The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson

In a land defined by dreaming men and bickering gods, there were no sure rules, but there was also no certain randomness.
—Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 133-134

You don’t have to have read Lovecraft or Dunsany to appreciate The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Without those references, it is still a very competent fantasy novelette. Johnson has a good eye for detail, characterization, description; the plot moves quick, never gets hung up too long in one place, one peril. Vellitt Boe is on a mission, after all.

That being said, without the historical context of Lovecraft and Dunsany, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is in danger of being misunderstood as a generic fantasy novel, of the sort inspired by a thousand sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, or Fighting Fantasy. This comes almost as a consequence of how you get from Lord Dunsany to Kij Johnson, and to really appreciate what she is doing in this novelette and how it got there requires a bit of background. 

H. P. Lovecraft discovered Lord Dunsany in 1919. The Anglo-Irish peer had created an artificial mythology in his tales of Pegāna, which would inspire Lovecraft’s own mythos, and the stories of “Beyond the Fields We Know” in Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919) including “Idle Days on the Yann” and “The Shop in Go-By Street” would lay the groundwork for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

It is important to remember that Lovecraft built his Mythos over time, defining and re-defining it as time went on and other influences came to bear. “The Cats of Ulthar” (written June 1920) was not originally set in the Dreamlands; it was a generic fantasy. The first actual Dreamlands story was “Celephaïs” (written November 1920). In later fiction, these early fantasies and their names and geographies would be subsumed into the Dreamlands—and the “Dream Cycle” with its vagaries and contradictions (were exactly is Leng?) have given compilers of Mythos-lore much to chew on and argue about.

Randolph Carter came into existence in 1919 as well, in “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” This early story had nothing to do with the Dreamlands either; Lovecraft recorded a dream in his letters involving himself and his friend Samuel Loveman. In turning the dream into a story, Loveman became “Hartley Warren” and Lovecraft himself became “Randolph Carter.” The character became a self-identified counterpart for Lovecraft himself in his stories, though he appeared in only a few of them, notably “The Silver Key” (1926), which is the only one that was a Dreamlands tale until The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (written 1926-1927).

Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest is fundamentally different from anything he wrote before or since. Maybe that is why in part it found no publication during his lifetime. Too long, too weird, too inexplicably full of adventure—it is this novelette which binds together Lovecraft’s “dream” stories, early fantasies, and Randolph Carter stories. Without Dream-Quest, you could argue the Dreamlands are still a part of the Mythos, but places like Ulthar wouldn’t be a part of it. This was the story that really gave the scope and connective tissue that bound much of Lovecraft’s early fiction together. In structure and conception, it is much more similar to David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) or E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922) than anything else.

There aren’t really any women in it.

Which is true for much more of Lovecraft’s fiction than just The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As discussed in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft does have female characters in his stories, but the gender balance is distinctly skewed towards male characters. In large part, this seems to be simply because Lovecraft seldom made a character female unless there was a reason for her to be female. Which is why the only absolute reference to women in Dream-Quest is:

It is known that in disguise the younger among the Great Ones often espouse the daughters of men, so that around the borders of the cold waste wherein stands Kadath the peasants must all bear their blood. 

That’s it. There are other references to women in some of the other stories, if you look hard enough—the cat-killing wife in “The Cats of Ulthar” for example—but for the most part, women are implicit. Priests, but no priestesses. “Men” as a generic term for all persons of every gender, in the very 18th century sense. Rapacious gods of the Greco-Roman school, but no lusty goddesses bedding the handsome young men around Kadath.

It was in this context that Kij Johnson wrote her own Dream-Quest, and it is in many ways both a continuation of the tradition of Dunsany and Lovecraft, and a reflection on those works.

And I must of course acknowledge Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it.
—Kij Johnson, “Acknowledgements” in The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 167

Johnson did the work, sifted the stories. The story is set between “The Silver Key” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”; it references Lovecraft’s geography and zoology, but also subtly grounds and expands them. The Dreamlands are seen through the eyes of a native, an intelligent and experienced woman who knows more of how things work and finds delight in them. The skill of her construction is such that she never needs to cite a story specifically; it is never written that “In Ulthar no man may kill a cat,” because the idea is implicit in the story: no one even thinks of trying to kill a cat in Ulthar. It simply doesn’t come up. More amusingly and refreshingly, we get little anecdotes like how a young Vellitt Boe tried to climb Hatheg-Kla under the logic that it was only said no man could climb it. A neat bit which feels a bit like Éowyn taking a swing at the Witch-King of Angmar.

The story is at its best when it is showing rather than telling. Why not a woman’s college in Ulthar? Why not a female far-traveler? Nothing in Randolph Carter’s dream-quest required him to have a penis, so what’s to stop a woman from having her own adventure in the Dreamlands? Absolutely nothing.

The story is arguably at its weakest when it stops showing and starts telling.

She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.

“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”

Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers. (ibid. 71-72)

In narrative terms, the characterization of Randolph Carter as a bit of a straw-man serves its purpose only in highlighting Boe’s struggles as a woman. Even in the Dreamlands, there are gender norms and imbalances; the women’s college of Ulthar is the youngest and most vulnerable of the seven universities, and even a hint of scandal could see it closed, upper education cut off. In that sense, Johnson needed some character to personify the casual misogyny that Boe quested against as much as anything else.

Carter as a mouthpiece is problematic mainly because he never voices such views in Lovecraft’s fiction, and as he is implicitly Lovecraft’s alter-ego (though Johnson does not make this point) it can be read as Johnson putting words in Lovecraft’s mouth. While Lovecraft did evince a few chauvinistic statements during his life, he never wrote anything like what Carter says in Johnson’s Dream-Quest. The statement (“powerful women dreamers” is a great line) needed to be made at some point, if for no other reason than it sets up the finale, but the characterization seems off; rather like Ervin Howard in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. If a dead horse is going to be beaten, at least beat it for something it actually did.

There is a line in the story that may be uncomfortable, but then it would be a sad world where such a line would be otherwise:

As a young woman, when she had been beautiful and had worn her hair short and her clothes loose to conceal that fact, she had known all the signs of men and read them well enough that she had been successfully robbed only three times and raped once; but none of those had burned from her the hunger for empty spaces, strange cities, new oceans. (ibid. 83)

Nothing of the act, which happened sometime in the far past, is shown. Which is good; the last thing the story needed was an exploitative recap, some trauma porn of the effect and slow recovery. The event happened, it didn’t define her. It is also not the only mention of rape in the story; Vellitt Boe is traveling mostly alone in a quasi-Early Modern fantasy world. Sexual assault need not have a gender bias (the setting rarely hints at lesbianism as a possibility, and male homosexuality is completely absent from the text) but old habits die hard. How many women traveling alone today have the same fear?

Which is perhaps the one real criticism of The Dream-Quest of Villett Boe. It is great for what it is, but if the purpose was to have a message as well tell a story, it feels like it could have been that much better. Why aren’t there any female gods in the Dreamlands? Why aren’t there any female dreamers? Johnson wasn’t obliged to stick to Lovecraft or Dunsany in every regard, and doesn’t. Yet her Dreamland is almost too close to the waking world in some of its gender constructs and mores.

You might be interested to know that at the party one very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
—Joanna Russ, To Write Like A Woman 64

Russ, of course, wrote her own Dreamlands tale: “My Boat” (1976). Ironically, Russ’s story features a powerful woman dreamer (who also happens to be black), exactly the kind of character that Villett Boe lamented never meeting in her own Dreamlands. It’s a pity that the two characters didn’t run across each other—but the tales remain complementary. The Dreamlands is big enough for both characters, and more besides.

The book is at its most subversive when just letting Vellitt Boe find her own way, rather than being escorted by guards or ghouls or rescued by gugs. The Dreamlands through her eyes is a delight, and just having a female character be the protagonist of a Dreamlands story in itself is more of a statement that See? Women can explore the Dreamlands too! than any of the casual misogyny attributed to Randolph Carter (or, implicitly, Lovecraft). If Johnson’s goal beyond writing the story was to write a Dreamlands where the women aren’t invisible and mute, she can certainly be said to have succeeded. Above and beyond that, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a very rare thing: a good Dreamlands story, written in a way that is not a pastiche of Dunsany or Lovecraft.

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was published in 2016 by Tor.


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Natalie H. Wooley

I should say that weird fans who have a taste in liking the outre in literature have a superior taste, rather than a morbid one, a sign of an inquiring mind, that is not satisfied with Wild West, Gangster, or sickly mediocre love stories. But to explore the hidden corners of things, whether it be the universe, the mind, or the supernatural, is providing that one’s mind is not smug or narrow. If this be madness, insanity, or morbidity, glory in it, you weird and fantasy fans. 
—Natalie H. Wooley,
The Fantasy Fan May 1934

Natalie Hartley Wooley wrote to Lovecraft by way of Weird Tales in c. June 1933, inquiring into the reality of the strange tomes and Mythos in his fiction. While we cannot say for certain what prompted her letter, Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” was published in the July 1933 issue, which hit stands the month before. Lovecraft, as he always did, revealed that it was an artificial mythology. The correspondence went on from there.

She was 29 years old in 1933, and her son George was nine years old. Biographical details are scarce; very few of her letters appear to have survived, and we have only Lovecraft’s side of the the correspondence, amounting to 15 letters (or parts thereof) from 1933 to 1936. Wooley was also a member of Lovecraft’s late round robin letter group the Coryciani, of which 4 letters survive from 1934-1936. More of her own writing survives in early fanzines and amateur journalism.

It appears that through Lovecraft, Wooley was introduced to both amateur journalism and early science fiction fandom—and joined both. Wooley was a poet, and perhaps had aspirations to be a writer. Lovecraft’s letters give lists of weird fiction that a dedicated fan might read, sources for occult lore ranging from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray to medieval grimoires and Theosophy, and advice on writing and being published. Perhaps aware of how he had advised revision clients like Zealia Bishop in the past, Lovecraft wrote:

However—don’t bother with weird fiction at all unless you feel a genuine inclination toward it. It is the most difficult of all material to market professionally, & the circle of those who truly enjoy & appreciate it is always discouragingly small.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 6 Aug 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 191

Marketable or not, Wooley tried her hand at it. Her short story of a murderer on death’s row feeling the ghostly revenge of another was published as “Spurs of Death” in The Fantasy Fan (Dec 1933). Acclaim was modest; Lovecraft’s letter in the January 1934 issue reads “All the stories are excellent and the departments are as interesting as usual.”; H. C. Koenig in the February issue wrote “this Wooley person certainly did a very nice job with her story.”

More effusive praise would come for Wooley’s poetry, much of it from Lovecraft himself. Still, she was in the mix and among the fans; her poems and fan-letters graced the pages of The Fantasy Fan and Marvel Tales in 1934 and 1935, and from Lovecraft’s responses it is clear that she read and commented on his fiction. Beyond that, Lovecraft appears to have recruited her to amateur journalism, where she had further outlet for her poetry and opinions:

A new voice in the National is that of Mrs. Natalie Hartley Wooley, whose brief, wistful lyrics strike one’s fancy with singular sharpness through certain faint overtones subtly suggesting magical vistas and dim regions beyond the confines of daylight reality. “Western Night”, in the Summer Goldenrod, has great charm and power; while “Flight”, in the October Sea Gull, unites with its general elfin quality a poignant human pathos.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Bureau of Critics” in the National Amateur (June 1934), Collected Essays 1.375

NATALIE HARTLEY WOOLEY, Kansas, is a member of both the National and United Amateur Press Associations and has contributed to Kansas City Star, Kansas City Journal-Post, Marvel Tales, The Fantasy Fan, and to The Christian Board of Publication periodicals. She wrote the lyrics for “Querida, a Spanish Serenade,” a song which may be heard on the radio.
“Who’s New,” Kaleidograph (Dec 1934), quoted in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 10n7

As with most of Lovecraft’s letters, what began as a focus on weird fiction eventually grew broader. Wooley asked about Wiggam’s The Fruit of the Family Tree (1924), a popular work on eugenics, which led to a lengthy response from Lovecraft, touching on Nazi antisemitism and the 1933 law on compulsory sterilization, miscegenation and the color-line in the United States, and the rising power of and Westernization of Japan. Yet for the most part their letters concern weird fiction, fellow fans, and especially in the Coryciani letters, poetry. One such letter shows Lovecraft’s appreciation for her verse:

Mrs. Wooley’s contribution is rich in illuminating comments & examples. She is, it would seem, right in believing that both simple & involvedly mystical & allusive (within reasonable limits) verse have a definite & unchallengeable place in the aesthetic scheme. Like Mr. Adams’s, her preferences run to the philosophical—albeit in a somewhat less concrete fashion. A certain wistful, elusive mysticism—involving touches of the whimsical, the fantastic, & the delicately spectral—often characterises Mrs. Wooley’s own verses—as the columns of amateur journalism amply attest.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Coryciani, 17 Mar 1935, Lovecraft Annual (2017) #11 136-137

As an example of her poetry, this bit of verse was squeezed in after a few verses of the Fungi from Yuggoth and before Robert E. Howard’s “Voices of the Night” in The Fantasy Fan (Jan 1935):

THE ALIEN
by Natalie H. Wooley

She is like living golden flame.
She knows not whence or why she came
       Into this world…and yet at times
I hear her call strange gods by name.

There is no warmth in her embrace,
Of human passions not a trace.
       She seems remote, a thing attuned
To summonings from outer space.

And on each starry, moonlit night
She gazes long in rapt delight
        Toward the skies…while I weep
Lest the message come, and she take flight.

Robert E. Howard was another author that interested Wooley. She must have read his Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (Weird Tales May-Jun 1935) with enthusiasm, and written to Lovecraft about him, for Lovecraft wrote back:

Yes—Robert E. Howard is a notable author—more powerful & spontaneous than even he himself realises. He tends to get away from weirdness toward sheer sanguinary adventure, but there is still no one equal to him in describing haunted cyclopean ruins in an African or Hyperborean jungle. He has written reams of powerful poetry, also—most of which is still unpublished.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 28 Jun 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 205

Wooley excerpted a passage from “Beyond the Black River” for a brief critical work titled “The Adventure Story,” published in The Californian (Fall 1935). She praised the Texan as a writer—one of the few such critical assessments he would ever get in his short life.

There, my friends, is writing. A paragraph of less than a hundred words, yet combining description, menace, and a hint of action to come. Each word is carefully chosen. Note that artfully worded last sentence, with its intimation of impending conflict; sustaining the reader’s interest through what otherwise might be a rather colorless bit of description. Mr. Howard, well known adventure-fiction story writer, is one of the few who do not sacrifice beautiful narrative style for the action demanded in such stories, but combines the two masterfully.
—Natalie H. Wooley, “The Adventure Story,” reprinted in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 441

Robert E. Howard received a copy of The Californian, and wrote back—though any further contact was cut short by his suicide in 1936.

Thank you very much for the copy of The Californian. I feel greatly honored that Miss Wooley should have quoted an excerpt from my serial “Beyond the Black River” in her article in your fine journal.
—Robert E. Howard to The Californian (Summer 1936)

Lovecraft’s friend and future literary executor R. H. Barlow moved to Kansas City to attend the art institute there in 1936; through their mutual friend and correspondent Barlow and Wooley got in touch. It is the only time that Wooley is known to have met with anyone else in the Lovecraft circle—or science fiction fandom in general.

No letters to Wooley or mention of her survives in Lovecraft’s correspondence past December 1936; no doubt his fatal illness curtailed their back-and-forth. We may get a sense of her side of the correspondence from a single letter that survives at the John Hay Library among Lovecraft’s papers—this was sent from Wooley to E. A. Edkins, who forwarded it to Lovecraft.

WooleyLetter

Wooley did not immediately disappear from view; The Fantasy Fan and Marvel Tales, her main outlets for fandom, had both faltered, but she was still active in amateur journalism for a time. A favorite example is her assessment of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):

As erotica, the book is a disappointment. Some of Boccaccio or Balzac, or the modern writers Bodenheim and Donald Henderson Clarke outstrip it completely. As history, it is
insignificant. As a text-book of hitherto deleted words, it leaves little to the imagination.
—Natalie H. Wooley, “Well, I’ve Read It” in Nix Nem (Dec 1936), quoted in The Fossil 345

What did Lovecraft’s correspondence mean to Natalie H. Wooley? It encouraged her writing and poetry, helped her find new outlets to publish her work. She was, whether she knew it or not, in the thick of early fandom, and her voice was heard among writers who would grow to become legends—though she herself is nearly forgotten today, her poetry lives on.

Lovecraft’s letters with Natalie H. Wooley, along with a selection of her poetry and critical writings from amateur journalism have been published in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others (2015, Hippocampus Press); some of these letters had previously been published in volume 4 and 5 of the Selected Letters from Arkham House. The letters to the Coryciani have been published in Lovecraft Annual #11 (2017, Hippocampus Press).

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help on this one.


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

Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw

Not for the first time, I consider giving the kid a refund. I’d gotten into the detective business to escape the deepwater blues, from the songs that squirm in your veins like worms. Sure, I’d go for an easy job, sometimes, ice a monster that had gotten too big for his bed. But this?
—Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone 56

H. P. Lovecraft did not invent weird fiction, in the same way Raymond Chandler didn’t invent hardboiled detective fiction. Noir and the Mythos are first cousins, descended from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories of C. Auguste Dupin—and over the years many writers have written weirdly consanguineous marriages in that sprawling family. Sometimes they even work out.

Cassandra Khaw is working, whether she knows it or not, in a tradition that includes C. J. Henderson’s The Tales of Inspector Legrasse (2005), James Ambuehl’s anthology Hardboiled Cthulhu (2006), and Ron Shiftlet’s Looking for Darla (2008). Graphic novels have been especially prolific of late, with entries including Weird Detective (2017) and Casefile: Arkham (2016). The stories work (when they do work) because both Mythos and noir stories are at heart mysteries; there is some hidden truth, cosmic or sordid, to be uncovered before the end. In many cases, they also share a setting in the 1920s and 30s. But the approach is distinct; hardboiled detectives are made of sterner stuff than most Lovecraftian protagonists, and the hard-drinking men and women who try to find the rotten worms of the earth at the core of a Mythos mystery usually end up regretting the experience.

Which is the case with Khaw’s novella Hammers on Bone.

John Persons, P.I., is an anachronism. Prowling the streets of modern-day London, he talks like a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel. A creature out of time in more sense than one, he lives the gumshoe role in a case that combines the tragic realities of domestic violence and economic hardship on the one hand, and body horror and eldritch experiences on the other. If you don’t think about the details; it works fine: Khaw has a great sense for her characters, and Persons’ personality and penchant for hardboiled slang carry the narrative along nicely.

The plot itself? A jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces deliberately missing. Khaw doesn’t set up any particular rules for her universe, at least not on the page. Like “All This for the Greater Glory of the 7th and 329th Children of the Black Goat of the Woods” (2012) by Molly Tanzer it feels filtered through half-remembered sessions of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. There is that assumption of familiarity with various bits and pieces of Mythos lore, but also a slapdash quality to it all. An almost cartoonish aspect where things happen because the story demands an action beat and the visuals are cool, but at the end of things there are crucial questions that remained unanswered. It isn’t a mystery where you can guess the end by page three, or page ninety-three, and when the last page of the epilogue is turned the reader may find themselves asking why Persons didn’t handle the case differently.

After all, it’s only murder.

Part of the problem is that the villain of this piece is a cipher. A domestic abuser and chav’s chav with squamous secret beneath the skin, but there are fill-in-the-blanks missing. Why does he do what he does? What is he after? Why hasn’t he done it already, if he has the power to? Unanswered questions and missing motivations. During the legwork phase of the investigation, Persons stumbles across something bigger than an alcoholic asshole who beats his not-quite-wife and spreads his eldritch infection—but the story cuts off before we get further down that particular road. Maybe in the sequel.

Hammers on Bone was published in 2016 as part of Tor’s Lovecraftian novella series. Khaw has written a sequel, A Song for Quiet (2017).


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

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage (2013) by Stephen D. Korshak & J. David Spurlock

Sometime in 1932, a six-foot tall, chain smoking woman, in need of a job to support her three-year-old son and crippled mother, walked into the office of legendary Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. The woman was a freelance fashion design illustrator with no knowledge of who H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, Seabury Quinn, Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch and dozens of other writers were. She had simply looked through the telephone book to find the name of a publishing company where she might find employment. During this initial meeting the woman, Margaret Brundage, displayed a painting of an Oriental female done in pastel chalk to Farnsworth Wright that caught his eye.
—Stephen D. Korshack, “Queen of the Pulps” in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 11

In 1932, Margaret Brundage (née Margaret Hedda Johnson) was a single mother; her husband Myron “Slim” Brundage was an alcoholic who had abandoned the marriage and the care of their son Kerlynn (born in 1927). Her first pulp cover would be for the Spring 1932 issue of Oriental Stories, and her first cover for Weird Tales would be for the September 1932 issue. Over the next 13 years she would produce 66 covers for Weird Tales, more than any other artist, and those during the height of the magazine’s golden years—when Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were still alive, and C. L. Moore would make her sensational debut.

Pulp authors vied for their story to be featured on the cover; it often meant extra pay as well esteem. Pulp fans argued in the letter pages about the propensity for nudes, and began spreading the rumors that Brundage (originally signed only as M. Brundage; her gender was not revealed until a couple of years later) was using her non-existent daughters to model the bondage shots. Sometimes the covers had real effects on the authors lives, as one anecdote might show:

“You said you’d like to read some of my stuff, and so I—I brought a copy of this magazine that’s just come out…It’s—it’s got a yarn of mine in it. I—I thought you might like to look at it.”

My eyes bulged. I’d never looked at a magazine like that before! That cover! A big, handsome man, except for his very short hair, was standing there with a big, green snake wrapped around him. A blonde girl sat on the ground staring at him. She was something! All she had on was a wispy scarf that didn’t quite cover her up front. Between her legs was another wisp of cloth fastened to a red and gold belt.

“It’s—it’s ‘The Devil in Iron.’”

—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 58

Weird_Tales_1934-08_-_The_Devil_in_Iron

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage is not quite a biography, however. It is primarily a collection of obscure but critical sources and essays on her life and work: memoirs and interviews normally only found in moldering and expensive fanzines, as well as new essays that expand on her life before and after Weird Tales. On top of that, the book includes a full gallery of her pulp art, and numerous photos of her life and art you won’t find anywhere else, all reproduced without the clipping or muddying of color typical of a lot of pulp art books. It is a gorgeous production from start to finish—and an enlightening one, as Brundage herself is a fascinating subject.

Arguably the best part of the book is J. David Spurlock’s “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage.” Most of the interviews and memoirs you could track down with time; this is new, and fantastic. A glimpse at Margaret Brundage before she was the Queen of the Pulps. Her fascinating encounter with a young Walt Disney in 1917 has to be read to be believed:

Margaret (walks toward the freshman, mumbling under her breath): If I were a man, they would give me a title; Editor, Art Director, something. One day women will win the right to vote. We’ll see some changes then.

(Approaching freshman, extends her hand): Dizzy, is it?

Walter: Oh… it’s Disney, Walter Disney.

(Both laugh)

Margaret: Sorry, I’m Margaret Johnson.

Walter: Are you the art director?

Margaret: Well, sort of. They have me doing the work but (raising her voice), I GUESS I’M NOT MAN ENOUGH FOR THE TITLE. So tell me about yourself. Do you have any experience?
—J. David Spurlock, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 128-129

Did it happen exactly that way? Hard to tell. But it gives the flavor of the young fiery woman who would get mixed up with the Bohemian scene in Chicago, and eventually marry (and divorce) labor agitator “Slim” Brundage. Her life in the 1940s and beyond is filled in by examining her work with Bronzeville “the epicenter of the Chicago black renaissance”; Margaret Brundage did not have the same racial prejudices as many in the period.

Spurlock gives some of the extra details missing from the interviews and memoirs, filling in some of the context. It is not a blow-by-blow, cover-by-cover essay—there might be a market for such a thing, but the focus is on Brundage’s life beyond the pulp scene, which many researchers have overlooked or ignored, and for that it is welcomed and invaluable.

There isn’t much of Lovecraft in the book, but then there wouldn’t be. Lovecraft seldom included women or nudes in his fiction, much less bondage, and never had a story of his feature on the cover of Weird Tales during his lifetime. More than that, Lovecraft has been noted as a general critic of Brundage’s artwork:

As for the covers—I never yet saw one that was worth the coloured inks expended on it. Of course the luscious & irrelevant nudes are rabble-catchers & nothing else but—an attempt by Wright to attract two publics instead of one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 28 Oct 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea Etc. 362

About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 382

About WT covers—they are really too trivial to get angry about. If they weren’t totally irrelevant and unrepresentative nudes, they’d probably be something equally awkward and trivial, even though less irrelevant. The “art” of the pulps is even worse than its fiction, if such be possible. Rankin, Utpatel, and Finlay are the only real illustrators of WT who are worth anything. I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject-matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 391-392

Lovecraft wasn’t alone in his criticism. Clark Ashton Smith was not trained as an artist, but had his own self-taught style in drawing, painting, and later sculpture noted:

Glad you liked “Ilalotha,” a story in wich I seem to have slipped something over on the PTA. The issue containing it, I hear, was removed from the stands in Philadelphia because of the Brundage cover. Query: why does Brundage try to make all her women look like wet-nurses? It’s a funny, not to say tiresome, complex.
—Clark Ashton Smith to R. H. Barlow, 9 Sep 1937, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 313

This was an oblique reference to something that comes up in one of Brundage’s interviews in the book:

E&O: Where you ever asked to start covering  your nudes a bit?

Brundage: I was never asked to, no. One funny thing did happen. One of the authors—well, Weird Tales asked me to make larger and larger breasts—larger than I would have liked to—well, one cover, one of the authors wrote in and said that things were getting a little bit out of line. And even for an old expert like him, the size of the breastwork was getting a little too large.

Etchings & Odysseys Interview with Margaret Brundage, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 32

We don’t know who wrote in, whether it was Smith or Lovecraft or someone else. Brundage is quite frank in her interviews about the details of her work for Weird Tales, and frank too about her sense of loss at the death of Robert E. Howard, whose stories she would illustrate for many of the covers. If you consider his Conan tales as extensions of the Cthulhu Mythos, her covers form some of the first Mythos art in color. For her work on Weird Tales alone, Brundage will probably long be remembered, emulated, parodied, and subject to homage. Her October 1933 “Bat Woman” cover for Hugh Davidson’s “The Vampire Master” has long been a favorite hallmark of her Weird Tales work, and is paid tribute to even today by artists like Abigail Larson.

Margaret Brundage as an artist and as a human being was more than 70-odd pulp covers. A lot more.

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage was published in 2013 by Vanguard Publishing, and is available in a paperback, hardcover, and deluxe hardcover editions.


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

“Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear

The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular object: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150-151

Shoggoths appear or are mentioned only three times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft: they appear on the page in At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936), and they are mentioned in passing but do not appear in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written 1933, published 1937). It is in the latter story that we learn there are shoggoths in Maine.

In “The Mound”, Lovecraft had shown how an “advanced” yet alien race had used biological science to enslave and shape living creatures to their use. Intelligent beings became beasts of burden and livestock. The shoggoths extended this conception: where part of the horror in “The Mound” (as with the earlier story “The Rats in the Walls”) was that the creatures of K’n-yan were part-human, the shoggoths were entirely inhuman in their conception. Biological robots in all but name, engineered lifeforms created to serve…and for anyone raised in the United States of America, as Lovecraft and most of his readers would have been, there are connotations there. Because for centuries the slave system of the United States had been based entirely on race.

Lovecraft knew this. He commented on historical slavery in his letters with friends. Like many white people in the early 20th century, he was misled by the Lost Cause propaganda of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School—and by his own prejudices—about the horrors of slavery. His view of the plantation system in the antebellum South (and his own native Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was an historical nexus for the slave trade) was rose-colored. The best example of Lovecraft’s line of thought on this matter, when he and his friend and fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard had fallen into a discussion of what we would call wage-slavery today:

As for peonage or actual slavery—that is hardly a practical possibility except with inferior or badly-cowed race-stocks. The whole psychological equilibrium which made it possible in mediaeval and ancient times has been permanently destroyed. But it really wouldn’t be so bad to enslave niggers, Mexicans, and certain types of biologically backward foreign peasants. I’m no abolitionist—in fact, I’d probably have been almost ostracised in New England in the hectic days of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Bostonese pharasaism in general. Of course, slavery ought to be regulated by stringent laws as to the treatment of slaves—laws backed up by frequent governmental inspections, and sustained by a carefully directed public sentiment as to humane conditions. In the 18th century, when we had negro slaves in Rhode Island, there was never any discontent or talk of ill-treatment. On the large estates of King’s County (estates duplicating the plantations of the South, and quite unique for the North) the blacks were in general simply contented—having their own festivities, and indulging in a kind of annual Saturnalia in which large numbers met and elected one of their number “King of Africa” for the ensuing year. One of my ancestors—Robert Hazard—left 133 slaves in his will. What caused slavery to decline in the north was the complex economic readjustment which rendered large-scale agriculture and stock-raising no longer as profitable as maritime commerce. When it no longer paid to keep niggers, our pious forbears began to have moral and religious scruples about the matter—so that around 1800 Rhode Island passed a law limiting slavery to black over 21, and declaring all others, and all subsequently born, free. Later this was amended to free the adult negroes—though most stayed right on with their masters as nominally paid servants. In the next generation, when slavery was defunct in the north but seen to be still a source of profit in the south, it occurred to northern politicians to become very Quixotic and devoted to the ideal of freedom—hence the impassioned frock-coated moralists of the abolitionist school, calling upon heaven to end the unrighteous curse of human bondage. But on the whole I don’t think slavery would form a practical policy for the future. Psychological conditions have changed. I don’t think inferior races, or persons of very inferior education or capacity in any race, ought to have the political franchise; but I think it is the best public policy to give them as much freedom as is consistent with the maintenance of the civilisation on an unimpaired level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, A Means to Freedom 466-467

Howard, for his part, concurred and cited his own family’s history of slaveowningalthough as Rob Roehm pointed out on Howard History, Robert E. Howard appeared ignorant of the details of his own ancestors’ violence toward their slaves.

The shoggoths had rebelled.

Rebellion was the one great fear of all slave-owners; that the violence inflicted on slaves for years and generations would be returned. Lovecraft, writing in 1931, might have been inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) mentioned in books he read that year such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). The racial violence of that conflict was very clear to Lovecraft, and in discussing one of August Derleth’s voodoo stories of the period Lovecraft notes:

[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376

Shoggoths are not explicitly a metaphor for the Haitians throwing off the yoke of slavery, or of any African-American rebellion. Slavery in the pulps was not uncommon when it came to both historical and fantasy subjects, and the treatment was seldom sympathetic unless person enslaved was white, as is the case in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard—and that involves a very different set of racial stereotypes, though white supremacy is still implicit.

It is notable that in At the Mountains of Madness, none of the characters are explicitly African-American. There is no one in that story who might sympathize with the shoggoths through the lens of their personal history. No one like Paul Harding, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom.”

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union Army after.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150

It is interesting to compare and contrast Harding with Theotis Nedeau in “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders. Both characters are Lovecraftian protagonists as they might have been. College-educated African-American men, with deep roots in American history. However, both Bear and Saunders take their characters further, exploring the black experience in the United States at the time. Throughout the story we get more hints of Harding’s background, his mother in Harlem, his experience with segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and even fighting prejudices from nominally sympathetic white Yankees like Burt Clay in Maine.

His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W. E. B. Du Bois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 155-156

There is no doubt that the Cthulhu Mythos needs more characters like Paul Harding, and more stories like “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Not because fans of the Mythos need to be beaten over the head with the historical horrors of racial violence and discrimination in the United States or any principle of forced inclusion as a form of political correctness, but because Harding brings a new and important perspective to shoggoths, both as a natural scientist and an African-American who remembered the scars of shackles around his grandfather’s back, and the dark lines of scar tissue on his back.

That is the advantage of inclusiveness: bringing in new points of view.

Bear makes this especially topical in that the story is implicitly set during the opening days of World War II—before there is a war, before the United States is in it. The Holocaust has begun, though the world may not yet know it. What can one man do, when faced with such a threat? Especially when the people around him seem devoted to doing nothing. To standing by while Jews are legislated against, forced out of public life and into concentration camps. This is a different tact than undertaken by “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. In those stories, the comparison between the concentration camps at Innsmouth and the Nazi efforts fall apart a bit because the Innsmouth folk are confirmed as at least partially inhuman; but in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” it is their common humanity that makes Paul Harding sympathize with the Jewish people in Germany. A victim of racial violence and discrimination all his life, he feels for them as a fellow-sufferer.

In 2009, Elizabeth Bear wrote an article titled “Why We Still Write Lovecraftian Pastiche”, where she writes:

As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.

I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.

Lovecraft is dead, so such an argument might strike readers as one-sided—but it isn’t, not really. Because people are still writing Mythos fiction and pastiche, still elaborating, reinterpreting, re-engaging with Lovecraft’s world and concepts. The context and syntax of the conversation changes, but it hasn’t stopped. People still find new things they want to talk about, and new ways to talk about it. That is in large part what keeps the Mythos alive as a mode of weird fiction.

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear won the 2009 Hugo award for best novelette; it was also nominated for a Locus award the same year. It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar 2008), and has been reprinted many times, including in The Book of Cthulhu (2011) and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), and it lent its title to Bear’s collection Shoggoths in Bloom (2012). Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the story may be interested in “How to Hack Lovecraft, Make Friends with His Monsters, and Hijack His Mythos: Reading Biology and Racism in Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”” (2016) by Anthony Camara.


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

“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins

Necronomicon,
freely translated, means the types or masks of death,
a museum of the most fabulous abominations and perversions.
The famous writer H. P. Lovecraft
was the first to mention this work,
in his Cthulhu mythology.
Many science fiction and fantasy writers have repeatedly mention this work
but it is only now, in
Giger’s Necronomicon,
that it has become reality for the first time.

—Opening statement to H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon (1992 edition)

In 1975, Swiss artist H. R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Ronald Shusett were all working on Jodowrosky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the production fell apart. In the aftermath, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett would revive a script titled Memory, which then became a screenplay, at first under the working title Star Beast, which was eventually changed to the final title: Alien.

In 1977, as Star Wars blew up the box office (and showed the potential for science fiction films, so that 20th Century Fox greenlit Alien for production), Giger’s first major print collection of his work was published. Necronomicon borrowed its title from Lovecraft’s fictional tome, although none of the artworks within are explicitly based off of or depict anything in his fiction; some of the artwork came from the aborted production of Jodorowsy’s Dune.  A copy of the book made its way to Ridley Scott, who was directing the film Alien (1979) (then under the working title “Star Beast”); Giger was brought on board the production to add his unique aesthetic sense to the design of sets and the eponymous extraterrestrial xenomorph itself. Dan O’Bannon would go on to direct The Resurrected (1991), an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and is sometimes claimed to have been inspired by Lovecraft in writing the script for Alien—although as with Giger, nothing explicitly Lovecraft-related made it into the final film.

The slightness of the connection between Lovecraft and the Alien franchise may be one reason that critics consider Alien “Lovecraftian,” praising its atmosphere and approach rather than any direct connection. As the film Alien grew into a franchise with sequels such as Aliens (1986) and licensed comic books from Dark Horse (starting in 1988), more and more creators were drawn into the expanding mythosand at least a couple of them were keen on a more definite connection, if only for a bit of fun.

“Elder Gods” is a 16-page black-and-white comic story written by Nancy Collins, pencils by Leif Jones, inked by John Stokes, and lettered by Clem Robbins. It originally appeared in the one-shot Aliens Special (1997). Taking its lead from Aliens and Aliens 3, the script takes the reader to an off-world colony…but with a twist.

RCO264_1583480616

Yes, Nancy Collins penned a tongue-in-cheek parody set in the Aliens franchise, where “Horace Payne Loveless” stands in for “Howard Phillips Lovecraft.” However, it is a loving parody. “Father Lumley” is a reference to contemporary Mythos writer Brian Lumley, and he inherited the mantle from “Father August” who was inspired by August Derleth, “Brother Ramsey” inspired by Ramsey Campbell; Loveless’ stories include “The Sign of Tulitu” (“The Call of Cthulhu”) and “The Abomination from Ipswich” (“The Dunwich Horror”), and so on and so forth. These are all Easter eggs for fans to find in what is otherwise a very competent and workable Aliens sci-fi- horror comic; less of a distraction and more that little something extra.

RCO268_1583480616

The art works. “Elder Gods” is one of the few Aliens comics to never be colored, and the stark black-and-white works very well—Leif Jones has always had a talent for the chiaroscuro effect, and with Stokes’ inks they seem to just drink in the light from the page. The symbols of the cult throughout are reminiscent of the magical signs in the George Hay and Simon Necronomicons, but the Giger influence is also clear. Everybody knew what they were doing on this one, and it shows.

“Elder Gods” might be read as a stab at the “cult” of Lovecraft’s readers, or at least the occultists that take the creations seriously. However, there is no ironic twist, no comeuppance where the cultists realize that they’ve made an error. On the contrary, blind as they are to the realities and determined as they may be to try and fit what they see into their worldview…this is still an Aliens comic. What do you think is going to happen?

RCO273_1583480616

Horror franchises, whether they be the Cthulhu Mythos or Aliens or whatnot, depend on the the audience knowing more than the characters in the work itself. While there can be plenty of surprises in store, part of the build-up of excitement and a sense of apprehension is recognizing what is going on before the characters on the page or on the screen. A sore throat by itself isn’t scary—but in an Aliens comic… It’s not a question of whether or not the xenomorph is going to appear. It’s when and how. The appeal of these stories isn’t necessarily in bloody bones and grue, but in the million variations on the established concept. Adding a Lovecraftian cult to the mix is definitely a new one.

The closing pages of the story are reminiscent of the transition from Alien to Aliens, where old sins and old threats have been forgotten, disbelieved. That is very Lovecraftian too. Lovecraftian protagonists tend to demand proof before they believe in the unseen things that challenge their worldview; cultists are more accepting, but still try and fit strange alien entities into a very limited, very human perspective. The reality of the xenomorphs is beyond both of them…and isn’t that true of the Alien franchise as a whole? It was a somewhat similar idea expressed in “At the Left Hand of Nothing” (2016) by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, that the cults of Cthulhu and what not project human attributes and preconceptions onto entities that were never human to begin with.

Like a lot of the Dark Horse Aliens comics, this one has little lasting impact. It’s a little piece of a bigger franchise, often forgotten and overlooked—although it is worth pointing out that the idea of a xenomorph cult is not unique to “Elder Gods,” and who knows but that the story may have played its little part in seeding the idea further.

“Elder Gods” was first published in Aliens Special (1997), and has been reprinted in the Aliens Omnibus Volume 6 (2009) and is available as a digital comic from Dark Horse. Nancy Collins’ other Mythos fiction includes “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins and “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.


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

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders

And he remembered a night more than a dozen years ago in Virginia, when he and Nedeau had been stopped by a policeman wanting to know exactly how a couple of “Nigras” had come by such a fine motorcar as the one they were in without having stolen it. Nedeau had flattened the policeman with one blow and they’d fled the state with a posse of cracker cops on their tail all the way up to the gates of the black college they’d been attending.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” in The Book of Cthulhu 228

The success of Imaro (1981), which virtually inaugurated the Sword & Soul genre, made the fame of Charles R. Saunders. Not many African-American authors were writing Sword & Sorcery, much less with a focus on black protagonists and settings. This is unfortunate because like Robert E. Howard, who essentially defined Sword & Sorcery with his stories of Kull and Conan, Saunders also writes horror fiction. In an era of The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, those interested in more of the same need not wait for more to be written—Saunders was writing it long before Victor LaValle or Matt Ruff came on the scene.

Of course, it is not exactly the same. “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” is more steeped in black history and the black experience over time. Just as Lovecraft found horror delving into the Colonial past in America, so Saunders found new sins to show the readers—for there are some betrayals worse than others, with the right historical context, and old hatreds which persist over generations. Saunders’ own style is neither contemporary nor pastiche; his character Theotis Ledeau is reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s burly occult detective John Thunstone: erudite, intelligent, compassionate, loyal, but also a powerful athlete, prone to action. It is probably the first time a professor of history at Howard University—an historically black college—played a role in a Mythos story; but he plays it very well.

“Voodoo!” he spat the word as if it were a curse. “It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between the half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.” (ibid, 234)

African magic and voodoo have been connected with the Mythos since the 1930s; “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft testify to how white authors tried to draw connections with African traditions, capitalizing on stereotypes and prejudice for effect. One might easily add Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933), or Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyena” (Weird Tales Mar 1928) and “Pigeons From Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938). The latter makes an especially interesting comparison, as there are thematic parallels between Howard’s zuvembie and Saunders’ semando in this story, although the actual details are sharply different.

Saunders knows the tropes, and uses them as he sees fit in the story, but there is a difference in approach. In the fiction of Lovecraft, Howard, Bloch, the black characters tend to be innately superstitious and inclined to believe in the reality of magic, to fear supernatural reprisal. White characters, if they come to believe, have their fears heightened by racial prejudice—stereotypes of Africa as ancient, unholy, even inhuman. In this story, where the two main characters are college-educated black men, the whole context of the subject is different.

“God!” Henley exclaimed. “This is so senseless—unreal! Savage ceremonies here, in 1933…” (ibid. 235)

Just because he’s black, doesn’t mean Henley knows anything about or even believes in magic. Theotis Nedeau has to convince his friend of the reality of what they face, and the way Saunders touches on the subtle prejudices involved with African-Americans towards indigenous African beliefs is…a world of human experience that the Mythos has never really touched on before.

The ending may surprise people. It is not what is expected, though it is fitting and appropriate, from a certain point of view. It is in part about a question that plagues us still—though the American system of slavery is over, there are many who are born of slavers and slaver-owners; what responsibility do they have? Descendants are not culpable for the crimes of their ancestors, yet the descendants of former slaves still suffer economic and social consequences of their ancestors enslavement. Innocent people can still suffer…and, in the setting of “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt,” the suffering is not yet ended when the reader arrives at the final word of the final sentence.

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” was first published in Potboiler #4 (1982). It was republished by Innsmouth Free Press in July 2010, and may be read for free online here. It was subsequently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011).


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore

Dear Mr. Lovecraft:

Your letter has impressed me tremendously. It’s awfully nice to be flattered, and Mr. Barlow’s compliments in particular have pleased me a great deal, but not until yesterday when I read your letter did it really occur to me that my “pulp”-published and extrav[ag]ant romances might actually, after all, contain a nucleus of worth which should be taken seriously.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 3 Apr 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 28

If C. L. Moore had never received a letter from Howard Phillips Lovecraft, she would still be known and regarded as one of the greatest Weird Talers of the 1930s. Yet they did correspond, from 1935 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and in that brief span of time that exchange of letters changed both of their lives.

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987) was an employee at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis, Indiana, and engaged to be married. The Great Depression had caused her to leave Indiana University after only three semesters; she needed the $25 a week from her job as a typist to help support her parents and brother. On the sly, she read pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and Weird Tales—and she began to write, after hours. In 1933, she sold her first story: “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) was an instant hit among the readers of Weird Tales, receiving high acclaim from fans and pulpsters alike. To keep her bosses from finding out about her extra source of income, she was published under the name “C. L. Moore”—but her gender was an open secret, revealed in a fanzine in 1934.

That same year, Moore received her first correspondence from a member of Lovecraft’s circle: the young R. H. Barlow, then living in Florida, who had a habit of writing his favorite pulp writers and asking for copies of their manuscripts and artwork. Moore provided both, and through Barlow she was eventually put in touch with others, including E. Hoffmann Price, Robert E. Howard, and in 1935…H. P. Lovecraft.

On the subject of titles, I envy you your ability. The most painful part of writing, so far as I’m concerned, is naming the stories. Mr. Wright more or less takes it out of my hands sometimes, as in the case of a story scheduled for mid-summer sometime, which he is calling “The Cold Grey God”. I’m getting a regular spectrum of colored gods, starting with black and working slowly upward thru grey toward goodness knows what.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 34

With most of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the reader’s interest is on Lovecraft himself. His letters to them typically survive, and hopefully are published; Lovecraft himself rarely kept the letters of those who wrote to him, and many of those he did keep are lost. Volumes of his letters thus tend to be very one-sided affairs; we get only Lovecraft’s side of the conversation, his perspective—and generally, that is what people are interested in. Lovecraft’s correspondents are rarely as interesting to readers of today as the Old Gent himself.

More to the point, the vast majority of Lovecraft’s correspondents are not folks whose letters are often kept. Fans, often-forgotten pulpsters, agents at publishing companies; family, friends, and acquaintances personal and professional—these are some of the great, mostly silent masses of history who are little more than names on the page. When they die, their letters and journals are rarely kept or archived, much less read. Their literary afterlife is quiet, sometimes no more than a few lines on a census form or a government registry or a name in a family bible. Sometimes not even that.

Not so with C. L. Moore. Not only is there interest in her life and writing outside of and independent of her correspondence with Lovecraft, but a considerable portion of her side of the correspondence has survived and been published, so that we can actually read the back-and-forth between those two masters of the weird tale, which comes out to about 37 letters and 200 pages. A bit more of her correspondence with R. H. Barlow survives, though that remains unpublished. Other than that…a handful of letters buried in fanzines and pulps; interviews and introductions.

There has never been a volume of the Collected Letters of C. L. Moore. There might never be. How much of it still exists is unclear; there is no centralized archive of her papers at any university. The bulk of her published correspondence are her letters to Lovecraft, and those were published only recently. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others was only printed in 2017, though portions of Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence had been printed in his Selected Letters from Arkham House. So much of what we know about her life in the crucial period of 1935-1937 comes, then, from her letters to Lovecraft.

Things did happen in that brief period. In 1935, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long collaborated on the round robin “The Challenge from Beyond.” Moore began corresponding with Robert E. Howard, praising his story “Sword Woman” who, like her own heroine Jirel of Joiry, was that rare female pulp protagonist. They talked writing, poetry, economics, politics…and of more somber subjects.

Thank you for your sympathy. I can’t yet dwell on the topic without becoming a bit maudlin, so had better change the subject.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 112

On 13 February 1936, Moore’s fiance Herbert Ernest Lewis  a 28-year-old bank teller at the Fletcher Trust Company where Moore worked, died while nominally cleaning his firearm. The death certificate records it as a suicide. Lovecraft immediately rushed to reply:

Despite my upheaved programme I at once started a letter of what I thought to be the most consoling & useful sort—with sympathetic remarks & citations of others who have bravely pulled out of similar bereavements) gradually giving place to the cheerful discussion of general & impersonal topics in which long time-stretches (thus placing local & individual sorrows at the small end of the telescope) are concerned—answering a letter received early in February. History was the main theme—the dominant topic being Roman Britain & its long decline, as brought up by C L M’s discussion of Talbot Mundy’s “Tros” stories. That, I fancy, is the kind of stuff a bereaved person likes to get from the outside world—sincere sympathy not rubbed in, & a selection of general topics attuned to his interests & quietly reminding him that there is a world which has always gone on & which still goes on despite personal losses. […] I managed to finish & despatch the epistle last Monday. But the tragic accident surely is a beastly shame—far worse than deaths which do not his promising young folk with everything before them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 321

In the wake of her grief after the fatal sundering of her long engagement, perhaps Lovecraft’s letters proved a distraction and a relief. A few months later, on 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard would also take his own life using a firearm when informed of the impending death of his mother. It was Moore who received the news first, and quickly passed it to Lovecraft—who spread his bereavement at the loss of his friend and one of the greatest pulpsters the world had ever known far and wide. For her part, Moore would do as Lovecraft had done, and send Howard’s father a letter commiserating in the death of his son and consoling him. Dr. Howard had it published in the local newspaper:

Nothing that I can say now would help you—I know, for four months ago I too suffered bereavement under very similar circumstances. The young man whom I was to marry this year was accidentally shot in the temple and instantly killed while leaning a gun which he thought unloaded. So I can understand what you are enduring now, and I know that nothing but time will help you find life worth living again. In one respect you are luckier than I, for you have memories of a full and happy life with your wife and son that nothing can take away.
—C. L. Moore to Dr. I. M. Howard, 26 Jun 1936, Cross Plains Review 3 Jul 1936

Life went on. In less than a year’s time, Lovecraft himself would be dead. Yet he was inadvertently to set the stage for Moore’s future.

Henry Kuttner had just broken into Weird Tales in the March 1936 issue with “The Graveyard Rats,” but Lovecraft quickly adopted him as a new pen-pal, and set him to circulating some views of Marblehead, Mass. (the inspiration for Kingsport):

Keep these views—when they come—as long as you like; & when you’ve finished with them you may forward them to Miss C. L. Moore, 2547 Brookside Parkway, South Drive, Indianapolis, Indiana—the gifted creator of “Shambleau” having expressed a wish to see these glimpses of crumbling “Arkham” & “Kingsport”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 18 May 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 240

It isn’t clear whether Kuttner had written to Moore before this, but when he did finally send her a letter in 1936, she recalled with amusement that he addressed it “Dear Mr. Moore.” By February 1937, they were collaborating on their first joint piece of fiction, “The Quest of the Star-Stone.” Lovecraft would not live to see it—nor would he be there in 1940, when C. L. Moore stopped working at the Fletcher Trust company and married Henry Kuttner, becoming half of one of the most prolific and noteworthy partnerships in science fiction during the 1940s and 50s.

Most of the fiction written after Moore & Kuttner’s marriage was under Kuttner’s name, or a shared pseudonym, regardless of how much or little each had contributed to the work. For this reason, to weird fiction fans Moore seemed to all but disappear just as Weird Tales was undergoing a period of transition—in 1940, Farnsworth Wright was fired and Dorothy McIlwraith took over, heralding many changes to the magazine she would helm for the next 14 years. Moore was not gone, nor forgotten; and she continued contact with other former correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft such as R. H. Barlow and E. Hoffman Price.

Their letters were not quite formal affairs, but they never got beyond “Dear Miss Moore” and “Dear Mr. Lovecraft”—though in her letters with Barlow later on, she would sign herself as simply “KAT,” and in his letters with Barlow, Lovecraft would dub her CLM, Doña Caterina, Catherine the Great, Katrinje, Sister Kate and Sister Katy, and Katie or Katey. She was accepted by Lovecraft as a peer, one of the group. What would Moore have done without that? How differently would life have played out, if each of them did not have such a crucial roll in the long series of events that were their lives!

Her last letter to Lovecraft was a long one, written in bits and pieces from 24 October to 15 December 1936, as was sometimes necessary due to the constraints of work and life. There she wrote:

A correspondent of mine, Thurston Torbett of Texas, friend of REH’s, has been regaling me with passages from books on the occult which state that all the dreadful things we imagine must have had origin or fact or we would be unable to picture them. If one reverses that, then by the very act of writing of Cthulhu (spelling right?) and Shambleau we must conjure them into vague life, and you will doubtless eventually wind up the victim of your own ingenuity. I hope that you aunt does not some morning find you a mass of black putrescence on the floor […]
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 199

A gruesome little joke, but a fitting one. It is easy to think of Lovecraft smiling at the jest, planning his own riposte. Yet how fitting at at last Cthulhu and Shambleau, their two more popular and enduring creations, would be cast side by side at last. For those two would be remembered more for their pulp fiction than anything else they ever wrote or did later in life…and part of that was due to this correspondence.

Catherine Lucille Moore and H. P. Lovecraft’s correspondence has been published in Letters to C. L. Moore and Others (2017, Hippocampus Press); some of Lovecraft’s letters to Moore had previously been published in volume 5 of the Selected Letters V (1976, Arkham House).


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

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” (2003) by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson

“The Necronomicon!” Holmes murmured. “What could a young English lady want with that moldy bit of occult trash?”
—Poppy Z. Brite & David Ferguson, “The Curious Case of Violet Stone”
in Shadows over Baker Street 143

Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, has one of the earliest and most enduring fandoms in all of genre fiction. It is perhaps the nature of such an extensive and long-lasting phenomenon for it to mingle with Lovecraft and his Mythos at various junctures.

The practice began, in a sense, with August Derleth: alongside his Mythos fiction, Derleth also wrote an extensive pastiche of Sherlock Holmes under the guise of the detective Solar Pons. “The Adventure of the Six Silver Spiders” (1951) contains a reference to the Mythos—although in this case, it is a bit of a red herring. The idea was made more concrete in The Necronomicon of Solar Pons (2020). From that humble beginning, the idea grew: Peter Cannon’s Pulptime (1984) let Lovecraft and Holmes meet; Lovecraft met with his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Gordon Rennie & Frazer Irving’s Necronauts (2001), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2005), and Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown (2010). Holmes himself has tackled in the Mythos in the anthology Shadows over Baker Street (2003), Sylvain Cordurié and Laci’s Sherlock Holmes & le Necronomicon (2011, published in English as Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon), and in 2017 James Lovegrove began the Cthulhu Casebooks series and Lois H. Gresh the Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu series…and the list goes on.

Two households, both alike in dignity.

The nature and quality of the literary mash-up—and, sometimes, double-pastiche—can be desperately silly or deadly serious depending on the attitude and capabilities of the author. In the case of Brite & Ferguson’s “The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone,” the double-pastiche is played straight and serious. Sherlock Holmes is on the case, displaying examples of his deductive logic, in all of his old habits (including cocaine)—only now he’s come across something uniquely outside his particular experience.

There is a central difficulty with a Mythos/Holmes mash-up in that the central mystery is almost always the Mythos itself, which rather gives the game away before it begins. Ideally, if you wanted to surprise the reader, you wouldn’t have entire anthologies of Lovecraftian/Holmesian genreblenders in the first place—but fans might mutiny if they sit down expecting straightforward detective fair and suddenly run across a Yithian. So with the caveat in mind that savvy Mythos readers will no doubt figure out what is going on before long, there isn’t much in the way of tension in the story—”The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” is not a daring adventure that tests Holmes’ intellect to the limit or results in criminals to be captured. No crimes are committed, no one dies.

What readers are given instead is a very well-considered what if. Should Sherlock Holmes have genuinely encountered a Lovecraftian entity…an alien entity…if he was presented with proof of the existence of such things…how would he react? That is the crux of this story, and while it is fairly sedate by the standards of both Lovecraft and Doyle, it is handled with real skill and appreciation for both of the literary forebears whose work comes together in this strange alchemy.

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson was published in Shadows over Baker Street (2003). It has not been reprinted.


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

“An Imp of Aether” (1997) by W. H. Pugmire

To ye memory of August William Derleth
—original dedication

“Lovecraft Country” was the name given to that fictional setting in New England where so many of his stories were set, or at least referred to. The Miskatonic River that flowed through Arkham and gave is name to the university there down to Innsmouth, Dunwich and Kingsport—all based on real places that Lovecraft visited in Massachusetts, but occupying an unreal estate in the mind; Lovecraft country is a character itself in stories like “The Dunwich Horror.”

Some subsequent writers in the Mythos have carved out their own geographies; Ramsey Campbell, on the suggestion of August Derleth, set his early Lovecraftian tales in a fictional Severn Valley with towns like Brichester and Goatwood, which continues to be developed today. W. H. Pugmire set his Sesqua Valley in the Pacific Northwest, and populated the place shadowed by the mountains with his own strange creations, including the poet William Davis Manly and the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams.

In this story, set in the shadows of Sesqua Valley, Pugmire pays homage to August Derleth.

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem, but upon further study discovered that it was a prayer to something called Cthugha. Known as ‘the Burning One.’
—W. H. Pugmire, Tales of Sesqua Valley 39

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm, but upon further study discovered that it is a prayer to something called Cthugha. Supposedly a fire element. You know the idiotic notion that Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law or understanding. Utterly absurd; but in this case, there seems some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 94-95

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm; but with further study we discovered it to be a prayer to something called Cthugha, supposedly a fire elemental. You know the idiotic notion that the Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law. Bah! However, in this case, there seems to be some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 129

As a writer, Pugmire was a tinkerer; many of his stories show the result of revision between printings, so that while the title, plot, and overall characters are the same, the text in each publication is different—sometimes slightly, sometimes markedly. The revised texts tend to be cleaner, in general; the result of looking back at a work from a decade ago and tidying it up after one’s younger self.

In the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, Donald Wandrei published “The Fire Vampires”; a tale of the 24th century involving the fiery alien entity Fthaggua; and the idea of elementals in the Mythos dates back to Derleth’s “The Thing That Walked On The Wind” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Jan 1933). Wandrei’s tale was not explicitly of the Cthulhu Mythos, although later writers adopted it, or elements from it, into the Mythos; Derleth’s was deliberate pastiche. After Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei came together to form Arkham House to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters—and Derleth himself continued to publish Mythos pastiches.

The “elemental theory” as a paradigm for the Cthulhu Mythos (as Derleth called Lovecraft’s artificial mythology) as a whole came after Lovecraft’s death, detailed by fan Francis T. Laney in “The Cthulhu Mythology” in The Acolyte #2 (1942), where he noted:

The fire gods were not covered by Lovecraft, so it is up to other writers to fill in this section of the Mythos. (8)

August Derleth was paying attention. He wrote to Laney, asking him to expand the article for a further book of Lovecraft’s fiction—which became “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Glossary” in Beyond The Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House). This expanded article includes mention of a fire elemental, Cthugha, created by Derleth:

I’m certainly agog to read “The Dweller in Darkness.” Cthugha will certainly fill a gaping hole; I well remember how disgusted I was when I found the “fire department” had been completely neglected. I’m not trying to appear conceited, but by any chance did my mention of this in my article start you off on this tack, or was it just a coincidence?
—Francis T. Laney to August Derleth, 29 Mar 1943

Whether it was Laney that inspired Derleth, or two fans arriving at the same conclusion, Derleth determined to “fill the gap” and embraced the elemental theory wholeheartedly, making it his own (and borrowing elements of Wandrei’s Fthaggua in the process). As it happened, publication of fiction didn’t always go in order—the story that effectively introduced Cthugha was “The Dweller in Darkness” (Weird Tales Nov 1944), but the first story that saw mention of Cthugha in print was “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Mar 1944), later titled “The House on Curwen Street.”

Derleth’s conception of the Mythos did not long survive him; Richard L. Tierney famously exploded the idea in “The Derleth Mythos” (1972), beginning a period when fans and scholars seriously re-assessed what Lovecraft did and did not write, and interest increased in textually accurate versions of Lovecraft’s fiction—but selective elements of Derleth’s Mythos fiction, such as Cthugha, were adopted by others.

Hence, Pugmire’s dedication.

This is a story with a nod-and-a-wink toward Mythos fans who can pat themselves on the back that they know about Derleth and the elemental theory and can scoff at such notions along with the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams. And yet…that is just the beginning of the story, the set-up. That is Pugmire laying the groundwork.

Because there is potential in Cthugha, and some of Derleth’s other ideas—and as much as Derleth’s memory was somewhat hounded in latter years because of his flaws as a writer, a businessman, sometimes even as a human being, he was still a good writer, and he promoted and published Lovecraft unceasingly during his life, and there are ideas which he introduced to the Mythos that are worth exploring and expanding on. So Pugmire did.

No, no. It was the fire vampire. You looked too long and deeply into its burning eyes. Your cool silver eyes took in too much of its property, and thus you burn with strange agitation. One born of the valley’s shadow cannot withstand such cosmic brilliance.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 97

No, lad. It was the fire vampire, an essence of the Old One that burns in Fomalhaut. You looked too long, too deeply, into its ember eyes. Your cool silver orbs are slightly scarred, so potent was your engagement with the valet of Cthugha.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 132-133

Pugmire never shied away from making his creations sensual; but this is a rare story where he plays with gender as a concept. Wilus Shakston (original) or Jacob Wirth (revised) has encountered the old witch of Cthugha…plaited a lock of her hair with his own…and so began a transformation. Whether the transition can be said to be transgender or genderqueer is largely up to the reader to interpret; the nature of the transition is slower and less total than in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” But in a setting where the children of Sesqua Valley seem to be predominantly male, the acquisition of feminine attributes is marked—and not-unwelcomed by Wilus/Jacob.

In an afterword to this story, Pugmire wrote:

In 1995, after my lover’s heroine overdose and death, I began to write a series of Sesqua Valley stories dedicated to deceased members of the Lovecraft Circle. I suppose I was trying to take my mind off personal tragedy by sinking into creativity. It worked quite well, and many of those tales became the core of my first American collection of fiction, Tales of Sesqua Valley, published by my good buddy and fellow author Jeffrey Thomas. With these stories I mentioned breifly the addition to the Mythos created by the gent to whom the story was dedicated. It was a fun wee game, although the results were not stories of importance. The original version of this story had its first appearance in the chapbook that Jeff published in 1997 under his Necropolitan Press imprint; it has been susbtantially rewritten for this edition.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 99

Whatever version of the story you read, it is worth reading. Proof that the Mythos can be reimagined and reworked by different hands, and that ideas that had their start in the nigh-forgotten pulp fiction of the 1930s can inspire strange and wondrous things.

“An Imp of Aether” was first published in Tales of Sesqua Valley (1997), it was revised and republished in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts (2008) and The Tangled Muse (2011); and revised again for publication as the title piece in Pugmire’s posthumous collection An Imp of Aether (2019).


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