Joanna Russ may have been the first woman to write prose set in the Cthulhu Mythos…but she was preceded by at least two female poets who tackled the Mythos as their subject, and while often neglected, their work stands among the first verse contributions to the burgeoning Mythos.
Shadow Over Innsmouthby Virginia Anderson(Dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft by Nanek)We have forgotten some of mankind’s ways:The art of dying, or say … Meroy’s gift.So when age grows upon us and our daysBy span of man are numbered, the seas riftAnd take us in. Then in the rites of oldWe pledge allegiance where the strange pale goldOf obscene Gods dispense eternal lifeWherein to glory, savour and renew. …Free from the world’s alarms and strifeIn ocean palaces of colalous hue,Shedding the shape of man and doubling backIn form at least on evolution’s track.
Virginia Combs came of age in the small town of Crandon, Wisconsin during the tale end of the Great Depression; bought her first pulp magazine (Planet Stories) in 1938 or ’39, and soon was a prolific writer of fan-letters to several pulp magazines, most especially The Spider. She took the pen-name “Nanek,” borrowing the term from the Sikh religion of the Spider’s associate Ram Singh (Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, the name was sometimes rendered in English as “Nanek”). Her correspondents included Norvell Page, A. Merritt, Isaac Aasimov, and Hannes Bok. At a time when fandom was primarily male, she stood out; Page even wrote her into the Spider series as “Jinnie Combs” in “Volunteer Corpse Brigade” (The Spider Nov 1941). In 1942, she married and became Virginia Anderson—but to her pulp friends and fandom, she was always Nanek.
I guess it never occurred to me that there were things you didn’t do because you were male or female.
— Virginia Anderson, XENOPHILE #40 (5)
The pulps and fandom were not just an escape, but an outlet for her creative energies—she wrote poems based on the works of the pulp authors she admired, which were published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and fanzines. In 1942, Francis T. Laney, a prominent member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society wrote, asking for a poem for his fanzine The Acolyte, which was mainly dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft. Nanek responded with “Shadow Over Innsmouth” which appeared in the second issue (Winter 1942).
“Shadow Over Innsmouth” is an homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (WT Apr 1936), but where Lovecraft focuses on the human character discovering (and eventually embracing) their Deep One heritage, Nanek gives us the alien perspective of someone who has already completed the transition. Rather than simply revisit Lovecraft’s tale, she moves beyond it, taking her cue from Lovecraft’s final line “[…] in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”
The tone of the poem is one of escapism—though not within an element of horror, involving as it does rites of allegiance to “obscene Gods,” and the “doubling back […] along evolution’s track.” Immortality still has its price, physical and spiritual; to shed human constraint means to become something other than human. Contemporary readers might see in this foreshadows of posthumanism, but there is also an echo of Christian mythos here: “[…] our days By span of Man are numbered” is almost Biblical language, and as many Christians expect their souls to be taken into heaven, so to do “the seas rift And take us in.” This does not necessarily imply any blasphemous intent on Nanek’s part, but it does help to contrast the “life everlasting” beneath the waves to the “life everlasting” in Heaven—both involve leaving behind earthly life.
Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” was only reprinted once, in The Innsmouth Cycle (1998), the text is reproduced from that copy; “Meroy” and “colalous” are probably transcription errors (for “Mercy” and “coralous”), made when originally setting the type for The Acolyte. Given the obscurity of that ‘zine, it is unfortunate that Nanek’s poem did not receive wider distribution.
The Woods of Averoigne
(Inspired by the Clark Ashton Smith’s stories)
By Grace Stillman
Deep in the woods of Averoigne,
Goblin and satyr, loup-garou,
Devil and vampire hold their feasts:
Forces of wizardry imbue
Even the foliage of the oak;
Beeches and pines in drear decay
Uplift their bony branches wan
Under a sky of corpse-like gray.
Evil is there in Averoigne:
Evil I should not see at all;
Evil whose very presence seems
Holding me in curious thrall:
Knowing it well, my feet still grope
Nearer this force malign, withdrawn;
In dread, against my will I creep
Deep in the woods of Averoigne.
Grace Stillman is a cipher; “The Woods of Averoigne” is her only publication in Weird Tales, nor does she have credits in any other pulp index. The published letters of Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, etc. contain no reference to her or the poem, so we have no idea what they thought of it—but we know what inspired it.
Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne is a fictional medieval French province sometimes compared to James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme, and was one of his own original settings—much as the Miskatonic River valley and its towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport are “Lovecraft Country,” and Robert E. Howard had his stories of the Hyborian Age and Thurian Age. Averoigne was introduced to the readers of Weird Tales with “The End of the Story” (May 1930), and continued on with “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (Apr-May 1931), “The Maker of Gargoyles” (Aug 1932), “The Mandrakes” (Feb 1933), “The Beast of Averoigne” (May 1933), and “The Holiness of Azédarac” (Nov 1933). Her poem itself would appear in the same issue of Weird Tales as another of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne tales, “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (Jun 1934).
Stillman’s poem evokes the witch- and fiend-haunted forests of Averoigne, which form a common element in many of Smith’s tales. Plant life was one of Smith’s foci in life, and it shows in his fiction:
[…] the gnarled and immemorial wood possessed an ill-repute among the peasantry. Somewhere in this wood there was the ruinous and haunted Château des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb, within which the Sieur Hugh du Mainbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years. Of these, and their phantoms, there were grisly tales; and there were stories of loup-garous and goblins, of fays and devils and vampires that infested Averoigne.
(“A Rendezvous in Averoigne”)
Much of Stillman’s imagery is taken directly from Smith’s descriptions of the setting, right down to the types of trees he mentions in the stories. It is, like Nanek’s later piece, a derivative work that seeks to capture something of the essential idea and feel of the original, and succeeds not so much in the first few opening lines with their talk of familiar horrors, but for the fact that despite the dark legends of Averoigne people are still drawn there—as many readers, including Grace Stillman herself, were. Again, we see a writer who has struck at a point essential to the Mythos: the point of attraction, for lovers of the weird, to these terrible and remote regions, even though they are warned away from it. By entering these areas, the protagonist—and by extension the reader—cross a threshold, pass through a limnal space or boundary, break a taboo. What is more, the nameless narrator in Stillman’s poem knows that they are doing this, but are unable to help themselves, as something draws them deeper into the darkness.
As far as I can determine “The Woods of Averoigne” has never been republished. Like Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” it represents something of a lost start. Like many early contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, they failed to gain enough audience to influence subsequent writers and fans. They were a part of the movement that eventually exploded into the sprawling shared universe of the Mythos, but were largely overlooked and ignored. It isn’t enough to simply write something good, or even to have it published; if it is not referenced, reprinted, or revisited…it becomes forgotten, unless someone finally resurrects and remembers it.
With thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)