5 S. T. Joshi - Blog

S. T. Joshi's Blog

January 29, 2015 — Charles Baxter on Lovecraft—Again!

I was a bit surprised to see that a highly truncated version of my response to Charles Baxter’s article in the New York Review of Books has been published in the new issue of that paper (dated February 19, 2015). I had sent my response to the editors of NYRB and was told that only a 400-word letter could be published. (My full response was ten times that length.) I hastily prepared such a letter, but then never heard from the editors as to whether it would be published or not.

Adding to the bizarrerie, Mr. Baxter has appended a reply that addresses, not the letter as published in NYRB, but my full response! I am not particularly impressed by Mr. Baxter’s reply, which I will hereby subject to a sentence-by-sentence analysis:

  • “One would think, reading S. T. Joshi’s response to my book review, that I had attacked the object of a cult.” [If correcting the errors of a critic’s analysis of a given writer constitutes defending a cult writer, then Poe, Melville, Whitman, Bierce, Hemingway, Mencken, and dozens of other writers are all cult writers. All these writers have faced, during and after their lifetimes, malicious and error-riddled attacks exactly along the lines of Baxter’s screed on Lovecraft.]
  • “His lengthy letter never acknowledges that my review of Lovecraft’s stories was divided into two parts: the first containing my misgivings about the fiction, the second containing guarded praise.” [This is a deliberate mischaracterisation of Baxter’s article. In fact, the first part of it was a grotesque slander against Lovecraft the person (as one who was “a stranger to joy” and who was a “shut-in,” etc. etc.). And while I could have addressed some errors and distortions in the “guarded praise” in the second part of the article, that didn’t seem to me sufficiently important to discuss.]
  • “I am not surprised that Joshi, who has spent much of his life studying Lovecraft, was affronted by my review, but he doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between matters of fact and matters of judgment. Readers of Lovecraft can judge for themselves whether Lovecraft’s prose contains infelicities of style, along with misogyny and racism.” [Mr. Baxter stubbornly refused to acknowledge the numerous errors of “fact” that he made in his review; and many of his “judgments” on Lovecraft are based directly on those errors of fact.]
  • “Joshi’s argument against the stories’ misogyny is of the some-of-his-best-friends-were-women variety, a confusion of the work and the life.” [To call someone a “misogynist,” as Baxter did in his article, is to make a fairly clear personal comment—or attack—on a writer’s character, and it is false and disingenuous to claim that the assertion merely reflects an interpretation of the author’s literary work. In any event, I have clearly established that Baxter has misinterpreted key elements of the stories in finding a misogynist undercurrent where there is none.]
  • “As for Lovecraft’s racism, Joshi’s defense of Lovecraft’s views in his letter is astonishing in this day and age; he quotes, with apparent approval, Lovecraft’s suggestion of apartheid as a benevolent remedy.” [My whole argument, in discussing HPL’s racism, is that it is unfair and unwise to judge him based on the standards of “this day and age”—very few (including such known racists and anti-Semites as Jack London, T. S. Eliot, and Roald Dahl) would come away unscathed from such scrutiny. In any event, the “apartheid” that HPL recommended was one that a number of black leaders of his day (e.g., Marcus Garvey) had themselves advocated.]
  • “Joshi seems unable to grasp my argument that the racism is at the core of the stories’ horror of aliens.” [I can’t grasp this argument because it is nonsensical and belied by the plain facts of the case. It is a highly tortuous and prejudicial reading of Lovecraft’s stories to maintain that any of his extraterrestrial “gods” and monsters—with the exception of the Deep Ones in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—are somehow meant as stand-ins for ethnic minorities. See more on this below.]
  • “I never denied that the stories have a disturbing power. What readers should certainly note, however, is that Joshi is territorial; while I grant him the right to his opinions, he does not grant me a right to mine.” [Now Baxter has descended to whining. It is the last, desperate ploy of persons losing a debate to plead that their opponents are trying to “silence” them. Baxter is free to say anything he wants on Lovecraft; but surely I am free to rebut his arguments and point out their errors and fallacies. No one is trying to abridge Baxter’s freedom of speech; but “freedom of speech” does not imply freedom from criticism. Baxter seems to think he can say anything he wants on Lovecraft and not face critical scrutiny—but that would be a denial of my freedom of speech, and of the speech of any others who don’t agree with him.]

Things get curiouser and curiouser. Another letter published in the NYRB issue is by one Mark Halpern. It addresses nothing in Baxter’s own article but attacks me for some perceived failings in my biography of Lovecraft—or, rather, one failing in particular, to wit: “Joshi must have been suffering from one of his rare moments of fatigue when it came to linking his subject’s attitude toward Jews and other sorts of non-Nordic immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side to the emotional source of Cthulhu and his like, because he writes not one word about the topic in his otherwise painfully detailed biography.” Well, lordy me! I confess to be guilty as charged—because there is little or no connection between Lovecraft’s racism and his creation of the “gods and monsters” in his fiction.

It is most curious how many recent critics (Charles Baxter, Laura Miller, and now Mr. Halpern) have put forth this view without providing the slighest evidence for it. Let us examine the physical properties of Lovecraft’s iconic creation, Cthulhu. When the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” first sees Wilcox’s bas-relief of the creature, he describes it as follows: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.” Lovecraft’s description of the actual sight of Cthulhu by Johansen is deliberately vague, but we do have this: “The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own.” Uh-oh—Cthulhu is green! Maybe this means that he is a stand-in for “people of colour”! If you believe that, there’s a bridge nearby that I’d like to sell you.

It is true that the Cthulhu cultists in Louisiana do symbolise Lovecraft’s disdain of certain types of foreigners: they were “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.” Well and good; but this whole passage (the second section of the story) is largely an elaborate “info dump” whereby we learn the basic properties of Cthulhu and his “spawn,” as recounted by “old Castro.” I don’t see that there is anything specifically anti-Semtiic in the passage above. Mr. Halpern (who predictably refers to Lovecraft’s “pathological anti-Semitism”) will be surprised to learn that Lovecraft repeatedly declared his belief that Jews in both America and Europe were in several ways culturally superior to Anglo-Saxons—something that could certainly not be said of the Cthulhu cultists in Louisiana.

How about Lovecraft’s other “gods and monsters”? Azathoth? He is described in one story as follows: “that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time …” Any racist implications there, people?

Yog-Sothoth, maybe? We hear of him as “a congeries of iridescent globes.” There must be a racist implication there somewhere, but—Gawdelpme—I just don’t have the critical acumen to detect it.

Shub-Niggurath? Well, she is usually mentioned in the same breath as “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.” Omigod!—black goat! All right, that’s it: she must be a stand-in for HPL’s disdain for black women who breed a lot! What else is possible? Well, wait a minute…HPL does describe her elsewhere as “a kind of sophisticated Astarte,” so I guess we can presume that HPL was prejudiced against the ancient Mesopotamians.

Nyarlathotep also seems very promising. He is first described as having the bearing of a Pharaoh. OK, no question about it—this must reflect HPL’s prejudice against Arabs! But it seems that Nyarlathotep emerged “from the blackness of twenty-seven centuries”—meaning that he emerged about thirteen centuries before the birth of Mohammad. But didn’t HPL describe him as the “Black Man” in “The Dreams in the Witch House”? Oh, wait—that was the standard designation for the leader of a witch coven. And HPL states specifically that the Black Man in that story was devoid of negroid features.

How about the fungi from Yuggoth in “The Whisperer in Darkness”? Well, they’re described as “half-fungous, half-crustacean creatures from a planet identifiable as the remote and recently discovered Pluto”; so unless we assume that HPL had a prejudice against mushrooms or crabs, I don’t see any racist undercurrent here.

The Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness? They are barrel-shaped creatures with starfish-heads and tentacles. Again I struggle to connect them with HPL’s racism. Anyway, aren’t they substantially superior to humans in intellect and many other qualities? What about those loathsome shoggoths? I suppose something could be made of the fact that they are immense, amorphous masses of black protoplasm …

The Great Race of “The Shadow out of Time”? They are huge, rugose, cone-shaped creatures who are also vastly superior to human beings, since they are virtually omniscient and have conquered time. Not much racism there, I fear.

I have repeatedly maintained that the only major story by Lovecraft based on racist presuppositions is “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” And (pace Mr. Halpern) I do in fact discuss this matter at length in my biography. Here is some of what I wrote there: “‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ is…clearly a cautionary tale on the ill effects of miscegenation, or the sexual union of different races…It is, accordingly, difficult to deny a suggestion of racism running all through the story.” There is much more to this effect, but I trust that will do.

Our valiant critics have also failed to notice the several stories in which various unsavoury characters are unmistakably Caucasian. This applies particularly to the aristocratic Dutch-American family in “The Lurking Fear,” the wealthy Anglo-American family in “The Rats in the Walls,” and even the “decadent” inhabitants of Dunwich in “The Dunwich Horror.” The Dunwich denizens are clearly a racially homogeneous (white) clan of backwoods New England farmers; there seem to be no ethnic minorities there. If one didn’t know who wrote these stories, one could easily conclude that their author was prejudiced against white people!

The plain fact is that most of Lovecraft’s “gods and monsters” are meant to symbolise the immensity—both spatial and temporal—of a universe where human beings occupy a derisively insignificant place. Their titanic power and anomalous physical properties are metaphors for the inscrutability of a universe where things may be very different from the way they are here.

Those hostile critics seeking to maintain some intimate connection between Lovecraft’s racism and the creation of these alien entities will have to put forth more than mere assertions to make their case. In my mind, the evidence is overwhelmingly against them.

January 19, 2015 — Gothic Lovecraft Done!

I am happy to announce that the anthology that Lynne Jamneck and I have been assembling for some time, Gothic Lovecraft, is now done. Here is a peek at the table of contents:

  • Donald R. Burleson, “The Shadow over Lear”
  • Don Webb, “The Revelation at the Abbey”
  • Jonathan Thomas, “Old Goodman Brown”
  • Lois H. Gresh, “Square of the Inquisition”
  • Mollie L. Burleson, “A Yuletide Carol”
  • Donald Tyson, “Curse of the House of Usher”
  • Mark Howard Jones, “The Rolling of Old Thunder”
  • Nancy Kilpatrick, “Always a Castle?”
  • Robert S. Wilson, “Four Arches”
  • Gwyneth Jones, “The Old Schoolhouse”
  • Orrin Grey, “Dream House”
  • Lynda E. Rucker, “The Unknown Chambers”
  • Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Andromeda among the Stones”

All the stories save the last are original, and every one is a powerful fusion of Gothic elements of various sorts with Lovecraftian motifs. A splendid book! It should be published by Cycatrix Press in time for the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY, which I will be attending (as will the publisher, Jason V Brock).

Meanwhile, I am mortified and dismayed that there has been so little interest in the Weird Fiction Review, whose bumper-crop fifth issue I announced last time. I have received very few offers to take my spare copies of the issue off my hands. So at great personal sacrifice I am offering the issue for a bargain price of $20. Come one, come all! And, when the issue goes out of print and begins commanding high prices (as it inevitably will), don’t say I didn’t give you a chance!

I am in the process of preparing the index and reading the proofs of my revised Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos—which is now retitled The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos. Hippocampus Press hopes to have this book ready for NecronomiCon II this August, if not earlier. It has now been significantly expanded in size and may check in at more than 400 pages.

Proofs of Black Wings IV have arrived from the publisher (PS Publishing), and on the whole they look pretty good. PS had announced the book as being available in February, and let’s hope it is able to keep that promise. The signature sheets of the signed/limited edition are also beginning to circulate, so that edition may not be quite as delayed as the one for Black Wings III was. (As a matter of fact, I never even got a copy of the signed/limited edition, nor did any of the contributors.) I believe the paperback of Black Wings II will also come out pretty soon, maybe February or March.

I am contemplating the issuance of e-books of some of my older titles, specifically The Weird Tale (1990), H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990), A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft (1996), and The Modern Weird Tale (2001). These books may or may not actually be in print (the first three in reprints from Wildside Press; the fourth from McFarland), but I have retained e-book rights. But since I no longer have electronic files of these books, such files will have to be generated—a tedious process. But I think it is worth doing. I shall probably let Hippocampus issue the e-books. Of course, in the process of preparing electronic files I shall probably do some revision. Indeed, I wish I could slap on a new title to A Subtler Magick, whose title and subtitle were determined by the publisher; but I suppose that is not possible.

I have been labouring with a cold/cough ever since my return from Vancouver, BC (January 8–11), where I attended the Modern Language Association conference. Actually, Mary and I spent as little time at the conference as we could, spending most of the time in exploring this most interesting city. I was on a panel discussion on “weird fiction” on Sunday, January 11. I was dreading the event, because I know from experience that this conference (attended almost exclusively by academics) can be and usually is insufferably pompous and stuffy; but our panel, to my surprise, went reasonably well. One young person professed considerable familiarity with both HPL and my work, and I encouraged him to attend NecronomiCon II. I also met the poet Wade German and his charming wife, and we had much lively discussion on various subjects as well as a nice tour of an anthropological museum. On our own Mary and I walked around Stanley Park and had a splendid lunch at the Fish House there. (Pardon us, HPL!)

I cannot leave my readers without commenting on the miraculous conclusion of the NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The game was going so badly for my Seahawks that I was going to give up watching—but Mary said she would watch to the bitter end, so I decided to stick to it. And I’m glad I did. I don’t recall a more remarkable conclusion to a game in all my fifty years of watching football. All I say, however, is that the Seahawks had better not make so many mistakes if they expect to win the Super Bowl in two weeks.

January 2, 2015 — Weird Fiction Review Arrives

I received copies of Weird Fiction Review No. 5 (2014) a week or so ago. Of course, it looks splendid from a purely physical perspective, but I believe the contents are also exemplary. It includes four separate interviews (Dennis Etchison on Ray Bradbury; Jonathan Johnson on Michael Aronovitz; Jason V Brock on Al Feldstein; Wayne Edwards on Stuart David Schiff); fiction by Brian Stableford, Jason V Brock, Donald Tyson, Jonathan Thomas, Robert H. Waugh, Darrell Schweitzer, and others; and articles by Dennis Etchison (on Forrest J Ackerman), Jan Vander Laenen, Stefan Dziemianowicz, and others; poetry by Wade German, Ann K. Schwader, and others; and columns by John Pelan and Danel Olson. The publisher, Centipede Press, states that the list price is $35 but is currently offering it for $25. I will follow suit and offer my spare copies for $25, which includes shipping for US customers.

Well, my threat—er, promise—to dig out my violin and play it at the Northwest Chorale’s play-along/sing-along of Handel’s Messiah on December 30 turned into a reality, and it was an enthralling experience. I was substantially assisted by three other violinists (one first violinist and two second violinists) who covered up my numerous mistakes and bad intonation. But I know the work so well (from a choral perspective) that I was able to “lead” the orchestra quite effectively. I was hoping that my wife, Mary, would take some pictures of the event, but she was ill and stayed home; however, some pictures taken by others have been forwarded to me, and I am hoping that my webmaster can make one of them visible here. I will, however, not repeat this undertaking or take up the violin on a regular basis: no time and no real interest!

S. T. Joshi rehearsing the violin

Continuing on the musical theme, I have heard a rough CD of our choir’s December 13 performance, and—aside from the irritant of a crying baby—it turned out reasonably well. We will be able to fine-tune the recording in various ways to make it better still, and there is a good chance that this one will in fact be offered for sale commercially, since I am securing permission for all songs that are still under copyright.

Mary and I took a brief trip to Los Angeles over the Christmas holidays to see my two sisters and their families. One December 26 I was please to make the personal acquaintance of two young poets, Kyle (K. A.) Opperman (whose The Crimson Tome will appear this year from Hippocampus Press) and Ashley Dioses (who has a poem in the new Weird Fiction Review and is likely to have a poetry book from Hippocampus sometime in the future). We engaged in several hours of lively discussion of poetry and other matters. Indeed, Kyle suggested to me that I encourage Leigh Blackmore to assemble a volume of the collected weird poetry of Leah Bodine Drake. Leigh has just written a long article on Drake’s poetry (which will appear in two parts in the next two issues of Spectral Realms)—an article that notes that, aside from the fabulously rare Arkham House book A Hornbook for Witches (1950), Drake also published a second poetry volume, The Tilting Dust (1956), which has some weird specimens. In addition, there is a third, unpublished poetry manuscript, Multiple Clay, among her papers at the University of Kentucky. I have just asked the library there for a copy or scan of this text. So I hope that a volume of Drake’s poetry, under Leigh’s editorship, can appear in the next year or two.

I am just now wrapping up my edition of the weird tales of Irvin S. Cobb and Gouverneur Morris for Dark Renaissance Books. It will be called Back There in the Grass, from the title of Morris’s most famous story. This is really a very interesting compilation, and the weird work of these two author is quite creditable. I think I will then proceed with an assemblage of the weird tales of Thomas Burke, a writer I have always admired. Jessica Amanda Salmonson seems to have assembled a pretty comprehensive volume of Burke’s weird tales (The Golden Gong and Other Night-Pieces [Ash-Tree Press, 2001]), but this book is long out of print and no doubt quite expensive. I may include the complete contents of Burke’s classic collection Night-Pieces (1935), even though not all the stories are weird; and there are other weird stories scattered in other collections that I will also include. After I assemble the Burke volume, I will put together a substantial book of Théophile Gautier’s weird tales.

Lynne Jamneck and I have pretty much completed our assembly of Gothic Lovecraft, and the volume has come out quite well indeed, with contributions from Lois H. Gresh, Orrin Grey, Nancy Kilpatrick, Lynda Rucker, Jonathan Thomas, Donald Tyson, Don Webb, and several others. This will be appearing from Jason V Brock’s Cycatrix Press later this year—perhaps around the time of the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, New York. I am also helping Jason assemble Nicole Cushing’s first short story collection, The Mirrors, which he hopes to bring out for the World Horror Convention in Atlanta (May 7–10). I am not sure I will be able to attend that event, as I would have to miss one of my choir performances (currently set for May 9 and 16).

So this year is likely to be a busy one!

Entries from 2014…