December Belongs To Cthulhu

Spreading the Love: An Interview with Innsmouth Free Press

Innsmouth Free Press is not your typical literary magazine, or fanzine for that matter. Begun earlier this year in March, Innsmouth Free Press is a mock newspaper that reports all the weird happenings around Innsmouth and the Lovecraftian beyond. In addition to these “monster bytes,” they also publish Lovecraftian-inspired short fiction from established writers such as Mary Robinette Kowal and Nick Mamatas and emerging and talented writers like Kirk Barrett, as well as articles and reviews. Innsmouth’s mission is not to publish Lovecraft rehashes, but to explore his mythos in new contexts and perspectives. In honor of Cthulhumas, Innsmouth Free Press publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia and editor-in-chief Paula R. Stiles chatted with me about celebrating and expanding Lovecraftian tradition.

S.J. Chambers:  What brought each of you to Lovecraft, and being from Canada and the U.S., what different receptions and interpretations of Lovecraft have you seen?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia:  I’m a Canadian citizen, immigrated here several years ago, but hail originally from Mexico, born and raised there. My mother introduced me to Lovecraft. She gave me a book of short stories when I was looking for horror stuff to read, back when I was about 11. I had read Poe and The White People, and she pulled out an old volume of Lovecraft’s work and told me some of the short stories might be of interest to me. She was right.

In Mexico, there’s not much interest in weird fiction, or speculative fiction, period. So I was reading all this classic spec lit that no one else even knew about thanks to my parents, who are huge book collectors. I watched horror movies on the TV and pinned over old Gothic book covers and it effectively made me into a loner and a weirdo in the eyes of everyone my age. No one knew what the hell I was talking about. I thought no one would ever understand me.

Then comes Lovecraft and I just clicked with him. He was also an outsider, a bit of a weirdo, and I loved his stories. I thought:  This is me! This is the universe I want to live in! I want to move to New England and worship Dagon! And in all seriousness, one of the reasons why I ended up getting a scholarship and studying in Massachusetts was because I wanted to see Lovecraft’s world. It was so alien from my own world in Mexico City and yet I felt a sense of kindred.

As for interpretations and reception:  Latin America, as I’ve said, tends to have an uneasy relationship with speculative fiction. You have a lot of literature that has speculative elements, it’s just not classified as “horror” or “fantasy.” You read Aura and it’s definitely spec lit, but we never classified it as that, we don’t think of it as that. For that reason, many writers, including Lovecraft, are an unexplored country.

Spain has a much richer connection with speculative fiction and I have definitely seen Spanish Lovecraft. There’s a webcomic called Young Lovecraft published by José Oliver and Bartolo Torres. Dagon was filmed in Spain, and even though it is not directed by a Spanish director the cast and crew are Spanish. There’s an adaptation of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” in the works and I think it is set in Spain. Spain has also had Tales from the Crypt type comic books (Alucine). To get to Lovecraft from Mexico I had to go through Spain first. That’s where my books came from. Or, I had to read English-language copies.

Nowadays, the Internet has made the impossible possible:  we can access all of Lovecraft’s work online. This opens doors for new writers and readers who have never heard about his work. The other thing that is probably helping Cthulhu gain more followers in Mexico are the RPG games. Oh, and Mexican director Del Toro is interested in doing an adaptation of At The Mountain of Madness. There was a Cthulhu-like creature in Hellboy, which Del Toro directed, so I think we can expect to see more of this stuff in the future. For now, Lovecraft is just germinating in Latin America.

You should definitely check out our fiction multiethnic issue in 2010 because it contains fiction from some very diverse authors, including Argentinean writer Gustavo Bondoni. So we are solving the supply of international Lovecraft by enticing writers to pen stuff for us. We do this, of course, in hopes we shall be spared when the great Cthulhu wakes from his nap.

Paula Stiles:  I don’t remember how I first came to Lovecraft. It had been a long time since I had actively read Lovecraft when we first set up Innsmouth Free Press and I had little idea of the online community, let alone the RPG community. I’m one of those old school Lovecraft fans.

When I was first reading him (as a teenager), there was no World Wide Web, and his stuff was something trashy and dark that I wasn’t supposed to be reading. I certainly wasn’t sharing my interest in Lovecraft with any larger community. I’m just amazed at how many people seem to have come to Lovecraft through other media:  film and television, of course, but also RPGs, comics and music. When I first discovered him, he was one of those “classic” horror writers who were being reprinted on the cheap back in the late 70s and early 80s to fill in a gap, not because he had some huge following, necessarily. If anything, the Internet has made him exponentially more popular.

What appealed to me about Lovecraft were his themes of isolation, madness, and the wonder and mystery and terror of an impersonal universe where humans didn’t figure at all, let alone largely. I haven’t read every Lovecraft story out there (yet), but for years I grabbed up every anthology of his that I could afford and gobbled the stories up. Even the ones I don’t remember by name have stuck with me in surprising ways.

Something I did notice, when I was living in Rhode Island about ten years back, was how quintessentially Old New England he was. Rhode Island is…well, for such a tiny state, it has some pretty dark corners nobody knows about, and a lot of the residents who never leave their corners, let alone the state. I don’t think you can understand some fundamental aspects of Lovecraft without seeing him in that milieu. He also evokes well that Old New England attitude that I grew up with where the climate is harsh, and the people survive because they’re harsher than the climate, or they don’t survive. I think a lot of Lovecraft’s view of the universe as cold, hard, and impersonal makes perfect sense if you’ve ever been stranded along a dirt road in the middle of East Nowhere, Vermont or New Hampshire in January, in the middle of a snowstorm.

S.J.C.:  Silvia, do you think the difference in climate, and perhaps the philosophical relationship with it, contributes to Mexico’s indifference to Lovecraft and maybe weird fiction—different interests in survival? Or is it, as you’ve already stated, that they just don’t categorize?

S.M.G.:  It has to do with culture and history. Of course, geography can be tied into the culture part. In Mexico, in most of Latin America, fantastic fiction is classified as literature.

You have novels like Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn) by Carlos Fuentes, which takes place in the near future and is narrated by a fetus who will be born on the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America and becomes regent of Mexico. You’d call that sci-fi dystopia if you were in the United States. We call it literature.

What we call science fiction, fantasy, and horror is everything that is foreign. If you walk into a bookstore in Mexico City, the fantasy section has Tolkien and books of that sort. But if you want to find The Club Dumas, which is a Spanish book that served for the basis for the occult horror movie The Ninth Gate, you go to general literature. So it’s certainly classification and it’s culture. We do not understand our fantastic writing as belonging to a specific category like horror. Or if it does, we think it must be because it is imitating foreign tropes. So you can only be a “fantasy” author if you do Tolkien-inspired stories. But something set in Mexico with fantastic elements, I think, we wouldn’t call that “fantasy.”

It’s funny you mention the survival thing, because for some writers of fantastic literature in Latin America, their writing has literally been a life or death thing. There’s a short story called “Gu ta gutarrak” (“We and our own”) and it is a Basque story. It was pulled from publication in the magazine it was originally going to appear. There was the fear that it spoke about Basque nationalism, and nobody wanted to talk about that. While authoritarian regimes and evil overlords are staples of genre fiction, many Latin American authors have experienced repression and censorship first hand. It’s not theory. That is why you have novels like Heroes Convocados, in which a student activist decides to avenge the 1968 Mexican student massacre by summoning heroes from literature, such as the Three Musketeers, to kill president Diaz Ordaz.

Our writing mixes with a lot of reality because we can’t let go of it. So while Lovecraft was imagining external horrors from the stars and other dimensions, we had our horrors in our own backyard. Hence, our weird fiction is different. This would take very long to explain, but the novela negra (what you call a thriller) has flourished due to this very reason. Mexico has made it its own.

S.J.C.:  Paula, you mentioned Lovecraft used to be considered trashy and dark. I’m curious whether you think that old association has to do with his focus on archaic and arcane knowledge like alchemy and medieval metaphysics?

P.S.:  No, it had more to do with the fact that my (mostly female) teachers thought that horror and science fiction were trashy and too dark. When I was in fourth grade, I told my teacher at the time that I was reading Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death (the first academic book on medieval history that I ever read). She freaked out that it was too “dark” for someone my age (even though I had checked it out of the school library) and tried to force-feed me Judy Blume, instead. Personally, I found Blubber a lot scarier and more depressing than anything by Lovecraft.

I’ve found that many grade school teachers are extremely judgmental about horror and science fiction (and Lovecraft is both) while pushing on their students “literature” that has far worse messages for kids than anything involving tentacles or rocket ships. But that’s a rant for another day.

S.J.C.Innsmouth Free Press strives to present the unconventional aspects of Lovecraft, seeking boundaries beyond North America and also with women. What are you looking for (other than pardon from a groggy god), and what have you found that these alternatives add or detract from Lovecraft’s tradition and SF today?

S.M.G.:  We are looking for other worlds and possibilities. Lovecraft was set in New England and he had a very specific mindset. No minorities, no women. But there’s no reason why you have to adhere to those constraints. Who says you can’t have Lovecraft set in Africa? Or with an all female cast of characters?

It certainly adds to the Lovecraft experience because you get to see authors and settings you would have never expected to find. One of the common things we get in the slush is someone saying “I never thought I could write Lovecraft, but I’m sending you this.”  It’s women, people from other places of the world, who did not view Lovecraft as a welcome space for them and suddenly we’ve told them they can play in the sandbox. So they do.

I don’t believe any genre, be it sword and sorcery or Lovecraft or urban fantasy, should be the restricted haven of a chosen few. Yet it is not uncommon for things to become this way, for authors and readers to think:  “Hey, sword and sorcery is only the realm of the European barbarians, sod off;” or:  “Steampunk means England.” We don’t want that. We want fresh stories, fresh perspectives. We want to be surprised and say:  “You know what, Cthulhu in the Philippines makes sense.”

I say it as a joke, but there’s also a serious intent when I say we are looking to add cultists to Cthulhu. I hear a lot of people complain about the death of science fiction (insert your genre, if you wish) and wish we could have more and/or new readers to buy our stuff. Well, there’s women, minorities, gay people, and the international market which have not been properly courted by many publications. We are courting them. We think they have interesting stuff to say and we think the more eyeballs, the merrier. There’s enough eldritch pie to go around for everyone.

P.S.:   For me, I don’t see the problem with expanding Lovecraft beyond early 20th century New England. He had no problems sharing his universe with people like Robert E. Howard who wrote stories set in exotic places with exotic peoples and strong female characters like “Queen of the Black Coast.” Lovecraft’s stories spanned multiple universes and times. I think even he would have acknowledged that the possibilities of his Mythos extended well beyond his own skills to describe it and set stories in it. I don’t think he would have shared that Mythos, otherwise, with his friends.

Lovecraft definitely had hang-ups about gender and race that appear in his stories and are less than flattering to those of us who aren’t white, male, and from Providence. But I think it’s important to remember that his stories remain popular in large part because of his generosity in letting others play in his Mythos universe. He was more complex than his hang-ups imply. He didn’t just blindly follow those hang-ups.

Also, people who read Lovecraft and see a white man trying to keep “his” New England “pure,” I think, misunderstand a basic aspect of New England culture that I’m sure Lovecraft was himself aware of. The fishing communities of southern coastal New England were (and are) quite racially diverse—the Portuguese and Cape Verdean communities, especially. Lovecraft may not have “liked” these communities (who were and are very close-knit), but he was certainly aware of them, as stories like “Shadow over Innsmouth” shows.

This is why I think exploring ethnicity via Lovecraft’s Mythos is so effective. He was discussing cultural issues a lot of other writers of his time simply ignored or set in some exotic realm where they didn’t matter. But just because “he” perceived these questions as negatively as he did doesn’t mean that we have to in order to stay faithful to his Mythos.

For me, I’m looking for how Lovecraft’s anxieties about ethnicity and madness apply in other cultures and on the other side of the gender divide (though I’m not overly fond of Lovecraftian versions of “The Yellow Wallpaper;” there are enough garden-variety madwomen in literature, already). White men from Providence are certainly not the only people who feel lost in an uncaring universe or who worry that their neighbor down the hall isn’t quite human (or still alive). I also would like to see more explorations of Lovecraft’s uncaring universe that start someplace that “isn’t” New England:  Africa or Asia, ancient Persia, prehistoric Australia, Siberia. Show me a Mythos explanation of the Tunguska Event from the perspective of a native Siberian.

S.J.C.:  Well, let’s finish up with Lovecraftian influences. Paula mentioned earlier her other Lovecraft inspired elements in her experience, like RPG games, movies, comics. What is out there (be it any genre or other publications, etc.) that is similar in your intentions of furthering and expanding upon the Lovecraftian tradition? Did these various elements give you the idea to have the newspaper style dispatches of Innsmouth and other Lovecraftian worlds?

S.M.G.:  Oh, I think we are a bit of an oddity in this case. There’s lots of weird fiction zines and very good Lovecraftian stuff out there (Weird Tales, Planet Lovecraft, all sorts of RPGs, Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, etc.), but I don’t think there is a zine that combines non-fiction, fiction, and fake news stories into a bizarre whole like we do.

The inspiration for Innsmouth Free Press was a conversation I had with Paula. I told her I would love to have a TV show set in Innsmouth with weird stuff happening every week. We can’t produce a TV show, so we did the zine. By the way, I still think someone should produce a TV show set in Lovecraft’s New England. Or a show adapting Lovecraft’s stories every week. Maybe not just Lovecraft, Poe, M.R. James, etc.

Innsmouth itself, the town and its surroundings, are an extrapolation of what we thought it might be nowadays after reading Lovecraft’s story. Plus, I must confess, several of the places in the Walking Guide to Innsmouth are inspired by my time living in Beverly, Massachusetts. But it’s not just our universe. It’s a shared universe and many people add and flesh out locations.

 

The Monster Byte format—the fake news stories set in Innsmouth and the surrounding area—works well because Lovecraft does the exact same thing. He tries to make you think locations and props, like the Necronomicon, are real. An epistolary format seemed a natural way to approach the subject. There are people who have written in believing some of the stuff is true, and we have some very bizarre scenarios.

P.S.:  I think there is a lot out there that tries to expand on the Mythos, which is more popular than ever, but nothing that is quite what we’re doing. Most of what I’ve seen involves comics, indie films (and festivals), and RPGs. “Call of Cthulhu” keeps cropping up among our interviewees as a huge influence. I also think that the two brother protags from the show Supernatural are a single Lovecraftian character split into two—Dean’s crazy and Sam is tainted in the blood. It’s been remarkable seeing those characters and their dysfunctions played out over five seasons because—let’s face it—Lovecraft’s protags tend to have a very short lifespan.

I don’t think anyone is doing the “dispatches from the front lines of lunacy” that we do, though. I mean, I just wrote a review for a 3-D film that doesn’t even exist—how Necronomicon is that?

As far as inspiration, it was Silvia’s idea originally to do a Lovecraftian newspaper. We had been talking about doing a zine, which was something that had been kicking around in my head, too, and when she mentioned her idea, I liked it. As I said before, Lovecraft has always been a big influence on me, along with Poe (Silvia’s a huge fan of Poe) and H.G. Wells. We each brought something to the table:  Silvia has great web design and business skills; I’d just been doing promotion for a novel a friend of mine and I published a few years back and I’m a decent copy editor, so I could do that. And, of course, we’re both writers with unique interests that happen to overlap. I think it’s worked out well.

S.J.C.:  I would like to give you both the opportunity to give any “shout-outs” or final words on anything you’d like regarding Lovecraft and Innsmouth Free Press.

S.M.G.:  In closing, it’s worth mentioning that Innsmouth Free Press wouldn’t exist without the help of the many reviewers and writers that send stuff in. Thanks! Also, we are always on the lookout for non-fiction. We don’t get enough articles and we always need more reviewers. We could also use a columnist who talks about Lovecraftian movies, hint hint.

I printed my own little horror fanzine back in Mexico when I was a kid, with an audience of like three people and an editorial staff composed of me and my cousin. I’m a lot older than then, but the same feeling is still there. It’s just a giddiness when you find other people who totally get you and your obsession with something. And we love, love the chances the zine gives us to interact with others who think horror and weird fiction are the bomb. This is a fan thing. We do it because it’s fun.  I’m trying to find an octopus picture for Paula so we can make a fake poster for Tentacles for the Sea 3-D. There’s no better way to spend a weekend.

We hope Innsmouth Free Press is as fun to readers as it is to us. And we always, always want to hear what you think about Lovecraftian stuff. Enjoy the eldritch holidays, everyone.

P.S.:  I want to echo Silvia on our thanks to our contributors and add in a thanks to our readers. Sometimes, they’re one and the same. Art is about communication and building up a community. Too often, the fans don’t get thanked, or only grudgingly in a “Well, I guess somebody has to fund the process” way when they’re really a fundamental part of the process. If they weren’t, fan sites and fanfic wouldn’t exist. After all, we’re fans of another writer (H.P. Lovecraft), too, and he was a fan of others before him.

It’s funny Silvia mentioned she did a fanzine when she was a kid. The closest I came was an alternative school newspaper I started back in the 5th grade. It lasted about three issues and I think I had a grand total of 20 readers.

Anywho, wait’ll you see Silvia’s poster for Tentacles from the Sea 3-D. Guess I have to write the script now!

Everybody have a Merry Cthulhu Christmas and Happy Holidays!


S.J. Chambers  is an articles editor at Strange Horizons .  In addition to that fine publication, her work has also appeared in Fantasy, Bookslut, Yankee Pot Roast, and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street blog. When she isn’t writing, she is excavating artifacts as Master Archivist for Jeff VanderMeer’s The Steampunk Bible.

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