Her Letters To Lovecraft: Genevieve K. Sully & Helen V. Sully

Genevieve K. Sully, who wrote to you, is the mother of Helen Sully. Helen met HPL in 1933, and also met Donald [Wandrei]. Donald, in his visit to California, spent much time at the Sully home. HPL’s letters to the Sullys, from what I have seen of them, are marvelous and show a slightly different and most lovable angle of his multi-sided personality, together with amazing knowledge of California history and western sorcery.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 13 Apr 1937, Eccentric, Impractical Devils 255

Genevieve Knoll was born in 1880. She married James O. Sully in 1903, the same year she graduated from the University of California – Berkeley. James Sully is listed in the 1910 U.S. Census as a year older, self-employed, and an English immigrant who had been naturalized. The Sullies had two daughters: Helen V. (b. 1904) and Marion (b. 1911). Not much is known about their life and marriage; the 1920 U.S. Census lists two Genevieve Sullies in California, with daughters Helen and Marion, one in Berkeley (with James as head of household) and one in Auburn (without), and one suspects that they were separated at this point, perhaps for economic reasons (more work in Berkeley)—there are suggestions in Clark Ashton Smith’s letters that Genevieve was splitting her time between Auburn and Berkeley, and was married at least as late as 1925 (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 75). By the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Genevieve and James were listed as divorced. While in Auburn, the Sullies met a young poet, artist, and day-laborer named Clark Ashton Smith who cared for his two aging parents:

It was in the fall of 1919 that we first met Clark and became interested in his poetry. We were all congenial from the start. We also took many walks in the foothills near Auburn, enjoying the woods, rocks and flowers, Clark Always adding to our love and appreciation of Nature.
—Genevieve K. Sully, Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography 190

Genevieve was 39 in 1919; Clark Ashton Smith was 26. They remained friends—and perhaps more than that—for decades. We get only scattered references to her in Smith’s letters, and a handful of letters to her are reprinted in the Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, showing that they were close friends and she was an admirer and promoter of his art. While no letters yet published have explicitly referred to a sexual relationship, their acquaintence has long been considered an affair, and at one point he had even made out a last will and testament bequeathing her his library, paintings, and art objects (EID 309). One of her most significant impacts on Smith, as far as weird fiction fans are concerned, was apparently encouraging Smith to write for Weird Tales:

One hot summer—that of 1927—when we were all wilted and tired of the heat, we invited Clark to go with us on a camping trip to the moutnains in the Donner Peak-Summit region. In order to take this trip, CLark had to make complicated arrangements for the comfort of his parents. […] It is hard for anyone to believe the primiaitive way in which the SMiths lived—no running water or electricty, and a kichen stove as the only means of heat and cooking. […]

After a few days of short walks, we proposed a longer walk—to Crater Ridge—where we had gone many times in the past, but now we were going with a companion who came under a spell of strange thought, transforming the scene into a foreboding and grotesque landscape, which Clark later used in his now famous story, “The City of the Singing Flame.” Clark wandered about among the boulders, studying the rocks and general terrain. We could all see that he was deeply affected by the place.

Later in the afternoon while Clark was still feeling a strange influence, after we had sat down to looka t the views which combine to make this place especially beautiful, I suddenly sugested that he use his powers of writing for fiction, which would be more emuneratie than poetry. His financial situation at the time was critical, and some practical advice seemed in order.
—Genevieve K. Sully, Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography 190

Whether it was this exact trip or another, something like this certainly happened, for Smith confirmed it:

About eighteen months ago, I was taken to task for idleness by a woman-friend, and pledged myself to industry. Once started, the pledge has not been hard to keep.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1931, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 297

Relatively less is heard of Helen and Marion during this period, though both women graduated highschool and apparently university, with a focus on music. Both of them would also have heard of H. P. Lovecraft, for during one trip Smith read aloud one of his stories to them by campfirelight:

By the way, I read your “Picture in the House” aloud one evening by the light of our campfire in the mountains; and it was received with great enthusiasm by my hostess Mrs. Sully and her daughters.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Aug 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 227

In 1933, Helen was a 29-year old and working as a teacher of music and art at the Auburn highschool, when she decided to take a trip by boat through the Panama Canal, with a stop in Cuba, and then New York, Providence, Quebec, and Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. Smith was conscientious to write ahead to Providence and New York so that Helen V. Sully would have a warm welcome.

My aunt & I will be greatly pleased to welcome your friend Miss Sully if she visits Providence, & can undoubtedly display enough historic & antiquarian sights to fill a sojourn of any duration. If the East is new to her, she will find in its many evidences of long, continuous settlement a quite unique fascination.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Jun 1933, DS 420

I think a day will enable Miss Sully to see most of the historic high spots of urban Providence, & I shall be glad to exhibit them when she arrives. Tell her to let me know exact place & date of arrival, & I will be on hand—trusting to ingenuity in establishing identification. When she is in New York she ought without fail to look up the Longs—230 West 97th St. They are in a better position to entertain her than any other “gang” family, having a pleasant apartment, a lavish table, a car, & a servant. Sonny Belknap is one of your staunchest admirers, whatever may be his lapses as a correspondent. The Longs’ telephone is Riverside 9-3465.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Jun 1933, DS 423

I trust Miss Sully’s trip is proving pleasant; & shall, unless contrarily instructed, be on the lookout July 19 at 6 a.m. at the Colonial Line pier . . . . which lies right in the lee of the ancient hill’s southerly extremity, on a waterfront having considerable picturesqueness. The yellow poppy ought to facilitate identification—though it’s too bad you couldn’t have furnished some of your typical nameless vegetation from Saturn & Antares! A second day in Prov. would enable many picturesque suburbs, (& perhaps ancient Newport) as well as the city proper to be covered; thus affording an extremely [good] picture of R.I. I hope that young Melmoth & Sonny Belknap [take] part in displaying seething Manhattan to the visitor—[& if she is] not already provided with Bostonian guidance, I think that [W. Paul] Cook would be delighted to shew off the Athens of America. I [envy] Miss Sully her coming sight of Quebec—to which I fear I can’t get this year, since my aunt’s accident will probably prevent any long absences on my part.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 12 Jul 1933, DS 425-426

Hope I haven’t bored Klarkash-Ton’s gifted emissary with colonial sights. We tried a new boat today–a rival to the old Sagamore. Yr obt Grandsire
Melmoth III
and Helen
—H. P. Lovecraft and Helen Sully to Donald Wandrei, 20 Jul 1933, LWP 306

Elsewhere in his letters, Lovecraft joked that his young friends Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Donald Wandrei nearly fought a duel over the right to host Miss Sully:

By the way–a very gifted & prepossessing friend of Klarkash-Ton’s in Auburn is touring the east (after a trip through the Panama Canal & to Cuba) for the first time, & looking up his various friends & correspondents….a young gentlewoman, a teacher of music & drawing, named Helen V. Sully. She looked up Wandrei & Belknap in N.Y., & the Longs brought her here in their car when ound for Onset last Wednesday. After seeing Prov. & Newport she has gone on to Gloucester & Quebec. On the return trip she will pass through Chicago & look up Wright–& if you can get down there (about Aug. 8 or 9–I’ll let you known when she decides & notifies me), she would like very much to meet you. Try it if possible.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Jul 1933, Essential Solitude 2.595-596

Sorry you won’t be in Chicago during Miss Sully’s brief stay there–she is an extremely intelligent & prepossessing young person, & Wandrei & Sonny Belknap nearly fought a duel (2 syllables, not rhyming with cool!) over the question of precedence in escorting her about New York during her sojourn in the place. Whether her predetermined tourist itinerary will permit of a side-trip to Sauk City I don’t know, but I’ll pass your invitation on when writing her next momentary address. She gives quite an interesting picture of good old Klarkash-Ton–who would seem to be sorely hadnicapped by poverty, parental dominance, & a generally uncongenial environment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, late Jul 1933, Essential Solitude 2.598-599

Helen didn’t manage to get to Sauk City to see Derleth, but she met Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright in Chicago before returning home.

news

The Placer Herald, 22 July 1933

The 1933 trip is perhaps more remembered by Lovecraft fans for her brief memoir of the visit, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” (originally published as “Memories of Lovecraft: II” in 1969), where she wrote that he insisted on paying for all the expenses of her brief stay in Providence, despite his economic circumstances…and for one anecdote in particular:

That night, after dinner, he took me down into a graveyard near where Edgar Allan Poe had lived, or was he buried there? I can’t remember. It was dark and he began telling me strange, weird stories in a sepulchral tone and, despite the fact that I am a very matter-of-fact person, something about his manner, the darkness, and a sort of eery light that seemed to hover over the gravestones got me so wrought up that I began running out of the cemetery with him close at my heels, and with the one thought that I must get up to the street before he, or whatever it was, grabbed me. I reached a street lamp trembling, panting, and almost in tears and he had the strangest look on his face, almost of triumph. Nothing was said.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 365-366

She apparently shared this sensation with Lovecraft, as he later wrote to her:

About the hidden churchyard of St. John’s—there must be some unsuspected vampiric horror burrowing down there & emitting vague miasmatic influences, since you are the third person to receive a definite creep of fear drom it….the others being Samuel Loveman & H. Warner Munn. I took Loveman there at midngiht, & when we got separated among the tombs he couldn’t be quite sure whether a faint luminosity bobbing above a distant nameless grave was my electric torch or a corpse-light of less describably origin! Munn was there with W. Paul Cook & me, & had an odd, unacountable dislike of a certain unplaceable, deliberate scratching which recurred at intervals around 3 a.m. How superstitous some people are!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman and Helen V. and Genevieve Sully 305

More important, however, was what that visit led to: a correspondence between Lovecraft and the Sullies.

The next day, I left. I wrote to thank Mr. Lovecraft for all his kindness. […] Our correspondence dated from my first letter to him. My impulse was to answer immediately. But he, in turn, always answered almost by return mail. His letters were so voluminous and must have taken so long to write and I felt his talents should be used elsewhere: and always felt guilty that he should spend so much time on me. The result was that I deliberately became less punctual about writing, to my present regret, because I do not think now that I was taking his time from more valuable work. My writing became more and more sporadic, but I think we corresponded up to a time near his death.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 366

The surviving correspondence consists of 25 letters, dating from immediately after Helen’s note of thanks in July 1933 until July 1936. As Clark Ashton Smith said, the letters are full of Lovecraft’s typical erudition, ranging widely in subject, going over his travels and politics, Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams and Howard Wandrei’s artwork among many others. She in turn wrote of her hiking trips and visits to Clark Ashton Smith, her friends and other issues…and, perhaps, opened up to him a little about her inner life.

By mid-1934, Helen had confided to Lovecraft a sense of melancholy or oppression about life—in fact, thoughts of death, and perhaps suicide—exactly what she said is unclear, as we only have Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence, but there is a thread in their correspondence on happiness and the meaning of life where Lovecraft portrays both a sort of objective optimism about life and death, which lasted over a year. The culmination of this line of thought was in 1935, where he seems to quote from her own letters about feeling “hopeless, useless, incompetent, & generally miserable” (LTS 423)—to which Lovecraft responded by pointing out how gifted she was, and how much more miserable he should be in his own circumstances, and finally says:

So—as a final homiletic word from garrulous & sententious old age—for Tsathoggua’s sake cheer up! Things aren’t as bad as they seem—& even if your highest ambitions are never fulfilled, you will undoubtedly find enough cheering things along the road to make existence worth enduring.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 15 August 1935, LTS 431

This is a side of Lovecraft that is rarely seen; the closest point of comparison is probably in 1936 when Lovecraft did his best to keep C. L. Moore occupied after the death of her fiancé. Perhaps it even helped; Helen V. Sully lived a long, full life. In remembering him in 1969, she ended:

Anyone who came into contact with him could not fail to realize that here was a rare and unique person, of great refinement and brilliant intellect, and one who combined the genius which produced his finest writings and the attributes of a true gentleman.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 366

There is far less to say about the correspondence between Lovecraft and Genevieve K. Sully. Only four letters from Lovecraft to her are known to survive, dating from 1934 to 1937, and Lovecraft may have conveyed respects to her through his letters to Helen V. Sully and Clark Ashton Smith rather than corresponding with her directly for the most part. The 1934 letters apparently were sent to commemorate trips that Mrs. Sully had taken and included gifts including an “elongated, acorn-like object which somewhat baffles my botanical ignorance” (LTS 473)—probably an immature Redwood pine cone. She also reported on Donald Wandrei’s visit to see Clark Ashton Smith in November 1934, during which Wandrei was hosted by the Sullies.

The final letter, dated 7 February 1937, is a belated response to a 1936 Christmas card or letter that Genevieve K. Sully had thought to send to him, and includes a copy of his poem “To Klarkash-Ton, Wizard of Averoigne” and reports on the local cats, and on coming into acquaintence with Jonquil & Fritz Leiber Jr. Perhaps there were other letters, now lost; the genial tone and subjects of the last epistle suggests they might have kept up a sporadic correspondence. Lovecraft signed off with: “Best 1937 wishes for all the househould.—Yrs most sincerely—H. P. Lovecraft” (LTS 487).

Nor did the Sullies forget Lovecraft in later years. Clark Ashton Smith wrote to August Derleth in the 1940s:

Don’t forget my extra copy of Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The one you sent me will go as a slightly overdue birthday gift to Mrs. Sully’s daughter Helen (Mrs. Nelson Best) who met Lovecraft through my introduction back in 1933.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, EID 342

Can you send me another copy of Something About Cats and add it to my bill? I want it for a girl who once met Lovecraft.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 7 Dec 1949, EID 412

Many fans may only know Helen V. Sully as “a girl who once met Lovecraft,” but that rather understates the relationship. Taken together, Lovecraft’s correspondence with Genevieve K. Sully and Helen V. Sully was fairly substantial, and covered aspects of geography and philosophy which he did not broach with any other correspondent. While we can only speculate what it meant to a young woman who felt depressed in her daily life to receive a letter from a kind older man who write to her about cats and to “for Tsathoggua’s sake cheer up!”…perhaps it helped. What more can any human being do for another, when they’re feeling down?

Fourteen letters and postcards to Helen V. Sully were excerpted for volumes IV and V of the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft; all twenty-five pieces of correspondence were published in full, along with the four letters from Genevieve K. Sully, in Letters to Wilfred B. Talman and to Helen V. and Genevive Sully. Several of the original letters can be viewed online.


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

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