The next January gossips were mildly interested in the fact that “Lavinny’s black brat” had commenced to talk, and at the age of only eleven months.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
In many ways a spiritual precursor to “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” is one of Stanley C. Sargent’s most reprinted stories—and one of his most radical. It is a story which emerged from many of the ideas of Lovecraft scholarship at the time of its writing: Donald Burleson’s characterization of the Whateley twins fulfilling Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as detailed in Disturbing The Universe (1990); the tracing of autobiographical elements from Lovecraft’s life in “The Dunwich Horror” which Sargent would later expand on in the essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002).
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” is a deliberate subversion of Lovecraft’s original narrative, a sort of critical reading re-cast as fiction, a different point of view where the real antagonist of the original story is not Wilbur Whateley. It is the kind of story that reflects the reality of biographical research, where scholars have to sift through different anecdotes and memoirs, trying to reconcile contradictory accounts and arrive at the truth—and the same game can be played by fans of the Mythos, as they attempt to reconcile different stories written by different authors, to arrive at some coherent understanding of the shared artificial mythology.
Part of the story is thus a very deliberate attempt to confirm certain long-held fan-theories, even while recasting the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. For example:
“Did Wilbur explain how Lavinia had a child by this non-material being?” Jeffrey asked.
Gavin chuckled. “I’d of thought you boys would be smart enough to figure that one out for yourselves! Seems self-evident to me that Wizard Whateley allowed himself to be possessed for an incestuous encounter with his daughter. You’ve read Armitage’s account, don’t you recall that Curtis Whateley described the giant face on top of the monster as being the unmistakable likeness to Wizard Whateley?
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 54
This was probably the inspiration for the scene regarding the conception of the Whateley twins in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ graphic novel Providence.
While writers like Sargent & LaValle have played free with the interpretation of events and characters in Lovecraft’s stories, they have still largely bound themselves to the general sequence of those events and their outcomes—so in “The Black Brat of Dunwich” Lavinia Whateley still gets shut out from her pagan celebrations on Sentinel Hill, and still comes to the same end, just as in “The Dunwich Horror.” The difference in Sargent’s recension is the more sympathetic take on her as a character, showing her as more simple-minded than Lovecraft had and with Wilbur showing real affection for his mother, and going into more detail about her inevitable death.
Inadvertently, this treatment of Lavinia Whateley as a lonely, uneducated woman who is the mere pawn of the men in her life gives her even less agency as a character, but that is a common issue with many re-tellings of “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s narrative doesn’t provide much of a role for Lavinia beyond mother and victim, and any narrative that sticks close to the events of that story will have trouble expanding her story much beyond that. The death of Lavinia becomes not an ominous mystery, but a tragedy unfolding.
One open question left by the story involves a particular scene which blurs the line between homosocial and homosexual. The narrator is aware that Wilbur Whateley is self-conscious of his appearance, and:
“I tried to get him over it, show him it didn’t matter to me. I even kept talking to him on a couple occasions to keep him in the room while I took a bath, figuring he’d eventually loosen up, seeing as how I was no Adonis myself, but it didn’t work. He just sat there staring at me all over, like he was studying me as an example of how folks are supposed to look. I just wanted him to accept himself for who he was and stop worrying about what anyone else thought.” He stared directly at James. “You’d best get that disgusted look off your face damn quick, young man, or I’m done talking.”
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 50
Keeping in mind that while appearing full-grown, Wilbur Whateley was only about six years old in this scene, which makes this feel more than a little like indecent exposure, and recalls some of the problematic issues with “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff. The whole tone of Sargent’s appeal likely echoes strongly with those who have had difficulties coming to grips with either their sexuality or body image, with it being remembered that Stanley C. Sargent put forth one of the most elegant arguments for why Lovecraft may have been a closeted homosexual in an interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998). Wilbur, like Lovecraft, is presented in this story as an outsider.
It is perhaps appropriate then that Sargent dedicated this story to his friend Wilum H. Pugmire, a Mythos author who also identified with the Outsider—but had embraced that identity and relished it.
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” was first published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association mailing #97 and Cthulhu Codex #10 (1997); it has subsequently been reprinted many times, in The Ancient Track (Oct 1998), The Taint of Lovecraft (2002), The Black Book #2 (2002), Tales Out of Dunwich (2005), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), and A Mountain Walked (2014).