Let me add that I got a comparable kick out of “Mother of Serpents”—whose Haitian atmosphere is convincing, & whose climax is magnificently clever, powerful, & unexpected.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 3 Dec 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 179
Voodoo—whether it be Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, rootwork, Obeah, or any other name for the syncretic practices derived from indigenous religions by African slaves in the New World—has an odd place in the Cthulhu Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft wrote very little about it; in all of his fiction, there are only two explicit references to voodoo of any sort:
[…] the one known scandal of my immediate forbears—the case of my cousin, young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls” (1924)
Voodoo orgies multiply in Hayti, and African outposts report ominous mutterings. […] The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting; and so singular and hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police could not but realise that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown to them, and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928)
The sect in “The Call of Cthulhu” turns out to not be connected with voodoo at all, but both references are extremely vague on the details. Much the same could be said of “Medusa’s Coil” (written 1930), which does not feature voodoo explicitly, but includes “wrinkled Sophonisba, the ancient Zulu witch-woman” who provides the connection between Africa and the American South.
The vagueness is perhaps as it should be: Lovecraft was fairly ignorant on the subject of voodoo, as were most in the United States in the early 20th century. Interest in Haitian Vodou increased during the long United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). This experience provided the inspiration and raw material for Arthur J. Burks and other future pulp writers to spin wild tales of curses, cannibals, and human sacrifice; writer William Seabrook lived in Haiti for a period and investigated it, his book The Magic Island (1929) and its account of zombies stirred the American imagination, with Weird Tales writers such as Seabury Quinn and August Derleth quickly borrowing his erudition for stories like “The Corpse Master” (Weird Tales July 1929) and “The House in the Magnolias” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror June 1932). For more on this line, see Zombies from the Pulps! (2014).
Lovecraft read The Magic Island in 1931, while visiting Rev. Henry S. Whitehead in Florida. (Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 195) Whitehead had spent summers in the U. S. Virgin Islands, which had been sold to the United States in 1917, and penned tales and articles for the pulps based on the stories of “Obi” and “Jumbees” he encountered.
After Lovecraft read The Magic Island, references to voodoo evaporate from his stories, although there are occasional references in his letters. Knowledge, in this case, may have killed the mystery that voodoo had for Lovecraft; there is no evidence he ever read Zora Neale Hurston or any other anthropologist on the subject, and there is a notable absence of reference to voodoo stories in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—which he had initially written and published before reading The Magic Island, but which remained without reference to African-American authors or voodoo tales as supernatural fiction even in the later revised and expanded versions.
There was always a racial element as well.
Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea &c. 45
Curious that your ghost ideas in youth excluded the Indian while including the negro. For my part, though, I can’t feel much weirdness in connexion with any but the white race—so that nigger voodoo stories very largely leave me cold.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Oct 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.231
The racial aspect has much to do with prevailing American attitudes about Haiti and black religion in general. Colonialist attitudes remained firmly in place in much of the United States, to the point where Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were shocked to hear of interracial marriages in the Virgin Islands from Whitehead. In reviewing August Derleth’s voodoo story “The House in the Magnolias,” Lovecraft wrote to his friend:
[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376
Which leads eventually to Robert Bloch’s “Mother of Serpents” (Weird Tales Dec 1936). Nothing much remains as to the genesis of this short story; there is no evidence that Lovecraft had a hand in it, or even saw it before publication. Far from Bloch’s mature work, this is a potboiler that goes for the jugular of Haitian racial and cultural stereotypes and never lets it go.
There were no happy blacks in Haiti then. They had known too much of torture and death; the carefree life of the West Indian neighbors was utterly alien to these slaves and descendants of slaves. A strange mixture of races flourished; fierce tribesmen from Ashanti, Damballah, and the Guinea Coast; sullen Caribs; dusky offspring of renegade Frenchmen; bastard admixtures of Spanish, Negro, and Indian blood. Sly, treacherous half-breeds and mulattos ruled the coast, but there were even worse dwellers in the hills behind.
—Robert Bloch, “Mother of Serpents”
Essentially a conte cruel with voodoo trappings and a supernatural denouement, much of the atmosphere of “Mother of Serpents” is built up in these broad strokes and fine details; Haiti is described as the epitome of racial tensions, black magic, and vice with all the care that Clark Ashton Smith would give to describing an island of necromancers in the far-flung future of Zothique. The description is half-erudite; it’s clear that Bloch was using Seabrook or some other sources for a few of the basic facts on Haiti (such as the legend that Henri Christophe committed suicide with a silver bullet), but it is equally obvious that he was inventing little horrible details left and right. Every character is a stereotype, and there are no heroes. The voodoo-inflected president—keeping in mind this was nearly two decades before the reign of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier—is (literally) a bastard, a criminal, a “black Machiavelli” who enriches himself at the expense of the country…and what is worse in his mother’s eyes, he sullies his black heritage by marrying a mixed-race woman.
Trying to unpack all the racial insinuations in this short story would take longer than the story itself, and wouldn’t achieve much. How much of this claptrap Bloch actually believed is debatable; it’s pure pulp pandering. The Mythos connection is a slim one:
The Snake-God is the real deity of the obeah cults. The blacks worshipped the Serpent in Dahomey and Senegal from time immemorial. They venerate the reptiles in a curious way, and there is some obscure linkage between the Snake and the crescent moon. Curious, isn’t it—this serpent superstition? The garden of Eden had its tempter, and the Bible tells of Moses and his staff of snakes. The Egyptians revered Set, and the ancient Hindoos had a cobra god. It seems to be general throughout the world—the kindred hatred and reverence of serpents. Always they seem to be worshipped as creatures of evil. Our own American Indians believed in Yig, and Aztec myths follow the pattern.
—Robert Bloch, “Mother of Serpents”
Damballah (in different spellings) is one of the principal loa in Haitian Vodou, and is depicted as a snake. The Egyptian god Set (Seth, Setekh, etc.) is not depicted as a serpent; possibly Bloch was making an error and remembering Robert E. Howard’s Stygian snake-deity Set from the Conan tales; although Bloch did not like Conan. Yig was the creation of H. P. Lovecraft, and appeared in “The Curse of Yig” (1929) and “The Mound” (1940), published as by Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; Lovecraft might have sent Bloch the manuscript for the latter, or perhaps Bloch was only referencing “The Curse of Yig.” In any event, the inclusion of Yig among the snake-deities must have been Bloch’s tip of the hat to Lovecraft.
“Mother of Serpents” barely qualifies as a Mythos tale. Despite being reprinted a number of times, it has not been included in any of the collections of Bloch’s Mythos fiction, and has only been reprinted in a single Mythos anthology: Il terrore di Cthulhu (1968). It is often forgotten today—a relic of Bloch’s youth, when he was still trying to find his feet in the publishing game, a few months before the death of H. P. Lovecraft and a full decade before Psycho (1959).
Voodoo, rootwork, and other syncretic religions of the Americas continue to be an element in the Cthulhu Mythos; this is especially true for roleplaying games, where occupations like “Conjure Woman” are part of Harlem Unbound and rules for voodoo magic in Secrets of New Orleans. Individual depictions run from Hollywood tropes to efforts at accurate ethnographic representation. with so little written about voodoo and how and where it fits into the Mythos, at least from Lovecraft, writers are free to indulge their imagination—and do. Some of them, such as Robert Bloch, let themselves lean in too far on the pulp stereotypes and racism both implicit and explicit in the early depictions of Haiti and Vodou.
“Mother of Serpents” can be read online.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
3 thoughts on ““Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch”
Great essay on a lesser work by a writer who would go on to be a giant of the field. I was quite astonished, and a little dismayed, at the racism of the piece, and I’m glad you didn’t gloss over it. As clumsily as it was told and as awful as the characterisation was, the ending was very effective and the imagery was superb. Interesting to note that it was published in the same issue as Haunter of the Dark, the Lovecraft story in which Block himself is a character.
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*Bloch himself is a character* darned auto-correct.
Which is really why I wanted to emphasize the context. That this wasn’t just a 19-year-old Robert Bloch, that this wasn’t just some one-off fluke. This was the culture at the time, and it’s kind of amazing to us today that nobody stopped and looked at it and said “Wow, that’s not right, is it?” There was a lot of ignorance about Haiti and Vodou, there was a lot of institutional racism and personal prejudice. This story wasn’t just written: it was bought, published, and praised by fans. So when people look at this stuff nowadays, it’s not just the words on the page, it’s everything that led up to it and allowed them to get printed.