The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson

In a land defined by dreaming men and bickering gods, there were no sure rules, but there was also no certain randomness.
—Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 133-134

You don’t have to have read Lovecraft or Dunsany to appreciate The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Without those references, it is still a very competent fantasy novelette. Johnson has a good eye for detail, characterization, description; the plot moves quick, never gets hung up too long in one place, one peril. Vellitt Boe is on a mission, after all.

That being said, without the historical context of Lovecraft and Dunsany, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is in danger of being misunderstood as a generic fantasy novel, of the sort inspired by a thousand sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, or Fighting Fantasy. This comes almost as a consequence of how you get from Lord Dunsany to Kij Johnson, and to really appreciate what she is doing in this novelette and how it got there requires a bit of background. 

H. P. Lovecraft discovered Lord Dunsany in 1919. The Anglo-Irish peer had created an artificial mythology in his tales of Pegāna, which would inspire Lovecraft’s own mythos, and the stories of “Beyond the Fields We Know” in Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919) including “Idle Days on the Yann” and “The Shop in Go-By Street” would lay the groundwork for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

It is important to remember that Lovecraft built his Mythos over time, defining and re-defining it as time went on and other influences came to bear. “The Cats of Ulthar” (written June 1920) was not originally set in the Dreamlands; it was a generic fantasy. The first actual Dreamlands story was “Celephaïs” (written November 1920). In later fiction, these early fantasies and their names and geographies would be subsumed into the Dreamlands—and the “Dream Cycle” with its vagaries and contradictions (were exactly is Leng?) have given compilers of Mythos-lore much to chew on and argue about.

Randolph Carter came into existence in 1919 as well, in “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” This early story had nothing to do with the Dreamlands either; Lovecraft recorded a dream in his letters involving himself and his friend Samuel Loveman. In turning the dream into a story, Loveman became “Hartley Warren” and Lovecraft himself became “Randolph Carter.” The character became a self-identified counterpart for Lovecraft himself in his stories, though he appeared in only a few of them, notably “The Silver Key” (1926), which is the only one that was a Dreamlands tale until The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (written 1926-1927).

Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest is fundamentally different from anything he wrote before or since. Maybe that is why in part it found no publication during his lifetime. Too long, too weird, too inexplicably full of adventure—it is this novelette which binds together Lovecraft’s “dream” stories, early fantasies, and Randolph Carter stories. Without Dream-Quest, you could argue the Dreamlands are still a part of the Mythos, but places like Ulthar wouldn’t be a part of it. This was the story that really gave the scope and connective tissue that bound much of Lovecraft’s early fiction together. In structure and conception, it is much more similar to David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) or E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922) than anything else.

There aren’t really any women in it.

Which is true for much more of Lovecraft’s fiction than just The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As discussed in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft does have female characters in his stories, but the gender balance is distinctly skewed towards male characters. In large part, this seems to be simply because Lovecraft seldom made a character female unless there was a reason for her to be female. Which is why the only absolute reference to women in Dream-Quest is:

It is known that in disguise the younger among the Great Ones often espouse the daughters of men, so that around the borders of the cold waste wherein stands Kadath the peasants must all bear their blood. 

That’s it. There are other references to women in some of the other stories, if you look hard enough—the cat-killing wife in “The Cats of Ulthar” for example—but for the most part, women are implicit. Priests, but no priestesses. “Men” as a generic term for all persons of every gender, in the very 18th century sense. Rapacious gods of the Greco-Roman school, but no lusty goddesses bedding the handsome young men around Kadath.

It was in this context that Kij Johnson wrote her own Dream-Quest, and it is in many ways both a continuation of the tradition of Dunsany and Lovecraft, and a reflection on those works.

And I must of course acknowledge Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it.
—Kij Johnson, “Acknowledgements” in The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 167

Johnson did the work, sifted the stories. The story is set between “The Silver Key” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”; it references Lovecraft’s geography and zoology, but also subtly grounds and expands them. The Dreamlands are seen through the eyes of a native, an intelligent and experienced woman who knows more of how things work and finds delight in them. The skill of her construction is such that she never needs to cite a story specifically; it is never written that “In Ulthar no man may kill a cat,” because the idea is implicit in the story: no one even thinks of trying to kill a cat in Ulthar. It simply doesn’t come up. More amusingly and refreshingly, we get little anecdotes like how a young Vellitt Boe tried to climb Hatheg-Kla under the logic that it was only said no man could climb it. A neat bit which feels a bit like Éowyn taking a swing at the Witch-King of Angmar.

The story is at its best when it is showing rather than telling. Why not a woman’s college in Ulthar? Why not a female far-traveler? Nothing in Randolph Carter’s dream-quest required him to have a penis, so what’s to stop a woman from having her own adventure in the Dreamlands? Absolutely nothing.

The story is arguably at its weakest when it stops showing and starts telling.

She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.

“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”

Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers. (ibid. 71-72)

In narrative terms, the characterization of Randolph Carter as a bit of a straw-man serves its purpose only in highlighting Boe’s struggles as a woman. Even in the Dreamlands, there are gender norms and imbalances; the women’s college of Ulthar is the youngest and most vulnerable of the seven universities, and even a hint of scandal could see it closed, upper education cut off. In that sense, Johnson needed some character to personify the casual misogyny that Boe quested against as much as anything else.

Carter as a mouthpiece is problematic mainly because he never voices such views in Lovecraft’s fiction, and as he is implicitly Lovecraft’s alter-ego (though Johnson does not make this point) it can be read as Johnson putting words in Lovecraft’s mouth. While Lovecraft did evince a few chauvinistic statements during his life, he never wrote anything like what Carter says in Johnson’s Dream-Quest. The statement (“powerful women dreamers” is a great line) needed to be made at some point, if for no other reason than it sets up the finale, but the characterization seems off; rather like Ervin Howard in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. If a dead horse is going to be beaten, at least beat it for something it actually did.

There is a line in the story that may be uncomfortable, but then it would be a sad world where such a line would be otherwise:

As a young woman, when she had been beautiful and had worn her hair short and her clothes loose to conceal that fact, she had known all the signs of men and read them well enough that she had been successfully robbed only three times and raped once; but none of those had burned from her the hunger for empty spaces, strange cities, new oceans. (ibid. 83)

Nothing of the act, which happened sometime in the far past, is shown. Which is good; the last thing the story needed was an exploitative recap, some trauma porn of the effect and slow recovery. The event happened, it didn’t define her. It is also not the only mention of rape in the story; Vellitt Boe is traveling mostly alone in a quasi-Early Modern fantasy world. Sexual assault need not have a gender bias (the setting rarely hints at lesbianism as a possibility, and male homosexuality is completely absent from the text) but old habits die hard. How many women traveling alone today have the same fear?

Which is perhaps the one real criticism of The Dream-Quest of Villett Boe. It is great for what it is, but if the purpose was to have a message as well tell a story, it feels like it could have been that much better. Why aren’t there any female gods in the Dreamlands? Why aren’t there any female dreamers? Johnson wasn’t obliged to stick to Lovecraft or Dunsany in every regard, and doesn’t. Yet her Dreamland is almost too close to the waking world in some of its gender constructs and mores.

You might be interested to know that at the party one very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
—Joanna Russ, To Write Like A Woman 64

Russ, of course, wrote her own Dreamlands tale: “My Boat” (1976). Ironically, Russ’s story features a powerful woman dreamer (who also happens to be black), exactly the kind of character that Villett Boe lamented never meeting in her own Dreamlands. It’s a pity that the two characters didn’t run across each other—but the tales remain complementary. The Dreamlands is big enough for both characters, and more besides.

The book is at its most subversive when just letting Vellitt Boe find her own way, rather than being escorted by guards or ghouls or rescued by gugs. The Dreamlands through her eyes is a delight, and just having a female character be the protagonist of a Dreamlands story in itself is more of a statement that See? Women can explore the Dreamlands too! than any of the casual misogyny attributed to Randolph Carter (or, implicitly, Lovecraft). If Johnson’s goal beyond writing the story was to write a Dreamlands where the women aren’t invisible and mute, she can certainly be said to have succeeded. Above and beyond that, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a very rare thing: a good Dreamlands story, written in a way that is not a pastiche of Dunsany or Lovecraft.

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was published in 2016 by Tor.


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

Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw

Not for the first time, I consider giving the kid a refund. I’d gotten into the detective business to escape the deepwater blues, from the songs that squirm in your veins like worms. Sure, I’d go for an easy job, sometimes, ice a monster that had gotten too big for his bed. But this?
—Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone 56

H. P. Lovecraft did not invent weird fiction, in the same way Raymond Chandler didn’t invent hardboiled detective fiction. Noir and the Mythos are first cousins, descended from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories of C. Auguste Dupin—and over the years many writers have written weirdly consanguineous marriages in that sprawling family. Sometimes they even work out.

Cassandra Khaw is working, whether she knows it or not, in a tradition that includes C. J. Henderson’s The Tales of Inspector Legrasse (2005), James Ambuehl’s anthology Hardboiled Cthulhu (2006), and Ron Shiftlet’s Looking for Darla (2008). Graphic novels have been especially prolific of late, with entries including Weird Detective (2017) and Casefile: Arkham (2016). The stories work (when they do work) because both Mythos and noir stories are at heart mysteries; there is some hidden truth, cosmic or sordid, to be uncovered before the end. In many cases, they also share a setting in the 1920s and 30s. But the approach is distinct; hardboiled detectives are made of sterner stuff than most Lovecraftian protagonists, and the hard-drinking men and women who try to find the rotten worms of the earth at the core of a Mythos mystery usually end up regretting the experience.

Which is the case with Khaw’s novella Hammers on Bone.

John Persons, P.I., is an anachronism. Prowling the streets of modern-day London, he talks like a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel. A creature out of time in more sense than one, he lives the gumshoe role in a case that combines the tragic realities of domestic violence and economic hardship on the one hand, and body horror and eldritch experiences on the other. If you don’t think about the details; it works fine: Khaw has a great sense for her characters, and Persons’ personality and penchant for hardboiled slang carry the narrative along nicely.

The plot itself? A jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces deliberately missing. Khaw doesn’t set up any particular rules for her universe, at least not on the page. Like “All This for the Greater Glory of the 7th and 329th Children of the Black Goat of the Woods” (2012) by Molly Tanzer it feels filtered through half-remembered sessions of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. There is that assumption of familiarity with various bits and pieces of Mythos lore, but also a slapdash quality to it all. An almost cartoonish aspect where things happen because the story demands an action beat and the visuals are cool, but at the end of things there are crucial questions that remained unanswered. It isn’t a mystery where you can guess the end by page three, or page ninety-three, and when the last page of the epilogue is turned the reader may find themselves asking why Persons didn’t handle the case differently.

After all, it’s only murder.

Part of the problem is that the villain of this piece is a cipher. A domestic abuser and chav’s chav with squamous secret beneath the skin, but there are fill-in-the-blanks missing. Why does he do what he does? What is he after? Why hasn’t he done it already, if he has the power to? Unanswered questions and missing motivations. During the legwork phase of the investigation, Persons stumbles across something bigger than an alcoholic asshole who beats his not-quite-wife and spreads his eldritch infection—but the story cuts off before we get further down that particular road. Maybe in the sequel.

Hammers on Bone was published in 2016 as part of Tor’s Lovecraftian novella series. Khaw has written a sequel, A Song for Quiet (2017).


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

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage (2013) by Stephen D. Korshak & J. David Spurlock

Sometime in 1932, a six-foot tall, chain smoking woman, in need of a job to support her three-year-old son and crippled mother, walked into the office of legendary Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. The woman was a freelance fashion design illustrator with no knowledge of who H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, Seabury Quinn, Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch and dozens of other writers were. She had simply looked through the telephone book to find the name of a publishing company where she might find employment. During this initial meeting the woman, Margaret Brundage, displayed a painting of an Oriental female done in pastel chalk to Farnsworth Wright that caught his eye.
—Stephen D. Korshack, “Queen of the Pulps” in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 11

In 1932, Margaret Brundage (née Margaret Hedda Johnson) was a single mother; her husband Myron “Slim” Brundage was an alcoholic who had abandoned the marriage and the care of their son Kerlynn (born in 1927). Her first pulp cover would be for the Spring 1932 issue of Oriental Stories, and her first cover for Weird Tales would be for the September 1932 issue. Over the next 13 years she would produce 66 covers for Weird Tales, more than any other artist, and those during the height of the magazine’s golden years—when Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were still alive, and C. L. Moore would make her sensational debut.

Pulp authors vied for their story to be featured on the cover; it often meant extra pay as well esteem. Pulp fans argued in the letter pages about the propensity for nudes, and began spreading the rumors that Brundage (originally signed only as M. Brundage; her gender was not revealed until a couple of years later) was using her non-existent daughters to model the bondage shots. Sometimes the covers had real effects on the authors lives, as one anecdote might show:

“You said you’d like to read some of my stuff, and so I—I brought a copy of this magazine that’s just come out…It’s—it’s got a yarn of mine in it. I—I thought you might like to look at it.”

My eyes bulged. I’d never looked at a magazine like that before! That cover! A big, handsome man, except for his very short hair, was standing there with a big, green snake wrapped around him. A blonde girl sat on the ground staring at him. She was something! All she had on was a wispy scarf that didn’t quite cover her up front. Between her legs was another wisp of cloth fastened to a red and gold belt.

“It’s—it’s ‘The Devil in Iron.’”

—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 58

Weird_Tales_1934-08_-_The_Devil_in_Iron

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage is not quite a biography, however. It is primarily a collection of obscure but critical sources and essays on her life and work: memoirs and interviews normally only found in moldering and expensive fanzines, as well as new essays that expand on her life before and after Weird Tales. On top of that, the book includes a full gallery of her pulp art, and numerous photos of her life and art you won’t find anywhere else, all reproduced without the clipping or muddying of color typical of a lot of pulp art books. It is a gorgeous production from start to finish—and an enlightening one, as Brundage herself is a fascinating subject.

Arguably the best part of the book is J. David Spurlock’s “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage.” Most of the interviews and memoirs you could track down with time; this is new, and fantastic. A glimpse at Margaret Brundage before she was the Queen of the Pulps. Her fascinating encounter with a young Walt Disney in 1917 has to be read to be believed:

Margaret (walks toward the freshman, mumbling under her breath): If I were a man, they would give me a title; Editor, Art Director, something. One day women will win the right to vote. We’ll see some changes then.

(Approaching freshman, extends her hand): Dizzy, is it?

Walter: Oh… it’s Disney, Walter Disney.

(Both laugh)

Margaret: Sorry, I’m Margaret Johnson.

Walter: Are you the art director?

Margaret: Well, sort of. They have me doing the work but (raising her voice), I GUESS I’M NOT MAN ENOUGH FOR THE TITLE. So tell me about yourself. Do you have any experience?
—J. David Spurlock, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 128-129

Did it happen exactly that way? Hard to tell. But it gives the flavor of the young fiery woman who would get mixed up with the Bohemian scene in Chicago, and eventually marry (and divorce) labor agitator “Slim” Brundage. Her life in the 1940s and beyond is filled in by examining her work with Bronzeville “the epicenter of the Chicago black renaissance”; Margaret Brundage did not have the same racial prejudices as many in the period.

Spurlock gives some of the extra details missing from the interviews and memoirs, filling in some of the context. It is not a blow-by-blow, cover-by-cover essay—there might be a market for such a thing, but the focus is on Brundage’s life beyond the pulp scene, which many researchers have overlooked or ignored, and for that it is welcomed and invaluable.

There isn’t much of Lovecraft in the book, but then there wouldn’t be. Lovecraft seldom included women or nudes in his fiction, much less bondage, and never had a story of his feature on the cover of Weird Tales during his lifetime. More than that, Lovecraft has been noted as a general critic of Brundage’s artwork:

As for the covers—I never yet saw one that was worth the coloured inks expended on it. Of course the luscious & irrelevant nudes are rabble-catchers & nothing else but—an attempt by Wright to attract two publics instead of one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 28 Oct 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea Etc. 362

About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 382

About WT covers—they are really too trivial to get angry about. If they weren’t totally irrelevant and unrepresentative nudes, they’d probably be something equally awkward and trivial, even though less irrelevant. The “art” of the pulps is even worse than its fiction, if such be possible. Rankin, Utpatel, and Finlay are the only real illustrators of WT who are worth anything. I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject-matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 391-392

Lovecraft wasn’t alone in his criticism. Clark Ashton Smith was not trained as an artist, but had his own self-taught style in drawing, painting, and later sculpture noted:

Glad you liked “Ilalotha,” a story in wich I seem to have slipped something over on the PTA. The issue containing it, I hear, was removed from the stands in Philadelphia because of the Brundage cover. Query: why does Brundage try to make all her women look like wet-nurses? It’s a funny, not to say tiresome, complex.
—Clark Ashton Smith to R. H. Barlow, 9 Sep 1937, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 313

This was an oblique reference to something that comes up in one of Brundage’s interviews in the book:

E&O: Where you ever asked to start covering  your nudes a bit?

Brundage: I was never asked to, no. One funny thing did happen. One of the authors—well, Weird Tales asked me to make larger and larger breasts—larger than I would have liked to—well, one cover, one of the authors wrote in and said that things were getting a little bit out of line. And even for an old expert like him, the size of the breastwork was getting a little too large.

Etchings & Odysseys Interview with Margaret Brundage, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 32

We don’t know who wrote in, whether it was Smith or Lovecraft or someone else. Brundage is quite frank in her interviews about the details of her work for Weird Tales, and frank too about her sense of loss at the death of Robert E. Howard, whose stories she would illustrate for many of the covers. If you consider his Conan tales as extensions of the Cthulhu Mythos, her covers form some of the first Mythos art in color. For her work on Weird Tales alone, Brundage will probably long be remembered, emulated, parodied, and subject to homage. Her October 1933 “Bat Woman” cover for Hugh Davidson’s “The Vampire Master” has long been a favorite hallmark of her Weird Tales work, and is paid tribute to even today by artists like Abigail Larson.

Margaret Brundage as an artist and as a human being was more than 70-odd pulp covers. A lot more.

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage was published in 2013 by Vanguard Publishing, and is available in a paperback, hardcover, and deluxe hardcover editions.


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

“Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear

The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular object: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150-151

Shoggoths appear or are mentioned only three times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft: they appear on the page in At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936), and they are mentioned in passing but do not appear in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written 1933, published 1937). It is in the latter story that we learn there are shoggoths in Maine.

In “The Mound”, Lovecraft had shown how an “advanced” yet alien race had used biological science to enslave and shape living creatures to their use. Intelligent beings became beasts of burden and livestock. The shoggoths extended this conception: where part of the horror in “The Mound” (as with the earlier story “The Rats in the Walls”) was that the creatures of K’n-yan were part-human, the shoggoths were entirely inhuman in their conception. Biological robots in all but name, engineered lifeforms created to serve…and for anyone raised in the United States of America, as Lovecraft and most of his readers would have been, there are connotations there. Because for centuries the slave system of the United States had been based entirely on race.

Lovecraft knew this. He commented on historical slavery in his letters with friends. Like many white people in the early 20th century, he was misled by the Lost Cause propaganda of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School—and by his own prejudices—about the horrors of slavery. His view of the plantation system in the antebellum South (and his own native Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was an historical nexus for the slave trade) was rose-colored. The best example of Lovecraft’s line of thought on this matter, when he and his friend and fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard had fallen into a discussion of what we would call wage-slavery today:

As for peonage or actual slavery—that is hardly a practical possibility except with inferior or badly-cowed race-stocks. The whole psychological equilibrium which made it possible in mediaeval and ancient times has been permanently destroyed. But it really wouldn’t be so bad to enslave niggers, Mexicans, and certain types of biologically backward foreign peasants. I’m no abolitionist—in fact, I’d probably have been almost ostracised in New England in the hectic days of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Bostonese pharasaism in general. Of course, slavery ought to be regulated by stringent laws as to the treatment of slaves—laws backed up by frequent governmental inspections, and sustained by a carefully directed public sentiment as to humane conditions. In the 18th century, when we had negro slaves in Rhode Island, there was never any discontent or talk of ill-treatment. On the large estates of King’s County (estates duplicating the plantations of the South, and quite unique for the North) the blacks were in general simply contented—having their own festivities, and indulging in a kind of annual Saturnalia in which large numbers met and elected one of their number “King of Africa” for the ensuing year. One of my ancestors—Robert Hazard—left 133 slaves in his will. What caused slavery to decline in the north was the complex economic readjustment which rendered large-scale agriculture and stock-raising no longer as profitable as maritime commerce. When it no longer paid to keep niggers, our pious forbears began to have moral and religious scruples about the matter—so that around 1800 Rhode Island passed a law limiting slavery to black over 21, and declaring all others, and all subsequently born, free. Later this was amended to free the adult negroes—though most stayed right on with their masters as nominally paid servants. In the next generation, when slavery was defunct in the north but seen to be still a source of profit in the south, it occurred to northern politicians to become very Quixotic and devoted to the ideal of freedom—hence the impassioned frock-coated moralists of the abolitionist school, calling upon heaven to end the unrighteous curse of human bondage. But on the whole I don’t think slavery would form a practical policy for the future. Psychological conditions have changed. I don’t think inferior races, or persons of very inferior education or capacity in any race, ought to have the political franchise; but I think it is the best public policy to give them as much freedom as is consistent with the maintenance of the civilisation on an unimpaired level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, A Means to Freedom 466-467

Howard, for his part, concurred and cited his own family’s history of slaveowningalthough as Rob Roehm pointed out on Howard History, Robert E. Howard appeared ignorant of the details of his own ancestors’ violence toward their slaves.

The shoggoths had rebelled.

Rebellion was the one great fear of all slave-owners; that the violence inflicted on slaves for years and generations would be returned. Lovecraft, writing in 1931, might have been inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) mentioned in books he read that year such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). The racial violence of that conflict was very clear to Lovecraft, and in discussing one of August Derleth’s voodoo stories of the period Lovecraft notes:

[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376

Shoggoths are not explicitly a metaphor for the Haitians throwing off the yoke of slavery, or of any African-American rebellion. Slavery in the pulps was not uncommon when it came to both historical and fantasy subjects, and the treatment was seldom sympathetic unless person enslaved was white, as is the case in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard—and that involves a very different set of racial stereotypes, though white supremacy is still implicit.

It is notable that in At the Mountains of Madness, none of the characters are explicitly African-American. There is no one in that story who might sympathize with the shoggoths through the lens of their personal history. No one like Paul Harding, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom.”

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union Army after.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150

It is interesting to compare and contrast Harding with Theotis Nedeau in “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders. Both characters are Lovecraftian protagonists as they might have been. College-educated African-American men, with deep roots in American history. However, both Bear and Saunders take their characters further, exploring the black experience in the United States at the time. Throughout the story we get more hints of Harding’s background, his mother in Harlem, his experience with segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and even fighting prejudices from nominally sympathetic white Yankees like Burt Clay in Maine.

His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W. E. B. Du Bois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 155-156

There is no doubt that the Cthulhu Mythos needs more characters like Paul Harding, and more stories like “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Not because fans of the Mythos need to be beaten over the head with the historical horrors of racial violence and discrimination in the United States or any principle of forced inclusion as a form of political correctness, but because Harding brings a new and important perspective to shoggoths, both as a natural scientist and an African-American who remembered the scars of shackles around his grandfather’s back, and the dark lines of scar tissue on his back.

That is the advantage of inclusiveness: bringing in new points of view.

Bear makes this especially topical in that the story is implicitly set during the opening days of World War II—before there is a war, before the United States is in it. The Holocaust has begun, though the world may not yet know it. What can one man do, when faced with such a threat? Especially when the people around him seem devoted to doing nothing. To standing by while Jews are legislated against, forced out of public life and into concentration camps. This is a different tact than undertaken by “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. In those stories, the comparison between the concentration camps at Innsmouth and the Nazi efforts fall apart a bit because the Innsmouth folk are confirmed as at least partially inhuman; but in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” it is their common humanity that makes Paul Harding sympathize with the Jewish people in Germany. A victim of racial violence and discrimination all his life, he feels for them as a fellow-sufferer.

In 2009, Elizabeth Bear wrote an article titled “Why We Still Write Lovecraftian Pastiche”, where she writes:

As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.

I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.

Lovecraft is dead, so such an argument might strike readers as one-sided—but it isn’t, not really. Because people are still writing Mythos fiction and pastiche, still elaborating, reinterpreting, re-engaging with Lovecraft’s world and concepts. The context and syntax of the conversation changes, but it hasn’t stopped. People still find new things they want to talk about, and new ways to talk about it. That is in large part what keeps the Mythos alive as a mode of weird fiction.

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear won the 2009 Hugo award for best novelette; it was also nominated for a Locus award the same year. It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar 2008), and has been reprinted many times, including in The Book of Cthulhu (2011) and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), and it lent its title to Bear’s collection Shoggoths in Bloom (2012). Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the story may be interested in “How to Hack Lovecraft, Make Friends with His Monsters, and Hijack His Mythos: Reading Biology and Racism in Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”” (2016) by Anthony Camara.


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

“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins

Necronomicon,
freely translated, means the types or masks of death,
a museum of the most fabulous abominations and perversions.
The famous writer H. P. Lovecraft
was the first to mention this work,
in his Cthulhu mythology.
Many science fiction and fantasy writers have repeatedly mention this work
but it is only now, in
Giger’s Necronomicon,
that it has become reality for the first time.

—Opening statement to H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon (1992 edition)

In 1975, Swiss artist H. R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Ronald Shusett were all working on Jodowrosky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the production fell apart. In the aftermath, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett would revive a script titled Memory, which then became a screenplay, at first under the working title Star Beast, which was eventually changed to the final title: Alien.

In 1977, as Star Wars blew up the box office (and showed the potential for science fiction films, so that 20th Century Fox greenlit Alien for production), Giger’s first major print collection of his work was published. Necronomicon borrowed its title from Lovecraft’s fictional tome, although none of the artworks within are explicitly based off of or depict anything in his fiction; some of the artwork came from the aborted production of Jodorowsy’s Dune.  A copy of the book made its way to Ridley Scott, who was directing the film Alien (1979) (then under the working title “Star Beast”); Giger was brought on board the production to add his unique aesthetic sense to the design of sets and the eponymous extraterrestrial xenomorph itself. Dan O’Bannon would go on to direct The Resurrected (1991), an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and is sometimes claimed to have been inspired by Lovecraft in writing the script for Alien—although as with Giger, nothing explicitly Lovecraft-related made it into the final film.

The slightness of the connection between Lovecraft and the Alien franchise may be one reason that critics consider Alien “Lovecraftian,” praising its atmosphere and approach rather than any direct connection. As the film Alien grew into a franchise with sequels such as Aliens (1986) and licensed comic books from Dark Horse (starting in 1988), more and more creators were drawn into the expanding mythosand at least a couple of them were keen on a more definite connection, if only for a bit of fun.

“Elder Gods” is a 16-page black-and-white comic story written by Nancy Collins, pencils by Leif Jones, inked by John Stokes, and lettered by Clem Robbins. It originally appeared in the one-shot Aliens Special (1997). Taking its lead from Aliens and Aliens 3, the script takes the reader to an off-world colony…but with a twist.

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Yes, Nancy Collins penned a tongue-in-cheek parody set in the Aliens franchise, where “Horace Payne Loveless” stands in for “Howard Phillips Lovecraft.” However, it is a loving parody. “Father Lumley” is a reference to contemporary Mythos writer Brian Lumley, and he inherited the mantle from “Father August” who was inspired by August Derleth, “Brother Ramsey” inspired by Ramsey Campbell; Loveless’ stories include “The Sign of Tulitu” (“The Call of Cthulhu”) and “The Abomination from Ipswich” (“The Dunwich Horror”), and so on and so forth. These are all Easter eggs for fans to find in what is otherwise a very competent and workable Aliens sci-fi- horror comic; less of a distraction and more that little something extra.

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The art works. “Elder Gods” is one of the few Aliens comics to never be colored, and the stark black-and-white works very well—Leif Jones has always had a talent for the chiaroscuro effect, and with Stokes’ inks they seem to just drink in the light from the page. The symbols of the cult throughout are reminiscent of the magical signs in the George Hay and Simon Necronomicons, but the Giger influence is also clear. Everybody knew what they were doing on this one, and it shows.

“Elder Gods” might be read as a stab at the “cult” of Lovecraft’s readers, or at least the occultists that take the creations seriously. However, there is no ironic twist, no comeuppance where the cultists realize that they’ve made an error. On the contrary, blind as they are to the realities and determined as they may be to try and fit what they see into their worldview…this is still an Aliens comic. What do you think is going to happen?

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Horror franchises, whether they be the Cthulhu Mythos or Aliens or whatnot, depend on the the audience knowing more than the characters in the work itself. While there can be plenty of surprises in store, part of the build-up of excitement and a sense of apprehension is recognizing what is going on before the characters on the page or on the screen. A sore throat by itself isn’t scary—but in an Aliens comic… It’s not a question of whether or not the xenomorph is going to appear. It’s when and how. The appeal of these stories isn’t necessarily in bloody bones and grue, but in the million variations on the established concept. Adding a Lovecraftian cult to the mix is definitely a new one.

The closing pages of the story are reminiscent of the transition from Alien to Aliens, where old sins and old threats have been forgotten, disbelieved. That is very Lovecraftian too. Lovecraftian protagonists tend to demand proof before they believe in the unseen things that challenge their worldview; cultists are more accepting, but still try and fit strange alien entities into a very limited, very human perspective. The reality of the xenomorphs is beyond both of them…and isn’t that true of the Alien franchise as a whole? It was a somewhat similar idea expressed in “At the Left Hand of Nothing” (2016) by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, that the cults of Cthulhu and what not project human attributes and preconceptions onto entities that were never human to begin with.

Like a lot of the Dark Horse Aliens comics, this one has little lasting impact. It’s a little piece of a bigger franchise, often forgotten and overlooked—although it is worth pointing out that the idea of a xenomorph cult is not unique to “Elder Gods,” and who knows but that the story may have played its little part in seeding the idea further.

“Elder Gods” was first published in Aliens Special (1997), and has been reprinted in the Aliens Omnibus Volume 6 (2009) and is available as a digital comic from Dark Horse. Nancy Collins’ other Mythos fiction includes “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins and “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.


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

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders

And he remembered a night more than a dozen years ago in Virginia, when he and Nedeau had been stopped by a policeman wanting to know exactly how a couple of “Nigras” had come by such a fine motorcar as the one they were in without having stolen it. Nedeau had flattened the policeman with one blow and they’d fled the state with a posse of cracker cops on their tail all the way up to the gates of the black college they’d been attending.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” in The Book of Cthulhu 228

The success of Imaro (1981), which virtually inaugurated the Sword & Soul genre, made the fame of Charles R. Saunders. Not many African-American authors were writing Sword & Sorcery, much less with a focus on black protagonists and settings. This is unfortunate because like Robert E. Howard, who essentially defined Sword & Sorcery with his stories of Kull and Conan, Saunders also writes horror fiction. In an era of The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, those interested in more of the same need not wait for more to be written—Saunders was writing it long before Victor LaValle or Matt Ruff came on the scene.

Of course, it is not exactly the same. “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” is more steeped in black history and the black experience over time. Just as Lovecraft found horror delving into the Colonial past in America, so Saunders found new sins to show the readers—for there are some betrayals worse than others, with the right historical context, and old hatreds which persist over generations. Saunders’ own style is neither contemporary nor pastiche; his character Theotis Ledeau is reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s burly occult detective John Thunstone: erudite, intelligent, compassionate, loyal, but also a powerful athlete, prone to action. It is probably the first time a professor of history at Howard University—an historically black college—played a role in a Mythos story; but he plays it very well.

“Voodoo!” he spat the word as if it were a curse. “It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between the half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.” (ibid, 234)

African magic and voodoo have been connected with the Mythos since the 1930s; “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft testify to how white authors tried to draw connections with African traditions, capitalizing on stereotypes and prejudice for effect. One might easily add Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933), or Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyena” (Weird Tales Mar 1928) and “Pigeons From Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938). The latter makes an especially interesting comparison, as there are thematic parallels between Howard’s zuvembie and Saunders’ semando in this story, although the actual details are sharply different.

Saunders knows the tropes, and uses them as he sees fit in the story, but there is a difference in approach. In the fiction of Lovecraft, Howard, Bloch, the black characters tend to be innately superstitious and inclined to believe in the reality of magic, to fear supernatural reprisal. White characters, if they come to believe, have their fears heightened by racial prejudice—stereotypes of Africa as ancient, unholy, even inhuman. In this story, where the two main characters are college-educated black men, the whole context of the subject is different.

“God!” Henley exclaimed. “This is so senseless—unreal! Savage ceremonies here, in 1933…” (ibid. 235)

Just because he’s black, doesn’t mean Henley knows anything about or even believes in magic. Theotis Nedeau has to convince his friend of the reality of what they face, and the way Saunders touches on the subtle prejudices involved with African-Americans towards indigenous African beliefs is…a world of human experience that the Mythos has never really touched on before.

The ending may surprise people. It is not what is expected, though it is fitting and appropriate, from a certain point of view. It is in part about a question that plagues us still—though the American system of slavery is over, there are many who are born of slavers and slaver-owners; what responsibility do they have? Descendants are not culpable for the crimes of their ancestors, yet the descendants of former slaves still suffer economic and social consequences of their ancestors enslavement. Innocent people can still suffer…and, in the setting of “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt,” the suffering is not yet ended when the reader arrives at the final word of the final sentence.

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” was first published in Potboiler #4 (1982). It was republished by Innsmouth Free Press in July 2010, and may be read for free online here. It was subsequently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011).


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

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” (2003) by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson

“The Necronomicon!” Holmes murmured. “What could a young English lady want with that moldy bit of occult trash?”
—Poppy Z. Brite & David Ferguson, “The Curious Case of Violet Stone”
in Shadows over Baker Street 143

Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, has one of the earliest and most enduring fandoms in all of genre fiction. It is perhaps the nature of such an extensive and long-lasting phenomenon for it to mingle with Lovecraft and his Mythos at various junctures.

The practice began, in a sense, with August Derleth: alongside his Mythos fiction, Derleth also wrote an extensive pastiche of Sherlock Holmes under the guise of the detective Solar Pons. “The Adventure of the Six Silver Spiders” (1951) contains a reference to the Mythos—although in this case, it is a bit of a red herring. The idea was made more concrete in The Necronomicon of Solar Pons (2020). From that humble beginning, the idea grew: Peter Cannon’s Pulptime (1984) let Lovecraft and Holmes meet; Lovecraft met with his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Gordon Rennie & Frazer Irving’s Necronauts (2001), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2005), and Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown (2010). Holmes himself has tackled in the Mythos in the anthology Shadows over Baker Street (2003), Sylvain Cordurié and Laci’s Sherlock Holmes & le Necronomicon (2011, published in English as Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon), and in 2017 James Lovegrove began the Cthulhu Casebooks series and Lois H. Gresh the Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu series…and the list goes on.

Two households, both alike in dignity.

The nature and quality of the literary mash-up—and, sometimes, double-pastiche—can be desperately silly or deadly serious depending on the attitude and capabilities of the author. In the case of Brite & Ferguson’s “The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone,” the double-pastiche is played straight and serious. Sherlock Holmes is on the case, displaying examples of his deductive logic, in all of his old habits (including cocaine)—only now he’s come across something uniquely outside his particular experience.

There is a central difficulty with a Mythos/Holmes mash-up in that the central mystery is almost always the Mythos itself, which rather gives the game away before it begins. Ideally, if you wanted to surprise the reader, you wouldn’t have entire anthologies of Lovecraftian/Holmesian genreblenders in the first place—but fans might mutiny if they sit down expecting straightforward detective fair and suddenly run across a Yithian. So with the caveat in mind that savvy Mythos readers will no doubt figure out what is going on before long, there isn’t much in the way of tension in the story—”The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” is not a daring adventure that tests Holmes’ intellect to the limit or results in criminals to be captured. No crimes are committed, no one dies.

What readers are given instead is a very well-considered what if. Should Sherlock Holmes have genuinely encountered a Lovecraftian entity…an alien entity…if he was presented with proof of the existence of such things…how would he react? That is the crux of this story, and while it is fairly sedate by the standards of both Lovecraft and Doyle, it is handled with real skill and appreciation for both of the literary forebears whose work comes together in this strange alchemy.

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson was published in Shadows over Baker Street (2003). It has not been reprinted.


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

“An Imp of Aether” (1997) by W. H. Pugmire

To ye memory of August William Derleth
—original dedication

“Lovecraft Country” was the name given to that fictional setting in New England where so many of his stories were set, or at least referred to. The Miskatonic River that flowed through Arkham and gave is name to the university there down to Innsmouth, Dunwich and Kingsport—all based on real places that Lovecraft visited in Massachusetts, but occupying an unreal estate in the mind; Lovecraft country is a character itself in stories like “The Dunwich Horror.”

Some subsequent writers in the Mythos have carved out their own geographies; Ramsey Campbell, on the suggestion of August Derleth, set his early Lovecraftian tales in a fictional Severn Valley with towns like Brichester and Goatwood, which continues to be developed today. W. H. Pugmire set his Sesqua Valley in the Pacific Northwest, and populated the place shadowed by the mountains with his own strange creations, including the poet William Davis Manly and the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams.

In this story, set in the shadows of Sesqua Valley, Pugmire pays homage to August Derleth.

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem, but upon further study discovered that it was a prayer to something called Cthugha. Known as ‘the Burning One.’
—W. H. Pugmire, Tales of Sesqua Valley 39

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm, but upon further study discovered that it is a prayer to something called Cthugha. Supposedly a fire element. You know the idiotic notion that Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law or understanding. Utterly absurd; but in this case, there seems some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 94-95

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm; but with further study we discovered it to be a prayer to something called Cthugha, supposedly a fire elemental. You know the idiotic notion that the Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law. Bah! However, in this case, there seems to be some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 129

As a writer, Pugmire was a tinkerer; many of his stories show the result of revision between printings, so that while the title, plot, and overall characters are the same, the text in each publication is different—sometimes slightly, sometimes markedly. The revised texts tend to be cleaner, in general; the result of looking back at a work from a decade ago and tidying it up after one’s younger self.

In the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, Donald Wandrei published “The Fire Vampires”; a tale of the 24th century involving the fiery alien entity Fthaggua; and the idea of elementals in the Mythos dates back to Derleth’s “The Thing That Walked On The Wind” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Jan 1933). Wandrei’s tale was not explicitly of the Cthulhu Mythos, although later writers adopted it, or elements from it, into the Mythos; Derleth’s was deliberate pastiche. After Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei came together to form Arkham House to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters—and Derleth himself continued to publish Mythos pastiches.

The “elemental theory” as a paradigm for the Cthulhu Mythos (as Derleth called Lovecraft’s artificial mythology) as a whole came after Lovecraft’s death, detailed by fan Francis T. Laney in “The Cthulhu Mythology” in The Acolyte #2 (1942), where he noted:

The fire gods were not covered by Lovecraft, so it is up to other writers to fill in this section of the Mythos. (8)

August Derleth was paying attention. He wrote to Laney, asking him to expand the article for a further book of Lovecraft’s fiction—which became “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Glossary” in Beyond The Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House). This expanded article includes mention of a fire elemental, Cthugha, created by Derleth:

I’m certainly agog to read “The Dweller in Darkness.” Cthugha will certainly fill a gaping hole; I well remember how disgusted I was when I found the “fire department” had been completely neglected. I’m not trying to appear conceited, but by any chance did my mention of this in my article start you off on this tack, or was it just a coincidence?
—Francis T. Laney to August Derleth, 29 Mar 1943

Whether it was Laney that inspired Derleth, or two fans arriving at the same conclusion, Derleth determined to “fill the gap” and embraced the elemental theory wholeheartedly, making it his own (and borrowing elements of Wandrei’s Fthaggua in the process). As it happened, publication of fiction didn’t always go in order—the story that effectively introduced Cthugha was “The Dweller in Darkness” (Weird Tales Nov 1944), but the first story that saw mention of Cthugha in print was “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Mar 1944), later titled “The House on Curwen Street.”

Derleth’s conception of the Mythos did not long survive him; Richard L. Tierney famously exploded the idea in “The Derleth Mythos” (1972), beginning a period when fans and scholars seriously re-assessed what Lovecraft did and did not write, and interest increased in textually accurate versions of Lovecraft’s fiction—but selective elements of Derleth’s Mythos fiction, such as Cthugha, were adopted by others.

Hence, Pugmire’s dedication.

This is a story with a nod-and-a-wink toward Mythos fans who can pat themselves on the back that they know about Derleth and the elemental theory and can scoff at such notions along with the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams. And yet…that is just the beginning of the story, the set-up. That is Pugmire laying the groundwork.

Because there is potential in Cthugha, and some of Derleth’s other ideas—and as much as Derleth’s memory was somewhat hounded in latter years because of his flaws as a writer, a businessman, sometimes even as a human being, he was still a good writer, and he promoted and published Lovecraft unceasingly during his life, and there are ideas which he introduced to the Mythos that are worth exploring and expanding on. So Pugmire did.

No, no. It was the fire vampire. You looked too long and deeply into its burning eyes. Your cool silver eyes took in too much of its property, and thus you burn with strange agitation. One born of the valley’s shadow cannot withstand such cosmic brilliance.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 97

No, lad. It was the fire vampire, an essence of the Old One that burns in Fomalhaut. You looked too long, too deeply, into its ember eyes. Your cool silver orbs are slightly scarred, so potent was your engagement with the valet of Cthugha.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 132-133

Pugmire never shied away from making his creations sensual; but this is a rare story where he plays with gender as a concept. Wilus Shakston (original) or Jacob Wirth (revised) has encountered the old witch of Cthugha…plaited a lock of her hair with his own…and so began a transformation. Whether the transition can be said to be transgender or genderqueer is largely up to the reader to interpret; the nature of the transition is slower and less total than in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” But in a setting where the children of Sesqua Valley seem to be predominantly male, the acquisition of feminine attributes is marked—and not-unwelcomed by Wilus/Jacob.

In an afterword to this story, Pugmire wrote:

In 1995, after my lover’s heroine overdose and death, I began to write a series of Sesqua Valley stories dedicated to deceased members of the Lovecraft Circle. I suppose I was trying to take my mind off personal tragedy by sinking into creativity. It worked quite well, and many of those tales became the core of my first American collection of fiction, Tales of Sesqua Valley, published by my good buddy and fellow author Jeffrey Thomas. With these stories I mentioned breifly the addition to the Mythos created by the gent to whom the story was dedicated. It was a fun wee game, although the results were not stories of importance. The original version of this story had its first appearance in the chapbook that Jeff published in 1997 under his Necropolitan Press imprint; it has been susbtantially rewritten for this edition.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 99

Whatever version of the story you read, it is worth reading. Proof that the Mythos can be reimagined and reworked by different hands, and that ideas that had their start in the nigh-forgotten pulp fiction of the 1930s can inspire strange and wondrous things.

“An Imp of Aether” was first published in Tales of Sesqua Valley (1997), it was revised and republished in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts (2008) and The Tangled Muse (2011); and revised again for publication as the title piece in Pugmire’s posthumous collection An Imp of Aether (2019).


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

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ghor, Kin-Slayer was conceived in the late 1970s by Johnathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a popular fanzine during the Robert E. Howard “boom” of that period. At the time Bacon had been presented with an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard, “Genseric’s Son”, which he quickly recognised as having strong possibilities if completed not by one, but a whole series of authors.

Beginning with Fantasy Crossroads in March 1977 Bacon lined up top authors in the fantasy field to each contribute a chapter until the novel would be completed some 17 installments later. Each issue of Fantasy Crossroads would include two or three chapters until the saga was finished. Unfortunately, thouh, after on 12 chapters saw print with the January 1979 issue, Fantasy Crossroads was no more, and for all intents and purposes, Ghor, Kin-Slayer was lost forever.
—Publisher’s Note, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 176

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” is the sixteenth and penultimate chapter in the saga of Ghor, the round-robin which began with an incomplete story by Robert E. Howard and in time included some of the most prominent names in fantasy and horror—including Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The only black author was Charles R. Saunders. The only woman was Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been involved with science fiction & fantasy fandom since the mid-late 1940s, claimed to have met her first husband through the letters pages of Planet Stories, and by the mid-1950s was a published author in her own right, and found particular success in her Darkover series, a science-fantasy sword & sorcery world that takes its inspiration, and some of its names, from Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow (1895), as well as from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). She was also published in Amra, one of the premier Robert E. Howard ‘zines of the 1960s, and became one of the most outspoken and well-known women in science fiction and fantasy, and much of her most popular and celebrated work involved female protagonists and a focus on their points of view and concerns—a rarity in male-dominated fantasy and sword & sorcery at the time. After Ghor, Kin-Slayer, she would go on to edit the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and find international acclaim with The Mists of Avalon (1983).

The story up until the point that Bradley received it was, like many round-robins, not well-balanced in terms of plot and pacing. Ghor had begun as a James Allison tale;  Howard had written several tales with Allison, most notably “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934) and “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul-Aug 1934). In each of these stories, the crippled Allison in the present day would cast back his mind into previous, more heroic incarnations, to relive the glories of past lives and loves. This literary device allowed Howard to explore different fantasy historical periods and settings—in this case, Howard set the stage of Ghor’s adventures in Vanaheim and Asgard, and so implicitly in the Hyborian Age, making Ghor a contemporary (of sorts) with Conan the Cimmerian.

Whatever initial plot Howard had in mind and never finished, in the hands of other fantasy writers, the Ghor saga got properly weird; involving as it does the Cthulhu Mythos, a prophecy, losing a limb and gaining a magical prosthetic (a la Lludd of the Silver Hand), becoming a werewolf, and gaining an affinity with the Hounds of Tindalos. Old pulpster H. Warner Munn left off the previous chapter with Ghor leaving the Caves of Stygia…

Out of the caves of Stygia, then, with the great river Styx bursting forth at our feet and across the desert; Shanara, still unconscious against my breast, and at my feels the dread Hounds, invisible, only a rustling and a panting and a fleeting brush against my thigh. On, Northward through the night, drawn by the northern stars that flickered cold above us; but even the giant strength that I, James Allison, wielded in those nigh-forgotten days when I was Ghor, kin-slayer and great were-wolf, was waning.
—Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 152

Despite this being the penultimate chapter, it is really in many ways the wrap-up of the whole preceding saga; Richard Lupoff, who got chapter 17, offers something more along the lines of a postscript or epilogue. So Bradley’s 11-page chapter is, in essence, a short story in itself trying to bring about a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads are left—principally, the three curses Ghor had accumulated—starting with:

[…] Shanara had probably been less than faithful wife to me. Well, I thought, looking at her haggard, ravaged features, for that too she had paid. And indeed in such a world as this, a woman had no choice but to obey whoever held her body; she had become my bride by no less forceful process, and that we had come to love one another was only a single blessing showered on me amid many curses. No; I would not ask Shanara what price she had had to pay for surviving the long ordeals of capture. (ibid. 153)

If the tone seems reminiscent of “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, it should be remembered that this bit of casual sexism is being filtered through a female fantasy writer, and Bradley is neither entirely unsympathetic to Shanara nor does she ignore the physical and psychological impact of the implied rape. Which includes one of the oldest tropes of body horror, well-familiar to Mythos fans:

For her body was swelling, ripening…and I knew that look. Even her sullenness and the persistent thirst was part of that, and it was not hunger alone set her to seeking the bitter desert herbs as we travelled. Within her breeding body the curse of Gaea was ripening. (ibid. 154)

There is a question of who is the father; and Ghor entertains that it might be his, the sorcerer who kidnapped her, or even “some nameless thing somewhere in the realms of sorcery and evil” (ibid). Ironically, Ghor has no real issues if the child isn’t his; the wild-man’s own family situation being what it was (exposed at birth as an act of infanticide, raised by wolves, killing his own birth-family), he is rather progressive in his determination to adopt Shanara’s kid.

The story skips forward to the birth, and then to the final fulfillment of the curse. Ghor’s story comes full-circle.

In one sense, Bradley had her hands tied: fifteen chapters of increasingly odd sword & sorcery, bringing in everything from the Moorcockian Gods of Law and Chaos to the Cthulhu Mythos—and there were prophecies and curses to wrap up, physical distances to travel to get Ghor back from Stygia to Nemedia and finally in the icy forests where the story started under Robert E. Howard. In another sense, by putting the focus on Shanara and the goddesses who cursed Ghor, by addressing the sexism and realities of sex and family in the Hyborian Age, she makes the chapter her own.

It’s not a bad penultimate chapter by any means. Not something Robert E. Howard was likely to write, but then nothing that any of the other authors had contributed attempted to really pastiche Howard; they all knew better than to try and ape his prose, and they all brought their own ideas to the table while trying to keep the story moving. For fans in 1997 when this was published for the first time, they could likely appreciate that.

Today, readings of Bradley’s fiction tend to be colored by other factors in her life.

Walter Breen was prominent in Darkover fandom. Breen had been convicted of child molestation in 1954 and received a suspended sentence; his continued pederastic activities resulted in his banning from the 1963 Second Sci-Fi Pacificon. This caused an uproar in fandom, with Marion Zimmer Bradley vocal in her defense of Breen, though the actual cause of Breen’s banning was not universally known, and was called the “Boondoggle.” Breen and Bradley would marry in 1964.

In a 1998 deposition, Bradley said she was aware of Breen’s pedophilia and child molestation. They would separate in 1979, although Breen would continue to live on the same street and in Bradley’s employ for the next decade; they would get divorced in 1990. In 1991 he would be sentenced for child molestation, and die in prison in 1994. In 2014, her daughter Moira Greyland came forward to admit that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself had molested children, including her own children. Links to further accounts, and the story as it unfolded, can be read here.

The personal accounts of Marion Zimmer Bradley both as a serial child sex abuser, and as someone that facilitated Breen’s sexual molestation of children, cast a shadow on her fiction. Readers now look for any evidence of predilections which were perhaps not obvious to fans previously—and there are definitely scenes and relationships in Bradley’s work which, in light of these allegations, appear much more skeevy than perhaps they once were.

How do we read “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed,” through this lens? There are, fortunately, no incidents of child sexuality in this story. But the revelation of Bradley’s history of sexual abuse, and her marriage to Breen—how does that reflect on Ghor’s oddly accepting attitudes with regard to Shanara’s pregnancy? Is he actually being weirdly progressive in not caring if the child is his, and supportive of Shanara despite the social ramifications of rape in Hyborian culture—is it at all reflective of Breen and Bradley explicitly condoning and supporting each other in their own extramarital sexual relationships?

There are no good answers for these questions. Many folks, reading this story, would be glad not to have been aware of it at all. In 1967, Roland Barthes published the essay “La mort de l’auteur,” which would have strong and wide-ranging impact on literary criticism. With the death of the author, authorial intent needs no longer be a primary concern of literary criticism; the text can be read and interpreted on its own, apart from the facts of the author’s own life.

A straight reading of the text, with no knowledge of the author, would almost certainly not raise any associations with pedophilia in the reader’s mind. If you take Bradley out of the equation, then “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” becomes little more than a chapter in a long but not-terribly-great Robert E. Howard fanfiction. The comments on sexism and the Hyborian Age remain, and the story can be ready, studied, critiqued, and enjoyed.

Yet…it is important that Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author, the only female author, in this round-robin. That she choose to address sexism in the Hyborian Age, or at least Ghor’s understanding of it, becomes important—because her male contemporaries in Sword & Sorcery largely didn’t. If you as a reader or critic consider sexism and gender disparity in the field of fantasy fiction important at all, then her presence, as more than mere tokenism, has to count for something.

Marion Zimmer Bradley inspired many. She injured many too.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote a novel with Mythos elements, Witch Hill (1990).


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

“In the Confessional” (1892) by Adolphe Danziger de Castro

However, not long after “The Electric Executioner” saw print, Lovecraft made a curious reference:

None of our firm has had very good success in placing clients’ manuscripts—though I did accidentally land Yig, and three tales of Old Dolph’s—but I am convinced that failures on the part of different members have been for almost opposite reasons.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 3 Nov 1930, Selected Letters 3.204

In late 1929 or early 1930, editor of Weird Tales Farnsworth Wright announced that the company would be launching a new magazine: Strange Stories.

By the way—Wright tells me he is about to launch another magazine, devoted to “stories which are truly strange & unusual in plot.” All subjects will be included—even weird stuff now & then. I don’t suppose this opening will mean much to me, but it ought to mean a new market for one of your versatility.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 25 Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 1.249

Farnsworth tells me that the company is going to publish another magazine this summer, using stories of all sorts, so long as they are somewhat out of the ordinary. I gather that they don’t have to be impossible, but just different from the general run of stories. I’m hoping to just about double my income from his company when that magazine comes out. Of course, I may not be able to sell them a blightin’ thing.
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, c. Feb 1930, Collected Letters 2.17

The issue is a little confused, since in June 1930 Wright announced yet another magazine, Oriental Stories, and Strange Stories was never published. Macfadden had published the short-lived pulp True Strange Stories (Mar-Nov 1929) and claimed rights to the title. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard both comment on the legal dispute in their letters which dragged out for months. Lovecraft summarized things succinctly:

As for Wright’s projected third magazine—I am astonished that you have not heard of the plan before! The idea—broached first a year or more ago—was for a magazine to contain wildly unusual & bizarre stories, not excluding a few weird items; & it progressed to a stage where Wright actually began accepting tales for it. He took items from Belknap, & from my odd old Biercian client, Dr. Dangizer–de Castro. I had not known what the name was to be, until Robert E. Howard spoke of the conflict with Macfadden’s. I saw an issue or two of the defunct Macfadden thing a year & a half ago, when Vrest Orton tried to write for it; but did not know that the name remained a legal entity after the collapse of the venture itself. Now that the W.T. company is in such an evident mess, (did you receive the form letter urging patience about remittances?) I hardly expect the third magazine to be started at all. Just how serious Wright’s intentions ever were, one can’t be sure. I fancy it was always a vague future project with him.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Dec 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 285 

Nowhere in his correspondence does Lovecraft give the title of the third revision, and it isn’t clear when it was done, except that it must be between December 1929 (“two de Castro jobs” DS 285) and November 1930 (“three tales of Old Dolph’s” SL3.204); this could explain the long genesis of “The Electric Executioner,” if Lovecraft was actually revising two tales. The only reference to this third revision discovered so far are in the unpublished letters of Lovecraft’s literary executor R. H. Barlow:

How about The Electric Executioner & The Last Test? Old de Castro has an unpublished HPL “revision” – In the Confessional, which it might be well to harpoon.
—R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 6 May [1937?]

I think I mentioned the unpublished MS about Poland, which he ghosted for old de Castro, & which remains in his possession. The Last Test & The Electric Executioner are absolutely HP’s, by his own admission.
—R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 20 June [1937?]

“In the Confessional” was the title story of In the Confessional and the Following (1893), and concerns a Polish countess in Paris; it was first published in The San Francisco Examiner May 1892. It was from this volume that de Castro’s two other stories that Lovecraft revised, “A Sacrifice to Science” and “The Automatic Executioner”, are drawn.

What Lovecraft might have added to “In the Confessional” is mostly unknown, but in another letter he wrote:

I’ve put Yog-Sothoth and Tsathoggua in yarns ghost-written for Adolphe de Castro […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 31 May 1935, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 437

Since Yog-Sothoth appears in “The Last Test” and “The Electric Executioner” but Tsathoggua does not, it is possible that Tsathoggua has a reference in the third revision…and that is all we know about that. It is not even clear if the story would be weird fiction at all, if the market was Strange Stories.

The Adolphe de Castro papers at the Jewish American Archives contain typescripts related to the other two Lovecraft revisions. Of the third revision, there is no obvious sign; de Castro’s papers contain no typescript titled “In the Confessional,” or any other English-language manuscript which suggests the plot or characters of that story. However, there is an undated typescript in Spanish titled “La Confesión de La Condesa Valera” which is a translation and expansion of de Castro’s English-language story.

Lovecraft scholars have been looking for a revision to “In the Confessional,” here among Adolphe de Castro’s papers we have a revision of “In the Confessional,” is this a previously unknown Lovecraft revision?

Probably not.

La Confesión de La Condesa Valera” is without a doubt an expansion and revision of “In the Confessional.” However, we have no idea when it was written (the typescript is undated), and the text itself shows no evidence of any Lovecraftian input. In part, this may well be due to the translation from English to Spanish, which would require the whole text to be filtered through de Castro once again, but more than that the story lacks any weird element, although there is a touch of science fiction at one point. There is no reference to Lovecraft’s artificial mythology, even as a red herring or bit of color.

It is not impossible to completely rule out Lovecraft having some influence on the tale, but it must be remembered that the information we have on the third de Castro revision in Lovecraft’s letters is very slight—Lovecraft himself never names the story; that was provided by Barlow in a letter to Derleth, and Barlow may have got it wrong, or confused the name of the revision with the name of the book from which the stories originally came. So there is no guarantee that we are even looking in the right place when we look for a revision of “In the Confessional.”

With an eye toward the possibilities, and admitting that we are in the realm of speculation, “In the Confessional” might actually have been a candidate for Strange Stories with a bit of work. The mutilation of the Countess Wanda’s face would have fit rather neatly into the “weird terror” or “shudder pulp” vein that was gaining popularity at the time, and Weird Tales included a few stories of this sort such as Seabury Quinn’s “The House of Horror” (1926), and the tragic ending is suitably poetic and bloody; if the prose had been reworked and maybe expanded a little, it could probably have sold. Would Lovecraft have taken this route? He could work with grue (“Herbert West–Reanimator,” “In the Vault,” “The Loved Dead” with C. M. Eddy), although he usually didn’t. Likewise, Lovecraft did not exclusively write weird fiction (“Sweet Ermengarde” being the most notable example), although he usually did.

La Confesión” is a fairly substantial revision of the original story–but not on those lines. The scene is moved to World War I, and embeds the original narrative into a story about a hunt for a German spy in France, with a romantic subplot. The happy ending, where it turns out the “poison” that Valera took is nothing poisonous at all, is a far cry from the original conte cruel finale, which is probably one of the few parts of the story Lovecraft might have approved of (although we do not have his exact response to the original story, Lovecraft called the book “execrable.”) These could well be taken as examples of updating the story and modifying it to be more salable—for what market, we have no idea. The only really notably strange part is a small science fiction element, which appears early in the story and is never mentioned again:

El Cura era un hombre de ciencia, y en el corto periodo de tiempo que hacía estaba en París, había perfeccionado una serie de cometas, con un sistema de placas sensitivas afectadas por Ias corrientes de aire. Estos cometas el hizo remontar, y de este modo pudo descubrir la dirección del gran cañón con el que el enemigo hostilizaba a París.

Para estas observaciones aéreas, había organizado un pequeño grupo de mujeres de su parróquia, y estaban dispuestas de tal manera en la torre de la iglesia, que formaban una cadena viviente, pudíendo dar al instante, a las autoridades información de cualquier movimiento en el cielo, sea cual fuere la altura o la distancia.
—Adolphe de Castro, “La Confesión de Valera,” American Jewish Archives (MS-348)

The Priest was a man of science, and in the short time he had been in Paris, he had perfected a series of kites, with a system of sensitive plates affected by air currents. He made these comets soar, and in this way he was able to discover the direction of the great cannon with which the enemy was harassing Paris.

For these aerial observations he had organized a small group of women from his parish, and they were arranged in such a way in the church tower that they formed a living chain, and could instantly give the authorities information of any movement in the sky, whatever the height or distance.
—Rough translation, “The Confession of Valera”

The language and construction, however, remains very much de Castro’s rather than Lovecraft’s. The odd framing device of Valera in the confessional telling her story through dialogue (and then Wanda telling Valera her story in a mess of a nested narrative) is handled almost exactly as it was in the original story; Lovecraft had handled complicated narratives before with much more grace in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), and it is hard to believe that he would have not restructured the narrative more readably if he had taken the job. Also notably absent is any description of the architecture of Paris or any other location, which would be an odd lack in a Lovecraft story.

There does not seem any given point in “La Confesión” that can be pointed out as representing a definite, or even likely, survival of Lovecraftian influence. If anything, a comparison of “In the Confessional” and “La Confesión” versus “A Sacrifice to Science” and “Surama of Atlantis” or “The Automatic Executioner” and “The Automatic Electric Executioner” shows how substantially Lovecraft tended to rewrite these stories, compared to de Castro revising his own work, as is apparently the case with “La Confesión.”

So we are left with a story that is most interesting as a scholarly footnote: here it is, it exists, and there is little more to say about it. “La Confesión” in its current form does not appear to ever been published in English or Spanish, and may never be.


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