A Microinterview with ST Joshi

[H. P. Lovecraft scholar]
microinterviewed by Fritz Swanson

A Microinterview with ST Joshi

[H. P. Lovecraft scholar]
microinterviewed by Fritz Swanson

A Microinterview with ST Joshi

Fritz Swanson
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This issue features a microinterview with S. T. Joshi, conducted by Fritz Swanson. Joshi began his career as an H. P. Lovecraft scholar at the age of seventeen, in 1975. The compilation of criticism, H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, that Joshi began as a young man led to a comprehensive bibliography of Lovecraft’s work released by Kent State University Press. He now acts as the unofficial curator of Lovecraft’s life and work, editing the definitive editions of Lovecraft’s fiction for Penguin Books, and working to release all of Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence. Joshi is also a scholar of H. L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce, and has pursued his scholarship independently, without a PhD or the support of any academic institution.


THE BELIEVER: You are the curator of three of America’s greatest misanthropes: Mencken, Bierce, and Lovecraft. Do you hate humanity?

S.T. JOSHI: I’m not sure that any of the three writers in question really were misanthropes—Lovecraft certainly wasn’t, proclaiming himself an “indifferentist”—and if I have any misanthropy of my own, it probably derives more from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than from Mencken, Bierce, or Lovecraft. Hatred is too exhausting an emotion to maintain for very long, or at all; I have better things to do with my time and energy than to go around hating anyone. A mild, passing contempt for human folly and hypocrisy (admittedly an almost universal phenomenon among human beings) is the most I can summon. I will confess, though, that to the degree that I have that contempt, I cannot consider myself a “humanist,” since humanism essentially replaces love of God with love of the human race, an emotion I have trouble sharing or even comprehending. I am a proponent of certain aspects of civilization—chiefly artistic and intellectual endeavors—that happen to be the reserve of the few; but these aspects themselves could not survive without the social/political/ cultural framework provided by the human race as a whole.


THE BELIEVER: So much of Lovecraft’s work is framed as research and presented as a set of false documents. Can you describe the mythos he was attempting to create? Was it “fiction” as we understand it, or something else?

S. T. JOSHI: Lovecraft liked the idea of writing stories that were “hoaxes”—so convincing in their documentary verisimilitude that they could be mistaken for treatises (such as At the Mountains of Madness) or confessions (beginning so early as “The Statement of Randolph Carter”). In some sense he was following Poe, who felt that stories had to start with an essay like beginning (remember the imperishable opening lines of “Berenice”: “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform”) so that they could seem to be “true” rather than merely invented narratives; but Lovecraft carried this technique far beyond Poe.


THE BELIEVER: Your prose has an antique style that projects a hoary authority. How much of your academic voice is an aesthetic pose of the sort we see in Lovecraft’s fiction? Do you think Lovecraft just loved the sound of scholarship? Do you?

S.T. JOSHI: I have been working for decades to minimize the “Lovecraftian” tone of my own prose. As a teenager, I attempted to write fiction, and Lovecraft was my inevitable model. I wrote dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories (now all mercifully destroyed) that unwittingly parodied Lovecraft’s dense, archaic idiom. When I started writing criticism, I inevitably adopted that style, but realized that it was not the most appropriate venue for being taken seriously as a literary scholar. But I’ve read so much of the literature of the period 1880 to 1940 that I appear naturally to duplicate the language and prose rhythms of that era. I suppose there is nothing I can do about that. I will say that I abominate the customary jargon-laden prose that most academicians use; I have always felt that criticism can be written in a relatively normal and straightforward idiom that does not require an array of technical terms that can only be understood by the select few. My criticism has always been aimed at a wider audience than merely a small cadre of English professors.


THE BELIEVER: Is there a modern inheritor to Lovecraft, or does modern character-focused fiction just put on a “Lovecraft mask” from time to time?

S.T. JOSHI: The “cosmic horror” that is Lovecraft’s signature contribution to literature is indeed a relative rarity among writers, but there are any number of figures over the past few decades who have turned the trick—and done so by remaining true to their own vision, rather than merely mimicking Lovecraft. Ramsey Campbell, probably the leading horror writer of our generation, graduated from his teenage Mythos tales to write some extraordinary, powerful stories (“Cold Print,” “The Franklyn Paragraphs”) and novels (Midnight Sun, The Darkest Part of the Woods) that are deeply Lovecraftian but at the same time deeply Campbellian. Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Laird Barron have also fused a character-driven literary aesthetic with cosmicism in highly effective ways.

BLVR: Has Lovecraft had any unexpected impacts on modern aesthetics?

STJ: So far, Lovecraft’s work has really not seeped terribly far outside the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction; but every now and then he pops up in unusual places. I understand that Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is deeply Lovecraftian (I have to rely on hearsay, as I have not had the fortitude to read that large tome). Much the same can be said for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Thomas Ligotti, who is of course a leading horror writer (although he has been quiescent for the past few years), has now written a philosophical treatise, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010), that draws profoundly on Lovecraft’s fiction and philosophy in its advocacy of the theory that consciousness is an innate evil and that we are all better off committing universal suicide!


THE BELIEVER: A lot of Lovecraft scholarship is produced by amateurs outside of the ranks of PhDs. Is this a strength or a weakness in the field? Do you think amateur scholars are disproportionately drawn to Lovecraft?

S.T. JOSHI: I suppose I qualify as an “amateur scholar” myself, although the more fashionable and less pejorative term independent scholar could be used. Such scholars seem to find a resonance in Lovecraft’s own status as both a literary and cultural outsider, so I think there is an inevitable attraction there. It is true that the work of such amateur scholars can sometimes be crude and ill-conceived, but many of these scholars have the advantage—an advantage that orthodox academicians lack—of being thoroughly familiar with the genres in which Lovecraft worked, so that their work is deeply informed by an understanding of Lovecraft’s place in the history of those genres. The relative silence of the academic community in the decades following Lovecraft’s death was the result of a confluence of factors: academic disdain for Lovecraft’s appearance in the pulp magazines; disapprobation of a richly textured style in a period when the bare-bones style of Hemingway was regarded as the only acceptable manner of writing prose; scorn for Lovecraft’s flamboyance in his depiction of supernatural phenomena, so different from both the gentility of the Victorian ghost story and the social realism that dominated mainstream literature.

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