Gods of the Godless: A Discussion on H.P. Lovecraft wth S.T. Joshi
Interview by Henry Akeley
The shadow of Howard Phillips Lovecraft has loomed large over the culture of heavy metal right from the beginning, with Black Sabbath’s “Behind the Wall of Sleep” paying homage to the similarly titled short story, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, on the band’s eponymous debut album in 1970. Since then, a plethora of projects from every corner of dark music have drawn inspiration from Lovecraft, ranging from the likes of Metallica and Iron Maiden to obscurities such as Crematory (Swe) and Necrodeath.
Since his passing in 1937, perhaps nobody, at least in the past half-century, has done more to preserve the great American author’s legacy than S.T. Joshi. Having written numerous biographies on Lovecraft (including the two-volume “I Am Providence“, published by Hippocampus Press in 2010) and painstakingly researched and provided notations for reprints of his works—not to mention his extensive library of personal letters—one would be hard-pressed to turn up an individual more qualified to speak to Lovecraft’s works and lasting legacy in literary history.
Considering the vast import of Lovecraft to the heavy metal genre (surpassed, perhaps, only by J.R.R. Tolkien among literary authors), it is useful to understand the author and his works in their own venue—as works of literature proper, rather than merely as lyrical fodder for death metal bands. As such, this conversation conducted by our guest writer Henry Akeley over a period of countless months during 2010-2012, hopefully provides some with a deeper understanding of H.P. Lovecraft and his works, and in doing so better explains his natural influence on so many heavy metal musicians, courtesy of the world’s most pre-eminent scholar on Lovecraft: S.T. Joshi.
Heathen Harvest: Despite the plethora of heavy metal fans who identify with agnostic or atheist thought and demonstrate an affinity for the odd tales of the likes of Poe or Lovecraft, it is perhaps as likely as not that they are unfamiliar with the name S.T. Joshi. Would you care to enlighten those who remain in the dark as to who you are? Even many of those for whom your name would ring a bell would not think much beyond “oh, that Lovecraft scholar”.
But of course your mark is felt well beyond the bounds of Arkham, indeed beyond Pegāna as well. Not only have you written about and compiled works of several more obscure purveyors of weird and fantastic fiction, but you have also touched upon many other more ‘pragmatic’ issues, ranging from atheist thought to race and gender, as well as other social issues. Please feel free to elaborate on your life and writings as much as you wish.
S.T. Joshi: I imagine the basic facts of my life and career are well-known to some: I was born in India in 1958 and came to the US in 1963 with my parents, settling in the Midwest (Illinois, then Indiana). Developing an early taste for horror and fantasy literature, I stumbled upon Lovecraft around 1972 in the public library in Muncie, Indiana, and found myself immediately taken with him. By the later 1970s, even before graduating from high school (1976), I determined to be a writer of some sort. Not succeeding at writing fiction (and I wrote hundreds of stories—horror and detective stories for the most part), I decided that criticism was my forte.
For the first decade or so of my career, I was happy to be regarded as just a ‘Lovecraft scholar’. But, as Robert Bloch once said, “Lovecraft was my university”. By this he meant that, in his correspondence, Lovecraft opened up so many worlds of intellectual and aesthetic inquiry beyond horror fiction that the result was a tremendous expansion of his interests. In the same way, my interest in understanding Lovecraft—the man, the writer, the thinker—has led me into directions I wouldn’t have expected. This expansion first began with my book The Weird Tale (1990), where I studied several of Lovecraft’s literary predecessors (Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, Bierce, M. R. James). Subsequently I wrote The Modern Weird Tale (2001), which in a sense took the history of weird fiction from Lovecraft to the present day. Beyond literature, I found Lovecraft’s atheism so intellectually cogent (I myself never received any religious education in my youth, not even in my native Hinduism) that I felt the need to explore it further. So I compiled Atheism: A Reader (2000) and other such volumes. Even such a volume as Documents of American Prejudice (1999) was in part inspired by my desire to come to grips with Lovecraft’s own racism. So, in many important ways, Lovecraft has been a touchstone for all the intellectual inquiries I have made over the past 30 years.
HH: I find that we share a common experience in Lovecraft’s influence, at least in the literary aspect. I would imagine that Lovecraft is the gateway for the majority of readers who ultimately discover the works of the likes of those you have already mentioned; in fact, which—in my opinion—is not the least facet of his historical importance. I was already exploring the works of atheist writers and had been interested in the progress of atheist and agnostic thought prior to learning of Lovecraft’s own writings on the matter, having been raised in a Christian household and ultimately rejecting the logic of what I’d been taught. After being exposed to this secondary component of his writing, like you, however, I’d become ever the more intrigued.
You said that you had no religious education, though you did live in the Midwest, so I am curious as to your relationship with the typical American religious experience. Were you perceptive of it early on, or had it largely been outside of your interest, having not been directly involved in it yourself? Had you always considered yourself an atheist, or was it your exposure to Lovecraft’s writings that awakened you to the realization? Finally, how has your atheism shaped the way in which you view the mythos and overall writings of many of these weird fiction authors, many of whom were atheists, though others not? Many of them were obviously highly invested in constructing gods of their own as tools in their writing, which I have always found an interesting habit of certain atheist writers.
S.T. Joshi: My upbringing in Illinois and Indiana was curious: in many ways I had a typical small-town American boyhood, playing sports with the neighbourhood boys, walking or riding my bicycle to school, and so forth. My father, T. M. Joshi, was a secular Indian, and did not wish me or my two sisters to be indoctrinated into any religion, even our native Hinduism. My mother claims to be a devout Hindu to this day, believing in reincarnation and such. But it was of course impossible for us to be totally shielded from the Christian culture around us. I remember being taken to a Catholic mass (!) at about the age of eight—I really had no idea what was going on, and was bored out of my mind. Beyond random incidents like this, however, there were few attempts to ‘convert’ us. We’ve always lived in university towns where one’s religion was kept in the background. I do remember reading, at about the age of 12, some books on the chief religions of the world—Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism—and finding them all so preposterous that I couldn’t believe how anyone could believe in them. But I was definitely a ‘passive’ atheist before I encountered Lovecraft’s letters.
That said, it is not at all obvious to me that reading Lovecraft’s fiction will necessarily make one an atheist. The atheistic substratum of his fiction is not at all easily perceived, especially when he seems to be referring so frequently to ‘gods’ of various sorts. Lovecraft’s atheism was not stressed by scholars until around the 1980s. I know many devout believers who enjoy Lovecraft. As for Lovecraft’s disciples and imitators, it is well known that August Derleth, a Catholic, deliberately distorted Lovecraft’s atheistic message to render it more in line with his own religious views. Only recently have such writers seen Lovecraft as a beacon of atheism and written stories in accordance with this world view. But I think that a great many of Lovecraft’s imitators were simply imitating the flamboyant externals of his fiction without bothering to consider its deeper significance. Much of their writing has now been mercifully forgotten.
HH: Much of your critical work can hardly be described as generous, meaning that you often vociferously attack substandard ideas and concepts when you come across them, whether it is in some Blackwood tale or in the theistic or political philosophy of some thinker. Especially as it pertains to religion, have you ever found your brusque and dismissive treatments of certain persons or ideas to have ‘backfired’, so to speak? This tends to be a chief criticism of contemporary atheist writers such as Dawkins and Hitchins, unfounded or not.
S.T. Joshi: There is, of course, a danger that polemical works (and many of my works, whether they are on literary criticism or religion or politics) merely ‘preach to the converted’. The hope is that at least some of those who are ‘on the fence’ might approach these works with a relatively unbiased eye and gain something out of them. It is all a process: no one expects a sudden conversion from religiosity to atheism (or vice versa) on the reading of a single book. If the works gain wide enough currency (as mine haven’t), then they begin to contribute to a broader societal dialogue on these issues. That’s the best one can hope for.
HH: You concede in your introduction to Atheism: A Reader that, for the vast majority of believers, there is virtually no chance at success in altering their thoughts on matters of religion. You attribute this to their literal incapability of “comprehending the issues at stake”, that “even if the scientific and philosophical evidence were presented to them in a form they could understand, they would rebel at the evidence, because their religious belief is so essential to their psychological well-being that they could not abandon it”. If you would, talk about the relationship shared between man and his acceptance of the idea of a higher authority as a result of his lack of understanding of the unknown and how it has ultimately developed into the scenario quoted above.
S.T. Joshi: My relatively unsystematic observation of human beings, and my readings of religious writing, lead me to believe that hundreds of thousands of years of religious dogma, stretching back to the animistic beliefs of primitive times and continuing down to what I regard as the criminal brainwashing of helpless children into religious belief, make it very difficult for such people to free themselves of religion even when the obvious falsehood of their beliefs is clearly demonstrated. A great majority of people are simply incapable of thinking rationally and objectively on any subject at all, especially a subject that has come to define their overall place in the world and the universe. People believe what they want to believe. To that extent, religion will be a permanent element in, and, in my judgement, an albatross on the human psyche. The remarkable thing is that a substantial number of intellectuals (who, of course, make up a tiny proportion of the overall human race) have managed to shed religious belief at all.
I have no particular interest in ‘converting’ anyone or even in changing people’s minds on any given issue. I have been influenced by Bertrand Russell’s pungent essay, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”: there is so much “intellectual rubbish” (i.e., bad or fallacious ideas) out there that one seems to perform a kind of public service in trying to clear it away. I do so largely as an intellectual exercise; I am not, quite frankly, sufficiently interested in the intellectual (or religious or political or cultural) state of the human race to wish it any good or ill.
HH: Continuing on in a similar line of thought as the above, it is interesting to note how many protagonists in weird fiction tales tend to be the direct opposite, yet parallel, to those represented in the previous quote: namely, learned, skeptical atheists whose worldviews are so essential to their normative stability that their encounters with the supernatural drive them insane. Lovecraft seemed to be fairly convinced that mankind’s reaction to the supernatural would be one of awe-struck horror, though I believe he also notes that it is just a matter of how one deals with the obtaining of this hidden knowledge, and that he could not perceive that anybody would not be horrified by these certain revelations that he presents.
Dunsany, on the other hand, at times borders on the whimsical side, and certainly the wonder of being confronted with such things that force us to either adapt or deny. In many ways these reactions are naturally reflections of their creators. What are your thoughts on the way in which various displays of the supernatural have been treated, especially in accordance with the opening line of Lovecraft’s essay on supernatural horror in mind: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”? Do you think that Lovecraft took any sort of decadent pleasure in having these erudite characters, which are often thinly-veiled mini biographies, squirm before the powers of the unknown elements that he ‘knew’ not to exist?
S.T. Joshi: A great majority of weird fiction, in my view, has actually been written under Christian auspices, whether a given author is aware of it or not. Such motifs as the ghost, the vampire, the werewolf, the witch, and many others are clearly based upon Christian ideas of dualism, the power of God (and Satan), and so forth. Very few writers have been able to break out of this mould, and I appreciate Lovecraft the most because he did so perhaps more emphatically than any other writer I can think of. Special care must be taken in interpreting the philosophical thrust of his tales. Some have believed that Lovecraft was a kind of aesthetic schizophrenic in championing atheism and materialism in his letters, but having his fictional characters go mad by being forced to acknowledge the existence of ‘gods’ and non-material entities. But, firstly, those ‘gods’ are largely symbolic of the inscrutability of the universe; and, secondly, Lovecraft was engaging in a kind of intellectual sleight-of-hand whereby he was toying with the idea of anti-materialism precisely for the frisson it would provide. For someone like Lovecraft, what could be more horrifying than the awareness that his philosophical system is false? But, as he wrote in a letter, “the secret of the kick is that I know damn well it isn’t so”. He knew damn well that an entity like Cthulhu really couldn’t exist; but he gained a momentary thrill by presenting a convincing case, in fiction, that it could or might exist.
HH: Before we get to the issue of the demythologizing of Lovecraft’s own pantheon, let’s talk about the concept of weird fiction in general. In truth, as you point out, Lovecraft was really the first conscious writer of the weird tale, as he had more or less formed its concept outright by extrapolating his influences into his own unique cosmicism that is exemplified in his later tales. The earlier and contemporary writers that Lovecraft defines as the masters of the weird tale (Poe, Blackwood, Dunsany, etc.) were of course not writing with the philosophical impetus of the weird tale that he had come to formulate as the basis of his own writing, and much of their writing of course doesn’t perfectly reflect Lovecraft’s own notions. We all should be aware of the quotation that begins with “the true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”. If you would, explain how Lovecraft denotes an obvious divergence from his literary predecessors as the true origin of the supernatural or cosmic horror tale.
S.T. Joshi: It’s not absolutely clear to me that Lovecraft came up with his theoretical conception of the weird tale at or before the time he himself began writing weird fiction in 1917. The earliest statement of some aspects of his theory date to the In Defence of Dagon essays of 1921, and of course they continued to evolve over the course of his career, with his notion of “non-supernatural cosmic art” coming as late as 1930 and in some ways reversing what he had said before. That said, I think you are right in saying that Lovecraft did indeed write the bulk of his fiction within a fairly concrete theoretical framework.
One of the clearest ways that he departed from his predecessors was in his near-total rejection of the philosophical dualism implied in such an entity as the ghost (pure ‘soul’ or spirit without matter). Nearly all of Lovecraft’s major horrific entities are material, although in anomalous ways (e.g., Cthulhu’s ability to reintegrate disparate parts of itself). It is remarkable how rarely the conventional ghost, werewolf, witch, vampire, or haunted house enters into his fiction. The quasi-vampire of “The Shunned House” has been reinterpreted by way of relativity and quantum theory. The witch in “The Dreams in the Witch House” seems to know advanced mathematics! And so on…
HH: You mentioned In Defence of Dagon. In that work, Lovecraft divides literature into three broad categories, those being the romantic, the realistic, and the imaginative; and he concludes that “the imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense”. Lovecraft maintains that imaginative fiction “draws upon the best features of the other two: like romanticism, imaginative fiction bases its appeal on emotions (the emotions of fear, wonder, and terror); from realism it derives the important principle truth—not truth to fact, as in realism, but truth to human feeling”. What do you make of this division of literature, and likewise how true to this early decree did Lovecraft stay throughout his life? What do you make of his l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) period as popularized by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater?
S.T. Joshi: I am still of two minds as to whether Lovecraft’s tripartite division of literature—romantic, realistic, and imaginative—has any real validity. But given the fact that other standard divisions—say, between mimetic (realistic) and non-mimetic—are equally problematical because there are so many grey areas and so many exceptions to a given rule, Lovecraft’s schema is as valid as any other. The fact is, though, that he came up with it as a result of the historical and cultural period in which he came to maturity: for all his pose as an eighteenth-century gentleman, he was in reality quite up to date in scorning the romanticism of the Victorian age and adhering to the realism of the Modernists (Eliot, D. H. Lawrence) and social realists (Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather). Nowadays, romanticism in Lovecraft’s sense of the term has been virtually eliminated from serious literature. The “art for art’s sake” attitude was one to which Lovecraft adhered his entire life—chiefly because it coincided with his earlier view of art as a ‘gentlemanly’ activity performed for its own sake without any commercial considerations. Lovecraft would later downplay or eliminate other aspects of the aestheticism he derived from Wilde and Pater, but the “art for art’s sake” attitude persisted, later expressed as the desire for abstract ‘self-expression’.
HH: In his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” essay, Lovecraft is right to emphasize the importance of the building of atmosphere to the weird tale, yet I find that he puts a bit too much emphasis on this aspect in order to be more aligned with his motivation in the essay, which is to outline the seeds of supernatural horror. For example, he cites stories that are patently not within the pantheon of the weird tale merely because they “possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfill every condition of true supernatural horror-literature”. I assume that you would agree with this assessment, that it takes more than rare glimpses to constitute a genuine tale of weird fiction?
S.T. Joshi: You are quite right in thinking that Lovecraft’s belief in the primacy of atmosphere led him to some skewed evaluations of weird fiction, although I don’t think it had any deleterious effect on his own work. But if followed to its logical limit, his notion that some works that feature potent weird effects in ‘isolated’ passages would lead to a curiously atomistic approach to literary judgment, whereby the aesthetic totality of the overall work were dispensed if it featured an effective paragraph or two. In general, I think Lovecraft’s emphasis on atmosphere—and on the importance of language to engender it—is sound, but it must not be taken too far.
HH: Weird fiction, being the amorphous term that it is—reflecting a period of writing predating genre fiction—takes a lot into account under its scope of influence. In your work in The Weird Tale, you identify subsidiary divisions of the weird tale: namely fantasy, supernatural horror, non-supernatural horror, and quasi-science fiction. Much of Lovecraft’s early writing falls under the supernatural horror designation, while his Dunsanian flirtations are fantastic. His later, most significant writing, you dub quasi-science fiction, and, in fact, this subsidiary classification is nearly entirely his own realm.
According to your reckoning, the quasi-science fiction tale is a “development of supernatural horror in that the real world is…presupposed as the norm, but the ‘impossible’ intrusions” that define the supernatural tale “are rationalized in some way”; that the ‘supernatural’ elements in the story designate not an “ontological but epistemological” divergence from our known reality. This is an extension of our “ignorance of certain ‘natural laws’”, which “creates the illusion of supernaturalism”. In what way did Lovecraft’s philosophical constitution necessitate this shifting from ontological horror to epistemological horror?
Also, as a follow up, Lovecraft dismisses the non-supernatural horror tale (most famously with the passage of secret murder and bloody bones earlier referenced), yet you insist that it is a legitimate subset of the weird tale, regardless of its merit. Being that you disagree with Lovecraft on this matter, do you believe that his omission is based on a partially meritorious view of ‘the weird tale’?
S.T. Joshi: My first paragraph hints at why Lovecraft’s evolution to ‘quasi-science fiction’ was a natural outgrowth of his own philosophical stance. It is pretty clear that he was an atheist and materialist well before he began writing weird fiction as an adult, and it becomes plain that he became increasingly disinclined to violate the norms of atheistic materialism even in fiction. At the same time, he never wished to restrict himself entirely to realism or to science fiction—that is, he never wished to allow the events in his tales to be fully explicable by natural means, even by an appeal to some future development of science. To that degree, he always remained a ‘supernaturalist’ in spite of his late emphasis on “non-supernatural cosmic art”. Even in a story like The Shadow out of Time, the notion of mind- or personality-exchange cannot wholly be reconciled with materialism. Indeed, the very premise of that story is that the mind is not identical to the material tissues of the brain, and that therefore a mind can be evicted from its body by “suitable mechanical means”. At the Mountains of Madness is probably Lovecraft’s only story that can be wholly reconciled with science—but even here he concluded the story with those ravings by Danforth that suggest something beyond science.
As for non-supernatural horror—in spite of his theoretical pronouncements, Lovecraft himself was not dogmatic on the point; and he did not rigidly exclude all such examples from the domain of weird fiction, as his enjoyment of such things as Bierce’s grim tales of psychological realism or Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” attests. As for me, I do acknowledge the metaphysical distinction between supernatural and non-supernatural horror, but I simply feel that there are too many stellar examples of the latter to exclude them altogether from the weird. Robert Bloch’s Psycho is all that one needs to point to on this matter. I am aware that some instances of non-supernatural horror come dangerously close to mundane realism or the genre of crime/suspense (such as the novels of Thomas Harris, which I do not believe are genuinely within the realm of the weird), but the field would be the poorer if we didn’t make allowances for a few noteworthy examples.
HH: To extend the argument regarding quasi-science fiction, you work to separate the idea of Lovecraft’s writing as quasi-science fiction from the genre of science fiction proper by attacking the notion that “any tales founded upon science…must belong to science fiction”. You argue that science fiction is a genre based not on “science as such but only the science of the future”, whereas quasi-science fiction I suppose is a more speculative notion. You write that “the implication in [Lovecraft’s] stories is that we may someday be able to account for ‘supernormal’ phenomena, but cannot do so now” and that “these tales are not actual science fiction because of their manifest intent to incite horror”. If you will, please extrapolate upon these differences between science fiction and Lovecraft’s writing.
S.T. Joshi: As for what I (somewhat clumsily, perhaps) call quasi-science fiction, the most important utterance Lovecraft himself made on the subject occurs in his canonical definition of the weird tale in 1930:
“The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen. If any unexpected advance of physics, chemistry, or biology were to indicate the possibility of any phenomena related by the weird tale, that particular set of phenomena would cease to be weird in the ultimate sense because it would become surrounded by a different set of emotions. It would no longer represent imaginative liberation, because it would no longer indicate a suspension or violation of the natural laws against whose universal dominance our fancies rebel.”
I think this quotation helps to answer your next question also. The fact is that Lovecraft was trying to have his cake and eat it too. He could not present scenarios that obviously defied known natural laws (as in the case of the standard ghost, vampire, werewolf, witch, and so on); however, at the same time, he continued to want the ‘kick’ of “imaginative liberation” implied by some perceived defiance of natural law. The above utterance was made only a few months after he made another canonical statement:
“The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity?”
But Lovecraft was not rigorous in embodying “non-supernatural cosmic art” in his later tales: even in At the Mountains of Madness, his most purely science fictional tale (more so, I believe, than The Shadow out of Time), the very idea of the shoggoth is pretty supernatural. Lovecraft always wanted to leave a vaguely supernatural element even in his most science-based tales, otherwise the story wouldn’t pack the ‘kick’ that he wanted. There was a time, during the Golden Age of science fiction, when the element of terror was pretty strongly downplayed and the elements of wonder and cosmic expansiveness were emphasized; this is partly why many orthodox science fiction writers of that period, such as Isaac Asimov and Damon Knight, found Lovecraft not to their liking (Arthur C. Clarke, who enthused about Lovecraft’s tales when they appeared in Astounding, is an exception). But now that science fiction itself has become darker with the advent of cyberpunk and other such movements, I think that Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic terror is now more acceptable to readers, writers, and critics of science fiction.
HH: As implied in the previous question, an essential element in Lovecraft’s later writing especially is the maintenance of a certain level of reality in his narratives, which serves to heighten the import of the ‘weird’ elements, yet which at the same time does not necessarily go against any kind of inviolable laws, but only our limited understanding of those laws.
Would it be accurate to say that he took this approach because he believed it to be a more horrible reality if these things could exist logically in our world, as opposed to their existence resting upon some sort of cosmic gaffe that allows them to violate the very natural laws that are supposed to render order and balance to our universe?
S.T. Joshi: I think Lovecraft, even in his most science fiction-oriented narratives (i.e., At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow out of Time), wanted to leave a supernatural ‘out’ for the sake of imaginative liberation. It is true that, just at the time he was writing At the Mountains of Madness in early 1931, he made the epochal statement [Ed: “the time has come…” earlier quoted]. But note that he ends his Antarctic novel on a note of portentous mystery (we really don’t know, and are not meant to know, what Danforth saw in his final glimpse back as he and Dyer are flying away from the Old Ones’ city).
And note that his celebrated definition of a “weird tale” as “something which could not possibly happen” (letter to August Derleth, November 20, 1931) was written nine months after the above statement, suggesting that Lovecraft did not wholly wish to abandon supernaturalism even at this late stage in his career. Lovecraft was correct in believing that supernatural and non-supernatural horror are so metaphysically and epistemologically divergent that the latter could not (for him, at any rate) provide the kind of imaginative liberation he sought from weird fiction.
HH: Another element that is key to Lovecraft’s writing is of course the triviality of humanity. Lovecraft states outright that the extent of his interest in people rests solely in “man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone causes in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background”.
Much of his fiction, and indeed the work of many weird fiction authors, is predicated upon the minuscule significance that humanity has in the cosmos, and that it is often their very inconsequentiality that saves them from a cosmic death, most famously portrayed in Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” when the protagonist exclaims that “our insignificance perhaps may have saved us”. In your view, how did Lovecraft’s treatment of this notion differ from other writers, such as Blackwood or Machen for example, who were far more interested in studying occult practices and mysticism?
S.T. Joshi: I think Lovecraft was right in saying, late in life, that “what I miss in Machen, James, Dunsany, de la Mare, Shiel, and even Blackwood and Poe, is a sense of the cosmic. Dunsany…is the most cosmic of them all, but he gets only a little way”. The reality is that most of these writers are pretty “humanocentric” in Lovecraft’s sense of the term, and very few of them really adopt a consistently cosmic attitude—the human race always figures prominently in their worldviews. Aside from “The Willows”, it is hard to find a truly cosmic story in Blackwood—one that truly emphasises the insignificance of humanity. And Lovecraft flatly stated elsewhere that Machen’s “imagination is not cosmic”, because his worldview was so connected with orthodox Christianity that he could never gain the sense of remoteness from human concerns that is the central element of cosmicism as Lovecraft understood it. So it’s not a matter of how Lovecraft’s cosmicism is different from other writers’ cosmicism; it is more that Lovecraft is truly cosmic (at least as he conceived it) whereas the others are not.
HH: Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialist philosophical worldview is important to understand in order to gain an insight into his fictional works. You write of the two fundamental principles of the philosophy as being that “all entity is material” and that “causality is uniform to such a degree that free will is a myth”. You then supplement these principles with a passage by Lovecraft in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner in which he writes that:
“Determinism—which you call Destiny—rules inexorably; though not exactly in the personal way you seem to fancy. We have no specific destiny against which we can fight—for the fighting would be as much a part of the destiny as the final end. The real fact is simply that every event in the cosmos is caused by the action of antecedent and circumjacent forces, so that whatever we do is unconsciously the inevitable product of Nature rather than of our own volition.”
Beyond the previously discussed elements of mechanistic materialism and the cosmic insignificance of the human protagonist, in what sense can other elements in Lovecraft’s fiction be traced back directly to his philosophical disposition?
S.T. Joshi: I think the materiality of Lovecraft’s monsters—even if that materiality is of a rather peculiar sort (the ability of Cthulhu to recombine disparate parts of himself; the fact that the fungi from Yuggoth in “The Whisperer in Darkness” cannot be photographed; etc.)—is the chief way in which his worldview affected his fiction. Right from the beginning, Lovecraft seemed to be aware that he could not use such conventional motifs as the ghost (with its obvious implications of philosophical dualism), the vampire, the witch (with their associations with Christian tradition), and so forth. He had to create a new type of entity to satisfy his sense of imaginative liberation, and as a result he had to place the origin of those entities outside the bounds of the world and perhaps the known universe. In this way, his fusion of horror and science fiction comes to seem like an inevitability.
HH: On his materialism you wrote that the “evolution—from supernaturalism to science fiction—was really inevitable given Lovecraft’s worldview” and that “he gradually realized” that that “was as in tune with his materialism as anything could possibly be”. It follows then, I suppose, that this gradual realization is chiefly responsible for the post-1925 adopting of the notion of “non-supernatural cosmic art”, although he may not have used that phrase at the time? In other words, his disposition caused him to find it necessary to specify that the occurrences in his writings are not violations of natural law, but only the illusion of such, to “achieve…the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law”? He is of course not asserting the real possibility of the existence of a Cthulhu or a Yog-Sothoth, but chiefly using them as symbols of his desire to achieve that momentary glimpse beyond our own boundaries.
S.T. Joshi: Yes, you’re quite right. Of course, Lovecraft anticipated his move to science fiction in 1924, with the remarkable statement in “The Shunned House” that the vampiric creature in that story was “surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action”. It may well be the case that the entity in question is really not very well accounted for on a pseudo-scientific basis; but it is the gesture that is important. Looking back over Lovecraft’s earlier fiction (and excluding the fantasies written under the influence of Lord Dunsany), it is remarkable how little pure supernaturalism there is: aside from “The Tomb” and “The Moon-Bog”, one would be hard-pressed to find a tale that falls under any conventional rubric. Lovecraft clearly came to realise that this was the tendency of his fiction all along, beginning with “Dagon” (1917).
HH: You wrote about Lovecraft’s multiple-year fascination with Lord Dunsany, during which he utters that “Dunsany is myself”, chiefly because Dunsany presented a sense of cosmicism that was lacking in his Blackwood and his Machen, yet you also iterate that he ultimately expunges himself of Dunsanian influence by the time he writes the epic Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. To what significance do you attribute his brief flirtation with Dunsanian ideas and, more importantly, his ultimately rejecting of its ontological nescience and utterly fantastic foundation? Dream-Quest is, as you say, his repudiation of Dunsanianism (or what he saw as Dunsanian) in its direct attempt to dissuade the protagonist (Randolph Carter, of course) from seeking his imaginary city, citing that his “gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth”. As such, how severely is this an indictment of the exclusively imaginary and fantastic? This was after all quite clearly a semi-autobiographical endorsement of realism.
S.T. Joshi: I think Lovecraft saw in Dunsany what he wanted to see. In 1917, he had initiated (albeit in a tentative and sporadic fashion) a literary career emphasising supernatural horror in the manner of Poe. In 1919, he encountered in Dunsany a writer who appeared to be in many ways antipodal to Poe in his focus on an otherworldly realm. Lovecraft, to be sure, sensed that that otherworldly realm was in large part a symbol for real-world concerns, but at that time in his life he (Lovecraft) was seeking an “escape from life” (as he would term it much later)—perhaps because his own life had had a number of shakeups (his inability to graduate from high school, the illness of his mother, his inability to secure gainful employment). The pure, pristine exoticism of Dunsany was just what he sought at the time.
By 1926, after two hellish years in New York culminating in a glorious return to Providence, he was ready to reaffirm his devotion to historical realism. Lovecraft creatively misread Dunsany at this time as one who himself sought an “escape from life”, when Dunsany’s own work was moving in a largely realistic direction in which the fantastic element was reduced almost to the vanishing point, as in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). Paradoxically, Lovecraft’s statement that “Dunsany is myself” would have been more true in 1933 than in 1923, when he made the statement.
HH: Although Lovecraft makes extensive use of ‘gods’, or god-like beings from the protagonist’s perspective, it is clear that his gods are not the conventional gods of various religions, and you point out the many differences between them, such as their materialism, or their lack of benefitting from or desiring praise or worship. In other words, as is clearer in later writings, they are not gods at all, but merely creatures beyond human understanding with properties and powers unfathomable. You refer to this as Lovecraft’s “demythologizing” of the gods. Of what import is this within the context of his own writings, and in what way does it comment on the writings of others?
S.T. Joshi: It is becoming evident to me (belatedly) that Lovecraft’s ‘gods’ are only gods to those misguided human worshippers (and perhaps not so human, as the fungi from Yuggoth do appear to worship Nyarlathotep in “The Whisperer in Darkness”) who are pathetically misled as to the real nature of the entities they revere. This reverence is largely self-serving, for these worshippers hope to benefit by the ultimate triumph of their ‘gods’—as Wilbur Whateley remarks in an unguarded moment when he thinks of the state of the world “when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it”. This whole “demythologising” aspect is really Lovecraft’s most emphatic underscoring of his own atheism; and there is a certain irony in this, because many of his misguided disciples (especially August Derleth and Brian Lumley) have in fact taken these ‘gods’ as true gods and therefore an implicit refutation of the atheism Lovecraft was advocating.
HH: One of the chief issues that Lovecraft ultimately developed in adapting Dunsanian mechanics to his own writings (and what would be the same problem he would have had with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth had he lived to read The Lord of the Rings) was that the land of Pegāna could not suit his inclinations. Namely, Pegāna was an enclosed universe subject to a reader-understood set of imaginary characteristics, such that there was no room for supernatural horror (real or imagined). When our real-world conceptions of the world and natural laws are assumed not to exist, the sense of ontological horror is absent, because we know that it is not a scenario presented as possible within our world, or indeed even suggested to have any relation to our own reality whatsoever. Would you characterize this as an accurate summary of this particular Lovecraftian critique?
S.T. Joshi: Although Dunsany does (somewhat archly) suggest that Mana-Yood-Sushai is a kind of creator-god of the (real) universe—his temporal priority to God and Allah is stressed in the very first sentence of The Gods of Pegāna—it is plain that we are in a never-never-land of the imagination, where the incursion of supernatural or supernormal elements into an objectively real world does not and cannot occur. Lovecraft rightly emphasises this element in Dunsany’s work when he writes in “Lord Dunsany and His Work” of “the Dresden-china Arcadia of an author who will play with the old ideas, atmospherics, types, situations, and lighting effects in a deft pictorial way”.
As I suggested earlier, this was exactly what Lovecraft wanted out of Dunsany at this point in his aesthetic life (he was in the height of his Decadent, anti-realist phase when he wrote this essay); but the pull of the supernatural (a legacy from his early absorption of Poe and later reading of Machen and Blackwood), followed by his philosophical inclination toward “non-supernatural cosmic art”, led him away from pure fantasy toward his mature quasi-science fictional aesthetic. However, Lovecraft’s recognition that Dunsany’s ‘gods’ are pure symbols led him to adopt roughly that same methodology in his own ‘gods’, although they of course stand for very different things.
HH: Something that is hardly dealt with in Dunsany that tends to find prominence in certain of his own stories, in part due to the realism of the worlds that he derives, is the topic of race. It is fairly well understood that Lovecraft held many bigoted views, but would you mind speaking toward how this plays a role in some of his fiction? I am interested in particular in his usage of the themes of miscegenation and decadence in tales such as “Arthur Jermyn”, “The Lurking Fear”, and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.
S.T. Joshi: This is, of course, a delicate question. Let me say here that I strongly disagree with such writers as Michel Houellebecq, who have maintained that racialism is a defining characteristic of Lovecraft’s thought and his fiction. In fact, it has no bearing at all on his signature philosophical message—cosmicism—and plays a small role in his fiction, aside from the tales you mention. That said, there is no question that in these tales there is a strong racialist sentiment; it comes out most strongly in two of his poorest tales, “The Street” (1919) and “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), both of them transparent parables of ‘foreigners’ overrunning America.
In the other tales you mention, miscegenation is somewhat more covertly suggested in the notion of interbreeding between species (“Arthur Jermyn”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) or within a single family (“The Lurking Fear”). “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” remains one of his great tales—chiefly for its evocation of regional horror—and the racialist element is sufficiently submerged so that it does not overwhelm the surface narrative.
HH: The nature of Lovecraft’s beliefs stems largely from his upbringing and in his fascination as an Anglophile of earlier ‘white’ civility. Something that I found particularly interesting was your observation that the majority of his more acclaimed stories are not really at its core tales of the individual, but rather the individual as symbolic of a broader system of civilization and of a conflict of cultures. Do you feel that it is fair to attribute some of his superficially bigoted views to his broader concern about the degradation of a certain conception of culture and civilization (namely, his own)?
S.T. Joshi: Lovecraft frequently claimed that he could not see the world and the universe apart from his cultural heritage—and that no one else could either. In this I suppose he was correct, but Lovecraft seemed to attach an unusual degree of importance to his status as a Caucasian Western European male. And this stance also led him to posit an unusual degree of conflict and animosity between individuals or groups of differing cultural backgrounds. He would therefore assert that each culture should vigorously maintain its own integrity.
I think there was a certain disingenuousness in this stance: it was really a covert way of objecting to racial intermingling and the existence of many different cultures within the borders of the United States. Lovecraft repeatedly sought intellectual justifications for what was clearly a knee-jerk emotional reaction—a reaction of discomfort, even alarm, at the mere existence of individuals departing from the WASP culture he felt should always be dominant in his country.
HH: There is a pronounced motif of dreams in both Lovecraft’s life and in his fiction. A myriad of stories, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “Polaris”, are directly attributed to elements of dreams that he experienced, while dreams and the dreamworld feature prominently in tales like “The Call of Cthulhu”, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and other Carter tales, and “The Dreams in the Witch House”. What do you feel Lovecraft found so valuable in dream and in the concept of dream for his writing, especially considering that dreams are by and large uncontrollable?
S.T. Joshi: I think the importance Lovecraft placed on dreams and dream-imagery in his fiction was a product of the fact that his own dreams—at least by his own account—were singularly vivid, imaginatively rich, and at times so coherent in terms of ‘plot’ that they could be set down verbatim and passed off as short stories. For all that Lovecraft was a rigid rationalist when it came to philosophical analysis, he firmly maintained that the unconscious element was paramount in creative work, and dreams were for him a means of tapping directly into his own unconscious in a manner not achievable through other means. Much of his fiction seems to be an attempt to achieve that sense of irrational terror that the most vivid of his dreams embodied.
HH: Lovecraft uses the term “cosmic indifferentism” to describe a large portion of his philosophical thought, and indeed this finds a great deal of reflection in his writings. This conception in his fiction appears in my limited experience to be somewhat new in the literary realm to the degree of usage found in Lovecraft. How has this conceptual contribution on his part influenced successive literary works, if at all, in its wake?
S.T. Joshi: Lovecraft was correct in believing that “cosmic indifferentism” was a rare element in fiction before his time, and I suspect he would agree that it is rare in subsequent work. He felt that Lord Dunsany embodied it more keenly than almost any other writer he could think of, but even Dunsany did not stress the terror of cosmicism as opposed to its embodying the notion of imaginative liberation. Lovecraft was correct in believing that cosmicism is something you either feel or you don’t; those who are “self-blinded earth-gazers” like August Derleth just won’t “get it”—won’t perceive that sense of human insignificance amidst the spatial and temporal infinities of the cosmos.
Recent scholarship that has emphasized this element in Lovecraft’s thought and work may have had some minimal effect in infusing it in the work of some post-Lovecraftian writers, but even so I cannot think of very many who have made it the core or foundation of their work. I think Caitlín R. Kiernan comes closest to it in some of her tales drawing upon her background as a trained palaeontologist—such tales do suggest a spatial cosmicism very similar to Lovecraft’s. But I can’t think of too many others.
HH: Again on the matter of cosmic indifferentism, Lovecraft a bit later in life shifted from a Schopenhauerian or Nietzschean sort of pessimist to what he ultimately termed an “indifferentist”. This indifference is both a reference to his view on the relationship between man and the cosmos and the very nature of the cosmos itself: namely, that the cosmos is a purely mechanistic, purposeless, amoral phenomenon. Thus, in his fiction, his cosmic creations are also imbued with this indifference, this amoralism, though they, unlike dead space, possess sentience. Are we to assume that he attributes his cosmic beings with this quality as a gesture toward the reality that moralism is a purely human invention, and that as such, it is only of use (insomuch as it is indeed useful) to us?
S.T. Joshi: I am a little troubled with the common formulation (one that I myself have made on occasion) that Lovecraft’s extraterrestrial beings are mere symbols for “cosmic indifferentism”. In the first place, they sometimes do reveal surprisingly human emotions: it is said of Cthulhu, when he emerges from R’lyeh, that “after vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight” (but perhaps this is merely the interpretation of Cthulhu’s actions by the narrator); and in “The Whisperer in Darkness” the fungi from Yuggoth are shown to be duplicitous (e.g., in sending the fake telegram and letter to Wilmarth) and, perhaps, vindictive. Lovecraft was not always successful in depicting amoralism in his entities—his greatest triumph being the entities (I assume there is more than one) in the meteorite in “The Colour out of Space”. Of course, the various extraterrestrial entities must be seen to be doing things, simply to move the narrative along. But we may still have to rethink this whole idea of the exact symbolic function of these entities.
HH: Lovecraft’s cosmicism was both an extension and a complement to his anti- or non-religiosity, as portrayed in such declarations as “a mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead”. His extensive contemporary reading of both astronomical and anthropological matters of the time period also further provided him with the ammunition that he needed to soundly dispense with the notion of personal religions through the work of such writers as James George Frazer and The Golden Bough. His deep astronomical reading is clear in many of his stories (such as “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), but I am not sure as to the function of his anthropological readings as it pertains to his fictional writing. What role, if any, has this field had on his work, in your readings, if only in its contributions in shaping his worldview?
S.T. Joshi: One obvious way in which Lovecraft drew upon anthropology in his fiction is in “The Festival”, which he explicitly declared was inspired (in part) by his reading of Margaret A. Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921). But, in a more general sense, the anthropological ‘explanation’ of religious belief that Lovecraft adopted (i.e., religion as a natural response to primitive humanity’s ignorance of natural phenomena and, as a consequence of that ignorance, its need to account for phenomena by positing powerful but quasi-human entities) might be detected in his various human cults of the Old Ones. For it is quite clear that these cults—and the ‘bibles’ they draw upon, such as the Necronomicon—are mistaken in regard to the role they play vis-à-vis the entities they worship, and related phenomena. Castro, in “The Call of Cthulhu”, fancies that he and his fellow cultists will join in the Old Ones’ rulership of the earth once the rest of the human race has been eliminated, but this seems very unlikely. The Old Ones, if they pay any attention at all to their human servitors, are merely using them as pawns. Similarly, in At the Mountains of Madness it is expressly declared that the Necronomicon is propounding ‘myths’ about the Old Ones—who are not gods at all, but merely extraterrestrials. These cultists are actually reinforcing, albeit in a perverse fashion, the intimate connection between themselves and their ‘gods’ in the same way that conventional religious believers (falsely, in Lovecraft’s view) do.
HH: The destruction of civilization plays a rather significant role in his fiction as early as “Dagon”, one of his very first works of maturity. Clearly, the numerous portrayals of this historic downfall also foreshadow a genuine anxiety in Lovecraft’s mind about the reality of such a collapse. What were his particular fears in this regard? Or perhaps more accurately, what were the symptoms of decay that he diagnosed in society that led to his anxiety over civilizational collapse? Would it be fair to attribute this at least partially to his antiquarian tendencies?
S.T. Joshi: Lovecraft was certainly concerned that his civilisation—or, rather, the particular phase of Western civilisation with which he identified, roughly from the Renaissance to the early 20th century—was passing away, leading to something much poorer from a cultural standpoint. In many ways I think it is hard to argue with that position. He was acute in diagnosing the social and psychological maladies brought on by speed, rampant mechanisation, and rapid cultural turnover that he was witnessing in the 1920s and 1930s, and he diagnosed it keenly not only in letters but also in fictional form in the underground civilisation in “The Mound” (1929–30). I don’t doubt that Lovecraft was influenced, in this and later narratives, by Spengler’s Decline of the West. Eventually he became resigned to being what was then called a “back number”—an adherent of an older way of life, determined to preserve his cultural heritage even if no one else did. He recognised that he could do so better than most, given that he lived in a city (Providence, RI) that respected its cultural history.
HH: I think it would be fitting to close on the topic of the writer’s philosophy. An author’s philosophical predispositions are key in trying to understand his work, and you attempt to draw parallels between certain elements in a writer’s work and the corresponding influence in his philosophy that accounts for that element and why the author would expect that element to evoke a certain reaction from a reader. You further maintain that the weird tale in particular “offers unique opportunities for philosophical speculation”. I would appreciate it if you would elaborate upon the unique relationship between weird fiction and the philosophical disposition of the author, particularly in regards to how that disposition per se biases one toward weird fiction.
S.T. Joshi: What I maintained in The Weird Tale was that weird fiction is a uniquely philosophical mode because it allows authors to refashion the universe in accordance with their own philosophical predispositions. Arthur Machen used weird fiction to attack ‘scientism’ and materialism and to validate mystical religion; Algernon Blackwood did something similar, without being quite so strident as Machen; Lord Dunsany used fantasy to point to the need for human connection with the natural world; and so forth. Whether later (or earlier) writers have followed their example is a debatable point; if they have not done so, it may be because certain tropes of weird fiction—the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, and so forth—have been so widely used that they no longer have the philosophical resonance they once had.
So my view of weird fiction as the outgrowth of a philosophy may in fact be restricted to the writers I treated in The Weird Tale, because these writers alone left a sufficient paper trail to reveal their philosophies, and because at that particular historical moment weird fiction had evolved to the point that it could be used for philosophical purposes. I still think that weird fiction could be used in the philosophical manner I have outlined, but whether it will be so used will depend on any given author’s outlook and whether he or she wants to imbue weird fiction with philosophical overtones. I will frankly say that I don’t find much weird fiction after Lovecraft very compelling (Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, T. E. D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, and a few others excepted) precisely because it seems to lack this philosophical resonance. It is merely ‘fear-literature’; and, as Winfield Townley Scott wrote long ago, “to scare is a slim purpose” in literature.
HH: I would like, at this time, to thank you for your patience during this lengthy process, and for seriously engaging in this discussion, despite its venue being foreign to your general readership. I leave this space to you to promote your work or use in whatever way you see fit.
S.T. Joshi: I completed a 300,000-word history of supernatural fiction, under the title Unutterable Horror. It was published in two volumes by PS Publishing in the UK in late 2012, and I was gratified that it won the World Fantasy Award in 2013. It should appear in a paperback edition from Hippocampus Press this summer. In the realm of religion/atheism, I’ve just published a volume, The Original Atheists (Prometheus Books), which provides a selection of the writings of the 18th-century philosophers (French, German, English, and American) on the subject of atheism, agnosticism, and free thought. Later this year I shall publish The Variorum Lovecraft (Hippocampus Press, 3 vols.)—a completely revised edition of the Lovecraft fiction, with a record of all the textual variants of each significant appearance of each story. Along the way I’ve changed my mind on some small points regarding Lovecraft’s texts, and I consider this edition to be definitive. After that, maybe I’ll take a rest!