“Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021) by J. Lily Corbie

“The only times women are even mentioned in these books, we’re…sacrifices or vessels. We’re things, tools to use, a means to an end.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

2021 marks a century of women being involved with the Cthulhu Mythos. From “Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter to She Walks In Shadows (2015) and Dreams From The Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2015), through all of the women who Lovecraft collaborated with and ghostwrote for, the women fans who wrote poems and stories and novels of the Mythos over the decades expanding and exploring the shared world. Women were there from the beginning…and they are still here, still writing, still creating new art, fiction, poetry, etc.

For all that women have made their mark in the literature of Lovecraftian fiction, the place of women within the Mythos has been less explored. Many authors have expanded on Lovecraft’s original stories and characters in various ways. “The Head of T’la-yub” (2015) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas offers a new way of looking at “The Mound”; “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales explores patriarchy in Innsmouth; “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo posits a matriarchial twist on “Arthur Jermyn”; “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron offer two different interpretations of Mamie Bishop from “The Dunwich Horror.” The story of women in the Mythos has been recast, reexamined, expanded and elaborated upon; their legacies continue to grow.

Yet very rarely is this a case of women within the stories on a journey of discovery for the women that came before them. We don’t often see female characters confront the fact that the stories of Keziah Mason, Lavinia Whateley, and Marceline Bedard within the fictional universe are few, and mostly related by men. A hypothetical woman student, searching for women cultists, might be hard-pressed to find anything definitive about what role women played in the rites and ceremonies of the cult of Cthulhu. Historical sexism is alive and well in Lovecraft country.

As we walked between them, she said, “It wasn’t deliberate.” She glanced at me sideways. “Most of the time, at least. Our works have been discarded and destroyed because they were simply considered unimportant or uninteresting. They were lost to history through accident and neglect as often as malice. They’ve gone unarchived in libraries, uncollected in museums for those same reasons. But the dreamlands are ours.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray, the Salem Witch Trials are attributed to the persecution of an actual coven. Those Salem witches, both the real women who died and the fictional counterparts they inspired, like Keziah Mason in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” have left descendents—and a stamp on the collective memory. To some, like Lovecraft’s unnamed correspondent who claimed descent from Mary Easty, witchcraft was real—or at least something she wanted to be real. A spiritual heritage that she could be a part of.

Corbie’s “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” is similar to “Down into Silence” (2018) by Storm Constantine in that there is a wistfulness to it. In a contemporary, mundane world with smartphones and the internet, the legends of Arkham’s witch-haunted streets seems far away, and perhaps a bit silly. In her version of Arkham, which could easily fit in the same world as Constantine’s Innsmouth, students grown at failed rituals and wonder if the fault is in them…or if there just isn’t any magic in the first place. No deeper truth to learn.

Is it the case that the Mythos isn’t real—or is it just not for women?

In many ways, Corbie’s answer to that reflects the truth of women’s continued contributions to the Mythos. While their work may be overlooked or forgotten for a time, it is still there—and they are still there, waiting to be discovered. Sometimes with a little help from their friends, sisters, fellow initiates and would-be-cultists. It’s not just that women are an intimate and vital part of creating the Mythos, but they are an intimate and vital part of the fictional universe of the Mythos. You do not have a Dunwich horror without Lavinia Whateley.

Corbie’s approach to the story is multi-layered, bordering on the metafictional. While she’s keeping it strictly within the confines of the fictional universe where Arkham and Miskatonic University are real, there are contemporary sensibilities at play in how she re-interprets some of the events and characters. Marceline Bedard of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, for example, is described as:

“Murdered,” she said, “for perceived sins of ancestry rather than the sins of her voluntary commission.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

As a narrative, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” is ultimately an extended induction, both for the protagonist Lizza and for the readers. No Merlin is here to guide a young Arthur to the sword in the stone, no Hagrid appears to say: “You’re a wizard, Harry.” If Lizza and her friends want to be witches in the Lovecraftian vein, they have to find out how to open that door themselves…and it is every bit as perilous, damaging, and difficult one might expect. It’s not enough to copy the words from the old books and say them at the right time.

The real question we are left with…the stories yet to be told…are what Lizza might do with her Silver Key, once she gets it. Those should be worth reading.

J. Lily Corbie’s “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” was published on her blog on 1 May 2021.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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