Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. —H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”
The conceit of “The Insider” is that it is a prequel to Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” Although both stories stand well enough on their own, once you get the idea the slight aping of Lovecraft’s diction and the general direction of Sargent’s story takes on a new dimension. It’s a solid, well-written Mythos tale, clever without being extravagant or feeling the need to explain everything, with a satisfying ending.
“The Insider” is not one of Sargent’s better-known tales; his claim to fame, if any, probably rests on the story “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and his essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002), both of which focus on alternative interpretations of Wilbur Whateley—who, like the eponymous Insider/Outsider, is marked from birth as one apart. It’s a subject that Sargent, growing up as a homosexual, could and did empathize with. It was Sargent who has made the strongest, or at least most elegant argument that Lovecraft himself might have been a closeted homosexual:
I read “The Outsider” when I was about 14 and beginning to realize there was something very different about me, my deep dark secret. We are talking about growing up in the farm country of Ohio in the early ’60s here. When I read “The Outsider,” I felt convinced the author had gone through the same situation I was going through, the abject horror of recognizing you are gay in a very anti-gay world.
Years later, I tried to find an alternative reason for HPL considering himself such an extreme “outsider,” but I discovered no plausible otherreason for such anextreme feeling of being an isolated monster. I didn’t really care a whit about HPL’s sexual orientation (I am not trying to claim him as one of “us”), so at the time it occurred to me that I might be projecting a bit.
Yet, as I read more about HPL’s life, I began to see that all the ingredients were there. His upbringing with a dominant, overly protective mother (who dressed him as a girl for the first few years of his life) and the nearly total absence of a father is the classic formula for a male child being gay. Although he declared his distaste for homosexuals, in particular effeminate males, he was often described as effeminate himself. Plus he was a close friend with Samuel Loveman for many years and Loveman was hardly in the closet about his activities. Finally, I can come up with no other logical explanation for HPL’s close relationship with the teenage Barlow during the last years of his life, to the point of making Barlow his literary executor.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe HPL was able to cast off the conventions he clung to so desperately enough to actually “come out.” I think HPL saw in Barlow the self-accepting talented writer he had always wanted to be himself but couldn’t be. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barlow had discussed his own “outsiderness” with a very understanding HPL, but I doubt HPL could have ever brought himself to own up to his own similar orientation.
It all makes even more sense if you interpret “The Dunwich Horror” as an autobiographical cloaked confession of his dilemma. Wilbur obviously represents HPL, all the way down to HPL believing his own appearance was “hideous” (again, thanks to mom), and I believe the twin brother was the a symbol of the homosexual desires HPL so desperately tried to suppress. No one could see the monster and it was essentially so evil that it had to be contained. Yet it kept growing and even Wilbur feared it would someday break out (read “come out”) and destroy the world (Lovecraft’s little conservative world). That thought terrified him as being gay went against everything he believed in; it must have been awful for him. He surely married Sonia, a mother figure, in hope of changing his orientation, a very common and futile mistake. If he didn’t confess his problem to her, she undoubtedly guessed and was sympathetic.
I suppose I’ll be up for a lynching when die-hard Lovecraftians read this, but I’m convinced I’m right. Even my friend Wilum Pugmire disagrees with me strongly on this point. Lovecraft would certainly have equated his unnamable secret with Wilde’s unspeakable love. —Stanley C. Sargent, interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998)
Whether or not readers agree with Sargent’s interpretation as fact, from a literary standpoint the idea has a degree of merit: it is possible to engage with Lovecraft’s creations from that viewpoint…and why not? It’s a fair cop. Robert M. Price engaged with the idea in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982). It was probably not Lovecraft’s intent in this case to provide such an interpretation…but readers are free to interpret an author’s work as they would.
Knowing Sargent’s thoughts on “The Outsider” can in turn influence a reader’s response to “The Insider.” The theme of the lonely, ostracized young man that resorts finally to cutting as a release from the stigma of being different—only to be further punished and set apart for his behavior—resonates. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” is designed to provoke empathy in the readers, and “The Insider” is both a response and an echo to that. “The Insider” need not be an allegory for homosexuality per se, any more than “The Outsider” must be read in such light; both stories focus on both external appearance and the desire for acceptance, aspects of human experience which are adaptable to many different syntax—because we all live in a world where discrimination is real, be it based on age, gender, sexuality, physical appearance or ability, race, or faith.
Have we not all been an Insider/Outsider at some point, if only in our own heads?
“The Insider” was published Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #8 (1998), and was republished in Sargent’s collection The Taint of Lovecraft (2002).
Now, as the baying of that dead, fleshless monstrosity grows louder and louder, and the stealthy whirring and flapping of those accursed web-wings circles closer and closer, I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
St. John is dead, and Christina Sturhman takes the revolver out of her mouth, determined not to end her life in so cowardly a fashion. She travels instead to Sesqua Valley, the secret corner of the Pacific Northwest which W. H. Pugmire has built and claimed for his own, to ask for help from the strange beings there—the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams, his assistant Marceline, and his brother the poet William Davis Manly. Ever following her is the hound…
Like “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Some Distant Baying Sound” is in ways a continuation and a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal tale of two grave-robbing decadents who eventually unearth something profane and come to a grisly end because of it—and it is interesting and sometimes enlightening to see what two different authors will make of the same material, and the different directions they will take from the common beginning in Lovecraft’s story.
Both Pugmire and Kiernan take Lovecraft’s story essentially at face value: though they may add details, they subtract nothing, and by luck they happen to focus on different aspects of the story, so the three stories could almost form a little trinity—such is the way the Cthulhu Mythos grows. The major difference is that Pugmire makes the unnamed protagonist of “The Hound” a woman, where Kiernan implicitly suggests they were male. The latter is more likely Lovecraft’s intention, but the story is ambiguous enough to permit either reading.
The question of why Pugmire went with this interpretation is an open one. Both Lovecraft and Pugmire’s stories have Sturhman and St. John in an intimate friendship, but not explicitly a romantic or sexual one…and even if it were sexual, there is no reason why it could not be homosexual; Pugmire has depicted gay men in relationships in his fiction before. Having Sturhman as female perhaps side-steps any question of sexual attraction to two great beasts of Sesqua Valley, Simon Gregory Williams and Williams Davis Manly, allowing them to be platonic enemies and friends, respectively…although again, Pugmire has never shied away from the inhabitants of the valley having a fluid sexuality.
Upon arriving to meet Simon Gregory Williams and his assistant, Sturhman succumbs to Marceline’s seduction rather easily, though the subtle insinuation of Simon orchestrating the affair for his own purposes raises questions of consent. This gives an opportunity for Pugmire to indulge in the sensual, poetic prose that he is known for, and it is a curious coincidence that both Kiernan and Pugmire, following their own muses and devices, both feature lesbian sexuality so openly in their tributes…although there is a bit of play to be considered between sexuality and gender identity in the two stories.
What is the gender of the Hound/sphinx entity, which pursues in the three stories? In Lovecraft’s original, gender is unknown and irrelevant: it is the figure of pursuit. “Houndwife” suggests implicitly that the Hound is a male figure, but the gender (and even reality) of the Hound is again left ambiguous, and again is irrelevant for the Hound’s function in the story. Yet in “Some Distant Baying Sound,” there is a crucial binary presented by Williams Davis Manly, between the female and male sphinx, and this indeed turns out to be the case because in the story the distinction becomes a necessary one. In all the story, the actual gender of the Hound/sphinx is relevant only insofar as it relates to their relationship with the individual being “hounded,” and as this never includes sexual predation, gender largely doesn’t enter into the plot.
The denouement of “Some Distant Baying Sound” comes in a rush. The early parts of the story had a rather dream-logic pace that fits with Pugmire’s style and his characterization of the Valley itself. The pieces fit together well enough, but the expected confrontation turns into more of an acceptance of self—one more obvious in hindsight, and which yet leaves some unanswered questions…although it seems clear that Sesqua Valley has gained a new permanent resident.
Neither Pugmire or Kiernan’s stories offer a particularly deep exegesis of the Mythos, although fans might appreciate their attention to detail, and the subtle expansion of certain elements connected to the jade of Leng. These are not tributes meant necessarily to explicate a murky corner of Lovecraft’s world, but sensual explorations and extrapolations of the basic atmosphere and key elements of “The Hound.” Celebrations of the mood that Lovecraft evoked, with mysteries yet remaining mysterious and some graves left unspoilt for the next generation of necrophiles.
“Some Distant Baying Sound” was first published in Pugmire’s collection Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley (2009), and republished in his collections The Tangled Muse (2010) and Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites(2012). Unlike “Houndwife,” “Some Distant Baying Sound” stands less well on its own. Full appreciation requires at least a passing familiarity with either Lovecraft’s story or Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley tales, and preferably both. Given that the story is published primarily in Pugmire’s own collections, among his other Sesqua Valley tales, this works out fine. If at some future date it ends up in an anthology next to “Houndwife,” the editor might need to add a bit of clarification for readers unfamiliar with Pugmire’s corpus.
In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.
Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.
“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.
Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.
Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.
That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).
The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland(2017) and Black Helicopters(2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.
I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360
Joan Stanley is a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she is a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing have been in the appellate courts.
—Ex Libris Miskatonici, back cover copy
During the lifetime of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the Cthulhu Mythos was created and grew. Different writers came up with their own unique contributions—Lovecraft with the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.; Robert E. Howard with Nameless Cults, Justin Geoffrey, and Stregoicavar; Clark Ashton Smith with the Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, and Averoigne; Robert Bloch with Cultes des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis; and so on and so forth. What is more exceptional, and made a true shared setting, was how they would borrow and share each other’s creations in their stories: Howard’s mad poet Justin Geoffrey would be from Lovecraft’s Arkham, Smith would slip a reference to Shub-Niggurath into tales set in Averoigne, etc.—and those strange and terrible tomes with the evocative names would end up piled next to each other in macabre libraries. It is a process that continues even today, as in “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when writers who had very different styles were writing stories far apart from one another, without any centralized source for the mythology they were concocting, there were discrepancies. Details in one story were not always in agreement with other stories. This was not all to the bad, by Lovecraft’s estimation: the little disagreements sometimes echoed real mythology, increasing the verisimilitude of the whole. It also provided a kind of literary game for readers, if they wanted to track down those different references, to see how they connected, and to theorize about the bigger background hinted at. More than a few of those writers would go on to offer their own exegesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, its history and cosmology, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.
Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library (1993), however, is something on an entirely different scale. Ostensibly, this is a (mostly) in-universe document (the copious footnotes providing real-life references for various titles and citations), a brief history and description of the Miskatonic University Library’s Special Collections related to the Cthulhu Mythos, written in the style of a catalog. A massive investment of time in effort to collect, collate, and synthesize the vast amount of eldritch pseudobiblia created by Lovecraft & his heirs over seventy years, distilled down into a 66-page staplebound pamphlet. While there have been previous efforts to collate Mythos tomes in essays like Lin Carter’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Books” (1956), or to collect and synthesize data on works like the Necronomicon in Mark Owing’s The Necronomicon: A Study (1967) or the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici represents one of the most substantial effort of bibliographic creativity in the Mythos until The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time(2014).
It is a work of love, as well as scholarship and imagination.
It also represents a relatively unique opportunity to look at the occasionally problematic history of several of these Mythos tomes, and how Stanley did or did not choose to address them.
The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were mentioned in passing by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Other Gods”, and became adopted as part of the Mythos by later writers. While Lovecraft only refers to this occult collection in “The Other Gods” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, both set in the Dreamlands, later authors have them appearing in the waking world on Earth—and often with an affiliation for the Cthulhu Mythos in China and other parts of Asia, if not directly attributed to some Chinese scholar. The whole issue highlights the fact that most Cthulhu Mythos tomes, like most of its writers, are culturally tied to “the West” (Europe, North America, and Australia, more or less). It’s a largely implicit cultural bias which is slightly less apparent because a large number of Mythos tomes ultimately derive from some alien or pre-human source: the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cult in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, is rumored to be headquartered in China, but the closest thing there is to a central text for the cult is not a Chinese tome, but the Necronomicon.
The use of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan as a Chinese cultural artifact of the Mythos is probably a solution to both the lack of such a specific text in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and a desire to avoid an over-reliance on familiar standbys like the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Cultes des Goules. While European contacts with Asia goes back thousands of years, making it not impossible for copies of these texts to have traveled the physical distance, the appearance of European Mythos tomes to the exclusion of written works in the indigenous languages and cultural context would somewhat disenfranchise local Mythos-goings-on: after all, Asia has a very long history of literacy, religion, and occultism, there is no reason why they should not have generated Mythos tomes in local languages and writing-systems. While some writers have created new tomes set in Asian context, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan have become something of a default, the Chinese equivalent of the Necronomicon for many writers purposes; it serves this function in the Masks of Nyarlathotep (1989) campaign for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example.
Stanley’s approach to the Seven Cryptical Books is synthesis, striving to bring together all the disparate references to the tome which had seen print to that time and grounding the text in actual Chinese language and history. The result is one of the best sections of Ex Libris Miskatonici, and leads into one of the most curious: the Book of Dzyan. Helena Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (1888) had claimed the Book of Dzyan as a source for her Theosophical materials, and Lovecraft referenced the book in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (with William Lumley) and “The Haunter of the Dark.” Stanley, however, chose to gloss it as actually an ancient Chinese work, not the more familiar Theosophical text, and thus acts as a sort of rider to the entry for the Seven Cryptical Books and previous sections in this regard.
Another consequence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ lack of broader cultural familiarity and penchant for exoticism were errors that cropped up in naming: “hazred” is not a proper Arabic name, nor is Al Azif; the Greek for Necronomicon is erroneous; Unaussprechlichen Kulten is not the proper German translation of Nameless Cults, and so on. Stanley, to her credit, tries to make the best of the situation by pointing out the errors and inconsistencies and offering possible solutions rather, sometimes working off the work of others (she cites Sandy Petersen’s explanation for “Abdul Alhazred” from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example, with her own flourishes). For later writers and their fictional works, like Brian Lumley’s Cthaat Aquadingen, she was forced to get more creative, working up a container title (Codex Dagonensis), and then presenting Lumley’s title as a British localism.
Taken as a whole, Joan C. Stanley’s book is an exceptional example of a small and somewhat obscure form of fiction, one that seeks to mimic creative non-fiction with all the care and attention to detail of a good hoax. This kind of effort to create an “in-universe” document (more or less) is more typically associated with the occult (such as the Simon Necronomicon (1977)) or roleplaying games (such as Le Culte des Goules (2012)by Antoine Téchenet), but it represents the fundamental desire that readers have to interact with the Mythos at a deeper level. Ex Libris Miskatonici is a high-level example of the interaction between fan-fiction and fan-scholarship, showcasing not just the mental gymnastics that some Mythos writers have to go through, but that something positive and worthwhile can result.
Necronomicon Press published Ex Libris Miskatonici in 1993, and a second edition in 1995. It has since been out of print.
Of the hundred copies of the Aegrisomnia that Shroud had privately published, however, only one was complete and unabridged. And bound in leather. And that was Stroud’s private copy—the one with his own personal annotations scrawled in the margins. The one he had bound himself—with the skin of his virgin daughter. Granted, she wasn’t his legitimate daughter—her mother was a marginally retarded scullery maid who had been with the household since childhood—but the gesture put to the pale anything the self-styled “Beast” had ever done.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Land of the Reflected Ones,” Eternal Lovecraft 93
The Necronomicon. Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Cultes de Goules. The Book of Eibon. Names to conjure with, and many folks have tried to do just that over the decades. Lovecraft’s evocative title and elaborate history of the Necronomicon inspired comparable efforts by Robert E. Howard and others, and by 1937 there was a veritable library of Mythos tomes—yet only an inkling of what would come. The invention and proliferation of these occult tomes has become a characteristic of the Mythos in its many forms, some writers would elaborate on works created by Lovecraft and others, many would create their own additions to the growing catalog. Entire books have been written about these fictional grimoires, from fictional works like Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici (1995) and Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) anthology to non-fiction books like Harms & Gonce’ The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003).
Pseudobibliophilia takes an odd turn in Nancy Collins’ “The Land of the Reflected Ones.” By the numbers, this is straightforward Mythos pastiche:Emerson wants the Aegrisomnia; the old man wants too much money for it…but Emerson gets the book anyway, and in a manner that no reader will feel bad for what happens to him afterwards. Yet there’s a strange dinginess to the situation which Collins deliberately plays up: the quarrel is over a difference of two hundred dollars. Whatever priceless secrets it holds, that’s what the book is worth to the old man, because he needs to cover the rent for himself and his wife—and it is more than Emerson can afford.
The situation is both tragic and ironic: Emerson, gloats about his superiority over others while admitting that he doesn’t understand people, and has exhausted his sizable inheritance on occult tomes to no appreciable benefit; he gloats over the power and fortune that the book will give him, without considering the consequences of getting what he wants, despite the quite wisdom of the old man; and in the end Emerson is forced to abandon what little he has to flee from the police for his crime, and in fleeing one prison, ends up in a far worse one—with the tiny coup de grâce delivered by the old man’s wife. From beginning to end, all that happens to Emerson is his own fault, and the reader can only follow along, and nod—because Emerson is a bastard, designed to remove the slightest trace of sympathy for the character.
The plot may be uncomplicated, but it’s fine execution, the foreshadowing of Through the Looking-Glass, and the way some common Mythos tropes and conceptions are subverted in this story make it shine. Emerson is a bastard of a character, a vain and self-centered occultist who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he comes from a privileged background; the dark mirror-image of the Lovecraftian protagonist in many ways. The materialist money-grubbing over the Aegrisomnia stands in stark contrast to the almost spiritual aesthetics which govern the Mythos in place of crass economics: rather than being held as a priceless relic, the grimoire is reduced to a commodity with a price tag, and not even a fabulously expensive one at that. The grand plans of Emerson and the cosmic horrors hinted at by his occult library are undershot and mired in the tawdriness of the whole affair.
Weirdly for a Cthulhu Mythos tale, “The Land of the Reflected Ones” there is also a distinct moral framework to the story.
In H. P. Lovecraft’s original conception, the universe of the Mythos is essentially amoral, in the sense that “bad” deeds are not specifically punished and “good” deeds not specifically rewarded. There are tales of revenge, such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and the macabre quasi-fable of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and the “villains” and “monsters” in Lovecraft’s stories often face some setback or grisly end—yet the “victories” are almost always temporary and ultimately somewhat hollow. “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.” Azathoth, the ultimate power and authority in Lovecraft’s cosmology, is a blind idiot who will devour everyone indiscriminately. “Good and bad,” are human terms, from a human frame of reference.
Collins provides that frame of reference by contrasting the immoral, unsociable, power-hungry Emerson with the old bookseller and his wife. In one of the best passages in the story, the old man relates:
I know human leather when I see it. Had a book come through here a few years back—belonged to some bastard in the Nazi High Command. It was pornographic pictures—women with animals, men with children. It was bound just like that. I burned it. I would have burned that thing, too, if I didn’t need the money so badly—
The old man’s error, which leads to his death, is not trusting his instincts. If he’d left the Aegrisomnia alone, or burned it, then he’d never have had to deal with Emerson. The old man’s wife is Emerson’s comeuppance: raised by his entitled mother to think he was better than everyone else comes to bite Emerson in the ass when one of the people he thought was beneath him turns out to be a sorceress in her own right—just as, ironically, Emerson’s own mother was eventually unplugged by her own son, because she raised him to be such a prick.
The Aegrisomnia itself is the MacGuffin, and the plot of the story as a Mythos pastiche rests on its characterization; consequently the book gets more descriptive text and history than Emerson or any of the other characters. The backstory briefly parallels the familiar histories of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, with cycles of translation and prohibition, but the fine details—the Borgia pope, the human leather cover, the disappearance during the Blitz—are evocative and specific without delving into excess. Even the name aegri somnia (“troubled dreams”) hints at the bad karma that surrounds this book.
Collins’ story probably owes a debt to Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (1969). Both stories involve a bookshop, bring the Mythos down to the gritty street-level, obsessive protagonists, and have a similar approach to Mythos books as a kind of quasi-pornography—taboo literature which both readers and characters tend to fetishize above and beyond the actual content. Collins name-drops Campbell’s Revelations of Glaaki among the titles in Emerson’s library, a nice nod to one of the contemporary masters of Mythos fiction.
“The Land of the Reflected Ones” first appeared in Tombs (1995) and has been reprinted twice, in Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture (1998) and Collins’ collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000). Nancy A. Collins has written over seventeen novels, as well as dozens of short stories and comic books. Her other most notable Cthulhu Mythos story is “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), which also appears in Avenue X and most recently in Tales Out of Dunwich(2005) and as an ebook (2012). “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for best novelette. The Aegrisomnia was introduced in “Sunglasses After Dark” (1989), the first in Collins’ Sonja Blue stories.
For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”
Set in an unknown but recognizable tomorrow. In the crowded urban structure known as the Warren, people live in close proximity. Isolated from the outside, both physically and economically, the Meers (Meerkats) grow up in the crush of humanity, amid an urban ecosystem grown subterranean and strange with a new horror, one the children call…Pugelbones.
“Pugelbone” is not a Cthulhu Mythos story; there are no quotes from the Necronomicon, no reference to any recognizable corner of the Miskatonic Valley, no alien gods and sinister cults. Yet Nadia Bulkin’s story is built up from a base of Lovecraftian literary DNA, like a slab of artificial meat grown in a lab. A product of the strange and marvelous now, hacking the genetic material of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” and building it back up into something you can sink your teeth into.
The protagonist Lizbet was born a Meer. A girl that just liked to break things. An outsider among an outsider group, she is at once sympathetic and unreliable. All she wants is custody of her daughter—and the only way to get it is to interact with the unsympathetic bureaucracy as represented by Dr. Roman. These are adult fears: poor people trapped in a system they never built or opted in to, trying to navigate the weird social spaces of interviews with indifferent people that decide their fate. “Pugelbones” is Lizbet’s story—the story she tells Dr. Roman, to try and win back her daughter, and the story of telling that story, as Roman deflates, dismisses, and directs the conversation. A “passive listener” that has all the power in the relationship, and diminishes Lizbet with insinuation.
Yet Dr. Roman never denies the essential reality of the Pugelbones.
In Lovecraft’s stories like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” the underground space—a favored personal image which appears in his stories—contains or did contain other horrors: a teeming mass of humanity or near-humanity. Societies that set themselves apart, to live, work, breed, and die down there. Written before Lovecraft’s period in New York City, it is still tempting to see an echo in these stories of urban fears, the great crowded tenements and filthy streets. Contemporary concerns, expressed in Lovecraft’s own language and filtered through his own prejudices, but still tapping into the 1920’s zeitgeist. Lovecraft’s stories are told from the interloper’s perspective, from those who had not been born and bred.
What would “The Lurking Fear” read like, if told from the perspective of a Martense?
[…] a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes. Normal beings seldom visited the locality till the state police were formed, and even now only infrequent troopers patrol it. […] With whimpering insistence the squatters told tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”
Nadia Bulkin’s story works because some of those horrors present in the early 20th century still haunt us in the early 21st century. The poor may not be seen as “gently descending the evolutionary scale” as Lovecraft put it, but the Meers are no less the subject to prejudice and stereotype. Lizbet is subject to the same prejudices that Lovecraft’s Catskills white trash, with the added bonus of being a woman, and a single parent, with all the additional onus that brings. These are all adult fears, the kind of tangible horrors of desperation that can face anyone today. Bulkin taps into the same zeitgeist as Lovecraft did; her story works because the situation is presented so realistically.
The Pugelbones are the element of the weird which is interwoven with the more mundane horrors of child protective services and overpopulation, and like many Lovecraftian horrors they are very material entities. An undiscovered species, urban predators. The truth about them is not half as terrible as Dr. Roman’s towing the official government line about their existence, or her insinuations about Lizbet’s relationship with them. They are the great mystery of the piece, only half-glimpsed through the Meer’s story, their presence told in piles of trash and smears of blood.
Yet the story is theirs, as much as it is Meers: these Lovecraftian beasties are essential to the piece, and Bulkin wisely keeps them off the page for most of it. Readers get hints of them long before they see them, rumors and legend before the Pugelbones appear in a scene. Rather than being specifically horrific themselves, the Pugelbones are the catalysts for the human horrors; the outside element that disrupts the human narrative, like the xenomorphs of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the one terrible unpredictable event which starts off the cascade of adult fears.
Nadia Bulkin’s “Pugelbone” first appeared in ChiZine (Oct-Dec 2010), and was reprinted in her collection She Said Destroy(2017), and Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth(2018). Bulkin has been prominent the last few years in various anthologies, and her corpus of Lovecraftian and Mythos fiction includes “Red Goat Black Goat” (2010), “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” (2014), “Violet Is The Color Of Your Energy” (2015), “Pro Patria!” (2015), “There Is A Bear In the Woods” (2016), “I Believe That We Will Win” (2016), “Empire Down” (2017), and “A Dream, and a Monster at the End of It” (2017).
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act 1, Scene 2.
—Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)
Alice is a forensic pathologist is called away to a remote tropical island to dig up and reassemble the bodies from a mass grave that the locals have been adding to for centuries. Down through the layers and the bodies, peeling away one onion-skin layer of mystery at a time. The inbred, insular locals aren’t talking who killed the victims or why—”it’s a serious Innsmouthian situation ’round these parts” one character chimes; a good line, though the character isn’t quite genre-savvy enough to survive the final act.
The island’s name is Carcosa.
Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and so many other authors built their mythology on evocation and intimation, explicit references which implied a wider body of lore, names to conjure with and carefully detailed, realistic descriptions. The mystery, and the connections that tie stories together, is part of the attraction of the Mythos. The appearance of the terrible play The King in Yellow is what helps tie together the first stories in Chambers’ 1895 collection to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Readers never see Hali and Carcosa in those stories; the eponymous King remains off the page, so that the reader fills in the gaps with their own imagination, stranger and more terrible than anything Chambers could have come up with.
Yet exegesis is a long tradition in Mythos fiction. While stories like “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys may offer expansions and emendations of Mythos fiction, to enhance, extend, and revisit, the purpose of exegesis is to re-contextualize and explicate. That’s what Gemma Files does in “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars”—totally removed from the play itself, through the eyes and ears of Alice, she unravels a Carcosa and a Lake of Hali, twin suns and black stars. The result is a double narrative: there are the events of the story itself, as the dig unfolds, going deeper into the black volcanic soil of the mass grave, and there is the story of Carcosa—what it is, who lives there, what little of its history and folklore that can be passed on in pidgin or through their interpreter.
The Innsmouth reference is no accident, though maybe a touch of red herring. Lovecraft was fond of the twin narrative structure in his own works: stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” focus not only on a contemporary plot but the deeper mystery that led up to current events, which come together in a single revelation and climax. In particular, Files picks up one of Lovecraft’s most popular themes—the reclusive, insular, inbred community with its dark secret. Carcosa is re-imagined as Lovecraft Country, akin to Dunwich and Innsmouth, Averoigne and Stregoicavar; a volcanic outcrop set in a far and obscure archipelago off of Indonesia; where the natives have lived generation after generation with little contact from outsiders. The re-build is done with great care for realism, reflecting real-world research. If there was such a place as Carcosa, set where Gemma Files has set it, then that place and that people would look and sound as she describes them.
This is not “the” explanation for the strange and obscure imagery from the excerpts of the play in Chambers’ stories. It is one explanation, one writer’s personal exegesis, one possible explanation to fit the images and plot of Chambers’ fragments. The exegesis forms the secondary narrative of the story, the history being told to Alice. Her story, the first narrative, is in the bodies being dug on the island, weird anatomies that speak of a small genepool compounding small mutations—and it is in Alice herself.
“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” is a story told in second person. The reader is addressed as if they are Alice, the perspective is told through her senses, though the reader is not always aware of everything Alice has said and done. Our sense of Alice as a person is limited: not sexless, but not focused on reproduction like Dr. Katherine Cullom, the protagonist of “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. The narrative notes her practical modesty in the disposable “grave bras” she brings to the dig, garments to be worn for the duration of the time at the gravesite and then discarded when the dig is over, but not romantic entanglements or threats of rape. Like in Lovecraft’s fiction, sex doesn’t enter into it unless essential to the plot.
Reproduction is the engine that drives this story, although it takes Alice to piece that together, one bone at a time. The story as Alice discovers is one of biological determinism different from anything Lovecraft imagined, borne out in the pathologist’s perception of the world, rather than the racialist science of Lovecraft’s period. Instead of measuring facial angles, Alice looks at how the bones fit together (or don’t), the interplay of connective tissue, the signs that indicate whether this skeleton was male or female. The native Carcosans, for all that they form a definitive cultural Other for the story, largely feature only be reference, or through the dead. Even the interpreter Ringo, who tells Alice so much, is seen by his relatives as an outsider rather than a prodigal son…and that’s probably for the best. The Carcosans are different, they are Other, but they are neither stereotypes nor monsters; Alice knows them as different, because of their anatomical anomalies, but still recognizably human.
Which is an interesting lesson for Mythos fiction. That an individual people can be distinct, physically and culturally, yet still recognizably people and deserving of respect. Alice as a scientist can differentiate anatomy without bias; the one character, Ken, who is notably bigoted toward the inbred nature of Carcosa is universally depicted as uncouth, his moralizing judgments on their way of life unnecessary. The rest of the team are focused on the excavation, the crime that was committed—has been committed, for who knows how long—and in a real way, they are proven right. Incest is not the cause of the problems in Carcosa. In lost Carcosa, the mystery Alice unveils one corpse at a time is stranger still.
“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” was first published in the Yellow Mythos anthology A Season in Carcosa (2012) and reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24 (2013). Gemma Files is a familiar name among the current generation of Mythos writers, several of her notable Mythos and Lovecraftian stories and poems include”Marya Nox” (2009), “Haruspicy” (2010), “Jar of Salts” (2010), “[Anasazi]” (2014), “The Harrow” (2014), “Hairwork” (2015), “Grave Goods” (2016), “Little Ease” (2016), and “Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim as Our Own” (2016).
In my Mythos tales, I like to push Lovecraftian science and themes in new directions. So, for example, while HPL incorporated the astronomy and physics ideas of his day (eg, cosmos within cosmos and other dimensions), I speculate about modern science: quantum optics, particle physics, chaos theory, string theory, and so forth. While HPL showcased his creatures against a backdrop of bleak humanity—I pit my own types of creatures against the horrors of the Mythos, and I want my creatures to fight back. Examples of these stories are Mandelbrot Moldrot, Where I go Mi-Go, Showdown at Red Hook, and Scourge of the Old Ones.
—Lois H. Gresh, “Underlying Darkness” in Eldritch Evolutions 9
“Showdown at Red Hook” is a remix, a transposition of certain Lovecraftian names and characters to a weird western milieu. The heaviest source is Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which provides the name of the protagonist, lawman Tom Malone, the name of the setting—the dead village of Red Hook—and the name of the terrible tribe which serves as the antagonists, the Chepachet; their strange chant is lifted from the bits of incantation that Lovecraft himself took from that most eldritch of tomes, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and included in his story for a touch of real occultism. Gresh includes it here as a laughing nod toward Lovecraftian convention, but a convention juxtaposed against an entirely inappropriate and nonsensical setting.
Similarly, while “Chepachet” is a real Native American word, used for a street in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn and a town in Rhode Island, it was never the name of an actual people. It is entirely a comedic wink-and-nod to readers for her false Native American tribe to chant “Hel sother sabaoth tetragramaton ischyros va adonai messias escherheye!“, echoing the cultists in Lovecraft’s tale, just as it is a joke to name Malone’s not-quite-so-trusty deputy “Al Blackwood”—knowing that readers will be familiar with weird story writer Algernon Blackwood, one of Lovecraft’s favorite authors. It’s all in fun, and in keeping with the Mythos tradition.
Yet there is a frisson. The story is a weird western, not a straight western tale or a straight Mythos tale but something uniquely its own, and the tropes of the two contrast and blend oddly. It’s a setting and a story told in broad strokes and little details, with important chunks of the plot and action lost or glossed over in moments of almost psychedelic imagery. It’s a story readers absorb first and unweave later. Yet start pulling at the threads, and there are some strange things in the warp and weft of the story.
The Chepachet, for example, are more alien than any Native American people that frontier settlers ever encountered; yet they fill the place and are addressed in the story as stereotypical Native Americans in frontier horror tales, despite their many tentacles and bizarre undead horses. They are literally inhuman, but are lumped together with the native human peoples of the Americas. The Chepachet represent the conjunction or mishmash of two entirely separate conceptions of the Other. The joke, of course, is that many frontier horror stories deny the basic humanity of Native Americans anyway: it is hard to distinguish between simple prejudice and true alienation.
There is one one, or maybe two, women in “Showdown at Red Hook.” The first is Mae Curwin, whose safe delivery is the nominal point of Malone and Blackwood’s trip through Red Hook. The second, who only appears at the very end, is Malone’s mother, stolen by the Chepachet when he was a boy—echoes of frontier horrors, the kind that Robert E. Howard used to regale Lovecraft with in his letters, when the Native Americans were painted as real-life boogeymen that stole horses and women; killed, kidnapped, and raped…except the Chepachet are not real Native Americans; they are inhuman horrors, and when their chief Dagon says “I want that squaw” he implies something worse than Malone imagined may have happened to his mother. Yet Dagon’s specific delivery of why he wants Curwin is comical: “Virgin, 18, blonde: good squaw for the Old Ones”—an echo of Sandra Dee’s role in The Dunwich Horror (1970).
Mae Curwin’s role as a literal sex object is underscored at several points in the narrative; in western fiction white women are sometimes treated as the currency of transactions and the prize to be fought over and claimed by the victor—and Gresh plays this both seriously and for laughs. The trope is never exactly subverted, but neither is it explicitly fulfilled: Malone is a lusty, red-blooded man, but fights to overcome his basic instincts as he knows manly heroes should, playing into the gender role assigned to him; the Chepachet are not rapacious Native Americans in the sense of sexual assault, for while they are all male they are all essentially sexless, with no women or children evident at their encampment. Curwin is the living MacGuffin of the story, but not for the usual western reasons, but for a Lovecraftian one: as a suitable sacrifice, just as in “The Horror at Red Hook.”
Tom Malone, like his namesake in Lovecraft’s story, sees and experiences terrible things, and is a character caught very explicitly between being the masculine, action-oriented western hero and the more reluctant, passive Lovecraftian protagonist…and all, apparently, according to plan:
[Dagon] had played on Malone’s need to be the manly one, the hero. […] And now, what could Malone possibly do?
While the plot centers on Dagon’s effort to secure Mae Curwin as a squaw for the Old Ones, the way he accomplishes that is to manipulate Malone to bring her to him…and Dagon wants it to be Malone, because he wants Malone to trade Mae for his mother. This is the real point of transition for Malone, from the western hero to the Lovecraftian protagonist. Like Lovecraft’s Malone, Gresh’s Malone ends up unable prevent the young woman’s sacrifice.
Given how blithely and purposefully (one might say gleefully) Gresh blends up the tropes and references of both Lovecraftian horror and frontier horror, the story as a whole can be taken as an extended farce, not meant to be taken too seriously. She plays on the juxtaposition of tropes, and the points where they conjoin: the alien Other, the female sacrifice, the male protagonist. The result is definitely outside of the regular run of Cthulhu Mythos tales, but as a mashup addresses several of the themes of gender and Otherness in the two genres in ways that many Lovecraftian weird western tales don’t.
Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges, were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and is even now only beginning to shew signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”
Concentration camps today are largely associated with the second World War: the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans, the Bataan death march and other horrors. The Nazi government would begin the creation of concentration camps soon after Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933…but Lovecraft would not have known about this at the time he was writing “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in Nov-Dec 1931. Lovecraft’s use of the idea would hearken back to the first World War, when the United States and other nations interned “enemy aliens”—sometimes on the basis of ethnicity and nationality, sometimes for disloyalty, real or suspected.
The reference to concentration camps in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is thus a sub rosa nod to readers, cluing them in that these people were different and perhaps held dangerous loyalties. Yet it is a message whose meaning has changed over time. Readers who have grown up in the aftermath of World War II, with a full awareness of the horrors that the Nazis would accomplish and the extremes that Americans would go to when driven by fear and prejudice—and because of this change in syntax, it has inspired different fictional interpretations, the two most notable of which are Brian McNaughton’s “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) and Ruthanna Emrys “The Litany of Earth” (2014).
We need not dust off the history of our nation’s dealings with the Indians to find examples of genocide, nor even go so far from our doorsteps as Montgomery, Alabama, to see instances of racism. Right here in our own state of Massachusetts, in February of 1928, agents of the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments perpetrated crimes worthy of Nazi Germany against a powerless minority of our citizens…
—Brian McNaughton, “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (Even More Nasty Stories 7)
McNaughton’s opening sets the scene: the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” are not undone, but are showcased in an entirely different light, in line with contemporary attitudes towards racial prejudice and xenophobia. The raid becomes not a protective government hand sweeping in to solve a terrible threat, but a jackbooted act of discrimination, with a reductio ad Hitlerum thrown in just in case anyone missed it. This was immensely novel at the time, and the story carries on from there in much the same vein: set in the modern day, two generations removed the end of Lovecraft’s story, Bob Smith is a descendant of Innsmouth, his grandmother being one of the few that escaped the federal raid, and apparently ignorant of the Innsmouth heritage, the religion…all of it, except what bits and fragments his senile grandmother had told him.
Part of what makes McNaughton’s story work is what is said and left unsaid. Readers who may empathize with Bob Smith and the other Innsmouth residents are subtly reminded at every turn, without being explicit, that these people are not entirely human, that their religion (“In the name of Mother Hydra!”) was real, and also that they face prejudice from being who they are and holding to their beliefs. Shades of the Holocaust, with a blending of conspiracy theory and institutional racism; but where a Jew might be called a “hymie,” the Innsmouth pejorative is “Kermie”—after Kermit the Frog, to reflect their batrachian appearance.
The twist of the story is not so much the action climax, or the revelations about Bob Smith’s extracurricular activities that follow, but that the residents of Innsmouth are at least as dangerous as Lovecraft had written them, with McNaughton’s own small embellishments on Esoteric Order of Dagon theology and ceremonies adding a rather more overtly sordid and bloody emphasis. It’s a subversion of expectations: in an era when judging people by appearance, ethnicity, and religion are all considered taboo, when the discrimination and prejudice they have suffered is shown at length and in great detail, with parallels drawn to that experienced by real-life groups…readers may well have been sympathetic for Bob Smith, until he showed his true colors.
What stops “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” from being a fable whose moral is that race prejudice is a positive thing? McNaughton was clever enough to make use of the racial allegories that can be read in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and contemporary post-WWII, post-Civil Rights era mentality, and bold enough to do a Twilight Zone-esque subversion of expectations, but the subtextual message of the story is unpleasant: that sometimes prejudices are justified. It’s doubtful McNaughton ever intended that specific reading; after all, the idea that the residents of Innsmouth are partially inhuman fish-people is normally taken for granted by Mythos authors—and that itself is part of the problem.
The idea that there is a race that is inherently considered monstrous and a threat to “regular” humans in fiction is already unpleasantly close to the stereotypes and libels applied to real-world minorities and ethnic groups. The fact that writers use that idea without examination of the underlying implications is worse—nothing McNaughton writes about Deep Ones and Innsmouth hybrids is very different than the characterization in “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader or “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. However, because he specifically invoked tropes of institutional racism, prejudice, and hate crimes, McNaughton is taking the subtext and making it text—what could be read as a dog whistle in the first “Innsmouth” becomes blatant in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The latter remains a good story, but also serves as an example for why it can be very difficult to tell stories that interact with racism in a realistic way in Lovecraft’s fiction.
In the evenings, the radio told what I had missed: an earth-spanning war, and atrocities in Europe to match and even exceed what had been done to both our peoples. We did not ask, the Kotos and I, whether our captors too would eventually be called to justice. The Japanese American community, for the most part, was trying to put the camps behind them. And it was not the way of my folk—who had grown resigned to the camps long before the Kotos’ people were sent to join us, and who no longer had a community on land—to dwell on impossibilities.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth”
Emrys starts from the same place as McNaughton: the Innsmouth diaspora. In her setting, the concentration camps of 1928 faded into those set up for Japanese-Americans starting in 1942. Innsmouth is mostly gone, and after her release Aphra Marsh too tries to reclaim what bits and pieces she can of her heritage, while living with the Japanese family she had shared the camp with.
What is markedly different between the two stories is tone. “The Litany of Earth” is a not a horror story, but a dark fantasy. There is no subtle hinting; the Cthulhu Mythos is real to Aphra, a part of her old life before the government shut her away and what she hopes to get back. While race is still a point of discrimination, Emrys focuses on religion and the eradication of history and culture:
In ’26, the whole religion were declared enemies of the state, and we started looking out for anyone who said the wrong names on Sunday night, or had the wrong statues in their churches. You know where it goes from there.
Contrasting with Aphra is FBI Agent Spector: an agent of the government that imprisoned her, a German immigrant of Jewish descent. Almost a literal “Good German.” Their shared experience of discrimination provides at least a slight thawing of relations, though not instant rapport. After all, he needs her help.
“And every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune.” His lips quirked. “It’s a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect.”
The focus on religion cuts away from some of the less pleasant aspects of Lovecraft’s concentration camp victims. Aphra Marsh and her folk are a people apart, but a sharp delineation is made between the cultists of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” less of race and more in understanding and approach: in Agent Spector’s plea for cooperation, it is the extremists with their blood sacrifices that are the bad guys. Even among those there are poseurs, con-artists, the desperate and deluded.
Yet Aphra Marsh sticks to Lovecraft’s script that the Deep Ones are a different race of people, and that their attributes are not those of homo sapiens. Biological immortality, an ancient culture and eldritch lore, an attachment to aspects of nature—the Deep Ones in “The Litany of Earth” are the second cousins of Tolkien’s Sea Elves from The Lord of the Rings. As in Tolkien’s work, there is a pettiness to some humans, a clash over the limited lifespan compared to those of the elder folk. The same essential conflict, only with Lovecraftian trappings.
Thus, “The Litany of Earth” shares some of the same problems as “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The central falseness of racism and racialism is that humans are, for better or for worse, all basically the same. Races are a social construct, not a biological one. Different populations may exhibit common features due to shared ancestry, but homo sapiens is one species. The Deep Ones are different. They may look human, when young; they may interbreed with humans, yet they are fundamentally other. In the fantasy setting of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Deep Ones embody the Nazi conception of a race apart far more than the Jews ever did.
When the lines between allegory and exposition are erased, you’re not looking at racism as was understood and practiced by Lovecraft, or in the concentration camps of World War II. If the subject of fantastic racism actually is alien, the dynamic shifts and the old arguments used to oppose it have to shift as well. The trappings are the same, but you’re not dealing with human-on-human racism, but something akin to destroying the natural habitat of apes and cetaceans and keeping them in captivity—and whether or not the detainees have human-level intelligence, or what constitutes “human” as far as rights, become part of the conversation. Or at least it should.
Neither McNaughton or Emrys really want to explore that direction in these stories; their narratives depend on Deep Ones that are human enough to face prejudice and be sympathetic, and alien enough to provide a core of real insurmountable difference with actual humans. Both McNaughton and Emrys also hedge away from miscegenation and immigration, arguably the most prominent themes regarding race in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” There’s no real discussion in either story of the Deep Ones having come to Innsmouth from somewhere else and absorbing or displacing the population; the threat to humanity is never existential as far as Deep Ones irrevocably contaminating the human gene pool or culture. The protagonists in each story are members of an embattled minority, almost an endangered species, at least on land.
Genocide is the shadow that hangs over both McNaughton and Emrys’ versions of Innsmouth. The purpose of concentration camps when Lovecraft wrote “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was internment, at least in the United States; yet it lead inexorably to the effort to exterminate entire peoples by the Nazis. In “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth,” the effort is ongoing, albeit less direct; in “The Litany of Earth,” the FBI’s focus has shifted to cultists, but it took WWII for them to begin to face their mistakes. In both cases, families were broken up, generations lost. McNaughton and Emyrs looked, with the wizened eyes of those who have seen the outcome of the Holocaust, past the end that Lovecraft wrote at the consequences which he did not, could not fully predict.
Complaints from many liberal organisations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to coöperate with the government in the end.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”
Brian McNaughton got his start as a writer in the fan-scene of the 1950s; worked as a newspaperman, and eventually spent over a decade writing pornographic novels and stories for adult magazines, before crossing back over into horror and weird fiction in the 1980s, where he won acclaim, including a World Fantasy Award in 1997. He wrote a number of Cthulhu Mythos stories, with a penchant for outrageousness, sexuality, and black humor. His best short horror fiction is collected in Nasty Stories (2000) and Even More Nasty Stories (2002), and he wrote several novels of the Cthulhu Mythos—including a pornographic novel involving another Innsmouth survivor, Tide of Desire (1982) under the name Sheena Clayton. He died in 2004.
Ruthanna Emrys continues the story of Aphra Marsh in her series The Innsmouth Legacy, currently consisting of Winter Tide(2017) and Deep Roots(2018). Her Lovecraftian short fiction includes “Those Who Watch” (2016), and with Ann M. Pillsworth she is part of Tor.com’s series The Lovecraft Reread.
Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether are are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. […] All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934 Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel & Nils Frome (2016) 65-67
Harlem Unbound is a roleplaying game supplement published by Darker Hue Studios for use with The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (Chaosium), and compatible with the GUMSHOE system used by Lovecraftian roleplaying games like Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press). The brainchild of Chris Spivey and a multiracial group of writers, artists, editors, etc., it has the distinction of being the first Lovecraftian roleplaying product to focus on the black experience during the 1920s in the United States—a period of legal segregation, jazz and blues, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Yet to appreciate what Harlem Unbound is and why it is important, it is necessary to look back on what Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying is and where it came from.
Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, and initiated the popularization of roleplaying games as a hobby and the roleplaying game book as a form of literature. Heavily inspired by pulp fiction, Lovecraft and other Weird Tales favorites appear in “Appendix N: Inspirational and Education Reading” in the AD&DDungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and Cthulhu Mythos made an appearance in the 1980 supplement Deities & Demigods—but quickly discovered that another company, Chaosium, had acquired license to adapt Lovecraft’s works for roleplaying game purposes. They published the first edition of The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981; almost forty years later, the game is on it’s 7th edition, and has spawned innumerable spin-offs and third-party supplements: Delta Green, Achtung! Cthulhu, The Laundry, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.
The conceit of Call of Cthulhu is that the player’s characters are investigators; one takes the role of the Keeper to guide the game, adjudicate rules, and act as referee and storyteller. By default the action is set during the 1920s-1930s period (though other settings have since expanded the scope of the game and its various spin-offs). There is a heavy simulationist element to the game—vehicles, weapons, and other equipment are adapted primarily from what would have been available in real life, with prices for goods taken from contemporary catalogs; contemporary fashions and events like World War I, the Great Depression, and Prohibition often feature in the setting materials; and historical individuals like Duke Ellington, Al Capone, and Aleister Crowley are included alongside fictional characters. Real history blends with the fictional background of stories by Lovecraft and others.
The endemic racism, misogyny, and nativism of the period is a bit of a sticking point, and not one that Chaosium and various other companies and writers have handled well. There is a conflict in writing Call of Cthulhu material between catering to contemporary sensibilities and the accurate depiction of hard realities of what African-Americans and other people of color experienced during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and in his fiction. There are few black or ethnic characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, and those that do exist are not generally portrayed positively; the Cthulhu Mythos fiction generated by Lovecraft’s contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth are not much better in this regard. To adapt the material of the Cthulhu Mythos to the purposes of play the writers have to balance accurate portrayal of the material versus contemporary knowledge and acceptable use.
It can be a difficult balance to strike. The horror evoked by Lovecraft when he presented Marceline Bedard from “Medusa’s Coil” as being mixed-race reflected the horror of white people to the idea of people of color that could “pass.” Today the “revelation” is downright offensive to contemporary audiences; a straight adaptation of Marceline that focused on her black ancestry would be accurate to the source material, but unacceptably tone-deaf. Yet one of the issues faced by Call of Cthulhu products is meeting these very challenges…and failing. Charles Saunders wrote of a similar issue in fantasy fiction in his essay “Die, Black Dog!”, where contemporary writers were repeating the characterization of pulpsters from the 1930s:
[…] in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism.
The latter has been especially true for supplements set in Africa such as The Cairo Guidebook, Secrets of the Congo, Secrets of Kenya, Secrets of Morocco, Mysteries of Sudan and the Achtung! Cthulhu Guide to North Africa; or Asia such as Myseries of the Raj, Secrets of Japan, and Secrets of Tibet;and to a lesser extant in supplements dedicated to cities with large multiracial populations, such as Secrets of New York and the New Orleans Guidebook. Most supplements to the game frankly ignore race, or if it is an issue deal with it curtly and perfunctorily. Long-time players will probably be familiar with the scenario “Dead Man Stomp” and its “Special Comments”:
Race is important in this adventure. Identify the race of each investigator before play begins. Choice of race brings no penalty, but a questioner’s race can determine the accessibility of information. Read this adventure before presenting it: if all the investigators are African-American, for instance, rather than a racial cross-section, or are all white, or are all Asian-Americans, the keeper must devise some patches. The scenario presumes that the investigators are white.
—The Call of Cthulhu (2005, 6th edition) 270
For most Call of Cthulhu products, “presumes that the investigators are white” is the default. Just as it is in Lovecraft’s fiction. When the writers, editors, and audience are all largely white themselves, the “presumption” often goes unnoticed, unquestioned, and un-examined. Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying, as an extension of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, ultimately faces many of the same issues regarding race, and for the same reasons.
Harlem Unbound is something else. The book itself is written very typically for Call of Cthulhu supplements: roughly the first half is dedicated to background materials, systems, character options, scenario hooks, and non-player characters for a game set in Harlem, while the back half contains a handful of scenarios for the Harlem setting. The books aren’t so standardized that they write themselves, but there’s a clear goal for every book written in a real-life historical setting after the advent of the World Wide Web: be better than the equivalent Wikipedia page, provide enough hooks for roleplayers to build stories off of.
Harlem Unbound easily does that: the writing is crisp, informed, and focused. Tangents like the Harlem Hellfighters, the Harlem Race Riot of 1935, and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan are relegated to sidebars. The Mythos elements are generally slight in the first half of the book, but given the dearth of Mythos fiction set in Harlem, the writers didn’t have much raw material to work with. The game presents character creation rules for Harlemites using both Call of Cthulhu‘s Basic Roleplaying System and the GUMSHOE system; from a game design standpoint it’s a professional product, with little touches of flavor in the new occupations made available for players, like Conjure Woman and Hellfighter. The production values are very high, especially considering this is the first product from an independent studio: the vivid use of red against the white page and black text stands out well, and extends into much of the artwork, making for a striking visual aesthetic that’s easy to read.
The very best section, and worth the price of the whole book, is the chapter on storytelling. This is traditionally an area which Call of Cthulhu fails to provide much if any useful guidance, and almost never with regards to racism and racial appropriation. The approach is hard-hitting and to the point:
When playing someone of a different race, there must be sensitivity to avoid any form of cultural appropriation. It is possible to honor and interact with the culture on more than just an aesthetic level. Blackface? Just don’t. Don’t try to talk with a “black” accent. Don’t try to have “black” mannerisms or fall into any of the countless stereotypes.
These are real issues for players to deal with. While it might be laudable in a period drama to depict the realities of life and language of discrimination that people of color lived under daily, in a casual roleplaying game environment the realistic depiction by gamers of 1920s racism is generally not acceptable—players do not want to be discriminated against in-game for the race or gender of their characters, nor should the casual racism of the period be accepted as something for players to perform “in character.” If you are going to incorporate racial discrimination as part of the game setting, it needs to be front and center, part of the social contract that players enter into when they agree to game—and there need to be limits.
Case in point, in a film or television program, the N-word will be weighed in the script long before an actor ever utters it, the impact and meaning judged according to the needs of the plot and the characterization of the players—roleplaying gamers cannot be expected to evaluate that kind of context on the fly, nor should they be encouraged to use it without restraint simply because it was in common use in the 1920s. Casual racism, even in “fun”, should not be encouraged. As Spivey puts it:
CAN I USE THE N-WORD IN MY GAME? Short answer? No.
It is never okay for a non-black Keeper to use it, and even black Keepers should be wary of it. “Wait, what? It’s just a game…” is possibly the thought going through your mind.
Let’s assume that everyone who would want to say that word in the game is not racist or bigoted (that laughing you hear is my internal cynic). Even if all of that remains true, what does using the word really bring to a scene? Is it impact or shock you’re looking for? If so, that can be conveyed by the actions of your antagonists.
The last half of the book mostly consists of five scenarios (“Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” “Harlem (K)Nights,” “The Contender: A Love Story,” and “Dreams and Broken Wings”). This is followed by “Souls of Harlem,” a guide to the Harlemites with important focuses on issues like LGBTQ, the Italian and Jewish communities, Nelia Larsen’s novel Passing, the all-black 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and Beta Israel; and brief appendices with a guide to period slang, a timeline of major events, recommended media, etc.
Harlem Unbound is a very solid Call of Cthulhu supplement. Like many CoC products, the writers focus on setting and verisimilitude first, and if Mythos material seems lacking, the material integrates well with other CoC products: Keepers can drop in NPCs or locations from Secrets of New York without a problem, or borrow the Voodoo rules from The New Orleans Guidebook to give root doctors and Hoodoo practitioners more bite, for example. Gumby’s Bookstore could serve as the focal point for a Bookhounds of London-style campaign set in Harlem (Bookhounds is a Trail of Cthulhu expansion using the GUMSHOE system). The 369th Infantry regiment, the famous Harlem Hellfighters, saw service in World War II, and could easily fit into an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign.
The straightforward approach to difficult subjects like racism, language, segregation, and roleplaying are all appreciated. Harlem Unbound provides something new to Call of Cthulhu that isn’t yet another avatar of Nyarlathotep or one more sinister cult or terrible tome: a game that doesn’t presume players or their characters are white.
I backed the Kickstarter for the publication of Harlem Unbound on faith; I haven’t read any of Chris Spivey’s work on Cthulhu Confidential, or seen anything of the work of the other writers Bob Heist, Ruth Tillman, Alex Mayo, Sarah Hood, and Neall Raemonn Price, but I liked the look of the samples and I’m glad to have backed the project and received the finish product. As a genre, Cthulhu Mythos roleplay has been so stuck in a rut for so long, we need books like this to really shine a light on how little attention most works for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu and related games devote to the portrayal and experience of people of color, either as characters within the game as as players and Keepers.