R.I.P. Joe Pulver
I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Joe Pulver. Mike Davis, publisher of Lovecraft eZine, tweeted a link to a deeply moving Facebook update from Katrin Pulver, Joe’s wife, in which she had shared the news. Word of his passing has now circulated throughout the fairly close-knit community of horror readers, writers, and publishers. Joe was a singular presence in that community, and especially in the Lovecraftian end of it, where he earned a lasting name for himself as both an author and an editor with a distinct passion for Lovecraftian horror, the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers, and the work of Thomas Ligotti.
I never met him in person, but we did know each other online, and I did write the introduction to his 2012 fiction collection Portraits of Ruin. And in my infrequent contact with him, he always seemed like the gentlest of souls. Many other people have been sharing similar thoughts and impressions over the past 24 hours.
In retrospect, that intro for Portraits of Ruin feels kind of like my own personal tribute to Joe’s idiosyncratic authorial genius. With the permission of both him and Hippocampus Press, I published the full text of it here some years ago. Now seems like a good time to go back and revisit it.
I began the intro by saying this:
Plato once wrote, “But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” This is a sentence rich with, and in fact threaded and structured along, a succession of deeply striking and evocative phrases and images: “the door of poetry . . . the madness of the Muses . . . sane companions . . . utterly eclipsed . . . the inspired madman.” They’re like a collage of implied spiritual-artistic meaning, a chant whose very intonation is at least as important as, and probably more than, its conceptual content. In other words, they gesture toward something, some transcendent reality they can’t quite articulate. Or at least that’s the way I like to take them, regardless of dear old Plato’s intentions.
And this, I think — both my fixation on this quote, which is talismanic for me, and my preferred way of reading it — is one of the main reasons why I find Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin to be so deeply disquieting. Reading it, I begin to wonder, inadvertently, inexorably, about the name and nature of the particular door that he may have passed through in the pursuit of his art. I wonder about the identity of the particular Muse — dark, wild, daimonic — that may have maddened him. And wondering these things, I’m driven to doubt whether we, his sane companions, can ever really comprehend him, and I suspect that we must instead resign ourselves to having our understanding utterly eclipsed by the performances of this inspired madman.
And I ended it by saying this:
The final word can go to Joe himself. Back when he and I were communicating about the possibility of my writing this introduction, he told me, “I never know what to make of my stuff.”
This, above all, is what you might want to bear in mind as you turn the page and proceed to immerse yourself in what follows. The author himself does not know what to make of these writings. Neither do I. Nor, I daresay, will you. But the very attempt to do so, to “make something” of them — an interpretive activity that the work itself incites because of its native grippingness and stylistic brilliance (that surrealist’s flood of unconscious inspiration is channeled, mind you, through a finely honed and tuned set of conscious literary skills, just like [John] Cage’s pianistic training) — this very attempt at finding some sort of meaning is, in the end, the point. Because the meaning is really and truly there. You can sense it in every line and phrase, grinning darkly at you through the interstices of the words and images. It just happens to be a meaning that you can only “understand” by allowing it to speak to your own deep self, to your — dare I say it? — daimonic Muse.
So don’t ask what Joe is doing; that approach only closes it off. Instead, rely on the coherence of your deep self to understand the coherence of his. In learning to do this, to resonate with this book of impossible imaginings presented in improbable forms, you may well find that you’re being altered and enlightened in ways that are truly transformative.
After all, only an inspired madman can understand an inspired madman.“Horror, the Muse, and Inspired Madmen: My Full Introduction to Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin“
Between that intro and conclusion, I recounted and reflected on my unfolding experience of realizing that Joe’s book, which (like all of his work) is rich with bizarre and surreal imagery, language, and narrative contortions and disruptions, had basically taught me how to read itself. Engaging with those seemingly impenetrable stories in an attempt to figure out how best to introduce them to other readers generated a kind of readerly epiphany about the necessity of sometimes setting aside my rational, linear sense of comprehension, and simply surrendering to the midnight flow. I can’t imagine a more instructive or rewarding literary experience.
That’s how I’ll remember Joe. As a gentle soul and a valued colleague whose “inspired madman” literary voice and vision expanded my private horizon as a reader. I treasure that. And I remain grateful to him.