In the autumn of 1924, J. C. Henneberger, owner of Weird Tales, owed H. P. Lovecraft some money. Unable to lay hands on the funds immediately, Henneberger instead transferred to Lovecraft his sizable credit at the prominent New York bookseller Scribner’s. Lovecraft hoped to convert this into cash, but unable to do this, he was left with $60 credit—so, Lovecraft and his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. decided to go on a buying spree, purchasing a number of books by Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and works of history. Lovecraft even picked up a book for his friend:
For Belknap (his own choice)
The Thing In the Woods (new horror novel)—Harper Williams
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.185
Before Lovecraft gave Long his gift, he read the whole novel himself. So it was less than a month later Lovecraft wrote to his aunt:
On this occasion I presented Belknap with the book which I got for him at Scribner’s a couple of months ago, but which I kept until I might have a chance to read it. It is an excellent horror story by someone I never heard of before—Harper Williams—entitled “The Thing in the Woods”, & dealing with the superstitious Pennsylvania countryside. There is more than a hint of obscure lycanthropy—but read it for yourself when you get here! On the flyleaf I wrote the following dedication to the Child:
BELKNAP, accept from Theobold’s ſpectral Claw
Theſe haunting Chapters of dæmoniack Awe;
Such nightmare Yarns we both have often writ,
With goblin Whiſpers, and an Hint of IT.
Till ſure, we’re like to think all Terror’s grown
A ſort of private Product of our own!
Leſt, then, our Pride our ſober Senſe miſlead,
And make us copyright each helliſh Deed,
‘Tis ours to ſee what ghastly Flames can blaze
From Spooks and Ghouls that other Wizards raiſe!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.229
The poem is sometimes given or indexed under the title “[On The Thing In the Woods by Harper Williams].” Written more than half in jest, with its 18th-century style including the long s (ſ), it yet carries an important point: Lovecraft never saw himself (or he and his friends) as having any monopoly on weird fiction, and appreciated discovering new authors and new horrors.
The Thing In the Woods would disappear from Lovecraft’s writings after this; he did not keep a copy for himself, never mentions it or Harper Williams in any other letter, and would not even include it among other notable stories in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Yet there are two points of interest for this novel, above and beyond the story itself: the identity of the author, and the influence it may well have had on “The Dunwich Horror.”
“Harper Williams” was the pseudonym of Margery Winifred Williams Bianco; Harper had been her mother’s maiden name. She is best known today as the author of the classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), under the name Margery Williams, but before the Great War she wrote a handful of novels aimed at adults. The Thing In the Woods was her first horror novel, set in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where she spent a few childhood years, and was originally published in the United Kingdom in 1913 under her own name, while the 1924 edition that Lovecraft bought with his credit was the first American edition. Possibly the success of The Velveteen Rabbit encouraged her to use a pseudonym to avoid confusing her work with children with her work for adults.
In 1982, Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price wrote and published “The Pine Barrens Horror”—an essay which speculated that the fantabulous anatomy of Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror” might have been inspired in part by the Jersey Devil. Eminent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi managed to find a Lovecraft connection: the Jersey Devil was mentioned in the obscure and long-out of print novel The Thing In the Woods by Harper Williams. Price was able to secure a copy, which he eventually reprinted in the collection Tales Out of Dunwich:
It was not easy finding a copy (a library discard, still however possessed by the Mississippi Library Commission, which I secured through Interlibrary Loan at Drew University), but when I did, I plunged in. (10)
What has excited the interest of Lovecraft scholars is less the Jersey Devil references than the other similarities shared between Williams’ novel and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” Both works take a rural setting, and both center on a pair of twin brothers born out of wedlock—one of which is confined to a shed at times, and who has a dislike of dogs. It does not take much imagination to see how Lovecraft might have been inspired by such details in crafting his story, although in tone and style of telling they are very different.
When Lovecraft wrote “there is more than a hint of obscure lycanthropy,” he was spoiling the novel a bit. For most of the length of the book it is something of a rural thriller, closer to a weird crime novel than anything explicitly supernatural; while there are periodic mentions of beliefs in witches and the Jersey Devil, it is really only in the last chapter that the solution to the mystery is presented as something truly unnatural. That being said, that final chapter and the werewolf-lore in it would not be out of line with some of the werewolf stories that appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, like Greye La Spina’s novel Invaders from the Dark (Apr-May-Jun 1925) or Seabury Quinn’s “The Wolf of St. Bonnot” (Dec 1930).
This was long before Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) set in stone in the popular media some of the common conceptions about werewolves; before even Montague Summers’ The Werewolf (1933), which would become a sourcebook for weird writers. There is no infection from a bite, nor does the moon have any effect on the transformation. There is a silver bullet, but that might have come from Whittier’s “The Garrison of Cape Ann” (1857) or The Book of Were-Wolves (1865) by Sabine Baring-Gould, or any source after those. No doubt Lovecraft was less-interested in the werewolf theme than he was in Williams’ skillful handling of the narrative, the realism she achieved in the setting and characters, and how she built up to the culminating revelation—though not exactly as Lovecraft would do it.
The Lovecraft connection and the internet have, after a very long interval, rescued Williams’ novel from complete oblivion. In the 1980s, finding a copy of an obscure 1920s weird novel would have been a daunting task; today, The Thing In the Woods is in the public domain, and has been scanned and made available for everyone to read online at Google Books, Hathitrust, and there is a LibriVox audiobook on the Internet Archive.
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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One thought on “The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams”
Among your related items you might have included “The Hollow Skin by Virginia Swain”, (Ferrar & Rinehart, 1938)also about a were-snake.