Rue Morgue #161: “The Greatest Old One” – The Complete Interview

RueMorgue161(360)For their November 2015 issue, Rue Morgue magazine ran a cover feature celebrating the 125th birthday of H.P. Lovecraft. I was honored to be one of the writers asked to weigh in on Lovecraft and his legacy, among such fine company as fellow authors Thomas Ligotti, Charles Stross, and Simon Strantzas; editor Stephen Jones; and scholars S.T. Joshi and Jeffrey A. Weinstock.

It’s always a gamble how something turns out when several people are interviewed for a fixed amount of space. Stuff gets cut — you have to expect that. In other instances, things got pulled out of their original context and retrofitted to answer entirely different questions that, had I been asked those instead, would’ve elicited a different response.

So, in the interest of completeness and clarity, here’s my full Q&A:

Rue Morgue: What makes Lovecraft still relevant today and even far more popular than back in his day? (i.e., Why are there so many anthologies of “Lovecraftian” stories while many of his contemporaries are either forgotten or largely overshadowed by him?)

Brian Hodge: It’s important to note how much Lovecraft’s continued prominence is the result of factors that go beyond the merits of his work. August Derleth’s impact is incalculable, because he devoted a lifetime to publishing and promoting it. Few writers have had that tireless a champion. He gave Lovecraft decades to be discovered beyond his initial Weird Tales audience, by both general readers and an army of future writers.

What Lovecraft is best known for, and what’s come to bear his name as an adjective, is just a subset of his total body of work. I doubt most casual fans are even going to know of, or find much of interest in, an adventure story like “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” or “In the Walls of Eryx,” a late stab at pure science fiction.

It mainly comes down to the Cthulhu Mythos. He’s defined by those twenty-odd stories. It helped, too, that he wasn’t the least bit proprietary about his creations. He open-sourced the mythology and happily invited other writers to come play in his yard. And it’s a big yard. That didn’t just spread his influence in his own lifetime. It lent the whole mythology an expansive, multigenerational momentum. So through that sense of play and camaraderie, creative generosity and just having fun, he unwittingly launched a project that hit a critical mass and took on a life of its own.

But there was no forgetting where it came from. None of that could’ve mattered if Lovecraft himself hadn’t delivered the goods. And he did. It wouldn’t have worked if the canvas he set up wasn’t broad enough to hold other writers’ visions. But it was. It wasn’t world-building he did. It was universe-building.

RM: Is it simply the rich mythology that speaks to new generations or is there something more about his style or content, or worldview, or life of an outsider, which appeals to younger readers?

BH: Anything that rich is going to draw people for different reasons. It starts with a truly incredible vision that ranges from deep space to deep oceans. It’s set at a crossroads where there’s been a head-on collision of hard science and occult magic. You can step into it wherever you want. It’s not a series. You don’t have to read anything in order. Each bit is self-contained, but fits into a larger whole.

Plus there’s a feverishness to the way Lovecraft unfolds things that really sells the intensity. I’ve seen his Mythos stories described as being more like forensic investigations than character-driven narratives, and that’s apt, because he showed little knack for characterization. But he played to his strengths, and in going from grounded openings to these wild revelations, the effect is like having the facade of everyday reality ripped away and seeing what lies behind it.

That’s always going to have an appeal. A lot of us walk around with this sense of wading through undercurrents we can’t quite pin down. Of sensing things that lie outside the narrow range of sound and light frequencies we can perceive. We know we’re in a galactic backwater and wonder what else is out there. Some people find it especially appealing today because it reflects the philosophy that life on earth is nothing special or sanctified, and could just as easily be in something’s way.

Lovecraft confirms all that, and in the end, doesn’t play it cool. He isn’t above the “Holy shit!” freakout response that encounters with such immense forces and entities would inspire. And nobody has ever come up with wilder, more awesome monsters.

RM: What do you feel is a quintessential Lovecraft story, or even Lovecraftian moment in one of his tales, and why?

BH: One I always come back to is “The Colour Out of Space.” It’s more subtle in comparison with the stories that utilize Lovecraft’s bestiary, but that makes it more insidious, ultimately. It’s more plausible, the way this toxic alien energy causes the gradual social, mental, and physical disintegration of a family. And there’s something supremely creepy about that spreading gray blight as the life is leached from the land.

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

RM: Was there something in particular about his disposition or the time and place he came from that shaped his fiction?

BH: In the last few years, reams of commentary have been devoted to the obvious go-to here: Lovecraft’s psychological quirks in general and his racism in particular. I can’t add to that. But the timing, that’s a factor I find interesting, and less remarked upon.

For me, he was working in this ideal window of time. He was a contemporary of physicists like Einstein and Max Planck and Niels Bohr. His work often taps into that zeitgeist of the frontiers of science being radically expanded, and the nature of reality being plumbed at a much deeper level, where things get very strange. At the same time, the world was a bigger, more disconnected place. There were no interstate highways. Aviation was barely underway. Global population was less than a third of today’s. No camera phones, no satellites, no TV with a 24-hour news cycle. The more remote locales he uses feel genuinely isolated and hard to get to. They’re places where superstitions die hard. They feel capable of containing weird events without them drawing much wider attention, with plenty of time to congeal into area folklore. I love how he stirs all this together.