Not long after “The Electric Executioner” saw print, H. P. Lovecraft made a curious reference:
None of our firm has had very good success in placing clients’ manuscripts—though I did accidentally land Yig, and three tales of Old Dolph’s—but I am convinced that failures on the part of different members have been for almost opposite reasons.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 3 Nov 1930, Selected Letters 3.204
In late 1929 or early 1930, editor of Weird Tales Farnsworth Wright announced that the company would be launching a new magazine: Strange Stories.
By the way—Wright tells me he is about to launch another magazine, devoted to “stories which are truly strange & unusual in plot.” All subjects will be included—even weird stuff now & then. I don’t suppose this opening will mean much to me, but it ought to mean a new market for one of your versatility.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 25 Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 1.249
Farnsworth tells me that the company is going to publish another magazine this summer, using stories of all sorts, so long as they are somewhat out of the ordinary. I gather that they don’t have to be impossible, but just different from the general run of stories. I’m hoping to just about double my income from his company when that magazine comes out. Of course, I may not be able to sell them a blightin’ thing.
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, c. Feb 1930, Collected Letters 2.17
The issue is a little confused, since in June 1930 Wright announced yet another magazine, Oriental Stories, and Strange Stories was never published. Macfadden had published the short-lived pulp True Strange Stories (Mar-Nov 1929) and claimed rights to the title. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard both comment on the legal dispute in their letters which dragged out for months. Lovecraft summarized things succinctly:
As for Wright’s projected third magazine—I am astonished that you have not heard of the plan before! The idea—broached first a year or more ago—was for a magazine to contain wildly unusual & bizarre stories, not excluding a few weird items; & it progressed to a stage where Wright actually began accepting tales for it. He took items from Belknap, & from my odd old Biercian client, Dr. Dangizer–de Castro. I had not known what the name was to be, until Robert E. Howard spoke of the conflict with Macfadden’s. I saw an issue or two of the defunct Macfadden thing a year & a half ago, when Vrest Orton tried to write for it; but did not know that the name remained a legal entity after the collapse of the venture itself. Now that the W.T. company is in such an evident mess, (did you receive the form letter urging patience about remittances?) I hardly expect the third magazine to be started at all. Just how serious Wright’s intentions ever were, one can’t be sure. I fancy it was always a vague future project with him.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Dec 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 285
Nowhere in his correspondence does Lovecraft give the title of the third revision, and it isn’t clear when it was done, except that it must be between December 1929 (“two de Castro jobs” DS 285) and November 1930 (“three tales of Old Dolph’s” SL3.204); this could explain the long genesis of “The Electric Executioner,” if Lovecraft was actually revising two tales. The only reference to this third revision discovered so far are in the unpublished letters of Lovecraft’s literary executor R. H. Barlow:
How about The Electric Executioner & The Last Test? Old de Castro has an unpublished HPL “revision” – In the Confessional, which it might be well to harpoon.
—R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 6 May [1937?]
I think I mentioned the unpublished MS about Poland, which he ghosted for old de Castro, & which remains in his possession. The Last Test & The Electric Executioner are absolutely HP’s, by his own admission.
—R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 20 June [1937?]
“In the Confessional” was the title story of In the Confessional and the Following(1893), and concerns a Polish countess in Paris; it was first published in The San Francisco Examiner May 1892. It was from this volume that de Castro’s two other stories that Lovecraft revised, “A Sacrifice to Science” and “The Automatic Executioner”, are drawn.
What Lovecraft might have added to “In the Confessional” is mostly unknown, but in another letter he wrote:
I’ve put Yog-Sothoth and Tsathoggua in yarns ghost-written for Adolphe de Castro […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 31 May 1935, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 437
Since Yog-Sothoth appears in “The Last Test” and “The Electric Executioner” but Tsathoggua does not, it is possible that Tsathoggua has a reference in the third revision…and that is all we know about that. It is not even clear if the story would be weird fiction at all, if the market was Strange Stories.
The only possible reference to this story in de Castro’s extent correspondence is this anecdote to John Stanton of Arkham House:
Lovecraft and the late Mrs. de Castro and myself were at dinner at the Styvensen in New York. He had been revising a short story for me, the scene of which was laid in my native land, Poland. There had been some difference of opinion regarding the plot—made by correspondence. In response to his last letter I—stante pede, as it were, made a new plot and sent it to him. Thereupon he flattered me by saying that it was not likely I had so quickly made so new and excellent a plot. My reply was, “come to New York and we’ll discuss it.” At an elaborate bit of dinner we talked the matter over.
—Adolphe de Castro to John Stanton, 9 Mar 1949
Much of the story of “In the Confessional” is set in Poland, in a flashback/embedded narrative. If de Castro’s account is at all accurate, it would suggest that the final version worked up by Lovecraft would have varied from the original. This does not, unfortunately, help us identify the third revision. It is not clear when this would have occurred; Lovecraft mentions having dinner with de Castro at least twice in his letters to Lillian Clark during his 1928 stay in New York, but the phrase “come to New York” suggests Lovecraft was not there—so possibly 1929.
The Adolphe de Castro papers at the Jewish American Archives contain typescripts related to the other two Lovecraft revisions. Of the third revision, there is no obvious sign; de Castro’s papers contain no typescript titled “In the Confessional,” or any other English-language manuscript which suggests the plot or characters of that story. However, there is an undated typescript in Spanish titled “La Confesión de
La Condesa Valera” which is a translation and expansion of de Castro’s English-language story.
Lovecraft scholars have been looking for a revision to “In the Confessional,” here among Adolphe de Castro’s papers we have a revision of “In the Confessional,” is this a previously unknown Lovecraft revision?
“La Confesión de
La Condesa Valera” is without a doubt an expansion and revision of “In the Confessional.” However, we have no idea when it was written (the typescript is undated), and the text itself shows no evidence of any Lovecraftian input. In part, this may well be due to the translation from English to Spanish, which would require the whole text to be filtered through de Castro once again, but more than that the story lacks any weird element, although there is a touch of science fiction at one point. There is no reference to Lovecraft’s artificial mythology, even as a red herring or bit of color.
It is not impossible to completely rule out Lovecraft having some influence on the tale, but it must be remembered that the information we have on the third de Castro revision in Lovecraft’s letters is very slight—Lovecraft himself never names the story; that was provided by Barlow in a letter to Derleth, and Barlow may have got it wrong, or confused the name of the revision with the name of the book from which the stories originally came. So there is no guarantee that we are even looking in the right place when we look for a revision of “In the Confessional.”
With an eye toward the possibilities, and admitting that we are in the realm of speculation, “In the Confessional” might actually have been a candidate for Strange Stories with a bit of work. The mutilation of the Countess Wanda’s face would have fit rather neatly into the “weird terror” or “shudder pulp” vein that was gaining popularity at the time, and Weird Tales included a few stories of this sort such as Seabury Quinn’s “The House of Horror” (1926), and the tragic ending is suitably poetic and bloody; if the prose had been reworked and maybe expanded a little, it could probably have sold. Would Lovecraft have taken this route? He could work with grue (“Herbert West–Reanimator,” “In the Vault,” “The Loved Dead” with C. M. Eddy), although he usually didn’t. Likewise, Lovecraft did not exclusively write weird fiction (“Sweet Ermengarde” being the most notable example), although he usually did.
“La Confesión” is a fairly substantial revision of the original story–but not on those lines. The scene is moved to World War I, and embeds the original narrative into a story about a hunt for a German spy in France, with a romantic subplot. The happy ending, where it turns out the “poison” that Valera took is nothing poisonous at all, is a far cry from the original conte cruel finale, which is probably one of the few parts of the story Lovecraft might have approved of (although we do not have his exact response to the original story, Lovecraft called the book “execrable.”) These could well be taken as examples of updating the story and modifying it to be more salable—for what market, we have no idea. The only really notably strange part is a small science fiction element, which appears early in the story and is never mentioned again:
El Cura era un hombre de ciencia, y en el corto periodo de tiempo que hacía estaba en París, había perfeccionado una serie de cometas, con un sistema de placas sensitivas afectadas por Ias corrientes de aire. Estos cometas el hizo remontar, y de este modo pudo descubrir la dirección del gran cañón con el que el enemigo hostilizaba a París.
Para estas observaciones aéreas, había organizado un pequeño grupo de mujeres de su parróquia, y estaban dispuestas de tal manera en la torre de la iglesia, que formaban una cadena viviente, pudíendo dar al instante, a las autoridades información de cualquier movimiento en el cielo, sea cual fuere la altura o la distancia.
—Adolphe de Castro, “La Confesión de Valera,” American Jewish Archives (MS-348)
The Priest was a man of science, and in the short time he had been in Paris, he had perfected a series of kites, with a system of sensitive plates affected by air currents. He made these comets soar, and in this way he was able to discover the direction of the great cannon with which the enemy was harassing Paris.
For these aerial observations he had organized a small group of women from his parish, and they were arranged in such a way in the church tower that they formed a living chain, and could instantly give the authorities information of any movement in the sky, whatever the height or distance.
—Rough translation, “The Confession of Valera”
The language and construction, however, remains very much de Castro’s rather than Lovecraft’s. The odd framing device of Valera in the confessional telling her story through dialogue (and then Wanda telling Valera her story in a mess of a nested narrative) is handled almost exactly as it was in the original story; Lovecraft had handled complicated narratives before with much more grace in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), and it is hard to believe that he would have not restructured the narrative more readably if he had taken the job. Also notably absent is any description of the architecture of Paris or any other location, which would be an odd lack in a Lovecraft story.
There does not seem any given point in “La Confesión” that can be pointed out as representing a definite, or even likely, survival of Lovecraftian influence. If anything, a comparison of “In the Confessional” and “La Confesión” versus “A Sacrifice to Science” and “Surama of Atlantis” or “The Automatic Executioner” and “The Automatic Electric Executioner” shows how substantially Lovecraft tended to rewrite these stories, compared to de Castro revising his own work, as is apparently the case with “La Confesión.”
So we are left with a story that is most interesting as a scholarly footnote: here it is, it exists, and there is little more to say about it. “La Confesión” in its current form does not appear to ever been published in English or Spanish, and may never be.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).