2016 Interview by Ursuline Academy Student on H.P. Lovecraft & Cosmic Horror

HPL(360)Would you say that Edgar Allan Poe had a profound impact on Lovecraft’s works?

Brian Hodge: Definitely. He revered Poe as literature’s most accomplished practitioner of the then-modern horror tale, the one who’d perfected the form. And he cited Poe as having had the biggest impact on him. One of his takeaways from Poe was a preference for establishing a setting and a mood and so on, before getting to the heart of the story, instead of jumping straight at it. Plus he found artistic merit in trying to follow Poe’s example by being what Lovecraft called a “detached chronicler” rather than trying to stake a claim as a moralizer or sermonizer.

What exactly is cosmic horror? Which works of H.P. Lovecraft best display cosmic horror?

BH: Different people might define it differently, or come up with variations on a central theme, so I don’t know if there can be anything exact about it. But for me, cosmic horror operates in a framework that starts by throwing out the anthropocentrism that stems from the Judeo-Christian ethos and other monotheistic religions. It posits humanity as just another life form on a small planet in an amoral universe that’s indifferent at best, or worse, hostile. We’re nothing special, we’re not blessed, and there’s no greater meaning beyond us because even we don’t have any meaning. We’re only sentient matter that could easily be at the mercy of, or in the way of, vastly greater intelligences that would regard us as insignificant, no more than we might regard some random anthill. So all that, in a fictional narrative, often comes as a very rude awakening.

I’m not saying I personally buy into this. I don’t. By all indications, Lovecraft did, as do some of his thematic descendants, like Thomas Ligotti. Personally, though, I would find it a dismal mindset to carry through life, and try to operate from. But it’s still interesting to explore, because it lets you show people making their own meaning and creating their own significance, in a kind of existential defiance. Lovecraft’s work tends to culminate with his characters being broken by what they learn or encounter, but because fiction typically digs into what it means to be human, cosmic horror can be equally valid in showing people fighting the good fight and consciously choosing to be better than their origins.

As for which of his works best exemplify cosmic horror, that’s what the twenty-odd works that comprise what’s come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos are all about. “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are particularly strong examples.

Do you think Lovecraft’s childhood affected his writing? If so, how?

BH: It couldn’t help but affect it. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And then there’s the old boast by the Jesuits that goes back centuries: “Give us the boy for his first five years, and we’ll give you the man.”

From a very young age, Lovecraft grew up exposed to a well-stocked library at home, and his grandfather was keen on telling stories, which is always foundational to a future writer. This was the same grandfather whose success in business enabled his daughter and grandson to live a posh life early on … but they only were there because, when Lovecraft was still a toddler, his father had been institutionalized in an asylum and within a few years died of what’s been theorized as syphilis. His grandfather lost his fortune and died soon after, and the downscaling in lifestyle was a deeply traumatic event for him. Then, too, his mother was a smothering presence who dressed him as a girl for years, which conceivably could have given him issues. Eventually her own physical and mental health deteriorated, and she ended up confined and dying in the same hospital where his father had, although Lovecraft was well into adulthood by then.

Now look at his work. It’s obviously the product of a sharp intellect and a broad base of learning. But there are also these recurring themes of madness, penury, physical degeneration, cultural fall, sexual queasiness, and so on. It’s not hard to see where these came from.

One of Lovecraft’s long-distance protégés was a teenage Robert Bloch, who went on to great success with a huge body of work, although he’ll always be best known as the creator of Psycho. Bloch once said that writers are broken people inside, and that writing is their way of trying to fix the damage. I don’t think he would argue with the assertion that the most significant breakage happens when we’re children.

Why do the narrators in Lovecraft’s works often lack characterization?

BH: I just don’t think he was very good at it. So he instead played to his considerable strengths, like imagination, atmosphere, and the piling up of historical and experiential detail in such a way that his work often comes off like investigative summaries. Now, whether he was aware of this as a shortcoming and made a deliberate decision to sidestep it, or characterization didn’t much interest him in the first place — back to being the detached chronicler — I can’t say. Without a doubt, he spent most of his adult life and creatively productive years as a reclusive individual, whose social life was largely lived out through correspondence, so he was always at a remove from others. And given his prejudices, he obviously would have found it difficult to put himself in other people’s heads and skins the way good characterization skills require.

What effect did Lovecraft’s works have on present day horror literature?

BH: That’s almost beyond reckoning, really. A comprehensive answer could take an entire book. But to toss out a few things: To begin with, he introduced a pessimistic new way of looking at humanity’s fragile place in the cosmos. Cosmic horror may not have entirely originated with him — there are a few antecedents — but Lovecraft really took it to new levels. So anybody who has explored similar themes owes him that debt, and his aesthetics of the weird show up all over the place.

His mythology also gave a starting place for many writers, like Bloch and Ramsey Campbell, to get their legs underneath them, and countless writers over the decades have tapped into the Mythos more or less directly. Others, like Laird Barron, have captured the spirit while creating their own mythologies, then combining that with strengths like much stronger characterization, and protagonists who are far more active than Lovecraft’s often passive characters.

Bottom line, I can’t think of another writer whose influence is so pervasive that their name has become an adjective … but say the word “Lovecraftian,” and people know exactly what you mean. And it’s probably more popular now than ever. You’d have your work cut out for you just keeping track of all the anthologies that have come out in the past several years that either add directly to the Mythos, or explore the same basic themes. I’ve been in several myself, with more on the way.

Why do you think that Lovecraft’s works became more popular after his death rather than while he was still alive?

BH: Two main reasons. First, even in his own lifetime, he was extremely generous with his ideas and concepts. He freely invited his contemporaries to come play in his yard. As far as I know, this was the first time anyone open-sourced a shared world like that. So, together, they wove this web that eventually took on a life of its own, with second and third generations and beyond.

Second, he still would have remained an obscure figure if not for fan and fellow author August Derleth. He was the one who collected Lovecraft’s work and kept it in print, starting with his Arkham House publishing company. Very few writers have had someone who made a full-time career, and a long-term mission, out of giving their work decades to find a greater audience.

Okay, a third reason. Once it was out there, this mythology he envisioned was so rich and detailed and weird and wild and original and imaginative — and fun, you have to admit it — that it couldn’t help but inspire others. Not just other authors, but visual artists, filmmakers, animators, game developers, musicians, sound designers … there’s a viral quality to it, yet it’s malleable enough that you can do your own thing with it while the original DNA is still apparent.

Are there works by Lovecraft that you find significant or that are a favorite of yours? Why?

BH: There are a lot of them that I always look forward to dipping back into every so often. The Whateley family of “The Dunwich Horror” remains a uniquely repellent bunch. I particularly like the old-town atmosphere of “The Haunter of the Dark,” and as a music lover and player, with an interest in sound design, “The Music of Erich Zann” pushes a lot of buttons for me.

“The Colour Out of Space” is one of the more unnervingly plausible things he did, because it forgoes the occult stuff, and is simply about how this toxic alien energy source crash-lands on some random farm and causes the gradual social, mental, and physical disintegration of a family and their surroundings.

“The Rats in the Walls” was also an early favorite, because of its literal layers of history, and how the narrator discovers this heretofore unknown evolutionary offshoot and his ancestors’ grotesque ranching and culinary history. It’s all very neatly tied together, and I think of it as a loose template for some of the more ambitious works that came later.

And by now I have a special relationship with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” I’ve always loved it, but awhile back I had the opportunity to do a very direct follow-up to it for the final volume of editor Stephen Jones’ trilogy of Innsmouth anthologies. The novelette I did, “The Same Deep Waters As You,” ended up being very well received, and published and reprinted four times in about year. So I was really happy to have been able to add that little piece to the mythology.

Is there any other important information about the works, style, or life of Lovecraft that you would like to tell me as a student studying his life?

BH: To riff on and rework something I’ve said before, that I’m not aware of anyone else having remarked on … to me, Lovecraft was the right guy, with the right obsessions and neuroses, in the right place at the right time. He was working in this ideal window of the early twentieth century, when the Newtonian model of physics was being forced to make room for the new paradigm of quantum physics, whose implications were that the underlying nature of reality is a lot stranger and less predictable and less mechanical than previously believed. As a contemporary of physicists like Einstein and Max Planck and Niels Bohr, his work often reflects that zeitgeist of the frontiers of science being radically expanded.

Yet at the same time, the world was a bigger, more disconnected place. Global population was less than a third of today’s. Not terribly far from a modern city, you might find a rural location where people were still living much as they had 200 years earlier … only nobody ever goes there. No interstate highways. Aviation was barely underway. No camera phones, no satellites, no TV with a 24-hour news cycle. The first significant explorations of the Antarctic continent didn’t happen until Lovecraft was a boy. These more remote settings he uses feel genuinely isolated and hard to get to and backward. They’re places where superstitions die hard. They feel capable of containing stupendously weird events without drawing much wider attention, with plenty of time to congeal into area folklore. It’s really interesting how he stirs these polarities together.