“The Leapers” (1942) by Carol Grey

“Carol Grey” was a pseudonym used by writer and editor Robert A. W. Lowndes for two stories, both initially published in the same pulp magazine: “Passage to Sharanee” (FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, April 1942) and “The Leapers” (FUTURE Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1942). Why Lowndes chose this pseudonym is not, to the best of my knowledge, ever explained. While Sally Theobald and Justine Geoffrey were obvious literary references and made sense within the context of their respective stories, and Linda Lovecraft a persona adopted to fit an anthology, “Carol Grey” appears to have been a purely pragmatic pen-name: Lowndes also edited FUTURE, and did not want to appear cheap or biased in publishing his own fiction under his own name.

In any event, Lowndes got a taste of what it might be like as a female pulp writer from at least one ardent science fiction fan, Earl Andrews, whose letter was published in FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, August 1942) in response to “Passage to Sharanee”:

Ah, Carol Grey! Ah, spring! Ah! Prithee, my Lord Editor: wiltow kindly vouchsafe unto a fellow Lothario certain divers information. Tell me now of yon Carol. Doth she walk in beauty and so on? ((My dear fellow. !!! Ed.))

Lowndes’ reply is perhaps understandable given the circumstances:

This is going to hurt you more than it hurts us, Earl, my lad, but we’re under strict orders not to reveal Miss Grey’s address, or divulge any divers information about her. And we cannot see any reason for not adhering faithfully to those instructions.

Elsewhere in the same magazine, Lowndes had to assure a reader that Carol Grey was “not Helen Weinbaum or Leigh Brackett,” two actual female sci-fi pulp writers of the 40s.

There is no direct connection between the two “Carol Grey” stories; “Passage to Sharanee” is a space opera novelette concerning a missing jewel and an ancient shapeshifting alien called a vombis (no apparent connection to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). “The Leapers” by contrast is a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, albeit very much of the science-fantasy varietal. It is tied by references to several other pieces of Lovecraftian fiction written and published by Lowndes, beginning with “The Abyss” (Stirring Science Stories, February 1941) in what might be loosely called “The Arkya Cycle” or “The Song of Yste” series, after the most characteristic elements of Lowndes’ additions to the Mythos.

In the early 1940s while editing FUTURE, Lowndes was a member of a New York-based group of science fiction fans and writers called the Futurians; many of their works were tapped by Lowndes for this and other pulps he edited. Another Futurian, Damon Knight, later wrote a book on their activities, which includes the genesis of Lowndes’ “The Leaper”:

Lowndes told me, “There was a Cabal⁠—Donald [Wollheim], Cyril [Kornbluth], John [B. Michel], Chet Cohen and myself. We met once a week. The Cabal was a literary wrokshop, really. We met at Cyril’s place once a week, and each one of us was supposed to bring a manuscript to read. […] And as it turned out,” Lowndes said, “a fair number of manuscrupts that were read at the Cabal were later sold and published. […] It was at a Cabal meeting that my story, ‘The Leapers,’ was read, and the only compliment I remember ever getting from Cyril Kornbluth—he read it, he sort of blinked and shook his head, and said, ‘It’s absorbing.'”
—Damon Knight, The Futurians

Lowndes himself would expand on this a little in his introduction to the story when it was reprinted in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (Candlemas 1989):

One day when Don was visiting John [B. Michel] and me at the Futurian Embassy (103rd Street, Manhattan) he sayeth unto me: “Doc, do you think you could write a Lovecraft story? I’d like one for my next issue.”

I thought I could and behold I did, getting leave of absence from The Cabal not to write anything else until I had finished “The Leapers.” I shall never forget the night when the ms was passed around and read at a Cabal meeting. Cyril was the last to get it; when he finished he blinked, shook his head slightly as if to wake himself up, and said in an awed tone: “It’s absorbing.” That was the one and only time that Cyril Kornbluth had any kind words for any of my fiction. And since it had been written for Don Wollheim in the first place, there was no question of immediate acceptance.

Alas! It would have led off the fantasy section of the issue following the March 1942 Stirring Science Stories; but that issue never appeared.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Lowndes and Wollheim would both use Futurian stories in their respective magazines, and there are little in-jokes almost from the start. For example, when Lowndes writes in “The Leapers”:

One of the missing, for example, was an attractive blonde of 23, widely renowned among the devotees of the more imaginative and speculative of pulp fiction as an illustrator; another, a man of 27, was in the process of becoming a favorite in the field of fantastic, cosmic horror-fiction, the general type of narrative wherein Poe, Machen, and Lovecraft specialized.

Illustrator Barbara Hall, who Knight describes as “a good-looking blond woman” associated with Wollheim is obviously the former; Wollheim himself (born in 1914, so 27 in ’41 when the story was probably written) is almost certainly the latter.

In format, “The Leapers” owes much to an older style of horror fiction, large chunks of the text being supposed clippings from newspapers regarding Fortean phenomenon, assembled by the nameless narrator as they seek to piece together the puzzle of a very odd missing persons case. This leads them shortly to the Song of Yste, Lowndes’ own addition to the Lovecraftian library, and which first appeared in “The Abyss.” In a later reprinting of the story, Lowndes would note:

While written as a “Lovecraft story”, even the earlier version contained one fundamental departure from HPL—a matter about which your editor and The Master had argued back in 1936, shortly before he died: that reading “Forbidden Books”, etc. had to bring about dreadful and horrible events, and that such knowledge leads invariably to destruction. While we would not quarrel, even now, with Lovecraft’s statements that reading the Necronomicon would be the beginning of a Frightful End for you, we do assure you that, for a strong mind, the Song Of Yste need not be fatal—unless you’re bored to death.
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Magazine of Horror #23 (Vol. 4, No. 5), Sep 1968

Lovecraft and Lowndes had corresponded during the last year or so of Lovecraft’s life, while Lovecraft’s ideas appear to be based strongly on The King in Yellow play as used by Robert W. Chambers, “The Leapers” appears to be Lowndes counter-reaction to that, with lengthy passages of exposition about the reading of forbidden books and why they are forbidden. This was still that first generation of fandom where random literary arguments could be worked out in print on pulpwood paper, and Lowndes even alludes to this correspondence directly in the story:

I had, in fact, read a few of the tales of classic horror, written some more or less precocious speculations regarding them, and written a letter or so to a muchly-famed student residing in Providence, Rhode Island. he it was who had been the source of what little knowledge I possessed, and I had permitted my correspondence with him to lag; now, I could not be sure if he were still available at the old address.

The posthumous unnamed Lovecraft then makes an appearance via letter, with Lowndes doing a fair imitation of his style. Futurians such as Donald Wollheim, who had also corresponded with Lovecraft, would have recognized this immediately; whether the pulp readers of FUTURE picked up on it is less certain.

In the 1960s, Lowndes became editor of The Magazine of Horror, a small digest that focused mainly on classic and pulp reprints put out by Health Knowledge, Inc. The magazine gave him the opportunity to expand and republish some of his earlier works, including “The Abyss” (Winter 1965/66) and “The Leapers” (September 1968), this time under his own name. He later recalled:

It was while working at Health Knowledge that I had occasion to reread “The Leapers,” and found myself unsatisfied. So I rewrote and expanded it, making it a frame story.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Part of this general expansion includes a sort of preface, identifying the narrator as Arnold Grayson, and that it had originally been sent to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales (who had died in 1940, two years before the story was initially published, a fact which Lowndes notes).

The other major addition is an expansion from the pseudo-Lovecraft letter, which goes to some odd places:

Well, I have a letter from Hannes [Bok] dated 1939, in which he tells me that Ray Bradbury is going to show some samples of his work to Farnsworth Wright at WEIRD TALES. I replied that I did hope that Wright would be impressed, for as delectable as Mrs. Brundage’s covers were to the more erotic-minded readers, few of them were truly weird. (I assure you that I have never objected to well-exposed depictions of delightful-looking young girls—but maintain stubbornly that a girl cannot be both delightful-looking and weird at the same time.)

Lovecraft died in ’37, Bok’s first art for Weird Tales was ’39, Wright died in ’40, the events of the story nominally take place in ’42…the timeline is a little screwy, but Lowndes mentions that in the preface. The comment on Brundage’s art is interesting because it recalls a similar comment made by Lovecraft in an actual letter:

I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 16 Sep 1936, Selected Letters 5.304

Which raises an interesting problem: volume 5 of the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft was published in 1976, the revised edition of “The Leapers” was published in The Magazine of Horror in 1968. So did Lowndes have access to this quote from Conover’s letters or…and this is a tantalizing possibility…did Lowndes cannibalize or paraphrase part of a letter that Lovecraft had sent to him? Until and unless Lovecraft’s letters to Lowndes are ever published, we may never know.

In any event, this second incarnation of “The Leapers” had one final evolution:

Few of the readers of the issue of Magazine of Horror had read the original version, and the revision went over quite well—except with one person who had read and remembered the original: Robert Silverberg. Silverberg wrote me a polite note, more in sorrow than in anger, and pointed out that my frame approach went far to spoil an excellent story. Thus I have revised the story for a third time and the final version, which follows, has (I hope) the best of both earlier versions.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Titled simply “Leapers” in Crypt of Cthulhu, the third-and-final revision starts by dropping the initial part of the “frame” mentioning Farnsworth Wright and Weird Tales. The added portion of the pseudo-Lovecraft letter remains, and at the end is tacked on an addendum containing the gist of the 1968 framing device, Wright and all. Whether this is actually better is a bit subjective—it gets at the story more directly, but the mention of Wright still feels problematic from a timeline point of view.

It’s difficult to judge the impact of Carol Grey and “The Leapers.” Even among devoted Mythos-fans, the Song of Yste is not exactly as popular as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or the Book of Eibon. Robert Weinberg and Ed Berglund in the Reader’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos (1973) have marked the story as “integral to the Cthulhu Mythos”—a distinction they don’t give to items such as “The Cats of Ulthar” or “The Colour Out of Space.” Certainly, the theme of forbidden knowledge begun in “The Leapers” was something that stuck with Lowndes, as he wrote later about his correspondence with Lovecraft:

So I finally wrote him that winter, and in the course of my first letter told him what had bothered me about At the Mountains of Madness, and some of the other stories: the discovery of the unknown always led to madness and destruction. couldn’t some unknown things possibly be beautiful, leading to greater happiness, etc.?

His reply was that such stories must have such an ending, because the universe was really a terrible place and only our relative ignorance and limitations made it endurable to us; to seek to go beyond those limitations, to find the real nature of things, would inevitably be shattering. it is only our illusions of order and relative safety that protect us from madness. (That is, of course, a paraphrase of what he wrote me.) The seence of horror lay in abnormalities, in violations of what we consider to be natural law, dislocations of time and space, etc. […]

And when I got around to trying my hand at the Lovecraft type of story, I stuck by my guns. Awful things happened to some of the characters, of course, but everyone who had read the forbidden books was not destroyed nor turned into a monster. And while I still love HPL, I cannot but look at him as something of a vandal, at times—all those precious and priceless copies of the Necronomicon burned!
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, “On Forbidden Knowledge” in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (56)

If there is anything to be said for the story, it is that it is almost a perfect encapsulation of Mythos fiction in the 1940s, with its odd pulpy plot and in-jokes, the convoluted history of reprints and revision. That first generation of post-Lovecraft fans, still coming to terms with Lovecraft and his philosophy.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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