Ecstasy (1989)

Bellezza prorompente e maliziosa, biondo desiderio che esplode dalle copertine delle riviste, dalle locandine dei cinema, dai cartellon dei night club e anche (quando la censura lo permette…), dal piccolo chermo televisivo. Con Moana Pozzi, diventata ormai un “mito”, il cinema erotico italiano si è conquistto un posto d’onore accanto alle produzioni internazionali più importanti. Moana è sensualità, irruenza, genuinità. Moana è… ecstasy. Chi è sensibile alle sue grazie non dimenticherà faclmente questo concentrato di sogni…Beauty, breathtaking and mischievous, blonde desire exploding from magazine covers, movie posters, night club billboards and even (when censorship allows…), from the small television screen. Starring Moana Pozzi, who has now become a “myth,” Italian erotic cinema has won a place of honor next to the most important international productions. Moana is sensual, impetuous, genuine. Moana is… ecstasy. Those who are sensitive to her graces will not easily forget this concentrate of dreams….
Back cover text on the 2009 Minerva Video DVDEnglish translation

In the mid-1980s, Italian actress Moana Pozzi became a sensation for her adult films, brazen nudity on television, and her intelligence and outspokenness on sex and sexuality. In the 1990s she became a published author and political candidate, co-founding the Partito dell’Amore (“Party of Love”), which campaigned on a platform that included better sex education and legalization of brothels. While Pozzi never achieved any real political power, it added to her growing status as an Italian icon of the adult film industry. In 1994, Pozzi would die relatively young from liver cancer, leaving behind an enduring legacy—including inspiring the 1999 film Guardami and being the subject of the 2009 biographical docudrama Moana. Her name recognition was such that even in 2016, the Disney animated film Moana had to be marketed under the alternate title Oceanica in Italy.

Buried in Moana’s filmography is an odd gem: the relatively obscure Ecstasy (1989), which was very loosely adapted on Welsh author Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder,” one of the episodes in his picaresque weird novel The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations (1895). Machen, for all his fame as a writer of the weird and an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft and others, has very rarely been adapted to film or television. Yet in the late 1980s, Moana Pozzi and director Luca Ronchi gave it a shot:

la storia è liberamente ispirata al racconto “Polvere biance” di ARTHUR MACHEN (1984)the story is loosely based on the short story “White Powder” by ARTHUR MACHEN (1984)
From opening credits of EcstasyEnglish translation

It isn’t exactly clear which text/translation that the filmmakers were drawing from but it seems likely to be Giuseppe Lippi’s translation in Il gran Dio Pan e altre storie soprannaturali (1982). Whatever the case, the approach to adapting Machen’s story was very “liberamente,” taking broad inspiration but telling its own story:

[…] con Ecstasy di Luch Ronchi (’90) nel cui cast figura anche il pornodivo Rocco Siffredi (vero nome Rocco Tano), qui in veste soft. Storia onirica, molto liberamente tratta dal racconto “Polvere bianca” di Arthur Machen, scrittore inglese di fine Ottocentro, basata sui poteri di una misteriosa droga che esalta, ma allo stesso tempo uccide, Ecstasy offre a Moana Pozzi una chance che lei non riesce a sfruttare appieno. Del resto la Pozzi dichiarava allora, in un sussulto di autocoscienza: « Sia chiaro, io non sono un’attrice sono una che cerca di interpretare se stessa in tante situazioni diverse».[…] with Ecstasy by Luch Ronchi (’90) whose cast also includes porn star Rocco Siffredi (real name Rocco Tano), here in a soft role. A dreamlike story, very loosely based on the short story “White Powder” by Arthur Machen, a late 19th-century English writer, based on the powers of a mysterious drug that enhances but at the same time kills, Ecstasy offers Moana Pozzi a chance that she fails to take full advantage of. After all, Pozzi declared at the time, in a jolt of self-consciousness: ” Let it be clear, I am not an actress I am someone who tries to play herself in many different situations.”
Moana e le altre: il cinema pornografico in Italia 39-40English translation

In Machen’s original, the scene is 19th-century England, where a sister worries about her brother’s ascetic habits. The family physician suggests a medicine—an innocuous white powder—and at first it seems to have positive effects, making her brother more social, outgoing, and forgetting his cares. Too soon, however, things take a turn for the worse; the drug had deleterious effects, yet the brother cannot cease taking it—and a trifle wound on the hand becomes something profoundly worse. The physician discovers it was not what he had prescribed at all, and its effects finally lead to a fate worse than death for the poor, afflicted brother.

Keeping in mind that Machen was writing a little less than ninety years before D.A.R.E., the parallels with drug addiction and “scared straight” drug literature may seem overly obvious in hindsight, but “The Novel of the White Powder” isn’t really an anti-drug story. The Victorians were well aware of the addictive possibilities of drugs like opium in the 1890s, but the white powder that the brother takes isn’t just a chemical pick-me-up:

By the power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder, and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh. And then in the hour of midnight, the primal fall was repeated and represented, and the awful thing veiled in the mythos of the Tree in the Garden was done anew.

Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the White Powder”

This is how Machen took a familiar story and turned it from a familiar tale of dissolution into something infinitely more suggestive and supernatural.

In Ecstasy, the setting is moved from the 19th-century United Kingdom to Italy in the 1980s. Moana Pozzi plays a version of herself, an outgoing adult film actress named Moana. Her younger sister Anna (Carrie Janisse), is the opposite of her outgoing sister: reclusive and given to watching horror movies, living in the shadow of her more glamorous sister. Moana provides Anna with a strange drug (ironically, a grey powder). Moana narrates as her sister Anna slowly comes out of her shell…and then spirals into drug abuse and degradation. Despite a brief flirtation with witchcraft imagery at the beginning and the end, and Anna suffering a similar hand injury, there isn’t much in the way of Machen’s original idea for the drug or its effects….and it is these brief flourishes that are as near as the film ever approaches to horror in the traditional sense.

Ecstasy was evidently never intended as a straight adaptation of Machen’s story, but even so, it feels like there’s a lot of missed opportunity here. The film neither draws on the rise of cocaine or club drugs like MDMA (popularized with the street name ecstasy) in the 1980s, nor on the more overtly supernatural dissolution in “The Novel of the White Powder.” As such, there’s no explicit social commentary, and no horrific spectacle at the end. We’re left instead with a film that hovers between hardcore adult film and erotic thriller, never quite being one or the other. Sexually explicit, and yet not simply a succession of sexual encounters; being more dreamlike in tone, dominated by an overarching narration.

As a work of cinema, Ecstasy is hard to pin down. A good deal of European horror during the period was heavy on blood, nudity, and atmosphere, but there were often lines that still weren’t crossed—explicit sex and genitalia, for example, were not common features of anything except the sleaziest of the Eurosleaze during the 1970s and 80s. By the same contrast, adult films, even when they had a plot (this was not long after the Golden Age of Porn in the United States), rarely addressed anything like a drug theme in a serious way. Ultimately, the film is almost narcissistically focused on Moana herself; even her sister’s suffering is a story that happens within the context of Moana’s life, work, and her sexual encounters. Anna’s story lives in the shadow of Moana’s throughout the film, and that feels like a deliberate choice.

Ecstasy seems to walk this tightrope, being more restrained, artistic, and plot-driven than the typical adult film, and yet more sexually explicit than more overtly transgressive European horror films of the period. From the moment that Moana rubs a piece of banana on her bare vagina and offers it to the man she’s having a conversation with, you know that you’re watching a film that is transgressive in ways that your typical 1980s horror film couldn’t be, for fear of never getting distribution.

While working with a relatively small cast, and presumably a small budget, the film makes the most of what it has. The cinematography is surprisingly solid, especially the night shots of Rome. The film’s quasi-biographical aspect is an asset as well, taking advantage of Moana’s widespread publicity in showing magazine covers, glamour shots, fumetti, and pinups. The soundtrack is nothing special but doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere either; simple synth-and-drum-machine pieces, neither corny nor overly dramatic, but oddly fitting the overall 80s aesthetic.

If there’s a charm to the film, it is how so very 1980s it is, from the teased hair to the technology, all instant film cameras, walkmans, telephone booths, and CRT televisions; the utter ubiquity of trash and cigarettes, the boxy Italian cars on the roads and the discotheque. So too, there’s something oddly endearing about how utterly blasé the adult film actors are in their skimpy outfits on the sets, the utter ambivalence they express to casual nudity and even foreplay. The conscious artifice of it all is at once a glamourization of the lifestyle, and highlights how fundamentally silly a lot of adult filmmaking really is, looking at it from the outside.

Ecstasy has never received an English-language release. The 2009 DVD is out of print, which makes this a relatively scarce and obscure film, especially for those obsessively interested in Machen’s rather limited filmography.

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

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

“The Rats in the Walls” (1956) by H. P. Lovecraft

Racist Language

The following article deals explicitly with racist language in a historical context. Frank discussion of these matters requires the reproduction of at least some samples of these pejoratives. As such, please be advised before reading further.

As I have said, I moved in on July 16, 1923. My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond. My eldest cat, “Nigger-Man”, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts; the others I had accumulated whilst living with Capt. Norrys’ family during the restoration of the priory. I moved in on July 16, 1953. My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond. My eldest cat, Black Tom, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts; the others I had accumulated while living with Capt Norrys’ family during the restoration of the priory.
“The Rats in the Walls” (Weird Tales Mar 1924)“The Rats in the Walls” (Zest Jan 1956)

In January 1956, the premiere issue of Zest: The Magazine for Men debuted on the newsstands of the United States. Zest was one of a crowd of men’s magazines, from the upscale Playboy (which featured nude photographs of women) to men’s adventure pulps like Cavalier and Swank. Weird fiction in these magazines wasn’t unknown; Playboy had reprinted William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” in the July 1954 issue. The point of such magazines was not just titillation, but adult entertainment of a broad, masculine stripe—everything from frank articles about sex to lurid tales of escapes from Nazi death camps, real and imagined.

In that context, the decision of a new men’s magazine with a broadly scattershot tabloid approach to content reprinting an H. P. Lovecraft story isn’t necessarily that odd. “The Rats in the Walls” was broadcast on the cover as “The greatest horror story ever told!” and the copyright notice was to H. P. Lovecraft—by then dead almost 19 years, and with August Derleth and Arkham House acting in de facto control of the estate. Presumably, Derleth would have been happy to let them reprint the story for a modest fee.

What sets the 1956 version of “The Rats in the Walls” apart, however, is not the simple fact of its publication but the editorial changes that went along with it. The story was initially set in 1923, the year it was written, and features as background the Great War. In the Zest version, the setting is shifted to 1953, post-World War II. The story was also abridged, jettisoning some of Lovecraft’s verbiage, taking a hatchet to his paragraphs so that they would more easily fit in the three-column magazine format, and perhaps most notably, changing the name of the cat from “Niggerman” to “Black Tom.”

For all that Lovecraft has a reputation as a racist, much of that reputation is based on his private letters rather than his published fiction. Lovecraft used the word “nigger” just 31 times in five stories—”The Rats in the Walls” (19), “Medusa’s Coil” (6), “Winged Death” (3), “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (2), and “The Picture in the House” (1)—although he occasionally used other similar terms (“Nig” for the black cat in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “darky” and “darkies” once each in “Medusa’s Coil,” etc.). More important than how often or not Lovecraft used these terms was why and how he used them; in many instances, the terms are used by racist characters, and we know they’re racist because they use those terms; the use of pejoratives was a way for Lovecraft to establish that part of their character.

In the case of “The Rats in the Walls” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, however, things are different. The use of the terms “Nig” and “Niggerman” are very specific references to black cats, and rather than being narrative contrivances to announce a character as being racist, they are expressly drawn from Lovecraft’s own life:

I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!

H. P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Letters to Woodburn Harris and Others 49

Niggerman (or Nig) had been the name of Lovecraft’s own childhood pet, a black cat that the family had adopted and named at an unknown point. If the seven years given in the story is accurate, then about 1897 when young Lovecraft was seven years old. We don’t know if a young H. P. Lovecraft named the cat himself, or if one of the adults named it; we do know that whoever named it, the adults apparently tolerated the name, and in later life Lovecraft would refer to black cats by similar names:

When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—“Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 200-201

The cat vanished in 1904, the tumultuous year that saw the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather, which forced Lovecraft and his mother to move from the family home into reduced quarters, and began the long slide into genteel poverty. Lovecraft never again could afford a true pet, though he enjoyed neighborhood kitties like the above-mentioned Sam Perkins and remembered his former cat for the rest of his life.

Editor Edwin Baird had already published stories that contained the word “nigger” in Weird Tales, and the use of the name for black-furred pets was so common during the period as to be almost innocuous; no doubt he didn’t think twice about publishing “The Rats in the Walls” in 1924. Nor did editor Farnsworth Wright, who succeeded Baird, change the cat’s name when he reprinted “The Rats in the Walls” in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales. Twenty-six years later, however, the editor at Zest apparently thought differently. So it was that the 19 instances of the cat’s name were deftly replaced.

It would not be the last time.

In terms of textual traditions, the Zest text of “The Rats in the Walls” is largely a dead end, rarely reprinted and largely ignored by both scholars and readers, a curiosity for collectors but not much more. None of Arkham House’s reprints of “The Rats in the Walls” ever replaced the cat’s name. Three years later when another men’s magazine, Sensation, reprinted “The Rats in the Walls” it was somewhat garbled and chopped-up, but the cat’s name was intact. The main textual tradition of “The Rats in the Walls” kept the cat’s name, even as societal views on the acceptability of that name gradually shifted.

Before 1971, the resistance to changing the name came from Arkham House, who insisted they owned the copyrights to Lovecraft’s fiction and who handled licensing and reprints; after the death of August Derleth in 1971 the control Arkham House used fell apart—and, more importantly, a “pure text” movement grew within the burgeoning community of Lovecraft fans and scholars. They wanted to read what Lovecraft actually wrote, warts and all, rather than what editors had made of his stories. For example, the ending of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft was bowdlerized in its first publication, changing Lovecraft’s “a Negress” to “a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.”

In adaptation and translation, however, English-language scholars and editors had less sway, and subtle shades of meaning came into play. In Maria Luisa Bonfanti’s Italian translation “I ratti nel muro,” the cat becomes Moro (“Moor”) and Jacques Papy’s French translation “Les rats dans les murs” calls it Négrillon (“Pickaninny”); Bob Jennings in adapting “The Rats in the Walls” to comics for Creepy #10 (Jul 1968) re-named the cat Salem; Richard Corben in Skull Comix #5 (1972) it was Nigaman; Vicente Navarro and Adolfo Usero in Lovecraft Un Homenaje en 15 Historietas (2013) it was Negro (“Black”); and Horacio Lalia in Le Manuscrit oublié (2000) used “Blakie” or “Blackie.” Dan Lockwood in The Lovecraft Anthology Vol. 1 (2011) simply left the cat’s name out, though the puss otherwise retains its accustomed role. The picture is further complicated when various of these adaptations are themselves translated into other languages, but the examples illustrate the very general point: some translators and adapters attempt to capture the essence of the name, some deliberately sidestep or avoid the issue.

This idiosyncratic approach to handling Lovecraft’s material is understandable. In the context of the story, the name has no particular significance to anyone except Lovecraft himself, it doesn’t matter whether the cat even has a proper name, as far as its narrative purpose is concerned. Where translators and adaptors have kept the name or something close to it, the reason must be a very conservative approach to the material—a desire to be as true to Lovecraft’s original text as possible.

There are those for whom that represents a fundamental issue. For example, when compiling a collection of Lovecraft’s most Gothic tales, “The Rats in the Walls” was left out. The reasoning given was:

[…] some of his most famous Gothic stories, such as ‘Herbert West—Reanimator’ (1922) and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ (1924), are disfigured by casual racist remarks or allusions that make contemporary reprintings problematic.*

*It is broadly acknowledged, even by his fas, that Lovecraft espoused racist views in his writing; and there are references in this collection which readers are likely to find offensive. Their inclusion in this edition in no way implies endorsement by the editor or publisher.

Xavier Aldana Reyes, introduction to The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (2018) xi

“Problematic” in this context has to be read as “potentially offensive to today’s audience”; it cannot mean “an actual difficulty in reprinting the story” because “The Rats in the Walls” is one of Lovecraft’s most-reprinted stories, and is now in the public domain and freely available to read on the internet (link). There has been considerable clamor on the internet lately about the censoring or sanitization of works by dead authors—Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie have all come up—and each case is a little different. For example, Christie authorized some changes to her works while still alive—it being remembered that the original title of And Then There Were None (1939) was Ten Little Niggers, named after an 1869 minstrel song, and that the original title persisted until 1980 in some editions.

What these authors share with Lovecraft is literary longevity. They were all born in a world where racism, antisemitism, and sexism were much more prevalent, pervasive, open, and accepted; these views influenced their work, unlike many of their contemporaries that work is still being published and read. Though they have all long since given up the ghost, their literary works are still in print, still marketable, and still in demand by new generations of readers. Editors of new editions who cover up or erase the racism and antisemitism of yesterday are not doing the historian’s duty to preserve and accurately represent the past…but neither are they historians: they’re businesspeople, trying to sell a product to the widest possible market, and to give that market what they think it wants.

As the Zest version of “The Rats in the Walls” shows, such efforts do not tend to amount to much in the long run. Well-meaning as folks like Reyes might be in their effort to protect the innocent eyes of contemporary readers from historical racism, failing to reprint Lovecraft’s most Gothic story in a collection of Gothic stories is simply an act of cowardice. If editors and publishers, scholars and critics, are to be good stewards of the past and honest with the reading public, then we have to deal with historical racism honestly and openly—and if the words and themes are offensive, to explain their original context, and why and how Lovecraft used them, and how his original audience would have read and understood them.

Reprinting Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” is an educational opportunity to teach readers more about this story and Lovecraft. Removing the cat’s offensive name removes the opportunity to engage with that aspect of the text. At the same time, now that the story is in the public domain, anyone can play with the text freely. Scholars and fans will no doubt continue to strive for accuracy to Lovecraft’s original, but there is no reason why anyone appropriating the text of the story of its characters cannot make their own decisions about what is appropriate in this day and age—if anyone has a desire to write the further adventures of Black Tom.

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

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

“Writhing Mind” (2022) by Zoe Burgess-Foreman

What he truly wanted to do was to find a way to express the feelings and images that had begun to creep into his head when he dreamt – a vast cosmos, something swirling and dancing in the void beyond, a body dancing to a distant beat and tendrils reaching out to take his hand.

Zoe Burgess-Foreman, “Writhing MInd” (2022)

Madness is a key theme of cosmic horror, an aspect of both attraction and repulsion. Weird fiction rarely accurately depicts mental health issues, but it has often sought to capture something of the mystique of the distorted sensorium, the disordered mind, the transition from “normal” and prosaic consciousness to one that has moved beyond rationality and into an increasingly different world view and mode of thinking. In traditional horror fiction, that state of altered consciousness is unreal—in weird fiction, that state is the true reality, a glimpse behind the veil, a realization of previously hidden truths.

Artists are a common lightning rod for such eldritch revelations, as exemplified by Lovecraft’s horror in clay:

Wilcox was a precocious youth of known genius but great eccentricity, and had from childhood excited attention through the strange stories and odd dreams he was in the habit of relating. He called himself “psychically hypersensitive”, but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely “queer”. Never mingling much with his kind, he had dropped gradually from social visibility, and was now known only to a small group of aesthetes from other towns. Even the Providence Art Club, anxious to preserve its conservatism, had found him quite hopeless.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Other writers picked up on the idea; “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Tulu Jar” (2000) by Ann K. Schwader, “The Summoned” (2015) by Clint Collins, a macabre gallery could be filled with Mythos-inflected objets d’art. Yet few stories focus on the headspace of the artist, the experience of creation, the relationship or insight or period of possession which shapes ordinary materials into an effort to capture in some form the extraordinary.

Which is ultimately what Zoe Burgess-Forman’s “Writhing Mind” is. As a story, it is almost a snapshot; there is little build-up and the denouement is cursory. These are the boring parts of the story anyway, the background and exposition. By the time the story starts, the events have already begun; the reader is only carried along for the ride, like a voyeur, watching the artist struggle to create, their descent and transcendence. The bloody climax rolls out like the first few minutes of a horror film, normal people too stuck in rational thinking to recognize the signs or heed the warnings, leaving behind only blood, bodies, and a particularly tenacious and circular idea.

They had slightly moist quality to them, not unpleasant but just enough to make them glide over his skn and make his body tingle with anticipation. They reminded him, now he collected his thoughts, of the tentacles of an octopus as rounded mouths sucked on his flesh like hungry kisses.

Zoe Burgess-Foreman, “Writhing MInd” (2022)

“Writhing Mind” is described as “a queer cosmic horror,” and that’s worth a moment of consideration. Lovecraftian fiction, as much as it deals with cosmic horrors from beyond human experience, is almost always heteronormative by default. Works like “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” by Clinton W. Waters are the exception, not the rule. Queer Lovecraftian works like Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky, Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn, and Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph) are comparatively rare compared to works like Booty Call of Cthulhu (2012) by Dalia Daudelin. By comparison, the sensuality and sexuality in Zoe Brugess-Foreman’s story is explicit, but not overly concerned with labels. The artist is cisgender male and a self-described himbo; but their sexual preference, if any, is oblique. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The artist is queer for tentacled things from beyond. This is entirely appropriate: the same open mind that fuels their eldritch artwork goes pseudopod-in-hand with their sexuality. In the context of the story, there is no introspection that goes into this. The artist is already too far along in the process to question their sexual shift, or to comment on it rationally. No passing reference to Hokusai’s erotic print Tako no Ama, no anatomical studies of octopus or squid, or anything that could serve as a foreshadowing of a growing paraphilia that comes to consume them.

In hindsight, that feels like a mistake, because the artist is the only queer character in the story. Their queerness becomes inextricable from their madness, and lacking the boring build-up of a background, a deeper understanding of the character’s mindset and sexuality, the combination of sensuality, violence, and mental illness can be mistaken as causal rather than correlation. It feels like the story would have benefited from giving the artist a queer friend, someone that understood them and could relate to them but was unaffected. This was a device that Lovecraft used in stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep,” where a more straitlaced friend tells the story of a weirder associate.

Ultimately, “Writhing Mind” feels like a literary exercise with many familiar building blocks. It is not explicitly a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, there are no references to the Necronomicon, and the eldritch entity that fills the artist’s dreams and body is called by no familiar barbarous name. Yet it is clearly working in the same mode as works like Prnomicon and Strange Bedfellows, even if it mixes the ingredients a little differently…and not without a degree of skill.

“Writhing Mind” (2022) by Zoe Burgess-Foreman is available on Lulu as an ebook.

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

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

The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts by H. D. Everett

In odd moments I have read a number of weird & almost weird books—including the “Romance of the Forest” & “Italian” of your friend Mrs. Radcliffer. Others are Arthur Ransome’s “Elixir of Life”, Mrs. H. D. Everett’s “The Death Mask”, H. R. Wakefield’s “They Return at Evening”, Buchan’s “Runagates Club”, (in which 3 out of the 12 tales are weird) & the French & Asquith ghost anthologies.

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 30 Sep 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 220

Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851-1923) was a popular British author of novels and short stories from the 1890s to 1910s, most of which were published under the alias “Theo. Douglas,” several of them with supernatural themes. By 1920 she was a widow, had survived the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the Great War, and her final publication was a collection of rather traditional British ghost stories under her own name: The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts (1920).

For Lovecraft, Everett’s book was new: he had not read it during his initial body of research that resulted in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), and as such did not mention it in the first published version of that essay. Reading it now, in the midst of a splurge of weird fiction, Lovecraft was in a good place to judge her works compared to her contemporaries. When the time came to revise his essay, Lovecraft wrote:

Since the appearance of this article in 1927 I’ve jotted down other important weird items which ought to be cited in any second edition—some that I’d overlooked, & others that have appeared subsequently to the article.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 1 Jun 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 33

Lovecraft included The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts in a list of “Books to mention in a new edition of weird article” (Collected Essays 5.234), noting that it was “post-war” (many of the stories being set during or slightly after World War I), and in his revised article (1935) added in “The Weird Tradition of the British Isles”:

Mrs. H. D. Everett, though adhering to very old and conventional models, occasionally reaches singular heights of spiritual terror in her collection of short stories.

H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Nor was Lovecraft the only one to take note of Everett’s book of ghost stories. M. R. James, whom Lovecraft acknowledged as the master of the traditional British ghost story, wrote in “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories” (1929) on recent collections:

Going back a few years I light on Mrs Everett’s The Death Mask, of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories.

Despite this contemporary (if posthumous praise), The Death-Mask had a long fallow period between reprintings, with few of the stories inside reappearing in anthologies. Everett F. Bleiler noted in his encyclopedic The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983) that the book consists of “Undistinguished stories of literal horror” (180), and Neil Wilson in The Shadow in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950 (2000) wrote: “Whilst most of the author’s works have not aged particularly well, they are of interest as typical examples of late Victorian pulp fiction.” and added that:

[H. D. Everett’s] work has been rediscovered by a new generation of readers and collectors interested in classic ghost fiction who have found her unusual blend of horror and the supernatural to be well worth their attention. (194)

Which is a very brief way to say that the public domain has probably saved The Death-Mask from being completely forgotten by almost everyone except the most devoted collectors of old ghost stories. Standard critical works such as Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (1977), Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from le Fanu to Blackwood (1978), The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History (2010), and The Victorian Ghost Story and Theology: From Le Fanu to James (2016) all omit Everett and her collection completely…although Melissa Edmundson, a scholar who specializes in women writers of that period and genre, has not neglected Everett. I suspect part of the reason for the general lack of critical appreciation and scholarly interest is that the stories in The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts are both very middling when compared to stories by M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Oliver Onions, or Lady Cynthia Asquith.

This is not to diminish Everett’s ability: she does more than just repeat the same plot with the same ghosts fourteen times and call it a book. However, many of her literary hauntings were familiar in outline long before she put them to paper, like tropes from popular horror movies may get recycled today, and her execution of those familiar literary lines is almost excruciatingly geared toward a British middle-class Edwardian-era sensibility clinging on after the disruptions of the Great War. Unlike writers like M. P. Dare, Dion Fortune, Elliott O’Donnell, or William Hope Hodgson, Everett doesn’t have occult investigators or technical explanations for paranormal phenomenon—indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that many of the stories end with no explanation whatsoever, leaving the imaginative reader to decide for themselves the cause and the effect of the business.

The stories in The Death-Mask are typical Not At Night thrillers, there is no encompassing mythology, the reader follows no single investigator a la John Silence or Thomas Carnacki. The stories are fundamentally grounded in a middle-class existence with its focus on marriage, domestic relationships, and money; there are no castles or titled nobility, and only in one story do any non-white characters appear. It is a collection may seem almost too narrowly focused, old-fashioned ghost stories set in an interwar period, yet I feel they represent a good example of what Edmundson called the woman’s ghost story. To give a better idea of the contents, and an idea of what Lovecraft and James saw in Everett, let’s look at each story in turn.

The Death Mask

“Of course its a delicate matter to urge upon a widower. But you have paid the utmost ceremonial respect. Four years, you know. The greatest stickler for propriety would deem it ample.”

“It isn’t that. Dick, I—I’ve a great mind to tell you a rather queer story.” He puffedhard at his smoke, and stare into the red coals in the pauses. “But I don’t know what you’d think of it. Or think of me.”

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 4

In this way, the widower Enderby recounts the strange way he is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife—a haunting that takes the form of nearby cloth assuming the form of the death mask of her features whenever he gets close to other women. The idea has vague parallels with M. R. James’ “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” (1919), but is distinct. The action is entirely domestic, and the haunting never rises to the level of a violent threat. The unnerving sight of the dead wife’s countenance being reproduced in whatever fabric was at hand was sufficient to force the end of Enderby’s engagement to another woman, and to forestall his further romantic efforts. Nor is it ever resolved; the story ends as Enderby finishes his story, without hearing any reply from his friend Dick.

The story thus has an unfinished feel; the characters in limbo. No explanation is given, beyond the intuitively obvious that the dead Mrs. Enderby is forcing her husband to have no other wife, and no means of resolving the issue is suggested. In that ambiguous tension lies most of the charm of the story, because it could have easily gone for a dramatic supernatural confrontation and an easy romantic ending, but instead opts for the more disquieting possibility that the haunting will never resolve, leaving Enderby lonely and harrassed from beyond the grave. So too, the method of the haunting is, if not entirely novel, at least an unusual variation on the classic of the old burial shroud.

Parson Clench

“The Lord have mercy upon us!” Aldridge was staring with his jaw dropped. “It was Parson Clench himself, and you not knowing! And him buried a fortnight come Wednesday! Lord save us: what is to be done?”

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 25-26

The Church of England includes benefices, positions which can be assigned to specific priests to serve specific churches or districts, and carry with them certain properties and revenues, some of which are quite generous relative to the duties required—and which made them attractive slots for second sons and other family members who would not stand to inherit the majority of a wealthy or titled family’s monies and lands. For this cause, certain families who has subsidized such positions had the right to recommend who would fill them, effectively reserving certain choice positions for sons, nephews, etc.

This is necessary preliminary because the crux of the story is that in the small parish of Stokes-St. Edith, the Reverend August Clench has died, and Mrs. Emmeline Albury wants to move her nephew Rev. Basil Deane into the now vacated benefice. The only problem being, the shade of the deceased has no desire to go anywhere. Deane is thus stuck between a rock (the ghost) and a hard place (his well-meaning but insistent aunt). Again, there is nothing of violence in this haunting: the presence alone of the unquiet spirit—which only Deane can see—is enough to put him off of accepting the benefice, even though his aunt had been particularly generous about it.

As with “The Death Mask,” there is no reason nor resolution given to the haunting itself. The idea of a spirit of a priest lingering is not particularly unusual in terms of the British ghost story, as the Church was the primary interaction between the people and the supernatural, and the cleric could be an imposing figure. Readers might recall M. R. James’ “The Residence of Whitminster” (1919) and Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman” (written 1933). While readers today might ask why Deane didn’t perform an exorcism, it should be recalled that this was not a common procedure in the early 20th century, and more strongly associated with Roman Catholicism during the period. The practice would receive more widespread popularity following the success of The Exorcist (1973), but was fairly untypical of British ghost stories.

The Wind of Dunowe

“It is the solitary point on which we touch. A sympathetic interest in ghosts is better than no fellow-interest at all. I’ve given myself out as psychical–save the mark!”–and here the lady laughed. “I might personate the ghost, and get at the boxes that way. But the clue of how to make up is still to seek. We do not know what sort of figure is seen.”

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 41

Reginald and Flossie Noyes are a husband-and-wife team of thieves and grifters, who wrangled an invitation to Dunowe in order to either fleece the MacIvors or steal their jewelry, an antique necklace of pink pearls. To this end, they concoct a scheme relying on the legend of a ghost in the old house, which manifests as a gale of wind blowing through the halls while the weather is still. Flossie plans the caper, inspiring the lady of the house to wear the pearls for a ball, and then having Reginald distract her by telling a made-up story of the ghost while Flossie steals them. Except things do not go entirely to plan, as Flossie later explains:

“The wind came: it was more than wind—it was anger, fury. It seems, when I look back, there was a face with it; or I dreamed the face after. A face that was terrible. I was so near safety when it came: a few more steps: and I was full of triumph. The wind struck me down. I knew no more till I found myself in here, and the women with me. Do you think the pearls—were taken—when I fell?”

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 65

The pearls reappear inside the locked safe where they were withdrawn from the evening, though placed there by no mortal hand. The story has the familiar outlines of family legends like the Luck of Edenhall or the Fairy Flag of Clan MacLeod; the heist only serves to test the old legend, which being a ghost story turns out to be true. Like the other stories, no particular explanation is given for the wind of Dunowe, or the connection to the pink pearls; Lovecraft or James would probably have at least hinted at whatever cryptic legend lay behind both, but Everett’s story is relatively brief—and once again, a supernatural force overcomes mere materialistic greed or desire.

Nevill Nugent’s Legacy

It seemed to have come to use straight from heaven, Cousin Nevill’s bequest. For you must know we were at the time very hard up’ almost, as the saying is, “stony-broke.” Kenneth giving up his profession to join the army made a great change in our circumstances. We could not keep on our pretty house, of which I used to be so proud; and, as soon as I was alone, I moved into a tiny flat in town, and got work to do. But when Ken came out of hospital last January so ill and broken, my work had to stop, for I was so needed to nurse him. Ever since then the money has been flowing out, with only a little—so little—trickling in: I cried over it only the night before, of course when Ken did not see. For it seemed as if even the wretched flat was mor ethan we could afford, and I did not know where Tom’s school-fees were to come for another term—all important as his education is, the chance of life for such a clever boy.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 68

Ken and Maggie, in dire economic straits, inherit the house of Muir Grange and its surrounding properties from a cousin. The Grange (or Chapel House) is currently untenated, and the small family move in until they can get a tenant, meeting Mrs. Wilding and her invalid husband Bassett, to whom she is estranged. Shortly thereafter, they discover the house is haunted—or at least the chapel attached to it—and this has made it impossible to rent out. As luck would have it, someone wishes to buy the chapel and remove it for war purposes, and in the deconstruction they found human remains beneath the floor; Bassett had killed his stepson and hidden the body there, which began the haunting, and the proper disposal of the remains lifts it.

The inheritance is a classic ghost story plot device, one made rather infamous in Cthulhu Mythos circles for the many times it has been used, a trend rather more attributable to August Derleth and stories like “The Murky Glass” (1957) than Lovecraft himself, but it was also a device which M. R. James used, notably in “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance” (1911), and many others have followed on that use of the unexpected death of an uncle, cousin, or other relation leaving a suprising supernatural windfall in the inheritor’s lap. The build-up and resolution of the mystery in this particular haunting could have been handled with more skill; the removal of the chapel for the war-effort is a bit deus ex machina, and the identity of the ghost was fairly telegraphed. What is interesting is the treatment of the characters. When Mrs. Wilding says:

Ma’am, they say that marriage is an honourable estate, and a married woman is respectable. I thought it would be good for me to be married; but I say now that the worst day’s work that ever I did, and the wickedest, was when I married Bassett. To give him power over myself, body and soul, was bad enough, he being what he was; but the sin was to give him power over my child.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 83

That is rare territory for a ghost story, and the setting shows that Everett was familiar with some of the trials and tribulations that families faced during the war and afterwards, trying to put their lives back together. It might not be much of a ghost story, but it does show that insight into the human condition which is convincing.

The Crimson Blind

Spooks were under discussion, and it was discovered–a source of fiendish glee to the allied brothers—that Ronald believed in ghosts, as he preferred more respectfully to term them, and also in such marvels as death-warnings, wraiths, and second-sight.

“That comes of being a Highlander,” said Jack the elder. “Superstition is a taint that gets in the blood, and so is born with you. But I’ll wager anything you have no valid reason for believing. The best evidence is only second-hand; most of it third or fourth hand, if as near. You have never seen a ghost yourself?”

“No,” acknowledged Ronald somewaht sourly, for he had been more than sufficiently badgered. “But I’ve spoken with those that have.”

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 93

Sixteen-year-old Ronald McEwan is down to visit his cousins for a summer holiday, and being teenaged boys they dare themselves to go visit the local haunted house. They wait for the specter, with Ronald more than half-convinced his cousins are playing a trick on him, when a strange sight does appear: a light through a crimson blind at a certain window, then a figure appears who opens that window and appears to crash through—which none of them can explain.

The second part of the story was twenty years later, when now an adult Ronald returns to the village to find his friend Parkinson and the friend’s new bride Cecilia occupying the haunted house, with Ronald unwittingly given the haunted room he had last seen from the outside. During his stay, his nights are haunted by incidents of paralysis and visions of flames, the crimson blind, and the haggard man breaking through the window…only to awake none the worse for wear. The supposed source of the haunting is finally described in a letter at the end of the story, as a kind of denouement:

The house was built by a doctor who took in lunatic patients—harmless ones they were supposed to be, and he was properly certified and all that: there was no humbug about it that I know. One man who was thought quite a mild case suddenly became violent. He locked himself into his room and set it on fire, and then smashed a window—I beliee it was that window—and jumped out. It was only from the first floor, but he was so badly injured that he died: a good riddance of bad rubbish, I should say.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 114

What cannot be easily expressed in a mere synopsis of the story is the extreme prosaicness of it. Parkinson and his wife are concerned principally about property values, the difficulty of finding renters, the post-war housing market in Britain, and keeping up appearances; McEwan, for all that he is the prime voyeur for these nightly hauntings, is thinking of the bridesmaid Lillian whom he wishes to court (and they are engaged at the end). There is not a whit of empathy for whatever tortured soul may be trapped replaying their death, or the psychic echo of such a terrible death, nor does anybody try to resolve the supernatural issue—which is, as might be noticed, something of a continuing theme.

Fingers of a Hand

Some blank sheets of paper were lying about, besides the one pinned to her board with the half-finished sketch; and on one of these I noticed some large scrawled writing. Not Sara’s writing, which is particularly small and neat ; not the writing of any one I knew. The words were quite legible, but they were very odd. GO—by itself at the top of the sheet; and the same word repeated twice below, followed by GET OUT AT ONCE.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 118

While their brother and his wife are in India, the unmarried aunts are taking care of the children, and decide on a brief and economical seaside holiday at Cove, renting a cottage for the purpose. Rain puts a damper on the vacation, and quickly thereafter mysterious messages appear, urging the family to vacate. On the surface, this looks like such a stereotypical haunting as to be almost quaint—but there is a little charm in it, as the messages progress to underlining specific bible passages to reinforce the general idea.

The volume was lying open at the nineteenth chapter of Genesis, and these words in the twenty-second verse were scored under blackly in pencil—Haste the: escape.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 120

At last, they catch sight of fingers materializing to scrawl out a message, and getting the point at last, one of them leaves with the kids. Shortly thereafter a landslip undermines the foundations of the house, and the children were evacuated just in time. Others were not so lucky.

There’s not much to this story, where the phenomonon is the crux of the thing and the disbelief falls flat and there is no real build-up of tension beyond the increasingly stringent but short messages. The idea of the manifesting hand recalls the writing on the wall, a bit of divine providence rather than any kind of “typical” haunting. However, there is one passage near the beginning which might have caught Lovecraft’s eye:

That is one great use of unmarried aunts—to shoulder other people’s responsibilities; and I, for one, think people’s responsibilities; and I, for one, think the world would be a poorer place if the “million of unwanted women” were, by some convulsion of nature, to be swept away.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 115

By this time, Lovecraft was back in Providence, caring for his aunt Lillian and keeping in regular communication with his aunt Annie; he could certainly appreciate these “spinsters” (although technically widowed), and the sentiment that they were far from being “unwanted.”

The Next Heir

If the present Mr. Quinton, your second cousin, makes no will, the Quinton property goes to the heir-male of your mutual great-grandfather.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 130

Canadian soldier Richard Quinton answers an advertisement for an heir, and connects with the British side of the family left behind. However, the cousin Clement Quinton is an invalid antiquarian, worshipper of the pagan god Pan, experiences stigmata (bleeding of the palms) due to a mother’s curse at the death of his elder twin brother, an occultist with a scrying-stone, and wants somebody to carry on his work…hence his advertisement. Richard goes to his cousin’s house, where he is installed in a haunted room. Clement tries to get Richard to agree to certain conditions to become heir to the estate, but after some disquieting experiences and visions, Richard refuses and leaves. Clement dies without a will, so Richard gets the estate anyway, without conditions—making a point to burn the haunted house, and then bringing his fiance to the UK to live in the old family manse on the property.

The synopsis hardly does it justice, but “The Next Heir” is novella-length, and yet feels almost abridged. This is the most ambitious of the stories in The Death-Mask in terms of how many weird elements Everett had thrown into the mix: a pagan cult, hauntings, bloody hands, a curse, a seeing stone, etc. If the story had developed more slowly and the tension and atmosphere built up carefully to some strange and terrible ultimate revelation, it might have been properly Jamesian or Lovecraftian in tone. As it is, Richard’s fleeing from his cousin’s designs is more anticlimactic than not, and the feel-good ending is rather conventional instead of powerful. There are hints of a terrific imagination and a deeper, more terrible fantasy here but the story as developed is neither subtle nor explicit enough to really be the classic it could have been.

While there is a fair degree of hokeyness to how everything opens with the legalities of inheritance and ends with a happily-ever-after wedding, it’s not hard to look at this story and see clear parallels with “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance” (1911). One might even compare it with H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), with the prodigal heir returning to Britain and finding some darker aspects to the family history tied up with the house, the physical location metaphysically tied with the bloodline. Lovecraft and James would both have seen familiar themes in this story, even if it was developed differently than they would handle similar subjects.

Anne’s Little Ghost

“People must have been here with children,” she said presently in an interval of filling my cup. “The attic over our bedroom has evidently been used as a nursery, for there are coloured pictures pasted on the wall, and a child’s bed is pushed into one corner. Mrs. Stokes said she would take it out if it was in our way.

There was just the slightest sigh with this communication, and the least possible droop at the corners of Anne’s sensitive mouth, but enough to give me a clue to what was in her mind. […] We have been married rather more than eight years, and in our second yer together we possessed, for a brief space of only weeks, a baby daughter.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 191

After his discharge, British soldier Godfrey and his wife Anne go on a cheap holiday (all they can afford) to Deepdene. The childlessness of their marriage weighs on them both, and Anne begins to hear a child sobbing in the night. It isn’t long before Anne can see and touch the child, a little girl about six years old, as well. As the vacation goes on, Anne spends more and more time caring for the child only she can see and touch, and she seems to be wasting away…and there is nothing Godfrey can do about it…except he did see the child, just once. Inquiries turn up nothing; according to everyone, the house is not, and has never been haunted. At last, their vacation comes to an end, and that is where the story ends.

There are two parts of this story that are interesting. The first is that this is not presented as a typical haunting; it is in fact presented as most untypical, and until Godfrey confirms that he too has seen the child, it might be wondered if this isn’t something more psychological with Anne, echoing “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, some expression of misplaced maternal energies manifesting. I almost wish the revelation that he had seen the child too had been left for the end, just to carry the illusion on a little further. The second interesting part is a statement that occurs during Godfrey’s research, where a friend who believes in ghosts states:

I always know how to distinguish a true ghost-story from a faked one. The true ghost-story never has any point, and the faked one dare not leave it out.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 206

This is interesting because it may be as close as Everett comes to explaining her own lack of a point in her ghost stories. By refusing to tie things up neatly, she is adding a degree of verisimilitude to her stories by making them as inexplicable as real-life accounts. Or at least, that is a possibility worth considering, given that we have none of her other thoughts on ghost stories.

Over the Wires

Only one item in Hay’s room demands description. There was a telephone installtion in one corner; and twice while Carrington’s dinner was being served, there came upon it a sharp summons […]

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 209

Ernest Carrington was on leave in England, staying with his friend Hay and searching for his fiance Isabeau Regnier among the refugees from Belgium. The search goes poorly, until a call comes on the telephone—and it is Isabeau, though she doesn’t remember her right name and cannot help him find her. They communicate only through the frantic calls—and at last, he does find her. Only to find that she was in a coma during the first two calls, and had died before the last call was made.

Telephones were invented in 1876, but the expansion of such service expanded slowly into the early 20th century as the technology was refined and standardized. There was still something a bit preternatural about the device, or at least there were still fantastic possibilities attached to it, as Lord Dunsany did in “The Three Infernal Jokes” (1916), and the usage here, getting a literal phonecall from the dead, is right in line with that kind of usage. A somewhat less-supernatural parallel might also be drawn with the ending of Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919).

It is somewhat surprising that more hasn’t been used of this story, since it seems ripe for adaptation to a small-scale play or comic book; the ending is right in line with EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt or shows like The Twilight Zone, since the final twist leaves the viewer with more questions than it answers, and the conversations themselves have plenty of drama.

A Water Witch

Everett F. Bleiler described this story as “A somewhat confused story of a white woman who drowns cattle.” and it’s difficult to argue with that summary. The narrator is Mary Larcomb, who is disappointed her brother married a woman named Frederica instead of something more prosaic (all the women in the family apparently being named either Susan, Anne, Mary, or Elizabeth exclusively). Frederica is a “weak sister”-in-law, and after the death of a child a few days after it is born, Robert takes her out to a country house to recuperate; when Robert needs to go into town, Mary comes in to help take care of Frederica.

What follows is…odd. The local animals in the district shy away from a certain crossroads where a suicide is buried; the ghost of the same, described as a white woman, is blamed on leading cows, sheep, and other animal to the nearby river to be drowned. Frederica is recovering slowly, but she is affected by hearing strange drops of water. The story of the white woman, as related by Dr. Vickers, a neighbor with an interest in folklore, slightly parallels that of Frederica:

She was unhappy, because her husband neglected her. He had—other things to attend to, and the charm she once possessed for him was lost and gone. he left her too much alone. She lost her health, they say, through fretting, and so fell into a melancholy way, spending her time in weeping, and in wandering up and down on the banks of Roscawen Water. She may have fallen in by accident, it was not exactly known; but her death was thought to be suicide, and she was buried at the cross-roads.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 238

The possible haunting of the white woman—she is never called a witch in the story itself—is counterpoised against what is strongly suspected to be Dr. Vicker’s unseemly interest in Frederica, though this is handled with all the tact of a Victorian confessional (“Any open scandal must be avoided; she must neither be shamed nor pained.”) An accident finally brings Robert back to care for sister and wife, and to take them away from Vickers and the white woman. Death came to Frederica a few months later, then war was declared and Robert volunteered, and his sisters hoped next time Robert chose a wife he’d be more practical about it.

It is another one of those stories where the prosaicness, the sheer Britishness of striving to keep up appearances totally overwhelms what might otherwise have been a really weird and unusual haunting. We get so little information about the white woman, who sounds similar to but distinct from the bean-nighe that it could have been a really effective piece of pseudo-folklore if expanded upon and made the central focus of the story.

The Lonely Road

“Why, Boris,” he exclaimed unthinking, and the creature came beside him with wagging tail : surely in the event of attack, here would be a formidable ally.

The dog was friendly, and appeared to answer to the name called. Margaret had had such a dog in her husband’s lifetime, a Russian wolf-hound of which she had been fond; Pulteney had often seen them together, the tall elegant woman followed by the noble hound. Surely this must be Boris; and yet he had a dim recollection of some mischance mentioned in a letter of Adelaide’s, an accident in which the dog had been injured, and he thought killed.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 257

In Ireland, Tom Pulteney is visiting his widowed cousin Margaret, with an eye toward asking her to marry him. Forced to walk eight miles at night, he is tracked by thieves—but her loyal hound Boris aids him, only to disappear. Naturally enough, the dog had been dead, and it was his ghost that helped Tom scare off his assailants.

This is the slightest of the stories in The Death-Mask, in terms of length; and not badly told, for all that the plot is straightforward and the ending rather obvious, right down to Tom’s coded proposal of marriage in the final letter. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking or innovative about it, but it is the kind of story that could be slipped into almost any book of Irish ghost tales without a second thought. The only oddity is the insistence that the breed is a borzoi, or Russian wolfhound, rather than an Irish wolfhound; but the modern Irish wolfhound breed was bred in the late 19th century with some borzoi in the mix, so the appearance of a borzoi is not too unusual given the time and location.

A Girl In White

I write this, but add a query: perhaps one wiser than I will answer, and unravel the mystery which I merely present. I do not pretend to explain.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 261

A man rents a country cottage for his mother and sister in 1914. Going down to visit them for a weekend, he feels ill-at-ease in the house, and his nights are interrupted with visions of a girl in white (not the same as the white woman in “A Water Witch”). Without telling anyone of the strange appearance of the girl in white, he suffers through and returns to London; the girl in white does not follow him, nor do his mother or sister see her. Two weeks later he returns, and events occur again.

War broke out, the narrator did his military duty, inquiring about the cottage and finding no record of haunting or past tragedy. Wounded three times, he was out of action when his mother and sister brought him back to the same district, to an adjoining cottage to the one they originally rented, to recuperate. There his sister attempted to set him up with his neighbor Emily Tressidy, but he was instead interested in her sister Grace Tressidy—the spitting image, if a few years older, of the girl in white. During the period of his previous stay at the cottage, Grace had developed a habit of sleepwalking, and dreamed strange dreams. One early morning, he was out rowing, recalling a dream when he did so and the girl in white appeared. Suddenly, she did again, and he was not sure if he was seeing dream or ghost or real vision when a sleep-walking Grace fell into the water, and he leaped in to rescue her.

There was the implication at the end that they would be married. Which is rather a theme in these stories. As for the query:

Does this afford an explanation of the story I have told? It may, or it may not; but it is the only one I have to offer.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 277

On a rational level, readers are free to draw their own conclusions as to why the girl in white appeared there at that time in that place, and whether she was mental projection, dream-self, or something more obscure. Like a dream, rational logic is something applied in hindsight, there’s an emotional core to the story intended to tug at the heart strings.

A Perplexing Case

There a certain amount of vital fluid was in process of interchange, and two spirits wrongly housed in their tenements of flesh were brought into touch by a force only partially recognised, though of existence coeval with human life.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 295

Two soldiers in France have been wounded: the man who is identified as Henri de Hochepied Latour of France wakes to think of himself as Richard Adams of London; a circumstance that causes the gravest confusion to himself, his friends, and family. After several pages of increasing insistence that he is not who he is identified as, and not recognizing himself in a mirror, Latour is taken in for a blood transfusion with another shell shock case—Richard Adams—and when the two wake up, they are in their correct bodies once again.

This is practically a Fortean anecdote stretched out to short story length rather than a ghost story proper, but weird fiction has seen stranger exchanges of souls, and Lovecraft would revisit some similar ideas in stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow out of Time.”

Beyond the Pale

Joan began her married life with high ideals. She determined so to identify herself with her husband’s pursuits, that she might everywhere be his unfailing companion; and to this young wife the nursery interests, which frequently alter such a programme, had not been vouchsafed by Providence. So when Henniker laid his plans for a season’s shooting in the wilds of Western America, Joan, as amatter of course, expected to go too.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 298-299

In a nondescript part of the American West, the Hennikers had settled in for a hunting trip. As a maid, Joan was provided with “Nita, the half-bred Indian girl”—who spoke Spanish, her own Native American language, and a little English. The collision of different cultures and language barriers proved insurmountable when, returning to the ranch after a visit, Joan found Nita had broken into all of her boxes, stolen a few things, and run off. The local sheriff accosted Nita’s grandmother Rachel, who was reputed to be a witch, for knowledge of Nita’s whereabouts, which did not help matters. In retaliation, the Hennikers are bewitched. After tolerating various afflictions for some time, they resolve to hire a rival witch doctor, Hill-of-the-Raven, to deal with the witchcraft at their door.

The anti-witchcraft ritual now takes center stage, described in great detail, and ending with the sudden appearance of a woman’s severed hand. Hill-of-the-Raven gives the Hennikers instructions on what to do with this, and the English couple follow those instructions. Presently, Nita returns—with a bloody stump—to return the stolen articles in exchange for her hand back.

He then united the severed parts, and Joan used afterwards to aver that she heard the bones grate together as they met.

H. D. Everett, The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts 320

In terms of cultural depictions, the story is very rough, even by the standards of 1920. The Native American characters are largely stereotyped, the attitudes are casually classist and racist, and approximately zero research was done on actual Native American traditions. Or, to put that in context, about the level of many popular depictions of Native Americans from the dime novels of the 1890s through to the pulp westerns, comic books, and motion pictures of the 1930s and beyond.

What is different about “Beyond the Pale” is how different it is from the rest of Everett’s stories in The Death-Mask. While “The Next Heir” had magic of a kind in the visions of the scrying-stone, there were no spells or incantations, no witchcraft or sorcery. In this story and only this story, magic is a fact of life, and the English couple, completely at a loss for how else to solve their problems, resort to local methods (“when in Rome, do as the Romans do”)—and that, more than anything, may be why this story is titled “Beyond the Pale.” It goes beyond the normal remit of a traditional British ghost story, just as they have gone far beyond the limits of the British Isles.

While not in any way lacking in imagination, “Beyond the Pale” is still not a particularly great story. Like most of the others in this book, it is relatively straightforward and linear in its telling, there are few characters and fewer kinks in the plot. It does not explain everything, but it also features a resolution lacking from the earlier stories. The supernatural manifestation can’t be ignored or left alone, doesn’t resolve itself, so it is actually confronted. It is the kind of story that, had it been submitted a few years later, might actually have been accepted for an early issue of Weird Tales.

Looking at the contents of The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts as a whole, it is possibly easier to see why Lovecraft and James had at least a small amount of praise for it. Everrett knew her business, she was working within an established tradition, and she could stretch that tradition to about the limit of what it could stand. She was not looking to the past, but working within a contemporary milieu, and writing to contemporary concerns with some degree of verisimilitude. She could write some evocative passages, and many of her subtler horrors are not the usual ones. By the standards of the 1920s, that was playing to the expectations of a specific audience that knew what they wanted from a British ghost story, and doing a very competent job of it.

Yet, they are very much tales of their time. There is no cohesion to the collection, no shared setting beyond Britain itself (and that often focused, somewhat oddly, on Scotland), no series character, and no uniformity of metaphysics. Each of the stories is independent of the other, nothing builds to any greater revelation, and so much of the stories’ wordcount is taken up by really mundane concerns like how much money the furniture is worth or what the income of the rental properties are, or whether the one male character will marry this sister or that sister…and these are the very human melodramas which subtract from what could be much more evocative stories. It’s almost like what Everett really wanted to write were Edwardian paranormal romances…and you can’t blame her for that, because that is still working within the tradition of the British ghost story. M. R. James in “The Tractate Middoth” (1911), to give just one example, has the hint of just such a relationship at the end.

That the stories focus relatively heavily on women and social issues that involve women is no accident. Ghost stories were a safe way to address such issues:

Melissa Edmundson: It’s fascinating to me how well the supernatural lends itself to the exploration of social issues and how it can tell us about the eras in which it was written. Many scholars still don’t take Gothic too seriously as a source for serious critical study – that’s changed in recent years, but the dismissive attitude is still there. So finding strong social elements in these stories, what I call the ‘social supernatural’ in Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2013), makes these stories something more than just light entertainment. Yes, they were written to entertain but they also had an important purpose. When you think about it, there’s unsettlement on two levels: there’s the unsettled nature of the ghost who can’t be at peace and then there’s the social imbalance that the ghost in the story often reflects.

Peter Meinhertzhagen, “Melissa Edmundson, interview about Avenging Angels,” 24 Feb 2019

It is a humanistic element deliberately lacking from Lovecraft’s work, as Lovecraft disliked the distraction of romance in the setting and execution of his weird phenomena, and rarely addressed social issues, much less those that affected women. Yet he could no doubt appreciate some of what Everett did in these stories, and perhaps if for no other reason that might encourage more readers today to read and rediscover them—keeping an open mind about both what the stories are, and are not. If you go in expecting a female M. R. James or H. P. Lovecraft, you will be sorely disappointed. If you go in hoping to find the last interwar ghost stories of H. D. Everett—you will find them.

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

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

King Conan and the Stygian Queen (2016) by Jess Thornton & “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” (2017) by Callie Page

Robert E. Howard lived during the early years of organized science fiction fandom. Devoted fans of certain literary and popular media works had existed long before, just as science fiction existed before it had a name, but it was in the 1930s that organized fandom coalesced around the science fiction and weird pulp magazines. This first fandom in the 1930s, with its politics and controversies, its enthusiasm and creativity, its sometimes bitter arguments over definitions and big egos clashing over petty pastimes, laid the groundwork for what we think of as fandom today.

Fan fiction during Robert E. Howard’s day was different, however. Fan fiction was simply amateur fiction written by fans, for fans, published in fanzines; this is what ultimately distinguished it from “pro” fiction, which was published in pulp magazines. In terms of quality, the dividing line could be nonexistent—Howard himself didn’t have any concerns if unused and rejected stories or poetry of his appeared in a fanzine, which is why he allowed The Fantasy Fan to publish “The Gods of the North”—a rejected Conan tale.

What fans generally did not do at this period was to write fanfiction as we know it today: that is, original fiction using another writer’s original characters and setting. New stories of Conan the Cimmerian didn’t fill the pages of The Fantasy Fan or any other fanzine during the 1930s, and it was rarely the case for other popular characters to get new installments in the fanzines during this period either. The concern was probably less worry about copyright strikes than propriety; the sense that it wasn’t polite to “steal” a writer’s character.

The only real exception to this was what would become known as the Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers during this period—specifically because these authors shared elements of their setting and even encouraged their use. For example, one of the earliest references to the Conan stories outside of Howard or Lovecraft’s own fiction was “Horror at Vecra” by Henry Hasse (The Acolyte #5, Fall 1943), which is a Mythos story that shelves the Nemedian Chronicles almost alongside the Necronomicon.

Finally I said, “All right, what is it this time? And don’t give me any more of that Necronomicon stuff, for I know that’s a myth.” Bruce was an authority on certain terrible lores and forbidden books dealing with such lores, and he had told me things from a certain Necronomicon that literally made my flesh crawl.

“What?” he said in answer to my question. “Why look at these! Not Necronomicons, but interesting!” he trhust a couple of worn, leather-bound volumes into my hands. I glanced at the titles. One was Horride Mysteries by the Marquis of Grosse; the other, Nemedian Chronicles. I looked up at Bruce, and saw that he was genuinely excited.

Henry Hesse, The Acolyte #5 (Fall 1943) 11

The first fanfictional use of Conan as a character is a bit more difficult to pin down. Emil Petaja’s “The Warrior” (1934), dedicated to Robert E. Howard, begins with “From ancient dark Cimmeria he came| With sword uplifted, on that bloody day”—but does not mention Conan by name. R. H. Barlow was so moved by Robert E. Howard’s death in 1936 that he wrote an elegy, titled “R. E . H.” and begins “Conan, the warrior king, lies stricken dead,” though this was published in Weird Tales Oct 1936, not a fanzine. Another early unauthorized use of Conan was in “The Man of Two Worlds” by Bryce Walton (Space Stories Oct 1952), but that wasn’t a fanzine either, though the literary borrowing was perhaps closer to what we think of as fanfiction today:

Thorston leaped back atop the sea-wall and faced them. Below him, thegiant barbarian and sveral other self-appointed discipls of theri hero, faced the mob.

Thorsten kicked the barbarian in the back. As the man looked up, Thorsten shouted: “Your name, barbarian? You used the swod well enough. It’s yours.”

“I thank you, Theseus!” the barbarian’s face stretched in a fierce grin. “I am Conan the CImmerian. I came from your land, Theseus. From the wilds of Cimmeria.”

Bryce Walton, Space Stories (Oct 1952) 43

It took a while for Howardian fanfiction in the sense that folks recognize fanfiction today to get going. In part, this was probably due to the initial lull in reprints and publications of Howard’s work after his death, and then the commercial avenues opened up in the 1950s as L. Sprague de Camp and others began to produce Conan pastiches authorized by the copyright holders of Howard’s estate, as well as reworking existing Howard stories into Conan tales. Professional writers like Gardner Fox quickly determined that it might be easier to create their own carbon-copy barbarians like Crom the Barbarian and Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman instead of getting permission to write a Conan, Kull, or Bran Mak Morn story. There is a certain irony in this, as when Marvel Comics began adapting Howard’s Conan stories to comics in the 1970s, they licensed the rights to adapt some of Fox’s Kothar stories as new adventures of Conan the Cimmerian.

As Howard’s literary legacy grew and spread into other media, more unauthorized fiction and poetry appeared; sometimes in fanzines like “I Remember Conan” (1960) by Grace A. Warren, and sometimes in foreign language markets where local authors decided to continue the adventures of a popular character. With the advent of the internet, fanfiction made the leap from fanzines to websites. The early days of Howardian internet fanfiction aren’t well-attested, and little of the early webrings and erotic fanfiction sites survive except in obscure corners of the Internet Archive, but if you know where to look it still exists—although fanfiction today tends to be based as much on derivative works like the comic books (particularly Red Sonja) and the 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As the economy grew increasingly online, fanfiction went through another important change: self-commercialization. Desktop publishing, ebooks, and print-on-demand meant that instead of posting fanfiction to a website for free, practically anyone could self-publish an ebook or POD book via Amazon or another online retailer—and a handful of folks did so.

While these works are qualitatively not very different from fanfiction available for free, the commercialization of these works draws greater scrutiny. Whether or not a given usage is legal is a matter for lawyers: if a work is under copyright, the owners of that copyright (the ultimate legal heirs of Howard’s estate) certainly have an exclusive right to profit off it, though certain uses may fall under fair use if they meet the right criteria. A free Conan fanfic on a website certainly isn’t a commercial endeavor, and probably doesn’t substantially impact the market for actual Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, for example. Likewise, works that riff off of Conan but explicitly aren’t Conan like Wolff (1971) by Luis Gasca & Esteban Maroto, The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella and Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon don’t appear to be infringing on anyone’s copyrights.

The issue gets a little more complicated with works that fall in the public domain (as all fiction eventually does) since these are open to being reprinted, remixed, and reimagined in any way the public wants, including new commercialization. Some characters in such works may still be covered by trademarks, which do not expire after a given term. Hence the relatively complicated status of works like The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi, Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli Martínez, El Puritano (2021) by El Torres, Jaime Infante, & Manoli Martínez, and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, which may be legal in areas where the Conan stories have entered the public domain, but aren’t necessarily available in markets where the copyrights or trademarks for Conan et al. are still valid.

Still, there are a couple of other creative literary efforts that run that grey edge of commercialized fanfiction, and it’s worth taking a look at them to see what they do and don’t do.

King Conan and the Stygian Queen (2016) by Jess Thornton

In 2016, Jess Thornton published four titles publishing original stories of Robert E. Howard’s most famous barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian: Conan Returns, Conan in a Stygian Jail, King Conan and the Stygian Queen, and Conan and the Monkey Men. Three of those books are no longer available; whether this was due to a copyright strike, violation of Amazon’s terms of service, Thornton deciding to take them down or some other reason isn’t very clear, and ultimately doesn’t matter. King Conan and the Stygian Queen is still available at this time of writing.

The subtitle of this book is Beyond the Black River and Robert E. Howard is listed as an author, and for good reason: the book consists of a 68-page novella, then the entire Robert E. Howard Conan story “Beyond the Black River,” and a 3-page epilogue. The 71 pages of original fiction by Thornton effectively form a kind of wraparound story, not entirely unlike what Rodolfo Martínez did with The Song of Bêlit (2020) and Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast.” However, where Martínez was weaving his story in between Howard’s original chapters, Thornton is trying to do something different.

Thornton’s 68-page novelette has an older King Conan, some decades after the end of “The Scarlet Citadel,” still in fighting shape due to a calisthenics regimen, traveling forward in time to Cross Plains in the 1930s to save author Robert E. Howard from the eponymous Stygian Queen, an undead weapon sent by Thoth-Amon to destroy the Hyborian Age before it ever begins. Along the way, Conan basically narrates his own adventures to Howard, which implicitly forms the basis for the Conan tales that would eventually appear in Weird Tales.

There are a lot of fannish threads to pick apart here. Howard’s legend had been tied in with his most famous creation’s as early as 1936, when H. P. Lovecraft declared:

It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote.

H. P. Lovecraft, “In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard” (1936)

This was, in turn, an extension of Howard’s own personal myth-building, since he wrote:

While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present — or even the future — work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather off my typewriter — almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowed on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it.

Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Dec 1933, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (2nd ed.) 3.142-143

The truth was a little less poetic, as discussed in the essay on the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” in Hither Came Conan (2023). The ghost of Conan didn’t stand over Howard at the typewriter, dictating his adventures; Howard pounded out a draft and then revised it, often multiple times, before submitting it and often receiving corrections that required further revision. Conan may have popped into Howard’s mind full-formed, but he had many fictional antecedents, including Kull of Atlantis and Conan the Reaver, that informed the character.

So the idea of King Conan dictating his stories to Robert E. Howard is the Howardian equivalent of Lovecraft actually owning a copy of the Necronomicon or having secret knowledge that the Mythos was actually real. By itself, that’s not entirely unknown in the wider diaspora of Lovecraftian fiction; Sangre Bárbara and El Puritano both have a wrap-around story of a young Howard listening to the stories that would go on to inform his fiction. The question becomes one of verisimilitude: how does Thornton weave this supernatural visitation from Conan of Hyborian Age Past into his known history?


While there is obviously some familiarity with Howard’s life, including his family, his relationship with Novalyne Price, the town of Cross Plains, Texas, etc., most of the details just don’t add up. Howard’s first Conan story was written and published in 1932; Prohibition ended in 1933; he met Novalyne Price in Cross Plains in 1934; and he committed suicide at age 30 in 1936. Yet when Conan first meets Howard the author is described as about 30, doesn’t recognize Conan, they drink a pitcher of beer together, and he meets Novalyne at the drug store in Cross Plains. Novalyne and Robert were also never engaged to be married and she was not in Cross Plains when he died, but she is described as his fiance and in town when he died at the end. All of the pieces of Howard’s life are there, but the timeline doesn’t jive with what we know of Howard’s life.

The prose is passable; it’s obvious Thornton has a great affection for Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and sought to reproduce, as much as he could, the flavor of the language. The “methinks!” and “he ejaculated” are laid on a bit thickly and come across less naturally than how Howard wrote Conan, but no author can exactly reproduce another’s style. The use of Thoth Amon as the antagonist probably owes a bit more toward the later Conan pastiches and comic books, since Thoth Amon only appears in one story by Howard (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) and is mentioned in another (“The God in the Bowl”).

On the surface, the inclusion of the entirety of “Beyond the Black River” may seem odd. The story appears to be in the public domain (at least according to Wikisource), but it has nothing directly to do with Thornton’s novelette of King Conan and the Stygian Queen…until you get to the epilogue. Without spoiling the ending, Thornton had implicitly inserted his version of Howard into “Beyond the Black River” as an existing character, without changing a word of Howard’s story, to give the writer what he considered an appropriate glorious death in battle and send-off. Effectively making the story of Howard’s suicide a cover for what really happened.

It doesn’t really work if you think about it too hard, since throughout “Beyond the Black River” there is zero hint of that character sharing any of the information that Howard would presumably have known, and knowing quite a lot that Robert E. Howard would not have known. It’s a well-meaning tribute, perhaps, an effort to rewrite Howard’s end as being more glorious than what it was…but for it to work, the reader has to basically turn a blind eye to who Robert E. Howard was and how he suffered and persevered through the long years of his mother’s illness, the ups and downs of his writing career, his tumultuous relationship with Novalyne Price and his other friends.

King Conan and the Stygian Queen is fanfiction in the sense that this is fiction by fans, for fans—for who else except ardent fans are going to want to read a “new” (and reprinted) story of Conan? Yet the way the story is written, the errors made in depicting Howard’s life, seem likely to alienate a lot of those selfsame fans. At least those who care for who Robert E. Howard was, warts and all, instead of an idealized image of him as the first of Conan’s fanboys.

“Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” (2017) by Callie Press

My name is Brendalee Elkins and I am from round abouts Nevady, just like my whole clan has always been, ancestors and such. We been here since Apache times, and lay claim to some pretty famous Injun-fighters, leastaways teh ones what didn’t marry into the tribes like my cousin Buckminister Elkins done. Daddy always said he weren’t no more than half anything including half an Elkins, though, and I guess that proved it to my kinfolk when he run off with his little squaw.

Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)

Most of the derivative fiction that stems from Robert E. Howard’s original creations comes from either his Hyborian Age tales of Conan or his Cthulhu Mythos tales. Yet Howard wrote many more characters and settings; original works based on Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and even Sailor Steve Costigan have seen publication in authorized works. The comedic Western stories starring Breckinridge Elkins (or his close counterparts Grizzly Elkins, Pike Bearfield, and Buckner Jeopardy Grimes) have attracted less creative attention, although they inspired Howard’s friend E. Hoffmann Price to create his own Western character, Simon Bolivar Grimes, for a series of stories. Yet fanfiction efforts to pen new Elkins stories have been few.

“Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” by Callie Press is such a rara avis, although in this case Rule 63 has been applied, and despite continuing the use of outdated cultural depictions is set in the current day. The juxtaposition of the stereotyped backwoods hicks in a contemporary world is played for humor, much the same in 2017 as it would have been in 1967 when The Beverley Hillbillies was on the air, or when Li’l Abner and Snuffy Smith ran in newspapers during Howard’s lifetime. The broad outline of the start of the story resembles Howard’s first Elkins story, “A Gent from Bear Creek,” where occasion requires Brendalee to go into town:

Somehow he said some fellers got some nekkid pitchers of me on the internets, which as I understand it is kinda like the post, only electrical. Someone musta snuck a camera up the creek whilst I was bathin’ or something, but it befuddled me as to when.

Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)

Press has obviously studied Howard’s Elkins stories and includes several references to the series, including names like McGraw, Bear Creek, Chawed Ear, and the Humbolts. Brendalee, like her male counterpart, is not entirely the brightest or most trustworthy narrator, and casually displays superhuman strength and endurance for comedic effect. It is a solid pastiche of Howard’s style.

Then the yeti (“albino samsquatches”) enter into the story.

While the Breckinridge Elkins stories might border on the ridiculous when describing Elkins’ strength, stamina, capacity for liquor, resistance to common poisons, and thick-headedness, they never veered all the way into outright fantasy. I have a suspicion that the popularity of the “monster sex” erotic ebook scene on Amazon in the 2010s inspired this particular narrative, and fair enough—there are stranger flavors of Howard-inspired erotic fanfiction, if one knows where to look. There is also a certain flair in this novel new element that can’t help but bring a smile:

I knowed when I stared into them other-worldly eyeballs that he wanted to milk my titties somehow, and I didn’t reckon that was gonna fly with this Elkins girl. I hadn’t never had no baby, and I such as shuckin’ didn’t plan to let them big old manglers try to perjuice milk out of my sensitive mammaries, no matter how enormous they is compared to normal glas’s teats.

Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)

Despite the slightly racy themes and language, Brendalee Elkins’ adventure with the Yeti isn’t erotica, or even particularly raunchy; just a good bit of light-hearted fun involving some oversize genitals and an unexplained desire to induce lactation. What it shares with King Conan and the Stygian Queen is a certain fannish approach: this is a story by someone who has read, enjoyed, and above all understood the Breckinridge Elkins yarns and what makes them work. Some of the jokes are a bit crude and the changes made to the setting are a bit ridiculous, but then the Elkins stories are often ridiculous, that’s what makes them funny. While no one would ever mistake “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” as something that could have come from Howard’s typewriter, any fan familiar with Howard’s work can definitely see when Callie Press got her inspiration and what she was trying to achieve: a bit of adult-oriented humor in a Howardian vein.

Callie Press and Jess Thornton both approach their material as fans, and the primary audience that would appreciate their efforts are also fans, since they can see the work put into these stories. Yet there is a difference in how each realizes their goals. Press’ Brendalee Elkins is patently based on Breckinridge Elkins, even more than E. Hoffmann Price based Simon Boliver Grimes off of Buckner Jeopardy Grimes, but in writing the story she made Brendalee more than just a mountain man with a big bosom. Brendalee’s character may not be exactly ladylike, but neither is Breckinridge a typical example of Southwestern manhood: they are both exaggerations played for comedic effect, and at points veritably superhuman in their attributes…but they are distinct. By contrast, Thornton set out to write an actual Conan story starring Conan; there is no clever hinting, no tiptoeing around copyrights or trademarks, just an open use of an established character.

Both of these works can be categorized as commercial fanfiction, but each also represents distinct modes of fanfiction. That is part of what fanfiction is: an opportunity to experiment, to try different things, to take characters and settings in new directions that the original author(s) never dreamed. In 1936, Robert E. Howard likely imagined that Conan and Breckinridge Elkins would effectively die with him, notwithstanding a few stories left in his trunk that hadn’t seen publication yet. He would no doubt have been amazed to see what had become of his literary creations…and in the years and decades ahead, who is to say what lies ahead for Howard fandom?

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

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

Tentacle (2019) by Rita Indiana

I also took a trip over neighbouring coral reef in a glass-bottomed boat which gave splendid view of the exotic tropical flora & fauna of the ocean floor—grasses, sponges, corals, fishes, sea-urchins, crinoids, etc. […] If I use the tropic setting for any kind of tale, it will be one involving brooding mysterious on one of those low coral keys which lie in spectral desertion just off the shore.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Jun 1931, Essential Solitude 1.349

In the summer of 1931, Lovecraft traveled down to Florida, as far south as Key West—he had hoped to make it to Cuba to see Havana, but lacking the funds for the passage, made his way back up the East Coast by bus, taking with him the memories which inspired Devil’s Reef, when he came to write “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in the winter of that year. Perhaps Lovecraft was still thinking of the Florida he saw outside the bus window when he wrote:

Once in a while I noticed dead stumps and crumbling foundation-walls above the drifting sand, and recalled the old tradition quoted in one of the histories I had read, that this was once a fertile and thickly settled countryside. The change, it was said, came simultaneously with the Innsmouth epidemic of 1846, and was thought by simple folk to have a dark connexion with hidden forces of evil. Actually, it was caused by the unwise cutting of woodlands near the shore, which robbed the soil of its best protection and opened the way for waves of wind-blown sand.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

As much as Lovecraft loved the outdoors, the proto-environmentalism sentiment in some of his stories did not come from any active idea of man-made pollution, overfishing, overfarming, overgrazing, or other ill-use of the land in the sense that readers today would think of. During Lovecraft’s lifetime the nation was just coming to terms with the potential extinction of the American bison, and it was several decades before Silent Spring would see print. “The Colour Out of Space,” for example, was a freak accident, not a buried radioactive waste dump, for all that the insidious pollution carries some of the hallmarks of environmental horror. For Lovecraft, the environmental desolation around towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth are a reflection of the human ills within, much as how in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” the decay of the physical dwelling-place reflects the moral decay of the family within.

There is a certain parallel there with today’s environmental horrors: environmental devastation is human sin made manifest.

What would Lovecraft say if he could see those same Caribbean coral reefs, now bleached white and dead, silent and no longer home to the teeming wildlife that once swam beneath the glass-bottomed floor? Would he be reminded of “Til A’ The Seas” by R. H. Barlow, which Lovecraft had commented on, offering comments and suggestions. Or perhaps he would recall “The Shadow Out of Time” and wonder…what if?

Tentacles (2019) by Rita Indiana is the English-language version of her 2015 short novel La mucama de Omicunlé (The Maid of Omicunlé), translated by Achy Obejas. The story is set in the Dominican Republic in three periods: in a post-apocalyptic future where a terminally-online populace chokes in the middle of a dead Caribbean, a contemporary period before the disaster has happened, and the deep Colonial past, when the island of Hispaniola was a wild frontier for European empires, already drenched in the blood of the indigenous Taino.

The story that unfolds, the heroic effort to prevent the disaster, involves a syncretised cult, a sex worker who goes from turning tricks to planning a heist to facilitate their nanotech-powered gender transition, the last remnant of the indigenous peoples, the play of race, class, and sexuality that has made the island such a dynamic and divided place, and the tentacles of a sacred anemone that may have the secret to everything:

According to the letter, black Cubans called a certain marine creature Olokun. It could travel back in time, dude, very Lovecraftian.

Rita Indiana trans. Achy Obejas, Tentacle 105

The concept is a little Lovecraftian, but the execution is distinct. Whereas Lovecraft had very little interest in characters, writing his story more about phenomena rather than those who experienced them, Tentacle is really all about the intertwining nature of people and the environment. Some of the characters are short-sighted and self-indulgent to an extreme, too wrapped up in their own affairs to care about the ramifications of their actions; others are long-planning and self-sacrificing to an extreme that borders on fanatical. Yet ultimately, all of them play their part in the events that lead up to a key moment—the point where one person, at the right place and the right time, with the correct connections and resources, might be able to make a difference and change the future.

In terms of content and approach, Tentacle is not Lovecraftian in the usual sense of the word, for all that it once invokes Lovecraft. There is nothing of Lovecraft’s Mythos or atmosphere in this novel, and while there is a similarity in some of the themes addressed, the execution and style are completely different. Like Flowers for the Sea (2021) by Zin E. Rocklyn, this is not exactly cosmic horror as Lovecraft & co. envisioned it—because while the big horrors of environmental disaster are vast and impersonal, it is the very personal horrors of racism, sexism, and human greed and lust which are the more immediate threats and drivers of the plot.

With the gender transition and the time travel aspect, certain comparisons might be made with Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—'” (1959)—but Tentacle is not so self-consciously attempting to be as complicated or as clever. Gender reassignment in Heinlein’s story is a sort of inevitable accident; in Indiana’s novel, it is the main character’s stated and most urgently desired goal. The paradoxical loop in Heinlein’s story is never quite closed in Tentacle; in fact, the established rules of time travel in the story rather prohibit Heinleinian shenanigans, at least for the most part.

It is somewhat telling that when Lovecraft handled time travel with “The Shadow Out of Time,” he did not address the possibility of time paradoxes. The Great Race was constantly looking forward, not backward, and whatever the future had in store for them they adapted to that new environment, not striving to change the past to fix the future to their design. The final revelation at the end of the story was implicitly always there, just waiting to be discovered after untold millions of years. Indiana’s solution to the potential consequences of changing the future is ultimately a very human one—and if it isn’t the most satisfying, it does rather fit the themes of the novel, and the unspoken moral is the one that underlies nearly every piece of environmental writing:

Don’t wait for some miraculous savior. If you want change to happen, you need to do it now, before it’s too late.

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

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

The Coming of Cormac (1974) by Caer Ged & The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris

“Personally,” I said, “I shared Bloch’s opinion of the stories. There was too much emphasis placed on sex. Once I wrote a very critical letter to Editor Wright about the prevalence of sex in some Weird Tales stories, citing the Conan stories as an example.

Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Lovecraft at Last 43

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

In the 1930s editor of Weird Tales Farnsworth Wright recognized that sex sells—or at least, that a tasteful nude on the cover seemed to improve sales. Yet Weird Tales was not in any sense a pornographic magazine, and the “delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age” that Lovecraft spoke about was relatively prudish compared to an episode of Game of Thrones. Robert E. Howard would have an occasional female character disrobed, might hint at sex, but it would have been impossible to publish anything relating to male genitalia, penetration, or any oral sex beyond a passionate kiss in the 1930s, even if he had been so inclined to write such things. Even Howard’s stories for the Spicy magazines, which promised more sizzling sex than other pulps, were more likely to involve a particularly hard spanking than coitus, and paragraphs would peter out into ellipses before getting to any sort of explicit description.

Robert E. Howard’s hardboiled fantasy stories of Conan the Cimmerian would long survive him and grow in popularity, and as restrictions on sex in publishing eased (particularly after Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 1959), sword & sorcery fiction began to gradually grow more explicit. Fritz Leiber’s “The Sadness of the Executioner” (1973) for example, features “a deliciously slender girl of no more than sixteen, unclad save for four ornaments of silver filigree” as a violent and insane member of a mad king’s harem, and Leiber doesn’t mind describing her anatomy—but he stops short of pornography. Again, there were limitations to what most publications would accept.

The earliest sexually explicit efforts in that vein were, oddly enough, probably inspired by Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic, which began publication in 1970. “Gonad the Horney” was published in the San Francisco Ball in 1972, and the Tijuana bible style Red Sonja and Conan – Hot and Dry was published in 1977. Both of these sexually explicit little comics were parodies of the Marvel material, much as how in later years Hustler would create This Ain’t Conan the Barbarian (2011). Tongue was firmly in cheek, and the point was generally amusement rather than titillation or telling a good story.

Yet with the boom in paperback fantasy in the 1960s through the 1980s, the market for adult-oriented Sword & Sorcery grew…and a few pornographic novels were published to meet that market segment. Two in particular stand out as of particular interest to fans of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, The Coming of Cormac (1974) and The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris—and these novels are worth consideration and comparison.

The Coming of Cormac (1974) by Caer Ged

During the fifth cycle of man, before the cataclysm that drove Atlantis from the depths of the sea and split the face of the earth, there was a oneness of the land called Augura by its inhabitants. Though darkness and its creatures and daemons still walked unchained, there rose five kings who rallied civilization and its boundaries. These kingdoms were called Telus,Nebula, Waldrop, Agila and Valana, and war was constant among them.

Beyond these boundaries of man was wilderness. To the south was Sartar with burning deserts and steaming jungles inhabited by savage men of black skin. To the east was the Land of Shadows with the Mountains of Krath barring entrance. To the west were the unknown waters of the Great Sea. And to the north was the frozen wasteland called Bifrost with its warring barbarians.

It was from this bitter land of cold that Cormac came to seek his fortune in the cities of civilization . . .

from The Book of Cormac, Aram Akkad.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 1

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

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

The Coming of Cormac was billed as “the first ‘sword and sorcery’ book to ever hit the stands—with plenty of hot far-out, uncensored sex!”—and that statement may well stand the test of time, because while it is not the first erotic speculative fiction novel, it is the earliest one I’ve seen that was blatantly and obviously based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories (the title no doubt a reference to The Coming of Conan, an early collection). Cormac of Bifrost is essentially a clone of Conan the Cimmerian (and not far off from another Howard character, Cormac Mac Art). The basic premise of the tale, which involves rescuing a princess and some encounters with giant snakes, a witch, undead, and “demons” along the way is very much in the mold of the 1970s Sword & Sorcery pastiche, right down to casual references to “savage men of black skin,” the very sort of thing that Charles R. Saunders noted in his essay “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975). Take out the naughty bits and the story could essentially have run in any fantasy magazine or as a script in Marvel’s Conan comics.

The story is very sexually explicit indeed. Like most erotic novels, that is both the promise and the problem: stopping the plot every few pages for a lengthy sex scene tends to disrupt the flow and pacing of the story, while trivial attempts at titillation are more likely to be eye-rolling than enticing:

A half-clad amazon hastened to the summons. The top-heavy girl panted as she trotted before the priestess of Krath. Her massive tits bounced and bobbed beneath thin veils of black gossamer cloth.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 94

In terms of content, a great deal of focus is on rape of one sort or another; the princess Avalona gets used and abused in more way than one before Cormac can rescue her, fulfilling the dark promise of such villains. Cormac, once he is inevitably captured, is likewise abused. Not every encounter is nonconsensual, but this is very much the kind of story where the gaze is unflinching…and that is the point. This is all the kind of X-rated stuff that Robert E. Howard and most fantasy authors that came after him could at best hint at, but never put on the page.

The actual action sequences—such as when Cormac is fighting Yog-Sarez, the great serpent who is the son of the serpent-god Seth—are decently written. There is comedy in the book, although it is not quite what readers might expect. For example, at one point Cormac is in The Labyrinth, “a section of the city known for its thieves, robbers, and assassins” (plainly based on “The Maul from Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”) and encounters a pair of familiar characters:

To the barbarian’s left a large, blonde northerner, who looked no older than the Bifrostian, shared a table with a smaller youth dressed in grey garments. The two chattered endlessly of their adventures. Like magpies, they tried to out-brag the other, while guzzling bottles of cheap waterfront wine. Eventually, their ramblings turned to Avalona and a brazen plan to steal the princess from under Onard’s nose and to return her to Heres for the reward. The grey-clad youth’s fingers seemed to trace a path across a yellowed parchment spread before them. Slowly but surely, teh wine took its effect and the pair passed out, sprawled across the table.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 83-84

The pair are patently intended to be Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery heroes Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Their appearance here isn’t unprecedented; Roy Thomas and John Buscemea had joking inserted “Fafnir and Blackrat” into Conan the Barbarian #6 (1971), and there’s reason to believe that the author here was more than familiar with comic books. At one point Avalona is kidnapped by a rapacious madman with a singing sword looking for his wife Aleta—a reference to Prince Valiant—and later in the novel the witch-priestess summons four demons from the far future who turn out to be, basically, the Fantastic Four. That eventually turns out to be the witch’s X-rated undoing:

Abruptly, the thing stopped and roared. Its gigantic hands fell to tis waist and clawed at the flimsy cloth covering its sex. The blue material tore away, revealing a cylindrical organ of living stone, fully a foot long, hung like a pachydrem. As the creature’s boulder-shattering roars continued, the shaft jerked upward in a throbbing path.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 148

As Conan pastiche novels go, The Coming of Cormac is a bit below the level of Lin Carter’s Thongor series. The worldbuilding is sparse, the sorcery sparser, and the plot is a bit perfunctory, episodic, and often failing to build tension. The tongue-in-cheek pop culture inclusions are the sole real humor in what is otherwise a fairly cheerless novel of a feckless princess who is passed around and used by one person after another, but without any philosophical meditation a la the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. It accomplishes what it set out to do, but not much more.

“Caer Ged” is an obvious pseudonym, which has been attributed to George Wyatt Proctor, a fantasy fan and novelist. I’m not entirely sure what the basis for this identification is, although a contemporary fanzine Godless #8 (1974) claims “Caer Ged” is also “Lee Wyatt,” which is another pseudonym attributed to Proctor.

The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris

My friends say that I am a man who was born out o fhis time, that I should have been one of the Trojan warriors or Hyperborean adventurers I have devoted my life to studying.

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 5

Where The Coming of Cormac was set in a prehistoric past, akin to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, The Seductress of Eden is set very firmly in the contemporary 1980s. Enter Joseph Kade, a Canadian anthropologist with an interest in fantasy who decides to do some first-hand anthropological exploration of the dark underworld of sex—and ends up in a pulpy adventure that will take him all over the world, meeting (and bedding) all manner of beautiful women, almost getting killed multiple times, and finally stumbling into the ruins of a lost civilization in the Australian Outback while searching for the Phallus of the Old Ones.

If the principal focus of The Coming of Cormac is Robert E. Howard, the focus of The Seductress of Eden is Lovecraft, although the author slips in sly references to the works of Clark Ashton Smith and Howard as well. Kade is caught up in a quest for an eldritch artifact, and the story tends to careen from passionate sexual act to almost gratuitous violence and back again. The pulp aesthetic firmly establishes this as a Lovecraftian fantasy, but one that veers closer to Howardian action, despite references to the Necronomicon and the odd serpent-man:

It stood like a man, about six feet tall, but it resembled a lizard It had green, scaly skin and the head of a snake. It hissed at me and a long, forked tongue slithered out. Its unblinking eyes stared into mine and it raised clawed hands and moved toward sme, dragging an eight-foot tail behind it. […]

“Father was doing experiments with evolution,” said Gloria. “it was his theory that we all evolved from the basic forms of life, encompassing reptiles, and that it was not only possible forus to communicate with them but to evolve back to their forms. This was one of his experiments.”


“Father also believed that the continent of Eden was partially inhabited by a prehistoric race of snake-men. This experiment added credibility to that theory.”

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 111-112

The Seductress of Eden is very fast and loose with the Cthulhu Mythos; this is not quite the setting readers familiar with Lovecraft and Howard will be familiar with. Instead of shoggoths, for example, there are shontothes; and instead of Cthulhu, there is quite literally Satan. The Howardian sword & sorcery elements don’t really come in until very late in the novel, though there they are rather explicit, once Kade picks up an ancient axe:

And I had wielded it before…in other lifetimes. I had fought with it on the steps of Atlantis, protecting my queen. I had wielded it on the wastelands of Cimmeria, a barbarian defending his homeland. I had struck with it in the depths of Nemordia, to free my mate from the lair of a wizard. And now I was using it to save a goddess…

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 235

The main problem with The Seductress of Eden is that all of those past lives, reminiscent as they are of Howard’s James Allison stories, sound like more exciting and titillating adventures than the one chronicled in the book. While the action moves fast, it’s not a particularly deep plot, and the post-climax ending where Kade confesses his sins to a priest feels bowdlerized. A huge chunk of exposition at the end of the novel finally lays bare the writer’s version of what’s going on with the Phallus of the Old Ones, and it is so far from anything a Lovecraft fan might recognize it is almost parody.

Except that is the main difference between The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden: the story is played straight. This isn’t Howardian pastiche except for a couple of paragraphs near the end, nor is it a Lovecraftian pastiche despite the references to the Necronomicon. There are no tongue-in-cheek drop-ins of Prince Valiant and the Fantastic Four. It is an original story which plays out with as much seriousness as it can muster considering that Kade and his new girlfriend have to literally hump their way to their final goal.

Yet when the story assails the reader the Vatican assassins, the sex mutants, the mercenaries, the monsters, the repeated gangbangs, and a sex toy which is quite literally “What if H. R. Giger made a Sybian?,” the result is more like an X-rated serial than a coherent novel. The Seductress of Eden is very much a collision of fantastical pulp elements with hardcore sexuality, and the end result strains belief long before we get to the shontothes or the Golden Phallus of the Old Ones.

“So,” I went on, “now we try to get the scroll and map. And this Contessa has … the scroll?”


“And I have to seduce her to get it?”

“That’s right.”

“This,” I said for about the millionth time, “is amazing!”

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 73-74

As with Cormac in The Coming of Cormac, the protagonist Joe Kade isn’t a rapist—but there’s a lot of rape in the book. Weirdly enough, for all that the story is predicated on Kade encountering the darkest and most lurid parts of the sexual underground, the actual content is a bit vanilla: there are relatively few kinks on display, not many taboos presented or broken. Kade isn’t forced to expand his sexual horizons very far…and that is probably by design. The attraction of this book is the weirdness of its plot more than the weirdness of the sex itself.

The Seductress of Eden was published under the Tigress Books imprint, which also published Brian McNaughton’s Sheena Clayton novels such as Tide of Desire (1983). All of the Clayton novels had Mythos references in them, and it’s possible that “Mark Farris” was a house name that was used by McNaughton as well—however, the other Mark Farris novels for Tigress aren’t known to have Mythos references, and McNaughton himself never made any claim to the name. More to the point, The Seductress of Eden doesn’t read much like a McNaughton novel, who was prone to be much darker and less heavy-handed in his use of Mythos lore.

Women In The Novels

Both The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden are told primarily from the point-of-view of the male protagonists, although Cormac has a few chapters dedicated to Princess Avalona’s viewpoint—those chapters where she is raped. Which presents a substantial difference between the two novels worth discussing.

The recovery of Princess Avalona in The Coming of Cormac is the point of the novel, the central driving plot. She begins the novel as a blushing virgin, and through several chapters of degradation and forced sexual intercourse is used and abused, transported against her will, and finally, after many lives have been lost and the major villains are dead, is comfortable enough in her own sexuality to make advances on Cormac himself. It is not exactly a bildungsroman, but as a tale of Avalona growing up it parallels in some ways a much more X-rated and darker version of Queen Yasmela in Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus.” While Avalona never quite gets Yasmela’s agency, she at least comes to overcome her initial sexual trauma and take charge of her own sexual needs and desires.

By contrast, Gloria in The Seductress of Eden starts out the novel as a high-priced escort raised in a family of sex mutants with aspirations to gain the Phallus of the Old Ones to become a goddess, and her every action in the story is bent exclusively toward the goal. There is no innocence to be lost, no self-discovery, and ultimately no redemption of the character. She enters into the novel utterly confident in her own sexuality and repeatedly unfazed by any effort to degrade her through rape or any other form of sexual violence. In comparison with The Coming of Cormac, Gloria has more in common with the witch-priestess Sheheit than she does to Avalona—and that kind of represents part of the odd characterization of women in both stories.

In both The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden present sexuality as inherently positive, at least the relatively limited sexuality on display here. Cormac has no idea why the civilized people are so hung up about the whole virginity business, Kade is protective of Gloria because he loves her, but not overly jealous when she ends up having sex with someone else. While it isn’t quite the aftermath of the free love of the 1960s, sex is definitely not presented as a phenomenon that only happens within the confines of legal matrimony. Yet the women characters who have most embraced their sexuality or try to use sex for their own ends are presented as the ultimate villains.

It is not an uncommon characterization in pornographic works: sexual experience and lack of sexual mores is generally seen as a positive trait, but aggressive or self-serving sexuality is a hallmark of an evil character. This isn’t entirely unusual in fantasy either—in Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born” one of the key differences between Queen Taramis and her evil sister Salome is that the latter is sexually active and open about it—but in the context of a pornographic novel, it rather highlights the disparity between male and female characters. Cormac and Kade’s sexual exploits to sate their lusts don’t mark them out as sluts deserving of some dark fate, and they are rarely forced into sex against their will. By contrast, the women in these stories face most of the sexual violence, and most of the consequences of sex, including pregnancy and death.


Publishing has come a long way since Robert E. Howard first wrote the Conan stories. Softcore sword & sorcery novels like Lin Carter’s Tara of the Twilight (1979) have given way to explicit sexual scenes in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. There is more permissiveness in what can be openly published than ever before—yet the fundamental narrative problem of how (and if, and why) to weave hardcore eroticism into the story remains. For The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden, the sex is the point, it’s how they were marketed.

It is really odd to look back at erotica produced before the age of the Internet. While a writer’s imagination might be unlimited, and fanzines were free to publish the occasional nude drawing or naughty limerick without too much fear of the postal censor, as a commercial prospect any sort of really weird fiction or sword & sorcery-based pornographic novel had to be a bit of a daunting prospect—not because it couldn’t be done, but because you had to be able to both advertise that work to the correct audience and make something worth reading. In that respect, The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden are both game attempts to try and meet the needs of a very small and speculative market…and in doing so, they demonstrate how hard it is to produce commercial literature on demand.

Both novels suffer from trying to balance hardcore sex with their pulpy adventures. Howard’s original Conan stories sometimes include lingering gazes at the female form or hints of sexual activities that may happen or are about to happen, but these are largely small titillations that don’t affect the flow of the stories. Erotic fantasy adventure is a difficult prospect at the best of times, as the litany of B-movie sword-and-sorcery films that have struggled to pass muster with rampant female nudity and threadbare plots and acting can well attest.

What’s striking about both of these novels is that they’re coming from about the same place, and even if they don’t use quite the same means, they’re headed for the same goal: to try and capture some of the energy and tropes pulp fiction while injecting hardcore eroticism. On the surface, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Read Howard’s description:

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”

A lot of what makes pulp fiction work is that readers have to use their imagination. Nothing any writer comes up with will be able to match the sex that Bêlit and Conan have in the reader’s mind. Like the unnamable horrors so often attributed to Lovecraft, to render them in exquisite and clinical detail—to measure Conan’s sword to the nearest millimeter—is to rob them of some of their mystery and magic. If the mating dance of Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast” had turned to actual coitus, the entire tone of the story might not have shifted, but the infinite possibilities in the reader’s mind would have collapsed into a single certainty. The possibilities are often much more tantalizing than the execution.

But it ultimately depends on what you’re going for. The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden draw these comparisons specifically because, like erotic fanfiction they rely to a greater or lesser extent on existing properties. Without Conan, there is no Cormac or Kade. They invite comparison to Robert E. Howard because they are riffing off of Howard. Original works without trying to ape the themes of older fiction might have more leeway to forge their own balance with a more explicit tone, as Martin did in his Song of Ice and Fire series and as Karl Edward Wagner did in his Kane series.

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

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Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph)

With the release of this zine I hope that Lovecraft is screaming and crying and spinning in his grave.

product description for Strange Bedfellows on etsy

Roleplaying games as currently understood and popularized begin with the publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set in 1974. The players and designers of that period were typically white, heterosexual, cisgender males—reflecting in many ways the audience of fantasy and science fiction fans at the time—and D&D developed in the middle of a boom in paperback publishing that saw the mass market publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction, among many others. It should come as no surprise that in this environment, with fiction from the 30s and 50s being interpreted for gaming for a 70s audience, a great deal of prejudice was effectively “baked in.”

Yet gaming has never been exclusively male, white, cisgender, or heterosexual—and as the hobby has expanded the gamers and game designers have only become more diverse, and the games have increasingly become aware of and confronted many of the prejudices that passed without question in earlier editions. It is not unusual in the 2020s to run across disclaimers like those in Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios, or this one:

Fate of Cthulhu is a game that deals with many hard topics, including mental health, systemic abuses of power, and the deaths of huge portions of the human species. Make sure all the players are aware of these things and give enthusiastic ocnsent before they begin playing.

Also—Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-Semite.

There. We said it.

We could give a litany of examples, but they are easy to find with a simple Internet search. Look up the name of his cat, for instance (HPL was over-the-top, even for his time). Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Fate of Cthulhu (2020)

If there is a bit of animus in declarations like those for Strange Bedfellows and Fate of Cthulhu, it has to be remembered that for decades prior to these products very little thought was given to implicit and explicit discrimination against folks based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality in gaming products. Many early fantasy settings were implicitly based on a fantasy version of medieval Europe with the assumption that the default human population was largely or exclusively white, and depictions of non-white characters and settings were often rife with stereotypes. Items like the girdle of femininity/masculinity in Dungeons & Dragons were cursed; early editions of the Palladium Role-Playing Game had an insanity table derived from editions of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder—which spawned the joke that just seeing Cthulhu could turn you gay.

It sounds relatively obvious today that a players need not fear discrimination for their race, gender, or sexuality, and that they can likewise roleplay a character with those identities with discrimination—but historically that has not always been the case.

Having created and explored their characters in the game, played through adventures, developed their backgrounds, it isn’t surprising to see gamers create art and fiction about those same characters. The nature of such works is as varied as gamers themselves; from the first drabbles and sketches in a notebook to lengthy original epics and detailed portraits, from acceptable to all audiences to sexually explicit works intended for adults only.

Such a work is Strange Bedfellows by Caroline Manley (Raph): a 24-page ‘zine on their Call of Cthulhu character Laurence “Laurie” Metzger, an art student at university with a penchant for fencing and the occult. It consists of eight sexually-explicit homoerotic encounters between “Laurie” and various Mythos entities, and the twelve-page short story “In Sleep, What Wakes” starring Laurie, which is really an extended erotic lucid dream-sequence bookended with brief episodes in the waking world.

A tongue ghosts over the seam of his lips, over the still-fresh scar that bisects them, and he opens his mouth eagerly. This time as they kiss, that hand sill holds him in place. It does wonders for his buzzing brain, keeping all its edges dulled, despite how intent it is on drawing him back into paralyzing fear. Back into questioning the way malleable tentacles cling to his form as though trying to crawl beneath his skin. If they weren’t so alien, their curiosity would almost be endearing, but—

“In Sleep, What Wakes” in Strange Bedfellows

Raph has described Laurie as a “nerdy twink with a taste for the occult” and this represents a very different approach to a lot of other homoerotic Lovecraftian works. “Le Pornomicon” (2005) by Logan Kowalsky for example focuses on bears, Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn is a bisexual medley. In all of those stories, the characters tend be sexually aggressive; by comparison, Laurie is more passive and receptive, and that dynamic reflects the odd circumstances of the story. There is a slight BDSM element to the story, but it has to do with the nature of power and leverage rather than the the rather severe submission and pain depicted in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein.

Like Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk, “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman, or “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” by Clinton W. Waters, the story works in part because it is a story about relationships instead of just sex. Raph explores Laurie’s psychology a bit, their intimacies with the eldritch entity called Gabriel. The psychological trauma which is measured in Call of Cthulhu by the loss of Sanity points is here addressed in narrative terms, as an inability to sleep restfully because of traumatic memories and stress.

Taken as a whole, Strange Bedfellows doesn’t spell out an entire campaign or dive deep into the background of Laurie and Gabriel—but what is there is intriguing, well-crafted, and well-depicted for those interested in such art and fiction. The adult content is unabashed, but then what is there to be abashed about, when it is clearly labeled and everyone who picks up this ‘zine presumably has some idea of what they are getting into? Anyone that wants to clutch their metaphorical pearls at the idea that if they open up pages 10-11 they’ll see a double-page spread of Cthulhu spearing Laurie with an inhumanly oversized phallus should ask themselves what they expected to find in a ‘zine clearly advertised as 18+ and homoerotic.

Tabletop roleplaying gaming has come a long way since its beginnings, and while we cannot say what Lovecraft would have made of it all had he lived to see it, we know that during his life he appreciated and took joy in the fact that other people were having fun with his creations:

I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.353

The collaborative nature of the Mythos as it was originally conceived by Lovecraft is very much in line with the collaborative narrative of the tabletop…and the nature of such collaboration is that the ideas expressed and how they are expressed are not limited by the imagination of a single creator. Even Lovecraft had limits to his imagination, and to how he could express that imagination. Lovecraft delighted in his metaphorical strange bedfellows…and perhaps Strange Bedfellows will delight those with an interest in Mythos erotica.

Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph) may be purchased at Etsy.

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

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

Wolff (1971) by Luis Gasca & Esteban Maroto

Luis Vigil, que ne época fazia a revista Nueva Dimensión, tinha me mostrado algumas capas norte-americanas de um gênero resgatado sa antigas pulps estadunidenses: Espada & Feitiçaria. Essas capas eram maravilhosas. Em uma, um guerreiro selvagem protegia uma donzela seminua, rodeados por um conjunto de figuras misteriosas, caveiras, bruxos, fortalezas, dragões… Tudo apenas insinuado. Em outra, o guerreiro montado nas costas de uma gigantesca serpente, com diversas caveiras e outras formas monstruousas, preso em um calabouço. Elas raziam todos os elementos que eu sempre amei. Perguntei a Luis se havia alguma tradução daquelas histórias para o espanhol e ele respondeu que não (anos mais tarde, a editora Bruguera a publicaria). O protagonista das imagens se chamava Conan e o ilustrador era Frank Frazetta.

Quando em, 1969, Luis Gasca me pediu idias para uma história que seria publicada em uma nova revista, props um personagem daquele estilo. Ele aprovou, e assim nasceu Wolff, para a revista Drácula. Eu desenhava o que queria, fazia uma pequena sinopse e ele escrevia os textos finais com a pseudônimo Sadko. Mese depois, começaram a publicar nos Estados Unidos a adaptação do personagem de Robert E. Howard, Conan, no clássico formato dos comics, na revista Savage Tales, da Marvel, com desenhos de Barry WIndosr-Smith e roteiros de Roy Thomas.
Luis Vigil, who at the time was at Nueva Dimensión magazine, had shown me some North American covers of a genre rescued from the old American pulps: Sword & Sorcery. Those covers were marvelous. In one, a wild warrior protected a half-naked maiden, surrounded by an array of mysterious figures, skulls, witches, fortresses, dragons… All just hinted at. In another, the warrior riding on the back of a gigantic serpent, with several skulls and other monstrous shapes, trapped in a dungeon. They brought out all the elements that I’ve always loved. I asked Luis if there was any translation of those stories into Spanish and he answered no (years later, Bruguera publishing house would publish it). The protagonist of the images was called Conan and the illustrator was Frank Frazetta.

When, in 1969, Luis Gasca asked me for ideas for a story to be published in a new magazine, I proposed a character in that style. He approved, and thus Wolff was born, for Drácula magazine. I would draw what I wanted, make a short synopsis, and he would write the final texts under the pseudonym Sadko. Months later, they began publishing in the United States the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s character Conan in the classic comic book format in Marvel’s Savage Tales magazine, with drawings by Barry Windsor-Smith and scripts by Roy Thomas.
Esteban Maroto, Espadas e Bruxas (2017) 10English translation

In 1971, Spanish publisher Buru Lan published began publishing Drácula, which despite the name had little to do with Bram Stoker’s character, but was a general fantasy and horror comic comparable in some ways to Warren Comics’ Eerie and Creepy in the United States—especially since Warren would, at about the same time as Drácula came out, begin relying heavily on Spanish artists such as Esteban Maroto. At the same time, the paperback fantasy boom in the United States was blossoming with the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, with covers by Frank Frazetta (who also lent his talents to Warren magazines).

Conan the Usurper (Lancer 1967), art by Frank Frazetta

Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith first hit the stands in 1970, and its success helped to spread the fantasy boom to comic books. It was a good time to build your own barbarian…and so, Gusca and Maroto created Wolff, inspired by and in the mold of Conan (or at least, Frazetta’s covers for the Conan paperbacks). The series caught the eye of English-language publishers, and the British publisher New English Library translated and published twelve issues under the title Dracula; Warren combined several issues as a standalone graphic novel, also titled simply Dracula…implicitly competing with Dracula Lives! and Savage Tales, both produced by Curtis, Marvel’s magazine imprint. Full-size comic magazines could circumvent the restrictions on nudity and content imposed by the Comics Code Authority on comic books.

One gets the impression the English publishers of Dracula understood exactly what they were doing; in the intro to the first issue of Dracula, the editors wrote:

The Wolff comics themselves would seem to reinforce these arguments, since Wolff is happy to swear by Crom, Mitra, and Set and throw in other references to Howard’s Conan stories and Lovecraftian allusions. All of which are, in hindsight, a bit odd if Maroto claimed they hadn’t been translated yet.

Dracula #1 (1972)

What happened is that Gusca’s script was changed in the translation. Compare this same scene to that in the 2017 Brazilian Portuguese translation, which is closer to the original Spanish:

Espadas e Bruxas (2017)

The uncredited translator obviously took a few liberties in order to emphasize the connections between Wolff and Conan, inserting the occasional “By Crom!” or whatnot wherever convenient. Whatever injustice was done to Luis Gusca’s script, however, was balanced by accurate reproduction of Maroto’s artwork, especially in the 1973 trade paperback edition, which is larger than the average magazine page size and on glossy paper rather than newsprint.

From the description Maroto gives, he and Gusca appear to have used something similar to the Marvel Method—and the evidence of Maroto’s freed is clear in nearly every page and panel; while more restrained than the other blatantly psychedelic stories in Dracula, Maroto’s backgrounds are often sparse, but with well-proportioned, realistic figures and phantasmagoric tableaux.

Dracula #3 (1972)

Wolff’s adventures follow a series of interlinked quests. Unlike Howard’s Conan stories, the plots tend to be rather straightforward, with few betrayals or moral complexities to vex the hero; but there is much of wonder and horror. This was before Conan had become widely-parodied as a simple musclebound brute, and Wolff often overcomes the challenges set regularly in his path by luck and cunning as much as brute strength or swordplay. Wolff is obviously inspired by Conan, right down to the visual details, but he is not Conan; there is none of the brooding and cynicism that mark Howard’s hardboiled fantasy.

In terms of fantasy comics of the 1970s, “Wolff” is sadly little more than a footnote, much like Dagar the Invincible (Gold Key, 1972-1976) by Don E. Glut and Jesse Santos, or Maroto’s other barbarian Dax the Warrior for Warren’s Eerie (based on his Spanish comic “Manly”), and remembered today largely for Maroto’s artwork than for the stories themselves. These were the barbarians inspired by Conan, both as Robert E. Howard wrote him, and increasingly as Conan was depicted in the artwork and adaptations created by folks like Frank Frazetta, Roy Thomas, and Barry Windsor-Smith.

Aside from translation issues, the full series was only ever collected in English in a scarce Australian edition printed on newsprint in black and white:

So, most collectors would have to hunt down the original issues if they want to see what Wolff’s later adventures were. In other markets, a resurgence of interest in Esteban Maroto’s art have led to reprints like Espadas e Bruxas, but most English-speaking readers who want to admire Maroto’s work will have to content themselves with volumes like Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu (2018).

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

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

“The Mould Shade Speaks” (1919) by Winifred Virginia Jackson

Mrs. Jordan’s serious literary work is all poetical, and her poems may br roughly grouped in six classes: Lyrics of ideal beauty, including delightful Nature poems replete with local colour; delicate amatory lyrics; rural dialect lyrics and vigorous colloquial pieces; poems of sparkiling optimism; child verse; and poems of potent terror and dark suggestion.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (1919) in Collected Essays 1.228

In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jackson was still married to Horace Jordan, and so it is under that name that Lovecraft knew her and her poetry. Lovecraft’s appreciation for her poetry appears genuine, and perhaps he had read enough of her verse to form a solid opinion. Although little-remembered and little-reprinted these days, during her life Winifred Virginia Jackson was a fairly prolific poet, both in amateur journals and in newspapers, publishing well over a hundred poems, some of which were collected in the collections Backroads: Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944), now both quite rare.

Indeed, very little of Jackson’s poetry has been reprinted, and much of it is uncollected or largely inaccessible for those without access to newspaper archives and obscure and expensive amateur journals, although a selection of poems have been republished in the appendix to Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner and Others. What’s notable about the selection of Jackson’s poems that survive and are accessible is that very few are of that final category that Lovecraft delineated: “poems of potent terror and dark suggestion.” Lovecraft expanded on this in a subsequent essay:

It remains to speak of the singular power of Miss Jackson in the realm of the gruesome and the terrible. With that same sensitiveness to the unseen and the nreal which lends witchery to her gayer productions, she has achieved in darker fields of verse results inviting comparison with the best prost work of Ambrose Bierce or Maurice Level.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (1921) in Collected Essays 2.50

One such poem Lovecraft thought to mention in his letters:

Cook’s Vagrant did not specialise in the weird, & was in general very variable. […] However, quite a few weird things appeared. In JUne 1918 my verses “Nemesis” (later in W.T.) & my old juvenile tale “The Beast in the Cave” (written in 1905) appeared. July 1918 contained a long piece of my weird blank verse which I presented in the guise of comedy, with a comic rhymed framework around it. […] Oct. 1919 contained our old friend “Psychopompos”, & also a shorter piece of weird verse, “The City”, which I contributed under the pseudonym of “Ward Phillips.” 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.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert H. Barlow, 17 Dec 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 91-92

“The Mould Shade Speaks” has never been reprinted since it first appeared in The Vagrant #10—which is a shame, because as Lovecraft says, it is a ghoul-poem, darker and more suggestive than most of Jackson’s verse:

The Mould Shade Speaks
by Winifred Virginia Jordan

I hide at early dawn, gray-clothed,
 I rub my fingers cold
Against my face, dark-browned and loathed,
 To better see the world
I loved and walked in some old dream,
 That hangs about me still,
And wonder if ‘neath sunshine’s gleam,
 I forged my silent will.

My voice you hear when storm-fiends sack
 The sunbeams from the sky;
I shriek with joy when earth grows black
 And jangling thunders cry.
I clutch with glee the raindrops white
 For my will’s evil hap,
I hold them, shiv’ring in their fright,
 Within my musty lap.

I hate the noon-high sun whose eyes
 Seek out my spawn, my moss,
With smiles for ferns, where lizards rise
 And crawl the leaves across.
I hate the murmurs that reel round
 When sunbeams get within
My slimy gulches, without sound,
 That I keep black as sin.

But when night strikes the sunbeam’s doom
 I wrap myself in black,
And stalk, a hydra-headed gloom,
 Red fears astride my back;
Then I set out my tumorous plague,
 I seed my foul decay:
My touch has feel of menace vague
 That gnaws at edge of day!

And I climb up the heights of air
 To spray my poisoned breath,
I swish my skirts upon trees where
 I leave the mark of death;
I never sleep, I never rest
 I cherish but life’s tears,
And hug close to my sexless breast
 The scourge of charnel fears!

Gravestones, particularly older ones which have been long exposed to the elements and uncared for, tend to become host to lichen, molds, fungi, moss, creeping vines like ivy or kudzu, even algae if the environment is wet enough. Even as the bones and flesh that moulder in the grave are slowly consumed, the names and inscriptions may be covered or effaced by the decay of the grave itself—and that is the “mould shade” of Winifred Virginia Jackson’s poem, the animate spirit of that decay made manifest, anthropomorphized with fingers and skirts, shrinking from the sun, leaving its mark on stone and wood, setting up baleful miasmas. There is an almost Poe-esque quality that recalls “The Conquerer Worm” which has a similar structure and may well have inspired it.

It is easy to see why Lovecraft may have liked this poem, ghoulish as it was.

Thanks and appreciation to David E. Schultz for his help and assistance.

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

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