A Short History of the LGBTQ+ Mythos

[…] and all the queer things were fixed very strongly in his mind.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Colour Out of Space”

LGBTQ+ folks have existed throughout history, though changing gender and sexual norms, and shifting understanding of human biology, psychology, and sexuality, have changed how LGBTQ+ folks were historically understand and identified. H. P. Lovecraft, for example, never used the term “transgender” because it hadn’t been coined until several decades after his death, and when he used the term “queer” he meant odd, strange, or weird.

Yet even if Lovecraft didn’t have the same vocabulary to describe LGBTQ+ folks that people do today, they still existed. He met and interacted with them. LGTBQ+ folks had their part to play in his life and the development and dissemination of the Lovecraft Mythos, and after his death LGBTQ+ authors have played an increasing part in the expansion and redefining of the Cthulhu Mythos.

This brief history is primarily a quick history of the involvement of LGTBQ+ folks with the Mythos; it cannot be and does not pretend to be comprehensive, but aims to provide a quick overview of the last century and change.

Lovecraft, Homophobia, & LGBTQ+ (1914-1937)

I guess it is true that homosexuality is a rare theme for novels—partly because public attention was seldom called to it (except briefly during the Wilde period) until a decade ago, & partly because any literary use of it always incurs the peril of legal censorship. As a matter of fact—although of course I always knew that paederasty was a disgusting custom of many ancient nations—I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty…which beats your record! It is possible, I think that this perversion occurs more frequently in some periods than in others—owing to obscure biological & psychological causes. Decadent ages—when psychology is unsettled—seem to favour it. Of course—in ancient times the extent of the practice of paederasty (as a custom which most simply accepted blindly, without any special inclination) cannot be taken as any measure of the extent of actual psychological perversion. Another thing—many nowadays overlook the fact that there are always distinctly effeminate types which are most distinctly not homosexual. I don’t know how psychology explains them, but we all know the sort of damned sissy who plays with girls & who—when he grows up—is a chronic “cake-eater”, hanging around girls, doting on dances, acquiring certain feminine mannerisms, intonations, & tastes, & yet never having even the slightest perversion of erotic inclinations.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 14 Aug 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 146

Homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender and queer identities were publicly, scientifically, and often legally seen as a sexual perversion and mental illness during H. P. Lovecraft’s lifetime (1890-1937), and for some time beyond that. Lovecraft’s experiences with LGBTQ+ folks reflect the social norms, taboos, and medical stigmas that were attached to any sexuality or gender identity that veered away from the heterosexual cisgender norm, and consequently the understanding of these sexualities, identities, and issues was often very poor.

In the quote above, for example, it can clearly be seen that Lovecraft was confusing sexuality and gender identity, and conflating homosexuality with pedophilia (as many bigots continue to do today). Lovecraft was raised in a culture that praised masculinity and masculine identity, and often deprecated undesirable individuals as “effeminate.” To Lovecraft, it was perfectly in keeping to assume that gay men would desire to have sex with other men because they were effectively women in men’s bodies (Uranian). This perceived deviation could be the subject of mockery, and even violence:

Have you seen that precious sissy that I met in Cleveland? Belknap says he’s hit the big town, and that he’s had some conversation with him. When I saw that marcelled what is it I don’t know whether to kiss it or kill it! It used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Elgin’s and gaze soulfully upward. It didn’t like me and Galpin—too horrid, rough and mannish for it!

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1924, Letters to James F. Morton 63

Lovecraft met relatively few individuals that were “out” during his lifetime, because individuals who weren’t closeted faced violence and/or legal persecution, as was the case of Oscar Wilde. Lovecraft is not personally known to have acted on this information beyond a few brief passages in his letters. When critics and biographers talk about Lovecraft’s homophobia, this is what they are talking about. It isn’t entirely clear if Lovecraft was even aware of the sexuality of his gay friends and colleagues, and it is worth mentioning the most prominent and important ones briefly.

Samuel Loveman (1887-1976) was a gay Jewish poet, bookman, and amateur journalist. Lovecraft stumbled across Loveman’s work in 1917 and admired his poetry, and the two began a long correspondence and friendship, with Lovecraft often praising and boosting Loveman’s work. The two finally met in 1921 in New York City, both of them invited there by Sonia H. Greene (Lovecraft’s future wife). In 1922 Lovecraft visited Loveman in Cleveland, where he met Loveman’s friend the gay poet Hart Crane (1899-1932), and others in their circle, including composer Gordon Hatfield, the “precious sissy” in the above letter. In 1924 Lovecraft and Greene eloped to New York; Loveman and Crane moved there as well, with Loveman as Lovecraft’s upstairs neighbor for a period. In time, the marriage failed, and Lovecraft moved back to Providence, RI.

Lovecraft never directly referenced Loveman’s homosexuality, and may have been ignorant of it; Loveman would go on to write “To Satan” (1923) dedicated to Lovecraft, and “To Mr. Theobald” (1926). They remained friends until Lovecraft’s death. It is also unclear if Lovecraft knew of Crane’s sexuality, although there are hints in Lovecraft’s letters that suggested he knew, and Frank Belknap Long wrote in a memoir: “Howard and the rest knew of it, but that didn’t affect their friendship with Crane” (Long Memories and Other Writings 56). Ultimately, Lovecraft and Crane were only passing acquaintances.

Amateur journalism also included several other LGBTQ+ numbers, most eminently lesbian Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986) and her gay associate Roswell George Mills (1896-1966). Gidlow and Lovecraft were presidents of rival factions of the United Amateur Press Association, and while they had little direct contact, his letters give evidence that Lovecraft was certainly aware of them and their publication of the amateur journal Les Mouches Fantastiques, which he was critical of. Whether Lovecraft was aware they were homosexuals is not clear. In any event, these too were brief contacts that had little effect on Lovecraft.

The most substantial LGBTQ+ friends Lovecraft had were August Derleth (1909-1971) and Robert H. Barlow (1918-1951). They shared a love of weird fiction and an appreciation of Weird Tales, and were regular correspondents for the rest of his life. Together, both men would have a profound impact on the life and legacy of H. P. Lovecraft, and shape Mythos fiction for decades to come.

August Derleth began corresponding with H. P. Lovecraft in 1926. In her biography Derleth: Hawk…and Dove (1997) by Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky made the claim that Derleth was a closeted bisexual and had carried on affairs with both men and women. The evidence to support the claim of Derleth’s sexual relationships with men is a bit scanty, but Derleth’s letters with Lovecraft (Essential Solitude) and Ramsey Campbell (Letters to Arkham) show Derleth was at least more cognizant of and conversant with homosexuality than Lovecraft.

R. H. Barlow was younger than Derleth when he began corresponding with Lovecraft in 1931. In 1934, on one of his trips to Florida, Lovecraft was invited to stay with Barlow and his family—where Lovecraft found out his friend’s true age. Lovecraft would visit the Barlows again in 1935, and young Barlow would visit Lovecraft in New York in 1935 and Providence in 1936. If Lovecraft was aware that Barlow was homosexual, he gave no hint in his letters, although Derleth appears to have suspected Barlow’s orientation since 1936.

Before his death in 1937, Lovecraft had left instructions naming the teenage Barlow his literary executor; and Barlow’s efforts to have Lovecraft’s papers deposited at Brown University’s John Hay Library preserved letters, manuscripts, and other materials that would form the core of Lovecraft scholarship to the present day. August Derleth worked with his friend Donald Wandrei to preserve Lovecraft’s literary legacy by bringing his work to print; and when major publishing houses turned them down they founded Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters. As an author, editor, publisher, biographer, and critic, Derleth worked tirelessly to promote Lovecraft’s work and promote his legend.

Given the stigma attached to LGBTQ+ issues during his lifetime, it’s no surprise that early Mythos fiction contains almost nothing directly pertaining to sexuality or gender issues during Lovecraft’s lifetime. The major exception is “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937), the last of his stories published in Weird Tales during his lifetime.

From Lovecraft to Stonewall (1937-1969)

Lovecraft met and was influenced by many people in his life, and that no doubt included more LGBTQ+ folks than just those mentioned above. Suggestions that fellow-writers and correspondents like Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) were gay generally lack evidence, but the very fact those claims are put forward showcases an awareness of and interest—some would say an obsession—with identifying closeted homosexuals as part of the Lavender scare moral panic. Nor was Lovecraft immune from speculation about his sex life and sexuality:

His stories are sexless and one supposes the man was nearly so, all but mothered into impotency. One can say that almost all of his adult relationships were homosexual, if the word is intended in the blandest sense: there is no sign of strong sexual impulse of any kind. He was “not at ease” with women. His marriage was a mistake and a quick failure. He was disturbed by even mildly sexual writing.

Winfield Townley Scott, “His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1944) in Lovecraft Remembered 26

Nearly every word of that is factually incorrect, but it showcases the thinking of the time. The decades after Lovecraft’s death were not good ones in which to be LGTBQ+, as persecution and discrimination heightened after World War II. R. H. Barlow committed suicide in Mexico at the beginning of 1951; one of the possible reasons he took his own life was an attempt to blackmail him over his homosexual lifestyle. We may never know if that is true, but it emphasized the duress under which LGBTQ+ folks lived.

Derleth continued tirelessly with Arkham House. Working with Wandrei and Barlow, Derleth worked to shape Lovecraft’s literary legacy with collections of his fiction, letters, and essays, as well as memoirs about him. With Barlow’s absence or compliance on most matters related to Lovecraft and an agreement with Lovecraft’s surviving aunt, Arkham House had de facto control of the Lovecraft copyrights—and Derleth used that to bluster, sometimes threatening legal action, to squash publication of material antithetical to Lovecraft’s image (e.g. James Warren Thomas’ masters thesis H. P. Lovecraft: A Self-Portrait, 1950) and any Mythos fiction produced outside Arkham House (e.g. C. Hall Thompson’s fiction such as “The Spawn of the Green Abyss,” 1946).

Mythos fiction under Derleth’s aegis largely consisted of reprinting Lovecraft’s published and unpublished fiction, and the related Mythos fiction of his friends and colleagues such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and himself—the latter of which consisted of both original fiction and so-claimed “posthumous collaborations.” In the 1960s, Derleth began to publish more Mythos fiction from other writers, notably Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. This new generation began to bring differing attitudes of what was acceptable in horror fiction, and Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (1969) is the first English-language Mythos story to address homosexuality.

Despite these efforts, Derleth did not have complete control of publishing, and some Mythos fiction became published outside his purview (and perhaps without his knowledge). For example, “Celui qui suscitait l’effroi…” (1958) by Jacques Janus, published in France, revisited the gender-bending issues raised by “The Thing on the Doorstep”; and “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ is probably the first Mythos fiction written by a lesbian, although Russ was not out about her sexuality at the time. The first Mythos parody published by a gay writer might be “At the Mountains of Murkiness, or From Lovecraft to Leacock” (1940) by Arthur C. Clarke, but again, Clarke was not open about his sexuality at the time. Many fans might have been reading fiction from LGBTQ+ writers for decades and never known it, as the consequences of being outed could be severe.

So there wasn’t exactly an LGBTQ+ Mythos underground sticking it to the man in the form of August Derleth. What was happening is that a new generation of LGBTQ+ writers was coming of age and ingesting Lovecraft and Mythos fact and fiction. Paperback publication in the 1960s and a handful of film and comic book adaptations were bringing Lovecraft and the Mythos to a wider and wider audience…and in 1969 the Stonewall riots became the spark for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.

It was, in other words, increasingly okay to be gay and a Lovecraft fan.

Beyond the Derleth Mythos (1969-2015)

August Derleth died in 1971, and with his passing came a shift in Mythos publishing. The legal bluster that Derleth had used to try and exert influence over Lovecraft’s posthumous image largely died with him; and critical assessments of fiction (“The Derleth Mythos,” 1972) sparked a pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of Lovecraft and his Mythos. The fanzine and newspaper articles of yesteryear began to give way to scholarly and academic essays and hardbound books. Many of these still evinced the lavender scare hangups; in the first full Lovecraft biography, L. Sprague de Camp summarized the issue so far as HPL was concerned:

The question of Lovecraft’s sexuality has stirred much interest. Some writers have called him “sexless.” Others have surmised that he might have been a homosexual or at least a latent one. They have cited his indifference to heterosexual relationships; the lack of women in his stories, whose leading characters are often a single male narrator and one close male friend; and his many friendships with younger men, some of whom either were overt homosexuals or had tendencies in that direct.

“Latent homosexuality,” however, is a vague, slippery concept. Moreover, the charge of “latent homosexual tendencies” has become such a fad that it is leveled at almost any notable whose love life is at all unusual.

L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography 189

De Camp (1907-2000), however, was of the older generation, and the newer scholars, fans, and writers attracted to the Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction were more open to new and accepting interpretations of sexuality and gender identity and fresh takes on Lovecraft and the Mythos. What’s more, without Arkham House throttling production, other publishers could publish their own Mythos fiction by new writers. While there are far too many Mythos writers during these decades to name them all, some stand out as helping to shape a more inclusive Mythos literary landscape, writers who by their work and by their lives stand out from the rest.

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) became a leading postmodernist and member of the Beat Generation; his explicit writings on homosexuality shocked audiences, but also helped expand the possibilities of science fiction. The influence of Lovecraft on Burroughs can be seen in works like Cities of the Red Night (1981).

Richard A. Lupoff (1935-2020) broke ground when he wrote “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), re-interpreting an homage to Lovecraft in the form of New Wave science fiction, explicitly including the first explicit transgender and bisexual characters in Lovecraftian fiction.

Stanley C. Sargent (1950-2018) broke ground in Mythos fiction in the 90s with stories like “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997), offering far different readings and interpretations of Mythos classics. Stan also authored what is probably the most coherent argument for Lovecraft as a closeted homosexual in a 1997 interview with Peter A. Worthy. Whether or not readers agree, it shows how openly LGBTQ+ people could now become in discussing their lives, and how they felt their experiences were reflected in the Mythos—which had its scholarly counterpart in work like Robert M. Price’s essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982).

W. H. Pugmire (1951-2019) grew up in the era of punk rock and Boy George, and became the self-declared “Queen of Eldritch Horror.” While mostly remembered today for his sensual, evocative prose, including his re-workings of familiar Mythos entities (e.g. “An Imp of Aether,”1997) and his own personal corner of Lovecraft country in the Pacific Northwest called Sesqua Valley (e.g. “Some Distant Baying Sound,” 2009), Pugmire was also influential as an editor. While a good deal of Mythos publishing in the 90s was focused on pastiche, Pugmire emphasized the importance of Lovecraft’s themes and atmosphere over his eldritch tomes and unspeakable names. He also collaborated with similar-minded writers like Jessica Amanda Salmonson (1950-) with works like “Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) that explored these themes.

Caitlín R. Kiernan (1964-) has sometimes been called “Lovecraft’s spiritual granddaughter,” and it shows. Kiernan’s Mythos and Lovecraftian stories often feature strong female characters, including several prominent depictions of lesbians in stories such as “Paedomorphosis” (1998) “Paedomorphosis” (1998), and sometimes broaches transgender themes such as in “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005). These people are not caricatures but realistic depictions of LGBTQ+ folks as flawed human beings, often struggling with themselves and their relationships.

Billy Martin (1967-) who wrote as Poppy Z. Brite, also pushed boundaries in the Lovecraftian milieu with stories like “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood” (1990) and “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998). Like Kiernan and Pugmire, they were part of a 90s generation that pushed the limits of what Lovecraftian was and could be.

Writers whose work post-2010 stand out for their inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and themes include Jordan L. Hawk, who writes the Whyborne & Griffith series, a homosexual romantic fantasy with Lovecraftian elements begging with Widdershins (2013); Molly Tanzer whose works include “Herbert West in Love” (2012) and “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” (2021); Ruthanna Emrys with “The Litany of Earth” (2014) and Winter Tide (2017).

While some of the work of the above authors verged on or crossed the line into erotica, actual pornographic material has also included LGBTQ+ characters and creations, from the lurid Teenage Twins (1976) to the often-overlooked hardcore bisexual comics of John Blackburn (1939-2006) such as Dagger of Blood (1997), and Logan Kowalsky‘s (1971-) Le Pornomicon (2005). While these and other works may seem n the tawdry side, they’re important examples of the increasing acceptance of non-heterosexuality; while some folks may look on porn as exploitative of sexuality, others find freedom in being able to explore their sexuality through sex work, or just to enjoy porn that matches their interests.

In that vein, you might compare the salacious depiction lesbian characters in Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, 1999) with the more developed, conflicted gay characters in Cthulhu (2007); while the feature film obviously has more to say about LGBTQ+ folks finding their role in the Mythos, even bad representation is representation—which is more than LGTBQ+ Mythos fans got for decades after Lovecraft’s death.

Which is not to say that all depictions of LGBTQ+ folks and non-heterosexuality/cisgender identity were positive. Far from it. Homophobic and transphobic biases run deep and sometimes pop up in unexpected places, like “The Curate of Temphill” (1993) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price. However, the dawn of the internet has substantially widened access to information on sexuality and gender identity; communities have formed to help and support LGBTQ+ folks and connect writers, publishers, and audiences together, and social media often provides a panopticon for intolerance almost inconceivable in the past. Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband continued her abuse for years despite serious allegations, but J. K. Rowling‘s transphobia received immediate pushback on social media.

Revolution & Reimagination (2015-2022)

The Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction scene of today is profoundly different than it was even a decade ago. While intolerance and bigotry are still with us and still very real issues that LGBTQ+ folks face, the Mythos publishing environment is more open and diverse than ever before. This is in part due to a publishing revolution fueled by desktop publishing software, affordable print-on-demand technology, and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. Small press publishers continued to grow and diversify in the 2010s, often using crowdfunding to raise awareness and investment in their products, including an increasingly diverse range of Mythos books. Ebooks also provide a new niche for LGBTQ+ authors, such as “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” (2022) by Clinton W. Waters.

The impact of this publishing shift is still being felt, but one thing that seems clear is that there is increasingly a market for more diverse Mythos fiction, and writers willing to cater to that need. In 2016, publisher Tor shifte focus on publishing a more diverse array of Mythos fiction, including Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw and its follow-up A Song for Quiet (2017), The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson, and Agents of Dreamland (2017) by Caitlín R. Kiernan. While the days of photocopied Lovecraftian fanzines may not be completely over, it’s become clear that these works are more than just a fad. It’s also increasingly become clear LGBTQ+ folks aren’t just writers and artists, but editors and publishers as well, as interviews with folks like Carrie Cuinn (Cthulhurotica), Lynne Jamneck (Dreams From the Witch House), and Erica Ciko Campbell and Desmond Rhae Harris (Starward Shadows Quarterly).

What the future holds for the LGBTQ+ Mythos is hard to say—there has been so much progress in the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights in the decades since Lovecraft’s death, and the reactionary political and cultural efforts to claw back those rights and discriminate against folks based on their sexuality or gender identity, whether they want to play a sport or transition, is a terrible ongoing challenge. Yet it helps to look back and see how far the genre has come. The Mythos has long outgrown the ignorant homophobia that Lovecraft expressed in a few of his letters, and many of the LGBTQ+ fans his works inspired have become some of the best and brightest creative voices we now have.

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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