Her Letters To Lovecraft: Zealia Brown Reed Bishop

Dear Mr. Lovecraft :—

Your letter of the 20th just arrived. I shall be only too glad to have your friend have The Mound for sale or to see—especially that since it offers an opportunity to partially discharge my already disgracefully lengthened debt to you— (You are so patient about money—especially when you need it so very much.)
—Zealia Brown Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

In 1927, Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown Reed turned 30 years old. She had been married at seventeen to James P. Reed (1891-1935); a son (James Reed, Jr.) was born seven months after the wedding. The state of her marriage in 1927 is unknown, but three years later she would be listed on the U.S. Census as “divorced.” Living at the time in Cleveland, Ohio, Zealia Brown Reed worked as a court reporter and sold stories and articles to support herself and her son, but was looking to improve her writing. Via Samuel Loveman, she got in touch with a friend of his that did revision work and dispensed writing advice: H. P. Lovecraft.

I wrote to Lovecraft and he replied immediately that he would be glad to examine any of my work I cared to send and offer what assistance he could.

Thereafter I became an established recipient of the famous Lovecraft letters. He wrote regularly, sometimes fifty and sixty page letters, in a fine spidery script which often counted five hundred words to the page. These letters were filled with the strictest rules of rhetoric and meaty literary advice.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 254

The correspondence of Zealia and Howard would last for the final decade of Lovecraft’s life. It would result in three weird tales: “The Curse of Yig” (written 1928, published 1929), “The Mound” (written 1929, published 1940), and “Medusa’s Coil” (written 1930, published 1939). Lovecraft also had a hand in revising a number of Zealia’s non-weird manuscripts, none of which are known to have been published or survive. As with some of his other revision clients, Lovecraft’s correspondence goes much beyond the simple “business” side of things. Writing apparently every week or two, his letters would be filled with advice on writing, suggested readings, remarks on articles or newspaper cuttings that Zealia had sent. One letter from Lovecraft to her son James survives, showing how friendly and familiar that the two had gotten, although Lovecraft never failed to address his letters as “Dear Mrs. Reed,” or “Dear Mrs. R”—at least until 1930, when Zealia remarried to Dauthard William Bishop, Sr. and the letters were sent to “Dear Mrs. Bishop.”

As is the case with many of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the bulk of the surviving correspondence are his letters to Zealia, which makes it difficult to get a read on the woman herself. What is apparent from Lovecraft’s responses to her is that she was not primarily interested in weird fiction, being more focused on stories of relationships, real life, and human interest—and apparently sold at least one story “One-Man Girl” the confession pulp Cupid’s Diary (26 Dec 1928). While Lovecraft was always polite to Zealia in his letters to her, to his other correspondents he would occasionally gripe:

And the light diversion wherewith I’m paying it off is the most deodamnate piece of unending Bushwork I’ve ever tackled since the apogee of the immortal Davidius himself—the sappy, half-baked Woman’s Home Companion stuff of a female denizen of once illustrious Cleveland whose pencil has hopelessly outdistanc’d her imagination. Gawd bless the money-orders, but Pete sink the manuscripts!
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 23 May 1927, Letters to James F. Morton 138

David Van Bush was a prolific early revision client of Lovecraft’s who specialized in mediocre poetry and pop-psychology essays; any revision work that that was especially tedious became “Bushwork.” While that might well be the case for some of Zealia’s more romantic fiction, it’s difficult to say that the same should apply to their weird fiction—Lovecraft himself noted that “The Curse of Yig”: “gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206); and the extensive narrative of “The Mound” stands as one of Lovecraft’s longest stories, based on a very bare premise, so he could hardly have had no interest in it. There is a lacunae in the extent Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence around the time “Medusa’s Coil” was written, and because it was never published almost no references in Lovecraft’s other letters, so it is unclear what his feelings were toward that work.

Zealia herself, however, seemed overall very grateful for the long friendship in letters. When August Derleth contacted Bishop after Lovecraft’s death, looking for his letters and any unpublished stories, she noted:

You see when I first began writing I was prone to be too schoolgirlishly romanticHPL snapped me out of that & made me infinitely ashamed of myself. My sister has a ranch in Okla & while visiting her over a period of many years I have studied & learned much of Indian folklore. The Mound & Yig are both based on actual stories throughout the locality of my sister’s ranchMedusa’s Coil might also interest you?

I am sending you a few letters which cover minutely Howard’s principles of revision instructions–one is the first letter ever received from him in ’27 on this subject. Yes he helped me on nearly everything I’ve done in some mannerthe storiesYigThe MoundMedusa’s Coilwere my first real stories of their kindthe novelThe Adopted Sonwas carefully corrected by HPL & revised where he felt necessaryhe suggested the method of rhythmwhich I endeavored to carry out& which you will catch when you have time to read it.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

For all that the correspondence between Zealia and Howard seems to have run for about a decade, and is mentioned in her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”, surprisingly little of it survives. In part, this appears to be a factor in Zealia’s re-marriage and moves. When Derleth contacted her about the Lovecraft letters project, she apparently sent some of the letters in her possession. Eighteen of these became part of the Arkham House Transcripts; fourteen of them appear in Selected Letters II (1968). In her correspondence with Derleth, she hinted at other surviving letters:

My yet unfinished tale is one with Aztec mythology woven through it and I think Howard was well pleased with the progress I made without his supervision…even as he was with three of my novels. Sometimes I shall send you the letters he wrote about them…telling me how I had progressed with structure and the choice of words.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

These letters appear to have never made it to Derleth, but some of it did survive; in 2014, it came to light that 36 letters (including the letter from Lovecraft to her son Jim, and one surviving letter from Zealia to Lovecraft) had been in the possession of Zealia’s great niece. This, combined with the letters that Arkham House transcribed and biographical materials on Zealia’s life and her correspondence with Lovcraft, were annotated and published as The Spirit of Revision (2015) by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The correspondence is still very incomplete; the fifty-four published letters covers a period of 1927-1930, 1934, and 1936. In addition to this, there is one letter which Zealia quoted from in writing to August Derleth, which has not been published:

But I do want you to know that under H.P.L. I most certainly had the finest fundamental training one could ever receive in years at any university.

Thus as example: “I am genuinely astonished by Wright’s attitude toward your last story. It only confirms my opinion of his capriciousness and lack of all objective standards in judging stories. This tale was not so long as the one he accepted the week beforeand I don’t see where it could be any less “convincing”. But Wright’s Wrighthe will have his self-important ex-cathedra personal reactions. I give him up! In fact I gave him up long ago. It would take some superhuman and veteran behaviourist like Thomas H. Uzzell to fathom the intricacies of his psychology.”
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 6 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This would presumably be a reference to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejecting either “The Mound” or “The Curse of Yig.”

One aspect of Zealia’s letters to Lovecraft that has mostly gone unremarked are the dealings she had with the other authors in Lovecraft’s circle. Samuel Loveman has already been mentioned; the two do not appear to have any lengthy correspondence. At the time she began to engage Lovecraft’s revision services, he was in partnership with Frank Belknap Long. “Sonny” Long may have revised and/or typed some of her manuscripts, and acted as literary agent in trying to get “The Mound” published after it was rejected by Weird Tales. In addition to Long, Zealia got in touch with Robert H. Barlow, the avid fan who later became Lovecraft’s literary executor, in 1934.

Dear Mr Barlow:-

After so long a time I generally get around to accomplishing the thing I’m supposed to. Today I am expressing The Mound to you and am also enclosing a copy of Medusa’s Coil for you to read, then I wish you would please send it on to Mr Frank B. Long of New York (230 West 97th Street) as I’m going to give him a chance to dispose of it unless you would particularly like to have it. Anyway, you may advise me. I have no idea what the Londodn [sic] Publishers will offer. They have asked to see it and are the publishers who made a reprint of The Curse of Yig. […]

Mr Lovecraft must have had a marvelous time at your home and on his trip. Isn’t he a wonderful person? I feel deeply indebted to him for anything I have and may ever accomplish. His letters are always sources of great inspiration to me.

My fingers are getting buttery so shall stop, but wanted you to know that the manuscripts go forth today. Sorry I’ve been so negligent.
Zealia Bishop to R. H. Barlow, 11 Jul 1934, MSS. John Hay Library

Barlow collected manuscripts from pulp writers, and eventually had an eye toward publishing them in his amateur journals The Dragon-Fly and Leaves. Her correspondence with Barlow would be relatively brief, but Barlow would form an important link in the chain to eventually getting all of her weird revisions published in Weird Talesand eventually by Arkham Housealthough this involved a bit of miscommunication and misunderstanding:

Am glad you liked The Moundaltho’ I wonder if you saw Medusa’s Coil after HPL revised it? The partial copy I sent you was the original before his revision? I was shocked at young Barlow’s claim–for it was untruthful from the starkas I believe one of Lovecraft’s to me proved. HPL wrote me of a “young chap in Florida” who was interested in printing on “his own machine some weird stories” & asked me if I would let Barlow “use” my stories for his “private collection”or something like thatlater Barlow wrote me asking my permission & even asking me to let him use the pictures used by Wright in the Curse of Yig!I hope I’ve proved that the stories are mine? Barlow never found the stories in Lovecraft’s effects& has no claim on them. Every one of the three talesThe Curse of YigThe Mound & Medusa’s Coilis based on material acquired on my travels around my sister’s ranch in Oklatho Medusa’s Coil was written around another location. Tell Barlow for mehe’s a poor sport!

The revision prices on all stories were duly noted when HPL had finished, tho’ I owed him either 18.00 or 21.00 at the time of his death on some work done last yearWhatever Wright or anyone else will pay for either or both tales please arrange that half (regardless of the indebtedness) be paid to Mrs. Gamwellin appreciation for all HPL did for me.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 11 May 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

H. P. Lovecraft mentioned Zealia in several letters to his various other friends and correspondents, usually in relation to “The Curse of Yig” or to the other stories her revised for her, but it doesn’t appear that many of them attempted to actually get in touch with her. Besides Derleth, who contacted Zealia after Lovecraft’s death and seems to have remained in touch with her off-and-on for most of the rest of her life. The only other possible contact she had was with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulpster E. Hoffmann Price:

It was just before Bill’s and my brother’s tragic deaths, that H. Hoffman Price (maybe I have that first initial wrong) turned me over to his agent August Lenniger. At that point when he was advising me my heart and mind seemed suddenly to stand still. […]
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 24 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

August Lenniger was Price’s literary agent; it’s not entirely clear when they got in contact, if it was in the 1930s, there is no reference to any correspondence in Price’s letters with Lovecraft, nor in Price’s memoirs of other pulp writers.

As a writer, Zealia Brown Reed Bishop seems to have found little professional success in terms of sales—her “confession” pulp stories are long forgotten, her novels remained unpublished—except for those stories revised, to the point of being ghost-written, by H. P. Lovecraft. This work is not without distinction: The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House) is the first volume of Mythos fiction published under a woman’s name, and the weird fruit of Zealia’s correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft continues to be published and re-published. While many fans may find The Spirit of Revision principally of interest because of the light it sheds on Lovecraft’s revision practices, it should be noted that their correspondence covered much more ground than just that—and Zealia’s letters may yet prove more valuable as a record of their personal and professional relationship.

ZealiaBishopc1945

I could mention one thing more, however, which can hardly be considered of minor importance. Mrs. Bishop was a woman of great charm and quite exceptional beauty.
—Frank Belknap Long,
Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside xiv


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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