In preparation for San Francisco Theater Pub’s LOVECRAFT FESTIVAL, our several adapters took a few moments to answer questions about their relationship with H. P. Lovecraft.
1) When did you first discover Lovecraft?
Ignacio Zuleta: At a tender and impressionable age when I was also studying for the verbal portion of the SAT.
Stuart Bousel: My freshman year of college my parents sort of randomly bought me a collection as a “fun book” for down time. I started reading it and was immediately hooked. Over the course of my four years at Reed I tracked down and read every published story of his that I could find and actually adapted “The Thing on the Doorstep” for my junior year screenwriting class.
Nirmala Nataraj: When I read “The Rats in the Walls” sometime during middle school. I was immediately attracted to the combination of restraint and foreboding in Lovecraft’s writing. Also, his catacomb-swept landscape and tale of tainted ancestry appealed to my already-existing preoccupation with the intersection between humanity and monstrosity. Seriously.
Kai Morrison: In High school, with the Call of Cthulhu role playing game.
Nathan Tucker: Not even the darkness knows how long it had been when I awoke from my disturbed slumber upon that cold cellar floor, the accursed pages of the Necronomicon open under my damp cheek. Would that I had never woken at all! Perhaps then I would still be in possession of my sanity… or what was left of it.
2) Why is he so cool?
Ignacio Zuleta: Because he is so flawed. His prose shines like a demented and ungainly jewel hacked from a vein of pure crystallized neurosis. His stories use the basest of pulp drivel as their core, yet unto that unpromising raw matter, Lovecraft has applied his perfectionistic literary obsessions in an act of self-mortifying and transformative alchemy. HPL is both visionary and revisionary, like the best minds I know in theatre.
Stuart Bousel: As someone who lived on the East coast till I was almost 13 and summered in New England quite a lot, I really love the way that Lovecraft evokes the autumnal gloominess and historical legacy of that part of the country. His imagination is also just brilliant and if you read his stories in the order of their composition you can watch him go from this precocious weirdo to a complex, articulate thinker who was able to create a whole alternate universe and cosmology that’s really fascinating and detailed yet also ambiguous enough to leave room for your own imagination to play.
Nirmala Nataraj: I am fascinated with the manner in which he populates quiet or mundane landscapes with supernatural terrors; secret passages in dilapidated New England mansions lead to ancient cities, sinister forests, and diseased slums. I see his work as a lurid commentary on the Industrial-era attraction to and repulsion for extinct civilizations: full of their malign entities, ravenous tribal deities, guttural demons, and revenants. Lovecraft offers a fearful depiction of the un-human other that is disturbingly revelatory of the period in which he wrote. There’s also a sense that Lovecraft’s monsters aren’t simply fantastical ghouls, but the natural consequence of the darker aspects of science and technology—which makes figures like Cthulhu decidedly more frightening than, say, vampires or werewolves.
Kai Morrison: He evokes monstrosity and terror without shock value. He doesn’t require “BOOGY-BOOGY-BOOGY” moments, he just describes in very analytical terms what is happening to whom, what they’re thinking. Perhaps the horror is more terrifying because the speaker is usually so calm, or attempting to be calm and failing.
Nathan Tucker: Lovecraft is cool, for he dwells in the lightless depths, far from the prying rays of that wretched, taunting star that the walkers above cherish so much – curse them!
3) What is your favorite Lovecraft story?
Ignacio Zuleta: “Call of Cthulhu”, which predates J-horror movie The Ring by decades for its ‘you-will-die-after-reading-this-horror-story’ structure. As a text, Cthulhu is a densely wrapped treat, with four or five nested narratives in the style of 1001 Nights, each peeling back to reveal a new onion layer of accumulating dread. It also will put you off seafood, or will make you crave sushi, depending on your sensibilities.
Stuart Bousel: It is a toss-up between “The Thing On the Doorstep” and “The Dreams In The Witch-House”, both because they are very atmospheric, well-paced, with abnormally well-drawn characters (for Lovecraft) and are centered around legends and echoes of the Salem witch trials and other New England spookiness.
Nirmala Nataraj: “The Shadow Out of Time,” which was written toward the end of Lovecraft’s life. It’s an exquisite culmination of some of Lovecraft’s most obsessive themes: isolation, madness, incomprehensible cosmic terror, and the agency wielded by forces beyond time and history.
Kai Morrison: “The Mound.” The way he unveils the underworld, which appears to be a paradise, then sours it to the point of disgust… genius!
Nathan Tucker: I dare not speak of the Lovecraftian tale that haunts my tormented days and sleepless nights. It tears at my mind with foul claws unseen!
4) Why did you pick the story you chose to adapt?
Ignacio Zuleta: Because it’s short, sexy, and savage – three words not commonly associated with ole’ H.P., but quite commonly associated with live drama.
Stuart Bousel: I chose “Dunwich Horror” because it has a lot of female characters, particularly Lavinia Whateley, who I’ve always found humanly tragic in a way that’s rare for Lovecraft; additionally it has an abnormal amount of action and dialogue for a Lovecraft story, which makes it an obvious possibility for dramatic adaptation; lastly, it offers a broader portrait of the society of Lovecraft’s “Shadow New England”, from the urban professors of Arkham down to the rural housewives of Dunwich. I, personally, tend to find stories of societies and the individuals within them more interesting than isolated accounts of experience apart from the outside world.
Nirmala Nataraj: Because I couldn’t resist the challenge of adapting such an iconic tale (“Call of Cthulhu”) to a 20-minute staged reading in a bar.
Kai Morrison: At first, I chose “Shunned House” because of its deceptive nature. It seems like a simple haunted house or ghost story, which are often quite tame, but then shows how truly terrifying and epic a localized horror can be. As I thought more about it, and how to make a better stage play of the story (add character details, moments of intrigue, etc) I began to fall in love with the elements that were coming out of the questions I was asking. It’s bigger than I expected.
Nathan Tucker: I did not choose to adapt “Pickman’s Model”. I was helpless in its unspeakable grip. Its noxious words still burn upon my harried retinas. PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF MERCY, TAKE MY EYES!!
5) If you were a Lovecraft hero (or villain), who would you be and why?
Ignacio Zuleta: I’d be one of the time-traveling, body-hopping, superhuman Yithian Intellects from the Shadow out of Time, who are much like Doctor Who, except with cell-phone time-dialing service instead of a moldy old phone booth.
Stuart Bousel: I’ve always loved Dan Upton from “The Thing on the Doorstep” because he’s so solid, but there is a part of me that relates strongly to Edward Derby, from the same story, because he’s a dreamer prone to trusting the wrong people.
Nirmala Nataraj: Randolph Carter, ever seeking the lost city of my dreams.
Kai Morrison: A shoggoth. They’re so cute!
Nathan Tucker: Hero or villain? Such questions are irrelevant knowing we will all ultimately be devoured by the daemon sultan Azathoth, who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.
6) Lovecraft vs. Poe- who wins?
Ignacio Zuleta: Lovecraft, by a pseudopod, but Poe is too drunk to notice, care, or even compete in the footrace.
Stuart Bousel: Lovecraft loved Poe and was deeply influenced by him (and Lord Dunsinay), but while he owes a great deal to Poe, I would say his best stories far surpassed any of Poe’s horror tales on both a technical level and in regards to literary vision.
Nirmala Nataraj: Poe and Lovecraft were consummate masters of their craft, and the worlds they created were uniquely terrifying. But Poe is the author who begat the detective story and was credited for giving the Gothic tale of the Romantic Period a serious overhaul. Poe is the originator of the modern horror story, the grandfather of musty subterranean passages and ominous repressed desires. His poetic voice was second to none—and he wrote scads of satires, parodies, and experimental stories that made him a formidable literary juggernaut. My bet’s on Poe.
Kai Morrison: Did Poe create an interstellar/ultracosmic uber-creature that lives outside of reality itself and hungers to devour all of existence? No. No, he did not.
Nathan Tucker: Lovecraft vs. Poe? This question is unanswerable, for the mind any witness would surely dissolve under the onslaught of such a battle! I shudder to even imagine it.
7) Who are other horror writers you like and recommend?
Ignacio Zuleta: Clive Barker, for pan-sexual hotness, and for knowing how to push our tender buttons.
Stuart Bousel: Bram Stoker for his beautiful prose and intricate plot lines; Shirley Jackson for her complex characters and unapologetic grandiose style; Angela Carter for her intellect and attention to details; Clive Barker for being both old-school creepy and post-modern progressive when it comes to the characters. Ray Bradbury is probably the closest any modern writer has come to capturing Lovecraft’s spirit, especially in his collection of stories, October Country.
Nirmala Nataraj: Tanith Lee’s fantasy horror cycle “The Secret Books of Paradys” is a work of unheralded genius that ranks among one of my favorite pieces of literature. I imagine she owes a debt to Lovecraft; her book is full of gorgeous baroque prose, esoteric mythology, and crumbling landscapes fraught with ancient secrets, decay, and luxury. I’m also a huge fan of the Comte de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror; written in the 1860s, it was constantly name-dropped by the later Surrealists. It’s not horror, per se, but it’s a rhapsodic and revolting paean to Evil that makes me delightedly squeamish as I read it, to this day. Joyce Carol Oates edited a superb treasure trove of stories, American Gothic Tales, that is perfect reading for a dark and stormy night. Because I love gothic horror, I tend to go for subtlety, atmosphere, and restraint—but I also love horror movies, especially the extravagantly sadistic oeuvre of Dario Argento.
Kai Morrison: There is an excellent collection of hybrid stories that place Sherlock Holmes in the world of HP Lovecraft and all its horrors titled “Shadows Over Baker Street.” It has some excellent authors in it and they really explore the beauty of a dangerously brilliant rational mind in a world full of things that cannot be rationally explained. It’s lovely.
Nathan Tucker: I dare only utter the name Howard Philips Lovecraft. They watch me from the shadows. I can hear their soundless whispering. Please, don’t ask me that question again! Please!!
The H. P. Lovecraft Festival begins October 18 with The Shunned House, continues October 19 for three Lovecraft shorts, and concludes on October 25 for The Dunwich Horror. All shows are performed in the Cafe Royale Bar (800 Post St, San Francisco, at Leavenworth), 8pm curtain. Admission, as always, is free.