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From the Mouth of the Madman

[Versión original en inglés]

The Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror is pleased to present a new interview for its section “De Boca del Loco” (From the mouth of the madman).

In this edition, we are honored to have the words from Mr. S.T. Joshi himself, a novelist, critic and definitely the best qualified investigator in both the life and works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, our main figure in this group.

Mr. Joshi is quite an inspiration for most of Lovecraft’s aficionados. A Master on his (several) field(s), S.T. Joshi has been awarded many prizes for his works, some of his awards include; The Horror Writers Association's “Bram Stoker Award for non fiction”, “British Fantasy Award”, “The International Horror Guild Award” and the “World Fantasy Convention Award” (on this last one, he later returned both awards because of their decision to discontinue the use of a bust of H.P.L. as the trophy after claims of Lovecraft being racist).

So sit back, relax and enjoy these wise and twisted words directly... from the mouth of the madman!

Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror: Mr Joshi, first off, thanks for agreeing to enlighten your fans from Mexico with this session of Q&A. How did you get interested in the world of Lovecraft in the first place?

S. T. Joshi: When I was about ten years old, I discovered the joys of reading. I initially read some works of fantasy (one of my favourites was C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia—a very amusing choice, given my later atheism!). But I soon found horror fiction more stimulating. In the United States there is a publisher called Scholastic Book Services. This publisher sells books to students at a very low price, and I purchased an anthology—Betty Owen’s 11 Great Horror Stories—for 95¢! This book had “The Dunwich Horror.” This must have been in 1971—I was thirteen years old. Soon thereafter, I discovered the Arkham House editions of Lovecraft’s stories in the public library in Muncie, Indiana. But I made the mistake of beginning with At the Mountains of Madness—a very dense work that I simply did not understand! I put the book away, but some months later I started reading The Dunwich Horror and Others. I was immediately fascinated! Lovecraft’s dense prose as well as his bizarre conceptions were highly compelling to me, and from that moment onward I became a Lovecraft devotee for life.

CL&H: Do you think it has something to do with the “the age”? Because most of Lovecraft hard core fans seem to start on their early teens.

S. T. Joshi: Yes, I think that it is helpful to read Lovecraft as a teenager. This is the time when many people (boys especially) are looking for imaginative escape from the tedium of daily life. Also, everything seems new and fresh at that age, and horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature can have a tremendous impact. I believe that in later life the imagination tends to harden, so that Lovecraft’s stories would not have quite the same effect. Of course, as one grows up one reads Lovecraft for other reasons, or finds other things to appreciate in his work.

CL&H: Coming from an Indian background that is filled with mysticism, tradition, mythology and a lot of superstition (much like it happens in México and Latin America), topics we see reflected in the Lovecraftian universe, how did that influence you or the way you saw the world at an early age?

S. T. Joshi: Well, the funny thing is that I know relatively little about my Indian heritage. I probably know less about Hinduism than many Americans or Europeans! In any case, I seem to have recognized at an early age that Lovecraft was inventing his own mythology—and it was a mythology that really was a kind of symbol for the vastness and unknowability of the universe. These are largely secular conceptions rather than mystical ones. In fact, I believe Lovecraft is among the least religious or mystical writers in literary history. All his “gods” turn out to be either aliens from outer space or metaphors for the mystery of the cosmos.

CL&H: Both your parents were scholars. Did that have something to do with you becoming an atheist and critic of the world? Or did it help you take on the path of becoming an academic?

S. T. Joshi: Certainly, the academic background of my parents (my father was an economist, my mother a mathematician) led me to become studious at an early age. But I was the only humanist in my family (one of my sisters became a mathematician, the other a computer scientist)—my interests tended toward literature and music. I led a very sheltered upbringing, and I did not know what I could do to earn a living except to become an academic. But as I continued my education (doing graduate work at Brown and Princeton), I found that that was not the career I wished. It took me a very long time to decide that I could enter the world of publishing as an occupation. And so I did! Later I became a full-time freelance writer and editor.

As for atheism: my father was a secularist and did not wish me or my sisters to be indoctrinated into any religion, not even Hinduism. (That is why I know so little about it.) He told my mother (who is a devout Hindu), “If you must pray, pray in secret.” We were allowed to determine for ourselves what religion we wished to adopt—if any. As a teenager I began looking into some of the major religions of the world, but I found them all to be nonsensical. So becoming an atheist was an easy step.

CL&H: In this modern world it seems that no horror or fantasy literature can come out if it’s not adaptable to films or comics, what is happening to literature these days?

S. T. Joshi: Oh, I think it is an exaggeration to say that weird fiction must be adaptable to film to be popular. There are many counter-examples to that idea. No films have been made of Thomas Ligotti’s work (almost all of it is short fiction—no novels), and yet he is one of the most respected writers in our field. Perhaps he is not a best-selling writer, but he nonetheless has a wide following. Similarly, Ramsey Campbell has been both popular and respected for more than half a century, but very few of his works have been made into film (one novel, The Nameless, was made into a Spanish film—Los sin nombre [1999]). I believe that Caitlín R. Kiernan is the best writer of weird fiction today, but no film of her work has yet been made. (I believe a film of her novel The Red Tree is in production.) So I believe it is still possible to be a successful weird writer without media exposure!

CL&H: Among the regular subjects in our reading discussions there are two topics that often end up in heated discussions; a) “Lovecraft is not tentacles” and b) (and probably a sensitive one) “H.P.L. was a racist”. What is your position on those matters?

S. T. Joshi: To be sure, there is far more to Lovecraft than tentacles. Indeed, there is far more to Lovecraft than his “monsters” in general. The essence of Lovecraft is cosmic alienation: the notion that human beings are lost in a cosmos so immense (both in space and in time) that we are insignificant insects, here today and gone tomorrow. What Lovecraft was trying to do was to show how this conception dawns upon his protagonists—and how they react to it. In this sense, Lovecraft picks up from Poe in focusing on what I have called “the psychology of fear”; but Poe mostly focused on the fear of death, whereas Lovecraft’s focus is far wider. … As for racism—well, there is no doubt that Lovecraft was a racist. But he was also many other things—an atheist, a student of science, a traveller, a devotee of the past, an acute commentator on the political, social, and cultural movements of his time. Lovecraft was undeniably a racist, but this is a small part of his overall personality and philosophy. Also, Lovecraft believed that science was on his side in his racial arguments—and in some ways he was right. That is to say, some phases of nineteenth-century science did seem to confirm Lovecraft’s racial presuppositions. It required decades of research by anthropologists to overturn these presuppositions, and Lovecraft did not live to see that process completed.

CL&H: You returned your awards from the “World Fantasy Convention” because of their position on Lovecraft not being a good image for the group, have you changed your mind? and did they ever reach out to you to try and work something out?

S. T. Joshi: I do not regret my action regarding the World Fantasy Award, and I never heard from anyone on the World Fantasy Committee about my action.

CL&H: Weeks ago, a post in our section "Medical Anomalies" caused uproar, the subject was the Harlequin Ichthyosis, and some of the followers considered it offensive, what is your position about political correctness in horror nowadays?

S. T. Joshi: Your question is a good follow-up to the previous one, because the World Fantasy Committee’s decision to change the award is a prime example of political correctness run amok. In most cases, I do not like the term “political correctness”: it was invented by right-wing politicians as a cover for their continuing to speak and behave in a racist and misogynist manner. But there are times when leftists do go too far, and this business of the World Fantasy Award is one of them. The award was made in Lovecraft’s image as an acknowledgement of his importance to the field of weird fiction; it said nothing about Lovecraft’s personal beliefs, and it does not require any recipient of the award to echo or agree with those beliefs. The science fiction field has a John W. Campbell Award—but Campbell was a much more ignorant racist than Lovecraft, and yet no one talks of changing that award!

CL&H: You are a harsh critic when it comes to literature, what do you recommend to the young writers in order to avoid creating lousy pieces?

S. T. Joshi: I have always said that the best practice for writing is writing. You cannot know if you are truly a writer unless you write a great deal of work in different styles and motifs, to see what (if anything) works best for you. I have written harshly about many writers who imitate Lovecraft because their imitations are mechanical and unimaginative. Many writers go through an early phase where they imitate some cherished writer—but genuine writers eventually move on to write work that reflects their own ideas and beliefs. Poor writers never move beyond imitation. In general, I tend to attack only writers who are already established; I have also helped several younger writers become established, because I believe that their work is powerful and vivid.

CL&H: What is the scariest situation you have lived?

S. T. Joshi: My life has largely been devoid of fear, I think. But I was absolutely petrified when I visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona on a recent trip with my wife. I am terrified of heights, and peering over the edge of the canyon filled me with cosmic dread! Lovecraft would have loved the place -I wish he could have seen it-. But while I did enjoy the spectacle, I also had to fight against the thought of falling or leaping into the canyon and ending up a broken fragment of humanity miles below!

CL&H: You have written a huge amount of books on subjects such as H.P.L. and his universe as well as related things like horror and social criticism, but I'm fortunate enough to say I have read 3 of your fiction works, “The Removal Company” and the duet “Conspiracy of Silence PLUS Tragedy at Sarsfield Manor”. The main character of your mystery series, Detective Joe Scintilla seems to be a well-educated scholar who ended up in the case solving world, is Scintilla a reflection of yourself? Maybe S.T. Joshi’s secret career desire was to become a detective...

S. T. Joshi: Detective fiction was one of my earliest interests as a reader: I read many works by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and others when I was a teenager. John Dickson Carr, with his baffling "locked-room" mysteries, were especially fascinating to me. In fact, at the age of 16 I wrote a short detective novel, THE ORDINARY PEOPLE. But it was a very poor piece of work, and I soon discarded it. But I have always wished to write detective stories. I suppose I could say that Joe Scintilla is an idealization of the person I would like to be--both intelligent and dynamic.

CL&H: I bought a “two in one” copy of “Conspiracy of Silence/Tragedy at Sarsfield Manor” book, in the case of “The Removal Company”, I borrowed it from a friend. I must say that I wasn’t interested in the "Novela Noir" until I read this books, however the horror in those is mostly a human made horror. As a writer, what do you prefer to write about, the dark side of the mind, or the supernatural?

S. T. Joshi: The curious thing is that I did not read noir or "hard-boiled" detective fiction until relatively late in life--maybe in my thirties. But I greatly enjoy the work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others. Other writers, such as Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith, who focus on aberrant psychological states, are also very interesting to me. While I prefer supernatural fiction (because it represents a liberation of the imagination beyond the sphere of mundane reality), I do find the "dark side of the mind" very compelling--ranging from Robert Bloch's PSYCHO to the novels of Thomas Harris and many others.

CL&H: Lovecraft wrote tons of letters during his life, which you have stated in your investigations that it was part of his magic, but mostly he lived a miserable life. What would Lovecraft have achieved had he lived in these times? Would he have been a successful blogger or a FB personality?

S. T. Joshi: Actually, I dispute the contention that Lovecraft led a "miserable" life. True, he never had much money, but he seems to have lived the kind of life he wished to lead. After all, he did not have to report to an office, and he could spend 5 or 6 hours a day writing letters! Lovecraft was indeed a sort of "blogger" in his own day. And since he became a socialist toward the end of his life (and someone who despised the Republican Party), he would have richly enjoyed directing his barbs against the odious Donald Trump and his mindless and corrupt supporters!

CL&H: Tell us something about S.T. Joshi that nobody knows.

S. T. Joshi: I believe some people know that I sing tenor in a community choir, the Northwest Chorale. But most people do not know that I once sang in a church choir! Yes, the great atheist S. T. Joshi put on a white muslin robe and sang at Queen Anne Lutheran Church every Sunday for two years! It happened this way. A member of the Northwest Chorale also sang at Queen Anne, but he told me that the church choir had no tenors, so that it could only sing three-part music (for soprano, alto, and bass). So he persuaded me to join. I actually ended up liking the experience, as I found the music quite interesting. We once sang a setting of the great English hymn “Jerusalem”—and received applause! (Usually one does not applaud in church.) But after two years, I became tired of the responsibility. I wanted to stay home on Sundays and watch American football!

CL&H: Any final words for the CL&H Monterrey you would like to add?

S. T. Joshi: I hope that readers are interested in the many volumes of Lovecraft’s letters that I am editing for Hippocampus Press. I believe these letters truly reveal Lovecraft “as he really was,” and they are some of the most interesting things he has written. Right now my colleague David E. Schultz and I have nearly finished editing the joint correspondence of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith—a tremendous compilation of nearly 700 pages! I am beginning to think that Lovecraft’s letters are his greatest literary achievement, even greater than his stories.

So there you have it dear readers from our Círculo Lovecraftiano & Horror, the words directly “From the mouth of the madman”. We strongly suggest you to read the works that the Master S. T. Joshi has published about not only H.P. Lovecraft but about a lot of writers in the horror gender as well as his own fiction novels and stories.

You can find more information in the next link, or contact directly the administrators of the Circulo Lovecraftiano & Horror if you want to know more about Mr. S. T. Joshi and his work.

See you in the next edition of “From the mouth of the madman”

- El Dumpstero

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