“God, that’s a merciless question”: China Mieville’s Interview From Weird Tales

Last year, I interviewed China Miéville for Weird Tales’ 85th anniversary issue. Yesterday, I posted a short excerpt of the interview on Omnivoracious as part of an announcement about China blogging there. (For those of you living under rocks and on distant planets, his The City & The City was released recently.)

I’m posting the full interview now, on my blog, because I think it’s relatively unique, in that China was between books and the point of the interview was more about discussing “weird” fiction. So the emphasis is a little different than in some of his other interviews. And, because it was conducted via IM, there’s an interesting flow to the conversation. Besides, you gotta love an interview that mentions not only Cloverfield and Vin Diesel but the aesthetics of the weird, and ends in a face-off between reptiles and mammals.

This version doesn’t reflect the final copy-edits made by Weird Tales, and also includes snippets cut from the printed interview. I hope you enjoy it…

The publication in 2000 of China Miéville’s second novel, Perdido Street Station, galvanized and challenged the fantasy field with its potent mix of pulp and literary influences, fantasy, horror, and SF, its commitment to “the Weird,” and its epic scope. Since then Miéville has published two more novels set in his New Crobuzon milieu, The Scar and Iron Council, along with a YA novel, Un Lun Dun. Along the way, he has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Fantasy Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award, among others. Many critics consider Miéville’s contribution to modern Weird fiction (and the “New Weird moment”) as important as Clive Barker’s in the 1980s with the Books of Blood. In February of this year, I talked to Miéville about Weird fiction and many other topics via instant messenger.

VanderMeer: First off, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Weird Tale’s 85th anniversary issue. Can you tell readers a little bit about where you are as we’re having this conversation?

Miéville: Please, it’s an honour. Weird Tales is an indispensable part of my history, and Happy Birthday to it. I’m sitting at my desk, looking out over my North West London street, with a stack of students’ stuff to read, sipping a cup of tea. That’s just how I roll.

VanderMeer: Now, because it is the 85th anniversary, there will be a lot of questions with the word “weird” in them, but the word “new” will be nowhere in evidence. So: “What does the word ‘weird’ mean to you?”

Miéville: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m teaching a course in Weird Fiction at the University of Warwick, so this has come up a lot. Obviously it’s kind of impossible to come to anything like a final answer, so I approach this in a Beckettian way–try to define/understand it, fail, try again, fail again, fail better…I think the whole “sense of cosmic awe” thing that we hear a lot about in the Weird tradition is to do with the sense of the numinous, whether in a horrific iteration (or, more occasionally, a kind of joyous one), as being completely embedded in the everyday, rather than an intrusion. To that extent the Weird to me is about the sense that reality is always Weird.

I’ve been thinking about the traditional notion of the “sublime,” which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the “Beautiful,” as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from “mountains” and “forests,” into the everyday. So…the Weird as radicalised quotidian Sublime.

VanderMeer: So theoretically people should see “the weird” in every day like. But most don’t see it–or aren’t prepared to see it, possibly because they’re too inward-turning, not really experiencing the world moment-to-moment? Is that what you mean? Or is that too New Age-y for what you’re talking about?

Miéville: I’m talking about it as a literary/aesthetic effect–my impression is that a lot of us do experience it quite a lot, in everyday life. But given that part of its differentia specifica is that it is AWEsome, beyond language, expressing it is very difficult. I think a lot of what we admire in Weird Fictioneers is not that they see, but that they make a decent fist of expressing.

VanderMeer: That’s the theory side, in a sense, but expressed on a more personal level, what appeals to you most about the weird tale?

Miéville: The awe, the ecstasy. I was reading Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” the other day, and the moment when Defago is taken by the Wendigo and wails from above the trees this astonishing moment of unrealistic speech, “oh, oh, my burning feet of fire! This height and fiery speed!”, the strange poetry of it, I found very affecting. Of course we all have our favourite iterations of Weird, and for me it dovetails a lot with a love of teratology, so I also hugely love when the Weird is expressed by radical monster-making, the strangeness of strange creatures, but some of my favourite Weird Tales contain no monsters at all. It’s the awe and ecstasy that gets me.

VanderMeer: But not necessarily epiphany? I.e., this awe and ecstasy is a cumulative effect of the story or it’s what it culminates in?

Miéville: I don’t think I can distinguish [between] the two. I think for me the best Weird fiction is an expression of that awe, which permeates the whole thing, but because you can’t structure a story as a continual shout of ecstasy (at least not and expect many readers to stick with you) it sort of pretends to be an epiphany. But I think it’s the epiphany of realisation–that the real is Weird–rather than change or irruption–that something Weird occurs. Lovecraft for example is always back-projecting his mythos into history. We don’t know it, unless we’re one of the select unlucky few in his story, but it’s not that these things have suddenly arrived to mess about with previously stable reality, but that we’re forced to realise–there’s the epiphany, it’s epistemological, rather than an ontological break–that it was always Awesome.

VanderMeer: Yeah, but you are talking about visionary fiction to some extent–some of it is hardwired with ecstasy, and that’s why the best examples are short stories, no? Because you can’t sustain that “reverie”?

Miéville: I think that’s true–it’s much harder to maintain Weird, or, certainly, ecstasy, over a longer form. Which is why these stories are about the revelation–not because it’s a surprise (we expect it) but because it’s a necessary kind of bleak Damascene moment. There are Weird novels and some brilliant ones, but they’re harder to sustain.

VanderMeer: What do you think most surprises your students studying weird tales?

Miéville: I think for a lot of people who don’t read pulp growing up, there’s a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn’t necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There’s a big default notion that “spare,” or “precise” prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it’s in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose. That adjective “precise,” for example, needs unpicking. If a “minimalist” writer describes a table, and a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically different from that reality. They’re just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it.

I think they also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.

VanderMeer: Who doesn’t? But you say they’re surprised? They think that’s too childish to start?

Miéville: Yes, to some extent. It’s something you need to grow out of. Or your monsters are only legitimate to the extent that they ‘really mean’ something else. I spend a lot of time arguing for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it. Our monsters are about themselves, and they can get on with being about all sorts of other stuff too, but if we want them to be primarily that, and don’t enjoy their monstrousness, they’re dead and nothing.

VanderMeer: Right–nobody likes a monster piñata

Miéville: Yeah–it’s what Toby Litt brilliantly called the “Scooby Doo Impasse”–that people always-already know that they’ll pull the mask off the monster and see what it “really” is/means. The notion that that is what makes it legitimate is a very drab kind of heavy-handedness.

VanderMeer: Do you think a lot of writers create monsters, though, that they don’t mean literally? I mean, do you think writers sit down and go, when writing the rough draft, “This is going to be a metaphor for 9-11?” Or is it just that readers and academics think they do?

Miéville: Well I think this is one of the big distinctions between genre and non-genre traditions. I think, for example, that when Margaret Atwood invents the “pigoons” for Oryx & Crake, part of the problem with them for me is I think they are primarily a vehicle for considering genetic manipulation, and only distantly secondarily scary pig monsters. I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their “meaning”. The Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula vampire had to shuffle along, so weighed down was he by bloated historical import. None of this is to say that monsters don’t mean things other than themselves–of course they do–but that to me they do so best when they believe in themselves.

VanderMeer: Good point–and of course writers often look at their rough draft and like oracles pull things out that look like they have meaning.

Miéville: [But going back to the metaphor-for-9-11 thing,] I haven’t seen Cloverfield yet so can’t judge.

VanderMeer: Yeah–I was thinking of Cloverfield, although handhelds for a whole movie make me nauseous.

Miéville: I gather a lot of people have had that problem. I’m fully expecting to dislike it. I don’t enjoy many films these days.

VanderMeer: Anything you have particularly enjoyed, in any genre?

Miéville: Good question. Nothing recent is coming to mind, to be honest. I’ve largely stopped going. Lots of things I haven’t enjoyed. Hello Transformers you despicable piece of shit.

VanderMeer: Impressively bad?

Miéville: I have to say I think part of the problem here is that we don’t have a precise enough vocabulary. I think a lot of the time when people complain that a film was “bad,” we need to unpick what it means. What is the purpose of big films? To make money. If they make a lot of money, they succeed. In what sense are they bad? Well, they may be aesthetically incoherent, offensive, anything like that, but that’s contingent to their purpose, whatever the intent of the director. So I think Transformers may well have done exactly what it set out to do – make a load of money and push an aggressively crass offensive agenda. So was it “bad”? Well, I loathed it, but that’s not the same thing. Oh I know what I liked–Pan’s Labyrinth I thought was terrific.

VanderMeer: Yeah, me, too. Wow: consequences to actions.

Miéville: And I disagreed with lots of people who enjoyed it–our readings of what went on seem radically different. I liked Pan’s Labyrinth because it was so merciless about fantasy. I didn’t think its ending was “uplifting” at all, I thought it was admirably unsentimental and unforgiving.

VanderMeer: This does actually bring me to one of those “weird” questions I’m contractually obligated to ask for this interview: What’s the weirdest (in any sense) movie you’ve ever seen?

Miéville: Weirdest movie? Probably either a Jan Svankmajer–The Flat–and/or a Jean Painlevé, Le Vampire. Also, Terror in a Texas Town. [And] Yeah–Pan’s Labyrinth–this is spoiler territory–but I know a lot of people who said they thought the end was a lovely escape into the healing power of fantasy and I was thinking OH REALLY?!?! I had a similar argument with those people who thought the ending of [Stephen Spielberg’s] AI was “sentimental.” I was thinking, fuck, did we see the same film? That was some sadistic shit I just saw. Not that I much enjoyed AI, but I was fascinated by the astoundingly cruel last half-hour.

VanderMeer: Do you find that some readers, related to what you’re saying, don’t recognize a monster, a human monster, when they see one? And I agree–AI is a very cruel movie, unnecessarily so. Whereas Pan is cruel only because it has to be.

Miéville: I totally agree–AI sadistic, Pan’s Labyrinth politically unsentimental. Very different. What do you mean [about not recognizing a monster]?

VanderMeer: I have a current theory that writers become so in love with their characters that they don’t always recognize when they’ve written a sociopath, for example. And then their enthusiasm blinds readers who aren’t careful and who go along with the ride, thinking “oh this person is great.”

Miéville: Ah. It’s an interesting question, and I’ve not thought of it in those terms. I’ve certainly been aware of the consideration of certain characters as admirable, or, in other ways, as despicable, when read from a different optic, they are not. I loathed Tess of the Durbervilles because I got the strong impression that hardy and I disagreed about Tess. Similarly Simmons The Terror, with several of his characters.

VanderMeer: Did you like The Terror?

Miéville: No. I kept wanting to find out what the giant polar bear was. When I discovered it was, indeed, a giant polar bear, I was deflated. I found it fairly page-turny, but I found it much too long, too bogged down with its historical research for its narrative, its disclosures and teratological money-shots too contingent to its narrative, and its embedded politics–particularly vis-à-vis homosexuality–offensive.

VanderMeer: You don’t believe those embedded politics were part of the historical research?

Miéville: No, because I’m not talking about the politics of the characters, but about the politics of the text, as I read it.

VanderMeer: At least he was honest. In that sense.

Miéville: Specifically, the obsessive locus of the evil character’s evil in the fact that he was an engager in anal sex. I know lots of people point to the fact that there’s a “sympathetic” gay character too (who reads, incidentally, to me, very like someone invented because an editor said “we really need a counterbalance to the evil gay”) but that character is explicitly defined as a goody because he doesn’t have sex on the ship. That’s nothing to do with historical research or attitudes (and parenthetically the idea that in a crew that size two men only would be fucking is ludicrous) but to do with the text’s pathological Terror of anal penetration which is (spoiler!–hello The Sparrow) the usual way culture gets to have a deep-seated pathologising of gay sexuality alongside putatively liberal attitudes to desexualised gay men.

VanderMeer: You’ve just ruined the innocence of perhaps 85% of Weird Tales readers.

Miéville: Hurrah! My work here is done.

VanderMeer: Please take a bow. I really liked the book, but I didn’t catch the subtext you’re talking about, in part, probably, because I was turning pages too quickly.

Miéville: I’m very aware, by the way, that loads of readers of this may think I’m being a humourless or po-faced dick about it. This is how it reads to me, and I have a big problem with it. And I think arguments about “what the writer really means” or thinks are very point-missing, because this stuff isn’t reducible to “intent.”

VanderMeer: True, but–and I’m not saying in this case–but in some cases, don’t you have to be forgiving?

Miéville: It depends of what. Give me an example?

VanderMeer: For example, Philip K. Dick was often a raging misogynist. But if you unravel the stuff about his work that is bad in that sense, you also unravel the good stuff. In a sense I’m playing devil’s advocate because I do believe writers should think these things through, because it reflects on whether they’ve really created well-rounded characters as opposed to stereotypes.

Miéville: This is not about pissing and moaning just because I disagree with the writer’s politics–I love passionately Gene Wolfe’s work, for example, far more than the writing of many people whose politics are more congenial to me. It’s about saying that as a matter of reading, of literary response, when the politics or concerns or whatever of a particular text impinge on it in certain ways, make it pull in certain directions, interfere with other aspects of it, etc. etc., and in my opinion make it not just politically objectionable but work less well as a text, then I feel perfectly free to criticise it on those (politico-literary) axes.

VanderMeer: Sure–I mean, what you’re saying about The Terror makes sense in that–does it make any difference whether the evil guy is gay or not? To the story? Not really. So then you have to ask yourself why it’s there.

Miéville: I don’t think there’s such a thing as “the story” disembarrassed of the other stuff, basically. That’s why I think about ‘texts’ or works rather than the story, versus/and/or the writing, versus/and/or the characters, etc. In art these things are intertwined. Not reducible to each other, sure, but not little just-add-and-stir packets of sauce that you can choose one but not the other. Did I want to get to the end of The Terror and see the bear? Sure. Still, though, I stand by what I said, and I think there’s no contradiction. I don’t mind people disagreeing at all, of course, that’s the point of debate. I do get frustrated when–and maybe it’s my fault for not being clear–people take what I’m saying as “he doesn’t like books by people he doesn’t agree with.” As the Lovecraft, Celine, Machen, Blackwood, Ewers, James, Cordwainer Smith, Blyton, et many al, on my shelves indicate, this isn’t so. And it can operate the other way round too. For me The Sparrow was a big thing there–that’s obviously a book that intends to be very progressive about homosexuality, but in my opinion it, whatever Russell’s beliefs and intents, is deep-structured by anal-penetration panic.

VanderMeer: Since we seem to be approaching this territory anyway, here’s another contractually obligated question. What’s the weirdest book you’ve ever read?

Miéville: God, that’s a merciless question.

VanderMeer: All the weirdest questions are merciless.

Miéville: Un Semaine de Bonté, by Max Ernst. Which means that “read” is a bit of a tendentious verb in this context, but fuck it, I’m sticking with my answer.

VanderMeer: Shifting gears just slightly, in doing some research, I came across an Interzone from the early 1990s, I think, that contained a letter to the editor from you commenting on a couple of stories in the previous issue. How early on did you get hooked into genre magazines, and did you read any besides Interzone?

Miéville: AGH! please eradicate from your memory. I was reading IZ from about 1987ish onwards. I dipped into a few more, but that was my main one. I wasn’t part of the fanzine scene at all, for example.

VanderMeer: Right. But it was kind of nice to see that letter, to see that you didn’t just pop out of a volcano or something.

Miéville: No. I sent poor IZ several lamentable stories in the early 90s. Luckily all rejected

VanderMeer: What else did you read growing up, if you don’t mind me asking? In terms of magazines, etc.

Miéville: Magazines not many at all. It was really just IZ, plus occasionally I’d buy an exotic copy of Locus or Back Brain Recluse or whatever, but in terms of the field, that was kind of it–plus old Galaxies, Weird Tales, old pulp stuff as and when I came across it, but not collected with any rigour. I mean I loved oddities like that when I came across them, but wasn’t systematic about them.

VanderMeer: What about reading habits more generally.. You’re seen as a fiercely intelligent reader–I mean, the comments in this interview and others support that. But what do you read for escapism? Or do you? I know I have times when I cannot focus on something serious or deep and I need my schlocky noir mysteries, for example.

Miéville: On the whole I don’t tend to have “escape” and “non-escape” reading, except that I find fiction in general a lot easier to relax to than non-fiction. Certainly I have plenty of pleasures that I think are less skillful in certain ways than other favourites–Lloyd Biggle Junior, for example–but that’s not quite what you’re asking. I’d say when I’m trying to be “on” I read non-fiction, and I find fiction much easier to kick back to. Which doesn’t preclude getting angry about it, of course, but that’s part of the pleasure, often. The only qualification I’d add is about use of Language–some writers who have very intense knotty language–Beckett, Iain Sinclair, older books which read less naturalistically now–I wouldn’t crack open when exhausted, and would be more likely to read a simpler-written YA book or a PKD or something–but that’s not about a hierarchy of quality than about a stylistic tendency. Sometimes books that demand a lot of effort from the reader are just what you want, sometimes you want it to enter your eyes easier.

VanderMeer: That’s actually a more precise and useful explanation of what I meant. It isn’t necessarily a hierarchy of quality, that’s true.

Miéville: I think Skellig by David Almond, a book for children, limpidly clearly written, one of the most sophisticated and daring books I’ve read for some time, for example.

VanderMeer: Okay, so we’ve talked about weird books and movies. What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been?

Miéville: Probably the East Anglian coast, where MR James set loads of his ghost stories, and which I have a long family connection with. Very freaky places–Cove Hithe, Dunwich, Walberswick. Second, the outskirts of a big factory in the outskirts of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. But places are all SO weird, that’s a real embarrassment of riches. Ever been to the coast of the Netherlands? Weird.

VanderMeer: Speaking of strange, have you followed the US presidential race at all?

Miéville: Sigh. Yes somewhat. It is at least rather more interesting than I’d thought it would be.

VanderMeer: I assume you’re a huge Huckabee supporter.

Miéville: Yah! Totally. Go Huck! Me and the karate man [Chuck Norris].

VanderMeer: Now that is weird. But not in an awe way. Maybe an ecstasy way, however.

Miéville: LOL. I preferred it when Vin Diesel was the guy about whom all those memes were spread. You know, when VD does a press-up, it isn’t him going up, it’s the world being pushed down, etc. I really like Vin Diesel, but he’s not done anything I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

VanderMeer: His XXX movie is a guilty pleasure, I have to say.

Miéville: Look at you pretending you don’t remember the name, like you don’t have a t-shirt, the limited edition DVD…

VanderMeer: Well, I stopped with the plushy Vin Diesel dolls. It had to stop somewhere.

Miéville: He’s a good actor. And a committed D&D player. Wrote the foreword to a collection marking its something-or-other’s birthday.

VanderMeer: Not something I would have expected. On that note, let’s wrap things up with a “weird” speed round or two. I’m going to list two “weird” writers at a time and you’ll tell me which you like better with maybe a sentence on why, if you want. Ready?

Miéville: ok, cool. I LOVE the either/or game. People who say “ooh can’t I have both” are terrible cheats.

VanderMeer: Here goes. Jack Vance or Robert E. Howard?

Miéville: Vance because of DYING EARTH. Dying. Earth. And big dying sun.

VanderMeer: Vance or Lovecraft?

Miéville: Lovecraft: (also damn you for making me choose!) Because i) the monsters are revolutionary, and ii) the prose is totally weird. And Weird.

VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith?

Miéville: Lovecraft. Because CAS, to whom all honour and respect, has a post-Dunsanian sort of slightly sentimental archaic singsongism that doesn’t freak me out as much as Lovecraft’s hysteria.

VanderMeer: Surprise! Lovecraft or Ursula K. LeGuin OR Ray Bradbury?

Miéville: A Troika? That’s cheating surely! Lovecraft OW sorry sorry Le Guin and Bradbury. Because he reshaped a form more radically than either of them (to whom infinite burnt offerings and love)

VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Tennessee Williams? (both of whom appeared in WT)

Miéville: (NO! REALLY???) Lovecraft. Though TW closes up close for that weird play where the guy gets eaten by children–Suddenly Last Summer. Also, William Hope Hodgson is pulling ahead of Lovecraft in my head, increasingly recently, workmanlike prose or not. But that’s another discussion.

VanderMeer: And, finally, mammals or reptiles?

Miéville: please. PLEASE. Mammals Schmammals. In ascending order, it goes Mammals and birds equally, Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects, Fish, Cephalopods.

VanderMeer: Well, there you have it. Thanks so much for the interview, and we’ll let you get back to your own weird tales.

Miéville: It’s been a real pleasure–thanks for having me as part of the prestigious birthday bash.

33 comments on ““God, that’s a merciless question”: China Mieville’s Interview From Weird Tales

  1. Great interview: felt more like a nice chat actually a lot of the time, the two of you shooting-the-shit about movies and so on!

    “Hello Transformers you despicable piece of shit.” – LMAO. Agreed!

  2. Cheryl says:

    Go cephalopods!

  3. Miéville: “I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their ‘meaning’.”

    This is undoubtedly true. I happen to think many things, in all types of creative spheres, fit exactly this pronouncement. Artworks of all kinds are very often hobbled by their “meanings” through simple dependency. In visual art for example the more dependent a piece is on an understanding of its “meaning” to enjoy it, the further removed it becomes from the viewer and his/her immediate emotional response. Factor in the perpetually shoved-aside fact that Art is above all subjective, a fact which on some level always renders intended “meanings” a touch less meaningful, and you’ve got a real ankle-seeking sledge.

    A monster has a lot in common with a piece of art in that sense I suppose. I mean, if it’s a visible sort of monster, you ought to be able to look at it and intuit rather quickly how you feel about it. This is largely a function of an INABILITY to easily identify a “meaning.” It’s precisely this otherness which helpfully illicit yelps and uh-oh’s and the absolute certainty that there is no time at all to stand around wondering about silly things like “meanings” when there is important work to be done. Namely placing one foot in front of another in very quick succession!

  4. PhilRM says:

    Great interview, Jeff. It made me want to spend an evening yakking with the two of you (and emptying a few pints!)

  5. JeffVanderMeer says:

    Hey–thanks. It really was fun. I’m always up for a pint.

    Actually, the first time I met China it was in a pub in London. I thought I’d play it cool by ordering hard cider instead of beer, not knowing the reputation for hard cider in England. Wound up at the Indian restaurant later sloshed out of my mind after only two pints. Must not have been too stupid, though, since he still said yes re the fake disease guide.

  6. I was stunned by friends going on about how ‘lovely’ the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth was: it was absolutely frickin horrific!!
    My housemate argued, well, how do you know that the dreamworld at the end *wasn’t* real? Eeeh, that’s irrelevant – her death is one of the greatest tragedies I’ve ver seen commited to film. I refuse to accept that going somewhere shiny when you die makes up for some bastard making your last few days absolutely miserable.
    Fantastic film.

  7. Laird says:

    “For example, Philip K. Dick was often a raging misogynist.”

    I come not to praise Caesar:

    I find it convenient China clubs Simmons like a baby seal while giving Lovecraft a pass.

    Hell of an interview, though.

  8. Laird says:

    On the other hand, I am gratified by China’s take on the role of monsters. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was from Michael Shea who thanked me for putting unadulterated monster in my stories — which is something I’ve always admired in his work.

  9. Re The Terror–yeah, if it wasn’t an interview, I would’ve gotten very heavily into that discussion. But it’s important for an interviewer to showcase the interviewee more than anything else.

  10. drax says:

    Great interview, awesome read. Thanks!

  11. You would’ve gotten heavily into that Simmons discussion… hey, you can do it now! Just curious, since that book is on my TBR pile. Well, “pile” is misleading. More like a crumbling Mayan pyramid now, replete with bloodstains. Our current ant infestation provides, I believe, sacrificial chants for free.

  12. Heh, I could if I wasn’t leading a three-ring circus right now.

    Well, I mean, I loved the book. Period.

  13. That’s good enough for me. The ants can continue chanting upon its stained back…

  14. Laird: I really don’t think he gives Lovecraft a “free pass” at all. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of ‘The Mountains of Madness’ (resisting temptation to give page refs LOL) Mieville explains his take on Lovecraft pretty thoroughly – it’s worth a read.

    It’s not about approving or disapproving of the author’s politics but whether the end result – the writing – suffers from it. The uncomfortable contradiction with HPL is that, rather than suffering from it, the ‘central engine’ that drove all that’s generally celebrated in Lovecraft’s works is the hysteria of all his rather repugnant beliefs. As a fan of Lovecraft’s writing myself I know it’s something you have to wrestle with – the fact that you may not excuse/condone/agree with his politics but at the same time realising that he simply would not have been Lovecraft without them.

  15. Yes, but I do recognize this contradiction: Lovecraft’s work doesn’t suffer from his views simply because he excludes vast portions of humanity from his vision. I.e., women and minorities largely don’t exist in his world vision. If he had included more characters of this type, I think his work would’ve really sucked. As it is, only about 1/3 to 2/3 sucks.

    *Running now*

  16. …sucked because I don’t think he would’ve been able to carry it off…

  17. Hmmm… that makes me wonder if it was intentional or not. I wonder if he was aware of what would work, or at least sell? Better to sell and exclude various acres of the population than include and not sell. I mean, did he write stories about women and realize “Holy shit, these suck”? Or at least have other people tell him that they suck? I’d be curious. Any Lovecraftians out there want to take a crack at an answer?

  18. Laird says:

    Hi, Alex :

    I haven’t read China’s intro — I can only respond in the context of this interview/discussion.

    I’m a fan of HPL as my own work attests. I’m not coming at HPL from a moral standpoint — he was what he was and I don’t let his personal shortcomings get in the way of my assessment. I simply think his beliefs harmed as much as they helped his writing.

    Your points regarding his belief system as the engine driving his more powerful works is well taken. My admiration for him is a product of his vision; on a technical level, his work is often terribly flawed and his beliefs seem to be an undermining factor. In other words, his omission of whole classes of people is a major detractor and I think his work suffered for this.

  19. All of my stupid smart-assedness aside, I think people should be able to enjoy Lovecraft without feeling guilty. My only push-back is inevitably I get the “hey, them mushroom dwellers musta been influenced by Lovecraft.” Actually, no. I like some of Lovecraft’s work, but it’s not that much of an influence, although I totally get why it is on others and don’t think that’s a bad thing. For me, too, I find a kind of gateway from Lovecraft’s Dexter Ward through to some of Nabokov’s work, so there is some linkage that works in terms of my own core writing heroes.

  20. Laird says:

    Or to put it more succinctly — xenophobia and bigotry giveth, and xenophobia and bigotry taketh away. There’s a reason why many of us gasp in wonder at HPL’s imagination while boggling in horror at his glaring infelicities.

  21. Jeff: indeed. Actually, aside from his objectionable portrayal of minorities, although it’s not often mentioned, women (what few there are) get a bit of a rough deal in his writing as well – Asenath Waite and Keziah Mason coming to mind in particular. I suppose as you say it’s perhaps fortunate that he didn’t provide himself with more opportunities to trip himself up with inevitable stereotype and negative, demonizing portrayals… The idea of Lovecraft trying to write a positive female protagonist for instance is actually laughably bizarre, I just don’t think the dour old sod could have gotten his head around the idea. I imagine somebody pitching it to him: “…yes, but then she’s shown to be evil and manipulating, right?”

    Re. Mushroom dwellers: at least it beats “those King Squid are undoubtably Lovecraftian because they’ve, you know, got tentacles”.

    Laird: Hope I didn’t come across as confrontational. I get what you’re saying. I continue to be amazed by the sense that HPL channelled a wholly misplaced horror of some aspects of modernity into creating such revolutionary Weird fiction, the utter strangeness that it was because of rather than in spite of a deeply messed up worldview. That’s why he’s so contentious.

    I’m a bit more of a Clark Ashton Smith guy these days because I prefer my Weird in a secondary world and I’ve tired of Lovecraft’s sheer po-facedness. He’s important more for his legacy to speculative fiction than he is as an individual or perhaps indeed as an author.

  22. Laird says:

    Alex– no, you’re comments are thought provoking. Besides, iron sharpens iron, and all that. ;)

  23. Laird says:


  24. Matthew says:

    I don’t really “get” why the ending of AI is supposed to be sadistic. It seems to me this perception comes from the wish that the the illusion of sweetness wouldn’t actually be an illusion. But with a neutral eye, the ending is simply a bleak, maybe resigning view of a harsh reality. It’s really weird to me that someone would want to insist on “cruelty” here, unless he or she doesn’t like dark stories per se.
    This almost gives the impression that there are fundamental differences in the perception of the effects of art that cannot be overcome by reason, because I wouldn’t imagine Steven Spielberg to be sadistic in this regard. But then the ending of AI has always been a subject of contorversy, so I guess this is just another expression of a somehow imperfect conclusion.

    Also, I think the question about some interesting characters actually being sociopaths seems a little strange to me in this field of fiction. Elaborate villains or antiheroes, for example, have always been an element of fascination, and I wouldn’t see why this should suddenly be regarded as improper or dangerous. They are not to be taken as a role model, of course. But if this was in regard to Pan’s Labyrinth – well, I think there was nothing remotely fascinating about the villain. It was repugnance in one of his purest forms.

  25. Indy says:

    A couple of interesting points here in the post-interview discussion:

    Re. Lovecraft and women: Stephen King (in Danse Macabre) comments on this, describing Lovecraft’s tentacled monsters as being some kind of fetishised substitution for femininity, their gelatinous nature a horror-struck and horrifying vaginal obscenity. It is interesting (if, ultimately, pointless) to wonder how Lovecraft might have reacted to the film ‘Alien’. It is also intriguing to consider whether Lovecraft, in his avoidance of female characters, wasn’t more self-aware a writer than Tolkien, who could write a female character about as well as a three-week-dead halibut. That argument depends, however, on Lovecraft being aware of his avoidance: is there any literature to suggest that he was?

    Also, in regards to Mathew’s point above concerning sociopaths, the officer in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ seems to me to be fundamentally different from the ‘popular’ sociopaths of film (Anthony Hopkins’s ‘Hannibal Lector’, for example, or Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’). The point of departure between these characters seems to be on their level of engagement with the society in which they operate. The Spanish officer (and, to provide another parallel, Ralph Fiennes’s Auschwitz commandant in ‘Schindler’s List’) are repugnant because they seek to supplant the accepted society with one of their own devising. They are fundamentally irrelatable, firstly because they demonstrate a different psychology to the average viewer (their heads simply work differently), and secondly because they represent an imposition of their values on a society that will not willingly accept them: they are oppressors before they are sociopaths (at least in the viewer’s estimation). Lector and the Joker are different because they work *within* the society we know, not trying to change or destroy it. (Admittedly the Joker may lay some claim to attempting this, but the changes he tries to force are revelatory: he wants to show Gotham and its inhabitants what they’re really like. He is not altering society, merely stripping it of its self-delusion). While it is true on one level to say that Lector and Auschwitz’s commandant are presented as irredeemable, we have a sneaking suspicion that, while the commandant is always inhuman, Lector might somehow be a tolerable companion. Certainly we like him enough to keep going back to the cinema to see him. He is fascinating because we can fool ourselves into thinking he is somehow ‘just one of us’; the Spanish Officer, through his refusal to operate within our social structure, and his determination to destroy it and replace with a system antithetical to our values, will never be sympathetic: he represents too great a threat.

    Furthermore, he and the commandant, unlike Lector or the Joker (particularly Jack Nicholson’s interpretation, but dimly visible in Ledger’s version too), possess no charm. This is more important than it may sound at first. Charm is an aspect of relatability: how we deal with these characters on a personal level is determined, to a large extent, by how we see them relating to other characters in the films. Charm suggests a collusion with social mores; its absence flies a red flag for us when we consider the threat they represent. Charm is one of the great disguises of the sociopath (before WWII, Hitler was considered by some to be excellent table company) but a sociopath who does not make use of it either does not understand it (making him or her, again, more difficult to relate to), or simply doesn’t care because the social mores to which it accedes are of no interest or relevence to him or her. In which case, beware…

  26. jeff vandermeer says:

    I think the point I made about sociopaths has been missed. I see a fair number of stories in workshops *and* in publications where the author clearly means for the reader to take the main character as being normal and to at least some extent a good person…when in fact what is in the text through their actions and motivations suggests sociopathic or psychotic tendencies. There’s something about certain me-me-me tendencies of modern American society that exacerbate this without anyone really seeming to notice.

Comments are closed.