The Ballad of S.T. Joshi, or, Saruman and Wormtongue Meet the Great Unwashed

I haven’t Blogged in a very long time, preferring instead the medium of podcasting (The Horror Show with Brian Keene and Defenders Dialogue) and my weekly newsletter, Letters From the Labyrinth. Therefore, my apologies if I’m a little rusty.

The number one question I’ve been getting from readers since Friday morning is, “Who is S.T. Joshi?” This question has replaced such long-time stalwarts as “Why isn’t The Rising a movie?” and “Will you ever write a fifth Rising book?” and “When is Suburban Gothic coming out?” The answers, by the way, are “Because Hollywood hasn’t ponied up a dump truck full of money”, “I’m writing one now. It’s called The Fall. It will be out in 2020″, and “I’m still working on Suburban Gothic. As I’ve gotten older, I find my muse leaning more toward quiet supernatural tales and surrealism, rather than extreme horror, and thus, it’s been a slow process.”

As for the answer to that new, most popular question, S.T. Joshi is a former trustee of beneficial knowledge who was corrupted by a irrational devotion to influence and power, and thus, through his own arrogant ambition, sowed the seeds of his eventual downfall.

Oh, no. Wait. I’m sorry. That was Saruman, a fictional wizard created by J.R.R. Tolkien.

S.T. Joshi is a historian and editor who has written extensively about the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and other important authors in our field. His contributions, bibliographies, and biographies of these figures are crucial, essential reading for anyone with a desire to look deeper into the history of our genre — and I myself will certainly be referencing these important works as my own History of Horror Fiction progresses.

Mostly though, to the general public, he’s primarily known as “the guy who wrote a biography about H.P. Lovecraft.”

S.T. Joshi
Saruman the Wizard

In recent years, Joshi has attained notoriety — not for his exemplary work as a custodian for our genre’s rich history — but for being an old man yelling at clouds. In particular, he rails against what he calls “Lovecraft Haters”, which is a group composed of anyone who dares to discuss Lovecraft’s possible racism or xenophobia. Mr. Joshi has put his keen academic mind to ferreting out some of these supposed “Lovecraft Haters” on his own (launching into ridiculous tirades about colleagues such as Ellen Datlow, Daniel José Older, Nick Mamatas, Nnedi Okorafor, Scott Nicolay, and S.j. Bagley, for example). Other “Lovecraft Haters” are names whispered in his ear by Jason Brock — the Grima Wormtongue to Joshi’s Saruman. (Without getting off into the weeds, Jason Brock is notable only for shepherding the latter career of the legendary William F. Nolan — for which Brock earned deserved accolades and good will — and then used those accolades and good will to further his own career instead, which is unfortunate). Mine is one of the names Brock whispered.

After being scoured from the Shire, Wormtongue spent his time getting owned by excellent metal drummers-turned-writers on social media.

So, for the record, I don’t consider myself a Lovecraft Hater. I own many volumes of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, including Arkham House originals. I have visited his grave on numerous occasions. I have viewed his private papers at Brown University. I have touched — physically touched — the original manuscripts for At The Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space, seen his doodles in the margins of letters, and even some of his blood, dried on a letter in which, as he explains in the margins, he squished a mosquito. I consider myself a fan of Lovecraft’s work. H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most important writers of horror fiction  — ranking alongside the aforementioned Dunsany, Machen, Bierce, and Blackwood, as well as Poe, Hodgson, Jackson, King, Matheson, Bloch, Campbell, and others.

With that being said, the probable origins of Lovecraft’s work are, in my opinion, repugnant. Lovecraft was racist and xenophobic. You don’t write poems like “On The Creation Of Niggers” or call the feline character in one of your best stories “Nigger Man” if you’re not racist. These beliefs fueled his fiction, and the creation of his mythos. So much of Lovecraft’s work is driven by fear and disgust of “the other” or of genetic mutation. And in turn, so much of that work shaped and molded this field.

Despite their repugnance (or perhaps because of it) I think those origins are worth discussing. Joshi does not. He threatened to boycott a recent convention because the programming included a panel discussing the racist themes prevalent in Lovecraft’s work (and then reportedly defied his own personal boycott by signing books in the dealer’s room of that same convention). Because I wondered aloud on my podcast why he’s against discussion of such things, it further inured me as a “Lovecraft Hater”. Joshi also railed against the World Fantasy Awards discontinuing their bust of Lovecraft. When I stated on my podcast, “If I was a person of color, and I won that award — an award from my peers recognizing my work — I wouldn’t want a man who thought I was sub-human glowering down at me from my brag shelf”, this further fueled Joshi and Brock’s insistence that I am, in fact, a Lovecraft Hater.

It’s also important to note that Lovecraft’s racism is not a new topic, brought up by some supposed younger, newer generation of political Progressives or SJWs. The great Robert Bloch himself discussed Lovecraft’s racism in his seminal “Heritage of Horror” essay. Joshi doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Based on his actions, he seemingly only has a problem with people discussing it if they are women (Ellen Datlow), LGQBT (S.j. Bagley), persons of color (Daniel José Older and Nnedi Okorafor), or apolitical “white trash” Appalachians (myself). I find that interesting…

So, again, for the record, I am not a “Lovecraft Hater”. I respect the man’s work. I don’t, however, respect the man.

Notorious “Lovecraft Hater” Brian Keene with the original handwritten manuscript to Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS

But it’s not just Lovecraft Haters whom Joshi directs his Palantir at. My friend and peer Laird Barron was recently a target of his invective, under the guise of a “review”. What the public doesn’t know is that said review wasn’t inspired or created under the auspices or intention of literary criticism. No, it was pure spite. You see, Joshi was a self-avowed fan of Laird’s work. Joshi bought a story by Laird for the A Mountain Walked anthology (published by the wonderful Centipede Press). When Joshi later reached a deal with Dark Regions to reprint the anthology, he asked Laird for permission to reprint the story again, even though a second printing wasn’t in the original contract, for a sum that was less than what Laird found agreeable. Laird politely declined and sold the story elsewhere for a greater sum, as any professional writer would. And suddenly, Joshi decided to “critique” his work in a transparent take-down that caused a minor stir among horror authors but wasn’t even a blip on the radar of most horror readers.

Which brings us to last Friday, and the reason why so many of you are asking me, “Who is S.T. Joshi?”.

Why did Joshi turn his attention toward me? I don’t know. Maybe it was our coverage of his antics on my podcast (where he is a recurring source of amusement). Perhaps he was offended that I sandwiched him between “Lovecraft Haters” Ellen Datlow and S.j. Bagley in the inaugural chapter of History of Horror Fiction. Or maybe he was driven half-mad by Jason Brock’s incessant whining.

Regardless, I woke up at 5am Friday morning. Publisher and author Ross Lockhart had sent me the link to Joshi’s tirade overnight. I clicked the link and read Joshi’s Introduction, where he states that I am “A grotesquely prolific blowhard” and that my work left him in “excruciating agony.” This pleased me. I thought it was funny enough to craft a cover blurb out of, so I did. Then some readers asked for it on a t-shirt, so I made this. And that was pretty much it.

I didn’t read Joshi’s critique, because his opinion means nothing to me. I respect his work, but I don’t respect the man. His review of my work is exactly equal to any one-star Amazon customer review (although I suspect his review may be more erudite and include proper grammar and punctuation). His critique means absolute zero to my career, my publishers, my family, or my self-respect. So instead of reading it, I played video games with my nine-year-old.

Others who did read the entire critique told me that it basically consists of Joshi taking 5,900 words to say that I’m a terrible writer. Which I also found amusing, since Nickolaus Pacione can make the same point in five words or less. I find it curious that a mentally ill man whose only infamy stems from sending death threats to writers like Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Mary SanGiovanni, Ray Garton, and myself is effectively communicating more clearly and concisely than a man who ostensibly makes his living as a critic.

Several of you have asked if I am angry. I am not. The only part of this that made me angry (and again, I didn’t read Joshi’s piece) is that he apparently takes several shots at you — my readers — referring to you as “The Great Unwashed”, “intelligence-challenged”, and other unflattering euphemisms. I think that’s a dick move.

Here’s the thing, folks. I’m not writing for S.T. Joshi. I’m writing for the high school football coach in Texas. I’m writing for the mother in Canada whose only company while she sat at the bedside of her toddler during his fight with cancer, was a stack of my novels. I’m writing for both the men and women who have carried my books with them in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere (and sent me bizarre selfies to mark the moment). I’m writing for the kid in study hall and the dude on his lunch break at the factory and the woman leaving her shift at the call center. And — I’m somewhat surprised to learn — I’m writing for Joshi’s fellow academics, several of whom posted publicly on social media over the last two days, joining the rest of us “Great Unwashed” in pointing and laughing at the old man yelling at clouds. 

Stephen King, whom, according to Joshi, is just another “intelligence-challenged” member of “The Great Unwashed”.

I am told that Joshi’s website was down for most of the day yesterday, and has been sporadic today. Many of you have asked if I did that. No. I did not. My computer skills are as bad as my usage of proper punctuation and grammar. I did not hack or shut down Joshi’s website. Perhaps it was a deluge of the Great Unwashed, coming to point and laugh?

So no, other than his comments on you, my readers, I don’t feel anger. Only amusement.

And, to be honest, a great deal of pity. 

Who is S.T. Joshi? He is a man heading into the twilight of years. A man who used to have cachet and relevance. A man who is frightened by a changing world. A man who has made a career out of writing about H.P. Lovecraft, and who now fears that this legacy is being chipped away at by others. A man who fails to see that the only person chipping away at his legacy is himself. A man whose rabid frothing over perceived slights to Lovecraft’s legacy only serves to tarnish the legacies of them both.

Yes, I feel a great deal of pity for S.T. Joshi. If anything, we need to learn from his example. When we reach that age — when we come to that point in our career, and our popularity and influence have waned, and our audiences are dwindling down to the Jason Brocks of the world — we need to be better than Joshi. We need to strive for more. Being an “Angry Young Man” has a certain charm. Being an angry old man does not.

It makes me sad to see S.T. Joshi’s staggeringly important body of early work overshadowed by the antics of his later years.

I respect Joshi’s earlier work, but I do not respect the man.

34 thoughts on “The Ballad of S.T. Joshi, or, Saruman and Wormtongue Meet the Great Unwashed

    1. Hi Brian
      I respect your point of view about your target audience. It’s a great aim to write for “the average Joe, as you in the States call ’em. (I’m in Australia where we don’t use that expression). That said, I think this whole storm in a teacup over what Joshi said about you and what you said or didn’t say in response is overblown. I think your characterisation of Joshi as as a man whose relevance is past, and who “rabidly froths over perceived insults to the reputation of H. P. Lovecraft” is just as one-sided to Joshi as the comments he made about your work. I left some comments on your Facebook page this morning, and they were mainly in response to fans of yours who seem to feel that “tell Joshi to fuck off” is the most expressive thing they can manage in your support. That’s pretty sad. I think you should be considering how such fans make you look. OK great, they love your work. Every writer needs fans like that. But seriously, dude, you don’t need semi-literate fans speaking up on your behalf – they just tarnish your image and tar youwith their own brush. IMHO, Joshi is not in any way past his peak. He has a solid track record of a forty+ years as a critic and editor in the field, and no-one is chipping away at his legacy,m so suggesting he’s afraid of that is simply silly. No-one could even come close to achieving what he has done in the field of Lovecraft studies. I respect your respect for Lovecraft and I believe you have a heart. Even your stunt of putting Joshi’s quote on a t-shirt is pretty amusing. But Brian, stirring up your followers to become a hornet’s nest of fairly mindless aggression against Joshi (most of them admitting they haven’t even read him) because they are partisan to your writing is not the way to go. I look forward to more respectful conversations from all quarters in the future.
      Your Australian fan, Leigh Blackmore

      1. I’m not stirring up anything. Nor are Laird Barron or Willie Meikle or the Splatterpunks who Joshi pulled this same bullshit on 30 years ago. And I’ll keep my “semi-literate” fans, and proudly wear the tar from their brush, thanks.

      2. Mr. Blackmore wrote: “I left some comments on your Facebook page this morning, and they were mainly in response to fans of yours who seem to feel that “tell Joshi to fuck off” is the most expressive thing they can manage in your support.”

        I’ve had a chance to view some of the “comments” you left. You can be polite to me but not to them? In their words, how about you fuck off.

  1. Brutual.

    I actually want to note how crazy S.T. Joshi has gotten here too. The man never used to be an apologist of Lovecraft and during much of his critical analysis of H.P. Lovecraft pointed out just how uneven his body work was. About his weird and sad upbringing, sad self destructive life. Now he is getting mad about pointing out the man’s very obvious racism.

    Like I want to point this out, I’m Latino and of Jewish ancestry, my wife is a native born Japanese, and we both were flabbergasted and angry that Lovecraft was booted from the World Fantasy Bust. I’m utterly willing to bet the people who composed the little weird fiction circle where I met my future wife when I was doing JET, would be angry too despite knowing full well just how racist as he was and that he thought the group of them were subhuman monsters. Lovecraft’s work has become insanely and improbably seminal and important to Japanese horror and literary work (ironically or maybe not he’s been kind of adopted by the nationalist and other far right groups as one of Japan’s own in weird way),

    But S.T. Joshi’s fervent ideas of getting angry over discussion panels over the racist content of Lovecraft’s work is infinitely more baffling and anger inducing. While there are other and perhaps larger elements to his work, racism was a key ingredient in his works and it’s not just important to discuss them but pivotal to understanding his work and pulp (and genre) fiction of that era.,. Sure primordial gods that care for nothing of mankind and are irrelevance to existence isn’t racist. But his thoughts on Deep One hybrids? Of protagonists discovering non human ancestry? How can you comment on this without talking about his racism and self hatred of his own ancestry.

    I respect both Lovecraft as a writer and human being. He had a hard life, a lot of it was beyond his control: an abusive and terrible childhood for example, an inability to get the higher education he desired and probably warranted. and a resulting difficultly with intimacy. But things like the self destruction of his own marriage and future were of his own doing. So while I respect the man, I also pity him.

    Sad to say the same with ST Joshi. Never thought he’d stoop so low as to whiny hack job reviews and academia.

  2. It’s all fiction and we write it to entertain and amuse our readers. Sometimes to scare them and make them cry. Lovecraft was great at creating alternative mythologies and I have pinched his ideas several times but he wasn’t that brilliant. You’re a terrific horror writer Brian and anybody who says you’re not needs to spend some time in rehab. We do it for fun and profit. It’s absurd to take it so seriously. The only reason I wouldn’t want a bust of Lovecraft on my shelf is because he looks like a constipated horse.

  3. Sigh… admitting, discussing, or critiquing Lovecraft’s obvious flaws DOESN’T make you a “Lovecraft Hater.” I admit the man was a bigoted asshole, but I still love much of HPLs work.

    What Joshi needs to be wary of is the threat of mindless hero worship.

  4. It is so disappointing when what should be reasonable discussion among friends who are all fans and players in the same ballpark sinks to invective and personal sniping. For all his good work in the past, Joshi apparently just doesn’t get it now about Lovecraft. You do, Brian, thanks for your very good thoughts on this.

  5. Last night I was finally able to get his website to open so I could read his drivel. Your writing has meant so much to me for different reasons over the years. Reading is supposed to be fun. Mr. Joshi clearly does not know the meaning of this word. Maybe if he would attempt to remove the huge stick from his ass he would get more out of life. He is a sad man. Chris and I are proud to call you our friend and you are welcome to visit this house of “The Great Unwashed” again anytime.

    1. I like and respect Ramsey as both a writer and a man. From what I’ve seen, he’s not so much defending Joshi. He’s just been pointing out his belief that Joshi didn’t mean “all” of you were the Great Unwashed” and that not “every” author who wrote for Leisure a decade ago was terrible.

      And who knows? Maybe Ramsey is right. Maybe that’s not what Joshi meant. The problem is, that is how seemingly everybody else has interpreted Joshi’s screed. So, if Joshi intended to communicate something else, he failed. Perhaps a better writer could have done so more effectively.

      1. I started reading your work about three years ago. I’m not a die-hard loyalist (I don’t like everything you’ve written), but I keep coming back for more. I originally came across your writing by searching for authors similar to Ed Lee, but now your name comes up around role playing tables a couple of times a year. Some of the conversations about your work are just as entertaining as the writing, which carries a lot of weight in my decision to keep an eye on your Amazon writer’s page.

        I’ve read some of Joshi’s blogs. I have a copy of the I Am Providence set sitting towards the bottom of my reading pile. I got it free from Amazon for trying Audible. I want to read it because I adore Lovecraft to a silly extreme, but I haven’t cracked the spines. I’m concerned that while I’ll love the subject matter it will be a chore.

        I’ve never had a friend mention Joshi’s name. During 3 days of NecronomiCon 2017 I only heard him referenced twice. Once was a joke. I wish I could remember how it went. It was unwashed and it pulled a great laugh.

        The best to you… and thanks for the dirty books.

  6. As one of the “unwashed”, I want to say that I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with such drivel. To paraphrase Dory…”just keep writing, just keep writing..”

  7. I am a former professor of English. I taught creative writing, and Literature. So I guess that makes me an academic, though it feels pretentious to say that. That said, I’ve loved your stories for years and have reccomended you repeatedly to fans of the genre. I’m proud to be among the unwashed! Keep up the amazing work!

    1. I have read Lovecraft since the late 80s and there were times when I had to look twice to make sure I read what iI thought I read because of the language used. There have been biographies on him and even a video on YouTube with today’s writers like Campbell who say that he was very Xenophobic and racist and I am not here to say they are not. I have never met him, none of us have, however, I have wondered if some of this could possibly be his way of reflecting the beliefs and views of the time in which he lived.

      I am not trying to defend his use of certai9n words that today are very offensive and horrible, no, I would never do that. However, you cannot ignore the History of the US and say that during his time these ideas, thoughts and feelings did not exists because we all know they did and it is not a stretch to say that he shared them or was making some kind of social commentary about them and possibly may not have shared them. I say this because as writers it would seem that the use of the pen and through stories is a way to relay these commentaries to get people’s attention even though you may not buy into it yourself. Stephen King uses them and he’s not a racists, but the people he rights about in his stories are. So do you Brian and I don’t think any one here believes you to be racist as with other writers. Robert Howard is another writer who uses inflammatory language and I do find it disturbing even though I do like his stories, usually the ones that do not use the inflammatory language. He may have been racist and no doubt a product of his time, like Lovecraft.

      Thing is, I’m not sure we will ever have a definitive yes or no about Lovecraft though the evidence is strong. He was a product of his time and during his time people were very and openly racist and xenophobic. If he were around today I think he would be different and I do not think his stories would have been as good and as layered. However, I do not think that should take away from his literary successes in any way, if anything I think it adds to the horror element of them. Sometimes people who are flawed can do some good things. I hope I am making sense by what I am saying. Thank you.

  8. Very good! I’ve always found it odd that some people get so irrationally angry at Lovecraft’s racism being brought up, it’s not as if anyone’s calling for him to be banned or denying his place in writing history. I did a really balanced YouTube video discussing it and have had several people call me a c**t among other things

  9. Mr. Joshi’s “criticism” of Mr. Keene’s work is not “literary criticism.” I would be glad to explain it to anyone who thinks it is.

  10. Bloody brilliant essay mate! Well said! I had suspected for some time that Mr Joshi was fast disappearing up the singularity of his own backside. This just confirms it. I was going to mention that he was turning into August Derleth but a few posters above beat me too it.

  11. A bit of fandom wisdom I often repeat is that it’s not bad, per se, to like a thing that has problematic elements, but it gets bad when you defend those problematic elements because you like the thing. S.T. Joshi should serve as an example and a warning of this concept.

  12. Brian, I’ve never read your work, but I am a sometimes-reader of Joshi’s blog. He seems to be unraveling. I made the mistake of buying both volumes of his “History of Supernatural Fiction,” which is not only rife with unjustified attacks against respected writers, but filled with grammatical errors, typos, and plain misprints. All of his latest blog posts are filled with invective. I didn’t think Laird Barron’s newest collection was as good as some of his earlier ones, but it hardly constitutes the fall from grace Joshi claims it is. I know this may seems like a petty claim, but I can’t help but think Joshi is jealous of some of these writers. He seems to either want to slather them with praise in an ingratiating way that makes me uncomfortable, or completely tear down their reputations. It’s childish. I won’t be following his blog anymore. And I’m going to probably start reading yours!

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