It should be noted that this tale attempts a new stage of the evolution of Mythos fiction. It has been justly said that much Mythos fiction fails for its redundancy: the same thing happens that happened in Arkham House books of fity years ago. Once we read certain book titles or demonic names we know what will happen. The story reduces to the collection of names, almost as if that were all most readers were looking for anyway. For new Mythos fiction to have any chance of being effective perhaps it must be scrupulously spare in its referenced to the received lore.
—Robert M. Price, The Shub-Niggurath Cycle187
This story can be read as one of the most homophobic stories in the Cthulhu Mythos. That in itself might explain why this first collaboration between Robert M. Price & Peter Cannon is a bit of an orphan. It has been published only once, in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle, a volume edited by Price as part of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction line. Neither Price nor Cannon has seen fit to reprint it in any of their subsequent collections, nor written much about it; though it is clear from Price’s editorial comments that Cannon probably wrote the bulk of it, attempting to emulate the style of M. R. James, and that Price supplied much of the theological background. It is therefore feasible that this collaboration operated similar to their later story “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996).
The Jamesian atmosphere may have suggested the religious theme, which is Dr. Price’s special area of expertise; the setting is Temphill, part of the Severn Valley setting created by Ramsey Campbell for his own Mythos stories. Campbell might be credited with one of the first overt references to homosexuality in Mythos fiction with his short story “Cold Print” (1969), though whether that was any inspiration on “The Curate of Temphill” or simply coincidence is unclear—James was British, and Campbell’s Severn Valley is the most prominent and memorable British setting for the Mythos outside of Exham Priory (“The Rats in the Walls”). The name itself recalls the Templars…and if one traces that line of thought, perhaps leads us to the inspiration for this story.
There are certain relatively obscure elements of homosexuality in the demi-monde of legend surrounding Christianity, if you look for it. One of these is the charge at their trials that the Knights Templar practiced sodomy; another is the Secret Gospel of Mark, an apochryphal text which reads in part:
And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God…naked man with naked man…
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle196
Price & Cannon quote this material almost verbatim from the original source; what the authors are doing here is taking known elements from Christian scholarship and weaving them together to form the Mythos “lore” that the protagonist, Rev. Morgan Ackerley, slowly uncovers. It is a genuine Lovecraftian approach, developing the “secret history” of the story with all the care and attention of a good hoax, only with very unconventional (for the Mythos) source materials; readers might compare it to how Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code(2003)created a narrative based on the remixed history, legend, and conspiracy theories of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail(1982).
Where it gets problematic in the story is specific applications. One of the most prominent:
Shortly after deciding the vandalism episode was too trivial to report to the secular authorities, he received a solemn summons to the hospital in Brichester, where Ms. Radclyffe lay in a coma, the victim of violent rape. She expired before his arrival, never regaining consciousness.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle198
While the matter is treated by suggestion and implication rather than outright stated, Vita Radclyffe was a lesbian—unmarried, living with her “companion” Florence Trefusis, reading the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness(1928) by Radclyffe Hall, and opposed to the domination of the local church by the previous curate, who had preached “You know, the woman shalt be subservient to her lord and master, her husband—obsolete rot like that.” (ibid 190) Her death by sexual assault is treated as horrific, but the why of it is hauntingly unclear…as with much in this story.
A large part of the mystery is on purpose. M. R. James was careful to leave much of the detail to the reader’s imagination, so certain mysteries would always remain. Readers might well argue that since Radclyffe had opposed the old curate, she would also oppose the new one, and so her death would benefit the conspiracy surrounding Temphill.
That doesn’t explain why Radclyffe was either a lesbian or specifically raped to death. Neither aspect of the character is a necessary detail for the purposes of her role in the story, but the fact that both were included strongly suggests that to the authors they were. The implications are therefore nasty: Radclyffe was included in the story because it needed a female antagonist to oppose a cabal of chauvinistic men, who were preaching the strong patriarchal version of the Bible; her opposition to this patriarchial slant would be stronger if she were a feminist—and disinterested in men generally, hence a lesbian; her death would be all the more horrific if it came about by the very thing she opposed, hence the rape.
Horror exists for violating taboos; the thrill of crossing a boundary, be it social, sexual, legal, religious, even geographic or physical is real. Rape and violent death are a part of that, and many slasher films eagerly combine sex and death, race and death, etc. Characters are introduced as predestined victims, with the only question being not if they will survive but how they will die. It is still an ugly thing to introduce a woman to the plot specifically for her to be raped to death a few pages later, but it is not beyond the pale: H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop story “The Curse of Yig” is built around a supernatural sexual assault.
The rape in “The Curate of Temphill” in nasty in part because of the ideology behind the attack. Would a man who opposed the group be raped to death? The new curate isn’t; he is instead initiated. Would a woman who was not a lesbian be raped to death? The option is not explored, and that in itself is a bit damning. The story, as brief as it is, only gives hints and suggestions to the actual nature of beliefs held by the old curate and his group…and this is where the homophobia really starts in the story.
In Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print,” homosexuality is a secondary aspect of the main character’s sexuality, which is primarily tied up with discipline, spanking, and sadomasochism in the grand tradition of British private schools, or at least the fetishistic pornographic depiction of the same, with hints of pedophilia—all appropriate for the character Campbell was developing. Price & Cannon seem to have taken their inspiration from “Secret Mark” and the implication that Jesus Christ’s hidden teachings involved a pedophilic encounter with a young boy—and perhaps by extension touching on general allegations of pedophilia and inappropriate sexual contact on the part of Catholic and Anglican priests, accounts of which have become much more public in the past several decades.
All of which Price & Cannon bring together in their finale, where they hint strongly at this turn of events with:
His parishioner had subsequently invited h im to a special meeting of select members of the Temphill and Goatswood youth groups, where certain wondrous ceremonies would be performed.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle200
Basically, there is no male homosexual in “The Curate of Temphill” who is not also implicitly a pedophile. This might not have been the intended depiction, but the story is short and the cast is small: we aren’t given any other details to go by. It should be mentioned that this conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is not pursued by Price or Cannon in any other story. Maybe it was just the pursuit of this one set of ideas as a connecting theme—homosexual Templars, a gospel that preaches homosexual pedophilia, the prevalence of homosexual pedophilia among some priests—that suggested the story.
Yet each of those individual elements also embodies homophobia: the Templars were charged with sodomy because homosexuality was a sin; Secret Mark is blasphemous because it suggests Jesus had gay sex with a young boy; the most popular depiction of sexual assault by priests against youth is that they targeted altar boys for abuse, with the homosexual element heightening the scandal for churches that still often disapprove of homosexuality. All of that plus the ultimately needless death-by-rape of Vita Radclyffe makes this a short story with a lot of issues.
Readers at this point might ask “How does all this relate to Shub-Niggurath?”—and it does not, directly. Shub-Niggurath is associated with Campbell’s Severn Valley setting via nearby Goatswood and its inhabitants in “The Moon-Lens” (1964). The Templars were accused of worshipping Baphomet, who in turn was famously depicted as the Satanic Goat by Eliphas Levi, and Price in his introduction to The Shub-Niggurath Cycle thematically connected this figure with “The Black Goat of the Woods,” often taken as a title for Shub-Niggurath. It is implied that the entity that raped and killed Vita Radclyffe was a satyresque figure, which would make this a rare masculine depiction of Shub-Niggurath, comparable to that in “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.
The impact of female editors of pulp magazines is not always acknowledged, and this is especially true when considering the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and Mythos fiction. Three of these women stand out: Dorothy McIlwraith, the editor of Weird Tales (1940-1954); Mary Gnaedinger, editor of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953); and Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor of Fantastic (1958-1965). Together, these three women would essentially bridge the gap, accounting for most Mythos magazine fiction that was published between 1940 and 1965.
After his death on 15 March 1937, Lovecraft’s literary legacy continued in Weird Tales, which had been the home to most of his professional fiction and continued to be the mainstay of his most devoted fans. Editor Farnsworth Wright published at least one Lovecraft item, be it a story or verse, in nearly every issue for the next three years—including collaborations with Hazel Heald and Zealia Bishop, stories which Wright had previously rejected, and material from amateur publications.
In late 1938, Weird Tales was sold to William Delaney, owner of Short Stories, Inc. and publisher of the successful Short Stories pulp magazine, which was edited by Dorothy McIlwraith, a Canadian woman of Scottish descent. (What About Dorothy McIlwraith?) The Weird Tales offices were moved to New York City in November of that year, with editor Farnsworth Wright moving his family from Chicago for the transition. Beginning with the December 1938 issue, Weird Tales officially listed its offices in New York. Robert Weinberg claimed that McIlwraith was made associate editor of Weird Tales at this point, but if so she was never listed as such in the magazine itself. (The Weird Tales Story6)
Farnsworth Wright had been suffering from progressive Parkinson’s disease for years, and the finances for Weird Tales continued to worsen. In part this may have been due to the death of prominent writers like Henry S. Whitehead (1932), Robert E. Howard (1936), and H. P. Lovecraft (1937), but it was also due in part to new competition. While Weird Tales had been the predominant purveyor of fantastic fiction in the pulp field since its inception in 1923, outlasting rivals such as Ghost Stories (1926-1932), Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), and Strange Tales (1931-1933), but in 1939 several strong competitors emerged, including Strange Stories (1939-1941), Unknown (1939-1943), Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953), Fantastic Adventures (1939-1953), Planet Stories (1939-1955), and Startling Stories (1939-1955).
Added to these woes, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia began cracking down on nude covers on the newstands; while aimed at the weird terror or “shudder” pulps, the ban also caught Weird Tales, which had been using nudes from Chicago artist Margaret Brundage for the cover, to both fan appreciation and consternation. In addition, Brundage was unable to continue to move to New York and found shipping her delicate pastels economically unfeasible—especially when publisher Bill Delaney cut payment rates for artists. (Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage32) Delany also tried changes to reduce costs and increase sales:
Delaney was more concerned than Henneberger or Cornelius in turning the pulp into a paying, profit-making proposition. His first idea was to increase the page count from 128 to 160 pages. He also used a cheaper quality of paper, making the issue look even thicker than before. The first of these thick issues appeared in February 1939. However, the idea did not catch on and sales dropped steadily. Another of Delaney’s ideas was to cut rates, both to artists and authors. the policy showed as quality quickly dropped. In another effort to boost sales, the size was cut to 128 pages in September 1939 and the price was dropped to 15 cents. The magazine still did not sell. (The Weird Tales Story6)
In January 1940, Farnsworth Wright left Weird Tales; the magazine by this point had gone to a bimonthly schedule, and his final issue as editor was March of that year. While some sources claim Wright retired or resigned, what few firsthand accounts I’ve come across suggest he was fired:
I am no longer connected with Weird Tales. Miss McIlwraith has taken over the editorship. The publisher was losing too heavily, and he figured that the elimination of my salary would help to cut down the deficit.
—Farnsworth Wright to Virgil Finlay, 17 Jan 1940, BOK 66
The magazine has two stories and four poems of mine (accepted by Farnsworth Wright) still unpublished, but I think seriously of withdrawing these, even though I need the money like hell and am not likely to find another market for these particular items. Wright was let out by the publishers to cut down expenses, and W.T.is now being edited by a woman, who also edits Strange Stories. [sic] It is to be hoped that Wright will soon secure another editorship, or perhaps even start a rival magazine himself. In the meanwhile, W.T.‘s best contributors are sticking with him, in the belief that he has had a raw deal.
Wright was cold-bloodedly fired from Weird Tales, because of circulation drop. It’s being carried on by McIlwraith. Wright is hit pretty hard, and our gang has pledged to boycott the mag. If Wright succeeds in getting another publisher interested in backing a new weird mag, we’ll submit only to him. It’s all we can do for one of the best and most liked editors in our field. With Wellman, Juttner, Hamilton, Quinn, Williamson, and others not submitting to Weird, I’m thinking McIlwraith will have to print blank pages.
When he was dismissed because of physical disabilities, many of the younger contributors to W.T. emoted all over the place, and waged a campaign to boycott the magazine. I did not join in this piece of juvenile idiocy. To expect a publisher to retain an editor incapable of coming to work was unrealism beyond the norm, even for youth! Finally, Wright’s successor, Dorothy McIlwraith, certainly was not responsible for his having been relieved of duty. As editor of Short Stories, her position was far more important than was the editorship of W.T. All she could gain was extra work, a bonus of headaches. Why penalize her by depriving her of desirable contributors?
None of these loyal nit-wits realize that the publisher scrapped Wright’s long established editorial policies, and told Dorothy what to do, and how to do it. As an employee, she had to obey orders, or, bail out. Anyone who ever knew the magazine business was aware that her leading magazine, Short Stories, was for a readership far more discriminating and mature than that of the W.T. fanciers. —Price, Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others112
After Wright left WEIRD TALES (banished into outer space, is the way he wrote me about it), I happened to be in New York. I found out that he was living out at Jackson Heights, so I went out to see him, and was always glad I did, for he died only a few weeks later.
—Edmond Hamilton, “He That Hath Words,” Deeper Than You Think#2, Jul 1968, 12
Farnsworth Wright died on 12 June 1940. Dorothy McIlwraith took up the editorship with the May 1940 issue of Weird Tales, while simultaneously editing Short Stories, and would remain at the helm of both until Delaney sold the business in 1954. Assisting her was Lamont Buchanan, credited as the associate editor and referred to as the art editor
Having inherited a magazine that was bleeding readers and in the shadow of Wright’s departure, McIlwraith’s tenure in what turned out to be Weird Tales’ waning days is often overlooked or mischaracterized. Robert Weinberg’s comments echo those of many critics down the years:
As an editor, Ms. McIlwraith was a competent craftsman but was not on the same level as Farnsworth Wright. She was a veteran pulp editor and handled the magazine as best she could. Her biggest trouble was that she was not as familiar with weird fiction as her predecessor. Another problem was that her ideas on what Weird Talesshould be were somewhat narrower in scope than the beliefs Wright worked by. A publisher who did not let her run the magazine with as free a hand was no help. She did the best she could. (The Weird Tales Story43)
This is damning with faint praise; while Wright was a personable and intelligent editor, he was also notoriously indecisive, rejecting some of the best work of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers; and Weird Tales under his watch was often characterized by wide variety as Wright chased the readers in the next pulp over with planetary science fiction by Edmond Hamilton & Otis Adelbert Kline, shudder pulps or detective pulps with Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard’s bloody historical adventures, hero pulps with Paul Ernst’s abominable Doctor Satan series—and that leaves out such ambitious botches as The Moon Terror and Other Stories (1927), Oriental Stories/The Magic Carpet Magazine (1930-1934), and Wright’s Shakespeare Library (1935), all of which ultimately failed and drew resources away from Weird Tales.
McIlwraith & Delaney faced a crowded market, and yet they were still paying the lowest rate of the fantasy pulps, 1 cent per word. Changes were made; the popular “Weird Tales Reprint” feature which Wright had instituted was dropped, as were serials, with the magazine promising “All Stories Complete” and “All Stories New—No Reprints.” McIlwraith convinced several of her most prominent authors at Short Stories to submit material for Weird Tales, including H. Bedford Jones, “The King of the Pulps.” While she couldn’t always afford to keep them, Weird Tales under McIlwraith’s direction continued to see the talents of some of the greatest artists and writers of the 40s and 50s: Ray Bradbury, Greye Le Spina, Robert Bloch, Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Joseph Payne Brennan, Robert Barbour Johnson, Fritz Leiber, Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, and Kelly Freas, to name a few.
One valid criticism of McIlwraith’s tenure is general failure to engage with writers, artists, or fans on the same level as Wright. Under her editorship, the letter-column “The Eyrie” ceased to be a fan-forum, but a place where authors could expand on the background of their stories. In its place was started “The Weird Tales Club”—those who wrote in received a free membership card and had their names and addresses posted and encouraged to write to each other, but there was no apparent effort to generate an official fan club newsletter or real organization. Remembrances of McIlwraith are far fewer and less personal. Still, not all commentary on McIlwraith is negative:
But a magazine can’t survive by living off the past. It has to grow and change, like a living thing. Dorothy McIlwraith’s Weird tales did grow and change in several ways. there was a subtle difference in the whole attitude of the magazine. […] If anything, the new editor was more artistically minded than her predecessor. the glaringly trashy covers (imitative of the more successful sex and sadism pulps like Terror Tales and Horror Stories) and occasionally godawful formula story, which Wright seemed to regard as good business practices, disappeared. —Darrel Schweitzer, “What About Dorothy McIlwraith?” in WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales95
Actually, I think she’s been far too neglected; I can’t dismiss anyone who published Bradbury, Sturgeon, Brown and other top talents. And I think she would have published more, had she been given the budget to compete with Unknown Worlds, F&SFand the other comparable markets. But that lousy 1 cent a word—and sometimes bimonthly publication—induced few writers to remain in WT once better rates were obtainable elsewhere.
While McIlwraith courted new and old authors, and was restricted in reprints for the first few years by policy, Lovecraft and the nascent Cthulhu Mythos were far from neglected—but there was a shortage of material. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard were dead and with most of their Mythos-fiction already published in Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith largely alienated from fiction-writing (although he would contribute “The Enchantress of Sylaire” (Jul 1941), “The Master of the Crabs” (Mar 1948), and”Morthylla” by Clark Ashton Smith (May 1953)), and after Lovecraft’s death few of his immediate circle such as Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, or Robert Bloch seemed interested in continuing the shared mythology…but there was August Derleth.
We plan to use “The Sandwin Compact” in the next issue which will be made up—that is, November, published September first
Arkham House, founded by August Derleth & Howard Wandrei after the death of Lovecraft explicitly to publish his fiction, had done just that in 1939 with The Outsider & Others—and much of their catalog for the next ten years would include reprints of stories that had first appeared in Weird Tales, and Arkham House would take out full-page advertisements in the pulp for their books. Derleth, a tireless promoter of Lovecraft’s work and a frequent contributor to the magazine as a writer, began to develop a series of original Mythos fiction in the magazine, beginning with “The Sandwin Compact” (Jan 1941) and “Beyond the Threshold” (Sep 1941).
Derleth had also become the de facto literary executor of Lovecraft’s fiction, and as material was uncovered that had not previously appeared in Weird Tales, sold it to McIlwraith for Weird Tales; this included “The Mound” by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft (Jan 1941), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (May & Jul 1941), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (Jan 1942, with its classic illustration by Hannes Bok), and “Herbert West—Reanimator” by H. P. Lovecraft (May, July, Sep, Nov 1942; Sep, Nov 1943). The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was also uncovered from Lovecraft’s files during this period, but if Derleth offered it to McIlwraith, she turned it down—as she did sword & sorcery fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “Fahfrd & Grey Mouser” series, which appeared in Unknown.
Wartime paper rationing and lackluster sales still hit hard, however. Weird Tales dropped to 112 pages in 1943, and the ban on reprints was dropped; Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets would be reprinted (May 1944; Jan, Sep 1946; Jan, Mar 1947), as well as “The City” (Jul 1950), “The Horror at Red Hook” (Mar 1952), and “Hallowe’en in a Suburb” by H. P. Lovecraft (Sep 1952). Eager for a new attraction, McIlwraith also looked for a series character from a promising regular:
John Thunstone first appeared in 1943, after Wright retired as editor of Weird Tales and was succeeded by Dorothy McIlwraith. She and her associate, Lamont Buchanan, sat down with me for several careful discussions of how Thunstone might act and look, and what he might find to do.
Wellman’s occult detective was a success, and he would tip his hat to Lovecraft by including the Necronomicon in the Thunstone story “Letters of Cold Fire” (May 1944)—the same issue where the page count was reduced to 96 pages. The success of Lovecraft’s fiction and Derleth’s pastiches apparently encouraged McIlwraith and Derleth to mine this vein a little deeper:
I too have had a good many letters through the Arkham House clientele, if they respond as well to ‘The Dweller in Darkness’ I’ll no doubt have to do other stories in the same Lovecraftian vein—though I’ll wait for the green light from you before going ahead.”
McIlwraith published “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Mar 1944), “The Dweller in Darkness” (Nov 1944), and “The Watcher from the Sky” (Jul 1945). In the September, the world war ended with the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a science fiction weapon from the pulps becoming a terrible and deadly reality at last.
Derleth also took advantage of the new reprint feature by agenting weird stories from English authors like William Hope Hodgson that Arkham House was publishing. With Derleth’s regular contributions (sometimes published under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon), reprint material he was supplying, and his original Mythos fiction, something had to give…and did:
Sorry I forgot to mention The Lurker on[sic] the Threshold. I just don’t see how we could manage it for Weird. I don’t feel serials in an every other month magazine are good, anyway, and such long installments are out for the duration—[because] of the paper restrictions.
We have Grendon’s “Mr. George,” “The Hog” by Hodgson as well as several other novelttes from other sources […] and now you send along “Boyd”…Frankly, we like this Cthulhu the least of all our problem material, so it would seem logical to pass it up for Weird Tales —Dorothy McIlwraith to August Derleth, 30 July 1946, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos151
The Lurker at the Threshold was the first of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, although it was written almost entirely by Derleth, based around two brief fragments of Lovecraft; Arkham House later published the book the same year. McIlwraith also rejected the first submission of “The Testament of Claiborne Boyd,” part of the series that Derleth would collect as the stitch-up novel The Trail of Cthulhu. These decisions, as much as anything, show that McIlwraith was not simply cashing in on Lovecraft or the Mythos.
What did happen is that someone not connected with Derleth or Lovecraft tried their hand at pastiche. McIlwraith published C. Hall Thompson‘s “Spawn of the Green Abyss” (Nov 1946) and “The Will of Claude Asher” (Jul 1947), probably seeing them as no more than superior Lovecraft pastiches. Derleth, who felt Lovecraft’s work belonged to Arkham House, responded:
Yes, I know of C. Hall Thompson. He borrowed flagrantly from HPL’s work, and we stopped it by writing to his editors pointing out his invasion of prorpietary interests, though we would probably have given him the green signal to go ahead if he had submitted his work to us first. this he did not do; so it had to stop. —August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Aug 1964, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos267-268
No more pastiches were published by Thompson in Weird Tales. Whether she believed Derleth’s legal bluster or simply didn’t wish to alienate such a regular contributor and advertiser is unclear, but there are signs that Weird Tales was still in financial trouble. With the September 1947 issue, WT raised the price from 15 to 20 cents per issue, while retaining the reduced page count. Three more of Derleth’s tales appeared in the following years: “Something in Wood” (Mar 1948), “The Whippoorwills in the Hills” (Sep 1948), and the formerly-rejected “The Testament of Clairborne Boyd” (Mar 1949). With the next issue, May 1949, the price was increased again to 25 cents per issue. He would manage to land more stories: “Something From Out There” (Jan 1951), “The Keeper of the Key” (May 1951), “The Black Island” (Jan 1952), which featured the use of atomic weapons against Cthulhu.
Derleth was the most prominent Mythos writer in Weird Tales during McIlwraith’s editorship, but arguably the best one was Robert Bloch, who published the third in his triptych with Lovecraft, “The Shadow from the Steeple” (Sep 1950), and the highly acclaimed “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (May 1951). Among the rewrites, McIlwraith chose Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” (Nov 1953).
In September 1953, adapting to market pressure, Weird Tales became a digest. McIlwraith apparently asked Derleth for more Mythos/Lovecraftian material, probably in a last-ditch effort to spur readership. He responded with “posthumous collaborations” that Derleth had written based on some fragment of Lovecraft’s text or ideas in his commonplace book:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready—
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more—or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
“The Survivor” appeared in the July 1954 issue, the last of the Derleth Mythos contributions. She wrote to him:
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Weird Tales folded with the September 1954 issue; both it and Short Stories were sold, and McIlwraith moved on. The various Derleth Mythos stories would see print elsewhere, and be collected and printed in book form. So too, Arkham House would collect and publish many stories and authors from McIlwraith’s period of editorship during the following decades.
We do not have any extensive memoirs from McIlwraith, and most of what she has written about weird fiction are restricted to editorial comments in “The Eyrie”—but in 1954 she weighed in on H. P. Lovecraft and Weird Tales:
Alathough the first all-science-fiction magazine did not appear until 1926, Weird Talesmagazine with its very first issue inaugerated a policy of devoting some portion of its conctents to science fiction and has continud that policy from March of 1923 to date. There was always some conflict between those readers who wanted more space devoted to straight weird material—i.e., fantasy—as opposed to those who would have preferred additional science fiction. The man who helped reocncile those two elements was H. P. Lovecraft, who in his own popular fashion blended weird and horror elements into a credible sceintific background to come up with a combination which satisfied all readers. Lovecraft influenced a great many of the younger writers […] —Dorothy McIlwraith, Editor’s Choice in Science Fiction185
She was not wrong, especially on the final point.
In evaluating Dorothy McIlwraith’s role with regard to Lovecraft and the Mythos, it is difficult not to consider the symbiotic role played by Derleth and Arkham House in the pulp’s final 14 years. While many of its stories were selected for reprint in anthologies long before this was the norm for science fiction, Weird Tales never issued a successful anthology of its own material—Arkham House largely fulfilled that role during McIlwraith’s time. By the same token, Weird Tales was exactly the market that Arkham House & August Derleth needed. Without McIlwraith, it seems unlikely that Derleth would have written Trail of Cthulhu, Mask of Cthulhu, or many of his posthumous collaborations—and whatever else may be thought of those works, as well as those of Bloch, Wellman, and Thompson, they helped keep the memory of Lovecraft alive for a new generation of readers.
But in this, Dorothy McIlwraith was not alone…
The Munsey Company practically invented the pulp magazine, with highly successful titles like Argosy going back to the turn of the century. With this large stock of stories, in 1939 they launched Famous Fantastic Mysteries primarily as a title to reprint them. The editor selected was Mary Gnaedinger, who also edited Fantastic Novels (1940-1941) and A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine (1949-1950).
Gnaedinger and McIlwraith were technically rivals, but since Weird Tales initially offered no reprints and Famous Fantastic Mysteries no original material, they seemed at least at first more complementary than anything—at least to contemporary eyes. FFM, however, paid better, so Gnaedinger was able to snatch away Virgil Finlay, one of the finest artists working in the pulps. She was also much more attentive to the growing science fiction and fantasy fandom, and catered the content of the magazine to the stories they wanted to read, republishing many now-classic works by Robert W. Chambers, A. Merritt, Arthur Machen, Ray Cummings…and even Weird Tales regulars.
Lovecraft however was not initially on the menu; though Gnaedinger managed to reprint “The Colour Out of Space” (Oct 1941), supplemented with the poem “For H. P. Lovecraft” by Robert A. Lowndes. In 1943, Munsey sold Famous Fantastic Mysteries to All-Fiction Field, who retained Gnaedinger as editor and loosened her restrictions, allowing her to publish more original material. (Sisters of Tomorrow293) Gnaedinger took advantage of this by making arrangements with Arkham House to reprint some of Lovecraft’s fiction, with whom she had some dealings:
The Lurker on[sic] the Thresholdis an excellent fantastic story, but I regret to say that we have decided it is too specialized for the ordinary readers who undoubtedly form a large cross-section of our public. A great part of the story is written for the initiated fantasy fan, and cutting would spoil it. Not that I think you would want to see it cut. —Mary Gnaedinger to Derleth, 6 Feb 1945, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos191
Ironically, this was the same general rejection that McIlwraith had given Derleth when he pitched the idea of serializing The Lurker at the Threshold in Weird Tales. However, Gnaedinger was open to reprinting more works, and so in due course Famous Fantastic Mysteries hosted “The Outsider” (Jun 1950), “The Music of Erich Zann” (Mar 1951), and “Pickman’s Model” (Dec 1951), all “Published by permission of Arkham House.”
Fan-scholars and poets like Virginia “Nanek” Anderson also made their appearance in FFM. Two pieces in particular stand out: “Masters of Fantasy: Howard Phillips Lovecraft – The Outsider” (Aug 1947) and “Masters of Fantasy: Arthur Machen: Inspirator of Lovecraft” (Dec 1948); while credited as to Neil Austin, it has been suggested these pieces were actually written by arch-fan Forrest J. Ackermann.
There is a little mystery to the Famous Fantastic Mystery reprints, with the main one being: Why FFM? In 1941, Weird Tales wasn’t publishing reprints, so the reprint of “The Colour Out of Space” isn’t exactly cutting into their market; but in the 1950s it seems unusual that Derleth would offer reprints to FFM when Weird Tales was an open market—unless either McIlwraith had already turned him down, or Gnaedinger offered more money. Either seems a likely possibility, but the details to the deal have not come to light.
Near the end of its run, Gnaedinger also published a few works by Robert E. Howard with connections to the Mythos, notably “Skull-Face” (Dec 1952)—whose villain Kathulos was once feverishly debated to have a connection to Cthulhu by the fans of Weird Tales—and “Worms of the Earth” (Jun 1953), which appeared in the final issue.
Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded the year before Weird Tales; while it had a good 14-year run, the pulp market was largely collapsing in on itself, competing both with comic books and the burgeoning paperback, which offered another cheap way to reprint fiction. Mary Gnaedinger continued to keep in close touch with fans, and while she may have published little original Mythos fiction, she was a sensitive barometer to what the fans wanted—and strove to give it to them. In the early 1950s, that was more Lovecraft.
Cele Goldsmith Lalli
Science fiction magazines weathered the collapse of the pulps a little better than most, and writers that had cut their teeth at Weird Tales and Unknown would go on to find success in the 60s with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and Analog Science Fiction and Fact (which evolved from Astounding). It was in this Cold War/Space Race atmosphere that Cele Goldsmith (later Cele Goldsmith Lalli) became editor of both Amazing Stories and its companion Fantastic from 1958-1965, when the magazines were sold.
Cele Goldsmith combined the approaches of both McIlwraith and Gnaedinger: she listened to the fans, and she was willing to give them both original fiction and classic reprints. In the May 1960 issue of Fantastic she republished “The Challenge From Beyond” (at least Lovecraft’s portion of it), but paired it with fan-scholar Sam Moskowitz’ essay “A Study in Horror: The Eerie Life of H. P. Lovecraft.” Two years later, she published Derleth’s posthumous collaboration “The Shadow out of Space” (Dec 1962), which had appeared a few years earlier in the Arkham House volume The Survivor and Others (1957), containing Derleth’s posthumous collaborations from Weird Tales.
Finally, in Goldsmith published two new Mythos stories, and from an author that wasn’t part of the Arkham House stable—although if Derleth ever caused a stink about it like C. Hall Thompson, it has never come to light. The stories were “The Dunstable Horror” (Apr 1964) and “The Crib of Hell” (May 1965), both by “Arthur Pendragon”—thought to possibly be the pen-name of well-known Fantastic contributor Arthur Porges. While it was still rare for Mythos fiction to be published outside the aegis of Arkham House, Derleth could not police every magazine forever.
What these three women accomplished, from 1939-1965, was essentially to help keep the Mythos alive in the pulps. Because of the controlling nature that Arkham House had on Lovecraft’s material, and Derleth’s production of additional Mythos material, a sizable amount of what they published came from Derleth or went through him—but not all of it. These editors held authority over their own magazines, and while they might pay Derleth for a story, what they published was ultimately their own decision. What we get, in their magazines, are the inklings of original Mythos material outside of what August Derleth approved to be printed, and this in professional magazines, not just the fanzines.
Maybe that is a small thing, in the great scheme of the universe. None of these editors appear to have been particular devotees of Lovecraft or the Mythos…but neither were they ignorant of it. They knew their business, and Lovecraft and the writers he inspired was a part of that.
The next January gossips were mildly interested in the fact that “Lavinny’s black brat” had commenced to talk, and at the age of only eleven months.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
In many ways a spiritual precursor to “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” is one of Stanley C. Sargent’s most reprinted stories—and one of his most radical. It is a story which emerged from many of the ideas of Lovecraft scholarship at the time of its writing: Donald Burleson’s characterization of the Whateley twins fulfilling Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as detailed in Disturbing The Universe (1990); the tracing of autobiographical elements from Lovecraft’s life in “The Dunwich Horror” which Sargent would later expand on in the essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002).
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” is a deliberate subversion of Lovecraft’s original narrative, a sort of critical reading re-cast as fiction, a different point of view where the real antagonist of the original story is not Wilbur Whateley. It is the kind of story that reflects the reality of biographical research, where scholars have to sift through different anecdotes and memoirs, trying to reconcile contradictory accounts and arrive at the truth—and the same game can be played by fans of the Mythos, as they attempt to reconcile different stories written by different authors, to arrive at some coherent understanding of the shared artificial mythology.
Part of the story is thus a very deliberate attempt to confirm certain long-held fan-theories, even while recasting the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. For example:
“Did Wilbur explain how Lavinia had a child by this non-material being?” Jeffrey asked.
Gavin chuckled. “I’d of thought you boys would be smart enough to figure that one out for yourselves! Seems self-evident to me that Wizard Whateley allowed himself to be possessed for an incestuous encounter with his daughter. You’ve read Armitage’s account, don’t you recall that Curtis Whateley described the giant face on top of the monster as being the unmistable likeness to Wizard Whateley?
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft54
This was probably the inspiration for the scene regarding the conception of the Whateley twins in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ graphic novel Providence.
While writers like Sargent & LaValle have played free with the interpretation of events and characters in Lovecraft’s stories, they have still largely bound themselves to the general sequence of those events and their outcomes—so in “The Black Brat of Dunwich” Lavinia Whateley still gets shut out from her pagan celebrations on Sentinel Hill, and still comes to the same end, just as in “The Dunwich Horror.” The difference in Sargent’s recension is the more sympathetic take on her as a character, showing her as more simple-minded than Lovecraft had and with Wilbur showing real affection for his mother, and going into more detail about her inevitable death.
Inadvertently, this treatment of Lavinia Whateley as a lonely, uneducated woman who is the mere pawn of the men in her life gives her even less agency as a character, but that is a common issue with many re-tellings of “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s narrative doesn’t provide much of a role for Lavinia beyond mother and victim, and any narrative that sticks close to the events of that story will have trouble expanding her story much beyond that. The death of Lavinia becomes not an ominous mystery, but a tragedy unfolding.
One open question left by the story involves a particular scene which blurs the line between homosocial and homosexual. The narrator is aware that Wilbur Whateley is self-conscious of his appearance, and:
“I tried to get him over it, show him it didn’t matter to me. I even kept talking to him on a couple occasions to keep him in the room while I took a bath, figuring he’d eventually loosen up, seeing as how I was no Adonis myself, but it didn’t work. He just sat there staring at me all over, like he was studying me as an example of how folks are supposed to look. I just wanted him to accept himself for who he was and stop worrying about what anyone else thought.” He stared directly at James. “You’d best get that disgusted look off your face damn quick, young man, or I’m done talking.”
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 50
Keeping in mind that while appearing full-grown, Wilbur Whateley was only about six years old in this scene, which makes this feel more than a little like indecent exposure, and recalls some of the problematic issues with “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff. The whole tone of Sargent’s appeal likely echoes strongly with those who have had difficulties coming to grips with either their sexuality or body image, with it being remembered that Stanley C. Sargent put forth one of the most elegant arguments for why Lovecraft may have been a closeted homosexual in an interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998). Wilbur, like Lovecraft, is presented in this story as an outsider.
It is perhaps appropriate then that Sargent dedicated this story to his friend Wilum H. Pugmire, a Mythos author who also identified with the Outsider—but had embraced that identity and relished it.
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” was first published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association mailing #97 and Cthulhu Codex #10 (1997); it has subsequently been reprinted many times, in The Ancient Track (Oct 1998), The Taint of Lovecraft (2002), The Black Book #2 (2002), Tales Out of Dunwich (2005), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), and A Mountain Walked (2014).
“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
“Knew you faggots were faggots,” he said smugly. “Going on a date? To a party? I’m not surprised you suck dick by choice, West, but you, Langbroek? You might actually get a girl to look at you! That is, if you weren’t so busy sucking dick. By choice,” he added, and then laughed loudly, hurr hurr hurr.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”
Readings of homosexual subtext in Lovecraft’s fiction rarely give way to text—critics are more comfortable noting the possible allegories and ambiguity of language than they are exploring those themes in a work of fiction. There are some who do have the courage and insight to go into such uncharted territories, including the graphic novel Providence (2015-2017) by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows, “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer. While Lisbon focuses on eroticism, Tanzer addresses the more complex social and emotional issues surrounding the realities of homosexuality in the early part of the 20th century…when gay men could often face violence and legal penalties as well as social ostracism.
Tanzer’s story works because of how well she develops the characters of the story. As a prequel to Lovecraft’s tale, it beautifully sets up a number of scenes, with a great deal of attention to little details of Lovecraftian lore in the name of streets and Miskatonic University faculty—but all of this is dressing for the main question: who or what is Herbert West in love with?
Tristan almost slipped on a patch of ice when West grabbed him by the hand and pulled him down into a kiss, right there in the snowy brightness under the lamppost, but West’s grip was like iron, and it kept Tristan steady on his feet.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”
It feels like a question that shouldn’t need to be asked, that doesn’t matter, certainly not in Lovecraft’s narrative and most of the stories that follow it. Lovecraft, uninterested in romance, never gave West any romantic partners; it was a rare author that followed that did. The intensity of West’s focus on reanimation often makes him an essentially asexual character, all of his passion devoted to his work. Yet that is the crux of Tanzer’s narrative.
It isn’t a question of whether or not West is homosexual or bisexual; Tanzer and Lovecraft never get inside West’s head on the matter of his sexuality. West is only seen through the eyes of his associates, with their own emotions and prejudices coloring their perceptions. The degree of manipulation that the young reanimator shows make all of his actions suspect. We never know if West is truly attracted to his fellow student, or if sex is one more weapon that West will use to achieve his goal.
Pete Rawlik, who has carved something of a niche in this particular corner of the Mythos, described “Herbert West in Love” as “subversive” in his introduction to Legacy of the Reanimator (2015)—which it is, in a certain sense. The reader is not presented with any definitive statements on West’s sexuality, but his actions in the story frame two possibilities: either West is open to sexual encounters with men, and thus subverting the asexual character created by the largely homophobic Lovecraft; or West is far more treacherous and alien than even Lovecraft portrayed him, willing to feign homosexuality, even with all its attendant potential consequences in the early 20th century, if that will successfully manipulate his assistant.
Either reading changes our perspective on West, and how we read the reanimator from that point on.
Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, Medusa’s Coil
Sex is an intimate aspect of racial prejudice and stereotyping in the United States. The word in Lovecraft’s day for interracial sexual relationships was miscegenation; in many parts of the country during the 1930s interracial marriages were illegal and socially taboo. Charges of rape against white women spurred outrage in high-profile cases like the Massie trial and Scottsboro Boys; an attempted sexual assault by a black man is one of the key elements of Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), which was adapted into a play and then the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which in turn led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan.
Lovecraft had seen the play and the film; he would discuss the Massie and Scottsboro Boys trials with correspondents like Robert E. Howard and J. Vernon Shea. Given his prejudices, it is not surprising that sex across the colour line rarely finds an explicit reference in Lovecraft’s fiction, except in some individual of mixed race heritage—although many readers find allegorical examples in “Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Even in subsequent works by other authors working in the Mythos it is uncommon to find interracial couples. While less taboo today than in the 1930s, the taboo remains powerful.
The power of the interracial taboo, however, makes it very attractive for erotic literature. The kink has been approached any number of ways by different authors, playing up to racial stereotypes of sexual attitudes, genitalia size, and behavior to fantasy scenarios based on historical stereotypes. Visually, the contrast between the actors can often be distinct and dramatic, but the real eroticism is often based on the centuries of emotion and social mores built into the culture—sometimes playing to these prejudices via depicting rape, slavery, degradation, or going against these prejudices by depicting positive interracial relationships that nonetheless emphasize cultural and physical differences between the players involved.
Lovecraftian erotica very rarely takes on the issue of race, but there are at least two notable exceptions: “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper, and “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” (2016) by Raine Roka. The difference in their approach highlight aspects of both Lovecraft’s prejudices in his life and the Mythos, and make for an interesting comparison and contrast.
“Koenigsberg’s Model” is Tupper’s love letter to Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, and H. P. Lovecraft, more or less in that order. Comic books were the direct heirs of pulp fiction, often sharing many of the same writers and artists, and just as pulpsters wrote for the Spicy pulps to get paid, several notable comic book artists moonlit creating erotic drawings and comic books—as chronicled in Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster. Tupper’s protagonist, Miskatonic graduate student Rick, is on the hunt for exactly this kind of secret smut for his thesis…and finds more than he bargained for in the notebook of comic book artist Jozsef Koenigsberg (Jack “King” Kirby’s original name was Jacob Kurtzburg; “König” is German for “King.”)
Tupper has fun in the story mixing history and pseudohistory; like many of the best Mythos stories, “Koenigsberg’s Model” has all the attention to detail of a good hoax, dropping the titles of real-life historical volumes of erotica along with Mythos tomes like Nameless Cults. His research shifts to Koenigsberg’s sketch of a beautiful black woman, and ultimately the eponymous model.
Everywhere Rick went in Koenigsberg’s prodigious imagination, there was an enigmatic, dark woman, remote yet seductive, a dispenser of cryptic knowledge, taller than most men, with the same sly Mona Lisa smile and all-knowing eyes looking out of the page. Regardless of genre, Koenigsberg always invested his considerable talents in conveying the woman’s sensuality and charisma. Free Agent of the New Pantheon was guided by a black giantess named No-Sys. Hardboiled detective Johnny Grace matched wits with a dark-haired femme fatale named Jette savvee. Even the downtown Kids took advice from the spooky Widow Sable in Harlem.
—Peter Tupper, “Koenigsberg’s Model”
The turn, as in a good deal of Lovecraftian erotica, brings not just revelation but sexual release. Koenigsberg’s Model is someone more than Rick’s fantasies of curvaceous, imposing black women with hourglass hips…and while many stories end there, Tupper goes a little further beyond that first revelation, drawing Rick a little deeper into his studies and holding up his racial fetishization as if it was a jewel to be examined in the light from different angles, touching on early imprinting, differences in size, shifting from being sexually dominant to submissive…and, by contrast, with how others approach the same material:
A tall, thin man with an elongated face huddled in the gap in the wall, curled up in a featful ball. “We are not pure, we are born of things from beyond the stars, the crawling chaos…” he muttered.
—Peter Tupper, “Koenigsberg’s Model”
What marks Tupper’s story out as exceptional is that it goes beyond being just erotica; it is an onion of secrets, peeled back one layer at a time, challenging what Rick—and the readers—think they know about themselves. In this sense, the interracial aspect is something of a red herring or a white lie, the first step toward a deeper understanding. The focus on race by Rick an unforced error, an artifact of not being able to see the world as it really is…and that in itself might be a quiet commentary on racism and prejudice.
“The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” by Raine Roka takes a different tack. Essentially a sequel to Lovecraft’s “Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and part of a brief trend among ebook erotica focusing on ape-men, in Roka’s story African-American anthropologist Dr. Amanda Carey meets Sir Mark Jermyn, last descendant of the infamous family that was not extinguished at the conclusion of Lovecraft’s tale. She’s arrived to do research on British colonialism and its effects on the world…and ends up studying the strapping, tall, ape-like baronet.
Lovecraft’s original tale of a British explorer who finds and weds a “white ape” princess in Africa borrows more than a little from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories and La of Opar, albeit with a more visceral, tragic twist. Allegorical readings of the tale can get complicated: following the idea that apes were less evolved than human beings, many white supremacists during the 1920s—including Lovecraft—described or compared black people to apes to emphasize their “primitiveness,” so the overall idea of a wife from Africa and children who show ape-like traits can be taken as an horrific fable of miscegenation…if you ignore Tarzan angle, and the fact that these are white apes.
What Lovecraft appears to be suggesting is that the inahbitants of the primeval African city of “white apes” are not only the “missing link” between ape and human but also the ulimate source for all white civilization. The entire white race is derived from this primal race in Africa, a race that had corrupted itself by intermingling with apes. This is the only explanation for the narrator’s opening statement, “If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did [i.e., commit suicide]”: we may not have a white ape in our immediate ancestry, but we are all the products of an ultimate miscengeation.
—S. T. Joshi, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories365
Joshi’s basic idea had been developed in fiction in stories like “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo. Roka’s approach to the material echoes Tupper in that there is a focus on the real-world beliefs that underwrote Lovecraft’s original story, name-dropping Lord Monboddo and Thomas Love Peacock for their early thoughts on evolution and the relations of humans and apes, but there are other readings that go into “The Ape in Me” as well.
Mark Jermyn might be the descendent of an ape princess, but he is still explicitly white and a member of the British peerage, while Dr. Carey is not, preserving the explicit difference between the players, but while there is mutual attraction neither Carey or Jermyn has an explicit racial fetish—that’s for the audience to project. Tupper presents Koeningsberg’s model as a figure of mystery, but Wade’s heritage makes him almost a figure of monstrous deformity and pity, “privileged but outcast.” The nature of his heritage allows a writer to use terms to describe him that would be racist if applied to a black man.
Unlike Tupper, there is more focus on actual sex than revelation-that-happens-to-be-sexual; while Roka touches on some of colonialism and racism, the main thrust of the story is the two ending up in bed. Even if Roka’s approach is somewhat more superficial, there is one final statement that might strike home for readers:
The contrast between his pale skin and my light-brown flesh is rather fetching. Imagine the gossip in the village, all that looking askance, if I were to become the next Lady Jermyn! Well,s tranger things have happened, and we are both of African descent, albeit by different and rather tortuous paths.
—Raine Roka, “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!”
The Out-of-Africa Theory is at the crux of racial prejudice surrounding evolution; ultimately all human beings are the same species descended from a common ancestor, and the biological variations which scientific racialists tried to codify in Lovecraft’s day are largely cosmetic. The idea that all humans are essentially the same undercuts racial prejudice; the horror of miscegenation and the sexual thrill of racial fetishization are based on social conceptions of race, not biological ones. The two states of excitement are closely intertwined, and while Lovecraft plays with the horror of facing “the Other” in this way, Roka plays with the sensuality of it.
Tupper and Roka are ultimately playing with related themes, albeit both are taking off from Lovecraft in very different directions. Race in their stories serves as a complication to their character’s relationships with other characters, and during the course of the stories these characters come to face their own conceptions of race, and to some degree how that conception defines or re-defines their idea of humanity.
Harlem is no longer terra incognita for the Cthulhu Mythos. Harlem Unbound (2017) details the historical Harlem of the 20s and 30s for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, writers like Peter Cannon feature in briefly in fiction such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon. But when Lovecraft lived in New York and wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired by the slums of Brooklyn where he found himself, alone in a single apartment in 1925, he only mentions Harlem in his letters—he did not try to set fiction there, did not try to put himself in the shoes of a black man in New York City.
Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom goes where Lovecraft did not go, and explores the viewpoints that the man from Providence did not. The plot is as straightforward and deceptively simple as it ambitious: to take a story where Lovecraft vents his spleen against the city of immigrants he found himself in, and look at it from another point of view. A basic premise that conceals a thousand little complications…
Like many authors who have elaborated on Lovecraft’s Mythos, LaValle cannot help adding his own little contribution: Zig zag zig, the Supreme Alphabet. This is part of the doctrine of the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was founded in Harlem in 1964. The name comes from the idea that ten percent of the world knows the truth, and keeps eighty-five percent of the world ignorant; only five percent know the truth and work to enlighten the rest. Its presence in 1925 might be an anachronism, but the Five-Percenter-based mysticism integrates well with the Mythos on this point; certainly no worse than the Jewish Cabbala does in Lovecraft’s original story.
In addressing Lovecraft’s original narrative, LaValle keeps the basic timeline and series of events—even incorporating bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s original, distinct language, putting them into the mouths of characters like Suydam and Det. Malone, who are both retained. What he jettisons are the worst of Lovecraft’s racism and mythology.
“The Horror at Red Hook” was written before “The Call of Cthulhu,” and in place of Lovecraft’s Mythos is a confused mishmash borrowed from articles on the occult and demonology from the Encyclopedia Britannica. LaValle’s tying together of “Red Hook” with the later mythology actually strengthens the story considerably from Lovecraft’s original.
The xenophobia and bigotry of Lovecraft’s original is muted, seen through a different lens. The Ballad of Black Tom is a black man’s story, and the main character’s positive relations with Black British immigrants from the Caribbean, the cosmopolitan mixing-pot of the Victoria Society, is emphasized.
If there is one criticism for the story, it is embodied in a single character:
“I felt in danger for my life,” Mr. Howard said. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.”
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 65
“Ervin Howard” is the private detective that murders Otis Tester. A “lawman down in Texas long ago” (ibid. 81), he is an out-an-out bigot, violent, unscrupulous. The kind of man that could get away with killing a black man with impunity in the 1920s—and does. The violence and the bigotry are not reasons to criticize the character; Howard is pivotal to LaValle’s narrative as the catalyst for Black Tom’s transformation. The name is the thing.
Robert Ervin Howard was a pulp writer from Cross Plains, Texas—he would turn 19 years old in 1925, and his first story in Weird Tales would be published in that year. In 1930, Howard would begin a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft that would last the rest of his life. The Texan would commit suicide in 1936, after creating a number of popular serial characters including Solomon Kane, King Kull, and Conan the Cimmerian, all of whom would go on to enjoy literary and cinematic afterlives.
The choice to use Howard as a kind of rotten Easter Egg in The Ballad of Black Tom is a strange one. Certainly, Lovecraft and Howard were both racists and white supremacists; their shared correspondence published as A Means to Freedomillustrates the commonality of prejudice from men living in very disparate parts of the United States during the 1930s. But Howard had nothing to do with “The Horror at Red Hook,” though he had read the story when it appeared in Weird Tales and praised Lovecraft for it. So the choice of name seems odd, and perhaps a bit needless.
The character, however, is essential.
Those six men fired fifty-six rounds at Black Tom.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 134
Injustice is the central theme of the African-American narrative in the United States. From slavery to segregation, from the struggle for civil rights to Black Lives Matter, both the black population as a whole and the individual have struggled as the eternal underdogs, a minority population that faces naked prejudice, misrepresentation, and institutional inequality. In the 1920s, Jim Crow was the law of the land. In 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer, nominally in self-defense. Same story, different decade. In LaValle’s narrative, it is this injustice which fuels Tommy Tester’s transformation into Black Tom. The cruelty of the world drives him to the kind of misanthropy which marked Lovecraft’s own darkest narratives.
It would be a misrepresentation to say that in the narrative of The Ballad of Black Tom, it is ultimately Tommy Tester’s interaction with white people (and, by extension, the police) that drives the whole story. That would imply that Tester was at fault, that if he had only stayed in his place, all would be well. Yet is that the case? The murder of Tester’s father at the hands of Howard is presented as business-as-usual; the impact of the event is not so much that it happened as that the systems of justice meant to prevent it from happening don’t apply to black people. The system was broken, long before Tommy Tester appeared in it; if it had not been Howard that shot his father, it might have been another white man on another day—and the result would be the same.
The second half of the narrative belongs to Det. Thomas J. Malone—here, treated much less sympathetically in Lovecraft’s narrative. Malone’s prejudices are less explicit than Howard’s, but he watches and does nothing, gives orders and expects to be obeyed. Malone is sympathetic to Suydam, because he can relate to him; the detective never expresses the same sympathies to Tommy Tester. The supreme shock to Malone’s system is the eye-opening experience when he realizes that “The Horror at Red Hook” is really Black Tom’s story, not Suydam’s. As revelations go, it’s a good one.
A man originally from Rhode Island but now living in Brooklyn with his wife proved so persistent a pair of officers was sent to the man’s place to make clear he wasn’t welcome in New York. Perhaps his constitution was better suited to Providence. The man left the city soon afterward, never to return.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 136
This is the final knowing-wink that LaValle gives to the reader, and not without reason.
H. P. Lovecraft married his wife and moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn in May 1924; in December of that year he would move into a room in Brooklyn Heights, his wife traveling to work and visiting him only periodically. It was during the following 15 month interval of living alone in New York City that Lovecraft wrote “The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air,” and began the research and writing of his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature; “The Call of Cthulhu” was conceived during this period, but not written until after he returned to Providence in 1926. He would return to New York many times before his death in 1937, but only for visits with friends or his wife, never to live there again.
The shadow of H. P. Lovecraft hangs over The Ballad of Black Tom, and to an extent the entire Mythos. Writers who seek to explore his works look for the bits unwritten—and Victor LaValle found one, a rich country which Lovecraft had, deliberately or not, overlooked as he sought to realize the horrors of New York City in the 1920s. The success of The Ballad of Black Tom lies not so much in writing a Mythos novel set in Harlem, but in bringing the feel and flavor of Harlem, and what it meant to be a black man in Lovecraft’s New York, to readers who had never considered that before—and while it may not have redeemed “The Horror at Red Hook,” LaValle offers readers a new and powerful perspective on the story.
The movie missed some stuff. It didn’t mention the Old Ones or Cthulhu or the shoggoths. You hardly ever see Maine in books, unless they’re Stephen King books.
—Cynthia Ward, “Ancient Astronauts” in Weirdbook Annual 2: Cthulhu, 24
Meddling kids didn’t show up much in the pages of Weird Tales. The period of extended adolescence which would define “teenagers” as separate from children was just beginning in the 1920s and 30s, when the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew made their debut. It was and is something of a rare Mythos story to focus on the younger point of view, such as Arthur Machen’s “The White People” (1904), Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (1951), “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins, and “Lilloth” (2006) by Susan McAdam.
The teenage perspective is an interesting one for a Mythos tale. They are innocent of the world, although not necessarily in all the ways that grown-ups think. Cynthia Ward’s Joanna, Mike, and Bradley are boiling over with hormones, insecure about their place in the world, trapped in their small town lives, limited in their ability to go and do anything.
Ward’s kids can be gullible and insightful, precocious and hard-headed. They sit out at night listening to the horror-host on the radio, talking about ancient astronauts and how nothing ever happens in Maine, Joanna waiting for Mike to get a clue and see her as more than “Just one of the guys.” But there are stranger things afoot than unrequited crushes.
Technically, “Ancient Astronauts” is a much-delayed sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Things are moving again in Maine, decades after Ephraim/Asenath Waite finally shuffled bodies one time too many and was pushed off this mortal coil. Old white men in robes, up at the standing stones in gray robes and waving daggers, and the kids are there to meddle with it. Yet—there’s a little more to it than that. Joanna and Mike only have their limited perspective; they don’t understand half of what they see, and what they do see they interpret through their own lens.
Which all runs into a familiar problem: Joanna knows about Old Ones and shoggoths, ancient astronauts and Stephen King; how can she live in a world which doesn’t seem very different than our own if so much of it must be different? Her world is a setting where Lovecraft and his fiction existed, but none of the fiction was fictional—there really is or was an Innsmouth, and people that come from there are different. There really is a pit up in Maine, with stairs descending into the lightless depths…and at the bottom? Well, no-one’s come back. So how did Lovecraft know, to write it in his story?
This isn’t a plot hole, at least not more so than any other story which puts Lovecraft’s fiction and his Mythos together. It is how Cynthia Ward frames the story: through the eyes of meddling kids who have grown up on a diet of ancient astronauts and Stephen King. That is how they see things. It is only the readers, as more widely-read adults, who recognize the different things that are going on in the story—both in terms of Mythos shenanigans and teenage crushes.
I’ve seen the new Wonder Stories, & agree that it seems to be improving. A revision client of mine has a story in the current issue—”The Man of Stone”—in which you may possibly recognise my prose style.
I note, by the way, a story in the Oct. Wonder Stories (which featured my “God of the Asteroid”) which I am willing to gamble was revised and partly “ghost-written” by H.P. The tale was called “The Man of Stone,” and was signed by one Hazel Heald. It contains reference to Tsathoggua, the Book of EIbon, The Goat with a Thousand Young, etc.
In 1932, Hazel Heald was a divorcee, working as a clerk or bookkeeper in Massachusetts. She had some aspirations to be a writer, and had developed a macabre plot:
In this same year, 1932, I formed a little New England writers’ club of my own, and one of my members, a divorcee was very anxious to succeed in the weird writing field. She sent me an original manuscript with a very passable plot, yet told unconvincingly and amatuerishly. I let Lovecraft read it when he next came to our house on Pearl Street, and he agreed that it did have possibilities.
I wrote to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club-member and told her about H.P.L., adding that he, too, was divorced. Would she like to have him look over her manuscript, “The Man of Stone”? She would! So I gave Lovecraft a note of introduction to Hazel Heald and another chapter in his life was soon taking place.
—Muriel M. Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street22-23
Lovecraft’s fiction writing had been dwindling since his collaborations with Zealia Bishop, most of which failed to find publication during his lifetime, although he had just managed to complete “The Dreams in the Witch House.” He was still doing revision work, however, and traveling as best as his means allowed. This included a very exhausting trip to Quebec on a cheap fare:
Early the following Tuesday morning, before I had gone to work, Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. folds of skin hanging froma skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves, on which he was functioning. that evening he had a dinner appointment in Somerville with a woman for whom he was doing some revision, and he had plans for things he wanted to do during the day.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale59
Eddy, who apparently conceived a notion that the two divorcees might kindle a romance, provides a rose-tinted account of the meeting:
She invited him up to her house for Sunday supper and raanged to have everything that H.P.L. liked best on the menu. they ate by candlelight, and he was greatly intrigued by her thoughtfulness in not having a household of people to greet him. He used to say he could think better whn there were not too many people around to disturb his train of thought.
He tactfully explained to Hazel that her story, though very good, really needed a little touching up here and there, something to stir the reader’s imagination. Would she allow him to do it for her? He’d consider it an honor and a privilege. She agreed.
—Muriel Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 23
Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft would go on to collaborate on five stories, beginning with “The Man of Stone” and continuing with “The Horror in the Museum,” “Winged Death,” “Out of the Aeons,” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Lovecraft’s brief notes in his letters suggest that the latter stories were essentially ghost-written by him, based on a brief outline or idea provided by Heald, exactly as was the case with Zealia Bishop. “The Man of Stone,” however, may have started off as an actual text.
Writing on 30 September 1944 of one such story, “The Man of Stone,” the late Hazel Heald admitted, “Lovecraft helped me on this story as much as on the others, and did actually rewrite paragraphs. He would criticize paragraph after paragraph and pencil remarks beside them, and then make me rewrite them until they pleased him.” But of course Lovecraft did considerably more with Hazel Heald’s later stories: he rewrote them from beginning to end so that they are essentially Lovecraft stories, retaining only the plot or central theme of the author whose by-line appeared over the work—and not even this in every case.
—August Derleth, “Lovecraft’s Revisions” in The Horror in the Museumxi-xii
It was typical of Lovecraft in his collaborations to virtually re-write the prose, so that is not surprising; the Cthulhu Mythos references in the story are certainly his addition, and possibly Mad Dan’s whole diary portion was Lovecraft’s own invention, to explain the mechanism of the action. What then is left of Heald’s original work?
Probably quite a bit, at least in conception, overall plot, and characterization. The love triangle of the woman with an abusive spouse, enamored with a younger artist, is definitely outside of H. P. Lovecraft’s normal milieu. The latter part of the story especially, with Rose Morris’ diary providing her point of view, is very exceptional for any story Lovecraft had a hand in. Even if we can see little Lovecraftian touches (the parallels between Mad Dan’s practicing “all sorts of hellish ceremonies handed down by his mother’s people” and “The Dunwich Horror” are especially acute), it’s rare for any Lovecraftian tale to touch on the personal horror of domestic abuse:
No one will ever know what I went through as his wife. It was not simply common cruelty—though God knows he was cruel enough, and beat me often with a leather whip. It was more—more than anyone in this age can ever understand. He was a monstrous creature, and practiced all sorts of hellish ceremonies handed down by his mother’s people. He tried to make me help in the rites—and I don’t dare even hint what they were. I would not, so he beat me. It would be blasphemy to tell what he tried to make me do. I can say he was a murderer even then, for I know what he sacrificed one night on Thunder Hill. He was surely the Devil’s Kin. I tried four times to run away, but he always caught and beat me. Also, he had a sort of hold over my mind, and even over my father’s mind.
—Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Man of Stone”
It is worth noting that Lovecraft would never again have quite such a strong female viewpoint in any of his works.
The story in broad strokes has parallels with “The Mask” in Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow, which likewise deals with a lover’s triangle and petrification through some unsubtle alchemy. It is impossible to say if this was intentional, with Chambers’ providing inspiration or simply coincidence. Did Heald come up with the petrification bit? Or was it originally a more conventional sort of poisoning? As no manuscript, notes, or correspondence have come to light from the collaboration, we’ll probably never know for certain.
“The Man of Stone” was published in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories (Oct 1933), then being edited by David Lasser. There were few “fantastic” pulps on the market, and whether this acceptance was because Weird Tales rejected the story or if Heald submitted it to Wonder Stories first is unclear. Unfortunately, Heald eventually ran into a common problem with many writers: non-payment.
One of my clients is about to write an indignant letter to the Authors’ League concerning his financial shotcomings—though I imagine its effect will be close to zero.
Yes—my Gernsback-mulcted client is Mrs. Heald—whose story was nothing extra, although it surely deserved some remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 10 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 404
Smith gave Lovecraft the name and address of Ione Weber, a lawyer in New York who made a specialty of suing Gernsback for non-payment; Lovecraft in turn passed the information to Heald, and Weber was apparently successful in getting her client’s money. (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 483) This is perhaps why all of the subsequent Heald-Lovecraft collaborations appeared in Weird Tales. Payment from WT was on publication, which could sometimes be months or years after the story was accepted, and even that often late during the 1930s due to the pressures of the Great Depression, as a consequence, it appears Heald owed Lovecraft some monies for his ghostwriting, which she partially paid off by typing his “The Thing on the Doorstep”:
Meanwhile (my hatred of the typewriter being stronger every day) I have had a delinquent client type the story I wrote last August, & have started the carbon on the rounds of the gang–beginning with Dwyer.
I lately had a client type my story of last August—”The Thing on the Doorstep” (which isn’t very satisfactory), & am circulating the carbon amongst the gang (you’ll get it in time).
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Nov 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 85
However, the stories were received with some praise by Weird Tales, even if Lovecraft’s friends quite clearly knew he had written most or all of them. One reader wrote in, unaware of the irony:
I cannot say enough in praise of the work of Hazel Heald. She is veritably a female Lovecraft. (Weird Tales Jun 1935)
It is likely that the financial and creative relationship would have gone on longer, but around 1934 Lovecraft ended it, though he and Heald continued to correspond. Lovecraft’s reasoning for this had nothing to do with the content of the writing, but personal and professional reasons:
But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 544
I have refused point-blank to do any more such jobs for Mrs. Heald & old de Castro & others—& recently declined to collaborate with Price on a sequel to the “Gates of the Silver Key”. I simply can’t tackle so much when my time & nervous energy are so limited—& when so many stories of my own are veritably howling to be written.
This was not the end of Lovecraft’s collaborations, but it was largely the end of his remunerative collaborations; from 1934 on his revisions were often with fans, and on a non-paying basis. Of the stories “howling to be written,” only two were finished: The Shadow Out of Time and “The Haunter of the Dark” before Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Heald would write of Lovecraft in Weird Tales (Jun 1937):
I want to express my sorrow in the passing of H. P. Lovecraft. He was a friend indeed to the struggling author, and many have started to climb the ladder of success with his kind assistance. To us who really knew him it is a sorrow that mere words cannot express. His was the helping hand that started me in the writers’ game and gave me the courage to carry on under the gravest difficulties. But we must try to think that he is “just away” on one of his longest journeys and that some day we will meet him again in the Great Beyond.
Hazel Heald herself would largely drop from view; whether or not she continued to write is unknown, but no more weird or pulp stories are known from her.
It is a strange and curious fact that I found myself as an author and Lovecraftian only after I began to live the punk rock lifestyle. Before then I had a sense of being different, but it wasn’t until I stuck that pin in my ear and shaved off some of my hair that I began to truly feel like The Outsider. […] I mentioned Lovecraft in the early issues of Punk Lust, and was delighted when I’d go to local gigs and people would come up to me and shout with drunken fervor, “Ia! The Crawling Chaos!” This was way back in the days before Lovecraft became a game. People who knew of him had gained this occult knowledge by reading Lovecraft’s fiction. […] And now we have a most wonderful occurrence: punk kids are growing up to become remarkable horror authors, often blending punk with their macabre fiction. This is only natural for those of us who portray our personal lives and loves in our horror fiction.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror#4
Following the death of August Derleth in 1971, the Mythos slowly opened up to a new and more diverse set of writers. During the 1970s and ’80s, the largest development of the Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction outside of Arkham House occurred in small-press magazines—cheaply printed paper pamphlets, mostly written by and for amateur fandom. Amateur press associations such as the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD) would compile magazines for mass-mailings, allowing wider dissemination of new poems, short fiction, and articles about Lovecraft and the Mythos to be disseminated outside of the editorial control of any one publisher.
Many Mythos writers would be featured prominently in magazines, including Brian McNaughton, Robert M. Price, Stanley C. Sargent, and Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire—a queer punk writer, editor, and poet, the self-styled Queen of Eldritch Horror, whose magazine credits include Midnight Fantasies (1973–76), Old Bones (1975-1976), Queer Madness (1980-1981), Visions from Khroyd’hon (1976), and Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (1987–99). In Tales, Pugmire described a forward-looking approach to Lovecraft and his fiction:
Lovecraftian horror is my obsession. When nothing else can cure bordeom, I need only turn to one of countless books or magazines, and suddenly my gloom is gone. And when I’m feeling very bold, I try my hand at writing my own. […] And yet, when I decided to finally try to edit a magazine of Lovecraftian fiction, I discovered that I was a bit uncertain as to just what I was looking for as an editor. I found that I was unable to describe what I meant by “Lovecraftian horror.” I knew that I did not want trendy Cthulhu Mythos fiction. I am not anti-Mythos; but I hate the way it has usurped other forms of Lovecraftian horror.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lovecraftian Horror” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror#1
At the time, considerable Mythos fiction was being published in ‘zines like Crypt of Cthulhu (1981-2001, 2017- ) and Chronicles of the Cthulhu Codex (1985-2000), as well as the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction anthologies beginning with The Hastur Cycle (1993). It was a period of reprinting long out-of-print favorites, of re-discovering and re-publishing the original text of Lovecraft’s stories, and endless pastiches, sequels, prequels, and original works tying into the Mythos of various levels of quality and originality. It is to this outpouring of Cthulhuiana that Pugmire speaks:
The Mythos has been overused, and most of the newer tales bore me, be they by fans or pros. I find very few of them truly “Lovecraftian,” seeming more like the kind of thing Derleth was wont to write. I have no intention of publishing Cthulhu Mythos stories in TOLH. The small press has the delicious ability to act as an alternative to what is trendy, popular, and commercial. It is this alternative side of Lovecraftian horror that I hope to present. (ibid)
The small press publishing during Talesof Lovecraftian Horror’s run is a far cry from the desktop publishing and print-on-demand world of today, which led to the explosion of Mythos anthologies in the late 2000s and 2010s headed by editors like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles of Innsmouth Free Press, and far and away from the mass-market anthologies produced by Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, or Joyce Carol Oates for the literary and academic market. It was a more punk enterprise, full of DIY energy and freedom to experiment, and Pugmire wanted to focus on more than just tentacled beasties and moldy grimoires that aped the outward tropes of the Mythos but missed the essence:
Lovecraftian horror conveys mood, atmosphere, and situations that were dear to H. P. Lovecraft and are evident in his own spectral and cosmic fiction. […] Just as Lovecraft scholarship is growing, so too should Lovecraftian fiction go forward, becoming much more than it has been. Instead of writing formula stories, we can use Lovecraftian themes as a foundation on which to try to build our own unique fiction. […] A good Lovecraftian tale should, I feel, express things that move us to profound emotions. Using HPL’s fiction, his dreams as they are recorded in his published letters, we can find inspiration for our own tales of dread. Writing horror fiction is not an attempt to escape from reality, rather, as it was with Lovecraft, it is an expression of those aspects of reality that move us creatively, as artists. And as humans. (ibid)
Pugmire’s influence as an editor in the first three issues is often overlooked. Tales of Lovecraftian Horror published Thomas Ligotti, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Ann K. Schwader, and other noteworthy writers; the second issue published Robert M. Price’s episode of “Herbert West—Reanimated,” which has gone on to spawn a weird and convoluted continuity that is still being continued today by Peter Rawlik and others in books like Legacy of the Reanimator(2015) and Reanimatrix(2016).
In part, this may be because the series was published by Cryptic Publications, with the assistance and guidance of Price—and lapsed after the third issue, only to be reanimated in 1996 with Price as editor, though he assured readers that Pugmire was still the guiding spirit (and associate editor). That spirit was always one that sought individuality. Pugmire would write his own corner of the Mythos with his Sesqua Valley tales and others but as an editor, he wanted his fellow writers to go beyond Lovecraft, not be restricted by him. In one editorial Pugmire recalled:
While editing the early issues of this magazine, I received a submission froma bloke who, in his letter of introduction, expressed his desire to become “the new Lovecraft.” I find this utterly absurd. There will never be another Lovecraft, because HPL was absolutely and unively himself. Let us strive with our horror fiction to be ourselves, to write the tales that only we can tell. We may fall short of our goal, but at least we have made an honest effort, rather than being content to mimic a boring Mythos formula that is void of any hint of Lovecraftian ambience. Listen to the fear that haunts your soul and sears your throbbing brain. then you will truly write fiction that expresses authentic respect for our beloved Grandpa Theobald.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror#5
Some Lovecraftian fiction today certainly echoes Pugmire’s sentiments. Anthologies like Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth partake of Lovecraft without being slavishly devoted to his Mythos—and in general, there seems to be fairly wide appeal to the idea that originality and quality of writing mean more than trying to write after Lovecraft (or Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, etc.). Pastiche still has its place, but Pugmire was one of the voices that called for writers to move beyond that…and to really emphasize that what is important about Lovecraft is not the person of Cthulhu or the use of the Necronomicon, but simply that Lovecraft was original. The artificial mythology that Lovecraft and his contemporaries created strikes a chord in readers, even today because it is different from the hoary tales of gods and demigods, heroes and fables in Bullfinch’s Mythology.
Pugmire saw in Lovecraft something that spoke to him, and that spoke to others:
Other punk kids are joining the throng. […] They have oddly-colored hair and pierced faces; they listen to death metal and goth rock; they are avid fans of H. P. Lovecraft. Our ranks are growing, and our voices will be heard. Our horror fiction will wear within its soul our punk rock angst. Our fiction, like our music, will be the voice of the Outsider.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror#4
Wilum H. Pugmire passed away on 26 March 2019. We will not see his like again.
I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom2.43
Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.
In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.
In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision(2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.
Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:
Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian!276
In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.
As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:
[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale259-260
The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:
(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays5.243
As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:
Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.
Except for the final, culminating revelation.
It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.
When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.
The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.
We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.
There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:
“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.
“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.
Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:
Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision177
Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian!143
“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.
The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.
It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.