Gabriel Blackwell has been productive as hell lately, lurking under the radar of most readers as a fully able, hyper-intelligent chronicler of darkly imagined fictions. His newest release, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013) is Blackwell’s treatment of the long lost final letter of master of horror H.P. Lovecraft. In fitting fashion, we corresponded (albeit electronically) about dominant metaphors in our time, the trickeries of inspiration and perspective, how the future looks, and the ins and outs of his new punch to our collective brains.
It seems you and H.P. Lovecraft both share a fascination and respect for the principle of uncertainty—as a logical law of the worlds you create and as a device used to introduce the dark and unexpected into your work. How much of this came from H.P. and how much is derived from your own aesthetics?
As you probably know, Lovecraft was an amateur astronomer—he published a number of issues of something called, I think, the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy when he was just 13 years old, and had a lifelong interest in astronomy and physics, something he often demonstrated in his short fiction. I am less interested in those things (and published nothing at 13), but that’s not to say I’m not interested in them.
Science is, at this moment in time, the dominant metaphor for our understanding of the world. It is to us what religion and mythology and philosophy were to people before us. It seems foolish to ignore it. The specific concepts in Natural Dissolution are those that come from Lovecraft’s stories (particularly “The Dreams in the Witch House”) and his letters—they reflect his interests (and misconceptions) more than mine, which is only fair, as it is “his” letter being annotated—but I chose to write about them, which I guess makes them mine, too.
What’s the deal with “The Dreams in the Witch House”? Was there something particular about it that drew you in?
“The Dreams in the Witch House” is about Walter Gilman, a student of “non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics” at Miskatonic University who takes a specific room in a specific boardinghouse precisely because of its shape and its history. It ends badly for him, as things usually do for Lovecraft’s characters. I think I was drawn to that story because somehow it seemed related to Lovecraft’s death—he died from stomach cancer, a huge tumor he ignored for a long time. In the story, the room Gilman rents hides an extra dimension; in life, Lovecraft did as well.
Breaks with reality, inversion of logic, negation, unsuredness opening up to mystery and terror—was Lovecraft an attractive subject because of these similarities between you?
Lovecraft was an interesting subject principally because of his biography. His life, especially towards the end, was incredibly ascetic, and his death was, I imagine, truly horrible. All of that fit the story I was trying to tell, or the story I was trying to tell, by accommodating itself to Lovecraft’s story, got bent in interesting ways. I should say, though, that I am also a fan of Lovecraft’s fiction, partly for the characteristics you list above, so my choice of him as a subject for this book wasn’t entirely based upon his biography.
That creates such an interesting dichotomy at the center of this book. Lovecraft’s own life, from his biography to his letters, is inseparable from the mystique created by his short fiction, and in NDFIM, you are inseparable from your main character, the other, elusive Gabriel Blackwell whom Lovecraft’s last letter was addressed. What does the title The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men mean?
The title comes from Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, an extraordinary book. It is a very important book in the history of psychology: written by a schizophrenic about his schizophrenia, much of it while suffering from that disorder. Schreber’s way of seeing is really interesting, and the language he creates to describe it is very rich. Like Lovecraft, it fit the story I was trying to tell, and also deformed it in interesting ways.
You have been quite prolific as of late, releasing two books last year before NDFIM, Shadow Man: Biography of Lewis Miles Archer and Critique of Pure Reason. I’m curious to know how NDFIM relates to your other books and also what might be in store for us in the future?
I do seem to have been busy, yes, though most of that is an accident—I never intended to put out three books in less than a year but that is how it has happened. It took a lot longer than that to write them. Until very recently, I hadn’t really taken a break or stopped to reconsider what I was doing: at least for me, the two novels are part of a single thing—Natural Dissolution is really the second part to whatever was begun in Shadow Man (not a sequel, just another part of something larger, I’m still not sure exactly what . . . a kind of memoir, I guess, though I think I’m a bit freer with that term than people are sometimes comfortable with), and once it was done I immediately started work on the next part, which is what I’m working on now. So, maybe because I have been thinking of them as parts of one larger thing, there hasn’t been a fallow period yet. I’ve always known what comes next.
Do you think you are on the verge of stepping back to get a retrospective of your work and where you are heading? That, for the first time in a while—or maybe ever—you don’t know what is next?
I am waiting now. Before, I’ve always known what comes next, and now, I don’t. I assume when I finish the book I am working on now, Madeleine E., I will have some idea of what to do, but we will see. It’s been a slow book to write, especially in comparison to the others. But it isn’t as frustrating as I thought it would be . . . this waiting.
You know, perspective is a difficult thing. I don’t think you can will yourself to gain perspective, so setting aside time for it would be an empty exercise. That said, I do think there is something valuable in simply allowing time to pass, experiencing new things and meeting new people, reading new books, thinking new thoughts—though I know I will probably end up rewriting the same book over and over anyway. It is nice to think that, each time I do, I’ll at least be a different person rewriting that same book.