dreamer on the wildside:
Darrell Schweitzer interviewed
Darrell Schweitzer: World Fantasy Award winner and nominee, author, poet, essayist, publisher and co-editor of the legendary Weird Tales. His accomplishments in the field are as wide as they are impressive. His fiction moves from the darkly comic and horrific to the fantastic ó with an occasional foray into the realms of Science Fiction.
As Tanith Lee noted, "Darrell Schweitzer is a fine writer . . . not only is he skilled in the exotic use of the best trappings of fantasy but he employs a disquieting awareness of the dark nooks of soul and mind . . . best of all Schweitzer is a story-teller, by whose smoky fire one may sit spell-bound."
Several years ago I read your Borgo Press book The Dream Quest of H. P. Lovecraft ó as one of the first pieces of critical writing that I had encountered about Lovecraft I found stimulating, well researched and influential ó do you still stand by it today as a piece of academia? Are there aspects that you would change?
DS: Thereís quite a lot I would change. The first thing I would do is find the list of errors the great Lovecraft scholar Dirk Mosig compiled for me shortly after the book came out, and correct them. In any case, Dream Quest is not "academic writing", as I am not an academic. When it came out it was a little closer to "student writing", though I had been out of graduate school for a couple years by then. The book was intended as a popular guide. It scratches the surface and leads you on to much greater things.
Today, certainly, I would revise the bibliography and point the reader in the direction of Peter Cannonís book on HPL in the Twayne Authors Series, and any number of S. T. Joshi items, including most notably H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. I wonít deny that there are other people who know far more about the subject than I do.
I would also rethink and restate parts of it. Have I been fair to At the Mountains of Madness? Probably not. Many other people regard this as HPLís greatest work. I havenít read it since 1978 and really should give it a more mature re-examination.
So, to sum up, thank you for the kind words, but this is an "early work", immature and hastily written. It needs to be rewritten. Thereís enough in it that it may well be worth rewritten, quite unlike my other Borgo Press readersí guide of that period, Conanís World and Robert E. Howard, which I will not stand behind.
My best writing about Lovecraft is actually the small body of essays in my 1998 collection Windows of the Imagination (which has since been reissued by Wildside Press). Also, the compilation Discovering H. P. Lovecraft has its merits, particularly in what other people contributed to the book. That one is about to be reissued by Wildside in an expanded, new edition.
Through the bibliography I was directed towards Sprague de Campís Lovecraft: A Biography, Belknap-Longís HPL: Dreamer on the Night Side and Lin Carterís Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos. A couple of years ago S. T. Joshi provided some samples of his Lovecraft biography on the internet prior to publication ó the sections I read raised some interesting questions ó what do you make of his work?
DS: The Joshi biography is exhaustive and maybe a little exhausting, but very, very impressive. If you think of my Dream Quest as a not very good eighth grade textbook, Joshiís biography is a brilliant textbook for a graduate seminar in Advanced Lovecraftiana. As I have not done the original research, I am hardly in a position to dispute most of Joshiís conclusions. I think he is a little ungracious to some of his predecessors, particularly de Camp, who did his level best from a very different standpoint. The weakness of Joshiís work is that he doesnít know a lot about pulp SF and fantasy (or genre SF and fantasy generally) and can sometimes make mistakes for lack of context. But his very great strength is that he has a thorough training in literary criticism, classics, and philosophy, so his close analyses of HPLís writing and thinking are not just some fan sounding off, but the reasoned arguments of someone who actually knows more than most of us do. Joshi is largely responsible for making all of us appreciate Lovecraft as a philosopher and thinker. He has virtually given us a new Lovecraft whom August Derleth never suspected existed.
The result is that Lovecraft may be one of the most heavily documented literary people in history, and Joshi has done most of the documentation. As Iíve said before, if there was a gap of three days in which we donít know where Lovecraft was, what he was doing and reading, what company he kept, what they talked about, and what flavour of ice cream they ate, this must be the "lost period."
Itís very hard to imagine Lovecraft studies without Joshi. Itís rather like thinking of the solar system without the sun.
In any case, you canít trust academic sources for this sort of stuff. You still need Lovecraft fandom. You need to be able to get copies of Crypt of Cthulhu (or the Robert Price anthologies of material therefrom, published by Borgo Press), plus Lovecraft Studies and various Necronomicon Press books.
As a fiction writer, who has had the most profound influence upon you and why?
DS: Lord Dunsany, for the same reason he influences so many people, not merely by the splendour of his prose, but by the possibilities he opens up. The key to Dunsany is not so much his alleged archaism or all those sentences beginning with "And," but his brilliant and outrageous use of metaphor. I found Dunsany when I needed him, at about age eighteen. Here was someone I could learn from, and produce marginally publishable stories. If I had written imitations of Lovecraft at the same age, the results would probably not have been publishable. (See The Story of Obbok in my collection Tom OíBedlamís Night Out, or In the Evening of Dreams in Nightscapes as fairly presentable Dunsany-influenced stories I wrote at about age twenty.) I wasnít ready for or interested in writing epic trilogies at that point, so I may have been one of the very few fantasy writers of my generation who escaped major Tolkien influence. But like everyone else of my generation, I was profoundly influenced by the vistas opened up by the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.
Itís as important to learn from Dunsany as to move beyond him in your own work. See Ursula Le Guinís remarks in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie on this very important point.
Why do you think US academics have a greater appreciation of metafictional writing ó Coover, Gass, Burroughs and Pynchon? Although there are obvious international luminaries such as Calvino, Sinclair, Grillet, Borges, Cortezar et al ó it seems to be an almost maligned pursuit in the UK ó why do you think this facet of post-modernist literature is so marginal?
DS: I am not part of the academic scene, so I am not sure how well I can comment on this. Academics like fiction which can be used as a tool of criticism. They also tend to be quite conservative intellectually (as distinct from politically) and are quite shy about anything really imaginative. I think they find it more comfortable to have "the fantastic" be fiction-about-fiction, which makes it safe and not-real.
As for metafiction itself, you can get some interesting effects that way, but usually at the expense of emotional intensity. We need just so many detached, clever stories which stand up and remind us they are stories and then question the whole idea of story. This is not actually new. Pirandello wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1922.
Borges was doing that sort of thing in the Ď40s, though English-language readers didnít find out about it, by and large, until the early Ď60s.
Ultimately people go back to "real" stories, about interesting people doing interesting things . . . Like Hamlet for example. By comparison, Stoppardís Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead is a brilliant commentary on Hamlet, but not all that viable without it.
What films have had a profound effect upon you and why? Are there any that have influenced your writing ó even as a pastiche?
DS: Directorially, I suppose my tastes are conventional: Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. I suppose the film that had the most immediate and directly traceable impact is The Seventh Seal, the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece about the knight playing chess with death. It showed me how to make allegory a story and a story allegory. You can see its imagery and manner playing out over and over in my fiction, from the first stories in We Are All Legends which date from about 1973 to the most recent Arthurian stories.
I have a lot of gloomy and doomed chaps in iron pants. I have so far resisted the temptation to entitle a story The Dark Knight of the Soul . . .
But seriously, Bergman above all else. I think a bit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail has gotten in at times, particularly in the Tom OíBedlam stories.
I love Harold and Maude. It is a great favourite which speaks to my twisted soul. My story We Are the Dead deals with a similar relationship, but very differently, and was written before I had seen the film. Colin Higgins did it better. Others? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I admire the greats of supernatural cinema: The Haunting (the real one, directed by Robert Wise, not the recent travesty), The Curse of the Demon, The Cat People (Lewtonís), The Innocents, The Uninvited, Rosemaryís Baby. I recently saw the 1926 German film of Faust. The first third or so is extraordinarily good. The first twenty minutes or so will show you where A Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia came from.
I have fairly eclectic tastes in cinema, though it does not extend to such fashionable trash as Hong Kong action movies, which, such as I have seen them, bore me. Iíd like to see more intelligent historical spectacle films, but as you know the rule seems to be that the more spectacle there is, the less intelligence, until you get to the extreme of The Fall of the Roman Empire, which has some of the best historical sets and costuming ever done, vast amounts of spectacle, and a plot worthy of Battlestar Galactica on a bad day. I liked the recent remake (Gladiator), but can still see how itís a superior director trying to paper over the stupidities in the old script. What is particularly frustrating is that the real story of Commodus and Marcus Aurelius is far more lurid and exciting than what they had there (in both film versions). So why doesnít someone make a movie out of it? The real Commodus had the same star quality as Caligula or Nero. He used to dress up like Hercules and shoot giraffes and other beasts in the arena, to the delight of the crowd. He was also a genuine homicidal lunatic, but one with great style, who played out his fantasies against the hugest possible backdrop.
I confess to liking the Three Stooges, which, a female friend of mine once suggested, may well be the result of a birth defect linked to the Y-chromosome. But I prefer to think of it as meta-humour. It is not so much that the Stooges are funny (which they are only intermittently) but that the idea of the Stooges being funny is funny, particularly among sophisticated people, as a form of revolt against propriety.
Who do you admire among contemporary writers and why?
DS: This could go on and on. Tanith Lee, for her elegance, audacity, and style. Gene Wolfe, for the same. Wolfe has wonderful textures. He is the past master of putting the reader into the mind of a character whose world is very different from our own. His Greek books, Soldiers of the Mist and Soldier of Arete do this splendidly, and function both as historical novels and as fantasies. Letís see. R. A. Lafferty is still a contemporary, sort of, though he is not writing any more. Terry Bisson has written some wonderful humour, which belongs on the shelf with Lafferty. Ursula Le Guin, much of the time. She cannot write a bad line, but some of her stories interest me more than others. The Earthsea books have had a profound influence on most fantasists of my generation. She is a master we look up to, and take instruction from. (See From Elfland to Pougkeepsie.) Harlan Ellison, when he is good, can manage an emotional intensity no one else can match. He is a master of narrative voice above all else. James Morrow is another one I admire, for his ability to mix real emotion with satirical absurdity.
There are many more. I assume you mean mostly SF/fantasy writers. I also admire Gore Vidal a whole lot, not necessarily for his SF/fantasy, though Messiah is perhaps the best science fiction novel ever written on the subject of future religion. Go read it right after you read Heinleinís Stranger in a Strange Land (particularly the uncut version) to see how much better a writer Vidal is and how much better he understands the subject matter.
I also read Salman Rushdie faithfully. He is not always a favourite, but I read him. I can understand why people with no tradition of satire got upset with The Satanic Verses, but the book is really very good.
The Throwing Suit was your collaborative effort with Jason Van Hollander. Who came up with the original concept? The character of Quilt seems to resonate almost Pickman-like elements (subjective content, run-down studio, reclusive) ó was this a deliberate inclusion? There also seems to be a nice M. R. Jamesian touch here too: the Ďanimatingí painting at the end could compliment The Mezzotint. This idea of haunted things as well as places is very appealing.
DS: Jason is a very talented writer by himself, but often lacks any sense of coherent form. Most of my collaborations with him have been cases where I have taken some fascinating fragment and forced it to make sense. Therefore the typical DS / JVH collaboration is going to have a heightening degree of Schweitzerian involvement as the story progresses, until the ending is largely mine. But some of the most "typical" Van Hollanderesque passages may be mine, pastiching him.
In this case, even I didnít understand what was going on in the story, so I introduced the element that the rich man had lost his soul via the Throwing Suit and could not die ó that the purpose of this entire exercise was the regain his soul or snatch Quiltís so that the rich patron could finally die. I also added the grappling hooks out of sheerly practical considerations. Otherwise why wouldnít the wearer of the suit just heave off the balcony?
I find the collaborative process with Jason very rewarding. He can draw things out of me that I canít summon up unaided. He may actually be the more original of the two of us. I am the more conventionally talented, (i.e.) the one who knows how to plot. So I am taking these fascinating, brilliant, misshapen torsos of stories and putting arms and legs (and often heads) on them.
I am also impressed with Stephen Fabianís illustrations Ė they really do compliment your narratives.
DS: Yes, weíre a perfect match, like Dunsany and Sime, Burroughs and St. John, Howard and Frazetta. My fiction tends to contain a lot of fantastic imagery, literally described. Thatís what Steve is good at.
Jason Van Hollander has also done a wonderful job illustrating my work, but in a more abstract manner. He isnít the sort of literal, representational artist that Fabian is. If you want elder cities with cyclopean towers, menacing wizards in swirling robes, fantastic faces floating in clouds of smoke, et cetera, Fabian is your man. Van Hollander is very good at the brooding, dream image. I have an element of that too, so he also works well for my prose.
Darrellís latest book, Nightscapes: Tales of the Ominous and Magical and his poetry collection Groping Toward the Light are currently available from Wildside Press
These and other works can be ordered from amazon.com ó although this site does contain some obsolete information concerning his earlier Borgo and Starmont titles (many of which have been reprinted by Wildside).
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