Interview with Scott Poole on "In the Mountains of Madness"

In-the-Mountains-of-Madness-cv-REV-1-683x1024W. Scott Poole is a professor at the College of Charleston with a research interest in American pop and folk culture. He has written a number of books that combine his interests in American history with horror, including Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting, and Satan in America: The Devil We Know. As a long-time friend of TheoFantastique, Scott has been here in the past discussing some of his work. You can check this out here and here. Scott returns in this interview to discuss his latest book, In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft is obviously a towering figure in horror and literature. For these reasons it's no surprise that you'd want to write about it. But given your body of work, how does Lovecraft fit in with your academic and personal interests and contribute to your scholarship in genre?

Scott Poole:
I’ve seen my own work as an effort to create a history of American horror and to intertwine that with some of the more traditional themes in American history. Exploring not just the times of Lovecraft, but the influence of Lovecraft in popular culture seems a natural next step. There are, of course, plenty of biographical materials out there about him. That’s not what this book is. Instead, its as story about the stories we’ve told about his work embedded in the larger story of America culture in the century since he began writing his tales.

What stands out most for you in your research, reflection and writing about Lovecraft?

Scott Poole: I think the need for many of his most devoted fans - some of whom are devoted Lovecraft scholars as well — to have a certain version of Lovecraft presented to the world. There’s a tremendous amount of investment for many within Lovecraft scholarship to have his work rightly remembered and that’s understandable. However, there’s a perhaps dangerous effort to safeguard his reputation and to close off certain kinds of questions about him, especially in relation to race, gender and sexuality.

TheoFantastique: The author tapped into some dark areas of his own personal life as he wrote his fiction. How do you see this influencing his imagination and storytelling for good or ill? Would he have been the writer so known and appreciated without his personal "demons"?

Scott Poole: I think no writer sits down to work without their demons at hand. What interests me is how Lovecraft’s dark side so much reflects America’s darkest side especially in terms of racial anxieties. Other times, as an artist, Lovecraft could step aside from his own racial animosities and manage to say something about what he understood as his own illusions.

Lovecraft, for example, had a near obsession with a version of the American colonial past that emphasized its alleged elegance and antique beauties. However, many of his tales ("The Tomb" and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) deal with the idea of the past as a place of horror, and obsession with the past as a gateway to that horror. A confirmed white supremacist, Lovecraft could also write a deeply racist tale like The Call of Cthulhu that questioned whether or not any value (including pride in one’s Anglo-Saxonism or “Nordic” roots as he often described his own racial identity) superseded the realities of a cosmos of bleak indifference.

How did his atheistic and nihilistic convictions impact his writing and challenge other expressions of horror where religion at times plays a more positive role?

Scott Poole: One hesitates almost to call Lovecraft a nihilist in the sense that nihilism assumes the destruction of (obviously) false values whereas Lovecraft wanted to suggest the emptiness of every pose, the phantom that hid behind every reality that human beings tried to ground themselves in. I’m not sure he didn’t believe nihilists weren’t secretly comforting themselves with their own alleged authenticity rather than facing the void.

This allows him to create a kind of horror in which the reader cannot hide in the struggle between good and evil. Such notions are pointless in Lovecraft. As Alan Moore recently pointed out, its not the kind of supernatural horror created by Stoker in which certain techniques can help the good guys win the day. Its one in which we are all victims of what he called “the infinite spaces,” the infinite dark of an uncaring cosmos.

TheoFantastique: What predictions would you make about his continuing contributions to horror and related genres?

Scott Poole:
It seems that I read almost every day of new tales of Lovecraft’s being adapted in one form or another. The short film, the graphic novel and the RPG have been the most common so far. A number of new possibilities are on the horizon however, with forthcoming console video games and I suspect future length adaptations (including, I hope Guillermo del Toro’s long awaited adaptation of In the Mountains of Madness, arguably Lovecraft’s greatest tale.

I can’t wait to see what traditional horror fans do with Lovecraft’s bleak vision in which the whole human race, not just a single pile of victims, goes down under a cosmic knife. Given the reception of Whedon and Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (one of the most Lovecraftian wide release, feature length films ever made) I have high hopes. As many hopes as one can have after spending so much time with HPL, at least.

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