ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.
In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress if Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England HIstoric Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s press CLub, Mrs. BIshop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.
In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)
In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”
Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:
There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.
Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.
Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 257-258
Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:
I just fixed a weird story for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude 1.137
Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 181
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222
For decades, much of the Lovecraft-Bishop correspondence were not available, but in 2015 the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society published The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, which includes many never-before-seen letters. In particular, we find that Zealia sent Lovecraft a synopsis around February 1928:
Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!
In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]
Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108
The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:
Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)
From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.
While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:
Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had a snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]
As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112
Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:
Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)
Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”
One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:
Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)
Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.
Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.
While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.
Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:
I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 258
“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:
By the same token, don’t for your life mention that I wrote “Yig”, “Electric Executioner”, “Horror in Museum”, &c.! One must never give away a client.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome 87
The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:
In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.
Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:
By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.132
I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.148
Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.
Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.