Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Lovecraft, Diversity, and the Occult: An Interview with Ross Smeltzer


The author of The Mark of the Shadow Grove talks about the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, the increasing diversity of viewpoints in the field of weird fiction, and the perennial importance of occult ideas in horror and fantasy.  His collection of novellas “in the weird and Lovecraftian mold” was published in January of this year by Fantasy Works Publishing.   

How did you first become acquainted with the work of H.P. Lovecraft? Do you have a favorite story?

I first became acquainted with Lovecraft's work when I was a teenager, stumbling on it by following an unusual—and frankly embarrassing—source: the Warhammer Fantasy universe. The Chaos deities are patently modeled on Lovecraftian antecedents and my fascination with them eventually led me to discover Lovecraft's far stranger pantheon.

I returned to reading Lovecraft in my twenties, oddly enough, and it's been grist for my creative mill ever since. While I appreciate much of the mythos he developed, and value it as an artistic device, I've always been drawn to his tales of ecological decline and degradation. I think the closest Lovecraft came to a faultless artistic statement was "The Colour out of Space." And any author who can claim to succeed, without qualification, in even a single story deserves to be remembered.

How would you evaluate Lovecraft as a writer in terms of his strengths and weaknesses?

It's a cliché at this point to bemoan Lovecraft's floridness and rhetorical flamboyance. And I'd readily admit that there are instances in his tales when his writing does collapse into self-parody. That said, however, I think critics too readily disregard the way his lumbering, ponderous style serves an important narrative purpose: he is peerless at creating a mood of pervasive, inescapable dread. That is a very hard thing to do, and I don't think he would be nearly as successful at it—and at articulating his cosmic vision—if it weren't for his peculiar approach.

Lovecraft has been criticized for his prose style as well as content now considered insensitive and disrespectful of ethnic or racial minorities. Yet his influence on horror and science fiction remains pervasive and enduring. What do you think accounts for this?

Lovecraft was a racist man, writing at a period in American history when nativism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and white bigotry were omnipresent in American culture. The Ku Klux Klan recruited millions to its banners at the same time that Lovecraft was writing stories propelled by his own insecurities. He was fearful that his whiteness, Anglo-ness, and maleness would count for nothing in an increasingly complicated, progressive, and heterogeneous country.

He wasn't alone in holding these fears, but that doesn't diminish the fact that he clung to them so tenaciously and wielded such a bilious pen to champion them—and to attack anyone he thought was not an authentic American like himself. His brand of conservatism has largely been driven from acceptable American discourse, although it still very much lurks in the shadows of our national consciousness, occasionally bubbling to the surface.

I think speculative fiction writers can appreciate Lovecraft's materialistic and cosmic perspective while simultaneously abhorring his personal convictions about race, class, and gender. His social and political views were poisonous in the extreme, but he had something to say about humanity's place in the universe—something truly disquieting. His belief in human insignificance should remind us to fear the conceit and hubris that are so central to our egoistic species' understanding of itself.

More generally, who or what have been the most important influences on your writing? What led you to write horror and fantasy?

I wouldn't be able to identify a single wellspring for my writing. I've been influenced by many writers, and an equally large number of visual artists. Whenever I write, I look at illustrations by John Blanche, Ian Miller, Arthur Rakham, and others; and I've collected a trove of images drawn from the Northern Renaissance painters: artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Frans Francken the Elder, and Albrecht Durer, and a host of other specialists in the aesthetics of disgust.

Besides H.P. Lovecraft, what other authors do you feel contributed greatly to the field of weird fiction?

I've long been devoted to the writings of Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen. Bierce's "The Damned Thing" might very well be my favorite work of weird fiction. In it, he does what Lovecraft sought to do but so often failed at doing: he creates a memorably inchoate and unknowable antagonist and populates his tale with colorful characters. And unlike Lovecraft, he was able to salt his narrative with biting humor.

Machen's writing has an eerily hypnotic quality, but I think his success as a craftsman of the weird is derived from the way he juxtaposed poetic loveliness against shocking brutality and terror. The opening section of his novella "The Great God Pan," when a young woman is functionally sacrificed in the service of a scientific experiment, is appalling in its casual misogyny, and it's by far the most terrifying part of the narrative. I happen to think his "The White People," which melds poetic prettiness and utter dread, might be the single most unnerving story ever penned.

Are there particular themes or issues that you like to explore in your writing?

In each of the novellas in The Mark of the Shadow Grove I wanted to tell stories in the weird and Lovecraftian mold that also included compelling characters, particularly female characters. Their absence in so much classic horror fiction—and their virtual nonexistence in Lovecraft's canon—speaks to the truncated perspective of many weird fiction writers. I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that Lovecraft ignored women in his fiction because his understanding of who could constitute a protagonist in a story was limited to bookish white men like himself. 

I wanted to incorporate women into a Lovecraftian framework and to do so in a way that upset gendered representations of femininity. I strove for ambiguity. I don't think I wholly succeeded, but it's an artistic agenda I plan on pursuing further.

Lovecraft rarely included any strong female characters in his fiction, much less representatives from ethnic groups or social classes that differed from his own. How has horror and fantasy changed in this regard since his time? How does increased diversity among characters affect the impact of a horror tale?

I think it's encouraging that so many weird fiction authors are incorporating women into their stories in thoughtful, provocative ways. Similarly, I think it is encouraging that so many of the genre's leading lights are now women. The days when horror was a man's game are gone, and that's something we should celebrate.

But merely including women in our stories isn't enough. We, as writers, need to think about representation. We need female characters who are strong in ways that don't just capitulate to a patriarchal definition of strength; and we need female characters who are weak in ways that complicate the patriarchal definition of weakness—a definition that generally elided "weakness" with femaleness. We have to be careful not to perpetuate old representations in new ways. It's something I personally need to be more cognizant of when I write.

John Steadman, the author of H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition (2015) draws a connection between the fictional pantheon created by Lovecraft in his “Mythos” stories and contemporary occult practice. What kind of relationship do you see between some types of horror or fantasy literature, and occult beliefs and practices?

I should say at the start of this response that, despite the occultism present in my writing, I'm shockingly ignorant about contemporary occult practices. I suppose if you were feeling unkind you could call me a "dilettante" and say I've simply appropriated the aesthetics of the occult for my own infernal use.

I like to think I'm using the occult in a very classic way, however. It has always been a creative reservoir for genre writers like myself. For instance, much of Machen's horror fiction is propelled by characters confronting the occult, and by the premise that our species has forgotten about the old gods, but that they have not forgotten about us. That premise has an undeniable resonance and power.

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Mr. Smeltzer’s book The Mark of the Shadow Grove is published by:
Fantasy Works Publishing, Fordsville, Kentucky USA. (http://www.fantasyworkspublishing.com)

“The Witch of Kinderhook” (2016), one of the novellas in Mr. Smeltzer’s collection, was reviewed in an earlier post, see also Lovecraft Meets Earth Mother.

2 comments:

  1. An interesting and thoughtful interview, especially as I'm not acquainted with the writer and now want to look at his work based on his responses here. The comments on female roles and representation in weird fiction were particularly valid (I would say that because they mesh with my own!). Nicely done.

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  2. Thank you. For me, it is fascinating to see what contemporary authors do with ideas--in this case, Lovecraft's mythos--that originated in early 20th century horror, science fiction and fantasy. Smeltzer updates this material in interesting ways by incorporating some feminist and environmental awareness--quite rare back in the 1920s and 1930s.

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