It should be noted that this tale attempts a new stage of the evolution of Mythos fiction. It has been justly said that much Mythos fiction fails for its redundancy: the same thing happens that happened in Arkham House books of fity years ago. Once we read certain book titles or demonic names we know what will happen. The story reduces to the collection of names, almost as if that were all most readers were looking for anyway. For new Mythos fiction to have any chance of being effective perhaps it must be scrupulously spare in its referenced to the received lore.
—Robert M. Price, The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 187
This story can be read as one of the most homophobic stories in the Cthulhu Mythos. That in itself might explain why this first collaboration between Robert M. Price & Peter Cannon is a bit of an orphan. It has been published only once, in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle, a volume edited by Price as part of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction line. Neither Price nor Cannon has seen fit to reprint it in any of their subsequent collections, nor written much about it; though it is clear from Price’s editorial comments that Cannon probably wrote the bulk of it, attempting to emulate the style of M. R. James, and that Price supplied much of the theological background. It is therefore feasible that this collaboration operated similar to their later story “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996).
The Jamesian atmosphere may have suggested the religious theme, which is Dr. Price’s special area of expertise; the setting is Temphill, part of the Severn Valley setting created by Ramsey Campbell for his own Mythos stories. Campbell might be credited with one of the first overt references to homosexuality in Mythos fiction with his short story “Cold Print” (1969), though whether that was any inspiration on “The Curate of Temphill” or simply coincidence is unclear—James was British, and Campbell’s Severn Valley is the most prominent and memorable British setting for the Mythos outside of Exham Priory (“The Rats in the Walls”). The name itself recalls the Templars…and if one traces that line of thought, perhaps leads us to the inspiration for this story.
There are certain relatively obscure elements of homosexuality in the demi-monde of legend surrounding Christianity, if you look for it. One of these is the charge at their trials that the Knights Templar practiced sodomy; another is the Secret Gospel of Mark, an apochryphal text which reads in part:
And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God…naked man with naked man…
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 196
Price & Cannon quote this material almost verbatim from the original source; what the authors are doing here is taking known elements from Christian scholarship and weaving them together to form the Mythos “lore” that the protagonist, Rev. Morgan Ackerley, slowly uncovers. It is a genuine Lovecraftian approach, developing the “secret history” of the story with all the care and attention of a good hoax, only with very unconventional (for the Mythos) source materials; readers might compare it to how Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)created a narrative based on the remixed history, legend, and conspiracy theories of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982).
Where it gets problematic in the story is specific applications. One of the most prominent:
Shortly after deciding the vandalism episode was too trivial to report to the secular authorities, he received a solemn summons to the hospital in Brichester, where Ms. Radclyffe lay in a coma, the victim of violent rape. She expired before his arrival, never regaining consciousness.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 198
While the matter is treated by suggestion and implication rather than outright stated, Vita Radclyffe was a lesbian—unmarried, living with her “companion” Florence Trefusis, reading the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, and opposed to the domination of the local church by the previous curate, who had preached “You know, the woman shalt be subservient to her lord and master, her husband—obsolete rot like that.” (ibid 190) Her death by sexual assault is treated as horrific, but the why of it is hauntingly unclear…as with much in this story.
A large part of the mystery is on purpose. M. R. James was careful to leave much of the detail to the reader’s imagination, so certain mysteries would always remain. Readers might well argue that since Radclyffe had opposed the old curate, she would also oppose the new one, and so her death would benefit the conspiracy surrounding Temphill.
That doesn’t explain why Radclyffe was either a lesbian or specifically raped to death. Neither aspect of the character is a necessary detail for the purposes of her role in the story, but the fact that both were included strongly suggests that to the authors they were. The implications are therefore nasty: Radclyffe was included in the story because it needed a female antagonist to oppose a cabal of chauvinistic men, who were preaching the strong patriarchal version of the Bible; her opposition to this patriarchial slant would be stronger if she were a feminist—and disinterested in men generally, hence a lesbian; her death would be all the more horrific if it came about by the very thing she opposed, hence the rape.
Horror exists for violating taboos; the thrill of crossing a boundary, be it social, sexual, legal, religious, even geographic or physical is real. Rape and violent death are a part of that, and many slasher films eagerly combine sex and death, race and death, etc. Characters are introduced as predestined victims, with the only question being not if they will survive but how they will die. It is still an ugly thing to introduce a woman to the plot specifically for her to be raped to death a few pages later, but it is not beyond the pale: H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop story “The Curse of Yig” is built around a supernatural sexual assault.
The rape in “The Curate of Temphill” in nasty in part because of the ideology behind the attack. Would a man who opposed the group be raped to death? The new curate isn’t; he is instead initiated. Would a woman who was not a lesbian be raped to death? The option is not explored, and that in itself is a bit damning. The story, as brief as it is, only gives hints and suggestions to the actual nature of beliefs held by the old curate and his group…and this is where the homophobia really starts in the story.
In Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print,” homosexuality is a secondary aspect of the main character’s sexuality, which is primarily tied up with discipline, spanking, and sadomasochism in the grand tradition of British private schools, or at least the fetishistic pornographic depiction of the same, with hints of pedophilia—all appropriate for the character Campbell was developing. Price & Cannon seem to have taken their inspiration from “Secret Mark” and the implication that Jesus Christ’s hidden teachings involved a pedophilic encounter with a young boy—and perhaps by extension touching on general allegations of pedophilia and inappropriate sexual contact on the part of Catholic and Anglican priests, accounts of which have become much more public in the past several decades.
All of which Price & Cannon bring together in their finale, where they hint strongly at this turn of events with:
His parishioner had subsequently invited h im to a special meeting of select members of the Temphill and Goatswood youth groups, where certain wondrous ceremonies would be performed.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 200
Basically, there is no male homosexual in “The Curate of Temphill” who is not also implicitly a pedophile. This might not have been the intended depiction, but the story is short and the cast is small: we aren’t given any other details to go by. It should be mentioned that this conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is not pursued by Price or Cannon in any other story. Maybe it was just the pursuit of this one set of ideas as a connecting theme—homosexual Templars, a gospel that preaches homosexual pedophilia, the prevalence of homosexual pedophilia among some priests—that suggested the story.
Yet each of those individual elements also embodies homophobia: the Templars were charged with sodomy because homosexuality was a sin; Secret Mark is blasphemous because it suggests Jesus had gay sex with a young boy; the most popular depiction of sexual assault by priests against youth is that they targeted altar boys for abuse, with the homosexual element heightening the scandal for churches that still often disapprove of homosexuality. All of that plus the ultimately needless death-by-rape of Vita Radclyffe makes this a short story with a lot of issues.
Readers at this point might ask “How does all this relate to Shub-Niggurath?”—and it does not, directly. Shub-Niggurath is associated with Campbell’s Severn Valley setting via nearby Goatswood and its inhabitants in “The Moon-Lens” (1964). The Templars were accused of worshipping Baphomet, who in turn was famously depicted as the Satanic Goat by Eliphas Levi, and Price in his introduction to The Shub-Niggurath Cycle thematically connected this figure with “The Black Goat of the Woods,” often taken as a title for Shub-Niggurath. It is implied that the entity that raped and killed Vita Radclyffe was a satyresque figure, which would make this a rare masculine depiction of Shub-Niggurath, comparable to that in “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.