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The Temple of Dagon » S. T. Joshi

S. T. Joshi

S. T. JoshiS. T. Joshi is a leading authority on H. P. Lovecraft as well as several other authors in the supernatural and fantasy genres. He has published a large number of related works including his award-winning biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life and the very extensive An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (which I own and highly recommend).

Interview Date: October 9th, 2004

TOD: It is apparent that you dislike the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos”. Many purists do reject it since it was not Lovecraft’s term, but it has become generally accepted. Do you feel that it is a good encapsulating term? Or are there times when you personally think it is appropriate, and others when it is not?

STJ: I actually am conflicted over the use of the term. At this point, it seems unlikely that any other term will ever gain wide currency, so I think the attempt to substitute some other one (e.g., Lovecraft Mythos, which I think is a bit more appropriate) is doomed to failure. One argument against the use of the term—that Cthulhu, as an entity, is not one of the major deities of the Mythos—seems invalid to me, since August Derleth (who coined the term) stated explicitly that he chose it because it was in “The Call of Cthulhu” that the Mythos was first coherently embodied. Dirk W. Mosig’s term, the Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth, is so grotesquely unwieldy that it will never catch on. One term that Lovecraft used—the “Arkham cycle”—isn’t bad at all. But, for better or worse, I fear we are stuck with Cthulhu Mythos.

TOD: It is said that Lovecraft believed in always using the known facts when applicable, and never going completely against what was known at the time. Do you find this generally true in his work, or primarily with geographical or scientific aspects?

STJ: Yes, I do believe that Lovecraft, where possible, tried to base his work on existing science, even though he did not consciously express such an intention (i.e., the intention of making use of “supplements” rather than “contradictions” of known laws of matter) until a letter of 1931. There are, of course, a few embarrassing gaffes, as when he cites the Piltdown man in “Dagon” and “The Rats in the Walls,” but he could not have known that this was a hoax. I think “The Shunned House” is a landmark in its use of this conception: the vampire myth is reinterpreted in light of Einstein and “intra-atomic energy” (i.e., quantum theory). Granted, there is no detailed explanation of how this is possible, but I think the gesture is important. It is telling that those few tales where Lovecraft does use relatively conventional supernaturalism—e.g., “The Moon-Bog”—are among his weaker tales.

TOD: Speaking of consistency, would you say that Lovecraft was consistent in his creations? People tend to explain various entities and characters by gathering the ‘known facts’ from multiple stories and mixing them together. Having studied both his writings and letters in depth, do you find that there is such a level of continuity in his works? Or are there too many major (or minor) inconsistencies to warrant such definitions?

STJ: I don’t believe Lovecraft ever expected anyone to sift through his work to see if, say, his conceptions of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc., were consistent from one story to the next. In fact, I don’t believe they are, and I don’t believe Lovecraft aimed at that kind of precision. He would have felt that it hindered his imagination to be bound by previous conceptions. The figure of Nyarlathotep, in particular, is in my judgment quite inconsistent from one story to the next: he appears as a kind of itinerant lecturer in one tale (“Nyarlatotep”), an Egyptian Pharoah in another (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), and, apparently, as one of the fungi from Yuggoth in another (“The Whisperer in Darkness”). The facile claim that Nyarlathotep is a “shape-shifter” is merely an admission that his outward form, let alone his inward characteristics, are radically different from one tale to another. The chronologies of prehistory as recorded in At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time” contain at least one serious contradiction. As Robert M. Price has demonstrated, the Necronomicon itself becomes a very different type of book from one story to the next.

TOD: Reading your work, it seems that you question the credit given to many modern day horror writers, citing the reasons for their acclaim as often being less than literary. As a contrast, are there any modern day writers in particular you feel do not receive enough credit?

STJ: I am still astounded that Ramsey Campbell has not gained more widespread renown than he has. Incredible as it may seem, for a few months he actually had to work in a Borders bookstore in England to make ends meet (he put the experience to excellent use in his recent novel, The Overnight). Not a single work of his has been made into a film, I believe. I have little doubt that future generations will regard him as the leading horror writer of our generation, every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood. Thomas Ligotti is another writer who deliberately keeps a low profile, content to publish mostly in the small press. T. E. D. Klein’s small body of work is destined to survive. I don’t make a great deal of effort to keep up on contemporary horror writing, but I have greatly enjoyed some of the work of David J. Schow, Norman Patridge, and Kathe Koja. Posterity has a ruthless way of sorting out the transiently popular from the genuinely meritorious, and I am confident that the flashy work of such writers as Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker will fall by the wayside. The very features that make it popular today (its seeming “relevance” to our time by its use of contemporary artifacts of our culture) will doom it for future generations.

TOD: It is a pet peeve of mine to hear people discussing the “Necronomicon” as being a real written work. Do you think this is primarily due to misinformation (which the internet is notorious for), or from the wish of many for it to actually exist? Have you ever seen this level of belief with any other fictitious writing?

STJ: Yes, I think this is a case of people wanting something to be true so desperately that they convince themselves that it is true. I remember, many years ago, meeting a chap in the John Hay Library of Brown University who, when he stumbled upon the George Hay Necronomicon (a very clever hoax, admittedly) became absolutely convinced of the work’s actual existence. This kind of wishful thinking works in many other areas, of course—chiefly, if I may say so, in the area of religion. But I cannot think of any other fictitious work that has captured the public imagination in quite the way the Necronomicon has—but of course, few other fictitious works have been “pushed” quite as forcefully, both by Lovecraft and by others, as this one.

TOD: Do you ever read modern day mythos-based works? Do you feel they can sometimes help keep the spirit of Lovecraft and others alive? Or do you prefer to stick to the originals?

STJ: The problem with so many modern treatments of the Mythos is that they merely end up rewriting Lovecraft’s own stories or conceptions without adding any new or innovative. As instances of homage, such works are rather touching, but in the end they cheapen Lovecraft’s ideas because few writers can treat them with the deftness and skill that Lovecraft demonstrated. There is always a danger that critics (ranging from Edmund Wilson to Damon Knight) will mistake these inferior imitations for the original, and so denigrate Lovecraft himself for the bumblings of his would-be successors. There are, to be sure, a few imaginative extrapolations of Lovecraft’s ideas (I do not necessarily mean just “Mythos” ideas)—such works as Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs,” Fred Chappell’s Dagon, Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks,” and some others that I could name if you held a gun to my head. The key is for writers to use Lovecraft‘s ideas or imagery as a springboard for their own conceptions, not merely as an excuse to rehash the original. No one wants to read an inferior, watered-down version of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; you might as well just read “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

TOD: There is a lot of argument around which stories deserve to be considered “Mythos stories”. Some call it a genre in itself. Do you think there are key elements that more or less determine this? Or do you prefer not to think of it in those terms, but rather just personal opinion?

STJ: There are tales that are “Lovecraft-influenced” and there are tales that are “Mythos-influenced”—they are not necessarily the same thing. People who write in this little subgenre tend to take a too narrow view of the matter: Lovecraft’s “Mythos” tales comprise at best about a dozen of his stories, and there are plenty of other stories that have interesting conceptions of their own that might be worth elaborating upon. Certainly, if one just throws in some random name like Azathoth or Dunwich without drawing upon Lovecraft’s deeper conceptions, the story should not be considered a “Mythos” story at all—in fact, it will probably not be much of a story in any case. But I have little interest in this kind of categorization or hair-splitting.

TOD: We know Lovecraft’s distaste for most cinema and many feel he would be appalled at some of the films made based on his work. Aside from the story adaptations you have seen, is there one story in particular you would personally love to see made?

STJ: Since my favourite Lovecraft story is At the Mountains of Madness, I certainly would like to see this short novel made into a film. (I understand that Guillermo del Toro is in fact at work on a big-buget film version right now.) However, the difficulties in making a credible film of it are pretty formidable: how, exactly, do you depict the flashback sequence in which the history of the Old Ones is depicted? If one actually shows these entities building their great cities or what not, it might well appear comical. Great care would have to be done in this and other regards. I believe a highly effective film could be made of “The Thing on the Doorstep,” given that it is chiefly a “human” story involving the interaction of a few characters, something the film medium can handle a lot better than the kind of “cosmic horror” that Lovecraft is known for. As I am writing, I have been handed the screenplay of “The Thing on the Doorstep” written by K. L. Young, who has been involved in some very fine short Lovecraft films. I may also mention that, at the recently concluded H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, I saw the trailer of a very fine-looking film of “The Call of Cthulhu”—as an imitation of a silent film. So perhaps there is hope that we will soon see an actually meritorious Lovecraft film.

TOD: Have you ever received any interesting gifts from fans of your work? Lovecraft inspired artwork, hand-made Cthulhu statuettes, or anything special that you really cherished?

STJ: Sorry, nothing comes to mind.

TOD: Are there any upcoming projects you are especially looking forward to?

STJ: Now that I have published nearly all of Lovecraft’s fiction in annotated editions (from Penguin), and am in the process of preparing an annotated edition of Lovecraft’s essays (from Hippocampus Press), there doesn’t seem much left for me to do. The final frontier, as it were, in Lovecraft studies is the publication of his letters, and my colleague David E. Schultz and I are in the process of transcribing and editing all his extant letters for eventual issuance as a CD-ROM. That may still be years in the future, but for the time being we are publishing smaller batches of Lovecraft’s letters to a given correspondent with Night Shade Books and Hippocampus Press. I would dearly love to issue the joint correspondence of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (we have all the Smith side, but not all the Lovecraft side), and the joint correspondence of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (we have both sides, but copyright issues have not yet been worked out). I think I have probably said all I have to say about Lovecraft the man and writer with my various books, especially my biography (now finally back in print from Necronomicon Press) and such critical studies a H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West. So you’ll probably not see any more critical studies from me. Well, I take that back: there may be a book dealing with Lovecraft’s responses to the political, social, and cultural events of his time—something I tried to do somewhat sporadically in my biography, but was not able to do in a coherent or exhaustive manner. What did Lovecraft think of Woodrow Wilson? of Calvin Coolidge? of Billy Sunday? of Ernest Hemingway? I think questions of this sort deserve a comprehensive answer.

TOD: I would like to know the most important fact you ever learned about Lovecraft. It would be easy to also which piece of information held the most interest to you, but that is more of a personal matter. Instead I mean which fact was most significant in relation to knowledge about him.

STJ: This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think the most exciting discovery I made (well, I myself did not make it, but I was the first to examine it when the discovery was made) was the unearthing of the original autograph manuscript of “The Shadow out of Time” in 1994. That story had bothered me for years, since I knew that the text as published in Astounding Stories was inaccurate in many particulars (particularly in paragraphing), but there was no way to restore the text in the absence of a manuscript. I even attempted a “conjectural restoration” of the text and circulated it among my colleagues. But with the discovery of the autograph ms., we are finally able to read this great story as Lovecraft wrote it, and the result is to my mind breathtaking. (I may mention that the original ms. of “The Haunter of the Dark”—formerly in the possession of Donald A. Wollheim—is also unlocated, although I doubt that, if it ever comes to light, it will reveal a text radically different from the one we have.) In terms of some actual “fact” about Lovecraft, I would have to say that our general awareness of how carefully Lovecraft followed the political events of his time (he read the Providence Journal every day for nearly his entire life, and also subscribed to Sunday editions of the New York Tribune and the New York Times at various points in his life) shattered forever the myth of Lovecraft as an “eccentric recluse,” as one totally cut off from the vibrant America of the 1920s and 1930s. Once we become aware of this, we can look at the stories in a very different way: they no longer seem merely exercises in shudder-coining, but as the work of a man who sought, even if in a somewhat indirect way, to address the burning issues of his own day by means of imaginative fiction.

TOD: Do you have any final words for the readers at the Temple of Dagon?

STJ: It strikes me that there is today not quite the fervent scholarly interest in Lovecraft that there was a decade or two decades ago. Lovecraft scholarship was revolutionized from about 1975 to about 1990, but since that time there has not been a great deal of significant work done. Perhaps this is inevitable: much of the work has already been done, so there are perhaps fewer new avenues to explore. I myself have been pulled in other directions, and the main focus of my work is no longer Lovecraft but such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, and George Sterling, not to mention my work entirely outside the realm of weird fiction (e.g., H. L. Mencken, religion, politics, etc.). So I have not been able to be quite the leader of the “Lovecraft movement” that I was around 1990. I am a little dismayed that younger scholars have not emerged to carry on the tradition, but perhaps they will come. Still, the extent to which Lovecraft the man and writer has risen in the estimation of the general public in the last few decades is remarkable: he is now firmly and permanently ensconced in the canon of American and world literature, and there is little likelihood that he will fade away anytime soon. Lovecraft remains unique in attracting both an academic and a popular following—I can think of no other writer who can duplicate this weirdly schizophrenic appeal. And I think it is exactly that that will carry him into the future.

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