Author W. Scott Poole has made a career out of examining monsters and the supernatural. Through a variety of texts including such titles as Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting and Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Along with these cultural examinations of all “things that go bump in the night”, Poole recently turned his attention to genre figures that have influenced horror films and culture with Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror.
After analyzing Vampira’s (Maila Nurmi) influence and contributions to the genre and the wider cultural implications of her career, Poole decided to tackle the father of Cthulhu himself, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is a name synonymous with horror fiction and culture. His body of work has influenced generations of writers, musicians, film makers, and artists. Over the past 30 years, perhaps no author has influenced the genre more, especially in the 21st century.
Poole took time out of his schedule to discuss the release of his new book In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary After-Life of H.P. Lovecraft and the origins of his personal obsession with all things horror in this exclusive interview.
Horror News Network: What is your earliest memory regarding your personal introduction to H.P. Lovecraft’s work or influence? Why did you decide to make Lovecraft the topic of your latest book?
W. Scott Poole: So I read Lovecraft for the first time around 1989 in one of Marvin Gooding’s old anthologies of Weird Tales. The story was “He,” not one of the better tales actually. However, being very involved in horror culture and geekdom in general, Lovecraft always represented this brooding presence in the RPGS and video games I loved. I became a real devotee of his work when S.T. Joshi brought out his splendid annotated and corrected editions of all Lovecraft tales.
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 fans.
But I write about what I love or confuses me or what I obsess over. Lovecraft has long been one of those obsessions and so, as for many authors, it became impossible for me not to write about him in some sense
HNN: What fact or story did you find most interesting about Lovecraft while researching this book?
Poole: Many of the Lovecraft anecdotes are well-known though I tried to make a bit more of these than sometimes has been done. It’s an incredible cultural moment when Lovecraft ghostwrites for Harry Houdini! The fact that Lovecraft saw Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula in that un-Lovecraftian city of Miami (and hated both the film and the place he saw it) is just a fun thing to know.
I think at the end of the day the story of the stories told about him intrigued me the most. Why had he become an untouchable icon for some? Why was it not easy to admit both his racism and the way racism structured his tales? What about all the evidence for sexual ambiguity in his life that simply has been ignored?
HNN: Is there another artist, writer, film maker that is most responsible for bringing Lovecraft’s work to a wider audience in your opinion?
Poole: I spend a lot of time on Guillermo Del Toro’s work in the book as I think it has become one of the, if not the, major conduit for Lovecraftian ideas distilling into popular culture. He has spoken frequently about this but I hope the book gives fans some specifics about how his body of work comes steeped in the Lovecraft mythos.
However, I would add two important points. John Carpenter (perhaps my favorite living horror director) has always used Lovecraft in a meaningful fashion. I’m not even talking about the obviously Lovecraftian ideas in The Thing or In the Mouth of Madness. Even Halloween borrows the idea of a evil that’s less evil than a total indifference, “The Shape” (as Michael Myers is known in the script) is a force of indifference, a Lovecraftian sense of the unknowable malign that kills just because.
HNN: Why is Lovecraft’s world view (cosmic terrors) so applicable to modern audiences?
Poole: I can’t decide if I think that reader’s views of Lovecraft’s “cosmic indifferentism” help him or not. It’s really a challenge to sell a nihilistic product and so many of the wonderful Lovecraftian games, films and tales actually leave out the “cosmic” element. As horror fans, we are often fine with a pile of victims but audiences also like to root for the lone survivor. It’s a whole other giant leap into blackness to imagine the entire human race making a leap into darkness.
I think Lovecraft himself would see his work in films like Martyrs (2008), not because of its more gruesome elements but because its ends on a note of desperate finality and dread. I can see him loving a film like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard might have even pleased him with the somewhat surprisingly successful Cabin in the Woods that manages to pull off a very Lovecraftian message of cosmic dread with lots of laughs.
HNN: In researching Lovecraft, did you find evidence of his racist/elitist viewpoints and did these have any impact on the thematic content of his stories?
Poole: There is no way to deny the racist element in Lovecraft’s work. In fact, I am provoked by the willingness of some of his ardent defenders to claim he was simply “a product of his times.” Some of his close friends and correspondents rejected the structural racism in American society and Lovecraft never stopped making his assertions strongly and often without any rational argument. In fact, despite his alleged hatred for the 19th century, he went back to that century for arguments about race that educated men such as himself had begun to reject.
The question of its role in his fiction is a contentious one. I do make the point in the book that its groups that the narrator sees as “degenerate” who hear “The Call of Cthulhu” (and surrealist artists!). “The Horror at Redhook”(in my opinion the worst of his well known tales) depends on the notion of racial groups easily swayed by those malignant forces from outside. Then again, there are tales in which race plays little or no role.
We don’t have to forgive an author such things just as we don’t have to dismiss an author for these attitudes. But to understand a writer’s work, and the world they lived in, we have to confront them.
HNN: Many of your books focus on the supernatural and horror films. How did you become a fan of monsters and horror films?
Poole: It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t a horror nerd. I spent many Saturday afternoons as a kid watching my local TV stations screening of “Shock Theatre” and “Son of Shock.” I read and collected Famous Monsters and started (and continue) to collect back issues from the classic days.
It’s an area that American historians have not explored until recently and that was a shock to me when I began looking into all the ways horror plays a role in our history and culture. So, my classes at the College of Charleston deal with monsters, the story of Satan as a concept in American history, the role of the gothic. Honestly it’s a blast to research, write about and teach what I fanboy over.
HNN: What story would you suggest to a Lovecraft novice (aside from your text of course!) that captures the essence of a Lovecraft story?
Poole: So I suggest in the book that “Shadow over Innsmouth” might be the tale to begin with, along with some of his earlier work that’s shorter and in some ways odder than his later works. “Dagon” and “Hypnos” are examples of short tales that pack a wallop for the new reader. His greatest work, which inspired my title is At the Mountains of Madness but might be a bit much for most new Lovecraft readers given both its length and complexity. His language, so beautiful and strange, takes some getting used to…this was certainly true for me.
“Call of Cthulhu” is a standard answer and I certainly would urge that on a new reader soon in their exploration. By the way, please read these tales in S.T. Joshi’s edited and annotated versions from Penguin so you make sure you get unexpurgated Lovecraft. And yes, also, buy my book, ha! You’ll actually find a guide to the tales in the back (as well as a history of fake Necronomicons).
In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary After-Life of H.P. Lovecraft by Scott Poole is available at finer bookstores everywhere.