S.T. Joshi has spent his life thoroughly analyzing the life and legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, weird fiction’s most important and intriguing figure. Joshi is a Seattle writer who has produced over fifty volumes relating to Lovecraft. Joshi read his first Lovecraft story when he was 13 and based his decision to attend Brown University partially on their Lovecraft collection. He’s also written and edited several books on other writers, including Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany and Ramsey Campbell, as well as books on the subject of atheism.
Joshi’s most recent books are a two-volume set titled Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (PS Publishing, 2012) and a new edition of a Lovecraft-related volume titled The Ancient Track: Complete Poetical Works (Hippocampus Press, 2013). Joshi recently took time with me to answer some questions via e-mail on his long association with H.P. Lovecraft and his insight into who the weird fiction master was.
Tea Krulos: You’ve produced quite a prolific and thorough amount of books by and about H.P. Lovecraft. Could you give us a rundown on this work?
S.T. Joshi: I’ve edited more than fifty editions of works by Lovecraft (fiction, poetry, essays, letters) and have published more than a dozen books about Lovecraft (biographies, bibliographies, critical studies, anthologies of essays by various hands, etc.). A lot of work!
I would say my chief books on this subject are: H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism (Ohio University Press, 1980); H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraft Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography (Kent State University Press, 1981, revised as H.P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography [University of Tampa Press, 2009]); H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (Necronomicon Press, 1996, revised as I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft [Hippocampus Press, 2010]); and The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (Mythos Books, 2008).
Krulos: What was your introduction to H.P. Lovecraft and what is it about his writing that you found so compelling?
Joshi: I first read Lovecraft at the age of 13, when I purchased Betty Owen’s anthology 11 Great Horror Stories (Scholastic Books, 1971). Soon thereafter, I found the Arkham House editions of Lovecraft’s fiction (published in the 1960s) in my public library in Muncie, Indiana. I was hooked almost at once and began reading everything I could by and about Lovecraft.
In fact, I attended Brown University chiefly because I knew that its library had many of Lovecraft’s papers and manuscripts…. I found Lovecraft compelling because his stories seemed to open up an entire universe of terror and wonder. His poetic language, the incredible originality of his monsters, the vividness of his imagination were like some kind of illicit drug – Lovecraft was definitively addictive! And the more I learned about Lovecraft the man, the more I found that some of his views and attitudes reflected my own: a love of cats, a love of ancient things, a fascination with England and with classical antiquity – and, perhaps, a sense of being an “outsider” and something of a recluse who was not entirely comfortable with human society.
For a shy, gawky teenager, this last element in Lovecraft’s personality was particularly compelling.
Krulos: How do you explain Lovecraft’s views on race to someone who isn’t familiar with his work?
Joshi: This, certainly, is the most difficult issue to deal with in Lovecraft’s life and character. His views on race are not in any way defensible, but some background may help in placing him in historical context.
First, his views were clearly inspired (initially) by his upbringing in a conservative New England, at a time when social attitudes were quite rigid, and when the United States as a whole was facing an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America, leading many “old Americans” to fear that the traditional WASP culture was threatened and perhaps even headed toward extinction. Lovecraft was also led to his racial views by reading the work of contemporary social scientists, many of whom endorsed the belief in the biological inferiority of certain races (i.e., African Americans) and the biological superiority of others (i.e., Caucasians).
These beliefs were not systematically destroyed until the 1930s, long after Lovecraft had come to hold them and make them a firm fixture in his whole outlook on life. Where Lovecraft is to be criticized, as far as race is concerned, is not so much in holding repugnant views on blacks, Jews and other minorities, but in failing to exercise flexibility of mind and openness to new evidence on the issue – as he did on nearly every other intellectual issue he faced, from metaphysics to ethics, to politics and economics.
Krulos: Arkham House is the legendary small publisher from Sauk City, WI that first published Lovecraft in book form. How did you get involved with them?
Joshi: I first approached Arkham House at the age of 20 in 1978, with a suggestion that I compile an index to Lovecraft’s Selected Letters (1965-76). Managing Editor James Turner replied that he himself would compile such an index, but two years passed without any word on the matter, so I compiled one myself and published it with Necronomicon Press (1980). By this time, I had spent years at Brown University, as an undergraduate and graduate student, in examining Lovecraft’s manuscripts and early printed sources – I discovered that the current Arkham House editions contained thousands of textual and typographical errors. I approached Turner at the World Fantasy Convention in New Haven in 1982, suggesting that a new edition of Lovecraft’s fiction be issued with my corrected texts. It took a full year of negotiation to work out the details of this new edition, as I was concerned that I be properly acknowledged for my years of work. Copyright restrictions prevented Arkham House from publishing entirely new editions, so we eventually published four “corrected printings” of Lovecraft’s fiction and revisions:
- The Dunwich Horror and Others (1984)
- At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (1985)
- Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1986)
- The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989)
Turner had long been at work on a volume of Lovecraft’s Miscellaneous Writings, but it appeared that he had not progressed very far. In the early 1990s, he assigned me to compile the volume, giving me a pretty free hand. My edition of Miscellaneous Writings (1995) turned out to be a substantial volume of Lovecraft’s essays on all manner of subjects (weird fiction, literary criticism, science, travel, amateur journalism, etc.). Finally, I was asked by Peter Ruber to compile Sixty Years of Arkham House (1999).
I cannot speak highly enough of the care and meticulousness with which James Turner helped me present the corrected texts of Lovecraft’s work. He was an extremely acute and painstaking editor, gifted with a thorough knowledge of style, grammar, syntax, and publishing procedure. Every one of the books he published is superbly edited. He saved me from many errors as we spent months debating the particulars of my corrected texts.
Ruber and I didn’t have quite so amicable a relationship and he took offense (perhaps justifiably) at my harsh review of his compilation Arkham’s Masters of Horror (2000), which I felt was riddled with typographical and factual errors, many of which could have been easily corrected with a little more time and care. Indeed, that review made me for a time persona non grata with Arkham House, although I eventually repaired my relations with April Derleth, with whom I remained cordial to the end of her life.
Krulos: What is it about Lovecraft’s life and work that has given him such a lasting legacy while other pulp horror writers from the era have languished in obscurity and are mostly forgotten (outside of devoted horror fans?)
Joshi: It is not merely that Lovecraft’s tales form a roughly coherent single entity – a kind of loose novel in which each story comprises a chapter. It is that his work is founded upon a deeply held philosophy of life – a philosophy that saw human beings and all Earth life as a transient phenomenon of no consequence to the immense spatial and temporal vortices of the cosmos. Lovecraft also had the talent to convey his message in stories that are meticulously constructed and written with a prose of extraordinary evocativeness and resonance. It is precisely because his stories do not deal with the mundane aspects of human life – social relations, class distinctions, love and marriage and children – but instead deal with broader issues (Who are we? Why are we here? What is our place in the universe?) that they have survived. They are “timeless” in a way that many stories – whether genre or mainstream – are not.