Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, 1999)

Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, Kuro no Danshō) is a four-episode hentai (sexually explicit, adult-oriented) Original Video Animation (OAV) produced in Japan and released in 1999 and 2000 on DVD and laserdisc; it was dubbed and released into English-speaking markets in 2007 on VHS and DVD, with periodic re-releases on DVD since then, most recently the all-in-one 2014 DVD from Critical Mass.

It is difficult to put Mystery of the Necronomicon into its proper context because most of that context has never been translated into English. In 1995 the first of a computer game series “Suzusaki Detective Office File” (涼崎探偵事務所ファイル) was released by Avocado Powers (アボガドパワーズ, often Anglicized phonetically as “Abogado Powers”) for the PC-9800 personal computers; it was ported to the Sega Saturn in 1997, and to Windows in 2004. The game was an adult-oriented mystery/horror, and spawned a sequel in 1996; a third game was planned, but never came out due to financial difficulties at the company. Subsidiary materials include a 1997 strategy guide to the Sega Saturn game, which was praised for its art.

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Mystery of the Necronomicon is essentially the film version of the 1995 computer game. This wasn’t necessarily weird in the late ’90s; one of the more successful examples English audiences might be familiar with is Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994, dubbed English version released in 1995), and Japan had already released a 1994 computer game Necronomicon (ネクロノミコン) based on Lovecraft’s work. As the game itself has never been officially translated and released in English markets, it’s difficult to say how accurately the  4-episode OVA represents the plot and characterization. Both game and OVA appear to be trying the tricky job of producing an original Cthulhu Mythos horror/mystery with characters that are sexual beings—and that sexuality isn’t limited to consensual heterosexual relations without paraphilia; the OVA  contains graphic scenes of consensual female homosexuality, BDSM, and urophilia as well.

The explicit sexual content may be why the game producers partnered with production company Discovery, a Japanese company that had specialized in adult animation such as the slightly infamous Night Shift Nurses series. While there’s no scuttlebutt on the behind-the-scenes involved with bringing Mystery of the Necronomicon to English audiences, the North American distributor Anime 18 had also distributed Night Shift Nurses and other titles from Discovery, so it seems likely that this was a case of something in Discovery’s back-catalog of titles that they thought would appeal to the North American market…how well that worked out, it’s hard to say, but there must have been at least some commercial interest for the DVD to get multiple English releases.

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It’s possible the “Book of the Dead” subtitle on some of the English releases drew some inspiration from Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993), an American/French/Japanese co-production, but it’s telling that the box art emphasized “From the director of Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend,” one of the famous tentacle erotica anime that derive from the work of Maeda Toshio (前田俊夫). The distributors were obviously trying to capitalize as much as possible on the explicit pornographic nature of Mystery of the Necronomicon—this was a product being marketed to a specific crowd—which bears a little bit of inquiry.

There is a cost involved in translating every work. For those first writers who translated H. P. Lovecraft into Japanese after World War II, it was the cost of the translator’s time and expertise, then on top of that the normal publishing costs; the same applies for Japanese literature translated into English. For especially art-heavy works like the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), there are special considerations to make sure that the art is properly reproduced, and there are potential issues of censorship to deal with, but it’s still mostly an issue of translation costs. With an anime, there are added costs: for a dub, the script has to be translated, voice actors contracted, performances recorded, then new voice tracks have to be mastered and synchronized with the videoso it’s not a small process, there’s layers of work to be done, and that’s assuming that censorship issues aren’t involved. Japanese pornographic works, by statute, blur or hide genitalia and often cannot depict pubic hair and may involve characters under the legal age of consent in other countries—such issues may or may not be resolved as part of the translation process, and there’s an added cost involved with removing censoring, or changing the script so a character is at least 18 years old if it’s going to be sold on the North American market.

Because of this cost, only a fraction of the vast amount of media that Japan produces ever reaches English-language markets, and that fraction of stuff tends to get skewed toward specific markets where it is believed (or at least hoped) that it will sell. Sometimes this leads to big successes like the Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and One Piece series, or the Super Sentai series which were translated into Power Rangers—and sometimes this leads to abysmal flops, stuff that either for poor translation or distribution or whatever other reason fails to find its audience and sinks out of sight. Because of the cost involved, this means that companies tend to focus on those franchises and products which do sell, and if a given series is successful, they’ll try to bring over another similar work to sell to the same market.

Which is a long way to say: Mystery of the Necronomicon was not translated into English because there was a hardcore market of Japanese Cthulhu Mythos fans that were frothing at the bit to get their hands on any and all Japanese media related to Lovecraft’s creations. Instead, it looks a lot like Mystery of the Necronomicon was translated to fill a niche for sexually explicit anime for a market that was hungry for hentai. There is a bit of irony to the fact that with the rise of the internet, so many people have associated the tentacle erotica of hentai works by Maeda Toshio & the like with the relatively tentacle-heavy Cthulhu Mythos fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s, but so little of the stuff actually coming out of Japan in translation actually dealt with that.

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While there is sexually explicit content to Mystery of the Necronomicon, most of the four episodes are taken up with the eponymous mystery that the detectives are there to solveand anyone looking for gonzo masturbation material, porn without plot, might be surprised that it’s a fairly well-plotted story (albeit one with plenty of graphic sex scenes), with solid voice acting and some good visuals. The soundtrack and animation are workable; neither the best nor the worst of Japanese animation from the period, but many of the horror scenes are fairly effective. There are little Easter eggs for Mythos aficionados as well, such as the character Clark Ashton, and the final mystery takes a very interesting turn that showcases how well-versed the writers were in their Lovecraftian lore.

Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator” takes place in Arkham and at Miskatonic University, but largely predates the establishment of Lovecraft’s Mythos and doesn’t involve his eldritch entities or terrible tomes. Like “The Picture in the House,” it is only tangentially connected to the Mythos at large by virtue of being set in Lovecraft country. Some later media have tried to work around this by making the source of West’s reagent derived from studies of the Necronomiconthis was a plot point in many of Dynamite’s Reanimator comics, and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providenceand not to spoil things too much, in Mystery of the Necronomicon it is revealed that West has a connection with the book tooalthough as with many Japanese Mythos works, the physical appearance of the Necronomicon is inspired more strongly by the Necronomicon Ex Mortis from the Evil Dead films, as discussed in “Night Voices, Night Journeys” (2005) by Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦).

Mystery of the Necronomicon is ultimately a good example of how Lovecraftian influence spreads outside of the sphere of English-language media, only to come back in somewhat weird and unusual form. The surprising thing isn’t that Lovecraftian erotica exists, or exists in Japanese, but that there was sufficient audience for something like that in the English-speaking world that people spent the time and effort to translate it back into English. It isn’t exactly Lovecraft seen “through a glass darkly”because there is nothing imperfect or distorted about the adaptation; it is simply something that is both oddly familiar and different from what English-speaking audiences have seen before.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Shoggoth Makes Three” (2003) by Jean Ann Donnel

A house in the suburbs or an apartment in the city would be assigned him, and he would be initiated into one of the large affection-groups, including many noblewomen of the most extreme and art-enhanced beauty, which in latter-day K’n-yan took the place of family units.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Most readers don’t normally associate H. P. Lovecraft with polyamory. Then as now, monogamy was the prevailing paradigm among the bulk of the population, and Lovecraft’s romances in his fictions are almost always explicitly monogamous in nature; there are a few lover’s triangles in stories like “The Man of Stone” with Hazel Heald and “Medusa’s Coil” with Zealia Bishop, but there are no polycules in Lovecraft country outside of “The Mound.”

There was nothing new with the idea of polyamory during Lovecraft’s lifetime. His friend James F. Morton was part of a “free love” group at one point, and his chapbooks were advertised in The Public in 1916, alongside advertisements like this:

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After Lovecraft’s death, polyamory became more common. “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff famously opens with a polyamorous threesome…but for the most part, monogamy remains the overwhelming romantic schema of Mythos fiction, both serious and jocular, erotic and non-erotic. Indeed, while the attitudes regarding sex have become much more progressive and expressive in Mythos fiction, romances—particularly marriage—often deal with existing attitudes and problems, with a Mythos twist. This can be seen in works like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader (marriage-by-contract, the stresses of pregnancy on a marriage), “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales (patriarchal attitudes towards marriage, spousal abuse), Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (marriage under duress, consanguineous marriage), etc. Infidelity remains a relatively rare theme, as well as marriage counseling. The bulk of marital issues in the expanded Cthulhu Mythos appear to be solved only be the death of one or both partners.

Which is part of what makes Jean Ann Donnel’s “Shoggoth Makes Three” so special.

“Fi Fi is your lover’s name as well?” she inquired.

Cantraip looked at her startled. Could it be?

“You’re not a lesbian, are you Ms. Peaches?” the moderator asked, arching an eyebrow. “That would explain your being in a dysfunctional relationship group,” he stated.

Ms. Peaches stared at him steadily with contempt in her eyes. “I’m quite straight. Fi Fi’s not exactly a woman and definitely has male members,” she commented.
—Jean Ann Donnel, “Shoggoth Makes Three” in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003), vol. 2, no. 16, 20

Donnel is playing the situation for laughs; the idea of a polycule with a polymorphous shoggoth in the middle is almost a one-note joke. Yet for all that the idea is being played for transgressive comedy, it does include several interesting developments in Mythos fiction which other authors would also explore—and maybe a few that haven’t been explored much at all.

It is hard to pinpoint where exactly the idea of a shoggoth (or other Mythos entity) with multiple genitalia serving as a bridge between heterosexuality to a broader range of sexual experiences originated. Certainly there was some fanfiction where ardent weird fiction fans were imagining the possibilities; Rick McCollum illustrated one possibility for a fanzine in 1980:

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One might also add Robert M. Price’s story “A Thousand Young” (1989), where a libertine encounters:

For there, revealed by the glare of the lights, was no solid heap of swaying orgiasts, but rather chains of bodies spread over the pulsing and gelatinous surface of a tentacled, amoeboid horror, the revelers grotesquely arrayed like suckling whelps as the thing fed greedily on their sexual vitality through the questing pseudopodic phaluses, teats, and vulvas it sent forth!
—Robert M. Price, “A Thousand Young” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994) 94

The idea, both artistic and literary, of a polymorphous Mythos entity that can produce genitalia at will is still very much part of the creative erotic lexicon of the Mythos, as can be clearly seen in many depictions of the shoggoth in, for example, fan-works related to Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス). Arguably there were prototypical works in the Mythos anticipating this, such as the strange plants to which parts of human men and women were grafted in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Garden of Adompha.”

What these stories generally lack is the emotional connection. For many, the ability of a shoggoth to assume multiple genitalia, male and female, is purely a matter of sexual possibilities. Jean Ann Donnel’s Ms. Peaches doesn’t feel it’s homosexual to be with a shoggoth, no matter how many vulvas it may have at the moment; but her interest in Fi Fi, like Cantraip’s, is more than just sexual. There’s a romantic bond, above and beyond just the sexual one…and it’s a bond that Ms. Peaches and Cantraip learn to share with each other as well as Fi Fi.

Fi Fi had parts entwined, and in, both of them and covering them protectively. They slept in Fi Fi and Fi Fi in them, as well as in one another. They were not going back to the dysfunctional relationship group. The three of them felt their relationship was absolutely perfect just as it was.
—Jean Ann Donnel, “Shoggoth Makes Three” in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003), vol. 2, no. 16, 21

“Shoggoth Makes Three” has a happy ending…and, for what the story is, a short-short of only two pages, played for laughs, that’s workable. However, there is the potential in that setup for much more substantial and powerful stories that explore this kind of theme, of humans finding a meaningful relationship with an eldritch entity that extends beyond just sex, which eschews the limitations of gender.

Such a story is “Ink” by Bernie Mozjes in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian EroticaWhile Mozjes doesn’t cover quite the same ground as Donnel (no therapy), “Ink” is played more seriously; the conclusion is less foregone, and the emotions being addressed have more kick. Donnel takes it for granted that the shoggoth, because of their multiple genitalia, is able to bridge the gap between men and women mostly on a sexual basis. Mozjes is more focused on what else might attract someone to enter into a polyamorous relationship with an eldritch entity—and why the polymorphic entity itself might enter into such a relationship.

Which is rare ground. It’s often a strange case for Mythos fiction, particularly Lovecraftian erotica, that regardless of how fantastic the physical forms and acts of copulation turn out to be, the actual basic mechanics tend to default to heteronormative values of sex and relationships. Whether that’s a collective failure of the imagination or catering to what the audience wants, who can tell? Yet it doesn’t seem that many people have written of, say, polygamous marriages in Innsmouth. For everyone that thinks every possibility for Mythos fiction has been explore…reconsider your preconceptions. There’s a lot stranger territory out there.

“Shoggoth Makes Three” by Jean Ann Donnel was first published in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003) vol. 2, no. 16. It has not been republished. Donnel had written some short-short fiction on the alt.cthulhu.sex Usenet group, and also published “Have You Found Him” in Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” (2008) by Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe

As he went down the knoll into the valley, the enchanter heard an eery, plaintive singing, like that of sirens who bewail some irremediable misfortune. The singing came from a sisterhood of unusual creatures, half woman and half flower, that grew on the valley bottom beside a sleepy stream of purple water. There were several scores of these lovely and charming monsters, whose feminine bodies of pink and pearl reclined amid the vermilion velvet couches of billowing petals to which they were attached. These petals were borne on mattress-like leaves and heavy, short, well-rooted stems. The flowers were disposed in irregular circles, clustering thickly toward the center, and with open intervals in the outer rows.

Maal Dweb approached the flower-women with a certain caution; for he knew that they were vampires. Their arms ended in long tendrils, pale as ivory, swifter and more supple than the coils of darting serpents, with which they were wont to secure the unwary victims drawn by their singing. Of course, knowing in his wisdom the inexorable laws of nature, he felt no disapproval of such vampirism; but, on the other hand, he did not care to be its object.
—Clark Ashton Smith, “The Flower-Women” (Weird Tales, May 1935)

Weird Tales had three leading writers during the 1920s and 30s: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. While not always the most popular or published, or even the most successful during their lifetimes, they stand above more prolific writers such as Seabury Quinn and H. Bedford Jones, and their work in the pulps is esteemed above the early work of successful later peers like Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, C. L. Moore, and Margaret St. Clair.

Howard died in 1936; Lovecraft in 1937. Clark Ashton Smith survived until 1961, the only one of the three to outlive Weird Tales, though the latter portion of his life involved far less fiction and poetry than his fans and admirers would have liked, living for the most part a quiet life with his family, doing seasonal labor and working as a gardener for his livelihood. Smith is the only one of those three masters for which a record of his voice survives, in the Elder Tapes; and his published letters are an invaluable record of the creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, tracing his contacts with both H. P. Lovecraft during his life and, afterwards, with August Derleth at Arkham House.

Smith was wonderfully weird, and left behind a body of work that puts the romance in necromancy; stories such as “Mother of Toads” and “The Witchcraft of Ulua” could not be published uncensored in Weird Tales, and in later life he even wrote a drama titled “The Dead Will Cuckold You.” Which is not to say he was in any sense pornographic; his few efforts to sell to the Spicy pulps largely didn’t, unlike his friend Robert E. Howard. Rather, his prose was sensuous, often filled with long and curious words that conveyed shades of meaning and suggestions of eroticism that could not be put into print.

These scions were the various parts and members of human beings. Consumately, and with never faillng success, the magician had joined them to the half-vegetable, half-animate stocks on which they lived and grew thereafter, drawing an ichor-like sap. Thus were preserved the carefully chosen souvenirs of a multitude of persons who had inspired Dwerulas and the king with distaste or ennui. On palmy boles, beneath feathery-tufted foliage, tbe heads of eunuchs hung in bunches, like enormous black drupes. A bare, leafless creeper was flowered with the ears of delinquent guardsmen. Misshapen cacti were fruited with the breasts of women, or foliated with their hair. Entire limbs or torsos had been united with monstrous trees. Some of the huge salver-like blossoms bore palpitating hearts, and certain smaller blooms were centered with eyes that still opened and closed amid their lashes. And there were other graftings, too obscene or repellent for narration.

Adompha went forward among the hybrid growths, which stirred and rustled at his approach. The heads appeared to crane towards him a little, the ears quivered, the breasts shuddered lightly, the eyes widened or narrowed as if watching his progress.
—Clark Ashton Smith, “The Garden of Adompha,” (Weird Tales, Apr 1938)

For all of his longevity and enormous influence, Clark Ashton Smith remains the most under-studied, and often under-appreciated of the three masters of the weird tale. The amount of critical literature, biographical materials, published letters, etc. regarding him is an order of magnitude less than might be found for Robert E. Howard, which is itself less than that of H. P. Lovecraft. While Smith’s Mythos fiction and creations like Tsathoggua have inspired many authors to expand on his work, it is more often through the Lovecraftian lens of “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft than Smith directly. There are simply fewer fans writing stories and novels set in Smith’s Zothique or Hyperborea than there are those writing works set in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age.

More specifically, fans tend to be somewhat less apt to pastiche the work of Clark Ashton Smith, either in textual style or content. While many pasticheurs find some joy in aping H. P. Lovecraft’s occasionally ultraviolet prose and descriptions of the unnamable, or Robert E. Howard’s terse exclamations (“By Crom!”) and strive to emulate his fast-moving action, Smith doesn’t seem to attract quite the same effort. Whether the particular sardonic style and rich vocabulary is off-putting to would-be pastiche writers, or those who try simply fall a bit too far short of the real thing to be recognized as such, it remains that very few have tried to capture the peculiar and iconic mix of cosmic horror and sensuality that Clark Ashton Smith made seem so effortless in so many stories and poems.

Which is what resulted in Tales of Sex and Sorcery (2008) by “Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe.”

Chained with gold in chaises percées, slender ankles pedicled apart and tender vulvae exposed between silken thighs, the garden-girls of the emperor Vuutsavek first cursed the youth and beauty that doomed them, but came in time to new gratitude therefor, dying with ecstasies greater and more numerous than a hundred lifetimes of ordinary length might have granted them.
—Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe, “The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” in Tales of Sex and Sorcery 18

Tales of Sex and Sorcery is number 87 in the ongoing chapbook series published by Rainfall in the United Kingdom, who have been publishing original fiction, poetry, and artwork in the vein of weird fiction and the pulps for years; the print runs are small and several of their works have become collector’s items because they featured the work of notable Mythos writers like W. H. Pugmire and Ann K. Schwader.

The 36-page chapbook by Smythe is as close to an erotic pastiche of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose as has probably ever been seriously attempted. There are 11 stories, so each of these qualifies as a “short-short” in terms of length, usually no more than two pages; some like “The Quarry” are set in Averoigne or some other of Smith’s settings, while others are more ambiguous. There is no “Vuutsavek” in the writings of Clark Ashton Smith, yet neither would the name or the theme be out of place in the body of work cultivated by the author of “The Flower-Women” and “The Garden of Adompha.” The stories get a touch more explicit than Smith ever did, but the language is precise: Smith liked to weave exposition into his prose fiction as much as he liked to hint and suggest.

Girls swallowed; seeds sprouted; florists succored: till at last the buds of the vulviflora, the quim-flowers wherefor the emperor waited, began to show between the girls’ writhing netherlips, having crept down the quim-sheath between orgasms.
—Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe, “The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” in Tales of Sex and Sorcery 18

Who is “Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe?” No clue is given; the style is sufficiently consistent that it is probably a single author, and the most likely candidate is Simon Whitechapel, a self-declared “Logomagician” who has written a respectable amount of interesting Smith pastiche before, a good chunk of it published by Rainfall in its chapbook series, and other Smith-related anthologies. “The Vulvilora of Vuutsavek,” “The Nyctonymph,” “The Mastophilia of Amlimla,” and “The WIldering of the Capnomancer” from Tales of Sex and Sorcery would certainly fit right in with Whitechapel’s “The Erotodendra of Silcud-Psunur” “The Tears of the Melomancer,” “The Ascent of the Lepidopteromacher,” and “Walpurgisnachtmusik.” Whitechapel, at the least, has studied Smith’s style in depth:

Anyone who can read a Clark Ashton Smith story without reaching for the dictionary at least half-a-dozen times is either extremely well-read in a lot of recondite corners of literature or has read the story a few times before. Or prefers to go with the flow and let the meaning look after itself. If it’s the last, then the reader isn’t getting the most out of Smith, because watching the way he deploys the illimitable resources of his lexicon is, for me, one of the most enjoyable things about his work. When he uses an unusual word, it’s always because it’s the right word for the occasion, never simply for the sake of it.
—Simon Whitechapel, “Wizard with Words: An Appreciation of Clark Ashton Smith”
in Tales of Science & Sortilege (2005), 76

Tales of Sex and Sorcery is out of print, and the contents have not been reprinted.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” (2015) by Dixie Pinoit

I cannot bring myself to speak of it, so of course I must. It is with terror and that utmost thrill of lust-filled despair that I write of my wedding night, that night that wouldst,—for any average couple, be filled with so much innocent discovery, so much joy in the uncovering of what a lifetime of connubial bliss is meant to be.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 144

The soundtrack to this review is “Move Your Dead Bones” (2003) by Dr. Reanimator (Jordi Cubino).

Parody is one of the great underappreciated modes of Lovecraftian erotica. All of the factors that make it so easy to pastiche Lovecraft’s fiction—the emphasis on surface features of purple prose and melodrama, the tendency to riff off of existing elements of the mythology, and the emphasis on taboo topics—are easy to twist into parody, usually by exaggerating the already over-exaggerated until the emotional language becomes just absurd. Once you cross the line from serious pastiche into parody, adding sex is pretty natural, given how many parallels there are. “Forbidden literature,” for example, can apply equally well to pornography as it can to eldritch tomes like the Necronomicon:

Doris didn’t like the Necronomicon, although she considered herself an emancipated and free-thinking young woman. There was something sinister, or to be downright honest about it, perverted about that book—and not in a nice, exciting way, but in a sick and frightening way. All those strange illustrations, always with five-sided borders just like the Pentagon in Washington, but with those people inside doing all those freaky sex acts with those other creatures that weren’t people at all.
—Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, The Eye in the Pyramid (1975), 93

“Herbert West—Reanimator!” has for whatever reason been an unusually prolific target for parody and pastiche, both erotic and otherwise, as shown by such diverse works as “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly TanzerRe-Animator (1985) with its infamous head-giving-head scene and its various sequels, and the hardcore adult film Re-Penetrator (2004, Burning Angel). So Dixie Pinoit in “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” is in good company.

As it happens, Pinoit blends a few details between Lovecraft’s original opus and the 1985 film: where Jeffrey Combs (the actor for Herbert West) is brunet, Lovecraft had West as blond in the original novella, and Pinoit has West as a blond; where Lovecraft had West’s partner as a nameless protagonist, the 1985 film gives him the name Dan Cain, so Pinoit uses Dan Cain as the name for West’s assistant. It is the kind of detail that rewards the detail-oriented Mythos enthusiast, though easy to miss when the narrative lens turns to some of the other action:

Noticing that one of Elena’s awe-inspiring breasts had somehow freed itself from its restraints, I stroked it plaintively before restoring it to what could indeed become its burial shroud unless the doctor was simply premature in his determination of death.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 145

Chekov’s corpse. There is something wonderfully straightforward about Reanimator media, in that all you really need is a body at or rapidly cooling toward room temperature for the fun to start, and there’s a great deal of fun to be had in various scenarios about how the corpse came to be and what happens when it is eventually reanimated. A great deal of Reanimator adaptations can riff on this concept pretty much nonstop, but what makes it really work is not the practice of revivifying the dead—any Frankenstein-derived or zombie story can give you the thrill of the dead coming back to life—it’s Herbert West himself, with all of his quirks and monomania, which drives the plot. A good Reanimator story is about the Reanimator as much as the reanimated.

My beloved’s corpse now stripped of the ivory lace and silk wedding dress that had once adorned her curvaceous form, stripped bare under the yellow lights to make it easier for Dr. West to inject things into her delicious upper arms while her ample breasts and small tuft of pubic hair glistened and juggled from the force of his ministrations.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 148

Readers that think they know where this is going are still in for a surprise or two; the protagonist surely was. Pinoit by this point plays a little fast and loose with the “rules” of reanimation—murderous bloodlust is out, and certain other types of lust are very much in—but the subversion of expectations, especially when transgressive and exaggerated for comedic effect, are common techniques in all parody.

Yet for all the surprises, one of the most notable is that Pinoit is obviously a fan as much as a pornographer. The nameless Lovecraftian protagonist is actually a Lovecraftian protagonist, inspired by the events of Lovecraft’s life and so the characterization—a parody of Lovecraft’s style—is really an affectionate tribute to the Old Gent himself.

Sales plummeted until the hat shop could no longer support us.

Eventually she moved away to start over. A larger town, where her curious predilections were less likely to be remarked upon amongst a larger populous, and would perhaps even be welcomed by an adventurous few.

I did not go with her.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 154

Lovecraft as the star of an erotic story might seem odd, or even off-putting at first glance, but Pinoit is far from the only one to do it; Edward Lee has used Lovecraft (or a character based on him) in several of his “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels and novellas, especially Pages Torn from a Travel Journal (2013) and Trolley No. 1852 (2010). These depictions are often exaggerated for humor as much or more than erotic value, but there is a real amount of effort put into some of these stories to embed aspect of Lovecraft’s life, style, fiction, and just plain character into the fictionalization. These are homages—and speak as much to how Lovecraft himself has become a part of his own artificial mythology.

Considering how much interest has been devoted to Lovecraft’s sex life after his death by fans and scholars alike, this aspect of his character—his sexuality and sexual experiences, real or imagined—present what might be one of the more ultimate taboos to transgress. If you as a reader are at all squicked out at the thought of H. P. Lovecraft having sex, then the author has succeeded at their goal. If you’re excited at the idea of your literary idol getting laid, then the author has also succeeded! The whole point of using a character that is such an obvious version of Lovecraft is to evoke some visceral or emotional reaction from the reader. This effect can only be achieved because of the degree of posthumous fame that Lovecraft has achieved.

While there are few people that might write the Lovecraftian equivalent to Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (2010), the same basic idea has found expression in the Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft may be dead, but as a fictional character he can do things he never did in life; he has been in many ways reanimated himself—and the interest is not necessarily in what the literary corpse of Lovecraft does, but in why the reanimator has brought them back, and how. In many cases, like this one, it is little more than an in-joke—a nod and a wink to the dedicated Lovecraftian that found themselves coming to the end of this erotic tale—but it is also a tribute to the lasting appeal of H. P. Lovecraft as a character, that he can be inserted into a story such and expect to be recognized, without his name ever being given.

“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” appeared in the erotic Cthulhu Mythos anthology Lovecraft after Dark (2015).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Artist’s Retreat” (2011) by Annabeth Leong

Do you crave intellectual tentacle porn?
—Ad copy, Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

What is “Lovecraftian erotica?” If you rule out erotic works that directly parody or refer to the stories Lovecraft wrote, such as “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon or “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka; his creations such as Cthulhu and the Necronomicon in works like “Le Pornomicon” (2005) by Logan Kowalsky or Mother Hydra in “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan; those rare erotic works that refer to or depict Lovecraft directly as a character—as in Edward Lee’s Trolley No. 1852 (2010)—then what you have left is a very vaguely defined body of erotic materials which that take more nebulous inspiration from Lovecraft’s ideas of cosmic horror and the tropes of Mythos fiction that came later, but don’t directly attempt to incorporate the man or the Mythos.

For many Lovecraftian erotic works, the tropes and set dressing are usually as far as the author cares to take things. Tentacles often make their appearance, ancient gods or eldritch entities come when summoned, sacrifices are usually less than virginal and surprisingly enthusiastic, and the whole pornographic scenario often reads like a bootleg X-rated session of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. Lindsey Purl’s erotic triptych Tentacles of the Elder Gods (2013), which involves “Kum-Shaggurath” is an exemplar of this kind of fiction. Quality and creativity varies; few works are erotic classics, but are often packaged and sold as disposable literature. Intended as flash entertainment, they answer to a momentary need, often as part of a brief zeitgeist, and then quickly sink out of sight into online back catalogs or other form of obscurity.

Then you have works like Annabeth Leong’s “The Artist’s Retreat.”

The dreams were confused and irresolute, but there was nothing vague about the position in which I work. I snatched my hand from where it lay nestled between my legs and tried to ignore the throbbing there. Sweat soaked the pillows and bed beneath me, and the sheets were tangled around my legs as if I’d been rolling from one side of the bed to the other all night. Sometime, I’d managed to yank my nightshirt up and off one arm, leaving one breast free to the chill air of my dark and silent room. Shivering, I pulled the garment down and fathered my blankets more tightly around me.
—Annabeth Leong, “The Artist’s Retreat” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

The distinction between “The Artist’s Retreat” and any other work of Lovecraftian fiction, like say “From the Cold Dark Sea” (2016) by Storm Constantine, is one of degree rather than kind. Leong’s work is in an anthology of erotic Lovecraftian fiction, and the erotic element appears early and grows more intense throughout; it is a central part of the plot, where in most other Lovecraftian works sex is usually not the primary focus of the narrative lens. That aside, the work is really nothing less than an original story that draws obvious inspiration from Lovecraft and the Mythos without feeling the need to directly invoke or squeeze itself into the framework of the Mythos.

The distinction shifts the reader’s focus from looking for tie-ins or how the story might into the bigger picture of Mythos lore and instead the reader might begin to see “The Artist’s Retreat” as something that fits into Lovecraft’s milieu, and pursues some of his themes, yet in a way that Lovecraft and most of his co-creators in the Mythos would never have put together. There are the same-gender heterosexual friends, one of them an artist; very much a Lovecraftian pairing…until they become something more. There is the setting, in a rural Massachusetts that Lovecraft might find familiar, but not in any named and denoted part of his Lovecraft Country. There is the tricky distinction of that thing, seen and unseeable, which invokes Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned” thing…yet what it does under Leong’s direction is nothing like what any of those authors would have their creations do.

“The Artist’s Retreat” is, after all, Lovecraftian erotica.

Many writers appear to find it difficult to pursue both weird and erotic themes simultaneously. Lovecraft in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” emphasized:

The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

It is a rare story that can both scary and erotic; that can work that atmosphere of the sense of outside contact with the intensely grounded sensations of physical eroticism. Not impossible, because for all their differences, there are points of commonality: the sense of heightened awareness brought about by sexual arousal and the fear-response, the titillation and excitement when it comes to approaching and then violating some taboo, the psychological impact and physical consequences that may result from such sudden violations, with all their long-term ramifications…these are the building blocks of erotic horror, as shown in works like Ramsey Campbell’s “The Faces at Pine Dunes” (1980) and his exquisite novel The Darkest Part of the Woods (2003).

Part of what makes “The Artist’s Retreat” successful is the atmosphere. The pacing is steady, but takes its time setting up each scene, providing small climaxes for each chapter, letting the protagonist Edie sink deeper and deeper into the mystery and the renewed friendship with her painter friend Olivia. there aren’t any huge surprises; the plot might almost be called formulaic in how the Lovecraftian protagonist is compelled to leave their familiar surrounds for an isolated local, where they sink into strangeness—it worked for Lovecraft in “The Festival,” and it worked for Silvia Moreno-Garcia in Mexican Gothic (2020), and it works for Annabeth Leong here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a familiar plot straight, so long as it is done well…and it helps that the weird parts are refreshingly weird, not just a priapic Cthulhu.

The cryptic images did not depict any shaps or beings I know—still, they stirred me. I got to my knees beside Olivia, and together we explored the contours of the boulder. I could not piece together an overall image of the design. Neither could I decode any individual piece. But the longer I ran my fingers over it, and the longer I knelt beside her and stared, the more I began to see flashes of meaning. Two coiled appendages, wound around each other and rubbing their undersides together obscenely; what could have been a thousand tiny fingers caressing a swollen, monolithic shaft; a long and muscular tongue, curved into a suggestive question.
—Annabeth Leong, “The Artist’s Retreat” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

Leong’s story fits well into an anthology of Lovecraftian erotica, but it could fit just as well into a mainstream Lovecraftian anthology. Nothing of the weird atmosphere is sacrificed for the erotic, and nothing of the erotic is sacrificed for the weird. They work together, hand in hand, and while they echo the ways sex was used as an entry point for beings from outside in Lovecraft’s fiction—think of “The Dunwich Horror”—the way that it works is ultimately original, fresh, and well done.

“The Artist’s Retreat” by Annabeth Leong was published in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011) by Circlet Press. Her other Lovecraftian works include “Our Child” in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014) by Martian Migraine Press.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein

I have never read the famous “Justine” of de Sade, or the equally famous “Venus in Furs” of von Masoch. Both are undoubtedly significant in the history of psychology, though perhaps less so as works of art. Probably they can be obtained at any time from dealers in so-called “curiosa” like the Falstaff Press or Esoterika Biblion of New York.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 12 Sep 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 353-354

The term BDSM (Bondage Domination Sadism Masochism) did not exist when Lovecraft was writing his Mythos, though he would have recognized parts of it from his cursory knowledge of psychology and sexology, and would have been familiar with aspects of its depiction in pulp magazines—Weird Tales among other pulps included vivid scenes of men and women being bound, whipped, and tortured, or forced into subservience, sometimes in a sexual manner (though never explicitly). Indeed, Robert E. Howard’s early Mythos fiction such as “The Black Stone” (1931) contain scenes of flagellation (for more on which, check out Charles Hoffmann’s “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard”).

Brundage-WT-Slithering-ShadowThis early influence of BDSM literature on Howard’s Mythos tales is part of a complicated collision of censorship, psychology, and economics. Sadomasochism and physical punishment were commonly understood as psychological deviations rather than sexual kinks, since the acts themselves were adjacent to sex, but didn’t necessarily include intercourse or masturbation. As such, works which presented themselves medical, legal, anthropological, or historical treatises could sometimes pass censors—Robert E. Howard had a small library of such volumes—and more importantly for pulp publishers, meant that they could be more freely advertised in magazines, and that dramatized aspects of these practices could add some sexual titillation to encourage sales. This in turn encouraged some pulp writers to work such elements into their stories; including Weird Tales favorites like Seabury Quinn and Robert E. Howard, who vied for cover art by Margaret Brundage for their stories.

These early BDSM-inflected pulp stories should be understood as fantasy, strongly influenced by erroneous understandings of sexuality, gender, and relationships, not a reflection of real-life practice. This can be clearly seen in, among other things, Robert E. Howard’s complicated depiction of lesbianism in his fiction. The whole stereotype of the “sadistic” villain may not owe itself to the pulps, but the pulps definitely helped build and promote such stereotypes. It would take considerable time for the “scene” to build up, and for knowledge and philosophy of BDSM as a safe, consensual adult activity to become more open, established, and move away from the stark depictions of utter depravity showcased in pulp fiction.

As understanding of sexual kinks has spread and grown in acceptance in society at large, that understanding has rarely fed back into Cthulhu Mythos fiction. While there are occasional characters that engage in obviously sadistic or masochistic practices, and bondage in various forms has never gone out of fashion, BDSM is rarely a key feature of Mythos fiction, especially BDSM of the consensual sexual activity between adults variety. For example, in the Delta Green roleplaying game (an offspring of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game), the Shan (Insects from Shaggai) that originated in the fiction of Ramsey Campbell display masochistic tendencies when they take a host. Another notable example is “Necrophallus” by Makino Osamu (牧野修), which focuses on the sadistic element and body horror as its primary theme—again, emphasizing the deliberate fantasy rather than consensual bloodplay or body modification play.

Compton_FromBeyondOne of the most interesting overt uses of BDSM themes and imagery in a Lovecraftian work is the film adaptation of From Beyond (1986), which occupies an interesting middle ground between pulp sadism and consensual BDSM practice. BDSM equipment and imagery is used both to show the character’s increasing desire for more intense experiences, and the sado-masochistic depths that the villainous Dr. Pretorius had descended to in the search for some new sensation.

Weird as it might be to think about, erotic Mythos fiction and pornographic materials also rarely broach BDSM territory, especially consensual activity. While it is relatively common to have a sacrifice to Yog-Sothoth or Cthulhu tied up so that the Mythos entity can sexually assault them, it is much rarer to see ropeplay, or the “sacrifice” an elaborate sexual roleplaying scenario featuring consenting adults.

There are several reasons why might we don’t see more a more elaborate BDSM Mythos. For one, it’s kink-stacking; the subset of your audience that enjoys both BDSM and Lovecraftian erotica is likely going to be smaller than the audience that enjoys both separately. For another, the intensely personal relationships between the players in a BDSM scenario—especially a consensual one—can be difficult to square with the often very impersonal nature of Lovecraftian horrors. While Cthulhu might bind you with its mighty tentacles, it’s not clear that Cthulhu is getting off on the act. Yet there are a couple of stories which tread this rare territory and do interesting things with it.

“Sub-space,” said Machteld. “Pain is a key that can open doors. It begins with fear, followed by anger, resistance, resignation, and finally surrender. Deeper and deeper down into the warm red sea until you reach the core Down there are no desires, no thoughts, just the primal void. In that place the universe is waiting, a blank slate, ready to be filled with its latent destiny. And there the worthy will find the answers they seek.”
—Jaap Boekestein, “Under the Keeper of the Key” in Lovecraft after Dark 17

The idea of achieving a different state of consciousness is an old one in magical and religious practice. Some choose to use drugs, and drug-fiction is a staple of early fantasy and weird fiction, including H. P. Lovecraft’s “Ex Oblivione” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Hashish Eater.” Other methods might include fasting, chanting, drumming, and dancing; in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” Lovecraft wrote:

For the fright and fainting of his mother he expressed the keenest contrition, and explained that the conversation later heard was part of an elaborate symbolism designed to create a certain mental atmosphere.

There are parallels in Lovecraftian occultism too; Donald Tyson in Grimoire of the Necronomicon parrots Aleister Crowley’s rite of eroto-comatose lucidity, where the altered state of consciousness is achieved by excessive sexual activity:

On the day prior to the attempt to open the Gate of the East upon the path to the black throne, the follower of this way should rely on the aid of a partner to sustain his arousal without interruption continuously. This can be done with the aid of caresses, embraces, erotic art, sensual music, incense, sensual baths, and oils for the skin. If necessary, the aspirant may sustain his own arousal, but this is more difficult as it divides concentration. Always the image of Shub-Niggurath should be held in the imagination, but in a form of the goddess that is attractive and seductive to the aspirant for her favor. Female disciples will choose to conceive her in her masculine aspect, unless they favor the love of women. (148)

Richard Gavin in his entry for The Starry Wisdom Library outlined another such procedure:

The method employed to accomplish this was a ritual entitled “Alimenting the Ghul (or Ghoules).” In preparation for this ritual, the aspirant would neither sleep nor consume food for three days, all the while conducting a repetitive series of darkly meditative chants while sitting cross-legged within a “place of death,” presumably a mausoleum, a catacomb, or other large tomb. At the conclusion of the three-day preparation period, the aspirant’s naked body would be rubbed with various salves before he was wrapped in a funerary shroud and buried alive within a coffin made of oak. (127)

Scott R. Jones wrote in When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality

The Black Gnosis may be triggered in the moment of orgasm, or at any moment during the sexual act (or indeed at any moment at all, sexual or otherwise) by allowing the Being-Strangeness of the act itself manifest fully in the consciousness. This awareness is brought forth through a meditation on fear. (108)

There are other examples, different paths. Different authors working at different purposes to express similar ideas: that there are different states of consciousness, that can be arrived at through various means (which may resemble magic, or sex), and which unlock…something for the individual. Sometimes a particular occult knowledge, in others a transformation of self. All of which has its clear parallels with BDSM as it is understood in the contemporary consciousness.

You don’t need to build a dungeon, elaborate set-pieces of torture devices, and a wardrobe of latex and leather gear to have a little bondage fun, or to engage in some hearty spanking. Domination is an attitude and game that need not be confined to a bedroom. While we often get fixated on the outward trappings of BDSM play, there is a deeper psychology at work. Sexual submissives in the BDSM scene are not psychologically stunted or damaged individuals who are dominated by more powerful personalities, they are fully conscious human beings who feel the need to submit, and derive something from the act—or ritual—of submission.

Which is not as easy as it sounds. Yet subspace is the essential bridge that Jaap Boekestein uses to connect BDSM to the Cthulhu Mythos. Where Robert E. Howard and the From Beyond film were using the striking imagery of flagellation, and BDSM’s props and costumes to titillate the reader or viewer, Boekestein goes into the psychology of the individual that would willing subject themselves to such rites as Robert E. Howard described in “The Black Stone”—and very specifically, why someone seeking out the Cthulhu Mythos might do this.

The whip hit the exact same spot. A groan escaped his lips, bright flames shot through his leg. Is this an initiation or sadistic torture? What has this to do with the secrets of the ancients?

Whap. Whap.

She kept hitting Without mercy, Machteld thrashed him. He could not see anything but he felt her moving around, hitting his chest, his stomach, his cock. Burning strokes of pain as she hit him everywhere. Nothing was safe. Nothing was sacred.
—Jaap Boekestein, “Under the Keeper of the Key” in Lovecraft after Dark 21

It is a process that the reader themselves goes through with the protagonist. His questions are their questions, but in the end…well, a vicarious flagellation session will never equal the real experience. The result will be familiar to many readers of the Mythos; Lovecraft wrote about another protagonist who achieved the same state, albeit through a different path. Boekestein wrote about this:

What kind of people, I wondered, wouldn’t have much of a problem with the Mythos Universe? People who were different from the norm, was my conclusion. People who perceived reality differently. “Transformation is the key. Transformation of both the body and the mind.” If you live in a non-mundane world, you don’t feel mundane fears. The monsters might even welcome you in as one of their own.
—Jaap Boekestein, “Afterword” (trans. Graeme Phillips) in Cyäegha #8 (Spring 2013)

Many of the people that read and write the Cthulhu Mythos identify as outsiders. Weird fiction attracts weird people. Those with an interest or affinity in BDSM are outsiders too. While the communities are separate, there are individuals who have a foot in both worlds…and for those who have such an inclination, maybe they will be happy to know that they too can trace their roots back to the beginnings of the Mythos.

Jaap Boekestein is a Dutch writer who has written several Mythos stories, which have been published in English and Dutch, and editor of Waen Sinne and Wonderwaan. Some of his Mythos fiction appeared under the pseudonym Claudia van Arkel. “Under the Keeper of the Key” appeared in the erotic Cthulh Mythos anthology Lovecraft after Dark (2015).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Harlem

Late night in Harlem on a Friday and the streets more full than at rush hour. Tommy Tester cherished the closeness, to his father and to all the bodies on the sidewalks, in their cars, riding buses, perched on stoops. The traffic and human voices merged into a terrific buzzing that seemed to lift Tommy and Otis, a song that accompanied them—carried them—all the way home.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 36

Places have character in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Dunwich and Arkham, Kingsport and Innsmouth, these are Lovecraft country and as much a part of the stories as any of the human characters taking part in the narrative. New York City was a character in Lovecraft’s stories too—in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “Cool Air”—yet there are parts of the city conspicuous by their absence. There is no Harlem in Lovecraft’s New York tales, scarcely any mention of Harlem in any of his fiction.

Lovecraft’s Mythos is expressly not a mythic white space. People of color exist, and are subject to the common contemporary prejudices that Lovecraft knew. They are supporting characters, often derided and stereotyped. Because there is a New York City in Lovecraft’s stories, we can assume there is a Harlem somewhere in it, and that African-Americans live there. Harlem as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, though; Harlem as the cultural center of African-Americans in New York; that Harlem is not present. Lovecraft never tried to capture the soul of Harlem in his fiction, and nor did many writers that came after him in the Mythos.

2016. Enter Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom. The novella is a re-working of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but this time Harlem is present. Tommy Tester and his father live there, it is their home, their haven, though even they don’t know all of its secrets. LaValle’s book expressly addresses the systemic racism and discrimination of 1920s New York, tries to tie it in to the fabric of Lovecraft’s stories and the geography of New York.

Even then, LaValle struggles with the portrayal of Harlem. The geography is right, but the descriptions are spare, often less than compelling, and mostly avoids major landmarks or descriptions of street life. “The Horror at Red Hook” takes place mostly in Brooklyn, so for much of The Ballad of Black Tom the main characters are not in Harlem itself, and consequently there is less opportunity to develop the character of the place. It isn’t Harlem as Lovecraft would have seen it—but then, what would that have looked like? What would it be like for a white man, known for his racism and cosmic horror fiction, to visit the Black Mecca of the United States?

Lovecraft in Harlem

At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 95

The Great Migration saw thousands of African-Americans move from the rural South to the cities of the North. In Manhattan, the neighborhood of Harlem became a center of black demographics and, as the 1920s wore on, black culture. Harlem became the geographic center of and gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that celebrated the best that African-Americans had to offer. Many white people during this time were more interested in Harlem’s nightlife, the cabarets, clubs, speakeasies, and sexual underworld which rose to legendary proportions during Prohibition, as chronicled in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926).

H. P. Lovecraft first visited Harlem in 1922. The native of Providence, Rhode Island had been invited to visit New York City by Sonia H. Greene, an amateur journalist who wished to disprove some of Lovecraft’s prejudices by broadening his horizons (Ave Atque Vale 148). The thirty-two-year-old weird writer, who had not yet made his first professional publication, traipsed through much of the city, visiting museums, parks, admiring the remaining old architecture, and visiting with friends such as James F. Morton, a progressive-minded white man who had authored The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and whose apartment was in Harlem.

Morton and Lovecraft had “met” in 1915, where they ended up on opposite sides of an argument over race and prejudice in the amateur journals In A Minor Key and The Conservative (see “Concerning the Conservative”). Disagreement led eventually to correspondence, and then to friendship—though they never came to agreement on the issue of racial equality, they enjoyed the debate, and had other common interests in amateur journalism and writing.

There is no indication that Lovecraft stayed long or delved deep into Harlem on that first visit, or any subsequent visit to Morton’s, but he would later write to his aunt:

After a period of discussion & repartee, which Mrs. Long said reminded her of the epigrammatic paradoxes of Oscar Wilde & Whistler, the gang adjourned to Morton’s chaotic apartment in Harlem. I had never before seen Morton’s abode, & naturally I was interested. He dwells in a street now overrun by niggers of the cleaner & less offensive sort—decayed, but still retaining the outlines of its former beauty. There are pleasing trees on both sides, & the architecture of the houses is highly prepossessing. No. 211—the Morton mansion—is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.64

Walker was a noted freethinker who had founded the interracial Sunrise Club in 1889 and served as its secretary until his death in 1931; he and Morton were both advocates of free love, although it is not clear if this was in any way involved with how Morton came to live in Harlem. Nor did Lovecraft have go to Harlem to be aware of it, on the same trip he visited the Bronx Zoo:

Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.79

The United States Army was still segregated in 1922, and most troops were relegated to non-combat roles. An exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which gained popular renown during World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit was demobilized in 1918, but the segregated 15th New York National Guard Regiment from which it was formed continued. It is possible this was a member of that unit.

Lovecraft’s eye was mainly captured by the architecture, although on subsequent visits he would pay more attention to the inhabitants. The sheer numbers of black people living together in New York was amazing to Lovecraft—while Providence was not legally segregated in the sense of the Jim Crow South at that time, Lovecraft had always lived in the predominantly white portions of the city, though he was aware that there were black neighborhoods:

I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York […] Over on the “West Side”, it is very cosmopolitan, but the East Side child might as well be in the heart of Old England so far as racial environment is concerned. Slater Avenue school was near my home, & the only non-Saxons were niggers whose parents work for our families or cart our ashes, & who consequently know their place.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 Dec 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 47

To put the demographics in perspective, the 1920 census put the total population of Providence at 237,595; in New York City in 1920, the black population alone was 152,467—and by 1930, there would be more African-Americans in New York than there were people of all races combined in Providence (1920 Census, 1930 Census). For a white man who had spent probably his entire life without seeing more than a handful of black people at a time, visiting Harlem would have been an eye-opening experience. He would visit New York, and Harlem, again.

In 1924, Lovecraft would return to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene, and to take up residence in the city. It was a tumultuous time in the writer’s life, as he struggled with domesticity, inability to find work, his wife’s illness, financial struggles, and finally separation as she left to take a job in the Midwest, leaving Lovecraft alone in a Brooklyn apartment. One of Lovecraft’s pleasures during this period were his outings with ‘the Boys,’ or as they became more formally known, the Kalem Club—a loose association of writers who would gather at each other’s houses and apartments to converse on every subject from poetry to politics. Morton held his share of the meetings:

Sonny [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.] and I settled the fate of literature betwixt us and parted early in the evening—with the understanding that The Boys meet up there on Thursday, August 7th, if Mrs. Long is well enough to stand the racket. Otherwise we convene at Morton’s dump in Bantu and barbaric Harlem, our first meeting there, by the way.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.145

In the evening The Boys met at Morton’s—up in niggerville—and had a great time despite the African cast of the contiguous terrain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.147

Few accounts of these meetings survive outside of Lovecraft’s letters, although fellow Kalem-club member George C. Kirk once recalled:

August 15. Friday. Went to a party in black belt last night. If Lovecraft is a prince James F. Morton Jr. is a king. (Ave Atque Vale 223)

As time went on, Lovecraft found himself in Harlem again for other purposes than visiting Morton’s. Accounts are generally few and far-between; Lovecraft was a teetotal, against interracial relationships, and disliked jazz, and so appears to have had zero interest in the more “touristy” parts of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten might have showed him.

Saturday was a hectic round of the shops—both Harlem & Brooklyn—on Kirk’s behalf; & in the evening we parted laden with vases, candlesticks, sofa pillows, steins, Japanese panels, & the like—which Kirk bore to his room whilst I returned to 169 [Clinton St.] for slumber.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.239

However, for the most part during this period Lovecraft was only aware of Harlem from stops on the subway station at 125th street and Lenox Avenue. These were unsegregated cars, as Lovecraft would attest to an aunt who had experienced Jim Crow conditions in Georgia:

The separation of people & niggers at the stations is an excellent idea—which ought to be practiced on the Harlem subway trains here—& it would please me always to alight at the quaint & picturesque town of WHITE.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 10 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.243

Lovecraft’s experience of encountering African-Americans on New York subways is among his more odious anecdotes of living in New York, as evidenced by a trip to Pelham Bay Park:

It took an hour to get there; & since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegāna, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, & that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings & outings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore & back & reënter the subway for the long homeward ride—waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 6 July 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.310

It is worth pointing out that Lovecraft was more vocally racist in his letters to his aunts than to pretty much any of his other correspondents; whether this is because they shared his prejudices or that he was simply more relaxed about writing to them is unclear. The tendency to slip into farcical vernacular English and African-American dialect is typical of Lovecraft—he was a student of dialect and did the same thing for many accents, in New England, New York, the South, and elsewhere in his letters, often playing for comedic effect—but even so, the naked prejudice on display shows how far out of his element Lovecraft felt. In large part, the degree of prejudice evidenced in Lovecraft’s few mentions of Harlem is because race is what set Harlem apart, at least in his mind.

The New York adventure ended in 1926. Separated from his wife, still with no job, and having had his apartment broken into and clothes stolen, Lovecraft finally packed his things and left New York to return to Providence. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft would maintain a detestation for the city—with its vast hordes of immigrants, Jews, and African-Americans. The rhetoric of Lovecraft’s prejudice increased during the rising tide of antisemitism that accompanied the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, as can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s more egregious statements:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jun 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 325

Morton had by this point moved from Harlem to New Jersey, so Lovecraft wasn’t literally calling for his death, and the full horrors of Hitler’s policy of genocide were not understood when he came to power in 1933. The callous suggestion for mass murder is hyperbole, a statement about his dislike of New York as a whole. The quote is worse in hindsight, knowing as we do today about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s use of poison gas to murder millions. Lovecraft did not know about that—but it speaks to the depths of his antipathy to the multiracial, multicultural melting pot that he had failed to find a place in.

Yet Lovecraft also retained ties to the city in the form of friends like the Longs, and would revisit it several times during his travels. He would also write of the city to his friends. When one young correspondent considered visiting New York, Lovecraft provided a list of places to visit, and included:

Harlem negro district (sinister & fascinating—not a white face for blocks—Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St.—walk N.)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 128

The longest and most detailed account that Lovecraft ever gave of Harlem was to another young friend, a jazz pianist and aficionado of Duke Ellington:

Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether there are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. The Bronx trains are bad enough—packed solidly with bulbous-nosed or Mongoloid-faced Jews—but de Lenox Ab’noo trains sho’ ain’t no place fo’ no blond of any kind! Black Harlem itself I know largely from ‘bus windows—the coach lines from Providence passing down Lenox or upper 7th Ave. through the heart of the district. It is the extent which almost stupefies one…block after block after block…outdoing anything that Charleston or Richmond or Savannah or Atlanta or New Orleans can produce. You’d never think there were so many niggers in the world, or that there were so many denizens of New York that aren’t Jews! I’ll bet Senegal & Nigeria look white as compared with that zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond. Africa pushes south all the time—crowding the Jews & impinging on the white Puerto-Ricans (who nosed out the Jews in their region about 1930) of upper 5th Ave. And yet this whole black colony scarcely dates from before 1913, when the blacks of “San Juan Hill” downtown were evicted to make room for the new Pennsylvania station. The dispossessed families found some cheap tenements in upper Harlem (then mainly Nordic-Aryan) & formed a nucleus—quickly spreading as the white families on their borders moved away. How far they will get, no one can tell. The Jews don’t retreat before them as rapidly as the Aryans did, but they begin to go when the blacks get very thick in a block. The northern rim of Central Park will probably check them & turn their spread eastward—where they’ll displace great Greek & Hungarian colonies. The most amusing parts of Harlem are where the rich blacks dwell—these being almost as neat & spruce as Aryan neighbourhoods. The houses include some of the most elegant reliques of the Stanford White period, & the prosperous professional Æethiops keep them spic & span! Amusing in another way are the shop windows of Lenox & 7th Aves. All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery. Sharp social distinctions are said to exist among the blacks—for example, West Indian negroes are disliked by the coons of the continental U.S. Some of the West Indians—who speak with a British accent & have an independent arrogance which grates on Southerners—despise the American blacks as much as the latter hate them. Portuguese negroes—so-called “Bravas” from the Cape Verde Islands, unpleasantly common in Providence & other southern New England ports—appear to be absent from nigger Harlem. While the black belt has no well-defined eastern limit, it is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights, atop which are the Gothic quadrangles of N.Y. City College (whose student body is almost solidly Jewish) & the streets of a rather passable & fairly Aryan neighbourhood amidst which can be found (overtaken & packed in among modern city blocks) the old country seat (built about 1800) of Alexander Hamilton, out of whose door he walked to his death on that fatal duel morning in 1804.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 65-67

There is some excellent detail here—one would not normally look for a random white tourist in Harlem to comment on straightening irons—but it is notable that by 1934 Lovecraft had traveled much more widely, visiting as far south as Key West and as far east as New Orleans. He had seen segregated buses and work gangs down South, visited the Cuban enclave of Ybor City and the Hispanic old city of St. Augustine, and yet he still found Harlem fascinating in its own unique way.

There are a few more scattered references to Harlem in Lovecraft’s letters, but with no friends to visit and not living in the city himself, he does not appear to have visited the city except passing through on bus trips for the rest of his life. The exploitative image of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten and others portrayed of Harlem appear to have largely passed Lovecraft by. Yet that was not quite the end of the connections that Lovecraft had with Harlem.

Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance

The published letters and essays of H. P. Lovecraft include few mentions of any African-American writers or artists directly apart of the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that Lovecraft was completely ignorant or unaffected by the work of such creatives—we know for example that Lovecraft was gifted a copy of Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1929) in 1931, and that book is illustrated by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. But the main works of that movement appear to have passed Lovecraft by.

This lack is particularly notable in his critical essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” first published in 1927. This survey of weird fiction misses contributions to horror fiction by black authors, including Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston, whose anthropological writings on folklore such as Mules & Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) would expand on subjects such as Haitian voodoo. Such a blind spot is understandable as Lovecraft explains in one letter:

Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 45

Lovecraft was not generally derogatory toward fiction written by African-Americans, and could even praise the efforts of individuals, but he simply had very little interest in the black point of view, and consequently read very little of such works.

By an odd coincidence, however, Lovecraft did have relationships with two individuals who were connected with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, Winifred Virginia Jackson and William Stanley Braithwaite established the B. J. Brimmer Company, which published a number of works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze: A Book of Verses (1922). 

Jackson was white, divorced, a poet and writer who sometimes contributed poems to W. E. B. du Bois’ The Crisis. She had met Lovecraft through amateur journalism in 1918, and they had collaborated on two stories together: “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1977) repeated gossip that Jackson and Lovecraft may have been in a relationship, though there is no evidence of this in Lovecraft’s letters. The same source claimed that Jackson was the mistress of William Stanley Braithwaite, though there is no evidence for that either. Whatever the case, in 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife Sonia H. Greene, and his friendship with Jackson faded.

Braithwaite was mixed-race, but in the United States at that period that made him “colored.” Lovecraft was aware of him as a prominent Boston editor and critic, but did not become aware of his race until 1918, when he read a newspaper account of Braithwaite winning the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, which occasioned a stunningly racist outburst (LRKO 112). Whatever Lovecraft’s feelings, they did not extend to discourtesy: a letter at the John Hay Library from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 February 1930, and is formal but cordial, and Lovecraft’s surviving letters to Jackson that mention Braithwaite praise him as a poetry critic.

Harlem in Lovecraft’s Fiction

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922)

Buck Robinson as a black boxer echoes Jack Johnson, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) whose very existence caused white America to clamor for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him—and Lovecraft began writing this story in 1921, before he had gone to New York or seen Harlem. He had that much cultural knowledge of Harlem, as center of black population and black culture, to provide that detail. “The Harlem Smoke” is the only explicit reference to Harlem in Lovecraft’s fiction.

Which is a very weird absence when it is remembered that Lovecraft was writing fiction in New York, and those particular tales he wrote while living there—“The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air”—were set in or take inspiration from his experiences in the city. The only reference to black people among these stories is a brief mention of “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth” and “population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” in “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is set in Brooklyn.

The conspicuous absence of Harlem from Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat characteristic. Lovecraft wasn’t shy about including depictions of race prejudice in his fiction, so since Lovecraft basically didn’t write anything about Harlem in his stories means he inadvertently avoided saying anything negative about that place and its inhabitants. There were none of the exaggerated or exploitative material about Harlem that was characteristic of white writers like Carl Van Vechten.

On the other hand, it is also something of a tradition of erasure. Because there is no Harlem in these stories, there are also very few black characters and almost nothing about black culture in the Lovecraft Mythos. So while Lovecraft managed to minimize saying anything explicitly racist about Harlem in his fiction, there is also literally nothing about Harlem for later writers to expand off of. Harlem in the Lovecraft Mythos is effectively a blank slate, on which anyone might write anything.

So they did.

Harlem in the Cthulhu Mythos

Almost all of Lovecraft’s contemporaries at Weird Tales and his correspondents were white; the bulk of those did not live in or near New York City. At the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft was an obscure author who never achieved widespread or enduring publication; his fanbase was small but loyal and vocal. Two in particular, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, sought to get Lovecraft’s fiction and letters into hardback publication, and to this end they formed the small publisher Arkham House—and managed through legal wrangling and much self-advertisement to establish a near-monopoly on Mythos fiction until Derleth died in 1971.

Which is to say that it took several decades for Harlem to really make any substantial appearance in the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, but by the time that it did, the United States was in many ways a different place. Jim Crow and segregation had ended in the 1960s through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The legal successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not translate into financial or social equality, as African-American science fiction fans, writers, and artists remained in the minority, though increasingly they were given opportunities to make their talents known and voices heard.

This is the context in which The Ballad of Black Tom was written: faced with a mostly blank slate, trying to address a notable gap in Lovecraft’s corpus. Not just the absence of Harlem itself, but the absence of an African-American point of view. While LaValle’s Harlem may not come through as visceral as Lovecraft depicts it in his letters, he does succeed in depicting a Harlemite, and a much-neglected viewpoint.

Victor LaValle was not the only writer in the wider Cthulhu Mythos to attempt and address this gap. The most extensive effort to bring Harlem into the Mythos has been, not in short fiction, but in tabletop roleplaying. Chaosium, Inc. produced the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981, based on Lovecraft’s fiction and with a primary focus on characters assuming roles in the period in which Lovecraft’s fiction is set (1920s-1930s). Settings for this game include New York with books like Secrets of New York (2005, Chaosium), and entire third-party settings such as Harlem Unbound (2017, Darker Hue Studios). In these works, the focus is much less on Lovecraft’s prejudices and more “filling in the gaps” by addressing both what he did and especially what he did not write about. As editor Chris Spivey put it:

There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem’s time is fleeting. While classes, sexuality, and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song? (8)

There are differences between Secrets of New York and Harlem Unbound. The former is a product for a general audience; that is, the players and their characters are not assumed to be of any particular race or ethnicity—while Harlem Unbound focuses in on the black experience in Harlem, and while the players may by of any race, with the assumption that the player characters at least are going to be black Harlemites, like Tommy Tester in The Ballad of Black Tom. In that respect, Harlem Unbound has the heavy lifting to do of trying to show what Harlem was like, during Lovecraft’s life, as well as to find angles with which to connect Harlem with the Mythos.

For writers like Victor LaValle and Chris Spivey, Harlem is unclaimed territory, a blank space on the map where they can imagine and write their own stories. Yet it is not a place without a history; books have been written about Harlem, movies set there, contemporary street maps and photographs are available, and not a few stories left from people that remember what it was like when they were children there—if not during the 20s and 30s, then in later decades. Plenty of colorful detail where a savvy writer can fit in some aspect of the Mythos, either one dreamed up by Lovecraft or a brand new horror that ties into the greater framework.

Which is the promise and possibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and Harlem going forward: having been neglected for so long, we have arrived at a point where people of color can write and publish their own approach to what horrors might lurk in the shadows of Harlem, and how the Harlemites might deal with it. Which may ultimately be the way forward when it comes to Lovecraft’s fiction: to see and go beyond his personal limitations and prejudices, to explore the possibilities that his fiction offers, and to carve a new Mythos that can address the fears and experiences of all people.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite

Reflections upon the various sorts of unusual verse prevalent in this age, leads me to mention a new bard whose work I have not yet perused, but whose poetry was reviewed by Mr. William Stanley Braithwaite in a recent number of the BOSTON TRANSCRIPT.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Kleicomolo, Apr 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 99

In 1917, William Stanley Braithwaite was 39 years old and had been writing for the Boston Transcript for twelve years; that year he he would publish his fourth annual Anthology of Magazine Verse. Born from mixed-race parents, legal segregation in the United States of America decreed him a “Negro,” and throughout his life Braithwaite would experience discrimination because of his race—but he would also receive praise for his work as a poet, critic, editor, and publisher.

By 1917, H. P. Lovecraft was 27 years old and had finally emerged from his period of seclusion following the tumultuous period that had seen him lose his father, his family home, and fail to graduate highschool or go to college. The catalyst for Lovecraft’s re-emergence was amateur journalism, where he could find expression for his writing, poetry, criticism, and just plain interaction with other human beings, at first through letters and then increasingly in person.

It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first became aware of Braithwaite; the earliest reference in Lovecraft’s letters was in 1916 relating to Braithwaite’s The Poetry Review of America (LRK 43),which folded within a year. Braithwaite seems unlikely to have heard of Lovecraft before 1921-1922, in relation to certain poems that Braithwaite by Winifred Virginia Jackson that he wished to publish from Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative. Lovecraft and Braithwaite are never known to have met in person, but by odd coincidence and due to common acquaintances with Lovecraft’s circle, including Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, and Winifred Virginia Jackson, Lovecraft and Braithwaite would briefly exchange letters.

William Stanley Braithwaite would be Lovecraft’s only known African-American correspondent.

Race can be impossible to judge in print; unless it is specifically mentioned, the individual prejudices of the reader have little to focus on. Such appears to be the case with H. P. Lovecraft. For however many years he was aware of Braithwaite as a poetry critic at the Boston Transcript or from other publications, he seems to have assumed that Braithwaite was white. Then in 1918, Lovecraft opened the newspaper and learned that William Stanley Braithwaite had won the Springarn medal—an annual award for African-Americans. Lovecraft’s response was perhaps his single most virulent outburst of racism ever put to paper.

Speaking of poetical reviewers—I have not yet recovered from the shock the newspaper gave me last night! At the First Baptist Church in this city, on Friday evening, there occurred the annual ceremony of the award of the “Spingarn Medal”, which is given to the member of the negro race who achieves the most notable success in ‘any field of elevated or honourable human endeavour’ during the year. At these impressive exercises, Gov. Beeckman of Rhode Island gracefully awarded the badge of African supremacy to the Boston poet, critic, & literary editor—William Stanley Braithwaite!!!!!!!!!!!! Think of it—chew upon it—let it sink into your astonished & outraged consciousness—the great Transcript dictator, the little czar of the Poetry Review, is a nigger—a low-born, mongrel, semi-ape!—Ye gods—I gasp—I can say no more! Aid me, ye benign elves & daemons of anticlimax! So this—this—is the fellow who hath held the destinies of nascent Miltons in his sooty hand; this is the sage who hath set the seal of his approval on vers libre & amylowellism—a miserable mulatto! To think of the years I have taken this nigger seriously, reading his critical dicta as though he were a Bostonian & a white man! I could kick myself! William’s picture is printed in the Bulletin beside the news item, & from the likeness given I can deduce no visible sign of his black blood. A heavy moustache droops down over what may be thick negroid lips. But after all—I suppose he has only a slight taint of the beast. No nigger blacker than a quadroon would be likely to attain the intellectual level he has undoubtedly reached. I am not minimising what the fellow knows, but I think it monstrous bad taste for the Transcript to foist a black upon its literary readers!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112

When August Derleth & Donald Wandrei were compiling the first volume of the Selected Letters, they left this one out. That being said, for all the bald racism in this paragraph, there is reason to think that at least some of Lovecraft’s outrage is hyperbole—the reference to vers libre (free verse, poetry that doesn’t follow conventional rules of rhyme or meter) and “amylowellism” (Amy Lowell was a noted proponent of free verse) reflects Lovecraft’s poetic prejudices rather than his racial prejudices.

The racism on Lovecraft’s part was frank, and frankly enduring. While there are few mentions of Braithwaite in Lovecraft’s correspondence, he felt the need to address him to others casually as “the nigger Bill Braithwaite” (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37), “that eminent brunet critick William Stanley Braithwaite” (LFF 1.315), and “nigger Braithwaite” (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 220). It is no comfort to recall that such racist sentiment was shared by others—H. L. Mencken in a 1919 letter to George sterling refers to “The Braithwaite coon” (From Baltimore to Bohemia 55)—and the only “good” thing that can be said about Lovecraft is that he saved such epithets for his closest family and friends on the rare occasion Braithwaite came up in correspondence.

Then there’s the issue of the kitten…

I am glad also of the descriptive Braithwaite—leaflet—William Stanley is certainly at the head of American criticks of poetry, as indeed I realised before from the Transcript reviews. When a tiny coal-black kitten came to visit me in 1918 I called him “William Stanley Braithwaite” and used to let him chew even important papers and feather dusters with the natural destructiveness of a literary reviewer. But this William Stanley deserted me after 1919—he must have found my “poems” unpalatable. I wish I knew what became of him!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Winifred Virginia Jackson, 7 Oct 1921, LRKO 334

There is no reason to doubt that the kitten was real, and that Lovecraft named him “William Stanley Braithwaite.” Lovecraft mentions the cat in a letters to his aunt (LFF 1.37, 376). It is also a matter of record that Lovecraft had a habit of naming black cats after racial pejoratives for black people, beginning with his pet cat, who would later gain a kind of literary immortality in Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls” (written 1923, published Weird Tales March 1924). A line in a letter from Lovecraft to Edwin Baird reads “I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!” (Selected Letters 1.298). However, the tendency is shown to use the similar epithets when referring to any black cat:

When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—”Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200-201

Turning to the other end of the chromatic scheme—there are 4 little niggers at the boarding-house across the garden from old 66—brothers or half-brothers of the late & unforgettable Sam Perkins.
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane Rimel, 10 Mar 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 260

Jason Colavito has pointed out in W. Scott Poole on Lovecraft’s Relationship to Poe and His Racist Cat that as terrible as this seems to contemporary readers, Lovecraft was far from alone in this kind of casual usage of the “N-word” and related terms, even with regard to the names of pets. The N-word was understood as pejorative, it was also in very common colloquial use. The only thing exceptional in this case is that Lovecraft naming a black cat “William Stanley Braithwaite” is making the N-word implicit instead of explicit.

There is also the issue of Lovecraft and Braithwaite’s common interest in Winifred Virginia Jackson. It’s not exactly clear when Braithwaite and Jackson became acquainted. In Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by Wetzel & Everts asserted that Jackson was a romantic interest of both men, and that she actually pursued an affair with Braithwaite (who had married in 1903; he and his wife had seven children). While it is clear that Jackson was friends and partners with both men in some sense—she and Lovecraft shared editorial duties and leadership roles in amateur journalism from 1917-1921 or so, and she and Braithwaite were business partners from 1921-1927 at the B. J. Brimmer Company—there is no evidence for a sexual or romantic relationship with either of the two men, nor does Wetzel & Everts present anything except vague anecdotes to support the idea.

What Lovecraft and Braithwaite did share was an appreciation for Jackson as a poet, and both men wrote critical appraisals that lauded her poetry—Lovecraft in amateur journals, and Braithwaite in wider form through his anthologies. Lovecraft called attention to Braithwaite’s praise for her:

The United takes pride in the distinguished recognition just accorded its premier poetess, Winifred Virginia Jackson; recognition of a degree hitherto gained by no other amateur journalist. Four poems of Miss Jackson’s, “Fallen Fences”, “Miss Doane”, “The Farewell”, and “Cross-Currents”, have been selected by the eminent critic and editor, William Stanley Braithwaite, for publication in his 1921 “Anthology of Massachusetts Poets”, whilst another notable group has won the supreme distinction of inclusion in Mr. Braithwaite’s authoritative general “Anthology of Magazine Verse” for 1921, to be published in November. We may appreciate the honour thus reflected upon the United when we consider the exclusive standards and classical reputation of the Braithwaite anthologies, as published by Small, Maynard & Co. of Boston. These anthologies, says the New York Times, are “signs of the times and milestones upon the way”. According to the Atlantic Monthly, they “Show the vigorous state of American poetry”. Of Mr. Braithwaite the late William Dean Howells said: “Mr. Braithwaite is a critic very much to our mind, and is the most intelligent historian of contemporary poetry we can think of.” The United indeed has reason to congratulate its poeticla luminar, and indirectly itself, as the first and continued field of Miss Jackson’s efforts.
H. P. Lovecraft, “New Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 1 (Sep 1921)
in Collected Essays 1.299, cf. 303, 306, 307

Lovecraft had been intending to publish a new issue of his amateur journal The Conservative containing several poems by Jackson, but the issue was delayed and never eventually published, so that Braithwaite’s anthology ended up referring to a “ghost” issue (LMM 106). Yet by 1922 Lovecraft and Jackson had drifted apart, and Jackson and Braithwaite were focused on their new business, the B. J. Brimmer Company, which aside from publishing Braithwaite’s annuals also published material related to the Harlem Renaissance.

After 1922, references to Braithwaite are scarce in Lovecraft’s writing; usually only when someone noted that one or another of his poet friends had been mentioned in the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, e.g.:

Your genius is far from unappreciated—indeed, Long tells me you are mentioned in the new Braithwaite anthology, (which I have not seen) an honour not by any means to be despised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Jun 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 52

Smith had related this comment to his mentor George Sterling, who had previously expressed exasperation with and poor opinion of Braithwaite (Shadows of the Unattained 233, those interested should also compare From Baltimore to Bohemia 54-55 and especially “George Sterling’s Letters to William Stanley Braithwaite: the Poet Versus the Editor.” American Book Collector XXIV, Nov-Dec 1973). Which probably explains Smith’s rather lackluster response; Lovecraft in turn added:

As to Braithwaite—I guess he is as intelligent as the average anthologist, though all such characters have such streaks of poor judgment that their selections are occasionally rather unaccountable—both as to omission & inclusion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Jul 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 56

It is one of the oddities of Lovecraft that for all of his racial prejudice, and his early lambasting of Braithwaite for publishing free verse, he really did seem to respect Braithwaite both for his position in American letters, and as a literary editor and a critic. Which is what appears to have brought Lovecraft and Braithwaite into correspondence, however briefly.

All that remains is a single letter dated 7 February 1930, held at the John Hay Library. It is obviously a reply—whether Lovecraft had initially written to Braithwaite or vice versa is not known; nor is there any indication that the correspondence continued beyond this brief exchange. If Lovecraft initiated the correspondence, he would need only have written to the Boston Transcript, but if it was Braithwaite who started it, he would have needed to get Lovecraft’s address somewhere—from whom, we do not know. It begins formally: “Dear Mr. Braithwaite:—”

I am glad that you found merit in Mr. Long’s poem, & wish his work could be better known—for the encouragement of recognition would undoubtedly have the effect of stimulating him to more & more poignant utterance. There are provokingly few poets—just as there are provikingly few prose writers—who fully express that sense of the cosmic & the marvellous which is so potent a reality to many kinds of sensitive people. You would not find Weird Tales a very rich harvesting-ground for poetical material; although it does frequently contain excellent verses by Clark Ashton Smith, whom you have occasionally mentioned in the anthology. If Mr. Smith could only curb a frequent tendency toward extravagance, I think his work would be of even greater importance than it is. He is now entering the prose field to some extent—with exotic phantasies & tales.

The opening paragraph refers to Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Weird Tales; Long’s poem “The Horror on Dagoth Wold” had been published in the February 1930 issue of Weird Tales, which would have been on the newsstands in mid-January. Editor Farnsworth Wright had been in the habit of publishing weird verse, and perhaps that attracted Braithwaite’s attention for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse—although as fate would have it, 1930 would be the last year the series would be published.

The second paragraph speaks to their mutual acquaintance:

It pleases me highly to learn of the continued progress of Miss Jackson, whose work gave such an instant impression of authentic genius a decade ago. I have seen & appreciated later verses of hers here & there, & am interested by the prospect of a novel from her pen. I shall be on the lookout both for this & for the short stories. It seemed certain to me from the first that her work had that sureness of insight & expression which marks genuine art, & the more authoritative confirmation of that judgment is very gratifying.

The in-between-the-lines on this paragraph is that Lovecraft has not been in continued contact with Winifred Virginia Jackson, which might be as expected from the lack of references to her in Lovecraft’s later letters; and, conversely, that Braithwaite has remained in contact with her, even after the bankruptcy of B. J. Brimmer Co. in 1927. When Lovecraft knew Jackson, prose was her weak spothence why Lovecraft did the revision on “The Crawling Chaos” and “The Green Meadow”; one has to wonder if she had intended to include these among the “short stories” mentioned. It is not clear if Jackson ever wrote a novel, although she did keep two scrapbooks full of news-clippings and notes for a projected novel.

Another early judgment of mine, which I hope later developments may confirm, relates not to an actual poet, but to a hierophant of poets—in other words, to a manual or text-book on the subject of poetic appreciation, which I think will be more effective than anything hitherto published in arousing ordinary minds to the beauty of poetry, explaining as much as can be explained of the poet’s appeal, & inculcating standards by which the genuine can be distinguished from the spurious. This book—”Doorways to Poetry”—is by Maurice Winter Moe, a teach of English in the West Division High School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; & a reading of it in manuscript has aroused my enthusiasm to almost inordinate bounds. It is so perfectly & incisively analytical, yet so appreciatively sympathetic & so free from pedagogical sterility. There is a chance of its acceptance by the Macmillan Co, & in the event of its publication I confidently expect qualified critics to sustain my own instant & unofficial verdict. There is no doubt but that you will receive a copy up its issuance.

The last paragraph concerns a project by Lovecraft’s friend Maurice W. Moe, Doorways to Poetry, which Lovecraft had assisted on but which never saw publication (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 16-20). It is very typical of Lovecraft to promote the work and abilities of his friends, rather than his own. Then the letter ends:

Again expressing my appreciation—
yr oblg’d & obt servt
H. P. Lovecraft

The “again” is the only real hint that this is part of a longer correspondence; it suggests that Lovecraft had written to Braithwaite at least once previously. Perhaps he did; if so, or if Braithwaite ever answered we don’t know.

The tone of the letter is obviously formal, and equally obviously lacks any reference to Braithwaite’s race, or any trace of racism. That too is very typical of Lovecraft; whatever prejudices he held, he was usually at pains to avoid giving offense to any individual in print, especially in later life. A researcher who read this letter without any knowledge of Lovecraft’s previous literary encounters with Braithwaite would probably not find anything exceptional about this very brief, mundane exchange between a pulp writer and a noted journalist and editor.

It would be very interesting to know more of Braithwaite’s own end of things: none of his published letters that I have seen mention Lovecraft, or shed much light on this letter or his relationship with Winifred Virginia Jackson. It would have been interesting if they had hit on some common thread of interest—they were both admirers of the weird fiction of Algernon Blackwood, for example (The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader 301, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)—but that is in the realm of might-have-been. Perhaps in the future, research into Braithwaite’s letters and papers might lend more insight into their relationship—or perhaps not. It was, after all, only one letter in a life that was filled with letters, for Braithwaite.

What is interesting about H. P. Lovecraft’s relationship with William Stanley Braithwaite is simply how, with all of his prejudices, he could and would deal with a literary African-American. In private, Lovecraft let his prejudices show to his closest family and friends, more circumspect in conversation with other correspondents; in public, including his amateur journalism editorials, he was neutral. In his correspondence with Braithwaite, Lovecraft is unfailing polite. This shift in register is familiar in Lovecraft’s writing; a reflection of the stratified society he found himself in, where Braithwaite was a second-class citizen by dint of his race, but which social decorum required Lovecraft to address with a formal politeness. While we can see something of this shift in registers with a few other correspondents, it is only with Braithwaite that we can really see the full range of this unspoken code—because William Stanley Braithwaite is his only known African-American correspondent.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Winifred Virginia Jackson

I see that I need to don armour against a curious fate that concerns itself with bringing loss to me. The loss of Mr. Lovecraft’s letters also touches you.

May the California sunshine restore you to perfect health.

Very sincerely,
—Winifred Virginia Jackson to R. H. Barlow, 11 Nov 1938, MSS. John Hay Library

Winifred Virginia Jackson was born in 1876 (although dates vary), attended county and public schools, and then attended college at the Eastern State Normal School and the Curry School of Expression (now Curry College) in Boston, and was sometimes employed as a librarian. She married her husband Horace Jordan in 1915, so that when she joined amateur journalism shortly after she was known as Winifred Virginia Jordan.

We know that Winifred was recruited to the United Amateur Press Association in 1915 by Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent Anne Tillery Renshaw. Winifred must have written to Howard Phillips Lovecraft in late 1915 or early 1916, because her poem “Song of the North Wind” appears in Lovecraft’s own amateur journal The Conservative in the January 1916 issue. They continued to write to each other until at least 1921 or 1922, when references to her fade from Lovecraft’s correspondence. Yet for that 5-7 years of letter writing, all that remains are six letters from Howard to Winifred dated from 1920 to 1921, near the tail end of their relationship, and we must reconstruct what is left from Lovecraft’s other letters.

As a poet, she was successful in getting published in amateur journals and newspapers. At the United Amateur Press Association convention of 1917, Howard was elected President and Winifred was elected vice-president, so their correspondence for the next few years would have included much official business as well as any personal news. She also held various editorial positions, including the United Women’s Press Club of Massachusetts official organ The Bonnet, and published her own amateur journal Eurus. Some unsigned pieces in The Bonnet are believed to be from Lovecraft, so their letters must have included details about the journals she edited as well.

Around early 1918, Winifred was stricken with influenza—probably the “Spanish Flu” pandemic—and one of Lovecraft’s letters from the period suggests she required a nurse at home to care for her, and that she had to dictate her letters to Lovecraft through the nurse:

Mrs. Jordan’s recovery has not been as rapid as one might wish, but a copy of The London Daily Mail lately came from her, addressed in her own handwriting instead of her nurse’s, hence I assume she is much improved. In the last letter she dictated, she related an amusing recruiting incident.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 110

This formed the nucleus of what would become Howard and Winifred’s first collaboration, “The Crawling Chaos” (1921). Around the same period (1918-1919), Howard’s mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft experienced a nervous collapse that in 1919 required her to be committed to Butler Hospital. Lovecraft’s admiration for Jordan as a poet was growing, and includes his appreciative editorial “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion 3, No. 1, April 1919).

Also in 1919, Howard shared a dream in a letter; Winifred replied with her own, complete with a map, and suggested he make a story out of it. This became in 1920-1921 their second collaboration, “The Green Meadow” (1927). Both of these collaborations used her pen-name “Elizabeth Berkeley”, which Howard himself used twice himself. Perhaps at this time their correspondence became a touch more intimate; in late 1920 he wrote On Receiving Ye Portraiture of Mrs. Berkeley, Ye Poetess, indicating that she had sent him a photo. At this time, Winifred’s marriage likewise disintegrated, ending in divorce. She retook her maiden name, and in Lovecraft’s letters “Mrs. Jordan” became thereafter “Miss Jackson.” Lovecraft wrote to her:

From your amended, or restored, signature, I assume that your court case hath come to a successful termination; a circumstance which will cause universal rejoicing because of the inevitable suspense & tension from which it doubtless relieves you.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 25 Dec 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 329

Rumors of a romantic relationship between Howard and Winifred derive Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by George T. Wetzel & R. Alain Everts, a scarce chapbook which repeats a good deal of decades-old gossipsome of it provably wrong; despite assertions by Wetzel & Everts that Horace Jordan was African-American, his birth certificate and draft card both list him as white. So too, Lovecraft and Jackson were not always in perfect agreement: while Lovecraft was an ardent Anglophile and supported the British during World War I and the Irish War of Independence, Jackson supported Sinn Fein:

I first heard of the organisation from Mrs. Jordan, who is so devoted to the cause that she does secretarial work at the offices two or three days every week without remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 85

Despite these political differences, Howard mentions continuing to see Winifred at various amateur get-togethers, and he even published a critical appreciation: “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (United Amateur, March 1921). Her appreciation for Lovecraft also appears to have been real; on one visit to her house he noted:

[…] I found my worthless poetical attempts predominating in her old scrap books which date back to a time when their inspection by me was probably never anticipated.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Sarah Susan Lovecraft, 17 Mar 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.33

Susie Lovecraft died 24 May 1921 at Butler Hospital, after complications from gallbladder surgery. Howard would write:

My dear Miss Jackson:
It may indeed be said with justice that you have lost a friend in my mother, for although you never heard directly from her, she may be reckoned among the earliest and most enthusiastic admirers of your work. As I recall her especial appreciation of your poems, from the very first she saw, I regret the more that you did not know her personally, either by letter or meeting.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 7 June 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 330

That July, Howard and Winifred both attended the National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston—where Lovecraft met a new amateur from New York, Sonia Haft Greene. Everts reports that in a 1967 interview Sonia told him “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.” Maybe it was so; references to Sonia increase in Howard’s letters at the same time that references to Winifred decrease—yet the correspondence between HPL and WVJ did not cease immediately. If there was a romantic rivalry, it’s not clear that Lovecraft was even aware of it…and there was another factor.

William Stanley Braithwaite was a prominent African-American poet and editor; Lovecraft was not immediately aware of his race (Braithwaite’s parents were both mixed race) until 1918, when Braithwaite was awarded the Springarn medal, this occasioned one of the most intemperate outbursts of racial prejudice in Lovecraft’s letters (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112). In the Twentieth Anniversary Number (1921 annual of the Bibliophile Society in Boston), Braithwaite wrote an introduction “The Poetry of Winifred Virginia Jackson”—and the two would soon begin a much more substantial collaboration. In 1921 Braithwaite and Jackson would found the B. J. Brimmer publishing company, which published Braithwaite’s annual anthologies of magazine verse and several works associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The latter connection with African-American literature is no doubt why Winifred was mistakenly identified as black in Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History: and a Heart to Heart Talk about White Folks (1921). Wetzel & Everts assert that Jackson and Braithwaite were having an extramarital affair, but there is no evidence for this.

Lovecraft by 1921 was certainly aware that there was some association between Jackson and Braithwaite; his last extent letter to Winifred mentions Braithwaite, whom Lovecraft also named a black kitten after (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 334); and there are scattered other references in his letters, mostly to Braithwaite writing about Jackson’s poetry or mentioning The Conservative in connection to it (Letters to Family & Family Friends 37, Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 106). Whether Lovecraft was aware of them being business partners is unclear; the references to her in his correspondence drop off precipitously in 1921-1922. A single letter from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 Feb 1930, where HPL is pleased to hear about WVJ, so they must have been out of touch by that date.

Which need not have been anything more elaborate than two friends drifting apart. Winifred Virginia Jackson was spending more time with her new business and less with amateur affairs; H. P. Lovecraft was spending more time with Sonia H. Greene, whom he would marry in 1924. For the lack of their surviving correspondence, Lovecraft gives a clue:

She has a fad for destruction, and wishes all her epistles burnt without exhibition, though they are in truth far less slanderous than the presumably preserved GALLOMO. I usually comply with the wish, though in this case had to save this one sheet for the sake of the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 109

What did her letters to Lovecraft mean, to Winifred? Certainly he supplied encouragement and enthusiasm for her poetry; they shared dreams and collaborated on two stories; and their period of correspondence was marked by major life events for both of them: disease, divorce, & death. They shared a close professional correspondence as the lead administrators of the United Amateur Press Association…and if there was anything more, we can only guess at it.

The six surviving letters consist of one draft among Lovecraft’s papers, and five letters that R. H. Barlow transcribed and submitted to August Derleth; only an excerpt from the first letter was published in Selected Letters I. Presumably, these were all of the letters that Winifred was able to unearth when Barlow contacted her c. 1938.

All six letters have been published in Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Illustration Portfolio No. 1 (1925) by The Arthur Wesley Dow Association

There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify. There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

When fans think of the artwork most associated with the literary works of Lord Dunsany, the first and last name is Sidney H. Sime, whose fantastic illustrations graced The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and most of Dunsany’s other fantasies. Sime also contributed art to illustrate works by Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson, and Lovecraft held him up in his fiction and letters as an artistic genius. Today, when fantastic art is so widely available online, and of such a high quality due to the proliferation in books and courses of technique and the availability of tools and materials, readers might lose sight of how rare and precious really good fantasy art was back in Lovecraft’s time…yet even in 1925, when Weird Tales was only a couple of years old and still finding its feet, Lord Dunsany’s fantasies inspired a group of women artists…and found publication.

The Arthur Wesley Dow Association was founded at the University of California, Southern Branch (now UCLA) in 1922. Materials related to this portfolio (presumably the original art or proofs) are still held at the UCLA library. This portfolio appears to have been begun as early as 1923, and was published in 1925. Compiled by Helen C. Chandler, a professor of arts at the University of California.

Dow1

In form, this is ten unbound black-and-white plates—seven plates by five artists illustrate two stories drawn from Lord Dunsany’s collection Time and the Gods (1906). They represent interpretations of Lovecraft’s work. Not copying Sime, but presenting their own interpretations, in their own medium and style.

 

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All the gods were sitting in Pegāna, and Their slave, Time, lay idle at Pegāna’s gate with nothing to destroy, when They thought of worlds, worlds large and round and gleaming, and little silver moons. Then (who knoweth when?), as the gods raised Their hands making the sign of the gods, the thoughts of the gods became worlds and silver moons. And the worlds swam by Pegāna’s gate to take their places in the sky, to ride at anchor for ever, each where the gods had bidden. And because they were round and big and gleamed all over the sky, the gods laughed and shouted and all clapped Their hands. Then upon earth the gods played out the game of the gods, the game of life and death, and on the other worlds They did a secret thing, playing a game that is hidden.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

Today, artwork like this might be classified by some as “fanart.” The term is often somewhat derogatory, regardless of the skill, imagination, or time put into the piece. The distinction between “art” and “fanart” grew up in the organized science fiction fandom of the 1930s, at the same time when lines were drawn between “fan” and “pro”—those writers and artists who were good enough to graduate from amateur efforts to actually sell their work professionally to magazines. At the time these works were made, the distinction did not exist. There were, certainly, amateur writers and artists in abundance—but the hallmark of the work was its quality, not necessarily who or why it was made.

 

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Thus the Yozis became gods, having the power of gods, and they sailed away to the earth, and came to a mountainous island in the sea. There they sat upon the rocks, sitting as the gods sit, with their right hands uplifted, and having the power of gods, only none came to worship. Thither came no ships nigh them, nor ever at evening came the prayers of men, nor smell of incense, nor screams from the sacrifice. Then said the Yozis:

“Of what avails it that we be gods if no one worship us nor give us sacrifice?”

And Ya, Ha, and Snyrg set sail in their silver galleons, and went looming down the sea to come to the shores of men.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

It is significant that the artists in this portfolio were women, because women were generally underrepresented as artists in fantasy and weird fiction at this time (and would continue to be for decades after), prominent exceptions like Margaret Brundage not withstanding. Yet the art itself is not distinctly “feminine” any more than it is “fanart.” These are labels that we as readers, trying to fix this art into a familiar framework, might hang on these pieces, but by themselves they are starkly beautiful, with the vast solid expanses of black still vivid after nearly a century, even though the cover of the portfolio has faded and some of the page-edges are soiled and torn.

 

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But as the gods slept, there came from beyond the Rim, out of the dark and unknown, three Yozis, spirits of ill, that sailed up the river of Silence in galleons with silver sails. Far away they had seen Yum and Gothum, the stars that stand sentinel over Pegāna‘s gate, blinking and falling asleep, and as they neared Pegāna they found a hush wherein the gods slept heavily. Ya, Ha, and Snyrg were these three Yozis, the lords of evil, madness, and of spite. When they crept from their galleons and stole over Pegāna‘s silent threshold it boded ill for the gods.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

In creating his own mythology, moving outside of the established gods and monsters of familiar myth and legend, Dunsany was breaking some of the rules and conventions. He is often very nondescriptive of the entities in his stories, letting the reader fill in the blanks. The Yozis in their different incarnations do not attempt to directly map to any traditional form of stock evil; they are not pitchfork-carrying devils with horns and bifurcated tails in their literary descriptions, nor do the artists attempt to render them as such. Left without much traditional guidance, each artist is forced to imagine and depict them in her own way.

 

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And Night spoke of the forest and the stirring of shadows and soft feet pattering and peering eyes, and of the fear that sits behind the trees taking to itself the shape of something crouched to spring.
—Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Free of restriction to normal conventions of what such fantastic scenes might look like, some of the artists experimented with depictions of scale and contrast. There is an exaggeration of the human form in the crouched figure staring out of the page that recalls Aubrey Beardsley.

 

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Look at the trees, how the different artists defined their bark and roots. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that each chose her own means of expression; they were not collaborating on a single narrative, but each offering their own interpretations. If Lord Dunsany wrote the myth, then these artists were each storytellers, presenting the stories in their own way.
 

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And Night spoke of the forest and the stirring of shadows and soft feet pattering and peering eyes, and of the fear that sits behind the trees taking to itself the shape of something crouched to spring.
Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Different is good. While many fans such as H. P. Lovecraft sincerely appreciated the combination of Lord Dunsany and S. H. Sime, that is still only one possible combination—other artists, working on their own, might find their own way to express what visions Dunsany’s prose gives to them, and it detracts nothing from Sime to say that some other artist might find something in their own work that lacks from his. They are only different points of view, not in competition.

 

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Once in an arbour of the gods above the fields of twilight Night wandering alone came suddenly on Morning. Then Night drew from his face his cloak of dark grey mists and said: “See, I am Night,” and they two sitting in that arbour of the gods, Night told wondrous stories of old mysterious happenings in the dark. And Morning sat and wondered, gazing into the face of Night and at his wreath of stars.
Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Michi Hashimoto is the only Japanese-American in this portfolio; she had graduated from UCLA in 1924. Her interpretation draws deliberately on both Japanese and Western aesthetics—fitting, given how extensively Dunsany himself drew on traditions of exoticism and Orientalism to lend an air of the exotic to his stories. There is some irony there, almost, in an artist capturing something of the “authentic” exotic to this scene.

 

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Compare this scene, with the hero of the Nibelunglied (a Western fantasy if there ever was one), encountering a three-headed dragon that obviously draws on depictions of Chinese dragons. This kind of correspondence and amalgamation  can work—compare with the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス)—but there is definite juxtaposition of incongruous elements in having the Western hero/knight facing an Eastern dragon in this interpretation.

 

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This atypical (per-Marvel Comics, at least!) interpretation of Thor underscores the overall theme of this portfolio: these are myths. Some old, some contemporary, but for all that just stories to be told and retold—and they aren’t set in stone. How we look at a Mythos can change based on the syntax of our lives. There is no one true canon depiction of Thor, or the Yozis, or Cthulhu.

 

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Illustration Portfolio No. 1 needs not have any particular moral or lesson. The artists of this volume were producing art, and left no particular comment on how it should be interpreted or understood. Yet by its very existence, and looking at these works, readers might do well to reflect on the nature of art and interpretation in the Mythos. Sometimes, there is no one right answer, no single truth.

There are only many different people working out their vision, in their own styles and with their own influences, and the different combination of art and text can sometimes mean more than either does separately.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).