Sonnets, it seems to me, are preëminently the medium for complete ideas—in short, for a poetry as nearly intellectual as poetry can be without ceasing to be poetry. There is something inherently reflective and analytical about the very form of the sonnet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 25 Feb 1924, SL1.317
The Fungi from Yuggoth is a sonnet-cycle by H. P. Lovecraft which has become, post-mortem, his most-remembered and celebrated work of poetry. As David E. Schultz deftly traces in “Dim Essences: The Origins of The Fungi from Yuggoth” in The Fungi from Yuggoth: An Annotated Edition, most of the sonnets were composed in a forty-day burst from December 1929-January 1930, but their numbering and publication proved complicated during Lovecraft’s lifetime, with various sonnets appearing in different amateur journals and Weird Tales, sometimes labeled as part of the cycle and sometimes not, often with different numbering. Never published as whole during his lifetime, the full sonnet cycle was finally compiled in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House), and has been reprinted in whole and in part many times in the decades since, as well as analyzed, illustrated, set to music, and even adapted to comics.
More than that, “The Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets have inspired generations of writers and artists. One somewhat infamous project was Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, a novel of short pieces inspired by Lovecraft’s sonnets. Most of that work was lost, but of the ones that survive “The Courtyard” was adapted to comics and launched a body of related works, notably its sequels Neonomicon and Providence. Other works were in a more poetical vein, such as the anthology More Fungi from Yuggoth (2000), and Starry Wizdom’s “Night Gaunts, Too (On reading sonnet XX in H.P. Lovecraft’s *Fungi from Yuggoth* cycle)” from Walk on the Weird Side (2017).
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth” (“in the manner of H. P. Lovecraft”) are a little more obscure. How and why she was inspired to write them isn’t clear. Briley was a noted poet associated with both state-level and national-level poetry organizations, and was no doubt at least aware of August Derleth through his poetry publications: in addition to publishing fantastic poetry through its regular imprint, Arkham House had a poetry-only imprint titled Hawk & Whipporwill. She could have read Lovecraft’s Fungi in the Arkham House Collected Poems of H. P. Lovecraft (1960), or the Ballantine paperback Fungi from Yuggoth & Other Poems (1971).
Whatever the case, in 1977 two sonnets labeled “Fungi from Yuggoth” appeared in her collection From A Weaver’s Shuttle. Newspaper accounts in ’77 and ’78 show Briley won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, possibly for that volume; the August Derleth Society Newsletter (vol. 4, no. 3, 1981), which reprinted the two Fungi claimed the poems won the August Derleth Memorial Award—unfortunately, the newspapers failed to list what awards that Briley won, and there are no lists of awardees for the NFSPS that far back currently available online, so it is hard to give specifics. The last publication of Briley’s Fungi I have been able to find is in a small pamphlet titled Weird Sonnets (1981, Owl Creek Press), which is described by one review as not a sequel to Lovecraft’s Fungi, but a collection of works that “belongs to the same loose tradition.”
Which is as accurate a description of Alice Briley’s Fungi as anything.
Her sonnets consist of “I. The Elder One” and “II. Arkham Hill.” They follow the form of Lovecraft’s Fungi, being 14 lines each; they are technically correct in terms of rhyme and meter, but probably aren’t the more beautiful lines she ever produced. The last lines to “The Elder One” for example are a bit clunky:
A feathered thing that bore a human face
Came swooping toward me in a wild descent,
and clutch me tightly in a foul embrace.
Not heaven’s herald, but from its fetid breath,
An Elder One more primative [sic] than death.
“More primitive than death” is an odd image. The rhyme works, but one wonders what exactly she was thinking of, since the “Elder One” reads more like a harpy or some fallen angel than most of Lovecraft’s creations.
“Arkham Hill” is a bit more promising, in that at least it establishes a stronger narrative and an effort at an original creation with ties to Lovecraft’s setting. The witch Eliza Pruitt lived by Arkham Hill, and many sought her until:
Until that fearful twilight when she found
Those mushrooms she had never seen before,
At dawn, they found her writhing on the ground
“Fungi from Yuggoth!” she screamed. Then said no more.
Again, not a great deal of familiarity is shown with Lovecraft’s fiction; at least, nothing to show that she had read anything beyond The Fungi from Yuggoth. Yet even that little exposure appears to have stirred her imagination, and she sought to expand on Lovecraft’s horrors in her own way. Yuggoth spores that took root in a fertile imagination and sprouted, however briefly, some fruiting bodies.
Given the decades since their last publication and Alice Briley’s demise, whether these particular Fungi will spread once again is unclear. Under current U.S. law, the work is almost certainly protected by copyright…but they are possible orphan works where determining who owns those copyrights and getting permission may be difficult and more costly than it is worth. This is an ongoing issues with many minor Mythos works, akin to some of the issues involved with fanfiction—and there is a danger that such works may be forgotten or lost with time before they can enter the public domain. Even digital archiving can be difficult without the proper permission from the copyright owners.
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth,” then, represents both the fecundity and the fragility of the Cthulhu Mythos: while Mythos works are in no immediate danger of dying out, who knows what works have already been lost, crumbling away in some forgotten fanzine?
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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