Deeper Cut: Conan and the Shemites: Robert E. Howard and Antisemitism

The King of Kings gripped me. I thought it was powerful, though I think Joseph Schildrkraut ran away with the picture as Judas. And William Boyd, that fellow is the most human actor in the world. H.B. Warner lacked fire of course, but I don’t know who else could have done even as good as he did. Damn the Jews anyway.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.229

The King of Kings (1927) was a silent epic, the second part of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical trilogy, which began with The Ten Commandments (1923) and finished with The Sign of the Cross (1932), and tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, including his betrayal by Judas—and, in DeMille’s version, the high priest Caiaphas. The New Testament story has long been a focal point for Christian antisemitism, and Jewish newspapers and the Anti-Defamation League protested the film and its portrayal. They had every reason to: antisemitic violence around the world has never ceased, and the cinematic stirring of prejudices was feared to trigger pogroms. Many Jewish immigrants in the United States would have experienced violence against Jews such as the Kishinev massacre (1903), Lwów pogrom (1918) and Kyev Pogroms (1919) in the Russian empire.

Antisemitism prejudice and attendant discrimination had many forms and facets in the United States in the early 20th century: Christian anti-Judaism had persisted since antiquity in Western culture, but now merged with scientific racism, anti-immigrant Nativism, and ethnic stereotypes. World War I and the Russian Civil War led to parallel accusations of Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish capitalism. While not every American shared all of these prejudices, enough did.

Robert E. Howard was not an exception in this regard. Born in Texas in 1906, he was raised in a succession of small towns before the Howard family settled in Cross Plains, TX. While he often felt himself an outsider in this community, Howard’s views were informed by his environment and the popular media of the day. In that context, Howard’s reaction to The King of Kings is likely not unusual for his time and place—but only hints at the more substantial ways in which antisemitism found expression in his life and writings.

The best evidence of Howard’s antisemitism comes from his letters. However, Howard’s correspondence has to be approached with care: while they are first-hand documents, they are not diary entries, nor were they ever intended for publication, and present neither Howard’s inmost thoughts nor his views as he would have wished to preserve them for posterity. Each letter is to a specific individual, and the content and tone of the letter, right down to the antisemitic content, would have been influenced by Howard’s relationship with the person he was writing to and his purpose in sending the letter. It is important when reading these letters to keep this context in mind, and to judge the content of the letter not just by the written words, but the unspoken assumptions of who would read them and what Howard was trying to convey…and with the knowledge that Howard could, and did, change his tone and content when writing to close friends (like Tevis Clyde Smith or Harold Preece) versus pulp writing peers (like H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith).

It is important to remember that the quotes below are selected excerpts from the correspondence of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. They don’t reflect well on either man, but nor should they: antisemitism is ugly. They do not include every comment on Jews, nor even every antisemitic comment. These letters are quoted here to give an uncensored look at what Robert E. Howard wrote, and why he wrote it; to assist with the analysis of what his prejudices with regards to Jews were, and how it shaped his relationships and influenced his fiction.

Evidence of Antisemitism

Howard’s first-hand encounters with Jewish people in his life were few. He never noted any Jewish friends or correspondents in his letters, and Cross Plains does not appear to have had many Jewish residents—certainly not enough to support a synagogue, though the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish CommunitiesTexas notes small Jewish communities in nearby Abilene and Breckinridge during the period. In discussing his work history, Howard noted “I used to work in a Jewish dry-goods store.” (MF 1.120, cf. CL 2.199, 248) which was probably his closest direct association with anyone Jewish, although he no doubt had casual encounters. One such encounter was recounted in his letters:

There was a Jew sitting beside me who had bet five dollars with a big fireman that Rogers would stay the limit. Rogers stayed and the Jew won the bet, but the fight was harder on him than on Rogers. As Dula would drive Racehorse across the ring, slugging him savagely, the Jew would leap up and wave his arms wildly, shrieking for Rogers to clinch!—hold!—stall!—do anything! As the gong would end the round, the Jew would shriek that Rogers was saved by the gong and would fall limply back into his seat, in a state of collapse.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1932, MF 1.258

This may have been a typical Texas “tall tale”; Howard was prone to a degree of exaggeration and dramatization of events in his letters to Lovecraft, and the letters make very entertaining reading as a result—but a critical reader might wonder how much of this was true. Howard was fond of boxing matches and Kid Dula was one of his personal favorites, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that he attended the fight. Whether there was a Jew—and whether they actually affected any such histrionics, or if this was all a bit of a tale for Lovecraft’s benefit, informed by Jewish stereotypes—is a bit of a question.

We can measure Howard’s antisemitic sentiments in some ways by looking at those of his peers: pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth all made antisemitic comments in their letters as well. All four were white men, and though widely separated in different parts of the country, were of roughly similar generation (Lovecraft born in 1890 was the oldest, Derleth born in 1909 was the youngest), and their antisemitic comments all partake of the ambient antisemitism of the United States during their shared lifetime.

Howard’s references to Jews are mostly casual (often jocular) though sometimes bitter, dominated by stereotypes (usually of greed or cowardice, and with exaggerated phonetic Yiddish accents), and reserved for close friends. An example to illustrate this point:

Lizzen my children and you shall be told
Of the midnight ride of Mikey de Gold!
In feathers and tar he rode away
On a ten-foot rail at the break of day.
And Hebrews cheer when the tale is told
Of the thrilling ride of Mikey de Gold. 

Wotta life, wota life! Here is de low-down on Mikey de Gold: “As a Jew I know that anti-Jewish prejudice exists. I will fight it to the death. * I will stand up for my race, as I will for a Negro or Italian in like circumstances. And I refuse to run away, even if there were an escape in Palestine or Africa, as there certainly is not. America is our country, as much as anyone’s. We will plant ourselves here, not retreat to some mythical fatherland in the deserts of Palestine or Africa.”
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, c. Sep 1931, CL 2.244

The quote is in reference to the quasi-autobiographical novel Jews Without Money (1930) by Michael Gold (pseudonym of Irving Granvich); it is accompanied by a crude cartoon of Gold running away, with the caption “Mikey de Gold fighting to the death, according to the custom of his race” (ibid.) The bitter passages are rarer, but also telling, e.g.:

You can’t justify the existence of the Hebrew race to me. If I ever heard the Humoresque, it didn’t linger in my mind; but anyway, all the music in the world wouldn’t make me like them any better. They are swine as far as I am concerned; a lot of dirty scuts that didn’t have the nerve to come to America until the Irish had killed out the Indians and built the railroads. Then they came over and now they sit up on their bulbous rumps and blatantly announce that they own the damned country. Maybe they do; they’ll never own Ireland.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.340-341

Whether this is just a reflection of Howard in a black mood or putting on one for show is hard to judge by the context of the letter, but the concept of Jews as an outgroup, johnny-come-latelies to the United States after the frontier was settled would persist in Howard’s other letters. Both quotes illustrate the stereotypes that dominated Howard’s depiction of Jews as cowardly, greedy, and wealthy, both in his letters and his fiction.

As far as can be determined Howard expressed these prejudices only in private, among those who would not likely call him out. In this, his antisemitic statements can be compared to those of Clark Ashton Smith or August Derleth in their own letters: off-color jokes and pejoratives shared with those who would presumably have similar cultural background and values. The references to Jews in letters to Harold Preece, Tevis Clyde Smith, and other close friends ultimately don’t tell us much about Howard’s prejudices, except that he had them and that they followed some of the common stereotypes of the period. Howard’s “jokes” only land if the recipient and sender are both already aware of and implicitly agree with the common stereotypes about Jews.

By contrast, H. P. Lovecraft rarely if ever makes this kind of quip—more of his antisemitic statements are “serious” or presented as factual—and consequently, there is no “banter” or exchange of jokes about Jews in the Howard/Lovecraft letters. However, there is also nothing of the pseudoscientific, considered thoughts on Jews in Howard’s letters to his Texas friends: only Lovecraft was a springboard for those more in-depth conversations.

The Lovecraft Letters

The most telling and informative evidence of Howard’s thoughts on Jews comes from his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft. The subject matter of Howard’s letters is usually very restrained when writing to his friends, editors, and fellow pulpsters; but his letters to Lovecraft covered vast areas of discussion from history and anthropology to contemporary politics and current events, from pulp business to poetry, personal biography to their favorite foodstuffs. In Lovecraft, Howard found a correspondent different from any of the others we have a record of, whom he could engage with on a broad number of topics and in great depth. So while Howard could and did mention Jews in letters to others, he would never discuss them in such depth as he would in his letters to Lovecraft.

The earliest references to Jews in Lovecraft and Howard’s letters grew out of a discussion of anthropology and history:

One legend for instance, has the Gaels wandering into Egypt to serve as mercenaries, just at the time the Hebrews are leaving, and another legend has it that the Milesians were already well settled in the Egyptian barracks when the Jews arrived, and that it was malcontents among the Gaels who went into Goshan and stirred up the Hebrews to revolt.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [9 Aug 1930], MF 1.35

Christianity had been treating the Old Testament as history for centuries, and during the Middle Ages this had led to national epics and legends that connected (or concocted) national myths with the Bible. The Lebor Gabála Érenn (popularly known in English as The Book of Invasions) begins with Genesis and traces the descent of the Irish from Noah’s son Japheth down to the Milesians, and from the more openly mythological material to the pagan and then Christian kings of Ireland. Howard, like other scholars, saw a grain of historical truth in the old legends and worked them into the anthropological narrative. By the same token, some lexicographers claimed that Irish Gaelic derived from Hebrew; Robert E. Howard discussed this with Lovecraft as well (MF 1.18), probably getting the idea from O’Reilly and O’Donovan’s Irish-English Dictionary.

The term “Semitic” originally referred to the closely related languages of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic, etc. in the 18th century; the term derived from “Shem,” the son of Noah from whom the Jews of the Old Testament were descended (Genesis 10-11). The term was extended through use to refer not just to the languages, but to the peoples who spoke those languages, their cultures and religions, so that by the early 20th century “Semites” was commonly understood to mean not just these languages, but also Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, and other peoples that spoke Semitic languages. This was the sense in which Robert E. Howard used and understood the term as well:

As regards the Armenians, I am inclined to the theory that they represent a race whose original type was Semitic, who fell so completely under the dominion of their Aryan conquerors that they forgot their original Semitic language, and retained the later acquired speech through following centuries of re-Semitizing.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.43

Your remarks on the Etruscans interested me very much. I am sure you are right in believing them to be of a very composite type of Semite and Aryan. […] I was also interested in the theory of type-differences in the Semitic races, of which I had never heard before. It sounds very plausible, for there always seemed to me to be a basic difference between, say the Bedouin Arab and the Jew, even allowing for the long centuries of different environment and ways of living. That is an aspect of history full of dramatic possibilities; a clean cut divergence of type existing back to the very dawns of time. An ancient feud between the ancestors of the desert dweller and the fertile valley dweller, symbolized by Cain and Abel and by Esau and Jacob. The real basis of the Arab’s hatred for the Hebrew having its roots in primordial racial feud rather than religious differences of comparatively modern times. I must weave that thought into a story some day.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.47

While Howard never did write this particular story, these ideas that came out of his discussions with Lovecraft would find their expression in Howard’s later fiction. The combination of national epics and contemporary anthropology gave rise to racial narratives in which contemporary prejudices played out or found expression in historical (or prehistoric) episodes. While C. B. DeMille would tackle this with the New Testament narrative in The King of Kings, Howard would do this with the Shemites in the Hyborian Age.

The pair continued to correspond on this line, among others, and as they got into their topic gradually became more open and less guarded. Howard was one of the few correspondents who matched Lovecraft letter-for-letter, in terms of providing long, detailed, sometimes philosophical and sometimes argumentative responses in what became a long, wandering dispute…and this included discussion of Jews and other “Semitic” races. So for example there was this exchange, starting with Lovecraft:

There is likewise, as you suggest, room for much dramatic reflection in the heterogeneous personnel and history of the Semitic races. My own guess is that the Alpine-Semitic type—the queer-eyed, queer-featured type which we historically regard as Jewish—was originally confined to the fertile valleys and plains, and did not include the early Jews at all; these latter being that homogeneous with the Arabs, and thus chiefly Mediterranean. The Assyrians, as shewn in their sculptures, are extreme examples of this Alpine type; and the Phoenicians and Carthaginians appear to have belonged to it. When the nomadic Jews conquered the cities of Canaan, they probably found this type prevailing there—the difference being clearly shewn in cultural ways. The two elements were mutually antagonistic, but eventually amalgamation occurred—the established and numerically preponderant Canaanite stock of course engulfing the relatively small but ruling element of Mediterranean Hebrews. Thus the Jew of historic times is probably more of a mongrel Canaanite of Alpine ancestry than a descendant of the original Hebraic group. Moses—if he was indeed an historic character—would probably find Mohammed or Saladin more like himself in blood and features than he would find any of the prophets of the later Jewish line. It is obvious that in prehistoric times the Hebrews and Arabs were virtually one. When the Arabic Hyksos or Shepherd Kings conquered Egypt, they brought in myriads of Jews as friendly supporters—these latter becoming a slave-race when the reviving native-Egyptians expelled the Hyksos. It was this period of enslavement, I fancy, which first broke the spirit of the Jew, and gave him that readiness to submit to conquest which has made all his cultural heirs so peculiarly hateful to our unbroken and liberty-worshipping Western race-groups. The Arab of today is a better representative of the prehistoric “Abrahamic” Jew than any type historically known as Jewish. Altogether, there is great stuff in the Semitic peoples—a powerful mentality, and marvellous stamina in limited directions—but somehow they have never been able to coördinate themselves into any solid and enduring fabric comparable with the Aryan world as a whole.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 4 Oct 1930, MF 1.53-54

I am inclined to agree with you that the Assyrians and Phoenicians were of Alpine-Semitic stock, also about the Jews. It is evident that the present day Hebraic race has little in common with the original wandering, fighting type. I wonder if that Alpine type could have been the result of admixture with Turanian races? It is said that the Assyrian’s physiognomy was much like the present day Russian Jew’s, and we know that the Jews of Russia and Poland have a great deal of Mongoloid blood in them—descendents of those Turanian Khazars with whom numbers of Jews settled and mixed in the Middle Ages. […]  The Turanian has always, it seemed to me, been the man of action rather than the man of study and art. He has been, and still is, bold, adventuresome, capable and unsentimental, brutal and domineering; in creative genius he is infinitely inferior to the Semitic race.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.82

The “Khazar myth” is an antisemitic pseudohistorical theory that supposed many of the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Europe—particularly Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire—were actually Central Asian (“Mongoloid” or “Turanian” in late 19th/early 20th-century scientific racism terms) rather than “white,” and that their ancestors had been Khazars who had converted. This theory was used to justify discrimination against the Jews on a racial basis, and while Howard did not lean on it very heavily, these discussions influenced his thinking about Jews as a race, and to open up their history to speculation and re-writing. This kind of activity can also be seen in The King of Kings: C. B. DeMille could not write Jews out of the New Testament narrative, but he could characterize and portray the Jews in such a way to appeal to his interpretation of the story, and of the Jewish people.

While Lovecraft was not in any way shy about voicing his antisemitic views on the Jews of New York City, he had relatively few correspondents who could or did apparently share his views openly. In the case of Clark Ashton Smith, their mutual dealings with Jewish pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback opened up one avenue where they could express antisemitism to each other. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard bonded over their mutual interest in anthropology and anti-immigrant views. In response to a long digression on foreign immigration and the “melting pot” by Lovecraft (MF 1.76-79), Howard wrote in reply:

Once it was the highest honor to say: “I am an American.” It still is, because of the great history that lies behind the phrase; but now any Jew, Polack or Wop, spawned in some teeming ghetto and ignorant of or cynical toward American ideals, can strut and swagger and blatantly assert his Americanship and is accepted on the same status as a man whose people have been in the New World for three hundred years. […] Well—I can’t say that I’ve added anything to the greatness of the nation, but I at least come of a breed that helped build up the country, which is more than can be said today by any number of Hebraic-Slavic-Latins running around and calling themselves “Americans”.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Oct 1930, MF 1.88

These views were sadly not uncommon during the 1930s.

Not all of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard survive, so that there are gaps in the correspondence, but by Howard’s responses we know Lovecraft continued to reference Jews in New York on occasion, and this encouraged Howard to be either more outspoken in his own antisemitism, or more outspokenly antisemitic so as to appeal to his new correspondent:

Thanks very much for the statistics-paper. It seems in truth that only Americans are dying in New York and only Jews are being born. It seems certain that in a generation or so, New York will be a full fledged Hebrew city, 100% Yiddish. Yet I am less sorry to see this happen to New York than I am to note the inroads of the aliens into New England, though I’m sure that wops and Polacks are preferable to Jews. […]  The inevitable Jew infests the state in great numbers. You can hardly find a town of three thousand or more inhabitants that does not contain at least one Jew in business. And the Jew almost invariably has the country trade. It is a stock saying among rural Texans that if the Jew cannot sell his stuff at his price, he will sell it at yours. What they cannot seem to realize is that at whatever price he sells his shoddy junk, he is making a bigger profit than the legitimate merchant can make. No Aryan ever outwitted a Jew in business. I used to work in a Jewish drygoods store. Before each sale—and Jewish sales go on forever—I would “mark down” the goods according to his instructions. For instance, the regular retail price of a pair of trousers would be $5.00. I would mark in big numbers on the tag—$9.50, then draw a line through that and mark below, $5.50. Thus the duped customer, noting the marked out price and comparing it to the new price, would consider that he was getting a bargain, whereas he was in reality paying fifty cents more than the regular price of the garment. But you can’t make the average countryman believe that he’s not saving money and getting gorgeous bargains by trading with the Jews. But to return to the foreignization of the state. Houston, the largest city, has a vast alien population—Jews, Slavs, and Italians, the last drifting up from New Orleans. Dallas fairly swarms with Jews, in ever increasing numbers. In fact, the term, “Dallas Jews” is applied indiscriminately to inhabitants of the city by spiteful people. Dallas also has numbers of Greeks, Russians and Italians and quite a few Mexicans. San Antonio has a large population of Mexicans, twenty or thirty percent of the entire population, and the usual quota of Jews, Italians and Slavs. Of the remaining population, a large percent is Germanic. Fort Worth, thirty miles west of Dallas, and originally settled by cattlemen, is overwhelmingly American; the foreign percentage is very small. Waco, in central east Texas, has, in addition to a vast negro population, a steadily increasing foreign element. The Jew is there, but not many Italians, their place being taken by Poles, Bohemians, Czechs and Magyars. […] Austin, the capital city, set among picturesque hills, is mainly free from aliens, but Galveston and Corpus Christi swarm with Italians, South Americans, Cubans, Filipinos, Slavs, Jews—the usual population of sea-port towns. As for the Rio Grande Valley, the alien population is immense, some towns, I hear, being almost entirely composed of Latins and Jews, aside from their natural Mexican element.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1931,
MF 1.120-121

This is the kind of detailed look at antisemitic prejudice which we don’t see in Howard’s other letters, because Lovecraft was an outsider to Texas and was sympathetic to such anti-immigrant and antisemitic statements, and evinced an interest in Texas and Howard’s descriptions of its culture, geography, and population. Robert E. Howard was no doubt exaggerating a touch for effect (the Texas “tall tale” tradition in action). Lovecraft was less prone to exaggeration but also strove to provide his new friend with entertaining accounts of his own views on New York, and Howard connected this to Lovecraft’s fiction:

It’s a pity the Yids have taken New York. I imagine the mongrel population does present a bizarre aspect—I remember with what deep interest and absolute fascination I read your story, “He”, with its setting in the mysterious labyrinth of New York’s alleys and secret ways.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.149

“He” had been published in Weird Tales (Sep 1926), so this callback gives evidence to how keen Howard was on Lovecraft’s fiction; while the Texan had missed a few early issues of Weird Tales, he was a great admirer of Lovecraft’s fiction. The story was born out of Lovecraft’s New York period, and reflected his own disillusionment with the Big Apple—and while it doesn’t include any antisemitic commentary, Howard’s interest in New York no doubt encouraged Lovecraft to be more open about his prejudices. The two were encouraging one another, as correspondents often do, albeit on a very unpleasant subject. One of Lovecraft’s personal bugbears was his conviction that Jews controlled publishing in New York City:

But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, MF 1.134

Which prompted Howard to reply:

I agree with you that there is far too much Semitic control of publication and I view this fact with deep resentment. If American literature can’t somehow shake off the strangle-hold the Jews seem to have gotten on it, I believe it’s doomed. Not denying that the Semitic race is capable of producing fine work itself; but to each race its own literature. I don’t want to control the artistic expression of the Jews, and by God, I don’t want them to control and direct the expression of my race. You’re right about the haggling and noise accompanying commerce among the Orientals. In New Orleans all this noise and argument isn’t confined to the Semites alone.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.150

As with the Khazar myth, Lovecraft and Howard were both responding to a fallacious idea that a very small population of Jews were controlling the media marketplace—not very far removed from the antisemitic propaganda that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis spouted, though neither Lovecraft or Howard had heard of Hitler by this point. What is made clear from this passage is that Howard was responding to Lovecraft’s antisemitism. While Lovecraft had a broader correspondence with many different people with their own perspectives on these issues, as far as we know Howard only had Lovecraft. The two were not free from disagreement on some subjects, but when the conversation turned to Jews they tended to reinforce one another, echoing back the other’s prejudice.

Yet for all that, what they have discussed above are generally common prejudices, not views that are unique to either Lovecraft or Howard—but Howard would soon expand past common antisemitic tropes and offer his own individual views.

Robert E. Howard and the Jews of the Old Testament

I have always felt a deep interest in Israel in connection with Saul. Poor devil! A pitiful and heroic figure, set up as a figurehead because of his height and the spread of his shoulders, and evincing an expected desire of be king in more than name—a plain, straight-forward man, unversed in guile and subtlety, flanked and harassed by scheming priests, beleaguered by savage and powerful enemies, handicapped by a people too wary and backward in war—what wonder that he went mad toward the end? He was not fitted to cope with the mysteries of king-craft, and he had too much proud independence to dance a puppet on the string of the high priest—there he sealed his own doom. When he thwarted the snaky Samuel, he should have followed it up by cutting that crafty gentleman’s throat—but he dared not. The hounds of Life snapped ever at Saul’s heels; a streak of softness made him human but made him less a king. He dared too much, and having dared too much, he dared not enough. He was too intelligent to submit to Samuel’s dominance, but not intelligent enough to realize that submission was his only course unless he chose to take the ruthless course and fling the high priest to the vultures and jackals. Samuel had him in a stranglehold; not only did the high priest have the people behind him, but he played on Saul’s own fears and superstitions and in the end, ruined him and drove him to madness, defeat and death. The king found himself faced by opposition he could not beat down with his great sword—foes that he could not grasp with his hands. Life became a grappling with shadows, a plunging at blind, invisible bars. He saw the hissing head of the serpent beneath each mask of courtier, priest, concubine and general. They squirmed, venom-ladened beneath his feet, plotting his downfall; and he towered above them, yet must perforce bend an ear close to the dust, striving to translate their hisses. But for Samuel, vindictive, selfish and blindly shrewd as most priests are, Saul had risen to his full statue—as it was, he was a giant chained.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.160-161

One of the major influences on Robert E. Howard’s fiction is history. Many of his stories are essentially historical adventures, regardless of whether they possess some element of fantasy or the weird. Howard’s reading of history was always filtered through his own narrative: he admired the soldier, the warrior, the underdog that struggled. In this letter to Lovecraft, Howard uses the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as history—and the narrative he constructs of Saul is very much evocative, but also familiar, right down to the metaphors. It is suggestive of King Kull, the Atlantean who ruled Valusia and kicked off sword & sorcery in “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales Aug 1929).

Whether or not Howard had Saul in mind when he wrote some of the Kull stories is unknown, but it’s notable that “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales Dec 1932), the first story of Conan the Cimmerian began life as a Kull story (“By This Axe I Rule!”). King Conan, as he would appear in his first story, owes much to Kull—and if the Cimmerian is not quite as somber as the Atlantean, they both have a soft spot for one of the conspirators that seeks to unthrone them, and this too has a bit of a precursor in the Old Testament, in Howard’s reading:

David he knew was being primed for his throne—under his very feet they pointed the young adventurer for the crown. Yet I think he was loath to slay the usurper, because he felt a certain kinship with him—both were wild men of the hills and deserts, winning their way mainly by sheer force of arms, forced into the kingship to further the ends of a plotting priest-craft. To one man Saul could always turn—Abner, a soldier and a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word—too honorable, too idealistic for his own good. Saul and Abner were worth all that cringing treacherous race to which they belonged by some whim of chance. David was wiser than Saul and not so wise, caring less for the general good, much more for his own. He was the adventurer, the soldier of fortune, to the very end, whereas Saul had at least some of the instincts of true king-ship in his soul. David knew that he must follow the lines laid out for him by the priests and he was willing to do so. A poet, yes, but intensely practical. When he heard of the slaying of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a magnificent poem in their honor—but first he gave orders that the people of the Jews should practice with the bow! He knew that archery was necessary to defeat the Philistines, who were evidently more powerful in hand-to-hand fighting than the Israelites, and were skilled in arrow-play. He had a long memory and his enemies did not escape—not even Joab, who did more to win David’s kingdom for him than any other one man. I cannot think of Saul, David, Abner and Joab as Jews, not even as Arabs; to me they must always seem like Aryans, like myself. Saul, in particular, I always unconsciously visualize as a Saxon king, of those times when the invaders of Britain were just beginning to adopt the Christian religion.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161

Howard’s inability to reconcile the epic history of the Israelites with his personal prejudices of contemporary Jews is in many ways the Texas Christian 1930s response to the Old Testament in a nutshell. Rather than reconsider his own prejudices, Howard recontextualized the Old Testament stories to center around his own chosen identity. This is different than the common antisemitic prejudices of the period, but it is very much in keeping with the euhemeristic approach to folklore and religion which Lovecraft and Howard had already played with in their stories before (see “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory”). 

The end of this particular line of thought was Howard’s description of Samson:

Another Hebrew who interests me is Samson, and this man I am firmly convinced was at least half Aryan. In the first place, he had red hair or bright yellow hair; I feel certain of this because of his name, and the legend concerning his locks. His name referred to the sun, always pertaining to redness, brightness, golden tinted, in any language; his strength lay in his hair; I connect his name with his hair. What more natural than a superstition attached to the red hair of a child born in a in a dark-haired race? And that angel in the field—well, in the old, old days of Ireland, there was a legend that the old gods had fled into the west, from which they occasionally emerged to bestow their favours on some lucky damsel. Many a wanderer from the western hills assumed the part of a god. I am convinced that the “angel” was a wandering, red-haired Aryan, and that Samson was his son. The strong lad’s characteristics were most certainly little like those of the race that claimed him. He wouldn’t even associate with his people. He feasted and reveled with the lordly Philistines, and his drinking, fighting and wenching sound like the chronicles of some lad from Wicklow or a wild boy from Cork. He was a great jester, a quality none too common in his supposed race, and in the end he displayed true Aryan recklessness and iron lust for vengeance. When, in history, did a true Semite deliberately kill himself to bring ruin to his enemies? The big boy was surely an Aryan.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161-162

Samson, in Howard’s description, is not too far from many of his other Irish—or Cimmerian—heroes; Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” was described “with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” and dealt death even when outnumbered and near death himself, with no thought of escape. Whether the Old Testament was a direct influence on the creation of Kull or Conan is hard to say, but it is undeniable that Howard’s particular view of history, and his prejudices regarding Jews, influenced his reading of the Old Testament. Howard would express a similar vision of the Old Testament hero in the poem “Samson’s Brooding,” which begins:

I will go down to Philistia,
I am sick of this conquered race,
Which curses my strength behind my back,
And fawns before my face.

Howard would write a number of such poems that take Old Testament characters as their subject, expressed through his own vision; these were mostly privately circulated to friends via letters, rather than for publication.

After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis’ antisemitic policies were rarely brought into discussion—although Howard made it very clear that he was no Nazi:

I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [15 Jun 1933], MF 2.598

On assuming power, Hitler and the Nazis immediately began passing antisemitic legislation; yet Howard would die before the pogrom of Kristallnacht (9-10 Nov 1938) or before the mass murder of the Holocaust began in earnest or was widely known.

As it happens, this was largely the end of serious discussion of Jews in Howard’s letters to Lovecraft; while there are a number of brief references and snippets, he never again went into this depth on the subject. Lovecraft and Howard’s correspondence had shifted to their sprawling discussion of civilization vs. barbarism, the physical vs. the mental, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and Howard’s sweeping, epic histories of the Southwest and Lovecraft’s travels. Yet the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence is key to understanding how Jews and antisemitism find expression in Howard’s fiction.

Conan and the Shemites

Jewish characters are rare in Robert E. Howard’s fiction. Yet there are a few: Jacob, “a short, very fat Jew” who served as majordomo to Skol Abdhur in “The Blood of Belshazzar” (Oriental Stories Fall 1931) and one or more unnamed Jews in “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934) noted only for their wealth and penchant for mercantilism; these are typical roles for secondary characters, especially in historical adventure stories where “Jew” is basically a stereotype with little nuance. Such stereotypes and stock characters were common tools in the pulp writer’s arsenal, and even H. P. Lovecraft (“The Descendant”) and Clark Ashton Smith (“The Parrot”) used them occasionally.

In a broader sense of “Semitic” characters, Howard used any number of Arabic characters in his historical adventures set during the Crusades or in the Middle East, including “Hawks Over Egypt” (unpublished during Howard’s lifetime) and “Hawks of Outremer” (Oriental Stories Spring 1931), both of which touch on the complicated ethnic and religious milieu of that place and period. A remnant of the Assyrians show up, perhaps rather surprisingly, in an unfinished Solomon Kane story, “The Children of Asshur,” where they are distinguished from both the indigenous Black Africans and the white European Solomon Kane.

The usage of “Semitic” characters, be they Jews, Arabs, or hypothetical older peoples such as the Assyrians or Phoenicians in historical stories could be taken as a matter of course; however it was difficult to have Jews and Muslims in the Hyborian Age. Howard’s solution is a callback to his discussions with H. P. Lovecraft about the hypothetical racial origins of the “Semitic races”:

Far to the south dreams the ancient mysterious kingdom of Stygia. On its eastern borders wander clans of nomadic savages, already known as the Sons of Shem. […]  To the south the Hyborians have founded the kingdom of Koth, on the borders of those pastoral countries known as the Lands of Shem, and the savages of those lands, partly through contact with the Hyborians, partly through contact with the Stygians who have ravaged them for centuries, are emerging from barbarism. […] Far to the south sleeps Stygia, untouched by foreign invasion, but the peoples of Shem have exchanged the Stygian yoke for the less galling one of Koth. The dusky masters have been driven south of the great river Styx, Nilus, or Nile, which, flowing north from the shadowy hinterlands, turns almost at right angles and flows almost due west through the pastoral meadowlands of Shem, to empty into the great sea. […] The Shemites are generally of medium height, though sometimes when mixed with Stygian blood, gigantic, broadly and strongly built, with hook noses, dark eyes and blue-black hair. The Stygians are tall and well made, dusky, straight-featured—at least the ruling classes are of that type. The lower classes are a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods. […] The ancient Sumerians had no connection with the western race. They were a mixed people, of Hyrkanian and Shemitish bloods, who were not taken with the conquerors in their retreat. Many tribes of Shem escaped that captivity, and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites. The Canaanites, or Alpine Semites, traced their descent from Shemitish ancestors mixed with the Kushites settled among them by their Hyrkanian masters; the Elamites were a typical race of this type.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Hyborian Age” (1936)

The Shemites, as Howard conceived and depicted them, were not Jews; they were that hypothetical precursor race from which Jews and Arabs both emerged that he and Lovecraft had discussed in their letters. This was not presented as historical fact, even though it clearly derived from Howard’s readings of national mythos such as the Book of Invasions

The Hyborian world of Conan is best understood not as a self-contained and separate setting like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia but as a fantasy setting where Howard would be free to write historical adventures without regard for the limitations of historical fiction—Conan the Cimmerian could thus adventure with Elizabethan buccaneers (“The Pool of the Black One”), rub shoulders with Afghani hillmen (“The People of the Black Circle”), face indigenous peoples on a colonialist frontier reminiscent of Texas (“Beyond the Black River”), explore strange forgotten cities (“Red Nails,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “The Queen of the Black Coast”), lead medieval European armies (“The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Hour of the Dragon”) all within the same setting and period. In this context, Howard did not require Jewish characters exactly—he never touched on Christianity or Judaism as religions in the Hyborian tales—but in tracing back the peoples of his present day, the narrative of Jews in the context of European and Biblical history rather demanded they be accounted for somehow; they would have been notable absence, otherwise.

If the Conan stories are considered in the order of their writing (as near as we can determine from Howard’s letters), Robert E. Howard conceived of Shem and the Shemites in the first Conan tale, but didn’t flesh out their history or culture—as Patrice Louinet notes in “Hyborian Genesis,” Howard did not write “The Hyborian Age” essay until after he wrote the first three Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the CImmerian 440). But they were there from the first: “The Phoenix on the Sword” mentions the “pastoral lands of Shem” and a “Shemitish thief.” Then in “The Tower of the Elephant” there is described “a Shemitish counterfeiter, with his hook nose and curled blue-black beard” who obviously derives from Jewish stereotypes—and that is really the heart of it: to present a people as a known quantity, familiar enough that readers could instantly understand the implied association, but distinct enough that Howard was not bound to any particular historical set of facts, as he might if he had set the tale in a familiar place and time-period.

The fact that the Shemites were not explicitly Jews works a bit into their favor: Howard did not feel obliged to make Shemites conform to every stereotype of Jews as he might have (and sometimes did, as in the case of Jacob in “The Blood of Belshazzar”). Indeed, the Shemites in “Black Colossus” and “A Witch Shall Be Born” are more reminiscent of the Assyrians portrayed in “The Children of Asshur,” with their courage, conical iron helmets, iron scale shirts, and mastery of archery. This would have been appropriate to Howard’s view of the Shemites as a race that was as yet “unbroken”—with their own kings and homeland—which opposed the common early 20th century narrative of Jews as a nation dispossessed.

As the Conan series wore on, the Shemites continued to develop as part of the background, mentioned here or there but seldom prominent on the page. The most important Shemite in the Conan series is Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast.” In this story, we can still see the echoes of Howard’s prejudices in lines like:

They sighted the coast of Shem—long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Bêlit herself is described in sufficient detail to paint a picture; whatever prejudices Robert E. Howard had in his lifetime, he was well aware that women could be beautiful regardless of race—as evident from his sensual portrayal of Black women in stories like “The Vale of Lost Women.” While we don’t have any other Shemitish women for comparison, the description of Bêlit approaches fetishization:

Bêlit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Ethnicity informed character in Howard’s stories. While this did not mean that every character of a given nationality reacted exactly the same way, it was common for them to share certain attributes and instincts beyond skin or hair color—and this difference in attitudes and ways of thinking was often at the core of many conflicts, whether openly stated or not. There is no question of “whiteness” for Bêlit, but her undoing was in part due to her Shemitish heritage:

Bêlit’s eyes were like a woman’s in a trance. The Shemite soul finds a bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor, and the sight of this treasure might have shaken the soul of a sated emperor of Shushan.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

For all that her greed is ultimately her doom, Bêlit’s love for Conan was real—and stronger than death. Bêlit may have been, for Howard, one of the ultimate portrayals of a Shemite character…beautiful, courageous, deadly, faithful, but not without her human flaws.

An inversion of this type, beautiful on the outside but rotten to the core, can be seen in the character of Salome in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salome is not explicitly a Shemite, and the Khaurani people are physically and culturally contrasted with the Shemite mercenaries. However, Salome bears many of the same physical attributes as Bêlit (black hair, pale skin, voluptuous), and Khauran worships “Shemite” gods such as Ishtar—suggesting a bit of Shemite cultural influence on Khauran, and possibly more than that. The name “Salome” is likely taken from the New Testament story of Salome, who had asked for the head of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, implying beauty and sin. Beauty might seduce a barbarian, but while Conan loves Bêlit, he rejects Salome.

Robert E. Howard’s development of the Shemites—from his initial discussions with H. P. Lovecraft, the usage of Jewish and “Semitic” characters in his historical fiction, his interpretation of Old Testament stories through the heroic lens of his historical narratives, and finally to the creation of a fantasy setting which he could people with idealized races to fill the roles necessary to tell the adventures of Conan, are all grounded in Howard’s prejudices regarding Jews. They are also expressions of the cultural antisemitism of the period. As the correspondence with Lovecraft demonstrates, those common prejudices, the way the Bible was still read as history and influential on anthropology, linguistics, scientific racism, and in popular culture with works like The King of Kings buttressed and influenced Robert E. Howard’s own worldbuilding…because they also influenced the world he lived in.

Beyond Shem

Readers of Conan stories in the 1950s-1990s might remember other Shemites—notably in the story “Hawks Over Shem” which first appeared in Fantastic Universe (Oct 1955) and Tales of Conan (1955). This had begun as a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” and was rewritten as a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp. The last English reprint was in The Conan Chronicles, Vol. I (1989), though it had also been adapted for Marvel Comics and been translated into many other languages. Shem and Shemites have been expanded in further stories, in comic books and roleplaying games.

Even without Howard, there are Shemites. This is part of the legacy of Robert E. Howard’s antisemitism: the characters and ideas that he created persist long after his own death. His conception of the Shemites, rooted as they might be in discussions about anthropology with H. P. Lovecraft or a particular interpretation of the Old Testament through a pulp adventure story lens, continue to endure. Which means, especially if the writers following behind Howard aren’t careful, they can continue to propagate the antisemitic stereotypes that in part informed their creation.

Normally when we think of the legacy of Robert E. Howard, antisemitism doesn’t spring immediately to mind. Howard is noted primarily for his weird and fantasy fiction, the characters he created like Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull that have gone on to star in comic book series and have been adapted into Hollywood films. Howard’s Jewish characters are so few, and in his relatively less-read stories, that they are easily overlooked. Unlike H. P. Lovecraft, Howard’s letters were rather late in getting published, and haven’t always been widely available; while his antisemitism has never been denied, it’s also not prominent enough to draw much attention away from the rest of his life and work.

That being said, it doesn’t take a Howard scholar to make the connection between Semites and Shemites. While the letters with Lovecraft that help trace the origin of this idea weren’t published until considerably later, “The Hyborian Age” essay published by the LANY cooperative in 1936 makes the connection explicit. Writers that came after Howard and writing Conan stories would have known—or at least they should have—what kind of ideological building blocks they were playing with. Just because Howard’s original conception of the Shemites might have been rooted in his 1930s cultural milieu and his personal interpretation of anthropology and antisemitism doesn’t mean that anyone writing after him had to follow suit. Writing a 1930s pulp story with racial stereotypes in the 1930s isn’t laudable, but might at least be understood as a product of the times; writing the same thing in the 1950s is not. This was a point that L. Sprague de Camp was specifically called out on by Charles D. Saunders in his 1975 essay “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature.”

The Hyborian Age isn’t over—in many ways it’s just beginning. Adaptations of Howard’s original stories continue to be made; in some countries the copyright on the original Conan stories has expired and the texts have moved into the public domain, and people are writing new stories; licensed fiction and novels surrounding the original Conan series and the games, films, and other products that have spun out of it are being written and published. It falls to the fans, writers, and scholars of today to interrogate Robert E. Howard’s life and work, to not promulgate antisemitism in fantasy just because it is easy or convenient.

Addenda: Solomon, Malachi, & Other Hebrew Names

As far as Hebrew names went, Robert E. Howard appeared to have no conspicuous prejudices—nor is this is suprising given that his father’s full name was Isaac Mordecai Howard. Biblical names were common: Dr. Solomon Chambers, an associate of Dr. Howard’s who provided medical services in nearby communities of Cross Cut and Burkett, was another example.

Robert E. Howard’s swashbuckling Puritan adventurer appears to have one, or possibly two names drawn from the Old Testament, and is the most notable such character in Howard’s corpus, which otherwise tends heavily toward Irish names for protagonists. In fact, Howard appears to have borrowed the name from a character in “Sir Piegan Passes” (Adventure, 10 Aug 1923) by W. C. Tuttle (see Todd Vick’s “What’s In A Name?: Discovering the Origin of Solomon Kane’s Name”).

W. C. Tuttle’s Solomon Kane is not explicitly Jewish, but may be read as coded Jewish by the stereotypes of the time and the pulp magazines: a greedy but shrewd assayer who did no honest work, but cheated others and traded to make his fortune. The story was popular enough to be adapted to film twice, as The Cheyenne Kid (1933) and The Fargo Kid (1940); both films rename and recast “Solomon Kane” to something less conspicuous.

While we don’t know Howard’s precise reason for re-using the name, his Solomon Kane isn’t coded as Jewish either. The Puritan background is enough to explain the first name, and no explicit connection is made between Kane and the Biblical figures in Howard’s first stories. Indeed, in a rewrite of “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” Howard changed “Solomon Kane” to “Malachi Grim”—a trick he had tried on other characters such as Sailor Steve Costigan (Sailor Dennis Dorgan) and Conan of Cimmeria (Amra of Akbitania).

Much later in the series, Howard does forge a connection between his character and the Biblical Solomon in “The Footfalls Within” (Weird Tales Sep 1931), as it is suggested that Kane’s magic staff was once the possession of the Biblical king—who has gained over the centuries a great reputation as a magician. While direct links to the Bible were unusual in Howard’s writing, Biblical references were not unknown: “Black Canaan” (Weird Tales Jun 1936) being the foremost example.

Solomon Kane’s name shows how embedded Jewish names have become in Christian culture, from Elizabethan England to the American Bible Belt. Howard’s usage of the name is not antisemitic, any more than Joseph or John or Adam or Mary would be, but is intended to evoke historical and literary connections in the mind of the reader—and, of course, it sounds cool and distinctive.

Works Cited

CL1 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 1 (2nd edition)

CL2 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 2 (1st edition)

MF A Means to Freedom (2 vols.)

Thanks for my proofreaders Bob Freeman, Dierk Guenther, Leeman Kessler, and Jewish Horror Review for your feedback and suggestions. Any mistakes left are mine, not theirs.


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.

A Transwoman Looks At Lovecraft by Sophie Litherland

As someone who has had a passing familiarity of the Mythos through popular culture, upon reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft I was not expecting to find much representation of women like me. I was then pleasantly surprised to find themes and ideas within the works of H.P. Lovecraft that have resonated with my personal experiences as a transgender woman. While there is no typical trans experience, there are tales of discovery and the questioning of accepted reality that appear regularly in the works of Lovecraft, which have certainly struck a chord with my own transition. These tales within the Mythos have helped me reflect and understand my own feelings towards myself, my dysphoria, and our society. 

In this essay I have selected a few short stories to give a fresh perspective on, and how they are relevant to my lived experiences and perhaps by extension to women like me. I was in fact very disappointed to find that in “The Transition of Juan Romero,” Juan merely transitions from being alive to dead. Of course, I still enjoy works such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but much of that appreciation comes from the same place as that of other readers. Instead, I have picked on themes which may have been overlooked by a cisgender mindset. I hope my thoughts are both informative and entertaining for all audiences.

The details of a typical protagonist are often ambiguous and left to the reader’s imagination, but share the common theme of reacting in a human and relatable way when presented with something out of the ordinary. This does drag up memories, sometimes painful, of the early phases of my transition having been young, confused, and unequipped to deal with my own feelings towards gender. As Lovecraft favours the short story format, the process of discovery of the unknown as a direct consequence of the protagonist’s curiosity is a common theme that is visited often. This shedding of innocence towards the supernatural has many parallels to the “incredibly knowledgeable about transitioning” stage whilst I was struggling with denial.

One example of this feverish curiosity is that of the young man in The Music of Erich Zann.” While living in a flat in the Rue d’Auseil, he becomes fascinated with the music of the old viol player, Erich Zann. Not necessarily understanding the true nature of his obsession, he repeatedly seeks out the elderly musician, desperate to hear and make sense of the music coming from the penthouse flat. Upon discovering an unnamed horror behind the genius of Zann’s music, he flees and is relieved that he cannot find his way back to the Rue d’Auseil. 

I can envision myself as the naïve young student, getting a glimpse of something extraordinary and compulsively following the trail of discovery before realising that there is no way of unlearning that which has been learned. Instead of a haunted German viol player, it was the knowledge that I could and eventually should transition. Learning what transitioning involved and knowing that it was achievable, in my stages of denial there was definitely a feeling of regret that I had pulled that thread and where it had led me. In this sense, I had tried fleeing my own Rue d’Auseil and hoping that like the young metaphysics student, I could never return to what I had discovered. Where my story differs in its ending was that I did find my way back and in fact began to rationalise my discovery and take positive steps forward.

The use of dreams as a vector of worldbuilding and creeping horror is an iconic part of many of Lovecraft’s stories and by extension the mythos as a whole. Whether by having nightmares or particularly vivid dreams, I am sure I am not alone in having those nights of dream filled sleep that have persisted long into the waking hours and even into my long-term memory. Before I accepted my gender identity, dreams where I was female would give lingering pangs of guilt and confusion over my enjoyment and comfort, coupled by feelings of bitter disappointment upon awakening. Nowadays I mostly dream in my preferred gender role, however the most precious dreams are when physically everything is vividly correct. One of the most common phrases coming from people suffering from gender dysphoria is that they wish they could somehow awaken as the opposite gender, a phrase so common it is considered cliche. This is where the blending of dreams and reality prominent in stories such as “Celephaïs really hits home.

The story “Celephaïs” focuses on the main character Kuranes, a middle-aged man who is the last of a respected family line that has almost faded into obscurity. Visited by dreams from his youth, he pursues the land of Celephaïs within his periods of slumber. It is quickly established that Kuranes is not the character’s original name, but rather one he chose himself for this new venture of seeking Celephaïs. Kuranes then becomes obsessed with his dream world, spending the last of his wealth frivolously on narcotics to increase his periods asleep. Ultimately, the fate of Kuranes is a tragic one. Upon travelling with fanfare to his beloved Celephaïs, we are brought crashing back to the waking world with the body of Kuranes washing up on the shore. 

For me, the change of name really drives home the idea that in the dream we are unburdened by the roles and responsibilities that society has put upon an individual, instead we are free to be who we choose. As someone who has changed name, the gravitas of a character changing his name during his dreams says that Kuranes was so unhappy with his old identity that he felt it necessary to shed it entirely. Being the last of an esteemed family line, I imagine what little pride Kuranes had left existed in that name, so to rid himself of this hereditary pride shows complete commitment to abandoning his old life and starting anew in Celephaïs. 

The curious phenomenon that occurs within the tale of Kuranes is his inconsistent ability to reach Celephaïs, much like my inconsistent ability to dream in the correct gender. I have a particular sympathy with Kuranes when he starts spending the last of his wealth on drugs to extend his dreaming hours to further his search for Celephaïs. We, as a reader, may look upon Kuranes as foolish and desperate to take such actions. However, as someone who was desperately unhappy with my previous waking self, I can truly sympathise with the need to escape my physical self and pursue my own image in a dream. I am rather glad that in this day and age, I may instead work towards this existence in the waking world, instead of chasing a perpetual slumber to achieve transitioning. 

Continuing with the theme of dreams, I will next look at the short story “The White Ship.” Here, our protagonist is a third-generation lighthouse keeper, who boards a strange white vessel known to his family. Accompanied by an old man and guided by a bird of heaven, they visit many wondrous lands with the land of Sona-Nyl seeming like a paradise. The Keeper’s hubris is a central theme, where he pursues ever more lands until he is warned against venturing further to Cathuria. Refusing to heed these warnings, he insists on sailing onward, before the voyage ends in catastrophe with the white ship smashed upon the shores of Carthuria.  

When the keeper awakens with no time having passed, there lies the bird of heaven and a single spar from the white ship. Unlike in Celephaïs, our keeper has ended up here out of his own actions rather than the everyday event of awakening from a dream. Upon awakening, he gives no indication as to whether he regrets pursuing Cathuria and giving up the timeless paradise on the shores of Sona-Nyl. I personally resonate with the keeper when he looks at the bird on the shore and that scene really hit a nerve. 

As a reader, I feel two parts to observing our protagonist leave Sota-Nyl to pursue Cathuria. Initially, I feel a sense of superiority and smugness, thinking that I would never be so foolish as to throw away the golden opportunity of remaining in an idyllic land. On closer inspection however, what made them leave Sota-Nyl was what made this story special to me. When I first started transitioning, I understood that I was giving up an easier life with much less obstacles than that of a trans person. Without meaning to sound bitter, life is easier being cis and to give that up was an incredibly daunting journey to set out on.  Much like our lighthouse keeper, I too had many warnings and faced adversity in my choice of path and where it would lead me. So, to see our keeper stay true to his conviction and press on regardless, that gave me strength in my own journey. I can then fully understand the reasoning behind leaving what might seem a perfect world, because to people like me and the keeper, it was only ever the choice we ever had.

Lovecraft’s tales are often horrifying in nature and end in tragedy, they nonetheless have had the positive impact of exploring negative and self-destructive thoughts. By using the architecture of cosmic horror, it helps frame our thoughts and desires outside the norms of everyday life and rationalise them. I don’t wish I never pursued learning about transitioning, instead I see that curiosity is a common trait of humanity. I understand the futility of pursuing dreams as a substitute for existing happily in the waking world. Finally, I realise that like the lighthouse keeper, I would have been miserable upon the shores of Sona-Nyl and pursuing Cathuria to live what resembles an ordinary life was the best and only option for me. By reframing such tough introspections through the works of H.P. Lovecraft, these works have made me feel more comfortable with myself and my identity. At least until the old ones rise from the depths anyway.


Copyright 2022 by Sophie Litherland.

Sophie is a writer, stand-up comic, and presenter who tends to work with the sciences, but can’t keep her mouth shut on other subjects.

Twitter: @splitherland

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Ella Larson Nelson

Dear Mrs. Nelson:⁠—

I was indeed pained and shcoked to hear last July of your son’s sudden and untimely death⁠—the news coming from my friend R. H. Barlow, whom I was then visiting, and whom you had notified. Every now and then I have been on the point of dropping you a line of sympathy for what must be a devastating blow indeed.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 221

Ella Larson was born in Sweden in 1889. According to the 1920 U.S. Census she arrived in the United States in 1908; in 1911 she married another Swedish immigrant, Elmer Nelson. In 1912 she gave birth to Robert William Nelson, the couple’s only child. Practically nothing of her life and thought have come down to us; her correspondence with Lovecraft is known from a single letter, sent to her as a condolence on her son’s death.

I had heard from Robert as late as July 3d, when he mentioned he might some time travel through the east and stop in Providence to see me. In replying I told him how glad I would be to welcome him in this ancient town—but the next I head was the sad news which Barlow transmitted to me.

I had been hearing from Robert at irregular intervals for a period which must add up to three years or more. Meanwhile I had noticed with appreciation the clever and increasingly competent verses and prose-poems which he had in media like WEIRD TALES and THE FANTASY FAN. I presume you have a file of this material. His promise in this field of literature seemed to me very consdierable; for despite the marks of youthful contraction—indefiniteness or overcolouring now and then—his work had a distinct imaginative richness and atmospheric power which was rapidly improving through criticism and self-discipline. I expected to see him develop like other youths whose careers I have watched—August W. Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Frank B. Long, etc.—who are now well-established figures in the world of weird writing. Barlow shos me the unpublished “Lost Excerpts” which you sent him, and which will sooner or later be published in some appropriate medium. These all have touches of the brilliancy and power which were becoming characterstic of their author. needless to say, you will receive copies of whatever magazine publishes them. Barlow, by the way, was prompt in informing the “fan” magazines of the unfortunate occurrence, so that at least one has printed a brief notice.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 221-222

Robert W. Nelson graduated from St. Charles High School in June 1930; he apparently then spent a year at university studying journalism. In 1931, his first letter was published in Weird Tales; he would have four more published in WT from 1933-1935, as well as two letters to its sister magazine Oriental Stories The Magic Carpet Magazine, and in the pages of The Fantasy Fan. A keen amateur poet, Nelson also published his verse in Weird Tales and this fanzine. The “brief notice” appeared in the August 1935 issue of Fantasy Magazine.

We don’t know exactly what Nelson’s parents thought of their son’s involvement with fandom or poetry. In a letter to Emil Petaja, Lovecraft wrote “He was a neurotic, ill-adjusted type, & often had considerable friction with his parents” (LWP 451), and Nelson himself wrote:

I read your letter aloud to my parents, and, I am happy to say, it changed their attitude somewhat. However, they are still insisting that I secure immediate employment, and this I am doing my utmost to do.
—Robert Nelson to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Mar 1934,
quoted in “Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Nelson: Master and Apprentice (Part 2)” by Marcos Legaria in Spectral Realms #10 (Winter 2019) 113

Robert Nelson reiterated the difficulties of finding employment in subsequent letters, and wrote to Smith that “Living with my parents is becoming more and more unbearable” (ibid. 116), and:

I just secured employment. But it is only temporary, and is scheduled to last until the middle part of May or the first part of June. But even so, it has changed entirely the whole aspect of my parents’ attitude towards me. ANything in which to ‘make money’ is their idea! In truth, all those who seek for riches and personal gain are, at better, both low in intellect and morals. The highest man in finance and business are the lowest in true intellect and good morals.

As I have said before, I have never understood (and admired) my parents), and likewise they have never understood (and admired) me. My parents possess that complete lack of logical and human understanding of their children, to the sense that they (the children) are their ‘own flsh and blood,’ and can, threfore, be molded into the sort of beings that they (the parents) ‘intend to have all the right to expect.’ All of which, of course, is plain unmitigated blah.
—Robert Nelson to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Apr 1934, ibid. 117

Literary interests often run up hard against practical ones, and one can imagine a staid blue-collar immigrant couple exasperated at their only child’s unwillingness or inability to find work, Great Depression or not—and the same adult son’s exasperation with his parents who do not share his education or interests. This concern with unemployment is reflected in Robert Nelson’s obituary, which no doubt came from his parents:

Worry and discouragement played a large part in his illness, causing a nervous breakdown which ended in death. Idleness irked him and he was unable to get employment…. […] He made many attempts to secure work which probably would have given him courage to go on, but he was unable to find employment. He had several of his poems accepted but the market was overcrowded and his discouragement affected his health and brought on the breakdown from which he was not able to rally.
The St. Charles Chronicle, 25 July 1935, quoted in Sable Revery 9

Reading between the lines, one might see a bright young man with hopes of literary achievement dashed by harsh realities: it was the middle of the Great Depression, and even great poets like Clark Ashton Smith struggled to find publication in the pulp field, much less enough to maintain a livelihood. Ella Nelson no doubt saw her son’s discouragement at rejection and how his hopes were dashed at his seeming inability to launch a literary career…but there was nothing she could do about it. Robert moved out of the home for a short time in late 1934, and there was a brief reconciliation with his parents, but perhaps none of the underlying fundamental issues of unemployment and unhappiness had been resolved.

My correspondence with Robert was not of a business nature, but had more to do with points of criticism connected with weird literature. We discussed standards, methods, and individual sories and poems off and on; and I believe I once or twice offered suggestions in connexion with lines of his. I remember the pains I took to make clear the gulf between cheap magazines stories (the WEIRD TALES sort in general) and the genuine weird literature like the book of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James. He appreciated this difference more, I think, than the average follower of the popular magazine press. In all of his letters he showed an admirable courtesy and considerateness. Himself obviously very sensitive, he went to almost elaborate lengths to avoid giving offence whenever his opinion differed from that of his correspondent. He was liked by all the persons to whom he wrote—and by the one member of the group (Charles D. Hornig, editor of WONDER STORIES and THE FANTASY FAN) who had the pleasure of meeting him in person. Hornig was particularly saddened by the news of his premature departure.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 222

The surviving Lovecraft-Robert Nelson correspondence consists of four letters from 1934-1935; how much more there might have been is conjectural. Lovecraft wrote to Petaja: “I was not well acquainted with him, & probably never wrote him more than 4 or 5 letters in all” (LWP 451). The last letter was sent c. January 1935, so probably the fifth and final letter that Lovecraft wrote to him is non-extent. When asked to provide a tribute for The Phantagraph, Lovecraft wrote:

About Nelson—I had so little correspondence with him that I really feel inadequate as his biographer. The fact is, I scarcely know anything about him. The place to get data on his life is his home—indeed, I think his mother (Mrs. Elmer Nelson, 1030 Elm St., St. Charles, Illinois) would be glad to further information. She has been writing those whose names she has found on her son’s correspondence list. […] I’ll be glad to give Nelson a writeup if you’ll get the necessary biographical data from his mother.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 20 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 314

Lovecraft never wrote a memoir on Robert Nelson; presumably the data was not forthcoming. We can only guess what it must have been like for Ella Nelson, going through her son’s papers, sitting down to write or type out letters to people she didn’t know. She sent some of his poems to R. H. Barlow, who intended to publish them—though this project, like so many of Barlow’s, never materialized. In her son’s obituary it was noted:

Before the last shock of his illness; he confided to his mother that he wished to burn many of his poetic writings, which he did, though many of his articles are preserved. He lived among his books, owning a choice selection.
The St. Charles Chronicle, 25 July 1935, quoted in Sable Revery 9

The actual cause of death is engimatic in Lovecraft’s letters; he claimed that Robert Nelson died “after an illness of 17 days” (LRB 150), which data Ella Nelson provided to R. H. Barlow, who passed it on to Lovecraft during his visit with the Barlows in Florida in 1935.

Dear Mr. Barlow,

I am enclosing some writings of Robert Nelson’s which he enclosed in an envelope to be mailed to you on Friday July 5. On the same evening he took sick and gradually grew worse until his death on Monday July 22. Below I am writing a duplicate of the letter he addressed to you. Naturally we wish to keep the original as a keepsake of one of the last things he wrote.

Somehow he sensed his passing when the first signs of illness appeared and remarked that everything would be for the best.

P.S. We are enclosing an envelope in case it meant for these to be returned. You evidently knew the usual procedure.

Regrettably,
Mrs. Elmer Nelson
—Ella Larson Nelson to Robert H. Barlow, 26 Jul 1935, courtesy of Marcos Legaria

Lovecraft was under the impression Robert Nelson suffered from tuberculosis (LFB 279), but the general belief is that Robert Nelson probably attempted suicide, was placed under treatment at the Elgin State hospital, and died as a result of his attempt (Sable Revery 9-10). Lovecraft’s last known letter to Robert Nelson is reminiscent of those he wrote to Helen V. Sully during her period of despondency, sympathizing with his “nervous tension” and counseling him to take things easy.

Robert W. Nelson died 22 July 1935, one day before his twenty-third birthday.

If Ella Nelson chose not to share the details of his death with strangers, it is hardly surprising.

So once more let me express my profound sympathy—at the same time emphasizing the fact that Robert did not lack for appreciation and esteem despite the tragic brevity of his life and writing career. Only the other day I had a letter from young Petaja—out in Montana—reiterating his sorrow at the loss.

With every good wish, and the hope that time and philosophy will help to lessen the acute pain which you and Mr. Nelson must now fel, I am

Yours most sincerely,

H. P. Lovecraft
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft to Ella Larson Nelson, 19 Sep 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 222

Perhaps Ella Larson Nelson appreciated Lovecraft’s letter of condolence; perhaps she wrote a note back to thank him. Yet there are no further references to her in Lovecraft’s letters, so we must assume that no new correspondence resulted. It was a sad letter for Lovecraft to write, but we can only hope it eased Ella Nelson’s grief, at least a little, to know that her son was remembered.

Robert Nelson has been remembered—and so has Ella Nelson, if for no other reason than Lovecraft’s letter to her, and because she had sent out her son’s poetry to those who would preserve it for ultimate publication.

In 2012, W. H. Pugmire published the poem “In Memoriam: Robert Nelson” in tribute to him, and the same year Douglas A. Anderson finally collected Nelson’s poems, fiction, and letters (including Lovecraft’s letter to Ella Nelson) in Sable Revery: Poems, Sketches, Letters. The letters from Lovecraft and Robert Nelson’s poetry were published again in Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (2015).

Marcos Legaria published an article in three parts in the weird poerty journal Spectral Realms titled “Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Nelson: Master and Apprentice” (2018-2019), tracing their correspondence and association, and I thank him for his help with source materials for this piece.


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.

The Golem (1928) by Gustav Meyrink

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version),
Collected Essays 2.100

Gustav Meyrink was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian who had lived in Prague for twenty years as a banker. In the 1890s Meyrink developed an interest in the occult, and became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (and also, briefly, the Theosophical Society). In 1902 he was charged with fraud, which ended his banking career; Meyrink turned his focus to writing and translation, and became especially known for his German-language stories of the supernatural. While not Jewish himself, Meyrink’s close familiarity with Prague, including the Jewish quarter and the occult provided him the ingredients for his greatest novel.

Der Golem was serialized in the German magazine Die Weißen Blätter from December 1913 to August 1914; it was published as a standalone novel in 1915, to immense popularity. The book was eventually translated into English by Madge Pemberton, and The Golem was published in 1928. Of course, H. P. Lovecraft’s first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published in 1927…so how did he write about Meyrink’s novel?

He watched the film.

The one weird film I did see was “The Golem”, based on a mediaeval ghetto legend of an artificial giant. In this production the settings were semi-futuristic, some of the ancient gabled houses of Prague’s narrow streets being made to look like sinister old men with peaked hats.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56

You left out the “Golem” illustration mentioned, but I fancy you may send it later. I wish I could get hold of a copy of the book. I saw a cinema of it in 1923, but never had access to the Meyrink text–although I mentioned it in my article.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, c. 6 Dec 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 92

Der Golem (“The Golem”) was a silent film directed by and starring Paul Wegener with German intertitles released in 1915. The film is now believed to be lost, aside from some fragments. This film was followed by two more: Der Golem und die Tänzerin (“The Golem and the Dancing Girl”) in 1917, and Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“The Golem: How He Came Into The World”) in 1920, both of which were also directed by and starring Paul Wegener as the golem. So it isn’t clear which film Lovecraft actually saw. The 1920 film survives and is in the public domain.

Lovecraft claimed in most of his letters to have caught a showing of it in 1921, and like many an English student of the VHS era who needed to write a book report, he assumed somewhat erroneously that it was faithful to the plot of the book. However, despite being nominally based on Meyrink’s novel, the book and films share little in common save the Prague setting and the Golem legend—or at least, an interpretation of the original Jewish lore as filtered through several non-Jews. Meyrink’s novel recounts his version of the golem story in brief:

“The original story harks back, so they say, to the sixteenth century. Using long-lost formals from the Kabbala, a rabbi is said to have made an artificial man–the so-called Golem–to help rint the bells in the Synagogue and for all kinds of other menial work.

“But he hadn’t made a full man, and it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life. What life it had, too, so the story runs, was only derived from a magic charm placed behind its teeth each day, that drew down to itself what was known as the ‘free sidereal strength of the universe.’

“One evening, before evening prayers, the rabbi forgot to take the charm out of the Golem’s mouth, and it fell into a frenzy. It raged through the dark streets, smashing everything in its path, until the rabbi caught up with it, removed the charm, and destroyed it. Then the Golem collapsed, lifeless. All that was left of it was a small clay image, which you can still see in the Old Synagogue.”
—Gustav Meyrink, The Golem  (1985 ed.) 26

The German trilogy of films adapt a similar version of the golem story, in different times and contexts. The 1915 film has an antiques dealer discover the Golem of Prague and revives it to serve him; as in the original legend the Golem eventually goes on a rampage. The 1917 film is a comedy where a man makes himself up as the golem to win love. The 1920 film is essentially a retelling of the Golem of Prague legend, set in the medieval period. None of these make any effort to follow the original Jewish story very closely. Lovecraft, ignorant of Jewish lore as he was, probably had no idea how the film differed from the original Jewish story.

In Meyrink’s novel the Golem never plays an active role—it is a shadowy figure in a novel that is focused on the life of the mentally unstable Athanasius Pernath, as experienced by a nameless narrator; so that the story has something of an avant garde, experimental feel, with some chapters possibly being memories, delusions, or dreams and it is never quite clear what is the reality.

Lovecraft finally got a chance to read The Golem in 1935, when his young friend Robert H. Barlow loaned him a copy of the 1928 English translation. Having finally read it, Lovecraft’s acclaim was immediate:

Lately read Gustav Meyrink’s “The Golem”, lent me by young Barlow. The most magnificent weird thing I’ve struck in aeons! The cinema of the same title which I saw in 1921 was a mere substitute using the empty name—with nothing of the novel in it. What a study in subtle fear, brooding hints of elder magic, & vague driftings to & fro across the borderline betwixt dream & waking! There are no overt monsters or miracles—just symbols & suggestions. As a study in lurking, insidious regional horror it has scarcely a peer—doing for the ancient crumbling Prague ghetto what I have vainly tried to do for certain festering New England backwaters in some of my own laboured efforts. I had never read the novel before, but mentioned it in my article as a result of having seen the cinema. Now I perceive that I ought to have given it an even higher rating than I did.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 11 Apr 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 266-267

But—I’ve read “The Golem!” Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!!! That’s what I call a story! Nothing like the cinema—the latter was just a shocker capitalising the title—though it did have splendid architectural effects. How splendidly subtle the novel is—no overt monsters, but vague suggestions of inconceivable presences & influences! It captures the nebulous, brooding horror of the immemorial Prague ghetto as I have feebly sought to capture that of certain ancient & retrogressive backwaters of New England.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 251

Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the novel that he encouraged several of his correspondents to write to Barlow to have the loan of the book; so that over the next few months it was duly sent from Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, to Margaret Sylvester, Duane W. Rimel, Emil Petaja, F. Lee Baldwin, and Richard F. Searight, and offered it to Clark Ashton Smith as well. A few of their thoughts on the novel survive:

You were right about “The Golem”. Reading it in broad day was no insurance against the subtle assaults upon reality. “No actual monsters jump out of its pages”, but even tho I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a deckchair in the sunshine, it left me cold and chilly inside, and a bit glassy-eyed. I remember so vividly having wakened somewhere in grey night and seeing dusty moonlight falling thru bars on just such a littered floor as P. awakened to see in the Golem’s room. I can’t have, of course, but the book is so vivid I do remember it clearly. It was ugly. I haven’t quite finished, but will forward it to Miss Sylvester soon, as Barlow has requested.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 35-36

Thanks for Ar-Ech-Bei’s offer of The Golem. However, I read the book several years ago, when it was loaned to me, by a young friend in the Bay region. I agree with you that it is a most consummate and eerily haunting study in strange atmosphere; probably one of the best things of the kind ever written.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Jun 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 608

The others in the lending-list no doubt made their own appreciative comments. As with Lovecraft’s discovery of William Hope Hodgson around the same time, the reading of Meyrink’s novel prompted Lovecraft to read more of his work…but the Old Gent was stymied by the general lack of English translations.

Glad “The Golem” reached you at last. I was sure you’d appreciate it—for it is really a phenomenal triumph in its way. Few books indeed are capable of summoning up such a poignant & convincing pageant of mystical atmospheric impressions—& the absence of conventional “conflict” is all in its favour. I wish I owned it—but am told it is hard to get despite the relatively recent date (1928) of this translation. The original German novel, I believe, dates from the 1890’s. I wish I knew something of Meyrink, but I have found almost nothing about him. The only thing of his besides “The Golem” that I’ve read are som rather mediocre short stories—one of which appeared in W. T. I believe he is still living—but doubt if he has written or ever will write anything to compare with this early tour de force.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 19 Nov 1936, Letters to Price & Searight 431

Although Lovecraft didn’t know it, Meyrink had died in 1932. In his letters, Lovecraft says he had read “a story in the ‘Lock & Key Library'” (ES 2.691), which would be “The Man on the Bottle” (Lock & Key Library vol. 3, 1909), which Lovecraft later described as “a rather clever but essentially routine conte cruel” (OFF 259); “I recall “Bal Macabre” in Strange Tales—very effective, with genuine atmospheric tension” (OFF 259), “Bal Macabre” was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (Oct 1932); and finally “The Violet Death” ran in Weird Tales (Jul 1935)…and with that, Lovecraft had read basically all of Meyrink’s work that had been published in English during his lifetime.

It is easy to see why Lovecraft was so enamored of The Golem; in its style and elements it is almost a Lovecraftian novel, with is tenuous sanity, hinting horrors, the strange mystical book Ibbur, and other elements. While it would be interesting to ruminate on the influence The Golem had one Lovecraft’s own fiction—to draw parallels, perhaps, between the original Jewish legend of the artificial servitor run amok and the shoggoths of At the Mountaints of Madness—but by the time Lovecraft had read the novel he had relatively few works of original fiction left to write, and those works show little influence of the book or Meyrink’s style. Still, this novel if nothing else would have introduced Lovecraft to tarot cards,which are a recurring occult element.

There was, in fact, only one thing left to do: revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to rectify his earlier mistake.

I didn’t change as much as I expected—words here & there, a bad punctuation style where dates follow titles of stories, a boner regarding “The Golem”, & a bit of over-florid writing in the Poe chapter. To explain that Golem business I must confess that when I wrote the treatise I hadn’t read the novel. I had seen the cinema version, & thought it was faithful to the original—but when I came to read the book only a year ago…Holy Yuggoth! The film had nothing of the novel save the mere title & the Prague ghetto setting—indeed, in the book the Golem-monster never appeared at all, but merely lurked in the background as a shadowy symbol. That was one on the old man!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 31 Jan 1937, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 415

The revised portion of the essay now reads:

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, with its haunting shadowy suggestions of marvels and horrors just beyond reach, is laid in Prague, and describes with singular mastery that city’s ancient ghetto with its spectral, peaked gables. The name is derived from a fabulous artificial giant supposed to be made and animated by mediaeval rabbis according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produced in America in 1925, and more recently produced as an opera, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

While this passage shows how scanty was Lovecraft’s knowledge of Jewish religion, history, and lore—he once commented about The Golem, “There is nothing about the Chassidim in it—but the atmosphere is rich enough without ‘em.” (LPS 427), because after his encounter with The Dybbuk (1925) he associated Hassidic Jews with Jewish occultism—the episode as a whole shows that Lovecraft was able to digest and appreciate material from varied traditions, even if his understanding was incomplete. He never, for example, shows any awareness that Meyrink was not Jewish, or that Meyrink’s depiction of the golem legend was influenced by non-Jewish esoteric traditions. While it would be difficult to say that The Golem substantially influenced his fiction in any way, Lovecraft certainly seems to have though it enriched his life—and he made an effort to share that experience with the younger writers he associated with.

Thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing out that I should mention the 1917 and 1920 film.


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.

The Dybbuk (1925) by S. Ansky

up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169
—H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174

By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.

In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 4

Then the curtain rose.

Dybbuk_1

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.

Daily_News_Wed__Dec_16__1925_

Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.

It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.

In his letters home to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell in Providence, Lovecraft had taken to writing long, diary-like entries regarding his experiences in the Big Apple, which included such a scene:

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924,
Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:

In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week: 

May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless,
And primal gods impart thee happiness;
Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes,
And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514

The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100

Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:

Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416

“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.

The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.

Dybbuk_2

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

Rabbi Azriel. Did anyone ask the dybbuk who he is and why he’s possessing your daughter?
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 36

Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.

Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.

Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.

H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.


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 Letters To Lovecraft: Mayte E. Sutton

As for Sutton (1879-1968), she lived at 100 Spring Avenue in Tory, N.Y. She stated in a letter to August Derleth that she had corresponded with Lovecraft “for nearly ten years,” but Lovecraft’s first extant letter to her dates to the fall of 1933, when, shortly after moving into 66 College Street, Annie had broken her ankle and took months to recover. He speaks of meeting Sutton and her daughter, Margaret Morgan, on his visit to New York during the Christmas period of [1933-1934], but his comments suggest that he found them rather tiresome and strove to avoid direct contact. Nonetheless, Lovecraft continued writing to Sutton until as late as 1936.
⁠—S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.21

The_Ithaca_Journal_Mon__Sep_30__1968_

Some of Lovecraft’s correspondents are not well-attested in the record. Mrs. Mayte E. Sutton, for example, is known only from one surviving letter and a fragment of another. Very little reference to their correspondence was made by Lovecraft in his letters to others, though this is not particularly unusual. What we have, then, is a very incomplete picture—we have no particular idea of the full length of their correspondence, or how it started, or why.

If Sutton’s letter to Derleth is correct, she and Lovecraft had been corresponding since c.1928 or 1929; but the sole surviving full letter from Lovecraft is dated 2 November 1933 (MS. John Hay Library). It does not appear to be a first letter; but discusses Lovecraft’s upcoming Christmas visit to Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and his family in New York City; his aunt Annie Gamwell’s recovery from a broken ankle.

The invitation to visit Mayte E. Sutton—who lived with her adult daughter, Margaret Morgan—was issued in August 1933 (LFF 2.957). Finally, after Christmas, Lovecraft paid his call:

This was not the bore I expected it to be. Old Mrs. S. is very pleasant & cordial, & the daughter Miss Morgan is highly intelligent, learned, cultivated, & acute in debate. Her political & economic views are socialistic, but she does not duplicate Sonny’s total bolshevism. They are both enthusiastic antiquarians. I shall call again—if possible, with Sonny & Wandrei, whom they want to meet. They had a wood fire—but no irons!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 27 Dec 1933, LFF 2.959

Margaret Morgan (sometimes as Margaret C. Morgan or Christine Margaret Morgan) was either a nursing student or trainee nurse in the 1930 census, so by 1930 if she stayed the medical course was probably a nurse. Mayte’s youngest daughter Terrace Dorathea Morgan had graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics, had married in 1931 and was out of the home. On the 30th, Lovecraft brought his friends Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (“Sonny”) and Donald Wandrei to meet Mrs. Sutton and her daughter.

Sonny & I then went down to 23d St. to meet Wandrei & make the Sutton-Morgan call. All were very cordially received—but Wandrei had to leave at 10:30 p.m. Sonny & I stayed till 1 a.m. discussing philosophy with our hosts. Mrs. S. is rather blindly orthodox, but Miss M. is keenly analytical & intelligent—more so, I must admit, than Little Belknap himself. They are invited to 230 for dinner Tuesday evening.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 1 Jan 1934, LFF 2.963

Before the dinner date could happen, Lovecraft and Belknap had a little surprise for Mayte:

Rose noon, lunched at Sonny’s, & thereafter accompanied him down to the flat of the people (Mrs. Sutton & Miss Morgan) who were to have been to dinner last night. He wanted to take them some old andirons which he had promised during our call of last Saturday—for they have a fine fireplace. The andirons are not colonial, but late-Victorian brass. Not at all bad, on the whole. We found Mrs. S. in, & the andirons look splendid in place—although the lack of a set of fire irons & bellows like yours is regrettable. According to present plans, Mrs. S & Miss M. are coming to dinner here Saturday evening.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 4 Jan 1934, LFF 2.966

The dinner date then went off as planned:

In the evening Mrs. Sutton & Miss Morgan came for dinner, & much interesting conversation followed. At 11 p.m. the guests left, but a sick fish in the aquarium kept the Longs up till midnight.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 8 Jan 1934, LFF 2.968

The only other surviving letter fragment from Lovecraft to Mayte E. Sutton is dated 6 August 1936, and discusses a heat spell which restored his energy and digestive troubles, and comment on his aunt’s condition—Annie Gamwell having been hospitalized for breast cancer and a mastectomy.

There are no other references to “Mayte E. Sutton” in Lovecraft’s published letters…but there are two references to a “Mrs. M. E. Sutton” or “Ma Sutton”:

Another favor solicited for an aspiring struggler—an old lady who wants to place a saccharine tale of a haunted house (involving a conventional lunatic & a happy marriage at the end) in some magazine. Is there any rural publication which would consider accepting such an 1875 relique with or without pay? The thing is not really crude from the standpoint of a half-century ago. You might mention any possible medium to me–or drop a kindly line to the author, Mrs. M. E. Sutton, 505 W. 167th St., New York City. Thanks in advance for any name you can conveniently furnish.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 22 Aug 1936, Essential Solitude 2.745

Additional thanks for the names of naive markets for Ma Sutton’s 1875 pieces. I’ll pass ‘em on with acknowledgements.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.749

Lovecraft’s 1937 diary gives an address for “Sutton-Morgan, 505 W 167 NYC” (Lovecraft Annual 6.175; Ken Faig’s biographical note on Sutton is worth reading for anyone interested), which seems to confirm the connection.

Given which, the “1875” date Lovecraft gives is a bit strange, since Mayte E. Sutton was born in 1879—but perhaps he didn’t know her true age and was guessing. We do know is that Mayte E. Sutton was a writer who in the 1960s published several short stores in the New York Folklore Quarterly, including “Old Sasparilla” (1961), “The Cursed Peach Orchard” (1961), and “Grandmother’s Story” (1963), mostly recalling bits of lore from her childhood. Whether a tale of a haunted house would fit into this corpus or not is hard to say, but Lovecraft is known to have had a soft spot for helping older correspondents place tales, so the effort would have been completely in-character for him.

Through census and newspaper accounts we can draw an incomplete sketch of Mayte E. Sutton’s life—her marriages, her daughter’s marriages, her work—but we have no real insight into her personal life, or what drew her into correspondence with and meeting Lovecraft. Was she an amateur journalist? A revision client? A friend of his aunt Annie, perhaps, who then fell into correspondence with him when he was obliged to answer mail on her behalf? Perhaps a friend of a friend? The letter-and-a-fragment we have are too little to go on to say much of anything for certain, except that they were friendly correspondents.

Excerpts from the two Sutton letters were first published in Selected Letters IV and V. Both of these have been reprinted in full in Letters to Family and Family Friends volume 2.


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.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

His daughter, the wife of Shelley, was much more successful; and her inimitable Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the horror-classics of all time. Composed in competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and Dr. John William Polidori in an effort to prove supremacy in horror-making, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the only one of the rival narratives to be brought to an elaborate completion; and criticism has failed to prove that the best parts are due to Shelley rather than to her. The novel, somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism, tells of the artificial human being moulded from charnel fragments by Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss medical student. Created by its designer “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, the monster possesses full intelligence but owns a hideously loathsome form. It is rejected by mankind, becomes embittered, and at length begins the successive murder of all whom young Frankenstein loves best, friends and family. It demands that Frankenstein create a wife for it; and when the student finally refuses in horror lest the world be populated with such monsters, it departs with a hideous threat ‘to be with him on his wedding night’. Upon that night the bride is strangled, and from that time on Frankenstein hunts down the monster, even into the wastes of the Arctic. In the end, whilst seeking shelter on the ship of the man who tells the story, Frankenstein himself is killed by the shocking object of his search and creation of his presumptuous pride. Some of the scenes in Frankenstein are unforgettable, as when the newly animated monster enters its creator’s room, parts the curtains of his bed, and gazes at him in the yellow moonlight with watery eyes—“if eyes they may be called”. Mrs. Shelley wrote other novels, including the fairly notable Last Man; but never duplicated the success of her first effort. It has the true touch of cosmic fear, no matter how much the movement may lag in places. Dr. Polidori developed his competing idea as a long short story, “The Vampyre”; in which we behold a suave villain of the true Gothic or Byronic type, and encounter some excellent passages of stark fright, including a terrible nocturnal experience in a shunned Grecian wood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)

We don’t know when H. P. Lovecraft first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it was sometime before 1920, and quite possibly was read as a child, from a copy found among the books in the family library. During his life, Lovecraft would perceive the growing influence of this critical work of science fiction and horror in pop-culture: the first film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, was released in 1931 and Lovecraft would see it in the theatre; and Weird Tales would serialize Shelley’s novel between May and December 1932 as part of its “Weird Reprints” series, and Lovecraft would read it then too. Various writers in the pulps, including Lovecraft himself, would show the influence of Shelley’s creation, and Lovecraft was sure to include her in his survey of weird fiction “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Lovecraft would not quite live to see Frankenstein’s Monster become the icon—and stereotype—that he turned into in the 1940s and 50s; for him, Shelley’s novel would always have precedence over other depictions.

The Book (1818)

By the way—my F. is a 9 ¼ x 5 ½ volume–2 columns & very thin. The date is missing, but from the typography I’d tend to place it in the 1830s. That would seem a bit late for the first Am. ed. of a  volume issued in 1818. My copy has been re-bound. On the title-page the author is very explanatorily listed as “Mrs. Mary W. Shelley, wife of Percy Busshe Shelley the Poet.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 238

There are two main editions of the text of Frankenstein: the original edition issued in 1818, which was revised in 1823; and then heavily revised again for the 1831 one-volume edition. The 1831 text has been the most popular version of the text, and the version that ran in Weird Tales. While Lovecraft dated his personal copy to the 1830s, the details he gives—an American edition in two columns and with that byline—point to the 1845 edition by H. G. Daggers of New York.

91487_0

Title page of the 1845 H. G. Daggers edition.

Of the novel itself, Lovecraft does not write much in his letters, so we are largely left to his notes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as to his thoughts on the work. Nor is there any real evidence that he read The Last Man (1826) or Shelley’s other novels. There is one interesting highlight however:

As for weird reprints—I agree that short items are best. “Frankenstein” undoubtedly drags in places, yet has its tense & terrible moments—especially when the monster first comes to watch its creator at night.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 31 Mar 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 28

It is notable that Lovecraft cites this very same scene in his entry for “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and, perhaps tellingly, this very scene is quoted in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft consulted before writing that essay. Which suggests either that either both Lovecraft and Scarborough were struck on the same passage…or that, perhaps, Lovecraft relied on Scarborough rather than re-reading the entire novel while composing his essay.

I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togheter. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. . . . The artist sleeps but he is awakened; and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, looking on him with watery, yellow yet speculative eyes!
—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
quoted in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction 14

If Lovecraft cribbed a little, it was not because he hadn’t read or didn’t appreciate Shelley’s masterwork—quite the opposite. For example, when his friend Elizabeth Toldridge used the name “Frankenstein” in a poem she was writing, Lovecraft wrote back with a correction that would be echoed by generations of horror nerds:

In the next line remember that Frankenstein (in the novel, a Swiss medical student, Victor Frankenstein) means the creator of a destroying monsternot the monster itself. If you have that intention, it’s all right. If you mean the monster itself, better change to hydra-shapes or some equivalent.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 257

The poem, which survives in manuscript, is titled (at Lovecraft’s suggestion) simply “Poetry”, and the line reads:

Come match your strength with steel, meassure your will with iron, your speed try out with the stars! For thine were Frankenstein hydra-shapes man-wrought foes to bear—

And powers of evil, loose in the world, shall reel and titter, in a giant juggler’s roust—

The Film (1931)

The success of Universal’s Dracula in early 1931 spurred the studio on to produce more horror films. Frankenstein was produced and hit theaters by December of the same year, with Boris Karloff in the iconic role—and the distinct heavy-lidded flat-top make-up—of the Monster. The film takes considerable liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel; Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein, and much of the original plot, atmosphere, and motivation is lost. Lovecraft saw the film within the first week of its opening on the East Cost, and wrote:

I haven’t been able to get around to any cinemas except “Frankenstein”—which vastly disappointed me. The book has been altered beyond recognition, & everything is toned down to an insufferable cheapness & relative tameness. I fear the cinema is no place to get horror-thrills!
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 9 Dec 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 85

Also saw “Frankenstein” last month & was vastly disappointed. The film absolutely ruins the book–which indeed it scarcely resembles!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Dec 1931, O Fortunate Floridian! 18

“Frankenstein” was the only cinema I attended during the autumn of 1931, & I was woefully disappointed. No attempt to follow the novel was made, & everything was cheap, artificial, & mechanical. I might have expected it, though—for “Dracula” (which I saw in Miami, Fla. last June) was just as bad.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Jan 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 344

Lovecraft was, like many science fiction and horror fans, a bit of a purist who regretted the changes made to the material in its translation from the page to the silver screen. Time did not really mollify this opinion:

I saw the cinema of “Frankenstein”, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story. However, there have been many worse films–& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Jul 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 33

As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920s–and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 Feb 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.28

Most radio and cinema versions of classics constitute a combination of high treason and murder in the first degree—I’ll never get over the cinematic mess that bore the name (about the only bond of kinship to the book!) of “Frankenstein”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 8 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.761

Keep in mind that Lovecraft lived before the home television and VCR revolution; his only experience of Frankenstein and other Universal horror films was if he could catch them in the theater—it was re-runs and rentals which cemented these as classic films, endlessly influential and copied. Lovecraft only caught the very beginnings of that…and, of course, he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Dream (1920)

I had a vivid dream a few nights ago–involving the possession of another distinct personality. The period was 1864, & the crux of the dream was a horror in a doctor’s secret laboratory. Think the dream-doctor was going to shew me an artificial man like M. Frankenstein’s uncomely creation, but premature waking robbed the dream of its climax. In this dream I was Dr. Eben Spencer; an army surgeon home on a furlough. The sinister experimenter was a colleague of mine, Dr. Chester. Some dream!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Jan 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 154

In 1920, Lovecraft was finally coming out of his seclusion through the auspices of amateur journalism, and had built up a fairly robust correspondence with some friends. Weird Tales was still three years away from its debut issue, but he was well into his first major period of fiction which included dream-inspired stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant May 1920). In addition to this brief recap of the dream to Kleiner, Lovecraft included a much fuller version of the dream to his correspondence circle The Gallomo (Alfred Galpin, H. P. Lovecraft, and James F. Morton):

Speaking of the “Carter” story, I hae lately had another odd dream—especially singular because in it I possessed another personality—a personality just as definite and vivid as the Lovecraft personality which characterises my waking hours.

My name was Dr. Eben Spencer, and I was dressing before a mirror in my own room, in the hosue where I was born in a small village (name missing) of northern New York State. It was the first time I had donned civilian clothes in three years, for I was an army surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieut. I seemed to be home on a furlough—slightly wounded. On the wall was a calendar reading “FRIDAY, JULY 8, 1864”. I was very glad to be in regular attire again, though my suit was not a new one, but one left over from 1861. After carefully tying my stock, I donned my coat and hat, took a cane from a rack downstairs, and sallied forth upon the village street.

Soon a very young man of my acquaintence came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother—my professional colleague Dr. Chester—whose actions were greatly alarming him. I, having been his best friend, might have some influence in getting him to speak freely—for surely he had much to tell. The doctor had for the past two years been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door…and odd sounds were at times not absent.

The doctor was aging rapidly; lines of care—and of something else—were creeping into his dark, thin face, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He would remain in that locked room for dangerously long intervals without food, and seemed uncannily saturnine. All questioning from the younger brother was met with scorn or rage—with perhaps a little uneasiness; so that the brother was much worried, and stopped me on the street for advice and aid. I went with him to the Chester house—a white structure of two stories and attic in a pretty yeard with a picket fence. It was in a quiet side street, where peace seemed to abide despite the trying nature of the times. In the darkened parlour, where I waited for some time, was a marble-topped table, much haircloth furniture, and several pleasing whatnots covered with pebbles, curios, and bric-a-brac. Soon Dr. Chester came down—and he had aged.

He greeted me with a saturnine smile, and I began to question him, as tactfully as I could, about his strange actions. At first he was rather defiant and insulting—he said with a sort of leer, “Better not ask, Spencer! Better not ask!” Then when I grew persistent (for by this time I was interested on my own account) he changed abruptly and snapped out, “Well, if you must know, come up!” Up two flights of stairs we plodded, and stood before the locked door. Dr. Chester opened it, and there was an odour.

I entered after him, young Chester bringing up the rear. The room was low but spacious in area, and had been divided into two parts by an oddly incongruous red plush portiere. In the half next the door was a dissecting table, many bookcases, and several imposing cabinets of chemical and surgical instruments. Young Chester and I remained here, whilst the doctor went behind the curtain. Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous, and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails.

“Well, Spencer”, said Dr. Chester sneeringly, “I suppose you’ve had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?” I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, “You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thin.” And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, “Not yet, Spencer, not yet!”

Then he disappeared again behind the portiere and emerged once more, bringing another and slightly larger arm. Both were left arms. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a great revelation, and awaited with impatience the tanalisingly deliberate motions of my sinister colleague. “This is only the beginning, Spencer,” he said as he went behind the curtain for the third time. “Watch the curtain!”

And now ends the fictionally available part of my dream, for the residue is grotesque anticlimax. I have said that I was in civilian clothes for the first time since ’61—and naturally I was rather self-conscious. As I waited for the final revelation I caught sight of my reflection in the glass door of an instrument case, and discovered that my very carefully tied stock was awry. Moving to a long mirror, I sought to adjust it, but the black bow proved hard to fashion artistically, and then the whole scene began to fade—and damn the luck! I awaked in the distressful year of 1920, with the personality of H. P. Lovecraft restored!

I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his younger brother, or that village, since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream! If that happened to Co [Edward H. Cole], he would be surely seeking a supernatural explanation; but I prefer actual analysis. The cause of the whole is clear—I had a few days before laid out Mrs. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” for re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 71-73
[The original lacks paragraph breaks; these were inserted for ease of reading.]

Lovecraft never fleshed out and finished this story. However, the next year, in the fall of 1921, Lovecraft would write another story that would involve two friends, doctors, with grisly experiments in reanimation which seemed strongly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the serial “Herbert West—Reanimator.”


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.

A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith

History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or unpredictable
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body 1

The first time I read “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft, I was a nineteen-year old stroke survivor, confined to the couch in my mother’s living room, gripping the edges of an old library book like one loosened finger, one glance away would send me onto the floor. The works of Lovecraft came into my life at a time when I needed the utmost concentration to regain skills extending from the ability to read to being able to stand in front of the microwave without collapsing. It took months to be able to walk from the couch to the door, the door to the mailbox, the mailbox to the orange tiger lily in my mother’s garden. I had known disability since childhood, but never a horror quite like this.

It was cosmic horror that brought a fractured life back into focus. 

My first deep exploration into the character of Lavinia Whateley was for my final undergraduate research paper, exploring the depictions of disabled women in 20th century horror fiction. Historically, Gothic literature has portrayed variations of health and bodily form as monstrous, asserting that the disparate form and function of disabled minds and bodies are to be feared and othered. As Pang Shi Hua states in their contribution to the Glossary of the Gothic: Deformity:

Part of the reason for our irrational fear of disability is that in any moment, a healthy body is one broken blood vessel removed from becoming a body with disabilities.

That is to say that the disabled body in the eyes of the abled witness is a harbinger of perceived limitation and ultimately, social ostracization and death. The characterization of disabled women as objects rather than subjects within the origin of the horror genre may be examined through interpersonal, temporal, and narrative elements via a contemporary lens of feminist philosophy and the burgeoning field of disability theory. They may also be examined to highlight issues that are primarily overcast in previous studies, including issues of embodiment, bodily autonomy and violation.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Dunwich Horror” the character of Lavinia Whateley is an excellent subject to examine in this contemporary context. Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.

I do not have albinism, though I have several chronic and disabling conditions that made me empathize with Lavinia, and wonder as to the complexities that would arise in such a life. In my pursuit of analyzing her character, it was important for me not to medicalize her, since the foundational aspect of disability theory is in defining the social obstacles, rather than physical and biological ones, that make life difficult for individuals. People with disabilities are as different as snowflakes, and it was my intention to observe and analyze while avoiding any projection.

Disability is presented in the Gothic as a “direct response to the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human” (Hua). Associating the disabled more closely with monstrosity serves a social purpose in that it frees the individual from proximity and association with a person they feel represents an injurious threat to their own wellbeing. In Nancy Marck Cantwell’s “De-Composing the Gothic Body in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent,” she says:

We commonly bear witness to the abject when we are confronted by the inevitability of our physical dissolution. (33)

When it comes to women, this is particularly poignant. The developmental origin of the horror fiction genre is complex, with the presence of horror elements in texts dating back to pre-Biblical times. Women in Gothic horror fiction, defined in this essay as fantastic works with macabre and haunting elements that arose within the first quarter of the 20th century, are portrayed and perceived through a particular lens; one that interprets the cultural ideals of feminine personhood and disabled embodiment through objectification, “othering,” and in consideration of 19th century idealism. In Nancy Cott’s “An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology” she states that:

The late nineteenth century was an era of contention over female sexuality, physiology, health, dress, and exercise, and one in which medical opinion had become an authoritative sector of public opinion. (219)

The realities of feminine suffering and their aftermath go largely codified or unspoken, with the narrative voices being predominantly male, and disabled women being relocated to the silent poverty-stricken realms of society. 

The female body as “other” is a perspective with historical basis, as discussed in David T. Mitchell and S. L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse

The othering of the female body—through the vilification of femaleness, female sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth—is not a new occurrence. Aristotle, like Freud and Lacan much later, identified women as incomplete or deformed males. (55)

The pervasive belief in biological essentialism was a key tool in the oppression of women, and so not only the state of the mind, but the condition of the body were determiners of ability, status, and the eventualities of their lives. In Mary Poovey’s Feminism and Deconstruction, the idea that “neither sexuality nor social identity is given exclusively in or through the body, however it is sexed” (51), a concept explored briefly below, was absent from gender discourse at the time as well.  This is further discussed in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today:

In every domain where patriarchy rains, woman is other: she is objectified and marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values, defined by what she allegedly lacks and that men allegedly have. (87)

The dehumanization and “othering” of women was a means to maintain patriarchal power. In horror and fantastic tales that are largely narrated by men and written in an era of evolving gender and racial rights, there lies inklings of information that allow for contemporary interpretation which, in turn, elevate the humanity and validity of women disabled women, and their experiences beyond the stereotypical label of victim, among other terms denoting the inhuman.

For much of our cultural history, the female body has been viewed as imperfect: an aberration of the “perfect” male form and consequently repugnant or even dangerous, yet close enough to this “male default” to be familiar and even attractive. This has a destabilising force on both the male subject, who simultaneously experiences desire and revulsion, and the female object, when she discovers that she is being “othered” and is “no longer seen in her own right.”
—Jane Mitchell, Reclaiming the Monster: Abjection and Subversion in the Marital Gothic Novel 57

It is worth noting that there were authors that addressed themes of disability and sexuality in the gothic novel, namely Edith Nesbit, though this is a topic for another examination.

Disability imagery in the Gothic novel and short story often signifies “moral decay or the lack of a moral sense” (Longmore 1987, 67-68; Snyder and Mitchell 2000). This archaic view of the disabled individual denotes their use in society as a warning against that which may bring about disease and decay, but it also claims that those who are regarded as wretched on the outside are wretched on the inside, something we know to be unequivocally false. Contemporary disability theory recognizes disability as “an overarching, life-defining confluence of categories” according to Jan Grue in “Rhetorics of Difference : Julia Kristeva and Disability” (49). In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Chris Baldick observes that:

The representation of fearful transgressions in the figure of physical deformity arises as a variant of that venerable cliché of political discourse, the “body politic.” When political discord and rebellion appear, this “body” is said to be not just diseased, but misshapen, abortive, monstrous. Once the state is threatened to the point where it can no longer be safely identified (according to the medieval theory) with “the King’s body”—that is, with an integral and sacred whole—then the humanly recognizable form of the body politic is lost, dispersed into a chaos of dismembered and contending organs. (14)

Baldick’s passage supports the idea in Lucy Sheehan’s article “Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in ‘Mary Barton,” which states that:

A single body ‘embodies’ multiple objects, or, alternately, in which many bodies “embody” a single unified political consciousness. (37)

“The Dunwich Horror,” chosen to illustrate the central themes of this analysis, was selected for the presence of a female character that drives the narrative, inclusion or suggestion of the supernatural, and the cultural impact the stories have had on contemporary horror fiction. The only major female character in the tale is Lavinia Whateley, who shares her name with a character from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Born in 1878, she is the daughter of wizard Old Whateley and her late unnamed mother, who had a mysterious and violent death when Lavinia was twelve years old. 

Lovecraft establishes Lavinia immediately as an outsider through her appearance, playing into the historical reality as described by Rosemarie Garland Thomson in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body,  that the “visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings” (1).  Lavinia has albinism, which contributes to the alienation she already gets for being a part of a strange family. She is described as slatternly, and has inherited the weak chin of her relatives. Lavinia disappeared in 1926 on Halloween night. It is inferred throughout the story that she was a victim of matricide.

The mother was one of the decadent Whateleys, a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five, living with an aged and half-insane father about whom the frightful tales of wizardry had been whispered in his youth. Lavinia Whateley had no husband, but according to the custom of the region, made no attempt to disavow the child […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Lavinia’s depiction is as ableist as it is misogynistic. There is hardly a mention of her name that does not include a qualifier immediately before or after that she is deformed. Lovecraft’s characterization of Lavinia, meant to evoke horror and disgust, is also meant to be comparatively less offensive than the horror that is her son, Wilbur, a child described in both ableist and racist terms, as the “dark, goatish-looking infant who formed such a contrast to her own sickly and pink-eyed albinism” and “swarthy.” 

While I do not wish to medicalize Lavinia, as stated above, it is still important to put albinism in context for the contemporary reader. The understanding of the condition today is far more intricate than in Lovecraft’s time. Albinism is a genetically-inherited disease indicated by the absence of melanin; skin, hair, eyes are characteristically faint, having little color or intensity, and affects vision. Raji Ade Oba in “Albinism: A Silently-Growing Disability that remains largely uncategorized and ‘uncelebrated,’” states that:

A 2014 South African Medical Journal found that in Nigeria, albino children experienced isolation, dodged social interactions, and were less emotionally stable. In fact, it was reported that affected individuals were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, and be unable to find partners. 

Lavinia’s few interactions with characters outside of her family are strange, stemming from her limited exposure which most likely resulted from familial or self-isolation from the townspeople due to her albinism. Though it can be argued that this isolation could be, either solely or mixed with, the dark sorcery of the inhabitants of her house. 

The medical aspects of albinism are not described in the story. Lovecraft delivers observations about Lavinia that illustrate her as hideous for an audience of the time that was likely just as uneducated and unsympathetic regarding genetic disorders. A more accurate or nuanced depiction of a character with albinism may have incorporated any of the following aspects, as described in The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine:

People with albinism may have one or more of the following eye problems: severe  far-sighted or near-sighted, astigmatism, constant, involuntary movement of the eyeball called nystagmus, problems in coordinating the eyes in fixing and tracking objects (strabismus), problems with depth perception, and light sensitivity. People with a rare form of albinism called Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS) also have a greater tendency to have bleeding disorders, inflammation of the large bowel (colitis), lung (pulmonary) disease, and kidney (renal) problems.

How much Lovecraft knew of these details is unknown. His characterization lends credence to the idea that the disabled should not procreate, seeing that Wilbur and his monstrous twin are evil and destructive beings. Lavinia’s impregnation can be seen as an inverse of the holy conception of Jesus Christ. It is also a direct reference to Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, where the formula “Et Diabolus incarnatus est. Et homo factus est.” is a deliberate inversion of “And God became incarnate, and made man.”

Lavinia was learned, affirming that the acquisition of knowledge was regarded as a peculiarity or trait that accompanied the makeup of a woman who could destabilize the patriarchal system at hand. “She was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great, odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys” and “She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her” (“The Dunwich Horror”).

Lovecraft plays into the medical model of disability with his characterization of Lavinia, which “frames atypical bodies and minds as deviant, pathological, and defective, best understood and addressed in medical terms”, an idea described by Alison Kafer in her pivotal text, Feminist, Queer, Crip (5). While it is stated that she is a woman of some learning, even if it is occult learning or familial oral history, it is most critical that you understand her as “deformed,” and therefore “other.” But impairment at the time this story was conceived was different than modern times. “What we understand as impairing conditions—socially, physically, mentally, or otherwise—shifts across time and place” (Kafer 7). As feminists and fighters against ableism, it is critical that we review texts with disabled characters, and disability overall, as “a site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 9). Lovecraft’s characterization  of Lavinia also hearkens back to classical and medieval times, when, as Angela M. Smith discusses in Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema: 

[…] unusual bodies and behaviors were viewed as evidence of divine or otherwise unknowable forces and read as portents of good will or ill, or manifestations of “earthly malignancy and witchcraft.” (3-4)

Her son, Wilbur, even began to regard her with a “growing contempt” eventually implicitly committing matricide. “Poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.” Here we have a supernatural being with disdain for his mother so great, that he murders her. One might look upon Lavinia’s cherishing of the child and see great injustice in this. That a woman of limited but enthusiastic learning, who perseveres beyond the so-called limitations of her condition, and still has some indefinable but present faith, as a discardable being. In David Punter’s A Companion to the Gothic he says that “The gothic uses and abuses a woman’s body; in this genre, she is ‘moved, threatened, discarded, and lost’ (257-268).

Women in Gothic fiction of the present day are afforded greater humanity. Through the mobilization of modern disability discourses, including the re-framing of  disability as marginalized identity rather than defective being, and integrating concepts of disability futurity, it may be demonstrated that portrayals of disabled women in Gothic literature may be reframed with modern theoretical interpretations to cultivate nuance that better serves the future of disability discourse. That is an improvement that will benefit not only readers, but the people who inhabit the real world as well.


Farah Rose Smith is a fiction writer and scholar from Rhode Island. She has authored the novellas Anonyma, The Almanac of Dust, and Eviscerator, as well as the collections Of One Pure Will and The Witch is the Body. She lives in New York City.

Copyright 2022 Farah Rose Smith

The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- (2015) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和)

愛欲幻想の怪~クトゥルフ・プレグナント~ (The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant-) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和) is a 2015 Japanese tankōbon hentai manga published by Unreal Comics (アンリアル). This book is divided into ten chapters, each of which contains a fully-illustrated and sexually explicit Cthulhu Mythos story.

In art style, the book is geared more toward erotic comedy than erotic horror; and many of the Cthulhu Mythos entities within are presented as monster girls. Takayuki Hiyori had been previously known for their dōjinshi based on popular monster girl harem manga Monster Musume, and their manga are essentially a pornographic parallel to the mostly non-explicit books like Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス).

Cthulhu_TOC

In terms of writing and storytelling, The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- is a disconnected collection of short works, much like most Lovecraft story collections or Lafcadio Hearn’s classic collection Kwaidan. There is no larger overarching story of narrative, the major appeal of the work being simply that it uses the Cthulhu Mythos for these erotic stories and sexualized versions of eldritch entities like Cthulhu, Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, the Deep Ones, the Hounds of Tindalos, and the Cats of Ulthar.

The contents are aimed toward some well-established tropes and kinks: as the title might imply, impregnation is a fairly significant theme in many of the stories, but there are also instances of multiple penetration, sex work, incest, nonconsensual sex, body transformation or modification, breast expansion, group sex, large genitals, etc. Readers familiar with tentacle erotica might wonder if such appendages play their part, as they do in Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky, but in truth they don’t play a significant role in the proceedings.

Cthulhu_CalloftheAbyssIn point of fact, The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant- is difficult to distinguish from Monster Musume or Monster Girl Encyclopedia products. While Takayuki Hiyori uses references to the Cthulhu Mythos in the crafting and telling of the stories, the manga itself is pretty straight forward monster girl erotica, and aimed more directly at that audience than Lovecraft fans. The depictions of the various Mythos entities is mostly original, but skewed toward “mostly human with a few non-human traits”—the Cats of Ulthar, for example, are indistinguishable from the generic manga or anime “catgirl,” with their primary feline traits being cat ears and tail on a nubile young woman’s body. Eldritch horrors are hinted at but seldom realized.

The contents of this book might be generally compared to the more sexually explicit chapters of The Elder Sister-like One by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。), but where Pochi is telling an extended narrative with a few characters with extended character development and exploring emotions, Takayuki Hiyori is necessarily more episodic, with varied content and swift-moving stories that tend to get to the sexual action fast, dwell on them for the majority of the length of the chapter, and come to a relatively swift conclusion.

Cthulhu - Ulthar

Arguably the most fun chapter in the book is a variation on “The Cats of Ulthar.” While the forms the cats take are stereotypical for hentai manga, and the results are pretty much what you might expect, it both pays homage to Lovecraft’s original work while playfully subverting aspects of it. One might compare it in some ways to the “erotic” versions of classic horror novels which achieved a bit of notoriety in the 1970s, like The Adult Version of Frankenstein and The Adult Version of Dracula by “Hal Kantor” (Ed Wood, Jr.). Erotic retellings of Lovecraft aren’t exactly new—for example, “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon—but illustrated or graphic adaptations are relatively scarce.

愛欲幻想の怪~クトゥルフ・プレグナント~ (The Mystery of Lustful Illusion -Cthulhu Pregnant-) by Takayuki Hiyori (宇行 日和) has not been officially translated into English or published in the United States; perhaps some company like FAKKU might do so in the future and make it more widely available. Until then, those interested in the Japanese original can still find copies available from retailers online.


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.

“Night-Gaunts” (2017) by Joyce Carol Oates

When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by my “Night-Gaunts”—I don’t know where I got hold of the name) used to snatch me up by the stomach (bad digestion?) and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needlelike pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let drop—and as I gained momentum in my Icarus-like plunge I would start awake in such panic that I hated to think of sleeping again. The “night-gaunts” were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Doré’s drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours. They had no voices, and their only form of real torture was their habit of tickling my stomach (digestion again0 before snatching me up and swooping away with me. I sometimes had the vague notion that they lived in the black burrows honeycombing the pinnacle of some incredibly high mountain somewhere. they seemed to come in flocks of 25 or 50, and would sometimes fling me one to the other. Night after night I dreamed the same horror with only minor variants—but I never struck those hideous mountain peaks before waking. If I had…well, the point is that these things decreased rapidly as I grew older. Each year I believed less and less of the supernatural, and when I was 8 I began to be interested in science and cast off my last shred of religious and other superstitious belief. I do not recall many “night-gaunt” dreams after I was 8—or any after I was 10 or 11. But Yuggoth, what an impression they made on me! 34 years later I chose them as the theme of one of my Fungi….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Virgil Finlay, 24 Oct 1936, Selected Letters 5.335

A common refrain these days is to separate the art from the artist. To distinguish between an appreciation for a creator’s works from an appreciation or an agreement with the author themselves. One could, hypothetically, pick up a book by a mass murderer and enjoy it without knowing anything about the author, or admire a painting at a gallery without any awareness that the artist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan…but this implies a level of ignorance about the creator; the person approaches their work without context, without any expectation or prejudice.

It becomes more difficult to separate the art from the artist when you know more about the creator in question, when the events of their lives and their other works inform various details and themes throughout their ouevre. Such is the case with Howard Phillips Lovecraft—and perhaps more than that.

Even while he was alive, Lovecraft crossed the thin threshold between reality and legend. Frank Belknap Long immortalized him as “Howard” in “The Space-Eaters” (1928), Edith Miniter added “H. Theobald, Jr.” to  The Village Green (192?), and Robert Bloch secured permission from Lovecraft before inserting him into “The Shambler From the Stars” (1935)—and killing such fictional alter ego. Friends like Samuel Loveman and Elizabeth Toldridge wrote poetic tributes, and even his future wife Sonia H. Greene would get into the action with “Four O’Clock” (1949).

After Lovecraft’s death, memoirs, biographies, and letters were published; authors and artists who had never met or corresponded with Lovecraft now continued to se his name, his likeness, his legend in the development of new works. “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins, “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper…these barely scratch the surface of works that use either a fictional Lovecraft, or a character based on Lovecraft, inspired by his name, his likeness, the events of his life.

As understanding of Lovecraft’s life has deepened and spread, so that the portrait of his life has become more complete, so too have the warts become more apparent. Lovecraft was generally kind, well-mannered, generous to a fault within his limited means, and gave tremendous encouragement to many writers, some of whom like Robert Bloch would go on to be amazingly influential themselves. Lovecraft was also, by his own admission, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic. Cultural syntax on these traits has shifted: readers and creators no longer want to passively acknowledge them, some of them want to actively engage with the massive underlying issues of prejudice through Lovecraft…so, contemporary works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin, and Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee continue to engage with Lovecraft’s legend and legacy, though in a different way than previous generations.

Somewhere in between the iconic fictional Lovecrafts of the early generations of Mythos authors and the strawmen and monsters of the current generation lies Joyce Carol Oates’ character of Horace Phineas Love, Jr. from her novella “Night-Gaunts.”

H. P. Love, Jr. is, despite many similarities, patently not H. P. Lovecraft. Love is a semiotic ghost, a deliberately distorted vision of Lovecraft’s childhood, reimagined and remixed. Much of their lives have parallel: the father that died of syphilis, the grandfather’s library, the intelligent child that became a weird fiction author as an adult. Yet a great deal of it is not right, too. Lovecraft didn’t have the Scots nurses; or lost the family home; and certainly never found a copy of the Necronomicon in his grandfather’s library. Very likely, Lovecraft didn’t have congenital syphilis either, a point that has constituted an entire thread of Lovecraft scholarship from the time Winfield Townley Scott revealed the cause of Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s death down throuh Victoria Nelson’s “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”—even though Lovecraft didn’t test positive for the disease during his final illness (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).

Which kind of begs the question: if H. P. Love, Jr. is modelled on H. P. Lovecraft but also very deliberately not Lovecraft…why? What is the point? What story is Oates telling us when she writes snippets like:

A young girl-urchin, scarcely ten, opens her soiled dress—bares her white, scrawny chest—tiny breasts, with small pinpoint-nipples—twelve-year-old Horace is astonished—he has never seen anything like this except in certain of the illustrations in his grandfather’s liberary and then never of children so young. It is horrible to see, it is hideous, the aghast boy feels no sex-desire but only pity and sorrow, and fear.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense 315

If this was a way for Oates to address a fictional Lovecraft-clone’s apparent asexuality or lack of sexual desire, it’s a damn weird way of doing it. In truth, “Night-Gaunts” gives no direct answers to what it is about. In broad strokes, it is a kind of ghost story, but it is a ghost story that gets a bit lost up its own internal anatomy pursuing the alternative life of very-definitely-not-H. P. Lovecraft in a way that nevertheless seems to reflect very strongly on certain interpretations of the life and characters of H. P. Lovecraft.

A clue might be the image of the birthmark which H. P. Love, Jr. and his syphilitic father H. P. Love, Jr. share; this would appear to be an homage or reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story “The Birth-Mark.” If one keeps the moral of that tale in mind, “Night-Gaunts” might be read as a message and a meditation on Lovecraft—how the focus on the mundane facts of a biography ignores the immortal essence of the legend, in a very “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” way—and that Horace Phineas Love, Jr. is, in effect both an interpretation of the legendary Lovecraft and a kind of commentary on the same.

If this is the case, it might not be entirely successful. “Night-Gaunts” reminds a great deal of Fred Chappell’s novel Dagon (1987), where the writing is good, but the themes, plot, and characterization never seem to really come together. In weird fiction, the atmosphere and telling of the story count for more than actual plot, but for “Night-Gaunts” there is a sort of postmodern purposelessness to it all: the events of Lovecraft’s life nearly define the contours of the story (except when they don’t; H. P. Love, Jr. never marries), but the internal journey of H. P. Love, Jr. is necessarily incomplete, tasks unfinished, questions unanswered.

Not every question needs an answer—the reader can decide for themselves whether or not the night-gaunts are real—or what writhing form was glimpsed in the master bedroom—but it feels like there should have been, at least, some metafictional flicker of awareness. Something to clue Love or the reader in to what their true connection to Lovecraft was. Absent that, “Night-Gaunts” feels a bit like a love letter to a dead boyfriend…an effort not to  communicate to anyone that might read it, but to work out in prose some thoughts and ideas about that semiotic echo of Lovecraft in popular culture, the recluse so many readers have dreamed Lovecraft as rather than the flesh-and-blood man who lived and died.

“Night-Gaunts” (2017) was first published in the Yale Review, and collected in Joyce Carol Oates’ Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense (2018).


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.