The Black Aether

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The Black Aether

W. Scott Poole – interview

Hello, Scott. Congratulations for In the Mountains of Madness and its Bram Stoker Award nomination. Let us start with a quite plausible question for a Lovecraft fanzine. How did you discover Lovecraft’s works and what impression did they make on you at first reading? Are there any Lovecraft pieces that you reread time and again?

Thanks very much. A Stoker nomination meant a great deal to me, especially given that some of the other nominations went to some of heroes in both fiction and non-fiction writing about horror.

I first read Lovecraft in the late 1980s as I was finishing high school and I’m afraid it wasn’t a good introduction. I read the story “He” in an anthology of “Weird Tales” stories that honestly could have been titled “The worst of Weird Tales.”  “He’ many of your readers know is one of his weaker tales that comes from his New York period…generally seen as his least productive since he began writing fiction seriously in 1917.

But, when the S.T. Joshi edited editions became available in the 1990s, I discovered what I had been missing.  I think I could sit down and read “Shadow Over Innsmouth” everyday. I am also a fan of his early tale “Hypnos.”

Your previous works embrace a wide array of topics: popular culture, Vampira, American history, religion. What inspired you to write a book on H. P. Lovecraft?

I’ve been writing about Lovecraft since about 2011, both in my book Monsters in America and several short pieces and essays. My interest has increasingly become a search for the origins of horror as a genre and I had some pressure from my agent to consider doing a Poe biography. There’s a sense, however, in which Poe has been constructed as a horror writer when really he doesn’t seem anything like the root of the horror tradition even in America (and France where they recognized his genius long before we did).

I saw in Lovecraft a way to get at the roots of a certain strand of contemporary horror that at least tries to approach, even if sometimes blinks before it gets there, his terrifying vision of cosmic indifference.

How much time did it take you to write In the Mountains of Madness?

It’s difficult because some of the research going back about six years while I worked on other projects (incuding a contribution to Sederholm and Weinstock’s Age of Lovecraft). I was actually writing the book for about two and a half years.

Did the diversity of the topics of your earlier books help you get a more comprehensive view of Lovecraft and his legacy?

I hope so. I approached him as a historian and not a literary critic. So many of the debates about Lovecraft’s life, views on politics, and the meaning of his fiction revolve around discussions of his context. But no one really says , “ok let’s explore that context.” So I tried to do that while explaining how the history of subsequent decades has played a role in his influence and popularity.

Your guide to the writings of Lovecraft at the end of your book might prove handy for newcomers. What is your personal favorite Lovecraft piece?

That’s the toughest question you’ve asked. I think In The Mountains of Madness may be his greatest technical achievement and in some respects his most frightening tale. But “Shadow Over Innsmouth” remains my personal favorite, even more so than “Call of Cthulhu.” I do often make a special plea for readers to take a second look at his too often ignored pre-1924 work, especially “The Tomb,” “Dagon,” “The White Ship,” and “Hypnos.”

I think the most intriguing topic discussed in In the Mountains of Madness is the positive role women, especially his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips, played in Lovecraft’s life. What drew your attention to this specific problem?

My own research uncovered that Sarah Susan Phillips had an impressive array of intellectual achievements and interests and played an important role in allowing her son to explore his own diverse obsessions. She had a profound interest in history, did landscape painting, loved French literature. Her “Day Book” at the Hay Library makes for fascinating reading.

And yet, other biographers have tended to slight her, even going so far as seeing her as damaging Lovecraft in various ways. De Camp in his 1975 biography actually calls her a “Monster Mother.” The only evidence for some of the worst claims about her is one “eyewitness” account taken down sixty years after the fact and a second-hand account of what’s in a document that no longer exists. As a historian, it stunned me how much weight had been placed on such a flimsy evidentiary base.

Some have criticized my writing about both Sarah Susan Phillips and Sonia Greene, suggesting that my own political views led me to construct a more appealing image of both women than at times has been done. It’s true that my own political inclinations made me decide to take a second look at he evidence and try to get closer to the real story. But what I present are the facts I found rather than some sort of effort to write a feminist fairy tale.

I’ve become convinced however that many people, in certain fandoms especially, are less interested in evidence than in having their own views confirmed. This is neither an original or surprising observation.

The third part of In the Mountains of Madness describes the afterlife of Lovecraft’s works. In this part you provide an especially vivid and intense description of fan culture in Rhode Island with a number of eccentric characters. What was your most memorable encounter with Lovecraft fans?

Yes, eccentric but only in the best of ways. Where to begin? On one of my visits to St. John’s cemetery, I met a young man reading Lovecraft’s “In the Vault” by electric lantern light while sitting atop a vault. We had a pleasant time talking about how our mutual love of Lovecraft had brought us to a cemetery (closed for the night).  What’s fascinating are the number of fans outside Providence I met, all of whom wanted to tell me what Lovecraft meant to them…on a rather deep, emotional and intellectual level. This happened to me in coffee shops in Asheville, North Carolina and in conversations with bartenders in New Mexico. And, of course, as I talk about in the book, I have lost count of the number of Lovecraft tattoos strangers have wanted to show me when they’ve seen me reading him in public.

In your opinion, what branch of the arts or culture can capture the essence of Lovecraft’s cosmicism most faithfully?

Fiction, Lovecraft’s own medium. The work we have seen in the last two years confirms this. Victor LaValle’s “Ballad of Black Tom” manages to capture the history of the 1920s, cosmic horror, and causes us to reflect on race and politics in the contemporary US all at once. John Langan’s award-winning The Fisherman absolutely terrifies with its Lovecraftian vision and he sustains the terror throughout the novel. Ellen Datlow has published two anthologies that contain fiction that avoids pastiche.

Have you got any plans as to the topic of your next book?

I continue to try to trace horror to its source. My next book, which should appear in the fall of 2018, explores how World War I created the historical and artistic atmosphere for the emergence of horror in film, fiction, and even painting and sculpture. Corpses in the Wasteland is the tentative title. I do return to Lovecraft a bit in this new work

 And last but not least, the ultimate Lovecraftian dilemma: cats or dogs?

I very much enjoy (and often make copies for friends) of Lovecraft’s essay “Cats and Dogs.” I myself am a dog person adopted/rescued an ill-tempered Chihuahua and a terrier mix who had her heart broken by the world like most of us. So, I fear that I disagree a bit with Lovecraft’s semi-playful discussion of the cat and the dog.

But I also love the idea of cats on the moon he gives us in Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. It somehow seems fitting.