“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


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

“The Sorrow of Qingfeng” (2014) by Grey Yuen

Traitorous may be one who withholds praise and gratitude to Her Majesty of Ten Thousand Years for appointing the title of Grand Prefect to our Judge Di Renjie, but when caught between the horns of political obligations and the call of justice, it is justice that often falters.
—Grey Yuen, “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” in Swords & Mythos (2014) 256

Judge Di (or Dee) has become popular in the West through a series of historical crime novels by Robert van Gulik; but the character was based on a real person, Di Renjie, a magistrate during the late Tang dynasty and the early Zhou dynasty under the empress Wu Zetian (“Her Majesty of Ten Thousand Years”), and it is in this period (694 CE) that the story is set. This is not a detective story; though it shares some elements with that genre. “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” is something rarer and weirder: a Mythos Wuxia story.

Wuxia is a genre of Chinese (and more broadly Southeast Asian) fiction dealing with the adventures of martial artists; a form of fantasy which has enthralled millions across the globe, especially in the form of Japanese manga and anime like Dragonball and Fist of the North Star, and Chinese martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The influence of wuxia can still be clearly seen in Dungeons & Dragons and many other roleplaying games, action film around the world, and English-language fantasy fiction.

Mythos fiction, not so much.

Action & adventure is nothing new to the Mythos. The original draft of the first story of Conan the Cimmerian, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales Dec 1932) mentions Yog-Sothoth and the Old Ones, and that was neither the first or last time Robert E. Howard’s sword & sorcery heroes touched base with the Mythos; “The Vale of Lost Women” being a notable instance of swords being taken up against a Lovecraftian horror. Howard was not entirely ignorant of Asian martial arts; there were exhibitions and matches even in Texas in the 1920s, and even wrote “Hard-Fisted Sentiment,” a mixed-martial arts story where an American boxer goes up against masters in French savate, jujitsu, and British boxing in turn.

It has been relatively rare to see a Mythos story where wuxia-style fantasy martial arts feature prominently. Steve Perry’s “The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger” in Shadows over Baker Street (2003) comes pretty close, but for the most part the two modes of fiction simply don’t cross over very often. Cthulhu may be punched, but said punches usually have little to do with specific schools or techniques, swords of nigh-magical sharpness, or the cultivation of internal force. These are the tropes that Grey Yuen specifically invokes in “The Sorrow of Qingfeng.”

Grey Yuen’s style in the story is reminiscent of “Quest of the Nameless City” (2007) by Tachihara Tōya (立原透耶); the effort is made to set the story not in some nameless quasi-medieval Asian setting, but in a specific era of Chinese history and with a style of narration that borrows at least a little from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which period, the Tang dynasty, immediately preceded the Zhou dynasty). Like Tachihara Tōya, Yuen makes an effort to combine Western-style Lovecraftian imagery with a very different cultural context, with fairly solid results:

It stared back at me. He stared back me. He was…black—not dark-skinned, not in his skin tone. He was black like the night. At first, I thought he was from the lands far to the west, where the sun scorches and the sands run yellow, where an ancient city waits to be discovered again. But then I realised he was from much farther aay, waiting to give away secrets that would doom us all.
—Grey Yuen, “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” in Swords & Mythos (2014) 267-268

The question of the racial characterization of Nyarlathotep rears its head, as it did in “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., but in a slightly different syntax. Yuen is smart to keep explicit details to a minimum, this is a story where a wuxia character encounters the Mythos, and suggestion works better than detailed explanation. Likewise, the spectacle of Master Yue’s Taishan Wulei Palm is all the more effective for seeing the results than the execution.

“The Sorrow of Qingfeng” is definitely an odd duck of a story, and it is hard to see where it might have been published except in an anthology like Sword & Mythos (2014), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R. Stiles—yet it is an effective story, one that marries disparate modes of fiction and cultural contexts into a very competent whole. It has not yet been reprinted.


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

Editor Spotlight: Interview with Lynne Jamneck

Why a collection of contemporary Lovecraftian stories written by women? The evidence for answering this question is there for anyone to see; simply review the Table of Contents from Lovecraftian-inspired anthologies over the past number of years (and there are many) and it becomes evident that the bulk of contributions published in these collections were written by men. Here, some draw what seems to them an obvious conclusion—women simply don’t write Lovecraftian fiction. Of course, anyone who has consistently read both Lovecraftian and horror fiction in general will know that this is not the case.
—Lynne Jamneck, introduction to Dreams from the Witch House (2015) v-vi

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969, Arkham House), the very first anthology specifically dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos, featured no stories by women. Nor did The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976, DAW), New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980, Arkham House), or many subsequent anthologies of Mythos fiction. While female authors, poets, editors, and artists have been far from absent from Lovecraftian fiction, their voices have not been equally heard by readers. The overall under-representation of women in Mythos anthologies over several decades must be understood to appreciate the background against which Lynne Jamneck was working when she was putting together one of the first all-women Mythos anthologies in 2015.

Dreams from the Witch House (Dark Regions Press) hit shelves the same year as two other Mythos anthologies of fiction by female authors: She Walks in Shadows (Innsmouth Free Press) and Cassilda’s Song (Chaosium). These three anthologies share few authors in common, testament to the number of talented women writing in the Mythos…and, perhaps, a notice to the editors of male-dominated Mythos anthologies that keep filling book after book with the same old names: there are women Mythos writers out there. Good ones. Why not publish them? 

Gothic Lovecraft (2016, Cycatrix Press) was co-edited by Lynne Jamneck & S. T. Joshi. This limited-edition anthology shares several of the female writers with Dreams from the Witch House, and is one of the better gender-balanced Lovecraftian anthologies, before considering its interesting theme and what the various authors do with it. The combination of talent and editorial insight makes for a solid Mythos anthology.

Lynne Jamneck has been kind enough to answer questions about herself as a Lovecraftian writer, and her experience as a Mythos editor on Dreams from the Witch House and Gothic Lovecraft:

How did you get into Lovecraft and the Mythos?

Lynne Jamneck: I can’t actually remember. I know that no-one came to me and said here’s someone you should be reading. All things considered, it was probably the result of discovering Stephen King as a teenager, and likely after reading King’s Danse Macabre. I’m sure he mentions Lovecraft in that as an influence and/or talks about him in some context. But I also didn’t immediately go out and look for Lovecraft’s writing. But it’s a name that, once you’ve seen it a few times in print, it sticks, you know?

Do you feel that being you (female, queer, non-American) has shaped your understanding of Lovecraft and approach to the Mythos?

LJ: Difficult to say, but probably, at least to a degree. Definitely the cultural and race aspects of both Lovecraft and his work. Having lived in South Africa during Apartheid and then through the country’s democratization has unquestionably shaped my perspective of the Other, including myself as Other. Funny though, I’ve never particularly found Lovecraft’s lack of female protagonists something that specifically put me off his work. There’s often overlap of the human experience regardless of gender. Maybe it’s because from a young age I’ve had to imagine my own experience, as queer, within the contexts of others due to a lack of representation. It’s more of a curiosity – in the same situations, how would women react to Lovecraftian terror? How do they experience it? 

Besides being an editor, you’ve written a good bit of Lovecraftian fiction yourself. What draws you to write it?

LJ: The lack of closure. I hate writing stories with resolved endings. It bothers me. I do it to annoy people who ignore the realities of life.

What made you decide to edit two anthologies of Mythos fiction?

LJ: With Dreams from the Witch House, it was definitely with the aim of exploring the female approach and reaction to cosmic horror, more so than because I wanted to make a point about including only women based on gender… Does that make sense? Maybe it’s the same thing. And it was an opportunity to work with writers who I believed would be able to present this in a unique manner, while at the same time possibly discovering writers I was unaware of and providing them with an opportunity to contribute to the dialogue. Gothic Lovecraft happened because of several fortuitous opportunities all connecting at the same time. It was an opportunity to explore the more lurid nature of Lovecraft’s universe and its echoes in the style of Gothic horror.

Were there any barriers to editing and publishing an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction written solely by women?

LJ: Not at all, at least not from Chris Morey at Dark Regions Press, who I initially approached with the idea. There were a few grumbles about people not being able to submit because they were male, which I didn’t pay much attention to, considering that male writers still seem to represent the larger percentage of authors included in horror anthologies.

You wrote in the introduction to Dreams from the Witch House “Perhaps it is simply that women write the Lovecraftian differently than many of their male counterparts traditionally have.” Do you think this is true historically—that writers like Joanna Russ and Ann K. Schwader have brought their own understanding to Lovecraftian fiction?

LJ: Definitely. This links back to what I mentioned previously about reaction and response to cosmic horror, to that sense of awe (in the traditional sense of the word) one experiences when confronted by something your mind can barely make sense of. It’s a curious combination of attraction and being repelled all at once. I know I’m generalizing, but I think there is definitely a difference in terms of how women would deal with such circumstances compared to men, at least based on the cosmic horror I’ve read. It’s interesting; the female perspective often comes across as more accepting of cosmic inevitability…there often appears to be some kind of recognition… It’s difficult to pinpoint.

Dreams from the Witch House, She Walks In Shadows, and Cassilda’s Song, all came out at about the same time in 2015. Were you aware these other anthologies of Mythos fiction were in the works while you were editing Dreams?

LJ: Only at a peripheral level, primarily from mentions in conversations with others. I knew that Witch House would have a different sensibility so I didn’t engage in comparisons. 

The first printing of Dreams contained “The Genesis Mausoleum”—which had been plagiarised from Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seed from the Sepulchre.” How did you discover the plagiarism? How did you handle it?

LJ: If I recall, someone who had read an advance copy told me but by then it was too late to remove it from the first print. I was livid. I made sure to let as many publishers as possible know about what the individual had done because I didn’t want any other editor to have to experience the same thing. It’s deplorable. There’s absolutely no excuse. 

You partnered with S. T. Joshi to edit Gothic Lovecraft. How would you describe your working relationship? What did both of you bring to the task?

LJ: S.T. is an extremely generous co-editor. I think we played off one another well. His knowledge and scholarship on Lovecraft is very broad. In turn, I wrote my MA in English Literature on Lovecraft and Poe (ten years ago, yikes!), which provided a good foundation for us to work from. From my end, I probably brought a bit more of a modern approach to some of Lovecraft’s ideas, informed by a queer/female perspective.

Both Dreams from the Witch House and Gothic Lovecraft contain a mix of well-known Lovecraftian authors and some that are less well known. Did you have specific writers in mind when starting both projects?

LJ: Yes. As I noted above, I knew from the outset that I wanted to work with Joyce Carol Oates (I’m always surprised to learn how few people realize Lovecraft is an influence in a decent amount of her work), Caitlin R. Kiernan, Gemma Files, Sonya Taaffe, Karen Heuler, and Lois Gresh because their work signified the sensibility I had in mind for the anthology.  Once I approached these authors, small but important signposts occurred in our conversations that directed me to additional writers (apart from those who submitted during the open call) and, well, the magic just happened.

Did you achieve what you wanted with Dreams from the Witch House?

LJ: Overall, yes. My aim was to collect and present stories that imbued readers with a sense of dread and unease not only while reading it, but that would linger and reoccur in the mind at unexpected moments. That’s what cosmic horror is to me. The inescapable.

Do you feel the Mythos scene has changed since Dreams and Gothic Lovecraft came out?

LJ: It’s difficult to comment on the scene as a whole and admittedly, I tend to seek out Lovecraftian/cosmic fiction that is less obvious in terms of using the typical Lovecraftian conventions/settings/monsters. There definitely still is a generous degree of retreading. I tend to look for fiction that, while recalling Lovecraft, presents the notion of cosmic horror in a new way; that doesn’t need Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep to instill the sense that we are atomic specks on a small rock in a very, very big universe we still know precious little about.  

In your thesis, “Tekeli-li! Disturbing Language in Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft” you talk about how the shoggoths have appropriated the word (‘tekeli-li) of the Elder Things—do you think writers today appropriate Lovecraft and his Mythos?

LJ: Absolutely, some more successfully than others. Among the rehashes there are fantastic narratives like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country that appropriates the mythos in the best way possible, all the while remaining quintessentially ‘Lovecraftian’, to produce a story that is super relevant today, right now. These and other stories (e.g., The Fisherman by John Langan) is the kind of legacy that Lovecraft’s work has, in its best form, evolved into today. 

While editors don’t play favorites—what’s your favorite story from Dreams and why?

LJ: Why do you do this to me! Sneaky-sneaky. I’ll meet you half-way and give you a story I love for a specific reason. I knew right away, after finishing “The Body Electric” by Lucy Brady that I wanted to include it in the anthology. The story is a super-great mesh of the Old and New coming together in a way that I found extremely relevant to a mainstream, modern cosmic horror sensibility. I find the idea of something cosmically threatening meshing with computer code more than a little bit unsettling, for reasons that should be 100% obvious. 

Thank you Lynne Jamneck for answering these questions, and I hope we see more from you in the future.

Aside from editorial laurels, Lynne Jamneck is a Lovecraftian writer in her own right with stories such as “The Paramount Importance of Pictures” (2006), “Azif” (2011), “In Bloom” (2016), “Oude Gouden” (2017), “We All Speak Black” (2018), and a scholar whose thesis “Tekeli-li! Disturbing Language in Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft” was published in Lovecraft Annual #6 (2012).

Dreams from the Witch House may be purchased direct from the publisher.

Gothic Lovecraft may also be purchased direct from the publisher.

Lynne Jamneck’s other works may be purchased through her Amazon author page.


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

“What Hides and What Returns” (2011) by Bryan Thao Worra

Ajan Somnung had sternly encouraged us not to look too closely for some secrets, but to turn our eyes to the lessons of the Buddha. The search for Nirvana should supersede any attachments ot this illusory world and all its perilous entanglements. He had taught us that death was impermanent, a great dreaming slumber, and one day, we could break free of our eternal returns because, after a time, even death would die.
—Bryan Thao Worra, “What Hides and What Returns” in Historical Lovecraft 227

Lovecraft did not create the unseen, the indescribable, the unnameable, the ineffable, the invisible monster or threat. Before him there was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907), Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (1893), Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” (1887). Maupassant was alive during France’s imperial drive into Southeast Asia, although he did not quite live to see the establishment of the French Protectorate of Laos at the end of the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. It is in Laos under the French where and when Bryan Thao Worra has set “What Hides and What Returns.”

It is important to remember that weird fiction was never created in a vacuum, that the people who wrote these stories lived in a busy, complex, and changing world. Where many writers found horror in distant and exotic places, such as “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, Lovecraft found just as much potential for terror and antiquity in his proverbial backyard; Lovecraft Country as it was originally conceived was about finding the darkness close at hand, both geographically and chronologically, in stories set not in some far-off place and time.

This can hold true, of course, for people that are in places which Lovecraft would have felt wild & exotic as well. For the Lao, their country was no more strange and exotic for them than Massachusetts and Rhode Island were to Lovecraft. And for Worra, that means there is just as much potential there to find horror in their own backyard.

It is interesting to compare and contrast this story with “Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek; both are Mythos stories set in European “protectorates” in Asia, the imperialist intrusion of the British and French setting up the well-trodden trope of ignorant Westerners sticking their greedy noses into dark places. Where they differ is in approach and presentation; Worra’s protagonist Saeng is philosophical, ungreedy, clever enough to put a few pieces of the puzzle together and wise enough to let sleeping gods lie, so to speak, and in “What Hides and What Returns” Laos itself becomes a character, with much of the story given over to describing the environment, the peoples, the interaction of history and the present—and it is not dark and forbidding, except through the eyes of European characters.

Well, except for one part. Worra has made of Laos a bit of Lovecraft Country.

There is a curious question, posed and answered to the reader, which sets the tone of the story and perhaps the Mythos:

Some would say it was an inappropriate gathering, but if you learn from it, how can it be wrong? Our worlds are not some fragile bits of glass that shatter at the encounter with the Other. Our ability to inquite surely defines our humanity; it sets us above hounds and mere rutting beasts of the field, all jaw and genital.
—Bryan Thao Worra, “What Hides and What Returns” in Historical Lovecraft 228

This might be taken as a gentle rebuke of Lovecraft’s opening to “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

But Saeng’s statement is given near the beginning of the story, before the end—where all is not quite revealed—and while Saeng never quite rebuts himself, he does end by noting that: “[…] some things were meant to stay forgotten….” (236). It is a fine point, but one which many Mythos enthusiasts will appreciate: the naive young Lao did not conceive of such a horror, only experience of encountering such a thing could bring them around to a Lovecraftian point of view.

Like “Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin, Worra manages to evoke the Mythos without falling into the habit of naming familiar names. There is no Necronomicon in this story (although Worra creates his own addition, an occult variant of the Thao Cheuang), no Cthulhu or other familiar Mythos entity. It is instead unseen Sealed Evil In A Can, and if the trope is hoary and well-represented in Mythos fiction, it’s because it works.

The point is less that some Lovecraftian horror waits to be unleashed, but that the Lovecraftian experience is ultimately universal. It can be set anywhere or anywhen; it is not relegated to Massachusetts in the 1920s, it can be experienced regardless of race, gender, or religion.

“What Hides and What Returns” by Bryan Thao Worra was first published in Historical Lovecraft (2011); it has not since been republished. While Worra has written other fiction, he is also a very notable poet, whose Lovecraftian works include “The Deep Ones” (2007), “Fragment of a Dream of Atlantean Yellows” (2013), “Dead End in December” (2013), “Laonomicon” (2013), “The Doom That Came To New Sarnath” (2013), and “The Pearl in the Shadows” (2016), many of which can be found in his Demonstra (2013).


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

“Portrait of Death” (1952) by Rudy Palais

Early comic books had close ties with the pulps; they sometimes shared artists, writers, editors, even publishers. Both DC and Marvel started off publishing pulps; Harry Donenfeld’s Spicy magazines ran comic strips like Polly of the Plains, Olga Mesmer, and Sally the Sleuth. Donenfeld switched to producing comic books—and ultimately found Superman more profitable.

Lovecraft had no direct ties to the nascent comic book industry; he died the year before Superman appeared on the newsstands, but several of his associates and contemporaries did. Julius Schwartz, the teenager who acted as Lovecraft’s agent to sell “The Shadow out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness” to Astounding ended up at DC Comics. Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Otto Binder wrote for the comic books, as did Manly Wade Wellman. August Derleth was more of a collector—and famously used his Guggenheim grant to bind his collection of newspaper comic strips—but he made it into the comics anyway when a writer plagiarized his story “The Ormulu Clock” (1950) for a comic (Forbidden Adventures: The History of the American Comics Group 73).

Plagiarism, or at least “borrowing,” was rife in both comics and the pulps; and not even H. P. Lovecraft was immune from it. “Cool Air” had already been discreetly adopted by EC as “Baby…It’s Cold Inside!” in Vault of Horror #17 (1951). In 1952, someone else published an adaptation of “Pickman’s Model”…with a few changes.

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Weird Terror #1 (1952) – Page 18

The writer is unknown; the artist is Rudy Palais, who had been working in comic books since the 1930s. “Pickman’s Model” was first published in Weird Tales in 1927, but had been reprinted a number of times, including in the Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1950, World Publishing, Co.) and Famous Fantastic Mysteries (Dec 1951), so it was definitely available.

At seven pages, the adaptation drastically truncates Lovecraft’s story, and the character of Richard Upton Pickman is replaced by the slightly more generic (but still vaguely Lovecraftian) Eric Gilman; the narrator is replaced by female investigative reporter Pat Carter—shades of Lois Lane and Sally the Sleuth. Her journalistic instincts are correct, her courage is undoubted, and Pat Carter is tough enough not to “scream like a silly fool.” Hardboiled though she might be, Carter is not prepared for Eric Gilman’s secret…that he paints from life!

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Weird Terror #1 (1952) – Page 22

Much as with “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, the writer goes a step further than Lovecraft—capturing actual video evidence for the ghoulish creatures that live beneath the earth. The denouement is stereotypical of horror stories and creature features in comics at the time—the preservation of the status quo, at least nominally; the trust in the “proper authorities” to deal with the unpleasant realities that normal people wouldn’t be equipped to deal with and the desire not to cause mass panic. The preservation of normalcy.

“Portrait of Death” is ultimately an effective adaptation; not the first or the best, although perhaps the first with a female protagonist. It definitely isn’t one of the most gruesome of the pre-Code horror comics ever published, but it gets the job done…and in an intriguing way. Other uncredited Lovecraft adaptations may well still in the yellowing pages of old comics, waiting to be recognized for what they are.

The story was first published in Weird Terror #1 (1952, Allen Hardy Associates), republished in Horrific #8 (1953, Allen Hardy Associates), and slightly reworked and republished in Tales of Voodoo #3 (1968). The reworked version has been reprinted in Weird Worlds #2 (1971) and Terror Tales #6 (1972) from Eerie Publications. It has also been republished as part of Weird Terror volume 1 (2016).

The original story is in the public domain, and may be read in its entirety here.


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

“The Opera Singer” (2015) by Priya J. Sridhar

Strictly speaking, “The Opera Singer” is not a Mythos story. Mythos by association only. No invocation of strange and terrible and familiar names, nary a tentacle to be seen. Yet it is a Lovecraftian story; those who are initiated into the Mythos, who have read Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” can draw their own connections, their own conclusions.

Nor is it entirely unprecedented.

Brian Lumley’s “Big ‘C'” (1990) is a brother-from-another-mother-with-a-thousand-young to Sridhar’s story. The two have parallels, similar ideas but carried out very differently. A combination of adult fears and something alien, intrusive, other. For “Big ‘C'” it is cancer; for “The Opera Singer” it’s the stroke that landed the protagonist Circe in a wheelchair. That terrible biological betrayal, body turned against itself. Sridhar does a better job than Lumley in showcasing a woman with a disability; living with the body as a cage. Lumley is focused on a bigger picture, fewer emotional attachments. Different takes on the idea.

Readers might also compare “The Opera Singer” with “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder; both involve a glimpse into the life of the trained musician, talent toned with tragedy. Even exceptional musicians rarely rise to rock-star fame; they take gigs, pour their heart into operas and rehearsals, watch the money go to other people. Musicians are like athletes, their bodies a part of the performance, and as they get older bits wear out. Singers can no longer hit the same notes. Snyder and Sridhar touch on some of the same points there as well, although they are going in different directions; while readers might suspect more than cosmic accident to what happens to the protagonist in “The Opera Singer,” Sridhar gives no hint of actual conspiracy.

Sridhar gives a Lovecraftian frame to the story as well; the revelation unfolds, a bit at a time, and at the beginning of the story it isn’t even clear that there are things to reveal. Call it Chekov’s wheelchair: if you show the protagonist struggling in a wheelchair in the first act, you have to show how they got there by the end of it—but even that might be too simple. To understand how the protagonist lives, it isn’t just important to show how she got in the wheelchair, but what she lost in the process.

There are names involved too—Circe, the protagonist, lives under the shadow of the Circe from Greek myth, has odd connections with 34 Circe. Significant? Hard to say. The human talent for pattern recognition comes into play; what seems like a pattern could be random chance. The Mythos is dependent on pattern recognition, of readers recognizing associations between names, places, critters, ideas.

What else is this review but an effort to place this story within the wider framework of Lovecraftian fiction, finding the points that seem to fit?

There is always that danger with labeling something Lovecraftian fiction: a false positive. Maybe Priya J. Sridhar never meant a Lovecraftian connection at all when she wrote the piece, and it just happened to find a home in a Mythos anthology. It is always possible to read meaning and intent in a piece, especially if the net of comparable fiction is cast wide enough. Still, it is in a Mythos anthology now. The association is set.

Priya J. Sridhar’s “The Opera Singer” was first published in She Walks In Shadows (2015) and its paperback American edition Cthulhu’s Daughters (2016); it was also published in Nightmare Magazine (Dec 2016), where it may be read online for free.


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

The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis

I’ve heard from various sources in town that Lovecraft’s wife has suddenly put in an appearance and is causing somewhat of a rumpus. Is this true, or is it, as usual, the kind of ill thought out gossip that is prevalent among the inept citizens of the L. A. Fantasy Society?
—Ray Bradbury to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1947 

Lovecraft’s wife did turn up; she is now a Mrs. Sonia Davis, the widow of the husband (no. 3) she had after HPL. She wrote a biography called THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and wanted to incorporate a lot of his prejudices as if they were major parts of his life, seen through her Yiddish eyes; she also wanted to include letters of Lovecraft, but we pointed out that the only way she could do that would be with our permission first. We have heard nothing further from her, though I had a talk with her in New York City.
—August Derleth to Ray Bradbury, 21 Nov 1947

Howard Phillips Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene at an amateur convention in Boston in 1921; on 3 March 1924 they were married. The union was brief; they cohabited for only about fifteen months in New York City, with Sonia forced to seek work in the Midwest where Howard would not follow, and Howard returned to Providence. In 1929, Sonia petitioned Howard for a divorce; due to the laws in place at the time, this could not be granted without cause, and the pretense was made that Sonia had deserted him. Howard, however, did not sign the final decree. They remained in touch for some years, and Howard even helped her with her travelogue. In 1933 Sonia left for California, and in 1936 she remarried, to Nathaniel Abraham Davis. H. P. Lovecraft died in 1937; Sonia was not made aware of this until 1945, when informed of the fact by their mutual associate Wheeler Dryden. Nathaniel Davis died 6 April 1946.

So it was, in the immediate aftermath of the second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust, that Sonia H. Davis cast back her mind some twenty years to write her memoir of her second husband, H. P. Lovecraft. The resulting document is a valuable account on several fronts: no one was as intimate with H. P. in the way of his wife, and since H. P. was very reluctant to write about his marriage in his letters, Sonia’s account provides the major source for their domestic life, as well as incidental information on their courtship.

Getting published, however, was a bit tricky.

While here Belknap Long put me in touch with Mr. August Derleth, who seems to have full rights to HP’s work; at least so he states.

I read a few pages to him from my scribbled manuscript (it was almost illegible to myself).

At first he told me that he wanted to publish it. Then he shunted me off to one Ben Abramson who, he said would publish it. At first Derleth said he would me $600.00 for it at the end of three years, with possibly a small initial sum against royalties.

I’m not young enough to wait three years. If the work is important to those who are most interested I felt it ought to be paid for outright.

So upon reflection I wrote to Mr. Derleth telling him I would have my own publisher do the work and that I would use my story of the “Invisible Monster” as revised by H.P. of mine first as well as some very personal letters and poems of his revision.

In reply he shot back a spec. del. letter that all HP. material belong to the estate of H.P.L. and that “Arkham House” (ie. he) alone had full legal rights to its use; and that I was likely to find that the could would restrain the sale of the work, would confiscate & destroy it.

I have written him stating that I had already offered the material to you, but that I may have to retract the offer if I am to be punished for using letters that were addressed to me personally.

Perhaps I am quite ignorant of the law but I cannot see how these can belong to the Lovecraft estate, to Mr. Barlow (as he stated) or to himself! Personally I no longer feel an interest in my past. Other interests have developed since then. However, because Mr. D. & you and others clamored for HPL’s private life with me, I thought it might be a source of income, and at the same time tell some truths that would throw more light on his character and perhaps on his psychology.

Since I do not know the law regarding these matters and as I have no money to start any “fights” it might be the better part of valor to drop the matter altogether, since while I do not fear Mr. D’s veiled threats and open intimidation I’m not in a position to fight.

Mr. D’s method of “high pressuring” me into doing what he wants is not to my taste. It would be interesting to contact the county clerk in Providence and make sure my reasons to believe that H.P. died intestate. If so, how does the property belong to Barlow and Derleth?

Had HP. lived and known of D’s aims, I feel sure he would not have countenanced D’s intimidation of me, no matter how much he would have liked to have his words read by his followers.

Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 13 Sep 1947

We will never know exactly what passed between August Derleth and Sonia when they met in New York, but some correspondence survives regarding the meeting and its aftermath. After his death, Lovecraft had provided instructions that R. H. Barlow was to be his literary executor, and whether or not the document was exactly legal his surviving aunt Annie Gamwell respected his wishes. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei were anxious and eager to get Lovecraft into print so that their friend’s work would not be lost; to this end they quickly got to work, and after securing permission from Mrs. Gamwell, began looking for a publisher. Failing to find one, they founded their own small press: Arkham House.

Barlow’s position as literary executor was a complication; especially as Barlow was at university at the time and moved from Kansas City to San Francisco, and then down to Mexico. Donald Wandrei joined the U.S. Army during WWII (Derleth was exempted from the draft for health reasons), leaving Derleth in essential control of Arkham House—and by extension, the Lovecraft estate, having secured Barlow’s essential cooperation for access to Lovecraft’s manuscripts and letters and Gamwell’s permission to print. Derleth took a very proprietary stance with regard to Lovecraft’s fiction, claiming that Arkham House had sole and exclusive rights to all of it, as well as his letters and any other materials—if it was to be published, it would be through Arkham House. In part, this legal bluff was hard-nosed business sense, Arkham House was not exactly a cash cow, with small print runs of relatively expensive books that took a long time to sell, the company basically supported by Derleth’s other writing. But also in part Derleth wished to preserve the memory of H. P. Lovecraft and his image. So Derleth would also threaten legal action against C. Hall Thompson during this period for using the Mythos without permission, and in 1950 would refuse publication of Warren Thomas’ thesis on Lovecraft, which cast an unflattering light.

Meanwhile, did I tell you Sonia Lovecraft Davis turned up with some laughable idea of cashing in on HPL’s “fame” and the desire to publish a “frank” book, entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and quoting generously from his letters. She read me part of the ms. in New York, and in it she has HPL posing as a Jew-baiter (she is Jewish), she says she completely supported HPL for the years 1924 to 1932, and so on, all bare-faced lies. I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark [Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian Clark]. I also forbade her to use any quotations from HPL’s letters without approval from us, acting for the estate. I told her by all means to write her book and I would read it, but it was pathetically funny; she thought you could get rich on the book. She said it would sell easily a million copies! Can you beat it! I tried to point out that a biographical book on HPL by myself, out two years, had not yet sold 1000 copies, and that book combined two well-known literary names. She thought she should have $500 advance on her book as a gift, and royalties besides! I burst into impolite laughter, I fear.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947

Sonia probably didn’t have an idea about the realities of publishing, and she did likely need the money. An agreement was finally reached: Sonia cut all the quotations from Lovecraft’s letters, and the journalist Winfield Townley Scott heavily edited the piece, which was published in the 28 August 1948 edition of the Providence Journal as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him.”

In September 1948, Sonia suffered a heart attack.

“Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” was published in Books at Brown vol. XI, nos. 1-2; Lovecraft’s papers had been placed at the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence by R. H. Barlow shortly after Lovecraft’s death. Cordial relations between Sonia and August Derleth were re-established. In 1949, Arkham House published Something About Cats and Other Pieces which included “Lovecraft As I Knew Him” (a Derleth-edited version of “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him”) as well as the stories “The Invisible Monster” and “Four O’Clock.”

Little other material was forthcoming; Sonia broke her hip in 1960 and ceased to work, moving into a rest home. Arkham House eventually published a briefer remembrance “Memories of Lovecraft I” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1969), and later a letter that Lovecraft had sent her as “Lovecraft in Love” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1971). A young student named R. Alain Everts, interviewing Lovecraft’s surviving correspondents interviewed her and obtained a copy of Alcestis which he would eventually publish. His final telephone call with her was 22 December 1972; Sonia H. Davis would pass away four days later.

While a few more items would be published after Sonia’s death, her memoir of Lovecraft remains her single largest work. It was eventually published in its original form—sans any quotes from Lovecraft’s letters but before Scott or Derleth edited it, with an appendix on their mutual friend Samuel Loveman—in 1985 from Necronomicon Press under her original title: The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft.

As an historical document, Sonia’s memoir is both extremely valuable and not without its flaws. On the one hand, it is a first-person account, even if some of the events being written about are twenty years in the past. Many of the basic facts that can be checked against other sources do check out; there are a few claims that probably deserved caveats—S. T. Joshi in his introduction to the text notes:

The extent to which Sonia harps upon money matters in her memoir may in part be justified—she was clearly trying to set the record straight and correct the inadequacies of previous treatments, especially by W. Paul Cook—but also underscores another point of tension which Lovecraft was perhaps reluctant to mention to his correspondents. For a full two years—from 1924 to 1926—Lovecraft was essentially supported financially by his wife. he had virtually no independent income, and his bootless efforts to find employment in New York are poignantly chronicled in his letters of the period. (5-6)

Some claims have to be measured against what else we know. Sonia’s assertion that:

He admired Hitler, and read Mein Kampf almost as soon as it was released and translated into English. I believe he was much influenced by that book. It may have had much to do in influencing further his hate, not only for Jews, but for all minorities, which he made little effort to conceal. (28)

This claim is on the last page of the book, in an addendum of afterthoughts that are predominantly about Lovecraft’s racial views. Keeping in mind that Sonia was writing this after World War II, when antisemitism was more prominent, and that she had very limited contact with Lovecraft after 1932 when Hitler came to power—which she and Lovecraft chronicled a small part of in their European Glimpses. The first English edition of Mein Kampf was the Dugdale abridged version published in 1933; it is possible Lovecraft read this, although there is no mention of it in his correspondence, and excerpts were published in the Times. So the claim is a bit iffy on the face: it’s not clear how Sonia would know this, the timing is a bit suspect, and there is no clear corroborating evidence from Lovecraft’s letters that he read Mein Kampf. But it cannot be completely discounted; they may well have continued corresponding in the mid-30s, and Lovecraft may have read the excerpts in the Times and mentioned them.

Similar consideration has to be given to every claim in the book. Her insistence on the importance of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft to Howard does not seem borne out by a study of Lovecraft’s letters, but many other little details are. In some cases, such as the writing of “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” Sonia is essentially the sole source we have to go on. Her manuscript sans Scott and Derleth’s writing is often disordered, written down as she remembers it, or to counteract specific points in previous memoirs about Lovecraft that had been written at that point (1946).

Also telling at the things that Sonia does not talk about. She makes almost no mention of her previous marriage or family; barely mentioning her mother (Lovecraft’s mother-in-law), who was alive and in New York at the time of their marriage, or her adult daughter Carol Weld (they had become estranged sometime in the 1920s), and no mention of her half-siblings in the Midwest. Juicy details on the Lovecrafts’ sex life were also not forthcoming, although Everts would provide what few we have from his interviews with Sonia, and Derleth noted after meeting Sonia in Los Angeles in 1953:

A propos your piece on Lovecraft, the question of HPL and sex had been bothering me for some time […] so in 1953 when I was in Los Angeles, I asked Sonia Davis—the ex-Mrs. Lovecraft—rather bluntly about HPL’s sexual adequacy. She assured me that he had been entirely adequate sexually, and since she impressed me as a well-sexed woman, not easily satisfied, I concluded that HPL’s “Aversion” was very probably nothing more than a kind of puritanism—that is, it was something “gentlemen” didn’t discuss.
—August Derleth, Haunted (1968) vol. 1, no 3, 114

Much of the actual domestic life and some of their later visits after their separation are not included in Sonia’s memoir. We know from Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts that he spent an extensive amount of time out of the household, visiting friends and the Kalem Club; we know that they enjoyed going out to dinner and to the theater; that when she was ill he would visit her in the hospital for hours; that they struggled with finances after Sonia lost her job and ended up selling some of her furniture.

It is an important memoir; perhaps one of the most important memoirs of Lovecraft that we have. Nearly forty years were required to get Sonia’s unedited words to the public, and she did not live to see that happen. The few errors in it or the critical assessment of some claims do not detract from its importance; it is the nature of historical research to question sources, to view them critically, to weigh the evidence against other accounts. To ask ourselves why Sonia was writing this, and to whom. There she was, alone once more, writing about a husband that had died nearly a decade before, and whom she had first met over twenty years before—and there are moments in her recollections that may be a bit rose-tinted, and others where Sonia was clearly trying to answer to claims about Lovecraft’s prejudices, or refute the inaccuracies of early biographers. Yet she wrote what only she could—and we are the richer for it.

“The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” has been most recently published in Ave Atque Vale (2018) from Necronomicon Press, alongside other memoirs of Lovecraft.


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

“At the Left Hand of Nothing” (2016) by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

When all is madness, there is no madness.
—Scott R. Jones, introduction to Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016) 5

Lovecraft was a materialist; he had no belief in gods, neither those of traditional religion or of his own making, and carefully informed fans that yes, Cthulhu and the Necronomicon and all the rest were totally fictional, that he and Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith & co. had made them all up. The irony of this is that the writings of the materialist would inspire in others true faith; that his writings would be taken by some as revelations of occult truth, and others as something close to holy writ. So we have Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason and “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna and many other works of esotericism, accounts of spiritual revelation or occult compilation.

For all that these individuals and groups pay homage to the names and ideas that Lovecraft & co. created, few of them strive to capture or explore the philosophy behind those names. Thomas Ligotti comes to mind: “The Sect of the Idiot” and “The Last Feast of Harlequin” dig deep into the philosophic underpinnings of the Mythos. Scott R. Jones in When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality (2014) describes the deep understanding of the Mythos, beyond the farcical family trees of the gods and sometimes humorous mucking about with incantations and talismans, as the Black Gnosis.

Humanity, with its bilateral symmetry, tends to think in dichotomies. Good and evil, black and white, left and right. Theosophists and occultists in the early 20th century talked about black lodges and white, locked in a cycle of conflict; the devotees of “evil” revelations followed the left-hand path, the Satanists and Thelemites, while those “white magicians” followed the right-hand path. The terminology of left hand/right hand was borrowed (stolen, appropriated) from Indian tantra; Westerners like Aleister Crowley seeking to incorporate aspects of Eastern esoteric practices into their occult systems were cafeteria occultists.

Of course the Chinese mix everything up. Look at what they have to work with. There’s Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest. Just like your salad bar.
—Egg Shen, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Every so often, however, someone comes along that reminds us that the universe is much stranger than our standard definitions, that we are limited by our conceptions. Such a work is “At the Left Hand of Nothing” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy.

A short piece, but dense in concepts. An unnamed cultist or adept speaks to an unknown audience. Familiar terms are embedded in unfamiliar attitudes. The language is carefully chosen, the reader letting the onion peel back, layer by layer, revelation by revelation.

There is an entire literature out there dealing with the antics of these fools. It is imagined that these plots and cults are the sum of our ambition; that we exist merely to subvert normality and exalt some strang epantheon, that we want to pring a triumphal return of squamous divinity to old Earth.
—Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, “At the Left Hand of Nothing”
in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016) 54

The central idea of Satyamurthy’s piece harkens back to the older, original idea of left-hand and right-hand tantra. Wearing black robes and participating in orgies in the swamp isn’t the left-hand path; maybe none of the characters in any of Lovecraft’s stories had the insight and ambition to conceive of the possibilities that Satyamurthy hints at, though some of the stories that came after have characters whose feet might have turned in such directions.

It is, if nothing else, a revelation. A new way to think about the Mythos. Something to widen your preconceptions, re-calibrate how you think about stories old and new. Go back and re-read “The Call of Cthulhu” after reading this story, and see if you can experience it in a new way. Not as the naive believer in old Castro’s ramblings, but as an initiate that knows a deeper truth and can recognize him and his for what they are…and who their true undying masters must be.

“At the Left Hand of Nothing” was first published in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016); it has not yet been reprinted. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy has written a number of weird tales, some of which have been collected in Weird Tales of a Bangalorean (2015) and Come Tomorrow: And Other Tales of Bangalore Terror (2020). His Lovecraftian stylings can also be experienced with his band Djinn and Miskatonic.


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

“The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard

I was fortunate enough to locate, last year, the bulk of the long lost Howard files. This includes a number of unpublished items, some of which appear in this issue. The unpublished fragment was among these papers; it is impossible to definitely determine whether this is an unfinished story or whether the remaining portion has been lost. Conan fans will be pleased to learn that several previously unpublished Conan stories were found: “Wolves Beyond the Border”, “The Snout in the Dark”, “The Hall of the Dead”, “The Hand of Nergal” and “The Vale of Lost Women”. Only the latter was finished; L. Sprague de Camp has completed the first three titles, while Lin Carter has finished “The Hand of Nergal.” “The Hall of the Dead” has been accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , while “The Vale of Lost Women” will appear in Magazine of Horror. All titles will appear in the Lancer Conan series in due course.
—Glenn Lord, The Howard Collector #9 (Spring 1967), 2-3

We know almost nothing about the origins of “The Vale of Lost Women.” There are two drafts extant, one unfinished (17 pages) and one complete (21 pages), with editing marks not in Howard’s hand, both undated. It is mentioned in none of Howard’s surviving correspondence, and if it was ever submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, no records of its submission or rejection have come to light. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet has stated in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” that the story was written circa February 1933—before Howard took Otis Adelbert Kline as his agent, and at the end of the first period of writing Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 450).

Reader response to the “new” story—unearthed after thirty years and in the midst of the Howard boom of the 1960s—was mixed.

Charles Hidley writes: “The so-called ‘Conan’ story with its fantasy domino slightly askew is a thinly-masked ‘porny’ of the cheapest sado-sexual variety and doesn’t belong in your pages and wasn’t, I’m sure, authored by Robert E. Howard. Sick as that lad may have been, he at least was an author with imagination and writing skill—of sorts—and had the taste and discretion to flesh out his erotic fetishes with some semblance of narrative—and that in a category that could be honestly labelled macabre, outre, fantastic. If this was Howard (and I seriously challenge that labeling) it was surely a segment of something of greater length and depth—and less spuriousness.”

Carrington B. Dixon, Jr., writes from Texas: “1967 seems to be a good year for Conan. First FANTASTIC reprints People of the Black Circle, and now both MOH and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION bring out new Conan stories! Of the two new ones, however, yours is 100% Howard, and it is easily the better of the two. I cannot imagine why The Vale of Lost Women was not published during Howard’s lifetime; unless it was that he did not live to submit it. It is certainly one of Howard’s better works. It is somewhat atypical for a Conon [sic] story but magnificent nonetheless. The fact that it is told in third person limited from Livia’s point of view adds a great deal to the story. The fight scenes still have gusto, but something has been added. The descent into the Vale has a chill missing in most Conan stories; we know that, no matter what the odds, Conan will come out with a whole skin, but women do not always fare so well…. This was easily the outstanding story of the issue.”
The Magazine of Horror #16 (Summer 1967), 119-120

The mixed opinion have much to do with the combination of racial and sexual dynamics in the story, which reflect a mix of Howard’s influences and themes. The story is, somewhat unusually, told from the perspective of Livia, an Ophirian woman held captive:

As she lay on the angareb in the great hut, her state bordered between delirium and semi-unconsciousness. Outward sounds and movements scarcely impinged upon her senses. her whole mental vision, though dazed and chaotic, was yet centered with hideous certitude on the naked, writhing figure of her brother, blood streaming down the quivering thighs.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

“Angareb” is a Sudanese word for a low, wooden-framed bed, which Howard probably picked up from the pages of Adventure; the image of the tortured, probably castrated, brother comes from what Patrice Louinet considers the story’s likely inspiration: the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John, who were captured by the Comanche in 1836. Robert E. Howard was familiar with versions of the story, which he mentioned to H. P. Lovecraft as early as 1931, and related in some detail to August Derleth in a letter written around January 1933 (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.4-9) In adapting the story to the Hyborian Age, however, the captors are not Native Americans but black people.

This was before Howard published his essay “The Hyborian Age,” but it is evident in the story that he had generally conceived of the broad outlines and some of details of the geography in Conan’s world, specifically:

South of Stygia are the vast black kingdoms of the Amazons, the Kushites, the Atlaians and the hybrid empire of Zembabwei.

The black people in this story are thus portrayed as black Africans in all but name; despite the confusion of names (which Lovecraft sometimes chided Howard for), the Kushites here should be seen as more or less metaphorical ancestors of the Kingdom of Kush, located in Nubia south of Egypt; hence the use of a Sudanese term like angareb, and the presence of bamboo is another detail suggesting the general geographic locale of the story.

If it seems weird to contemporary readers that Native Americans may be portrayed as Africans in this manner—it would not be the last time Howard made such a racial transposition. Most notably, in the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” the Picts—one of Howard’s favorites, appearing in not just the Conan stories but the Bran Mak Morn and Kull tales, as both historical Picts of the British Isles and as mythological predecessors from Lemuria and Atlantis—essentially take the place of Native Americans, a theme that John Bullard explored in “Beyond the Black River”: Is It Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? In general, it can be argued that one of the ways that Howard kept the Conan series fresh was by continually adapting different genres and settings to the Hyborian Age, and part of that involves the odd transpositions, as in the case of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The transposition would have been easier for Howard’s intended audience because of popular pulp (and in general Colonialist fiction) depictions of indigenous peoples of both Africa and the Americas as “savage.” The idea hold connotations beyond the immediately obvious; in the 1930s to be a barbarian was to be juxtaposed to “civilization,” but to be savage was to be incapable of civilization. Even seemingly ambivalent terms like “Noble Savage” have inherent in them the basic racist bias that the people so described would never obtain civilization by their own skill or effort. This is perhaps more important for stories like Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls,” which features a black African kingdom living in the remnants of an ancient Atlantean outpost, but it is implicit in many works from many writers of this period, and one reason why it was “easy” for Howard to translate the Comanche to the Kushites in this story is because they were both, in his understanding, “savages.”

The contrast of savage vs. barbarian vs. civilized, white vs. black, is presented by Howard in very stark relief in “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The hut door opened, and a black woman entered—a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The whites of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

Most of the women in this story are either underdressed or nude; Robert E. Howard had learned by this point that Farnsworth Wright preferred a nude or near-nude female character in a scene for the cover illustration, so the use of a nude character in a Conan story is not itself unusual or weird—Seabury Quinn and other writers at Weird Tales were doing the same thing. What sets this scene and interaction apart is the contrast between the white woman, embarrassed at her nudity, and the black woman who flaunts it. This depiction between woman light and dark (not always white and black, but light-haired and brunette, etc.) is a recurring theme in Howard’s fiction, Charles Hoffman discusses this tendency in his essays “Return to Xuthal,” “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures,”  and “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard,” and it can be seen more clearly developed in later Conan stories like “The Slithering Shadow” and “Red Nails.”

The combination of racial and sexual elements centers now on Livia. Jim Crow was alive and well in the United States of the 1930s; the K.K.K. would be vocal about the need for the “color line” and many jurisdictions had laws against interracial marriage, racist stereotypes about the supposed licentiousness of African-Americans were rampant, and underlay the accusations of the Scottsboro Boys Trial. Social attitudes, however, were sexist as well as racist; many white male Americans found it acceptable for a white man to visit black female sex workers. The distinction makes up a particularly poignant passage in Howard’s life:

“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”

It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”

Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road.

“Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”

He looked at me, ran his hand over his face, and glared. “Well, sometimes a man—Well, damn it. Sometimes a man has to—”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 96

So, it’s not just that Livia is being held captive, but she is being sexually threatened in a way that would specifically speak to the (presumably primarily white and male) audience of Weird Tales—and the nature of this threat is not strictly heterosexual either:

The young black woman laughed evilly, with a flash of dark eyes and white teeth, and with a hiss of spiteful obscenity and a mocking caress that was more gross than her language, she turned and swaggered out of the hut, expressing more taunting insolence with the motions of her hips than any civilized woman could with spoken insults.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

Howard’s specific understanding of lesbianism was tied up in contemporary interpretations of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; he appears to have associated lesbianism with both the adoption of masculine attributes (as with his character Dark Agnes in “Sword Woman”) and with sadism, where it represents distorted sexual appetites (for more on this subject, see “Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians”). This in particular can be seen in the relationships between women in “The Moon of Skulls,” “The Slithering Shadow,” and “Red Nails”—all three of which dovetail with the light/dark female dichotomy already mentioned as a theme in Howard’s work. The presence of a “mocking caress” in this context then is not surprising—but unusually, in this case it also serves as a foreshadowing of the events later in the story.

Nor is this the only case of racial stereotypes being used in this story:

On an ivory stool, flanked by giants in plumed head-pieces and leopard-skin girdles, sat a fat, squat shape, abysmal, repulsive, a toad-like chunk of blackness, reeking of the dank rotting jungle and the nighted swamps. The creature’s pudgy hands rests on the sleek arch of his belly; his nape was a roll of sooty fat that seemed to thrust his bullet head forward. His eyes gleamed in the firelight, like live coals in a dead black stump. Their appalling vitality belied the inert suggestion of the gross body.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

This description of Bajujh, king of Bakalah, is not far off from the first shot of Jabba the Hutt as portrayed in Return of the Jedi (1983)—and there is a similar logic at work. Howard, through the gaze of Livia, is setting up Bajujh as the epitome of disgust. Like in “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, Howard is building up this individual as a visceral ultimate expression in the minds of the readers. Robert E. Howard was more than capable of describing black characters in many different ways—from obsequious to defiant, young to old, powerful to weak, intelligent and wise to animalistic—and many of his stories build up particular characters as particularly capable or dangerous to the protagonists. Yet Bajujh is not a rival for Conan—he is established as an opposite, a study in contrasts for the Cimmerian who he wanders onto the page a few paragraphs later.

Conan’s interactions with the Kushites deserves attention:

He was clad like his followers in leopard-skin loin-clout and plumed head-piece, but he was a white man. […] He himself, with a few of his chiefs, sat with Bajujh and the headmen of Bakalah, cross-legged on mats, gorging and guzzling. She saw his hands dipped deep into the cooking pots with the others, saw his muzzle thrust into the beer vessel out of which Bajujh also drank.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 305

Bajujh treats Conan as an equal, and by his actions Conan shows no discrimination with sitting and feasting with the Kushites, even to the point of drinking from the same vessels. To Livia, this is a display of Conan’s power, but to the audience the interaction could be seen as more ambiguous: after all, here is essentially a scene of racial equality and getting-along. Lingering Colonialist attitudes may be at play in this depiction, since Conan is depicted as a white man among chiefs, and accorded respect as such; the idea of white men being deemed special and equivalent to black leaders was also a theme in several Solomon Kane tales set in Africa. Yet it is clearly Livia’s own preconceptions about race that are at work when she notes:

But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 306

It’s worth mentioning that in 1933, not all European nationalities and ethnicities were seen as equal, even if they were often nominally “white.” Ethnic sentiment against Jews, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans was still widespread, sometimes flaring into violence. So unspoken in this statement is that sentiment that Livia places herself at or near the top of “whiteness”—but that ethnic considerations fade when, outnumbered and alone, she sets up the stark racial dichotomy of white vs. black, us vs. them. This is her view of the world, in this situation, which the readers are expected to recognize and sympathize with. That’s important to set up what comes next.

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs—that a white woman is their slave! Very well!” She fell back from him, panting, transfigured by her passion.

“I will give you a price!” she raved, tearing away her tunic from her ivory breasts. “Am I not fair? Am I not more desirable than these soot-colored wenches? Am I not a worthy reward for blood-letting? Is not a fair-skinned virgin a price worth slaying for?[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 307-308

Robert Bloch in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tales would already be lamenting “Conan the Cluck” who every issue “won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration.” The idea that the hero wins the girl at the end is part of the casual misogyny of pulp fiction—and of much fiction generally. Livia’s offer is playing very specifically and deliberately to reader’s expectations, based on the almost formulaic trope of the good guy getting the girl and them living happily ever after, and reinforced by the racial and sexual aspects of the story already established.

Which is why Conan’s response catches readers by surprise.

“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure,” he said. “As if the gift of your body had power to swing kingdoms. Why should I kill Bajujh to obtain you? Women are cheap as plantains in this land, and their willingness or unwillingness matters as little. You value yourself too highly. If I wanted you, I wouldn’t have to fight Bajujh to take you. He would rather give you to me than to fight me.”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308

The response utterly deflates Livia; while Howard would not have put it in such terms, she comes face to face with her own white privilege, and the shock of realizing that her assumptions regarding her value and relationships with other people just because of her gender and skin color aren’t absolute values is crushing to her self-esteem. Her essential powerlessness, carefully developed throughout the first part of the story, and her offer of her virginity are designed to appeal to what white male Americans expected of white female Americans. Livia had wanted to be Helen of Troy, she ended up as Briseis. As one critic noted about this exchange, Conan’s is:

A realistic attitude, but one that is rarely encountered in most sword-and-sorcery. Usually women are masterminds who plot and deceive, using their sex as a weapon. As Howard summed it up best shortly afterward, “In spite of all Livia had experienced, she had still instinctively supposed a woman’s consent the pivotal point of such a game as she proposed to play.”
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Winter Elliott in his essay “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World” describes how Livia has “so clearly internalized her society’s consumerist construction of a woman’s sexuality.” (Conan Meets the Academy 62), and it is the transactional nature of the exchange which is at play here: Livia sees herself, and especially her body and virginity, as things of value which are to be exchanged for other things.

Livia, however, is trying to sell herself; she is not participant in an exchange between men, so her offer has no value. It does, however, correctly suggest that she has internalized her society’s view of female flesh as a commodity to be sold. […] In fact, the supposedly barbaric culture in which she finds herself has acted perfectly in accordance with her own civilization; her own society might more delicately treat her as property, but she would still be a possession. […] Livia’s captivity derives not from any fault of her own but from the weakness of her male guardians, who were unable to sustain their hold on their property in the face of fiercer male competition.
—Winter Elliot, ibid. 63

So Livia is not approaching this exactly in the sense of sex work. Having been raised to value herself and think of herself in these terms, she is still not yet cognizant of the fact that she does not really own herself and her own sexuality. The bargain she seeks to strike is emotional and presupposes that she and Conan share more than just skin color, but common values and assumptions of gender roles.

There’s a volatile mix of racial, gender, and sexual politics at play here. If Livia had been a man instead of a woman (or Conan a woman, or homosexual), the same offer and exchange would almost certainly not have taken place—at least, not in 1933 with any hope of getting published in Weird Tales. If Livia had been a been black, Asian, multiracial, or something other than “white,” the sexual offer might still have been part of the appeal for rescue, but not with the specific racial overtones which were such a part of Colonialist rhetoric. With the character of Livia, Howard has very carefully set up exactly this moment of conflict, and specifically so that Conan can poke a hole in it.

The subversion of expectations that takes place can still be framed as sexist; the whole exchange emphasizes the complete lack of power that Livia has as a woman, even over her own body, and serves as a kind of masculine sexual fantasy. Howard may be bending the rules by not having Conan play the noble hero willing to risk all for sexual intercourse with a white woman right away, but he’s still operating well within the general frame of preconceptions that led eventually to John Norman’s Gor and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels. Once it’s clear who is in charge, Conan goes on:

But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. […] If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the color of your hide.

“But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at black sluts until I am sick at the guts. I’ll play this game your way, simply because some of your instincts correspond with mine.[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308-309

There’s a lot to unpack here. These are the first racist statements made by Conan himself in the entire story, if not exactly his entire career to this point; Howard had already written “The Queen of the Black Coast,” which involves Conan joining the crew of Bêlit and her black corsairs, although it wouldn’t see print until 1934, so it wasn’t that he hadn’t interacted with black characters at this point, but it emphasizes that while he might lead them and interact relatively equally with them, Conan isn’t above all the prejudices of his own time. Certainly the “black sluts” comment implies sexual experience with black women, illustrating the same double-standard Howard faced in Texas in the 1930s. The language isn’t necessarily too “blue” even for Weird Tales, other stories would use the word “slut.”

The last phrase, “because some of your instincts correspond with mine” echoes the language of H. P. Lovecraft, who would use similar but not identical phrasing in some of his letters to describe the racial homogeneity of different nationalities (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.77) It wouldn’t be the only time some of the arguments and discussions from their letters made their way into Howard’s fiction (or maybe vice versa), “The God in the Bowl” echoes aspects of Lovecraft and Howard’s discussions on the inequalities of justice and policing.

Racism is not just about epithets and depictions, but also absence. In this story, the black characters are almost all unnamed and never have a speaking role. In large part, this is because the story is told from Livia’s perspective: Conan can speak the same language as the Kushites, Livia cannot, so in her narrative they are either silent or voice obscenities and animalistic cries. Livia’s worldview does not encompass how they think or view themselves, except in relation to their interactions with her—which are minimal. The only hint we have at their history and inner life is through her, as it impacts her own life.

The second twist in the story is Livia’s flight from Conan as she imagines him coming to claim her, bearing the price she asked for sexual access to her body. A parallel could be drawn here with the earlier story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” though unlike in that story, Conan has already stated he has no intention of rape, the fear of it drives Livia into the supernatural menace which Weird Tales would require, the eponymous “Vale of Lost Women”:

[…] she thought of a valley of which the blacks had spoken with fear; a valley to which had fled the young women of a strange brown-skinned race which had inhabited the land before the coming of the ancestors of the Bakalas. There, men said, they had turned into white flowers, had been transformed by the old gods to escape their ravishers. There no black man dared go.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313

The legend has echoes with Greek myth, particularly that of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and likewise echoes Howard’s “brown race” of Atlantis as being distinct from both white- and black-skinned peoples in “The Moon of Skulls,” or the discussion of the Boskop Man in his letters with Lovecraft (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.141, 159, 169, 183); Lovecraft himself would refer to the “general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000” in “The Shadow out of Time.”

The appearance of a third race queers the binaries of Livia’s world in more ways than one:

The lithe brown women were all about her. One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313-314

It’s interesting to compare this lesbian kiss with that in “Red Nails.” Both sexual displays are part of or prelude to occult ritual, or have some supernatural effect. Salacious as the scene may be, Howard’s reserve for such overt displays of homosexuality between women to part of a distinctly weird and supernatural scene may in effect have been his effort to get them past the censor. Or perhaps he felt the broaching of sexual taboos complemented and gave weight to scenes that were set to violate natural laws; his letters are generally silent on the subject.

The denouement is almost perfunctory. Conan’s unusually talkative explanation encompasses the demon from the Outer Dark, how he decided it wasn’t appropriate to hold Livia to her bargain, and that he’s sending her home nearly in the same breath. It is anticlimactic in more than the sense that the last action beat has passed.

Conan’s assurance that “I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you” is in keeping with his previous statement that he had never forced a woman, but there is a thread here which neither Livia nor Conan delve into, which is that due to Livia’s status as a slave it is impossible for her to give consent; they are in an unequal power relationship, and Conan is the one in a position of dominance. One could draw parallels with slave women in the South before and during the American Civil War: Livia’s ability to say “No” is meaningless if Conan chooses not to respect it, and Conan (and Howard) appear perspicacious enough to realize that.

So, Conan’s decision doesn’t change the essential relationship: Conan is still the one making all the decisions about Livia and her body. If they’re not having sex, it’s because that’s what he decided, regardless of her feelings in the matter. Things might be looking up for Livia, in that she’s headed home, but she still has almost no agency as a person and hasn’t learned any particular lesson regarding being racist or assuming privilege for being white and female—since Conan is basically affirming all that by giving her exactly what she wanted for just the reasons she thought he should.

One suspects that there was a desire to give a happy ending which yet left Conan unencumbered by any sort of ongoing romantic relationship; which underscores how Conan circumvents the tropes by not ending up with the woman at the end, and is in stark contrast to the eventual fate of Cynthia Ann Parker. So rather than a tragic ending, or the expected sexual conquest, Howard ends “The Vale of Lost Women” with a gruff masculine joke:

“Crom, girl,” grunted Conan, embarrassed, “don’t do that, you’d think I was doing you a favor by kicking you out of this country; haven’t I explained that you’re not the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas?”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 317

When picked apart like this, it is easier to see how “The Vale of Lost Women” came to be, from a rough idea translated to the Hyborian Age, to the addition of various commercial elements (nudity, check; weird monster, check), and some of Howard’s common themes (light and dark women, a possible reference to ancient Atlantis, echoes of his discussions of race and civilization with Lovecraft). On top of this, there is the unusual interplay of gender, racial, and sexual dynamics—aspects which Howard doesn’t always get credit for, as noted in “Black Canaan” vs. “Black Cunjer.”

On a cold read, however—how much of that would actually come across? This story was published the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1968; would African-American readers have appreciate a story where they exist only to be either subservient to a white Conan and/or slaughtered? Second-wave feminism was pushing reforms for women in post-WWII America as well, questioning previous popular media images of women as solely homemakers and housewives and pushing for equal access to education and equality in the workplace. Howard may have been relatively liberal for 1930s Texas, but what story poking at tropes of the hero ending up with the girl in 1933 reads very differently in 1967. Or 2020.

Not terribly surprising then that critical reception of the story in the ensuing decades since its publication has been almost uniformly negative. To give a handful of reactions:

Two Conan stories, “The Vale of Lost Women” and “Shadows in Zamboula,” are typical antiblack hysterics. Reading them is like having a front-row seat at a Ku Klux Klan rally. In their depiction of blacks as savages, cannibals, and slaves, these stories deserve a place of dishonor beside Edgar Rice Burroughs in the lowly annals of racist literature.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Die, Black Dog!” (1975)

“The Vale of Lost Women” is probably the worst of the Conan stories and it is not surprising that it was never published during Howard’s lifetime. The supernatural element just seems to be added as an afterthought. The plotting is basic formula, with little complexity. However, the story does have a few noteworthy graces.
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Rejected for obvious reasons. Certainly this is the worst Conan story, with the possible exception of “Pool of the Black One.” But it does shed some light on Conan’s career as a chief of the Blacks.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard (1978) 52

Not surprisingly, the story failed to sell. If Howard was trying to discreetly infuse some of his growing interest in Western lore into the Conan stories, he was perhaps too subtle: it is impossible to detect the source without having access to peripheral documents. The powerful story of Cynthia Anne and John Parker was lost between the unconvincing supernatural threat and Livia’s penchant for nakedness. As to the racial overtones of the story, while the violent ethnocentricism of the tale is understandable when we recognize its origin in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon settler viewpoint, with the blacks standing in for Indians, it makes for unsettling reading for the modern audience. At any rate, Howard’s first foray into the American southwest version of the Hyborian Age was a failure, and it would be another year before he made another attempt.
—Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan (2003) 450

Racial overtones aside (the tribesmen of Ersatz-Africa stand-in for the Native Americans, leading to some really strong “anti-Kushite” rhetoric on Conan’s part), what draws the most heat from this story is Conan bartering to rescue the captive Livia in exchange for a roll in the hay. No one looks good in this story. Not Robert, not Conan, not even Livia. No one. This is perhaps the worst Conan story and a real low point for the series. The commercial elements all misfire, and the allegory of “Kushites = Native Americans” when Kush has previously equaled Africa doesn’t work at all. Worst of all is the insulting and contrived hackneyed ending. “Oh, I was going to kill all of the tribesmen anyway, and how dare you think that I’d bed you as payment, even though I’ve given you no reason to suspect otherwise?” Honestly, this reads more like Robert trying to work out a story, or at least work something out in this story.
—Mark Finn, Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (2013) 226

This story, “The Vale of Lost Women,” contains some of the most problematic—and racist—passages in Howard’s work.
—Winter Elliott, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women” in
Conan Meets the Academy (2013) 65n5

“Vale of Lost Women” doesn’t stand in the top rank of Howard’s Conan tales. Some might say it is the worst. But best and worst are relative. In “Vale”, Howard’s prose crackles with poetic lyricism, even at the tale’s grimmest moments. The story, so crude and harsh outwardly, rests on a foundation of myth springing from mankind’s basic fears and needs. By any standard “Vale of Women” is a memorable tale that draws in a reader with furious intensity and edge-of-the-seat suspense. If this is Howard at his worst, then he has earned his accolades.
—Dave Hardy, “Hither Came Conan: Dave Hardy on ‘The Vale of Lost Women'” (2019)

The assumption is that the story was rejected. If so, it was not necessarily because of the racial or sexual elementsWeird Tales certainly had both in its pages, and it is hard to say where the line was on such tales. Howard and many other writers had included racism before, nudity was often accepted (even encouraged), suggestions of lesbian interaction were not unknown. Perhaps Howard himself thought the story didn’t come together and chose not to submit it.

We don’t know.

The lesbian touches in “The Vale of Lost Women” has sometimes also been subject to some rather unusual takes, a couple of which are worth examining:

Written in the 1930s, this story was not published until much later, most likely because of its explicit lesbian content. Conan comes upon a  young white woman captive of a tribe of black Africans. Conan rescues the woman, but when he comes to collect her as his reward she has other ideas. Rejecting the brutality of men, she flees to the Valley [sic] of Lost Women, an idyllic all-women society. She finds, to her dismay, that the valley is filled with lesbian natives who seduce her despite her fears. Again, Conan rescues her, and chivalrously allows her to retain her virginity. Sexist and racist.
Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Uranian Worlds (1983) 65

Perhaps because of this story’s length and deceptively simple plot, many readers have dismissed it as one of the lesser stories of the canon, some even going so far as to designate it the worst Conan story. It is not—and by quite a margin. It is necessary to correct this oversight by examining his, one of Howard’s most underrated stories. […] When Livia flees from Conan to the vale of lost women, she is fleeing not only her captors, but the male sex as well. […] What Howard seems to be saying is that, although men and women constantly brutalize each other physically and mentally, they belong together nonetheless. To seek refuge from the battle of the sexes in either homosexuality or asexuality is to deny one of the most important constants of the human condition. At best, it can bring about spiritual emptiness; at worst, it can cause spiritual degradation. When Conan rescues Livia, he saves her not from any physical harm, but from a shadowy existence without a soul.

“The Vale of Lost Women” is an interesting counterpoint to “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” Composed around the same time, both were among the first stories in the Conan series to be written. Neither story was published during Howard’s lifetime, almost certainly owing to their explicit sexual themes. But, though sexuality lies at the heart of each short tale, in execution they are polar opposites. […] Howard unflinchingly shows his own sex at its absolute worst, wallowing in rapine, murder, and wanton cruelty. Driven to attempt rape in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” Conan opposes it in word and deed in “The Vale of Lost Women.” He turns against sworn allies to keep Livia’s body unsullied by her rapist-captor, he battles a monster to prevent her spirit from being violated, and finally he forsakes any ulterior motives of his own concerning her.

The story’s denouement is that Livia will be returned home; Conan has reestablished normalcy in her life. By keeping her body and spirit inviolate, and by restraining his own passions, Conan also symbolically restores Livia’s normal sexuality.
Marc A. Cerasini & Charles Hoffman,
Robert E. Howard: Starmont Reader’s Guide 35 (1987) 77-79

The take given in Uranian Worlds seems to be a misreading. Part of the problem is that the majority of the lesbian content focuses on the supernatural section, which is relatively brief. The brown women are utterly speechless except for their alien, inhuman song, and we basically get nothing of their inner life or motivations for trying to sacrifice and/or convert Livia. Far from the uranian utopia Garber and Paleo would have it be, there is no indication that the Vale of Lost Women is a human society in any sense. While it might be interesting to see a piece that actually explores the Vale of Lost Women from that perspective—it is interesting to think of the implications of the Vale of Lost Women (Lost to whom? In what way?), the story itself does not really support the reading in Uranian Worlds.

Cerasini and Hoffman’s reading has simply aged badly; based on the idea of homosexuality or asexuality as deviations from heterosexuality rather than equally valid and natural. Such an interpretation still fails to address the essential lack of agency that Livia has in the story; the idea that she needs a man to “rescue” her from homosexuality is just as misogynistic as the idea that Livia has no right to refuse Conan sex. They are correct in that it is a fundamentally different approach to the pursuit of sex that characterizes “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and the attitude that Conan displays in this story toward refusing to take sex by force would be one of the most important legacies of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

It did have a legacy. In 1979, “The Vale of Lost Women” was adapted for the Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian #104 (Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Ben Sean, Joe Rosen), set chronologically after the events of “The Queen of the Black Coast,” when Conan was adventuring among the black kingdoms of Kush.

After those three original stories, I got a chance in #104 to adapt another REH story: “The Vale of Lost Women.” This was not one of Howard’s best—in fact, not a few of his admirers consider it the worst Conan story he ever wrote. Some editor somewhere may have agreed; the tale wasn’t published until three decades following the author’s suicide in 1936. Still, it was a Howard Conan story, so I was bound and determined to adapt it—and it really didn’t make a bad comic book issue.

Two things commend this story to my memory. One is the fact that it contains the only mention ever by Howard of “Kheshatta, City of Magicians,” a mysterious locale in Stygia. The phrase always fascinated meas it doubtless did sometime Conan prose writer Lin Carter, who in the late 1960s had scribed a paperback novel titled Thongor and the City of Magiciansand I wondered what a city with a sobriquet like that might possibly be like! After all, it’s not as if the rest of Stygia was exactly lacking in the black magic department—so a whole “City of Magicians” must really be something to see! Alas, Howard, gives no clue—for the story’s heroine Livia is captured by the savage Bakalah en route to the place, and never gets there! (It was thus left to me to set a multi-part tale in Kheshatta when I became scripter of The Savage Sword of Conan again in the 1990s—and it was one of my favorite story arcs.)

The other thing I loved about “The Vale of Lost Women” was a line of dialogue Conan speaks near the end of the story. After killing the “demon from the dark” that tries to fly off with Livia, he casually dismisses the creature as just one of many: “They’re thick as fleas outside the belt of light that surrounds this world.” Howard had a real way with a phrase, and this disparagement by Conan of the fanged, bat-winged monstrosity he’s just slain strikes precisely the right note.
Roy Thomas,
The Chronicles of Conan Volume 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007),  145-146

By setting this in the context of Conan’s travels, and toning down or jettisoning some of the more overt violence, nudity, and racism, the result is indeed a pretty good comic book, while keeping the essentials of the plot and much of Howard’s prose. In part, this is because of the familiarity of the character as Roy Thomas, John Buscema & co. had built him up to this point; the look and voice of Conan is consistent with the character from previous issues, and seeing the fear and reactions of Livia makes her much more sympathetic as a character. The reader response was also positive…and in-depth:

Dear Roy, John, and Ernie,

Ish #104 was great, as usual, both in art and in Roy’s story adaptation, but something struck me about that particular adaptation that had never registered before. Roy, you and I rarely see eye to eye on the liberties you take with Howard’s stories, but this time I owe you a long overdue apology and a heartfelt thank-you.

As much as I love Robert E. Howard’s work and idolize his greatest creation, the Conan saga, there is one thing aout the creator of Conan that I cannot stand. Simply put, the man was a bigot.

This fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has read Howard’s original stories. They are full of derogatory remarks about blacks, rife with racial slurs. And although the Conan stories are not as anti-black as some of his earlier works, they too contain their share of prejudice. “The Vale of Lost Women” has always stood out in my mind as one of the worst. As I was reading issue #104, I prepared myself several times for the racial insults I knew to be forthcoming, but, lo and behold, no slurs! Then and only then did I realize that you had edited the derogatory racial barbs from other Conan stories as well as this one. For this, yo u have my eternal gratitude.

Howard was a bigot, this is true, but he died over four decades ago. He lived before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, back when we had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains, and his writing reflects this. Howard was a product of his times. I understand this and overlook his hatred of my people; others may not.

If you hadn’t cut out Howard’s bigotry and allowed the genius of his writing to shine through, you certainly would have antagonized every black in Conan’s reading audience and many liberal-minded whites as well. Most people would have attributed this bigtory to Conan, not to his creator, and this would have been tragic because the best comic magazine in history would have been cancelled long ago.

Once again, thanks Roy—and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

—Dale Armelin, “The Hyborian Page” in Conan the Barbarian #110 (May 1980)

The matter of racism in Sword & Sorcery, and the pulp revival in general, was alive and well when Conan the Barbarian was being published, when the Conan paperbacks filled displays at bookstores. African-Americans were customers too, and there really was a conversation to be had about how Howard’s racism would be translated; Charles R. Saunders in “Die, Black Dog!” specifically called out L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter both for ameliorating racism in Howard’s work when they edited/rewrote it—and for not taking the same care to avoid repeating the racism of the 1930s in their own contemporary fiction.

Frankly put, the conversation about race & Robert E. Howard (and Lovecraft, and weird fiction, sword & sorcery, etc. in general) is never over. It is a conversation that must be had continually, if only because the fiction these people wrote in the 1930s still finds an audience, and those who wish to expand and adapt their fictional worlds.

Roy Thomas & co. would go on to make Kheshatta, City of Magicians an established part of the Hyborian World, both in the Conan comic books and subsequent media. Likewise, the attitude of Conan toward “the demons of the Outer Dark” would strongly influence later interpretations of the character. While there had from the very first Conan story (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) been an element of sword against sorcery, that immortal horrors might yet be susceptible to cold steel, this cocksure attitude that a man like himself with a sword is a match for such entities would lay the groundwork for many monster-of-the-issue (or novel, or episode, etc.) takes on Conan.

More important, perhaps, is Conan’s attitude toward women. While Conan is far from exactly chivalrous in his attitudes in “The Vale of Lost Women,” his assertion that he won’t take a woman against her will is significant in a setting where slavery is commonplace. Conan has ever been a sexual entity in all of his incarnations, and many depictions of him have no particular qualms about employing sex workers—but it is that particular characteristic that Conan won’t force a woman to have sex against her will has subtly shaped some of his most contemporary depictions.

In the pages of Savage Avengers Annual (2019), for example, when Conan finds himself in contemporary South America, he refuses to sleep with sex workers being held against their will, and automatically sets about on a quest to destroy the human sex trafficking ring that enslaved them. While this might seem a bit of an obvious attitude to take for many contemporary readers, it’s a canonical approach that was embraced as a core tenet of Conan’s ethos that after it had appeared in “The Vale of Lost Women”—and arguably may have been a part of Robert E. Howard’s own evolving attitude toward women in his fiction.


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

The Woman of Arkham Advertiser (A・Aの女): Article 01: In The Vault (2019) by Takata Yuki (高田 悠希)

It was the publicity attending this investigation which set reporters on the track of the Whateleys, and caused the Boston Globe and Arkham Advertiser to print flamboyant Sunday stories of young Wilbur’s precociousness, Old Whateley’s black magic, the shelves of strange books, the sealed second story of the ancient farmhouse, and the weirdness of the whole region and its hill noises.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

The public knows of the Miskatonic Expedition through our frequent wireless reports to the Arkham Advertiser and Associated Press, and through the later articles of Pabodie and myself.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

As was only natural under the circumstances, this piquant debating finally got into print in the form of letters to the Arkham Advertiser; some of which were copied in the press of those Vermont regions whence the flood-stories came.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Lovecraftian manga have been undergoing a recent renaissance in Japan, with the critically acclaimed reception of Tanabe Gou’s adaptations of At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hound,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and most recently “The Call of Cthulhu,” all of which have been or are being translated and published in foreign language editions: Spanish, Italian, French, German, English, etc. Other popular adaptations include the Cthulhu no Yobi Koe series by Chuuou Higashiguchi (中央東口), and related manga include the Minase Yomu and the Really Scary Cthulhu Mythology (水瀬陽夢と本当はこわいクトゥルフ神話) series by Yoshihara Masahiko (吉原雅彦), and the many Zone of Cthulhu manga released by the SAN-EI Corporation (三栄)—which includes The Woman of Arkham Advertiser (A・Aの女) series by Takata Yuki (高田 悠希).

The conceit of the series is simple: Alice Allan is a cub reporter for the Arkham Advertiser, the local newspaper that appears in several of Lovecraft’s stories, and her “cases” cover a number of Lovecraft’s stories, both Mythos and non-Mythos, as set around Arkham. The result is a series of adaptations with a twist: we get to see the stories from a new perspective, that of a young newspaperwoman investigating the odd happenings. The series is categorized as a seinen (青年漫画), aimed at young men (18-30s), being more realistic and less action-packed than manga like One Piece or Dragon Ball, but readers of all genders and ages can appreciate it.

Chibi
Chibi version of Billy, a supporting character.

The adaptation is played seriously, but with more than a few laughs thrown in, the figures sometimes reduced to small chibi-style exaggerated figures to emphasize the one-off joke, familiar from manga like Shirow Masamune’s original Ghost in the Shell. The translation by Amimaru Translation and Localization Services Ltd. is mostly solid, although every now and again a joke may fail to land due to some cultural crossing of wires.

The small details and stark contrasts in the illustrations really shine though. Takata Yuki has worked hard to express the America of the 1920s, full of newsboys and the transition from the small industrial city of Arkham to out-of-the-way rural community of Peck Valley is like traveling back in time. Done in simple black-and-white, the bright outside scenes are given white backgrounds, while the moment the intrepid reporters step into the vault, the page is dominated by huge splashes of stark black, a very effective presentation that accentuates the emotional response of Alice Allan and her associate Billy.

Alice herself is the major focus and driver of the plot. She desires to prove herself as a reporter, and this is her first real opportunity to do so, by looking into the morbid details around the mysterious death and quick burial. While her enthusiasm is sometimes played for laughs, especially when contrasted against her long-suffering friend Billy, it is very effective at cutting right to the heart of Lovecraft’s story.

The story is not exactly a straight adaptation; Takata Yuki wisely doesn’t attempt to mimic the style of Lovecraft’s prose, and takes a few liberties with the ending, hinting at this being a small piece of a bigger picture that the reporters know they can’t quite see yet. Which works very well; Alice Allan is an engaging, energetic, enthusiastic protagonist, and starting slow with one of Lovecraft’s more low-key stories as their first “case” was a wise decision on the part of Takata Yuki.

The Woman of the Arkham Advertiser is available in Japanese on Kindle, and in English on Manga Planet subscription service.


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