The main points of concern for the journalists seem to be the same as those of the bloggers; first and foremost they feel the need to express that Rowling is wrong and transphobic, but they also want to present their views on the debate of whether liking Harry Potter is still justifiable. The separating the art from the artist discussion is a crucial part of the majority of these articles. Several of the authors mention other controversial artists such as H.P. Lovecraft and analyse how these situations were handled.
In 1967, Roland Barthes published his essay “La Mort de l’Auteur” (“The Death of the Author”). This influential work of literary criticism examined the relationship between the author and their work; interest in a work often extends to interest in the author, and what we know about the author informs how we read a work. Many literary critics of H. P. Lovecraft have read elements from his own life in his fiction. Sometimes these readings are supported by primary evidence. Lovecraft himself noted in his letters that real-world personal experiences and places he had visited sometimes informed his fiction. For example:
[…] am now on the 22nd manuscript page of a long short story to be called “The Dunwich Horror”. The action takes place amongst the wild domed hills of the upper Miskatonic Valley, far northwest of Arkham, & is based on several old New England legends—one of which I heard only last month during my sojourn in Wilbraham.
While evidence from Lovecraft’s letters has led to deeper insight into his life, his writing process, and his fiction, their wider publication beginning with the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft from Arkham House also led to wider awareness of his personal prejudices. While many readers would have already picked up touches of early 20th-century prejudices in Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry, Lovecraft’s growing reputation as a writer, this reputation always cared with it the unpleasant reality that Lovecraft was racist, an antisemite, homophobic, etc. As his fame spread and his works entered the public domain, that same public—which has grown ever more diverse—has re-evaluated both Lovecraft and his work.
Lovecraft’s prejudices have become part of his legend. For many, they have become his defining feature: a popular image that is easy to turn to caricature and resistant to nuance and complexity. H. P. Lovecraft has become the ghost of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the readers of today. Unfortunately, the present is haunted by its own bigoted spirits.
Prejudice has become almost as indelible a part of the legend of British writer J. K. Rowling over the last few years as Lovecraft—and this has drawn comparison between the two. However, there are many important differences between the two writers, both in their specific circumstances and how they are read and interpreted by today’s audiences. Comparing two bigoted authors is fundamentally different from comparing apples to oranges…because to torture a metaphor, we have to take into account not just the fruit, but the trees they grow from, the orchard, the terroir: the historical context in which a living author and a dead one lived and worked.
H. P. Lovecraft, Spirit of a Bigoted Past
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a pulp writer and amateur journalist. Born into a moderately affluent white family in Providence, Rhode Island, a series of deaths in the family greatly reduced its fortunes. Lacking strong financial acumen or prospects, and with limited education, Lovecraft lived much of his life in genteel poverty, largely unknown outside of a small but ardent circle of admirers of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, where many of his stories have published. After his death, his friends and fans continued to promote and publish his work, to expand and elaborate on the shared universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos he had devised, and to study his life and letters. Lovecraft’s fame is largely posthumous: he died a relatively obscure pulp author and reaped few financial rewards from his work. Awareness of his racism began to grow in the public consciousness after the publication of his Selected Letters (1965-1976) and especially Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp, which not only emphasized his prejudices but contained the first widespread publication of the poem “On the Creation of Niggers,” which along with his childhood pet, the black cat Nigger-man, has become part of his legend, and usually the first things cited as examples of his racism.
It is not unusual that a white man in the early 20th century United States of America might be anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, and misogynist: this was the era of the second Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and the rise of the Nazi party. Women did not have the right to vote in the US until 18 August 1920, two days before Lovecraft’s thirtieth birthday. Lovecraft would never live to see the Holocaust, the Stonewall Riots, or the Civil Rights Movement. His prejudices reflect the period he lived in, and were widespread.
While Lovecraft’s views on race were not static throughout his life, and were strongly influenced by his travels and meeting different people, he never overcame the prejudices of his earlier life.
Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary genre fiction cannot be overstated. He was a friend and encouragement to Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, August Derleth, Donald A. Wollheim, James Blish, and many more; his fiction, down to the most obscure fragment, has been published and republished. The shared universe he created and encouraged has been enthusiastically embraced by fans, writers, artists, and game designers for decades, all the more so since his fiction has entered the public domain. Despite Lovecraft’s personal prejudices, his work has been embraced by and re-imagined by generations of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ folk. Many works today specifically address the complex issues of Lovecraft’s personal prejudices (“The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin)—Lovecraft has become a public domain character as much as Cthulhu, the spirit of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the present.
J. K. Rowling, Spirit of a Bigoted Present
Joanne Rowling (1965- ) was born Yate, Gloucestershire, in the United Kingdom. Born into a fairly stolid middle-class background, she matriculated to university, graduated with a B.A. in French from the University of Exeter. Her first young adult novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) reached widespread acclaim on publication, would be followed by more books, a series of critical and commercially successful films, merchandise, licensing deals, etc. Millions of copies of her books sold, and Rowling herself became a multimillionaire. With newfound wealth came both adulation and expectations: Rowling came under the public spotlight, her social media presence the subject of constant attention and criticism.
In the late 2010s, Rowling’s opposition to gender transition and transgender individuals have come increasingly to public attention and received commensurate criticism. (“JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation”). While Rowling attempted to justify her views with a self-serving essay (“J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”), she has neither apologized nor corrected her views. Instead, Rowling doubled down on her prejudices and has used her wealth and public position to continue to discriminate against transgender individuals and support anti-trans activists (GLAAD Accountability Project: J. K. Rowling).
Rowling’s social media presence and the huge footprint of the Harry Potter media empire have led to swift and tremendous public awareness of her anti-trans prejudices. Individual friends and public figures, including those involved with the Harry Potter films, have variously distanced themselves from her views (Every Harry Potter actor who’s spoken out against J.K. Rowling) or supported her despite her prejudices (Ralph Fiennes defends JK Rowling). Her wealth and, perhaps, her ego have largely sheltered her from consequences: despite substantial efforts to publicly educate her on the realities of the discrimination that transgender people face, Rowling has doubled down on her beliefs in the face of criticism and opposition—and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.
That’s the explanation, not an excuse. The terminal online nature of media in the 2010s and 2020s has made Rowling’s tweets a feeding frenzy of takes, trolls, and political posturing for those eager to stake out their space in the culture wars, but when you cut through the clickbait ledes, the facts are pretty straightforward. LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom had been fighting for and winning equal rights throughout Rowling’s life (Timeline of LGBT history in the United Kingdom). This isn’t a case where Rowling was raised a bigot in a terminally transphobic society and is repeating popular prejudices. Rowling’s transphobia is a marginal, reactionary pushback against legal recognition and protections that have taken LGBTQ folks decades of organized effort to secure. Instead of supporting the rights of women or working to protect the transgender fans of the Harry Potter series who have quite literally enriched her, Rowling has become one of the gilded bogeymen of Twitter, using her wealth and privilege to promote her agenda (If J. K. Rowling’s Women’s Shelter Turns Away Trans Women, Then It Isn’t Helping Women).
When taken into comparison like that, the differences between Lovecraft and Rowling may seem a bit stark—but context is important. Lovecraft doesn’t get a pass just because his bigotry was commonplace while Rowling’s is marginal—but the fact that they had such different life experiences and reactions when confronted on their prejudice is in large part due to the 80-odd years between Lovecraft’s death and Rowling first hitting “like” on a transphobe’s tweet. We can only imagine what Lovecraft might have been like had he had Twitter, but we cannot know. As it is, lacking a broad public forum or the desire to push his prejudices in such a way, Lovecraft’s prejudices were kept mostly private until his death. The spotlight never shown on Lovecraft in that way during his life, except for the very briefest of moments; by the time fans could seriously react to his bigotry, Lovecraft was dead.
Rowling has the benefit of many things that never came to Lovecraft during his life—a university education, fame & fortune during her lifetime—but not a filter. Fame comes at its own cost, both in terms of loss of privacy and dealing with toxic fandom, but twenty-plus years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit shelves, any sympathy for the online hate Rowling deals with has to be balanced against the fact that she’s had decades to manage and shape her media presence. When Rowling responded to allegations in 2020, she made a clear statement that she was not playing the victim:
I haven’t written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I’m extraordinarily fortunate; I’m a survivor, certainly not a victim. I’ve only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory, which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.
All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.
Which is why comparison between H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling sort of falls apart. Both were and are prejudiced, respectively. Their exact prejudices are different (transgender identities was not understood in the same way during Lovecraft’s lifetime, see Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft), as were the forms their discrimination took, and the arc of their reputation. It was shaped by the context of their lives and careers; if Lovecraft had been successful, perhaps he would have faced more backlash during his lifetime, if Rowling had died in poverty and Harry Potter kept alive by an ardent circle of fans, her tweets only published decades later, we wouldn’t be hearing about her transphobia until then. For want a nail, the main thing that Rowling and Lovecraft have in common, if you ignore all their circumstances, is that they were both bigoted.
So why compare Lovecraft & Rowling? Why not Rowling & Ernest Hemingway? In truth, Rowling has been compared to many other bigoted authors—and as with Lovecraft, the comparisons tend to be pretty superficial. When you get down to the level of what exactly people believed and how they expressed their discrimination, the divide between historical racism and contemporary racism, between letters in amateur journals which get seen by tens of people months later versus tweets that are seen by thousands of people in seconds—it gets difficult to make meaningful comparisons.
J. K. Rowling is no H. P. Lovecraft, and vice versa. Nor do we read them quite the same.
How We Read Bigoted Authors
Barthe’s “death of the author” is metaphorical as much as it is literal: while it might be polite to wait until the author is dead and can no longer comment on their work, in a broader perspective the point of “death of the author” is that the reader can engage with the text without knowing anything about the author, or without reference to the author’s comments and other writings outside of the text. For writers that might still have a pulse and some brain activity, it might be better to think of it in terms of “ignoring the author”—not with the intention of trying to enjoy an author with disagreeable views, but as a technique of literary criticism.
This is part of the reason Lovecraft’s reputation as a racist is so pronounced: if someone had a black cat named after a racial slur for Black people today, as Lovecraft did as a child, it would be so far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today that there would be accurately labeled as a terrible bigot. At the time when Lovecraft owned the cat, that wasn’t an uncommon name for a black pet. It is still an example of Lovecraft’s racism, but in context it is more accurately seen as part of a wider cultural trend in a society that is much more openly racist than today’s, not Lovecraft being uniquely racist. Which is generally why historical context is important when looking at dead authors and their fiction: looking at the past solely through the lens of contemporary experience often leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation (presentism).
Given how prevalent racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, etc. were in the past, it should come as no surprise that there were a lot of bigoted authors. With the combination of social progress and increases in scientific knowledge, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of authors who end up on the wrong side of history—and many of them, like Lovecraft, were fairly conservative or reactionary even with respect to the politics and social views of their own time. Even then, humans tend to be rather complex: for example, Lovecraft was a bigot in terms of race, but he was progressive in other areas such as opposition to censorship, support for women writers, and New Deal-style socialism.
Not that you would really know that from reading his stories. Those are aspects of Lovecraft’s personality and life that never found expression in his fiction. Readers who approach Lovecraft’s fiction with a “death of the author” perspective would be totally ignorant of anything except what is in the stories themselves. Which is why “death of the author” is a tool in the literary criticism toolbox, but not the only technique or approach that can or should be used to evaluate a work or body of work.
In practice, most readers bring something of their understanding of an author to the work when they read it. After the revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse, for instance, it can be very difficult not to look at her fiction through the lens of this knowledge (“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley). Readers aware of Lovecraft’s racism will tend to read his stories with an eye toward finding expressions of his racism in those stories—and they will find it, although their understanding may be imperfect without a broader understanding of the historical context of Lovecraft’s life and how and when and why he wrote the story.
Before the internet, it might have been said that posterity would probably not be kind to J. K. Rowling…but things are faster now, and Rowling is a bigger target. It took decades after he was dead for Lovecraft to become big enough to attract serious scholarship and opprobrium for his racism Fans, literary critics, and scholars were already combing over Rowling’s every word before she liked her first tweet. Unlike Lovecraft, Rowling is alive as the vultures pick her literary bones and the scholars root through her tweets like diviners making note of lesions on a bird’s liver. Rowling has a voice to push back against her critics in a way that Lovecraft can’t. She also has a possibility of redemption that Lovecraft will never have.
Minus some required reading for school or work, nobody has to read H. P. Lovecraft or J. K. Rowling. Their literary status is due to popularity, but there’s no compulsion behind it in the sense of the Nazis handing out copies of Mein Kampf. If you don’t want to read about Cthulhu or Harry Potter…why not change the channel, return the library book, block the tweets? Read or watch or listen to something else. Don’t give then your precious attention or your dollars.
For all the hyperbole that pundits, politicians, and celebrities have given to “cancel culture” and the terrible consequences that folks can suffer if held to account for being racist or sexist or anything else, the fundamental idea behind it is essentially laissez faire: you the consumer get to decide what to buy, what to read, etc. While social media can drum up semi-organized boycotts, share information about the intended subject of ostracism, or rally signatures for specific projects, for most people it’s a decision as simple, straightforward, and personal as putting an aluminum can in the recycling bin instead of the trash. The individual effort involved is generally minimal. It is only the net effect of thousands of potential customers en masse exercising their right to not buy what someone else is selling that has real impact on the bottom line.
In this way, cancel culture combines two effective techniques: social ostracism and economic impact. The massed body of the public cannot issue fines or enforce social mores, but they can refuse to buy Rowling’s books or ignore her until she either goes away or decides to act right. The latter is, perhaps, what a lot of people hope for: that an author who has said something stupid, bigoted, and offensive will realize the error of their ways, learn better, apologize, grow as a person, and make amends. Many fans want the moral values of the creator to match their content; there is a collective guilt that can be experienced in continuing to enjoy and support an author with bigoted views.
After all, the dollars, euros, and pounds spent on Harry Potter books, films, games, and merchandise are ultimately ending up in J. K. Rowling’s pocket…which she will then dip into to continue to support anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, or fund shelters that discriminate against trans women, or a shiny new smartphone to tweet with. Most readers don’t like to be complicit in supporting those authors who actively support their oppressors. When they are made aware of it, anyway.
The major problem of cancel culture is that the economic impact often has minimal visible effect, at least not for individuals as wealthy as J. K. Rowling is. She has already made her money, she’s already won. If nobody spent a penny on any Harry Potteriana for the rest of her life and she was stuck self-publishing verbose crime thrillers, she’s probably still set for life. Rowling’s wealth insulates her from pretty much any sort of collective economic action. If readers hope Rowling will one day shift her views and come to accept that trans women are women, it probably won’t be because there’s an economic impetus driving the decision.
H. P. Lovecraft cannot be canceled.
If nobody buys Lovecraft’s books, the text of them is still free on the internet. Lovecraft, for the most part, is in the public domain. Like it or not, he belongs to all of us now, and there is no way to stop people from using Lovecraft’s texts and his Mythos in pretty much any way they see fit. If the economic carrot-and-stick of cancel culture doesn’t work on Rowling because she’s too rich to care, it doesn’t work on Lovecraft because he’s broke and dead. No matter what nasty names Lovecraft is called on the internet, his moldering bones in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, R.I. won’t rotate even a quarter-turn. No amount of urine on his grave can change his mind.
At least none of the money is going to benefit the prejudices Lovecraft had while he was alive.
The Two-Headed Ghost
Lovecraft cannot be canceled, but his legend continues—and his position in the literary firmament continues to be evaluated, debated, argued, as when his image was removed from the World Fantasy Award in 2015. Which is as it should be. While many readers identify strongly with works of fiction, the characters inside, and values they espouse—while many readers may idolize the creators of their favorite book, comic, game, or film—at the end of the day, H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling are just people. Very flawed, very complex human beings, not secular saints, and deserving of praise and sanction in response to their actions the same as anybody else.
Bigotry is a two-headed ghost. Janus-like, it stares into both the past and the future. Readers cannot escape the reality of historical racism, they can only choose how they themselves will approach the material and authors. If you as a reader cannot see past H. P. Lovecraft as anything but a bigot, cannot stand to read him, don’t want to hear about historical context or anything else that smacks of an excuse for racism, homophobia, antisemitism, etc.
Then don’t read him. Nobody can force you to. That’s your right. If you ever change your mind, Lovecraft will still be there. The dead cannot be hurt, only forgotten and misremembered.
Readers can also choose not to endorse and support bigots in the present. Unlike Lovecraft, J. K. Rowling can still change, can still look to the future—and she can already see, in the scholarly articles, the heartfelt fan letters, the opportunistic political punditry—what her legacy is shaping up to be. People may or may not read Harry Potter in a hundred years, but the question Rowling faces is how she herself will be remembered.
As long as an author breathes, they have a chance to change, to grow, to redeem themselves, at least a little. Lovecraft didn’t live long enough to do that; perhaps most don’t. The tide of history is relentless, and no one can see perfectly either where it came from or where it is going…nor force anyone else to change their minds. In the final analysis, all readers are faced with Barthes’ choice: how do they choose to approach the authors and their work? Because it is up to the readers to decide who they read, and how and why they read them. Whether to ignore their faults, or to accept them.
Chinatown [in San Francisco] must still be a fascinating & mysterious place, even though old-timers say it is merely a pallid echo of the original pre-1906 quarter. The only Chinatowns I’ve seen are those in Prov., Boston, & N.Y.—the latter the most picturesque of the three.
For his first thirty years, H. P. Lovecraft seldom left his native Providence, Rhode Island. All of his travels, his visits with friends, and to ethnic enclaves in different cities—as well as his marriage and all of his professionally-published fiction—happened in the last seventeen years of his life. The vast majority of character growth, exposure to different cultures, and challenges to Lovecraft’s prejudices happened in the final third of his existence. Which is why it is interesting to see what Lovecraft writes about various ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves he visited, including the few Chinatowns he visited on his travels.
Despite the name, “Chinatown” is a bit of a misnomer. In the 19th century, especially after the end of slavery, employers in the United States began to import cheap labor from Asia—including the Empire of China, Japan, the British Raj and other central and south Asian countries, Southeast Asian nations like Formosa (Taiwan) and Siam (Thailand), and the Pacific Islands. All of these “Asians” came to the United States at different times and places—and because of their different appearance, cultures, religions, language, and perceived economic competition, faced tremendous discrimination and even violence from the American citizens. Like many other immigrants, they tended to be poor and poorly paid, and settled in the cheapest or least desired neighborhoods and ghettoes—which in time came to include Asian-owned shops, restaurants, and other businesses; as well as schools, cemeteries, temples, and cultural centers or benevolent societies—and became, in effect, small organic communities operating alongside and within larger and predominantly white American cities.
While commonly called “Chinatowns” because the bulk of the immigrant population and their Asian-American descendants were perceived to be Chinese, these communities were not usually homogenous, but included many different nationalities and ethnicities, and the “flavor” of a given Chinatown could vary considerably from city-to-city—even the preferred dialect of the Chinese language and the style of Americanized Chinese food would often reflect the province(s) where the majority of the immigrants had emigrated from.
Like other ethnic and linguistic minorities in the United States, Asian immigrants faced social, economic, and legal discrimination. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1917 (the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”) effectively halted immigration from Asia to the United States for decades; legal rules like Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927) confirmed Asian-Americans as “colored” for the purposes of race laws, often prevented mixed-race marriages, segregating where Asian-Americans could work, live, and go to school. The Massie Case in 1932 highlights how prejudice against Asians could be deadly violent—and how socially accepted such violence was.
In the face of restricted immigration and ongoing discrimination, many Chinatowns shrank or ceased to exist altogether, the populations moving on—yet others thrived and grew, and still exist today, the largest existing both as vibrant communities still absorbing generations of immigrants and perhaps increasingly as tourist attractions. Yet in their endurance, they made their mark on American culture as well; the Asian architecture and festivals and the rags-to-riches stories of hardworking Asian immigrants struggling for their success became a part of the mythos of their cities. There was a dark side to this mythos too: Yellow Menace fears of enemy aliens, criminal gangs, opium dens, and tong wars filled the newspapers, dime novels, and eventually the pulps. It was not without reason that Robert E. Howard made his weird detective Steve Harrison’s beat Chinatown—the Texan was playing to the expectations of a pulp audience that had been raised to think of these ethnic enclaves in terms of stereotypes and prejudice.
Lovecraft, who visited Chinatowns in the 1920s and 30s, was aware of all of this—and his comments have to be understood as an outsider, a tourist who wants a glimpse of the exotic East he had long held in his imagination but never actually had the chance to visit.
Chinatown was as close to Asia as Lovecraft would ever get.
There were two small Chinatowns in Providence, Rhode Island: a small one centered around Burrill St. that burned down in 1906, and a newer one centered on Empire Street which was torn down in 1951 as the city extended the street and expanded it, not coincidentally razing the old buildings and displacing the small community there. While Lovecraft could have theoretically visited both during his lifetime, he was no doubt more familiar with the small community centered around Empire St.—as Empire intersects with Westminster St., where the Chin Lee Co. First Class Chop Sooey and American Restaurant stood, an establishment where Lovecraft and his aunt sometimes took their meals:
Christmas, thank Pegāna, was decently mild—& I succeeded in dragging my elder aunt down town for the firs ttime in a year & a half—to partake of an old-time Christmas feast with plum pudding and all, at the hospitable refctory of that staunch upholder of ancient English tradition—Chin Lee, Esq., (a very distant eastern connexion—phonetically at least—of the main Virginia line of Stratford & Arlington!) who so liberally stocked you with chow mein at our little pre-Maxfield supper last June.
Regrettably, Lovecraft doesn’t offer any more descriptive details of the Providence Chinatown, although he must have passed through or near it several times during his life. Being so relatively small both geographically and in terms of population, it probably lacked much in the way of distinctive architecture or tourist draw, although one can easily imagine Lovecraft taking out-of-towners for a stroll down Empire St. and making the turn at Westminster St., in case they wanted some chow mein or chop suey.
We threaded the colonial lanes of Beacon Hill, chapel, Old Corner, Old South Church, old State House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, (buily 1676) birthplace of Mortonius’ grandfather, old North Church, hellish colonial byways of the North End, (the scene of “Pickman’s Model”—I was heartbroken to find the actual alley & house of the tale utterly demolished; a whole crooked line of buildings having been torn down) & the relatively commonplace Chinatown along Beach St.
Boston was an international port for centuries, but the sprinkling of Chinese and other Asian nationals only appears to have formed an ethnic enclave in the 1870s, after a number of immigrants were brought over from California to Massachusetts as cheap labor. Despite discrimination, the Boston Chinatown grew and flourished, and was the largest New England Chinatown outside of New York during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the only one in the region to survive to the present day.
It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first visited Boston’s Chinatown. Amateur journalism brought him more contacts and spurred his first adult travels outside of Providence, to Boston to meet up with fellow amateurs, and to listen to Lord Dunsany at Copley Plaza in 1919. Lovecraft might well have seen the Boston Chinatown on any visit in the 1920s; the 1927 letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark discusses a tour of Boston where Lovecraft showed Donald Wandrei the sights, so he must have been familiar with it sometime before that.
As with Providence’s Chinatown, Lovecraft doesn’t give any real description. “Prosaic” probably implies that it was not markedly touristy at the time, and that the architecture mostly reflected Western styles. The paifang archway that now stands at the head of Beach St. as a symbolic entrance wasn’t erected until 1982, so in Lovecraft’s time the distinction would have been made in non-English signage, the greater number of Asian faces on the street, the sounds of people speaking Taishanese, and the smell of Chinese food wafting out from a thousand kitchens.
Klei, now at the head of a triangular expedition with the same personnel as Saturday’s, proceeded to lead us into the slums; with “Chinatown” as an ulterior objective. […] And then Chinatown appeared. Here cleanliness reigned, for certain enterprising rubberneck-wagon owners use it as a sort of seat of local colour–they have fake opium joints which they point out as the real thing. Doyers St., the main thoroughfare, is narrow and crooked. It is fascinatingly Oriental, and Loveman rhapsodised on the evil faces of the natives. Probably it was only the usual low-caste physiognomy of the coolie type which so thrilled him–but bless me! Let the poets find thrills where they can.
The Manhattan Chinatown in New York City was, and remains, the largest Asian ethnic enclave on the East Coast of the United States. On his first trip to New York in 1922, Lovecraft’s friend Rheinhart Kleiner took him and fellow visitor Samuel Loveman on a tour of many points of interest in the city. Already, as Lovecraft noted, the area was becoming picaresque and beginning to cater to tourists, though it was still a thriving community and probably more Asian people in one place than Lovecraft had seen before.
It was a place that Lovecraft would revisit at least a few times during his stay in New York (1924-1926), and possibly he would pass by or close to it several times in later years depending on his route through the city. In his letters, he noted his second visit:
Another thing I visited that day was Chinatown—Mott and Dyer Sts., branching off from sordid Chatham Square. This I had seen after dark two years ago with Kleiner and Loveman; but I now beheld it for the first time by day. There are some interesting Oriental balconies, carved and gilded, but so few that one’s expectations are invariably disappointed.
At this point, Lovecraft would have probably already seen the Chinatowns in Providence and Boston, so he might have had his hopes up that New York—bigger and older than both—might have more of an exotic flavor. In this, like other Chinatowns, Lovecraft would be somewhat disappointed: these were working, living communities, not the romantic transplanted neighborhoods from Asian cities or dangerous ghettoes he might have imagined or hoped for:
Kirk, Leeds, & I once explored the N.Y. Chinatown during a tong war, when there were pairs of policemen stationed around at short intervals apart to prevent trouble—but we couldn’t scare up a single flying bullet.
“Tongs” or benevolent societies were mutual assistance organizations that initially grew up in the West Coast Chinatowns such as San Francisco, and from there spread out or encouraged the formation of new groups. Despite the laudable stated purpose of helping its members—many Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century would have been relatively poor, spoken little or no English, and lacked many contacts to secure housing or handle immigration legalities—some of these groups became infamous for their association with criminal enterprises such as gambling, protection rackets, human trafficking, and sex work, and for the vicious fighting that could break out between rival organizations.
These “tong wars,” especially those in San Francisco, grabbed national headlines in the late 19th century, but diminished in scale and intensity in the 20th century. “Tong War” headlines appear in 1924 and 1925, and newspapers were prone to sensationalize the prospect of a bloody gang fight, so it isn’t clear when Lovecraft went on this particular expedition.
There is some indication that Lovecraft got used to Chinatown, and passed through it or near it semi-regularly as needs dictated:
After leaving [Samuel Loveman] at his airy domicile & starting on a walk over Brooklyn Bridge & up through Chinatown to the north, Kirk & I decided to surprise Loveman with a birthday gift–as which, after much deliberation, we chose a bookcase, plus several cheap decorative accessories to brighten & domesticate his room.
During the period of his stay in New York, Lovecraft walked much of the city and became, in his own lights, a tour guide, particularly to its surviving Colonial buildings. When Donald Wandrei was to visit New York in 1927, Lovecraft made sure he didn’t miss out on the New York Chinatown either, giving him instructions much as he would for Harlem:
Chinatown (walk along Park Row from City Hall, turn into Mott St. at Chatham Sq.)
Lovecraft had left New York in 1926 and moved back to Providence, which is probably the only reason why he didn’t show Wandrei the Manhattan Chinatown himself, as he did with the Boston Chinatown. Lovecraft still passed through New York periodically the rest of his life, and it was on one of these trips when Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. wanted to visit some sites in New York, he turned to “Grandpa Theobald” to lead him:
We later followed a route of quaint sights–old chuchyards, waterfront areas, Chinatown, Five Points, &c.–which Sonny had compiled from a series of newspaper articles, & on which he needed his old Grandpas’ expert guidance. I could steer him without difficulty, & we coerced everything on the programme.
There were other Chinatowns in cities Lovecraft visited like Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, some of which still exist, others of which are no more. It does not appear that Lovecraft visited these ethnic enclaves, or if he did, chose not to make any reference to them in his surviving letters. Most of these, like Providence’s own quarter, would have been relatively small and easy to overlook, especially as Lovecraft was often traveling quickly and on the cheap.
Chinatown & Lovecraft’s Asiaphobia
Lovecraft was both a white supremacist and came to hate New York City and its large immigrant population. There are many comments in his letters regarding his particular animosity towards New York and its immigrant population, an animosity that informed several stories written or conceived while he wrote in the story such as “He,”“The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Readers of passages like the following might wonder if Lovecraft’s animosity toward the city were inspired in any way by Chinatown or its inhabitants:
You can’t imagine the horror of being engulfed in a maelstrom of repulsive Orientals whose aberrant physiogonomies & rat-like temperaments grate more & more on the sensibilities of an aesthetically impressionable person. New York represents such a stupidenous ruin & decay–such a hideous replacement of virile & sound-heritaged stock by whipped, cringing, furtive dregs & offscourings–that I don’t see how anyone can live long in it without sickening.
The fact is, Lovecraft was not predominantly talking about the Chinese or Japanese or Korean immigrants of New York: he was talking about Jews. While it seems weird to us today to talk about Jews as “Orientals,” the stereotypes of the early 20th century often considered Jewish peoples to have immigrated from, or be descended from people who immigrated from, the Near East, Middle East, or Central Asia (particularly with regards to the Khazar hypothesis, which Lovecraft seems to have picked up in New York). This identification is made much more explicit in other letters, where Lovecraft directly references the supposed Asian origins of Jews—and the best that can be said about those prejudices is that Lovecraft wasn’t being uniquely horrible, but was reflecting a very common way of “othering” Jewish immigrants and Jewish-Americans.
The odd thing about the Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves that Lovecraft encountered on his travels is that he generally did not despise their existence. He accepted the existence of non-Anglo-American cultures, and even stated his admiration for what little he knew of Chinese and Japanese culture in many letters; he also vociferously didn’t want those cultures to spread or intrude on what he saw as white American culture. A self-contained enclave was preferable to the great American Melting Pot. While he never said it in such words, Lovecraft didn’t mind the Chinese in Chinatown anymore than he would have minded the Chinese in China.
That was part of Lovecraft’s rationale for his hatred of New York—the idea that it had once been an American city and that now all the (particularly Jewish) immigrants had come in and taken over; so that it had effectively ceased to be American by his standards (although a glance at the census might have enlightened Lovecraft to the fact that there weren’t quite as many Jews in New York as he thought). In a later letter, Lovecraft wrote:
I freely admitted that the nascent replacement-culture of New York might have as much potential intrinsic merit as any other culture, & that the centuries might conceivably refine & develop it into something of unique excellence–as interesting & non-repugnant to us as Chinese or Saracenic culture.
Lovecraft’s experience of Chinese culture was limited to what he had read in books, the art he had seen in museums, and his brief trips to Chinatowns in Providence, Boston, and New York; he was as much a tourist as any diner in a Chinese restaurant in the United States, and the “exotic” atmosphere of carved and gilded balconies, delicate Japanese prints, and the music of bamboo flutes was his main expectation. In many ways, this expectation of the exotic remains in American culture, from the decor at American Chinese restaurants to the busloads of tourists who visit the various Chinatowns around the country—or, if that is insufficiently real, perhaps to the China Pavilion at Epcot Center in Orlando.
What needs to be understood about Lovecraft’s racism and his experience with Chinatowns is that this was by and large the limit of his experience with Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. Social and legal discrimination in the United States had helped segregate Asian peoples in these few cities, and in these few parts of cities—his experience, and his prejudices, were not unique. Lovecraft’s asiaphobia and asiaphilia were informed by and reflected the culture he was a part of.
Those same stereotypes still inform aspects of our experiences today, even though the Asiatic Barred Zone Act has long been abolished. Many of us are still tourists with notions of an exotic Orient that reduces the real people and cultures, fascinating in their history and variety, down to a handful of set roles and expectations. Lovecraft’s Chinatown visits neither cured nor exacerbated his prejudices; he neither feared and hated the Asian-Americans he met nor fell in love with them. At best, these visits expanded his world, at least a little…and perhaps in our own lives, if we visit Chinatown, we might appreciate them for what they are and have been, instead of being disappointed that they don’t live up to the fantasies of opium dens and tong wars that were dated even when Lovecraft strolled those streets.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) were contemporary denizens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and each would become a critical influence on the development of fantasy fiction throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continuing on into the current day. Their influence on each other was, as far as can be determined, practically nonexistent: there is no record of any correspondence between them, and while Tolkien did publish poetry and essays during Lovecraft’s lifetime, his first major work of fiction The Hobbit was not published until September 1937—and Lovecraft died in March of that year. Tolkien had more opportunity to read Lovecraft, whose work was reprinted in the United Kingdom in the Not At Night series, the British edition of Weird Tales, and increasingly in other hardback and paperback anthologies following Lovecraft’s death, but there is no direct indication from Tolkien’s correspondence that he did.
Even if the two did not directly interact with each other on a personal level or read one another’s works, they were both white heterosexual cisgender men who were born and grew up in the Anglosphere—and so it should not come as any great surprise that their respective fictional worlds bare some similarities, and are informed by the prejudices and social norms that they shared. Their works in turn strongly influenced the development of fantasy fiction as it exists today. While a detailed comparison of their lives and works could fill a book, a brief look at some of the key parallels and differences shows how racial ideology shaped both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos—sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.
British vs. American Fantasy Racism
By the turn of the century, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America were global colonial empires that used military force and other forms of influence (economic, cultural, etc.) to dominate or eradicate indigenous populations and further their geopolitical goals. While many of their colonies broke away and achieved independence over the course of the 20th century, Lovecraft and Tolkien were both familiar with and their views informed by the racist and colonialist ideology that supported the efforts to expand and maintain those holdings, including white supremacist propaganda such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).
Because of this shared cultural basis, trying to map the cultural differences in racial ideology between Tolkien and Lovecraft can be difficult. The United States with its large BIPOC population, formal laws legalizing racial discrimination (Black Codes or Jim Crow, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, etc.), and recent and ongoing history of racial violence (slavery, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars, lynching, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, etc.) was perhaps more well-known for racial discrimination than Britain—but the British Empire saw its fair share of violence as well including civil wars, rebellions, and even the 1919 race riots. The Anglosphere, as a whole, was permeated with ideas of white supremacy, colour prejudice, and racial violence.
While Lovecraft and Tolkien had vast differences in their lives and upbringing, they shared that common identity of being white, male, and “Anglo-Saxon” (a term which has become so misused politically, co-opted by white supremacists, and which is of sufficiently questionable historical value that historians are seriously arguing to stop using it). What differentiates them is less any particular national flavor or expression of racism, but in the traditions of fantasy fiction they were working within.
Michael Moorcock famously summed up The Lord of the Rings as “Epic Pooh”, noting:
The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beerbottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means “conventional behaviour in all circumstances”.
Many of Moorcock’s criticisms can apply as well to Lovecraft as to Tolkien: “The Silver Key” is undoubtedly a look backwards to simpler and happier times and “The Street” is effectively a nativist fable where everything was fine until the immigrants came in and property values started to decline, to take only two examples. Lovecraft and Tolkien both held the image of the traditional English rural gentry as a kind of ideal.
Yet Lovecraft was no hobbit. While Lovecraft had an antiquarian yearning for old buildings and a rose-tinted vision of British Colonial period, his fiction was mostly set in the current day and focused on themes of degeneration, hoary survivals from the past, ancient aliens, and cults rather than a celebration or exultation of the small joys in life. While Lovecraft regretted what he called the coming “Machine Culture,” he did not ignore or decry the advancement of technology and industrialization, or exalt a rural state that had fallen into decay. Dunwich is no Shire, for all the rural trappings; it is kind of an anti-Shire, a place where old ways and habits have turned inward and strange.
Moorcock places Tolkien in a tradition of fantasy that includes writers like Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and C. S. Lewis, British authors noted for their backward-looking fantasy with often stark differences between good and evil. Lovecraft was influenced by Dunsany too—but Lovecraft’s fantasy is part of the American school of fantasy as exemplified by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Jr., who were his friends and correspondents. While no one will accuse Lovecraft of being an action writer in the Sword & Sorcery mold, this school of American fantasy is closer to the hardboiled detective fiction of the period (see George Knight’s “Robert E. Howard: Hardboiled Heroic Fantasist” in The Dark Barbarian), influenced by realism. Lovecraft et al. aren’t generally looking to preserve an idyll setting from corruption: their worlds are already corrupted, lived in, and sometimes degenerate. Good and evil are rarely absolute, or absolutely defined; and the moral grayness is intimate with the settings and the characters.
Understanding this difference is critical to appreciate how both Tolkien and Lovecraft are informed by and use race in their fiction. They are coming from a not-identical but substantially similar ideological background of colonialism and white supremacy, but how they express that ideology is shaped by what both are trying to accomplish, and how they do it.
White Mythic Spaces & Black Hobbits
The popular perception of the First World War has remained an inherently white mythic space in which white men fight against other whtie men and where minorities, when and if they are featured, are given an anonymous secondary role and are subject to the will and motivation of their white heroic leaders.
H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien were white heterosexual men who were writing for what they probably assumed would be a white heterosexual male audience, and the majority of characters in all of their stories are also white, heterosexual (to the degree they express any sexuality), and male. In this, they were not any different from the thousands of other writers at the time, from Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger to P. G. Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad. In many cases, neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft had to specify whether a principal character was “white” in terms of early 20th-century colour prejudice: it was assumed unless stated or implied otherwise. This is what makes stories like “Medusa’s Coil” possible: if every character’s race was clearly defined rather than assumed, there could be no subterfuge and thus no story.
White heterosexual man was the default everyman; the express normal. Anything that was not—women, gay, Black, etc.—was “other.” When most folks think of racism in the works of Lovecraft or Tolkien, this overwhelming default whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity is often understood, but difficult to acknowledge or talk about because it is still seen as the default. For white audiences especially, the vast numbers of white people in the Lovecraft Mythos or Middle Earth don’t look weird, because white audiences are used to seeing all-white casts. This mythic white space is something that most white audiences might not even question until they see an adaptation or derivative work with more diverse casting, such as the inclusion of Black characters in The Color Out of Space (2020) or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).
Is it really that weird to have Black and brown hobbits?
Almost no Afro-American would deny that life for blacks is infinitely better than it was forty years aog. But in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism. A detailed discussion of contemporary fantasy is really a topic for another essay. However, J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock are good examples of writers who construct worlds wherein blacks are absent. There is really nothing wrong with that. Who needs black Hobbits? Seriously, the point is that it is better to be ignored than maligned.
Arguments over Black hobbits run into two issues: what Tolkien wrote, and what Tolkien did not write. As far as what Tolkien wrote, fans and scholars willing may recall that in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Concerning Hobbits,” the Harfoots were described as “browner of skin,” and the Fallonides were “fairer of skin and also of hair.” Whether this corresponded to different races as they are popularly recognized today or whether this reflected or could be interpreted as the early 20th-century racialist ideas of the difference between “dark whites” (Melanochroi) and “fair whites” (Xanthochroi) is up for debate. Tolkien wrote that some hobbits were browner of skin, but that was it. He didn’t go into anthropological detail on the subject.
What Tolkien did not write about hobbits and other characters in his work was anything that utilized the standard racial terminology of the early 20th century. Lovecraft, writing stories set in his contemporary world, could and sometimes did specify Caucasian, Asian, Negroid, etc., and go into as much detail as any anthropologist or Ku Klux Klanner, if necessary. He could and sometimes (though rarely) in his fiction even used racial pejoratives and slurs, particularly if he wanted to establish a given character as a racist (as in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and “Medusa’s Coil.”) There aren’t a lot of BIPOC characters in Lovecraft’s Mythos, but they exist and are described using familiar terms.
Tolkien didn’t do this; arguably, he couldn’t. Middle Earth is handicapped from using this technical language of race because the fictional setting does not have the same constituent cultural baggage that led to such terminology. “Black hobbits” don’t exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien wrote it not because the physiognomy is impossible but because “Blackness” in the real-world racial sense does not exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien originally conceived it.
Which is a long way to say that yes, there are Dark Elves in Middle Earth, but they’re Moriquendi who are called that because they never saw the light of the Two Trees, not because they necessarily have more skin pigment than other elves; likewise the Black Númenóreans were “black” in that they associated with Sauron, not because of the color of their skin or hair. Tolkien wasn’t explicitly framing his characters in terms of 20th-century racism the way Lovecraft could and did. That doesn’t mean that those racialist ideas didn’t inform what Tolkien did write, and the people who read, illustrated, and wrote about Middle Earth were also bringing their cultural baggage of 20th-century racism with them in interpreting the material.
When illustrators depicted elves and hobbits from Tolkien’s writings, they tended largely to show them as white—reinforcing the idea of the mythic white space, above and beyond the actual words Tolkien wrote. These artistic decisions are important: Tolkien never specifies anywhere in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that elves have pointed ears, either, but pointed ears have since become a defining feature of fantasy elves.
The Lovecraft Mythos doesn’t tend to get the same “Black hobbits” debate because as much as his works also represent a white mythic space and many of the same preconceptions are there, Lovecraft also very expressly wrote about BIPOC as well. Lovecraft’s characterization of those non-white characters tends to be very stereotypical—the Native American Grey Eagle from “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound” could have stepped out of a turn-of-the-century Western dime novel, and is a literary cousin to the Native Americans of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. While it’s weird to think of Lovecraft as more expressly racially inclusive than Tolkien in his fiction, the point is that Lovecraft was working within the contemporary framework of racial ideology and the language that was part of his setting (an expression of hardboiled realism) and Tolkien was working outside of that ideology and language, building a world from a different set of first principles that didn’t necessarily have to agree with the real world (an expression of idealism).
Lovecraft and Tolkien were both bringing similar cultural assumptions to bear when creating their fiction, and they were by and large being read and interpreted by the same audience. When we think about race in Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos, we have to keep in mind the large part that reader response plays in the racial ideas being expressed. Every reader brings their own prejudices and ideology to these stories that can color how they can interpret both what is expressly written, and what is not written. Are the Black hobbits not there because Tolkien didn’t explicitly write them, or because we refuse to consider the possibility of Black hobbits? If Black hobbits break our suspension of disbelief, why is that? What does that say about us?
Machen & Mongoloids
When we talk about mythic white space and Black hobbits, we are focusing on real-world racialist terminology as applied to fantasy settings; yet some of the hallmarks of both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos are the fantasy races that occupy them: the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, Trolls, Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, and Great Race of Yith, among others. Nor were Tolkien and Lovecraft alone in this kind of creation: Lord Dunsany’s fantasies included creatures from Classical myth and folklore such as centaurs (“The Bride of the Man-Horse”) and elves (“The Kith of the Elf-Folk”); E. R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) had Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, and Goblins who were essentially humans with individual nation-states of Demonland, Witchland, Impland, etc.; Edgar Rice Burroughs transplanted colonialist tropes to space in his Barsoom tales beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912), with Green Martians, White Martians, Red Martians, Yellow Martians, and Black Martians; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) drew from folklore and myth to depict a near-genocidal conflict between elves and trolls, with many other supernatural tribes and nations drawn into the conflict.
The creation, depiction, and reception of all of these fantasy peoples and kindreds were informed by contemporary ideas of race, and the practice of euhemerism in particular introduced a good deal of scientific racism and racial stereotypes into fantasy fiction. Different creators didn’t apply all the same aspects of 20th-century racism in their writing, and the unevenness of the approach can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish how an author is being influenced, but a particular example might help demonstrate how this worked.
They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible ‘fair folk’ into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. […] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth.
Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)
Machen penned a loose grouping of stories that supposed the “Little People” (elves, fairies, etc.) were not purely supernatural or otherworldly beings of myth but were based on genuine, physical beings; a lost branch of the human family tree, of which strange survivals might yet exist in the contemporary period—and Machen was directly paralleled in “scientific” literature by anthropologists like Margaret Murray, who in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (1921) argued that the witch-cult did exist and that it was the nature-religion passed down from a pre-Caucasian “Mongoloid” people in Europe, “Mongoloid” being one of the scientific racism designations for Asian peoples which covered everything from Huns, Magyars, and Sami peoples to Chinese, Indians, and even Jews in some cases. Machen’s emphasis on sallow skin and slant eyes was a direct reference to stereotypes of “Mongoloid” appearance.
H. P. Lovecraft was directly inspired by both Arthur Machen and Margaret Murray; he adopted and conglomerated their ideas into his own personal theory of the witch-cult and strange survivals of a pre-human race, which inspired stories like “The Festival,” and in turn influenced correspondents like Robert E. Howard (see “Conan and the Little People”). Yet Tolkien, while probably not drawing directly from Machen as Lovecraft had, was absolutely influenced by these same stereotypes. In one letter he wrote:
The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.
This is an example of how real-world racial stereotypes influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Yet it is important to appreciate that Tolkien and Lovecraft were generally not simply using fantasy as a metaphor for real-world racial conflicts: the appearance of the Orcs were inspired by stereotypes of Asian people, but the Orcs are not culturally Asian or intended to represent real-life nations like China or Japan; neither were the Deep Ones of Innsmouth representative of Asians, Black people, Jews or any other real-life race or ethnicity. H. P. Lovecraft did dabble in a fantasy Yellow Peril with the story “Polaris,” but that was again, not metaphorical: he was very explicit that the ancient Inutos were supposed to be the ancestors of the Inuit of today.
Which again is the difference in approach between Lovecraft and Tolkien. Because he was writing stories predominantly set in contemporary time and with the language of contemporary race and prejudices, Lovecraft had no need for metaphors to conceal racial prejudice—he could be as explicit as he needed to be for the story, and generally was. Lovecraft could and did use real-world racism to his narrative advantage, using racial stereotypes and prejudices as stepping stones to lead readers into much more fantastic and weirder territory. The real-world prejudice expressed against the folks of Innsmouth, for instance, is based on the false assumption that the sailors and townsfolk and intermarried with Chinese brides and Pacific Islanders; the locals of Massachusetts couldn’t even conceive of who the Innsmouth folk actually married. Machen’s adoption of euhemerism to fantasy held tremendous potential for Lovecraft (and many other fantasy writers) to adapt creatures of myth into contemporary scientific racism terms, and writers after Lovecraft continue to use real-world (and changing) attitudes towards race as part of their stories, as in “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys.
By contrast, Tolkien’s racial ideology is more subliminal: the whole framing of the background of Middle Earth and the development and depiction of its peoples is very strongly inspired by the implicit biases of Tolkien’s upbringing in a culture of white supremacy. The delineation of the various kindreds of the Elves is almost Linnaean in its approach, but a lot of the underlying assumptions of race and prejudice in The Lord of the Rings are unexamined and thus never worked out in the course of the books.
For example, one basic problem is the idea of a race, like orcs, being depicted as wholly evil. This is dangerously representative of racist propaganda of the early 20th century, the kind of blanket bigotry which led directly to the Holocaust. While Tolkien doesn’t address this much in the actual text of The Lord of the Rings, he admits in one letter:
[…] asserted somewhere, Book Five, page 190, where Frodo assets that the orcs are not evil in origin. We believe that, I suppose, of all human kinds and sorts and breeds, though some appear, both as individuals and groups to be, by us at any rate, unredeemable…
The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 5, page 190
Whether or not Tolkien was consciously aware of the influences on his writing, the first generation of readers of The Lord of the Rings lived during the tumultuous 1950s, 60s, 70s did so in the shadow of the Holocaust, when de-colonization and civil rights movements were front-page news, and they could hardly have missed it. While not everyone would read racial bias into the work of Tolkien—or even Lovecraft, whose more explicitly racist works were not widely published for the first few decades—reading race in their stories was very common, and why the idea of fantasy races persists in fantasy fiction to this day. Tolkien and Lovecraft were not alone in this recontextualization of mythic and folkloric figures in terms of early 20th-century racist ideology, but they were both very influential in promoting that idea, either explicitly (in terms of Lovecraft and the witch-cult/Little People theory) or implicitly (Tolkien’s evil orcs).
Half-Elves & Hybridity
As for the negro question in general—I think that intermarriage ought to be banned in view of the vast number of blacks in the country. Illicit miscegenation by the white male is bad enough, heaven knows—but at least the hybrid offspring is kept below a definite colour-line & kept from vitiating the main stock. Nothing but pain & disaster can come from the mingling of black & white, & the law ought to aid in checking this criminal folly. Granting the negro his full due, he is not the sort of material which can mix successfully into the fabric of a civilised Caucasian nation. Isolated cases of high-grade hybrids prove nothing. It is easy to see the ultimate result of the wholesale pollution of highly evolved blood by definitely inferior strains.
Irredeemably evil races are one problematic ramification of the influence of racial ideology on fantasy literature, but once you include the idea of “races” in a fantasy setting, it may necessarily introduce other contingent ideas such as interracial relationships, individuals with biracial or multiracial ancestry, eugenics, and genocide. Both Tolkien and Lovecraft developed these ideas into their fictional words in different ways, and they had plenty of works to draw inspiration from, including the demigods of Classical Greek and Roman mythology and contemporary fantasists like Lord Dunsany (the eponymous “Bride of the Man-Horse” had as grandparents a centaur, a god, a desert lion, and a sphinx) and Arthur Machen (notably Helen Vaughan of “The Great God Pan”).
Lovecraft would be inspired by “The Great God Pan” in particular when he wrote “The Dunwich Horror,” and the hybrid entity Wilbur Whately and his twin can fairly be described as a product of cosmic miscegenation. In his fiction, Lovecraft essentially always uses portrays race-mixing as something abhorrent, or resulting in a monstrous entity; readers might read something of Lovecraft’s personal prejudice into that fact, but in terms of stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Curse of Yig,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the monstrous aspect comes from a genuinely monstrous and inhuman parent, and the effects of that heritage (regardless of how remote) tend to be out of proportion—that is to say, Lovecraft wasn’t being realistic, he was employing fantasy genetics to achieve certain narrative results.
Genetics as a discipline developed throughout the 20th century; the idea of heredity was fairly firmly established before Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, but the actual mechanism of inheritance (DNA) was not discovered until 1953. Genetic engineering during the writing of the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth was essentially the art of horse breeders and the science of Gregor Mendel’s peas. When we read about the swine-things found beneath Exham Priority in “The Rats in the Walls” or the hybrid gyaa-yothn in “The Mound,” we’re looking at fantasy eugenics at play—and the same is true for Tolkien’s orcs, uruks, and other servants:
The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. […] And these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, page 409
If Lovecraft used hybridity to emphasize the monstrous for his own story ends, Tolkien could do this as well. In various places in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien seems to hint at different possible relationships between various breeds of hobbits and elves, men, and dwarves, and also of half-orcs and goblin-men, and even once refers to those “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields…but most of these relationships are suggested only, or explicit only in supplementary materials. Interracial relationships are almost entirely off-the-page, and only those involving humans and elves like Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen are explicit in The Lord of the Rings itself. The most prominent hybrids in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory are the twin half-elves Elrond and Elros, whose lines of descent would intermarry in a symbolic restoration of the sundered nobility of Númenór on the throne of Gondor.
The differences between Elrond and Wilbur Whateley may seem to outweigh their similarities, but both characters were ultimately expressions of how their different creators used the idea of racial hybridity to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Lovecraft, a devotee of horror and weird fiction, made his hybrids monstrous, creatures that were both human and inhuman; Tolkien’s narrative of nobility and restoration used them as a vehicle for the return of the king. In both cases, the authors were influenced by ideas of interracial relationships and eugenics: they found expression in different ways, but they were coming from the same basic idea that if you cross a horse and a donkey you get a mule, something that partakes of both parents and yet is neither.
Jews, Dwarves, & Hitler
The dwarves of course are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.
Meir Y. Soloveichik in The Secrets Jews of The Hobbit makes the argument that Tolkien coded Jewish stereotypes into the Dwarves of Middle Earth. A case could be made that at least some of these aspects are coincidental; Tolkien was partly inspired by the Nibelunglied, with its magic ring, dragon, magic sword, and greedy dwarves, so he wasn’t exactly making up the dwarves out of whole cloth, but was drawing inspiration from Norse and Germanic myth. Leaving aside for the moment whether the Nibelunglied coded antisemitism into its depiction of dwarves, this confluence of fantasy, Germany, and racism raises the question: what were Lovecraft and Tolkien’s responses to Hitler and Nazism?
Lovecraft, because he died in March 1937, only saw the early years of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. As an antisemite himself, Lovecraft was at first willing to believe the propaganda of the Nazi party after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, and though he disagreed with some aspects of the antisemitic Nazi program, he was sympathetic with others:
Our literature & drama, selected by Jewish producers & great Jewish publishing houses like Knopf, & feeling the pressure of Jewish finance & mercantile advertising, are daily getting farther & farther from the real feelings of the plain American in New England or Virginia or Kansas; whilst the profound Semitism of New York is affecting the “intellectuals” who flock there & creating a flimsy & synthetic body of culture & ideology radically hostile to the virile American attitude. Some day I hope that a reasonably civilised way of getting America’s voice uppermost again can be devised. Not that I would advocate violence—but certainly, I can’t regard the Nazis with that complete lack of sympathy shewn by those who take popular newspaper sentiment at face value. By the way—it’s hardly accurate to compare the Jewish with the negro problem. The trouble with the Jew is not his blood—which can mix with ours without disastrous results—but his persistent & antagonistic culture-tradition. On the other hand, the negro represents a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock. The absolute colour-line as applied to negroes is both necessary & sensible, whereas a similar deadline against Jews (though attempted by Hitler) is ridiculous.
Within a few years, Hitler’s moves had already alienated Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s criticisms would outnumber his moderate initial support for some phases of Nazism. The initial interest Lovecraft had in a fascist state that shared his white/Nordic/Aryan identity, and which promoted ideas of white supremacy, antisemitism, and nationalism that Lovecraft shared waned relatively quickly as it became apparent that the Nazis were violent anti-intellectual thugs. For his part, Lovecraft never wrote any reference to the Nazis into his fiction, and only one blatantly Jewish character (the bookshop dealer in “The Descendant”). This may or may not have been the result of earlier pushback Lovecraft had received on publicly voicing antisemitic comments, which he then did not repeat.
Tolkien’s response to Hitler and the Nazis is more directly antithetical. As a philologist, Tolkien was more aware than Lovecraft of the linguistic origin and meaning of “Aryan” and “Semite,” and whatever white supremacist ideas Tolkien might have absorbed growing up in the United Kingdom, they did not extend to embracing any aspect of Nazism or its racist ideology. Tolkien made this quite plain in a pair of letters about a proposed German translation of The Hobbit, where he wrote in part:
I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the nation that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.
I am not ofAryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.
Tolkien’s anti-Hitler attitudes would understandably grow more acute after Nazi Germany declared war on Great Britain, and stemmed in part from the great deal of study that Tolkien had put into the Norse and Germanic literature and folklore, which Nazis were corrupting with their racist ideology:
Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.
Tolkien’s concern about the influence of Nazi ideology on “corrupting” the Norse and Germanic literature he so loved (keeping in mind that English is a Germanic language) with the white supremacist and antisemitic prejudice was well-founded, even today hate groups appropriate Norse and Germanic symbols such as runes, and terms like “Anglo-Saxon” are used to foster white supremacist ideals.
What Tolkien and Lovecraft perhaps did not see coming was the long tail of white supremacist ideological influence on fantasy—not so much the Nazis themselves, who would go on to become stock villains and the models for many more in works like Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), but in the way that readers and critics would interpret the racial ideologies and prejudices in fantasy fiction through the lens of World War II. Racial depictions and ideas which would be relatively mainstream and unremarkable before the 1940s thus become subject to atemporal criticism. An example might help demonstrate this:
[Robert E.] Howard’s tales, on the other hand, imagine a world in which a powerful blue-eyed muscled barbarian of the north can subdue various supernatural and racial grotesqueries. It’s hard not to see in his most well-known creation a kind of Death’s Head SS commando in a loincloth, treading the jeweled kingdoms of the earth beneath his jackboots.
W. Scott Poole, In the Mountains of Madness 229
Thus does Poole describe Robert E. Howard’s most popular creation, Conan the Cimmerian. In fairness to Poole, Howard was a white supremacist and subscribed to the idea of a white “Aryan” race; it’s part of the reason Howard got on with Lovecraft. This did influence their fiction: the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” states that it takes place “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas”—a clear reference to the Aryan race theory. However, Poole misses that just because you’re a white supremacist in the 1930s doesn’t automatically make you a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. Robert E. Howard was an antisemite, but Howard and Lovecraft argued about the Nazis in their letters, and Howard was not in favor of them—not because of any antiracist sentiment, but because he didn’t trust fascist politics, disliked propaganda, and detested bullying.
To some folks, it may seem like splitting hairs: does it really matter if an individual was a card-carrying, goose-stepping, Heil Hitler-ing Nazi™ instead of a general population American or British white supremacist?
Consider Tolkien and his dwarves. You would be hard-pressed to find a fantasist of that period more clearly opposed to Nazism, but being anti-Nazi doesn’t mean your work is free from antisemitic stereotypes or white supremacy. “Nazi” is a powerful label, but it is prone to dilution through misuse and overapplication, and it tends to flatten out any possible nuance or depth. Strictly speaking, Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien were never Nazis—but all three of them were drawing on some of the same ideas that the Nazis used in formulating their imagery and ideology. Historical racism is a reality in fantasy fiction that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and that’s hard to do when blanket labels are applied without respect to historical accuracy, as Poole did with Howard. Characterizing Conan as a Nazi stormtrooper is both inaccurate and lazy; it reduces the character to caricature instead of acknowledging or exploring the complicated ways ’30s racist ideologies informed and shaped fantasy fiction—and Conan the Cimmerian was an is a hugely influential character in fantasy.
The problem with antisemitism in fantasy is that it is pernicious—antisemitism has found so much expression in European myth and folklore, and through that folklore in fantasy literature, sometimes coded and sometimes overt, it can be terribly easy for writers to repeat stereotypes. Sometimes without necessarily knowing that they are doing it.
When J. K. Rowling, for example, attributed goblins in the Harry Potter books as being secretive, greedy, big-nosed bankers looked down upon by wizards, she was perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. They are little different from Tolkien’s dwarves, with the possible exception of being less subtle and less fully developed—Tolkien expanded considerably on the original presentation in The Hobbit, and the dwarves are never without positive attributes like courage—but it’s still a lot of the same iconography that the Nazis used in Jud Süß.
There is a bit of irony here in that Lovecraft, who was noted as an antisemite during his life and for his at least moderate initial agreement with Hitler, should not be a major force for antisemitic imagery in fantasy while Tolkien who was vocally opposed to Hitler may have coded antisemitic imagery into his dwarves—and did it so well that many aspects like dwarf beards and greed have become incredibly commonplace in fantasy fiction. The distinction between Lovecraft and Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their fiction is a critical one: a writer doesn’t have to believe in racist stereotypes to repeat racist ideas, nor is a racist required to make everything they write reflect their personal prejudices.
I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.
It is a fact that we have many more examples of H. P. Lovecraft being explicitly racist than we do J. R. R. Tolkien; it is also a fact that we have many more examples of Tolkien being antiracist than Lovecraft—speaking out against apartheid in South Africa, as above, or denouncing association of Middle Earth with white supremacist ideas, for example when he was asked if Middle Earth corresponds to “Nordic Europe” Tolkien wrote:
Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories.
However, before saying with absolute certainty that Lovecraft was more racist than Tolkien, it is important to remember that Lovecraft died in 1937, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and decolonization movements around the world. Lovecraft, more than Tolkien, lived in a culture of legal segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, and saw the rise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Silver Shirts, and the Coughlinites as well as the Nazi party…and perhaps more importantly, we have a lot more letters from Lovecraft than Tolkien.
The published letters of H. P. Lovecraft comprise more than twenty volumes, with more still to be published, and cover a period of about 26 years (1911 – 1937). The published letters of J. R. R. Tolkien mostly consist of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) and cover 59 years (1914 – 1972). That isn’t to say there aren’t more Tolkien letters out there, but they largely haven’t been published or studied to the extent that Lovecraft’s letters have been, and the bits that have been published have been largely from during or after WW2. Which is to say: we have a lot more racist material from Lovecraft in part because we have a lot more material period, and we have more antiracist material from Tolkien in part because we have a lot more post-WW2 material, when Tolkien seems to have turned against racism, especially in association with his work.
It isn’t just that we have more material on racism from Lovecraft than Tolkien, we have more material from Lovecraft on almost everything—jazz music, Harlem, Ernest Hemingway, pornography, homosexuality, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, different types of cheese and canned beans, the Scottsboro Trial, etc.—at least, everything before his death in 1937. We will never know if Lovecraft might have changed his stance had he lived to see the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc. during the Holocaust, or the successes achieved by the Civil Rights movements.
Tolkien, to his credit, does appear to have been on the right side of history in opposing Hitler and apartheid—but keep in mind that we do not know the full picture of how he got to that point-of-view, and that views on race and prejudice are often muddy and conflicting, especially when seen through the lens of the present. It is easy in hindsight to see that the Nazis were monsters all along, and that the signs were all there…but it is different in the moment, when reports are conflicting, information is imperfect, and it is impossible to know how things will turn out. Historical racism was complicated, and so were historical individuals: Lovecraft and Tolkien were not simple men, nor were their views static throughout their life, but reflected changes in their lives and the world around them.
For all that Lovecraft was effectively always an antisemite, his views on Jews shifted considerably from his earliest references as a teenager to those at the end of his life. Lovecraft had Jewish friends like Tolkien did, and like Tolkien Lovecraft could credit them as being very gifted as well; Lovecraft even married a Jew, Sonia H. Greene. It is possible to oppose antisemitism and still code dwarves as Jewish; it is equally possible to be antisemitic and have Jewish friends. Not every bit of prejudice in the Lovecraft Mythos is an example of Lovecraft’s own prejudice: the real-life racial discrimination depicted in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a red herring for the much weirder interspecies relationships taking place. Nor is Tolkien’s stance against white supremacist readings of Middle Earth necessarily reflective of what he wrote: he may have opposed Hitler, but he still wrote a story that shows the heavy influence of the European-centered white supremacist mindset of the day.
More than many authors, we tend to associate Lovecraft and Tolkien with their respective works, but we should not mistake their personal feelings as being necessarily reflective of what appeared in their works. While the letters and supplementary writings of Lovecraft and Tolkien can give us great insight into their lives and imaginary worlds, the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth must also stand on their own—must be interpreted by readers as works apart from the authors themselves. Which readers have been doing for generations, sometimes addressing the racial ideas and implications, and sometimes continuing them.
The Racialist Legacy of Lovecraft & Tolkien
In tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and massive multiplayer online roleplaying games like Worlds of Warcraft, one of the first choices a player makes is to decide their character’s race. Choosing a race can determine physical appearance, language, physical and mental attributes, and restrict access to various careers or classes. Race in fantasy gaming thus achieves a dream of every racialist in the early 20th century: to be able to both quantify the differences between groups of people, and to hardcode discrimination against them, segregating different races so that they in truth tend to obey various stereotypes.
At least, in some scenarios. In practice, race in fantasy gaming is one option among many, and here are often exceptions, special rules, and bending of said rules to allow players greater freedom to play the character they want. Yet the very fact that we use the term “race” to describe whether a player character is an elf, dwarf, human, halfling, orc, etc. is a reflection of the enduring legacy of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and other 20th century writers on the field of fantasy. Tolkien may not have invented elves and dwarves, taking inspiration from Norse and Germanic sagas and stories, but in a real way The Lord of the Rings helped codify elves and dwarves in the popular imagination—with many variations and further refinements; Gary Gygax famously included a long list of fantasy inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons in Appendix N. The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (1981) by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium, Inc. doesn’t let players pick the race of their characters (at least, in terms of elves and dwarves, players can still pick skin color, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), but they do couch Lovecraft’s various entities in racial terms: Greater and Lesser Servitor Races, Independent Races, etc.
Fantasy gaming is one prominent example of how the idea of race has permeated the field of fantasy literature, but the influence of Tolkien, Lovecraft, et al. goes much further. The Lord of the Rings spawned innumerable fantasy trilogy imitators; the Lovecraft Mythos has had thousands of stories, poems, novels, and games expanding off of or adapting the original material Lovecraft wrote. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work have been adapted to film, spectacularly so in the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, who followed up with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit.
None of those six films featured Black hobbits. Tolkien’s white mythic space remained intact.
All of the issues of race in Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work come into play in the works derived, inspired, or adapted from Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos. Lovecraft and Tolkien were writing in the early-to-mid 20th century and that culture shaped their work, and because their work has been successful contemporary audiences still have to grapple with the legacy of racial ideology, white supremacy, and antisemitic imagery that appears in what they wrote. More than that, there are generations of writers and artists who have carried on tropes of half-elves, changelings, cosmic miscegenation, and selectively bred servant races without addressing where those ideas come from, or what the ramifications of their inclusion in their stories are.
More than ever, some writers and artists are addressing those issues. Casts of films and streaming shows are getting more diverse, cultural appropriation is less prominent, some of the old tropes are re-examined. The Shadowrun (1989, FASA) roleplaying game has elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls in a near-future cyberpunk setting, one where fantasy racism coexists and blends with real-world racism; Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth (2014) looks back at “The Shadow over Innsmouth” from the perspective of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.
Orcs aren’t always evil anymore. A Deep One hybrid may be subject to racial profiling and discrimination. The syntax of race has shifted from Tolkien and Lovecraft’s day, and the interpretations and expansions of that work shift with them, often trailing the current consensus—and faced with reactionary feedback.
We have always lived in a politically-charged, race-conscious culture. Many major events of Lovecraft and Tolkien’s lives were centered around racial conflict, racial violence, and racist ideology. There was no “simpler time” without such conflict, not within historical memory. Greater diversity in adaptations of Tolkien and Lovecraft’s material to different media is a more recent development—a step away from the white mythic space that the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth have occupied for so long—but it is no more politically-charged or forced than when Tolkien and Lovecraft chose how to write their stories in the first place, or when the first artist for their works decided that a given character should look Caucasian rather than Asian, or that orcs should be green or black.
As with picking a race in a roleplaying game, these choices have consequences that can restrict some options and open up others. The foundations of the white mythic space of Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos were laid down by Lovecraft and Tolkien as they wrote as white men to a presumably mostly white and male audience, but the space was built up by generations of writers and artists that perpetuated that imagery of imaginary worlds filled with white people. The reactionary impulse to growing diversity in fantasy is a desire to retreat to that white mythic space—and in doing so, they reiterate the same attitudes that Moorcock criticized Tolkien for. Hobbits wanting to be safe in the Shire, ignoring everything beyond their own borders, upset at any perceived intrusion.
The legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien is more than just issues of half-elves and interracial communities in coastal Massachusetts, but the ideas of race that they absorbed in their life, that influenced them and found expression in their fiction, are still relevant today. Just as we deal with the aftermath of racial conflict that Lovecraft and Tolkien lived through in their own lives, we have to deal with how that conflict found expression in their creative works. Lovecraft and Tolkien are dead; they have made all the artistic choices they can. It is up to audiences and creators now to make their own decisions as to how they will address the literary legacy left to them—the future of what the Mythos and Middle Earth can be—and this is only a small part of dealing with the ongoing consequences of historical racism in daily life.
A Final Word
This is not by any means an exhaustive or complete examination of race in the lives and works of Lovecraft or Tolkien; entire books have been written on both men and their fiction, and the well of literary analysis and biography has not yet been exhausted. The point of this essay is to illustrate some of the commonalities and differences in how racism influenced Lovecraft and Tolkien, how it found expression in their respective imaginary worlds, and how their audience then interpreted that work through the lens of their own prejudice as well. Declaring Lovecraft or The Lord of the Rings as racist isn’t technically inaccurate, but it is a gross simplification that obscures how pervasive racism and white supremacy were—and, sadly, still are.
We soon found, however, that we were dealing with an entirely different order of phenomena, and that the secretion of the pancreas is normally called into play not by nervous channels at all, but by a chemical substance which is formed in the mucous membrane of the upper parts of the small intestine under the influence of acid, and is carried thence by the blood-stream to the gland-cells of the pancreas2
H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born into a world without birth control pills, insulin for diabetics, anabolic steroids, hormone therapy for diseases such as cancer and thyroid disease; or hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, intersex individuals, or transgender people. He would not, in fact, live to see many of these medical miracles carried into practice: endocrinology was in its infancy, the word “hormone” was not coined by Starling until 1905, and chemical synthesis of hormones would take decades to realize and become practical.
To a degree, hormones had their place in medicine long before the 1900s: anatomists had identified glands centuries before, and animal nd plant sources of hormones were used as part of traditional or scientific medicine. Yet it was not until Lovecraft’s lifetime that scientists began to understand the functionality of glands and their secretions, what those secretions were and how they worked. While we often focus on the electrical and mechanical marvels of the 20th century such as telephone, airplanes, and electric lightbulbs, the hormone revolution was no less earth-shattering in how it has ultimately transformed human society—in helping to manage disease, fertility, sexual characteristics, and growth disorders in unprecedented ways.
With the discovery of glandular secretions and hormones, supplemented by further discoveries and advancements in knowledge and potential utility of this information, came public awareness and interest, particularly in matters of sex. While not everyone could point to the pituitary gland or thyroid gland, at least fifty percent of the adult population could reliably locate the testes, and the knowledge that women had corresponding organs was also general knowledge. Early experiments with castration and transplantation of testes in animals such as Arnold Adolph Berthold’s 1849 experiments with roosters had rendered some remarkable effects…and some wondered if similar benefits could be achieved in humans.
The Gland Doctors
Xenotransplantation, the surgical attachment of non-human animal tissue to or into human bodies, gained interest in the 19th century. In 1889, at the age of 72, Dr. Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard published his findings that a hypodermic injection of extracts animal testicles had given him renewed sexual potency (Brown-Séquard). In the 1910s, Dr. Eugen Steinach experimented with testicular secretions in animals, observing the effects when injected into female guinea pigs, who obtained more noticeably masculine secondary characteristics and behaviors. Theorizing this could be applied to humans, in 1918 he performed the “Steinach procedure” (a partial vasectomy that would hopefully help the body retain testicular hormonal secretions) on a human being, and the reported positive results resulted in a flood of patients and much publicity (Dr. Steinach Coming To Make Old Young).
Thus glandular injections, as well as the Steinach operation (which renders an external secretion internal by making gonads wholly ductless), often cause complete changes in emotional life.
“Glandular injections” in this case might refer also to injections of glandular secretions to make up for deficiencies in the subject’s body. This was the case of Ewan Forbes, who was assigned female at birth but underwent injections of testosterone as an early form of treatment (see The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon.
Where injections of hormones could achieve some real medical benefit, neither Brown-Séquard or Steinach’s procedures transplanting glandular tissue achieved the effects they claimed. However, the reported success and the demand for medical intervention to address health issues, especially sexual health and wellbeing, inspired more fantastic procedures and claims. The two most notorious “gland doctors” were Dr. Serge Voronoff and “Dr.” John R. Brinkley.
Voronoff’s early work involved the transplanting of testicles and other glands from animal to animal, and xenotransplantation of chimpanzee thyroid glands into humans suffering thyroid deficiencies. The procedure for which he gained wealth and fame was the xenotransplantation of chimpanzee testicular tissue (slices, not whole organs) into human beings; he also transplanted chimpanzee ovary tissue into women in menopause, and more exotic experiments (see David Hamilton’s The Monkey Gland Affair).
None of Voronoff’s patients experienced the promised increase in vigor or sexual potency, although many may have experienced a placebo effect. Yet the immense popularity of the procedure (whether performed by Voronoff or someone else) inspired others. One of these was John R. Brinkley, a conman and quack doctor whose specialty was transplanting goat glands—testicles and ovaries—to restore or enhance sexual function and cure disease. While this was even more medically dubious than Voronoff’s procedure (Brinkley’s medical diploma had come from a diploma mill), the claims gained enough fame and fortunate for Brinkley to continue to operate, sometimes running his own hospitals (Plan Hospital At Ensenada, see also Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam).
In these grey after-years, without the spontaneity of the of the occasion, I can’t get the same old mood. The old man has aged and dry’d up since good old 1927! Well–let’s think on the subject at our respective leisures, (if such exist) and maybe one of us will get an idea and go ahead with the goat-gland surgery.
Lovecraft was joking; he is comparing his inability to think of a comedic plot to follow up his story “Ibid” to sexual impotence.
The gland transplantation era would peak and fade during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and despite his quote to Moe above, there’s no evidence Lovecraft was ever interested in either procedure—but he was aware of them. This was accepted medical science that Lovecraft incorporated into his world view and philosophy, as when he would state:
The difference between good will and hate is very clear scientifically. These instincts are seen to be diverse in excitation, manner of operation, and effect—modern research shewing the one to be a product of hormones from such glands as the gonads and the pineal, while the other comes almost exclusively from adrenal hormones.
Genuine medical advancements in identifying hormones and gland function and sensationalized claims of gland transplantation both entered into the public consciousness, not just as the butt of jokes but also inspiring fiction.
The articles on serums & gland extracts have all sorts of fictional possibilities—some of which have been cleverly used already, while others await the hand of the capable expert.
Early science fiction stories in the pulps were often focused on gadgets such as robots, spaceships, and various rays of strange and unusual effects. Yet during the 1920s and 30s at least dozens, and possibly hundreds of “gland stories” emerged. These stories capitalized on the theories and claims of glands and hormones in the popular press and medical journals; while scientists and doctors (real or quacks) could make expansive claims about the potentials of glands, writers in the science fiction pulps could realize those fantastic claims, in stories like W. Alexander’s “The Anais Gland” (Amazing Stories Nov 1928), Capt. S. P. Meek’s “The Gland Murders” (Amazing Detective Jan 1930), Clare Winger Harris’ “The Ape Cycle” (Science Wonder Quarterly Spring 1930), Malcolm Alfred’s “The Gland Men of the Island” (Wonder Stories Jan 1931, also published as “The Ho-Ming Gland” Feb Amazing Stories 1933), Raymond A. Palmer’s “Three From The Test-Tube” (Wonder Stories Dec 1935), Ed Earl Repp’s “The Gland Superman” (Amazing Stories Oct 1938)…and a small story about the stimulation of the pituitary gland by H. P. Lovecraft called “From Beyond” (The Fantasy Fan Jun 1934).
As for the pineal gland—modern endocrinology has fairly well established its actual function in the human system…as a regulator of the chemical & biological changes attending adolescence & maturity. But surely the legends lose nothing in picturesqueness & imaginative value through being merely legends.
While nothing in our normal experience is ever likely to call forth any additional senses, it is not impossible that experiments with the ductless glands might open up a fresh sensitivity or two—& then what impressions might not pour in?
In the pulps, manipulations of the glands could achieve biological miracles: immortality, gigantism, the transformation of humans into apes and apes into humans, and other more obscure and imaginative possibilities. As its worst, glands became nothing more than a kind of phlebotinum, an excuse for any and all bizarre transformations or effects that the writer wished to achieve, the equivalent of red kryptonite in the Superman comics or a transporter malfunction on Star Trek. Yet at their best, gland stories represented with fair accuracy to the scientific knowledge of the day the possibilities that increased scientific knowledge and medical control of hormones offered.
Because this was essentially new technology, the technological abilities sometimes ran ahead of the social structures they would effect, and morality often lagged behind. All three tendencies tend to be exemplified in science fiction, where the results are often miraculous and the moral and ethical ramifications are still seen through the lens of the early 20th century. When Lovecraft waxed on about the possibility of hormones to improve life, for example, he wasn’t thinking of birth control or transgender people:
Wiggam, like Prof. J. B. S. Haldane, believes that much will be done in future toward the artificial development of Homo sapiens, but I doubt very much whether such development can ever reach more than a tiny fraction of the extremes they postulate. In the first place, the complexity of the laws governing organic growth is enormous—so enormous that the number of unknown factors must always remain hopelessly great. We can discover & apply a few biological principles—but the limit of effectiveness is soon reached. For example—despite all the advances in endocrinology & all the experiments in glandular rejuvenation, there is no such thing as a permanent or well-balanced staving-off of senescence & dissolution. And in the second place, the fact that human beings live by emotion & caprice rather than by reason will probably prevent the widespread application of any unified plan of eugenics.
In his letters, Lovecraft doesn’t touch directly on the implications of sex hormones specifically on sex and gender. During his life, the understanding of gender identity, and how they interacted with biological sex and sexual orientation was very different than today. There were a number of individuals that did not conform to their gender assigned at birth, and individuals that felt sexual attraction to members of their own gender, and how Lovecraft’s understanding of how this all worked was fairly minimal—psychologists and sexologists would use terms like urning and uranian to describe those whose biological sex did not match their observed sexual attraction, but often struggled with individuals who failed to fit neatly into defined gender behavior or roles.
In the pulps, the nexus of hormones and gender identity or sexuality sometimes bore odd fruit. Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) involves a man captured by pirates who is castrated—a rather radical form of hormone therapy—and dressed in women’s clothes; as their body changes from the lack of testosterone, the character transitions mentally and physically into a woman and engages in a lesbian relationship with another woman. The character de-transitions by the end of the tale—mentally, at least; the physical removal of their gonads cannot be healed—but it is a crude example of how the basic ideas of hormonal changes to the body can affect identity. A more “scientific” example is Dr. David Keller’s “The Feminine Metamorphosis” (Science Wonder Stories Aug 1929), where an underground organization of women, tired of being discriminated against, use surgery and injections to pass as men and rule the world. The main flaw to the plan is that the transitioners sourced their hormones or tissues from Asian men infected with syphilis, and now suffer from the disease.
Keller and Quinn were both contemporaries of Lovecraft, and his peers at Weird Tales; neither can be said to have a progressive viewpoint toward women (even by the standards of the 1920s and 30s), and these stories are about as sexist as can be imagined. Lovecraft, when he finally wrote a gender transition story in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written Aug 1933, published Weird Tales Jan 1937) used a transfer of personality rather than biological process or surgery to effect the change…yet even then, when Edward Pickman Derby’s friend sees the forced transition he describes it in biological terms, glands and all:
The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognisably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion—as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.
Transitioning Into the 21st Century
The advances in scientific research into glands and hormones were paralleled by advancements in gender reassignment surgery, psychological understanding of gender dysphoria, and shifting legal and societal attitudes towards sex, gender, and orientation. While we do not normally think of H. P. Lovecraft and his pulp peers as being influenced by all these changes and scientific advancements—they were. This was their world, as much as Jim Crow, the Great War, and the Great Depression.
When readers today read stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “Strange Interval,” and “The Feminine Metamorphosis,” they understand those stories through the syntax of a world where transgender rights, and often transgender people, are in danger. Over a century after the discovery of hormones, our societies still struggle with the ramifications of their use…but the conversation has changed. There is no question about whether insulin, steroids, or hormonal birth control are effective; the goat-gland doctors and monkey gland men are gone, and natural and synthetic hormones are now potent tools in the medical tool chest. The question of today is one of when and how those medical options may be exercised, and by whom.
When we see the often clumsy grappling with issues of gender and biological sex in these stories by Lovecraft, Quinn, and Keller it is a bit simplistic to say that these men were transphobic in the contemporary sense, if only because awareness of gender dysphoria and the possibilities of transitioning were as hypothetical as space travel and human cloning.
Transitioning was only in its medical infancy during the 20s and 30s; these men fumbled with new ideas, with no inkling of what the reality of hormone replacement therapy would look like—except possibly Keller, who worked as a doctor and a psychiatrist and wrote books on sexology. Of the three, Keller had the best grasp of the contemporary medical profession’s ideas regarding gender the scientific potential of surgery and hormone therapy at the time—but he focused not on the individual but on contemporary social concerns vis-a-vis “the war of the sexes” rather than gender dysphoria.
In their own historical context, it seems evident these men did not set out to be bigots toward a population which for all practical purposes barely existed yet. Their failure to imagine or understand that population is typical: readers might compare how pulp writers imagined flying cars and colonies on Mars but largely missed the smartphone and the internet. Failure to see the future does not excuse other or related prejudices (sexism, homophobia, etc.) as expressed in their fiction, but to judge them by the standards of present understanding of transgender issues is to miss the fact that those issues by and large didn’t exist in the popular consciousness yet.
Gland stories, and pulp stories of gender transition have to be seen as intimately tied together with and influenced by how science was changing during the early 20th century, presenting new facts and ideas for pulp writers like Lovecraft to explore. Often their approach was flawed, but just as the flaw in a gem may catch the eye, so too are the flaws in their stories fascinating in their own way. These stories are historical artifacts of a more primitive line of thought regarding medical science, gender, and transition as they were in the 1920s and 30s…and, hopefully, demonstrate how much our society has changed in the last hundred years, thanks to the discovery of hormones.
Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, escapist, and debunker of spiritualists was born into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1874 as Erik Weisz. In 1878, the family emigrated to the United States of America, where the family name was changed to the German spelling, and he became Erich Weiss. His career in stage magic began in 1891, under the name Harry Houdini, in homage to the great French illusionist Robert Houdin. Over thirty years later Houdini was still performing and branching out into new ventures.
After the success of his magazine College Humor, in 1922 entrepreneur J. C. Henneberger partnered with his friend J. M. Lansinger to form the Rural Publishing Corporation. Their initial product was a pulp magazine under the editorial guidance of Edwin Baird: Detective Tales. Struggling to find its place in the detective pulp field against competition like Black Mask, the firm was refinanced and the pair launched a second magazine, also under Baird’s editorial guidance in 1923: Weird Tales.
Henneberger was known to be hands-on with editorial decisions at Weird Tales, and with a noted interest in H. P. Lovecraft. However, Weird Tales also struggled to find its audience, and the first year of publication was marked by changes in the size and frequency of the magazine’s publication. The magazine was not a success, and the debt piled up.
Now long after I had inaugurated Weird Tales, I had a call by Houdini at my Chicago office; he expressed more than usual enthusiasm for the magazine, and the meeting resulted in a friendship lasting until his untimely death a few years later. He often regaled me with experiences of his that rivaled anything I had ever read in books. Several of these I published, but they were written in such a prosaic style that they evoked little comment.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
The first issue of Weird Tales has a cover date of March 1923. The Weird Tales offices were in Indianapolis, but Rural Publishing Co. was incorporated in Chicago and Baird would have his own office there. In May 1923, Houdini headlined at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago, so he was definitely in the city at the time, and there is no reason to doubt Henneberger’s account.
The first few issues of WT could hardly have been impressive: an eclectic mix of fiction, unsigned strange-but-true filler articles, small advertisements, and indifferent art. Yet the May 1923 issue (on the stands in April), contained several small essays related to spiritualism: “Woman Receives Poems from Spirit World,” “Woman’s Spirit Is Photographed,” “Deaf and Blind Students Perform Miracles,” “Neighbors See ‘Sacred Heart’ in Girl’s Death Room”—and perhaps that caught Houdini’s attention; Houdini who had been making a name for himself by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and spirit-photographers.
Whatever the case, Houdini and Henneberger came to some kind of arrangement. The exact details are unknown; any contracts or promissory notes have not come to light. Yet in the same month it was reported in an article about Houdini:
Even now he is connected with the publishing business, Weird Tales, a magazine of 150,000 circulation, being one of his interests.
The circulation count appears to be inflated, but another account of Houdini apparently claiming a financial interest in Weird Tales occurs in a memoir of H. P. Lovecraft:
One whom he helped was Harry Houdini, the magician. I went to Boston on a weekend to see Houdini’s show. The second half of it was an exposé of spiritualist fakery and Houdini called for ten people to come up on the stage and assist. Among others I volunteered and was sitting there when various people were called by name out of the audience and were told much about themselves concerning their personal lives. I thought that this was a put-on, until my own name was called.
He said, “Your name is Harold Munn, you write under the name of H. Warner Munn and you write for Weird Tales?” I was staggered by his apparently occult knowledge, but admitted that this was so. “Well,” Houdini went on, “did you know that I was part owner of Weird Tales?” I didn’t.
“It is so. Now, do any of you remember having some friend that saw my show last week and telling them that you were coming here today?”
Each one of us did. “Those friends were asked to give me this information, as I shall ask others today to tell me about anyone that they know will be here next week and I shall surprise them then as I have surprised you this afternoon. That is one of the spiritualist tricks. It always works.”
Later I learned from Lovecraft that Houdini had indeed put money into the struggling magazine, after he had had a story, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” published there under his own name.
Houdini was a stockholder in Weird Tales before Wright took it over–and possibly afterward.
W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale75-76
Where Cook would have gotten this tidbit, if not from Lovecraft himself, is unknown; Lovecraft does not mention Houdini being a stockholder or having a financial interest in Weird Tales in any of his published letters. Henneberger never mentions Houdini investing in Weird Tales either, but in one letter he does imply that Houdini was at least a potential investor:
Another man, Harry Houdini, died in . He was in the process of paying off some half-million dollars lost on motion pictures he made. Had he lived, he would have been an active associate of Weird Tales.
Houdini had formed his own company, the Houdini Picture Association, to produce two silent films starring himself, The Man from Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), before abandoning Hollywood as unprofitable. It’s not clear if he would have had the funds to bail out Weird Tales, which was bleeding money in 1923…but Houdini had terrific name recognition that might help save the magazine. Perhaps the initial plan was to capitalize on Houdini’s association with the magazine, and later Houdini would become part-owner.
Whatever the details of the arrangement were, we know at least this much: Houdini would lend his name and reputation to the magazine for a series of articles, essays, and ghost-written stories. Presumably, Houdini would have received some pay for this, but he might also have believed he and Henneberger were retooling the magazine into something more like an outlet for Houdini’s fame and spiritualist-debunking efforts. As evidence of what this version of Weird Tales might have looked like can be seen in this full-page advertisement that appears in the opening pages of Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923), a book of illusionist material by James W. Elliott, but edited by and published via the influence of Houdini.
If this doesn’t sound a great deal like Weird Tales as fans now know it, but it does jive with some comments that Lovecraft made in his letters:
[Henneberger] spoke of a coming reoganisation to include work from the magician Houdini and the elaboration of gruesome crime material at the expense of fiction, reducing the latter to a novel and two or three short stories per issue.
He will introduce a column by the magician Houdini, and wants to cut down the fiction to one novel and two or three short stories per issue, filling the rest of the space with written-up morbid crimes of real life. . . .
Weird Tales would begin to make these changes with the introduction of the “Ask Houdini” column. In general outline the magazine greatly resembles another pulp that would be one of WT‘s short-lived competitors: Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), edited by illusionist and legendary pulp writer Walter Gibson, which only lasted five issues but included a number of stories and articles on prominent magicians such as Houdini—as well as the first publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
Yet that version of Weird Tales never came to be.
What did happen is that in May 1924, Detective Tales changed its title to Real Detective Tales, and the magazine shifted to be closer to the first-person “true” style of the Macfadden magazines like True Story. The mounting debt and Weird Tales‘ ongoing failure was a problem; and the Houdini pieces do not appear to have been enough to save the magazine from financial difficulties. In early 1924, Baird was quietly fired as editor of Weird Tales; Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship. When Lovecraft declined, the editorship went to Farnsworth Wright, who was first reader of the magazine (another reader, Otis Adelbert Kline, claimed to have quietly edited the May-Jun-July 1924 “anniverary” issue).
A split occurred within Rural Publishing Co.; Lansinger got Real Detective Tales (with Baird as editor) and College Humor, and Henneberger got Weird Tales, which was reorganized under the Popular Fiction Publishing Company. Weird Tales‘ largest creditor, the Cornelius Printing Company, agreed to convert its debt into a majority share of the new company—and while Henneberger remained on paper in ownership of the company, by agreement he kept out of the management, probably to avoid the editorial conflicts and format changes he had with Baird during Weird Tales‘ turbulent first year.
These business changes meant that whatever promises were made in Chicago in 1923, Houdini’s involvement with Weird Tales would not last past the 1924 Anniversary issue, which was the last published by Rural Publishing Co. If Houdini thought he had bought a stake in it, that stake apparently ended with Rural; if Houdini thought Weird Tales was going to reformat as “the Weirdest True Stories ever written,” he had not reckoned with the new editor. Farnsworth Wright, who assumed editorship of Weird Tales and without Henneberger’s interference, guided WT in a different direction entirely. After Summer 1924, Houdini had no more direct involvement with Weird Tales.
Yet for three issues, Weird Tales published stories (“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) and articles (“Ask Houdini”) nominally by Houdini…and those are worth investigating.
It is taken for granted that essentially all of the material that appeared under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales was not actually written by him. H. P. Lovecraft goes into quite some details in his letters about how he wrote “Under the Pyramids,” and is honest about his work as a ghostwriter for Houdini. Since Lovecraft did not make any similar confession regarding other work ascribed to Houdini at Weird Tales, he can also be ruled out of writing the rest. There must have been at least one other ghost for Houdini besides Lovecraft; possibly more than one.
For the other stories and works, we have no such direct account, and are left with speculation—but some of that speculation is interesting. So it is worth examining those most likely to have ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales
C. M. Eddy, Jr.
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
Clifford M. Eddy, Jr. was a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and an associate of H. P. Lovecraft. They had known each other since 1918, but Lovecraft only met C. M. Eddy and his wife Muriel Eddy in 1923. The young couple were hard up for cash, and Eddy wished to break into the pulp fiction game; Lovecraft assisted him in revising four stories which were published in Weird Tales: “Ashes” (Mar 1924), “The Ghost-Eater” (Apr 1924), “The Loved Dead” (May-Jun-Jul 1924), and “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” (Apr 1925). The first three stories, perhaps coincidentally, overlapped with the three Houdini issues at Weird Tales. So we know for a fact that Eddy was writing and publishing in Weird Tales at the appropriate time.
It is also known that Eddy did ghostwriting and other work for Houdini outside of Weird Tales. In a 1963 newspaper article about Eddy, it is written:
Houdini at that time had a stable of ghost writers. Mr. Lovecraft was one of them, and before long Mr. Eddy heard from the master magician. He began preparing for publication material supplied by Houdini which appeared in print under Houdini’s name, some in magazines Houdini owned.
The great entertainer was not without a business sense, evidently. In fact, Mr. Eddy sold booklets about the stage wizard in the lobby during performances.
“I used to stay at his house in New York quite often,” Mr. Eddy recounted. “he was one of the swellest guys I ever met. A lot of people hated him because he was agianst fakes and mediums. Some accused him of being in league with the devil.”
“I used to be an investigator for him, you know,” he said. “Yes, he had them all around the country. He’d send me to interview various mediums and he’d evaluate the reports. He’d challenge them to come onto the stage and show that they weren’t fakes. Most of them never came…the others regretted it. His investigators always worked a town ahead of his show.”
George Popkin, “He Wrote of the Supernatural” in the Providence Evening Bulletin (25 Nov 1963) 37
Magazines that Eddy might have ghostwritten for include M-U-M (Magic-Unity-Might), the official organ of the Society of American Magicians during Houdini’s stint as president, although it is not clear if any works in there are attributable to Eddy. Someone selling booklets in the lobby of Houdini’s shows is also not farfetched; such enterprise was common in accounts of Houdini’s shows in the 1920s.
The claim that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators is also plausible. Houdini had many investigators that “worked” mediums ahead of time, mostly young women but also sometimes men. The accounts of one investigator were published in a series of newspaper articles in 1929, and compiled as Houdini’s “Girl Detective” The Real-life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg, and give an overview of the kind of work it was. Others of Houdini’s investigators are mentioned in biographies of his life; for example William Kalush and Larry Sloman in The Secret Life of Houdinistate that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators and filed many field reports (461, 502); they don’t cite their source for this information, however.
Eddy’s wife Muriel later wrote:
My husband spent some time investigating Spiritualism at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts, for Harry Houdini, and when he came back home with much data about some of the mediums he’d met, Lovecraft came over to see us and seemed much interested in the subject.
Muriel’s anecdote suggests C. M. Eddy’s investigation would have happened circa Summer 1926. In August of that year, the New England Spiritualist Camp had its annual session at Lake Pleasant. It would not have been improbable for Houdini to have hired an investigator to have a look at the various mediums there.
While not all of C. M. Eddy’s claims with regards to working for Houdini can be verified, the claims he makes are not excessive or unbelievable. He is at least a candidate for ghosting Houdini’s stories at Weird Tales. However, there is the tricky issue of timing: both Muriel Eddy’s account and the 1963 article suggest that Eddy only began ghosting for Houdini after Lovecraft introduced the two men. Lovecraft’s letters support this timeline:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both.
Other letters from Lovecraft state that both Lovecraft and Eddy did ghostwriting work for Houdini from 1925-1926, including an aborted book titled The Cancer of Superstition…but there is nothing to indicate that Eddy had any contact with Houdini prior to Lovecraft’s introduction in Autumn 1924. This would seem to rule Eddy out as ghosting for Houdini at Weird Tales from 1923-1924.
Walter B. Gibson
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
On the surface, Walter B. Gibson might seem a reasonable guess for Houdini’s ghost in Weird Tales. An accomplished stage magician, an incredibly prolific pulp fiction writer, and a known associate of Houdini in the mid-1920s, Gibson is also known to have ghostwritten books for Houdini. Further, Gibson was the editor of Tales of Magic and Mystery, and his (often unsigned) articles in that pulp include “Houdini” (Dec 1927), “Houdini in Europe” (Jan 1928), “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Feb 1928), “Further Famous Escapes of Harry Houdini” (Mar 1928), and “Houdini’s Rendition of Mazeppa’s Ride” (Apr 1928), so he certainly had the knowledge and ability to ghost for Houdini in Weird Tales…but the timing isn’t right.
J. Randolph Cox outlines the problem in Man of Magic and Mystery: A Guide to the Work of Walter B. Gibson: Gibson’s first ghostwritten work for Houdini was Popular Card Tricks, which was planned as the first in a series of books on stage magic that Gibson would compile and write, to be published under Houdini’s name. However, the book was actually published after Houdini’s death (under Gibson’s own name). Thomas J. Shimeld in Walter B. Gibson and The Shadow devotes chapter 5 to Gibson’s relationship with Houdini, and in that fuller narrative confirms that Gibson did not begin ghostwriting for Houdini until a couple of months before the famous escapist’s death in 1926.
So while Gibson would appear to be a natural fit, unless some new evidence comes out revealing he began ghosting for Houdini years earlier, Gibson has to be ruled out.
I believe that Satrap Pharnabazus ghost-wrote the other two Houdini stories in W.T., did he not?
“Satrap Pharnabazus” was one of Lovecraft’s pet names for Farnsworth Wright, who had begun his career at Weird Tales as a writer, his story “The Closing Hand” appearing in the very first issue. Within the year, Wright became “first reader” for the magazine, assisting editor Edwin Baird with reading through the manuscripts sent in by prospective weird talers, alongside fellow writer-cum-reader Otis Adelbert Kline. When Rural Publishing Co. and Weird Tales were reorganized, it was Wright who ended up as editor of the re-formed magazine—and his signed fiction dropped off, naturally enough, though he would still publish a few pieces under pseudonyms (“Francis Hard”) and would quietly edit or even translate other works as necessary.
Where Lovecraft got this idea is unknown; he might have heard it directly from Wright, Houdini, Henneberger, or Baird, or indirectly as scuttlebutt from any Weird Tales author, including E. Hoffmann Price. Regrettably, Price’s reply to this letter appears non-extant, so we don’t even know if Price confirmed or denied Lovecraft’s memory. Of the proposed ghosts for Houdini, Farnsworth Wright at least was intimately involved with the magazine at exactly the correct time. Wright might be a fairly logical person for Henneberger to turn to ghost a Houdini tale. John Locke lays out the matter well:
If Henneberger was in an extreme hurry to finalize the March issue on time, then the ghost was likely to be someone in Henneberger’s immediate orbit, someone who could be dealt with in person. That creates three valid candidates: Baird, Kline, and Wright. All had published fiction; all were competent wordsmiths. Kline never hinted at it later, when keeping the secret would have been purposeless, so it’s convenient to rule him out. Baird is a possibility, especially if he accepted the assignment as part of a reduction of his editing responsibilities. In fact, in 1945 Henneberger claimed that Wright ghosted “Spirit Fakers,” but by then Henneberger had a number of specific memories of the early days of Weird Tales which are provably false, so we are reluctant to accept any of them without corroboration. If his memory was correct, it certainly would make a nice—and nicely benign—addition to Wright’s list of secrets. The argument against Wright is that if he took over editing for the April issue, he may not have had the time for the additional burden.
Without some independent corroboration, it is still speculation to say that Farnsworth Wright ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales, but he is at least a strong candidate.
The fourth president of the Society of American Magicians, Oscar Teale had been an ally of Houdini at the Society, had done an act exposing fraudulent mediums, and became Houdini’s private secretary (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 213-217). Among his other duties, Teale is known to have been one of Houdini’s principal ghostwriters, describing their method of collaboration as:
I have never known [Houdini] to dictate more than suggestive thought, mere fragments, followed by instruction to ‘Whip it into shape‘ and the ‘other fellow’ invariably did the real composition work.
Teale also later claimed to have revised Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923) and ghostwritten A Magician Among the Spirits(1924), among many other works (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 310-311). While no source claims Teale had any involvement with the works ghosted for Houdini for Weird Tales, as one of Houdini’s most intimate and frequent ghostwriters, who was deeply involved with working for Houdini in 1923-1924, Teale should at least be considered a possible candidate.
There is one last candidate, a writer who has been completely overlooked, someone with significant experience in writing spooky stories, someone who had been contributing to Rural publications since late 1922, and someone who was readily available to Henneberger. The author who fits that profile is Harold Ward.
The problem with ghostwriting and detecting pseudonyms is that as much as we might like to think we can identify an author’s work via their style, or some detail coded into their stories with parallels in the author’s life or other work, we do not know if they are actually the author for a given work unless there is some positive evidence—like a cashed check—that it is so. Locke’s argument for Ward as a candidate rests not on a contemporary’s claim (as Lovecraft & Henneberger for Wright), or historical association with Houdini as part of his stable of ghostwriters (as for Eddy, Gibson, and Teale), but on stylistic analysis:
There is one specific piece of evidence tha ties Ward to the second Houdini story. the solution to the mystery in “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that the deceased fiancé, a Chicago man, had an identical twin brother in Wyoming who his betrothed had never seen. The twin “was slowly dying of consumption and had gone west to work on a ranch in hope that the high altitude would help him.” As part of an insurance swindle, he throws his lot in with the charlatan. By smearing his face with phoshorescent paint, he passes for his ghostly brother at the séance. Harold Ward was not a charlatan nor did he have a twin brother, but for three different periods he traveled west, to South Dakota as a tot for his mother’s health, and twice to Colorado for his own. It’s natural that in fleshing out Houdini’s story ideas he would have drawn on his own past for inspiration; likewise, it’s improbable that Wright, or one of the other candidates, would have picked a plot device so particular to Ward’s life.
The problem is, by similar arguments one may as easily paint H. P. Lovecraft as the hidden author of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover”; after all, Lovecraft’s cousin Phillips Gamwell had gone west (to Colorado, not Wyoming) while suffering for tuberculosis in hopes that the high altitude might help him, and in his later story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward an identical twin ancestor returns from the dead to fool the living into believing he is his own lineal descendant. Similar cases could probably be made for nearly any Weird Tales writer of the period; there is no “smoking gun” in “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” or “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” that can tie those stories to any particular writer to the exclusion of all others.
Basing any analysis on stylistic details of the plot assumes they are the creation of the ghost rather than Houdini, and in fact we know nothing of how much detail Houdini went into in giving the outline and solution of the story, if at all. It is impossible to determine who the ghost is from the style or details of the works themselves, because we have no idea where Houdini ends and the ghost begins. Perhaps a mathematician could perform a rigorous stylometric analysis and determine that “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” bears a statistically likely similarity to the work of Harold Ward of the period, but until that happens Occam’s razor suggests that the stylistic detail Locke noted may well be coincidental rather than evidentiary.
For all the candidates addressed so far, emphasis has been placed on their familiarity or association with Houdini and Weird Tales, but in point of fact the pieces ghostwritten for Houdini in WT did not require in-depth personal knowledge of the illusionist to write, nor did the individual need have been intimately associated with the magazine—although that would certainly help. It is not even clear how many ghostwriters were involved, beyond Lovecraft—for all we know each story and piece may have been ghosted by different writers. To better understand the role of Houdini’s ghosts in Weird Tales, it is best to look at the ghosted works.
Ask Houdini (Mar, Apr, May-Jun-Jul 1924)
The announcement of a new feature was made in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Write-in columns asking for expertise or advice had been popular in newspapers for years, and pulps like Adventure and Wonder Stories would make a point of having a “panel of experts” to answer readers’ questions; it was a good way both to fill column inches and encourage reader engagement. After all, if you wrote into the magazine, you would probably want to pick up the next issue to read the answer to your question.
Weird Tales had already tried a letter column called “The Cauldron” in the Jun , Jul-Aug, Sep, and Oct 1923 issues where readers wrote in on their “true strange” tales and encounters, “conducted” by Preston Langley Hickey. The final entry noted that: “no more manuscripts dealing with ghosts or any phase of spiritualism will be considered, unless they are of unusual merit.” Whether this was any reflection of Houdini’s influence at Weird Tales is unclear, but if “The Cauldron” attracted enough readers to justify its page space, certainly “Ask Houdini” could do better. Houdini had already done something like this in “Houdini’s Answers on Psychic Phenomena” (Washington Times, 23 Aug 1922) and other similar articles, and the Weird Tales feature would be very similar.
In the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, seven letters were answered in the “Ask Houdini” column; in the Anniversary issue, which is really three issues in one, sixteen. It is an open question as to how many of these letters might have been authentic, and whether Houdini actually answered any of them or if they were ghostwritten.
The May-Jun-Jul 1924 issue, in particular, includes a couple of very long letters which recount some of Houdini’s deeds and which are virtually small tales in and of themselves. It is a dirty but open secret that many magazine and comic book letter columns might be fabricated in whole or in part, since the whole point is to serve the needs of the magazine. Weird Tales was not, as far as is known, generally in the practice of faking letters to the editor, though Hickey no doubt revised and re-wrote some submissions for “The Cauldron”…but there is always the possibility, and these longer letters at least seem suspicious, especially as they seem very different, editorially, from how letters were handled by Weird Tales in “The Eyrie,” the usual letter column.
“Houdini’s” replies appear to be overall accurate to his genuine beliefs with regards to spiritualism and psychic phenomenon, repeating well-known points of view that jive with (or might have been gleaned from) dozens of newspaper articles, or even Houdini’s 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits—which is promoted a little among “Houdini’s” answers, as might be expected. There is little to nothing given away in terms of details of stage magic, but that is not unusual for Houdini at this point either.
A close reading of the answers reveals no detail that only Houdini could have known at the time; while it is possible Houdini whipped out these brief replies on his own, they could also have been fairly easily put together by a competent ghostwriter with access to a copy of Houdini’s latest book. Houdini is known to have gifted at least one copy to a Weird Tales author: H. P. Lovecraft’s library included a copy of A Magician Among the Spirits that bears the inscription:
To my friend Howard Lovecraft, Best Wishes, Houdini. “My brain is the key that sets me free.”
“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” (Mar, Apr 1924)
Weird Tales has never been devoted solely to fantasy and horror fiction. Although never a main staple of the magazine, science fiction and weird crime stories were important parts of the Weird Tales offerings to readers, and at different times the magazine would compete with detective pulps, science fiction pulps, and the weird terror or “shudder” pulps. Regular readers would not necessarily be surprised or disappointed if they picked up an issue containing a story of Jules de Grandin, Seabury Quinn’s popular occult detective, and it turned out that any apparent supernatural element was only a gang of criminals with a very weird theme or racket—like most episodes of Scooby Doo. The mystery and weirdness were enticement enough for most.
This is important because “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” is fundamentally a different kind of story for Weird Tales. Told from the first-person perspective of Houdini relating an actual adventure he had supposedly undergone many years before, Houdini is adamant from the outset that there is no supernatural element to the tale, that it was always a gang of criminals using phony séances for a blackmail scheme. The reader knows, too, that Houdini must survive relatively intact because he is telling the story. So the narrative tension in the tale lies not in the mystery of what is going on, exactly, but in how Houdini manages to get himself out of this one.
For a competent pulp writer, this is a premise that could quickly become a formula, like William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki relaying the details of each successful case after dinner to a handful of selected guests. The skill of the ghostwriter in this story is less in the plot than in some of the incidental details. John Locke notes:
“Spirit Fakers” catches Houdini on one of his European tours. He is approached by “Countess D—,” who is being blakcmailed by fake mediums on account of her late father, “Count D—,” who was known to kidnap women and girls and imprison them in “Castle D—” in Transylvania. Obviously, the details are meant to invoke Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While not every detail in the story jives with Stoker’s novel, there are more little hints in the story that suggest Locke is correct in that the ghostwriter took inspiration from Dracula. The way Houdini scales the walls of the castle is reminiscent of Count Dracula’s method as described by Jonathan Harker, for example, and like Dracula, the Countess D— drives her own coach to bring Houdini to the castle, which is perched on a cliff above a river as it is in the novel.
The Houdini material is carefully accurate in many respects: the use of trumpets by fake mediums, for example, and the reference to Houdini’s swimming ability as featured in the film Terror Island (1920). However, when it comes time to actually explain how Houdini makes some of his escapes, the story is exasperatingly vague—as, no doubt, the escapist was in real life. Whoever wrote the story must have had a decent grasp of Houdini’s act and some of his history (or at least, propaganda), but there is little real narrative tension. While it is a competently written story, the lack of tension or artistic description are weaknesses that make it almost forgettable. The most memorable part of it is a bit of speculation tacked on to the end of the narrative, suggesting that one of the villains was a Russian…no less than the “mad monk” Rasputin.
Weirdly enough, the detail of Rasputin’s involvement in the plot probably originated with Houdini himself. In some of his anti-spiritualist materials, Houdini makes the charge that Rasputin was a spirit-faker in the same mold as those frauds that Houdini exposed conducting séances. For example:
Rasputin in Error
[…] There is no doubt in my mind that Rasputin was the direct cause of the fall of Russia. He was a medium and claimed he could bring back any one of the Biblical characters. He held the Czar and more particularly the Czarina in his clutches, and it was through his mediumistic work that he called down vengeance on his own head.
One of the interesting details of the story is that when Houdini is handcuffed, the locks were plugged to prevent their easy picking. This was an actual detail in a contest between Houdini and another weird fictioneer, William Hope Hodgson, who shackled Houdini as part of a contest early in his career (see “Hodgson versus Houdini.”)
For reasons unknown, “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” was serialized in two parts, the first published in the March 1924 issue and the second in the April 1924 issue, where it was competing with another Houdini piece “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” Locke surmises this is because the ghostwriter did not finish the tale in time to be printed complete in a single issue (The Thing’s Incredible 139). The March ’24 issue includes no notice as to the contents of the next issue, so it’s impossible to say whether the appearance of the two Houdini pieces in the same issue was intentional or driven by editorial necessity.
“The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” (Apr 1924)
The shortest and most direct of the three Houdini narratives in Weird Tales, when compared to “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” barely qualifies as an anecdote. Published in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, the best that can be said of the story is that it is brief and to the point. The writing lacks any atmosphere or fine description, and whatever tension or drama there is in the longer tales is entirely absent here; Houdini knows the false medium’s game from the start, and the use of a twin brother and insurance fraud for the twist ending are such especially pulpish touches even the writer lampshades it.
While the style of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” may not point to any specific writer, the extremely different style between the two stories suggests that this might be the work of a different ghost writer than the one who wrote “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt.” If this was the case, the two different ghosts were still working from the same general assignment: both tales are first-person accounts of Houdini, with the same anti-false medium message. Houdini may well have provided the kernel of the tale, for the details on how the apparition entered the false room seem plausible enough to how such a scam might have worked.
The weirdest part of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that despite its brevity, it was the cover story for that issue of Weird Tales—and that in itself says something about the shifting editorial focus that Houdini’s involvement brought to the magazine. Instead of focusing on something salacious or outré to draw readers to one of the more notable stories or novellas in the magazine, it focused on pushing the Houdini connection…and for a story which is fairly weak, and easily overshadowed by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ape” (“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”) and C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s “The Ghost-Eater.”
Given that it takes time for an artist to get an assignment, make a preliminary sketch for approval, do the painting, ship it in, and have it approved and laid out for cover art, it is possible that the cover was ordered and delivered before “Hoax” was completed—and that there was no time to mock up another cover, so “Hoax” had to be rushed to print as-is. This would not be the normal practice at Weird Tales, but the magazine was under unusual stress during this period, and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” does feel like a tale a skilled ghostwriter could have done more with unless they were severely pressed for time.
“Under the Pyramids” (May-Jun-Jul 1924)
However, one day he unfolded one astounding story of a trip to Egypt that I knew only a Lovecraft or a Clark Ashton Smith could do justice to. Lovecraft did a masterful job on the outline and details I sent him, but asked not to have his name associated with publication. This pleased Houdini, who received full credit for Lovecraft’s work.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
In 1910, Houdini and his wife passed through the Suez Canal on their way to Australia; in 1922, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings set off a wave of Egyptomania throughout the Western world. Weird Tales embraced this with articles on Tut’s tomb and ancient Egypt, and more credulous filler like “Reads Story of Mankind on Egyptian Coffins,” “Mummies Made by Electricity,” and “Author Sues ‘Egyptian Spook'” as well as stories like “Osiris” by Adam Hull Shirk (WT Jun 1923). The Old Testament tales of Moses’ contest with Pharaoh’s magicians lent a mystique of ancient occult heritage to the country and its monuments, one which occultists, illusionists, and weird fiction writers were all able to exploit at times. Houdini in Egypt was a very solid promise.
Yes, Child, Weird Tales is certainly shovin’ a lot of work at your aged Grandsire! Entire new job–to rewrite a strange narrative which the magician Houdini related orally to Henneberger; a narrative to be amplified and formulated, and to appear as a collaborated product–“By Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft.” Henneberger demanded a telegraphed reply as to whether or not I’d accept the job, and promises INSTANT PAY on delivery! I wired him an affirmative, and am now at work familiarising myself with the geographical details of the Cairo-Gizeh locality where the alleged adventure is set–especially with the singular subterranean place betwixt the Sphinx and the second pyramid known as “Campbell’s Tomb.”
It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab. In accordance with custom, the natives decided to fight it out that night on the top of the Great Pyramid; and Houdini’s guide, knowing of the magician’s interest in exotic oddities, invited him to go along with his party of seconds and supporters. Houdini did, and saw a tame fistic encounter followed by an equally mechanical reconciliation. There was something off-colour and rehearsed about it all, and the wizard was hardly surprised when suddenly the frame-up was revealed, and he found himself bound and gagged by the two Arabs who had faked the combat. It had all been prearranged–the natives had heard of him as a mighty wizard of the West, and were determined to test his powers in a land where wizards once ruled supreme. Without ceremony they took him to an aperture in the roof of the Temple of the Pharaoh’s (Campbell’s Tomb) where a sheer drop of fifty-three feet brings one to the floor of the nighted crypt which has but one normal entrance–a winding passage very far from this well-like opening. Producing a long rope, they lowered him into this abode of darkness and death and left him there without means of ascent–bound and gagged amidst the kingly dead, and ignorant of how to find the real exit. Hours later he staggered out of that real exit, free, yet shaken to the core with some hideous experience about which he hesitates to talk. It will be my job to invent that incident, and give it my most macabre touches. As yet, I don’t know how far I can go, since from a specimen Houdini story which Henneberger sent me I judge that the magician tries to pass off these Munchausens as real adventures. He’s supremely egotistical, as one can see at a glance. But in any case, I guess I can weave in some pretty shocking things…unsuspected lower caverns, a burning light amidst the balsam’d dead, or a terrible fate for the Arab guides who sought to frighten Our Hero. Maybe they can rig up as mummies to scare Houdini, and as such enter the crypt themselves…afterward being found dead with clawlike marks abut their throats which could not possibly have been made by the hands of Houdini. The more latitude Houdini allows me, the better yarn I can evolve–I’m asking Henneberger to get me as much as possible from the versatile showman.
Weird Tales typically only paid 1/2 cent or 1 cent per word for a story, and even then they only paid on publication. Henneberger’s offer (apparently $100 in advance and $100 on acceptance) was at the upper end of rates (the published story is about ~10,900 words, so it works out to almost 2 cents a word), but now Lovecraft wouldn’t have to wait months for a check. The promise of swift payment pushed Lovecraft into uncharacteristically swift action when it came to writing the story.
Campbell’s Tomb (now numbered G 9500) is a destroyed mastaba on the Giza plateau, between the Sphinx and the Khafre Pyramid. The underground chambers were excavated in the 19th century and provided the basis for claims of underground temples, and much other speculation besides. Working from the outline and details Henneberger had sent him, Lovecraft began to research and plan:
I’m hearin’ damn near every day from Henneberger–the owner of the outfit–&just had a special delivery order to collaborate on an Egyptian horror with this bimbo Houdini. It seems this boob was (as he relates) thrown into an antient subterraneous temple at Gizeh (whose location corresponds with the so-called “Campbell’s Tomb” (not Paul J.’s) betwixt the Sphinx & 2nd pyramid) by two treacherous Arab guides–all bound & gagged as on the circuit–(him, not the guides) & left to get out as best he might. Now Henneberger (who is beginning to do some personal directing over Bairdies’ head) wants me to put this into vivid narrative form–it having merely ben told orally by Hoodie. I’ve shot back a query as to how much sheer imagination Houdini’ll stand for–since I gotta idea he tries to put over his Munchausens as straight dope, in which he figures most heroically. But if Henny & Hoodie give me a free hand–then b’gawd I’ll pull a knockout! I’ll have them guides dress up as mummies to scare the bound Houdini–yet have Hoody escape without encountering ‘em. And then, when Hoodie takes the police to the scene, I’ll have the guides found dead–strangled–chok’d lifeless in that antient necropolis of the regal stiffs–with marks of claws on their throats…claws …claws…principal & subordinate clauses…which could not by any stretch of the imagination belong either to their own hands or to the hands of Houdini!!! Brrr…I hope them guys give me leave to plaster it on as it should be plastered! Henny says that Houdini wants to get in touch with me about some books or other when he gets back from a lecture tour.
Lovecraft’s initial elaboration of the plot depended on taking Houdini’s original anecdote as fairly accurate—even though the weird fiction writer was already determined that Houdini was exaggerating the incident like Baron Munchausen. Delvings into Egyptology, however, brought Lovecraft to one inescapable conclusion:
My Egyptian research at the library proved indubitably that Houdini’s story is all a fake, and that there is no great sunken temples on the Gizeh pyramid-plateau. That means that I must invent some unknown sunken temple–at the same time adhering to that literal verisimilitude on which Henneberger insists. It’s a tough job–and the result will be just as commercial as you claim your Desert Lich tale is….
“The Desert Lich” was advertised as “a necrophilic tale,” set in the Middle East, and eventually published in Weird Tales Nov 1924 issue. Lovecraft rushed to finish the written manuscript and type it up by the deadline…because he had some important business in New York. According to one source, he may have stopped to visit the Eddy’s before leaving Providence, where he had lived almost all his life:
He apologized for not offering us the typing job (he knew we could use the money, bringing up three children) and explained that his hen-scratching and many changed paragraphs, etc. would have been terribly difficult for us to decipher. There was a strange look in his eyes, usually so bright and full of compassion. […]
“I am going to try my luck in the big city,” he said, almost wearily. “I have lived with my two aunts so long, and the change will be good for them, too. I will take the manuscript personally to Harry Houdini and get his approval; then it must go speedily to the editor of Weird Tales… to meet the deadline. This artist is waiting to draw the cover design from the story. I twill be featured in the magazine, you know.”
Lovecraft makes no reference in his letters to any intent to visit Houdini in New York to show him the typescript. However, this may be because he had an unfortunate incident on the way to New York that precluded him from showing Houdini the typescript:
He was perturbed, however, because he had a “deadline” to meet–he showed us a freshly-typed manuscript which he had “ghost-written” for no less a personality than the late Harry Houdini, a weird experience of the master magician’s in far-off Egypt, scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of Weird Tales. He told us he hoped in the excitement of leaving Providence on an early morning train,he wouldn’t forget and leave the manuscript behind! It was imperative that the manuscript reach the editor by a certain time. Alas–for well-laid plans of mice and men! Taking a “cat nap” while waiting for his train in Providence’s Union Station in the “wee sma’ hours,” the worst happened–the manuscript was lost! The first we knew of it was when a small, frantic statement of its loss appeared in the next morning’s Providence Journal’s Lost and Found column–offering a substantial reward for its return. The manuscript was never found, but fortunately, seeming to have a sixth sense in such matters, Lovecraft had brought the original pen-and-ink copy of the manuscript to New York, and a public stenographer made quick work of it.
The advertisement in “Lost and Found” is real, and read:
MANUSCRIPT–Lost, title of story, “Under the Pyramids,” Sunday afternoon, in or about Union Station. Finder please send to H. P. Lovecraft, 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, New York.
259 Parkside Ave. was the address of Sonia H. Greene, Lovecraft’s intended bride. However, Muriel Eddy was incorrect about who re-typed the story, as Lovecraft picks up the story:
Being obliged to get some typing done instantly, we finished the evening at the only public stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtained the use of a Royal machine for three hours. S.H. dictated whilst I typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall constantly use in future, since my partner expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness so far as her share of the toil is concerned. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to read the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involved interlined!
Lovecraft gives a fuller description of the rush and difficulties that befell the combination of trying to get the manuscript typed and the marriage off without a hitch:
Monday morning all three Parkside habitants rose early and were out–Grandpa on a dual mission in which the traditional felicity of approaching matrimony was considerably alloyed by a heavy worry of wholly unconnected nature. What worry, you ask? I’ll shed light…and impart the sad news that I LOST, just before taking the N.Y. train, the entire typed manuscript of my Houdini story, whose triumphant conclusion I had so clithely announced to you! My gawd! Think of it! I had sat up all Saturday-Sunday night to get the rush typing done…andnow all the fruits thereof were gone! It remained, then, for me to get the thing retyped somehow, and mail it to Weird Tales at the earliest second possible….a grisly skeleton at the feast. Thus on my wedding more I hasted to the Reading Lamp office, where Miss Tucker was damn generous in letting me use the whole stenographick force in one mad effort to replace the lost text. No use–before it was half done the hour for more momentous steps had arriven, and I had met the bride-elect in the final license-ring rush….to say nothing of a good Italian dinner somewhere in thirty-somethingth street! […]
Being obliged to get that damned Houdini manuscript done instanter, we finished the evening at the only publick stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtain’d the use of a Royal machine for three hours. Grandma dictated whilst Grandpa typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall frequently employ in the future, since my spouse expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness as far as her share of the toil is concern’d. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to decipher the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involvedly interlined!
In her own memoir of their marriage, Sonia noted drolly:
It was not “a public stenographer” who copied H. P.’s hand-written notes for the Houdini manuscript. It was I alone who was able to read these erased and crossed-out notes. I read them slowly to him while H.P. pounded them out on a borrowed typewriter, borrowed from the hotel in Philadelphia where we spent the first day and night copying that precious manuscript which had to meet the printer’s deadline. When the manuscript was finished we were too tired and exhausted for honey-mooning or anything else. But I wouldn’t and didn’t let Howard down. The manuscript reached the publisher in time.
Frank Belknap Long, who heard the story from Lovecraft, said “I have no reason to question the authenticity of Sonia’s account” (Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 115). If the idea of reading off your husband’s crabby handwriting while he pecks away at a rented typewriter for several hours doesn’t exactly sound like a romantic honeymoon, Sonia declared that Lovecraft did make one particular grand gesture before they went to the church for the ceremony:
The only money he ever spent on me that he had earned was that which he received for the lost Houdini manuscript which he inadvertently left behind while waiting at the station for the train which was to take him to New York and to me the night before we were married. When I insisted that only half the amount be spent for a wedding ring, his own generosity overcame him and he insisted the future Mrs. Howard Phillips Lovecraft must have the finest wedding ring with diamonds all around it even if it took all of the proceeds of that first well-paid story.
The story that was sent off was in the first-person and starred Houdini, but otherwise was considerably different from both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” The Houdini of those stories had been intelligent, honorable, and resourceful, but Lovecraft’s Houdini in the May-Jun-Jul 1924 triple-sized anniversary issue was also erudite, imaginative, and profoundly more detailed in describing both when and where he was. If the other ghosts had successfully avoided sounding like anyone in particular and carefully repeated Houdini’s stock assertions against spiritualism, Lovecraft’s Houdini sounds very much like Lovecraft. In discussing the liberties he had taken with Houdini’s anecdote, Lovecraft wrote:
BOY, that Houdini job! It strained me to the limit, & I didn’t get it off till after we got back from Philly. I went the limit in descriptive realism in the first part, then when I buckled down to the under-the-pyramid stuff I let myself loose & coughed up some of the most nameless, slithering, unmentionable HORROR that ever stalked cloven-hooved through the tenebrous & necrophagous abysses of elder night. To square it with the character of a popular showman, I tacked on the “it-was-all-a-dream” bromide–& we’ll see what Houdini thinks of it. I have an idea Henny will have to stand for it, because it came in so late that there won’t be a damn second to change it–and it’s already announced.
Henneberger—or at least Otis Adelbert Kline, who claimed to have compiled the issue while the split at Rural Publishing Co. was going on—did have to accept it, albeit with a few changes. Lovecraft’s original title of “Under the Pyramids” was changed to “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” an editorial decision that highlighted Houdini’s escapist skills, and the byline read simply “by Houdini” rather than “by Houdini and Lovecraft.” Lovecraft addressed this point in another letter:
As to literary stuff–Henneberger made a special trip to Murfreesboro, Tennesse to show my new story to Houdini, and the latter took to it marvelously–writing me a note at once, which I answered at his New York address, 278 West 113th St. […] The Houdini story may appear without my name, for Henny is so dull that he doesn’t see how a collaborated work can be written in the first person–he expected third, and indulged in several saline tears because I didn’t write it thus!
Henneberger’s reasoning does not really work; Weird Tales‘ competitor Ghost Stories ran many supposedly-true stories of the supernatural where the individual witness was nominally “paired” with a professional writer, and since the stories were told in confessional style they were almost always in the first person. However, giving Houdini the sole byline kept the story in a series with the previous ones, though few readers were likely fooled by the lack of Lovecraft’s name; the stylistic differences between the three stories are vast, and Lovecraft’s fantastic “dream sequence” utterly unlike anything most Weird Tales writers could produce.
The story also has the distinction of being the first Lovecraft story set in Africa (though “Arthur Jermyn” references the Congo, the only other story actually set in Africa is “Winged Death” (1934) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft). Lovecraft’s depiction of the indigenous Egyptians was fairly typical of Colonialist attitudes during the period, when Egypt was occupied by British forces, and the Egyptians are often depicted as dirty, conniving, violent, superstitious, and unscrupulous. It is very much a representation of the Oriental stereotypes and themes that would lead Farnsworth Wright to spin off Oriental Stories magazine from Weird Tales in 1930.
“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was received positively enough, and Lovecraft was happy enough to be promptly paid. While he never publicly claimed authorship, Lovecraft was not averse to letting his friends know he had ghosted the story:
Did you see the stout, so-called “Anniversary Number” of Weird Tales with my “Hypnos” & my development of the Houdini theme? In the latter all the writing is my own, & the second or fictional part wholly of my own invention. Houdini, whom I met here last April, averred that he liked the tale very much.
While only three Houdini stories were published in Weird Tales, there is an anecdote about a fourth story that was written for the pulp magazine at about that time, but which was never published:
I remember Mr. Eddy’s painstaking revision of Houdini’s “Thoughts and Feelings of a Head Cut Off”…an experience which the master magician had undergone in his youth. Harry Houdini said in his story that somewhere in his ravels he came across an ancient superstition that if a head was severed quickly and unexpectedly from a body, the brain in the head kept on thinking for several seconds!
According to Harry, the natives of Aden-Aden were eager to test this theory, and when he visited that remote island, they ganged up on him and almost succeeded in amputating his head from his body. They must have been anxious to hear what the brain of a magician would think of, after it was separated from the body!
I am quite sure this story was never offered for sale by Harry Houdini, as it lacked the ring of veracity…perhaps it was somewhat exaggerated! When we told H.P.L. about it, he exclaimed, “Oh, what I could have done with that story, but perhaps Houdini wouldn’t have liked it if I’d changed it too much. I took a lot of liberties with his ‘Pharaoh’ story and he seemed satisfied, but this one!” And a far-away look was in his eyes…
It is not clear where “Aden-Aden” refers to, although the reference to “remote island” and “natives” suggests the South Pacific, which Houdini visited or at least passed through on his trips to and from Australia. In “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Tales of Magic and Mystery Feb 1928), Walter B. Gibson accounts a feat of escapology that Houdini performed in the Fiji Islands, which may have partially inspired this anecdote. The idea of being overwhelmed by the “locals” is a common element in the plots of both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids” as well. In all, it sounds very much like an anecdote for one of Houdini’s Weird Tales.
No manuscript has yet emerged with the story, and there is no other evidence to date when it was written. Possibly Houdini engaged Eddy to ghostwrite it shortly after Lovecraft introduced the two men in early 1924, but before the changes had been made at Weird Tales which ended Houdini’s involvement with the magazine. It is hard to see what market Houdini may otherwise have been aiming at with such a tale.
Houdini & Lovecraft (1924-1925)
The acquisition of Houdini ought to be a great selling asset, for his fame and ability in his spectacular line are vast and indisputable. I am not much of a vaudeville follower, but it happens that I saw him at the old Keith’s Theatre here nearly a quarter of a century ago it must have been at the very outset of his career, for he was not then especially well known. Since then it interested me to hear that he comes from Appleton, Wisconsin, the home town of my learned young friend Alfred Galpin, whom I mentioned earlier in this epistle. I did not know that he writes, or that he possessed such a notable library as you describe. Certainly, it will afford me unmeasured delight to meet this library and its versatile owner—a thing the more probable because, although not much given to long trips, it is very likely that I shall live in New York after the coming spring. I suppose his articles naturally would have the imperfect background you mention, because he has been mainly accustomed to expressing his personality in different ways. I can tell better after seeing the one in the March issue, perhaps Houdini furnishes an instance of the condition I mentioned before—the creator of genius who needs a re-writer to give his recorded work the form which may perfectly express its spirit.
H. P. Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger, 2 Feb 1924, Wikisource
While Lovecraft’s relationship with original Weird Tales editor Edwin Baird was cordial, it was J. C. Henneberger who recognized the writer’s talent and sought to capitalize on it, both by offering Lovecraft the Houdini ghostwriting job and by offering an editorial position at Weird Tales—a position which Lovecraft declined, after consideration, both because it would mean relocation to Chicago and probably because of Henneberger’s shaky finances. As it was, while Henneberger’s plans for Weird Tales never quite worked out as he had hoped, one result of them was to put Lovecraft and Houdini in contact with one another.
Lovecraft and Houdini were at this time (Spring 1924) both living in New York City, although Houdini regularly traveled about on his business. According to Lovecraft, they finally met in April of that year (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill70). Nothing came of this immediately, though Houdini likely realized Lovecraft’s value as a ghostwriter, and Lovecraft recognized Houdini’s value as a client, and their paths crossed again in June of that year:
I shall try to see the cinema you mention–though I saw the original play “Outward Bound” in Nieuw-Amsterdam in June, 1924, in the company of two individuals no less distinguished than the late Houdini and the late (so far as ownership of Weird Tales is concerned) get-rich-quick Henneberger, who were then collaborating on the details of a column run (or signed) by the celebrated conjuror. I recall the performance especially well because Houdini, conversing before the rise of the curtain, aired what is said to have been a favourite parlous trick of his–apparently pulling off his own left thumb and snapping it back after it had seemed to be away from its stump for as great a distance as an inch–or perhaps two. The whole impromptu setting, and the fact that the whole thing was in the very next seat nor four feet from my eyes, made the effect highly impressive. I wasn’t prying enough to beg an explanation, but logic seems to suggest that the cardinal principle was the snapping of some dark strip of material down and back to create an apparent gap between the base and tip of thumb. But it was damn clever–an absolulely perfect illusion, so far as my aged eyes were concerned.
This was Houdini’s infamous “Thumb Racket,” and video survives of the performance. Such social outings were no doubt rare, however, as Houdini was busy and Lovecraft struggled to find a job in New York to help financially support his marriage:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both. I enclose the letter–which I answered, and to which I have just received a reply, asking me to telephone Houdini next Sunday or Monday, when he will be here before leaving for a vaudeville tour of the Pacific Coast. […] Did I say that Houdini has written, promising to find something for me? Probably I did–but I might as well transcribe in toto the note I received yesterday. (Monday)
It was a magnanimous gesture, but it came to naught:
Tuesday the 14th I read my principal book on colonial houses, & in the afternoon went to interview the man to whom Houdini had given me a letter of introduction–Brett Page, head of a newspaper syndicate service whose office is at the corner of Broadway & 58th St. […] He advised me to ask Houdini for an introduction to a book publisher–which I shall do when my nerves permit me to indite a coherent epistle.
While Lovecraft does not appear to have done any work for Houdini in 1924, it appears Houdini found work for his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr.; what exactly Eddy did for Houdini is unclear, but it apparently involved both ghostwriting and investigative work. Lovecraft and Houdini apparently kept in touch, either by mail or by occasional phone call, and possibly through mutual contacts like Eddy. In January 1925, Houdini played at the Hippodrome in New York, and invited the Lovecrafts:
In the morning I received telephone calls, & telephoned Houdini about some Hippodrome seats which he had offered me for his current performance–obtaining fine places for Thursday night. […] In the evening I joined [Sonia H. Lovecraft] at the Hippodrome–a pleasantly immense house–& saw Houdini go through the same tricks he shewed in Providence about 1898.
It’s not clear if the Lovecrafts arrived on time, because Lovecraft later stated he had never seen an entire Houdini show (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.501). While no account of the show survives in Howard’s letters, Frank Belknap Long recalled:
At Houdini’s invitation Howard arrived at the long-vanished New York Hippodrome when he was giving one of his peak performances. An hour or so before the curtain went up, the master magician slipped quietly into the chair adjacent to the one HPL occupied, introduced himself, and began to converse.
And as he talked, Howard told me the following day, he had the strange illusion, several times repeated, that Houdini was not there at all. Only his voice seemed to come from some region immeasurably remote, and Howard never once glanced sideways to dispel the illusion; to hae done so would have gone contrary to the stern attitude he always took about succumbing to any kind of silly credulity that could be dismissed as meaningless if one took the trouble to analyze it. […] Before the time arrived when Houdini’s presence was required backstage, they had discussed a number of things, including the splendid job Howard had done in “revising and expanding” Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (not once did Houdini mention ghost-writing), what an exceptionally far-sighted businessman Henneberger was, the serious disagreements he had had with Baird, and why it was just possible that a new editor might soon be at the helm of Weird Tales. […]
The performance which Howard witnessed that night greatly impressed him. Houdini had appeared on the stage manacled from head to toe, descended into a towering water tank, and emerged five minutes later dripping wet, holding one padlock aloft in his hand as a symbol of triumph.
Throughout 1925 Lovecraft and his wife Sonia would face a number of financial and personal difficulties. These experiences left their mark, and Lovecraft would write stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He” that spoke to his disenchantment with New York. Yet he was also keen on New York’s history and the opportunities for fellowship it allowed with his literary-minded friends…including C. M. Eddy, when he came to town:
I was awakened the next day by the arrival of a most unexpected guest–who under divine Pegāna but C. M. Eddy, Jr., of The City!! He was here on literary business, interviewing magazine editors & stopping with Houdini up in West 113th St. […] Eddy had an engagement at Houdini’s house at midnight, so we had to hustle a bit; but we managed to include the salient points by brisk walking, bidding Loveman farewell at 11:30, after which I piloted Eddy to Houdini’s home via the Bronx subway. […] A telephone call now came from [Sonia H. Lovecraft], asking me to meet her for dinner at the Milan restaurant in West 42nd St., & afer an affirmative reply I got Eddy on the wire & arranged for a general party there–[Lillian D. Clark], Eddy, [Samuel] Loveman, Kirk, [Rheinhart] Kleiner, S H, & H P L. Kirk went down to get S L & R K, & LDC & I rested & proceeded to the restaurant–a very attractive Italian place which Eddy later learnt is a chosen haunt of Houdini & his wife. We all met successfully, & the dinner was delightful. Eddy then went to the Hippodrome to meet Houdini, Kirk, Loveman, & Kleiner went up to Belknap’s, & SH, L D C, & I returned to 169 Clinton, where S H made lemon tea with my Sterno in Kirk’s room.
After this, life tugged Lovecraft and Houdini in different directions, and they do not appear to have kept in contact. Lovecraft showed his own escapology skills by extricating himself from the New York he had come to loathe, and in early 1926 returned to Providence.
Astrology & The Cancer of Superstition (1926)
From 4-9 October 1926, Houdini and his wife Bess performed their show at the Providence Opera House. In the audience were Lovecraft and the Eddys:
When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in his magic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.
After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!
I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.
The dinner had two results: Bess Houdini got food poisoning (The Secret Life of Houdini 502), and Houdini asked Lovecraft to do some more ghostwriting for him; nonfiction, this time:
The present season I’m as busy as hell with some special revisory work which I’ve been doing for the well-known conjuror Houdini. I’ve done stuff for him before; but last week he performed in Providence, & took the opportunity to have me go over a lot of stuff which required constant consultation. It was the raw material for a campaign against astrology; & being somewhat in my line, (I had a campaign of my own on this subject in 1914) I rather enjoyed the digging up of data–though it was beastly laborious, & forced me to work continuously till night before last with very little sleep. If it doesn’t knock out all the star-gazing charlatans in the country, I shall feel deeply disappointed! My next job for the sprightly wizard is an attack on witchcraft–which makes me lament with redoubled intensity the lack of a peek at that [Arthur Edward] Waite book in the Old Corner [Bookshop]!
It was a rush job, as Lovecraft had only five days to finish the article and deliver it to Houdini before the illusionist left Providence…but Houdini paid in cash.
This guy was in town early in the month, & rushed me to hell preparing an anti-astrological article to be finished before his departure–a matter of five days; for which I received the not wholly despicable remuneration of seventy-five (yes, LXXV!!!) bucks in tangible (tho’ not very crisp) greenbacks–three twenties, one ten, a two, & three ones. He says he has a devilish lot more for me to do; but just now I’m holding him up for a certainty of decent pay, so in the end he may back out. (He wants me to come to Detroit a week–where he is playing–& talk things over, but I’m sidestrepping that the best I can.–Later still–I see in the paper that the poor guy has just had a collapse.) At present I’m loaded down with a lot of books he’s lent me for research, & a weighty list of subjects–beginning with witchcraft–which e wants tackled. Once I receive orders to go ahead on the witchcraft article, it’s goodbye to the sunny world outside my scholastic cell–for it sure does take digging to satisfy that bozo! Meanwhile I am breathing while breathing is good, & am also helping honest C. M. Eddy Jr. a bit on some work he’s doing for our magical taskmaster. The necromantic neo-Bush is inclined to be dissatisfied with Eddy’s unaided performances, yet poor E. can’t afford to lose so important a client.
Other letters from around the same time repeat that Houdini had invited Lovecraft to Detroit and that Houdini had intimated at more ghostwriting work to be done, but no new details are available aside from the fact that Lovecraft didn’t wish to go to Detroit if he could help it. After leaving Providence, Houdini continued his tour, first to Montreal where he suffered an accident and sent Eddy a brief letter, and then on to Detroit. On 24 October 1926 Harry Houdini collapsed after a final performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. Lovecraft followed the news in the papers.
Speaking of work–I see that Houdini still survives, though with a very slim chance of recovery. It would really be a pity for him to be cut off at this time; for he is an enormously good-hearted chap, & has that keen enjoyment of life which only the naive & crude can retain. Just before his seizure he was trying to get me to confer with him in Detroit–though I was declining except in case of urgent necessity. It would e a good arrangement if I could see to all his writings on a regular basis, though I’d hate to be on the jump from town to town–or in N.Y. much–as he might require. He was recently urging me to arrange for a month of intensive revision of scattered data in N.Y. next summer.
The book which Lovecraft was helping C. M. Eddy on for Houdini was a general attack on supernatural beliefs, a thematic sequel of sorts to Houdini’s 1924 A Magician Among the Spirits; it was to be titled The Cancer of Superstition. A draft outline of this book survives at the John Hay Library in the Lovecraft collection, and can be viewed at the Brown Digital Repository; a draft of the first three chapters was completed and is in private hands, having sold at auction in 2016.
The question was, what Lovecraft and Eddy would do with the partially written manuscript now that their client was dead.
I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the time! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.
Apparently Bess Houdini declined the continuation of the project. So the last bit of ghostwork remained unfinished, and largely unseen.
Memories & Recollections
Lovecraft remembered Houdini fondly in later years, and while he never publicly revealed his small amount of ghosting, in private correspondence he expressed great admiration for the man.
At that time I was doing a tremendous amount for the conjuror Houdini, with a prospect of handing an enormous amount in future–a whole series of exposes of the different branches of occultism. Then some bally idiot had to give him a ventral punch which sent him back to Abraham’s bosom in a week, & all demand for anti-occult revision naturally evaporated. It was really quite too bad, for the work was genuinely interesting & involved no blah or fakery. Houdini was after real facts & nothing else, & had to have his work absolutely proof against all rebuttals & flaw-pickings from his opponents. . . . .
Poor old Houdini–who actually had a tremendous amount of penetrative skill and workable erudition in this field despite his general lack of culture, and who was incredibly honest in his researches despite the fat that publicity was his primary goal–had a long talk on this subject with Eddy and me less than a month before his death, and no one could fail to appreciate from his descriptions the way all great Hindoo fakir feats evaporate when one buckles down to get first-hand or photographic data. At the coast of much delving and evidential sifting Houdini arrived at the very reasonable conclusion that India’s fakirs obtain their fame through a very shrewd mixture of publicity with a moderate amount of sleight-of-hand skill.
A case of extremely high intelligence devoted to relatively trivial ends is afforded by the magician Houdini, for whom I did some revisory work in the two years preceding his death. He was content to let his mind and taste function intensively in a very narrow and trivial range; becoming a peerless showman yt remaining surprisingly crude and undeveloped in other fields. He was blind and unresponsive to enormous areas of life–yet when his mind attacked any given problem it was easy to observe its lightning power. There was a case of waste for you–a first-rate intellect which might have given its possessor a rich glow of comprehension and achievement in science, scholarship, or philosophy. . . . yet wasted on a narrow, trifling field which gave no rewards beyond those mediocre, superficial ones of professional satisfaction and awdry popular distinction which many a crude bullfighter or brainless cinema hero achieves.
This last recollection was written as part of a long-running argument between Lovecraft and Howard on the superiority of the mental versus the physical, in which each took the position of opposing the preferences of the other. Consequently, Howard would reply:
Your mention of Houdini interests me. You blame him for being a showman when he might have been, in your opinion, a scholar, scientist, or philosopher. How do you know he would have derived more pleasure out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher than he did as a showman? Now, don’t get to thinking again that I’m questioning the superiority of these things over showmanship. I’m simply questioning the assumption that any man would get more satisfaction out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher, than he would out of being something else. As a born showman, Houdini was undoubtedly happier as the supreme artist of his profession, than he would have been in anything else. You don’t take differences of temperament into consideration.
Lovecraft, challenged on his interpretation for perhaps the first time, responded:
Regarding the late Houdini–I didn’t say I blamed him, but I said I was sorry that so phenomenal a mnd was sidetracked from more richly rewarding fields to a type of activity essentially meagre and sterile. As to the values concerned–the reference on VII, 2 is applicable. The quest of realtive pleasure–whether Houdini would hav got more from life if dedicated to tasks worthy of his brain–brings up the reference on XVIII, 1 nd 2, which in turn refers back to a former letter of mine and introduces the idea of measuring actual richness of experience by the amount of cerebral metabolism concerned. Of course, once Houdini had fallen through chance circumstance into the cheap preference he had, it might have been impossible for him to enjoy a transfer of activity to a profounder and intrinsically rewarding field.
As usual for the argument, neither Lovecraft nor Howard was willing to give much ground, and the Houdini thread was quietly dropped. Many more smaller mentions occur throughout Lovecraft’s letters for the remainder of his life; the most elaborate anecdote being on the infamous “Hindu rope trick”:
In 1924-6 I did a good deal of revisory work for the late magician & exposer of spiritual fakes–Houdini–& he had tremendously interesting & important things to say about the origin of certain typical myths from absolute fiction. Take the well-known tales of Hindoo fakirs–the man who throws a rope up straight into the sky & has a boy climb up & out of sight on it, or the one who puts a boy in a wicker basket, has spectators run swords through it, & then has the boy clamber out unhurt. Up to revent times these things were attributed to the collective hypnotism of the crowd by the magician. There were frequent stories of people who smuggled cameras to such demonstrations, obtained pictures of the magician in which none of the apparent phenomena shewed–even though the visual effect on the living audience was perfect. Well–Houdini went into this matter pretty exhaustively, & found that no first-hand report of such a performance could ever be secured. Dozens of people “had it straight from an eye-witness”–but no real eye-witness could ver, during a long course of years, be located. The inference is obvious. These extreme feats of the fakirs have never been performed. They constitute a well-defined type of folk myth–something everybody believes has occurred, but which has in truth never occurred. Even to this day one can find serious statements of the old “mass hypnotism” theory–but the investigations of Houdini tell their own story. Incidentally–the growth of the camera myth, as above outlined, is an even more vivid specimen of synthetic folklore without base–doubly vivid because of its conspicuous recency.
Another version of this anecdote, without mentioning Houdini, is in a letter to August Derleth (Essential Solitude1.426-427). A decade minus a week after Houdini’s death, Lovecraft recalled his acquaintance for one of the last times:
We certainly never learn from reports just what really did occur, & yet a certain amount of mechanical “magic” exists without question in these demonstrations. Of the nature of that magic, the investigations & the duplicating feats of the late Houdini give at least an opening clue. I saw him do on the stage of the Providence Opera House only a fortnight before his death things impossible according to the known laws of the physical world. That is–things apparently impossible.
In his memoir of Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long recalled asking the writer about Houdini after seeing him on stage at the Hippodrome in 1924:
“He’s a strange little man,” Howard said […] “He talks incessantly and never seems to know when to stop. He seems just a little–well, the sort of person who would get on my nerves if I had to meet him often. But my hat is off to him as a performer. It took genius to do what he did last night. Eight splendid feats, each one more incredible than its predecessor. The illusion he created was unbelievable. He has a magnificent stage presence–I’ve never seen anything that could remotely compare with it. He was absolutely confident, and dominated the audience from first to last, without dispelling the way they must have felt–tha he was taking unjustified risks with his life. That was a very difficult thing to do. he had to create two contradictory impressions–that he could succeed in freeing himself beyond any possibility of doubt, and that his confidence was unshaken in that respect. But he also had to make the audience feel that total failure could not be ruled out, and that he was heroically aware of the danger.”
“Feats of that nature are always spectacularly sensational and are tailored to appeal to what is most credulous in the popular mind. I was almost certain that the performance would have a certain aspect of cheapness, even of clownishness about it. It would have possessed such an aspect, I’m sure, if anyone but Houdini had been on that stage. But there was nothing meretricious about it–no, I mustn’y say what I would have been tempted to say for a moment last night. All such performances are meretricious because they are faked–absurd and exaggerated in every respect. But he made it all seem genuine while you were looking at it, and my hat is off to him, as I’ve said.”
Lovecraft himself would pass away on 15 March 1937. With him died Houdini’s last living link with Weird Tales; for while Henneberger, Wright, Baird, and Kline survived both men, it was because of Lovecraft and “Under the Pyramids” that Houdini’s connection with the Unique Magazine is remembered today. “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Ask Houdini” are barely footnotes in the life of the Great Magician, but “Under the Pyramids” remains a favorite story of many Lovecraft fans even today…and through that story, and Lovecraft’s letters, Houdini’s connection to Weird Tales will be remembered for a long time to come.
In 1939, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was reprinted in Weird Tales Jun-Jul 1939 issue; a brief notice finally revealed to the pulp public what had been an open secret among his friends, that Lovecraft had a hand in the story.
From that link, Houdini and Lovecraft’s literary legacies forged a new chain of associations.
In 2012, Lance Thingmaker published a small edition, exquisitely printed hardback edition of “Under the Pyramids.” Each copy came in a small locked mailbag; the key to the lock was in a tiny envelope inside the book. It was as perfect an homage to Houdini as you could get: to read the book, you had to first pull a Houdini.
Few, if any, other efforts to acknowledge, honor, or utilize the Lovecraft-Houdini connection are quite so clever or well-done.
Because of their personal acquaintance, the posthumous literary afterlives of Lovecraft and Houdini have been partially intertwined. They have appeared together in a number of novels and graphic novels, including Richard A. Lupoff’s Lovecraft’s Book(1985), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2004), Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving’s Necronauts(2003), Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown(2010) among others.
These stories tend more to pulpish action and exaggeration than any effort to examine or utilize the real shared history of Lovecraft and Houdini to any substantial degree, and there is a certain irony in that while Lovecraft and Houdini got along well in part because of their shared skepticism of the supernatural, got along well, in this literary afterlife both men are often faced with genuine occultism and a frightfully real gaggle of Mythos entities.
That is the distortion of death, where both men often become caricatures of the personalities they projected to their audience. This is the ultimate unintended consequence of Henneberger’s effort to draw a celebrity in to save his failing pulp magazine, the ripples of effect from that primal cause. No one in 1923 could have foreseen that a ghostwritten story would result in books and comics being made starring the creators almost a century later…yet, here were are.
Suggested Further Reading
The full history of Weird Tales has never been written, and probably will never be. The men and women who founded the magazine and worked in the offices and supplied the words, art, and editing for the magazine from 1923-1954 are all dead, the business files destroyed or dispersed, and while the contents of that magazine have been preserved, we are left with a very incomplete picture of what happened “behind the scenes.”
For much of the details on the business side of Weird Tales, I refer readers to Robert Weinberg’s The Weird Tales Story: Expanded and Enhanced (2021) and John Locke’s The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales(2018). Neither is perfect; Weinberg had a tendency to not cite his sources, or to cite sources now unavailable; and while Locke is an able researcher I don’t agree with all of his interpretations of the available evidence—but that is the nature of digging into Weird Tales lore: disagreements over the contents of old letters and memoirs published in older sources like The Weird Tales Collector and WT50: A Tribute To Weird Tales.
Houdini biographies do not tend to discuss his involvement with Weird Tales, or weird talers H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy, Jr., in great detail. However, for the general facts of Houdini’s life I’ve relied on Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996) by Kenneth Silverman and The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero(2006) by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. I would be remiss not to mention the Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence blog by Joe Notaro, which has covered some of this material (from the Houdini perspective) before, and whose articles are linked above. Leigh Blackmore has written extensively on the Houdini-Lovecraft connection in his contributions to the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association.
Thanks and appreciation to Will Murray, Dave Goudsward, and Leigh Blackmore for all their help.
I had to admit that although I might appear boyish, there was nothing masculine about me. I never had wanted to be male, only to be free to do things men could do. Now I know there have been not a few women who dared the male masquerade to achieve the freedom they were denied, many succeeding lifelong, but they must have been more convincing. Yet I would not be defeated. I devised a bat and cast my net into nearer waters to bring to me what I might not yet go in search of.
Elsie Alice Gidlow was born in England in 1898, one of what would be seven children that her mother bore before 40. The family emigrated to Canada in 1904 and settled in Montreal. She was forced to leave school at 14 to help care for her siblings, and by 15 the intelligent and literature-minded Elsie had entered the workforce. In her autobiography, she would label this chapter of her life “The Outsider.” She sought independence, from her family, from her dreary day job doing shipping advices, from the church that demanded she give her life over to marriage and babies—and freedom to write poetry and to find love. Gidlow already knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, she just didn’t have anyone to explore those feelings with.
A couple years later, Elsie A. Gidlow became involved with amateur journalism:
In the late autumn of 1917, a letter appeared in the people’s column of The Montreal Daily Star. It inquired if any organization of writers and artists existed in the city which a person might join. There was no reply, but a little more than a week later a second letter appeared responding to the first. It stated that a group of writers was being formede and suggested that the inquirer and any others interested should “communicate with the undersigned” at the address given.
Both letters were written by this lonely young woman groping toward her kind, the first under a pseudonym. Over the course of a week, I received nearly a dozen replies from individuals of both sexes asking for information about the proposed group. I invited them all to a meeting at my parents’ on an evening when Father would be away, telling Mother what I was doing.
Given that Gidlow’s autobiography was published about 70 years after the events in question, she may be forgiven for forgetting a few of the finer details. The letters in question actually appeared in 1916, and by 1917 she was already Second Vice-President of the United Amateur Press Association of America:
The amateur journalism movement had begun in the 19th century; individuals who wished to write and print formed clubs and groups to publish their own small magazines, not for sale but simply to share among themselves, for love of the written word. It was largely focused in the United States, but was international in scope, and relatively egalitarian with men and women both often occupying the highest positions in both local clubs and national-level organizations. Two such organization existed in 1916: the National Amateur Press Association was the largest, oldest, and most heterogenous in membership, while the United Amateur Press Association was smaller, younger, and more dedicated to artistic and intellectual literary work.
Unfortunately, in 1912 a contested election split the United Amateur Press Association into two separate organizations. According to “The Literary Decadence of E.G.” (American Amateur Jul 1920, quoted in The Fossils #329, 5), Gidlow joined amateur journalism c.1914 or 1915, and the group she joined was centered around Seattle, while the other was centered around the East Coast; among the foremost members of the East Coast faction at the time was H. P. Lovecraft, who had joined this faction in April 1914. For ease of reference the Seattle/Gidlow organization will be referred to as the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA), and East Coast/Lovecraft faction the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). For the 1915-1916 term Lovecraft was elected First Vice-President of the UAPA; he was elected President of the UAPA in 1917. His counterpart in the UAPAA would be none other than Elsie Alice Gidlow.
For all that they helmed rival factions of the United, Lovecraft and Gidlow were opposites rather than rivals: the two Uniteds had developed into similar but different groups, and many amateur journalists were members of multiple organizations. Both were very intelligent, with limited formal education but compensated for that by being autodidacts and voracious readers, with large vocabularies and strong skills in poetry and prose. Of the two, Lovecraft was either the more efficient administrator or the luckier in having good help and funding: his faction of the United produced the official organ of the group, The United Amateur, reliably during his tenure. Gidlow lacked an Official Editor during her term, and the UAPAA lacked an OE during 1918 as well, which makes “official” activities of the UAPAA difficult to trace during this period.
What Gidlow did produce was Les Mouches Fantastiques.
Inspired by a group in New York who published their own newspapers and magazines and were known as the Amateur Press Association, I spoke to Roswell about doing the same. “We are not exactly amateurs,” he said, “I’m paid for my work on The Star and am considered a pro. You have been paid for your stuff in the Bookman and other rags. Why not? We could bring out a mimeographed paper for the fun of it.” […] We formed a group, myself named president, and planned a publication. Roswell and I were the co-editors. Someone knew of a mimeograph machine we must use that produced somewhat smudgy looking, glaring purple type.
My recollection is that much of the matter was also purple. We were by intention iconoclastic, mocking hypocrisies and smugness. Our first few issues were named Coal from Hades. Later, at Roswell’s instigation, we changed the name to Les Mouches Fantastiques (The Fantastic Flies). About half the material was written by Roswell and me. Besides our poetry, he contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on “the intermediate sex,” and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women. My editorials satirized what I saw as society’s stupidities and injustices and the wrongness of the war. The hundred or so copies went locally to our friends and the amateur journalists (“AJ’ers”) in various parts of the U.S.
Roswell George Mills was a Candian poet, journalist, and outspoken homosexual; he quickly became Gidlow’s friend and partner in Les Mouches Fantastiques, and through their bohemian, convention-defying journal they came into contact with other LGBTQ+ folks in the amateur journalism movement—including F. Graeme Davis, an Episcopal priest who also happened to be Offical Editor of the National Amateur Press Association during the 1917-1918 term and NAPA president during the 1918-1919 term. Gidlow claimed that Davis was homosexual, and carried on a brief but intense affair with Mills in Montreal; Davis certainly was full of praise for Les Mouches Fantastiques, Gidlow, and Mills…and it was through his efforts that Lovecraft, Gidlow, and Mills joined the NAPA, while simultaneously being members of their respective United factions.
Despite Gidlow’s recollection that “we formed a group,” the reality must have been more complex than that. She had obviously been a member of the UAPAA for some years before she became President, and she submitted work for other amateur journals which were duly published. Tracing her amateur journalism career is difficult: given both the low print run, the non-U.S. source, and the nature of amateur journalist publications, it is understandable that very few copies of Les Mouches Fantastiques survive in university collections or archives to this day. Other amateur journals are likewise rare, and the contents poorly indexed.
Yet we know that she did make a name for herself in amateur circles, and that her work was read, because Lovecraft commented on it:
The esthetic Elsa Gidlow’s outburst could undoubtedly be a great deal worse, as free verse is reckoned. Of the “two lovers that woo her unceasingly”, I advise her to choose oblivion That is the best way for all vers-libristes. Her colleague, Rossy George, tangles himself all up in some words & phrases, in which a trace of metre is observable. His spasms, however, are less definite in thought (if, indeed, there be any definiteness in imagistical chaos!) & less meritorious altogether.
Lovecraft here refers to Gidlow’s poem “The Two Lovers” and Mills’ poem “Once,” which appeared in W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Vagrant #7 (Jun 1918). The comments are less directed at the content of the work than the form; Lovecraft was then a noted “metrical mechanic” and an opponent of “free verse” who thought poetry ought to rhyme. Nor was Lovecraft the only one who took exception to Gidlow’s poetry; his close friend Alfred Galpin conceived and wrote a parody, which was published in Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative vol. 4, no. 1 (Jul 1918):
I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly: One is very beautiful; His countenance is as the face of a god, and radiates a light that is intoxicating; Through his transparent skin I can see the warm blood leaping in his veins; The even beat of his pulse is as the restless tide of a thousand oceans; But he is very fickle. I know that he would love me well, but only for a little while. Yes, he is very fickle. He is as a little yellow bee that draws the warm honey from flowers, then passes on his way; He is as a seducer that robs young maidens of their sweetnesses, and then mocks at them; He is as a radiant morning sun-cloud that swallows the little lingering pale stars; Yes, he is very beautiful and desirable, but he is very cruel.
The other is not fair or lovely: He has long fingers with nails that are pointed and tipped with purple, And his hair that flows free is iron grey and very lank; There are little grooved wrinkles in his brow that make him seem very old; But his eyes are young. They are as the eyes of a child that looks upon suffering innocently, not comprehending, And yet they are so compassionate; I love his eyes because they are so compassionate. His soul is very beautiful: It is a pool of light that is depthless; (I should like to bathe in that pool).
I think that he is constant. He would love me very deeply, and through the forever that is ageless; Yes, he is very constant. He would hold me in his restful arms and touch my lips with soft kisses; He would cover my eyes, that burn hotly, with little green leaves to cool them; He would breathe sad songs to me so sweetly they would seem happy; Ah, he is unlovely to look upon, but his soul is very beautiful.
They are Life and Death.
I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly: Which shall I take?
Two Loves (After, and with apologies to, Miss Elsie Alice Gidlow in the June Vagrant)
I have two loves, who haunt me unceasingly. Which shall I choose?
One is ugly to men’s sight, and arouses repulsion in them; Not so to me; for I know the true heart within. Yes, he is ugly and repulsive to many— His robust mien and his plebeian companions dishonour him. But they are as he: For his heart is as pure gold, the gold Scorned in sham by the would-be poetic, but ever true and useful.
He is constant, and I could love him forever; Yea, with dishnour stamped on his brow by the mob, I yet do love him. For his heart is as the heart of a thrifty and comely woman sought by all of thought.
He hath a hard skin, and is difficult of acquaintance; But to him who searcheth beneath, he is a rich mine of delicious treasure.
In my sensuous dreams I behold him, and long for him; When all the world is heartless and I am weary of it, Then do I long for him.
The other I would shun; for he is traitorously fair and beauteous: But he draws me to him inevitably, as the raft through many streams to the ocean.
His soul burneth as the hot torrents that prompt love— Ever youthful and daring in heart, but changing ere ultimately carefree; Inspiring hesitant fear at a distance, but enticing and ever victorious.
He is not constant, Except as he forceth me to everlasting constancy; For he is exacting. He draws me to him and I drink of his luscious beauty— But O the aftermath! The satient afterwhile!
He would destroy me; He has become a part of my soul, and meaneth my ruin; And yet I should die without him.
His beauty sparkles, and is given fastidious care. His speech flows swiftly and fluently, and is the language of all who are subject to his sway. Yea, him I long for passionately, and the other is only a comfort.
I have two loves who woo me unceasingly: One is bologna and the other Scotch Whiskey: Which shall I take?
Lovecraft had initially submitted this parody to W. Paul Cook for The Vagrant, but Cook refused it for unknown reasons. Such games were far from uncommon in amateur journals, and Lovecraft would try his own hand at such poetic mockery, such as “Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” (1920). Lovecraft was amused:
The general reception of your “Two Loves” is most gratifying to me, both as an endorsement of my own opinion and otherwise. I cannot suggest just the professional magazine for it, but Mo’s suggestion will undoubtedly be satisfactory. […] The Association must not be denied the privilege of seeing it, after having endured the original. Did I tell you that Miss Gidlow is President of the rival “United” Amateur Press Association which split off from ours in 1912? It is a peurile thing, with very easy literary standards. Some idea of its calibre may be gainedby noting the opinion of the majority of its members regarding the weird & wondrous work of the Mills-Gidlow duet. They call it “very highbrow”!! At least, this is what Cook informs me, & his acquaintance with this circle is fairly representative.
This is the first mention of Gidlow or Mills in Lovecraft’s letters. Cook was apparently a recipient of an issue or two of Les Mouches Fantastiques, who in turn passed it on to Lovecraft (LAGO215). The same issue of The Conservative which contained Galpin’s parody “Two Loves” also contains Lovecraft’s review Gidlow & Mills’ LGBTQ-heavy amateur journal, which reads in part:
The reader may, up to date, unearth nothing save a concentrated series of more or les sprimitive and wholly unintellectual sense-impressions; instinct, form, colour, odour, and the like, grouped in all the artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory. Much of this matter is, as might be expected, in execrable taste. Now is this Life? […]
It seems to The Conservative that Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills, instead of being divinely endowed sers in sole possession of all Life’s truths, are a pair of rather youthful persons suffring from a sadly distorted philosophical perspective. Instead of seeing Life in its entirety, they see but one tiny phase, which they mistake for the whole. What worlds of beauty—pure Uranian beauty—are utterly denied them on account of their bondage to the lower regions of the senses! It is almost pitiful to hear superficial allusions to “Truth” from the lips of those whose eyes are sealed to the Intellectual Absolute; who knows not the upper altitudes of pure though, in which empirical forms and material aspects are nothing.
The editors of Les Mouches complain very bitterly of the inartistic quality of amateur journalism; a complaint half just and half otherwise. The very nature of our institution necessitates a modicum of crudity, but if Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills were more analytical, they could see beauty in much which appears ugly to their rather astigmatic vision.
There is a bit of a pot-calling-the-kettle black here: Gidlow was only eight years younger than Lovecraft himself, who was not yet 28 at the time and had only emerged into amateur journalism four years previously. Lovecraft did not sign this editorial, but was taking on the rhetorical persona of the old and cynical Conservative of the title of his amateur journalism, even though he and Gidlow were pretty comparable on that score. It is doubtful Lovecraft missed the content of the issue: the reference to Oscar Wilde, who had been jailed for homosexuality in 1895, is a little too pointed. The reference to “Uranian” beauty does not appear to be a reference to the sexological term for homosexuality per se, or to the pedophilic Uranian poets, but the older Classical reference that underlies it: the love of spiritual beauty that supersedes love of physical beauty. It is also possible that Lovecraft used the term without understanding its different possible meanings in the context of homosexual subject matter.
Unfortunately, while Lovecraft’s letters and amateur journal writings have been saved and published; we don’t have Gidlow or Mills’ take on this critique, at least not directly. They could easily have seen it; if W. Paul Cook could send a copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques to Lovecraft, he could easily have mailed a copy of The Conservative to Montreal. Gidlow’s autobiography does not focus much on the response to Les Mouches, aside from a correspondent in Cuba who was appreciative of the openly homosexual content, and Graeme Davis’ arrival in Montreal and his affair with Mills. Davis wrote a lengthy review of Les Mouchesin his own amateur journal The Lingerer in 1919.
A total of five issues of Les Mouches would be produced from 1918 to 1920, the fifth and final being dated May 1920. Unlike earlier issues, the final issue was finely printed rather than mimeographed. It is not clear if Lovecraft saw anything more than that single 1918 issue of Les Mouches; his letters are silent on Gidlow and Mills for two years. Then, in 1920, he mentions them again:
The hedonist, following Aristippus and Gidlow-Mills, believes in seeking the wildest delights of sense, and ina accepting all the consequences both to the individual and to society. That is what he calls “living”—the poor fish! He thinks the calm and unemotional epicurean is only half alive; that he misses something in avoiding the violent alternation of emotional exaltation and depression.
The attitude is identical to 1918; perhaps Lovecraft had no other prompt than that the conversation had turned to pleasure-seeking as a philosophical issue once again. Yet only the next month, the subject came up again:
As to day-dreams & Rossie George—I am afraid that the wildest of his flights is rather tame compared with what I have seen in other universes whilst asleep. He can’t even get off this one poor planet, or rise much above the animal instincts here. Carcass-worshippers like Rossie & Elsie make me so infernally sick & tired that I lack patience with them. This reminds me—I never shewed you that putrid fellow’s letter, which he wrote me last summer. I promised to do so, & will enclose it herewith. My personal comment is twofold: (a) Nobody home. (B) Throw it in the garbage pail behind the house & cover well with chloride of lime. Kindly return this bit of mental & moral aberration for preservation as a horrible example in my private museum of mental pathology.
R. G. Mills’ letter to H. P. Lovecraft is not known to survive, so we can only speculate as to the contents. It seems clear from context that Lovecraft did not destroy the letter, and he seemed willing to lend it to his friend Kleiner, which argues against it having anything blatantly obscene (by 1919 U.S. mail standards), and one can’t quite imagine Mills asking for a photograph of Lovecraft so that he could daydream about him as Gidlow claims Mills did with Davis. It seems unlikely that Mills openly flouted his homosexuality in the letter either, as Lovecraft remarked elsewhere that “I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty” (LJS 146), and he would only have been 28 or 29 in the summer of 1919. The most likely content would probably be simply a response or rebuttal to Lovecraft’s critique in The Conservative; but perhaps there was something more. Lovecraft would go on to write:
Some persons shrink from a fellow like Rossie Mills when young because they deem him an unique & leprous abnormality; yet tolerate him in later years because they learn that most mortals share his foulness. I shrank from such in youth merely because I disliked them & was not like them. And in later life I still shrank from them, for exactly the same reason. I am the same & they are the same—& it does not matter to me that their qualities are more widely diffused than I had fancied.
There are two possibilities here: either Lovecraft was (despite his later letter) aware that Mills was homosexual and this is simply homophobia, or Lovecraft was not aware Mills was homosexual and this is some other prejudice. While we can’t know for absolute certain which it was, there may be a clue in Lovecraft’s other letters and Gidlow’s autobiography. In a later letter Lovecraft recalled meeting Gordon Hatfield in 1922:
Have you seen that precious sissy Gordon Hatfield that I met in Cleveland? […] When I saw that marcelled what is it I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it! It used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Elgin’s and gaze soulfully upward. It didn’t like me and Galpin—too horrid, rough and mannish for it!
LGBTQ+ folks in the 1920s faced not only legal and social discrimination but genuine violence for nonconformance with expected gender roles and behavior, or even suspected homosexual behavior. While Lovecraft did not engage in such violence, he was clearly aware of the social implications and was reacting as he thought was appropriate. It is notable that Lovecraft did not have that reaction to other homosexuals he met, such as Samuel Loveman and Hart Crane. In another letter he expands:
Another thing many nowadays overlook the fact that there are always distinctly effeminate types which are most distinctly not homosexual. I don’t know how psychology explains them, but we all know the sort of damned sissy who plays with girls & seems to dislike boys, & who—when he grows up—is a chronic “cake-eater”, hanging around girls, doting on dances, acquriing certain feminine mannerisms, intonations & tastes, & yet never having even the slightest perversion of erotic inclinations.
In her autobiography, Gidlow writes that Roswell George Mills was “ambiguously beautiful” and when not at work “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewelry and as colorful clothes as he dared” (ELSA 74). While Lovecraft never met Mills in person, if he did get the impression from the letter received that Mills was a “sissy”—for example, if it was sent on perfumed stationery—that might be enough to satisfy the “putrid” comment.
Lovecraft’s thoughts on homosexuality, gender conformity, and early-20th century crises of masculinity aside, Elsie Alice Gidlow was not idle. In 1920 shortly after her 21st birthday she immigrated from Montreal to New York City, much as Lovecraft himself would do a few years later, away from her parents and her old life. The transition was marked by a change in name: Elsie became Elsa, which had been an occasional byline. While no longer president of the UAPAA (and the cessation of Les Mouches Fantastiques may have been due in part to her precarious finances at the time), she was still involved with amateur journalism…and as it happened, both Gidlow and Lovecraft were members of NAPA, reading and submitting to some of the same amateur journals.
In the United Amateur vo. 19, no. 5 (May 1920), an unsigned editorial “The Pseudo-United” records an attempt to recruit members of the UAPAA for the UAPA—particularly a branch of the UAPAA that had set up in Flatbush in Brooklyn—but the effort was rebuffed. While Gidlow isn’t named, and there is no clear indication she was involved, if she was still involved in the UAPAA while in New York, her word as former president might have carried some weight. The article, right down to the name, echoes some of the sentiments in a previous piece (“The Other United,” United Amateur vol. 16, no. 9, Jul 1917) that ran during Gidlow’s presidency of the UAPAA.
That she was still involved in amateur journalism is clear because she published an essay “Life for Life’s Sake” in The Wolverine (Oct 1920); the same amateur journal which would publish Lovecraft’s “The Street” (Dec 1920), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (Mar 1921), and “The Nameless City” (Nov 1921). Gidlow’s essay begins:
Now that all the gods are cast down, now that they, products of the golden dust of human imagination that they were, are indistinguishable from the dust of the dead things that they mix with, now that they have become altogether disintegrated, so many are asking, What of us, what of the universe? What of life, to what purpose everything? Truly the first new blankness that comes after one’s exchange of Gods and Eternities for Nothingness is very crushing, devitalizingly deadening, and the resultant persisting thot is, This is life, then death; a flash of rainbow, then endless, cold grey; a light, then no light, something─nothing…middle distance thot. There are also the extremes: extreme nearness and the furthermost distance, and with these two the thot is the same, that thot being─what but Life for Life’s sake?
Lovecraft would respond directly to Gidlowwith an answering essay: “Life for Humanity’s Sake” (American Amateur Sep 1920), which runs in part:
Miss Gidlow has discovered the fact that there is no vast supernatural intelligence governing the cosmos—a thing Democritus could have told her several centuries B.C.—and is amazingly distrubed thereat. Without stopping to consider the possibility of acquiescence in a purposeless, mechanical universe, she at once strives to invent a substittue for the mythology she has cast aside; and preaches a new and surprising discovery the ancient selfish hedonism whose folly was manifest before the death of its founder Aristippus. There is something both amusing and pathetic about the promulgation of hedonism in this complex age of human interdependence.
This response was aimed not just at Gidlow, but also at fellow amateur and Lovecraft correspondent Maurice W. Moe who had likewise responded to Gidlow’s piece, which evidently dealt with the consideration of ethics once religion has been repudiated. While Lovecraft points out what he feels are flaws in both their arguments equally, his tone is patronizing…and Gidlow had perhaps been patronized once too often by amateur journalists. She at last responded with “The Literary Decadence of E.G.”, which reads in part:
There is Mr. Goodenough with his rhymed very-moral maxims; Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand; Mr. Ward Phillips who admires Poe wisely and far too well, since he mimics him so laboriously; and a host of others, male and female, who apart from having no new word to speak, cannot write three consecutive rhymed verses in even metre, although they raise their voices tontinuously and wildly against “modern” poetry and that in their opinion heretical expression of a perverted intellect, vers libre.
This opinion, in the main, applies to the N.A.P.A. The “United” displays more youth and spirit but less, if possible, literary ability, its A.J.’s being mostly filled with slangy recruiting propaganda or banal opinions on President Wilson’s or somebody else’s attitude under such and such circumstances. The contributors to these journals also run to imitative verse.
The possibilities of Amateur Journalism are limitless. That I have always believed. But its development is retarded by the majority of its members’ too-obvious limitations.
“Ward Phillips” was one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms. Amateur journalists, including Lovecraft, responded:
In the July American Amateur, the precocious Miss Elsie (alias Elsa) A. Gidlow of Les Mouches fame refers with admirable courtesy to “Mr. Lovecraft with his morid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand”. Possibly Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follower her own example, and perpetrate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.
H. P. Lovecraft, “Lucubrations Lovecraftian,” United Co-Operative vol. 1, no. 3 (Apr 1921), Collected Essays 1.284
Miss Gidlow mentions Mr. Lovecraft. I confess I’ve tried manfully to read his poetry and have gone to sleep over it. Yet I have read his few stories with genuine pleasure. I recall that one night I let the moon shine in my eyes because I was afraid to get up and pull down the shade after reading one of his stories, “Dagon” I think it was. No doubt other readers would toss it aside and remark that they could do better than that. Perhaps they could and perhaps some of them tried.
Pearl K. Merritt, “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile” in American Amateur Sep 1920, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34-35
Lovecraft had begun to publish more fiction in the amateur press, including “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant, May 1920), and Gidlow’s comment seems aimed at those early works. His response is a bit juvenile, amounting to little more than “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” It isn’t known if Gidlow read their replies.
Gidlow left amateur journalism by the end of 1920, though W. Paul Cook published a poem some years later in 1927. In 1923, Elsa Gidlow published On a Grey Thread, considered to be the first book of lesbian poetry published in the United States; she would travel widely, write and lecture, and cement her place in the history of LGBTQ+ literature. Her autobiography ELSA is said to be the first where the author “outs” herself as a lesbian, without a pseudonym.
Lovecraft continued his own life as well, met and married Sonia H. Greene. Their tumultuous marriage would coincide with Greene holding the UAPA presidency for two terms, 1923-1924 and 1924-1925, with Lovecraft as Official Editor. Despite his best efforts, without his leadership recruitment stalled and the UAPA became moribund around 1926; the UAPAA continued on, and Lovecraft’s later dealings with amateur journalism in the 1930s exclusively involve the National Amateur Press Association.
While Lovecraft’s interaction with Elsa Gidlow, R. G. Mills, and Les Mouches Fantastiques was slight, the encounters stuck with him and cropped up in a few of his later writings. In a later issue of The Conservative (#12, Mar 1923) he would recall them in an editorial:
Shall we remain comfortably cloistered with out Milton and Wordsworth, never again to know the amusing buzzing of such quaint irritants as Les Mouches Fantastiques?
The same year, while Lovecraft was serving as interim president of NAPA for the remainder of the 1922-1923 term, his tone is a bit different:
Intelligent controversy will shortly receive a stimulus from the appearance in our microcosm of Mr. H. A. Joslen, the first thorough “young modern” we have had since the Gidlow-Mills days. —H. P. Lovecraft, “President’s Message”, National Amateur #45 (May 1923), Collected Essays1.334
Mr. H. A. Joslen’s Gipsy[sic] is an unique and by no means unwelcome addition to amateur journalism, supplying the place of the long-departed Les Mouches Fantastiques. —H. P. Lovecraft, The Conservative #13 (Jul 1923), Collected Essays1.343
This does not appear to be Lovecraft giving any kind of backhanded compliment to Joslen or his amateur journal Gypsy, as elsewhere Lovecraft spoke approvingly of Joslen’s youth, energy, and determination to maintain a high literary quality in his amateur journal. While Lovecraft as a metrical mechanic was averse to free verse, and his cosmic philosophy would have been at odds with any philosophy that devolved to overwhelming preoccupation with physical pleasure—he never complained of the overall quality of Les Mouches Fantastiques‘ production, nor accused it of being of low literary quality. Perhaps he did have a sneaky respect for Gidlow & Mills and their skill and efforts, even if he disagreed with the specific content.
The last mention in Lovecraft’s published letters involved the contents of an old issue of The Recluse (Oct 1919), as part of a list of notable contents of that amateur journal:
Furthermore—an exotic Chinese piece called “Tea Flowers” (based on Wilde & suggesting Lesbianism) by Roswell George Mills, & a rather powerful ghoul-poem, “The Mould-Shade Speaks” by Winifred V. Jackson. A rather bizarre issue on the whole.
“Tea Flowers” was a play dedicated to “Sappho,” which was Mills’ nickname for Gidlow. Probably, Lovecraft never knew that his young friend R. H. Barlow was homosexual—and perhaps wasn’t aware that in this off-hand mention, he provided a clue that there were more folk like him involved in amateur journalism, or at least those who dared to write on themes like Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”
It was probably Lovecraft’s first encounter with a lesbian; possibly the only one we have any verifiable record of. If that is the case it’s not clear if Lovecraft was even aware of it. His critiques of Les Mouches Fantastiques show he was not totally unaware of such things, but whether he recognized or knew of such matters at that early date, or simply glossed it all as Decadent literature is unclear.
The whole affair is little more than a footnote in the lives of writers that have gone on to be remembered for other things: Lovecraft for his weird fiction, Gidlow for her poetry and autobiography. Most of what we know about the interactions, which happened not in person but through the snail’s pace of scattered pieces published in amateur journals months apart, are from Lovecraft’s side of things—and even his biographies do not record the tiff. Nor does Gidlow mention Lovecraft in her autobiography; six or seven decades is more than enough time for emotions to fade and memories to grow dim. Yet they did play a role in one another’s story…and that story was entwined, informed, and shadowed by the growing awareness of and discrimination applied to LGBTQ+ folks.
For more on Elsa Gidlow, Lovecraft, and amateur journalism please check out:
“Lavender Ajays of the Red Scare Period: 1917-1920” by Ken Faig, Jr., in The Fossil #329.
Gidlow’s ajay poems and materials related to the history of the United Amateur Press Association, Gidlow’s presidency, and possible early amateur journalism activities are reprinted in The Fossil #332 and #334.
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 Communities—Texasnotes 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], MF1.35
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 (MF1.18), 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, MF1.161
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.
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.
Unfortunately, the prevailing approach in science fiction studies has been to dismiss the Gernsback magazines as embarrassingly simplistic, tasteless, and even detrimental to the eventual emergence of a mature literature. This is an ironic and all-too-casual judgment of a Jewish immgirant who throughout his life was in search of the respect as a technologist and editor that always seemed to elude him. A certain tone seems to have been set early on by the spectacularly racist H. P. Lovecraft’s moniker for Gernsback: “Hugo the Rat.”
—Grant Wythoff, The Perversity of Things (2016), 8-9
Hugo Gernsback is a central figure in the development of science fiction pulp magazines and on science fiction fandom. His direct dealings with Lovecraft were very few, mostly limited to the purchase of “The Colour Out of Space,” which ran in the September 1927 issue of Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories. Yet Gernsback’s reputation among Lovecraft and his circle of correspondents was low, and the moniker “Hugo the Rat” which Lovecraft coined has continued to stick, in fan-circles and to a degree among scholars, for decades.
Hugo Gernsback was Jewish; H. P. Lovecraft was an antisemite. Many readers and even scholars might take it as a given that Lovecraft’s prejudices were at play in his antipathy to Gernsback, and there is some truth to that. The real history of why and how this antipathy came about is a bit more complicated than it might first appear, and Lovecraft was not the only pulp writer involved with Gernsback in the series of exchanges that turned Hugo Gernsback into “Hugo the Rat.”
It’s not a pretty history; the most critical events in this narrative take place against Hitler and the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, and antisemitic language in the period letters will be presented as it was, uncensored. Reader discretion is advised.
Gernsbacher & Modern Electronics
Hugo Gernsbacher was born in Luxembourg in 1884, into a Jewish family. His father was a successfull wine wholesaler and Hugo had been educated by private tutors, able to read, write, and speak German, French, and English fluently, and had attendedL’Ecole Industrille et Commerciale in Luxembourg and the Technikum in Bingen, Germany. Before the age of 18 he had developed a significant amount of practical experience with electricity (even receiving a papal dispensation to complete the telephone wiring of a Carmelite convent), and had a penchant for invention. In 1904 at age 19, the industrious young man emigrated to the United States of America and simplified his name to Hugo Gernsback.
For the next several years, Gernsback was notable as an electrical experimenter, inventer, and businessman. The full scope of his engineering and business enterprises is too long to go into here, but chief among them was co-founding the Electro Importing Company in 1905, the foundation of Modern Electronics magazine in 1908, and the creation of the Wireless Association of America in 1909. Gernsback encouraged amateur experimentation with electricity and especially with early radio, profited from the sale of wireless sets and other components, helped spread technical knowledge of electricity and radio, and invested his profits in further developments of the technology.
Modern Electronics was Gernsback’s first magazine. Nominally, Modern Electronics was a mail-order catalog for the Electro Importing Company, but it carried much more than a list of goods for sale and their prices. The magazine was designed for the amateur enthusiast, full of practical technical knowledge in plain English, with the occasional fiction clearly marked and entertaining. Gernsback’s first science fiction novel was Ralph 124C 41+, serialized in the pages of Modern Electronics from 1911-1912.
In 1913, Gernsback began publication of a new magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, which dropped the catalog and focused on a combination of science fact and fiction. Modern Electronics continued until 1914, when it was merged with Electrician and Mechanic (1890-1014) to form Modern Electrics and Mechanics—which in 1915 changed its title to Popular Science Monthly, which is still published today.
By 1915, the Electrical Experimenter was published through Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company. Hugo’s older brother Sidney Gernsback had emigrated to the United States and joined his brother’s businesses c.1913. In addition to the magazine, Experimenter Publishing published a number of correspondence courses for electricity, and proved successful enough that he introduced a new magazine, Radio News, in 1919. “Scientific stories” (science fiction) had their place in the Electrical Experimenter as well, and Gernsback encouraged the readers—amateur experimenters, mostly—to imagine new possibilities and write and submit stories. In 1920, the Electrical Experimenter became Science and Invention, but the solicitation of science fiction continued despite the new title.
Science fiction already existed, but Hugo Gernsback was set to popularize it.
Lovecraft & Amazing Stories
If there is one issue that clings closest to the memory of Hugo Gernsback it is that he was very bad at paying authors.
—Mike Ashley & Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Gernsback Days (2004), 123
Pulps like The All-Story had been running “scientific romances,” such as Edgar Rice Burroughs novels of John Carter of Mars, since the 1910s. In 1920, the Argosy and All-Story combined to form The Argosy All-Story; the consolidated magazines meant one less market for prospective science fiction in the pulps.
Weird Tales was founded in 1923, and H. P. Lovecraft quickly found a place in the magazine, making several sales to editor Edwin Baird and owner J. C. Hennenberger. The first year or so of the magazine was unstable, with an irregular schedule and changes in size and format; in 1924 the magazine was reorganized. Baird was out, and Farnsworth Wright assumed the editorial role. While still favoring Lovecraft, Wright was more cautious in what he would buy, and would end up rejecting many of Lovecraft’s stories—but Weird Tales did run science fiction on occasion, putting it into slight competition with Science and Invention.
In 1924, Gernsback tested the waters for a new, all-science fiction pulp magazine, with the proposed title Scientifiction. Response was lukewarm, and the idea was set aside as Gernsback focused his attention and money on a new project—WRNY, a radio station (with occasional television broadcasts) which raised its antenna in 1925. Once the station was successful, Amazing Stories was issued by Hugo Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company beginning in 1926. It was the first pulp magazine devoted entirely to science fiction (“scientifiction”), although the term was so new and ill-defined that could mean almost anything; Amazing’s first issue included stories from H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. In practical business terms, however, instead of per-word rates Gernsback and Amazing Stories preferred to pay on a per-story basis. Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes noted in The Gernsback Days(123-130) that the rates Gernsback offered were reminiscent of the many writing contests his magazines would runwith cash prizes for the winners, ranging fro $100 to $1.
It is difficult to talk about exact rates, since Amazing Stories seemed to negotiate on a per-piece basis except when it had contracted for a number of stories at once, but it appears short stories typically went for up to $50, and novels for $100. Depending on the exact wordcount, this could be either very fair or very bad. For example, if a 1,000 word “short” story sold to Amazing for $50, then ther effective per-word rate of 1/2¢ per word—the “average” rate for Weird Tales (cf. The Weird Tales Story 2)—not terrible if a pulp writer has no where else to place a science fiction story, and possibly good if they can turn out several short pieces in quick succession, but you would rarely reach Weird Tales’ top rate of 1¢ or 1.5¢ per word…and Weird Tales’ rates were relatively low compared to other pulps. If a 60,000 word novel is sold to Amazing for $100, however, the effective per-word rate is 1/6th of a cent per-word, below Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—and that was the price Gernsback paid to reprint H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in Amazing Stories Aug-Sep 1927 (The Gernsback Days 125).
In March 1927, H. P. Lovecraft had completed “The Colour Out of Space,” a 12,000-word novelette (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 127). By June, it had been submitted and accepted by Amazing Stories (DS134). Lovecraft duly reported this to his friends, which occasioned a bit of scuttlebutt:
Congratulations on having sold “The Colour Out of Space”. I wish it had been W.T., because Amazing Stories pays poorly, and is not going so well as its backers believed it would. But it will probably extend your audience by some thousands. —Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 6 July 1927, LWP136
As for “The Colour Out of Space”—Wandrei tells me that Amazing Stores doesn’t pay well, so that I’m sorry I didn’t try Weird Tales first.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 15 July 1927, DS 136
There are a few things to unpack here: first, we have no idea where Wandrei was getting his information on Amazing Stories. None of his own fiction appeared in its pages up to 1927. The second is that “it is not going so well”—this is a point that Ashley & Lowndes delve into in The Gernsback Days, and it is true that Hugo Gernsback claimed that Amazing Stories was not yet on a paying basis in 1927, despite a circulation in excess of 100,000 (much more than Weird Tales)…and came to the conclusion that Hugo Gernsback was using the profits from his magazines to fund his lifestyle and prop up his radio station WRNY (130-132).
What this meant in practical terms was that in 1927 the rates per story were low:
Amazing Stories, being still in its infant stage, our rates per story are hardly based on the story’s merit—rather on the extent of our budget for the year. Our rates for short stories just now range from $15 to $30 per story…
—Amazing to Edmond Hamilton, 28 Sep 1927, quoted in The Gernsback Days129
So whomever was the source of Wandrei’s data on Amazing Stories, it jived with what Amazing was telling its own authors. There are a two more points which are tied up together: payment was supposed to be on publication, and both Wandrei and Lovecraft suggest that Lovecraft tried “The Colour Out of Space” on Amazing first, instead of Weird Tales. This is significant because of a point of confusion that arose later:
“Colour out of Space” was sent to Gernsback because of Wright’s rejections of other things which L. esteemed, and in anger at this! It brought only $25.00, and that after three dunning letters!
—R. H. Barlow, “Memories of H. P. Lovecraft” (1934), O Fortunate Floridian! 404
Here, Lovecraft’s friend Barlow appears to be misinformed—Lovecraft apparently did not send “Colour” to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales—and he suggests that Lovecraft was not paid promptly. This latter issues seems to be confirmed by other letters:
The cheque ought to be very respectable, since the text covered 32 pages. —H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, June or July 1927, Essential Solitude 1.98
[…] “The Colour Out of Space” appears in the current Amazing Stories. They sent me two copies of the magazine, but I am still awaiting my cheque. —H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1927, LWP143
Speaking of payment—beware of Amazing Stories! I haven’t received anything yet for “The Colour out of Space”, & shall have to make inquiries soon.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, November 1927, Essential Solitude 1.114
Amazing Stories has just promised to remit before the end of this month—though I fear, from what everyone tells me of their rates, that it won’t be an impressive sum. —H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1928,Essential Solitude1.125
[…] I haven’t forgotten that his skinflint magazine gave me only $25.00 (& that after long months & repeated requests!) for a story (“The Colour Out of Space”) of the same length as one for which Weird Tales paid me $165.00. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 10 May 1928, LFF 2.655
$25.00 at 12,000 words works out to a little over 1/5¢ per word—the other story that Lovecraft mentions is “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Feb 1928), which at 11,200 words was being paid the top rate of 1.5¢ per word. So even if Barlow was incorrect about Lovecraft submitting “Colour” to Weird Tales, all the other particulars check out…and we can well imagine Lovecraft begrudging the “skinflint” magazine that paid him so little, and so late.
We can only speculate for Amazing’s part of the whole business. $25 would have been just in line with the rates quoted in the 1927 letter to Hamilton; and in keeping with their general policy of paying relatively low rates for fiction. The lateness of the payment could be anything from a clerical error, unethical business practices, or a temporary shortage of funds…we have no idea. What we do know is that Lovecraft wasn’t the only one: creditors were piling up, and authors were going unpaid:
I never collected a single payment on time, and when it got so that they ran several months behind, and I had a tip they were on the verge of bankruptcy and changing hands, I quit. —A. Hyatt Verrill to Forrest J. Ackermann, quoted in The Gernsback Days132
What’s notable is at this point Lovecraft was not directing any animosity at Hugo Gernsback, either as the magazine’s publisher or as a Jew. Lovecraft’s letters from this period don’t mention Gernsback, which is easily understandable when Lovecraft wouldn’t have been dealing with him at all, but with the editor C. A. Brandt. Whatever the case, Lovecraft made no effort to submit to Amazing Stories again.
Clark Ashton Smith & Wonder Stories
Hugo Gernsback’s creditors moved in, and in 1929 they forced Experimenter Publishing into bankruptcy. This was the end of Hugo Gernsback’s involvement with Amazing, but not Amazing Stories itself: the creditors re-invested in the company, recognizing the sci-fi pulp as a viable business, and Amazing would outlast Gernsback and the pulp era.
For his part, Hugo Gernsback was not done with science fiction. As the bankruptcy was proceeding, Gernsback was already planning three new magazines: Radio-Craft, Air Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Stories. The two new publishing companies, Stellar Publishing and Techni-Craft Publishing, were family affairs, with his brother Sidney, with his wife Dorothy and her sister Harriet Kantrowitz. David Lasser, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a recent M.I.T. graduate, became editor. Lasser knew little of science fiction, but he knew science and writing, and Hugo Gernsback still saw his magazines as primarily educational as well as entertaining.
In addition to regular monthly magazines, Amazing Stories had published a companion quarterly issue; Stellar Publishing continued this practice with Science Wonder Stories and also issued a Science Wonder Quarterly from Fall 1929 to Spring 1930; in May 1930 Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories merged into a single magazine titled Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly became Wonder Stories Quarterly. In that last Spring 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly before the merger took place, Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s story “The Thought Materializer” appeared.
As for Wonder Stories—have you seen anything of Belknap’s in that lately? He had one story accepted, but has not been paid—hence assumed that it had not appeared. Dwyer, however, says he distinctly recalls such a tale 2 or 3 months ago—though his memory is indistinct about it. The matter forms quite an enigma. Apparently Gernsback continues his old financial habits in his new company! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Jun 1930, DS220
Thanks for the definite information about Belknap’s tale in the Wonder Stories Quarterly. I had just received a letter from the firm stating that they had never carried any Long story in any of their publications, when your news arrived. I at once wrote again—& finally they admitted that the tale was published. I have now sent a half dollar for the magazine, & am hoping for the best. Meanwhile Belknap has received no cash. Undoubtedly this Gernsback outfit is something which it is well to have as little as possible to do with! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jul 1930, DS222-223
What you tell me about Belknap’s experience with the Gernsback crowd is indeed amazing. I don’t see how they do business on a basis of that sort. Certainly Dr. Keller, Arthur B. Reeve, Starzl, and a lot of other people whose work they use aren’t writing just for the glory of seeing their names in print. I suppose their game is to cheat the more obscure or occasional contributors, if they can “get away” with it. There ought to be some way of getting at them. Anyway, let me know how the affair works out! They have not yet reported on my “Andromeda” (after nearly two months) and I am writing to make a rather curt inquiry. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 30 Jul 1930, DS224
I’ve lately received the Wonder Quarterly with Belknap’s tale, but he has not yet heard from the editors despite a fresh inquiry on his part a fortnight ago. As you suggest, it probably takes real prominence to get satisfactory dealings from the Gernsback organisation! Good luck with “Andromeda”! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 Aug 1930, DS225
Clark Ashton Smith had achieved early recognition as a poet in California, but had never been able to translate that into financial success. Living with his aged parents and doing considerable seasonal work to make ends meet, Smith was able to sell several stories and poems to Weird Tales in the 1920s, and determined to try his hand as a full-time pulpster, sending stories to several outfits, including Wonder Stories and another Gernsback magazine, Amazing Detective Stories—and his stories were accepted.
What had changed from Lovecraft’s initial encounter with Amazing is that Wonder Stories could not be differentiated from Hugo Gernsback; the bankruptcy had thrust his name prominently into the news in science-fiction and science-fiction fandom circles. While the market for science fiction pulps was now growing, with fiercer competition, Lovecraft and Smith were focusing on Hugo Gernsback as the personality behind Wonder Stories—not the editor David Lasser. This was a very different relationship than both men had with Weird Tales and its editor Farnsworth Wright.
As it happened, though Smith was cautious, Wonder Stories bought “Andromeda” at 3/4¢ per word (not great, but not bad either), and sent a check promptly—with a request for more. Smith conveyed this information to Lovecraft…with one more note:
By the way, the Gernsback outfit has just remitted a sizable check ($90.00) for “Andromeda”, and they seem anxious to see the new story, which I am now submitting. They may have taken me for a compatriot, from the tone of my letter to them! And they are saying to each other, “We will not bamboozle our Jewish brother even if we could.” —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, DS232-233
In some previous letters to Smith, Lovecraft had made some antisemitic remarks regarding Jewish people in New York, so Smith may have felt “safe” in expressing this opinion. As it happens, this is the first reference in the extant letters that either Smith or Lovecraft made to the Wonder Stories staff being Jewish. Explicit here is the stereotype of Jewish greed or unethically sharp business practice; certainly uncalled for considering that Smith had been paid in full and fairly promptly.
Smith needed the money and was happy to write if they would buy, though the relationship was not always so enthusiastic. No one else could write like Smith, his poetic language and prodigious vocabulary were inimitable, and his mind tended more toward the weird and horror than to bright shining futures or action-adventure space operas. Editorial requests from Lasser thus brought about a bit of friction:
The Jews want some more “ekshun” in the first part of “The Red World”, which they criticize as being “almost wholly descriptive”. It looks as if they were trying to compete with “Astounding Stories.” —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 21 Oct 1930, DS251
Astounding Stories had begun publication in January 1930, an immediate competitor to both Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories, and those three magazines would top the science fiction pulp market for the rest of the 1930s. The syndication of the Buck Rogers comic strip in 1929 spurred readers interest for space opera, and the pulps responded; Smith himself was asked to write such stories, and his Captain Volmar tales “Marooned in Andromeda” (Wonder Stories Oct 1930) and “A Captivity in Serpens” (Wonder Stories Quarterly Summer 1931, under the title “The Amazing Planet”) are examples of this type. However, action (“ekshun” to mimic a New York Yiddish accent phonetically) was not Smith’s strong type…and Lovecraft was not one to correct Smith about “the Jews.”
So Meester Gernspeck vants someding more should heppen by de “Red Voild” a’ready! Oy, should ah poor men pay oudt good money by ah story vere efferyding stend still ent dunt say it nuddings? I fear that I shan’t find the gentleman’s periodical much of a haven for my stuff—though he did take my “Colour Out of Space” in the old Amazing days . . . . paying all of 25 dollars like the generous philanthropist he is! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Oct 1930, DS252
Which reminds me that I am beginning another Volmar yarn for the Jews—“Captives of the Serpent.” I’ll give them their “action” this time!!! —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 10 Nov 1930, DS266
I hope I may soon see “Captives of the Serpent”, in spite of the specially ordered overdoses of “ekshun”. Which reminds me that young Belknap is meditating a complaint to the Author’s League concerning the dishonesty of Meestah Goinspeck’s outfit. They haven’t paid him a cent for his story of last spring, & utterly ignore the courteous inquiries he has written them. I advise him to make a final try for payment by sending Gernsback an advance carbon of his letter to the League—announcing that the original will be despatched if no satisfactory word is received within five days. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Nov 1930, DS268
I am glad that Belknap is planning to bring a complaint against that gang of Yiddish highbinders. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c 17 Nov 1930, DS 271
The rhetoric was already getting very acerbic. Perhaps encouraged by Lovecraft’s response, Smith would begin to write more openly of these prejudices to others as well.
No, I have not signed (and could not be induced to sign) a contact with that Gernsback gang of Yiddish high binders. They merely suggested the writing of a series of astronomical tales, dealing with the adventures of a space-ship and its crew; and they have paid ¾ a cent per word for such material of mine as they have used. My chief grievance against them is that they are putting so many restrictions on my work, and have shown themselves utterly oblivious or disregardful of literary values. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 22 Nov 1930, EID 30
I have been feeling rather punk lately, and have done nothing but hack-work—another piece of junk for the Jews. I’ll recommend the Gernsback outfit for quick action in publishing material—the novelette that I wrote for them in December is out in the issue (April) now on the stands. But if I were a vain person, I’d sue them for criminal libel because of the alleged picture of me that they are using. It makes me look as if I had been on a forty-day debach; of all the cock-eyed caricatures! —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 8 Mar 1931, EID39
Ashley & Lowndes in The Gernsback Days noted an apparent misapprehension of the situation on the part of Wonder Stories: Lasser thought with his directions and prompts he was helping to develop Smith as an author, while Smith thought he was churning out hackwork for an illiterate bunch of moneygrubbers (173-175). This and other editorial high-handedness such as changing titles arbitrarily were slowly alienating Smith from Wonder Stories.
Yet they continued to pay in full and on time, so Smith kept writing. However, at this point the idea of Gernsback’s personal involvement, his supposed sharp business practices, and the lack of any pushback on antisemtic comments meant that the latter were continuing to spread:
Glad “Beyond the S.F.” landed with Shylock ben Gernsback. I shall have my eyes open for the Novr. W.S.—for I must own this tale, in conjunction with its predecessor. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Sep 1931, DS322
Beginners have far more chance with the Shylock Gernsback outfit-chance to “land”, that is, not chance of getting prompt or adequate remuneration. —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 49
“The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories July 1931) and its sequel “Beyond the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories Nov 1931) by Clark Ashton Smith are two genuine classics of the period, but Lovecraft’s depiction of Gernsback as quite literally the stereotype of a greedy Jew show that he was fixed on Gernsback as personally responsible for both his own issues with Amazing Stories and Frank Belknap Long’s issue with Science Wonders Quarterly. Isolated incidents and existing prejudice had come together…and then there began to be a delay of payments.
Too bad about the delay in your checks. Even at that, the Clayton system is vastly preferable to that of Gernsback, who doesn’t seem to have any time-limit at all on the settlement of arrears. The blighter still owes me about 250 djals. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 10 Feb 1932, EID97
Gernsback has taken a hunk of tripe, The Invisible City, which is scheduled for appearance in the June Wonder Stories. They certainly take the palm for promptness in printing accepted matter—but they make up for it on the payment end. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 15 Mar 1932, EID105
As it happened, circumstances weer a bit different than when Amazing Stories began delaying payments in the late 1920s. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 which started the Great Depression took time to hit the pulp market, but it did; Weird Tales suffered considerable delays in paying authors after its bank closed, owing some authors hundreds of dollars (see Scott Connor’s “Weird Tales and the Great Depression” in The Robert E. Howard Reader for details).
In December 1932, the bank for Stellar Publishing closed, delaying payments to many authors, including Smith. The problem was compounded by in mid-1932 when the Eastern Distributing Corporation, which was the distributor for Wonder Stories, went bankrupt. The result was that Gernsback’s publishing companies likely lost a vast chunk of money, taking a substantial hit to their liquidity (The Gernsback Days 202-203). Nevertheless, Smith continued to sell to Wonder Stories in the hopes of being paid.
Gernsback has written to tell me that he can’t pay for any of my material at present, since he claims to have lost huge sums of money through the bankruptcy of a firm that had been distributing his magazines. All this helps to make the financial outlook as bright and sunny as a cloud of sepia fifty fathoms down in the undersea. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 5 Apr 1933, EID171
Assessments of Gernsback/Wonder Stories in the letters of Lovecraft & co. were not uniformly negative during 1932-1933, but were often hedged with casual antisemitism, e.g.:
Glad the Invisible City is due in the near future, & that Gernsback has some appreciation of what he is offering. It’s odd, but in spite of that damn’d kike’s financial remissness & sharp dealings, I really think he offers a better & more vital range of scientifiction than either of his two competitors. He is not quite so rigid in his demand for the commonplace & the stereotyped. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 4 Apr 1932, DS 360
The Chance story offers infinite possibilities. And so the eckshun-luffing management of W.S. suggested the idea! I’m hanged if those damn kikes aren’t brighter & more sensible in many ways than the philistines controlling Astounding & the technologists in charge of Amazing! Really, there is little doubt but that Wonder is the most generally interesting of the scientifiction magazines. Sorry the space-limit has gone down so annoyingly. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 27 Aug 1932, DS 381
As to Wonder Stories, I am somewhat in a quandary. I can recommend the mag. For ultra-prompt publication of material; but they seem to make up for it on the payment end. They have, so far, paid for seven of my stories at ¾ of a cent per word, but are in arrears on the last five or six, and protest their inability to pay at present together with their anxiety to do so. I don’t know whether to gamble any more stuff on them or not, since I more than suspect that they are capable of sharp dealing. My worst apprehension is that old Hugo may pull another bankruptcy stunt, as he did with Amazing Stories several years back. Undoubtedly the magazine—Wonder Stories—is having a hard time just at present. Their treatment of Belknap is pretty raw, I’d say. The chief reason that I’ve had anything to do with them is, that Gernsback has had the perspicacity to print some of my more out-of-the-way stuff which no one else would touch. And I have had, after all, about five hundred bucks out of the old highbinder. —Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 10 Nov 1932, Selected Letters 195-196
The final straw for Smith came with “The Dweller in the Gulf,” published in Wonder Stories march 1933 as “The Dweller in the Martian Depths.” In addition to changing the title, the editors had taken a hacksaw to Smith’s prose and bowdlerized the ending. Editor David Lasser wrote to Smith that the changes had been made “at Gernsback’s express order” (DS 408)—and Smith would submit no more to the magazine, which already owed him over six hundred dollars, although two previously submitted stories would still be published after this.
Hazel Heald & Hugo the Rat
I suppose Gernsback is still withholding ‘eckshun’ on his debts. One of my clients is about to write an indignant letter to the Authors’ League concerning his financial shortcomings—though I imagine its effect will be close to zero. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 2 Feb 1933, DS 403
Yes—my Gernsback-mulcted client is Mrs. Heald—whose story was nothing extra, although it surely deserved some remuneration. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.10 Feb 1933, DS 404
“The Man of Stone” by Hazel Heald had been published in Wonder Stories Oct 1932. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Even at that point, Hitler and the Nazis were a byword for antisemitism, and while few may have believed the full extent of Hitler’s plans in Mein Kampf, which would see its first abridged English translation published in October 1933, the rhetoric was clear…and influential.
I await sight of the “Weaver” & “Flower Women” with keen interest, & shall try to get sight of the misnamed “Secret of the Cairn” in Hugo the Rat’s kosher mekasin. Hope his ekshun on debts won’t be delayed beyond all reason—I’d like to set Adolf Hitler on the scoundrel! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Apr 1933, DS 414
As for Hugo the Rat—probably he’s waiting for the dollar to get as low as the German mark did in the early 1920’s. Then—oy, he shood pay it up by his condribudors a’ready! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 May 1933, DS 415
This is the first appearance of the epithet “Hugo the Rat.” Whether this was in a reference to Gernback’s “greedy” nature or an allusion to his Jewishness is unclear; Lovecraft had elsewhere referred to “rat-faced Jew[s]” (LFF1.256) and Jewish “rat-like temperaments” (LWP84), so either is feasible. However Lovecraft intended, the nickname stuck.
Unrestricted prejudice, stereotypes, and delay or denial of payments to Lovecraft, Smith, and their friends and clients had soured both men on Hugo Gernsback, who they now held personally to blame for a situtation which might honestly have been somewhat out of his hands to control, as the Great Depression worsened and Wonder Stories began to make economic cuts in length, and moved to a bi-monthly rather than monthly schedule.
Incidentally—I’ve passed on to him, & will pass on to Mrs. Heald, the information about the bad-debt collector. This certainly sounds promising, & I hope you yourself can ultimately employ her to advantage. Anyone who can extract cash from Hugo the Rat is an expert! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 12 Jul 1933, DS425
Yes, I have heard that Gernsback has a doubtful reputation in matters of payment. Though I disapprove strongly of the Hitler regime, I think that it might be administered, not unjustifiably, on a Jewish gyp and literary sweat-shop keeper such as H. G. I have a suspicion that he may try another of his bankruptcy stunts before long. I have the address of a lawyer in N.Y. who is said to be good at collecting money from backward publishers and shall at least try holding the threat of legal action over Gernsback. —Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1933, Selected Letters218
The lawyer in New York City was Ione Weber, a female attorney. Not much is publicly available on her career; she was a charter member of the Fiorello LeGaurdia chapter of Phi Delta Delta at the Brooklyn Law School in 1922, and in 1924, Ione Weber was listed editor of the magazine for Phi Delta Delta operating out of the Eagle Building in NY, and she is listed as author of New York Pleading and Practice (1930). It’s not clear if Weber was in normal practice, or part of a firm, but being asked to recoup relatively small claims from a pulp publisher suggests she must have had some other source of income. Still, she apparently had some success:
Hope Miss Webber [sic] has been able to collect you something from Hugo the Rat—as she has for Mrs. Heald. Hugo still manages to get decent stuff in spite of his delinquencies—I don’t buy W S now, but Comte d’Erlette has just sent me a fine story by Carl Jacobi—“The Tomb from Beyond”—clipped from the November issue. If you haven’t seen it I’ll send it to you. —H. P. Lovcraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Nov 1933, DS 483
Some magazines pay much less—especially Wonder Stories, whose editor Gernsback is a veritable Shylock. Hugo the Rat (as Clark Ashton Smith & I affectionately call him) never pays at all except under pressure—in fact, one New York lawyer makes a speciality of Gernsback bad debt collection! —H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 13 Jan 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 25
A woman lawyer in New York—a Miss Weber, whose address I’ve forgotten but who could be located through Clark Ashton Smith—makes a speciality of collecting bad debts from Gernsback, & actually did extort $35.00 from him on behalf of a revisions lenient of mine. I’d probably try something on the old reprobate just for the fun of it if I had any unsold MSS. of the right length & character! —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 15 Jan 1934, LPS 298
Searight’s story “The Cosmic Horror” had appeared in Wonder Stories Aug 1933, and he had not been paid, hence Lovecraft’s advice. Clark Ashton Smith dithered as he contemplated legal action. Lovecraft, who had no skin in this particular game since he had settled accounts with Amazing Stories, encouraged him to act.
I am, by the way, giving the Gernsback outfit a broad hint that some legal action will be forthcoming unless they pay up a good installment of their arrears at an early date. Wandrei recommends Nat Schachner, one of the star scientifictionists, as a capable lawyer for such collections. Schachner must have had some experience with old Hugo, since he contributed a number of stories to W.S. some time back. I must admit that the idea of setting a Jew to catch a Jew is one that appeals to me. But, on the whole, I’d prefer to collect something without legal bother and expense, if I can. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Mar 1934, DS 535
Let us hope you can eventually arrange to get something out of Hugo the Rat. Eh deedn’t know it Meestah Schechner vass ah smart lawyer a’ready. Oy! He shood make Hugo pay det money ef he hass to boin his shop to get it! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS540
I think seriously of putting the collection of my arrears from Gernsback in the hands of a New York lawyer before long. That Yiddish highbinder makes me boil. I have it on good authority that he draws down one hundred bucks a week for adorning Wonder Stories with his name, while the real editor, doing all the work, receives only twenty per. In rough figures, he owes me about $750.00, representing a lot of blood and sweat, which is too much to lose. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 17 Apr 1934, EID219
At this point, David Lasser was out as editor of Wonder Stories and Charles D. Hornig, the former editor of The Fantasy Fan and a friend of Lovecraft and Smith, had been installed as editor—so Smith actually did finally have an inside line on Wonder Stories. Gernsback, meanwhile, was seeking to diversify his pulp line with Pirate Stories and High Seas Adventure—and even was contemplating a Weird Tales rival titled True Supernatural Stories. A “dummy issue” of the latter was filed with the Library of Congress to secure rights to the title, and included reprints of of Smith and Lovecraft’s work from The Fantasy Fan; whether they were ever compensated for this is unknown (see Sam Moskowitz’ “The Gernsback ‘Magazines’ That No One Knows” in in Riverside Quarterly v.4, #4).
Finally, Smith took the legal plunge:
I have written to a New York attorney about the little matter of collecting from gernsback. His arrears total $769.00, and I do not intend to be robbed of it all by low-class Jewish business morality. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 16 May 1934, EID221
Miss Ione Weber, New York attorney, has undertaken the collection of my arrears from Gernsback but does not seem to be overly optimistic about getting anything at an early date. I’m not eager to press the matter with an actual lawsuit: one has to pay the legal expenses in advance, and the lawyer gets 25%, or perhaps even 50% of the proceeds. Oh hell….. I never was very enthusiastic about laws, lawyers, et al. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 4 Jun 1934, EID222
Miss Ione Weber, the attorney in whose hands I placed the matter of collecting from Gernsback, has evidently not succeeded in compelling him to disgorge, so far. I fear me he’s a hard-boiled Hebrew hellion, if there ever was one; and I’d gladly turn him over to the ministrations of Herr Hitler. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 28 Jun 1934, EID223
Much to my surprise, the New York attorney, Miss Weber, has succeeded in prying fifty dollars out of Gernsback. This, according to G’s own accounting dept, leaves only $691 more to pay! I hope that I’ll receive at least part of it before the onsent of inflation or the forming of a proletariat government in the U.S.A. —Clark Ashotn Smith to August Derleth, 22 Jul 1934, EID225
My lawyer, Miss Weber, succeeded in extracting another 50 from Gernsback; also, a promise to pay the balance of arrears in trade acceptances, at 75 per month. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 29 Sep 1934, EID237
Liquidity was obviously still an issue with Gernsback’s magazines—launching several new ventures no doubt didn’t help that—but Weber seems to have reached an out-of-court agreement for payments to be made on the debt. A trade acceptance is, effectively, a type of IOU—a bill of exchange acknowledging a debt, which can in turn be sold, traded, or redeemed for cash at a future date. Ashley & Lowndes write:
Ione Weber cautioned Smith that she was “not optimistic about how soon collection can be made. The last few months I have been having more than the usual difficulty in collecting from them.” She explained further. “Gernsback himself told me that these magazines were not paying but made an arrangement with me by which he would pay my other author clients at stated intervals. However, this promise was not kept.”
(The Gernsback Days 243)
Smith wasn’t the only author that Gernsback hadn’t paid. Although Smith did eventually recoup all that he was owed, many more authors went without. Richard F. Searight suggested a joint lawsuit (LPS226, 330), although nothing came of this. E. Hoffmann Price quoted science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton in a letter to Lovecraft:
You speak of Fantasy being connected, via editor, with Wonder Stories. From all I gather, their rates, when they pay off, are indeed nominal! Something like 1/4 ¢, and rumored but never realized 1/2 ¢ payoffs. I’m afraid I couldn’t spend much time trying to seduce the fancy of an outfit like that—or have I confused them with the nest of vipers assembled under the Gernsbach [sic] standards? Hamilton assures me no one is a scientifiction writer until he has been defrauded at least once by Hugo Gernbach! [sic]
—E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Nov 1933, Mss. John Hay Library
In October 1934, Hornig optimistically wrote that Wonder Stories would shortly be able to pay promptly, and repay its past debts…and there are some signs that Gernsback & Wonder Stories was trying to do this (The Gernsback Days 243). Lovecraft wrote of his young Jewish friend Kenneth Sterling:
He has already sold stories to Wonder . . . .& collected from Hugo the Rat (it takes a Yid to catch a Yid!) . . . . & is bubbling over with ideas. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, DS 596
However, more problems lay ahead.
Donald A. Wollheim & Thrilling Wonder Stories
No—for Jesu’s sake don’t mention that Klarkash-Ton & I call Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.” That would form a thoroughly unjustifiable attack, despite the fact that the damn skunk undoubtedly deserves it! —H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin86
“Hugo the Rat” was a pet name, of the kind that Lovecraft reserved for many. Farnsworth Wright was often “Pharnobozus” or “Farney” in his letters; William Crawford, editor/publisher of the fanzine Marvel Tales, was “Hill-Billy Crawford.” The nicknames were sometimes slightly derogatory, but were basically meant in fun…and in private. Lovecraft never called him “Hugo the Rat” in public, or made any public statement about the financial situation of Gernsback not paying his authors. Others did.
Donald Wollheim published “My Experience with Wonder Stories” was published in the April 1935 Bulletin of the Terrestrial Fantascience Guild. Wollheim’s story “The Man from Ariel” had been published in Wonder Stories Jan 1934, and not paid for. Up to this point, the science fiction fandom aspect of Gernsback’s career hasn’t been terribly relevant, but it should be remembered that it was Gernsback who, pursuing his enthusiasm for amateurs, encouraged science fiction fans to write to oen another by publishing their names and addresses in the pages of Amazing Stories in the 20s, and in 1934 founded a fanclub called the Science Fiction League through Wonder Stories. Now, Wollheim’s public airing of the dirty laundry caused an uproar in fandom, made all the worse when Gernsback banned Wollheim from the Science Fiction League, leading to a splintering in the group (see Up To Now: The ISA-SFL Clash).
Lovecraft commented on the affair, which was still spooling out:
I saw the Wollheim article dealing with Hugo the Rat—through the kindness of a bright young member of the Science Fiction League, Kenneth Sterling, who has recently moved to Providence. It was nothing new to me—for more than one friend of mine has been robbed by that thieving son-of-a-beachcomber. He printed a story by Frank B. Long in the Spring 1930 Wonder Stories Quarterly, & neither paid the author nor gave any attention to letters about the matter. I advised Long to take drastic steps, but he thought the sum wasn’t large enough to bother about. Others I know—including C A S—have recovered cash from the Rat only through legal action. There’s no real answer that Gernsback can make to the Wollheim expose—all he can do is to kep quiet. But his shifty tactics will overreach themselves & wreck him in the end. Meanwhile he relies on suckers, pays two or three contributors whom he can’t afford to lose, & counts on the MSS. of writers who don’t care whether they’re paid or not. I wouldn’t mind a non-paying magazine if the editor would honestly call it such—like the F F [The Fantasy Fan], F M [Fantasy Magazine], & M T [Marvel Tales]. It is his masquerading as a remunerative publisher which makes Hugo such a damn’d thief! Fortunately he is an exception. —H. P. Lovecraft to William Anger, 24 Apr 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 233
Regardless of whether the issue of payments was due more to circumstances of the Great Depression or sharp business tactics, Wollheim’s expose and the resulting fan-feuding, coupled with professional pulpsters who now shunned Wonder Stories and other Gernsback magazines, sank Gernsback’s reputation. Eventually, the situation was untenable.
Wonder Stories sold by Hugo the Rat to the Margulies group which Belknap likes so well. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 326
Leo Margulies was the chief editor of Standard Publications, sometimes called “Thrilling Publications” because they published titles like Thrilling Adventures, Thrilling Detective, Thrilling Love, Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Sports, and Thrilling Western. In August 1936, when they purchased Wonder Stories, Margulies renamed it Thrilling Wonder Stories. Charles D. Hornig was laid off as editor. Hugo Gernsback left science fiction to its own devices for a while.
Although Lovecraft and Gernsback never met, and it isn’t clear if they ever even corresponded, the publisher’s reputation remained with Lovecraft for the short time remaining to him. Even into 1937, barely a month away from death, Lovecraft wrote:
By the way—Hugo Gernsback is a notorious sharper who ought never to be trusted. He tries to sensationalise pseudo-science, and is so dishonest in his non-payment of contributors that reputable authors have virtually blacklisted his magazines. —H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 8 Feb 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin352
If you think the pay is bad, pray be informed that Hugo the Rat often parallelled it in the old days, & that according to some reporters Amazing Stories now does little better. —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 14 Feb 1937, LPS437
In January 1936, Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling collaborated on “In the Walls of Eryx” (Weird Tales Oct 1939), a story which incorporated several punning references to personalities in science fiction pulpdom. There on the jungled Venus they conceived:
I was always slashing ugrats and stepping on skorahs, and my leather suit was all speckled from the bursting darohs which struck it from all sides.
“Ugrats,” “Hugo the Rat.” A bit of a petty immortalization for Gernsback, who despite his infamy in regards to business practice, editorial tastes in science fiction, etc. is still today recognized as a critical figure in the popularization of science fiction, and the namesake of the Hugo Awards.
The question may fairly be asked: Why has “Hugo the Rat” stuck in the consciousness of fans and writers of science fiction history? I suspect that it is Lovecraft’s own posthumous popularity, and the publication of his letters, that have spread the epithet far beyond the limits of personal correspondence that Lovecraft ever intended. Other writers may well have said things as bad or worse about Gernsback, but their letters haven’t been published, studied, or folded into the history of pulp publishing in anything like the same way Lovecraft’s have. I haven’t been able to find any usage of the term in fanzines of the 40s and 50s so far. The epithet was most prominent in volume 5 of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters (1965), and usage of it picks up in science fiction scholarship in the 1970s.
Whether or not you consider “Hugo the Rat” as an antisemitic label or a playful jab at a non-paying publisher, it is undeniable that antisemitic prejudice colored Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith’s views. That the views were expressed particularly sharply in 1933, when Hitler was coming to power and antisemitism was gaining increased traction makes their particular prejudice all the worse, especially in hindsight.
It didn’t start out that way. Which is probably as close as a we might get to a lesson from this episode. This post doesn’t contain every single instance where Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith referred to Gernsback as “Hugo the Rat,” or made an antisemitic comment regarding him; a full list would be tedious rather than informative. Neither Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith started out lambasting Hugo Gernsback for being Jewish. One made a comment, the other didn’t censure them for it, and before long the two men were jocularly passing back and forth antisemitic quips that neither would ever air in public. If there is a lesson to this exchange, it’s that allowing prejudice to go unchallenged, even in joking fashion, makes prejudice more acceptable over all…and that has shaped how we see and talk about the past.
Grant Wythoff in The Perversity of Things felt the need to address Lovecraft’s characterization of “Hugo the Rat” because that epithet has become so strongly identified with Gernsback, even though no more than a dozen people likely ever knew Lovecraft said it during his lifetime. The name and characterization have been repeated so many times, that most people assume it was true, and that Hugo Gernsback was a “sharper” who didn’t pay his authors. Of course, Gernsback wasn’t alone in this; Weird Tales faced its own difficulties and delays in paying authors; when Robert E. Howard died in 1936, Farnsworth Wright owed him more than Gernsback ever owed Clark Ashton Smith. While Gernsback certainly exacerbated some of his own troubles in his dealings with Wollheim and other authors, and there were likely poor business decisions that were responsible for delays and nonpayments, it seems likely that much of the negative characterization of Gernsback carries at least a whiff of antisemitism, intentional or unconscious. It is a very weird aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy that this nickname should stick, to a man he never met and had very little to do with directly…but, here we are.
For the facts of Hugo Gernsback’s life and publications, and details on his magazines I have relied primarily on Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time (2007) edited by Larry Steckler, and The Gernsback Days (2004) by Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes, and recommend them both for learning more about Gernsback’s life and his involvement with science fiction publishing.
While H. P. Lovecraft’s antisemitism is fairly well-documented, with dozens of instances in his letters regarding Jewish persons, race, and religion; the antisemitic comments that Clark Ashton Smith made towards Hugo Gernsback and his company may come as something of a surprise to many readers. Smith’s comments on Jewish people are very few in his published letters, and the bulk of his antisemitic comments were directed solely against Gernsback & co.—with an occasional swipe at other Jewish publishers, e.g.:
I return the Ullman–Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Oct 1933, DS456
Too bad about Knopf. I wish Hitler had him, along with Gernsback. —Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 19 Oct 1933, EID196
The tone and wording of the comments suggest frustration with publishers in general, which focused in on their being Jewish as a convenient target for abuse—even though their being Jewish had nothing to do with, say, editorial changes in Smith’s tales in Wonder Stories or Knopf turning down a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction.
In terms of fiction, Clark Ashton Smith had very few Jewish characters or references in his fiction, and so few occasions to express any antisemitism. Smith’s usual line was fantasy & horror set in imaginary worlds, and science fiction set in the far future, so references to Jews in his work are rather rare—there is no more need for Jewish characters in Zothique, Atlantis, Xiccaraph, Hyperborea, or Mars than there would be for Christians or Buddhists or run-of-the-mill Satanists—so absence of Jewish characters isn’t particularly unusual or necessarily reflective of antisemitism on Smith’s part.
Those few stories which do feature Jewish characters rely almost entirely on Jewish stereotypes that were old when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, the same stereotypes Smith expressed in negative terms in his anti-Gernsback commentary. Clark Ashton Smith’s unpublished story “The Parrot” is the most prominent example, with Ben Stein as a veritable caricature of a “greedy Jew”…and the only good thing that can be said about the sketch is that it wasn’t published until after Clark Ashton Smith’s death.
In general, it must be acknowledged that casual antisemitism was sadly common among many members of the Weird Tales circle; in addition to Lovecraft and Smith, Robert E. Howard and August Derleth at least are also known to have made antisemitic comments in letters. Smith also never (as far as I can find) made any such comments to Jewish correspondents like Robert Bloch or Samuel Loveman. While it is dangerous to generalize, and certainly never a major aspect of any letter, this kind of antisemitic commentary against Jewish publishers appears to have been generally tolerated among the non-Jewish members of the Weird Tales circle of correspondents. This kind of discrimination was no doubt someting that Hugo Gernsback and other Jews in the United States faced frequently during the 1930s.
No black fans had become active to any extent by 1957, but females without brothers or husbands in fandom became more numerous. The one who attracted the most notice was Lee Hoffman, whom everyone had assumed to be male until she appeared at a fan gathering for the first time and almost disrupted the New Orleans Worldcon in 1951 in the process. —Harry Warner, Jr. “Fandom Between World War II and Sputnik” in Science Fiction Fandom 70
Nolacon I, held over Labor Day weekend (September 1-3) in New Orleans in 1951, was the ninth WorldCon. Harry Warner’s pronouncement that no black fans had become active in fandom by 1957 was not true: black fans bought pulps and science-fiction books, and some even participated in “active fandom” as members of science fiction fan clubs and organizations. Allen Glasser in “History of the Scienceers” recalled:
During the early months of the Scienceers’ existence—from its start in December 1929 through the spring of 1930—our president was Warren Fitzgerald. As previously mentioned, Warren was about fifteen years older than the other members. He was a light-skinned Negro—amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings—an offer we gratefully accepted. (Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 49)
Attendees at Nolacon might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. While the convention itself made no formal statement regarding race, racial segregation was very much in effect in New Orleans in the 1950s. Public transportation, restrooms, and other facilities were segregated into “white” and “colored” under Jim Crow; restaurants, hotels, and other businesses simply refused to serve black customers, blacks and whites had separate beaches and parks.
There were less than 200 attendees. Nolacon Bulletin #2 (July 1951) lists 196 members; Harry Warner, Jr. in in his memoir of fandom in the 50s A Wealth of Fable says 183 were officially registered “and 300 or more persons were believed to be on hand at one time or another” (352). Membership at the door was $1; tickets for the southern chicken fried banquet, $2.50. The convention hall was at the St. Charles Hotel, which was air-conditioned—and traditionally white-only. Not all the rooms in the surrounding hotels were air-conditioned, and fans sweltered in the heat. Unable to sleep, they began an all-night poker game in room 770, which became a two-day room party that reached legendary proportions.
One highlight was a midnight showing of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the local Saenger Theater. Seating was segregated. Black attendees would have had to enter through a side door, to sit up on the balcony. Had any black science fiction fans done so, the film they watched could have stood as a metaphor for the mythic white space they found themselves in: a film of the possibilities of the future starring white people, for white people; the few non-white actors such as Rama Bai and Spencer Chan went uncredited.
Segregation had risen as an issue in science fiction fandom long before Nolacon I was a glimmer in the New Orleans Science-Fantasy Society’s eye. In Summer of 1944, archfans Forrest J. Ackerman and Jack Speer had published an 8-page one-shot periodical in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association titled Black & White [PDF]. Ackerman published an editorial denouncing Speer’s racial prejudice and support of Jim Crow; and recalled:
On our way to the Nycon [1939, the first WorldCon], Morojo and I felt distinctly uncomfortable, embarrass[ed] to be members of such a country, when we passed through a certain state wherein seats in the coaches were partitioned temporarily and marked “For Colored Only.” We resented this, we did not like to think any colored people were blaming us in their minds, looking at us accusingly. Beyond personal, selfish considerations, we considered the situation fundamentally unjust. (Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 92)
The other half of the ‘zine was Speers’ rebuttal; which is proof if any was needed that even science fiction fans could be prejudiced and close-minded. The best that can be said is that Speer’s position was soundly thrashed in the fanzines that reviewed the periodical. Seven years later, it was in another fan-periodical that the issue of Jim Crow and Nolacon was raised:
On the subject of this year’s World Science Fiction Convention: It will be of great interest to this editor to discover whether there were both WHITE and COLORED entrances to the convention-hall this year, for the tenets of the sovereign state of Louisiana and the noble city of New Orleans strictly forbid the mingling of ‘Caucasian and non-Caucasian races’ in such public buildings as are usually the sites of conventions. Just as a clinical study, let’s review the case.
We know that the basis for the persecution, discrimination, and segregation of and against the negro in the southern U.S. is an economic one. It is profitable for the Southern bourgeoisie (if we may borrow a work from the marxist lexicons) to oppress the Negro and other minority groups. The only way in which to fight this racist fascism is [to] make it extremely unprofitable for the South to pursue this racist policy.
Cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans derive a sufficient sum from the tourist trade (which includes the many convention dollars spent, not at the auction, but on such relative nonessentials as food and lodging) to make them review with alacrity the necessity of maintaining feudal laws in the face of a serious decrease in this income. Therefore, we must look upon the South’s financial dependency on the tourist trade as a weapon which democratic Americans from more e[n]lightented sections of the county must use, as a club if need be, against the forces of bourgeois reaction and open fascism in the South.
Many progressives are foregoing the annual vacation-trip to Miami Beach, in the hope that this will graphically inform the business interests in the south who profit from such vacation-trips that democratic dollars shall not be spent to uphold [and] strengthen an undemocratic system.
It is up to the fans who will vote on future convention site[s] to make sure that all fans will be able to have an equally good time, regardless of the racial, national, or religious differences that may be evident to the eye of a sovereign state or a noble city.
—Michael DeAngelis, Asmodeus #2 (Fall 1951), 5
The call to action may sound familiar. The World Science Fiction Convention still struggles with issues of making sure that all fans, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ableness are able to fully participate, enjoy, and share their common love of science fiction art, literature, and media. While the Jack Speer of this generation may no longer be arguing explicitly and out loud for segregation, behavior which demeans, denigrates, and disenfranchises others based on such factors accomplishes much the same thing. Likewise, DeAngelis’ suggestion that fans vote with their wallets, choosing not to financially support racist policies, is still very much sound advice.
The editorial in Asmodeus #2 made little splash in fandom; by the time it came out, it isn’t clear that it would have been in time to affect attendance, even if it had achieved widespread distribution. Yet at least two fans chose to respond, in letter to the editors. The first is from L. Sprague de Camp:
Mr. DeAngelis’s attribution of Southern race-prejudice to the economic motives of the Southern reactionary bourgeoisie is the usual Marxian pseudo-scientific fertilizer, based on the ludicrous assumption that people mostly act in accordance with economic class interests. If he’d lived in the South he’d know that the strongest such prejudice is found among the Southern white proletariat, & and that it’s based not on economics but on a psycho-cultural attitude imbibed in childhood and derived from the former Southern caste system. Actually Southern segregational practices are highly unprofitable to all Southerners, but most Southern whites take the view they’d rather be poor than suffer what they consider spiritual defilement. I don’t approve of their attitude any more than deA, but to drag in Communist twaddle merely confuses the issue. —L. Sprague de Camp, Asmodeus #3 (Spring 1952), 25
This is ultimately nitpicking without addressing the substance of the problem, something else that fans of science fiction today will recognize whenever the issue of discrimination rears its head. A penchant for pedantry often undermines any real progress, and carefully side-steps the issue of acknowledging a problem exists or what to do about it.
The second letter is from Redd Boggs, a prominent fan and fanzine publisher who has been nominated for several Retro Hugo awards for his fan-writing:
DeAngelis seems to be belaboring a dead horse with his remarks on the Nolacon. And after all, it was not the fault of the Southern fans themselves that Jim Crow exists down there. I might think more of them if I know they were doing what they could to break down racial barriers, but I don’t think less of them for putting on a convention despite the segregation that had to be observed. What else could they do? Should we have allowed the South to have a convention? I think we should have. They deserved the chance to have one, and to deny them one on the basis of racial prejudice smacks of another kind of prejudice. Sectional discrimination is almost as bad as racial discrimination. I don’t think fandom should ever allow a con to be held in a hotel where anti-Semitic rules are found, or—if it is anywhere but the South—where Negroes are barred, but if we go to the South there is little or no alternative. If there is an alternative, as there will be almost anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon, I trust we’ll take it. Otherwise, deAngelis’ analysis of the economic basis of segregation leaves much to be desired. I fail to see how an end to the tourist trade, if it affected the South very much, could accomplish anything but the opposite effect Mike desires: making the whites poorer and thus more in competition than ever with the Negro. —Redd Boggs, Asmodeus #3, 27
“Sectional discrimination” in 1952 was the “reverse racism” of the 2020s—a fallacy used by those who claim that efforts to combat or reverse racial discrimination are themselves a form of discrimination. Boggs’ claims break down what might be the typical white fan’s mindset of the era: philosophically displeased with Jim Crow, but unwilling to actually do anything about it.
Implicit in all the Asmodeus debate are a number of implicit prejudices: that the culture of the American South was monolithic and unchangeable, that economics were a key factor in racial discrimination, that African-Americans were as a population disadvantaged by this discrimination, that science fiction fandom should not support racial discrimination…and that fandom as a whole was unwilling or unable to confront these issues with positive action.
We don’t know if any black fans tried to attend Nolacon I and were turned away at the door, but these issues were not simply theoretical—they were real, and affected real people. We know because there is at least one account of that actually happening:
[Gene Deweese had] been corresponding with a girl, Bev Clark, in northern Indiana, and wanted me to go with him to meet her, which suited me fine; I was finally finding girls I could talk to. Gene arranged things and we went up. It was the first time I’d met a black (or African-American, if you prefer) person socially. We got along fine, and later on we’d arranged that the three of us would drive to Midwestcon, again in my car; that car got a lot of use that summer; Juanita and her friend Lee Tremper would meet us there, and we’d have fun. We arrived at Beatley’s Hotel (or Beastley’s-on-the-Bayou, which was one of the fannish descriptions at the time) but Bev was refused admittance. No blacks allowed. None of us had even considered the possibility. On the way out, we talked to a few fans sitting on the hotel porch and some anger was expressed, especially by Harlan Ellison, who said that all fandom would hear about this outrage. We drove home, and as far as I know, nobody ever mentioned the episode again. Except me, of course. —Buck Coulson, “Midwest Memories” in Mimosa #13 [PDF] (1993), 36
That was in 1953; Coulson added that later that year Bev attended the 1953 WorldCon in Philadelphia with them and there were “no room problems.” Juanita Coulson (she and Buck married in 1954), would add on to the account:
Lots of people commiserated and thought this was terrible and something should be done about it—but nobody did anything. We happen to know this particular instance pretty well. The convention hotel was Beatley’s at Indian Lake, a Midwestcon, and the Negro girl fan was Beverly Clark. She, Buck and Gene drove over from Indiana, had their reservations cleverly lost by the hotel management, much sympathy and no action from the other con attendees, and turned around and drove back that same night. A procedure I would not recommend. I didn’t find out about this until Saturday night, despite repeated inquiries of other people, some of whom were witnesses to the earlier incident. (I had come on the bus with Lee Tremper, expecting to meet the other trio. Obviously, I never did.) What could have been done? Well, at an outside guess I would say if the managers of the con and plenty of the fans had gotten together and promised the hotel keeper if she didn’t admit a guest with a reservation regardless of color they’d take their business elsewhere something might well have been accomplished. Nobody suggested this, and there was no indication that enough of the fans were willing to put their actions where their mouths were. They had lots of company in mundania at that time. […] It’s nice to think fans are slans and ahead of their times and farseeing and politically and socially advanced and all—but I’d take it with a healthy dose of salt. I been there. At least I got into fandom on the time-line edge, It was at that break point in the early-mid 50s that hotels began realizing there’d been an emancipation proclamation* or Buck and I would have missed a lot of cons. We wrote ahead to the hotel in Philly to make sure Bev Clark and her friend Eleanor Turner would be admitted, or we probably wouldn’t have gone. —Juanita Coulson, Starling #14 [PDF] (1970), 19-20
Racial segregation in the United States has been officially over for some time; Supreme Court cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964) and legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped end Jim Crow—though it was a long and uphill struggle, and far from bloodless. We still deal with the issues raised by segregation and its ends today, culturally and socio-economically.
The full effects of Jim Crow and racism both implicit and explicit prevalent on early fandom will never be known. How do you measure the effect of those fans who wanted to attend, but were denied access to the hotel where the convention was held? How many fans were turned off by the lukewarm response from fans like Redd Boggs, who didn’t agree with Jim Crow but were willing to implicitly endorse it so that Southerners could have their own science fiction conventions?
While Jim Crow is a thing of the past, it is a part of science fiction fandom history—and one which we forget only at our own peril. There was a time when white fans did nothing, while black fans had to use side entrances and were denied entrance. If we are to not be hypocrites, to embrace and celebrate our diversity and look ahead to the future, we must make sure that all science fiction fans are treated equally—not harassed or discriminated against, not made second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation—and to not retreat when such remarks are made.
Remarks were made at the 78th WorldCon, CoNZealand, in 2020. George R. R. Martin has been criticized for his hosting of the Hugo Awards at the event, where he spent considerable time discussing historically important figures in science fiction like John W. Campbell—long time editor of Astounding (1937-1971) and a noted racist in the Jack Speer vein. Martin has also been criticized for disrespecting the award winners, mispronouncing names and undercutting accomplishments like N. K. Jemisin’s “hat trick” of three Hugo awards for best novel in as many years, and four in the last five (2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020). Several times, Martin reminisced about when fandom was so much smaller, and the convention was simply held in a hotel.
Many fans and writers, including Jemisin and other nominees and winners, tweeted, blogged, and essayed about the awards, but one observation from genre fiction scholar Jess Nevins stood out:
In their way, the SFF gatekeepers are the equivalent of the Lost Cause Southerners: clinging for dear life to this fantasy construction of the past that is at angle to the real thing, making secular saints of white men of reprehensible moralities and behavior. (tweeted by @JessNevins 11:17 AM · Aug 2, 2020)
It can be difficult to get away from the shadow of the past. John W. Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft were racist; that does not negate their accomplishments as editor and writer, respectively, but it does cast a shadow over their legacy. In 2011, Nnedi Okorafor’s response to winning the World Fantasy Award—then in Lovecraft’s likeness and nicknamed “The Howard”—sparked a petition for the replacement of the award, which happened in 2015. In her acceptance speech for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Writer, Jeannette Ng called out the award’s namesake:
John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of [Astounding Science Fiction], he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.
Her words sparked change; the award was renamed to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and Ng herself earned the 2020 Hugo for Best Related Work for making that speech.
Positive change can happen, if people raise their voices and work for it.
Late night in Harlem on a Friday and the streets more full than at rush hour. Tommy Tester cherished the closeness, to his father and to all the bodies on the sidewalks, in their cars, riding buses, perched on stoops. The traffic and human voices merged into a terrific buzzing that seemed to lift Tommy and Otis, a song that accompanied them—carried them—all the way home. —Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 36
Places have character in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Dunwich and Arkham, Kingsport and Innsmouth, these are Lovecraft country and as much a part of the stories as any of the human characters taking part in the narrative. New York City was a character in Lovecraft’s stories too—in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “Cool Air”—yet there are parts of the city conspicuous by their absence. There is no Harlem in Lovecraft’s New York tales, scarcely any mention of Harlem in any of his fiction.
Lovecraft’s Mythos is expressly not a mythic white space. People of color exist, and are subject to the common contemporary prejudices that Lovecraft knew. They are supporting characters, often derided and stereotyped. Because there is a New York City in Lovecraft’s stories, we can assume there is a Harlem somewhere in it, and that African-Americans live there. Harlem as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, though; Harlem as the cultural center of African-Americans in New York; that Harlem is not present. Lovecraft never tried to capture the soul of Harlem in his fiction, and nor did many writers that came after him in the Mythos.
2016. Enter Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom. The novella is a re-working of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but this time Harlem is present. Tommy Tester and his father live there, it is their home, their haven, though even they don’t know all of its secrets. LaValle’s book expressly addresses the systemic racism and discrimination of 1920s New York, tries to tie it in to the fabric of Lovecraft’s stories and the geography of New York.
Even then, LaValle struggles with the portrayal of Harlem. The geography is right, but the descriptions are spare, often less than compelling, and mostly avoids major landmarks or descriptions of street life. “The Horror at Red Hook” takes place mostly in Brooklyn, so for much of The Ballad of Black Tom the main characters are not in Harlem itself, and consequently there is less opportunity to develop the character of the place. It isn’t Harlem as Lovecraft would have seen it—but then, what would that have looked like? What would it be like for a white man, known for his racism and cosmic horror fiction, to visit the Black Mecca of the United States?
Lovecraft in Harlem
At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem […] —H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 95
The Great Migration saw thousands of African-Americans move from the rural South to the cities of the North. In Manhattan, the neighborhood of Harlem became a center of black demographics and, as the 1920s wore on, black culture. Harlem became the geographic center of and gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that celebrated the best that African-Americans had to offer. Many white people during this time were more interested in Harlem’s nightlife, the cabarets, clubs, speakeasies, and sexual underworld which rose to legendary proportions during Prohibition, as chronicled in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926).
H. P. Lovecraft first visited Harlem in 1922. The native of Providence, Rhode Island had been invited to visit New York City by Sonia H. Greene, an amateur journalist who wished to disprove some of Lovecraft’s prejudices by broadening his horizons (Ave Atque Vale 148). The thirty-two-year-old weird writer, who had not yet made his first professional publication, traipsed through much of the city, visiting museums, parks, admiring the remaining old architecture, and visiting with friends such as James F. Morton, a progressive-minded white man who had authored The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and whose apartment was in Harlem.
Morton and Lovecraft had “met” in 1915, where they ended up on opposite sides of an argument over race and prejudice in the amateur journals In A Minor Key and The Conservative (see “Concerning the Conservative”). Disagreement led eventually to correspondence, and then to friendship—though they never came to agreement on the issue of racial equality, they enjoyed the debate, and had other common interests in amateur journalism and writing.
There is no indication that Lovecraft stayed long or delved deep into Harlem on that first visit, or any subsequent visit to Morton’s, but he would later write to his aunt:
After a period of discussion & repartee, which Mrs. Long said reminded her of the epigrammatic paradoxes of Oscar Wilde & Whistler, the gang adjourned to Morton’s chaotic apartment in Harlem. I had never before seen Morton’s abode, & naturally I was interested. He dwells in a street now overrun by niggers of the cleaner & less offensive sort—decayed, but still retaining the outlines of its former beauty. There are pleasing trees on both sides, & the architecture of the houses is highly prepossessing. No. 211—the Morton mansion—is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.64
Walker was a noted freethinker who had founded the interracial Sunrise Club in 1889 and served as its secretary until his death in 1931; he and Morton were both advocates of free love, although it is not clear if this was in any way involved with how Morton came to live in Harlem. Nor did Lovecraft have go to Harlem to be aware of it, on the same trip he visited the Bronx Zoo:
Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends1.79
The United States Army was still segregated in 1922, and most troops were relegated to non-combat roles. An exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which gained popular renown during World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit was demobilized in 1918, but the segregated 15th New York National Guard Regiment from which it was formed continued. It is possible this was a member of that unit.
Lovecraft’s eye was mainly captured by the architecture, although on subsequent visits he would pay more attention to the inhabitants. The sheer numbers of black people living together in New York was amazing to Lovecraft—while Providence was not legally segregated in the sense of the Jim Crow South at that time, Lovecraft had always lived in the predominantly white portions of the city, though he was aware that there were black neighborhoods:
I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York […] Over on the “West Side”, it is very cosmopolitan, but the East Side child might as well be in the heart of Old England so far as racial environment is concerned. Slater Avenue school was near my home, & the only non-Saxons were niggers whose parents work for our families or cart our ashes, & who consequently know their place. —H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 Dec 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 47
To put the demographics in perspective, the 1920 census put the total population of Providence at 237,595; in New York City in 1920, the black population alone was 152,467—and by 1930, there would be more African-Americans in New York than there were people of all races combined in Providence (1920 Census, 1930 Census). For a white man who had spent probably his entire life without seeing more than a handful of black people at a time, visiting Harlem would have been an eye-opening experience. He would visit New York, and Harlem, again.
In 1924, Lovecraft would return to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene, and to take up residence in the city. It was a tumultuous time in the writer’s life, as he struggled with domesticity, inability to find work, his wife’s illness, financial struggles, and finally separation as she left to take a job in the Midwest, leaving Lovecraft alone in a Brooklyn apartment. One of Lovecraft’s pleasures during this period were his outings with ‘the Boys,’ or as they became more formally known, the Kalem Club—a loose association of writers who would gather at each other’s houses and apartments to converse on every subject from poetry to politics. Morton held his share of the meetings:
Sonny [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.] and I settled the fate of literature betwixt us and parted early in the evening—with the understanding that The Boys meet up there on Thursday, August 7th, if Mrs. Long is well enough to stand the racket. Otherwise we convene at Morton’s dump in Bantu and barbaric Harlem, our first meeting there, by the way. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.145
In the evening The Boys met at Morton’s—up in niggerville—and had a great time despite the African cast of the contiguous terrain. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.147
Few accounts of these meetings survive outside of Lovecraft’s letters, although fellow Kalem-club member George C. Kirk once recalled:
August 15. Friday. Went to a party in black belt last night. If Lovecraft is a prince James F. Morton Jr. is a king. (Ave Atque Vale223)
As time went on, Lovecraft found himself in Harlem again for other purposes than visiting Morton’s. Accounts are generally few and far-between; Lovecraft was a teetotal, against interracial relationships, and disliked jazz, and so appears to have had zero interest in the more “touristy” parts of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten might have showed him.
Saturday was a hectic round of the shops—both Harlem & Brooklyn—on Kirk’s behalf; & in the evening we parted laden with vases, candlesticks, sofa pillows, steins, Japanese panels, & the like—which Kirk bore to his room whilst I returned to 169 [Clinton St.] for slumber. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.239
However, for the most part during this period Lovecraft was only aware of Harlem from stops on the subway station at 125th street and Lenox Avenue. These were unsegregated cars, as Lovecraft would attest to an aunt who had experienced Jim Crow conditions in Georgia:
The separation of people & niggers at the stations is an excellent idea—which ought to be practiced on the Harlem subway trains here—& it would please me always to alight at the quaint & picturesque town of WHITE. —H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 10 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.243
Lovecraft’s experience of encountering African-Americans on New York subways is among his more odious anecdotes of living in New York, as evidenced by a trip to Pelham Bay Park:
It took an hour to get there; & since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegāna, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, & that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings & outings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore & back & reënter the subway for the long homeward ride—waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 6 July 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.310
It is worth pointing out that Lovecraft was more vocally racist in his letters to his aunts than to pretty much any of his other correspondents; whether this is because they shared his prejudices or that he was simply more relaxed about writing to them is unclear. The tendency to slip into farcical vernacular English and African-American dialect is typical of Lovecraft—he was a student of dialect and did the same thing for many accents, in New England, New York, the South, and elsewhere in his letters, often playing for comedic effect—but even so, the naked prejudice on display shows how far out of his element Lovecraft felt. In large part, the degree of prejudice evidenced in Lovecraft’s few mentions of Harlem is because race is what set Harlem apart, at least in his mind.
The New York adventure ended in 1926. Separated from his wife, still with no job, and having had his apartment broken into and clothes stolen, Lovecraft finally packed his things and left New York to return to Providence. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft would maintain a detestation for the city—with its vast hordes of immigrants, Jews, and African-Americans. The rhetoric of Lovecraft’s prejudice increased during the rising tide of antisemitism that accompanied the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, as can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s more egregious statements:
I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!) —H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jun 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 325
Morton had by this point moved from Harlem to New Jersey, so Lovecraft wasn’t literally calling for his death, and the full horrors of Hitler’s policy of genocide were not understood when he came to power in 1933. The callous suggestion for mass murder is hyperbole, a statement about his dislike of New York as a whole. The quote is worse in hindsight, knowing as we do today about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s use of poison gas to murder millions. Lovecraft did not know about that—but it speaks to the depths of his antipathy to the multiracial, multicultural melting pot that he had failed to find a place in.
Yet Lovecraft also retained ties to the city in the form of friends like the Longs, and would revisit it several times during his travels. He would also write of the city to his friends. When one young correspondent considered visiting New York, Lovecraft provided a list of places to visit, and included:
Harlem negro district (sinister & fascinating—not a white face for blocks—Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St.—walk N.) —H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 128
The longest and most detailed account that Lovecraft ever gave of Harlem was to another young friend, a jazz pianist and aficionado of Duke Ellington:
Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether there are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. The Bronx trains are bad enough—packed solidly with bulbous-nosed or Mongoloid-faced Jews—but de Lenox Ab’noo trains sho’ ain’t no place fo’ no blond of any kind! Black Harlem itself I know largely from ‘bus windows—the coach lines from Providence passing down Lenox or upper 7th Ave. through the heart of the district. It is the extent which almost stupefies one…block after block after block…outdoing anything that Charleston or Richmond or Savannah or Atlanta or New Orleans can produce. You’d never think there were so many niggers in the world, or that there were so many denizens of New York that aren’t Jews! I’ll bet Senegal & Nigeria look white as compared with that zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond. Africa pushes south all the time—crowding the Jews & impinging on the white Puerto-Ricans (who nosed out the Jews in their region about 1930) of upper 5th Ave. And yet this whole black colony scarcely dates from before 1913, when the blacks of “San Juan Hill” downtown were evicted to make room for the new Pennsylvania station. The dispossessed families found some cheap tenements in upper Harlem (then mainly Nordic-Aryan) & formed a nucleus—quickly spreading as the white families on their borders moved away. How far they will get, no one can tell. The Jews don’t retreat before them as rapidly as the Aryans did, but they begin to go when the blacks get very thick in a block. The northern rim of Central Park will probably check them & turn their spread eastward—where they’ll displace great Greek & Hungarian colonies. The most amusing parts of Harlem are where the rich blacks dwell—these being almost as neat & spruce as Aryan neighbourhoods. The houses include some of the most elegant reliques of the Stanford White period, & the prosperous professional Æethiops keep them spic & span! Amusing in another way are the shop windows of Lenox & 7th Aves. All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery. Sharp social distinctions are said to exist among the blacks—for example, West Indian negroes are disliked by the coons of the continental U.S. Some of the West Indians—who speak with a British accent & have an independent arrogance which grates on Southerners—despise the American blacks as much as the latter hate them. Portuguese negroes—so-called “Bravas” from the Cape Verde Islands, unpleasantly common in Providence & other southern New England ports—appear to be absent from nigger Harlem. While the black belt has no well-defined eastern limit, it is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights, atop which are the Gothic quadrangles of N.Y. City College (whose student body is almost solidly Jewish) & the streets of a rather passable & fairly Aryan neighbourhood amidst which can be found (overtaken & packed in among modern city blocks) the old country seat (built about 1800) of Alexander Hamilton, out of whose door he walked to his death on that fatal duel morning in 1804. —H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 65-67
There is some excellent detail here—one would not normally look for a random white tourist in Harlem to comment on straightening irons—but it is notable that by 1934 Lovecraft had traveled much more widely, visiting as far south as Key West and as far east as New Orleans. He had seen segregated buses and work gangs down South, visited the Cuban enclave of Ybor City and the Hispanic old city of St. Augustine, and yet he still found Harlem fascinating in its own unique way.
There are a few more scattered references to Harlem in Lovecraft’s letters, but with no friends to visit and not living in the city himself, he does not appear to have visited the city except passing through on bus trips for the rest of his life. The exploitative image of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten and others portrayed of Harlem appear to have largely passed Lovecraft by. Yet that was not quite the end of the connections that Lovecraft had with Harlem.
Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance
The published letters and essays of H. P. Lovecraft include few mentions of any African-American writers or artists directly apart of the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that Lovecraft was completely ignorant or unaffected by the work of such creatives—we know for example that Lovecraft was gifted a copy of Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1929) in 1931, and that book is illustrated by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. But the main works of that movement appear to have passed Lovecraft by.
This lack is particularly notable in his critical essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” first published in 1927. This survey of weird fiction misses contributions to horror fiction by black authors, including Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston, whose anthropological writings on folklore such as Mules & Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) would expand on subjects such as Haitian voodoo. Such a blind spot is understandable as Lovecraft explains in one letter:
Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic. —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 45
Lovecraft was not generally derogatory toward fiction written by African-Americans, and could even praise the efforts of individuals, but he simply had very little interest in the black point of view, and consequently read very little of such works.
By an odd coincidence, however, Lovecraft did have relationships with two individuals who were connected with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, Winifred Virginia Jackson and William Stanley Braithwaite established the B. J. Brimmer Company, which published a number of works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze: A Book of Verses (1922).
Jackson was white, divorced, a poet and writer who sometimes contributed poems to W. E. B. du Bois’ The Crisis. She had met Lovecraft through amateur journalism in 1918, and they had collaborated on two stories together: “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance (1977) repeated gossip that Jackson and Lovecraft may have been in a relationship, though there is no evidence of this in Lovecraft’s letters. The same source claimed that Jackson was the mistress of William Stanley Braithwaite, though there is no evidence for that either. Whatever the case, in 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife Sonia H. Greene, and his friendship with Jackson faded.
Braithwaite was mixed-race, but in the United States at that period that made him “colored.” Lovecraft was aware of him as a prominent Boston editor and critic, but did not become aware of his race until 1918, when he read a newspaper account of Braithwaite winning the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, which occasioned a stunningly racist outburst (LRKO 112). Whatever Lovecraft’s feelings, they did not extend to discourtesy: a letter at the John Hay Library from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 February 1930, and is formal but cordial, and Lovecraft’s surviving letters to Jackson that mention Braithwaite praise him as a poetry critic.
Harlem in Lovecraft’s Fiction
The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922)
Buck Robinson as a black boxer echoes Jack Johnson, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) whose very existence caused white America to clamor for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him—and Lovecraft began writing this story in 1921, before he had gone to New York or seen Harlem. He had that much cultural knowledge of Harlem, as center of black population and black culture, to provide that detail. “The Harlem Smoke” is the only explicit reference to Harlem in Lovecraft’s fiction.
Which is a very weird absence when it is remembered that Lovecraft was writing fiction in New York, and those particular tales he wrote while living there—“The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air”—were set in or take inspiration from his experiences in the city. The only reference to black people among these stories is a brief mention of “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth” and “population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” in “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is set in Brooklyn.
The conspicuous absence of Harlem from Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat characteristic. Lovecraft wasn’t shy about including depictions of race prejudice in his fiction, so since Lovecraft basically didn’t write anything about Harlem in his stories means he inadvertently avoided saying anything negative about that place and its inhabitants. There were none of the exaggerated or exploitative material about Harlem that was characteristic of white writers like Carl Van Vechten.
On the other hand, it is also something of a tradition of erasure. Because there is no Harlem in these stories, there are also very few black characters and almost nothing about black culture in the Lovecraft Mythos. So while Lovecraft managed to minimize saying anything explicitly racist about Harlem in his fiction, there is also literally nothing about Harlem for later writers to expand off of. Harlem in the Lovecraft Mythos is effectively a blank slate, on which anyone might write anything.
So they did.
Harlem in the Cthulhu Mythos
Almost all of Lovecraft’s contemporaries at Weird Tales and his correspondents were white; the bulk of those did not live in or near New York City. At the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft was an obscure author who never achieved widespread or enduring publication; his fanbase was small but loyal and vocal. Two in particular, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, sought to get Lovecraft’s fiction and letters into hardback publication, and to this end they formed the small publisher Arkham House—and managed through legal wrangling and much self-advertisement to establish a near-monopoly on Mythos fiction until Derleth died in 1971.
Which is to say that it took several decades for Harlem to really make any substantial appearance in the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, but by the time that it did, the United States was in many ways a different place. Jim Crow and segregation had ended in the 1960s through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The legal successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not translate into financial or social equality, as African-American science fiction fans, writers, and artists remained in the minority, though increasingly they were given opportunities to make their talents known and voices heard.
This is the context in which The Ballad of Black Tom was written: faced with a mostly blank slate, trying to address a notable gap in Lovecraft’s corpus. Not just the absence of Harlem itself, but the absence of an African-American point of view. While LaValle’s Harlem may not come through as visceral as Lovecraft depicts it in his letters, he does succeed in depicting a Harlemite, and a much-neglected viewpoint.
Victor LaValle was not the only writer in the wider Cthulhu Mythos to attempt and address this gap. The most extensive effort to bring Harlem into the Mythos has been, not in short fiction, but in tabletop roleplaying. Chaosium, Inc. produced the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981, based on Lovecraft’s fiction and with a primary focus on characters assuming roles in the period in which Lovecraft’s fiction is set (1920s-1930s). Settings for this game include New York with books like Secrets of New York (2005, Chaosium), and entire third-party settings such as Harlem Unbound (2017, Darker Hue Studios). In these works, the focus is much less on Lovecraft’s prejudices and more “filling in the gaps” by addressing both what he did and especially what he did not write about. As editor Chris Spivey put it:
There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem’s time is fleeting. While classes, sexuality, and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song? (8)
There are differences between Secrets of New York and Harlem Unbound. The former is a product for a general audience; that is, the players and their characters are not assumed to be of any particular race or ethnicity—while Harlem Unbound focuses in on the black experience in Harlem, and while the players may by of any race, with the assumption that the player characters at least are going to be black Harlemites, like Tommy Tester in The Ballad of Black Tom. In that respect, Harlem Unbound has the heavy lifting to do of trying to show what Harlem was like, during Lovecraft’s life, as well as to find angles with which to connect Harlem with the Mythos.
For writers like Victor LaValle and Chris Spivey, Harlem is unclaimed territory, a blank space on the map where they can imagine and write their own stories. Yet it is not a place without a history; books have been written about Harlem, movies set there, contemporary street maps and photographs are available, and not a few stories left from people that remember what it was like when they were children there—if not during the 20s and 30s, then in later decades. Plenty of colorful detail where a savvy writer can fit in some aspect of the Mythos, either one dreamed up by Lovecraft or a brand new horror that ties into the greater framework.
Which is the promise and possibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and Harlem going forward: having been neglected for so long, we have arrived at a point where people of color can write and publish their own approach to what horrors might lurk in the shadows of Harlem, and how the Harlemites might deal with it. Which may ultimately be the way forward when it comes to Lovecraft’s fiction: to see and go beyond his personal limitations and prejudices, to explore the possibilities that his fiction offers, and to carve a new Mythos that can address the fears and experiences of all people.