“Four O’Clock” (1949) by Sonia H. Greene

His touch was lightest in the stories by Sonia H. Greene, who was later to become his wife; he made some alterations in The Invisible Monster, he made only suggestions for the prose style of Four O’Clock.
—August Derleth, Something About Cats and Other Pieces(1949) vii

“Four O’Clock” is the third work of fiction, after “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) (published in Weird Tales as “The Invisible Monster”) and Alcestis: A Play (1985) attributed to Sonia H. Greene with some input or assistance from H. P. Lovecraft, who she would marry in 1924. Relatively little is known about the genesis of this story, as Lovecraft mentions it only a few times in his letters, except that it was apparently one of three tales that were conceived during a visit by Sonia and Lovecraft to Magnolia, Massachusetts in 1922:

Mme. G. has taken to this sort of composition—has written one & planned two more—& I’m damned if they don’t look like good stuff! The first one, “Four O’Clock”, has some images noxiously Poe-esque—I shall polish it up for use in the U.A. or something else.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Jun 1922, Letters to Alfred Galpin 120

After the repast—a most marvelous meal prepared by Mrs. G. alone since the negress disappointed her & failed to appear—a programme of literary reading & discussion took place. I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Green read her “Four O’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Anne E. P. Gamwell, 9 Sep 1922, Letters from New York 20-21

The story did not see publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime, but in 1946 Sonia (now Sonia H. Davis) came into contact with August Derleth of Arkham House, and after some personal disagreements and correspondence, both “The Invisible Monster” and “Four O’Clock” were published in Something About Cats and Other Pieces (1949), which contained several of Lovecraft’s revision tales; it would subsequently be reprinted in The Horror in the Museum (1970) and other collections of Lovecraft’s revision and ghostwritten tales, despite the relatively slight evidence, as Joshi notes:

In a letter to Winfield Townley Scott (11 December 1948; ms JHL), Sonia H. Davis wrote that this story was written only at HPL’s suggestion. On that basis, I excluded it from the revised Horror in the Museum (1989); but in fact, much of the prose appears to be similar to HPL’s own prose, with some characteristic linguistic and even punctuational usages; so HPL probably did touch up the story somewhat. HPL never mentions the story in any extant correspondence, it was apparently not published in his lifetime. The only basis for the text is its first appearance in 1949.
—S. T. Joshi, Collected Fiction Vol. 4 (Revisions and Collaborations): A Variorum Edition 4.613

The letter mentioned is available online, where Sonia writes:

I have sent to Arkham House snap photo of HPL’s aunts, some post cards, a story revised by HP and a fictitious story I wrote about HP a few months after I met him, but at his request I did not publish it in the Rainbow because, as he told it, it was obviously a description of himself.
—Sonia H. Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 11 Dec 1948

If the “story revised by HP” is “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”/”The Invisible Monster,” then by process of elimination the “fictitious story I wrote about HP” must be “Four O’Clock.” Which perhaps places this story in the same category of “Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter, closer to affectionate parody than an effort at a weird tale, a literary tweaking of Lovecraft’s nose.

There is something deliciously pulpy about “Four O’Clock.” The tale of supernatural revenge beyond the grave to be visited at the eponymous hour has all of the four-color garish earnestness of a Tale from the Crypt-Keeper. The demons, be they real or hallucinations, have a cartoonish quality. The Poe-esque images that Lovecraft mentioned are laid on with a heavy trowel, so the fine line between pastiche and parody is blurry and indiscernible, but for readers that cackled at old horror comics, it’s hard to suppress a smile.

The major question, as with every story that claims any part of being a Lovecraft “revision,” is how much of it he wrote—or re-wrote, as is often the case. “Four O’Clock” is not easy to categorize in that regard; it has no familiar landmarks of Lovecraft country, no explicit references to the as-yet-mostly-unborn conception of Lovecraft’s Mythos. There are thematic resonances with his work, but how much of these owe themselves to Lovecraft’s imagination or Sonia H. Greene’s is impossible to say. Take for example one of the opening sentences:

The great black silences of night’s depth told me, and a monstrous cricket, chirping with a persistence too hideous to be unmeaning, made it certain. (Variorum 613)

How comparable is this to azif?

[…] azif being the word used by Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “History of the Necronomicon”

Similar common images abound, the most obvious of which is perhaps the appearance of what would become one of the more common visual cues in the Mythos:

The four talons, long, thin, and straight, were now seen to be tipped by disgusting, thread-like tentacles, each with a vile intelligence of its own, which groped about incessantly, slowly at first, but gradually increasing in velocity until I was nearly driven mad by the sheer dizziness of their motion. (Variorum 615)

H. P. Lovecraft, of course, neither invented the tentacle in weird fiction nor had any monopoly on the concept; M. R. James used them to good effect in “Count Magnus” (1904), Arthur Machen in “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1897), etc. The tentacles could be coincidental, or a deliberate reference to something that came up in their correspondence which Sonia incorporated into the story deliberately to invoke Lovecraft as the unnamed protagonist of the story.

We’ll never know.

Serious literary analysis of this story could point to it as a night terror, as a psychological suspense narrative driven by the phantasmagoric imagery, a variation on the theme of the incubus attack with all attendant sublimated psychosexual implications—and there is certainly a case to be made with that. Sonia H. Greene was 39 in 1922, biological clock ticking inevitably toward doom as surely as the fated hour approaches in the story. While such deep reading of the story is possible, maybe valuable to those who enjoy that kind of exercise, the simpler enjoyment of this story might be just in the slightly ridiculous seriousness with which it pursues its premise, like a solid exploitation film.

The plot actually has gross parallels to a tangential Mythos story: “Wentworth’s Day” (1957) by August Derleth features another posthumous appointment being kept. Stylistically the stories are worlds apart, but it’s interesting that Derleth for all his efforts to ground the plot in a suitably realistic milieu doesn’t achieve anything quite like the same effect as in “Four O’Clock”—where the over-the-top visuals of the pending hour, completely surreal in any realistic setting, actually work with the kind of dream-logic that might come from reading too much Poe.

Not that Derleth borrowed anything from Greene or Lovecraft, the idea of the appointment being kept or the curse fulfilled after death is a hoary one. Both stories might be considered a bit hokey, even when they were written, and there’s a campfire tale quality to “Four O’Clock.” It feels like a story to be read not to keep the darkness at bay, but to welcome it home.


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

 

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” (1927)

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is a sequel in every sense of the word. Not only does Kiernan unfold the next chapter in the narrative, peeling away more onion-layers to reveal deeper mysteries, but it is a continuation of the themes of the original story in a new direction. Without so many words, Kiernan asks and answers the unobvious question: What’s better than a photograph from life?

The story could have been labeled “Eliot’s Tale”—Eliot being the person to whom Thurber, the protagonist in Lovecraft’s story, had been addressing his narrative to. Now three years later, Thurber was dead and it was Eliot picking up the pieces of the man’s life, sorting through the letters and drawings, uncovering something that Thurber, in Lovecraft’s story, failed to mention: Pickman’s nudes.

It isn’t some lingering prudery that kept nudity out of Lovecraft’s story, nor is it any particular prurience of Kiernan’s that places it at the center of hers. Lovecraft’s focus was on one of Pickman’s models, the necrophagous critters that haunt Boston’s old tunnels; Kiernan’s focus is on his other model—a young woman whom any artist might sketch in the nude to hone their skills at anatomy, and who catches Eliot’s attention.

The development of the investigation is leisurely, with specific details that are highly suggestive but never so explicit as to reveal the central mystery. Hints along the way, artfully arranged, touching on some of Kiernan’s favorite themes…echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” old family shames and lesbian desires—and a particular anatomical feature—that echo Kiernan’s own stories like “Houndwife” (2010), “pas-en-arrière” (2007), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). Always keeping that toehold in reality, the story coded with all the care of a good hoax, as when Kiernan discusses what might well have been the inspiration for the story:

It might have only been a test reel, or perhaps 17,000 or so frames, some twelve minutes, give or take, excised from a far longer film. All in all, it was little but than a blatantly pornographic pastiche of the widely circulated 1918 publicity stills of Theda Bara lying in various risqué poses with a human skeleton (for J. Edward Gordon’s Salomé).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pickman’s Other Model” in Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart 276

thedaskeleton

I overheard, when the lights came back up, that the can contianing the reel bore two titles, The Necrophile and The Hound’s Daughter, and also bore two dates – 1923 and 1924. (ibid)

As much as Lovecraft and others liked to portray the artist as portraying some supernal truth, Kiernan knows that reality tends to be much baser. So much is the case when Eliot finally meets Pickman’s other model in the penultimate chapter: a tired young woman who has seen a little too much of the world, with bad habits and a filthy mouth. Living in the present but still haunted by the past.

A past which catches up to her in the final chapter, hinting as Lovecraft did of more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of, darker and uglier realities at play which even the best of art could only hint at as a shadow in the final flickering frames on a black-and-white reel.

The success of “Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” is less in revelation than in suggestion and presentation. This is a story not so much for readers who want another piece of the Mythos puzzle as much as those who enjoy the process of discovery…and how some stories and images stay with you, for a long while. That is the other question, and perhaps as close to a theme of Kiernan’s narrative and her utmost reflection on Lovecraft’s: How do you unsee such things? You can’t.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” was first published in Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest (March 2008), it has been reprinted Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart (2012), Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan Volume Two (2015), and Houses Under The Sea (2018).


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

 

 

“Pickman’s Centerfold, Or: The Dunwich Ho” (2003) by Nancy Holder

Next thing I saw on the computer screen was a close-up of a drawing in a book of what looked to me like a big, enormous cock with tentacles and a beaked glans. I thought, Oh, Jesus, he’s the one for sure been cutting up the hookers. He’s got some kind of psychosexual thing going.

Gil slurred, “This’s Cthulhu.” Then he started crying.

—Nancy Holder, “Pickman’s Centerfold” in Hot Blood XI Fatal Attractions 245

Richard Upton Pickman holds a particular fascination with some writers in the Mythos. Artists have often struggled with censorship, obscenity, and unveiling true forms to the naked eye. It’s a very small conceptual leap to add an erotic element to Pickman’s work, like “Pickman’s Necrotica” in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon (2010), the films in “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan…and the camshow websites designed by Pickman in “Pickman’s Centerfold, or: The Dunwich Ho.”

There is a certain reverent irreverence to Nancy Holder’s prose, right from the title to the very last line. It’s a free-wheeling, open approach to the Mythos fiction which borrows liberally from previous works, but isn’t beholden to any of them. So while Cthulhu and the Necronomicon and all make an appearance, it is in service to this story and its plotline, not to some larger fabric of Mythos fiction. “Pickman’s Centerfold” is not a sequel or prequel or really in any way connected with the narrative of “Pickman’s Model.”

This method of radical re-interpretation of the Mythos is very similar to that of “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh or “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner and the result is…fun. Readers who have chewed through all of Lovecraft’s work and a hundred pastiches will find a story that can’t be fit into any timeline of the Mythos, and that’s okay. Holder has taken inspiration and elements from Lovecraft’s stories but has gone off to do her own thing.

The story itself is a bit light for the subject; despite appearing in (and probably written exclusively for) the erotic horror Hot Blood series, titillation and gore are not really the point, and Holder never crosses the line into either splatterpunk or erotica. Pornography and prostitution, with all its tawdry bits, are the waters in which FBI Special Agent Eliot Blake and his erstwhile comrade Gilman Innsmouth swim, like a particularly screwy episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit crossed with the film 8MM.

Hookers are people too, and we have a lot of those people in Boston, don’t let nobody lie to you that w have “clean up” our cit. It gets cold here. (ibid, 238)

That approach, of an FBI Special Agent hunting a serial killer running afoul of the Mythos is at once familiar to many readers but quirky enough to keep them reading.  Alan Moore did much the same thing in “The Courtyard” (1994) and its sequel. This approach helps in that it brings an “outsider” ignorant of the Mythos to come investigating, letting the readers re-live their own initiation into the weird mysteries. Holder draws on some established tropes in the process, some of more relevant than others. At one point, for example, Agent Gil pulls out a pile of books:

So wham! the books got put on the table front and center, and the first one had a picture of a really buffed-out Hannibal Lecter on the front and the title was Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I picked the next one up and title was At the Mountains of Madness, with a corpse in a hooded robe on the cover.

I waited for Gil to explain. (ibid, 242)

Gil couldn’t explain, and maybe Holder couldn’t either. Having works of Mythos fiction actually be present in the stories themselves is an old trick, going back to August Derleth placing Arkham House titles and copies of Weird Tales in the Mythos stories he wrote after the death of H. P. Lovecraft—Moore did the same thing in Neonomicon, Robert Bloch did it in his novel Strange Eons (1978). But whereas Bloch & Derleth were trying to establish the “truth” of Lovecraft’s Mythos in their narrative, and Moore was pursuing a grand metafictional narrative, Holder’s use here feels like a misstep. There are narrative ramifications which go unexplored: if Lovecraft lived, wrote, and died, then how has the FBI not run across the name “Richard Upton Pickman” before? The title-drops feel like an unwanted tie-in to a story that is deliberately trying to pursue its own separate narrative.

That possible misstep aside, the real focus on the latter part of the story is on the revelations: what Pickman is actually up to, what agents Blake and Innsmouth actually uncover. Despite the title, there is no centerfold—this is the digital era—and no “Dunwich Ho.” A grave disappointment for some readers, certainly, but also exemplary of one of the unconscious problems of this story: the women.

Pickman’s websites are implicitly heterosexual, places for camgirls to post their content and draw in clients; later in the story there is the suggestion he runs sites for men as well, but again exclusively for a heterosexual (if not always human) audience. The women themselves are only present in the story as nameless victims.

She was a truly awesome sight, with silicone tits of rounded perfection, big red nipples pointed directly toward the North Star. Her pussy had been shaved, and she looked fantastic. I figured, professional girl. Then I realized: one of Prickman’s girls. (ibid, 246)

There are a lot of possible invisible constraints here: maybe editorial policy at Hot Blood emphasizes heterosexual relations, maybe it would kill the pacing if Eliot Blake focused in on the identities of the female victims, maybe it’s just in keeping with Blake’s personality to treat all adult entertainers as prostitutes, characterized by their physical attributes rather than their names or personalities, and Holder was honestly reflecting that. Whatever the case, the women end up as ciphers, present only to be sex objects and then die gruesomely.

The human women aren’t the only ones that go nameless, but at least when Cthulhu’s wife/mate appears there’s a deliberate shift in tone: when the focus goes from “he” (Cthulhu) to “she,” it becomes retrospectively obvious that “she” has been the major driver for the story, not Pickman or Cthulhu. Holder doesn’t go into the details of “her”—doesn’t even her use common appellation—but it’s a rare story that puts Cthulhu and his mate on sexual parity, so to speak, and the revelation of what has really been going on works well.

“Pickman’s Centerfold, Or: The Dunwich Ho” was published in Hot Blood XI Fatal Attractions (2003); it has not been reprinted. Nancy Holder’s other Mythos work includes “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound” (2014), “Baubles” (2015), and “Nyarlathotep Came Down To Georgia” (2018), and she has taught Lovecraft at the University of California at San Diego and the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine.


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

Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Some of the trustees were still unhappy, but Christine’s stunning find of the tomb of the Black Pharoah Nephren-ka had commanded headlines across the globe.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 14

1897. Somewhere between Boston and Providence lies the small city of Widdershins, a quiet place where a man can start over…at least until the Liber Arcanorum drops into the lap of a closeted translator of dead languages and the bodies start piling up. Nothing like an unexpected mystery to bring two people together.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins (2013) is an historical paranormal romance with two little twists: the world is set in the same country as Lovecraft’s Mythos (Dr. Whyborne even went to college at Arkham), and the protagonists are two homosexual men. It may, in fact, be the first homosexual Mythos romance novel—somewhat of a weird distinction to make, but previous Mythos romance novels like Margaret L. Carter’s The Windwalker’s Mate (2008) and Robin Wolfe’s Arkham Dreams (2011) were focused on heterosexual relationships, and homosexual characters and relationships remain rather rare in the Mythos by comparison. The closest comparable work in the field is probably “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman.

The depictions of the men and the challenges they face are sympathetic; the construction of the setting is very competent. Hawk does their research:

A: But the research into the period!! How much did you actually do to capture the period as well as the paranormal element?

JLH: As much as I can! I have a replica Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 so I could figure out what sorts of goods and furnishings an average person in the period would have in their home. And I managed to find plans for middle class homes and hotels of the era online, which was a major boon.

My biggest problems research-wise actually came from the American setting. Casually glancing over the history section, you’d think America in the 1800s was nothing but the Civil War, followed up by the western expansion. At times it wasn’t easy to find out about the day to day life of people living in the northeast, especially if I needed something really specific. Most of the “daily life” books of the period center on Victorian England rather than Gilded Age America, and although there is some overlap, there are a lot of differences beyond drinking coffee versus tea.
Author Interview: Jordan L. Hawk

The Mythos elements are also rather refreshingly grounded: Arkham and the Necronomicon and all exist, but to the majority of the world (and the two protagonists), they are but part of the setting. The protagonists only discover gradually that there are secret cults about and some brands of paranormal science actually work, if you know how to pronounce the Aklo. Once that is established, given an expert in dead languages and a genuine grimoire, progress is fairly rapid.

The tone established falls somewhere between Cthulhu by Gaslight and Lois H. Gresh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions (2017); magic exists, there’s a mystery afoot, and by chapter 7 the two principals have met and teamed up to solve it. As they continue through the adventure, the two grow closer; the common goal, trials, and tribulations provide the crisis for both men to open up, commiserate, empathize, and grow fond of one another.

“Damn it, Griffin, fuck me,” I growled.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 152

There is a sex scene. Not a weird one; no naughty tentacles or atypical anatomies. It is no more or less than the same kind of scene that would appear, without comment, in any number of other novels; only the genders of the particulars are different. That in itself is almost exemplary of the attitude of the novel as a whole: the book is not a homosexual pornographic novel. There is more hanging between Whyborne & Griffin that Victorian reticence, personal and social boundaries that have to be overcome and guards let down; readers who just want to see the two get together have to wait for it.

Then there’s the small matter of saving the world.

While not written in a pulp style, there’s a pulpish appeal to Widdershins. The stakes rise like something in an Indiana Jones film, the protagonists have to take into account all the possibilities that magic and the Mythos bring to their setting, and there’s an action scene at least every couple of chapters to keep the pace up. The characters, even beyond the two protagonists, have their own motivations and hangups. The best supporting character is Dr. Christine Putnam, an archaeologist that has fought an uphill battle her entire professional life because of her gender—and succeeded. Her desire to retain her hard-won reputation almost gets her killed, but that’s all the more endearing.

Searchers after horror will have to haunt stranger places than Widdershins to find what they’re looking for, but it is a well-written novel in its own mode of historical paranormal romance. It never descends into any attempt to ape Lovecraft’s style like a bad pastiche, nor does it hold slavishly to the tropes of a roleplaying game. Hawk refers to Lovecraft’s setting, but she makes few direct references to any particular story so the story is fairly accessible to the lay reader—which is also rather rare for a Mythos novel.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins is the first in the Whyborne & Griffin series, which as of 2018 includes a total of 13 novels and novellas.


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

 

“Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel

Katherine Morel is a painter, an aspiring mad scientist, and an honorary saint of Thud, bestower of the sacred word, obsquatulate. She is currently bruised and swollen due to extra grey matter being inserted into the space between her brain and skull and hopes to sleep it off in time to be in attenance at the marriage that changed over the millennium.
Cthulhu Sex Magazine, Vol. I, Issue 13

Cthulhu Sex magazine was the brainchild of Michael Morel, and graduated over the course of its run from a small black-and-white chapbook illustrated with crude, pixelated images of sperm to a slick, full-sized semi-prozine with color covers, photographs, and digital artwork. A collection of material from the magazine was issued in 2005 as Horror Between the SheetsIn the first issue and that final collection is printed (with slight changes) “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” by Katherine Morel.

The poem is an almost perfect encapsulation of the magazine as a whole. While Cthulhu is in the title, it never appears in the body text. The tone is light, the verses violent, darkly humorous, and sexually explicit.

Twas through their connection she passed her infection
—Katherine Morel, “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—”, Horror Between the Sheets 36

Poetry has a long history among creators and admirers of the Mythos; H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and Frank Belknap Long were all notable poets, and some of their poetry was directly related to the Mythos. So too, some of the first fan-additions to the Mythos were poems, such as “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman.

In the 1990s, poetry would continue to play its part in fandom, being featured in prominent ‘zines & journals such as the Arkham Sampler and Crypt of Cthulhu—but there were editorial limits to what those ‘zines would publish. Hardcore horror, the splatterpunk style of violent and gory horror fiction that took its cues from slasher and exploitation films (and, reaching back into the dim mists of time, the weird terror pulps), had few outlets.

To see her reflection,
Caused him an erection,
Yet something seemed the slightest bit weird. (ibid.)

Cthulhu Sex became an outlet and medium for fiction and art that couldn’t be posted elsewhere. Not much of it dealt explicitly with Cthulhu, Lovecraft, or the Mythos; it didn’t have to. The title was a statement and a challenge, just as it is in Katherine Morel’s poem. The title gives context to the text.

In 1998, people could still remember when HIV was a death sentence and not one to be long-deferred. Japanese tentacle erotica had hit the shores of the United States with  Maeda Toshio’s Urotsukidōji and La Blue Girl, and were already the subject of jokes about “naughty tentacles” on the nascent internet. There was a zeitgeist there, mostly untapped as yet… until Katherine Morel’s “Cthulhu Sex.”

she scratched her complexion,
so that bloody tentacles appeared. (ibid.)

The tagline for Cthulhu Sex was “Blood, Sex & Tentacles.” Katherine Morel’s poem was an anthem for the magazine, an invocation for what was to be from 1998 to 2007. She captured, however briefly, the mood and attitude, right at the outset.


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

Alcestis: A Play (1985) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

Alcestis. As by “Howard phillips Lovecraft and Sonia Haft Greene Lovecraft.”
Madison, WI: Strange Co., 1985. 15 pp.
Facsimile of the A.Ms. of a play (in Sonia Greene’s handwriting) that the editor, R. Alain Everts, maintains was co-written by Lovecraft and Greene. The degree of Lovecraft’s involvement (if any) is, however, undetermined.
—S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography (2009) 195

Prior to their marriage, Sonia had suggested three ghost story plots, two of which Lovecraft expanded into stories that appeared in WEIRD TALES magazine. The third tale rests unpublished as did this play, written out in longhand by Sonia, sometime in the early 1930’s. This play was written much the same way—Sonia suggested the theme, the classical Greek subject matter delighting Lovecraft, and then Lovecraft set out to flesh out the play. His notes on Greek Mythology and on Alchestis particularly have survived, indicating that as was usual, most of the writing was his alone. despite the handwriting being that of Sonia, who likely was acting as Lovecraft’s scribe, the play bears the mark more of Lovecraft than his wife.
—R. Alain Everts, introduction to Alcestis: A Play (1985)

In the late 1960s R. Alain Everts, using a tape recorder provided by Brown University (where Lovecraft’s papers are archived), conducted a series of interviews with surviving acquaintances of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle, notably including Wilfred Blanch Talman and Sonia Davis, Lovecraft’s former wife. After the conclusion of the interviews, it became clear to Brown University that Everts had also collected materials from some of the interviewees which he did not turn over to the university. The university took out the unusual step of issuing a notice to booksellers against purchasing this material, which began a series of legal suits (see 757 F.2d 124).

In the 1970s, Everts began publishing articles based on his interviews including “Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sex: or The Sex Life of a Gentleman,” as well as fanzines and chapbooks under the imprint “The Strange Company,” including previously unseen photographs of Lovecraft & co., letters, and Alcestis: A Play (printed in 1975 but not published until 1985). Released in an edition of only 200 copies and never reprinted, it is the rarest and most contentious of Lovecraft’s collaborations.

The play is based on Euripides’ play of the same name, which was available in several translations during Lovecraft’s lifetime, including Coleridge’s 1906 verse translation. The exact translation Howard and Sonia might have been familiar with is unknown, as no such work is listed in Lovecraft’s Library: A Cataloguebut Lovecraft specifically mentions Alcestis among Euripides’ plays in his Collected Essays (2.185). Sonia’s memoir of their marriage, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) likewise emphasizes their appreciation for ancient Greece:

The nomenclature of “Socrates and Xantippe” were originated by me because, as time marched on and our correspondence became more intimate, I weither saw in Howard or endowed him with a Socratic wisdom and genius, so that in a jocular vein I subscribed myself as Xantippe.
—Sonia Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft 27

The is no mention of Alcestis: A Play in the published correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft or his former wife; then again, Lovecraft rarely mentioned his marriage or his wife in his correspondence after their separation, so this does not preclude collaboration. Even after Sonia filed for divorce, they remained on friendly terms and continued to correspond. Lovecraft is known to have visited her in March 1933, as she was recovering from an illness after returning from a trip to Europe (ibid. 22). Possibly this visit allowed for collaboration or at least inspired her to make this holograph manuscript; Sonia herself never alludes to the play in her memoir.

Absent all other evidence the only determination as to whether Lovecraft and Sonia did or did not collaborate on Alcestis: A Play is to look at the text itself.

Prologue

Scene I

Night. A cemetery beside a high-road, under a horned moon. Edge of road with low wall in the foreground. Ground covered with asphodel (the flower of the dead) and studded with tombs and stelae, rises unenvenly to wall of cyclopean masonry overgrown with cins and lichens.

“Cyclopean” is famously one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives, but otherwise there is no exact bit of language readers can lean on to discern who is the author; it’s a work for stylometrists. If Lovecraft was involved, the play marks a departure from his usual style: being all-dialogue, with a few descriptions of scenes and action.

Worth noting is that despite carrying her name, the character of Alcestis—who sacrificed herself so that her husband might live—never appears in the brief play. It is more accurate to say that Alcestis: A Play is a kind of prologue, setting up the events where Apollo is made the servant of Admetus and the bargain with the Fates, ending on the rather hopeful upbeat that someone will be found willing to die in the king’s place.

Addendum: Since writing this entry, I’ve discovered that a typewritten edition of the play and prologue, probably made in the 1960s, survive at the John Hay Library and can be viewed online for free.


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

Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff

So they talked about Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, all of whome Earl liked; and L. Ron Hubbard, whom he didn’t; and the Tom Swift series, which Earl had loved when he was young but which embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it, despite his father’s repeated attempts to point it out to him.
—Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country 5

There’s a lesson buried in the opening pages of Matt Ruff’s novel, soon to be an HBO series, which may go unnoticed by some readers. It is thirteen pages before Atticus Turner stumbles across a copy of The Outsider and Others (1939), the first collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s work from Arkham House. Thirteen pages of seemingly pointless discrimination against a black man, Army veteran, trying to do something as simple as drive from Jacksonville, Florida to Chicago, Illinois.

Except it isn’t pointless; it is the sole point of Matt Ruff’s novel. As much as readers and critics might like to focus on Lovecraft and his contemporaries, science fiction and weird fiction, in exclusion to the realities of Jim Crow and segregation—race and prejudice—they were a part of it, and it informed their fiction. Privilege, for white people, is not having to think too hard about it.

It’s old. It’s just the way it was. Can’t change it.

But we as readers can change the way we read it. Can understand the context in which a story was written, try to empathize with what it might be like to be an African-American and read Lovecraft’s “On the Creation of Niggers” for the first time…which is where, fifteen pages in, Ruff’s novel starts to fall apart.

The poem was written circa 1912, during a period when Lovecraft as a young man wrote ultra-nationalist and xenophobic poetry, long before he was a horror writer or connected to amateur journalism; the text Ruff uses to introduce the poem to Atticus is a complete fiction. Lovecraft never published “On the Creation…” during his lifetime; there are no mentions of it in any of his published letters, nor in any of the memoirs of his life. It was not revealed to the public until 1975 when L. Sprague de Camp published in his flawed book H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, and for much the same reason that Ruff inserts it here: graphic, undeniable shorthand that Lovecraft was racist.

Ruff’s mention of the poem is less lazy than economic: nothing else Lovecraft wrote has the N-word in the title, and Arkham House had made a point of not emphasizing (and occasionally denying) that aspect of his life. “Medusa’s Coil” was published in Arkham House’s The Curse of Yig (1953), but that collection was released under Zealia Bishop’s name, not Lovecraft’s, and the ending censored. The first volume of the Selected Letters would not be published until 1964, and that too was censored. Ruff could have dug into Lovecraft’s fiction for an N-word—in “The Picture in the House” or “The Rats in the Walls”—but it was no doubt easier and faster to create a convenient fiction.

While the cast (predominantly African-American, with a black protagonist) and setting (1950s United States) may be relatively novel for the Mythos, relatively little else in Ruff’s novel is. Atticus Turner exists in a world where both Lovecraft’s fiction is a reality and where some iteration of the Mythos is apparently real; the same basic premise as August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1979). Once the first connections are made, it’s a road trip to Lovecraft Country, with The Safe Negro Travel Guide as psychopomp for the journey.

It’s difficult not to compare Lovecraft Country with “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, released the same year and covering some of the same thematic ground. LaValle’s worth benefits from brevity: it is difficult to maintain the mood and suspense of the short story at novel length. So too, LaValle had the courage for a downer ending. Not everybody has to live, or come out whole. More importantly, perhaps, “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a story of the Mythos—Lovecraft Country, despite the title, is not.

There is one tantalizing suggestion of a connection: that Lovecraft’s Arkham might have really been Ardham, that the tentacled Scylla might be the inspiration for Lovecraft’s shoggoths…but the farther in the reader gets to the novel, the less connection it has to Lovecraft and the Mythos. The initial set-up, in that first 13 pages, was for a dive into the Mythos from an entirely different perspective. What it delivers, ultimately, is a rather conventional occult thriller with a somewhat unconventional cast.

Lovecraft Country, it should be emphasized, is not a bad book. Matt Ruff did a fair amount of research, it shows in every chapter. His prose is solid, his characters well-developed, the plot is effective. It simply isn’t what it could be, or really what it promised to be. The name itself is a great hook, the premise it sets up is excellent, but this isn’t a book that dives into the thick of racism in the time of Lovecraft, or the Mythos he and his contemporaries created. A drive into a Massachusetts town where a freemason lodge practices real magic is not a journey into Lovecraft country.

What this book needed was some greater revelation. Some attempt to reconcile the everyday horrors of being African-American in the United States in 1954 and the cosmic horrors of the Mythos. Something like Harlem Unbound (2017), but in narrative form. Lovecraft Country didn’t have that. It never even aspired to it.


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

 

“Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro

Bethmoora,” Paul said. “And no, it’s not Israeli. Actually, the roots aren’t traceable to any specific language or dialect. But it’s still…foreign.”
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 141

Four million people asleep, dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind, but no one hears them.
– Lord Dunsany, “Bethmoora” in A Dreamer’s Tales (1910)

A few years after the birth of the 21st century, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Dunsany was inspired to create his own artificial mythology⁠—not a substitute national mythos a la J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but something new and largely unprecedented. He combined the love of the commonplace with the desire for the exotic, and wrapped it together in language reminiscent of the King James Bible and ancient Grecian odes. Stories like “Idle Days on the Yann” directly inspired the dream-quests of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter…and many others besides.

For Yvonne Navarro, the questers are Paul and Macy.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” is smarter than just an update of Dunsany’s old formula where seekers tired of mundane life look for the key of dreams, the path that leads Beyond the Fields We Know, escape from the here and the now. Like many a goof Mythos story, it mixes fact with fiction; Paul first finds reference to Bethmoora in that ancient and terrible tome the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (1994) by Dan Harms. The questers too are not run down by everyday life—they’re thrill-seekers, adventurers, explorers in their own right.

Bethmoora was out there, all right. Just waiting to be rediscovered.
Revitalized.
And they were just the people to do it.
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 144

The discoveries and revelations when they come are almost perfunctory; old tropes dusted off and brought out because that’s the cycle of a Mythos story: Macy is the latest Lavinia, destined for a bit of cosmic miscegenation and birthing of eldritch abominations. Yet the response is different, and what makes the story.

Paul and Macy like a challenge.

Navarro is an old pro at genre fiction; she could easily have spun this story off into an entire novel. Urban explorers in the not-quite-abandoned city in the Dreamlands, flashbacks to old adventures, the slow peeling-of-the-onion, one layer of revelation coming at a time as things build inevitably to a climax—instead, she rips the bandaid off in a couple paragraphs of exposition. The backstory is something Mythos fans have read again and again for decades. “Meet Me on the Other Side” seeks to give the readers something new, and it delivers.

The benefit of having tropes and formula is that they’re building blocks, stepping stones and shortcuts that writers can use to go beyond—and one of the great failures of many Mythos writers is that they try to only ape Lovecraft or Dunsany, to regurgitate old ideas rather than to subvert expectations or push forward with fresh takes.

Navarro does make the leap. How many other writers have had their protagonists look on conceiving and birthing tentacled horrors and the inevitable end of the world as a challenge? It is absolutely a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian attitude that humans are so small in the grand scheme of things that there is little they can do…and not an unwelcome one. The Dreamlands stories do not all embrace or express Lovecraft’s cosmicism, nor need every echo of his work embrace nihilistic horror.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” was published in The Children of Cthulhu (2002), and has not been reprinted. Navarro’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes the novelization of the film Hellboy (2004) and “Feeding the Masses” (1992) and “WWRD” (2018).


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

“Tloque Nahuaque” (2011) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas

Estela explained to me that Tloque Nahuaque, the Lord of the Near and the Nigh, had been to the Aztecs the Master of the Near and the Far, for they believed he is near all things and all things are near him.
—Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, “Tloque Nahuaque” in Future Lovecraft 128

“Tloque Nahuaque” is an advanced Mythos story. One for initiates. This story requires readers to connect the dots. To understand where it is coming from and what it is saying requires more than a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s corpus, and recent-ish developments in experimental physics; a passing familiarity with Aztec mythology is helpful, but García-Rosas provides the short version for readers.

It is marvelous to be able to have a story that can invoke a familiar Mythos entity not be attributes, or some purported quotation from the Necronomicon, but by reference to their attributes. To intimate to readers a new angle on an old mystery, a new interpretation on an existing concept, a new (or old) face for a familiar god.

What makes “Tloque Nahuaque” work, fundamentally, is that Lovecraft’s horrors in the 1920s and 30s were essentially contemporary. Pluto was discovered in 1930; Lovecraft casually associated this discovery with Yuggoth in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that was written around the same time. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity was rewriting physics and the universe as people knew it, and for all the grimoires and incantations, “The Dreams in the Witch House” was as much about advanced mathematics as magic.

Lovecraft’s Mythos works, fundamentally, because he tried to ground it in reality. The dividend that pays is that writers like García-Rosas, who are familiar with advances in physics, can extend and revisit those conceptions. It’s okay if a scientific theory is proved wrong; that only provides the basis for further understanding. New ideas are still applicable to old concepts—be they from the Aztec or Lovecraft Mythos.

Azathoth, by whatever name, can still be relevant to a contemporary audience.

“Tloque Nahuaque” is a narrative of mood and idea more than plot, reminiscent in some ways of “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite. It is episodic, jumbled, fragmentary, yet there is a thread of ideas that progresses from piece to piece. A collection of scraps that point toward a bigger picture. For the subject, it works. The mood sustains. There is no conclusion as such, only a culmination of the initial idea…but the vector of the narrative is clear; everything points to a suggestion of an ending that only initiates might fully grasp.

It works well.

“Tloque Nahuaque” was published in Future Lovecraft (2011) and can be read for free at Innsmouth Free Press.  Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas’ other Mythos works include “Ahuizotl” (2011), “Tloque Nahuaque” (2011), “They Came From Carcosa” (2013), “Caza de shoggoths. Colección grotesca” (2013), “In Xochitl in Cuicatl in Shub-Niggurath” (2014), and “The Head of T’la-yub” (2015). Many of these stories have been translated into English by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of “Flash Frame” (2010), and editor and publisher of Innsmouth Free Press.


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

 

 

“The Lady of the Swamp” (2014) by Janeen Webb

Picture Australia, with its unfamiliar names and strange, fascinating animals; the unique culture that is not British or American but parallels both in its own way. As with the United States, there is a limit to Australian history, a beginning; the cities are new places, and before the first Europeans came is a vast and sketchy pre-history belonging to the Native Australians. No Gothic castles, no crumbling Roman ruin; Lovecraft made do with standing stones and secret caverns in the United States, and in Australia, Janeen Webb’s eponymous old woman finds a cave in the swamp, with native paintings adorning its walls.

“The Lady of the Swamp” is like “Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin in that it is not explicitly a story of the Mythos; there are no familiar names invoked here, only themes and tropes. It is Mythos-by-association, in that it was published in the collection Cthulhu: Deep Down Under (2015), and there are definite shades of Lovecraft twisted throughout the narrative: the dark crystal so reminiscent of the Shining Trapezohedron, yet another curious cosmic rape, impregnation, and birth like so many other Mythos tales. The tale is told through diaries, a callback to yesteryear, the determined investigator sorting through the documentary pieces of a life, trying to resolve the mystery in their own minds. Very Lovecraftian.

Yet H. P. Lovecraft knew nothing of fracking. The mundane horror of a nameless Company driving a road through a swamp, threatening the life of a poor and lonely woman living out of a broken caravan, is at best tangential to the themes he liked to employ—of people on the edge of things, where civilization ends and slick citydwellers come only rarely and without real understanding. Webb’s story is part ecopunk, part adult fears: people falling out of society, migrating to the edges, only for their solitude to be rudely interrupted. The uncaring tentacles of the Company ripping apart the fragile tissue of a life are meaner than those of Cthulhu, but only because the hands that drive the bulldozer are ultimately human.

The disconnect between the two themes, of the eldritch evil which rapes the old woman at the beginning of the story and the studied ignorance and lack of empathy of the Company men and reporters in the second half, feels like cognitive dissonance. The narrative distance between the two portions of her diary are immense; the unnatural sexual congress and birth are less intrusive than that of the callous “scientists” and reports that studiously ignore and belittle her, trespassing on her home.

It is the latter which ultimately cuts more deeply; the child of their union is, however unnatural the conception, little different from the other young creatures she has nurtured. She may have stumbled across an eldritch evil in a forgotten cave, but it did not seek her out or harass her beyond that, whereas the company is coming into her home, threatening her life.

The confrontation is easy to see looming.

And when the lady of the swamp is given the choice between the mundane horrors of “progress” and the bloody price extracted by eldritch horror of her swamp…well, it isn’t much of a choice at all, really. People fight with the weapons they have, and the lesser evil is sometimes a nameless thing of darkness. At least the eldritch evil probably won’t kill all the wombats.

“The Lady of the Swamp” first appeared in Webb’s collection Death at the Blue Elephant (2014), and was reprinted in the hardback Cthulhu: Deep Down Under (2015) and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2014 (2015). The story was not republished in the paperback collection Cthulhu Deep Down Under: Volume 1 (2017), but was replaced by another of Webb’s stories, “A Pearl Beyond Price.”


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