I’ve just ghost-written a tale for a client in a fashion amounting virtually to original composition—about a waxwork museum or chamber of horrors where there is a rumour that not all of the fabulous monsters displayed are artificial. I’ve included Tsathoggua among the blasphemies. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Oct 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 394
After the successful sale of “The Man of Stone” (1932), Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft pursued further “revisions”—which, as with his client Zealia Bishop, critics and biographers assume amounted to Lovecraft writing the story based on an idea or synopsis provided by Heald. This is certainly the case as far as Lovecraft was willing to discuss it in his letters:
Yes—the waxwork museum story is mostly my own; entirely so in wording, & also so far as concerns the background of Alaskan archaeology & antique horror. You will find Tsathoggua mentioned. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Jun 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 420
The Horror in the Museum—a piece which I “ghost-wrote” for a client from a synopsis so poor that I well-nigh discarded it—is virtually my own work. Glad you found it entertaining. There will be two more Heald tales equally dependent on my pen. —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard Ely Morse, 28 Jul 1933, Selected Letters4.229
There is not much to gainsay this. Other pulpsters of the period noted Lovecraft’s style without needing to be told. Heald herself does not comment on the writing of the story in any surviving letter, but she did note in a much later letter to August Derleth:
He was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. For example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times before he was completely satisfied! —Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937
This would appear to jive with a comment on collaboration or revision work that Lovecraft made to another correspondent:
These alleged authors are pretty easy to handle—discard their dope little by little & substitute your own, & in the end they not only swallow it but honestly believe they wrote it themselves! Thus some of my revision clients congratulate themselves when the readers of Weird Tales praise stories (like “The Late Test”, “The Curse of Yig”, “The Horror in the Museum”, “Winged Death”, &c.) that I wrote. —H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 28 Mar 1934, Letters to James F. Morton 350
So the possibility remains that the revision process for this story could have been a bit more involved than Lovecraft simply writing the tale from scratch based on a mostly-discarded synopsis. Presumably, the business arrangement was identical to that of Lovecraft’s other client: Heald would have paid a fixed sum for the work, and then tried to sell it to the pulp magazines for whatever she could get. None of their correspondence survives to give greater insight into this aspect of their dealings or the composition of their stories.
The idea of a waxwork museum and its chamber of horrors goes back to the 19th century, with Madame Toussads in London being the archetype and inspiration for a number of other such galleries, and the horror stories and comics eventually created in tribute to them. It is notable that the same year “The Horror in the Museum” was released, the horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933, once thought lost), hit theaters. Lovecraft recalled:
Haven’t done much cinema-viewing, but I did drop in to see that “Wax Museum” thing—especially since I had revised (in fact, virtually ghost-written) a tale on a similar theme for a client. (you’ll see it in the current W.T.) As a story, the film was of course childishly cheap—but it did have some effective horror-touches—especially when the mask falls off & reveals the monstrosity beneath. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Jul 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 67
This puts the Heald/Lovecraft story in a small but distinct media-spanning horror tradition, one which includes the 1953 and 2005 House of Wax films, Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), and “Vandoom, The Man Who Made A Creature” (Tales to Astonish #17, 1961, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers), as well as pulp stories such as Robert Bloch’s “Waxworks” (1939). The wax museum with its simulacra and tradition of a chamber of horrors offers a ready-made setting for a number of simple plots, perhaps the simplest and most realistic of which involves actual human remains incorporated into one or more of the figures—an idea with its parallels in real life—and thematically linked to “Pickman’s Model,” where the horrors are taken from life.
But this is an H. P. Lovecraft story, and that rather simple premise served as the bare beginnings for yet another tale of cosmic horror. As with “The Mound,” the opportunity was presented to add a major chapter to the nascent Mythos, trying together not only some of Lovecraft’s fiction; writers such as August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard all noted their own creations (the Tcho-Tcho, Book of Eibon, and the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, respectively) mentioned, and it introduced a new entity, Rhan-Tegoth, who would go on to feature in stories by later writers.
What did Hazel Heald make of it? We don’t have her account, although the fact that it sold (and that she didn’t have to sue Weird Tales to get the money) must have been gratifying. So too, the readers of Weird Tales were enthusiastic; one wrote:
A Bouquet for Mrs. Heald
Bernard J. Kenton, of Cleveland, writes: “How can any discriminating reader find merit in other fantasy magazines when Weird Tales adds a new Poe to its columns every month or so? Of the recent writers, Hazel Heald strikes my fancy most, for whenever did anything so strikingly horrible as ‘The Horror in the Museum’ appear in print? Even Lovecraft—as powerful and artistic as he is with macabre suggestiveness—could hardly, I suspect, have surpassed the grotesque scene in which the other-dimensional shambler leaps out upon the hero. —Weird Tales “The Eyrie” May 1934
The response which most sticks out, however, was another entry in ‘The Eyrie’:
“H. P. Lovecraft’s tale of witchcraft and the elder gods, The Dreams in the Witch-House, was superb; while not far behind was Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum—a particularly exceptional tale for a woman to write, in that she built up the horror sequence as few women writers have ever been capable of doing. —Weird Tales “The Eyrie” Sep 1933
Weird Tales was perhaps better than other science fiction and fantasy pulps of its day with regards to women writers (such as Greye La Spina and C. L. Moore), poets (including Alice I’Anson and Grace Stillman), fans (notably Gertrude Hemcken and a young Margaret St. Clair), and artists (Margaret Brundage being a particular favorite), but a degree of sexism still existed in the pages of the magazine. To us today, with women authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Nancy Collins, who grew up reading Shirley Jackson and Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) it seems strange to imagine “few women” capable of writing a horror sequence. Even in the 1930s, readers of horror would probably have recognized Lady Cynthia Asquith and Edith Nesbit.
So, an odd comment. Perhaps Heald reconciled herself with the satisfaction that the story was popular enough to be reprinted in the “Not at Night” anthology Terror by Night (1934), and again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937). If she was wise enough to only sell Weird Tales first American serial rights, these reprints may even have netted her some profit—although there is evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that, like Zealia Bishop, Heald had fallen behind on paying for revision services and ended up typing “The Thing on the Doorstep” for Lovecraft in lieu of part of the debt.
Whatever the exact nature of their business arrangements, they were apparently satisfactory enough that three more “revisions” would issue from Lovecraft’s pen, under Hazel Heald’s name.
“The Horror in the Museum” may be read for free online here.
Of genuinely fantastic dreamers, I have discovered but one in amateurdom—this being Mrs. Jordan. I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jordanian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, & which I am some time going to weave into a horror story, as I did “The Green Meadow” dream of earlier date, which I think I once shewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mine did not extend so far. It was only when I had related my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. The opening paragraph of “The Green Meadow” was written for my own dream, but after hearing the other, I incorporated it into the tale which I developed therefrom.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 May 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner190
In 1918, she was Winifred Virginia Jordan. Blonde, blue-eyed, working as a librarian in Boston, married to an African-American man named Horace Jordan, and an amateur journalist who corresponded with Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Her marriage would shortly end in divorce, and her relationship with Lovecraft would lead to their first collaboration: “The Green Meadow.”
The story of this collaboration begins, very likely, near the end of World War I. Lovecraft, having been passed over for the draft and unable to contribute to the war effort, threw himself into amateur affairs. His mother Susan Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in the winter of 1918, and was removed to the sanitarium of Butler Hospital on 13 March 1919, where she would die two years later. H. P. Lovecraft would write of the story:
My next job was more mechanical. A singular dream had led me to start a nameless story about a terrible forest, a sinister beach, and a blue, ominous sea. After writing one paragraph I was stalled, but happened to send it to Mrs. Jordan. Fancy my surprise when the poetess replied that she had had a precisely similar dream, which, however, went further. In her dream a piece of the shore had broken off, carrying her out into the sea. A green meadow had loomed up n the left hand side, and horrible entities seemed to be hiding among the trees of the awful forest behind her. The piece of earth on which she was drifting was slowly crumbling away, yet this form of death seemed preferable to that which the forest things would have inflicted. And then she heard the sound of a distant waterfall and noted a kind of singing in the green meadow—at which she awaked. It must have been quite some dream, for she drew a map of it and suggested that I write a story around it. After a little consideration I decided that this dream made my own proposed story a back number, so I abandoned my plan and used my original opening paragraph in the new story. Just as I was speculating how I should infuse a little life and drama into the rather vague fragment, my mother broke down, and I partially broke down as a result of the shock. For two months I did nothing—in fact, I can hardly remember what I even thought during those two months—I know I managed to perform some imperative amateur work mechanically and half-consciously, including a critical report or two. When I emerged, I decided to add piquancy to the tale by having it descend from the sky in an aerolite—as Galba knows, for I sent the thing to him. I according prepared an introduction in very prosaic newspaper style, adding the tale itself in a hectic Poe-like vein—having it supposed to be the narrative of an ancient Greek philosopher who had escaped from the earth and landed on some other planet—but who found reason to regret his rashness. As it turned out, it is practically my own work all through, but on account of the Jordanian dream-skeleton I felt obliged to concede collaboration, so labelled it “By Elizabethe Neville Berkely and Lewis, Theobald, Jun.” I sent it to Cook, who will soon print it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin82-83
The GALLOMO was a circular of Alfred GAlpin, H. P. LOvecraft, and James F. MOrton). “Cook” is W. Paul Cook, an amateur printer with which Lovecraft was friendly and who admired his work, he would eventually publish “The Green Meadow” in his amateur journal The Vagrant (Spring 1927). This account puts the letter exchange as probably November or December 1918, with Lovecraft finishing the tale a few months after his mother entered the hospital, in late May or June 1919.
Sometimes between 1919 and 1920, Winifred would divorce her husband and return to her maiden name of Jackson. The two would go on to write one more story together, “The Crawling Chaos”, and then their association would apparently end sometime around late 1921. Lovecraft’s future wife Sonia H. Greene, whom he met shortly after the death of Susan Lovecraft at an amateur journalist convention in Boston, would later claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”
While Lovecraft had great respect for Winifred as a poet, he was more critical of her work as writer:
In prose technique she fails, hence can utilise story ideas only in collaboration with some technician. These ideas are generally fantastic and terrible in the extreme, and so curiously like my own conceptions that I can develop and express them—in some cases build upon them—with so little difference that the result shows no sign of dual authorship. Such tales are published under the pseudonyms “Elizabeth Berkely” and “Lewis Theobald Jun.” The Green Meadow is the earlier of the two tales enclosed, and has a curious history. It began with me—the seacoast and forest scene being an actual dream of my own, around which I wrote the first paragraph of the story proper as an isolated bit on which to build a later narrative. The paragraph was a mere impression, or a bit of colouring. Later, in the course of a discussion on imaginative writing, I showed it to Miss Jackson, who was amazed to find that it corresponded exactly to a dream of her own—a dream which had extended much farther than mine. Upon her relating this dream, and furnishing a map of its supposed scene, I decided to abandon the plan for an original story and develop the Jacksonian outline—which I did, supplying the quasi-realistic aerolite introduction from my own imagination. W. P. Cook will eventually print The Green Meadow, but Heaven only knows when….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 4 Jun 1921, Selected Letters1.136
The letter from Winifred V. Jackson does not appear to survive, for reasons Lovecraft would explain in another letter:
In the case of “The Green Meadow” I related to her a dream of mine, and she claimed to have had exactly the same dream, with a subsequent development which mine lacked. this was certainly her honest belief, yet I could swear that she had no such dream till she had seen my account. Then, doubtless, she did have the dream in its amplified form; automatically putting it backward in time when later thinking of it and repeating it. I will send the epistolary extract to [James F. Morton], who seems most interested in the tale. He can return it either directly to me, or to me via Appleton. And by the way—don’t mention to W.V. J. that I sent the thing. She has a fad for destruction, and wishes all her epistles burnt without exhibition, though they are in truth far less slanderous than the presumably preserved GALLOMO. I usually comply with the wish, though in this case had to save this one sheet for the sake of the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 109
A few of Lovecraft’s letters to Winifred V. Jackson survive, although none mention “The Green Meadow.” Given Lovecraft’s forthcoming and consistent accounts, there is little doubt that events likely happened as he said; the story built up from two dream-fragments, one by Lovecraft and one by Winifred, almost certainly rewritten in his own words, and framed in the way given.
However, there is one thing that Lovecraft did not tell all of his correspondents.
“Elizabeth Neville Berkeley” was Lovecraft’s private nickname for Winifred Virginia Jackson, and he addressed at least one letter to her in this way. Among “Elizabeth Berkeley’s” publications was a poem that ran in the October 1916 issue of Lovecraft’s own amateur journal, The Conservative:
A seething sky—
A mottled moon—
Waves surging high—
Storm’s raving rune;
Wild clouds a-reel—
Wild winds a-shout—
Black vapours steal
In ghastly rout.
Thro’ rift is shot
The moon’s wan grace—
But God! That blot
Upon its face!
Lovecraft in “The Department of Amateur Criticism” for The United Amateur (Mar 1917) would discuss this poem:
ANother bit of sinister psychology in verse is “The Unknown”, by Elizabeth Berkeley. Mrs. Barkeley’s style is less restrained than that of Mrs. Jordan, and presents a picture of stark, meaningless horror, the like of which is not often seen in the amateur press. It is difficult to pass upon the actual merit of so peculiar a production, but we will venture the opinion that the use of italics, or heavy-faced type, is not desirable. The author should be able to bring out all needed emphasis by words, not priner’s devices. (Collected Essays1.140)
On the surface, this appears to be a continuation of the hoax that “Elizabeth Berkeley” and Winifred Virginia Jordan were separate writers. However, he gave the game away later:
It is true that I once used the pseudonym of “Elizabeth Berkeley” in conjunction with its more rightful owner W. V. J.—in 1916 the name covered certain verses by both authors, in an effort to mystify the public by having widely dissimilar work from the same nominal hand. But that is past history, and today Elizabeth ain’t me at all […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 108
“The Unknown,” it turns out, was not the work of Winifred at all, but of Lovecraft operating under a female pseudonym—a first for himself. The double-joke, then is that in his review Lovecraft is gently chiding himself for the habit of using italics for the culminating revelation, a tactic that he would later go on to employ to great effect in his fiction. An especially amusing irony, considering the confusion raised by Sally Theobald.
Chronologically speaking, “The Green Meadow” was the first of Lovecraft’s collaborations with a woman—and that is important, regardless of how much of Winifred’s prose made it into the final product, or that it is a relatively minor piece with no connection to the wider Mythos. Works like this were stepping stones to what would one day become the Lovecraft Mythos—a precursor to the tales of the Dreamlands, to the way of writing stories as found accounts or documents, of taking inspiration from his dreams as the basis of narratives.
Too, a hundred years after it was written, “The Green Meadow” affirms the role of women in Lovecraftian fiction:
I found Lovecraft diffident but very gallant, with a gallantry of an era we only read about in mid-Victorian literature. In our conversation we discusses among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma […]
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale259
After the successful sale of “The Curse of Yig,” Zealia Brown Reed appeared eager, and Lovecraft willing, to pursue a second ghost-writing job, in between his other revision work—Zealia still pursuing other stories and submitting them to, among other places, Weird Tales and Cupid’s Diary. The extent of her involvement in “The Mound” was apparently substantially less than in “The Curse of Yig,” at least according to Lovecraft:
I hade hoped to be able to send along the weird Indian tale when replying to yours of the 11th, but once more the Fates were against me. It is fortunate that you are in no haste for it, & I surely hope I can produce a good piece of work when I am at last able to undertake the construction. No—There is not any other story-nucleus in my possession. The only one is the cryptic Oklahoma mound & its taciturn guardians.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 28 Oct 1928, The Spirit of Revision135
My next real bill will come when I deliver the Indian ghost story, a thing I intend to do as soon as I recover enough mental & nervous energy to resume creative work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 22 Jan 1929, The Spirit of Revision 138
As soon as I finish my current De Castro quota I shall tackle another incident-germ (“plot-germ” would be too flattering a designation!” of Mrs. Reed’s producing a story which will be virtually my own. I hope (mildly, because I’ll get my $20.00 anyhow!) Wright will take it when he’s done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 21 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude1.225
My chief—& sufficiently submerging—occupation is concocting what will pass as a tale by the author of “Yig”, though it will really be altogether my own, as woven around the merest non-plot suggestion. It is getting to be almost a novelette—& I’ll be curious to see how you like it if it ever gets into print. The provisional name is “The Mound.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Dec 1929, Essential Solitude 1.231
That St. Louis mound item is of especial interest to me just now, insomuch as my current job is the weaving of a tale around a similar thing in Oklahoma. The alleged author intended to let the story go as a simple tale of a haunted mound, with a couple of Indian ghosts around it; but I decided at once that such a thing would be insufferable tame & flat. Accordingly I am having the mound turn out to be the gateway of a primordial & forgotten subterranean world—the home of a fearsomely ancient & decadent race cut off from the outer earth since the prehistoric sinking of fabulous Atlantis & Lemuria. In the course of the tale I introduce a man who descends into the abyss—a Spaniard of Coronado’s expedition of 1541—& another, in the present age who begins a descent but very hastily returns to the upper air after seeing a certain thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw118
The gist of Lovecraft’s comments on the story as it was being written in 1929 suggest a very simple premise. R. H. Barlow, who re-typed the story in 1934, records the original plot-germ on the typescript as:
There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.
In Caddo County, Oklahoma there are a group of rocky hills—actual hills, not earthen mounds such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois—known as the Caddo Mounds, near the small towns of Binger and Hydro. Two of these in particular have been suggested as the ultimate source for Zealia’s transmitted legend: Ghost Mound and Dead Woman’s Mound. Original accounts are sparse, but newspaper articles provide some insight into what she may have heard from the Comptons:
Less has been recorded in print about Dead Woman or Dead Woman’s Mound, although there is an account from resident Laura Cox Brand in the 1930s which may give the flavor of local legends. John Biggs has some photographs of the mounds, for those eager to see what they look like. Lovecraft’s own account of the inspiration as “tame & flat” is apparent in the story when he writes:
I had gone into Oklahoma to track down and correlate one of the many ghost tales which were current among the white settlers, but which had strong Indian corroboration, and—I felt sure—an ultimate Indian source. They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
Lovecraft supplemented Zealia’s legend with his own research—the description of John Willis, U.S. Marshal and his phantom riders, was taken from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) or another contemporary source.
As a ghost-writer, working in the same Oklahoma setting as “The Curse of Yig,” Lovecraft was at pains to be consistent with the previous tale—Yig reappears (he had previously been mentioned as “Niguratl-Yig!” in “The Electric Executioner,” written in-between “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”), as does Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle, who gets a much-expanded role as a source of local lore and legend. The first two Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories thus form a kind of mini-mythos of their own—although Lovecraft would take the opportunity afforded by this revision to write something much more expansive and weird than Zealia Bishop probably intended.
Therein lies a problem.
In her memoir of Lovecraft, Zealia asserted:
At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance. Yet the short novel has the same Lovecraftian mood and flavor as the other horror stories, because Belknap himself had long ben a protégé of Lovecraft, and had himself absorbed much of the Lovecraft manner in tales of the macabre.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale260
In terms of polite fictions and little white lies, this is a load of horseshit. Zealia’s memoir was published in 1953, in a book published under her own name, while it’s possible that in the intervening 25 years she had convinced herself this was the truth, it is clear from Lovecraft’s letters that he wrote the whole story. What may have begun or been intended as a folksy ghost story of the west—something like Robert E. Howard’s later tale “The Horror from the Mound”—became a substantial Lovecraftian epic, a major work in Lovecraft’s developing artificial mythology. Which makes it rather difficult to say much about Zealia’s own influence on this tale, since it appears to be almost pure Lovecraft from start to finish.
So what is there to talk about in terms of her own contribution to the story?
For starters, the description of Binger and its inhabitants certainly seems to owe a great deal Lovecraft’s client rather than his own research. When we read:
Binger is a modest cluster of frame houses and stores in the midst of a flat windy region full of clouds of red dust. There are about 500 inhabitants besides the Indians on a neighbouring reservation; the principal occupation seeming to be agriculture. The soil is decently fertile, and the oil boom has not reached this part of the state. My train drew in at twilight, and I felt rather lost and uneasy—cut off from wholesome and every-day things—as it puffed away to the southward without me. The station platform was filled with curious loafers, all of whom seemed eager to direct me when I asked for the man to whom I had letters of introduction. I was ushered along a commonplace main street whose rutted surface was red with the sandstone soil of the country, and finally delivered at the door of my prospective host. Those who had arranged things for me had done well; for Mr. Compton was a man of high intelligence and local responsibility, while his mother—who lived with him and was familiarly known as “Grandma Compton”—was one of the first pioneer generation, and a veritable mine of anecdote and folklore.
That evening the Comptons summed up for me all the legends current among the villagers, proving that the phenomenon I had come to study was indeed a baffling and important one. The ghosts, it seems, were accepted almost as a matter of course by everyone in Binger. Two generations had been born and grown up within sight of that queer, lone tumulus and its restless figures. The neighbourhood of the mound was naturally feared and shunned, so that the village and the farms had not spread toward it in all four decades of settlement; yet venturesome individuals had several times visited it. Some had come back to report that they saw no ghosts at all when they neared the dreaded hill; that somehow the lone sentinel had stepped out of sight before they reached the spot, leaving them free to climb the steep slope and explore the flat summit. There was nothing up there, they said—merely a rough expanse of underbrush.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
It seems likely that the bulk of this description likely came from Zealia, though Lovecraft put it into his own words and worked it into the story in his own fashion.
“The Mound” touches on a number of points of interest—too many to go into any great level of detail on them all. For example, the people of K’n-Yan are a permutation of the idea of the “Mound-Builders,” a race that preceded the Native Americans on the North American continent and was displaced and eradicated by them. While this idea has no archaeological merit, Henry Shetrone’s The Mound-Builders (1930) firmly established that Native Americans had built mounds such as Cahokia and Fort Ancient, it provided plentiful room for fantasy—Manly Wade Wellman’s Shonokins, which appeared some decades later in Weird Tales as adversaries of occult detective John Thunstone are another example—and yet, the idea of the “Mound-Builders” was essentially a racialist one, used to downplay the achievements and capacities of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by arguing that they did not have the capacity to build such structures or complicated polities. This is similar today to how arguments of “ancient Aliens” being responsible for the building of pyramids denigrate the legacy of the actual human builders of pyramids.
Lovecraft and Bishop almost certainly weren’t thinking things through quite so thoroughly. The treatment of Grey Eagle in this regard may be taken as singular: he is the most prominent Native American character in the entire corpus of Lovecraft’s work. That he is also a dime-novel stereotype is perhaps unfortunate, but the depiction may well have arisen more out of ignorance than malice: Lovecraft had never yet met a Native American. As much as contemporary readers may wince when reading his dialogue…
You let um ’lone, white man. No good—those people. All under here, all under there, them old ones. Yig, big father of snakes, he there. Yig is Yig. Tiráwa, big father of men, he there. Tiráwa is Tiráwa. No die. No get old. Just same like air. Just live and wait. One time they come out here, live and fight. Build um dirt tepee. Bring up gold—they got plenty. Go off and make new lodges. Me them. You them. Then big waters come. All change. Nobody come out, let nobody in. Get in, no get out. You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this. (ibid.)
…it’s important to remember that Lovecraft was working within an established tradition of depiction Native Americans that lasted from at least the late 19th century through to the westerns of the 1960s and 70s. That Lovecraft did not transcend the limitations of the stereotype regarding Native Americans is unfortunate, but not terribly surprising.
The culture of K’n-Yan itself is the most developed alien civilization that Lovecraft would depict until At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931. Critics have seen influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and the arguments for both are not difficult to make. The K’n-Yan are portrayed as near-human, but wise, powerful, and decadent. Their “affection-groups”—essentially polyamorous relationships—recall the free love group of which Lovecraft’s friend James Ferdinand Morton was a member. They are insular yet imperialistic; given to necromancies and slavery, cruel and worshipping strange alien gods—the parallels to Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné are uncanny but probably coincidental; both writers were drawing off of similar ideas of an exceedingly ancient, powerful, and decadent culture approaching the end of its natural lifespan (in Splengerian terms). Rome, as depicted by Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, might be another good data point for comparison.
Fantasy racism, which Lovecraft had toyed with in stories since “Polaris,” reaches a kind of peak here. The K’n-yans had fought, conquered, and subjugated the intelligent race in the red-litten caverns of Yoth, who had been bred over generations into beasts of burden…and a food source, recalling the revelations of “The Rats in the Walls”:
The beasts or gyaa-yothn, they explained, surely were curious things; but were really very harmless. The flesh they ate was not that of intelligent people of the master-race, but merely that of a special slave-class which had for the most part ceased to be thoroughly human, and which indeed was the principal meat stock of K’n-yan. They—or their principal ancestral element—had first been found in a wild state amidst the Cyclopean ruins of the deserted red-litten world of Yoth which lay below the blue-litten world of K’n-yan. That part of them was human, seemed quite clear; but men of science could never decide whether they were actually the descendants of the bygone entities who had lived and reigned in the strange ruins. The chief ground for such a supposition was the well-known fact that the vanished inhabitants of Yoth had been quadrupedal. This much was known from the very few manuscripts and carvings found in the vaults of Zin, beneath the largest ruined city of Yoth. But it was also known from these manuscripts that the beings of Yoth had possessed the art of synthetically creating life, and had made and destroyed several efficiently designed races of industrial and transportational animals in the course of their history—to say nothing of concocting all manner of fantastic living shapes for the sake of amusement and new sensations during the long period of decadence. The beings of Yoth had undoubtedly been reptilian in affiliations, and most physiologists of Tsath agreed that the present beasts had been very much inclined toward reptilianism before they had been crossed with the mammal slave-class of K’n-yan. (ibid.)
The use of “master-race” in this context is likely derived more from American slavery rhetoric than scientific racialism—and the Nazis had not yet risen to power. Burroughs led the way in scientific romance in applying Colonialist fiction tropes of race and racial relationships to aliens and fantasy races; African and Asian peoples became various-colored Martians. Lovecraft makes a point to that effect:
The average interplanetary tale is just a camouflaged “Western” with the pioneers & soldiers called “space-explorers”, & the Indians called “Martians” or “lunarians” or something like that.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilson Shepherd, 29 May 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 250
Of all the characters in the novel, one of the most tragic is T’la-yub:
In the year 1545, as he reckoned it, Zamacona began what may well be accepted as his final series of attempts to leave K’n-yan. His fresh opportunity came from an unexpected source—a female of his affection-group who conceived for him a curious individual infatuation based on some hereditary memory of the days of monogamous wedlock in Tsath. Over this female—a noblewoman of moderate beauty and of at least average intelligence named T’la-yub—Zamacona acquired the most extraordinary influence; finally inducing her to help him in an escape, under the promise that he would let her accompany him.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
Her introduction, in some form or another, was apparently necessary for Lovecraft to subscribe to at least the general appearance of keeping with Zealia’s initial idea: “Sometimes it is a woman.” The tragedy of her appearance is underscored almost immediately by Zamacona’s immediate desire for infidelity: whatever affection she held for him, he does not love her in return:
T’la-yub he would perhaps allow to share his fortunes, for she was by no means unattractive; though possibly he would arrange for her sojourn amongst the plains Indians, since he was not overanxious to preserve links with the manner of life in Tsath. For a wife, of course, he would choose a lady of Spain—or at worst, an Indian princess of normal outer-world descent and a regular and approved past. But for the present T’la-yub must be used as a guide. (ibid.)
The “Indian princess” is another stub of stereotype wedged into the mix…but Lovecraft had little concern for romantic relationships. His major interest in the story was for primal weirdness, and he achieves that in large part by working in references to his friend Clark Ashton Smith’s creation Tsathoggua:
[…] the “revision” job I’m doing now is the composition of an original tale from a single paragraph of locale & subject orders—not even a plot germ. The only reason I do this kind of thing is that the pay is absolutely certain, whereas on signed original work one has to take one’s chances of acceptance or rejection. […] My present job is a Reed yarn to be entitled “The Mound”—with the Oklahoma locale of “Yig,” but with ramifications extending to blasphemously elder worlds, & a race of beings that came down from the stars with great Cthulhu. I also bring in a Spaniard who deserted from Coronado’s party in 1541. This job—& the two De Castro jobs preceding it—will tend to limber up my fictional pen for the spontaneous effusions to follow!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill187-188
As for me—Tsathoggua made such an impression on my fancy that I am using him in the “revision” (i.e.—”ghost-writing”) job I am now doing—telling of some things connected with his worship before he appeared on the earth’s surface. As you know my tale concerns a nether world of unbelievable antiquity below the mound-&-pueblo region of the American southwest, & the visit thereto in 1541-45 by one of Coronado’s men—Panfilio de Zamacona y Nuñez. It is a place litten by a blue radiance due to magnetic force & radio-activity, & is peopled by the primal proto-humans brought down from the stars by Great Cthulhu—a forgotten, decadent race who cut themselves off from the upper world when Atlantis & Lemuria sank. But there was a race of beings in the earth infinitely older than they—the saurian quadrupeds of the red-litten caverns of Yoth which yawn underneath the blue-litten caverns of K’n-yan. When the first men came to K’n-Yan they found the archaeological reliques of Yoth, & speculated curiously upon them. At the point where I introduce our friend Tsathoggua, the Spanish explorer has entered K’n-yan, has encountered a party of friendly natives led by one Gll’-Hthaa-Ynn, & is being escorted to the great city of Tsath—mounted on a monstrous horned & half-human quadruped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 192
Shall be interested to know what you think of “The Mound” when you get around to it. You will learn therein—back to a certain point—where Klarkash-Ton’s nighted Tsathoggua cam from.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, Jan 1930, Lovecraft Annual #8(21)
Tsathoggua introduced in Smith’s story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which was submitted to Weird Tales and rejected, but the manuscript was shared by Lovecraft who was so taken with the entity that he included references to him in “The Mound.” Smith would later go on to include references to Tsathoggua in several tales, though he was first mentioned in print in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931).
The manuscript of “The Mound” was completed by Lovecraft in December 1929, and sent to his friend and revision collaborator Frank Belknap Long, to be sent off to Zealia for approval. Unfortunately, there was a snag.
I have just learned to my surprise & dismay that Little Belknap has, through a misunderstanding, not yet forwarded to you the completed MS. of “The Mound” which I sent him late in December to read & pass onward. […] He thought you might wish to see it first in rough draught, so that you can order any needed changes concerning Binger local colour &c. […] If Wright takes the tale—as he is very likely to do—you will make a very handsome profit. Sonny seems to think it is very good—I can’t resist enclosing his note regarding it—& is inclined to spoof Grandpa for doing it for $20.00; but I never raise a figure I have quoted in advance. That is why I can’t make revision pay!
I hope you will like the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 14 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 168
At around 29,000 words, “The Mound” would have netted $145 dollars if sold at half-a-cent per word—Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—so Lovecraft had every right to be optimistic, not least because Zealia still owed him money from previous revision work. The manuscript was still untyped, and Lovecraft suggested it be typed up by his friend and sometime collaborator C. M. Eddy, Jr., who was in a bad way financially. Zealia agreed.
[C. M. Eddy, Jr.] was prodigiously grateful for the “Mound” MS., & promises a good typed copy & carbon in something like a week’s time. I furnished him with all the needed supplies, gave him warning about all the difficult & artificial words in the MS., & in general did what I could to make the job less formidable for him. I think he will have no difficulty, & believe the resulting text will be very neat & accurate. I am telling him not to bother about the diacritical marks on the Spanish & artificial words, since I can easily supply these with pen & ink when I go over the MS. in the end. Wright will have a very legible & prepossessing MS. to survey when the time comes for him to pass judgment upon it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 29 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 173
The story was duly submitted to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales…who promptly bounced it.
The damned fool has just turned down the story I ‘ghost-wrote’ for my Kansas City client, on the ground that it was too long for single publication, yet structurally unadapted to division. I’m not worrying, because I’ve got my cash; but it does sicken me to watch the caprices of that editorial jackass!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 251
Confound that unutterable Chicago dunce! The fool could have divided the story as well as not—but he was evidently in the same dense mood which afflicted him when he rejected Smith’s “Satampra Zeiros.”
If I were you I would try the tale on the following magazine in the following order: Astounding Stories Amazing Stories Science Wonder Stories
[…] If these three markets prove closed, you might ask Wright whether he would consider a condensation of the story. With plenty of time, I might manage to pare the thing down here & there—although it would be a monstrous task. You could ask Wright his maximum word-limit of acceptance. Not long ago he accepted a tale of Smith’s on condition of its abridgment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, Feb 1930, The Spirit of Revision 176
Lovecraft was essentially listing all the pulps in early 1930 that might accept weird or science fiction stories, including Science Wonder Stories, which was owned by Hugo Gernsback and Lovecraft knew from painful experience was difficult to collect money from. His exasperation must have been high to have even suggested abridging the story—a practice he was normally loathe to do—and eventually Frank Belknap Long abridged it by removing some pages of the original typescript (O Fortunate Floridian145n2).
Even abridged, the story remained unsold.
On 22 July 1930, Zealia Brown Reed married D. W. Bishop, and was known thereafter as Zealia B. Bishop. In 1934, Lovecraft was visiting R. H. Barlow in DeLand, Florida. A collector of pulp manuscripts, the issue of “The Mound” arose, and he inquired about purchasing or making a copy of it, as he was working to systemize the Mythosian lore within it:
You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mound to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just now to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once—If he decides to buy it—is it for publication or just to keep the Mss.? You did not make that part clear and I should like to know. Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil? I have it and a carbon copy of The Mound except the first three pages—Have you time to recall them were you to see it?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177
As I am pointing out to Ar-e’ch-Bei, Pnom’s account of Ts. can be reconciled with the legendry told to Zamarcona (sic) in The Mound. The myth, through aeons, was varied in the usual mythopoeic fashion by the cavern-dwellers, who came at last to believe that merely the images of Tsathoggua, and not the god himself, had emerged in former cycles from the inner gulf. Ts., travelling fourthdimensionally from Saturn, first entered the Earth through the lightless abyss of N’kai; and, not unnaturally, the Yothians regarded N’kai as his place of origin.
—Clark Ashton Smith, c. 16 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 560
Ar-E’ch-Bei, with his mania for systematisation, will be infinitely grateful to you for your transcripts from the parchments of Pnom. I am mostly interested to know that Pnom’s account can be reconciled with the rambling lore gathered in subterrene K’nyan by Panfilo de Zamacona, & am especially impressed by the knowledge of Tsathoggua’s present whereabouts. Suppose an expedition were to be sent to unearth It? What would ensue?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 563
I see that CAS is linking up his own Tsathogguan data with the legends in “The Mound”, to that a minimum of discrepancies will exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 142
As to this matter of the Bishop MSS.—of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. B—in view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revision—to let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her main literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned. Now as to the correct procedure—of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “the Mound”. […] Now as to “The Mound”—probably there’ll be only three pages missing from the complete version; so that if you’ll type duplicates of these, you’ll have both copies in good shape. You can then let Mrs. B. do what she likes with the abridged version, or offer to try to place it for her if she’ll tell you the place to send it. I hardly think she’ll insist on retaining a copy of the original if you’ll assure her of its safety, & guarantee to let her see it or copy it if she ever wishes o do so. This is especially true if you let her have the abridged copy. After all, typing three double-spaced pages isn’t so bad a job—especially when it solves a problem so neatly. I’m writing Mrs. B. now, & urging that she does not insist on keeping a copy of the unabridged version. Enclosed—incidentally—is her epistle, for which I have no further use.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143-144
Zealia’s letter to Barlow of 11 July 1934, shows she intended to have Long shop around the fresh typescript to the pulps once again, but it remained unsold. Nevertheless, the personal and professional relationship remained.
Glad the unabridged “Mound” wasn’t an extreme disappointment. Mrs. B. has begun to pay up her debt in weekly dollar instalments—because she wants more revision done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 157
As late as 1936, Lovecraft claimed that Zealia Bishop owed Long $43, himself $26, and Maurice W. Moe (a friend and associate) $11 (O Fortunate Floridian! 370). The sum to Lovecraft was outstanding at the time of his death in 1937. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was fired from his position and died in 1940. He was replaced as editor by Dorothy McIlwraith…and in the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, an abridged version of “The Mound” finally appeared, as by Z. B. Bishop.
This abridgment was made by August Derleth, based on existing annotated typescripts from Long & Barlow. Derleth appears to have actively been working with McIlwraith to get previously unpublished Lovecraftiana into Weird Tales, and eventually into Arkham House volumes. “The Curse of Yig” had been reprinted by Wright in the April 1939 Weird Tales (under the byline Z. B. Bishop), so regular readers of the magazine would have been familiar when the quasi-sequel appeared. “The Eyrie,” the letters-column of Weird Tales, was much-shrunken from Wright’s days, but “The Mound” was still praised by a couple of fans as one of the better stories in the issue.
The “unabridged” version of “The Mound” (based on Long’s altered typescript0 was published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House)—where it was finally acknowledged as one of Lovecraft’s collaborations, although the principal authorship was still credited to Bishop. Smith, on reading it, wrote to Derleth:
Such revisions as “Out of the Aeons,” “The Mound,” and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” are genuine Lovecraftian masterpieces.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith342
In 1953, Arkham House released The Curse of Yig, containing all three of the Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories, as well as her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View.” She would recall there about their relationship:
But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H. P. L: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken. And in me, Lovecraft had a pupil who could have been encouraged to write for the contemporary love story magazines instead of led away from them, for, after his untimely death, I found the editors of confession and love pulp magazines to be ruthless yet most helpful critics, and managed to sell stories to them at far better prices than I was paid for those weird tales I had written under Lovecraft’s tutelage.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale263
There is some truth to what Zealia wrote; Lovecraft’s interests did not lie in the confession pulps, and she probably would have had more luck with an agent that had experience in that line. The three Bishop/Lovecraft tales were not successful enterprises. While “The Curse of Yig” did finally sell, and was even anthologized, “Medusa’s Coil” only sold in 1939 and “The Mound” remained unsold until 1940. Her other stories that Lovecraft had a hand in revising or correcting which are mentioned in her letters, such as “The Unchaining,” appear to have not sold and are now apparently lost.
In 1989, a corrected text for “The Mound” was made by S. T. Joshi, based on the original typescripts, and published unabridged in The Horror in the Museum & Other Revisions (1989). It may be read online for free.
ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.
In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress if Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England HIstoric Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s press CLub, Mrs. BIshop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.
In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)
In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”
Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:
There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.
Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.
Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale257-258
Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:
I just fixed a weirdstory for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude1.137
Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja206
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill181
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222
Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!
In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]
Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108
The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:
Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)
From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.
While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:
Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had a snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]
As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112
Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:
Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)
Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”
One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:
Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)
Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.
Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.
While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.
Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:
I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale258
“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:
The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:
In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.
Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:
By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom1.132
I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom1.148
Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.
Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.
I cannot reveal the details of our shocking expeditions, or catalogue even partly the worst of the trophies adorning the nameless museum we prepared in the great stone house where we jointly dwelt, alone and servantless. Our museum was a blasphemous, unthinkable place, where with the satanic taste of neurotic virtuosi we had assembled an universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
These rooms were where our museum would be set up. At last I came to agree with Lois that only the plundering of graves might cure us of the most stifling ennui we had yet suffered.
—Poppy Z. Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood”
Lovecraft’s mythos is a true mythology. The stories have become generational, told and retold, embellished and expanded upon, adapted to the syntax of the era. “The Hound” is as decadent a story as Lovecraft ever wrote, and its spawn include “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan and “Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire, both of which reiterate the old tale with variations, examining new aspects of the strange relationship that binds the two morbid companions in their darkling quest.
So does Poppy Z. Brite (AKA Billy Martin) in “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood,” except here the tale is rewoven from the bones up. More explicit, more elaborate; not a sequel or prequel or continuation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound” but a reimagining. Putting onto the page all the things that Lovecraft himself never would: blood, sex, necrophilia, bestiality, a touch of actual New Orleans voodoo-lore.
Which, in the hand of someone with less skill, taste, or imagination, could easily have slipped over into edgelord territory. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomiconis an example where efforts to put on the page what Lovecraft left off are sometimes claimed to have crossed the invisible and wavering line of good taste; to have pushed past “explicit” into “exploitation.” Brite plays a careful balancing act here, more extreme than Lovecraft was, less explicit than Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” series would be.
It isn’t pornography, to put it bluntly. It’s art.
Nor is it an effort to do Lovecraft one better, though readers can judge for themselves which version of the story they prefer. The setting has changed, from Lovecraft’s London to Brite’s New Orleans; from the 1900s to the 1980s. St. John and his nameless narrator companion have been replaced by Louis and Howard, though their roles really haven’t changed that much. Louis/St. John is still the more active and daring of the pair, possessed of the dark vitality and hunger for sensation that drives the plot of the story; Howard is more passive, yin to his yang, submissive (sometimes literally) but also enabling. Like other post-Lovecraft takes on the characters, the homosocial bond between the two becomes explicit (and homosexual or bisexual) in this later incarnation.
If published decade or two earlier, that might have been a problem. Stories with LGBTQ characters that come to a bad end can sometimes be interpreted as moral fables. No such message here need be understood or implied: Louis and Howard aren’t punished because they end up lovers. Being a same-sex couple isn’t the key point here of failure here: it’s being a pair of graverobbers and digging up the wrong sorcerer’s grave.
It’s not a healthy relationship, nor was it ever meant to be. Two people egging each other on to greater and greater depths, pushing until they cross a threshold and invite supernatural retribution. This is the aspect of fable to “The Hound” that is missing from many other stories by Lovecraft, and Brite’s story captures that very well.
Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936)
Surely, I thought, the mad Arab, Abdul Hashish, must have had such a spot in mind when he wrote of the hellish valley of Oopadoop in that frightful book, the forbidden “Pentechnicon.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, “At the Mountains of Murkiness” (1940)
Four years after “At the Mountains of Madness” was published in the pages of Astounding, and three years after Lovecraft had died, his work was already being parodied (Clarke could not know that he was far from the first). “Murkiness” was only Clarke’s fifth story to see print, published in the amateur sci-fi zine Satellite #16 (vol. 3, no. 4, March 1940), and is a very respectable early work. Like many later pasticheurs, it focuses on the most obvious aspects of Lovecraft’s writing and imagery to lampoon; unlike many of them, it does so from a very British standpoint, with Clarke deliberately drawing inspiration from the humorist Stephen Leacock.
As a spoof, the work is quite fannish. One of the key plot points revolves around how the Elder Things authored the stories about themselves in Weird Tales, which is why no one believes in them—and at the end the explorers find and misapprehend a note:
Destroy human race by plague of flying jellyfish (?Sent through post in unsealed envelopes?). No good for Unknown – try Gillings.
Fans of science fiction would recognize Unknown as one of the premier fantasy pulps of its day; Walter Gillings was the editor of the British pulp Tales of Wonder. The explorers, unfamiliar with these nuances, take it for an actual insidious plot and flee. Exeunt, pursued by eldritch horror requesting whether they mind condensed milk in their tea.
It is difficult to say what lasting impact Lovecraft had on Clarke; certainly, he was a fan, but he never attempted to add to the Mythos as such, aside from noting that the Programming Manual for the HAL 9000 Computer: Revised Edition was published by Miskatonic University Press. Thematically, one could argue that Lovecraft’s science fiction may have been an inspiration for some of Clarke’s stories, particularly the sense of cosmic horror in stories such as “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), but “Murkiness” was the only time Clarke explicitly tried his hand at anything explicitly Lovecraftian. If there is a distinction to be had for Clarke’s “Murkiness,” it may be as one of the earliest Lovecraft-related works written by a homosexual author outside of Lovecraft’s immediate circle of friends such as Samuel Loveman and R. H. Barlow.
On New Year’s Day 1951, Robert H. Barlow, who had been Lovecraft’s friend, correspondent, and literary executor, took his own life. The motive is believed to have been the threat of exposure: Barlow was homosexual. It was a difficult time and place in which to be a homosexual; not just 1950s Mexico, but for most of the 20th century in most countries. In the United Kingdom a year after Barlow’s suicide, the British mathematician Alan Turing would be charged with “gross indecency” for having a homosexual relationship, and chemically castrated. Small wonder, then, that many homosexual men opted for extreme discretion, rather than submit themselves to prosecution. Turing would commit suicide in 1954.
This was the world of Arthur C. Clarke.
“At the Mountains of Murkiness or, From Lovecraft to Leacock” has nothing overtly to do with the fact that Clarke was homosexual—relatively little of Clarke’s fiction does. We will never know what quips or insinuations he might have made, without the hovering threat of discovery. Would he have made anything of the lack of women on Lovecraft’s expedition? Or the asexual reproduction of the Elder Things?
The chilling factor of the United Kingdom’s laws against homosexuality in 1940 cannot be measured, but no doubt it was far greater than whatever sub-zero temperatures populated the imaginary Antarctica of Poe, Lovecraft, and Clarke. What might he have written differently? Would it have been different at all? We will never know.
“Carol Grey” was a pseudonym used by writer and editor Robert A. W. Lowndes for two stories, both initially published in the same pulp magazine: “Passage to Sharanee” (FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, April 1942) and “The Leapers” (FUTURE Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1942). Why Lowndes chose this pseudonym is not, to the best of my knowledge, ever explained. While Sally Theobald and Justine Geoffrey were obvious literary references and made sense within the context of their respective stories, and Linda Lovecraft a persona adopted to fit an anthology, “Carol Grey” appears to have been a purely pragmatic pen-name: Lowndes also edited FUTURE, and did not want to appear cheap or biased in publishing his own fiction under his own name.
In any event, Lowndes got a taste of what it might be like as a female pulp writer from at least one ardent science fiction fan, Earl Andrews, whose letter was published in FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, August 1942) in response to “Passage to Sharanee”:
Ah, Carol Grey! Ah, spring! Ah! Prithee, my Lord Editor: wiltow kindly vouchsafe unto a fellow Lothario certain divers information. Tell me now of yon Carol. Doth she walk in beauty and so on? ((My dear fellow. !!! Ed.))
Lowndes’ reply is perhaps understandable given the circumstances:
This is going to hurt you more than it hurts us, Earl, my lad, but we’re under strict orders not to reveal Miss Grey’s address, or divulge any divers information about her. And we cannot see any reason for not adhering faithfully to those instructions.
Elsewhere in the same magazine, Lowndes had to assure a reader that Carol Grey was “not Helen Weinbaum or Leigh Brackett,” two actual female sci-fi pulp writers of the 40s.
There is no direct connection between the two “Carol Grey” stories; “Passage to Sharanee” is a space opera novelette concerning a missing jewel and an ancient shapeshifting alien called a vombis (no apparent connection to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). “The Leapers” by contrast is a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, albeit very much of the science-fantasy varietal. It is tied by references to several other pieces of Lovecraftian fiction written and published by Lowndes, beginning with “The Abyss” (Stirring Science Stories, February 1941) in what might be loosely called “The Arkya Cycle” or “The Song of Yste” series, after the most characteristic elements of Lowndes’ additions to the Mythos.
In the early 1940s while editing FUTURE, Lowndes was a member of a New York-based group of science fiction fans and writers called the Futurians; many of their works were tapped by Lowndes for this and other pulps he edited. Another Futurian, Damon Knight, later wrote a book on their activities, which includes the genesis of Lowndes’ “The Leaper”:
Lowndes told me, “There was a Cabal—Donald [Wollheim], Cyril [Kornbluth], John [B. Michel], Chet Cohen and myself. We met once a week. The Cabal was a literary wrokshop, really. We met at Cyril’s place once a week, and each one of us was supposed to bring a manuscript to read. […] And as it turned out,” Lowndes said, “a fair number of manuscrupts that were read at the Cabal were later sold and published. […] It was at a Cabal meeting that my story, ‘The Leapers,’ was read, and the only compliment I remmber ever getting from Cyril Kornbluth—he read it, he sort of blinked and shook his head, and said, ‘It’s absorbing.'”
—Damon Knight, The Futurians
Lowndes himself would expand on this a little in his introduction to the story when it was reprinted in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (Candlemas 1989):
One day when Don was visiting John [B. Michel] and me at the Futurian Embassay (103rd Street, Manhatten) he sayeth unto me: “Doc, do you think you could write a Lovecraft story? I’d like one for my next issue.”
I thought I could and behold I did, getting leave of absence from The Cabal not to write anything else until I had finished “The Leapers.” I shall never forget the night when the ms was passed around and read at a Cabal meeting. Cyril was the last to get it; whne he finished he blinked, shoko his head slightly as if to wake himself up, and said in an awed tone: “It’s absorbing.” That was the one and only time that cyril Kornbluth had any kind words for any of my fiction. And since it had been written for Don Wollheim in the first place, there was no quesiton of immediate acceptance.
Alas! It would have led off the fantasy section of the ssue following the March 1942 Stirring Science Stories; but that issue never appeared.
—Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)
Lowndes and Wollheim would both use Futurian stories in their respective magazines, and there are little in-jokes almost from the start. For example, when Lowndes writes in “The Leapers”:
One of the missing, for example, was an attractive blonde of 23, widely renowned among the devotees of the more imaginative and speculative of pulp ficiton as an illusrator; another, a man of 27, was in the process of becoming a favorite in the field of fantastic, cosmic horror-fiction, the general type of narrative wherein Poe, Machen, and Lovecraft specialized.
Illustrator Barbara Hall, who Knight describes as “a good-looking blond woman” associated with Wollheim is obviously the former; Wollheim (born in 1914, so 27 in ’41 when the story was probably written) is almost certainly the latter.
In format, “The Leapers” owes much to an older style of horror fiction, large chunks of the text being supposed clippings from newspapers regarding Fortean phenomenon, assembled by the nameless narrator as they seek to piece together the puzzle of a very odd missing persons case. This leads them shortly to the Song of Yste, Lowndes’ own addition to the Lovecraftian library, and which first appeared in “The Abyss.” In a later reprinting of the story, Lowndes would note:
While written as a “Lovecraft story”, even the earlier version contained one fundamental departure from HPL—a matter about which your editor and The Master had argued back in 1936, shortly before he died: that reading “Forbidden Books”, etc. had to bring about dreadfl and horrible events, and that such knowledge leads invariably to destruction. While we would not quarrel, even now, with Lovecraft’s statements that reading the Necronomicon would be the beginning of a Frightful End for you, we do assure you that, for a strong mind, the Song Of Yste need not be fatal—unless you’re bored to death.
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Magazine of Horror #23 (Vol. 4, No. 5), Sep 1968
Lovecraft and Lowndes had corresponded during the last year or so of Lovecraft’s life, while Lovecraft’s ideas appear to be based strongly on The King in Yellow play as used by Robert W. Chambers, “The Leapers” appears to be Lowndes counter-reaction to that, with lengthy passages of exposition about the reading of forbidden books and why they are forbidden. This was still that first generation of fandom where random literary arguments could be worked out in print on pulpwood paper, and Lowndes even alludes to this correspondence directly in the story:
I had, in fact, read a few of the tales of classic horror, written some more or less precocious speculations regarding them, and written a letter or so to a muchly-famed student residing in Providence, Rhode Island. he it was who had been the source of what little knowledge I possessed, and I had permitted my correspondence with him to lag; now, I could not be sure if he were still available at the old address.
The posthumous unnamed Lovecraft then makes an appearance via letter, with Lowndes doing a fair imitation of his style. Futurians such as Donald Wollheim, who had also corresponded with Lovecraft, would have recognized this immediately; whether the pulp readers of FUTURE picked up on it is less certain.
In the 1960s, Lowndes became editor of TheMagazine of Horror, a small digest that focused mainly on classic and pulp reprints put out by Health Knowledge, Inc. The magazine gave him the opportunity to expand and republish some of his earlier works, including “The Abyss” (Winter 1965/66) and “The Leapers” (September 1968), this time under his own name. He later recalled:
It was while working at Health Knowledge that I had occasion to reread “The Leapers,” and found myself unsatisfied. So I rewrote and expanded it, making it a frame story.
—Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)
Part of this general expansion includes a sort of preface, identifying the narrator as Arnold Grayson, and that it had originally been sent to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales (who had died in 1940, two years before the story was initially published, a fact which Lowndes notes).
The other major addition is an expansion from the pseudo-Lovecraft letter, which goes to some odd places:
Well, I have a letter from Hannes [Bok] dated 1939, in which he tells me that Ray Bradbury is going to show some samples of his work to Farnsworth Wright at WEIRD TALES. I replied that I did hope that Wright would be impressed, for as delectable as Mrs. Brundage’s covers were to the more erotic-minded readers, few of them were truly weird. (I assure you that I have never objected to well-exposed depictions of delightful-looking young girls—but maintain stubbornly that a girl cannot be both delightful-looking and weird at the same time.)
Lovecraft died in ’37, Bok’s first art for Weird Tales was ’39, Wright died in ’40, the events of the story nominally take place in ’42…the timeline is a little screwy, but Lowndes mentions that in the preface. The comment on Brundage’s art is interesting because it recalls a similar comment made by Lovecraft in an actual letter:
I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 16 Sep 1936, Selected Letters 5.304
Which raises an interesting problem: volume 5 of the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft was published in 1976, the revised edition of “The Leapers” was published in The Magazine of Horror in 1968. So did Lowndes have access to this quote from Conover’s letters or…and this is a tantalizing possibility…did Lowndes cannibalize or paraphrase part of a letter that Lovecraft had sent to him? Until and unless Lovecraft’s letters to Lowndes are ever published, we may never know.
In any event, this second incarnation of “The Leapers” had one final evolution:
Few of the readers of the issue of Magazine of Horror had read the original version, and the revision went over quite well—except with one person who had read and remembered the original: Robert Silverberg. Silverberg wrote me a polite note, more in sorrow than in anger, and pointed out that my frame approach went far to spoil an excellent story. Thus I have revised the story for a third time and the final version, which follows, has (I hope) the best of both earlier versions.
—Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)
Titled simply “Leapers” in Crypt of Cthulhu, the third-and-final revision starts by dropping the initial part of the “frame” mentioning Farnsworth Wright and Weird Tales. The added portion of the pseudo-Lovecraft letter remains, and at the end is tacked on an addendum containing the gist of the 1968 framing device, Wright and all. Whether this is actually better is a bit subjective—it gets at the story more directly, but the mention of Wright still feels problematic from a timeline point of view.
It’s difficult to judge the impact of Carol Grey and “The Leapers.” Even among devoted Mythos-fans, the Song of Yste is not exactly as popular as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or the Book of Eibon. Robert Weinberg and Ed Berglund in the Reader’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos(1973) have marked the story as “integral to the Cthulhu Mythos”—a distinction they don’t give to items such as “The Cats of Ulthar” or “The Colour Out of Space.” Certainly, the theme of forbidden knowledge begun in “The Leapers” was something that stuck with Lowndes, as he wrote later about his correspondence with Lovecraft:
So I finally wrote him that winter, and in the course of my first letter told him what had bothered me about At the Mountains of Madness, and some of the other stories: the discovery of the unknown always led to madness and destruction. couldn’t some unknown things possibly be beautiful, leading to greater happiness, etc.?
His reply was that such stories must have such an ending, because the universe was really a terrible place and only our relative ignorance and limitations made it endurable to us; to seek to go beyond those limitations, to find the real nature of things, would inevitably be shattering. it is only our illusions of order and relative safety that protect us from madness. (That is, of course, a paraphrase of what he wrote me.) The seence of horror lay in abnormalities, in violations of what we consider to be natural law, dislocations of time and space, etc. […]
And when I got around to trying my hand at the Lovecraft type of story, I stuck by my guns. Awful things happened to some of the charaters, of course, but everyone who had read the forbidden books was not destroyed nor turned into a monster. And while I still love HPL, I cannot but look at him as something of a vandal, at times—all those precious and priceless copies of the Necronomicon burned!
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, “On Forbidden Knowledge” in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (56)
If there is anything to be said for the story, it is that it is almost a perfect encapsulation of Mythos fiction in the 1940s, with its odd pulpy plot and in-jokes, the convoluted history of reprints and revision. That first generation of post-Lovecraft fans, still coming to terms with Lovecraft and his philosophy.
I grew up reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft. I loved every fish monster, evil cult and doomed protagonist, frankly finding his affected writing style and weird creatures intrinsically hilarious because of how corny it all was.
—Megan James, Foreword to Innsmouth(2019)
H. P. Lovecraft, and to a degree his compatriot Mythos creators Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch, have seen their life and works adapted to the medium of comic books and graphics novels since the 1950s. These range from fairly straight adaptations a la Alberto Breccia, Richard Corben, John Coulthart, I. N. J. Culbard, Gou Tanabe, and Ben Templesmith (to name a few) to original re-imaginings of the Mythos such asAlan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s Providence, Matt Howard’s Con and C’Thulhu, Mike Vosberg’s Lori Lovecraft, and dozens of other offerings in a number of languages.
Megan James is in good company.
The tone of the story is reminiscent of nothing else than a particular scene in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens:
Sister Mary Loquacious has been a devout Satanist since birth. She went to Sabbat School as a child and won black stars for handwriting and liver. When she was told to join the Chattering Order she went obediently, having a natural talent in that direction and, in any case, knowing that she would be among friends. (27)
The point being that at a certain point in the life of a church, the mundanity sort of grinds out the divine nature of the proceedings. Or, as is the case in Megan James’ Innsmouth, the end times when Cthulhu is summoned can’t be held on a Thursday because they’ve already got the potluck scheduled.
“Well, the Elder Gods clearly didn’t give the events committee proper notice.”
—Innsmouth, issue #1
What we get in five issues is a re-imagining of Innsmouth where intermarriage with fish people is just accepted and maybe working toward the end times is not a major priority for most of them. But like certain outbreaks of Millenialism and Milleniarianism, a few folks are actually looking forward to (or actively trying to cause) the project of waking Cthulhu up in more than a theoretical Sunady-go-to-meeting sense. Which is a problem if you kind of like the world as it is, thank you very much.
The cast and crew assembled by the combination of slapstick and well-meaning anti-cult activities is not coincidental. The team that is assembled includes a female Innsmouth acolyte (Abigail), a female Muslim (Fatima Alhazred, descendent of that Alhazred), and a pair of homosexual African-American reanimators (Drs. Edward Herbert & Jason West). This well-rounded cast is a deliberate effort on James’ part:
While much of the book is inspired by Lovecraft, James said she did take a few of his common outdated themes and views on certain issues such as race and switch them up.
“I wanted to address that in how im treating these characters, updating that for 2016, she said. “Kind of giving voice to some of the characters he shafted along the way.”
For example, in the author’s 1924 short story, “The Hound” he introduces the Necronomicon, which according to James is a book of evil which Lovecraft linked to Arabic heritage.
“That’s not really cool,” she said. “I have a character Fatima she’s Muslim and studies the Necronomicon and it’s part of her family heritage…kind of reclaiming the stuff that he’s messed up.”
It’s worth pointing out, none of this feels forced. Having Abdul Alhazred’s descendant majoring in eldritch anthropology at Miskatonic University is a key plot point, especially since the Innsmouthian’s Pocket Necronomicon is only about 20% complete; she and Abigail score a couple of gags playing off of each other’s alienation to the culture at large. Each of the characters has their role to play and is a character in their own right, not a walking two-dimensional stereotype.
James expands on this in her foreword a bit:
Of course, Lovecraft stresses fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, as I realized more and more as I grew older, his unknowns included not only fungus planets and brain-snatching flesh spiders, but also anyone who did not fit the mold of a white, straight, educated, Anglo-Saxon. […] I wanted to pay homage to all the things I love about the Mythos, but I also wanted to reinterpret the more troubling apects and have some fun along the way.
—Megan James, Foreword to Innsmouth(2019)
This is in many ways the meat of the book, and the issue that every contemporary writer and artist has to consider when working with Lovecraft and the Mythos today. There are things that Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s and 30s which passed for publication then, but would not and should not today. It is a good thing that new artists approaching the work are willing and able to engage with this aspect of his writing, to grapple with how best to approach the material and update it to fit the syntax of today.
With any luck…there will be more:
This is just the beginning of Randolph, Fatima and Abigail’s story. Ideally, by the end of Innsmouth, I’ll have crafted a story that Lovecraft would have detested…but truly, I have no interest in playing by his rules just because I’m in his sandbox.
—Megan James, Foreword to Innsmouth(2019)
H. P. Lovecraft is long dead, and cannot render judgment—but in the here and now, what matters is not what Lovecraft would have thought, but what the readers and audience think. Megan James has put together a fun, adventurous story with a group of likable (if not always competent) characters whose hearts are in the right place. Readers looking for seriously nihilistic cosmic horror would be better off looking elsewhere, but for those who can take enjoyment in something more light-hearted, it’s a good book.
Innsmouth ran for five issues from 2016 to 2018, published by Sink/Swim Press and available at the store on her website. The collected trade paperback edition, published by ComicMix in July 2019, is also available on Amazon.com.
The cats of Ulthar steal across my dreams
On paws of softest fur and blure the seams
Of my subconscious with their purrs and eyes
Of molten gold that twinkle and that gleam
Like Beacon lights toward where their kingdom lies.
—Opening stanza of “On A Dreamland’s Moon” by Ashley Dioses, Diary of a Sorceress (2017), 120
“On A Dreamland’s Moon” takes its most direct inspiration from Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but the object of this dreamer’s quest is not the hidden gods of dream, but Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos. In language and imagery, however, the influence of Clark Ashton Smith is more evident, echoing some of his narrative poems such as “The Nightmare Tarn.” The purpose for which the narrator seeks out the soul and messenger of the Other Gods is revealed in such lines as:
Hail Nitokris, my patron, grant me skill
In amorous endeavors so the thrill
Of His enchantment will coil round my soul!
—”On A Dreamland’s Moon,” Diary of a Sorceress 121
Again, very much in the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, whose work so often dealt with love, sorcery, and death. The carnality by contemporary standards is subdued and artistic; erotic fantasies are better hinted at for the imagination to paint than spelled out explicitly, and there is always beauty in it, nothing as gritty as “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel.
One thing that jumps out in this work is the clever expansion of the role of Nitocris in the Mythos from her original appearances in both Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and “Under the Pyramids” (as “Nitokris”). A relatively minor character, seldom-used by other Mythos writers (Brian Lumley’s “The Mirror of Nitocris” comes to mind), the idea of the ghoul-queen as a spiritual patron—someone to model yourself after—is both entirely appropriate and offers interesting possibilities. Dioses expands on the character further in the subsequent poem, titled simply “Nitokris.”
Diary of a Sorceressis based after the Sorceress in the poem. This is her diary.
—Ashley Dioses, “Afterword” in Diary of a Sorceress 166
For context, within the book itself “On A Dreamland’s Moon” is sandwiched between the poems “Nyarlathotep” and “Nitokris” in the fourth section of the book. The three poems together form a thematic unit, but not a narrative one, in that they share characters and can be seen to speak about the same setting, but are not linear entries in the same story. The same in general could be said for the book as a whole: this is a collection, and there is a thread of a narrative that binds some of the poems together, but it is not a case that every poem is an integral part of the eponymous sorceress’ descent, and most can be enjoyed on their own.
What is interesting in considering “On A Dreamland’s Moon” in the context of the collection is how the Sorceress in her dreams is drawn by dark attraction to seek an inevitable yet destructive meeting. This puts the shoe on the other foot compared to how she initially responded to the love letter in the waking world, where she herself was the object of attraction…and the consummation and dissolution that the Sorceress faces in dream perhaps foreshadows what is to come, in the diary’s final entries.
“On A Dreamland’s Moon” was first published in Black Wings VI: New Tales of Lovecraftian Terror(2017), and then collected in Diary of a Sorceress. Ashley Dioses has published a good deal of weird and Lovecraftian poetry in places such as Weirdbook, Vasterian, Necronomicum, Skelos, Hinnom, and Infernal Ink.
It seems very likely that Samuel Loveman was H. P. Lovecraft’s first Jewish friend, and his first homosexual one. Loveman was a great link in the web of correspondence among weird writers in the early 20th century; he traded letters with Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, Clark Ashton Smith, and in 1917 answered the call of H. P. Lovecraft to return to amateur journalism. Upon acceptance, Lovecraft wrote:
Loveman has become reinstated in the United through me. Jew or not, I am rather proud to be his sponsor for the second advent to the Association. His poetical gifts are of the highest order, & I doubt if the amateur world can boast his superior.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 8 Nov 1917 Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner119
This began an association that lasted the rest of Lovecraft’s life, mostly carried out through letters and the occasional visit. In the dream that became “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), the character of Harley Warren was based on Loveman; the manuscript of Lovecraft’s Grecian fable “Hypnos” (1923) is dedicated “To S.L.”; together in 1922-1923 Loveman and Lovecraft edited The Poetical Works of Jonathan E. Hoag. Lovecraft’s praise of Loveman’s poetry in the pages of the National Amateur (Mar 1922) led to a critical battle in the columns of the Oracle and the Conservative between Lovecraft, Michael Oscar White, Frank Belknap Long, and Alfred Galpin.
Through Loveman, H. P. Lovecraft met Hart Crane, and got his one and only job during his stay in New York City—stuffing envelopes, for a couple of weeks. They were both key members of the Kalem Club, a group of writers in New York so-called because the founding member’s last names all began with K, L, or M. One might add a hundred more little details and connections; they were close friends, booklovers, and fellow-poets.
Loveman wrote at least three poems specifically dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft: “To Satan” (1923), “Bacchanale” (1924), and “To Mr. Theobald” (1926). This last poem refers specifically to Lovecraft’s pseudonym “Lewis Theobald, Jr.”, which in his letters was sometimes shortened to “Theobaldus” or “Grandpa Theobald.” The occasion of the poem was Lovecraft leaving New York to return to Providence. In 1924, Lovecraft had quietly eloped to Brooklyn to marry Sonia H. Greene—a friend and fellow amateur journalist. Sonia had even invited both of them down to visit, in 1922, and would later write in her memoirs:
Long before H. P. and I were married he said to me in a letter when speaking of Loveman, “Loveman is a poet and a literary genius. […] The only discrepancy I find in him is that he is of the Semitic race, a Jew.”
Then I replied that I was a little surprised at H. P.’s discrimination in this instance—that I thought H. P. to be above such a petty fallacy—and that perhaps our friendship might find itself on the rocks under the circumstances, since I too am of the Hebrew people—but that surely, he, H. P., could not have been serious, that elegance of manner, cultural background, social experience and the truly artistic temperament, intellectuality and refinement surely do not choose any particular color, race or creed; that these attributes should be highly appreciated no matter where they may be found!
It was only after several such exchanges of letters that he put the “pianissimo” on his thoughts (perhaps) and curtailed his outbursts of discrimination. In fact, it was after this that our own correspondence became more frequent and more intimate until, as I then believed, H. P. became entirely rid of his prejudices in this direction, and that no more need have been said about them.
—Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft26
By 1926, however, the marriage had fallen apart. Loss of her job and ill-health had forced Sonia to relocate to the midwest, where Lovecraft would not follow. Living alone in the city, unable to find steady employment, and finally robbed of his clothes (and an expensive radio set that Lovecraft had been holding for Loveman), the Old Gent returned to Providence in April of that year.
Hence Loveman’s letter; a cheery, intimate portrait of his friend, who he knew well enough to emphasize the Colonial architecture and history of Providence that Lovecraft so loved. A silver lining on a dark cloud that spelled the end of Lovecraft’s marriage, and a long absence from their physical company; meetings of the Kalem Club for Lovecraft would become fewer and farther between. In a memoir to his friend after his death, Loveman would write:
Lovecraft’s stay in New york, after the separation from his wife (a tragedy to those who knew the indise of the affair), was one of complete revellion against everything that the huge city had to offer. He hated the noise, the interminable rudeness of the inhabitants, the rowdy and rancid slums. […] He declaimed with flushed cheeks and a rising voice against (so he called it) “the mixed mongrel population—the very scum and dregs of Europe and the Near East,” that filled and permeated the area of the entire city. He anticipated with a heart-breaking intensity and longing that only his closest friends knew—a liberation and return to New England—back to his beloved Providence with its antique gables and narrow streets, to the Colonial reconstruction of what is now known to the readers of his weird fiction as “Arkham country.”
—Samuel Loveman, “Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1948)
Reprinted in Out of the Immortal Night221
Later in Loveman’s life, when Lovecraft’s letters began to be published and after correspondence with Sonia H. Davis, he became aware of the depths of the Old Gent’s anti-Semitism in the 1930s and roughly denounced his old friend:
During that period I believed Howard was a saint. Of course, he wasn’t. […] Lovecraft had a hypocritical streak to him that few were able to recognize. Sonia, his wife, was indubitably his innocent victim. Her love for him blinded her to many things. Among the things he said to her was, “Too bad Loveman’s a Jew; he’s such a nice guy.” I was, in the early phase of our friendship, an easy mark. He was, however, loyal in his appreciation of me as a poet. —Samuel Loveman, “Of Gold and Sawdust” in The Occult Lovecraft(1975) 22
It is impossible to appreciate “To Mr. Theobald” without understanding the larger context of how it came to be rewritten, the nature of their friendship at that point…a friendship that Loveman would later look back on with such evident disappointment, in himself and in Lovecraft. Fans of Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry can certainly relate; too close a look at one’s literary heroes often reveals flaws that were not immediately apparent on that first happy exposure to their work.
Loveman’s focus is on Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism. No comment from Lovecraft was ever made in print about Loveman’s homosexuality, and it is not clear if he was even aware that Loveman was gay, although there are certainly hints in the letters that Lovecraft knew about Hart Crane, so it is possible. Still, there is something in these poems dedicated to Lovecraft—and the poems that Lovecraft wrote dedicated to Loveman—which are melancholy today, pressed flowers of a real friendship. Lovecraft was serious when he wrote:
So like in name, in art so much the less,
Let Lovecraft lines to Loveman’s Muse address:
How blest ar thou, who thro’ thy pow’r of song
Beside Pierus’ sacred fount belong. —H. P. Lovecraft, “To Samuel Loveman, Esquire, on his Poetry and Drama, Write in the Elizabethan Style” (1915) Repritned in The Ancient Track94