“The Automatic Executioner” (1891) & “A Sacrifice to Science” (1893) by Adolphe Danziger de Castro

Dear Sir,

My friend, Mr. Samuel Loveman, was kind enough to mention that you might be inclined to aid me in bringing out one or the other of my labors which sadly need revision.

If you can, please let me know and under what conditions we can co-operate. 

Yours sincerely,

—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 20 Nov 1927,
Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others

In 1927, an article was published in the Associated Press proposing new evidence for the demise of Ambrose Bierce. The source was Dr. Adolphe Danziger de Castro, who had picked up the gossip while down in Mexico. De Castro and Bierce had been friends for twenty-five years, and had collaborated on a translation of The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter (1891), and the Western Author’s Publishing Association which published de Castro’s collection of stories In the Confessional and the Following (1893), some of which had been previously published in newspapers and magazines. The friendship ended rather badly, with Bierce breaking his cane over de Castro’s head—but the article on Bierce achieved wide circulation, and de Castro smelled an opportunity:

Years and years ago I published a volume of short stories (now not to be had at any price, and Uncle Sam and myself are the only ones who have copies of the same) and if these stories could be licked into shape, I am certain they would be published. It all depends upon my literary godfather. Suppose I send you part of one of these stories just for a passing judgment whether you could be inclined to consider the matter, if all things become equal?
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 25 Nov 1927, LAG 342

Lovecraft in 1927 was in Providence, Rhode Island; his effort to make his way in New York had failed, and so had his marriage, although his wife would not press him for a divorce until 1929. With no steady employment, Lovecraft and his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. did revision work for clients, re-writing stories and offering advice for modest fees. Their friend Samuel Loveman was not officially an agent, but steered potential clients their way: Zealia Brown Reed (Spirit of Revision 8-9) and Adolphe Danziger de Castro.

Initially, de Castro was looking for one or two books of stories to be revised; there are some calculations on a letter from de Castro to Lovecraft dated 5 Dec 1927 to this effect (LAG 345). This quickly expanded as he suggested Lovecraft assist him in writing a memoir or biography titled Bierce and I, mentioned in a letter dated 8 Dec 1927. Lovecraft was wary: de Castro had no money to pay up front, and Lovecraft was in no financial position to take work on a speculative basis. At this point (December 1927), Lovecraft claims:

He’s too gordam fussy to make his work a paying proposition for me—for his fiction is unspeakable, his paying ability meagre, and his demands for revisions—after his first version—extensive. I about exploded over the dragging monotony of a silly thing which I renamed Clarendon’s Last Test; and after I wearily sent in the result of a whole month’s brain-fog, (incurred for a deplorable pittance!) the old reprobate shot it back with requests for extensive changes (based wholly on the new ideas I had injected!) which would have involved just as much work again, and without any additional fee. That was too much. I hurled the whole Hastur-hateful thing back at him—together with his measly cheque and a dollar bill to cover the postage he’d expended—but he took it all in good part, and returned the cheque and dollar with a laudably generous gesture! Now—after thinking it over—he decided to use the tale just as I fixed it up. Vaya con Dios, Don Adolfo—he’s one reviser who won’t raise any controversy by claiming authorship of the beastly mess! But I can’t tackle any more of his fiction. It raises a choking kind of mental “complex” preclusive of effort. I’ll consider his straight prose memoirs, but nothing where constructive art is concern’d.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, January 1928, Selected Letters 2.207-208

A letter from de Castro to Lovecraft dated 4 February 1928 confirms Lovecraft’s claims (LAG 347-348), and returns the check (for $16), begging Lovecraft to accept it.

The story in question began as “A Sacrifice to Science”; de Castro claimed:

Thinking back to the fate of “The Last Test,” I recall its first publication in 1889, then titled, “Dr. Clinton’s Discovery.” In 1893, I published a volume of short stories, incorporating “Dr. Clinton” but had changed his name to Dr. Calrendon [sic]. The issue of seven thousand copies, paper-covered at 50 cents, sold out in record time. I think I am the only person who has a copy of the volume. In 1900 I went from San Francisco to New York. There I re-wrote the story and named it “The Last Test.” Excepting the introductory paragraph to the story which I wrote in New York, the body of the tale suffered no change from that published in the collection.
—Adolphe de Castro to August Derleth, 20 November 1949

The actual publishing history appears more complicated. No publication under the title “Dr. Clinton’s Discovery” has been found; the earliest publication for “A Sacrifice to Science” is in The Californian vol. III, no. 2 (January 1892); it was then subsequently published in In the Confessional and the Following (1893), with minor changes in the text. The Photoplay Weekly for August 1915 includes the snippet:

[Danziger] has completed many scenarios, including The Ghetto Apostate, The Human Devil-Fish, The Fatal Love Letter, and Dr. Clarendon’s Discovery, all of which are feature productions.

This screenplay appears to be non-extant. In any case, for the 1928 version de Castro had provided Lovecraft with the 1893 text.

For most readers, the interest in “A Sacrifice to Science” is as the bones on which “The Last Test” is built, and from that lens, the story is especially interesting because it is rare for us to have the “before” of a Lovecraft revision; most of his clients provided either only a plot-germ or synopsis, or the story is based on a draft that does not survive. Here, we have both the original story (in two texts) and the revision to compare.

“A Sacrifice to Science” is a turn-of-the-century thriller (that is isn’t very thrilling), very vaguely in the line of Robert Louis Stevenson’s more fantastic and better-composed tale of mad science such as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), which had inspired Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and “The Inmost Light” (1894) or “The Novel of the White Powder” (1895). There is a germ of a solid idea there, but the plot and writing don’t develop any tension in the reader. The skeleton-like character of Mort feels almost allegorical—Death always at the doctor’s side—but he is ultimately very mortal indeed, and far less interesting in his role as Igor to Clinton’s Dr. Frankenstein.

In comparing the 1892 and the 1893 texts, it is apparent that despite the small spelling and formatting changes, a number of passages and even entire paragraphs have been cut; all references to the “Typhus Clintoni” were excised. It isn’t clear why this should be so—one would assume that since In the Confessional and the Following would not have a strict word-limit. The most interesting detail is the bare sketch of a background on Mort, and the implication of testing on prisoners in the West Indies, making Dr. Clnton even more diabolical.

In comparing “A Sacrifice to Science” and its revision, the surprising thing is how much of the essential story and its details Lovecraft retained as he transitioned it to the form of weird pulp fiction. All of the essentials of the plot are reproduced, only with more detail and drama given to events, and perhaps surprising for those who think them Lovecraft’s weakest points as a writer, more attention and focus on character motivation and dialogue. Many of the fine details are kept as well, such as the sister referring to the assistant as the doctor’s “evil genius,” and the outbreak of fever among the Mexican population—which is, perhaps surprisingly, more developed in de Castro’s original.

Study of this story also shows where some of the less Lovecraftian story beats in “The Last Test” come from. Georgina’s tendency to faint—a trait Lovecraft decried in Gothic heroines—comes from Alvira’s episodes. The jealous romantic triangle began with de Castro, it was Lovecraft that gave it the “Fall of the House of Usher” proportions of “The Last Test.” The curious reticence of Surama to handle the afflicted Dick must have its origins in Mort’s complaint at the toll taken on his dogs.

As was also typical, Lovecraft sent a handwritten manuscript, and wished for no changes to what he wrote, to which de Castro wrote in reply:

I haven’t as yet had the time to look up Mr. Long. And mentioning Mr. Long recalls that I have never asked you if, in your opinion “Clarendon’s Last Test” is likely to have a market. I shall not make any changes in the story, but when it is typewritten I shall send it on its rounds, and le bon Dieu peut savoir if it will find some one to take it. The horror story isn’t much in demand now, I fancy.

—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 Feb 1928, LAG 349

Despite this promise to not make any changes, apparently de Castro did:

Dear Mr. Lovecraft,

With my own suffering fingers I finished last night the copying on the typewriter of THE LAST TEST, and don’t know whether to send you an abrazo – a brotherly embrace – or, you, being so much younger than I, to give you my fatherly blessing for what you did for me; for the more I read the story the more I find that it has “workmanship” and a masterly touch.

For a moment I wanted to send you the story as I copied it, thinking you might perhaps elect to change a word here and there, as your own judgment should direct, and then I said to myself “Lovecraft’s eye has missed little as he went over it ‘scratching'” and I sent the story to “Weird Tales” at Indianapolis.

You will notice that I underscored the words “as I copied it”, meaning thereby that I took the liberty to write a phrase or use a word as I had been taught by Ambrose Bierce. These are: the word ‘persons’ for people. The latter referring to the people of a city, county, state or nation, the former referring to individuals, – “there were a number of persons” and not “people”; or many people for many persons. The second is a Biercean doctrine that a sentence ought never to begin with a negative assertion of something denoting a positive, and vice versa, such as: “I don’t believe Jim cares for it”; whereas it should be “I believe Jim doesn’t care for it”, which is really the essence of the assumption or belief. In other words: we believe a thing is or is not, it is our attitude in the matter, but if we say we don’t believe, we establish a non-attitude (although it might equally be a non-believing attitude) in the case where a positive is concerned.

I am very eager to hear your opinion in the matter, comprehending, of course, that idiomatic form or usage is, excepted.

I confess that your entire review of the matter relative to the story is correct, although I do not regret to have written you as I did, since it brought forth your most illuminative letter. And what is more, Egad! I really like the story.

—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Apr 1928, LAG 353

Lovecraft’s chagrin at this turn of events must be imagined; his response does not appear to survive. As Lovecraft’s manuscript does not survive, it is not clear what changes de Castro made, although it seems it was he who changed it from “Clarendon’s Last Test” to “The Last Test.” Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, could likely not help but notice the references to Lovecraft’s Mythos embedded in the story. Nevertheless, the story was accepted for $175.00, and duly appeared in the November 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Whatever the changes de Castro introduced, they could not have been extensive, for Lovecraft commented:

Old de Castro’s story that I revised is in the current Weird Tales. It doesn’t look so bad now. The element of Atlantean mystery is wholly of my own introducing. De Castro wanted it excluded at first—but as it turned out, that was the one thing which Wright singled out to mention in describing the tale!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 27 Oct 1928, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 165

In June 1929, de Castro was again asking Lovecraft to revise his 1893 stories (ES1.196), and as before, eventually agreed to Lovecraft’s terms of cash in advance:

I am just now confronting a damnable revision job from old De Castro—the Bierce satellite & biographer—who has made delay impossible by paying in advance! Consider me, then, as lost in chaos & woe for the next couple of weeks. It is like what I did for him in 1927-8—doctoring up some fictional junk he wrote in 1893. The old boy is going abroad on the 10th, & wants the work delivered while he is in London.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 8 Jul 1929, Essential Solitude1.200

The de Castro story in question was “The Automatic Executioner,” which was first published in The Wave, 14 Nov 1891. As before, Lovecraft completely rewrote the story, although keeping the essential plot and most of the names, and hewing closer to de Castro’s original plot, Lovecraft still added in references to his artificial mythology.

In one sense, “The Automatic Executioner” is an example of one of the earliest and most prominent modes of science fiction: gadget fiction. Thomas Alva Edison was still the wizard of Menlo Park in the 1890s, inventors like Alexander Graham Bell were honored as heroes. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells postulated on technological advances and their potential impact, and the basic idea of a new invention that revolutionizes the world—and the inventor that receives fame for it—was still current well into the 1920s and 30s, when writers like Robert E. Howard tried their hand at it with stories like “The Iron Terror.”

At the same time, the story is not strictly gadget fiction. The invention (Chekov’s noose, as it were) is only one part of a story which involves suggestions of hypnotism and astral projection, relatively occult concepts for what otherwise might be a “pseudo-scientific” story in 1920s pulp parlance. When compared to “A Sacrifice to Science,” it makes a kind of sense that Lovecraft had far less to add or change to the original tale—his principal changes being to turn the “automatic electric executioner” from an electric noose down to a portable electrocution device, and to transform the nature and depiction of Feldon’s madness. In this, Lovecraft incorporated elements of indigenous Mexican religion, his own artificial Mythos, and a curious encounter that Lovecraft himself had on a train:

The journey was made amusing by the presence in the seat beside me of a slightly demented German—a well-drest and respectable-looking fellow whom I had observ’d at the tavern reading a German paper before the start of the coach. He shew’d no signs of his affliction till we reach’d a sort of stagnant mill-pond near Newark, in New-jersey, when suddenly he burst forth the the question, “iss diss der Greadt Zalt Lake?” deeming the inquiry address to me, I reply’d that I scarcely thought his identification correct; whereupon he reliev’d me of all responsibility by remarking in a far-off, sententious voice—“I vassn’t talkingk to you; I vass shooter leddingk my light shine!” Properly rebuk’d for my officious desire to give information, I held my peace and permitted my seatmate to illuminate without hindrance. After a time he became vocal again, confiding to the empty air ahead, “I’m radiating all der time, und nopotty knows it!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Travels in the Provinces of America” (1929) in Collected Essays 2.34

Lovecraft also expanded upon Feldon’s motivations for stealing the papers, which de Castro does not go into, an attempt to provide at least a moderately stronger explanation for the experience in the train car, and Feldon’s death—since de Castro leaves him alive at the end, while Lovecraft makes sure the executioner executes. What Lovecraft probably didn’t know is that de Castro was himself an inventor—he had patents for incandescent electric lamps and X-ray tubes—so possibly de Castro knew something of the paranoia of the inventor at getting scooped, and the singular obsession that Feldon expressed, the pride in the technical details of its working. More curious are the bits that Lovecraft left out: the name of the protagonist and his betrothed (and her position as editor of a newspaper, if that was not a spur-of-the-moment lie) and Feldon’s background so that he was never a sheriff in Montreal.

Being a nebulous mix of genres, it’s possible that de Castro could have sold this story to The Black Cat in the 1910s, or even possibly the earliest issues of Amazing Stories or Weird Tales—but there is no denying that the language is often stilted, and by the late 1920s badly needed the updated that Lovecraft provided if it was to have any hope of getting published. That Lovecraft wrote it with Weird Tales in mind seems almost certain; it might have found a home at Wonder Stories, but that would have meant dealing with Hugo Gernsback, whose reputation for non-payment Lovecraft was well aware of by 1929.

“The Electric Executioner” was accepted rather promptly by the end of February 1930 (ES1.249), and would be published in the August 1930 Weird Tales. This caused at least one reader to inquire:

Adolph de Castro, I note, mentions these gods, places, or whatever they are, only the spelling is different, as Cthulhutl, Yog Sototl. Both you and he, I believe, use the phrase fhtaghn.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Aug 1930, A Means To Freedom 1.37

The reasons for its echoes in Dr. de Castro’s work is that the latter gentleman is a revision-client of mine—into whose tales I have stuck these glancing references for sheer fun.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 14 Aug 1930, A Means To Freedom 1.40

Lovecraft apparently also explained this to Farnsworth Wright:

I suppose he was curious about getting stories from several authors—Heald, de Castro, Reed &c (besides parts of mss. From Barlow, Bloch, Rimel, &c)—which contained earmarks of my style.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William Lumley, 14 Nov 1935, Selected Letters 5.207

Lovecraft did apparently revise a third tale for de Castro, and it was sold to Farnsworth Wright for Strange Stories, a magazine projected to be published alongside Weird Tales, much as Oriental Stories/The Magic Carpet would be, but legal troubles with the name prevented the magazine from coming out, and this revision is believed to be lost.

Since their publication in 1928 and 1930, the only extant versions of “The Last Test” and “The Electric Executioner” have been the versions published in Weird Tales, which were eventually published in Something About Cats and Other Pieces (1949, Arkham House), and afterward became accepted publicly as Lovecraft revisions or ghostwriting jobs and subsequently reprinted in many other places.

However, this was not quite the end of the story. In 1953 when de Castro was 94 years old, he had bound a typed manuscript titled Surama of Atlantis and The Horror In A Mexican Train Plus Narrative Poems; the two lead stories “Surama of Atlantis” and “The Automatic Electric Executioner” are variants of “The Last Test” and “The Electric Executioner,” respectively, differing sometimes slightly and in other places markedly from the Weird Tales text. De Castro’s papers, now at the American Jewish Archives, also contain an undated typescript of “The Electric Executioner” with small variations from both “The Automatic Electric Executioner” and the Weird Tales text. For more on these, please see the companion post on “Surama of Atlantis” and “The Automatic Electric Executioner” (1953) by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe Danziger de Castro.

“A Sacrifice to Science” and “The Automatic Executioner” are in the public domain, and the 1893 versions may be read online for free here; the 1892 version of “A Sacrifice to Science” is also in the public domain, and may be read online for free here. They have also been reprinted in the variorum edition of Lovecraft’s Collected Fiction, Vol. 4 (Revisions and Collaborations) (2017), alongside “The Electric Executioner” and “The Last Test.”

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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