“Cassius” (1931) by Henry S. Whitehead

Weird Racism
Historical racism can take some strange turns when expressed through fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and the result can be more disturbing or offensive to some readers than “normal” racism. As such, please be advised before reading further.

Whitehead—to whose other distinctions I find that of Reverend or ex-Reverend added—has just started a tale from an idea of mine which he is suggesting that I finish as a collaborated work—but I may pass it up because of inability to do justice to the West Indian locale he has seen fit to choose. I am the sworn enemy of armchair exoticism, & believe in writing about things one personally knows—except of course in the case of Dunsanian phantasy or cosmic infinity.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 31 Jan 1931, Essential Solitude 1.320

The Reverend Henry S. Whitehead was an Episcopal priest and pulp writer who contributed to magazines such as Weird Tales and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. Before retiring to Florida, Whitehead had spent summers down in the U. S. Virgin Islands, soaking up the local atmosphere, culture, and folklore, and set many of his tales in this milieu, often in stories involving his character Gerald Canevin. H. P. Lovecraft had fallen into correspondence with Whitehead, and the two formed a convivial bond.

Lovecraft kept a commonplace book with ideas and plot germs, some of which he used and many of which never materialized but were borrowed or developed by others. The plot seed that inspired Whitehead was apparently this one:

[133] Man has miniature shapeless SIamese twin—exhib. in circus—twin surgically detached—disappears—does hideous things with malign life of his own.

Collected Essays 5.227

The entry is dated 1925, and R. H. Barlow, who was Lovecraft’s literary executor, added the notation “HSW—Cassius” to this entry. Whitehead took Lovecraft’s basic idea and applied it to his West Indian milieu to craft another Canevin tale. While Whitehead urged collaboration, however, Lovecraft begged off:

Whether I do anything with that Whitehead tale depends on how eager he is about it—for I hate being churlish & uncivil. He says he has it all started, & that he has prepared some guiding notes on the chosen West-Indian background.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.321-322

As for collaboration—though I’ve done it in scores of ghost-writing cases, I think I’ll dispose of the Whitehead case by keeping things in the air till he writes the whole thing himself.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27? Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.324

Which is ultimately what Whitehead did. The story that developed, “Cassius” is essentially pure Whitehead in terms of plot and development, and aside from being set in the West Indies and starring his series character Canevin, also continues certain themes that he had developed in earlier tales.

For example, the tale “The Lips” (Weird Tales Sep 1929), a Black woman on a slave ship to the West Indies curses one of her white captors so that black mouths grow from his flesh, whispering the word “L’kundu”—this was a riff off Edward Lucas White’s story “Lukundoo” (1925), where a white man in colonial Africa wrongs an indigenous woman and is cursed to Lukundoo, where miniature, chattering Black heads grow from his flesh. In another tale, “Passing of a God” (Weird Tales Jan 1931), a white man with a large growth in his abdomen goes to the West Indies and falls in with voodoo; the growth is surgically removed and revealed to have been a parasitic twin that the cultists believed to be an incarnate god.

As those brief synopses indicate, there is a strong racial component to these stories; while the Virgin Islands was much less racially segregated than the mainland United States, Whitehead’s perspective—and his audience—was very much of the white mainland majority, and the characterization of BIPOC characters in his West Indies stories, while rarely mean-spirited, tend to be expressions of particular stereotypes and prejudices. So it is in “Cassius,” where a light-skinned biracial man named Brutus Hellman.

Brutus, it appeared, had need of a minor operation, and, Negro-like, the two of them, talking the matter over between themselves, had decided to ask me, their present patron, to arrange it.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

The operation had been the removal of a growth from Brutus’ groin or side—a parasitic twin which would go on to hunt and haunt Brutus Hellman in revenge. Except that the miniature human being thus freed is darker-skinned than Brutus, and possesses a kind of ancestral memory, reproduced African hut and spear in miniature as it carries out its campaign of terror. Whitehead offers a pseudoscientific explanation:

The well-established ethnic rule,the biological certainty in cases of miscegenation between Caucasians or quasi-Caucasians and the Negro or negroid tpes is tha the offspring is never darker than the darker of the two parents. The ‘black-baby’ tradition, as a ‘throw-back’ being produced by mulatto or nearly Caucasian parents is a bugaboo, Canevin, sheer bosh! It doesn’t happen that way. It cannot happen. it is a biological impossibility, my dear man. […] since Brutus is very ‘clear-colored,’ as the Negroes would say, that one of his parents was black; the other very considerably lighter, perhaps even a pure Caucasian. […] The mother—she was, undoubtedly, the black parent—proud of her ‘clear child’, would favor it,nurse it first.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

Even in 1931, this “scientific” explanation wouldn’t hold water, but the point was to try and give an explanation for why Cassius was both darker-skinned that Brutus, and why the miniature stereotype was running around stabbing lighter-skinned Black people with spears made from knives, building “African” style huts out of discarded pencils, and the like. Totally aside from the explicit and implicit racism (scientific and otherwise) in “Cassius,” the story ends rather anticlimactically, and even Lovecraft wasn’t very impressed with the result:

About “Cassius”—It is hard for me to give an unbiased judgment, since the development is so antithetical to that which I had in mind when offering the central idea. To me it seems that a vast number of atmospheric & other horror-possibilities have been left unrealised, & that the typically bland, urbane, & almost unctuous style (the stereotyped Kipling tradition) wrecks the sort of hideous tensity really needed. Yet on the other hand I can see where Whitehead has used a fertile cleverness in incident-devising that I could never have approached. The chief scientific objection is, of course, the part played by “hereditary memory”—a thing wholly repudiated by responsible biologists, though still favoured by weird writers. I’d call “Cassius” a typical anthology item—for “sophisticated” professionals love that unctuous urbanity which to me is so markedly unsatisfying.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 1.404-405

Whitehead and Lovecraft did eventually meet in Florida, and would collaborate on another Canevin tale, “The Trap.” Yet in a later letter, Lovecraft would reveal a little more about the origin of the tale:

I gave H S W the idea for “Cassius”—at first he wanted me to collaborate, but our styles & approaches were so different that I couldn’t. It all came from a freak I saw in a dime museum—an Italian with a rudimentary twin growing out of his abdomen. Some time I’ll tell you how I had meant to develop the theme—I may do it yet.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 23 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 207-208

In a sense, Lovecraft had already played with the twin theme in at least two tales: “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales Apr 1929) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (written early 1927, unpublished during Lovecraft’s lifetime). Ward with its near-identical ancestor-descendent pair recalls one of Lovecraft’s earliest recorded stories, now lost:

One long-destroyed tale was of twin brothers—one murders the other, but conceals the body, & tries to live the life of both—appearing in one place as himself, & elsewhere as his victim. (Resemblance had been remarkable.) He meets sudden death (lightning) when posing as the dead man—is identified by a scar, & the secret finally revealed by his diary. This, I think, antedates my 11th year.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 2 Feb 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 51

Lovecraft would refer to this idea in commenting on a similar story, “The Man Who Was Two Men” by A. W. Bernal in Weird Tales Apr 1935 (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 233). Yet neither of these stories really involves a parasitic twin, and the idea that Lovecraft got the idea from a real performer he saw at a human oddity exhibition is intriguing. We know from Lovecraft’s letters, for example, that in 1925 (from when the entry in the Common Place book is dated), Lovecraft and his wife visited such an attraction in Coney Island.

We then called in for a fitting of the suit, & took an open car for an evening ride to Coney Island. We had not intended to get off at all; but finding the resort phenomenally uncrowded, we did—incidentally patronising some of the assorted freak shows. In one of them there still survives P. T. Barnum’s original “Zip, the What-is-It”—now probably over 90 years of age. In Barnum’s day “Zip” (whose profile I here reproduce) was exhibited as a semi-ape, & dressed in a furry skin supposed to be his natural hide. Now he appears in immaculate evening dress, grins amiably, & picks out simple tunes on the violin & xylophone. The age is too sophisticated for Barnum’s charlatanry, & “Zip” chiefly interests people as having been part of the great showman’s entourage. This creature is really a semi-idiotic Andaman Islander—one of a dwarf Malay stock inhabiting the East Indies. He was picked up as a boy by a seaman long before the Civil War, & has since vegetated in one freak show after another. Living feebly & lightly, he does not show his years; & will probably excite the smiles of still another generation.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.308
Brown University Library

Lovecraft is credulously repeating the popular billing; “Zip the Pinhead” was William Henry Johnson, born to a Black family in New Jersey, and was in his late 60s when Lovecraft saw him, though he would die the following year.

It is not clear if the performer who inspired Lovecraft’s commonplace book entry was seen during this excursion or another, but Lovecraft went into great detail about the idea and its potential development; for ease of reading, this long section of a letter has been broken up into several sections:

About the twin—I was divided between two plans of development. One would have had the monster escape as Whitehead had it—but would have had it much more terrible & much less human. I would have had it grow in size, & frighten people much more terribly than “Cassius” did. Indeed, I would have tried to convey the implication that some Outside force or daemon had taken possession of the brainless, twisted body—impelling it to strange acts of apparently deliberate but plainly non-human motivation. The climax would have consisted of some dramatic & unmistakable revelation of this Outside tenancy—probably connected with the spectacular destruction of the thing in one way or another. My story would have had none of the lightness, sauvity, & humour of Whitehead’s, but would have been grim & terrible all through. So much for one plot.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 215

This is the development that most closely resembles the unnamed twin in “The Dunwich Horror”—and perhaps too closely resembles the parasitic twin in Whitehead’s “Passing of a God.” Assuming that Whitehead wrote that story before he received Lovecraft’s plot germ—and perhaps it is what prompted Lovecraft’s sharing of his own vaguely similar idea—he might have felt inclined to develop the parasitic twin idea in a different way in “Cassius” so as to avoid repeating himself. The other plot idea was far less cosmic and, like Whitehead’s, more science fiction:

The other plot I had in mind was much more human—not supernatural at all, in fact. The idea was to have the connexion of the man & his miniature twin much more complex & obscure than any doctor had suspected. The operation of separation is performed—but lo! An unforseen horror & tragedy results. For it seems that the brain of the twin-burdened man lay in the miniature twin alone . . . . so that the operation has produced a hideous monster only a foot tall, with the keen brain of a man, & a handsome manlike shell with the undeveloped brain of a total idiot. From this situation I planned to develop an appropriate plot, although—from the magnitude of the task—I had not progressed very far. I had an idea of having the midget monster assume the guardianship of his handsome, brainless twin & endeavour to hypnotise it in such a way that it could do his talking for him & act as his substitute in the outside world. I meant to have him succeed, so that after about a year there appears in society a handsome, brilliant man who always carries a satchel, & who displays vast alarm when there is any danger of his being separated from it. This, of course, is the brainless twin—who now serves as the mouthpiece & exterior facade of the intelligent monster, who rules him by hypnotism from the shelter of the satchel. From then on I had decided nothing. One idea was to have an accident destroy the satchel, causing the idiot to collapse helplessly & perhaps die. Another was to have the man gain fame—but finally to have the idiot body die in such a way that the death can hardly be concealed. The intelligent twin still lives—but how can he now keep his secret? He may be able to hide bodily, but how can he continue the work which brought him fame (say as a writer or painter or scholar) when the famous man is supposed to be dead? I had not progressed to the point of solving that problem—or even deciding whether I’d have such a problem—when Whitehead began urging the collaboration & I finally gave him the plot to develop in his own way. Hence “Cassius”.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

This “double life” plot is obviously a continuation of Lovecraft’s earliest twin theme story idea; yet the idea of a miniature parasitic twin with its own independent intelligence is clearly what inspired Whitehead’s “Cassius.” Yet the whole process of thinking over the plot germ led Lovecraft in a third direction:

Now—after years—another alternative occurs to me. I might have the death of the handsome idiot-body concealed, & have the intelligent monster embalm it & display it seated in a chair—ostensibly still alive but paralysed. he would have it appear to speak—in a feeble, alien voice supposedly due to the paralysis—through the clever practice of ventriloquism. Then some awful climax of revelation could occur—any one of a dozen hideous sorts. The embalming could be imperfect, so that the supposedly living man would display signs of decomposition. Or notice could be attracted by its failure to age through the passing years. In writing such a story, I’d probably begin near the end—that is, have the bulk of the action concern the final phase, when the supposed paralytic begins to arouse suspicion. The antecedent history—the operation &c—would be subtly worked in as backflashes. I would make the revelation very gradual & suspense-filled—& at the last might leave the reader in some doubt of what the truth really was. Whether I shall ever do this or not remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn’t be duplicating “Cassius”—for the whole spirit & emphasis of my conception is antipodally alien to Whitehead’s. Whitehead urged me to go ahead & try—but I thought some time had better elapse in any case.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

While Lovecraft would never develop this explicit idea, the image of the ventriloquist act would be used in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931). The narrative development of beginning at the end and then working back to how this came to pass is a familiar part of Lovecraft’s style. Yet as for where Lovecraft got the idea in the first place:

I believe I mentioned that my idea came from seeing an actual case of the undeveloped-twin anomaly in a freak shew (Hubert’s Museum in W. 42nd St.) in New York. The man in question–an intelligent Italian who for some reason billed himself under the French name of “Jean Libera”—had a little anthropoid excrescence growing out of his abdomen which looked hellishly gruesome when uncovered. Cothed, he looked merely like a somewhat “pot-bellied” individual. So far as I know, he is still living & on exhibition. He looked so essentially refined & high0gade that I wondered at this willingness to be exploited as a freak, & speculated as to what he would do if a stroke of luck removed him from the need of such an ignominious occupation. The first thing he would do, I argued, would be to have the excrescence cut off—& then & there the idea of the story came. This was in 1924 or 1925. Now the odd & amusing thing is this. Years afterward—after I had given the idea to Whitehead & was awaiting the appearance of “Cassius”—I chanced to mention the matter to my old friend Arthur Leeds of New York, who has had extensive dealings with freaks & other amusement enterprises. Fancy my surprise when he told me that he knows Libera well—that the man’s real name is Giovanni Libera, that he is an Italian of great intelligence, that he is interested in everything weird, & that (believe this or not—it’s actual truth!) he is especially fond of my work in W.T.!!!! Talk about coincidence! Leeds was going to tell him about “Cassius”, but I told him not to, since he might feel some delicacy (despite his occupation) about being used in that way. At the time (1930) Leeds was going to introduce me to Liebra; but something prevented, so the meeting never came off. It certainly would have seemed odd to meet one of my plot-germs in the flesh . . . . the flesh of two bodies, or a body & a half, at that!

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216-217

Giovanni Libbera was an Italian performer who toured the United States, sometimes billed as Jean or Jean and Jacques Libbera. Lovecraft’s 1924 and 1925 letters do no mention Hubert’s Dime Museum or Libbera by name, and trying to figure out exactly where Libbera was under contract during that period is difficult, but there are newspaper advertisements that show Libbera was employed at Hubert’s during some periods. J.-M. Rajala in “Locked Dimensions Out of Reach: The Lost Stories of H. P. Lovecraft” (Lovecraft Annual #5, 2011) suggests it may have been during a 15 July walk to Times Square recorded in Lovecraft’s 1925 diary.

Which is the long and rather weird root to how a chance encounter with a human oddity led to a story in Weird Tales…and, perhaps, sheds some light on Lovecraft’s plotting and development of story ideas, and how that differed from his colleagues. It is notable, for instance, that Lovecraft’s original plot-germ and all of its developments is totally agnostic in terms of race. The plot has nothing to do with the twins being white, Black, or anything else, while Whitehead in transferring the plot to the West Indies makes it entirely about race, or at least about certain preconceptions about race. This makes fair sense when it is considered that Whitehead’s stories frequently dealt with BIPOC characters in a setting where they predominated, while Lovecraft stuck mostly with familiar New England settings with relatively fewer BIPOC folk.

No—I shan’t let your gargoyle tale cut mine off . . . . any more than I shall let Whitehead’s “Cassius” suppress my future tale of the amputated Siamese twin.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Aug 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 320

The legacy of “Cassius” is a bit harder to track. While no one has, to the best of my knowledge, written a direct sequel, however there are two stories by members of Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents that might continue some of the themes and ideas.

“The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937) by Robert Bloch is about a man with a parasitic twin growing from the left shoulder that is both intelligent and has a distinct interest in Mythos lore; as in Lovecraft’s second plot development, the parasite manages to gain control of its brothers body for a time.

“It Will Grow On You” (Esquire Apr 1942) by Donald Wandrei is a kind of spiritual sequel that combines elements of “Cassius,” “The Lips,” and “Lukundoo.” A white man among the islands gets a native woman pregnant, and when he threatens to leave she curses him. A small female form then grows from his thigh. A surgeon attempts to remove the growth, but the curse transfers to the surgeon.

In all of these stories that have been discussed, there is a fascination with both bodily deformity—many of the stories are effectively early examples of what today would be termed body horror—and with the idea of a kind of twisted morality play. Giovanni Libbera did nothing wrong, committed no crime or sin, he was simply born the way he was. Individuals in stories like “Lukundoo,” “The Lips,” and “It Will Grow On You” all receive their horrific transformations from some terrible crime, and like a rapist who catches an STD, have to live with the consequences. In “Passing of a God,” “Cassius,” and “The Mannikin” it is the parasite that is evil…something to be cut from the body if possible, endured if not.

None of the characters seek to capitalize on their odd status as Libbera did; these are not stories about the practical difficulties of the life of a performer making the best of an unusual physical condition, like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). There is a very distinct prudishness and shame regarding their physical bodies which is reflected in Lovecraft’s emphasis on Libbera’s “ignominious occupation.” Yet that was a mentality that went far beyond just Lovecraft himself, and found expression in many authors during the period. Sideshows and dime museums may have come and gone, yet the repulsion at that which is different—and the fascination with the same—remains.

Henry S. Whitehead’s “Cassius” may be read for free online in the Nov 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“The Last Horror” (1927) by Eli Colter

Weird Racism
Historical racism can take some strange turns when expressed through fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and the result can be more disturbing or offensive to some readers than “normal” racism. As such, please be advised before reading further.

But by the time I was twenty-one I realized how insurmountable a barrier lay between me and the fulfilment of my dreams. I was a Negro. No matter what respect I might command from white men because of my intelligence and abilities, no matter to what heights I might rise, the wall of race reared between. It drove me fantic. I wanted to meet other great men on a common level, to be one of them. And I could not.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

Racial discrimination is based on the fallacy that race is a definable, fixed constant; a physical and cultural reality that is consistent and unalterable. The reality of this discrimination—the eponymous color line in the United States—has been a source of tension within the population since the first African slaves were brought to the nascent Colonies in 1619. Sometimes the definition and discrimination based on race was encoded in law, such as during the Jim Crow era when Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote for Weird Tales, and more often—even today—the discrimination was largely informal, social, a reflection of white supremacy and the paranoia and violence used to enforce that self-image.

Yet race is not so clear-cut or fixed. This is part of what gave rise to the white horror of passing, a light-skinned person of color being able to successfully pass themselves off as “white,” as happened in Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (1894) and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft. Supernatural and science fiction, however, allows much more fantastic possibilities. What if you could drink some magic potion, or apply some chemical agent to the skin, and change its color? On the surface, this seems silly; albinism exists regardless of ethnicity, and there is much more to ethnic identities than just skin, eye, and hair color. However, when so much cultural tension is wrapped up in issues of skin color, the idea of racebending becomes a thought experiment—a narrative what-if explored in stories like Harry Roselenko’s Black Is A Man (1960) or Lord Dunsany’s “Across the Colour Bar” (2002), and many other works, sometimes for social commentary, or comedy, or horror.

“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter is an example of such a racebending weird tale—a rare story that directly addresses the issues of racial discrimination, and yet the plot is irreparably snarled.

In form, the story is essentially science fiction: a Black millionaire with white hands (attributed to maternal impression, but possibly inspired by vitiligo) receives a skin graft from a white friend and conceives the idea of grafting white skin onto his entire body and passing himself as a white man. This is accomplished with the aid of a rogue surgeon and a carefully planned campaign of kidnapping, bribery, and murder to obtain the white skin. Yet the focus of the story is less on the details of the surgery, the possibilities of tissue rejection, or the possibility of failure—the antagonist, Ballymair, has planned too well. What the narrative focuses on are the racial dynamics of the story.

When Ballymair goes to the Congo to participate in a hunt, the African-American meets indigenous Africans, and expresses his prejudices:

I compared myself to those negroids over there. Cannibals! Living in crude rectangular houses, tattooed in weird designs with scars, carrying bows with cane strings and packing wooden shields, wearing bark-cloth—or nothing—believing in their fetishism and witchcraft, chipping their teeth and letting the women do all the work. Was I like them? Was I of that race? Only in color! Outside I was black, but inside I was as purely Caucasian as either the captain or Dr. Straub.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

Except…are these really his prejudices? Because the words put into the character’s mouth are white stereotypes, the kind of thing expressed in a hundred pulp stories or Black Magic (1929) by Paul Morand. These are the words put in the mouth of an African-American character when the author wants to express self-hatred, to define that spark of madness that would lead to this murderous plot. These are a white person’s prejudices, put in the mouth of a non-white character, and for the specific purpose so that at the climax of the story a white character can give the ultimate rebuttal when the operation is complete and Ballymair shows off his white skin.

White? Where? You may change your skin, Ballymair, but you can’t change your heart. You’re quite right. The skin does not matter. One of the best friends I have is a Negro—a man with a clear brain and a fine soul, satisfied to hold his place in the world.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

While this might not be the earliest example of a white person dragging out a token Black friend as an effort to appear inclusive. Yet that Black man is only the white man’s friend so long as he is “satisfied to hold his place in the world.” The whole of the reason-you-suck speech is such a bizarre mishmash of backhanded compliments towards Black people and hellacious stereotypes about Black people that the ideas run into each other.

While the overall moral of the story would appear to be self-acceptance, it is couched in such a web of white supremacist language and ideas that it’s difficult to read this as well-meaning. This is a story written by a white person who, regardless of what moral they were trying to express, fundamentally doesn’t understand and cannot portray the Black experience in the 1920s, and it shows at nearly every turn. All we are left with at the end is a morally indignant white person essentially proving their ideas of white superiority by shaming Ballymair to suicide by explaining race and racism to him.

You may be white from the second skin out, but your blood runs true to form. Whatever pigment lies in the cells of that first skin to make the Negro black still flows in your veins! Go ahead and marry! Find out how white you are. Look—there you are! A white man, having taken his place in the world, wealthy; perhaps respected for his brain and his polish, in social intercourse with his seeming kind—with black children around his knees.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

It’s not a stupid argument to point out that the skin graft is a change literally only skin deep, but the idea that this is a showstopper for someone who has already conducted multiple murders to pull off the fraud is making a hell of an assumption. The problem isn’t the genetics so much as the suppositions that go behind these statements. For example, the assumption is that Ballymair will marry a white woman and that biracial children would give him away or prove a social handicap. A moment’s thought might bring up adoption, interracial marriage, or any other option if Ballymair desires children.

Yet the superficial nature of the argument is a reflection of the literally superficial plot. “The Last Horror” is not some deep introspective philosophical work on the nature of racism and racial identity; it’s an almost hokey science fiction story with a laughable surmise that’s played for horror to an audience of white readers. The argument that “passing” doesn’t make Ballymair white is a reaffirmation of scientific racialism and white supremacist talking points, even when an effort is made to couch it in such a way as to shame Ballymair for not embracing his own Black identity. If a Black character had made this argument, it would have seemed an appeal to Black pride; from a white character, it is literally nothing more than “know your place.”

Given the absolute mess of the race dynamics in this story, it is perhaps not surprising that “The Last Horror” hasn’t had much of a cultural impact or seen much reprinting. The story was well-received at Weird Tales, and reprinted in the British Not At Night anthology You’ll Need A Night Light (1927) edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and in the Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales, but “The Last Horror” has been passed over for anthologies and collections ever since, except for facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. No doubt it is too much an artifact of the Jim Crow era, and of sentiments whose time is long past.

Yet there is a final aspect of “The Last Horror” which is rarely acknowledged: the synchronicity with H. P. Lovecraft. In that same issue of Weird Tales where “The Last Horror” was first published, Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” also first saw print. When Thomson selected “The Last Horror” for You’ll Need A Night Light, she picked “The Horror at Red Hook” too. And while Lovecraft rarely discusses many of the early stories of Weird Tales, he did make a point to mention this one:

The only decent thing in the issue, aside from such shorter features as your tale, is “The Last Horror”—which is truly clever, though more quasi-scientific than weird. I have long planned something of that sort myself, though of psychic rather than physical cast—an attempt on the part of an educated negro to project his personality & secure the tenancy of a white man’s body through the arts of voodoo.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56

Lovecraft wasn’t kidding. His Commonplace Book where he recorded story ideas and images for later use includes two entries along these lines from 1923:

108: “Educated mulatto seeks to displace personality of white man & occupy his body”

109: “Ancient negro voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.”

Collected Essays 5.225

Like “A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof, Lovecraft was sort of beaten to the punch. Perhaps that is why, ultimately, Lovecraft would not write either of these stories, though the whole idea of personality displacement or possession would appear in stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Nor does voodoo make much of an appearance in Lovecraft’s fiction (see “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch for details). Later generations who mined Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book for ideas have also generally left those ideas inviolate. We can only imagine how Lovecraft might have conceived and written a story based on this kind of premise—whether he could bend his view to get inside the mind of a Black character, or whether like Colter it would have been simply a confirmation of white supremacism.

Which is understandable. Lovecraft and Colter both expressed an interest in the same idea at roughly the same time because racial segregation and white supremacy were current and ongoing issues in the United States, and passing had real legal, social, and economic benefits when compared to the ongoing discrimination that nearly all people of color faced. Discrimination which Lovecraft and Colter were both aware of, but did not face themselves.

As for Eli Colter’s “Golden Whistle”—not having my W T file with me, I couldn’t say what issue it appeared in. Nor do I know anything about Colter himself. I never liked his tales overly well, since to me they seemed to contain just a touch of the mawkish.

H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 29 Apr 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 81

Eli Colter was one of the pseudonyms of May Eliza Frost (see her entry on Tellers of Weird Tales blog), a white woman from Oregon, which had long-lasting Black exclusion laws. She and Lovecraft were of an age, and it is not surprising that they addressed some of the same themes, in their own style and from their different perspective. Yet they were both white people, and benefitted from their place in the racial hierarchy of the United States, despite their personal hardships…and they were writing to an audience that was presumably also white, who would be expected to share those same experiences and possibly the same prejudices, spoken and unspoken, that inform works like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Last Horror.”

Yet while Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” has been reprinted dozens of times, studied and dissected, critiqued, pastiched, parodied, and revisited (see “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle), “The Last Horror” has largely sunk into obscurity—and the obscurity of this story, and other contemporary stories like it, is part of the reason why Lovecraft’s own prejudices tend to loom larger in his reputation. When folks claim that Lovecraft’s racism was particularly virulent or notorious even when compared to his peers, it is worth remembering “The Last Horror” and that Lovecraft’s prejudices were not unique. This should not be taken as absolving or downplaying the prejudices expressed in either Colter or Lovecraft’s fiction, but only as an understanding that these works were not created in a vacuum, but express something of the historical context of their times and experiences.

“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter can be read online in the Jan 1927 issue or Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Sunfire” (1923) by Francis Stevens

The Golden Atom #9 (Dec 1940)

In the 1940 issue of The Golden Atom fanzine, editor Litterio B. Farsaci (who later changed his name to Larry Farsace) published an article “Science Fiction Pseudonyms” that claimed that “Augustus T. Swift” was a pseudonym of H. P. Lovecraft; as proof of this, elsewhere in the same issue Farasci reprinted two letters from Swift that had appeared in Argosy pulp magazine for 15 Nov 1919 and 22 May 1920. The Swift letters were given as being from Providence, Rhode Island, and Lovecraft was known to have used a number of pseudonyms, and to have written fan-letters to the Argosy (some of which were reprinted in the same issue of The Golden Atom).

The letters were notable in no small part because Swift praised the writing of Francis Stevens (a pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett), whose fantasy stories ran in the All-Story Weekly, Argosy, People’s Favorite Magazine, Thrill Book, and Weird Tales. To give a taste of Swift comments’, consider his praise for Stevens’ “The Citadel of Fear,” serialised in Argosy from 14 Sep to 19 Oct 1918:

But one story tops them all, “Citadel of Fear.” If written by Sir Walter Scott or Ibañez, that wonderful and tragic allegory would have been praised to the skies. While reading it I often wondred if Francis Stevens had in mind the slimy and diabolic spirit of evil which has so many years dominated the German rulers, until finally the whole nation became prostituted by the devil and his imps. Underlying its amazing and thrilling scenes was the sad but indisputable lesson that once a man gives himself up to evil and to evil deeds only, resulting from selfish greed, that man’s soul is lost. I find also in it a very strong suggestion that real evil does not lie in the so-called personal pecadilloes, but rather in black treachery toward one’s own kith and kin and country, an unmoral endeavor to harm all those who stand in the path of selfish purpose, and a general and studied ambition to spread animalism and degeneration among the human race. Pan-Germanism, class creed, Bolshevism are the present illustrations of the sliminess and abysmal hell portrayed by Francis Stevens.

I feel so much interested in the motif of that curious tale that I should like very much to have my curioisty gratified by the author himself. I believe many of your readers would like a sketch of the life of Mr. Stevens, and particularly the source and development of his motif in the “Citadel of Fear.” That story would make one amazing moving-picture drama, if taken up by the right moving-picture managers.

Augustus T. Swift to The Argosy, published 15 Nov 1919, in H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy 32

However, Farsace was incorrect: Augustus T. Swift was not a pseudonym of H. P. Lovecraft, but a real person. Nevertheless, the name entered the general store of Lovecraftian lore being compiled in the 1940s; the claim was reprinted in “Pseudonyms of H.P.L.” in The Lovecraft Collector #1 (1949) by Ray H. Zorn, and continued to promulgate in articles and books apparently without question for decades. L. Sprague de Camp’s 1975 H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography repeats the claim, as do many other works. S. T. Joshi took “Augustus T. Swift” seriously as a Lovecraft pseudonym as late as “The Rationale of Lovecraft’s Pseudonyms” (Crypt of Cthulhu #80, 1992). The error was not finally revealed until 1994’s H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy (Necronomicon Press), where Joshi wrote:

A very simple examination of the Providence city directory for 1919-1920 establishes that there was a real individual named Augustus . Swift living at 122 Rochambeau Avenue in Providence. It is manifestly clear that these two letters are not by Lovecraft at all; they are accordingly reprinted here in an appendix, purely for the historical record. […]

Some further conseqeuences follow upon the supriousness of these letters. ALthough Lovecraft admits to reading A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” in All-Story for 22 June 1918,there is now no evidence that he read Argosy at all after 1914, or that he read and enjoyed the work of Francis Stevens (praised in the Augustus T. Swift letters), although it is conceivable that he might have. Stevens’ novels The Citadel of Fear and Claimed have been reprinted in paperback, with blurbs from the Augustus T. Swift letters attributed to Lovecraft! One hopes this sort of thing will not occur again.

S. T. Joshi, “Introduction” in H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy 6-7

Unfortunately, that has occurred again. And again. A lot of times, including the 2022 edition of The Citadel of Fear by Flame Tree Press. Fifty years of Lovecraft scholarship had been published noting Swift as a Lovecraft pseudonym and that Lovecraft praised Stevens, and the false fact was promulgated in many reprints of Francis Stevens’ work and in works of criticism and genre scholarship, as Terence E. Hanley noted in his Tellers of Weird Tales blog posts for Francis Stevens and Augustus T. Swift. It seems depressingly unlikely that publishers trawling the public domain for works to reprint will make the extra effort to research such claims—and even if they did, the false myth has spread so widely, odds are that they might honestly come across several sources that appear to support the claim, rather than those that accurately debunk it.

As Joshi points out, without the Swift letters there is no evidence that Lovecraft read most of the magazines where Francis Stevens’ work appeared; nor are there any mentions of Francis Stevens (or Barrett’s other pseudonyms) in Lovecraft’s published letters or essays such as “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” She appears to have formed a blind spot in his reading—and that’s not unusual; Lovecraft couldn’t read everything, even in the field of contemporary weird fiction.

Yet there is one story by Francis Stevens that did appear in a pulp magazine that Lovecraft was reading.

“Sunfire” by Francis Stevens was serialized in two parts in Weird Tales (Jul-Aug & Sep 1923). Lovecraft’s letters do not mention this tale, but neither does Lovecraft report on most of the contents of these early issues of Weird Tales in his early letters. Regardless, it is likely that Lovecraft did read this story, especially since it was the cover story for the Jul-Aug 1923 issue.

Unfortunately, this final effort is not Francis Stevens’ best work, lacking the imagination and subtlety of stories like “Unseen—Unfeared” (People’s Favorite Magazine, 10 Feb 1919), “Serapion” (Argosy, 19 Jun-10 Jul 1920), or “Claimed” (Argosy, 6-20 Mar 1920), the stories which are the most “Lovecraftian” in theme and mood. Instead, “Sunfire” is a rather typical lost world/lost race novella which Stevens has attempted to tell in a brisk style that contrasts humor and horror—light, zippy dialogue fights with efforts to express fantastic visions or dangers. The characters are only lightly sketched, and there is a Keystone Cops element to their portrayal, the five protagonists almost tripping over themselves at the sight of a pretty young blonde, lampshaded by their own self-awareness of what utter boobs they’re being. It would almost qualify as a parody of the genre.

It was part of a genre. The massive expansion and consolidation of European colonial empires in the 19th century had been an age of exploration and conquest, and in the early 20th century the romantic notion of the white man’s expedition was swiftly running out of unknown regions with uncontacted indigenous peoples to exploit. H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels were only one starting point that typically involved white men penetrating some exotic region, encountering indigenous peoples, and often contacting lost white tribes, ancient cities and ruins, and quite possibly unfeasibly sized jewels and monsters, natural or supernatural. “Sunfire” may in this respect be compared and contrasted with stories like Henry S. Whitehead’s “The People of Pan” (Weird Tales Mar 1929) and “The Great Circle” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Jun 1932), Robert E. Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (Weird Tales Oct 1931) and “The Valley of he Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934), A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” and “The Metal Monster”…and dozens of other stories that ran in the pulps. Even Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness follows the form of an expedition story…but there, the similarities with “Sunfire” largely end.

Francis Stevens obviously cracked a book or two researching this story; the first couple of chapters include a number of details relating to Brazilian culture that are more or less accurate (caboclos, farina, chiheh, assai wine, giant centipedes, etc.). The depictions aren’t perfect (how the indigenous guides died of beri beri in a week is beyond me), but it’s obvious that she put at least a minimum of effort into actually centering the story when and where it should be. So too, while finding a beautiful blonde white woman in a place where it was believed no white person had gone before is straight out of the lost world story playbook, the actual descriptions of some of the weird phenomena and architecture show that Stevens was very capable of fantastic prose:

Then all paused uncertainly. The abruptness of a tropical sunset had ended the last of the day. Great stars throbbed out in a blue-black sky. The breeze had increased to a chill wind. All the pyramid was a mass of darkness about them, save that about the flat peak there seemed again to hover a faint, pale luminescence.

These clear, evocative bits of prose are, however, sandwiched in between a lot of zippy dialogue by a group of racist, sexist, and relatively horny and violent white men. This is very much of a piece with the other elements of lost world fiction; the kind of casual racism and sexism expressed in lines like:

She is of white blood, but she disgraces it. Any Indian woman, feeling as she pretends to feel, would dare the wrath of her people on earth and the gods beyond and be true to the humane instinct.

Is very much in keeping with the colonialist ideals and ethics that inform this piece. The casual assumption of white supremacy and feminine nature were a part of the language of such fiction. They didn’t have to be, but it was nearly universal to such pulp fiction, and while those elements haven’t aged well, they should also be seen as explicitly part of the trope-driven nature of this particular narrative. The light tone and humor contrast with the inherent horror of the piece, and the dialogue has aged about as well as the racism and sexism, coming across as stilted and unrealistic, though in the context of the 1920s it definitely captures the tone and language of that now-alien vernacular of the 1920s.

Some of Stevens’ fiction shares elements with Lovecraft’s own fiction, like the dark sea-god intimated in “Claimed” or the unseen presence in “Unseen—Unfeared,” illustrating that Lovecraft was himself working inside a kind of weird tradition, playing with many of the same concepts as other contemporary weird writers. Unfortunately, her story “Sunfire” shares almost nothing with Lovecraft’s fiction in theme or style. At one point she uses the word “Cyclopean” to refer to the pyramid, but aside from that bit of vocabulary, there isn’t much there that can be pointed to as potentially influential on Lovecraft.

However, Francis Stevens’ fiction should not be read from the perspective of “what did Lovecraft take from his?” It should be enjoyed in its own right. “Sunfire” isn’t a story I would recommend as an introduction to her fiction, or to anyone except diehard completionists of lost world fiction, but as an example of that mode of fiction, it stands up okay. Not some lost classic to be rediscovered, but a competent working of the familiar tropes and elements. Her other fiction, however, is worth reading. Not because Lovecraft read it (he probably didn’t), but as an example of what other people who weren’t Lovecraft were writing and publishing in Weird Tales at the time.

Francis Stevens might not have been an influence on Lovecraft, but she was a contemporary, and reading her fiction gives readers more insight into the literary traditions in which Lovecraft himself was working. In her own way and in her own style, she touched on some of the same elements completely independent of Lovecraft—because the pulp fiction tradition, and the weird fiction tradition, is bigger than Lovecraft and his contemporaries, bigger than the Mythos and cosmic horror, and many elements of what we now often call “Lovecraftian horror” were far from exclusive to Lovecraft himself.

“Sunshine” can be read for free in Weird Tales Jul-Aug 1923 and Weird Tales Sep 1923.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Deeper Cut: Hart Crane

And saw thee dive to kiss that destiny

Like one white meteor, sacrosanct and blent

At last with all that’s consummate and free

There, where the first and last gods keep thy tent.

Hart Crane, “The Dance,” part of The Bridge (1930), in Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Selected Letters 47

H. P. Lovecraft did not rub shoulders with Ernest Hemingway in Key West; did not correspond with F. Scott Fitzgerald or Gertrude Stein. If he argued with Henry Miller over a bookstall in Brooklyn, or sipped coffee in an automat across from Dorothy Parker, we have no record of it. Lovecraft’s brushes with the famous literary names of his day were few and brief, and the most notable of these encounters was with the gay poet Hart Crane.

On 21 July 1899, Grace Edna Hart Crane gave birth to Harold Hart Crane, her only child. Her husband was Clarence A. Crane, a successful businessman. Their relationship was rocky, and ended with divorce in 1917, the young Hart Crane living with his mother in Cleveland. The circumstances of Hart Crane’s life at this point offer some superficial similarities with Lovecraft’s own: both young men lived with mothers who suffered nervous breakdowns, both were unprepared for college and largely autodidacts who read voluminously; poetry and literature were overwhelming passions, and money was a pressing concern. However, the similarities break down in detail. By age 18, Crane had already attempted suicide and had his first homosexual experience; his father was alive, and if Crane didn’t always get along with him, they had a relationship; and while Crane struggled to hold a steady job he did try everything from working in a munitions plant during the Great War to writing copy for an advertising agency to working for his father’s candy business.

Samuel Loveman, the amateur journalist, poet, and bookman, recalled meeting Crane in Cleveland in 1919, shortly after Loveman had been discharged from the army (Out of the Immortal Night (2nd ed.) 315). Loveman and Crane became friends, bonding with their mutual love of books and poetry (they were also both gay, though there is no indication they were ever lovers). Despite Prohibition, Crane had begun to drink, and alcohol and conversation flowed easily in the literary and artistic crowd that he moved in.

Among his friends, there was a steady round of parties. Every time one of the Cleveland artists or writers had a visitor, the entire group was called together. One such visitor was the poet James Daly, a friend of Charles Harris’s, and another was H. P. Lovecraft, the writer of horror stories and weird tales, who came to see Sam Loveman and Alfred Galpin and who described for this aunts in Providence, Rhode Island, the Loveman-Crane-Sommer-Lescaze circle

Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane 256

Cleveland, August 1922

H. P. Lovecraft had encountered Samuel Loveman’s poetry in amateur journals c.1915, and in 1917 he wrote to Loveman, coaxing him back into amateur journalism and beginning a correspondence—despite the fact that Loveman was Jewish and Lovecraft antisemitic, the two became good friends. Loveman and Lovecraft finally met in New York City in 1922, as guests of Sonia H. Greene, who hoped that Lovecraft’s encounters with them both would disprove his antisemitic notions (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985)). It didn’t work, but they all became fast friends, and in 1922 Loveman invited Lovecraft to Cleveland. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunt detail the trip, although his mention of Hart Crane is brief:

We held a meeting here of all the members of Loveman’s literary circle, at which the conversation covered every branch fo aesthetics. […] I met some new figures—Crane the poet, Lazar[e], an ambitious literary student now in the army, & a delightful young fellow named Carroll Lawrence […]

Tonight Galpin, Crane, I, & a fellow I have not yet met are going to a concert held in the art museum building. Great days!!

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 9 Aug 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.54, 55

This was probably a program at the Cleveland Museum of Art, possibly under the direction of Ernest Bloch of the Cleveland Institute of Music, whom Hart Crane mentions in several letters (cf. Out of the Immortal Night (2nd ed.) 392-393). Lovecraft did not go into detail about the crowd he was hanging out with to his aunt, but in a later letter he particularly recalled:

Mention of S. L. reminds me of this Hatfield person. To be sure, I recall him! Dear, dear! how he used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Eglin’s, little white sailor’s cap tucked gracefully under one arm, sport shirt open at the neck, gazing soulfully up at Samuelus and discoursing of the arts and harmonies of life! I’m afraid he thought me a very crude, stupid, commonplace, masculine sort of persons—and am indeed surprised that he recalled me! Hatfield and Crane were mortal enemies, and it use to be amusing to watch them when they met by accident, each trying to humiliate the other by veiled thrusts and conversational subtleties hardly intelligible to an uninitiated third person. And so he has hit the big town! Here’s hoping it will be kind to him, and not crush his flower-like delicacy!

H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.281-282

Eglin’s was a Cleveland bookstore where Samuel Loveman (“S.L.” above) was employed; Gordon Hatfield was a minor composer and, apparently openly homosexual or possibly displayed “camp” mannerisms. In another letter, Lovecraft was less discreet:

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

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

How much Crane disliked Hatfield is unclear; Crane’s letters barely mention Hatfield at all. However, Samuel Loveman weighed in on the subject during an interview:

But during that period there was a very rich young man whom I had known in Cleveland, alienated from his family and made much of by an aunt who lived in a cottage on the lot where they lived. […] His name was Gordon Hatfield. He was of the troiseme sex, but he absolutely never approached me and never referred to it. But I knew what was going on. […] Hart knew [Gordon Hatfield]. Hart disliked him, he disliked Hart. Because he didn’t like Hart’s action when he was drunk. Hart was boisterous, and since many of these people were like porcelain figures, Hart was like a bull in a china shop when he came there. He grabbed. There was no end to it. […] But Gordon liked me, liked my company because he sought it. He was completely different from Hart.

“Conversations with Sam” in Out of the Immortal Night (2nd ed.) 465-466

The contrast between Hart Crane and Gordon Hatfield led to an interesting comparison in Lovecraft’s account:

. . . . . Alfredus never spoke a harsh word to the creature, but I suppose he couldn’t conceal the contempt of an ultra-masculine personality for such attenuated exquisteness. Alfie, you know, has no nonsense about him, but is a gruff reg’lar feller with disordered hair, clothes likely to be out of press, and a brusqueness of gesture and expression which says more than harsh words . . . . On the whole, I think my Alfredus-grandchild can show contempt without words better than any other living mortal. Then too, Galpin unmistakable liked Crane—though acquainted in advance with the darkest side of his character—better than he did the sisters. Crane has at least the external appearance and actions of a man, and for that much Alfredus respected him. Crane didn’t like Alfredus, as that precocious child soon learnt through the mediation of Samuelus, but he was not so intolerable a spectacle as his mincing foes. On the whole, Alfie didn’t make much of a hit in Cleveland, because the gang there were affected and sissified to the last degree–sentimental, emotional, and given to absurd expressions of the arts they studied in the lives they led.

H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.291-292

“The darkest side of his character” and “at least the external appearance and actions of a man” is the only suggestion in all of Lovecraft’s correspondence that he might have been aware that Hart Crane was gay. Loveman himself confirmed Lovecraft’s perception of Crane’s demeanor, noting about Crane that “He prided himself on his appearance of masculinity” (Hart Crane: A Conversation with Samuel Loveman 21), and expanded on that in another interview:

[John Unterecker]: You told me also about his once telling you that he deliberately schooled himself to appear masculine.

SL: He told me once . . . Now, Hart was a very masculine person. He smoked cigars. He chewed tobacco—I thought an abominable vice, a filthy vice—and spat, and it was revolting. But had had a stride, a very masculine stride. So he told me that he deliberately, as you say, schooled himself to adopt this to avoid any feeling of resentment against him on the score of masculinity or non-masculinity. […] He could not tolerate feminine people.

“Conversations with Sam” in Out of the Immortal Night (2nd ed.) 402

Prejudices surrounding non-gender-conforming and non-heterosexuality in the 1920s were blatant and pervasive, and the distinction between feminine behavior and homosexuality was often blurred in public understanding. Lovecraft’s reaction was not uncommon, and violence was a perpetual threat that LGBTQ+ folks lived with. Whether Crane’s posture was a defensive one to protect himself from discrimination, or an aspect of his identity, in Lovecraft and Galpin’s case it seemed to work. Despite Hart Crane’s sexuality, Lovecraft appeared to have no difficulty interacting with him during their brief encounters, at least not on that score.

New York, 1924-1925

In March of 1923, Hart Crane left Cleveland and his mother to live in New York City. A year later in March 1924, H. P. Lovecraft moved from Providence, R. I. to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene and try his luck in the great metropolis. Lovecraft knew from Loveman’s letters that Crane was in New York (Letters to Maurice W. Moe and Others 498), but the two had no reason to seek each other out and apparently did not encounter one another. Another mutual friend, the bookseller George Kirk, moved from Cleveland to New York in August 1924. As Lovecraft reported to his aunt:

Most of Loveman’s friends, including George Kirk, Hart Crane, and Gordon Hatfield, are already in the metropolis; and he now means to follow—fortified by the virtual certainty of the literary success and recognition for which he has so long striven.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.144

While literary success might not have been guaranteed, Loveman did soon arrive in New York (c. 8 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.156). Not long after Loveman got settled, Lovecraft took his friend to see the sights, which involved a great deal of tromping into the early hours of the morning. This was reported in the first of the few references to Lovecraft in Crane’s published letters:

I have just come back from a breakfast with Sam, and he has left to spend the rest of the day with the widow of Edgar Saltus (whom you must have heard him talk about enough to identify). I have been greeted so far mostly by his coat tails, so occupied has Sambo been with numerous friends of his here ever since arriving; Miss Sonia Green and her piping-voiced husband, Howard Lovecraft, (the man who visited Same in Cleveland one summer when Galpin was also there) kept Sam traipsing around the slums and wharf streets until four this morning looking for Colonial specimens of architecture, and until Sam tells me he groaned with fatigue and begged for the subway!

Hart Crane to Grace Crane & Elizabeth Belden Hart, 14 Sep 1924, Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Selected Letters 396
Also published in: Letters of Hart Crane and His Family 342-343, The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932 187, and Oh My Land My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane 195

There are no diary-like letters from Lovecraft during most of September 1924, but he alludes to this incident in a later letter, where Lovecraft encountered Crane again:

After dinner we walked down to the Brooklyn Heights section to call on his friend Hart Crane in Columbia Heights, with whom he had stopped till he moved up to Kirk’s in 106th St., Manhattan. […] We found Crane in & sober—but boasting over the two-day spree he had just slept off, during which he had been picked up dead drunk from the street in Greenwich Village by the eminent modernist poet E. E. Cummings—whom he knows well—& put in a homeward taxi. Poor Crane! I hope he’ll sober up with the years, for there’s really good stuff & a bit of genius in him. He is a genuine poet of a sort, & his excellent taste is reflected in the choice of objets d’art with which he has surrounded himself. I would give much for a certain Chinese ivory box of his, with panels exquisitely carved into delicate pastoral scenes in high relief—every detail of landscape & foliage standing out with that absolute beauty & amateurly assured perfection for which the best Chinese art is distinguished. After some conversation we all went out for a scenic walk through the ancient narrow hill streets that wind about the Brooklyn shore. There is a dark charm in the decaying waterfront, & the culmination of our tour was the poor old Fulton Ferry, which we reached about 9 o’clock, in the best season to enjoy the flaming arc of Brooklyn Bridge in conjunction with the constellation of Manhattan lights across the river, & the glimmering beacons of slow-moving shipping on the lapping tides. […] Thence we returned to Crane’s, threading more old streets, & incidentally looking up rooms for Loveman in Columbia Heights. […] I can’t, though—& I think I’ll get in touch with Crane and ask him about the smaller $5.00-per-wk. Rooms which he was likewise recommending to Samuelus.

Leaving Crane’s about 10:30,Samuelus & I proceeded to the subway, crossed the river, emerged at Wall St., & prepared to finish that nocturnal tour of colonial sights which his fatigue cut short last September.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.190-191

The room was 110 Columbia Heights, in Brooklyn; the same room where, by coincidence, Washington Roebling had watched the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and where Crane would conceive and begin to write his modernist epic The Bridge. The drinking binge Crane supposedly bragged about is not attested in his letters, but there are many anecdotes of Crane’s drunken antics in memoirs and biographies.

The reference to the hunt for cheap rooms or apartments is also typical; in a letter to his mother dated 20 April 1924, Crane mentioned “What I pay here is about the lowest on record,—six dollars a week. The back room will cost 2 more, but that will be very reasonable.” (“Hart Crane and His Mother: A Correspondence” in Salmagundi #9 (Spring 1969), 85). In another letter, where separation with his wife was imminent and Lovecraft needed an apartment of his own while she was out-of-town, he remarked:

In that latter case, the neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights—where Hart Crane lives, & which I shewed to A E P G—would appeal most strongly to me.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 17 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.222

Loveman would, at various times, live in the same building in Columbia Heights as Crane and with Lovecraft at 169 Clinton Street. Hart Crane, writing home, would note wryly:

It’s amusing how Sam has finally got all his circle, including Kirk and Lovecraft, located over here now, right nearby. I really think he’s as happy as he ever will be, and he wants to be a little miserable, you know.

Hart Crane to Grace Crane, 29 Jan 1925, Letters of Hart Crane and His Family 387

During this time in New York, Lovecraft met Crane at least a few more times. The exact number is a little unclear; Hart Crane’s letters of the period are not encyclopedic, and Lovecraft’s letters, for all that they were often detailed day-by-day entries to his aunts in Providence, still have a few gaps. However, Lovecraft’s 1925 diary lists two encounters, the first of which is:

[26] up noon–Tel. Mrs. Long Sonny call–GK call–RK call–SL with Keats Mask–Leeds–out for walk over bridge to Downing St–closed–Sheridan Sq–Crane–back to 169–Lamb meeting–Sonny lv.–all adjourn Scotch Bakery–SL lv. Disperse–write and retire (rest)

Lovecraft 1925 Diary, Apr 1925, Collected Essays 5.157

There are two accounts of apocryphal meetings between Crane and Lovecraft. One is recounted by John Wilstach in “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” (1946), and is probably fictitious; the other is by Frank Belknap Long, Jr., which deserves consideration:

Loveman, Howard, and F. B. L. dropping in at a cafeteria on Seventh Avenue for coffee and doughnuts, a rather stocky figure arising from a table near the door.

“Howard, how are you? Sam didn’t tell me you were in New York!”

“Good evening, Hart.”

That tied it! I had never met Hart Crane, but that afternoon, at the library, Sam had showed me one of his poems in manuscript.

Howard had never seemed more depressed—he was writing such lines as these: “My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration I found only a sense of horror and oppression. Instead of the poems I had hoped for there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness.”

His pallor and emaciation that night were alarming, and as he shook hands with Crane a line from the poem I had read at the library (I remembered Sam’s words as he handed me the poem–“Here’s something by Hart. You’ve never seen his stuff, have you?”)—a line from the poem flashed across my mind: “And when they’ve dragged your weary flesh through Baltimore—did you betray the ticket, Poe?”

It strains coincidence, but it happened, it happened—and I’m setting it down for the record because it sems somehow tremendously significant. That line actually crossed my mind, and at the time I thought: “No greater single line was ever written about Poe?”

Now consider this. I never saw Crane again, and neither did Howard. (Howard had met Crane briefly in Cleveland two years previously.) Both men were completely unknown at the time. Both now seem destined to have a place in American letters. Samuel Loveman, who was present at that meeting, knew Bierce, knew George Sterling (21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce: Published by George Kirk, circa 1927—a voluminous correspondence with Sterling, with whom I had also corresponded). Crane was a boyhood friend of Loveman’s. Crane professed to admire Poe above all other figures in American literature. Upon Howard’s shoulders the mantle of Poe had indubitably descended. The inner circle of his friends sensed it even then. […]

Frank Belknap Long, “Some Random Memories of H. P. L.” (1944) in Marginalia 334-335

The situation is plausible: Loveman was friends with Lovecraft, Crane, and Long, and Lovecraft mentioned in his letters how he would go out to cafeterias and automats with his friends. However, the timing is a bit hinky. Crane certainly knew that Lovecraft was in New York since September 1924 (because of the letter that mentions Lovecraft dated 14 Sep 1924, quoted above). The quoted passage from is from Lovecraft’s “He” was probably not written until August 1925. The line from Crane’s poetry which Long misquotes comes from section VII of The Bridge, which reads:

And when they dragged your retching flesh,

Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—

That light night on the ballot rounds, did you,

Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Hart Crane, “The Tunnel,” part of The Bridge (1930), in Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Selected Letters 69

It is known that Crane was editing “The Tunnel” in 1926 (The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932 274-275), so he must have written it earlier, probably in 1925; it isn’t impossible that Loveman had access to an earlier version in manuscript. On the face of it, this presents a contradiction, since Long claims the meeting occurred in 1924. Possibly, after twenty years, Long’s memory became slightly confused. It’s not implausible for Long to have met Lovecraft and Crane at a cafeteria, it’s just that the details don’t quite match up. A much more well-attested meeting is mentioned in Lovecraft’s diary later in 1925:

[14] up early–write letters–out to barber’s–back & downtown–see SL & MK–RK arr–dinner automat–sub. To 169–with dishes &c. Via Scotch Bakery to SL’s. Morton there. Crane drop in–discussion–out for coffee–refreshments–wash dishes & discuss, pack up & disperse–in 169 & write–retire [In margin: RAIN]

Lovecraft 1925 Diary, Oct 1925, Collected Essays 5.170

Lovecraft gave an account of this in his letter:

At one time Loveman had a caller in the person of his bibulous fellow-poet Hart Crane, (formerly of Cleveland) who was just back from the country & only about ¼ “lit up” by his beloved booze. Poor Crane! A real poet & man of taste, descendant of an ancient Connecticut family & a gentleman to the finger-tips, but the slave of dissipated habits which will soon ruin both his constitution & his still striking handsomeness! Crane left after about an hour, & the meeting proceeded.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 15 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.448

This was the last account in Lovecraft’s diaries or letters of Crane during the time they both lived in New York, and for part of that period (1924-1926), Crane had returned to Cleveland and visited friends in Pawling, New York (“Tory Hill”—the country spot Lovecraft had mentioned).

A Final Meeting, 1930

Samuel Loveman was the sole factor that had brought Lovecraft and Crane together in 1922, and during the 1924-1925. Yet in 1926 Lovecraft left New York to return to Providence, and Crane was already off on a series of voyages, from the Isle of Pines to California and France, passing through New York periodically. Hart Crane’s career as a poet can be said to have taken off with the publication of White Buildings (1926) and The Bridge (1930). Yet drinking and solicitation formed two of Crane’s continued vices; borrowing money and drunken antics alienated his friends; the revelation of his homosexuality to his mother occasioned a break from her. All of these issues dogged Crane and sapped his creative energies.

Yet Lovecraft had not forgot Crane, and mentions him a few times in his letters:

Loveman knows this Allen Tate—or is at least slightly acquainted with him. He is, I believe, one of the Greenwich Village clique of which Hart Crane, E. E. cummings, & Waldo Frank are other members—not a very promising milieu for the rendering of Baudelaire.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 5 Jun 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 176

Lovecraft even noted the publication of The Bridge:

I note the item about Hart Crane’s new poem with much interest, since Crane is a friend of my friend Samuel Loveman. He comes from Cleveland, & when sober—as he is once or twice a year–is an admirably attractive chap. I have met him several times, for he lived in Brooklyn when I did—having a room in an old house on the harbour side of Columbia Heights, within sight of the spidery arc of Brooklyn Bridge, which formed the subject of his then-nascent chef d’ouevre. If he doesn’t die of delirium tremens before another decade is over, he will form one of the standard figures in the poetry of the younger generation. He is part of the semi-Greenwich-Village crowd which includes E. E. Cummings, Waldo Frank, John Dos Passos, & other well-known modernists.

H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 24 Apr 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 143

It happened that in May 1930, Lovecraft was passing through New York and visiting Samuel Loveman when Hart Crane arrived. What followed was their last meeting, and perhaps Lovecraft’s best picture of the poet:

About 8 o’clock the bell rang, & there appeared that tragically drink-riddled but now eminent friend of Loveman’s whom I met in Cleveland in 1922, & once or twice later in New York—the poet Hart Crane, whose new book, “The Bridge”, has made him one of the most celebrated & talked-of figures of contemporary American letters. He had been scheduled to speak over the radio during the evening; but a shipwreck off the coast (demanding the use of the ether for important messages) had cut off all local radio programmes & left him free. When he entered, his discourse was of alcoholics in various phases—& of the correct amount of whiskey one ought to drink in order to speak well in public—but as soon as a bit of poetic & philosophic discussion sprang up, this sordid side of his strange dual personality slipped off like a cloak, & left him as a man of great scholarship, intelligence, & aesthetic taste, who can argue as interestingly & profoundly as anyone I have ever seen. Poor devil–he has “arrived” at last as a standard American poet seriously regarded by all reviewers & critics; yet at the very crest of his fame he is on the verge of psychological, physical, & financial disintegration, & with no certainty of ever having the inspiration to write a major work of literature again. After about three hours of acute & intelligent argument poor Crane left—to hunt up a new supply of whiskey & banish reality for the rest of the night! He gets to be a nuisance now & then, dropping in on Loveman for sympathy & encouragement, but Loveman is too conscious of his tragic importance & genuine genius as a man of letters to be harsh or brusque toward him. His case is surely a sad one—all the more so because of his great attainments & of the new fame which he is so ill-fitted to carry for any considerable time. He looks more weather-beaten & drink-puffed than he did in the past, though the shaving off of his moustache has somewhat improved him. He is only 33, yet his hair is nearly white. Altogether, his case is almost like that of Baudelaire on a vastly smaller scale. “The Bridge” really is a thing of astonishing merit. In connexion with this poem—which is on Brooklyn Bridge—a very surprising coincidence was brought to light. It seems that the house in Columbia Heights where Crane lived in 1924 when beginning the poem *& which I visited with Loveman at the time, my first sight of the illuminated Manhattan skyline being from its roof!) turned out—though he did not know it when he lived there—to be the old Roebling house, where the builder of the bridge dwelt when construction was in progress; & furthermore, that Crane’s own room (a shabby, $7.50 per week affair) was actually the room from which the crippled Washington A. Roebling watched & superintended the work with the aid of a telescope! And to heighten the coincidence, Crane swears that he finished the poem (while in Jamaica, knowing nothing of what was happening in the outside world) on the day that Roebling died at his final New Jersey home in 1925 . . . . which also happened to be Crane’s own birthday! Personally, I think the matter of finishing the poem on that date is an imaginative exaggeration of Crane’s although his birthday is certainly the day on which Roebling died. The coincidence of the house is certainly genuine—& it amuses me because my own first glimpse of the bridge & skyline from a window was from Crane’s window—undoubtedly the one which had been Roebling’s! Crane, by the way, was interested to hear of my liking for Charleston; &, though he has never seen it, talked of going there himself as a refuge from a New York he has come to detest. But alas! I fear it would take more than Charleston to bake the alcohol out of him! After Crane’s departure the conversation continued till a late hour—the rain meanwhile having stopped.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 24 May 1930, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.848-849

Lovecraft’s praise for The Bridge is notable in no small part because Lovecraft was not himself keen on modernist poetry at all, having once written a satire of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) titled “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance” (1923). When he read a critique of Crane’s poetry, Lovecraft was obliged to agree:

It is the same tendency which has worked to the advantage of poor Crane & made him such a symbol of the poetic present. I can agree with Mr. Untermeyer regarding Crane’s unintelligibility, & am myself convinced of the unsoundness of any symbolism whose key rests with the author alone. You may have seen an article—largely based on Crane, &including an image-by-image interpretation (furnished by the poet on request) of one of his shorter verses—on this subject some few years ago in Harpers . . . “Poets talking to Themselves”, by Max Eastman. He conceded that Crane’s obscure allusions are not capricious or irresponsible, but expressed strong doubts of the value of associative processes so purely dependent on the contents & workings of one person’s mind.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 20 Jun 1930, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 332

Perhaps Lovecraft found something in the images of The Bridge that spoke to more than just Crane’s own experience.

Port Mortem, 1932-1937

Hart Crane would apply for a Guggenheim fellowship in August, and with that money would go to Mexico. On the return trip to the United States, Crane would commit suicide on 27 April 1932 by leaping off the cruise ship and into the Gulf of Mexico. Samuel Loveman, who was a close friend of his mother Grace Crane, worked with her to dispose of Hart’s library and belongings, and became literary executor for Hart Crane’s estate. Lovecraft noted:

I lately heard of Contempo from Loveman—they wanted him to do, on very short notice, a critical & biographical sketch of the late poet Hart Crane; (he was practically Crane’s only remaining close friend among normal & wholesome people—Crane’s mother now wants him to edit an edition of her son’s collected shorter pieces) but he decided the proposition was too hurried to be feasible.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 12 Jun 1932, Essential Solitude 2.486

Lovecraft himself went on voyages, traveling down to New York to visit friends, and bus trips to the southern United States. Like Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane, Lovecraft visited Key West on the southern tip of Florida, though he did not stay there. A Christmas visit to Loveman in New York gave Lovecraft physical relics to remember Crane by:

Well—at 1 a.m. I broke away from Middagh St. & returned to 230 . . . . bearing with me two valuable antique gifts which Loveman insisted on my accepting. Wait till you see them! One is a very primitive & prehistoric idol of stone—about 4 inches tall, & meant to lie on is back—found in Mexico, & probably made by the Mayas before their rise to civilisation 4000 or 5000 years ago. The sketch on the left gives an idea of its general nature. The other antique is an equally primitive flint chisel in an ivory handle—from Africa, & perhaps a relique of tribes forgotten by all the world. Both items were the property of poor Hart Crane, & were given by his mother to Loveman. Loveman ought not to be giving them away–but who can stop that generous soul when he sets out to exercise his generosity?

H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 27 Dec 1932, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.952-953

I also went over to Loveman’s new flat at 17 Middagh Street—where for the first time his various art treasures are adequately display’d. My generous host presented me with two fine museum objects (don’t get envious, O Fellow-Curator!)—to wit, a prehistoric stone eikon from Mexico, & an African flint implement, with primitively graven ivory handle; both from the collection of the late Hart Crane, which Crane’s mother turned over to him.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jan 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 308

It is not clear if this was a tourist tchotchke or something else that Crane had picked up on his travels; while there is mention of Crane participating in a brief archaeological dig, all they reportedly found were “some very interesting chips and pieces of the true Aztec pottery” and “one of those incredible sharp fragments of obsidian, part of a knife blade” (The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932 379-380), neither of which seem to match.

Were these actual artifacts from Crane’s collection? Samuel Loveman would “authenticate” Hart Crane’s sombrero, and Grace Crane would give or sell him Hart Crane’s bookplates, which Loveman would apply to other books and sell as if they came from Hart’s own library. In later life, he developed a reputation for these kinds of swindles, as mentioned by Walter Goldwater, Robert A. Wilson, Joe Nickell, and others. Yet why would Loveman lie to Lovecraft?

Crane continued to pop up occasionally in Lovecraft’s letters throughout the last years of his own life, never often but showing that the poet was not forgotten:

Your defense of personal & clique codes sounds admirable in theory—& of course one cannot be dogmatic one way or the other—but I saw Hart Crane go to pieces little by little in the years after 1922, & reserve the right to maintain an old gentleman’s quizzical skepticism.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Apr 1933, Essential Solitude 2.557

And on New Year’s eve he wants me to attend a gathering at his place as I did last year. One of those present will be the mother of the unfortunate Hart Crane. I met her—& Crane’s grandmother also—in Cleveland in 1922. This gathering, I fear, will tend to be something of a bore; but I can’t politely evade it.

H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 26 Dec 1933, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.957

Later in the evening I started for the New Year gathering at Loveman’s, which was attended largely by the same group that was there last year. The mother of the late Hart Crane was present—looking vastly older than when I mer her in Cleveland in 1922.

H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 1 Jan 1934, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.964

I saw the old year out at the Loveman flat—amidst a small gathering which included the mother of the late poet Hart Crane.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.8-11 Jan 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 509

I read some of the Eastman papers in Harper’s a couple of years ago. There is something in what he says—for when a poet gets too subjective & individual he certainly ceases to have a message for anybody else. Poor Hart Crane (his mother, now visibly an old lady, was at Loveman’s New Year’s gathering) probably justified Eastman’s strictures. Did you notice the analysis of “At Melville’s Tomb”? One can hardly do otherwise than concur with Eastman in his estimate.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 4 Feb 1934, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 233

The latter a reference to Max Eastman, “Poets Talking to Themselves,” Harper’s 163, No. 5 (October 1931), which quotes the entirety of Hart Crane’s poem “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926). “Poor Hart Crane” appears to have been Lovecraft’s feeling in truth, for while Lovecraft was a teetotal and homophobic, he seemed to have felt a genuine pity for Crane’s suffering and his end, at least what he knew of it, but not just for Crane himself but what he took Crane to represent: the waste of potential, the decline and degeneration from tremendous promise to self-destruction. In his final reference to Hart Crane in his letters, Lovecraft wrote:

The race will always breed its pitiful odds & ends, & these will always be doubly pitiful when their aberrations are linked with lofty heritage or distinguished intellectual or aesthetic capacity. We weep at a tragedy like the late Hart Crane—but find a saving grain of comedy when aberration is linked with stolidity or mediocrity, as in the case of my unwashed Dunkard caller of an hour ago. What a piece of work is man!

H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 28 Jun 1934, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman 373-374

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late—but
wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.

William Shakespeare, HAMLET, Act 2, Scene II

Samuel Loveman would survive both of his more famous friends, and would be there at the bedside of Grace Crane during her final hour, as she lamented her son. He was there too when, in accordance with her final wishes, her ashes were released from the Brooklyn Bridge which has become a part of Hart Crane’s memory and legend.

The Literary Afterlife of Lovecraft & Crane

The publication of Lovecraft’s letters has probably done greater service to Hart Crane than vice versa; while there are a number of mentions of Crane, including some detailed accounts of their meetings, in Lovecraft’s correspondence, Crane either did not bother to record his side of the experience or he did and those letters are lost to us. After their deaths, both men achieved a kind of fame that eluded them in life, and once again Samuel Loveman was the bridge between both men, a source of memoirs and reminiscence—although regrettably, most of these happened rather long after their deaths, and Loveman’s recollections are not always so full or detailed as might be hoped. To give an example:

JU: […] Somewhere in here Lovecraft comes in, doesn’t he?

SL: Yes, that was a feud. Hart took a dislike to him, and Lovecraft, as a I said a few minutes ago, was a prig and prissy in his choice of language—you would imagine that the vocabulary of the Queen’s English had been manufactured for him for his sole use. I could see where Hart disliked him.

JU: That was in Cleveland where he first met him.

SL: Yes. Then they came together one evening at my apartment on Colombia Heights with that miraculous view [of] the river and New York, and they began to talk astronomy. Lovecraft was very conversant with the subject, had been writing for years a weekly diatribe on the austere heavens. He discussed it with Hart and Hart listened to him, and I thought to myself, “Well, this should do a lot to cement an acquaintanceship, certainly not a friendship.”

Well, after they left, separately each said to me that both were amazed at one another. I don’t know whether Hart’s attacks on Howard Lovecraft were before or after this incident, as the letters convey in the Brom Weber book, but he certainly attacks him.

JU: Yes, he does. Well, Lovecraft didn’t have any great affectation for Crane.

SL: No, no.

JU: But that first time in Cleveland, Lovecraft did seem to like Crane. Was it Lovecraft and you and someone else… Galpin… went down to hear. . . .

SL: Another prig.

JU: You went to hear a concert of music by [Ernest] Bloch, wasn’t it?

SL: Oh, did I? Well, I’ve forgotten that.

JU: At least there’s a letter that says that you and Galpin and Lovecraft and Hart went to hear this concert.

SL: That has escaped me. You see, what seventy-six years does.

“Conversations with Sam” in Out of the Immortal Night (2nd ed.) 392-393

Yet it was the brush of greatness which interested biographers. Crane’s biographies tend to mention Lovecraft, Lovecraft’s biographies end to mention Crane. The accuracy of these mentions varied considerably. For instance, compare:

Loveman introduced Lovecraft to members of his literary circle. One was (Harold) Hart Crane (1899-1932), who in his short life earned a repute as a major poet. Like Lovecraft, Crane had a monster-mother—sexually frigid, foolish, possessive, erratic, and unpredictable. Crane himself, when sober, was a man of great charm—a fascinating talker and a born storyteller.

Crane was, however, a drunkard and an active homosexual, who cruised bars to pick up sailors and was sometimes beaten up for his pains. Because of his charm, he was always being asked to people’s houses. When he got drunk, however, he became an appalling guest. He would run naked through the house, screaming threats and obscenities; he chased one hostess with a boomerang, trying to brain her. Or he would pick up his host’s furniture, or throw it out the window. During Lovecraft’s visit to Cleveland, however, Crane was on good behavior.

Another member of the circle was Gordon Hatfield, with whom Crane was feuding; the two spent the evening needling each other. Unlike Crane, Hatfield proclaimed his deviation by patently effeminate mannerisms. Lovecraft later wrote: “Have you seen that precious sissy that I met in Cleveland. . . . I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it!”

L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography 172

H. P. Lovecraft, a Cleveland native, writer of horror stories and Gothic tales, fastidious friend of Sam Loveman’s—that “queer Lovecraft person,” Crane called him—had his own assessment of Crane. He’d known Hart Crane in Cleveland back in 1923, and—seeing him here in New York—noted that he seemed now “a little ruddier, a little puffier, and slightly more moustached.” Neither man really cared for the other, and Crane, with his bristling hair, brawling strength, and fox-glint eyes, no doubt frightened Lovecraft as he frightened others. “An egotistical young aesthete,” Lovecraft noted condescendingly, “who has attained some real recognition in The Dial and other modernist organs, and who has an unfortunate predilection for wine when it is red.”

And five weeks later, in early November, on another visit to 110 Columbia Heights to see Sam Loveman, Lovecraft was surprised to find Crane the legend actually sober, but “boasting over the two-day spree he had just slept off, during which he’d been picked up dead drunk off a street in Greenwich Village by the eminent modernist E. E. Cummings—whom he knows well—and put in a homeward taxi.” Poor Crane, Lovecraft summed up, “I hope he’ll sober up with the years, for there’s really good stuff & a bit of genius in him.” “Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age,/Must lay his heart out for my bed and board.” The words, meant for Crane, are Robert Lowell’s, written thirty years later, and give a better sense than Lovecraft’s of who Crane was, this Catullus redivivus, this stalker of sailors, seducing his prey, then scattering “Uncle Sam’s/phony gold-plated laurels to the birds.”

Crane’s two-day spree, if it happened, would have taken place in late October. After all, he had a way of telling the most outrageous stories on himself deadpan for the sake of people like Lovecraft. In any case, he did not record this spree in the letters he sent home.

Paul Mariani, The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane, 165-166

De Camp tends to distort his subject by emphasizing the most extreme anecdotes; for him, Crane and Lovecraft are both freaks. Mariani is more balanced, though he makes a few mistakes—Lovecraft was a Providence native, for all that he met Crane in Cleveland in 1922—and perhaps it is for the best that when James Franco adapted his biography of Crane into a film project (The Broken Tower, 2011) they left Lovecraft out of it.

In truth, Crane scholars seem most interested when Lovecraft’s letters from New York give a glimpse of Crane during that critical period that might be otherwise lacking, while Lovecraft scholars are more interested in the first encounter in Cleveland. The “kiss it or kill it” moment about the “sissy” Gordon Hatfield is the most explicit statement of homophobia that Lovecraft would ever make in his life, and the whole emphasis on masculine vs. feminine behavior—the confusion of gender identity and sexuality—is critical in understanding Lovecraft’s views on sex and gender.

Much of Lovecraft’s reputation as a homophobe rests on that one encounter in Cleveland. It is not a subject that ever comes up in his relation to Hart Crane in New York, with gay friends like Samuel Loveman or R. H. Barlow, and there are only vague intimations when discussing amateur associates like Elsa Gidlow. While there should be no doubt that Lovecraft was homophobic, the scantiness and diffusiveness of the evidence, spread out as it is over three decades worth of letters, is something that sometimes eludes people—but “kiss it or kill it” is clear, concise, and easy to quote.

To understand Lovecraft’s homophobia is also to understand Crane’s homosexuality. Both men were caught up in the early 20th century ideas of maintaining the appearance of masculinity. They both understood (and misunderstood) the social issues of sexuality and gender identity during the 1920s and 30s, a time when simply being homosexual, or gender non-conforming was often not just illegal and met by violence. While it is easy to quote “kiss it or kill it,” this relationship between their views is something that only emerges from the aggregate whole of their published correspondence—to read not just selected quotes from individual letters, but to understand how both Lovecraft and Crane were acting out their roles within a larger social context.

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

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“The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” (1946) by John Wilstach

[…] I happen to have published, as long ago as in the January, 1946, issue of Esquire, the first article about Lovecraft to appear in a general magazine. It was by John Wilstach, called “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” and this is how it began:

“Enthusiasts for the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have become a literary cult. Highbrow critics pay tribute to him as a writer of horror tales. His devotees insist that his place is in a niche beside that of Edgar Allan Poe. Collectors scramble for his first editions. Yet, to one who has known literary booms and their nourishing, it is amazing that nothing has been done to acquaint the public with the personality of a man who was one of the most fantastic literary figures of modern times.”

Arnold Gingrich, “The greatest character H. P. Lovecraft ever created” in the Chicago Times, 2 Feb 1975

How do we know what we think we know about H. P. Lovecraft? Over the decades since Lovecraft’s death, many works have been published about Lovecraft—memoirs, recollections, biographies—and a great deal of his personal correspondence, autobiographical essays, and photographs. Diligent researchers have scoured archives for marriage certificates, wills, draft cards, city directories, and brief mentions in newspapers and amateur journals. The mass of data can be intimidating, difficult to sift through, and perhaps most especially interrogate.

When it comes to memoirs of Lovecraft, it can be especially difficult to sort out the veracity of various claims. Memories are tricky things, and can be skewed by age, distance, and emotion. Many of the recollections of Lovecraft contain matter which seems to be erroneous; not so much deliberately misleading as incomplete. Dates don’t line up, incidents don’t quite match with other accounts, and misunderstandings abound. These are typical problems in evaluating historical evidence…but there is an added wrinkle.

From the beginning, Lovecraft memoirs and biographies have been referential. So when W. Paul Cook wrote “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft—Recollections, Appreciations, Estimates” (1941), he included quotes from an amateur journalism piece on Lovecraft from 1919; when Winfield Townley Scott wrote the biographical essay “His Own Most Fantastic Creation” (1944), he drew material from Cook’s “In Memoriam”; when Sonia H. Davis wrote The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, she specifically spoke to several points in Cook’s memoir—and that’s one chain of references where the later author acknowledges drawing on the former. There are many works that borrow from other essays and memoirs on Lovecraft without acknowledgment so that you can have a number of works that have a superficial agreement—but might all be repeating the same legends and false information.

So how do you pick out fact from fiction in a Lovecraft memoir? Generally, the first task is to cross-reference the persons and events in the memoir with Lovecraft’s letters and, if possible, other sources to fix the dates and verify the contents as much as possible. There is a bit of a contradiction involved in this: if a memoir agreed 100% with all existing sources without any disagreement, it would be very easy to verify—but it wouldn’t be very useful, as there would be no information in there that wasn’t in other sources. What readers and scholars both like is new information, new data, some unique insight into Lovecraft’s life to add to our store of knowledge.

From this standpoint, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” (1946) by John Wilstach seems at first promising: while Wilstach makes a number of errors about Lovecraft’s life and work (not uncommon in the memoirs), many details ring at least somewhat true (or at least familiar), and it contains some material not included anywhere else, including details of a meeting with Lovecraft and the gay poet Hart Crane in New York c.1925.

As background: John H. Wilstach (1890-1951) was a novelist and fairly prolific pulp-writer. He had some association with amateur journalism, publishing material in Driftwind and The Ghost, but he was mostly published in the Argosy, Top-Notch, and associated pulp magazines. His article “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire was a very rare appearance in a “slick” magazine.

The first problem comes when trying to cross-reference dates and persons. Lovecraft and Crane did meet a couple of times, first in Cleveland in 1922 and later in New York City in 1924 and 1925. However, in no published letter does Lovecraft ever mention John Wilstach, nor is such a meeting with Crane and an unnamed third individual mentioned in Lovecraft’s diary for the period. For that matter, the published letters of Hart Crane, with their brief references to Lovecraft, don’t mention John Wilstach either. This individual, who claimed to be Lovecraft’s friend and to have met him several times in New York and Providence, RI, would appear to have fallen completely through the gaps in Lovecraft and Crane’s correspondence.

By itself, that might not be suspicious; Lovecraft’s correspondence for the New York period is not complete, and his meetings with Crane are not all well-recorded from either side. It is not inconceivable that there could be a meeting between Lovecraft, Crane, and a third man that both Lovecraft and Crane failed to record. In point of fact, there is another memoir that includes just such a meeting: Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s “Some Random Memories of H. P. L.” published in Marginalia (1944), less than two years before Wilstach’s article. This brings us to the next problem.

Long’s memoir recounts a meeting between Lovecraft, Crane, Samuel Loveman, and himself on the street in New York in “the second year of [Lovecraft’s] New York phase”—Lovecraft had come to New York and married Sonia H. Greene at the beginning of March 1924, so the meeting would be post-March 1925. Long wrote:

Howard had never seemed more depressed—he was writing such lines as these: “My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration I found only a sense of horror and oppression. Instead of the poems I had hoped for there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness.”

Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “Some Random Memories of H. P. L.” in Marginalia 335

The lines are part of the opening of Lovecraft’s story “He,” which was begun in August 1925, in general agreement with when Long says the meeting took place. In “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” Wilstach wrote:

“Hart drew a battered manuscript from his pocket and I began reading:

“My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets…in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze and annihilate me. . . .”

“Kinda turgid prose,” I waved my hand to stop him.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

What are the odds that Lovecraft and Hart Crane had not one but two otherwise unrecorded encounters, and that both of them would quote from the opening paragraphs to “He?” At this point, a scholar might be suspicious. Testing those suspicions would require comparing the content of “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” against the other sources available in 1946 when the piece was published. For the most part, this would mean Cook’s essay “In Memoriam” (1941), the first three Arkham House books regarding Lovecraft (The Outsider and Others (1939), Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and Marginialia (1945)), the slim chapbook Rhode Island on Lovecraft (1945), August Derleth’s H. P. L.: A Memoir (1945), and some scattered essays, critical reviews, and articles, some of which were collected in Marginalia, such as the early version of Winfield Townley Scott’s biographical essay “His Own Most Fantastic Creation.” Crane’s letters mentioning Lovecraft would not be published until some years later.

As it turns out, most of the content in “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” could have been sourced directly from these existing sources; a copy of “In Memoriam” and Marginalia would have supplied nearly every “fact” (and much of the speculation) in Wilstach’s piece. Cook had not mentioned Hart Crane, but like Long he quoted from “He” to illustrate Lovecraft’s despair at the city he had come to detest. Wilstach acknowledged Cook in a way when he wrote:

W. Paul Cook tells me that Lovecraft made three poetry reputations with his rewrite method.

Unlike many Lovecraft enthusiasts, Cook insisted that, though his friend was a genius, one stout volume of stories, and another of letters, will provide his lasting work.

“Lovecraft has been compared to all the great masters of the macabre from Poet to James,” says Cook. “Only in spots can be found basis for comparison. A hint here and there of Poe—perhaps. A sign of Dunsany—possibly. Lovecraft identified his own influences as Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, rather than to Montague Rhode James. If we mention Machen and Blackwood we have about exhausted any color he may have unconsciously acquired from others. Since his advent, weird fiction has owed more to Lovecraft than Lovecraft owed to all the body of preceding writers.

“A friend once suggested the he stimulate dreams by means of drugs. Lovecraft exclaimed that if drugs would give him any worse dreams than he experienced without them, he would go mad. His dreams were his own It is unfair to call him equal to Poe, greater than Poe, or lacking in certain Poe qualities. Better, consider him as standing alone.”

That standing alone, for our friend, sounds very fair. And to judge him at all one must judge him as a writer, since he never was anything else. He never held any kind of a job, nor had the slightest inclination for any sport.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 160, 162

There is a bit of disingenuousness to this: while Wilstach is portraying this as something Cook told him personally, he is actually quoting directly from “In Memoriam” in the two middle paragraphs, and paraphrasing from there elsewhere. However, Cook and Wilstach were actually acquainted: Wilstach has an article in Cook’s amateur journals The Ghost #3 (May 1945) and #5 (Jul 1947). While neither article is about Lovecraft, their very presence confirms that the two men must have shared at least a correspondence. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Cook himself was the source of the copy of “In Memoriam” that Wilstach must have had when writing “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower.”

If a reader were to subtract from Wilstach’s memoir all the material that was directly attributable to Cook or a copy of Marginalia, the remaining details are few and rather weak. For example:

I learned that he had worked and roamed all night, slept since dawn, and had just breakfasted upon an orange.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

Lovecraft walking the streets of New York late at night, returning early in the morning, and sleeping late into the day are all believable; many letters support this behavior, and Cook and others commented on it. However, Lovecraft breaking his fast on an orange is unusual. While there are references to him consuming grapefruit when in Florida, citrus does not appear to have been a regular part of Lovecraft’s diet. One letter from his New York period shows how rare a treat fruit was to him:

[Sonia H. Lovecraft] left a lot of provisions here last week, including a lemon—so tonight I have been emulating W. V. Phillips in his vespertine glass of the citrick beverage.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.457

Other little details face similar scrutiny. The errors become more glaring. The words Wilstach attributes to Lovecraft become less and less believable, even granting that twenty years had passed since they were set down. For example, during the apocryphal meeting with Crane, Wilstach wrote:

Crane muttered that I might tell something about the market.

“What have you been aiming at?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Hart thinks my scripts should be typewritten.”

Well, it was unbelievable–he was actually, in person, the amateur who brought a manuscript rolled up, in handwriting, and tied with a string–and called back to find it still tied with the same strong. Of course he had sought out the offices of Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, while any tyro would know that his own chances were at the Munsey or Street & Smith’s fiction chains.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

It is unbelievable—because we know that while Lovecraft hated typing, he had learned after his first submissions of longhand manuscripts to editor Edwin Baird of Weird Tales that manuscripts had to be typed. Sonia H. Davis in her memoir of their marriage recalls how their honeymoon was spent in part with her reading out his manuscript for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” as Lovecraft laboriously typed it out on a rented machine. Wilstach’s repeated claim that Lovecraft never typed is patently not true—but is it the case of bad information, misremembering, or something worse?

Did John Wilstach just make it all up?

The Advocate-Messenger, 16 Dec 1945

Many magazines were published in the month before the cover date; newspaper journalists appeared to accept Wilstach’s piece at face value. Contemporary fans too appear to largely accept Wilstach’s article as accurate, with one writing:

In the few pages of the article he paints a very good word picture of Lovecraft as he knew him.

Jay Edwards, “Lovecraftiana” in Lethe #9 (Sep 1948)

Lovecraft’s surviving friends were less kind:

Time, no doubt, exposed more of the obvious flaws in Wilstach’s Esquire article to fans and would-be scholars alike. Lovecraft’s friend Robert Bloch would write:

My friend, the late John Wilstach, may or may not have met H.P.L. in the flesh; for the purposes of auctorial authority he laid claim to having done so in New York, during the Twenties, and penned an article for Esquire magazine, some years after H.P.L.’s death, entitled The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower.

I corresponded with Wilstach for some time before his own passing, and I can attest that his personal admiration for Lovecraft was unbounded. Nevertheless, he knowingly added his bit to the growing accumulation of Lovecraftiana which emphasizes only the legendary aspect, the “fantastic creation” rather than the whole man.

Robert Bloch, “Out of the Ivory Tower” in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959) 173

S. T. Joshi in H. P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography minces no words and simply calls Wilstach’s “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” fictitious. This makes a certain amount of sense: unlike “The Day He Met Lovecraft” (1972) by Lew Shaw, Wilstach was presumably paid for the article, and Esquire was a prominent enough market that publishing in it could raise a writer’s profile. There was a potential incentive for Wilstach to invent meetings and a friendship that maybe never took place.

When taken all together—the obvious errors, the borrowing from Cook, the absence of Wilstach from Lovecraft and Crane’s letters, the bits that just don’t line up—”The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” is ultimately a poor source. Too much doesn’t fit with other facts from Lovecraft’s life, too much feels like a fictional narrative. Not useful to Lovecraft scholars or particularly interesting for fans today. The value of “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” if any, is largely historiographical: this was a step toward a deeper understanding of and wider interest in Lovecraft and his work. While it might be a false step, how many thousands of readers encountered Lovecraft through this article in Esquire? Read about it in newspapers and fanzines? How many lives did Wilstach touch with this one piece?

Even though a memoir may sink out of sight and out of mind, in its passage it has left a mark on the world.

The January 1946 issue of Esquire containing “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” may be read for free online.

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help and sanity check.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Kathleen Compere Hughes

Kathleen Compere was born in Dublin, Texas on 20 June 1904, a middle daughter in large family headed by Baptist minister Edward L. Compere. She graduated high school; newspaper accounts say she attended the College of Industrial Arts in Denton, TX, and graduated from Baylor College. In 1927, Kathleen married Herald Hall Hughes, becoming Mrs. H. H. Hughes—the name by which she would sign herself in letters to Weird Tales and to Lovecraft. By 1936, the Hughes were living in Lawton, Oklahoma, with their sons Harold (age 8) and William (“Billy,” age 4). Somewhere during that bare sketch of a life, she had gained an appreciation for weird fiction:

Weird Tales Sep 1936

Weird Tales has been reprinting “classics” of weird fiction and stories from earlier issues since 1928, a practice sometimes clamored for by fans who had no access to earlier issues, and sometimes derided by fans who wanted new material, not just reprints. Farnsworth Wright was no doubt glad to have a fan asking for such reprints. Presumably, it was Wright that put Kathleen Compere Hughes in touch with H. P. Lovecraft, probably forwarding a letter as he did with other fans wanting to get in touch with him.

We have scanty evidence for the actual correspondence between the two of them, one abridged letter tentatively dated c. October 1936 was copied into the Arkham House Transcripts, though the physical letter it was copied from was presumably returned and is not known to be extant. A second letter, dated 6 April 1937, survives among his papers at the Brown University Library. Sent after Lovecraft’s death and addressed “Dear Friend,” it isn’t clear if this is a letter to Lovecraft at all, although circumstantial evidence within the letter itself suggests it may be.

Taking all these facts together suggests that the correspondence of Kathleen Hughes and H. P. Lovecraft was notably brief and rather self-contained. There are no references to Mrs. Hughes by name in any of Lovecraft’s other published letters, nor is her address included in the list of his correspondents in his 1937 diary. This would not be unusual for a relatively new and minor correspondent for which there might be long gaps between letters.

Lovecraft’s letter to Hughes is published in Miscellaneous Letters, and begins much like some of his other letters to fans disabusing them of certain popular notions:

About these books on Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu—I regret to say that they all belong in the domain of charlatanry, semi-charlatanry, and self-delusion. There is absolutely no basis in fact for any of the assumptions they purvey—while on the other hand there is overhwelming evidence that none of the favulous “Vanished contiennts” ever existed since the appearance of mankind on the earth.

H. P. Lovecraft to Mrs. H. H. Hughes, c. Oct 1936, Miscellaneous Letters 369

In very typical Lovecraftian fact, this turns into a kind of mini-essay taking a materialist stance against lost continents and pre-human civilizations. Switching gears, Lovecraft then discusses travel, especially in Massachusetts (“Cape Cod is a bit overdone by tourists, and has always seemed to me somewhat overrated.” ibid 370-371), apparently in answer to a desire Hughes expressed to visit Newburyport, one of Lovecraft’s favorite towns (and, he mentions, an inspiration for “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) to which she had some family connection. He then does the typical explanation of the unreality of the Mythos:

As for the “hellish and forbidden volumes” mentioned by various Mu writers—the monstrous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the portentous Book of Eibon, the shocking Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes des Goules, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermiss Mysteriis, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Eltdown Shards, the unmentionable Ghorl Nigral, etc. etc.—they are all purely imaginary, like some of the “terrible tomes” mentioned in Poe, Bierce, Machen, Blackwood, Hodgson, etc.

H. P. Lovecraft to Mrs. H. H. Hughes, c. Oct 1936, Miscellaneous Letters 372

A typical answer to a typical fan question. The most interesting part of the letter is the last paragraph, however, which ends:

Incidentally I’m enclosing something about my writing methods which I prepared at the request of one of the young “fan magazine” editors. Please return it some time—for I’m not sure when the printed version will appear. About those snaps of “the gang”—I’ll lend them as soon as Finlay returns them. I don’t like to hurry him up, since he’s been ill.

H. P. Lovecraft to Mrs. H. H. Hughes, c. Oct 1936, Miscellaneous Letters 373

The reference to Weird Tales artist Virgil Finlay helps date the letter to Hughes; in his letters to Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft mentions getting a letter from Finlay in September 1936 (DS 651), and in a letter to Willis Conover, Jr. dated 31 Jan 1937 is a reference to Finlay returning pictures (LRB 416). That helps give a period in which Lovecraft must have sent Hughes this letter. The reference to an enclosure is interesting because it ties in with the April 1937 letter from Hughes:

While there’s no direct evidence that this was a letter from Hughes to Lovecraft, returning manuscripts jives with Lovecraft’s known generosity in lending out copies of his stories. Elsewhere in the same letter she asks for details on books on the continent of Mu, echoing the opening passages of Lovecraft’s letter.

Without more evidence, it’s impossible to say for sure. If she did send this letter to Lovecraft or to someone else within the Lovecraft circle like R. H. Barlow. If Lovecraft was the intended recipient, she would not have heard of his death on 15 March 1937, which wasn’t announced in Weird Tales until the June 1937 issue. Such a gap might not be unusual if their correspondence was broken up, with a month or months between letters…and one can imagine Lovecraft’s aunt, opening the mail that came in after her nephew’s death, having to pen a brief note regarding his death. Or perhaps Kathleen Hughes saw the notice in Weird Tales first, and realized then she would no longer receive any letters from 66 College Street in Providence.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” (2022) by Beth W. Patterson

She was thrilled to a weird passion.

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928)

In the 1920s and 30s in the United States of America, erotica was technically illegal—groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice worked hand in glove with the police and the government censors of the United States Post Office to crack down on anything that smacked of smut, from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) to Tijuana bibles, nudist magazines, or explicit works on birth control.

This did not stop the production or distribution of erotic works, but it drove it largely underground. Ambitious but shady individuals placed ads big and small in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, coding their books as works of medical or anthropological interest to skirt the laws. Pulp magazines with sex interest like Spicy Mystery and its sisters skated a thin line between being permissible or being deemed obscene and taken off newsstands and sometimes crossed it.

It took decades for the legal standards to loosen. Landmark cases like United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 5 F. Supp. 182 (SDNY 1933) and Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 175 F. Supp. 488 (SDNY 1959) opened the door for people in the United States to publish and possess such works as Fanny Hill (1748) without fear of the books being seized and burned, and the publishers fined and imprisoned. With the new legalization of erotic literature came availability, as old classics were reprinted openly to meet a curious demand.

The artificial restrictions on publication had helped to create a kind of erotic canon; works like The Golden Ass of Apuleius, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Leopold von Sader-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), and the anonymous The Way Of A Man With A Maid (1908) weren’t necessarily the most transgressive or well-written erotic works, but in the grey market of erotic books, certain titles had by dint of age, popularity, or literary quality stood out above the rest and became a part of the culture.

It is this loose canon that many writers continue to call back to. Pluto in Furs (2019) and Pluto in Furs 2 (2022), anthologies of weird explicit fiction, is a deliberate reference to Venus in Furs. Peter H. Cannon’s jocular short story “Asceticism and Lust: The Greatest Lovecraft Revision” (1988) imagines a collaboration between Lovecraft and Henry Miller that results in “Tropic of Cthulhu”—a tongue-firmly-in-cheek reference to Miller’s censored novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). Lovecraftian erotica, by the way, took a few decades to really get going in no small part because of the legal restrictions outlined above. The freedom to read Ulysses also brought with it the freedom to appreciate all the further extrapolations of sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

So when a reader picks up the Nookienomicon and leafing through those austere pages reads the title of one story is “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” by Beth W. Patterson, there is a certain expectation that they will get the reference, even if they haven’t read the book. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Shakespeare’s plays, a certain amount of cultural osmosis is assumed to have occurred.

The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea…maybe…but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928)

The intention of “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole,” however, is not to be a pornographic episode along the lines of “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or an erotic paranormal romance novel like Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton. The Nookienomicon promises “Bawdy Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” and Patterson delivers in a double-entendre-laden comedy that is more sizzle than steak. Working in the tradition of the period works that often had to couch any eroticism in euphemism to get past the censors, this honeymoon in Innsmouth tiptoes the fine line between discussing marital relations—and Innsmouth lore—openly and hinting at it as strongly as possible.

The tone is deliberately light, and Patterson manages to hit a certain comedic line that marks the spoof rather than the farce, although it’s damn close. This is a story that could sit fairly next to “At the Mountains of Murkiness, or From Lovecraft to Leacock” (1940) by Arthur C. Clarke or the Innsmouth episode from Mark E. Rogers’ The Adventures of Samurai Cat (1984). The puns come fast, furious, and often in an unrelenting stream. To give just the barest flavor of the narrative:

[“]Such is the way of people touched by the Old Ones.”

“Touched by the Old Ones?” Fannly looked delightedly aghast. “In what way? Can you show me on a doll?”

Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon 71

To spoof something properly, you have to love it, and there’s a lot of love on display here. Patterson doesn’t just make the obvious jokes (although the stream of sexual innuendos and nautical euphemisms is relentless), and does more than just tease eldritch revelations.

“Is it normal for men to have five of those?”

“Not human men,” replied her husband. “His trousers must fit him like a glove…darling, are you disappointed?”

Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon 68

Aficionados of the Cthulhu Mythos will have read any number of escapes, successful or attempted, from Innsmouth that have been published over the decades, but I can fairly guarantee that they haven’t read one quite like “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole.”

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

“In the Name of Cavities” (2021) by Rajeev Singh

The nature of the said delights was a mystery that was sealed off with a picture of a nude, big-breasted woman lying prone on a greenish stone slab, her butt lifted up by an imposing figure in shadows, who seemed to be wearing some kind of costume and a cape that spread out like wings. A themed orgy? It had intrigued her to no end, the goblet of her unmet desires begging to be filled with a wine she had never tasted.

Rajeev Singh, “In the Name of Cavities” in Lustcraftian Horrors (2021) 239

Lovecraftian erotica is the fiction of transgression. Folks generally don’t write about the perfectly normal sex life of Edward Pickman Derby and Asenath Waite, or the raunchy but otherwise unremarkable wet dreams of Walter Gilman and the coeds he spied in the shower. When Innsmouth and R’lyeh come into play, people expect—not unfairly—for things to get properly weird. What qualifies as “weird” depends on your starting point. How much pornography and erotic fiction have you already consumed, how many sexual encounters have you had? What exactly is left that will shock you? What boundaries do you have left to transgress?

In that respect, the quest for greater titillation parallels and can overlap the quest for knowledge that marks much of Lovecraftian fiction. Protagonists draw closer to the central mystery, led there by an insatiable curiosity. Libido sciendi, the desire to know. Jaded seekers of the ultimate thrill who stumble onto the Mythos are an entire mode of Lovecraftian erotica. In that respect, “In the Name of Cavities” is part of a literary tradition with Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” (1989). Except instead of a jaded libertine seeking greater carnal desires, it’s a bored housewife answering an internet advertisement for some excitement in a sexless marriage.

Any road up, as the saying goes. Rajeev Singh’s premise and characterization work in large part because they do start out very much with the starting point of utter mundanity: the neglected housewife decides to cheat. Yet this isn’t a morality play on the consequences of adultery; by chance, Anaïs has stumbled onto something more than the Eyes Wide Shut-style party she’d maybe hoped for.

Which is an aspect of the story that Singh doesn’t dwell upon: how much contemporary media has shaped our idea of what transgressive erotica really is. When we see the BDSM playroom in From Beyond and Barbara Crampton dawns her leather apparel, the audience is supposed to recognize that as a corruption of the character, or at least an awakening of darker sexual desires than missionary position with the lights off. Real bondage play, and the communities that develop around those desires, are strange and alien by comparison to those depicted in works like Fifty Shades of Grey, dealing as they do with issues of consent, safety, and roleplay.

So how much of what Anaïs saw should she have recognized? How much should the readers have recognized? When you read a passage like:

At first, she couldn’t say for sure but yes, the business end of each arm or tentacle did resemble a hard penis. And they weren’t just showpieces, those erections. Many of the feelers were busy plunging in and out of cavities all over a woman’s body as she lay flat on a green stone slab, similiar to what Anaïs had seen on the internet, only butt-downward.

Rajeev Singh, “In the Name of Cavities” in Lustcraftian Horrors (2021) 239

Anaïs does not make the immediate connection to Japanese hentai, works like La Blue Girl or Urotsukidoji. Naughty tentacles have become a trope in some circles for so long that the shock value has largely worn off…but the idea still has legs. Readers already familiar with works like Booty Call of Cthulhu (2012) by Dalia Daudelin and “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier probably won’t be shocked, but they might still be appreciative of the execution. Jaded sensibilities mean there are very few erotic impossibilities that haven’t shown up somewhere, in some media, and that is reflected in the frustrated Lovecraftian sex-quest.

It is very difficult to come up with something completely new and original.

To take another example from the story, Singh’s use of “cavities” is strongly reminiscent of Graham Masterton’s short story “Sex Object” (originally published in Hottest Blood, and then adapted to comics in Verotika #7), or even of the comic series Stranger Kisses. It’s hard to point out these works as inspirations, many writers stumble upon the same ideas completely independently of one another.

As a work of Lovecraftian fiction, “In the Name of Cavities” lives in a little universe of its own, relatively self-contained…but that’s okay because the last few pages take that idea and run with it, projecting the lusty present out into a post-apocalyptic future. That extension of the idea far beyond the length of the encounter, the duration of a climax, is a pleasant surprise…and a possibility that works within a Lovecraftian premise better than it does with most other erotic works.

“In the Name of Cavities” by Rajeev Singh was published in Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (2021).

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

A Short History of the LGBTQ+ Mythos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Lovecraft to Stonewall (1937-1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Derleth Mythos (1969-2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution & Reimagination (2015-2022)

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

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

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

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

Booty Call of Cthulhu (2012) by Dalia Daudelin

Joanne Lagrasse is a newly graduated college student living the life. Well, if the life is sitting in your apartment all day trying to research monsters for a novel. The strange book her favorite professor gave her is full of ramblings by what must be a mad man, which makes for uneasy reading and a loner lifestyle.

She pushes herself to go out to the beach, though the takes the tome with her. When she decides to not heed her professor’s warning and reads a chant out loud, she finds herself faced with a giant monster and its lewd tentacles, each one eager to fill her holes.

Booty Call of Cthulhu, back cover copy

Before the internet, erotic literature often left a literal paper trail. It wasn’t enough to write a story or book, if you wanted to sell it you had to advertise—small ads in appropriate adult newspapers or magazines (or, for erotic fanfiction, fanzines), mail-order catalogs or lists of other publications in the backs of books, and for particularly notable works perhaps even a published review in some suitable medium. By the early 2010s, the game had fundamentally changed: the cheap adult paperbacks of previous decades had largely fallen off with the rise of more readily-available pornography, and self-publishing became feasible thanks to print-on-demand publishing and ebooks. The internet was a great leveler, doing away with much of the traditional advertising—and with it, much of the traditional paper trail which historians and smuthounds alike relied on.

Now, scholars have to rely on search engines and internet archives, hoping for social media posts, blogposts, and the occasional interview:

ED: I see you write tentacle erotica, which has a soft spot in my heart as an anime geek. How did you get into that sub-genre?

DD: I love H. P. Lovecraft! I’ve been a member of 4chan’s /x/ for, well, probably 6 years now. That’s their paranormal board. Horror and tentacles are both very fun to write, especially when you can make them sexy.


Booty Call of Cthulhu by Dalia Daudelin is a good example of the works of the period. Originally released as a Kindle ebook under the nom de plume Roxy Feurouge in 2012 (and as by Mia Lust on Barnes & Noble’s website), then as a thin print-on-demand softcover in 2013 (still available), the story is straightforward and geared toward specific, clearly indicated kinks: monsters, tentacles, dubious consent—and it delivers on all counts.

My jaw went slack. My mouth opened just enough for the tentacle to slide in. It went from a wool texture to something more slimy, a bit like another tongue.

Dalia Daudelin, Booty Call of Cthulhu 14

Readers hoping for an erotic re-telling of “The Call of Cthulhu” or a Cthulhu Mythos pastiche with a bit more explicit sex than usual will be sorely disappointed. While not quite Porn Without Plot, most of the twelve print pages are devoted to a detailed array of sexual acts, most involving tentacles. Comparisons with tentacle-themed Japanese adult animation like La Blue Girl fall a bit short: while the sex scenes cover much of the same material (penetrations anal, oral, and vaginal, etc.), there is quite a bit more story and character development in the Japanese manga and its anime adaptation. Booty Call of Cthulhu is written like a typical pornographic feature film, with the brief non-sexual interludes providing the set-up for the next carnal scene, with an abrupt finish after the final climax.

Short, sweet, and to the point—and when compared to similar works of the period like I Was Impregnated by Cthulhu! (2012) by Penny P. Zahn, The Tentacles of the Elder Gods (2012) by Lindsey Purl, Cthulhu’s Carresses (2013) by Amy Morrel, Uhluhtc’s Sacrifice (2013) by Grace Vilmont, I Fucked Cthulhu! (2013) by Deliah Fawkes, Cuckolded by Cthulhu (2013) by Lillian Jacobs, and Cthulhu Comes (2014) by Sandy Laws—Booty Call of Cthulhu isn’t particularly poorly written. If there’s a real criticism to be made, it’s that it is no more than it set out to be, and a much more engaging erotic narrative could have come from the same premise.

What differentiates Booty Call of Cthulhu from most of its contemporaries is that it was either popular enough or sufficiently tickled the imagination to elicit two sequels: Booty Call of Cthulhu 2 and Booty Call of Cthulhu 3 by Wren Winter—and neither of which is currently available (Wren has also written My Night With Cthulhu, which is not either of those two books under a new title).

Whether this is a licensing issue or Amazon removed the ebooks for violating one of their policies is unclear, and probably will remain so…because as with internet fanfiction, the internet’s archive is imperfect and there is no paper trail. Neither 2 or 3 ever received a hardcopy printing, at far as I’ve been able to determine, and unless you were fortunate enough to buy them during the window of opportunity they were available, those texts are essentially impossible to obtain. Should the files be corrupted or Amazon stop supporting them, they may well be lost forever.

Several of Booty Call’s contemporaries, including I Was Impregnated by Cthulhu! and Cuckolded by Cthulhu have already suffered the same fate. It’s not just that these works exist only on a handful of Kindle accounts, but unless you were aware they existed already it is exceedingly difficult to find out they ever existed. Posting an ebook to Amazon and letting the search engine handle discovery for a public apparently starved for sexually explicit Mythos-flavored content was often enough to sell a few copies…and then, for one reason or another, the ebooks were no longer sold, and there might not even be a page to point at to show where it had been for sale.

Given the ephemeral nature of pornography and the quality of the writing, few folks will lament this as a great loss to our shared cultural heritage—most erotica is treated as eminently disposable, to be enjoyed in the moment but not necessarily saved for posterity as with so many other books. Yet works like Booty Call of Cthulhu certainly represent a certain moment in time, and a literary trend which, in its perennial reflowering, means critics and fans of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos need to acknowledge two truths:

Some people want to read about having sex with Cthulhu, and a body of work has grown up to meet that demand.

The question that remains to be seen is how, if at all, these works might be preserved. It is fair to say that Booty Call of Cthulhu was not the first and will not be the last sexually explicit story about an amorous eldritch entity, but it is disturbing how easily such works can effectively fall off the face of the internet, perhaps never to be read again. Because it has a print edition, Booty Call of Cthulhu will probably linger on longer than most—and it is weird to think that in generations to come, a furtive Mythos fan may enter into a dusty bookshop and find among the dross of the 2010s an ancient example of Lovecraftian smut…

I entered, charmed, and from a cobwebbed heap
Took up the nearest tome and thumbed it through,
Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep
Some secret, monstrous if one only knew.
Then, looking for some seller old in craft,
I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Book” from Fungi from Yuggoth

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

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