I’ve just ghost-written a tale for a client in a fashion amounting virtually to original composition—about a waxwork museum or chamber of horrors where there is a rumour that not all of the fabulous monsters displayed are artificial. I’ve included Tsathoggua among the blasphemies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Oct 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 394
After the successful sale of “The Man of Stone” (1932), Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft pursued further “revisions”—which, as with his client Zealia Bishop, critics and biographers assume amounted to Lovecraft writing the story based on an idea or synopsis provided by Heald. This is certainly the case as far as Lovecraft was willing to discuss it in his letters:
Yes—the waxwork museum story is mostly my own; entirely so in wording, & also so far as concerns the background of Alaskan archaeology & antique horror. You will find Tsathoggua mentioned.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Jun 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 420
The Horror in the Museum—a piece which I “ghost-wrote” for a client from a synopsis so poor that I well-nigh discarded it—is virtually my own work. Glad you found it entertaining. There will be two more Heald tales equally dependent on my pen.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard Ely Morse, 28 Jul 1933, Selected Letters 4.229
There is not much to gainsay this. Other pulpsters of the period noted Lovecraft’s style without needing to be told. Heald herself does not comment on the writing of the story in any surviving letter, but she did note in a much later letter to August Derleth:
He was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. For example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times before he was completely satisfied!
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937
This would appear to jive with a comment on collaboration or revision work that Lovecraft made to another correspondent:
These alleged authors are pretty easy to handle—discard their dope little by little & substitute your own, & in the end they not only swallow it but honestly believe they wrote it themselves! Thus some of my revision clients congratulate themselves when the readers of Weird Tales praise stories (like “The Late Test”, “The Curse of Yig”, “The Horror in the Museum”, “Winged Death”, &c.) that I wrote.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 28 Mar 1934, Letters to James F. Morton 350
So the possibility remains that the revision process for this story could have been a bit more involved than Lovecraft simply writing the tale from scratch based on a mostly-discarded synopsis. Presumably, the business arrangement was identical to that of Lovecraft’s other client: Heald would have paid a fixed sum for the work, and then tried to sell it to the pulp magazines for whatever she could get. None of their correspondence survives to give greater insight into this aspect of their dealings or the composition of their stories.
The idea of a waxwork museum and its chamber of horrors goes back to the 19th century, with Madame Toussads in London being the archetype and inspiration for a number of other such galleries, and the horror stories and comics eventually created in tribute to them. It is notable that the same year “The Horror in the Museum” was released, the horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, once thought lost), hit theaters. Lovecraft recalled:
Haven’t done much cinema-viewing, but I did drop in to see that “Wax Museum” thing—especially since I had revised (in fact, virtually ghost-written) a tale on a similar theme for a client. (you’ll see it in the current W.T.) As a story, the film was of course childishly cheap—but it did have some effective horror-touches—especially when the mask falls off & reveals the monstrosity beneath.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Jul 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 67
This puts the Heald/Lovecraft story in a small but distinct media-spanning horror tradition, one which includes the 1953 and 2005 House of Wax films, Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), and “Vandoom, The Man Who Made A Creature” (Tales to Astonish #17, 1961, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers), as well as pulp stories such as Robert Bloch’s “Waxworks” (1939). The wax museum with its simulacra and tradition of a chamber of horrors offers a ready-made setting for a number of simple plots, perhaps the simplest and most realistic of which involves actual human remains incorporated into one or more of the figures—an idea with its parallels in real life—and thematically linked to “Pickman’s Model,” where the horrors are taken from life.
But this is an H. P. Lovecraft story, and that rather simple premise served as the bare beginnings for yet another tale of cosmic horror. As with “The Mound,” the opportunity was presented to add a major chapter to the nascent Mythos, trying together not only some of Lovecraft’s fiction; writers such as August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard all noted their own creations (the Tcho-Tcho, Book of Eibon, and the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, respectively) mentioned, and it introduced a new entity, Rhan-Tegoth, who would go on to feature in stories by later writers.
What did Hazel Heald make of it? We don’t have her account, although the fact that it sold (and that she didn’t have to sue Weird Tales to get the money) must have been gratifying. So too, the readers of Weird Tales were enthusiastic; one wrote:
A Bouquet for Mrs. Heald
Bernard J. Kenton, of Cleveland, writes: “How can any discriminating reader find merit in other fantasy magazines when Weird Tales adds a new Poe to its columns every month or so? Of the recent writers, Hazel Heald strikes my fancy most, for whenever did anything so strikingly horrible as ‘The Horror in the Museum’ appear in print? Even Lovecraft—as powerful and artistic as he is with macabre suggestiveness—could hardly, I suspect, have surpassed the grotesque scene in which the other-dimensional shambler leaps out upon the hero.
—Weird Tales “The Eyrie” May 1934
The response which most sticks out, however, was another entry in ‘The Eyrie’:
“H. P. Lovecraft’s tale of witchcraft and the elder gods, The Dreams in the Witch-House, was superb; while not far behind was Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum—a particularly exceptional tale for a woman to write, in that she built up the horror sequence as few women writers have ever been capable of doing.
—Weird Tales “The Eyrie” Sep 1933
Weird Tales was perhaps better than other science fiction and fantasy pulps of its day with regards to women writers (such as Greye La Spina and C. L. Moore), poets (including Alice I’Anson and Grace Stillman), fans (notably Gertrude Hemcken and a young Margaret St. Clair), and artists (Margaret Brundage being a particular favorite), but a degree of sexism still existed in the pages of the magazine. To us today, with women authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Nancy Collins, who grew up reading Shirley Jackson and Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) it seems strange to imagine “few women” capable of writing a horror sequence. Even in the 1930s, readers of horror would probably have recognized Lady Cynthia Asquith and Edith Nesbit.
So, an odd comment. Perhaps Heald reconciled herself with the satisfaction that the story was popular enough to be reprinted in the “Not at Night” anthology Terror by Night (1934), and again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937). If she was wise enough to only sell Weird Tales first American serial rights, these reprints may even have netted her some profit—although there is evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that, like Zealia Bishop, Heald had fallen behind on paying for revision services and ended up typing “The Thing on the Doorstep” for Lovecraft in lieu of part of the debt.
Whatever the exact nature of their business arrangements, they were apparently satisfactory enough that three more “revisions” would issue from Lovecraft’s pen, under Hazel Heald’s name.
“The Horror in the Museum” may be read for free online here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).