Ask Leeman: An Interview with the Creator of Ask Lovecraft

Dead Reckonings
10 min readDec 30, 2022

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By Alex Houstoun

Life occurs at hyperspeed online. Websites launch and fold within weeks or months and creative projects are abandoned shortly after they are announced. Jokes and humorous content have even shorter lives, maybe a literal fifteen minutes of relevance before they are discarded and relegated to the trash bin of Internet culture. It is a constant, ceaseless, churn through content. Creating something that may last, that may be unique, even for a brief while, is an ever demanding, and draining, process to say nothing of actually finding and building an audience.

And yet, that is just what the YouTube series Ask Lovecraft has accomplished. Started in June 2012 by Leeman Kessler, Ask Lovecraft is a series in which Kessler plays a mysteriously resurrected H. P. Lovecraft who spends his time fielding all types of ques​​ions as part of a video “advice” series. Over the course of a decade the show has grown and introduced new characters, bits, beats, and concepts, but at its core, the premise is simply Howard Phillips Lovecraft answers a question in the course of a two to five-minute video; that’s it. But that’s not it.

Ask Lovecraft, in and of itself, is not a joke although Lovecraft’s answers often are humorous — to say nothing of subsequent supporting characters such as evil twin P. H. Lovecraft. Rather, it provides a weird place of reflection in which Lovecraft, the fictional character, incorporates real aspects of his life and work while applying them to topics and subjects Lovecraft, the person, could never have addressed. There is a thoughtfulness, curiosity, and enthusiasm to Kessler’s Lovecraft that is both reflective of the better parts of the real Lovecraft and the amount of care and work Kessler has put into the series since launching it. On top of the work Kessler has invested in his character(s), he maintained a rigorous schedule of publishing new videos, consistently updating every week since launching, for a majority of those years three times a week.

In January of this year, Kessler announced that the regularly scheduled episodes of Ask Lovecraft would end in June — an honest decade from when the series began. He was kind enough to take some time from his demanding schedule — on top of multiple creative projects and parenting two small children, he serves as the mayor of Gambier, Ohio — to discuss his creative process, the legacy of Ask Lovecraft, and what the future may hold.

Alex Houstoun: I have seen, heard, and read Ask Lovecraft described as a Q&A show in which a resurrected H. P. Lovecraft answers questions from an unknown audience for unknown reasons. While this is accurate, I don’t think such a description really does justice to what the show is. Maybe it started there, but it certainly has a mythos of its own now . . . How did you describe Ask Lovecraft when first starting out in 2012 and how would you, looking back, describe the show’s evolution or transformation with the years?

Leeman Kessler: When I started Ask Lovecraft I was a huge fan of the comedy advice series My Brother My Brother and Me (and I remain one still), so as I was poking around for concepts, the idea of dispensing questionable advice as Lovecraft struck me as something that would be fun to try out. The Internet is filled with abandoned Leeman projects from Lies I Want to Tell My Children, Judging Creation, The Arkham Horror Book Club, and on and on. So when I began filming Ask Lovecraft my hope was to do it for a while, but I had it in the back of my head that it probably would likewise fall by the wayside when something else struck my fancy; and yet here we are ten years later and part of that longevity I think comes from my willingness to follow odd trains of thought and let the show change and mutate over time.

So much of that change happened gradually that it was only when I discovered I had a TV Tropes site that I realized just how many odd directions I had taken the show in over the years. Introducing new characters like PH, Sagan, Chaboi, and even hapless producer Leeman allowed me to play not only with different voices but allowed me to juxtapose those voices with each other and explore the combinations that allowed. Adding After Dark as a fun sister-program let me take the mask off and play in the weird fiction/art space in incredibly new and refreshing ways. The base description of the show still hasn’t really changed in ten years — it’s still a comedy advice series starring H. P. Lovecraft; but from doing musical episodes to playing games to interviewing talented artists and writers, I’ve allowed myself to revel in the sense of play and keep it interesting over the decade.

AH: Do you think some of the longevity of the project may have had to do with Lovecraft as a source material? His life and work does seem like it would allow one to indulge some odd trains of thought . . .

If I am not mistaken, your greater introduction to Lovecraft and his work came after you were cast to play him in a play, correct? I can only imagine what it must have been like to approach him first as, you know, an actual person and then dive deeper into his fiction, his life, his letters, etc.

LK: I came to Lovecraft late. I was aware of Cthulhu and mythos-ephemera thanks to the Illuminati card game, The Real Ghostbusters, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and whatnot, but I was in my mid-twenties when I first started reading him and he was fine? I read At the Mountains of Madness and a couple of collections and I got why folks found him so inspiring, but I wasn’t deeply gripped. Then in 2010 my friend Stephen Near asked me to play Lovecraft in a short piece he had written about Lovecraft’s brief marriage to Sonia Greene. That play was expanded in 2011 and I reprised the role and I found both productions so inspiring that the following summer I picked up my flip cam and began filming.

I had done some research for Monstrous Invisible but depended heavily on the work Stephen had done. His writing captured the complexity and humanity of Lovecraft and it was a very useful jumping off point. At the start of Ask Lovecraft, my caricature of the man was more stylized and based on his writings. If you go back and watch those episodes, they are darker and meaner and more intense. It wasn’t until an afternoon when I visited the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection and began reading through their copy of Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth that I realized just how little I really knew of the man. In those letters I found his sense of humor, his self-deprecation, and idiosyncrasies which have gone a long way to inform my portrayal of him over the years.

I do think there is a big difference between approaching Lovecraft as an actor and as a reader or fan. It helps me to be able to wrestle some of the more difficult aspects of his life and his legacy. I get asked quite a bit how I can be comfortable portraying a white supremacist and it’s something I’ve asked myself and written and talked publicly about at great length but ultimately, approaching Lovecraft as a character really helps in terms of thinking of him as a whole person. No one asks why someone might want to portray Iago or Macbeth or any other stage villain; we get that playing and exploring complicated characters is part of the appeal of acting. When it comes to historical figures, things get trickier, but I think the same motivations apply. I come not to praise Lovecraft but to portray him or something like it. While I recognize that my version of him is not a perfect facsimile — you never go full Lovecraft — this homunculus that I’ve crafted allows me to explore the contradictions and humanity of this literary figure and my hope is that in so doing, I enrich people’s understanding of his life and his work.

. . .

AH: Your original update schedule was impressive and I cannot imagine how demanding it must have been creatively — to say nothing of the sheer amount of time spent shooting, editing, uploading, and such — I cannot believe you were creating so much until 2019!

I must say I find it peculiar that you have described so much of this show as a following of, or indulging in, whims. I would be hard pressed to name any of my own whims that have resulted in a multi-day project let alone something spanning a decade. At the start of this year you announced that you would be retiring Ask Lovecraft in June, explaining, in addition to the demands of parenthood and your work in local politics, that you felt you had found “the limits of my niche.” Would you mind elaborating on what it meant to find these limits? Did you feel that you no longer had whims to indulge or that the premise, characters, and world of Ask Lovecraft was reaching a creative limit?

LK: There’s an economic calculation of input to output that needs acknowledging in projects like this. I designed Ask Lovecraft to have a fairly low input knowing my own mental and creative limits. When I started in 2012, I was not a parent or in local politics, but I was working full time at a bookstore and was engaged in various theatrical endeavors, so if I was going to add something new it couldn’t be too taxing or my natural instinct to shelve the project and move on would be triggered. What I came up with was a system that was low-impact in its own distinct pieces but taken as a whole and looking back was an immense expenditure of time and energy.

Here’s how my week broke down: Saturday night I’d go through my emails looking for a question not too similar to one I had recently answered or was sent in by a viewer whose question I had recently answered. I’d bounce the question in my head as I went to bed, making sure I could hit one or two interesting beats. Sunday morning I’d get up and continue working through those beats in my head in the shower until I had something solid enough to put in front of the camera. At some point, I’d suit up and get the camera out. In the early days I had a bedsheet I’d tape up to the wall and getting that monster to cooperate took up most of my emotional energy. Eventually I realized I could film in front of a bookshelf and that required a lot less work and looked much better.

Barring special episodes with multiple characters or locations, I filmed in one shot from start to finish based on the beats I had worked out in my head but really improvising. If I flubbed, I started over, and so it could take anywhere from one to dozens of takes depending on the complexity of the answer. A big part of sticking to one take was to keep from having to do a lot of editing. I recognized that I was much more willing to just film take after take after take than I was to sit hunched in front of iMovie stitching together the perfect episode. Once I had something I could live with, I “edited,” which largely meant snipping off the beginning and end and making sure my fly wasn’t open or my dog had wandered onto the set. I’d upload it to YouTube and set it to go public after midnight and then Monday I’d start sharing it on various social media pages. Monday evening, I’d go looking through emails and the cycle would continue with filming, editing, and uploading on Tuesday and Thursday and brainstorming on Wednesday and the following Saturday. Friday to Saturday evening was my mental break from the show.

That was my schedule for seven years with occasional breaks and vacations covered by filming a buffer ahead of time (which I foolishly never did during the regular run for reasons I leave to the imagination of your reader) or by filming live shows and splitting them up to cover the time. As I got more involved in my community and we added a new kid, I began to debate if I could keep it up and if I should hang things up or try to keep going. I had seen my number of subscribers plateau and while I was very appreciative of the folks who supported my Patreon and came out to my live shows, the rate of return for the energy and time I was pumping in was starting to diminish. This was also after I had added to my load by introducing Ask Lovecraft After Dark back in 2018 with my very first interview being with a certain brash lad by the name of Alex Houstoun. Given all these changes, by September of 2019 I announced that I would be going down to one episode a week, which gave me the breathing room I needed to continue doing the show for another three years. Given how 2020 went down, I’d say the timing was more than fortuitous.

Another fortunate timing was going on TikTok last year. I found that I enjoyed the format and the community of that app and was having a good time filming whatever came into my head from politics to Lovecraft to moss. Then in December I made a video about how I was winding down Ask Lovecraft and all the complex feelings I had about it and the very next video I filmed (on a whim) has gone on to have millions of views, prompted multiple media interviews and stories about my Always Has Been compendium of weird Ohio lore and suggested just what my post–Ask Lovecraft creative world might look like. That I named my account MayorLovecraft suggests that I’m not quite done with the old gentleman, but regardless it has been and continues to be a complete whirlwind and I’m both excited and nervous about where it will go.

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The full piece is only available in Dead Reckonings no. 32.

Alex Houstoun is a co-editor of Dead Reckonings. He has self-published Copyright Questions and the Stories of H. P. Lovecraft, available by contacting him at deadreckoningsjournal@gmail.com.

Leeman Kessler grew up in Nigeria and has lived in Canada, England, and currently in the United States where he is a podcaster, actor, and the creator of the web-series Ask Lovecraft. He has performed for TIFF, Toronto Fringe, the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, Providence’s FOO Fest, NecronomiCon, HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, and many more.

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