Today let’s talk with Sunand Tryambak Joshi, essayist, literary critic and author of H.P. Lovecraft’s biography I am Providence.
Hello M. Joshi. Thank you again for your quick and kind reply ! For those who do not know you yet, could you please introduce yourself ?
I was born in 1958 in Poona, India, and came to the United States in 1963 with my family. I discovered Lovecraft around 1972 and fell in love with him immediately ! In fact, I attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, not because it is a great educational institution (although it is), but because Lovecraft lived for most of his life in Providence and the university library has many of his papers and manuscripts.
The materials there allowed me to do much of my work : correcting the texts of Lovecraft’s fiction, essays, and poetry ; editing Lovecraft’s letters ; and writing a full-scale biography, I Am Providence, which was written in 1993–95, but not published in an unabridged edition until 2010. I have gone on to do work on other leading writers of weird fiction, such as Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Ambrose Bierce.
Most of the people I had interviews with told me they discovered HPL in their teenage years. You said in an interview that you met HPL when your were 13. According to you, what appeals so much to teenagers in HPL works ?
I believe that teenagers — especially around the ages of 13, 14, or 15 — are looking for an escape from mundane reality. It is quite a difficult time for people of that age ; their bodies are undergoing strange and alarming changes, and they are making the difficult translation from being « children » to being « young adults, » and facing adult responsibilities in some measure. So the literature of horror, fantasy, and science fiction provides a welcome escape. Lovecraft’s work (especially in its language) may seem « advanced » for people of that age, and in some ways it is ; but teenagers can absorb enough of it to understand the bold and radical nature of his conceptions (so different from the hackneyed ghosts and witches of conventional horror fiction), and the incredible intensity of his vision. It can truly take you out of yourself !
What’s you favorite HPL’s text and why ?
I have always regarded At the Mountains of Madness as his single best story. Its concluding section, where the shoggoth finally appears, is to my mind perhaps the single most terrifying moment in all literary history. There is nothing to compare with it. But this is quite a difficult text to read ; I myself attempted to read it at an early age but just didn’t understand it, so I had to put it aside. Later I came back to it and found it incredibly powerful.
This pandemic we are all going through strangely reminds us of the atmosphere described in Nyarlathotep (1920). So, that’s it, Nyarlathotep is here ?
Lovecraft would certainly have been interested in this pandemic — although, as a rationalist, he would know that it will eventually pass. (There is, unfortunately, very little evidence of what he thought of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19. Letters for this period are in short supply, so there is not much discussion of it.) As a firm believer in science, he would have ridiculed the anti-vaccinationists, conspiracy theorists, and other fools and scoundrels who are being so noisy today.
This is not to say that Lovecraft did not believe that Western civilisation (and perhaps all human civilisation) will eventually collapse and be wiped out. In « The Shadow out of Time » he conjectures that the human race will be replaced by philosopher-beetles !
There is this cliché depicting Lovecraft as some sort of depressive vampire-writer : sleeping during the day and writing all night long. When I read I am Providence, I was very surprised to discover that Lovecraft had a sense of humour. So Grandpa Theobald was a « funny guy » ?
Lovecraft was indeed a most amusing fellow ! This was one element that truly surprised me also as I did research for my biography. There is a wide range of humour in Lovecraft’s letters, from playful slang to puns to jokes of all sorts. He liked to make fun of himself, in such poems as « The Dead Bookworm. » And humour even enters into his weird fiction, although it is usually submerged deep under the horror. Some of this humour can approach misanthropic satire, as when, in At the Mountains of Madness, he states that the Old Ones created a « shambing, primitive mammal » and used it either for food or as an « amusing buffoon » !
Lovecraft’s descriptions of Vermont, New England and the Appalachians allow us to to travel during the lockdown. Landscapes have always been a character in its own right in HPL’s stories. You name « cosmic regionalism » Lovecraft’s final and third phase of aesthetic thought. Could you explain this idea ?
Even though he professed himself a devotee of England, Lovecraft truly loved his native land, but he was quite late in exploring it. As late as 1920 he stated that he had only ventured into the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Only after his mother died in 1921, and then after his failed marriage in 1924–26 (when he spent two horrible years in New York City), did he begin to travel widely. He went as far north as Quebec (Canada), and as far south as Key West, the chain of islands off the southern coast of Florida. His favourite cities were Charleston (South Carolina), Richmond (Virginia), and several others. He found much to appreciate in the impressive public buildings of Washington, D.C. All these trips somehow fed into his writing.
The notion of « cosmic regionalism » refers to the fact that Lovecraft liked to establish realism in his stories at the outset by placing them in some verifiably real area — usually New England. Even his imaginary New England towns (Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport) were based on real cities, and he drew many of their details from his travels. But he was not content to be only a regionalist ; he used these locales as springboards for cosmic voyages throughout the universe. He felt that the weird tale must be fundamentally a realistic genre except where the weird or supernatural enters. Otherwise it cannot be convincing to the sophisticated reader.
Lovecraft was far from being a recluse ! He took advantage of his travels to collect elements of American folklore. When he was in Vermont Lovecraft collected local legends (about whippoorwills for instance). Aside being a regionalist author, was Lovecraft a folklorist, like Henry Wentworth Akeley ?
Actually, the legend of the whippoorwills is something he heard from a friend, Edith Miniter, whom he visited in the remote town of Wilbraham, in central Massachusetts.
He did visit Vermont in 1927 and 1928, finding it a remarkably unspoiled and undeveloped area, as opposed to southern New England, which was already becoming industrialised. I am not sure Lovecraft was a very diligent folklorist, although he enjoyed hearing of legends that had an element of weirdness in them. But generally speaking, he preferred to invent his own myths and legends, because in this way he would not be constrained by the existing folklore and could let his imagination have free rein.
How did New England myths and legends fueled lovecraftian mythology ?
Lovecraft certainly absorbed New England legendry whenever he could. Much of it came from books, going all the way back to Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) — Lovecraft owned a first edition of this book ! (It had been in his family for generations.) He also read such works as John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers (1872) and Charles M. Skinner’s Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896). Some of the legends in these books found their way into his earlier stories, such as « The Unnamable » (1923) and « The Shunned House » (1924). Weird fiction is generally a backward-looking genre, drawing upon folklore going back to primitive times. All the central motifs of weird fiction — the ghost, the vampire, the witch, the haunted house, etc. — have long histories in human culture. But, as I’ve said, Lovecraft later came to prefer inventing his own myths.
New England seems to be a very peculiar place for American titans of horror literature. Of course, there is Edgar Allan Poe !
Lovecraft imagined his own Miskatonic region with the horror trinity : Arkham/Dunwich/Innsmouth. Stephen King penned his own imaginary topography : Caste Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot and Derry. Could you explain to us, Europeans, why New England is so peculiar and inspiring ?
Many Europeans (and, in fact, many Americans !) are unaware of how different each area of « New England » is. It consists of six different states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont), but each of these states has its own distinctive history stretching back to the 17th century. Lovecraft, even though he was born in Providence, Rhode Island, might have become a resident of Massachusetts. That is where his parents were residing when, in 1893, his father took ill and had to be placed in a sanitarium. This sad event brought Lovecraft and his mother back to the family home in Providence. Lovecraft knew that the history of Rhode Island was very different from that of Massachusetts. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a religious rebel who did not care for the Puritan theocracy of Boston, and he left the state to establish Rhode Island in 1636. As a result, the state gained a reputation for religious freedom that Massachusetts never had.
Lovecraft came to regard Puritan Massachetts as a dark, almost mediaeval region where ignorance and fanaticism led to the Salem witch trials of 1692. This is why all his invented towns are in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island ; it is there that the atmosphere of brooding terror can be created by drawing upon the unsavoury history of that state. It is noteworthy that in nearly all the stories set in Rhode Island, the horror is dispelled at the end — « The Shunned House, » The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, « The Haunter of the Dark, » and so on. It is as if Lovecraft could not allow his beloved Rhode Island to be tainted by lingering horrors of the sort that dwelled in the neighbouring state !
For me, Lovecraft wonderfully expressed the mysteries of the American continent, where weirdness can be found « at the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike » or in « valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut”. French editor Scylla translated great short novels written by Bob Leman . These novels “Bienvenue à Sturkeyville” are all set in the fictitious town of Sturkeyville, in the Appalachians. I found there what I liked in Lovecraft. Is there any authors you could advise us to read so we could have the same experience ?
Lovecraft was fairly unique among American weird writers for drawing so deeply upon the history and topography of his native land. Ambrose Bierce does occasionally use the crude mining towns of the American West as a setting for his horror tales, but only sporadically. Edgar Allan Poe’s tales are usually set in an imaginary land of his own imagination. Speaking of the Appalachians, Manly Wade Wellman set a number of his novels and tales there, and they are quite effective in drawing upon the distinctive culture of that region. But that is about all !
Many of us, being stuck at home for days, watched a great deal of movies, old or recent, on streaming platforms. Lovecraft and cinema were almost born at the same moment. How did he consider this form of art ? Could you explain how the movie Berkeley Square was an important source of inspiration for him ?
Lovecraft had a low opinion of the films of his day — understandably so, since they were quite crude and primitive in production values. But Lovecraft had a somewhat myopic view of films, especially those films that were based on literary works : he felt that such films had to be absolutely faithful to those works, otherwise they must be regarded as failures. This is why he despised the famous Dracula and Frankenstein films of 1931. Lovecraft actually saw a great many more films than people realise : in the 1910s he enjoyed the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, and in the 1920s his wife Sonia and his friend Frank Belknap Long would drag Lovecraft to see all manner of films in New York. He liked films that depicted historic panoramas, such as Cleopatra (1934) or The Private Life of Henry VIII (1936).
Berkeley Square (1933) fascinated him because it depicted a scenario he had already written about in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) — namely, the transference of minds over time. In that film (based on a play of the same name), the mind of a character of the 20th century goes back into the body of his ancestor in the 18th century. Lovecraft saw the film 4 times !
It clearly helped to inspire « The Shadow out of Time » (1934–35), where members of the Great Race send their minds back and forth through time into the bodies of various species throughout the universe, to gain knowledge of that species’ culture and civilisation.
Small anecdote … Is it true that Lovecraft was a ticket-seller for a short moment ?
Yes, indeed ! A professor at Brown University went to a movie theatre on downtown Providence around 1929 and saw Lovecraft sitting there taking tickets ! I believe this was at night. Lovecraft of course never mentions this « job, » and it probably lasted no more than a few weeks or months. There is no reason to doubt the anecdote.
Lovecraft considered that «the cinematographic adaptations of literary works must be scrupulously faithful to them, any deviation from the original text being considered as serious misconduct”.
He certainly had no idea that his works would spark so many attempts at film adaptations ! Do you think that translating Lovecraft to the big screen is impossible ?
I would not at all say that producing a genuinely faithful adaptation of a Lovecraft story is impossible. It can be done, but the director, screenwriter, and everyone involved must have a proper understanding of the essence of Lovecraft’s imagination. The focus of Lovecraft’s work is not the outlandish monsters he has invented, but the sense of terror and dread that these entities inspire in the characters. I think that a few films based on Lovecraft have in fact been successful, ranging from a little-known short film, The Music of Erich Zann (1981), directed by John Strysik, to the splendid German production Die Farbe (2011), based on « The Colour out of Space. »
The director of this film, Huan Vu, has been contemplating a film set in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. If he ever makes this film, I’m sure it will be most interesting. Some films that are not explicitly based on Lovecraft but may have been inspired by his work are also highly effective. I am compelled to believe that Peter Weir must have read « The Shadow out of Time » when making The Last Wave (1977), for that film uses key plot elements from that story throughout.
Lovecraft is quite fashionable these days. There are so many self-proclaimed lovecraftian novels, games, movies … What is your definition of lovecraftian ?
The essence of Lovecraftian fiction is « cosmicism » — the notion that the realms of space and time are so vast that all human civilisation, indeed all earth life, is an insignificant accident. But there are other elements that can make up an effective Lovecraftian story. Stories that draw upon the sinister history of a given locale ; stories that probe the question of what it is to be human (as in « The Shadow over Innsmouth, » where the protagonist, thinking he is fleeing the inhuman horrors populating Innsmouth, later learns that he is one of them) ; stories that avoid the standard motifs of horror fiction and come up with new monsters, especially those that might come from the depths of space — all these kinds of stories might be considered Lovecraftian.
What are the projects you are currently working on ? Is there anything left to write about Lovecraft ?
I have been working, in conjunction with David E. Schultz, on a complete publication of Lovecraft’s surviving letters — the series will come to at least 25 volumes ! About 12 or 13 have already been published. Every single letter that Lovecraft wrote seems to have some little nugget of information that we didn’t know before, so it is possible that new discoveries pertaining to his life and work can still be made. I hope I have the chance to expand my biography to include these bits of information. They may not radically change our view of Lovecraft, but they will add many interesting details. Also, every generation will look at Lovecraft differently. This happens to all great writers. Such writers speak to everyone differently, and so there will always be new interpetations of Lovecraft’s work.
Lockdown is almost over here in France. How did you deal with this strange period ? Was it a busy one ?
I myself have been working « at home » for the past 25 years, so the pattern of my life has not been radically altered. I have never been a very sociable person, although I do enjoy getting together with like-minded friends. We have quite an interesting group of devotees of Lovecraft and weird fiction here in Seattle, Washington, and we used to meet quite frequently. Let’s hope we can resume our gatherings in the near future !
Thank you again for all your answers !
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