A Literary History of Weird Fiction: An Interview with S. T. Joshi

photo by  Emily Marija Kurmis

photo by Emily Marija Kurmis

S. T. Joshi is the author of The Weird Tale (1990), H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990), and Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012). He has prepared corrected editions of H. P. Lovecraft’s work for Arkham House and annotated editions of Lovecraft’s stories for Penguin Classics. He has also prepared editions of Lovecraft’s collected essays and poetry. His exhaustive biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996), was expanded as I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2010). He is the editor of the anthologies American Supernatural Tales (Penguin, 2007), Black Wings I–II–III (PS Publishing, 2010, 2012, 2013), A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (Centipede Press, 2013), The Madness of Cthulhu (Titan Books, forthcoming), and Searchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic (Fedogan & Bremer, forthcoming). He is the editor of the Lovecraft Annual (Hippocampus Press), the Weird Fiction Review (Centipede Press), and the American Rationalist (Center for Inquiry).

Steven A. Michalkow: Can you situate weird fiction for us in its historical and literary contexts?  What were its antecedents and what brought about the characteristics of what we consider Weird fiction at its particular moment in time?

S. T. Joshi: This is an immensely complex question, but I think that weird fiction in general has flourished at those times when, in mainstream fiction, social realism was the dominant mode of expression. I think it is no accident that the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries emerged about a half-century after the novel itself—a strictly realistic mode in the hands of Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, and others—was born. I think it is a bit facile to say that writers like Ann Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis, and Charles Robert Maturin embodied a “Romantic revival” that countered hard-headed eighteenth-century rationalism, but there is something to that idea. Poe and Hawthorne in their various ways also represented rebellions against literary realism—or, perhaps, with the idea that certain kinds of non-mimetic literary expression (especially those drawing upon myth and folklore) were somehow out of bounds. And it is interesting that so many Victorian writers—including dyed-in-the-wool realists such as Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James—tried their hand at weird fiction on occasion, as if they found an undiluted emphasis on social realism too constricting.

You mentioned that realism (or social realism) was something of a dominant literary form during the era of canonical weird fiction.  Why was that the case, and what were the particular points of realism that weird writers felt the need to “rebel” against?

It’s a very difficult question as to why social realism dominated the literature of the first half of the twentieth century. Really, it was an extension of the dominance of the novel in Anglo-American literature in the nineteenth century, with writers like Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Henry James, and others—who themselves were probably influenced by the growing prestige of the natural sciences as the ultimate arbiter of truth. By the turn of the century, the naturalism of Zola and others had exerted its influence on Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and others, paving the way for the work of Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather, and the like. These writers constituted a somewhat more conservative brand of Modernism as opposed to the avant-garde writing of Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Stern, which was “realist” in its own way. And yet, Lovecraft proclaimed himself a realist except where the supernatural was concerned—and even that was handled with a psychological realism that was impressive in its understanding of the psychology of fear. Algernon Blackwood, in fact, can be seen as a kind of analogue to the work of psychological realists like May Sinclair and D. H. Lawrence. Even Machen, in his later writing, used a reportorial realism that frequently resulted in hoaxes like “The Bowmen.” Dunsany’s work also exhibited a gradual decrease of the element of pure fantasy and a growing realization that realism of some sort—whether psychological or topographical or social (he combines all three in The Curse of the Wise Woman)—were de rigueur.

The time period of the canonical weird fiction writers (Dunsany, Hodgson, Blackwood, Lovecraft, and so forth) has significant overlap with what is typically thought of as the main period of Modernist literature and art.  How does this overlap manifest itself in weird authors and texts?  Did the weird writers and the Modern writers share the same literary or historical influences? Are the Weird texts in dialogue (or monologue) with the Moderns?

Each of the canonical weird writers had different relations with the dominant literary modes of their period, so generalizations are difficult to make. It should also be noted that in England there was a much less clear distinction between “mainstream” literature and weird literature, to such an extent that writers like Machen, Dunsany, and Blackwood were commonly believed to be more or less canonical—they were published by leading publishers, reviewed in major magazines and newspapers, and in general regarded as legitimate writers in the same way as Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, or Lawrence were. In the US, matters were quite different. By the 1920s a strong cleavage between mainstream fiction and what would later be called genre fiction had emerged, for reasons that I am not entirely clear about. This is what caused a writer like Lovecraft—who at any other time in literary history might have been embraced as a significant and sincere writer—was forced to publish in the pulp magazines, because that was the only professional venue for his work. Lovecraft himself was in some ways an aesthetic conservative, especially early in his career, but in the course of the 1920s and 1930s he evolved considerably. He never embraced Modernism (he always despised Eliot as an obscurantist and didn’t even make the effort to read Joyce, although he did have a high regard for Yeats); but he thought of himself as a “prose realist,” and his work—aside from its supernaturalism—bears striking affinities with regionalists or social realists such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Sinclair Lewis. He even made modest use of stream-of-consciousness and other Modernist techniques. Overall, however, I think it is safe to say that most of these “classic” weird writers did not have any significant affinities with the Modernists. Weird fiction as a whole generally looks backward rather than forward, drawing its strength from ancient myth and folklore; on occasion, the literary methods used to express these myths may approach the avant-garde, but that is almost by accident.

It’s interesting that you set up the weird writers as “looking backward” in their aesthetics against the moderns who “look forward” in their aesthetics.  I think this is clearly the case when you compare the weird writers against the Futurists for example.  However, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are useful counter examples.  The Waste Land for example, is loaded with references and allusions to the great texts of Classic, European, and even Eastern civilizations, pieced together in fragmentary bits.  It’s almost as if Eliot was attempting to rebuild the cultural history which was torn asunder by the various disruptions and disasters of the modern era.  Do you think that Eliot and Lovecraft, despite their vocalized distaste for one another, actually share some sort of aesthetic overlap on this issue?

Yes, I agree that Eliot does draw upon myth and folklore in somewhat the same manner as weird writers generally do; but I think the parallels frequently drawn between the philosophies or temperaments of Lovecraft and Eliot are highly exaggerated. Lovecraft was “backward-looking” in exactly the opposite way from Eliot: whereas Lovecraft was relatively conservative in his manner of literary expression, he was actually forward-looking in realizing that many of the common myths and legends (the ghost, the vampire, the werewolf, the witch, the haunted house) used in weird fiction were utterly played out because of the advance of science, and therefore he devised an ersatz myth that drew upon the most advanced findings of contemporary science. Eliot was “backward-looking” in his appeal to myth and legend but forward-looking in his manner of literary expression, which Lovecraft thought went beyond the pale of legitimacy because of its resultant obscurity. And Lovecraft had deep contempt for Eliot’s clinging to religion as a bulwark against the meaninglessness of existence that science had revealed. Eliot also became politically and economically conservative at exactly the time that Lovecraft was becoming more liberal in these areas.

Arguably Modernism was (and is) inescapably tethered to the idea of the new (the “Shock of the New” to borrow Robert Hughes’s expression). The embrace of, the hope for, or the anxiety in the face of the “New” consistently recurs in much of the modernist aesthetic.  How did the canonical text of weird fiction respond to the modern world…the “New” world?

Here again, every one of the canonical writers is different. Arthur Machen was strongly opposed to the “new” in almost every form: as a devout Anglo-Catholic, he looked in horror at the increasing secularism of the age, and also loathed science, technology, feminism, and many other features of contemporary life. Lovecraft was a social and aesthetic conservative but gradually evolved into a political liberal; and he was always interested in the advance of science, believing that it confirmed his atheism. In this regard he was actually more “advanced” than, say, T. S. Eliot, whose retreat into the safety of Christian belief Lovecraft regarded with deep scorn. Dunsany and Blackwood were also generally conservative socially and politically, and were seriously disturbed at the advance of industrialism and technology (as was Lovecraft, although he recognized that these things were here to stay); but I think this view can be found in the Modernists as well.

Many notable Modernist authors adopted certain reactionary politics in response to the developments of their time.  Ezra Pound embraced Fascism and T.S. Eliot found a form of solace in High Anglicanism.  Lovecraft notably manifested a number of conservative and reactionary positions over the course of his life.  How widespread was this conservative or reactionary sentiment among the canonical weird fiction writers?  Again, can we see this a manifestation of the anxiety over the “New”? (An interesting follow up point: although Lovecraft never entirely abandoned his particular form of racism, he did seem to shift left as his life went on.  Lovecraft’s later notebooks reveal him to be a socialist nearly in all but name.  What do you make of this development?)

In this question, it might be helpful to focus on Lovecraft, since there is more documentary evidence about his political views than there is for the other weird writers of his period. Although he began as an extreme reactionary (an apparently sincere believer in monarchism, an opponent of democracy, etc.), his views changed significantly with the onset of the Depression, and toward the end of his life he became a moderate (non-Marxist) socialist. But there are elements of continuity all along the way. He once said, “All I care about is the civilization”—by which he meant a state of society whereby aesthetic expression could flourish and there was not radical inequality. He came to believe that capitalism could not ensure this state of affairs, and that his brand of socialism had elements in common with his old-time belief in aristocracy and therefore could bring about the “civilization” he wished for. Lovecraft was largely alone among weird writers in his racism and anti-Semitism (a trait he ironically shares with Eliot, whose literary and religious views he otherwise despised), but I think this largely had to do with his social conservatism—his belief in “tradition” as a bulwark against the existential meaninglessness that comes with an understanding of the immensity of the universe and of man’s inconsequence within it. Non-whites also served as a convenient scapegoat for the rapid social changes he saw occurring in his lifetime. But it is a sad fact that he didn’t really seem to “reform” very much toward the end of his life, even when he became a socialist. I think he simply shut up about the matter once he saw that his friends and correspondents didn’t share his views.

One potential reason for the difficulty in thinking about weird fiction in relationship to Modernism might be the media by which they were initially transmitted.  The premier Modernists writers seemed to be readily accepted into the publications and academic circles of their time whereas weird fiction writers more often then not found themselves published in the pulp journals. Does this manifestation of the so called “High Art” and “Low Art” divide confuse our ability to examine the weird authors and the Moderns aesthetically, or does this particular difference in transmission have a significant affect on how we separate the works?

As I’ve mentioned before, the high art/low art divide was much stronger in the US than in the UK. Take the case of Lord Dunsany. His books were all issued by leading publishers (Heinemann, Putnam’s, Unwin, etc.); his stories appeared in such mainstream magazines as the Spectator and Harper’s; and his work was championed both in the US and the UK by such critics as H. L. Mencken, Ludwig Lewisohn, Joseph Wood Krutch, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and many others. Somewhat the same could be said of Blackwood, and even Machen (although his career had largely petered out by the early twentieth century). Lovecraft, however, had no option but to publish in the pulps, because mainstream magazines in the US were largely closed to weird fiction except by very eminent writers (like Dunsany!) with already established reputations. Other pulp writers (Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, etc.) were in the same boat. But let’s be honest: a great majority of material that was published in the pulp magazines was fearsome rubbish, and there is some justification for mainstream critics’ prejudice against this material. But what was really held against Lovecraft was not so much the fact that he published in the pulps as that his actual writing—texturally rich, even flamboyant, in its prose style; fairly “extreme” in its manifestation of weird phenomena (no tame ghosts or childlike fairies here!); its lack of concern with social relationships—was antipodal to the social realism of Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway (whose prose style Lovecraft referred to as “machine-gun fire”), and others. It took a half-century for critics to realize that this mode of writing was not the only possible mode for “serious” literary expression, and it was only then that Lovecraft could get a fair hearing as a writer of substance. But it is true that the pulps fostered the development of genre fiction, and therefore made it easy for mainstream critics to dismiss this literature with a blanket judgment that it was “sub-literary.”

I noticed that you pointed out that Lovecraft’s writing shared affinities with the realist like Sinclair Lewis.  At the same time you also pointed out that Lovecraft’s writings was in many ways antipodal to social realists like Sinclair Lewis.  Can you explain that juxtaposition?  Is this a result of a gradual change in Lovecraft’s style or do these two phenomena coexist in the same texts?  What should readers or scholars make of that?

Lovecraft habitually claimed that he personally found little interest in the work of writers like Lewis and Dreiser, while objectively admiring their grasp of the psychological workings of the common person. He himself did not wish to be restricted to the real in that sense. In 1930 he wrote: “Reality is all right enough so far as it goes . . . The only trouble is that it doesn’t go far enough for a guy with extreme sensitiveness.” Or, as he wrote more sarcastically in “The Silver Key”: “He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony.” Lovecraft’s realism therefore is on the level of topography, history, and science rather than social relations; and, as I mentioned, in the realm of psychological realism as concerns the elements of terror, wonder, and fear. But Lovecraft added the supernatural on top of this realism; as he wrote in his canonical utterance of 1930: “The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly compatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & measurable universe.”

I agree with your assertion that the vast majority of the weird fiction found in the pulps was likely subpar or at best mediocre, but arguably 90 to 95% of all artistic output is likely fairly poor.  That being said, Lovecraft was a writer who wanted to be taken seriously (despite his extreme self-criticism).  Did this relegation to the pulp magazines produce any anxiety in Lovecraft? This may sound like a facile question, but why did he want to be taken seriously?  In other words, what was Lovecraft hoping to achieve with his art?

Lovecraft really wrote for himself, and/or for a small cadre of like-minded associates. In 1921 (before the formation of Weird Tales, of course), he wrote: “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression.” Lovecraft recognized that his type of writing was of limited appeal, but he had a strong belief that weird fiction was indeed a small but essential branch of literary expression and must be approached in the most serious manner if it was to attain the level of high art. All other considerations—especially such considerations as commercial success or the whims of editors—must be put aside. Lovecraft habitually bemoaned the fact that no “high-grade” journal for weird fiction existed in his day—a journal that could publish the work of Machen, Blackwood, and others (and, of course, himself). I think he realized that such a journal could not possibly succeed in the marketplace, because there were simply too few readers to make it viable. Even today, there really is no such journal, although some small presses (e.g., Centipede Press) seem to be publishing “high-grade” work (not cheaply, either) and making a go of it.

You mentioned this divide between the English and American acceptance of weird fiction into the mainstream (or lack there of). I know you said it is a bit unclear as to why the American writers got relegated to the pulp publications as opposed to the mainstream, but what helped the English or British weird fiction writers blend into the mainstream?  Was it general public acceptance or was there a form of patronage helping these writers?

I think the difference between the English and American responses to weirdness and fantasy is based at least in part on cultural differences. These are too complex and subtle to discuss in short compass, but let us just say that the American history of moral and religious Puritanism—a tendency that really dominated American culture from the 17th to well into the 20th centuries—laid a heavy hand on artists of all stripes and caused many readers and critics to believe that any departure from overt realism was in some sense morally wrong (after all, fiction was “all lies” anyway, wasn’t it?), and that only that literature (and other art) that could justify itself by the inculcation of suitable moral lessons or, at least, by the depiction of the world as it is (a depiction that also had a strong moral component, as the didactic novels of Upton Sinclair and others testify) was fit to read. The English had their Puritan phase in the 17th century, but it dissipated to give way to a broader idea of what art and culture should be. Accordingly, throughout the 19th century you had writers like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Morris, George Meredith, and many others who were respected even when they included fantasy and the supernatural in their writing. This tradition carried on into the 20th century with the fantasy writing of Dunsany, Peake, Eddison, and Tolkien, and in the supernatural work of Machen, Blackwood, M. R. James, L. P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, and so many others. The fact that even such realists as Dickens and Henry James (who, in spite of his American birth, considered himself a British writer) indulged extensively in the ghost story was a contributing factor.

The development of Modernism does not seem to happen in geographic isolation.  In the interviews conducted by Former People, we discussed the development of Modernists aesthetics in Chile and Asia even though both regions were arguably removed from the particular literary and aesthetic history of Europe. The canonical weird fiction writers, in contrast, seem to be exclusively tied to the Anglo-American world.  How complete is this picture?  How do you explain the development of weird fiction outside the Anglo-American world? Did it develop as a result of the cultural export of weird fiction or did grow independently of the canonical weird writers?

I am not as well versed in non-European (and even non-Anglophone) weird fiction as I ought to be. In my study Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012), I deliberately avoided discussion of magical realism, since I see that as more akin to fantasy rather than to supernatural horror. Lovecraft himself believed that weird fiction as a whole was a quintessentially “Nordic” mode of expression; and while it is easy to dismiss that view as part of his racialist stance, it is curious that the greatest weird writers really do seem to have worked in English. The French have Gautier, Maupassant, and some others to their credit; the Belgians have Jean Ray; the Germans have E. T. A. Hoffmann, Hanns Heinz Ewers, and others; the Poles have Stefan Grabinski; but none of these come up to the stature of Machen, Dunsany, Lovecraft, and others. There is clear evidence that Borges read and enjoyed Lovecraft, but it would be difficult to make a case that Lovecraft was a significant influence on his work. But this whole subject needs to be pursued by someone better versed in non-Anglophone weird literature than I am.

As time went on, how did the development of Post-Modernist aesthetics affect the development of weird fiction in the aftermath of the canonical first generation of weird writers?  Did that development echo with similar dynamics to the overall shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism?

In the generation after Lovecraft, weird fiction came much closer to mainstream fiction in its emphasis on social relationships, interpersonal conflict, and so forth. Writers like Fritz Leiber (the pioneer of “urban horror”), Ray Bardbury, Richard Matheson, and others wished to bring horror down from the outer reaches of the universe to the level of ordinary life; and Bradbury succeeded in publishing his stories in the New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, and other mainstream venues once the pulps died out in the 1940s and 1950s. But weird writing still remained relatively conservative aesthetically, rarely adopting avant-garde literary methodologies such as those being utilized by Pynchon, John Barth, and others. And the bestselling weird writers of the 1970s and 1980s—especially Stephen King—were merely popular writers who developed a knack for appealing to a wide and generally uncritical audience. That changed to some degree with a writer like Ramsey Campbell, whose tales introduced bold sexuality, narrative innovations (unreliable narrator, shifting point of view, etc.), and a subtlety in the conveying of weird tropes that strongly linked him with postmodernism. In some ways the same could be said for other cutting-edge writers of the 1970s and 1980s like Peter Straub and Clive Barker.

Is contemporary weird fiction still in a Post-Modern aesthetic moment?  Have any contemporary authors expressed an anxiety with regard to Post-Modern aesthetics? To put it another way, what is the contemporary aesthetic landscape of weird fiction?

Today, now that weird fiction has largely ceased to be a bestselling phenomenon and retreated to the small press, there seems to be no dominant mode of weird writing. While there are certainly some writers who relish avant-garde methodologies (Jeff Vander Meer, Michael Cisco), the best writers in the field (Caitlín R. Kiernan and Laird Barron top the list, in my opinion) write in a manner that is largely indistinguishable from that of postmodern mainstream fiction except in the inclusion of non-mimetic elements. In Kiernan there is a keen and unflinching focus on what might be called the detritus of society (drug takers, persons of ambiguous or multiple sexuality, etc.), but her continual drawing upon myths (in particular the myths of the siren and the mermaid) and the strong influence of Lovecraft, Machen, and other classic weird writers links her to an older tradition. Barron enjoys mingling widely disparate genres—the superhero, the espionage tale, the weird tale, the suspense tale—in a heady and innovative mix, although on occasion he seems a trifle undisciplined and produces work that is aesthetically incoherent, even if always a pleasure to read. On the whole, contemporary weird fiction seems to embody a blurring of genres—not only with mainstream fiction but with science fiction, suspense fiction, and fantasy—to the degree that it becomes difficult to label any given writer “weird” or something else. That may make it difficult for literary historians, but it is a good thing for readers; there is a tremendous amount of outstanding weird fiction out there, if one can only find it.

You mentioned that weird fiction writers now are becoming less and less a part of the mainstream.  What does this tell us about weird fiction now?  Does this mean that they are “coming back to their roots” at least in the American contexts?  How will this lack of “mainstream” acceptance affect the output of weird fiction (either aesthetically or economically)?

This is another complex issue. What I really mean is that the demise of the horror “boom” of the 1970s and 1980s means that there are fewer bestselling writers of the Stephen King sort, although obviously King, Koontz, and others still make the bestseller lists. But most weird writers now have to cultivate the small press, because that is really the only market for their work. It is typical that even such an immensely talented writer as Caitlín R. Kiernan, while publishing her novels with Penguin, has to publish her short stories (which are arguably her best work, on a purely literary scale) in the small press. Penguin simply will not publish a book of her stories. Laird Barron has been published exclusively in the small press. The result is that the best weird work of today (and that includes older figures like Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, T. E. D. Klein, Dennis Etchison, and others) is increasingly read by only a coterie of cognoscenti and not by general public. I’m not sure what can be done about this; perhaps it is only a sign that, as Lovecraft wrote long ago, weird fiction in its essence is really only meant for the “sensitive few.” (On a practical level, it also means that very few weird writers can actually make a living by writing and must find some other source of income.) Critics can play a role in this situation by publicizing the best weird writing and urging general readers to go seek it out. Small-press publishers can help themselves by making their products more accessible (i.e., not so expensive) and by finding new readers by e-books and so forth. But weird fiction has never had the readership of science fiction or detective fiction or even some branches of fantasy fiction, so perhaps we can only go so far in proselytizing the field.

Do you have any departing thoughts you’d like to leave us with?  Do you want to give us a heads up on anything you are working on?

I think I exhausted myself by spending five years in the writing (and corresponding reading) of Unutterable Horror. I am now writing a book on the detective story, just to get away from horror for a bit. But I continue working in weird fiction in various ways. I have undertaken an ongoing project to publish all of H. P. Lovecraft’s letters in unabridged and annotated editions (it is expected to fill at least 25 volumes), and I am also working on a Variorum Lovecraft—an edition of Lovecraft’s fiction that will record all the textual variants from the different publications of each story. This will probably become the standard edition of Lovecraft’s stories, because I am making some slight but significant changes based on my renewed examination of the tales’ textual history. I want to write a little book (or maybe not so little) on the history of Lovecraft’s emergence from an obscure pulp writer to a figure of world renown (which will also include a detailed analysis of the history of Lovecraft criticism). I am also editing a series of monographs for Scarecrow Press, Studies in Supernatural Literature, that is issuing some good criticism of weird fiction, both old and new. I hope to do more work on such writers as Dunsany and Blackwood, and perhaps write a more detailed study of contemporary weird fiction. So I’m keeping busy!

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3 thoughts on “A Literary History of Weird Fiction: An Interview with S. T. Joshi

  1. Pingback: New S.T. Joshi interview | TENTACLII :: H.P. Lovecraft blog

  2. Pingback: Notes on the weird – S.T. Joshi | The Shorecliff Horror

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