Thanks to such iconic horror stores as “The Call Of Cthulhu,” “At The Mountains Of Madness,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and more, writer H.P. Lovecraft has become one of the more inventive and influential writers of the 20th century…and the 21st. Just as such disciples as Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro, Metallca’s James Hetfield, or his fellow writers Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mike Mignola, and Neil Gaiman. But what kind of man comes up with such twisted tales? This is the subject of W. Scott Poole‘s In The Mountains Of Madness: The Life And Extraordinary Afterlife Of H.P. Lovecraft (paperback, digital). Though in talking to Poole about the book, he revealed that this isn’t a conventional literary biography.
I know In The Mountains Of Madness is a biography of Lovecraft, but is it a straight biography, a look at his cultural impact as well as his life, what?
There’s a sense in which it’s a biography of his biography, as well as a story about the kinds of stories we’ve needed to tell about Lovecraft and why. So, the reader will find themselves pondering the films of Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter or the origins of Dungeons And Dragons even as they are learning about what was happening to Lovecraft in the ’20s and ’30s.
The world didn’t need another standard biography of H.P. Lovecraft. Nor did it need a book for his admirers, defenders, and apologists. There are, by the way, a lot of those out there and, not shockingly, a lot in the book won’t please them. But Lovecraft is bigger than our obsession with him and much more important.
I’ve read some biographies that are really, really detailed — most notably Richard Kaczynski’s Perdurabo: The Life Of Aleister Crowley — while others aren’t so encyclopedic with its facts. Which way did you go with In The Mountains Of Madness?
I often don’t care for the kind of biography that gives us what’s happening in its subject’s life almost every month of every year. Let me quickly add that S.T. Joshi’s more traditional approach [in his book, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life] was utterly essential for my work, even as I take issue with some of his claims. His literary critic’s eye makes his magisterial study more interesting than most books that get called “magisterial.”
At the same time, I do have some very specific points of interpretation that I think bring new light to some of the details. For example, I think the book effectively challenges a common misunderstanding of Lovecraft’s racism, the “he was a product of the times” argument. He grew up during the time of W.E.B DuBois, and was aware of the new anthropological work on race, and yet held to his views to the bitter end. He was an anti-Semite who married a Jewish woman and had a long correspondence with the Jewish, and gay, poet Samuel Loveman. Yet he couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t shake these ideas. He has some uncomfortably positive things to say about Nazism even after Hitler seizes power in ’33. We have to deal with these things directly if we are going to understand both him and his fiction.
Right, right. In deciding how the book would be written and structured, were there other author biographies that you looked to for inspiration?
I have to say no. The biography as a literary form tends to be pretty stolid. My inspirations are actually writers who stretch the boundaries of traditional templates, Joan Didion’s skill at crafting an essay that’s both about her own experience and also tells us something about the American experience. Or Truman Capote’s delicate ability to walk the line of “fiction” and “non-fiction” and using that tightrope walk to tell a truer story than could be told otherwise.
So what made you want to do a biography of H.P. Lovecraft?
I had a number of people important to me suggesting that my next project take on a “big” biographical topic on a major figure at the roots of horror, as opposed to looking at an obscure cult figure, as with the case of Vampira. At first, I did not want to do this. The stacks of Poe books are daunting. Lovecraft presents his own special challenges, given his status for many of my fellow geeks.
But I write about what I love or confuses what or me I obsess over. Lovecraft has long been one of those obsessions and so, as for a many authors, it became impossible for me not to write about him in some sense.
How long did it take you to research his life?
I’ve been working on the book since 2013. Some of my work has appeared in more academic texts, such as the essay collection The Age Of Lovecraft, and in forthcoming journal articles. Things move slowly in academia. That was material that didn’t make it into the book.
Though I’d expand my definition of “research” a bit for this particular topic. As I mention in the book, I’ve been reading Lovecraft since high school. Living inside the world of geekdom long before it was cool, I met him at every turn. I think part of the impetus behind the book was an effort to find the roots of geek culture, to understand why the revenge of the nerds has been so successful.
In doing this book, did you learn anything really funny about him? Like was he a sucker for a puppy or kitten? Did he name Cthulhu after the way his kid sister mispronounced someone’s name? Did he use H.P. instead of his full name because he loved HP Sauce?
Oooh wow, let’s not talk about his favorite cat. Though I suspect readers will not forget that story after reading it.
He actually was a hilarious guy despite his dour reputation and his stories, and this comes out in his vast correspondence and how his circle of friends recalled him. I know saying, “an evening with H.P. Lovecraft would be a lot of laughs” might be counter-intuitive for some people, but I think that’s part of the reason he had such a disparate group of friends.
As for a specific anecdote, I’ll mention that he used to take his pals out to the St. John’s graveyard in Providence and do acrostic poetry using “Edgar Allan Poe.” He totally knew this was weird and yet totally went with it. I love this about him.
Lovecraft has a lot of famous fans, including fellow horror writer Clive Barker, Guillermo Del Toro, who tried to get a movie version of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness made, and James Hetfield of Metallica. Did you interview any of those people for the book?
Del Toro plays a really important role in the book. Unfortunately, I was only able to have a limited email exchange with him. I do have interviews with both S.T. Joshi and Robert M. Price, who are arguably the scholars most responsible for the Lovecraft renaissance. And, in Joshi’s case, a very sophisticated lightening rod for controversy.
But I think my favorite interviews were with fans, especially young ones who know Lovecraft and have read a story or two and seen something so grotesquely beautiful there. They seem almost a bit desperate to know more.
In The Mountains Of Madness follows your biography of Vampira, Vampira: Dark Goddess Of Horror. Are you planning to do another horror biography next?
No. I really think of myself less as a biographer than as a historian mapping out a narrative of horror culture. I’m at the beginning of a couple of things now. I have a solo project that traces the modern horror film, and horror culture, back to the era of the First World War. I’m also working on an unconventional project that I can only describe as “a conversational memoir” about the slasher film and its resurgence with my brilliant friend and co-conspirator Emily Own Farrier. The working title is Dead Girls: Sex And Horror, which my mom, and concerned moms everywhere, will love.
You’re a history professor at the College Of Charelston. But there’s also a Marshall Scott Poole, who’s a professor of Communications at the University Of Illinois At Urbana–Champaign. Have you ever spoken to that guy? Cuz I wonder how many of his students Google him, but see your books instead, and take his classes because they think he’s going to be talking about monsters the whole time.
I’ve at least read enough Poe to know you don’t want to meet your doppelganger. And I saw Enemy. So ask him for me, but don’t introduce us. Possible space/time consequences.
So if someone has an interest in Lovecraft, but doesn’t know where to start, which of Lovecraft’s books would you recommend they read first?
I’d definitely suggest they pick up the Penguin editions of his work edited and annotated by S.T. Joshi [The Call Of Cthulhu And Other Weird Stories and The Dreams In The Witch House And Other Weird Stories].
As to specific tales, I’ve found that some of the early short stuff, such as “Dagon” or “The Nameless City,” works best. One of the things I did with the book is a short appendix that catalogs the tales and gives a reading guide for people who want to sample or for those who want to become full-time, cloak wearing, virgin sacrificing Lovecraftian cultists.
Finally, In The Mountains Of Madness is not the first book you’ve written. If someone really enjoys it, which of your other books would you recommend they read next and why?
I think if they like my unorthodox approach to biography and history they’ll find Vampira: Dark Goddess Of Horror a surprising experience of an obscure figure from the 1950s they’ve maybe heard of, but don’t realize was as influential over the world of modern horror, and aspects of modern culture more generally, than she was. Also, Monsters In America remains a book that people seem to really love and has had a peculiar crossover appeal among scholars and general readers.