Questions Over Innsmouth: Interview with Lovecraftian Scholar S.T. Joshi

This interview has become available in print and e-book format with the release of Hinnom Magazine Issue 001.

 

Greetings from the Ether,

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing famed Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi.  Perhaps the most iconic scholar of the late author, as well as an established editor and voice in the realms of weird fiction, horror, and cosmicism, it was an amazing experience and overall, humbling.  For a while, we planned on releasing this interview in a newsletter.  These plans fell through with the reconstruction of the publishing house, transforming from Gehenna Publishing House to what you are reading now, Gehenna & Hinnom Books.  We wanted to wait for the perfect moment to release this interview, and with the site garnering so much traffic (reaching 1000+ visitors in 20 days!), we felt this was the perfect moment.

Now, I share with you the interview.

Never before seen or heard until now.

We hope you enjoy.

 

On World Building.

CP: Many of our readers are interested in genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, and many are authors themselves.  These genres often rely on engaging and articulate world building.  Authors like Tolkien are renowned for their ability to world build, but my question to you is, shouldn’t Lovecraft be considered one of the greats in this field of effective world building?  After all, didn’t many of his works exist in the same coherent yet discrete universe?

ST: Lovecraft was absolutely one of the most accomplished “world builders” in imaginative fiction. Perhaps he doesn’t get enough credit for it because, unlike Lord Dunsany, J. R. R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and others, the world he built was not a realm of pure fantasy but a meticulously realised version of the objectively real world—but a real world that has been subtly distorted to accommodate the bizarre. It is clear that, in the final decade of his life, beginning with “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), his stories use an essentially identical landscape—an imagined New England whose variegated topography (ranging from the untenanted wilderness of Vermont to the historially rich cities of Providence and Boston to fictitious towns such as Arkham and Innsmouth) and historical depth make them ideal foci for the intrusion of the weird. As a result, these stories become more than the sum of their parts, connected as they are by a complicated series of cross-references that allow them to become chapters of a long novel or saga.

On style.

CP: Lovecraft would often use colorful language and alliteration to paint canvases of horror that to this day remain unrivaled.  It seems often now that such detailed styles of writing are not nearly as prevalent anymore.  What are your thoughts on Lovecraft’s unique style and how his style differs from current literature?  Who are the Lovecrafts of today?

ST: Lovecraft, nurtured as he was on the richly textured (some would say flamboyant) prose of Edgar Allan Poe, and on later writers of dense prose such as Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen, naturally felt that this kind of prose was ideal in creating weird atmosphere. Bizarre events are difficult to convey in austere, barebones prose, and few such authors (with the exception of M. R. James) have succeeded at it. Lovecraft was a master of prose idiom: he not only had a prodigious vocabulary, but he was supremely skilled in the ability to arrange words, sentences, and whole passages such that they convey an immensely powerful impact on the reader. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that such dense prose has been abandoned today. Such writers as Ramsey Campbell, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Laird Barron, while in no way imitating Lovecraft’s prose, have each evolved their own distinctive styles that are anything but spare and skeletonic. Lesser-known writers such as Jonathan Thomas and Michael Aronovitz also have wondrously musical prose styles. In the specifically Lovecraftian realm, W. H. Pugmire is a luminous prose-poet whose stories and vignettes would have evoked the admiration of Lovecraft himself.

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S. T. Joshi, October 2012. Photo by Emily Marija Kurmis.

On Voice.

CP: Lovecraft’s voice is one that many keen readers can detect from even a small excerpt.  His concepts and language were often unrestrained and sometimes jarring.  Do you believe that Lovecraft’s inability to censor certain aspects of his literature was a strength or a weakness for his career?  Should authors live to their own standards or is there a medium for which they should abide?

ST: It may well be the case that Lovecraft’s plots and images are a bit “over-the-top” as far as the weird writing of his time is concerned; but because these plots and images are expressed in such superbly evocative prose, they are as far from being crude and amateurish as it is possible to be. Lovecraft was seeking a kind of incantatory effect in his prose, produced both by language and by incident; at times this required strong images of overt terror. But he was careful to have a proper emotional build-up to the climactic scene. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example, the actual emergence of the entity Cthulhu at the end of the story is prepared for by a long, detailed chronicle in which we first see only an image of Cthulhu (as carved on a bas-relief), then hear about the nature of the entity through a series of interlocutors. After all this build-up, the reader is “ready” to see Cthulhu in the flesh.

On Inspiration.

CP: It is evident that Lovecraft wanted fervently to be a writer and was very passionate about bettering his skills.  Many scholars have connected his mother’s institutionalization and death at Butler Hospital, coupled with her emotional and psychological neglect, as precursors of influence for his unique style of writing.  Do you believe that authors draw from their real life experiences for inspiration?  If so, should they?  And how do you feel Lovecraft found his inspiration to write?

ST: I very much doubt that the illness of Lovecraft’s mother had any direct relation to Lovecraft becoming a writer. He was an incredibly precocious boy and was already writing prose and verse at the age of six. By his early teenage years he was writing prolifically—but his failure to graduate from high school caused him to retreat into hermitry, as he was suddenly faced with the prospect of not being able to earn a living in the profession he had chosen for himself (i.e., a professor of astronomy). Lovecraft certainly drew upon facets of his own life in his work. I believe all writers do so, but the existence of thousands of Lovecraft’s letters make it transparently clear how nearly every incident in his life—as well as many of the books he read—worked their way into his creative writing, even if at times in distorted form. I don’t see how writers can avoid drawing upon their own experiences—even if writing work of a weird or fantastic nature—if they wish their work to be authentic and convincing. Lovecraft had a compulsion to write weird fiction, and he felt that existing weird fiction over the previous two centuries or so had certain limitations (in imaginative scope and plausibility in the light of advances in modern science) that he sought to overcome. In this way he evolved a new kind of weird tale that drew upon science to evoke horror not merely from conventional vampires or werewolves but from the vast cosmos beyond our sight and understanding. As such, he effected a union between weird fiction and the new genre of science fiction.

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Photo provided by stjoshi.org

On Science Fiction.

CP: Science fiction authors are often credited for predicting future events, as the genre has classically done.  Like Jules Verne with the moon, Lovecraft predicted the repercussions of what he would consider toying with cosmic forces, i.e. the Atom Bomb and the Cold War.  Do you feel that the genres of science fiction offer opportunities in literary importance that other genres do not?  Is it important to recognize authors like Lovecraft for these impactful predictions?

ST: I think the “predictions” of science fiction writers are oftentimes more accidental than otherwise, and I’m not sure that any literary value is conveyed by how accurately a given writer predicts some future event or future technological development. Science fiction, like all literature, depends for its literary quality on its ability to probe the human condition. Where Lovecraft gains his distinctiveness is in portraying in inimitable fashion the immensity of the universe and the poignancy of our insignificance and transience within that universe. That is his signature contribution to literature, and it is something he conveyed more keenly and terrifyingly than any author in literary history.

On Favorites.

CP: You have likely read everything Lovecraft has ever written.  Your bibliography of Lovecraft works is the largest and most respected in the world.  Of all of his writing, which is your personal favorite and why?

ST: In terms of his fiction, I retain a fondness for At the Mountains of Madness, which I see as his greatest venture into “cosmic” fiction. The Antarctic setting is utterly convincing, and the culminating scene—where the protagonists encounter and flee from the shoggoth in the depths of the Old Ones’ abandoned city—is, to my mind, the single most frightening passage in all weird fiction. Other stories such as “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Shadow out of Time,” and “The Colour out of Space” are all immensely rich and rewarding. Some of Lovecraft’s poetry—notably “The Ancient Track” and Fungi from Yuggoth—are quite powerful. The long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is always illuminating, and other essays such as “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” “Cats and Dogs,” and “Some Repetitions on the Times” shed fascinating light on Lovecraft’s political, social, and philosophical views.

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On Future.

CP: As a scholar of Lovecraft, what are you currently working on?  And what future project(s) are you most excited about?

ST: Since I have already edited corrected editions of Lovecraft’s collected fiction, essays, and poetry, the only thing left for me to do is to edit Lovecraft’s letters—which I am undertaking in an edition that may extend to 25 volumes or more! About 7 or 8 volumes have appeared so far from Hippocampus Press, and one or two volumes should appear every year. I’m not sure I have anything more to say about Lovecraft the man and writer, but I do want to write a little treatise about the history of Lovecraft criticism—which will really be an account of how Lovecraft emerged from the obscurity of the pulp magazines to become a world-renowned literary figure. I hope to write this work in the next year or two. And, of course, I am happy to continue compiling original anthologies of neo-Lovecraftian fiction. I have developed a fine cadre of contemporary writers who use Lovecraft as an imaginative springboard for conveying their own moods and images. I also continue to prepare editions of older weird writers, since I remain very interested in the history of weird fiction, from the dawn of literature to the present day.

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Bonus Question On Current Events:

CP: On the topic of current events, what are your thoughts on the Houdini/Lovecraft drama?

ST: I presume you are referring to the discovery of three chapters of a work called The Cancer of Superstition that Houdini commissioned Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy to ghostwrite. My initial feeling—based on statements by Eddy and August Derleth in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (Arkham House, 1966), where a synopsis of the book (clearly prepared by Lovecraft) and the first chapter were printed—was that the chapters were written by Eddy. But I am now thinking that Lovecraft probably had a hand in their writing, and may in fact have written them entirely. I do not think Eddy was really capable of writing these chapters, even based on raw data provided by Lovecraft. But the work as a whole is not exactly compelling and does not rank very high among Lovecraft’s output.

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