Barron, and include many other talents such as W.H. Pugmire, Jonathan Thomas, Norman Partridge, John Langan, Richard Gavin, Michael Shea and many, many others.

Some would argue that Gothicism is at its heart an English mode of writing, transformed into the weird when it made its way to the American continent. If there is truth to such a notion, what is it about the American landscape that allows it to channel weirdness so effectively?

Lovecraft first propounded the view that weird fiction is inherently suited to the “Anglo-Saxon” temperament; and quasi-racist as this sounds, it does seem largely to be the case. As for weird fiction in America, it stems from several threads: there is the thread emerging from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who like the English Gothicists used the historical past (even though that past constituted only a century or two) to evoke weirdness; there is Edgar Allan Poe, who largely eschewed the horror of history to focus on the horrors of aberrant psychology, laying the groundwork for the subgenres of dark fantasy and psychological suspense; and there is Ambrose Bierce, who managed to fuse psychological horror with a topographical/historical horror based in the mining towns of the West. Then Lovecraft came along, melding many of these traditions but also infusing horror from the unknown reaches of the cosmos. I’m not entirely sure that any common “American” thread can be found in all these writers, not to mention many others who could be cited; but I think American writers have been uniquely successful in making good use of both the immense and variegated landscape of this country and its historical richness — a richness augmented by the rapid social and cultural change that has occurred in the last century or so, which has inevitably created its own set of conflicts and tensions — to fashion a distinctively American brand of weird fiction.

Do you draw distinctions between “Lovecraftian Weird” and the so-called “New Weird” movement?

In all honesty, I am not entirely sure what the “New Weird” is supposed to be. I think this subgenre, if it is that, is still too inchoate to be the subject of meaningful discussion. If I understand anything about this movement, it would seem to be tending toward surrealism. Lovecraft, late in life, found some interest in literary and artistic surrealism, but his brand of weird fiction was much more thoroughly realist than the “New Weird” writers’ work seems to be.

You’ve edited several fiction anthologies featuring Lovecraftian stories by a host of diverse authors, including the recent “Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.” How are some of the different ways in which you see writers interpret a story as specifically Lovecraftian?

Editing the “Black Wings” anthologies (as well as a forthcoming two-volume anthology, “The Madness of Cthulhu,” for Titan Books) has actually been a learning experience for me. When I wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos” (2008), I was surprised to find that some recent Lovecraftian writers had done very creditable work — I refer to such writers as Caitlín R. Kiernan, Marc Laidlaw, Donald Tyson and several others. I realised that I probably should have titled that book “The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos.” What I have learned is that Lovecraftian themes and motifs can be incorporated in tales of many different types — ranging from pure science fiction to hard-boiled crime fiction to delicate prose-poetry to pure fantasy. The emergence of Lovecraft himself as a literary icon has led some writers (including myself, in a novel that I hope will appear next year, “The Assaults of Chaos”) to use Lovecraft as a literary character. Lovecraft’s themes themselves — cosmicism; horrors emerging from the past; the horrors of heredity (leading to existential horror where the protagonist himself becomes the horror); topographical horror — are all so wide-ranging that they can serve as the basis of tales that have nothing to do with the setting, idiom, or flavour of Lovecraft’s own tales.

Do you find that certain stories, philosophies or themes tend to crop up more often than not in these new takes of Lovecraft? Alternatively, are any of these noticeably used less frequently?

As I have mentioned, the emergence of Lovecraft himself as a literary character is of great interest to me, not only because of the novel I’ve written, but because (and I hope this does not sound immodest) because I think my biographical work has cleared away some of the errors and misconceptions surrounding Lovecraft’s life and thought, leading to more accurate and, therefore, more vibrant and convincing, portrayals of Lovecraft, even if the tale veers off into the supernatural (as my novel does). Certain specific stories seem to be of particular interest to contemporary writers: the first “Black Wings” had three different riffs on “Pickman’s Model,” while “Black Wings II” has three different riffs on “The Call of Cthulhu.” Jonathan Thomas has now written a superb quasi-sequel to “The Colour Out of Space,” called “The Color Over Occam.” Certainly, cosmicism is the dominant theme that contemporary writers are seeking to utilise Lovecraftian elements; but if you don’t feel the sense of “cosmic indifferentism” that Lovecraft did, your work may not be so convincing. We’ve seen that the topographical horror of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has been very compelling to recent writers. Not many have attempted to imitate Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian” fantasies — and this is probably for the best, for these stories are not fundamentally original and do not represent Lovecraft at his best.

A great deal of Lovecraft’s work plays with notions about language and the power of words. The metafictive nature of literary props like the “Necronomicon” is a prime example of this, the fictional grimoire having convinced some that it actually exists. Do you think Lovecraft was aware of the underlying literary aspects of his writing, despite his protests that his stories were no more than pulp entertainment?

Well, Lovecraft never said his stories were “no more than pulp entertainment”; in fact, he was keen on establishing that he was at least trying (even if, in his hypercritical opinion, failing) to write genuine literature of the sort that Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and others were writing. He had to publish in the pulps because there was no other market for his work. But it is natural that someone so bookish and unworldly as Lovecraft would see something vaguely magical in the written word, and would therefore find the notion of a “forbidden book” darkly alluring. For someone who himself found such power in the written word, it was inevitable that the book or the manuscript would come to seem imbued with immense and inscrutable powers.

Is there a particular pulp writer that you are surprised did not attain the same notoriety as Lovecraft?

In the realm of weird fiction, no other pulp writer frankly deserves to be classed with Lovecraft as a literary figure. There are those who want to make such a case for Clark Ashton Smith (whose poetry — which, of course, was not much published in the pulps — is indeed of transcendent quality, but whose pulp fiction is highly uneven and in general lacking in richness and philosophical depth) and Robert E. Howard (whose pulp writing is woefully slovenly on the level of prose and is often uninspired and formulaic), but they are far behind Lovecraft as literary craftsmen. In the related field of detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler began their careers in the pulps and have now rightly attained high literary stature; but that is a different genre.

I’m always curious to hear whether readers and authors view Lovecraft as primarily a horror or science fiction writer. Many of his stories are vastly different in terms of the ideas and philosophies they express, but the cosmicism of his work fits both categories. Do you think he excels at one type of writing more than another?

It is clear that, in the final years of his life, Lovecraft was evolving toward becoming more of a science fiction writer than a “supernatural horror” writer. “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35) is pretty much pure science fiction. But he never made the full transition to science fiction and probably wouldn’t have done so even had he lived longer; he always retained a devotion to literary supernaturalism, even though his evolving materialist philosophy led him more and more to postulate scenarios that could be scientifically justified, a hallmark of science fiction. And because Lovecraft, even at the end, continued to align himself with the “weird” as he saw it, the early generations of science fiction writers reacted with a certain hostility to Lovecraft (recall Isaac Asimov’s comment that Lovecraft was a “sick juvenile”). I think this is largely because these science fiction writers were on the whole optimistic when it came to such matters as space exploration and the progress of human life and technology, whereas Lovecraft’s cosmic perspective diminished all human life as an insignificant phase of cosmic history. Now that science fiction has itself turned a bit darker and less naïve, Lovecraft is more and more welcomed in that community.

Many are of the opinion that, because the weird elements that infuse his work are so difficult to portray onscreen, Lovecraft’s work is unfilmable. Guillermo del Toro’s planned adaptation of “At the Mountains of Madness” was supposedly shelved because he wanted to film an R-rated version. Personally, I think his work is not suitably commercial in terms of what film studios considers “financially viable.” Could this be why we haven’t seen any of Lovecraft’s work filmed as so-called “blockbusters”?

If Lovecraft’s work is “unfilmable” by today’s standards, the “fault” (if there is fault in the matter) lies with the current state of the film industry — at least, the commercial film industry, as you rightly suggest. The brutal truth is that big-budget filmmakers are required, for purely monetary reasons, to aim their work toward a relatively immature and unsophisticated mass audience (largely teenagers or young adults) who would have difficulty appreciating the subtlety of the Lovecraftian idiom even if (or especially if) it were successfully translated onto the screen. On a superficial level, Lovecraft’s work seems flamboyant enough for a blockbuster film — who wouldn’t want to see Cthulhu, like a giant Godzilla, seizing an entire ship in his paws in the remote reaches of the Pacific? But in reality many of Lovecraft’s “horrors” take place offstage — and are more the result of the witchery of language than of anything one actually sees before one’s eyes. I think “The Shadow over Innsmouth” could make a splendid big-budget film, because it has everything that many filmgoing audiences want: it is a very visual story, and a skilled filmmaker could effectively capture the decaying town of Innsmouth, the pursuit of the hapless narrator by a stream of batrachian entities, and the gradual transition of the protagonist himself into a monster. Stuart Gordon made a valiant attempt at adapting this story in Dagon (2002), but I think something even better could be done. As for del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness” — I can’t imagine why he insisted on an R-rated film (this seems to have been the crux of Universal’s rejection of the film). Certainly there’s no need for sex, and even the violence could be kept to an understated minimum.

I find the ritual aspects of Lovecraft’s work fascinating; not only the fictional sorceries and incantations contained within his stories, but the habitual repetitions that frame his work on paper. Lovecraft sometimes appears contradictory in that sense, writing work that appears to be “ceremonialised” in a religious way. Certainly, religion has had a powerful influence on his writing, if not his personal life. How does an atheist perspective like Lovecraft’s reconcile the religiosity contained within his fiction?

Any number of readers and critics have expressed puzzlement at Lovecraft’s very vocal atheism (at least as expressed in private letters and in a few small-press essays) and his creation, in his fiction, of an entire pantheon of “gods,” worshippers, and the like. But Lovecraft was well aware of the pervasiveness of religion in human life and history, and in some senses his pseudomythology both reflects and subverts that pervasiveness. In the first place, it turns out that the “gods” of the Cthulhu Mythos are either extraterrestrials (the Old Ones of “At the Mountains of Madness,” who created all earth life as “jest or mistake,” are merely creatures from the depths of space) or are largely symbolic (Azathoth, the blind idiot god, is a symbol for the inscrutability and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe). In the second place, Lovecraft archly suggests that the human worshippers of these “gods” are actually mistaken as to their (the worshippers’) role in the scheme of things. The Cthulhu cultists in “The Call of Cthulhu” think that there is some vital relation between their activities and the emergence of the deity they worship; but in fact Cthulhu emerged (momentarily) from the undersea depths as the accidental result of an earthquake. What Lovecraft, therefore, is suggesting, in a highly cynical manner, is that these “gods” have not the slightest concern for or interest in their human worshippers, who will be purged from the earth along with the rest of us if the “gods” ever gain total control of the earth. This is why David E. Schultz has referred to the Cthulhu Mythos as an “anti-mythology.” It subverts the very purpose of most religions—which seek to establish some intimate connection between God and humanity — by suggesting the very reverse.

As a prolific editor of fiction anthologies, you interact with the language of speculative fiction constantly. I’m wary of the word genre, because it categorizes, and therefore limits the scope in which a text can have influence. . . Nevertheless, there is something about this particular kind of writing that has the ability to get under the skin exactly in the way that weird fiction needs to. Do you see a correlation between this and the notion that science fiction or fantasy is considered by some to not be “serious” writing?

I myself don’t care for the term “genre” as applied to weird fiction chiefly because, in my view, for much of its history weird fiction was not a genre but a mode of writing to which writers of many different sorts could resort when they wished to express moods and conceptions outside the realm of mimetic realism. By the 1970s weird fiction had probably become a genre — perhaps to its detriment. I think, though, that the prejudice against “genre” writing of all sorts (detective fiction, weird fiction, science fiction, fantasy) has largely dissipated even among mainstream critics: there is simply too much good writing in all these genres (maybe not so much for romance or westerns), and mainstream fiction itself has for decades been increasingly infused with “genre” elements, as the work of such leading writers as Thomas Pynchon, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood and many others attests. Some critics, of course, still focus on the poorest examples of genre writing in an attempt to condemn an entire range of writing, but I think they are now in the minority.

Lovecraft scholarship hit a high point in the ’80s, then seemed to start tapering off up to the point where, currently, there doesn’t seem to be any strong academic interest. From my own experiences and others I know who have written academically on Lovecraft, there appears to be a very reductive perspective on the themes that have shaped his work. It seems that, now more than ever, when our scientific knowledge is edging on the border of exciting yet unpredictable discoveries his work should be especially relevant.
Can you tell us a little about what you are currently working on? Are you planning on writing more of your own fiction in the future?

Lovecraft scholarship has had its ebbs and flows; after the tremendous work of the 1970s and 1980s, some were left wondering what there was left to say about his life and work. And yet, new discoveries are still being made, and new interpretations are still emerging. This year’s issue of the “Lovecraft Annual” will feature extracts from three separate academic papers (master’s theses or doctoral dissertations) on Lovecraft, so I think it can be said that academic interest remains fairly robust. My sense is that my three Penguin Classics editions and the Library of America edition (“Tales,” 2005) are being used in at least a few classrooms in universities around the country. That said, I think my own critical work on Lovecraft is largely over. My chief focus will be to get his letters into print—a task that will ultimately fill more than 25 volumes! I also have a hankering to write about the very interesting history of Lovecraft’s literary recognition — his emergence from forgotten pulp writer to canonical American author. I hope I can do this without unduly emphasising my own role in the matter. And I have just completed an enormous two-volume history of supernatural fiction, titled “Unutterable Horror,” proceeding from Gilgamesh up to the present day. So I hope that this volume will help to rid me of the standard typecasting of me as a “Lovecraft scholar.” I doubt, though, that I’ll write much more fiction myself: I’ve read too much, and anything I write would probably be a conscious or unconscious echo of something I’ve read. I’m much more interested in discovering dynamic new figures who will expand the parameters of weird fiction. That is why my own annual magazine, “The Weird Fiction Review” (published by Centipede Press), is particularly open to new and unpublished writers.

Where do you see weird fiction going in the foreseeable future?

The dominant tendency is the mingling of what used to be considered disparate genres, and I think this tendency will continue. The work of Laird Barron in particular seems a heady fusion of hard-boiled crime, espionage, the superhero motif, fantasy and the supernatural, and the result is an unclassifiable amalgam that is nonetheless unmistakably “weird.” I think much Lovecraftian fiction now incorporates mainstream elements such as character portrayal and domestic conflict — elements that Lovecraft himself deliberately eschewed for aesthetic and philosophical reasons, but that lend vitality and emotive content to the works in question. We may get to the point where it becomes impossible to delineate any clear distinction between any of the “genres” and what used to be called “mainstream” writing — there will, at best, be a kind of gradation or continuum along which a given literary work will be uneasily placed.

In all your research on Lovecraft, what is the most unexpected thing you’ve come to learn about him?

The more you read Lovecraft’s letters and learn about his life, the more you realise what a pungent sense of humour he had. This doesn’t come out in his fiction precisely because he felt (rightly, I think) that humor doesn’t mix well with the kind of intense, clutching horror he sought to write. But he really had a good sense of humour, ranging from light-hearted buffoonery to biting satire. And that humor was often directed at himself — he was no stuffed shirt or pompous ass, and could dynamite his own persona as a stiff-necked 18th-century gentleman. He made fun of his own penchant for sesquipedalian diction when, in a letter, instead of writing “Have a heart,” he wrote “Possess a cardiac organ!”

Lynne Jamneck lives in Auckland, New Zealand. She holds an MA in English Literature, has been short listed for the Sir Julius Vogel and Lambda Awards, and has published short fiction in various markets, including “Jabberwocky Magazine,” “H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror,” “Fantastique Unfettered” and “Tales for Canterbury.” She edited the SF anthology “Periphery,” available from Untreed Reads, and is currently writing her first speculative novel. An extract of her MA thesis on Lovecraft and Poe will be published in an upcoming issue of the “Lovecraft Annual.”

  1. anon

    regarding the potential rating for ATMOM – the similarly themed Prometheus had to be R rated for several things (incl language, violence) but I suppose theres nothing like that in MOM – maybe the discovery of the team, but they could certainly shoot in a way that wouldnt warrant an R rating. so MOM could probably get away with a PG13 on that front. However there would still need to be an atmosphere of overbearing dread to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. the audience should be scared and creeped out by the implications of the ideas presented, the sense of weirdness/eeriness, the horror of the concepts unfolding…what it means for mankind…where we came from…what is behind it….our place in the universe etc…. the unfathomable big questions wed be better off not knowing the answers to…
    Im not so sure that stuff could be portrayed 100% effectively with a PG13 rating.

    • JM

      The Conjuring and Insidious, were both rated PG-13 and were two films that created lingering fear and a sense of horror more than many R movies. In the hands of the right director it’s very possible to create dread and terror and still have a PG-13 rating.

  2. Words from Stranger Worlds
    Words from Stranger Worlds11-30-2012

    Really great interview. I’ve been a fan of Lovecraft’s work since I was a child and I never realized his humor.I just learned something new about one of my all-time favorite authors so thanks very much for that. This was a great read.

  3. Darrell Schweitzer
    Darrell Schweitzer03-15-2013

    If you want to appreciate Lovecraft’s humor, beyond the level of playfulness and in-jokes in his stories, the letters will indeed reveal much. Also some of his parodies and joke stories, like “Old Bugs,” “Ibid,” “Sweet Ermengarde” and most especially the poem “Waste Paper, a Poem of Profound Insignificance” which is a contemporary parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and a real hoot.

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  5. Maribel

    Thanks for finally writing about >Interview: S.T.
    Joshi on Weird Fiction & Lovecraft <Loved it!

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