“This is the story of a man who wrote letters.” This is the opening line of Escribir contra los hombres: Cartas I, de H. P. Lovecraft (Aristas Martínez). The writer from Providence, Rhode Island has always been a fascinating, mysterious, almost transcendental figure within literature. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say all horror fiction from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has its roots in his work, or that modern horror writing wouldn’t exist in the same way as we know it now if it were not for his influence. Translator Javier Calvo (Barcelona, 1973) has an exhaustive knowledge of Lovecraft’s life and work. He has worked meticulously not only on the translation and compilation of the author’s letters in this new publication but also on their presentation. The letters appear alongside the covers of the same pulp magazines that published Lovecraft’s first stories, some of the sketches Lovecraft made of his creatures, as well as photos from his journals and letters. Calvo is one the most widely regarded translators of English literature with an impressive list of authors he has translated: David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, Mark Z. Danielewski, J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Peter Matthiessen, Denis Johnson, etc. As an author, he has published the novels Mundo maravilloso, Corona de flores, El jardín colgante (Biblioteca Breve Award, 2012) and Piel de plata, amongst others.
Pablo Concha: You have already translated Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu) and you have written fiction about him (“Rosemary” from Los ríos perdidos de Londres). When did you decide to translate his letters and what was the process like finding a publisher that would publish them?
Javier Calvo:I decided I wanted to translate them a long time ago. I fell in love with Lovecraft’s letters almost twenty years ago when I read them for the first time in the edition Selected Letters, published by Arkham House, which I still regard as the best collection to date. Then, around the time when Lovecraft entered the public domain, around fifteen years ago, I began to dream about translating them. But it was just a fantasy. I mentioned the project to some editors, but no one showed any interest. Nothing really changed for a long time. Everyone told me—perhaps not in so many words—that no one was interested in the letters here in Spain. Eventually, during the pandemic, I decided to start working on the translation on my own. I thought maybe if I got started and had something that was finished, it might help pique someone’s interest. I later gave a talk about the letters two or three years ago and the publisher Aristas Martínez expressed interest.
P. C.: How much time researching and writing was necessary to complete Escribir contra los hombres: Cartas I, de H. P. Lovecraft?
J. C.: Maybe two years. Although that’s a misleading amount of time, as I had already spent so much time before that buying and reading the volumes of letters that were available. Without that prior effort, I wouldn’t have been able to do it in two years.
P. C.: Why do you think no one had yet taken the leap to translate Lovecraft’s correspondence?
J. C.: I would guess it has to do with commercial reasons. The market is a bit oversaturated with Lovecraft books and I suppose editors thought the word “letters” might put off readers. There’s this stereotypical idea that those of us who read Lovecraft are the type of people who only read pulpy comics and play role-playing games and that we’re not interested in more literary topics.
P. C.: One of the most interesting discoveries from reading Lovecraft’s letters was his sense of humor. He was really funny! Something that’s almost impossible to imagine for anyone who has read one of his stories…What surprised you most when reading his correspondence?
J. C.: A lot of things in his letters actually surprised me. One of them was how cultured Lovecraft was: the classics, literature, philosophy… Including his knowledge of the literature of his time and the current cultural movements like modernism, which was hard for me to imagine knowing he was a self-taught man as well as an incredibly reclusive one. It certainly isn’t the level of culture we would expect a pulp writer to have. I was also surprised by the incredible disdain he held for pulp fiction writing and the magazine Weird Tales. But maybe what truly surprised me out of everything was how unbearably sad his life was. Unhappiness and pain are evident throughout the letters, as is his overwhelming sense of failure.
P. C.: How true to the original are the translations of Lovecraft we’ve read in Spanish up to this point?
J. C.: To be honest, I’m not sure. I only read Lovecraft in Spanish as a kid, when I obviously had no idea how to judge a translation. Then I continued reading him, but in the original language.
P. C.: Lovecraft is more relevant and more widely read today than the literary greats he admired so much: Lord Dunsany, Machen, Poe, Blackwood, etc. It’s ironic how he ended up being more important than all of them. What would you consider to be the reasons why his work and mythology are still so alive and continue to gain devotees as time goes on?
J. C.: I don’t think anyone can explain it. It’s not only that he’s more alive and present than those you mentioned, but he’s also more relevant than almost all literature from that period. Wherever you go in the world there are fans of Lovecraft, of all ages and backgrounds. They might be a minority wherever they are, but they’re always there, it’s like a global cult. And now there’s something that highlights his relevance even more, his influence in certain philosophical movements and the work of authors like Michel Houellebecq, Mark Fisher, Graham Harman, and many others. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think anyone really does. But I can only imagine that the deeper explanation lies in the way he saw things. That aspect of his work that was derived from his dreams and subconscious, which weren’t filtered by the issues of his time or the literary tradition. In some way his visions are our visions, his myths speak to us. They remain strange and powerful, moving within a profound and unconscious realm.
P. C.: In the book you mention an impressive amount of biographies and correspondence with the writers who were part of “The Lovecraft Circle,” as well as with other correspondents, none of which is available in Spanish. Is it possible that Spanish readers are less interested or maybe that their interest is not as earnest as that of American readers?
J. C.: Actually I would say neither. Or at least I don’t see any less passion from the Spanish-speaking world than from the English-speaking one. I think it has more to do with the common problem of movement from one cultural environment to another. Every author is more widely published, is more well-known, and is more at home within their own linguistic context. Publishing and translating works into another language has its costs. Literature also has to travel, and to put it simply, that takes time.
P. C.: It seems like we are always behind when it comes to modern horror writing in comparison to North American readers—interesting authors who are never translated, others who only come into Spanish decades later, anthologies we don’t find out about, etc. Is there anything we can do about this?
J. C.: I’m honored you think I might have the answer to this (laughs). I wish I did! If I knew what we could do about it, I probably would try to make it so that the situation wasn’t like this in the first place. The only thing I can do as a translator is plead with editors, try to persuade and/or trick them into publishing what I’d like to translate. But obviously, that almost never works.
P. C.: It will always be unfair that Lovecraft died in poverty without having the slightest idea of the success he would possess now. How did that happen? It’s truly infuriating and heartbreaking.
J. C.: It’s really sad, but I always try to reconcile it to myself by thinking of it as the destiny of the genius and the visionary. William Blake also died with nothing to his name, unappreciated by almost everyone apart from a handful of young writers, convinced he had been a failure in the world. If someone is out of step with their time, perhaps it’s because their reality belongs to the future. It will be the generations to come who will understand them. I’ll admit it’s a romanticized view of things, but in Lovecraft’s case, it’s how I see it.
P. C.: The list of American and English authors who have been influenced by Lovecraft is long and renowned: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Peter Straub, etc. Which Spanish-language authors would you consider to have been the most influenced by the dark prince of Providence?
J. C.: This question is extremely difficult to answer. And depending on what I say, it’s possible someone might be upset if they aren’t mentioned. I think it’s better to not respond.
P. C.: That Roman numeral “I” in the title of Escribir contra los hombres implies the existence of a second volume in the future. Is it correct to assume that we’ll have more of Lovecraft’s letters in Spanish? Can you share anything more with us right now?
J. C.: If everything goes according to plan, Cartas II: Diario de sueños, about Lovecraft’s oneiric accounts in his correspondence, should come out in the first trimester of 2024 followed by a third volume about politics and philosophy in 2025.
P. C.: Besides Lovecraft’s letters, what other as-yet-unpublished material of his do we have left to read and discover in Spanish?
J. C.: Obviously his fiction has all been published. Some articles of his amateur journalism have also been published, although always in very small publications and with almost no impact. Lovecraft’s amateur journalism and some essays he never published during his lifetime, travel diaries, etc, are included in the five-volume collection, Collected Essays, published by Hippocampus. I’m sure the majority of those texts have not yet been published in Spanish, although it’s true that not all of that material is as interesting. Regarding his letters, even once the three volumes from Aristas Martínez are published, 95% of Lovecraft’s correspondence will still be unpublished in Spanish.
P. C.: You just translated The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long, also for Aristas Martínez. Are there any plans in the works for a new translation of another one of the writers in the Lovecraft Circle?
J. C.: I’d love nothing more! I would be happy if I could translate something more from his circle. The main issue is that the publisher Valdemar was very thorough when they set out to publish all of those writers in Spanish. But, of course, if I find something viable, I’ll definitely pursue it.
P. C.: What are your favorite stories by Lovecraft?
J. C.: This is my favorite question of all! I’ll give you my Top Five since I’ve spent so many hours of my life thinking about it: “The Shadow Out of Time,” “At The Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Dreams in the Witch House” (yes, I know everyone hates this one, but I think it’s fascinating), and “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
Translated by Kathleen Meredith