The “Elizabeth Berkeley” of “The Crawling Chaos” is Winifred Virginia Jackson—a now fairly well known poetess, formerly active in amateur journalism. The sketch (it is scarcely a story) is based on a curious dream of hers—which formed a sort of continuation of a previous dream of my own which I had related to her. I put the whole business in my own language, & tacked on a sort of aftermath in the Dunsanian style—for the thing dates from my most intensively Dunsanian period. It was my second & final collaboration with Miss Jackson, the first being “The Green Meadow” […] I took the title C. C. from my Nyarlathotep sketch (now repudiated) because I liked the sound of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 191
In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jordan was an active contributor to amateur journalism, and had been associated with H. P. Lovecraft in that regard for some years. Lovecraft published her “Song of the North Wind” in his own amateur journal, The Conservative (vol. I, no. IV, 1916); Lovecraft may have had a hand in revising this and subsequent poems of hers in his amateur journals.
In the following years they would share editorial duties on amateur journals, and struck up a correspondence which led to two prose collaborations: “The Green Meadow” (eventually published in The Vagrant, Spring 1927) and “The Crawling Chaos” (The United Co-operative, Apr 1921). Both used pseudonyms for these stories: Jordan was “Elizabeth Berkeley,” and Lovecraft was “Lewis Theobald, Jun.” Despite the pseudonyms, the writing team was apparently an open secret; Lovecraft’s friend Alfred Galpin identified them by name in a review of the story in The United Amateur (Nov 1921).
Lovecraft describes the process of their collaboration in some subsequent letters:
Of genuinely fantastic dreamers, I have discovered but one in amateurdom—this being Mrs. Jordan. I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jordanian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, & which I am some time going to weave into a horror story, as I did “The Green Meadow” dream of earlier state, which I think I once hewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mind did not extend o far. It was only when I had relate my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. […] The more recent Jordan dream is very vivid, but peters out miserably. I shall use it only as far the point where the narrator reaches the palm tree. The narrator will be a neurotic youth of the Roderick Usher type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 Nov 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 190
The enclosed fragment of a Jacksonian letter, written late 1918 or early 1919, is the nucleus of the story. As you will perceive, the whole bizarre setting comes from an actual dream of the poetess whilst in the clutches of influenza. This element of illness may account for much of the fantastic colouring, though in actual truth no drug was administered. I have, I think, mentioned before, that the genius of W> V. J. can produce hideous conceptions far outdoing any of mine, and remaining ineffective solely because of their creator’s singular helplessness in prose. […] I kept this dream outline a long time without utilising it—for being basically egotistical, I put mine own work first. Finally, last December, the authoress became impatient about it, so I threw the story together in a hurry. The colouring impressed me as opiate, so I supplies the dopy prologue. Then in analysing the nature of the dream, I found that the dominant points were a hellish pounding and an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Using these two latter “starters”, the denouement was fairly inevitable tome; so that although everything after the ninth line of page five in the printed version is my own, it is only broadly so; the impulse having been supplied by the original data. When I sent the finished story to W. V. J. I was amused by her idea that I must have actually seen the same supernal sights that he saw in the dream. Her overpowering imagination, conjoined to very scanty scientific attainments, makes her vaguely credulous of the supernatural and she cannot get rid of the notion that there may be an actual region o dream and vision which can be independently and objectively seen by different individuals. In this case she declared that I had described details of the strange interior, and of the architecture of the dream-house, which she had plainly noticed but had not described to me; which to her is proof that a common dream experience must underlie the work of both collaborators. […] frankly, I didn’t think the “Crawling Chaos” would going to make such a hit that anyone would notice it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 108-109
The influenza epidemic swept the globe during the final stages of the First World War in 1918. In 1919 Winifred was living and working in Boston, putting out her own amateur journal The Bonnet. She had married an African-American man, Horace Jordan, and in 1919 they were divorced; she resumed her maiden name of Jackson around 1920 or 1921. It was in this fertile period, 1919-1920, that Lovecraft and Jackson shared their dreams and wrote their collaboration—Lovecraft borrowing the title from his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (The United Amateur, Nov 1920) which begins “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…”
Wetzel & Everts claim in Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance that at this point Winifred V. Jackson was at this point already the mistress of the famed Black editor and poet William Stanley Braithwaite, they were involved in the foundation of the B. J. Brimmer Publishing Co. in 1921, which Jackson would buy when it went bankrupt in 1927. Braithwaite would publish several of her poems in his anthologies, which would also include poets from the Harlem Renaissance. Lovecraft himself was not aware of Braithwaite’s race until 1918, when he wrote a vituperative, racist diatribe upon discovering the influential editor Braithwaite had been awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (LRK 137-138). Despite this, in 1930 Lovecraft and Braithwaite apparently had a brief correspondence. Jackson herself may have been of mixed race; she was included among “Colored” writers in William Henry Harrison, Jr.’s Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History, and A Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks (1921).
It is an open question as to whether Lovecraft was aware of the details of Winifred’s personal life; he makes no mention of her marriage or any association with Braithwaite in his published letters or his essays “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion Apr 1919) or “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (The United Amateur Mar 1921), although he was, from the name change, apparently very aware of her change in marital status.
Everts & Wetzel record the rumor that Jackson and Lovecraft were romantically inclined, or at least perceived to be by amateur journalism, but there is little evidence for this. The collaborators continued to associate until 1921, after which they appear to have gone their separate ways, Lovecraft rarely referring to Jackson in his subsequent letters—according to Everts, Lovecraft’s wife Sonia H. Greene would claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”
The speculation of an personal relationship between Jackson and Lovecraft, especially given his racism and her interracial marriage, tends to draw attention away from “The Crawling Chaos” as a work of fiction. Despite the title, the work does not feature Nyarlathotep and has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s Mythos. In the context that Lovecraft gives for Jackson’s portion it is possible to see there an echo of the plague that swept the world in 1918:
Of the future I had no heed; to escape, whether by cure, unconsciousness, or death, was all that concerned me. I was partly delirious, so that it is hard to place the exact moment of transition, but I think the effect must have begun shortly before the pounding ceased to be painful. […] The sensation of falling, curiously dissociated from the idea of gravity or direction, was paramount; though there was a subsidiary impression of unseen throngs in incalculable profusion, throngs of infinitely diverse nature, but all more or less related to me. Sometimes it seemed less as though I were falling, than as though the universe or the ages were falling past me. Suddenly my pain ceased, and I began to associate the pounding with an external rather than internal force. The falling had ceased also, giving place to a sensation of uneasy, temporary rest; and when I listened closely, I fancied the pounding was that of the vast, inscrutable sea as its sinister, colossal breakers lacerated some desolate shore after a storm of titanic magnitude. Then I opened my eyes.
If there is an image from the dream-portion that stands out, however, it is this:
Almost at the limit of vision was a colossal palm tree which seemed to fascinate and beckon me.
Palm trees are not normal for Massachusetts. It is an artifact of the exotic and unreal, intruding on the familiar. The palm tree, as much as anything, says that the narrator is in a different place from the one they know. It is the kind of image that might occur in a fever dream, the out-of-place element excepted through dream-logic.
The origin of the story in a dream echoed Lovecraft’s other collaboration from this period, “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts, and several of Lovecraft’s own tales that had their origins in dreams and nightmares; they parallel his fascination with Dunsany’s dreamland in “Idle Days on the Yann.” It was a period when Lovecraft, in the throes of amateur journalism, was sharing his dreams with others and putting them into prose—and Winifred Virginia Jackson was one of those who shared their dreams with Lovecraft.
After her association with Lovecraft ended in 1921, Jackson continued to pursue her own writing and publishing, although this resulted in only two books: Backwoods; Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944).