Pradeep Sebastian

Weird fascinations

S.T. Joshi: An aesthetic belief in the supernatural  

I think it is just fantastic that the greatest and most prolific scholar and bibliographer of horror fiction in the world is an Indian. (I mean, how refreshing to find an Indian scholar working on something other than post colonial/subaltern studies.) Sunand Tryambak Joshi (better known as S.T. Joshi) is an authority on H.P. Lovecraft and weird fiction. His definitive biography of Lovecraft, I am Providence, won the Bram Stoker award for best non fiction. Working from original manuscripts and typescripts of Lovecraft, Joshi produced corrected texts of Lovecraft's classic works. Joshi has also written the best study of weird/ horror fiction and its practitioners (Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, Bierce) and continues to explore the field in staggering, wide-ranging depth. Recently, Guillermo del Toro has invited Joshi to be a consultant on his next epic project, a movie adaptation of the Lovecraft classic, At the Mountains of Madness.

As a longtime fan of weird fiction, I couldn't resist writing to Joshi. I began with asking him what had drawn him so powerfully to the weird tale. “The controlled terror of weird fiction is an experience like no other,” he wrote back, “and one that can be found in no other type of literature. I believe that every one of us, however much we may think ourselves rational and free of superstition, have a vestigial sense that the supernatural might someday become manifest; and the best weird writers play upon that sense by convincing us, even if only for the duration of a tale, that the supernatural has occurred”. What had it been like to have Lovecraft manuscripts so close to him, to touch them and handle them on a daily basis? “Oh, it was a thrilling experience. It took me a little time to become familiar with his handwriting, but once I did so, I was able to solve some textual problems that had baffled previous editors. I worked with these manuscripts so concentratedly that my own handwriting began insidiously looking like Lovecraft's!”

Instant attraction

Joshi discovered Lovecraft when he was 13 and was instantly sucked in. Born in Pune, Joshi grew up in America. In 1963 his parents, Tryambak Mahadeo Joshi and Padmini Iyengar (both academicians) brought Joshi and his two sisters to live in the States. Joshi chose Brown University in Providence for his undergraduate work — Providence had been Lovecraft's home, and Brown's library holding was rich in Lovecraft material. Interestingly, he opted out of academics and became an independent scholar, publishing numerous articles, annotating editions, editing anthologies and books of criticism on weird fiction; he also published in another area that deeply interested him: atheism. He is, in fact, currently working on a comprehensive history of atheism. I was naturally curious to know how his own atheism coexists with the great irrational in weird writers and writing — was there a connection between atheism and the mythology and vision of the world-cosmos one finds in Lovecraft/weird fiction?

Joshi's answer was most instructive: “H.P. Lovecraft was fond of saying that the religious unbeliever actually makes a better reader (and writer) of weird fiction, because such a person finds the violation of natural law implicit in a supernatural event far more terrifying than a believer, who blandly accepts the supernatural when it is manifested by the god he believes in. A substantial number of the leading weird writers have in fact been religious unbelievers, although just as many have been believers. But there must be a clear difference between intellectual belief and aesthetic belief. I am happy to accept (as an aesthetic belief) the supernatural in a given story, just to see how the author works out the premise, but would never accord intellectual belief to it.”

Joshi followed up his classic study of the weird tale with The Modern Weird Tale, an informal study of horror fiction from the 40s to the present; essays on Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Tryon, Thomas Ligotti. Joshi notes in the book that “the purpose of most modern fiction seems to be merely to frighten…mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, however artfully accomplished”. (As a longtime fan of the genre I find myself puzzling over this.) Joshi is primarily interested in the literary weird tale. “If weird fiction is to be a legitimate literary mode”, he writes, “it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not; and its principal means of doing so is the utilisation of the supernatural as a metaphor for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life”.

Dread of the unknown

The ‘weird tale' is an “umbrella term used by Lovecraft for the field as a whole”. In a letter that Joshi cites, Lovecraft wrote, “the crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen”. It's the unknown that interests Lovecraft; man's relation to the cosmos, not to each other. Defining it, he described it this way: “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space”.

Another key project Joshi is close to completing is a comprehensive history of supernatural fiction (to be titled Unutterable Horror), which will also include essays on contemporary writers of the weird he admires: Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Norman Partridge, and John Shirley. A good place to learn more about Joshi's work is his website,, which also includes a very nice autobiographical note.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 12:49:23 AM |

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