“The Were-Snake” (1925) by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

My contributions to the Mythos were of assorted shapes and sizes, ranging from the tiny, flesh-devouring Doels, who inhabited an alien dimension shrouded in night and chaos, to the monstrous Chaugnar Faugn, whom only the suicidally inclined would have mistaken for a pachyderm. I also contributed one scenic vista, the mysterious, perpetually mist-shrouded Plateau of Leng, and one forbidden book, John Dee’s English translation of The Necronomicon, which I placed at the head of The Space Eaters when that story first appeared in Weird Tales […]
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 23-24

To hear Long tell it, his first contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos—and the first stories written as part of the Mythos, outside of Lovecraft’s own pen—were “The Space Eaters” (Weird Tales July 1928) and “The Hounds of Tindalos” (Weird Tales March 1929). These stories have been enshrined in canon as much as anything written by anyone other than H. P. Lovecraft himself, and predate anything written specifically incorporating references to the Mythos by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, or others.

What most compilers of Mythos stories seem to forget is that the first published story with a Mythos connection by Long was actually his third story professionally published: “The Were-Snake” (Weird Tales September 1925). Looking at Long’s memoirs, and the collections of his fiction, one gets the impression that perhaps Long wished it would be forgotten. Although reprinted twice during his lifetime in anthologies, like “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch this story has never been published in any Cthulhu Mythos collection, and remains absent from Long’s The Early Long and Arkham House anthologies.

Normally, when looking into such matters, Lovecraft’s letters are a great asset. However, in this case most of his letters to Long have not been published, and the references to the story in Lovecraft’s published correspondence is minimal:

Next month my “Temple” & Belknap’s “Were-Snake” will appear.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.306

Hope your friend will get some vignette & tailpiece jobs—you might tell Wright it’s about time he stopped using Brosnatch’s ancient designs for Belknap’s “Desert Lich” & “Were-Snake” & Seabury Quinn’s “Servants of Satan” in this capacity!”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Jan 1932, Essential Solitude 2.444

Andrew Brosnatch was the artist that did the header-pieces for Frank Belknap Long’s stories; the art was re-used periodically in Weird Tales as filler for years afterward. Other than that, there is nothing much in Lovecraft’s correspondence: 1925 was before most of his pulp friends began to correspond with him, and if Lovecraft and Long discussed the story, those letters haven’t come to light yet. What we know of this story’s genesis, then, is mostly down to inference.

Shortly after Weird Tales hit the stands in 1923, H. P. Lovecraft wrote to the editor Edwin Baird—and was soon enmeshed in correspondence with both Baird and the pulp magazine’s owner, J. C. Henneberger. Several submissions from Lovecraft had been accepted at Weird Tales, and in 1924 Lovecraft encouraged his young friend in amateur journalism to submit his own stories to the magazine:

Now, Child, send Grandpa that horror story! If you will be good and write lots and lots of terrible things, I believe you may have a chance to land them in Weird Tales, for as you will see when I send you the Henneberger letter, they are desperately in need of material which is basically unconventional. Pray picture to yourself the curiosity of a fiend-loving Old Gentleman, and delay no longer in making Grandpa your nameless monstrosity! About the Ashton Smith reference in my Hound—I omitted that myself, on advice of Eddy (not Poe but my local protege C. M. Eddy), who said that the editor would object to such exploitation of an artist-poet whose work I am trying to push with Weird Tales. Now that I see how solidly I stand with both Baird and Henneberger, I am sorry I took the advice—but what’s done is done. Another time I may do some free advertising for Smith and Sonny Belknap and Mortonius and everybody!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.292-293

“The Hound” was published in the February 1924 issue of Weird Tales; the surviving typescript shows Lovecraft made a few alterations from the original which appear in the published text:

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held the unknown and unnamable drawings of Clark Ashton Smith.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (original text)

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings which it was rumoured Goya had perpetrated but dared not acknowledge.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (as published)

This would have been, if published, one of Lovecraft’s first literary in-jokes—Lovecraft was already in correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith at the time—and together with Lovecraft’s urge that Long write and submit his stuff to Weird Tales for publication is probably what led, ultimately, to “The Were-Snake.”

Long’s first stories published in Weird Tales were “The Desert Lich” (WT Nov 1924) and “Death-Waters” (WT Dec 1924); both tales can be said to be typical of his very early professional efforts, dealing with white people in exotic settings and stumbling across something dangerous and uncanny. Later Long would grow as a writer with more complex plots and characterization, but these short pieces were in good company for the early issues of Weird Tales, which was still feeling its way after the editorial shakeup that had seen Baird (and Henneberger) ousted and Farnsworth Wright in the editorial chair.

By the time “Death-Waters” was published, Lovecraft had come down to New York City, married Sonia H. Greene, and taken up residence; he was seeing a good deal of Long and the rest of the gang in the Kalem Club. Long’s third story in Weird Tales was “The Were-Snake” (WT Nov 1925)—published nearly a year after his last one. Why the long delay? Rejection, possibly, or backlog; even if Long wrote it in the spring of 1925, it likely wouldn’t be published until winter…and there are reasons to suspect it might have been written in the spring of 1925.

“The nethermost caverns,” wrote the mad Arab, “are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

I sat and dozed, or stared drowzily into the darkness, and thought of the charnel worms which the mad Arab Alhazred bred in the bellies of slain camels.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake”

That is the sole line that connects “The Were-Snake” with the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” was first published in Weird Tales January 1925 issue; if Long read it there…and he might have read it in manuscript, for all we know, before that due to his close association with Lovecraft during that period…it might make sense that “The Were-Snake” with its reference to Alhazred and worms was written later, sometime during early 1925, and submitted to Wright at Weird Tales. Nothing can be said for certain, until and unless more evidence comes to light, but the sequence of events makes sense.

As to the story itself… “The Were-Snake” is very similar to “The Desert Lich” and “Death-Waters.” American tourists in the Near East; more than a touch of exoticism and rather casual racial prejudice and sexism which is sometimes played for laughs:

Our consul has red hair, and he beats his wife and he judges men by the color of their skin
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake

It’s a stilted joke, since the courageous American archaeologist sleeping in the haunted ruins is trying to bluff and bluster at what he thinks are a group of indigenous people playing a trick on himthere are some parallels in this story with Helena Blavatsky’s “A Witch’s Den” (1892), which had been published in Best Psychic Stories (1920), a book that we know Long had read and lent to Lovecraft. But whereas Blavatsky’s apparition was a group of clever natives pulling a ruse, Long’s were-snake is very real…

Robert E. Howard is not known for certain to have read this story; he apparently missed several early issues of Weird Tales. Yet it is notable that one of his early Conan stories, “The God in the Bowl,” was rejected by Farnsworth Wright, includes a man-headed serpent with hypnotic powers and deific connections—was Howard at all aware of “The Were-Snake” when he wrote “The God in the Bowl?” Did Wright reject the story because that element was similar to Long’s story? The latter seems unlikely; but it’s curious that both stories have such similar monsters. There is also a reference at the beginning to Dr. John Dee, which is notable only in that it was Long who attributed to Dee an English translation of the Necronomicon in “The Space Eaters.”

For the most part, however, it’s easy to see why Long might have wished to forget about “The Were-Snake.” The central protagonist and his fiance (?) Miss Beardsley are not terribly compelling. The descriptive material in the encounters in the dark ruins are interesting, but the final revelations lack punch, and little explanation is given as to the nature of the were-snake and her siren-like charms and habits.

The reference to Abdul Alhazred seems a little absurd in hindsight—but in context? Lovecraft hadn’t really established the cosmic scope of his Mythos yet, and the Necronomicon had appeared only in “The Festival” and “The Hound” in print. Long’s usage of Alhazred was no more than a literary in-joke at this point, and not out of keeping with the uses that Lovecraft had already made of the character. That’s how the Cthulhu Mythos started in many ways, with little throwaway references that slowly built up into something else. There were no rules, no planning, little effort to standardize and a great deal of encouragement to experiment.

In hindsight, it’s hard to see where “The Were-Snake” would have “fit” into the growing Mythos, especially after Lovecraft’s death when folks like Francis T. Laney and August Derleth were making an effort to codify the Mythos. Where would the were-snake have fit in their system? Nowadays, of course, fans might say that the were-snake was of the same species as Howard’s “God in the Bowl,” or perhaps a child of Yig, but those are both concepts that came up after Long had conceived and written his piece, and there is no evidence that either Howard or Lovecraft intended any such connection to this early work by Long.

Virtually all myth cycles, fictional or otherwise, include these “fringe-level” borrowings, which but to a minor extent enter into the main body of the cycle. The contributions of other writers did not diminish the genius-inspired originality of the Cthulhu Mythos; in its major aspects it remains entirely Lovecraftian.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 24

For those who like a bit of trivia, it’s worth noting that the first Mythos entity created by someone other than Lovecraft (and one of the first Mythos entities period) was indisputably female. Whatever else she might have been—god or human, witch or monster—Long’s were-snake was a woman.

Frank Belknap Long, Jr.s’ “The Were-Snake” may be read 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).

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