07 Sep 2011
by Jeffrey Thomas
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Germany’s Festa Verlag will soon be releasing a collection of my Lovecraftian/Cthulhu Mythos work entitled GESCHICHTEN AUS DEM CTHULHU-MYTHOS (TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS), and an interview with me will appear at the back of the book for a look at the man behind the scary sock puppets. I just completed this interview, which was conducted by the very kind CHRISTIAN ENDRES. A few words about this fine gent:
Christian Endres works as freelance author, journalist and editor in Germany. He writes for several magazines and newspapers, specializing in fantastic and comic literature. He also serves as editor for several German comic publishers and writes editorial texts for Spider-Man, Hellboy, Conan and many more. His own fiction includes a lot of fantasy, horror, and new Sherlock Holmes work. He has been awarded the German Phantastik Prize several times. His web site is: http://www.christianendres.de/
I thought I’d share that interview — in which I discuss my thoughts on HPL’s work — in its original English-language version, here.
CE: Hallo Jeffrey. Lovecraft wasn’t your first and earliest creative/literary influence, was he? Who or what woke the desire to write your own stories and novels in you?
JT: Well, I was raised in a family that was addicted to reading, so that foundation was already there. I fell in love with comic books, but I also enjoyed reading about dinosaurs and animals. When I was about eleven I read in full a book about apes by Desmond Morris, because I had loved the film “Planet of the Apes” — which also of course inspired me to read Pierre Boulle’s novel on which the film was based. And because I loved the film “Oliver!,” I read Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” (Come to think of it, as an adult I read Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” because I loved Polanski’s film “Tess,” and it became my favorite novel.) Those were some early favorite books of mine. And because the writing gene was also prevalent in my family (my mother and sister had written local newspaper columns, and my father was a poet), my love of reading naturally led to a desire to create my own stories. I started selling short stories to small press magazines in the late 80s, and my first two books came out in 2000.
CE: Can you remember how and when you first got in touch with H. P. Lovecraft?
JT: I’d heard his name over the years, but it wasn’t until 1985 that I first read him. I had read a short story by Stephen King called “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and I loved the feel of it. It was my favorite short story of King’s to that date. When I realized it was a pastiche and owed its feel to Lovecraft, I decided to check out the man himself. I started out with some stories I found in anthologies at the town library. The first Lovecraft story I read was “The Call of Cthulhu,” followed by “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “In the Vault.” Luckily Del Rey came out with a series of books collecting all of Lovecraft’s fiction, so through the late 80s I devoured those — which was like a profound religious experience. In terms of horror reading, it’s an experience that’s never been equalled for its intensity of pleasure. In the following years I read much of his collaborations with other writers, and once in a while I’ve returned to reread various of his stories…though with all the literature abounding in the world, I tend not to revisit what I’ve already read.
CE: Were you hooked from the start with the very first reading of an HPL story? Or was it more some kind of a development of your fascination?
JT: I was absolutely hooked from the start. How could I not be, when my first exposure was “The Call of Cthulhu”? It was like meeting a long-lost brother you never knew you had, and feeling an immediate connection…hearing a kind of loud “clunk” as destiny locked in place. When I first read him, I knew I was home!
CE: Can you explain the international, ongoing fascination and also influence of that odd gentleman from Providence and his work?
JT: Much is made of Lovecraft’s use of “cosmic horror” — the idea that we as humans are an insignificant and accidental phenomenon, without the blessing or protection of any father deity; and indeed, the closest we might meet to a deity would be life so different from us and superior that our insignificance and vulnerability would only be that much more emphasized. In a world where we toil and fret and and face death with little reward, Lovecraft’s bleak vision is actually oddly comforting — because it simply confirms our worst fears of helplessness. It lets us know, yes, this is the big picture so keep your petty concerns in perspective. His stories give us a fantastical means of venting our fatalistic, existential anxieties. (Plus, he has cool monsters!) When we’re done with vampires and ghosts, zombies and human murderers, we must look beyond our physical and superstitious surroundings to the horrors of other worlds and dimensions. Lovecraft’s stories might not be strictly scientifically plausible, yet they do have a scientific presentation, and that resonates more with a lot of modern readers than do werewolves and witchcraft. Lovecraft can be thought of as the father of modern horror…but in fact, where so many authors still focus on more antiquated horrors (and not to belittle them; I love a good supernatural story as much as anyone!), Lovecraft often still proves himself the more modern horror writer even today.
CE: Do you have the feeling that the admiration for HPL has changed over the eras? That in the 1930s people also honored and looked up to him, but differently from the 1960s and then today?
JT: When Lovecraft was first being introduced to readers and winning fans, they were a relatively smallish group, at least compared to those who gradually came to discover his work over the following decades. But in recent years he’s attained the status of pop culture figure — Cthulhu is a household word! (Even if it is one that’s hard to pronounce.) This has a lot to do with HPL’s work or influence extending into movies, role playing games, video games, comics, etc., but also with people being tired of a diet of zombies and vampires. Unfortunately, this pop culture status has led to a lot of irreverent silliness. Toys and other products, online cartoons and images, which turn HPL’s creations — particularly Cthulhu — into cute and/or humorous objects of satire. A little of this reaction would be fine, and it’s natural when something becomes popular for people to want to have some fun by spoofing it, but it’s unfortunately becoming hard to view Cthulhu as a frightening figure when you have adorable Old Ones plush toys and the like. Though I have to admit, the first time I saw a Cthulhu plush toy years ago I excitedly bought one. But that was before things really went over the top. Still, I’m glad to see Lovecraft reach the level of appreciation he deserves.
CE: How comfortable or maybe uncomfortable is the “open source” thought of a fictional Mythos, like HPL installed for his creation, for you as an author? You also shared your Punktown world with some other authors, but stayed in control, didn’t you? Could you imagine making one more step, like HPL back then?
JT: Lovecraft’s contemporaries and later admirers working freely within his Mythos is what inspired me to invite other authors to write their own tales of my far-future milieu of Punktown for the 2004 shared world anthology “Punktown: Third Eye.” But Punktown was conceived as a collaborative creation right from the very start. When I first devised Punktown back in 1980, I invited my brother Scott Thomas and good friend Thomas Hughes to write their own Punktown stories to accompany the novel I was working on. They did, though up to now my first Punktown novel and Scott’s have not been published. Hughes’ novella appeared in “Punktown: Third Eye.” I am still very much open to more collaborative Punktown works. In fact, right now a Punktown role-playing game along the lines of “Call of Cthulhu” is being devised. I’m working on this project with two others already, and it’s very likely more individuals will come on board. Again, I invite this participation with great enthusiasm — it’s flattering, after all! — so long as I can exercise general control, as you say, by overseeing the contributions to ensure the consistency of the setting in all its fine details.
CE: What is the biggest danger and the greatest difficulty when modern day authors seek to adapt HPL’s cosmos of the Old Ones?
JT: That would be not imitating Lovecraft’s plotlines or prose voice, just using his ideas as a jumping point for their own imagination and style. Many a Lovecraft fan, including writers who are now very famous and respected, started out by perhaps imitating Lovecraft too closely, until they found their own approach and moved further away from the Mythos. And another trap might be ONLY writing Mythos stories. Just as I would never want to read only Mythos stories, I certainly wouldn’t want to only write Mythos stories, either. How limited, how boring that would be for me! I love sirloin steak, but I wouldn’t want to eat it for every meal. One critic complained that I stray too far from what Lovecraft did. Lovecraft didn’t focus on human relationships, he complained, there are too many guns in my stories, according to him, and Lord forbid I’ve used some of August Derleth’s interpretations of the Mythos. My God! I didn’t know there was a rule book! Well, to hell with the rule book. If you don’t want to read Jeffrey Thomas, just go and read the same Lovecraft stories over and over and good luck to you. I am not trying to rehash Lovecraft. I should hope I’m writing stories Lovecraft wouldn’t have written. What’s the point, otherwise — for a writer or his readers — if we just tell the same stories in the same manner?
CE: Is there a thing of HPL-interpretation you would never do? A border you knew where you always said: No, I would never cross THAT line!
JT: There are no ideas of his that are too frightening for me to pursue, but I don’t think I would ever set a story within his Dreamlands, as featured in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” I very much enjoyed that fanciful and mystical adventure, but it’s not the type of work I like best from Lovecraft. Though I do involve the Dreamlands to a limited extent, from a distance, in two of my short stories. Other than that, with my Lovecraft-inspired work there are no borders. Early on I wrote several comical Mythos stories and poems, but as I say I generally prefer not to see blatant humor mixed with the Mythos, to preserve the sense of scariness his creations should retain.
CE: What’s the difference between putting Lovecraft themes in a science fiction environment like you did before, and a more classical horror setting like you did now in this collection?
JT: But Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos work IS science fiction! His Mythos is based on ideas that are more akin to science fiction concepts — alien entities that are not truly gods, but god-like compared with ourselves — than they are akin to the supernatural terrors we associate with “classical” horror tales. Though of course, typically Mythos stories are not set in the far future, as I have done in my Punktown novels “Monstrocity” and “Deadstock,” and in my novella “The Bones of the Old Ones.” That’s the only real difference — the setting. The threats and hopefully the atmosphere of dread are the same with these futuristic stories as in those Mythos stories I and others have set in contemporary or older times.
CE: Do you try to keep up-to-date with other contemporary Lovecraft-themed works? Also in other media maybe, comics or such?
JT: Unfortunately I haven’t kept up-to-date with much of what other contemporary writers are doing with the Mythos, and I haven’t looked into any HPL-inspired comics, partly because I’m a shamefully slow reader with an overwhelming pile of “to be read” books. Plus, I like to diversify my reading and don’t want to spend all my time amongst the shoggoths and ghouls, lest they lose their appeal through over-familiarity. The only writer I faithfully follow is W. H. Pugmire, whose work I practically worship, mainly because he has his own distinctive voice and take on the Mythos. In fact, Pugmire and I have just completed working on a collaboration, a short story collection called “Encounters With Enoch Coffin,” about a sinister New England artist who has all kinds of Lovecraftian adventures. It’s going to be a terrific book! But I really should look into more of my contemporaries who write of the Mythos — I’m sure I’m missing out on some good stuff. Though I suspect a lot of it is not so good….but that’s the way of all art, not just HPL-inspired art, of course. I’m sure there are those who write as long-time aficionados of Lovecraft, while others are merely hopping on the bandwagon, but as I say I haven’t looked closely enough lately to tell one from the other.
CE: As we do this interview, there was a hurricane that hit the east coast of the USA, and you were without electricity. What does such an atmosphere means for a modern day horror author? Do you think you react and respond differently in such circumstances because of your work?
JT: Ha…well, being a horror writer I savor spookiness, so while there was daylight to read by I read a number of horror stories by three fine Canadian authors: Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin, and Ian Rogers — and coincidentally, one of Simon’s stories featured a great wind storm. When the worst of the hurricane had passed, in the small hours of the morning, I brought my trash outside, and the sky was crystal clear because there was no ambient city light. The stars seemed to have doubled in number and I got dizzy looking up at them, overwhelmed, as if I might plummet into the sky. Whew! Not only that, but pacing through my apartment by candlelight, drinking coffee, alone while my daughter slept, I found myself mentally reviewing every ghostly, paranormal type experience my family and I have ever encountered (and there are too many good stories there to relate here). I think maybe I was masochistically trying to freak myself out. So it was a Halloween kind of atmosphere, that one day without our meager electric light to keep the spirits at bay. The veil between frail humanity and the great gaping cosmos seemed torn away! Definitely, my horror writer’s sensibilities came into play that night.
CE: To come to an end, I think I MUST ask: What’s your all time favorite piece of original Lovecraft work, and why?
JT: It’s got to be a toss-up between “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” with the latter winning out, I suppose, if a gun were held to my head. For one thing, being Lovecraft’s longest works (along with “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”), they’re extra meaty and hence extra satisfying. Being longer, they have more time in which to establish their atmosphere of terror and unravel their eerie revelations. And “At the Mountains of Madness” just has such an awe-inspiring scope, an epic scale, as it relates the whole history of the Elder Things. This and the imagery give the novel a feeling of both physical and temporal vastness. But trying to pick a favorite Lovecraft story is like trying to pick a favorite child — you love them all so dearly!
GESCHICHTEN AUS DEM CTHULHU-MYTHOS can be found at the Festa Verlag web site, here: http://www.festa-verlag.de/Lovecrafts-Bibliothek/Geschichten-aus-dem-Cthulhu-Mythos::328.html
And much the same contents appear in my English-language collection UNHOLY DIMENSIONS, recently rereleased as an ebook: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/58343