An Asian Writer Looks At Lovecraft

An Asian Writer Looks Into Lovecraft
by Nicole Ortega

To me, “The Cats of Ulthar” is a wish-fulfillment story.

The story reads like a white community desperately wanting to get rid of poor immigrants in their neighborhoods. These neighbors kill cats and even dispatch their beloved pets. In real life, the local police would probably come and take away these cat killers; white people are known to love animals, especially their pets. There were no police and mobs but this town just sat in their fear of the cotter and his wife. I find it curious and baffling that they did nothing when the couple was isolated from the rest of the town and its people. I think of Lovecraft and his famous loathing for immigrants coming to his beloved town and contaminating the culture of white Protestantism that he wholeheartedly loves and seeing it from that viewpoint on the decision to do away with the repulsive cat-killing couple in Uther by another outsider; Menes from a traveling caravan.

The townspeople and the narrator feel helpless and unable to do anything about these notorious neighbors. Lovecraft renders his protagonists unable to confront the dangers of forces alien to them: 

In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”

Lovecraft’s stories including “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” feature immigrants and place them as a central focus in the stories. Lovecraft clearly imbued his dual fear and disgust over immigrants in these stories. His fear of an outside force infecting and changing a wholesome white community is apparent in his letters and works of fiction.

Is this how Lovecraft felt in his personal life when people who do not belong to his accepted racial and cultural identity moved into his hometown of Providence? The cotter and his wife are symbols of Lovecraft and the white fear of the immigrant. In the story, when the cotter and his wife were suspected and witnessed by the town of catching and butchering cats, I feel that this was a reference to the racist stereotypes of foreigners; a marker of “othering” that is specifically designed to target Asians.

In the United States of America, there have been negative stereotypes of Asians as unhygienic and unsanitary.  Asian cuisine, notably Chinese cuisine, was derided as dirty and the meat was rumored to be made of dogs and cats. This was tied to when Chinese immigrants set up restaurants and food stalls and were popular in the U.S. and so racist propaganda against them was made up to sabotage their businesses.

There was no mention whether the couple ate the cats or just killed them but I believe that the mention of cats and their status in the community has made me see them as a placeholder for Asian immigrants to a white community. In the story, the couple lived in a hovel near dark wood. As an Asian and family who are immigrants, I believe that the hovel was in a rough part of town where immigrants who were mostly workers, lower class or living underneath the poverty line come from. Lovecraft mentioned these communities in his letters and looked down on them:

We walked—at my suggestion—in the middle of the street, for contact with the heterogenous sidewalk denizens, spilled out of their bulging brick kennels as if by a spawning beyond the capacity of the places, was not by any means to be sought. At times, though we struck peculiarly deserted areas—these swine have instinctive swarming movements, no doubt, which no ordinary biologist can fathom. Gawd knows what they are—Jew, Italian, separate or mixed, with possible touches of residual Irish and exotic hints of the Far East—a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to eye, nose, and imagination—would to heaven a kindly gust of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery, and clean out the place.

H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 97

To the white gaze; there have been much discrimination and prejudice regarding Asians and the Oriental thinking of white people surrounding food and hygiene.

Racists in the beginning of the pandemic sadly stoked the fires of anti-Asian prejudice. Hate crimes have been rising ever since; the Trump campaign and administration have made white rage and racism their base and it was proven to be sadly so effective that even today the consequences of such rhetoric have manifested into the undue attacks on minorities especially Asians because of the connections racists like Trump has made to them with the pandemic. 

Donald Trump constantly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” even though experts said that this contributes significantly to anti-Asian sentiment. Racists connecting minority groups and diseases create pogroms. The elderly and/or women are the primary targets of anti-Asian sentiment. Attacks on Asians in public places and outright murder in chilling instances like the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings show how violence follows prejudice. Hate crimes against Asians have skyrocketed in the U.S. in the past year.

I am from one of those countries in Asia that rely on people going abroad where they are vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. There are many horror stories from migrant workers here about cruel employers and some even get trafficked as slaves. There is little to no protection offered by embassies or consulates because of the lack of resources and power of a government that is mostly apathetic. When Trump was elected, I feared for what would happen to Asians and other minorities and what happened was even worse than I could have imagined. Millions of people voted for this kind of administration and the support of white supremacist groups and ideology is ramping up even more.

It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. […] And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”

It is a very powerful and potent fear in the minds of white people to be displaced, subsumed —devoured by a strange and foreign culture. The feelings of intense revulsion and disgust the narrator and the townspeople of Ulthar can be likened to the white neighbour who complains too much about the immigrant neighbours. The town retains its innocence and the cotter and his wife are destroyed not by the town but another outsider. Revenge and murder are actions taken by both outsiders and not the white townspeople. Conflict is between different outside forces and not the good people of Ulthar. All is well in the end with the couple dead and Menes and the travelling caravan gone. A good ending is where no outsider lives among a white community. It is clear that the interaction of different groups of people brings discord, chaos and violence.

East versus West—they can talk for aeons without others knowing what the other really means. On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types, & when we try to be tolerant we are merely blind or hypocritical. Two elements so discordant can never build up one society—no feeling of real linkage can exist where so vast a disparity of ancestral memories is concerned—so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our own part.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 11 Jan 1926, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.535

The townspeople didn’t try to reach out to the cotter and his wife and understand where they are coming from. Of course, they are butchering cats and all of them deem them really unpleasant but with the entirety of the town at odds with them, it is curious to see nothing to be done.  It feels like the town of Uthar has made them into something inhuman, something that cannot be reasoned with or something they themselves cannot stop.

In the story, Ulthar was rid of the cat-killing poor and unpleasant couple without having to do anything by themselves.  In the end, the orphan whose beloved pet was killed and who successfully did away with the perpetrator, did not come to live in Ulthar. Lovecraft believed that cultures in contact with one another have an inevitable way to be in conflict with one another and one dominant culture will surface with the other culture diminished or faded.  This is one of Lovecraft’s fears:

Racial admixture—all apart from the question of superiority, equality, or inferiority—is indubitably an influence adverse to cultural & environmental continuity. It weakens everything we really live for, & diminishes all the landmarks of familiarity—moods, accents, thoughts, customs, memories, folklore, perspectives, physiognomical types, &c.—which prevent us from going mad with homesickness, loneliness, & ancestral estrangement. Thus it is the duty of every self-respecting citizen to take a stand against large-scale racial amalgamation—whether with newly invading groups, or with differentiated groups anciently seated amongst us. Of course, I realise that “duty” in the sense of cosmic mandate is a myth—but what I mean is, that this is the course which will be followed by every normal American who wishes to avoid spiritual exile & agony for himself & his descendants, & whose eyes are not blinded by the abstract ethical sentimentalities surviving from a naiver period of our intellectual evolution. My own motto is, ‘life in a pure English nation or death’.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 29 Dec 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 260-261

The revenge of the foreign orphan and the cat-killing couple to me is one such clash. The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington posits a theory that civilizations or cultures are bound to clash with one another. The fear of the foreigner being a threat to white western culture is not new. Lovecraft was not unique in sharing this opinion. Look what Lovecraft talked about in his letters, he wanted cultures to be pure and find mixing of cultures to be a shame and a sort of destruction. The clash of cultures already exists at the beginning of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and at the end the town is “saved” from the presence of what I see as ethnic immigrants in a white town like Providence in which H.P. Lovecraft lived.

It is not explicitly stated anywhere that the cotter and his wife were Asians, but to me the descriptions and stereotype of killing cats and poor living conditions like hovels as described by letters of the author in which Asians are living in, I believe there is a hint of Asian identity to the characterization or the very least Lovecraft wanted to label them as “other.” Through the narrative and the character of the orphan, he got rid of the “other” by another outsider and thus bringing peace and stability to the community and in which the narrator and the townspeople need not have dirtied their hands or do any proactive role in trying to drive out the offending entities.

I believe this is Lovecraft wanting to maintain white innocence and zero culpability. We see this happening in real life: there is no reckoning on how white supremacy is coming back in full force because white feelings need to be coddled even at the expense of lives of minorities.

Even now, I am not comfortable traveling to the U.S. and other countries because of the reports of hate crimes and I have even asked my friend if I look “Asian.”  I wonder if I could “pass” as white and blend in to avoid getting targeted. These are the things I have to deal with because this is what the feelings of white people like Lovecraft have; they want their communities to be pure and untouched by people like me. I remembered feeling numb and shocked when Trump was elected. To think, millions of people voted for him, saw what he was saying about immigrants and foreigners, and supported him. It was eye-opening to see the reach and breadth of that kind of hateful rhetoric today. By giving white supremacists a major platform in society increases violence against minority groups and allows the state to harm them through its institutions and policies.

In Ulthar, there are no people who harm cats anymore. There are no strange people who catch cats and kill them. There are no outsiders who call on magic to exact revenge. There are just the townspeople and the narrator who live happily. I am not advocating for the killing of cats but the town of Uther seems to be intolerant and unwelcoming to foreigners. They did not thank Menes at all or even welcome him and the caravan after the whole fiasco. I believe if Menes and his caravan had not left, they too would be looked upon with fear and revulsion by the people of Uthar.

N.C. Ortega is a writer and artist from Cebu, Philippines. They love horror, sff and romance. Bouncing from one interest to another, they hope to maybe create games, comics, and stories in various mediums and formats in the future.

Twitter: @granadamoon

Copyright 2022 N.C. Ortega

Editor Spotlight: Interview with Lisa Morton

We were there from the start. […] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.

Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition,” Strange Shadows & Alien Stars vii-viii

Women have always been a part of the weird fiction tradition, a fact recognized by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, yet many of the authors of supernatural fiction of the 19th and early 20th century have been overlooked by anthologists and collectors. Two works that go a fair way to addressing that gap are Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923 (2021) and its sequel Weird Women: Volume 2: 1840-1925 (2022), edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger. Together, these two volumes reprint works by women authors both popular and obscure—and represent the kind of weird works by women that Lovecraft and his contemporaries would have read.

Author and editor Lisa Morton has been good enough to answer a few questions regarding these books, how they came to be, and her thoughts of co-editing two volumes of Weird Women:

How did Weird Women come to be?

Lisa Morton: My editing partner Les Klinger and I had done one book together (Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, published by Pegasus Books in 2019), and we were looking for a next book together. Les was traveling back east and met up with a friend who had recently curated a library exhibition called “Weird Women”, so he brought up the idea of us doing a book of that title. Needless to say, I was on board with that instantly!

What was the reaction to Weird Women? Was there any pushback about publishing an anthology of weird fiction by women?

LM: Thankfully, no. Our publisher (Pegasus again) loved the idea, and the reviews were wonderfully gratifying. It came out a short time after Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, so it seemed like the time was ripe for readers to explore these authors who had been unjustly shoved to the back of the literary shelves.

In the introduction to the first volume of Weird Women, you noted that you could only publish “less than half of those we loved”—did the other half make it into the second volume, or was there a different selection process for the second volume?

LM: Yes, many of them did make it into that second volume! We continued to read for Volume 2, though, so I think there were a few that still didn’t make the cut as we found things we liked more. One we ended up not using after considering it for both volumes was “The Weird of the Walfords” by Louisa Baldwin; instead, we put it on our book’s website so we could still share it, with the caveat that it does indeed depend upon some…ahem…rather purple prose. It can be found here:

Most of the selections for Weird Women and its sequel are from before 1923—which is when Weird Tales began publication. Was it a deliberate choice to exclude women pulp authors from consideration, or did they just not make the cut?

LM: Actually neither. It was instead a purely business/legal reason: we had no budget to pay for stories, so we used only works that we knew were in the public domain. However, Les—who is an attorney by profession and is knowledgeable about copyright issues—started researching the status of stories used in Weird Tales, and ended up finding out that many had fallen out of copyright. That revelation came too late for us to use any of those works in either of the Weird Women volumes, but we did use “The Laughing Thing” by G. G. Pendarves to close out our last book, Haunted Tales: Classic Stories of Ghosts and the Supernatural (which just came out in August of this year). 

When making selections for Weird Women, did you make a deliberate choice to avoid more popular stories? I notice “The Giant Wistaria” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was selected rather than “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for instance.

LM: Yes. For all of our books, we have occasionally ruled out stories that we thought have been widely available in a variety of forms. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has really never gone out of print, and is widely taught in schools, so we thought many readers would already know it…but how many would know that the author wrote other works of horror as well? 

“Spunk” by Zora Neale Hurston is the only story by a woman of color in the two volumes; how do you feel race and gender intersect when it came to publishing weird fiction in the past?

LM: Les and I have often talked about how we would love to do an anthology gathering early weird fiction by diverse authors, but…it’s just simply not there. An argument could be made for some of the women we included in our books being LGBTQ+—the immensely popular Marie Corelli, for instance, spent most of her life living with a female companion who she even dedicated some of her books to—but of course very few LGBTQ+ persons were open about their sexuality back then, so we can’t even know for sure in those cases. We tried to find nineteenth-century Black writers of weird/supernatural work, and, although perhaps some wrote under pseudonyms, we just couldn’t come up with any. It’s not until the early twentieth century (“Spunk” was first published in 1925) that we start to see authors of color openly producing works of weird short fiction. 

In the introduction to the first volume of Weird Women, you mention Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—do you think his essay has strongly influenced how women weird fiction writers were read and received?

LM: It’s an undeniably influential piece on the genre as a whole. Although it wasn’t technically the first study of the genre, it’s the one that’s been reprinted the most and has led many readers to discover the works of the authors he discusses. I remember first reading it when I was a teenager, and I recall immediately seeking out a few of the authors (especially M. R. James) that Lovecraft writes about.

You partnered with Leslie Klinger to edit the two volumes of Weird Women. How would you describe your working relationship? What did you both bring to the task?

LM: Les and I have been friends for a long time—we both live in the Los Angeles area and we’ve both done a lot of work with the Horror Writers Association. We are also big fans of each other’s work. After I’d written my non-fiction book Ghosts: A Haunted History, we were having lunch or something one day when Les almost off-handedly brought up the idea that we should do an anthology of classic ghost stories together, and that was an easy “yes!” from me. We have a great deal of fun putting together these books; we both read like crazy and make lists of things we like and then talk them over. We occasionally go back and forth on which stories to include, but our tastes are similar enough that we usually come to an agreement quickly. I write the first draft of the main introduction, Les tends to write the first draft of a lot of the individual story introductions, we both take a pass on the annotations, and then we trade off and do our own passes on each other’s work. 

A few of the stories in Weird Women have Lovecraftian connections—Lovecraft had read and commented on “The Were-Wolf” by Clemence Housman and “The Wind in the Rose-Bush” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Was this deliberate, or just coincidence?

LM: I think we found “The Were-Wolf” via Lovecraft, but otherwise it was coincidence. We actually read a number of stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman before deciding on “The Wind in the Rose-Bush.” I should perhaps mention another interesting connection Freeman has to Lovecraft: his first book publisher, Arkham House, also kept interest in Freeman’s work alive with their 1974 collection of her Collected Ghost Stories.

“They were writing tales of cosmic horror half a century before Lovecraft ever put pen to paper”—do you think Lovecraft’s prominence in weird fiction discourse has disguised the role women have played in the field?

LM: I suspect there are other reasons these women got lost. My own theory is that very few of the women authors of the nineteenth century wrote only in the supernatural/weird genre; back then genre wasn’t the marketing tool that it is now, and most authors wrote in a wide array of genres. What that means is that when these authors brought out collections, there might be one ghost story and a dozen non-horror pieces; compare that to, say, M. R. James, who could produce an entire collection of just ghost stories. We remember James in large part because of his seminal collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary; but we’re less likely to know Dinah Mulock’s collection Nothing New, because it contains only one ghost story (“M. Anastasius”).

What is your opinion of women occultists who also wrote fiction like Dion Fortune and Helena Blavatsky?

LM: I confess to being not a huge fan of Blavatsky’s fiction. Fortune we never considered because her fiction is likely still under copyright (although I do enjoy her work). We did use fiction by a few Spiritualists—Marie Corelli and Florence Marryat come to mind immediately.

While not all of the stories in Weird Women have female protagonists, do you think these stories as a whole reflect women’s contemporary interests and concerns?

LM: Many absolutely do. One of my favorite stories in either volume is “The Dream Baby” by Olivia Howard Dunbar, which is about two women living together who end up centering their lives around a non-existent baby one of them dreams about nightly. The story, which dates to 1904, not only describes the pressures that single women experienced in those days, it also tells us how difficult other parts of life were then—it comes to a head during a heat wave, which of course in those days was a catastrophic event that led to many deaths. Many of the stories, in fact, deal with children in some way, because certainly children were a key part of the lives of women, whether they were mothers, nannies, or women who were defying society’s expectations of them. It’s also interesting how many of these stories show women in the role of domestic servant, something you don’t find often in weird fiction by men; being a domestic was one of the few occupations available to poorer, unmarried women in the nineteenth-century, after all. 

In the introduction to the second volume, it is noted “parts of these stories may be difficult for modern readers to swallow” because of depictions of prejudice, class consciousness, Colonialism, and misogyny—do you think a “warts and all” approach to historical fiction is necessary?

LM: Yes, I absolutely do. For one thing, reading the attitudes that we now consider ugly in these stories help us to understand the history that leads to where we are now. I don’t believe in censorship so I would never edit those uncomfortable parts out, but we can certainly annotate or comment on them in the text. 

There have been several other reprint anthologies lately focusing on women authors of weird fiction, including Women’s Weird (2019) and The Women of Weird Tales (2020)—do you think there’s an impetus now to rediscover women’s role in the history of weird fiction?

LM: I think there’s an impetus to discover the roles of all kinds of authors who were marginalized in the past, and that’s fantastic! 

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

LM: I discovered Lovecraft as a teenager, and the best of his work was very influential on me. I loved not just the Mythos stories, but those odd little sketches like “The Picture in the House” and “The Outsider.” I think sometimes his skills for things like creating characters get lost in the analysis of his use of cosmic horror. He also crafted a very distinct version of New England that probably taught me a little about how to transform your home area into horror (I’ve used my native Southern California in many of my stories). 

In terms of me writing Lovecraftian fiction, I owe a considerable chunk of that to editor Stephen Jones, who invited me to contribute to the three “mosaic” novels in his series The Lovecraft Squad. I really enjoyed writing for that series, which forced me to study Lovecraft’s works and re-imagine them within the context of Steve’s series (which, for those who don’t know, proposed that Lovecraft was actually writing non-fiction and a secret division of the FBI was set up to monitor the activities of the Elder Gods). 

Has writing Lovecraftian fiction changed how you relate to Lovecraft and his fiction?

LM: It probably made me examine some of his techniques more closely, although I was already fairly knowledgeable about all that.

From your experience, do women who write weird fiction today face the same prejudices and difficulties as they have in the past?

LM: Welllll…first, I’ll offer up what might be a shocking opinion: women writers of the nineteenth century actually had one major advantage over contemporary writers in that they could make a living from writing just short stories. When we were putting Weird Women together and researching these writers, I was astonished to discover how many had turned to writing as a reasonable way to make a living, usually after a father or spouse had died and they had to support themselves and perhaps a family. I’m sure, of course, that there were plenty of women who tried writing as a vocation and did not succeed, but even so…can you imagine today suddenly being forced to support yourself and saying, “I’ll write short stories”? That also speaks to the fact that works by women back then were welcomed by most editors.

Compare that to when I first started writing fiction in the early 1990s; it wasn’t at all uncommon to see anthologies and magazines come out without a single female contributor, and that had been the case for a while. In the 1980s there some remarkable women authors who came into the horror field and led the way for the rest of us—Nancy Collins, Nancy Holder, Roberta Lannes, Elizabeth Massie, and of course Anne Rice all come immediately to mind. Now, since the 2000s arrived, it’s thankfully become that rare book that offers little or no work by women writers. 

And of course it would be disingenuous of me not to note that contemporary women writers certainly do have some obvious advantages over their peers of the past: they don’t have to add a “Mrs.” before their byline, for example, or publish anonymously…although I know many writers now who still prefer to employ gender-free initials for their name.

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

LM: Oh my goodness…there are so many that I love for different reasons, whether it’s Harriet Beecher Stowe’s delicious use of folklore in “The Ghost in the Mill” or the rich southwestern desert setting of Mary Austin’s “The Pocket-Hunter’s Story” or the beautiful melancholy of the afore-mentioned “The Dream Baby” by Olivia Howard Dunbar…but in the end I think I have to go with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne.” I’ve become a real fan of Braddon’s work; her dialogue is often peppered with enough sass to make her characters easily relatable, and I really love all the interpersonal relationships in “Good Lady Ducayne,” especially that between the young heroine and the elderly woman she’s hired as a companion to. It also has a wonderful sense of building dread as the heroine begins to suffer a mysterious decline. 

Here’s a funny story about its appearance in Weird Women 2: we’d actually wanted to use it in the first volume, but it’s really a novella and was too long to fit. When we got the deal to do Volume 2, I think the first thing I said to Les was, “We’re using ‘Good Lady Ducayne’!”

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

To find more of her work, check out and Lisa Morton’s author page on Amazon:

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

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

Her Telegram To Lovecraft: Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Houdini

It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab.

H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.311-312

In January, 1910, I had finished a professional engagement in England and signed a contract for a tour of Australian theatres. A liberal time being allowed for the trip, I determined to make the most of it in the sort of travel which chiefly interests me; so accompanied by my wife I drifted pleasantly down the Continent and embarked at Marseilles on the P. & O. Steamer Malwa, bound for Port Said. From that point I proposed to visit the principal historical localities of lower Egypt before leaving finally for Australia.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Under the Pyramids”

Most readers overlook the fact that Bess Houdini was briefly a Lovecraftian character—even if mentioned only briefly and in passing. Yet she was there from the beginning of Lovecraft’s relationship with Harry Houdini, and she would be there at the end, her final word a brief telegram.

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was born in Brooklyn in 1876, the daughter of Roman Catholic German immigrants. Her father died when she was young, and she worked at a brother-in-law’s tailor shop, then as a seamstress in a traveling circus, where she joined a song-and-dance act called the Floral Sisters with the name Bess Raymond. In 1894, stage magician Theodore “Dash” Hardeen of the Brothers Houdini act, arranged a blind date with two of the sisters for himself and his brother Erich…better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. After a very brief courtship, Bess and Harry would be married. From then on, she would be his partner and assistant in his magical act as well as his wife (The Secret Life of Houdini 30-31).

Bess was no doubt Houdini’s assistant when H. P. Lovecraft first saw the Handcuff King on stage circa 1898, and she would have been on stage 27 years later when Howard and Sonia Lovecraft saw them at the Hippodrome in New York in 1925 (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.238). For thirty-one years she had accompanied Harry Houdini around the world and been his wife and partner. By 1925, their act would have been as smoothly polished as it would ever be, and Lovecraft appears to have appreciated it. While there is no account of H. P. Lovecraft meeting Bess at this time, he did meet her husband at the show and visited the Houdini house in New York (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.249). If Bess was present at this meeting, Lovecraft makes no mention of it.

In October 1926, the Houdinis performed at the Providence Opera House. Lovecraft attended the show, and afterward had a meal with both Harry Houdini and Bess. It may well have been their only meeting. Muriel Eddy provided an account of the trip:

When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in his magic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.

After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!

I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.

Muriel E. Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 21-22

Whether Lovecraft and Bess exchanged more than two words to each other, we may never know—but there was another consequence of that night:

Shortly after meeting with Eddy and Lovecraft, Bess was stricken with a non-specific form of poisoning, probably from food. Houdini immediately summoned Sophie Rosenblatt, a nurse who had worked fro the family previously; but by Friday, October 7, Bess’s condition had deteriorated so badly that Houdini stayed up all night comforting her. She improved a little the next day, which was the last day of the run, so Houdini arranged for her and Sophie to leave straight for Albany, the next tour stop, while he took a lat night train to New York, where he had meetings scheduled for Sunday.

William Kalush & Harry Sloman, The Secret Life of Houdini 502

At some point in October after he had met with the Houdinis, Lovecraft must have written to Harry Houdini in Detroit about a proposed work C. M. Eddy, Jr. and himself had been working on, The Cancer of Superstition. The answer, however, did not come via letter, not did it come from Harry Houdini himself.




Telegram from Bess Houdini to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 30 Oct 1926, Miscellaneous Letters 168

During his final days, Harry Houdini was still traveling and performing, but he was suffering from a broken ankle and acute appendicitis, which would swiftly prove fatal. Harry Houdini would die on 31 October 1926. As his widow, Bess was now in charge of Harry Houdini’s remaining business, which included unfinished work by C. M. Eddy, Jr.:

I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the time! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 17 Nov 1926, Letters to James F. Morton 122

There is no record of Bess’s response, but given that nothing further appears to have come of this, it is clear that with Harry Houdini gone she declined to pursue the project. Lovecraft does not mention any further communication with Bess Houdini; while it is possible he sent her a note of condolence on her husband’s death, or that they exchanged a final note on The Cancer of Superstition, if that is the case those letters do not survive. All we have is a single telegram, the text of which is reproduced in Lovecraft’s Miscellaneous Letters.

For more on Harry Houdini’s relationship with H. P. Lovecraft, see Deeper Cut: Houdini & Weird Tales.

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

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

Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen

Thus I am coming to be convinced that the erotic instinct is in the majority of mankind far stronger than I could ever imagine without wide reading & observation; that it relentlessly clutches the average person—even of the thinking classes—to a degree which makes its overthrow by higher interests impossible.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Apr 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 177

Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen is a farcical sequel to At the Mountains of Madness by way of Debbie Does Dallas. The tone is very tentacle-in-cheek: sexually explicit, outrageously unrealistic, over-the-top, and surprisingly dedicated to wringing out jokes from Lovecraft’s Mythos with all the aplomb of an X-rated version of National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings or Doon. It is gleefully and unapologetically taking the piss in a way that is rather rare even for most Mythos parodies such as “The Fluff at the Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber or “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Jason Wayne Allen, whose other Mythos works include the Deep One erotic novella Ichthyic in the Afterglow (2015) and “The Horror at the Garrsmouth Orgy” in Strange Versus Lovecraft (2013). Drawing on both the surrealistic atmosphere of bizarro fiction and the rhetoric of gonzo pornography, Allen has crafted a nymphomaniac heroine who is utterly unfazed as one eldritch horror after another crawls out of—and into—her orifices.

Readers might be shocked and appalled at a character who embodies the sex-crazed vapid bimbo or nymphette, may be affronted by Allen’s mockery of the Mythos, even disgusted by crude language and scenes like this:

My legs in the stirrups, I watch the doctor’s head move between my knees. I wonder if the doctor likes the hair I keep down there, that orange patch matching the carpet to my fiery drapes. My hips slowly rise as I feel his latex fingers part my pussy lips. I come hard in the doctor’s chiseled face, and out with my juices comes the shoggoth.

Dr. Wadsworth is a skid mark on the floor of his examination room.

Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 7-8

Shocked, appalled, disgusted—and, hopefully, still turning the pages—is the point. A shoggoth emerging during a nonstandard vaginal exam and squishing the attending physician is played for erotic slapstick, not horror. The whole point of the exercise is to push the limits a little, to pile silly on silly, affront on affront, to say to hell with conventions and expectations and keep transgressing further and further…because it’s a fun ride. Disturbing in parts, borderline obscene in others, but that’s rather the point. If you’re not going push the limits of what the audience finds acceptable, the ne plus ultra, then why write a transgressive erotic Lovecraftian novella anyway?

There is one scene that tip-toes on the very borders of obscenity, if it doesn’t cross directly over it. It involves the mortal remains of Dr. Wadsworth, the gynecologist who was splattered by the shoggoth, reassembled with an aborted fetus and reanimated so that the Frankenstein’s Monster can give Beatrixxx one more going-over before the serum wears off. I’m not sure that one would pass the Miller Test.

In a sense, Shoggoth Butt Invasion is Mythos-as-exploitation. The erotic possibilities of Lovecraft’s Mythos may be theoretically infinite, but in practice most “Lovecraftian” erotica follows familiar beats. It’s a rare work that seeks to be as transgressive, weird, and offensive as most readers and critics imagine Lovecraftian erotica should be. Allen is more dedicated to explicitly Mythos erotica than Cthulhu Scat Hangover & The Innsmouth Porno VHS (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, but doesn’t have the dedication to characterization, setting, and plot that are the hallmarks of Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels such as Trolley No. 1852 and The Dunwich Romance.

Cthulhu lets go another shriek. THis one warbles into almost a human moan.

“Fuck yeah! Iä! Iä Fhtagn that pussy, baby!

Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 42

Future generations will probably never read Shoggoth Butt Invasion. Released as an ebook via AmazonKindle and a slim print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace, the book is no longer available for sale in either format. New Kink Books, the publisher, appears to be defunct. For all that POD publishing and digital publishing have opened up the marketplace to thousands of new titles for readers, it is a very fast-paced and fragile reading ecosystem. Books that don’t sell fall off the backlist as publishers crash or content managers find offense with them, and there are vanishingly few to filter down into the secondary market of used books. Libraries ignore them.

Sometime in the future, perhaps, if a cult following develops the few surviving copies might become collector’s items—or the files might crop up on some sharing site, helping to circulate those networks and hard drives too eventually crap out. Now, more than ever, books that are not read and appreciated in their time are likely destined to be forgotten utterly.

Does it matter? Is Shoggoth Butt Invasion worth preserving?

You’ll never know unless it is.

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

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

Fight! Iczer-One (戦え!!イクサー1, 1985-1987)

Nagisa: “Why did you chose me?”

Iczer-One: “Because I like you.”

Fight! Iczer-One

The manga “Fight! Iczer-One” (戦え!!イクサー1) by Rei Aran (阿乱 霊) was first serialized in issues 21 and 22 (1983-1984) of Japanese manga anthology magazine Lemon People (レモンピープル), with an additional chapter published in 1986. From 1985-1987, the series was adapted as an Original Video Animation consisting of three episodes running a total of ~100 minutes. This begat a small franchise that would include the sequels OVA Adventure! Iczer-3 (冒険!イクサー3, 1990-1991) and Iczer Girl Iczelion (戦ー少女 イクセリオン, 1995), American comic adaptations the OVA Iczer One (1994, Antarctic Press) and Iczer-3 (1996, CPM), and various audio dramas, art books related to the OVAs, etc. Much of this media is only in Japanese, but the original OVA for Fight! Iczer-One was dubbed into English in 1993, and with this and subsequent re-release on DVD it has a small English-language audience, and this review will focus primarily on the 1985-1987 three-episode OVA, specifically the 2005 DVD release.

In terms of what it is, Fight! Iczer-One is almost the quintessential 1980s anime. It has big hair, martial arts, laser swords, an alien invasion, flying ships with drills on the front, giant mecha, body horror, tentacles, the power of love, a high school girl, a little bit of nudity, lesbians, lasers, explosions…and, of course, the aliens who are attacking the Earth are known as the Cthulhu (クトゥルフ), sometimes translated into Cthulwulf in the dub.

Rei Aran, the creator of the original manga, and Hirano Toshiki (平野 俊貴), the director and character designer for the OVAs, were obviously drawing on some familiar influences. For example, the alien parasites that provide the majority of the body horror have obvious parallels with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and possibly Alien (1979), and the advanced Japanese military ships with the prominent front-mounted drills are reminiscent of the Gōtengō—but the story and designs were also innovative.

Iczer Robo: A Visual History illustrates how the mecha designs are relatively sleeker than those of other manga and anime of the period, such as Robotech or Appleseed, and incorporate organic components (notably, the secondary pilot as a kind of power source), an idea that would be taken much further in works like Neon Genesis Evangelion. The relative dearth of male characters in the story, where both primary protagonists and antagonists are women, and the focus on lesbian relationships is a decided step away from male- and heterosexual-dominated narratives in manga and anime as well…and that brings up a fine point of discussion.

Lemon People was known as a lolicon magazine that often featured manga depicting younger or younger-looking women or girls in a romantic or sexual context. Today the term lolicon (derived ultimately from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita) is often associated with pedophilia and pornography, particularly Japanese art and manga that depict underage girls in sexually suggestive, nude, or explicitly sexual contexts, which rather drives folks to imagine something much more salacious and taboo than the reality, even without taking into account Japanese censorship laws. “Fight! Iczer-1” and its adaptations and sequels are not child pornography by any stretch of the imagination, featuring no explicit depiction of genitalia and relatively little nudity during its runtime. The protagonist Kanō Nagisa is explicitly in high school at the time of the events, much as the main characters of Sailor Moon were, and is clearly an older teen rather than an adolescent.

While this is technically the first Lovecraftian animated work to feature a lesbian relationship, predating Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, 1999) by over a decade, the plot focuses more on the emotional side of the relationship rather than the sexual side of things. Iczer-One needs the emotional rapport with Nagisa to effectively fight the Cthulhu, but there is a barrier of understanding which complicates this relationship even getting off the ground. It may seem weird to claim a realistic depiction of relationship struggles in an anime where aliens eat their way out of Nagisa’s parents and a giant mecha is powered by lesbian love, but a lot of the emotional angst Nagisa goes through could have been eased up if Iczer-One had been open and communicative about her needs for this relationship/plan to save the planet.

Iczer-One: “I was created by the Cthulhu. I’m an android.”

Fight! Iczer-One

If all of this doesn’t sound very Lovecraft…well, it is not. Fight! Iczer-One is Mythos-In-Name-Only; the alien Cthulhu have no real connection to H. P. Lovecraft or the Mythos beyond the name. The use of the name is reminiscent of how in Armitage III (1995) the scriptwriter Konaka Chiaki (小中 千昭) borrowed the name “Armitage” from Dr. Henry Armitage in Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”: a reference, an inspiration, but not ultimately an effort to incorporate the story into any wider Mythos through the borrowing. This kind of tangential connection to the Mythos is more common than one might think; like the inclusion of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Evil Dead II, these are the outer ripples of Lovecraft’s influence on the pop cultural landscape.

It has to be emphasized: Fight! Iczer-One is fun. While the franchise was never huge in English and amounts to little more than a couple VHS tapes or DVDs and a handful of obscure comics, for those who remember anime of this vintage, the OVA is a good example of a lesser-known and often overlooked work from this period.

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

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

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
—The Nemedian Chronicles

Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Know, you scholars of the occult, that during the patriachal years of Hyborian Age the crazy and decadent kings established their totalitarian kingdoms under the sky: Nemedia, with its spurious and imprecise chronicles; Ophir; Brythunia; Zamoa, where young girls were forced to prostitute themselves in dark temples; Zingara and her presumed knights; Koth, who sold their daughters as slaves to the harems of Hirkania to be covered with silk and gold chains. But the greatest and most powerful was Aquilonia, the tarnished jewel of the West in the hands of conceited and incapable men.

And from Cimmeria came Collwen, a free and indomitable woman from the north, with black hair as the firmament, eyes as intense blue as the hottest flame and the animal profile of a wild mountain panther; sword in hand and ready to crush with her footsteps the arrogant patriarchs of the world.

Imagine that the ultimate hero of sword and sorcery, no matter how much the misogynist chronicles had distorted it, was a strong and indomitable woman. Imagine that a daughter of CImmeria would have been the protagonist of thousands of adventures as mercenary, pirate and chief of men; and that her inimitable feats, marked with the tip of her sword, deserved not to be forgotten again.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Most of Robert E. Howard’s heroes were men. A survey of the pulp magazines those characters appeared in during his life such as Weird Tales and Oriental Stories showed that this focus on male protagonists was common. It was unusual for there to be women protagonists in those pulps, and rare indeed to see a woman serial character such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who first saw life in “Black God’s Kiss” (1934).

When Jirel appeared, two years after Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian first took to the page in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” readers of Weird Tales hailed her as a veritable female Conanbut that wasn’t strictly accurate. Jirel was not an alternate-gender version of Howard’s most famous barbarian, nor were the stories of Jirel of Joiry the same kind of hardboiled fantasy rooted in historical adventure fiction that the Conan tales were. If there were any characters like that, they were in Howard’s own stories: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; Valeria of the Red Brotherhood; Red Sonia of Rogatino; and Dark Agnes de Chastillonthe latter of whom never saw print during Howard’s lifetime, but Moore would read her story and gush about it in her letters with Robert E. Howard.

The first pastiches of Howard’s particular style of fantasy did not see print until after his death. Weird Tales tried to fill the gap the pulpster had left in their pages with Clifford Ball’s fantasies “Duar the Accursed” (WT May 1937) and “The Thief of Forthe” (WT Jul 1937), and Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis in “Thunder in the Dawn” (WT May-Jun 1938), “Spawn of Dagon” (WT Jul 1938), “Beyond the Phoenix Gate” (WT Oct 1938), and “Dragon Moon” (WT Jan 1941). Very likely, the dismissal of Farnsworth Wright and the ascension of Dorothy McIlwraith as editor of Weird Tales signaled an editorial policy shift away from heroic fantasy, a field that was rapidly becoming competitive.

Musclebound barbarians of any gender were not the norm in fantasy fiction during the 40s and 50s, although male protagonists still dominated in fantasy fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The 1960s, with its paperback reprints of Howard’s Conan and other fantasies, saw a revival of interest with a new generation of writers. Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniboné with “The Dreaming City” (Science Fantasy No. 47, June 1961), and Joanna Russ created her swordswoman Alyx with “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (Orbit 2, 1967), among others.

Marvel Comics obtained a license from the Robert E. Howard estate, and in 1970 published Conan the Barbarian, which would run for decades and hundreds of issues, spawning many different series, graphic novels, and related works. In Conan the Barbarian #23 (1973), series writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith introduced the character of Red Sonjainspired by Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonja was created to be a female swordswoman in the Howardian mold, a female counterpart but not clone of their successful Cimmerian. Red Sonja would go on to have her own series, guest star in various comics, serve as the protagonist in six fantasy novels by David C. Smith and a 1985 film, and her adventures continue today.

Unlike Conan, Red Sonja had no single main writer, and because she is a licensed character, her continuity has seen a great deal more flux. Where most of the official Conan pastiches by writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Robert Jordan kept the Cimmerian firmly grounded in Howard’s Hyborian Age, Sonja’s career has been more varied. There is no single “Probable Outline of Red Sonja’s Career,” the way there is for Conan. While her comics often have long story arcs or reoccurring characters like the villainous wizard Kulan Gath, they do not exist in a single rational chronicle.

Many of these stories are little more than generic quasi-medieval European fantasies with a female swordswoman protagonist who happens to be Red Sonjaand various writers and artists have taken advantage of this fact by writing their own versions of the She-Devil. Marada the She-Wolf (1982) by Chris Claremont and John Bolton was originally planned as a Red Sonja story, but was changed because of licensing issues. Frank Thorne worked on Marvel’s Red Sonja stories, and when he left the book created his own, more explicitly erotic version of the character, Ghita of Alizarr in 1979.

There are many many more examples that could be cited. For instance, Jessica Amanda Salmanson’s Amazons! anthology in in 1979, which introduced the Sword & Soul character Dossouye, inspired by the real-life women warrior society of Dahomey; and Marion Zimmer Bradley began the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series in 1984. The point of this brief history is threefold:

  • There are plenty of women protagonists in heroic fantasy.
  • They are not just Conan the Cimmerian with the serial numbers filed off and a pair of breasts.
  • Their stories are not simply Robert E. Howard pastiches.

These are important points to keep in mind when considering Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019), because this is a work which exists in a specific context, and it has to be evaluated both for what it is, and what it is trying to be, as far as the author Matthew N. Sneedon has stated in his introduction.

Unlike Jirel, Red Sonja, Dossouye, etc., Collwen the Cimmerian is a deliberate and explicit gender-swapped version of Conan the Cimmerian. While their adventures are not identical, the basic descriptions, attitudes, and activities of the characters are substantially similar, and they are operating in the same milieu: Sneedon has set Collwen’s adventures in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, in the cities and countries from the Conan stories. In this respect Collwen the Cimmerian is perhaps a bit closer to fanfiction or The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez than any of the original heroic fantasy women about such as Jirel or Alyx.

There are two stories in Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One: “The She-Master of the Dark Conclave” and “The Offspring of the Depths.” Both are serviceable and straightforward pastiches; “The Offspring of the Depths” has some initial similarities to Howard’s Conan story “Gods of the North” but turns into something more Lovecraftian before the end. Collwen is a perfectly adequate female pastiche of Conan, played absolutely straight: there are no jokes, no sly asides about gender trope reversals like rescuing and bedding princes, and very little about Collwen’s sexuality at all. The one time it comes up in any substantial way is a single passage:

Collwen had left her homeland to travel the world on her two powerful legs, not on a palanquin. She did not wish to spend years lying on a couch surrounded by maidservants to fatten up and let a round merchant impregnate her with a dozen cubs. She was not motivated by gold or gems. She just wanted to make the most of life; to see all the forgotten corners and wonders of the world, from the western coasts of the Picts to the eastern jungles of Khitai; to eat, drink, love and, above all, fight. She had not board to Stygia to obtain a sack full of gold, but to relish the war that had seen her being born.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Robert E. Howard’s Conan never explicitly denied the desire to settle down with a wife and have a bunch of kids after a big score. He never had to: there were fewer social expectations for men in the 1930s to settle down and procreate compared with women. Most male protagonists in heroic fantasy don’t have to consciously address or even acknowledge the gender and sexual expectations of their period; by contrast, women fantasy protagonists like Jirel and Red Sonja have had to explicitly deal with these social norms and mores, and how these issues are brought up and dealt with has changed over time.

In her own series of Marvel comics, for example, Red Sonja was noted for an oath to maintain her virginity unless defeated in battlea point which allowed the series to titillate in her chainmail bikini but avoided the appearance of promiscuity that Red Sonja would have had if she had engaged in as many casual sexual liaisons as Conan did. Her oath of celibacy was essentially a hard-coded example of the double standard about sexual experience between men and women in the 20th century. Gail Simone’s 2013 soft reboot of Red Sonja discarded both the character’s celibacy and her heterosexuality, making Sonja both bisexual and removing the supernatural onus against casual sex; writers since have played with both ideas in their own interpretations of the character.

Sneedon doesn’t spend much time on this particular aspect of Collwen’s character, nor does he necessarily have to: having a female character doesn’t necessarily require talking about such issues any more than a male character might. However, in the context of the opening paragraphs to these two stories, it is interesting to note that Sneedon spends little time or effort to actually depict the patriarchal nature of the Hyborian Age. There are a few echoes of the casual sexism that punctuated Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (like calling a grown woman “girl” as a diminutive), but less sexual discrimination or efforts to violently enforce gender norms than perhaps might be expected given the explicit contrast apparently intended between Conan and Collwen’s sagas.

If the patriarchy that Collwen is supposed to rebel against isn’t well-defined, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One unfortunately fallen into one of the traps of pastiching fantasy fiction from the 1930s: racism in the setting. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was marked by a combination of contemporary racial attitudes and ahistorical social conventions. Slavery existed, and it was largely slavery as practiced in antiquity or Biblical timesnot restricted to a single race or by skin color, as was the chattel slavery of the South before the American Civil War. Yet when Howard speaks of that slavery he sometimes casts it in explicitly contemporary racial terms:

“Valerius does not protect his subjects against his allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have been sold to the Kothic slave-traders.”

Conan’s head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.

“Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan they will live out the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.[“]

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon

In the 1930s, Howard could get away with explicitly exporting contemporary racial attitudes into his mythical Hyborian Age simply because they were so utterly common and widely-held that few readers or editors would find fault with such sentiments; he would lean more heavily into such ideas in describing the racially segregated society in “Shadows in Zamboula,” and would be most explicit about the racial and sexual dynamics in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967).

Writers who choose to pastiche Howard thus face a challenge: how to be faithful to the spirit of the world Robert E. Howard created and maintain continuity with his stories without explicitly continuing or endorsing those same racial prejudices and attitudes in their own fiction. It can be a fine dance: it is appropriate in a historical story to have a character with historically accurate racial prejudices; it is not appropriate for that character’s prejudices to be portrayed by the narrative as true or accurate. The failure of writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to observe this distinction in their own Conan pastiches was specifically called out in “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011) by Charles R. Saunders.

Sneedon has not managed to find the correct balance. For example, one character states:

Ngozi is my servant. She was a real princess in her tribe, but here she’s worth less than nothing. We must fear nothing of her. She’s a brute and an ignoramus, incapable of understanding what we expect. But she does understand what would happen to her if she tried to betray me.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Having a character be racist toward another character is unpleasant, but can help to define a character as unsympathetic or evil, and the relationship between the characters can be defined by that tension of racial prejudice with its arrogance and potential violence. Yet at no point does Sneedon do anything with Ngozi to disprove this prejudice, or to develop this relationship along those lines. Ngozi has no agency, no real voice for her own perspective, no chance to defend herself or deny or defy the stereotypes. The betrayal never takes place, and perhaps was not even planned. It is an attitude that a Howardian villain might well have expressed in a Conan story, but it was written in the 2010s, not the 1930s…and that is terrible. Sneedon should have known better.

Whenever a reader or critic comes across a work like this one, which takes a familiar character and setting and then changes some fundamental aspect like the gender of the main characterquestions have to be asked: why Collween the Cimmerian? What is it about the Hyborian Age in particular that made it the correct setting for Collwen as a character? How is Collwen different from Conan, and how is that difference integral to the stories written about her? Is it just fanfiction, or is there any deeper purpose to these pastiches that serves as contrast to and comment on Robert E. Howard’s stories?

Unfortunately, answers aren’t very forthcoming.

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon is available on Amazon Kindle.

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

H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House (2021)

After that he killed the time at a cheap cinema show, seeing the inane performance over and over again without paying any attention to it.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

Lovecraftian cinema is a diverse body of work, from short films to feature-length presentations to episodes of television or streaming shows; live-action to animation; zero-budget schlock and student films to big-budget Hollywood productions; from works that strive to adapt Lovecraft’s stories to the screen with various degrees of fidelity to more original presentations that take inspiration from or make reference to things Lovecraftian but seek to tell their own stories and focus on their own characters. In brief, Lovecraftian cinema is simply an extension of the Mythos into another media, with all of its own quirks and conventions.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House (2021), directed by Bobby Easley, is loosely inspired by “The Dreams in the Witch House,” but with several twists. Mathematics graduate student Alice Gilman (Portia Chelleynn) is fleeing an abusive relationship and boards in an old house (the historic Hannah House in Indianapolis), which has a dark history involving the witch Keziah Mason (Andrea Collins), and whose odd angles and witchcraft tie in to Gilman’s own theories about other dimensions—and as the bodies pile up, Gilman learns that Mason and her coven are still very much active…

When compared to other productions of this type and covering this sort of material, H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House is firmly in the middle of the pack of independent film festival fare such as The Last Case of August T. Harrison (2016), H. P. Lovecraft’s Two Left Arms (2017), H. P. Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones (2020), and Sacrifice (2020). All of these films pay more than lip-service homage to Lovecraft and the Mythos, are produced on modest budgets, and are serious efforts at a dramatic storyline and low-key horror rather than campy horror-comedies (e.g. The Last Lovecraft: The Relic of Cthulhu (2011), Killer Rack (2015)), arthouse reimaginings (e.g. Herbert West Reanimator (2018)), or reboots of previous franchises (e.g. Castle Freak (2020), The Resonator: Miskatonic U (2021)).

Individual performances, writing, cinematography, special effects (practical and CGI), score, and sound design vary—every film has its high points and low points, and if none of these seem destined right now for classic or break-out-hit status alongside films like Reanimator (1985), neither are they completely without merit or enjoyment. For most of these films, the problems they run into isn’t low budget or bad actors but poor writing: these are the cinematic equivalent of Cthulhu Mythos pastiche stories, and it shows in every familiar plot point and trope. The creators probably mean well by incorporating the Simon Necronomicon and its symbols, or by referencing Lovecraft and how his Mythos is really real…but these are both very old hat, and less clever than they might think.

Still, if nothing else, it’s fun to see how different creators approach the same material, like new wine in old bottles, and how far a given director or actor or special effects unit will go in pursuit of giving the audience something they haven’t seen before. For H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House, there are a few pleasant surprises: Alice Gilman might be the first bisexual character in Lovecraftian cinema, and her brief love scene was probably the first live-action, non-pornographic lesbian love scene in a Mythos film. The dream sequences in particular are rather effective, and the lead actress Portia Chelleynn turns in a very competent performance.

Using you as a vessel for the birth of the antichrist.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House

If there is a criticism to be leveled against H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House, it’s the emphasis on Satanic witchcraft and the recycling of plot elements of Rosemary’s Baby into its Lovecraftian framework…and that requires a bit of explanation for why it might look like it would work, and why it really doesn’t.

The Salem Witch Trials were the belated American expression of a centuries-long persecution by civil and religious authorities of an imagined Satanic conspiracy. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray recast this as an imagined pagan religious conspiracy, and this was the form of the “witch-cult” which H. P. Lovecraft understood, believed, and worked into his stories. The diaspora of the Salem witch-cult is referenced in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Festival,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Dreams in the Witch House” and other stories. Following Murray, Lovecraft eschewed Satanism in his witchcraft—rather than something as prosaic as Christianity, Lovecraft was developing his own artificial mythology that was outside the narrow confines of God and Satan.

Likewise, Satanism had nothing much to do with Lovecraft, at least while he was alive and for some decades thereafter. In 1966, Anton LeVay founded the Church of Satan, a non-theistic religious philosophy that took the theatrical trappings and some of the rituals which literature—including accounts of the witch trials—associated with Satanism in the early modern period. The founding was propitious; Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1967, and the award-winning film was released in 1968. LaVey published The Satanic Bible in 1969, William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist came out in 1971, and in 1973 was also adapted to the screen. Bands like Black Sabbath (1968) and Coven (1967) adopted elements of Satanism and occultism in their acts, laying some of the groundwork for what would become black metal.

It was the start of a Satanic pop culture renaissance, one that borrowed from and built on earlier ideas of Satanism, but took it in a new direction, some more theatrical and some more serious; sometimes both. Despite his dearth of Satanic connections, Lovecraft had his part too. Lovecraftian references appear in The Satanic Rituals (1972), notably “The Ceremony of Nine Angles” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; The Dunwich Horror (1970) deliberately echoed many of the beats of Rosemary’s Baby, with Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) serving in the role of Rosemary, complete with weird dreams, cultic conspiracy, and infernal impregnation. From there, parallel paths developed: Satanists and occultists borrowing Lovecraft into their rituals, philosophy, and theology, and pop culture confusing the Lovecraftian Mythos with Satanism as they sought to borrow on the dark appeal of both for black metal music, horror films, comics, and other media.

In the case of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Witch House, it’s easy to see where the writers were coming from and what they were going for: Keziah Mason was intended to be the genuine Salem Witch in Lovecraft’s story, and accused witches were believed to be associated with Satanism. It isn’t much of a stretch to give Keziah Mason a Satanic coven, or a typically Satanic goal…it’s just not a very Lovecraftian take on the subject. Quite the opposite of Lovecraft’s very non-Satanic take on witchcraft, really. It’s not even how most contemporary non-theistic Satanists and occultists would integrate Lovecraft’s Mythos into their beliefs and practices.

Which isn’t quite a damning indictment of the film as a whole, but it emphasizes the issue with Lovecraftian film pastiche: the people writing these movies and putting them together mean well, but are largely aping the most obvious aspects of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories without understanding the underlying ideas and mood that make those work. In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the ultimate revelation was that the horrors were real…that there was a cruel reality that lay behind the Salem witch accusations, that the accused were not just innocent victims of religious mania; something a bit closer to The Lords of Salem (2012).

On its own merits, as a part of the Lovecraftian cinematic oeuvre, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Witch House isn’t a terrible film—but it is exemplary of an approach that misses the mark of what can make a really great Lovecraftian film, focusing on obvious surface elements and easy references, like Miskatonic University hoodies instead of making a film that captures the feel of a Lovecraft story.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House was released in 2021 and is available on DVD and streaming.

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

Sailing Downward To The Cthulhu Call (2022) by Lisa Shea

Who hath desired the Sea—the sight of salt-water unbounded?
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm—grey, foamless, enormous, and growing?
Stark calm on the lap of the Line—or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing?
His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath all showing—
            His Sea that his being fulfils?
So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise Hill-men desire their Hills!

Rudyard Kipling, “The Sea and the Hills” from Kim (1900)

There are weird things out in the water. We still thrill to every strange creature that washes ashore, or is dredged up from the depths by a storm; the exotic, almost alien lifeforms that we glimpse through submarines or haul up in nets. The great depths of the ocean remain unexplored territory where wonders and terrors may yet reside: shipwrecks, volcanoes, lost cities. Nautical tales often contain elements of mystery, survival, adventure, and horror…and have left their mark on science fiction and fantasy. Krakens, Cthulhu, and Godzilla are all part of the lore and mystery of the ocean; sailors were the first great explorers who have lent their terminology to starships and space marines.

Yet for all the weird inspiration that the seas and oceans of the world have lent to H. P. Lovecraft and other weird writers, actual nautical weird fiction is a distinct and often overlooked subgenre. William Hope Hodgson, who was himself a sailor, was no doubt the greatest master of the weird nautical tale with his Sargasso Sea stories, “The Island of the Ud” (1907), and the unforgettable “The Voice in the Night” (1907), which inspired the Japanese film Matango (マタンゴ, 1963). H. P. Lovecraft would dabble in the genre with “Dagon” and the final chapter in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Frank Belknap Long, Jr. would contribute “The Ocean-Leech” in Weird Tales.

Nautical fiction has not gone extinct, but like railroad fiction and zeppelin stories, cultural and technological shifts have made such tales less common than before. Fewer people travel by water over long distances, with motors and electronics making it easier for ships to travel and stay in communication. Many of the tropes of nautical fiction are readily adapted to space travel stories—Event Horizon (1997) is essentially a ghost ship story set in space—and vice versa, as shown by films like The Abyss (1989) and Underwater (2020), so it might be more accurate to say that nautical fiction is undergoing an evolution as it finds its place in a changing culture.

Sometimes evolution tries something weird.

As the title might indicate, I was informed by a fellow author that every series absolutely must stay within a well-defined genre. Being a contrarian, I promptly set out to write a series in which each subsequent story is set with the same characters in a wildly different genre. I would love to hear your thoughts as I write this series as to which genres I should tackle next. Space Opera? Cozy Mystery? Amish Romance? The fun of me posting series as I write them is that it provides you, the reader, with an opportunity to shape and guide the results!

Lisa Shea, A Lovecraft Romp Through Every Genre There Is – And Some That Are Not

“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” by Lisa Shea is Book 4 in an ongoing series about Samantha, a Black bisexual woman with a Mythos artifact and dire premonitions of Cthulhu’s emergence, and her friend-and-romantic-interest Gabriel. Strictly speaking, it might be better to regard these as chapters in a serial: while each attempts a distinct genre (1 – Horror, 2 – Mystery, 3 – Science Fiction, 4 – Sea Stories, and 5 – Romance), none of them is quite a standalone story in itself. Nor does the narrative seem complete; presumably more books are forthcoming at some point to carry Samantha and Gabriel’s story onwards, hopefully to some kind of conclusion.

Lisa Shea is a prolific author who is game for anything, and the decision to specifically try and do a nautical story with the Cthulhu Mythos has a lot of potential. While “Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might seem the obvious candidates for maritime adventures, one could just as easily imagine a sailor of any time period coming across a ghost ship crewed by Mi-Go brain canisters, or an Antarctic cruise ship that hits a frozen shoggoth. Sailing has such a rich and fascinating history, has been such a constant in human life even to the present day, that a story could be set almost anywhere or anytime.

Shea was slightly constrained in that she was keeping the same characters and continuing an overall narrative; “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” starts out with them aboard ship, has a bit of light-hearted fun with nautical terminology, and tries to stay on topic…which is kind of where it begins to fall apart.

“I suppose, if I’m going to be reciting lines from doomed naval incidents, the Titanic shouldn’t be my first choice. Seems only two men of color were even on the ship, out of its 2,224 passengers.”

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

How many people can recite the exact number of passengers on the Titanic off the top of their heads in casual banter? Keeping in mind that at no point in the proceeding does this character demonstrate that she is a Titanic fanatic. The point is driven home in the next paragraph when she begins to go into the details of the Port Chicago disaster, without any real prompting. It is not that this is information she couldn’t know, or have looked up at some point, but for a character that doesn’t know port from starboard it feels very out of character, and almost like the kind of filler used to fluff out historical romance novels for which page count is more important than pacing.

The point of bringing up the Port Chicago disaster specifically appears to be to prompt a discussion between Samantha and Gabriel on the issue of historical racism and the historical racial diversity of sailing crews, e.g.:

“When I was a boy, our neighbor was African-American. Elderly. Wrinkledlike a raisin. He’d served on the U.S.S. Mason in World War II. It said out of Boston, you know. The entire crew was African-Ameircan. At the time, our Navy wouldn’t mix those types with the white sailors.”

His brow furrowed. “Can you imagine, caring about something like that while the Nazis were slaughtering Jewish people by the trian-car-load?”

I could very well imagine.

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

If this was a single bit of conversation in a longer novel, it might stand out less. Perhaps it might even help establish elements of their characters better and explain their romantic rapport since they both appear to be WWII naval buffs. However, the interaction doesn’t really drive the plot of the chapter or the story forward at all. It’s fascinating as trivia and in another context it might provide an interesting line of inquiry—how did changing racial politics affect the dynamics of sailing ships?—but in this story, the question has to be asked: what is the point? Because neither the Titanic, the Port Chicago disaster, or the U.S.S. Mason figure into Samantha and Gabriel’s little sailing cruise to Nantucket Island.

“Sailing Downwind” is technically a sea story because it takes place at sea, on a small sailboat, and most of the content is explicitly related to sailing in some fashion—even the discussion about why rum and why alcohol is measured in proof, which makes me wish Shea had consulted And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. Yet it feels like a missed opportunity. The sailing is a little too smooth. Samantha never really learns anything about how to help out around the ship in her brief time on it. Long car trips have been planned with more care and contained more incident and excitement. For a single chapter in a longer novel, this wouldn’t be a complaint, but in a chapter trying to bill itself as nautical fiction, it just feels like so much more could have been done with the idea…a storm. Rough waves. Shark attack. Man overboard. Lost at sea. Sneaky Deep One stealing the rum. St. Elmo’s fire. Pirates (off Nantucket? Perhaps not.)

The Cthulhu Mythos material is a continuation of the story from previous books. Readers who skipped those can get the gist of the idea rather quickly; Samantha has a crystal, a piece of alien technology which is somewhere between a palantir and a browser for extraterrestrial webcams, and it’s safer to use it far away from land just in case Cthulhu decides to make a guest appearance.

I murmured, “The Chinese government would love to get their hands on this. It seems the cameras are simply orbs of energy. There’s one currently by a mountain range. I remember it from last time. I can even see how the clouds driftingby get caught in its peaks and drag a bit. It’s quite lovely.”

Lisa Shea, “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call”

The Mythos material is slight. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, Lovecraftian mood and ideas are more important than quotes from the Necronomicon and eldritch entities with tongue-twisting names. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that mood either. In trying to make this a “sea story,” “Sailing Downwind” gives short shrift to also being a Mythos story. On paper, there’s no reason why it can’t be both—the nominal reason for the cruise is grounded in using the Mythos device, the Mythos device is used, and Gabriel uses sailing lore to try and interpret some of the information retrieved—and maybe it would have worked, if there was more story there.

If the essential goal of “Sailing Downwind” was to write a work of nautical fiction that mentions Cthulhu in ~25 pages, then it technically fulfills that goal…but only technically. There are some real missed opportunities here, as far as what could have been done with the same characters and the same premise with the same word count. Shea could have made this much more dramatic, much more focused on the sailing experience, emphasized the nautical horrors of the Mythos…but, Shea misses the boat. The overall impression is less of a sea story or a Mythos story, but a bridging chapter between the science fiction chapter (#3) and the sweet romance chapter (#5).

But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The White Ship”

“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call – Book 4 – Sea Stories (A Lovecraft Romp Through Every Genre There Is – And Some That Are Not)” (2022) by Lisa Shea is available on Amazon Kindle.

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

A Jewish Deadhead Looks At Lovecraft by M. I. Black

A Jewish Deadhead Looks at Lovecraft
by M.I. Black

The hi-fi system and the bean bag chair of my adolescent room were purchased with Bar Mitzvah gelt, the financial gain from the coming-of-age ritual marking the moment that thirteen-year-olds become accountable for their own actions in the Jewish community in which they are being raised. Most of my friends, visitors to my comfy chamber, were being raised Catholic or Protestant, and I understood from our dialogs that there was no precise equivalent to the Mitzvah milestone in Christianity. Religions—I was learning—were very different from each other. For example, there was no Jewish equivalent to the Christian concept of hell, other than—as the joke goes—New York City in August. As a counterpoint, ceremonies in which babies receive their names occurred in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet some have taken the ceremony’s gravity to the high heavens: my seventh-grade American history class taught me that the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards famously etched the importance of baptism when he professed, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of unbaptized babies.”

Sounded like an image from an H.P. Lovecraft story to me.

I would discuss hell with friends, who all thought Jonathan Edwards was an idiot, and we pretty much all agreed that hell seemed like a recruitment tool to get people to become Christian, at worst, or a warning to persuade people not to do evil, at best. None of our theological debates, however, were as long or as exhilarating as our battles in our role-playing games, such as pitting a Paladin against a rattle of ten Bone Devils.

Deities and Demigods, a reference book for Dungeons & Dragons, introduced Lovecraft to me, as well as the works of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. I still have the first edition of the now prized D&D tome; a later edition excised the Cthulhu and Moorcockian sections due to a complicated legal squabble about copyrights. To this day, the line art for Lovecraft’s section (“Cthulhu Mythos”) still lures me to read its entries. 

In high school, my friends and I began playing Dungeons & Dragons less and less and began reading books and listening to music more and more. I fell headfirst into the world of H.P. Lovecraft and fell head-over-heels for the songs of the Grateful Dead. The predominantly black and gray (with shattering reds and white) wraps of the Del Rey paperbacks called to me from the well-ordered shelves of a now-defunct chain bookstore in our shopping mall. I might have even bought Dead Set—a live, double-CD of The Grateful Dead—the same afternoon as The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories, my first Lovecraft book. To this day, I love the artwork of the album and the book, both famous for skulls and skeletons. I remain a fan of the graphical, as well as the auditory. And if what music I was listening to could somehow coalesce with what I was reading, more power to the successfully sound-tracked story.

In my bean bag chair, I soon discovered that I could not read Lovecraft and listen to the Grateful Dead at the same time. Despite the blanched bones, Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead did not sync up for me. Although lyrical in the sense of expressing deep emotions and observations, Lovecraft is not enthusiastic as, say, Ray Bradbury, whose writing could be paired up with several albums of the Grateful Dead. In contrast, Lovecraft begged for classical, to my ear, and I have heard that a few death-metal bands have been heavily influenced by his writing.

Why did I like Lovecraft’s stories? I loved how they created a universe of mythological deities and devices, not something you find in Poe, who I was also reading for pleasure way back when. The creatures of Lovecraft’s genius were indifferent to us earthlings at best, and at worst, they are malevolent with infinite, inescapable reach. His horror rang true for me.  The Romantic and romance can find no purchase in the world of Lovecraft. No one seeks out the healing power of escaping to nature, nor does any major character seem faithful to love, unlike Poe. 

Years later, while managing an independent bookstore in my twenties, I was surprised to read that Lovecraft had actually married. And in my thirties, another Lovecraft fan shared with me—as if unearthing something that should have remained buried—that H.P. was a racist and an antisemite though his former wife was a Jew. I seemed to recall stories that seemed to smack at racism, more so than the run-of-the-mill stories from that time period, but now with my new knowledge, these claims seemed more obvious in retrospect.

Soon I found myself struggling with how to handle this horrid information on Lovecraft, working through something like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. In mild shock, I told myself that if Lovecraft had lived longer, perhaps he would have outgrown the infantile compulsion that places one member of the human race over another. That Lovecraft was a product of a time—a victim of a puritanical upbringing—in which the insulated often deluded themselves into imagining that to belong to a higher rung in an alleged hierarchy is to live a life more supreme. Perhaps his trait, this reoccurring folly birthed of unfettered fear, retarded in Lovecraft any hopeful internal spark that may have illuminated him to achieve a happier life. Yes, I told myself that he was miserable, and this was the cause of his grumbling hate. If he had lived longer, experienced more of the 20th Century, the horrors of the Holocaust would have made Lovecraft dial back any theories he had about the Jews. And that the struggles of American Civil Rights would wrestle any bad beliefs on race.

In denial, I comforted myself by reading about Lovecraft’s mentoring and befriending a young writer, Robert Bloch, born a Jew, most famous for the novel Psycho, made more famous by the Hitchcock film. Surely, Lovecraft did not hate this Jew. Or, in Lovecraft’s eyes, it seemed a Jew could be born a Jew and then rise above whatever it was that Lovecraft did not like about the Jews. He had loved a Jew when he married his wife, right? They were happy, at least for a while. No, Lovecraft was not really an antisemite. Not a bad one. There were too many Jewish people in his life for him to be hardcore. The court of public opinion had an active imagination.

Then I read some more about Lovecraft, from his own letters.

What came next for me was the argument that art should stand alone, so who cares about the author, right?  I remembered my dad’s chestnut: “Don’t learn too much about your heroes; just concentrate on what makes them heroic.” Can we not engage the work of art as it is by itself, separating it from any intentions of the artist? There was no benefit in learning about the author, for it was the reader that created the text. Reader Response literary theory aided in my denial.

Most fans, of course, want to know a little about the creator of their affection.

So, I read more about Lovecraft. I grew angry. A dead ringer for Gomer Pyle, he allowed all the women in his life—it seemed to me—to bully him. Although fairly prolific, he could not make a living stringing gloomy nouns, adjectives, and verbs together to create his signature ether of impending doom. But how signature was his cosmos? You take a gigantic octopus and stick it on the body of dragon, and—presto—you have Cthulhu, like a platypus, but scary. Oh, and don’t forget, there’s no meaning to life, the bad guys always win, and the cosmos is dead cold. A triad of existential angst! Stunningly creative! Pure genius!

My fist-clenching phase proved short-lived. I still liked his work.

What if I just read the stories I’ve read before? Or just the authors who took his mythos and ran with it in their books? Just watched the movies based on Lovecraft’s works?

Bargaining puttered by in a fleeting stage.

Should we not keep Lovecraft buried? Ignore his faults? Or numb ourselves to the sins of nasty opinions that he may never have acted upon other than to drip some poison in his stories with a random remark of rancor, the sloppiness of stereotype, the temper tantrum of a theme against the mixing of races? I can admire him at his best and ignore his worst. Lovecraft is dead. And we are all going to die. What was the point really? Art does not matter. Nothing matters. There is no fun to be had. There’s no one to look up to. I’m depressed.

The stories of the Grateful Dead soundtrack made me less depressed.

It is my experience from the first story I read of Lovecraft’s, “The Hound,” narrated by a graverobber set on his own goal of unearthing another graverobber from his grave, that a Lovecraft story is often the Grateful Dead story in reverse. In Lovecraft, if you unearth something, there will be hell to pay. Grateful Dead folklore tells another story.

While trying to name the band, guitarist Jerry Garcia lowered a blind finger into an open dictionary and came down on an entry. This entry described the folktale form of a hero coming upon an unburied corpse, giving the dead a burial, and later “going down the road” completing a difficult task with the aid of a stranger, who is the spirit of the grateful dead returning a favor.

Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, acting as the Cthulhuian Book of the Dead, shares accounts of the Old Ones—Lovecraft’s cosmological dreaded deities from space. Deadheads over the last forty years that have pointed to a passage from an uncited “Egyptian Book of the Dead” to bolster the meaning of the moniker of the band:

We now return our souls to the creator,

as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.

Let our chant fill the void

in order that others may know.

In the land of the night

the ship of the sun

is drawn by the grateful dead.

Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey (2012), 40n6

In Lovecraft, the dead do not return to the creator to serve.  The dead or undead do not chant but moan. They do not draw the source of light but are forever drowning in darkness. Skeletons populate the worlds of both Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead, although, in one of these worlds, a skull screams as opposed to grins. Does Lovecraft now, who is still dead, scream on a level of hell that could be found in Dante’s cartographic efforts? Would he be on the Eighth Level of Hell, the realm of torment designed for Falsifiers? Maybe a part of him resides in hell. And the part of him that created a community of readers and writers, ironically through stories of dread and isolation, resides on some astral plane, high above the Inferno.

So, what is my role to play in the Lovecraft story? I will be the wandering hero, who has just found the dead body of Lovecraft, who will bury the bad thoughts of him and stated by him, and I will sing about what was truly deific in him and his work, to bring light up and to bury darkness down, to chant to all who will listen that we humans are complex creatures, given to contradictions, with a talent for winter growth, and I will eulogize that to err is human and to forgive divine. Atonement and forgiveness are not just for Yom Kippur, and someone does not need to ask for your forgiveness to receive it. And for the flawed mortal known as Lovecraft, if some essence of him is somewhere in a celestial plane and can find rest through my accepting the role as folk hero, maybe Lovecraft can be thought of as one of the grateful dead.

M.I. Black has written for advertising agencies, managed new and used bookstores, taught creative writing and media studies, and has worked as a communications officer in libraries. Copyright 2023 M. I. Black.

“(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” by Clinton W. Waters

While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

How do you go about queering Herbert West?

In 1922, before Weird Tales had ever hit the stands, H. P. Lovecraft’s first commercial work went into print: six brief tales of gruesome mad science, for which he was to be paid five dollars an episode. Commercial hack work, and Lovecraft knew it; it would not be published again until Lovecraft was safely dead and beyond objecting. From there it entered the domain of reprints, and it became the basis for the 1985 film Reanimator. The film, with the iconic performance by Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and the glowing green reanimation agent, was a smash success. It inspired a franchise of movies, a novelization, comic books, merchandise, and stories chronicling the further adventure of the reanimator, his foes and rivals.

Herbert West has become one of Lovecraft’s breakout characters.

It is harder to pin down when the queer interpretations began. The basic building blocks were always there, from the beginning: West and his unnamed partner’s close homosocial bond, like Holmes and his Watson; Lovecraft’s typical asexuality and lack of romance in the story; the allegorical implications of men trying to create life without women, especially via the Freudian technique of injecting some of their special serum into the body. One might also add the loneliness of the outsiders, forced to hide their actions from the world, forced out onto the fringes just to be themselves without discrimination.

For queer folk, reading into the text or the adaptations something of their own experience, maybe Herbert West was always queer too. He just wasn’t out about it yet.

Brian McNaughton may have been the first to really play with the idea in “Herbert West—Reincarnated: Part II, The Horror from the Holy Land” (2000), published in Crypt of Cthulhu #106 and his collection Nasty Stories. Molly Tanzer certainly brought in the open with “Herbert West in Love” (2012). The erotic appeal was made manifest in “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon. Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows expressly coded West and his companion as queer in Providence (2017), which played off against their own queer protagonist…and there are more. The constellation of Reanimator-derived works continues to grow; some are more explicitly queer than others. Each of these interpretations is different, both in their understanding and in their depiction of what being queer means, and in what they drew from Lovecraft or what they borrowed from other media; the glowing green reagent being a common element in most stories written after 1985.

The fluid was fluorescent and green as I gently tipped the vial. A single bead of he concoction caught on the lip of the tube and then fell, splashing into the beed’s mouth.

Clinton W. Waters, “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft”

“(UN)Bury Your Gays” is a spiritual sequel to “Herbert West—Reanimator”; one that retreads a little familiar ground (it is a reanimator story, it would be more shocking if there wasn’t a reanimation), but is overall smaller, more focused: the protagonists are not simply repeating the Herbert West/unnamed assistant dynamic, but are exploring a much more complicated, nuanced, realistic friendship as the only two queer kids in high school. There is a sensibility in the story reminiscent of “Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) by W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson; a weird sort of universality to the outsider experience which makes the characters much more sympathetic than West and his nameless assistant ever were.

Waters sets the action in the current day, and a certain pop-culture sensibility flows through the scenario: like the genre-savvy characters in the Scream films, they can picture themselves in a horror story and sometimes try to interpret what’s happening through that lens, riffing on vampirism and flesh-eating zombies in a way that Herbert West & his assistant in 1922 couldn’t. Less directly and less obviously, the two teens also approach their sexuality and relationship through the same lens. This is far and away from a Lovecraftian interpretation of Brokeback Mountain, but there are shades of the same relationship dynamics at play. What the leads have isn’t sexual, but they are tied together by their sexuality. A shared intimacy, but not exclusivity.

In a lot of ways, Waters flips Lovecraft’s script. Instead of a nameless protagonist talking about his relationship with Herbert West, we have the great-grand nephew Humphrey West telling the tale of his best friend. Where Herbert West is focused on reanimation practically to the exclusion of all else and seems to take his relationship with the unnamed narrator for granted, in “(UN)Bury Your Gays” the focus is all about the relationship between Humphrey and his friend, with reanimation a catalyst for a shift in their dynamic, and that is what the story is ultimately about.

Of Daniel “Danny” Moreland, I can only speak fondly. He was my closest companion. My champion. My single greatest achievement.

Clinton W. Waters, “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft”

A key point in Waters’ approach is that it is a queering, not the queering of “Herbert West—Reanimator.” This is one interpretation, one take, one possible iteration of the infinite possibilities of exploring Lovecraft’s original narrative, characters, or concepts through a queer lens. Rather than repeating what Molly Tanzer or Alan Moore wrote, Waters is presenting a different permutation on the same idea—one that is more inspired by Lovecraft’s original than a strict revisitation of the same familiar story and characters.

Because there is more than one way to be queer, and more than one way to reanimate the Lovecraftian corpus.

“(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” (2022) by Clinton W. Waters is available on Amazon Kindle.

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