“The Day He Met Lovecraft” (1972) by Lew Shaw

Sir: As if it were yesterday, I remember meeting H. P. Lovecraft on the corner of Benefit Street and College Hill about noon on a very warm, sunny day.

College Hill is a rather steep climb, but on that day, a friend of mine and I, both attending Classical High at the time, were climbng up it oward the campus. At the base of College Hill on Canal Street, a new courthouse had been built. By taking the elevators to the fifth floor, we could have emerged on Benefit Street and eliminated the climb. However, despite the warm day, we walked.

As we got to Benefit Street, my friend greeted a passerby and introduced me to him. It was H. P. Lovecraft.

Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)

Memoirs and anecdotes of H. P. Lovecraft tend to come from familiar names: his correspondents, friends like Clifford & Muriel Eddy (The Gentleman from Angell Street), and his wife Sonia H. Greene (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft) most prominent among them. Even the few unfamiliar names like Dorothy Tilden Spoerl (“Cosmic Horror”) prove to have some connection to Lovecraft with a little digging. The very few memoirs that don’t have any provable connection to Lovecraft are thus a little suspect; they are extraordinary, and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence to prove them.

The geography of Providence is real, and while Lovecraft often kept late hours, he was also more active during the warmer months and went out of doors to write in the sunlight. So at least some of the details given are plausible. Yet the most interesting part of Shaw’s account is the least believable:

On that sunny afternoon, H. P. Lovecraft told us the strange story he wrote about a hotel on Benefit Street, a building which stands there no longer.

Lovecraft had written a story about a true incident. At one time there was a young woman, a chambermaid in the hotel on Benefit Street, who left and married into wealth. Sometime afterward, she returned to visit the hotel as a guest. When she found herself discourteously treated and snubbed, she departed but put a “curse” on the hotel, on all those who had humiliated her, and on everything concerned with the hotel. In short order, ill luck apparently befell all and the hotel itself burned down. Furthermore, it had never been possible, somehow, for anyone to rebuild on the site. Even on the day H. P. Lovecraft told us the story, the place where the hotel had stood was still a vacant lot.

Lovecraft had finished the story and, without making his usual carbon copy, made only one draft, which he then mailed to the publisher. His story never appeared in print. It was lost in the mails.

Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)

Lovecraft is not known to have written any story about a cursed hotel, nor is there a mention of a Lew Shaw in his voluminous published letters. Scholars might be suspicious—an account of a lost Lovecraft story by an unfamiliar name, decades after Lovecraft’s death, during the early 70s when paperback publication was raising Lovecraft’s public profile? It sounds a bit too good to be true. S. T. Joshi certainly was not convinced:

There is much reason to suspect this entire account. In the first place, the story sounds like nothing Lovecraft would have written—the idea is hackneyed, and the protagonist would uncharacteristically have been a woman. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Lovecraft would have prepared a story without his usual two carbons. In the case of his essay on Roman architecture in late 1934, he wrote the piece by hand and sent it to Moe without typing it at all. Lew Shaw claims to have actually met Lovecraft on the street, in the company of a friend “who was interested in science-fiction” and knew Lovecraft; this might conceivably have been Kenneth Sterling, but Sterling never mentions this matter in either of his two memoirs. Shaw also claims to be of the Brown Class of 1941; but there is no one of that name in that class listed in the Brown University alumni directory. There is a Lewis A. Shaw in the Class of 1948, and a Lew Shaw who received a Ph.D. in 1975, but that is all. My feeling is that Lew Shaw (probably a pseudonym) is perpetrating a hoax.

S. T. Joshi, I Am Providence (2010) 2.1001

Joshi’s arguments are well-reasoned—but there are a few counter-arguments. While none of Lovecraft’s surviving letters mention a cursed hotel story, the account does not mention when the story was written or sent out; so it could conceivably fall into a gap in the correspondence, especially if the story was an early one or written for a revision client. A story set in Providence on Benefit St. isn’t out of the question either, “The Shunned House” was based on a real-life house (the Stephen Harris House, 135 Benefit Street). Likewise, while it would be uncharacteristic for Lovecraft to write a story with a woman protagonist, it was not unknown: “The Man of Stone” (1932) for Hazel Heald and “The Curse of Yig” (1929) for Zealia Bishop are primarily focused on female characters, or told in part from their perspectives, so it isn’t entirely out of the question. The postal service has lost many manuscripts and typescripts, so that by itself isn’t unbelievable either. The most obvious evidence of a hoax appears to be the absence of Lew Shaw himself…

Lewis Irwin Schwartz attended Classical High School in Providence, RI and graduated from Brown University in the class of 1941 (listed on page 72 of the Liber Brunensis for 1941). “Lew Shaw” was his stage name (“He Crashed The ‘Crewcuts’,” Brown Alumni Monthly Jan 1962). So, Joshi was correct that there was no “Lew Shaw” among the names in the Class of 1941, and that the name was a pseudonym—but didn’t have access to the bits of the puzzle that would show that Lew Shaw really did exist; those parts of the narrative at least match what we know of his background.

Joshi was also likely correct in identifying Shaw’s unnamed friend interested in science fiction as Kenneth Sterling. In Providence, Sterling attended Classical High School. They were both born in 1920, but Shaw was born in November, so he would probably have been a year behind Sterling. That gives us time as well: Sterling met Lovecraft in March 1935, and in the autumn of 1936 began attending Harvard, so the encounter with Lovecraft could only have happened in the summer of 1935 or 1936. Lovecraft doesn’t mention Shaw/Schwartz in the surviving letters to Kenneth Sterling, but on the other hand, those surviving passages are all excerpts, not complete letters, and there are gaps of months in the correspondence.

Kenneth Sterling wrote two memoirs about Lovecraft: “Lovecraft and Science” (1944) and “Caverns Measureless to Man” (1975). The first is slight, and doesn’t go into detail about how they met; the second is substantial, and more personal and biographical, going into considerable detail. Some of these jive with Shaw’s account:

During the academic year, excepting Christmas and spring recesses, the Science Club met weekly. That meant I had a schedule of one scientist a week—all, with two exceptions, from the Brown University faculty—and every time I walked up College Hill toward the Brown campus I visited Lovecraft for several hours. The total number of hours I conversed with him was huge.

Kenneth Sterling, “Caverns Measureless to Man” in Ave Atque Vale 406-407

This would have been the path Shaw describes. Sterling doesn’t mention the cursed hotel story; the one anecdote Sterling tells about bringing a friend to meet Lovecraft doesn’t jive either, since it was at a gathering in New York City. Again, this doesn’t immediately rule out Shaw’s story, but it doesn’t fully confirm it either. Shaw’s account is shifted from obvious hoax to doubtful…and there’s one final bit of evidence to consider: was there a hotel, cursed or not?

Newport Mercury, 21 Feb 1920

The Hotel Lorraine was on 18-28 Aborn Street, on the other side of the Providence River from Benefit Street, a geographic detail that Lovecraft would not have missed, but I’ve yet to find a notable hotel fire on Benefit St. during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the 18 Aborn St. lot was still vacant according to the 1935 Providence City Directory, which does jive with Shaw’s story. No mention of a curse has turned up yet, but a lot of century-old folklore probably wasn’t written down, much yet made it onto the internet, where searches about cursed hotels in Providence point toward the Biltmore (now The Graduate).

The question then becomes: is this an error with Shaw’s memory, or did he fabricate the whole anecdote? The former might be understandable: a couple of decades can erode the details of many memories, or add details that weren’t there before. If the latter, why? As far as is known, Shaw never attempted to pass the anecdote off to a paying magazine or publisher or profit from the supposed association. It was of the nature of a brief letter to the editor to a college alumni journal about a local writer with ties to the college whose posthumous star had lately been on the rise and who had ties to Brown (Lovecraft’s papers are archived at the university library). In the Feb 1972 issue of Brown Alumni Monthly there had been an article on “Lovecraftmania at Brown” which probably suggested the letter.

Without any further evidence in Lovecraft’s letters to support the idea that the meeting actually took place, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” will have to remain classified as somewhere between doubtful and apocryphal. We have no absolute evidence that Shaw/Schwartz actually met Lovecraft, as there are no details in the incident that can be independently corroborated with sources that weren’t already published at the time. As Joshi noted, the plot sounds fairly hackneyed and un-Lovecraftian; not something he would write for himself, even with the local angle.

However, we also cannot entirely rule out that Shaw did not meet Lovecraft; we know Sterling had brought at least one friend to meet Lovecraft according to his later memoir. The plot of the apocryphal tale sounds un-Lovecraftian, but Lovecraft was willing to bend his artistic scruples a bit for revision clients. Is a lost revision story plausible? There’s evidence to suggest Lovecraft revised more stories than saw print, such as “In the Gulf of N’Logh” (193?) and “Lair of Fungous Death” (193?) by Hazel Heald, and his letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop. By 1935, Lovecraft had largely stopped revising fiction, but it is possible he was talking about an earlier story—Lovecraft didn’t discuss much of his revised fiction that didn’t get published.

While Lovecraft’s wife is extraordinarily well documented by his letters, there are still little gaps in which things happened for which we have no record…and, perhaps, in which a clever fiction might be woven. Shaw’s account cannot be entirely ruled out, but neither can it be proved, unless more information comes to light.

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for all of his help and assistance.

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

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

“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror; with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” (1773) by Anna Laetitia Aikin & John Aikin

In England one of the first imitators was the celebrated Mrs. Barbauld, then Miss Aikin, who in 1773 published an unfinished fragment called “Sir Bertrand”, in which the strings of genuine terror were truly touched with no clumsy hand. A nobleman on a dark and lonely moor, attracted by a tolling bell and distant light, enters a strange and ancient turreted castle whose doors open and close and whose bluish will-o’-the-wisps lead up mysterious staircases toward dead hands and animated black statues. A coffin with a dead lady, whom Sir Bertrand kisses, is finally reached; and upon the kiss the scene dissolves to give place to a splendid apartment where the lady, restored to life, holds a banquet in honour of her rescuer. Walpole admired this tale, though he accorded less respect to an even more prominent offspring of his OtrantoThe Old English Baron, by Clara Reeve, published in 1777. Truly enough, this tale lacks the real vibration to the note of outer darkness and mystery which distinguishes Mrs. Barbauld’s fragment; and though less crude than Walpole’s novel, and more artistically economical of horror in its possession of only one spectral figure, it is nevertheless too definitely insipid for greatness.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Anna Laetitia Aikin was born in 1743; her father was a Presbyterian minister and the headmaster of a boy’s school, and both Anna and her brother John Aikin received solid educations, which led to their careers in letters—Anna being noted for working in multiple genres, and earned a reputation as a poet and author. One of her earliest publications was Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773), published jointly with her brother. Among the contents of this volume is “On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror; with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.”

The essay is one of the early English works on the subject of the horror story, and much of it is as insightful today as it was two and a half centuries ago:

A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating, elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.

“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror”

This essay is a literary forebear of Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1925). At the end of the essay proper is given several examples of books and stories which exemplify this philosophy:

In the Arabian Nights are many most striking examples of the terrible, joined with the marvellous: the story of Aladdin, and the travels of Sinbad, are particularly excellent. The Castle of Otranto is a very spirited modern attempt upon the same plan of mixed terror, adapted to the model of Gothic romance. The best conceived, and the most strongly worked-up scene of mere natural horror that I recollect, is in Smolett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom; where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him. It may be amusing for the reader to compare his feelings upon these, and from thence form his opinion of the justness of my theory. The following fragment, in which both these manners are attempted to be in some degree united, is offered to entertain a solitary winter’s evening.

“On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror”

What follows is “Sir Betrand, a Fragment.” The fast-moving fantasy owes much to the medievalisms of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of OtrantoA Gothic Story (1764), the latter of which is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel. Other influences may have included the 1,001 Nights or Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; the story has the style of an episodic adventure in that mode, like a loose couple of pages taken from a longer narrative. In the context of the essay, however, it becomes clear that the fragment is a heaping-up of horrors, image after image piled up one after another in a kind of breathless chain of wonder and terror. The purpose of the fragment was to provide an example for Aikin’s idea of how a horror story worked.

The individual contributions of Anne and John are not signed in Miscellaneous Pieces, but Horace Walpole wrote:

Miss Aikin flattered me even by stooping to tread in my eccentric steps. Her ‘Fragment,’ though but a specimen, showed her talent for imprinting terror.

Horace Walpole to Robert Jephson, 27 Jan 1780, The Letters of Horace Walpole (1880) 318-319

While Walpole (and many others) assert that “Sir Bertrand, a fragment” was Anna’s contribution, as asserted in the Analytical Review (Dec. 1798) 612-613 (“We are inclined to think, that Dr. D. has erroneouſly attributed the fragment of Sir Bertrand to the pen of Mrs. Barbauld; we believe Dr. Aikin is the author of it.”); her niece Lucy Aikin in The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1825) also clarifies that Anna was not the author of the fiction that accompanied the essay. This misattribution has continued down through the centuries. Luke R.J. Maynard did an excellent job detailing the convoluted history in “A Forgotten Enchantment: The Silenced Princess, the Andalusian Warlord, and the Rescued Conclusion of ‘Sir Bertrand'” (2010), including pointing out that a completed text of the fiction fragment was published as “Sir Bertrand’s Adventures in a Ruinous Castle” in Gothic Stories (1797).

In 1774, Anna married Rochemont Barbauld; subsequent publications of “Sir Betrand, a Fragment,” with or without the original essay that it served as an example for, were often published as by Anna Barbauld or Mrs. Barbauld. “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” thus entered the corpus of English horror-story lore, albeit as a small, incomplete, but influential piece. This is the prose fragment which Lovecraft succinctly summarizes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and one of the few works by women authors he praises.

Unfortunately, he probably never actually read “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.”

None of Lovecraft’s published letters contain a reference to either Miss Aikin (or Barbauld), or “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment.” None of the books he is known to have read or were in his library include the tale. While it is not impossible that Lovecraft read the story at the library during his research into weird fiction while writing “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the lack of any reference to the author or the tale outside that essay is thus suspicious—and we know for a fact that Lovecraft had at hand an easy reference:

When Walpole wrote disparagingly of Clara Reeve’s imitation of his Gothic story, he singled out for praise a fragment which he attributes to Mrs. Barbauld. The story to which he alludes is evidently the unfinished Sir Bertrand, which is contained in one of the volumes entitled Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, published jointly by J. and A. L. Aikin in 1773, and preceded by an essay On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror. Leigh Hunt, who reprinted Sir Bertrand, which had impressed him very strongly in his boyhood, in his Book for a Corner (1849) ascribes the authorship of the tale to Dr. Aikin, commenting on the fact that he was “a writer from whom this effusion was hardly to have been looked for.” It is probably safe to assume that Walpole, who was a contemporary of the Aikins and who took a lively interest in the literary gossip of the day, was right in assigning Sir Bertrand to Miss Aikin, afterwards Mrs. Barbauld, though the story is not included in The Works of Anne Letitia Barbauld, edited by Miss Lucy Aikin in 1825. That the minds of the Aikins were exercised about the sources of pleasure in romance, especially when connected with horror and distress, is clear not only from this essay and the illustrative fragment but also from other essays and stories in the same collection—On Romances, an Imitation, and An Enquiry into those Kinds of Distress which Excite Agreeable Sensations. In the preliminary essay to Sir Bertrand an attempt is made to explain why terrible scenes excite pleasurable emotions and to distinguish between two different types of horror, as illustrated by The Castle of Otranto, which unites the marvellous and the terrible, and by a scene of mere natural horror in Smollett’s Count Fathom. The story Sir Bertrand is an attempt to combine the two kinds of horror in one composition. A knight, wandering in darkness on a desolate and dreary moor, hears the tolling of a bell, and, guided by a glimmering light, finds “an antique mansion” with turrets at the corners. As he approaches the porch, the light glides away. All is dark and still. The light reappears and the bell tolls. As Sir Bertrand enters the castle, the door closes behind him. A bluish flame leads him up a staircase till he comes to a wide gallery and a second staircase, where the light vanishes. He grasps a dead-cold hand which he severs from the wrist with his sword. The blue flame now leads him to a vault, where he sees the owner of the hand “completely armed, thrusting forwards the bloody stump of an arm, with a terrible frown and menacing gesture and brandishing a sword in the remaining hand.” When attacked, the figure vanishes, leaving behind a massive, iron key which unlocks a door leading to an apartment containing a coffin, and statues of black marble, attired in Moorish costume, holding enormous sabres in their right hands. As the knight enters, each of them rears an arm and advances a leg and at the same moment the lid of the coffin opens and the bell tolls. Sir Bertrand, guided by the flames, approaches the coffin from which a lady in a shroud and a black veil arises. When he kisses her, the whole building falls asunder with a crash. Sir Bertrand is thrown into a trance and awakes in a gorgeous room, where he sees a beautiful lady who thanks him as her deliverer. At a banquet, nymphs place a laurel wreath on his head, but as the lady is about to address him the fragment breaks off.

Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921), 28-30

Lovecraft acknowledged leaning on Birkhead’s study when it came to the Gothics (see The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough & The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead). Likewise, “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” might not have been readily available in the 1920s. It seems likely, comparing that section of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and Birkhead’s entry that Lovecraft largely condensed and summarized Birkhead’s account of both Anna (Aikin) Barbauld and her fragment.

Which is a pity, because there is a thematic vein that runs straight from “Sir Bertrand, a Fragment” through William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) to works like Machen’s “The White People” (1904) that Lovecraft likely would have recognized and appreciated. Lovecraft may not have had the time or opportunity to read every work he mentioned in his essay—his original assessment of The Golem (1928) by Gustav Meyrink, for example, was based on the film and not the book, an error which he worked to resolve once he had read the original. Perhaps Lovecraft would have a more genuine appreciation for Anna (Aikin) Barbauld if he could have read her essay on terror…but, as he never mentions this essay either, it seems likely he did not.

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

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

A Song for Quiet (2017) by Cassandra Khaw

Blues is about wanting and not having, about putting that need into someone else’s hands for a little while so you can pause and breathe.

Cassandra Khaw, A Song for Quiet 35

In Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, an eldritch abomination walks around in a human suit, playing hardboiled private detective John Persons, a monster who works against other monsters, working for its own inscrutable reasons against Lovecraftian incursions. A Song for Quiet is a standalone novella in the same setting, though a continent away and decades prior, with Persons relegated to an ambiguous supporting role as the narrative shifts to focus on rambling bluesman Deacon James.

Any more detail would give away the plot of the story, and it has little to spare.

In terms of theme and content, A Song for Quiet is a distant literary descendent of “The Music of Erich Zann,” the essential theme reworked and woven with considerable skill and imagination into a new context, a cousin to stories like “The Opera Singer” (2015) by Priya J. Sridhar and “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder—in part because music is the language and the medium by which the weirdness from Outside penetrates this reality, but because music doesn’t just happen. You need a figure on the threshold, like Erich Zann, who has the skills to play and faces the choice to do so. That places a very human conflict in the midst of what might otherwise be a very impersonal cosmic struggle. Ultimately, the musician on the threshold has to decide if to play.

Khaw’s choice to center the narrative on one such threshold-character, Deacon James, comes with advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that Khaw is a skillful writer who really gets into James’ head, and the world seen through his eyes is a part of the world in stories like The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark—where Black people, even in a relatively unsegregated northern city like Arkham, have to step carefully, watch their words and actions, because any wrong step could mean violence and death. Jim Crow America was an ugly place with its very mundane horrors, without adding any Lovecraftian horrors to the mix.

The downside is, James knows nothing about the Lovecraftian aspect of the setting and doesn’t learn much of anything by the book’s end. Hammers on Bone worked so well in part because John Persons was an insider on the occult world of the Mythos, readers got their point of view and many things could be explained or accepted because of that. A Song for Quiet, seen mostly through the bluesman’s eyes, is like much in life a puzzle for which many pieces are missing and which will never be complete. John Persons in this book is one piece that doesn’t seem to fit (unless the reader has read Hammers on Bone at some point); he appears from nowhere, does things, explains almost nothing, and this is all perfectly in keeping with how the character might appear to James, but it’s as damnably frustrating as a poorly-played non-player character in a session of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, enigmatic to a fault.

Another piece that doesn’t quite fit is Arkham itself. As a setting, Khaw does a tremendous job of expressing the unease a Black man might feel traveling to and being in a relatively unknown northern city; used to the more openly segregated South, Deacon James is only really at ease in Black spaces. Why it features in the story is another question entirely: Arkham is the backdrop, but it could almost as easily have been Boston, New York, or even London. While an American city makes sense, since blues music is an African-American creation, by the 1940s the geographic remit of blues music and players had gone global. There’s nothing special about Arkham in this regard—it is the place name to cement a Lovecraftian connection, but Deacon James isn’t playing to an audience of hip Miskatonic University students or anything like that. So the setting feels a bit superfluous; like a film that drops a few Lovecraftian place names but doesn’t really connect to Lovecraft’s stories about those places.

This isn’t a damning criticism: many stories have only peripheral connections to the wider Mythos, and that’s fine. The first and most important thing is whether or not the story is good, the amount of Mythos lore dropped is not a primary measure of story quality. The lament here is that it could have been better. Khaw’s take on Arkham through James’ POV is intriguing, it’s something that the novella could have used more of, and if that setting had tied more strongly into the plot it would have been smashing…or perhaps it would have turned a tightly written and fast-paced novella into a bloated short novel.

There is a lot to like about this story; Khaw’s prose is alternately poetic and grounded, using music metaphors to give shape and texture to things seen and unseen, and the characters are well-defined. As another episode of the Persona Non Grata series, it expands the world of Hammers on Bone without stepping on any toes, far enough away in time and space so that the two stories can work independently, but taken together suggesting a wider, more complex world. Thematically, the ending is a strong focus on the human conflict of the musician on the threshold, but the missing pieces of the puzzle leave a bit of tension, like a chord that refuses to resolve.

Cassandra Khaw’s A Song for Quite (2017) was published as part of Tor.com’s Lovecraftian novella series including Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson, The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, and Agents of Dreamland (2017) by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

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

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

“The Old Ones Reborn” (2007) by Erin Donahoe

I. The Book

It all began because I was not afraid

and I told the bookseller so.

Horror tales never disturbed me

never elicited that much desired chill of terror.

Erin Donahoe, “The Old Ones Reborn” in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007, 36

There are no rules for the Mythos, but there are traditions. H. P. Lovecraft’s original works blazed a trail that many have tread, sometimes following in his footsteps, sometimes eschewing the increasingly well-beaten paths to branch off in their own directions. The route maps for these weird trails are written down in bibliographies, indices, and concordances…but there are too many. No one source can map them all, and even those dryly noted road markers can only point a reader in the right direction.

It is still up to individual readers to hunt down the sources if they want to follow some of these off-trails. There are little-tread and oft-overlooked byways, paths in danger of being forgotten and lost in the weeds. Works that never see reprinting, and aren’t likely to. Some day, the last copy of a magazine will fall apart, and some small part of the Mythos will be lost forever.

II. The Reading

I lifted the heavy tome

and placed it on the table before the window

moonlinght shining in upon the book’s dark surface.

Erin Donahoe, “The Old Ones Reborn” in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. 37

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database entry for Erin Donahoe shows she was most active in the early 2000s; the page contains a link to the web archive of her long-defunct SFF.net profile, and links from there go to her long-defunct personal blog and a more extensive bibliography. Magazine publications, online publications, and involvements with various small publications. “The Old Ones Reborn,” published in 2007, is the latest work of hers listed. It may well have been her last work published.

More digging would probably find out more about Erin Donahoe, but the point is not to engage in digital stalking or necromancy, it is to illustrate a point: not all creators are in it for the long haul, not every literary or artistic path goes very far. For every writer, poet, artist, and fan-publisher who devotes their life to creation, there are many others whose careers cover only a handful of years when time and enthusiasm allow such efforts. Then other priorities shift to the fore: careers, relationships, kids and parents and pets to take care of, health issues, money issues, etc.

III. The Dream

My explanation at the time was

That it was some kind of hypnosis, that I was sleepwalking.

I only remember feeling that I had been submerged

in warm, nearly scalding water, but that,

in some manner, I was able

to breathe.

Erin Donahoe, “The Old Ones Reborn” in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. 37

“The Old Ones Reborn” is a narrative poem in free verse, perhaps inspired by Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet cycle, and starting in a very similar manner—perhaps as homage—but Donahoe follows tradition only so far. She took it in a different direction, more stylistically similar to Caitlín R. Kiernan than Lovecraft or Derleth. More about the experience of being in that situation, that first encounter with the Mythos, the violation of that threshold, and what happened next.

Donahoe does not need to use the names Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth to invoke something of them; does not need to name the Deep Ones, Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth to suggest their presence. The poem is more effective for its restraint; for suggesting connections instead of making them concrete. Making the reader draw their own conjectures, based on the paths they have walked.

IV. The Visions

The things I saw over the net several days,

and so many days since,

were terrifying in ways mre words

could never describe or explain;

but minding that inadequacy, I will attempt

to tell here of the most prominent of my visions.

Erin Donahoe, “The Old Ones Reborn” in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. 38

“The Old Ones Reborn” was published in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. It has not been reprinted, or collected. All the copies of it may well be contained in that print run, and when the grey, soft paper rots and molds…it may be lost. There are no ebooks, as yet, and may never be. Few libraries have copies. What efforts are being made to preserve it are collectors, and the people who sell to collectors. With luck, perhaps it will outlast living memory for a couple generations.

Other works are not so fortunate. Some are lost; others simply…obscure. Poems and stories that are not republished are generally not read, and that is another kind of death. Forgotten paths, some going nowhere, others leading into new dark places…and who is to say which is which? Should works like “The Fluff at the Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber or “Two Fungi From Yuggoth” (1977) by Alice Briley be lost forever to obscurity? It is always a thought, in retreading these rare paths, to think of what feet may yet follow, and what they will make of it.

V. The End (?)


I am not alone on this rocky pedestal;

the bookseller is here with me,

the gleam in his eye telling me

that while he may not be the father of the

burden in my womb

he certainly had the pleasure

of violating me.

Erin Donahoe, “The Old Ones Reborn” in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. 39

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

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

“The Day of the Stranger” (1947) by Novalyne Price Ellis

A couple of years after Bob’s death, I was standing on a street corner in Houston and I saw a man coming across the street that looked exactly like Bob. The incident stayed with me for several years. Finally, it wrote itself when I needed to hand in a radio script at LSU. I like the script, and it has briefly, some of the things we talked about almost as we talked them.

Novalyne Price Ellis to L. Sprague & Catherine Crook de Camp, 8 Jun 1978

Every biography ends the same way. A person dies, and whatever is left of them in this world is in the memories of those who knew them. A very few, however, take the next step. From memory to myth, from reality to fiction. Today, Robert E. Howard is as much a literary character as his creations and has appeared as versions of himself in stories (“Far Babylon” (1976) by L. Sprague de Camp, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg), novels (Lovecraft’s Book (1985) by Richard Lupoff, Shadows Bend (2000) by David Barbour), comic books & graphic novels (The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob (2007) by Jim & Ruth Keegan), and even films (The Whole Wide World (2006), portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio)—and that only begins to scratch the surface of Robert E. Howard’s many posthumous incarnations.

Though those characters shared Howard’s name, their characters differed. None of the writers knew Bob Howard; they had to work from letters and memoirs, biographies and anecdotes. Yet one of the earliest, if not the first, fictional character based on Robert E. Howard was drawn from the memory of one who knew him well: the eponymous stranger in Novalyne Price Ellis’ radio play “The Day of the Stranger.”

In 1947, my husband [William W. Ellis] and I were attending LSU, and my professor in radio assigned a script to be written and handed in for a semester’s grade. While I was trying to think what to write about, I remembered that incident (seeing Bob Howard get on the bus in Houston, when he’d been dead two years […]). I wrote it up as if it happened in New Orleans, got my grade, directed it for the school radio program, and sold it to a group producing amateur radio scripts.

It was copyrighted in 1949 by J. Weston Walch—Publisher of Portland, aine. I’m not sure he’s still publishing things. He published it in a book called Radio Player’s Scriptbook. It was for amateurs looking for scripts to produce. . . . The Stranger is Bob and it was as much of his regular talk as I could get it. The cry in Jeanne’s heart for a second chance was my cry. Jerry was Truett [Vinson]. The girls in the drug store were just necessary character to help put the story across.

THey changed my original title, which I thought was good. However, at that time, they were afraid that to say ‘New Orleans’ would be to give it a regional slant, and so they changed ‘New Orleans’ to ‘This.’ I’m sure they wouldn’t change it now, and I prefer the use of the city’s name.

Novalyne Price Ellis to Rusty Burke, Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 31

In 1936 when Robert E. Howard died, his sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price was attending school at Louisiana State University. She returned to Cross Plains to teach school, and for much of the next decade she continued teaching and attending courses in Texas and Louisiana. Novalyne had planned to write about Howard’s life, using her journals as material for the book—but life always got in the way. By the time of her marriage to William W. Ellis in 1947, Novalyne had extensive experience with drama, and even radio plays (“Daniel Baker College To Offer Enlarged Speech Program,” The Commanche Chief, 24 Aug 1945). “The Day of the Stranger” would be, in a sense, an early effort to capture some of the words and tone of Robert E. Howard’s character, decades before she could complete her book One Who Walked Alone (1986).

In an interview with Howard scholar Rusty Burke, she went into more detail about the play and the experience that inspired it:

BURKE: A lot of people who may read this interview may not know that there are other things you’ve written about Bob. In fact, a number [of] years ago you wrote a play in which Bob is a character, called “Day of the Stranger”. One of the things the stranger does is that, when he sees someone, he begins telling you what the person is like, what’s on his mind as he sits on the streetcar, and what he’s thinking about. Did Bob do that kind of thing?

ELLIS: All the time. That was his interest in people. Oh, ys. Fantastic stories. I remember very vividly one time, we passed a man—there was a very cold norther blowing—and we passed a man on a horse, riding along, and the man was all humped up over the saddle, trying to get away from the cold—you can imagine sitting ona saddle in a Texas norther—(shivers)—cold, yes—well, I don’t remember the story, but I remember that it was a fantastic story—pretty soon I knew everything that man thought. “Day of the Stranger” was the first thing that I had been able to write about him. I had to hand in a radio script, and all of a sudden it occurred to me. It came from an incident that had happened to me in Houston about two years after Bob’s death. It was a cold, rainy, drizzly day, and I had gone to Houston with some of my teacher friends. I was supposed to meet them somewhere, I’ve forgotten where, but it was in downtown Houston. It was time to go meet my friends. I was standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross a street, ready to step down off the crub. I looked up and there came Bob! Dressed in his brown suit with that tan hat—big man, heavy-set—and I couldn’t cross the street. There was Bob coming toward me! I’m sure, from the way people looked at me, that I made some kind of sound. But I backed up all the way across the sidewalk against a store window, and stood there until the man crossed the street. He stood on the edge of the sidewalk about 8 or 10 feet from me, and I still couldn’t get away from the fact that this was Bob. He turned around and looked at me, and I told myself I could see differences, but I couldn’t. That was Bob. He looked at me for a few minutes—I don’t know whether I was making a sound or not. Then he turned around, turned his back on me, and looked down the street. In just a moment his bus came down the street. Came down, stopped at the corner, and he got on the bus. I watched it. I watched as it went on, and I saw him take his money out and put it in the slot for the fare, and start toward the back of the bus. Then the bus moved on further. I watched it till it was out of sight. I stood there for a few minutes until I could get myself together. Then I went over and met my friends. That was a very vivid incident!

BURKE: That would certainly shock a person.

ELLIS: It shocked me! As I think about it now, I’m shocked by it, I can remember the strange feeling I had. TO see somebody coming across the street that you know has been dead about two years! When I got ready to write my play, I thought about that. I wrote “Day of the Stranger” in order to say some of the things I was still worried about—in order to get some of the old frustrations out of my mind. You say, “Now, in 1947 you were happily married and you had one beautiful child”—I just hadn’t gotten over the feeling of guilt. It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or a family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if i’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it. I wrote that play to relieve my own heart. I used that play myself. It was produced a good many places, but after writing it, I felt better. After you were here earlier I read it again, while making the copy; I hadn’t written nearly as much about his Egyptian beliefs as I thought it had.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 19-20

At least by 1956, Novalyne had adapted the radio play into a script for a one-act play or dramatic reading suitable for high school dramatics:

Lafayette High School’s Dramatics department has been experimenting with the “Readers’ Theatre” technique since the 1956-57 school year. That year they presented a drama quartet called “The Day of the Stranger,” a radio play written and adapted to the new medium by Novalyne Price Ellis. The quartet, composed of Celia Guilbeaux, Marilyn Montgomery, Gerald Hernandez, and Pauline Harding, performed for the Louisiana State University Workshop in drama and interpretation and at the Northwestern Theatre Festival at Natchitoches.

“Lafayette Drama Class To Present Five Readings,” The Daily Advertizer, Lafeyette, LA, 15 Nov 1966

At least one dramatic reading was directed by her husband William Ellis (The Daily Iberian, New Iberia, LA, 18 Nov 1957), and it it is likely there were several more, either carried out by the Ellises over the years or various amateur groups using the script in Walch’s book.

The script itself is very brief, for five characters with some bit parts and direction for music, appropriate for dramatic radio production. The crux of Novalyne’s eerie experience is retained, but the scene was shifted to a drug store on Canal Street in New Orleans. The character based on Novalyne was named Jeanne, the Robert E. Howard equivalent in the story was named Craig Blair…although it is only the Stranger who gives his voice.

MARY: Why, early this morning when there weren’t many customers in here, I was getting a chocolate malt ready for a fellow. I had my back to the bar. (SOMEWHAT DRAMATIC) Then all of a sudden a voice said: “Hey, my little bunch of onion tops, give me a cup of black coffee, the blacker and stronger the better.” (POINTED) WEll, you know who’d say it like that, don’t you?


MARY: Well, honey, you could have knocked me over with your little finger because when I turned around…well, Craig Blair was sitting in that chair.

JEANNE: (EMOTIONAL) That’s not true. You know that’s not true.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 34

The real Robert E. Howard didn’t drink coffee, generally; but the line about “my little bunch of onion tops” could have come straight from his letters to Novalyne Price. Fact and fiction are thus mixed together in this scenario, but readers familiar with Novalyne’s later One Who Walked Alone or the film The Whole Wide World based on it can see many parallels between things the Stranger says in the play. For another example:

JEANNE: (WONDERINGLY) So you still think people live more than one life?(t)

STRANGER: (LAUGHS) Oh, well, I’ve always thought it was possible, if that’s what you mean. Who knows for sure? NOw, I didn’t go to school much—just to the eighth grade, but I’ve read a lot. The Egyptians used to believe you kept being born over and over until you got all your hopes and desires attended to. Pretty confusing thought, I think.

JEANNE: That’s a crazy thing to think, and you don’t really believe. You used… (CONFUSED) …that is… Craig Blair used to say the same thing, but he didn’t believe it. People talk and talk, and they never believe half of the things they say. I think—

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 36

Robert E. Howard wrote many stories about reincarnation and past lives, from the James Allison tales like “The Valley of the Worm” and “The Garden of Fear” to the Conan the Reaver story “The People of the Dark.” How much he himself believed in reincarnation has always been and probably always shall be an open question. Novalyne Price Ellis would interpret such ideas through her own experiences.

ELLIS: TO me, what Bob said about that was just a fascinating idea. Just another fantastic story to weave. I was down in the dumps. So he says, “Now here I was in Brownwood. I met this man, and we disliked each other the minute we saw each other. Maybe way back yonder somewhere, maybe he stole my woman or the bear I’d killed for food”—which was the most important to him I don’t remember. How could anybody take him seriously? I mean, that was spur-of-the-moment.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 21

Whether or not the Stranger is the ghost or reincarnation of Robert E. Howard—or Craig Blair in the setting of the play—it is indubitably an effort to capture something of Howard’s character and mannerisms.

As a piece of drama, “The Day of the Stranger” has legs: the identity of the “stranger” is never revealed, and all of the conflict is in Jeanne’s head, the tumult of emotions as she is torn between the memory of a dead man and the more unimaginative man she’s dating now. Yet on another level, for those familiar with the outlines of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship, it reads as a kind of catharsis—a way for her to work out many of the lingering emotions she might have had, to put a sense of closure on a relationship which ended on an unresolved chord.

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

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

“Last Rites for a Dead Druid” (1972) by Alvin Sapinsley

The 26th of January, 1972. Seventeen episodes into the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, the latest horror-anthology show from the acclaimed creator of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Already, this new Night Gallery series had proved a surprise for Lovecraft fans—while there was nothing Lovecraftian about “Miss Lovecraft Sent Me” in the first episode, viewers would be amused by the short burlesque “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” in episode 8, as well as serious adaptations of “Pickman’s Model” (episode 11) and “Cool Air” (episode 12). There were other adaptations from the Weird Tales too…Seabury Quinn’s “The Phantom Farmhouse,” a favorite of Lovecraft’s, was adapted in episode 5 and Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Devil Is Not Mocked” in episode 6, along with stories from August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Margaret St. Clair, and others.

Yet if a viewer were tuning in on that particular January night, the eighteenth episode of the season, they would watch “The Waiting Room” and “Last Rites of a Dead Druid”—paired together because each episode featured one of the stars of the recently-canceled Beverly Hillbillies—and probably never guess that in the latter they were seeing yet another Lovecraft adaptation…albeit one so completely twisted by Hollywood as to be basically unidentifiable to Lovecraft fans. How it got that way is a bit of a story unto itself.

Scouring his shelves, [producer Jack] Laird was often guided in spirit by the hand of tireless anthologist August Derleth. His 1946 collection Who Knocks? produced “The Phantom Farmhouse and “The Dear Departed,” and the original stories from which were adapted “The Painted Mirror,” “Death on a Barge,” and “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” came from a 1947 August Derleth anthology, The Sleeping and the Dead.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 92

No story “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” appeared by that title in The Sleeping and the Dead, but the book did include “Out of the Æons” (1935) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft. Hazel Heald and August Derleth were both dead by 1971, so it isn’t clear who was paid for the rights to the story, but when it came time to adapt the story for television the producers of Night Gallery turned to a reliable name: Robert Bloch.

“LARSON/72: What screenplays have you done for NIGHT GALLERY?

BLOCH: I did two things; adaptations of “Logoda’s Heads (Derleth) and “Out of the Eons” (Heald). “Logoda’s Heads” was broadcast last season and apparently came over quite well, although I was unable to see it. “Out of the Eons” was broadcast under a new title (“Last Rites for a Dead Druid”), and with a new story which bears not the slightest resemblance to Hazel Heald’s—or mine; something about a Druid statue in Santa Monica!”

Randall D. Larson interviewing Robert Bloch, The Robert Bloch Companion 126-127

In discussing how he had adapted Derleth’s “Logoda’s Heads,” Bloch explained:

I tried to stick as closely as I possibly could to the original […] because I know very well from first-hand experience how authors resent having their material drastically changed.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 240

If Bloch tried the same thing with “Out of the Æons,” the resultant teleplay may well not have worked for the producers of Night Gallery. Budgets and shooting schedules were tight in the second season, with many episodes using borrowed sets from other productions and minimal special effects. The productions made do, or tried to, with good actors, excellent camerawork, and tightly-written scripts that packed the maximum tension into the allotted minutes…

…or played it all for laughs. One of the noted shortcomings of the second season of Night Gallery was Jack Laird’s efforts to inject humor into the dramatic series, most notably the short vignettes featuring classic monsters which he tended to place in between longer dramatic segments. In a post-The Munsters era, these efforts at levity were stale and trite, but there were more subtle and sardonic uses of humor in the series too. In “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” for example, the eponymous professor is lecturing on the Cthulhu Mythos—and the eager students are named August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and H. P. Lovecraft! Hazel Heald was supposed to appear too, but she was trimmed from the final cut.

In any event, Bloch’s script was given to Alvin Sapinsley, who had written for the show before. Sapinsley stripped out everything except the most basic idea of the story, and in his own words:

I tried to insert a little humor […] because, I must confess to you, there was not a great deal of humor in the people who ran the program—except Jack Laird, who can be a very funny man. […] It was called Out of the Eons. […] I forgot who wrote it, but my final version was so far removed from the original short story as to be unrecognizable. […] I used the statue I had at the bottom of my garden as a stepping-off point. […] In fact, the statue is still in my backyard.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 268, 269

There is a certain irony here: Hazel Heald’s original story, as submitted to Lovecraft, appeared to be about “the basic idea of a living brain discovered in an ancient mummy” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 603), from which Lovecraft expanded and wrote out his story of an antediluvian priest trapped in living death; Sapinsley, in adapting the story, did to Lovecraft what Lovecraft had done to Heald—and retained little more than Heald’s original idea in his rewriting. Sapinsley’s script was originally titled “Silent Partner,” but was eventually broadcast as “Last Rites for a Dead Druid”—and in that last ditching of subtlety, becomes almost the perfect example of how Hollywood can take a good story and turn it into something pretty much unrecognizable. If a reader didn’t know better, they might think it an adaptation of Seabury Quinn’s “The Stone Image” (1919)—about a wife who buys an ancient stone idol that torments her husband and moves at night—but given how obscure that story is, the parallels are probably coincidental.

“Last Rites for a Dead Druid” could stand as an archetype of the difficulties in tone that beset Night Gallery’s second season. It is a very Hollywood production: the dark druid is named Bruce the Black, like a four-color comic book character, and the scene has been shifted from Massachusetts in the 1930s to sunny suburban California in the 1970s, and in place of awesome antiquity the horrors being faced are marital infidelity and barbecuing cats. Horror and humor are so tightly intermingled that it’s obvious Sapinsley was writing very tongue-in-cheek.

Yet for all that, when considered on its own merits “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” isn’t bad television. While Sapinsley’s script has nothing on Heald & Lovecraft for cosmic horror, within the constraints of telling a slightly dark and twisted story in 22 minutes and 26 seconds under a tight budget, it is relatively effective. The most glaring fault—if fault it is—may be the ambiguity of character Mildred McVane (played by Donna Douglas), who appears at the beginning of the story to initiate the action, and is there at the ending in a Twilight Zone-esque twist. Sapinsley’s original title “Silent Partner” perhaps suggests that McVane was meant to be in league with the petrified druid…but the possibility is only raised, never made definite. Perhaps there was a key scene to this story that was excised at some point which would have tied up the loose ends.

For Lovecraftians, “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” represents a lost opportunity: what could have been another early Cthulhu Mythos adaptation becomes instead something of a footnote. In that sense, it greatly resembles The Shuttered Room (1966) by Julia Withers. One gets the impression that Hollywood simply didn’t know what to do with the Mythos at this period—for all that major films successfully incorporated bits and pieces of it, damn few Lovecraftian stories able to make it through the gauntlet of Hollywood producers and come out recognizable. Ironically, two of those were “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air” in Night Gallery…but not “Out of the Æons.”

As of this time of writing, episode 18 of Night Gallery is not legally available to stream, but the entire season is available on DVD.

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

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

“Satan’s Servants” (1949) by Robert Bloch

As for young Bloch—give him plenty of time & leeway to fumble around & see what he really wants to do. He seems to want to do something, & there are many years ahead for him to develop in. His stories are of course imitative, overcoloured, & immature …. but what were most of the writers doing at 18?

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, [11? May 1935], O Fortunate Floridian 259

In 1949, Arkham House published Something About Cats and Other Pieces, an anthology that was the beginning of the scraping of what was then believed to be the bottom of the barrel of Lovecraftiana. Along with various essays, poems, and memoirs, the book also included several stories Lovecraft revised or ghostwrote, notably including “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) and “Four O’Clock” (1949) by Sonia H. Greene; “The Horror in the Burying-Ground” (1937) by Hazel Heald; “The Last Test” (1928) and “The Electric Executioner” (1930) by Adolphe de Castro, and almost as an afterthought, “Satan’s Servants” by Robert Bloch.

This was a decade before Bloch’s Psycho would be published; while a prolific pulp writer, he was not yet a household name, although his star was on the rise thanks to “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (Weird Tales, July 1943), which was adapted for radio and broadcast nationally in 1944, and Arkham House had published his first hardcover collection The Opener of the Way in 1945. Bloch was in correspondence with Derleth, and Derleth was on the hunt for Lovecraftiana—including copies of Bloch’s letters from Lovecraft for the long-simmering Selected Letters project. Perhaps it was during that rummaging in the files that led Bloch to unearth something that was almost a Lovecraft collaboration—though not quite. As Bloch told the story:

Some while ago a statement appeared to the effect that there were “no more unpublished Lovecraft stories or collaborations.” While lamenting this pronouncement, I recalled that early in 1935 I had written and submitted a story entitled Satan’s Servants, which was rejected by Farnsworth Wright, then editor of Weird Tales on the grounds that the plot-structure was too flimsy for the extended length of the narrative.

At that time I was in constant correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, and we frequently exchanged current manuscripts for suggestions and critical comment. Accordingly, I sent him my rejected sotry; and because the tale had a New England locale I made bold to ask if he would be interested in collaborating with me on a revision.

As the excerpts from his letter below will indicate, he refused a full-dress collaborative effort, but my manuscript came back copiously annotated and corrected, together with a lengthy and exhaustive list of suggestions for revision.

I placed the story in my files, fully intending to get at a new version when the time was right. Through the years the pages literally mouldered; I exhumed them from time to time when re-sorting material, moving, weeding out deadwood, and reviewing unpublished stories and outlines. Some years ago I utilized the name of the principal character, “Gideon Godfrey” when writing a tale in a modern setting. But Satan’s Servants gathered dust for fourteen long years until I fell to musing upon the sorry fact that there would be no more Lovecraft stories or stories inspired, revised, or partially-written.

Acting on impulse, I invaded the elephants’ graveyard at the bottom of my bureau and there, amidst a welter of outlines, novel fragments, radio scripts and assorted incunabula, I managed to disinter the yellowed pages of the original manuscript, with the marginalia in HPL’s familiar crabbed hand. I also unearthed Lovecraft’s lengthy letter in which he discussed the project of revision.

I determined to revise the tale forthwith, and spoke of my determination to August Derleth, Lovecraft’s biography, who suggested that I revise the story especially for the Arkham Sampler, and include a portion of the correspondence, plus some of the more pertinent critical commentary in the form of footnotes to the text of the tale. Excerpts from HPL’s letter accordingly follow, and the notes will be found at the conclusion of the story.

There is much to interest the student of Lovecraft’s work here; his comments mirror perfectly his own precise and erudite approach to his material. From the purely personal standpoint, I was often fascinated during the process of revision by the way in which certain interpolated sentences or phrases of Lovecraft’s seemed to dovetail with my own work–for in 1935 I was quite consciously a disciple of what has since come to be known as the “Lovecraft school” of weird fiction. I doubt greatly if even the self-professed “Lovecraft scholar” can pick out his actual verbal contributions to the finished tale; most of the passages which would be identified as “pure Lovecraft” are my work; all of the sentences and bridges he added are of an incidental nature and merely supplement the text. Certain major suggestions for plot-revision have been incorporated, but these in turn have been re-edited by a third party—myself, 1949 edition. For the Robert Bloch of 1935, as I painfully discovered during this revision process, is as dead as Howard Phillips Lovecraft is today. Peace to their mutual ashes!

Robert Bloch, Something About Cats 117-118

Versions of this anecdote were repeated by Bloch in interviews, his autobiography Once Around The Bloch, and a few other places; these various renditions are strongly consistent with one another, and what little evidence of the story there is in Lovecraft’s published Letters to Robert Bloch and Others corroborates the account. Bloch offers few additional details on “Satan’s Servants” and its creation—and why he let it molder for so long—but there are some pieces of information we can add to round out the story.

Bloch began submitting stories to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, in 1933 while still in high school. He didn’t receive an acceptance from Wright until after he graduated in June 1934, and his first publications were in fanzines like Marvel Tales, The Fantasy Fan, and Unusual Stories. When exactly “Satan’s Servants” was written and submitted isn’t exactly clear in the timeline of Bloch’s early fiction, but it may well have been one of his first attempts at novelette length (the finished product is ~11,500 words). Lovecraft’s first letter mentioning the story is believed to have been written in late February or early March of 1935, so the story may have been submitted to Weird Tales near the end of 1934.

The timing may be important: Bloch’s first professional publication was “The Feast in the Abbey” (Weird Tales Jan 1935), another story that deals with Satanism, and which perhaps borrows on or was inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries”—and in many respects, “Satan’s Servants” reads as though it might have been a more extended effort along this same theme, albeit transposed from the European setting to North America, and drawing a connection with the Salem Witch Trials. Too, it is important to note that this was just before Bloch’s proper “Lovecraftian phase” with stories like “The Suicide in the Study” (Weird Tales Jun 1935)—while Bloch was showing a bit of evidence of Lovecraft’s influence in his prose in terms of adjectivitis, there is no direct Mythos connection in the published version of the story, nor references to such in Lovecraft’s letters discussing the story, so it was probably not directly inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (Weird Tales Jul 1933) or any of his other references to a Salem diaspora as in “The Dunwich Horror,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Festival,” etc.

Some reviewers, notably Evertt F. Bleiler in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction and Randall D. Larson in Robert Bloch Starmont Reader’s Guide 37, have drawn a connection between the Puritan protagonist Gideon Godfrey and Robert E. Howard’s Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane—and that is possible. In 1934, Bloch had publicly lambasted Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian in the pages of Weird Tales (see Fan Mail: Bloch vs. Conan), but Bloch’s denunciation of the barbarian did not extend to Kane. Certainly, Bloch took at least a little inspiration from Robert E. Howard at times, such as the reference to Set in “Mother of Serpents” (1936), and perhaps even in “The Black Lotus” (Unusual Stories Winter 1935). However, Bloch himself never drew this parallel, however, and the literal Bible-thumping Godfrey is far from the sword-wielding Solomon Kane.

When Bloch did finally resurrect this story from his files for August Derleth, he did so with extensive quotes from Lovecraft’s letter in reply to his collaboration suggestion. Since that time, the full contents of the letter have been published, including several bits that Bloch or Derleth mistranscribed or left out. Lovecraft’s fuller remarks on the story are as follows:

And now let me congratulate you most sincerely on the excellence of “Satan’s Servants”—which I read with keen pleasure & unflagging interest. Wright was an ass to reject it—for, as I have often pointed out, plot in the artificial sense has no place in a weird tale—which should be simply the reflection of a mood. I greatly appreciate the compliment of the intended dedication to me, & would have deemed it an honour to be mentioned in such a way.

Regarding the future treatment of the story—it certainly deserved touching up & further submission for publication. I have taken the liberty to add some marginal notes & made some changes which seemed necessary from an historical & geographical standpoint. Most of these explain themselves.

Roodford had to be outside the boundaries of teh Massachusetts Bay Colony, since the strict oversight prevailing within that rigid theocratic unit would never have suffered such a place to exist. Also–the location had to be shifted to some point on the coast where the settlement was not thick. Early New England was colonised with a rush, so that by 1690 the whole coastal region was dotted with thriving towns & almost continuous farmsteads. Two generations of settled life had removed every trace of the wilderness aspect, & (after King Phillip’s War in 1675-6) Indians were rarely seen. The only place in the coast where a village could exist relatively unknown, would be Maine—whose connexion with Mass. did not begin until 1663, & which was not an actual part of that province till July 1690. I have decided to locate Roodford between York & Wells if that is agreeable to you. Enclosed is a map of N.E. (which you can keep) shewing the new position. That any wilderness journey would have to start from Portsmouth & not Boston or Salem, will be obvious from an inspection of this chart. The narrative itself is splendidly vivid—my only criticism having to do with Gideon’s excessively quick discovery of the nature & horrors of Roodford. It would be much more powerful to have this revelation come with hideous gradualness, after days of hellish suspicion—as in Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries”. That is what I tried to do (though with a reduced time-scale) in “Innsmouth”. In going over the style, it would be well to be on guard against the tendency toward adjectival heaviness which besets both you & me. (In my present attempt I am pausing now & then to cut out bits of involuntary overcolouring which insist on creeping in—references to “monstrous & maddening arcana of daemoniac palaeogean horror” &c. &c.) Occasionally I have changed a word—either because of repetition or because of some doubtfulness in usage. If any such case seems unjustified, I’ll be glad to explain it—or the dictionary will shed light on most. Be very careful when representing archaic language—for the usual tendency is to overshoot the mark & make the diction too ancient. Study the spelling in actual specimens of 17th century printing. I’ve made a few changes in your principal sample—on page 1. Regarding Governor Phips—he was no witch-finder prior to 1692, but a voyager & soldier of fortune whose career makes interesting reading. Look up the long section devoted to him in Mather’s “Magnalia” (probably available at the public library), or read the interesting popular account in Hawthorne’s “Grandfather’s Chair”. At the end of the story I’ve brought up the point of whether you ought to have the action of the story take place before or after the 1692-3 Salem affair. Certainly, it ought to be afterward if you wish to convey the idea that this Roodford business ended witchcraft in New England. Byt the way—the leading wizard in the Salem trouble, Rev. George Burroughs, came from Wells, Maine, near the relocated site of Roodford. You could make something of that, perhaps, if you wished. Another thing—if you want Roodford farther removed from the outposts of civilisation—so that very little will be known about it—you could have it up some navigable river farther north in Maine. That would provide for a longer journey through the primal wilderness, & the dark charm of greater isolation. But it’s quite all right right as now relocated.

Now as to the idea of collaboration—this tale really tempts me more than any other I’ve seen lately, but I honestly don’t believe I could undertake any collaborative job at all at this time. Collaboration is for me the most difficult & exhausting of all work. It entails twice the labour of original writing, & tends to cut off original material which I would otherwise be producing. […] Under any circumstances collaboration is a harder task than original writing, & the only possible justification is that of wishing some idea to be properly developed which otherwise wouldn’t be. Now in the case of “Satan’s Servants”, I feel certain that you can develop the tale yourself just as well as I could—hence don’t feel guilty in suggesting that you try it. During recent months I have had to place a complete veto—sheer self-defense—on all collaboration projects. I have refused point-blank to do any more jobs for Mrs. Heald & old de Castro & others–& recently declined to collaborate with Price on a sequel to the “Gates of the Silver Key”. I simply can’t tackle so much when my time & nervous energy are so limited—& when so many stories of my own are veritably howling to be written.

But as I said before–in this case I feel sure that I’m not doing the tory any harm by staying out of it. It’s great stuff, & you can polish it up just as well as anybody else oculd. The descriptions of the Sabbat are splendid, & the climax is magnificent. The primary need is to make the traveller’s introduction to the horrors subtler & more gradual. One excellent story to follow as a guide is John Buchan’s novel “Witch Wood”—which you ought to be able to get at a library. I can lend you Blackwood’s “John Silence” (with “Ancient Sorceries”) if you like, but unfortunately I don’t own “Witch Wood.” If you want to introduce more events in the story, you could have Godfrey suspected by the evil folk before he unmasks. That episode of the stag could form a basis for such a development—Hell-Friar could come upon Gideon praying in the woods, or something like that. Or some lesser denizen (so as to save H. F. for the climax) could spy on Gideon, & be detected in so doing. Gid could shoot him (at a distance—across a river or something like that) & fail to find any body when he reaches the spot. There are all sorts of twists one could work in if necessary. But none of them is really needed. Just make the unveiling of the hellish conditions more gradual, & you’re all set! I surely hope the tale will achieve eventual placement–illustrations form your pen would make a mighty asset. Incidentally—I feel rather akin to Gideon, since I have an actual line of Godfrey ancestry. On Oct. 29, 1732, my ancestor Newman Perkins (b. 1711) was married to Mehitabel, daughter of John Godfrey of S. Kingston, R.I. We may well assume John to be Gid’s brother or nephew or cousin!

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, [late Feb/early Mar 1935], Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 129-131

Some of these ideas Bloch clearly took to heart: the opening dedication to Lovecraft was replaced by a quote from Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). Readers might be surprised at Lovecraft’s caution against excessive color in the descriptions, but this is not that unusual—Lovecraft wrote something very similar when critiquing Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror” the next year:

Another criticism I’d make is that the colour is laid on too thickly—strange things come too rapidly in succession, & with too great abruptness. In some cases there is not enough gradualness & emotional preparation. The best & most potent horror is the subtlest—what is vaguely hinted but never told. A certain kind of sensation of disquiet is usualy more effective than a scaly, tentacled monster—& in the greatest weird story ever written—Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”—virtually nothing visibly & openly happens.

H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 12 Mar 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore & Others 230

One has to wonder if Lovecraft recognized already that pasticheurs were distorting his style by accentuating the easily-imitatable bits while overlooking the underlying mood he intended to invoke in the reader.

In addition to these notes, Lovecraft had also sent back the annotated first draft and the map with Roodford marked on it; while the full extant of these notes is unclear, Bloch has given a bit of the flavor to them by including, as an appendix to the story, a set of 18 such notations. For example, the tale in Something About Cats opens:

It was quite evident that the inhabitants of Roodsford(1) did not come over in the Mayflower or any of her sister ships; that, indeed, they had not sailed from an English port at all.

Robert Bloch, Something About Cats 121

And the parallel footnote is:

(1) The original mss. Gives the name as Rood-ford. HPL suggests “Roodsford” saying, “The hyphenated place name would not have occurred in early New England.”

Something About Cats 146

Lovecraft’s letter clearly uses “Roodford” (no s), whether it was different in the annotation or if Bloch misread or mistranscribed those notes is impossible to say without the original—Bloch is otherwise very consistent in the name. Absent the original, the notes go to show the typical thought process which Lovecraft put into his own stories such as “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” with the great attention to detail and an eye toward historical accuracy, or at least as accurate as Lovecraft was aware of given his sources at the time. For example, another pair reads:

Again and again time was lost, till at length Gideon’s carefully arranged daylight travelling schedule seemed likely to prove of no avail. (7)

(7) The previous sentence was inserted by HPL with comment, “Travel was very slow in 1690.” And on the obverse side of the mss. Page, he lists four ferry passages by name, followed by such estimates as “On horseback—av. 5 MPH. With guides on foot—av. 3 MPH.Boston-Nemb.—40M. Newb.-Ports.—20 M. Ports-Roodf.—20 M. Tme from Ports to Roodf. Should be 8 or 9  h., allowing for rest, delays. Starting 6 AM, intending to arrive at 3 PM, delays adding 5 to 6 hours more—hence twilight or nocturnal advent would be correct.” This is an excellent example of HPL’s perfectionist approach to his own work.

Something About Cats 124 / 146

The question may well be asked at this point: to what degree does “Satan’s Servants” qualify as a revision or collaboration? Without the original version to compare, with or without Lovecraft’s annotations, it’s difficult to say with any exactitude how much Bloch took from Lovecraft. Certainly, Lovecraft gave notes to many young writers on their stories, some of which they accepted, but we would hardly claim that Fritz Leiber’s “Adepts Gambit” (1947) was a Lovecraft revision for all that he saw the first version and commented extensively on it, and some of those suggestions taken. Bloch himself was very careful to not call it full-on revision or collaboration, avoiding the kind of claim that August Derleth would make with stories like “The Murky Glass” (1957). Perhaps he had good reason to.

SCHWEITZER/75: Didn’t [Lovecraft] revise one of your stories?

BLOCH: That was a story called “Satan’s Servants” and he sent me a map locating my imaginary town of Roodsford, and he made several of these genealogical and historical references in the form of footnotes which I then incorporated into the sotry of referred to, but he did no actual rewriting of it whatsoever. I had written it, and Weird Tales wasn’t interested in it, so I put it away until August Derleth said, “Would you please let me print this?”

SCHWEITZER/75: Do you think that the fact that you did it yourself is the reason that of all the people Lovecraft did any revision for, you’re the only one who ever amounted to anything? For example, none of the heavy revision clients of his that you see in The Horror in the Museum ever sold anything by themselves or gained any reputation.

BLOCH: I think I was just lucky. I was fortunate to be able to break into print on my own, and there might be an element of learned the hard easy in the school of the Depression. You’ve got to do it on your own or else you have no inner security. If you have to rely on someone else, some exterior force, whether it’s a person or a talisman or a compulsive ritual that you have to indulge in before you can write, you’re really painting yourself into a corner. So I’ve tried to avoid those things.

Darrell Schweitzer, Interview with Robert Bloch, quoted in The Robert Bloch Companion 34

Although Bloch was probably ignorant of it, there was some rumination among the circle of Lovecraft’s former correspondents about how much Lovecraft had helped the young writer:

I cannot believe that Bloch had any outright jobs done for him by HPL, for the reason that Bloch is showing us all his letters from HPL, and they would reveal any such tinkerings. Bloch himself says he made changes on his first story—in which he killed HPL off—made suggestions on occasion, did no rewriting on any of his tales, says he never even saw The Manikin. Any proof of collaborations you have I shall be eager to examine; I know about Mrs. Heald’s work—she has forwarded a concise statement of his revisions for her.

August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 5 Apr [n.d.; 1943?], MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

You know about Heald. He rewrote Rimel until he was a new text, and I have a strong belief that he did Bloch. (Bloch is not necessarily sending you all letters, and anyway HP was very graceful about such things and might not make open statements. I’m indifferent to Bloch—not out to drag him down, but I think he gets unfair credit.) Belknap says that he is certain—on what grounds I don’t know—that HP wrote all of Bloch’s good stories.

R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, [n.d. 1943?], Wisconsin Historical Society

I’m sure that’s all wet about HPL writing Bloch’s earlier stories in toto. I saw some of the mss., and in spite of certain crudities and juvenilities, they had plenty of promise and did not need an unlimited amount of retouching. Bobby Barlow is full of prunes or tequila or something.

Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 4 Jan 1944, Eccentric, Impractical Devils 344

Scuttlebutt and gossip. Ultimately, it is only of academic interest how much influence Lovecraft had on this particular story—Robert Bloch’s reputation does not rest on “Satan’s Servants,” nor did it ever. It would be of interest to unearth the original annotated manuscript, if it still exists—or perhaps that map that Lovecraft sent to Bloch still exists among his papers—but at the end of the day, taking the story on its own merits, the Lovecraftian connections are probably the most interesting thing about it.

Which may explain, in part, it’s rather limited publication history. After appearing in Something About Cats (1949), the story was reprinted in The Magazine of Horror #30 (Dec 1969) and Revelations from Yuggoth #2 (May 1988)…and that is it for English publications, although various non-English translations exist. “Satan’s Servants” never appeared in any collection of Bloch’s Mythos fiction, or in any ofhis collections of his early fiction. A letter preceeding the 1988 publication may explain things:

Dear Mr Ford:

Thanks for yours of the 13th—but it’s not proving to be a lucky number! I’ve already promised use of SATAN’S SERVANTS to someone else, and it will be appearing soon, I believe. Of course certain changes in the text—i.e. elimination of HPL’s comments—will be made, since Arkham House claims ownership of his literary estate and the original SOMETHING ABOUT CATS is copyrighted by Derleth, which further complicates matters. Sorry the timing of your request dodn’t work out—that all goes well with you!

Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch to Carl Ford, 28 Aug 1987, H. P. Lovecraft and His Legacy

If Derleth’s heirs were being tightfisted about the quotes from Lovecraft’s letters, that might account for the relative scarcity of “Satan’s Servants” in English.

“Satan’s Servants” is not some lost Lovecraftian masterpiece; it is a rather prosaic, even old-fashioned, tale of good-vs.-evil in a decidedly Christian mold. There is a bit of irony that a Jewish teenager might so successfully ape the tropes of the Christian fantasy story, but Bloch had attended the Methodist Church and was anyway quite familiar with the slant of Weird Tales, where it was not counted a sin to fight vampires with crucifixes and holy water, but which was notably short on dybbuks, golems, and other aspects of Jewish religion and folklore. It is, ultimately, a fairly minor early Bloch story, not one of his best and certainly not some of his worst writing for the period, and notable almost exclusively for the Lovecraft connection. For Bloch-heads and Lovecraftian completists, it is worth tracking down.

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

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

Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen

Thus I am coming to be convinced that the erotic instinct is in the majority of mankind far stronger than I could ever imagine without wide reading & observation; that it relentlessly clutches the average person—even of the thinking classes—to a degree which makes its overthrow by higher interests impossible.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Apr 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 177

Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen is a farcical sequel to At the Mountains of Madness by way of Debbie Does Dallas. The tone is very tentacle-in-cheek: sexually explicit, outrageously unrealistic, over-the-top, and surprisingly dedicated to wringing out jokes from Lovecraft’s Mythos with all the aplomb of an X-rated version of National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings or Doon. It is gleefully and unapologetically taking the piss in a way that is rather rare even for most Mythos parodies such as “The Fluff at the Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber or “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Jason Wayne Allen, whose other Mythos works include the Deep One erotic novella Ichthyic in the Afterglow (2015) and “The Horror at the Garrsmouth Orgy” in Strange Versus Lovecraft (2013). Drawing on both the surrealistic atmosphere of bizarro fiction and the rhetoric of gonzo pornography, Allen has crafted a nymphomaniac heroine who is utterly unfazed as one eldritch horror after another crawls out of—and into—her orifices.

Readers might be shocked and appalled at a character who embodies the sex-crazed vapid bimbo or nymphette, may be affronted by Allen’s mockery of the Mythos, even disgusted by crude language and scenes like this:

My legs in the stirrups, I watch the doctor’s head move between my knees. I wonder if the doctor likes the hair I keep down there, that orange patch matching the carpet to my fiery drapes. My hips slowly rise as I feel his latex fingers part my pussy lips. I come hard in the doctor’s chiseled face, and out with my juices comes the shoggoth.

Dr. Wadsworth is a skid mark on the floor of his examination room.

Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 7-8

Shocked, appalled, disgusted—and, hopefully, still turning the pages—is the point. A shoggoth emerging during a nonstandard vaginal exam and squishing the attending physician is played for erotic slapstick, not horror. The whole point of the exercise is to push the limits a little, to pile silly on silly, affront on affront, to say to hell with conventions and expectations and keep transgressing further and further…because it’s a fun ride. Disturbing in parts, borderline obscene in others, but that’s rather the point. If you’re not going push the limits of what the audience finds acceptable, the ne plus ultra, then why write a transgressive erotic Lovecraftian novella anyway?

There is one scene that tip-toes on the very borders of obscenity, if it doesn’t cross directly over it. It involves the mortal remains of Dr. Wadsworth, the gynecologist who was splattered by the shoggoth, reassembled with an aborted fetus and reanimated so that the Frankenstein’s Monster can give Beatrixxx one more going-over before the serum wears off. I’m not sure that one would pass the Miller Test.

In a sense, Shoggoth Butt Invasion is Mythos-as-exploitation. The erotic possibilities of Lovecraft’s Mythos may be theoretically infinite, but in practice most “Lovecraftian” erotica follows familiar beats. It’s a rare work that seeks to be as transgressive, weird, and offensive as most readers and critics imagine Lovecraftian erotica should be. Allen is more dedicated to explicitly Mythos erotica than Cthulhu Scat Hangover & The Innsmouth Porno VHS (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, but doesn’t have the dedication to characterization, setting, and plot that are the hallmarks of Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels such as Trolley No. 1852 and The Dunwich Romance.

Cthulhu lets go another shriek. THis one warbles into almost a human moan.

“Fuck yeah! Iä! Iä Fhtagn that pussy, baby!

Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 42

Future generations will probably never read Shoggoth Butt Invasion. Released as an ebook via AmazonKindle and a slim print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace, the book is no longer available for sale in either format. New Kink Books, the publisher, appears to be defunct. For all that POD publishing and digital publishing have opened up the marketplace to thousands of new titles for readers, it is a very fast-paced and fragile reading ecosystem. Books that don’t sell fall off the backlist as publishers crash or content managers find offense with them, and there are vanishingly few to filter down into the secondary market of used books. Libraries ignore them.

Sometime in the future, perhaps, if a cult following develops the few surviving copies might become collector’s items—or the files might crop up on some sharing site, helping to circulate those networks and hard drives too eventually crap out. Now, more than ever, books that are not read and appreciated in their time are likely destined to be forgotten utterly.

Does it matter? Is Shoggoth Butt Invasion worth preserving?

You’ll never know unless it is.

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

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

Fight! Iczer-One (戦え!!イクサー1, 1985-1987)

Nagisa: “Why did you chose me?”

Iczer-One: “Because I like you.”

Fight! Iczer-One

The manga “Fight! Iczer-One” (戦え!!イクサー1) by Rei Aran (阿乱 霊) was first serialized in issues 21 and 22 (1983-1984) of Japanese manga anthology magazine Lemon People (レモンピープル), with an additional chapter published in 1986. From 1985-1987, the series was adapted as an Original Video Animation consisting of three episodes running a total of ~100 minutes. This begat a small franchise that would include the sequels OVA Adventure! Iczer-3 (冒険!イクサー3, 1990-1991) and Iczer Girl Iczelion (戦ー少女 イクセリオン, 1995), American comic adaptations the OVA Iczer One (1994, Antarctic Press) and Iczer-3 (1996, CPM), and various audio dramas, art books related to the OVAs, etc. Much of this media is only in Japanese, but the original OVA for Fight! Iczer-One was dubbed into English in 1993, and with this and subsequent re-release on DVD it has a small English-language audience, and this review will focus primarily on the 1985-1987 three-episode OVA, specifically the 2005 DVD release.

In terms of what it is, Fight! Iczer-One is almost the quintessential 1980s anime. It has big hair, martial arts, laser swords, an alien invasion, flying ships with drills on the front, giant mecha, body horror, tentacles, the power of love, a high school girl, a little bit of nudity, lesbians, lasers, explosions…and, of course, the aliens who are attacking the Earth are known as the Cthulhu (クトゥルフ), sometimes translated into Cthulwulf in the dub.

Rei Aran, the creator of the original manga, and Hirano Toshiki (平野 俊貴), the director and character designer for the OVAs, were obviously drawing on some familiar influences. For example, the alien parasites that provide the majority of the body horror have obvious parallels with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and possibly Alien (1979), and the advanced Japanese military ships with the prominent front-mounted drills are reminiscent of the Gōtengō—but the story and designs were also innovative.

Iczer Robo: A Visual History illustrates how the mecha designs are relatively sleeker than those of other manga and anime of the period, such as Robotech or Appleseed, and incorporate organic components (notably, the secondary pilot as a kind of power source), an idea that would be taken much further in works like Neon Genesis Evangelion. The relative dearth of male characters in the story, where both primary protagonists and antagonists are women, and the focus on lesbian relationships is a decided step away from male- and heterosexual-dominated narratives in manga and anime as well…and that brings up a fine point of discussion.

Lemon People was known as a lolicon magazine that often featured manga depicting younger or younger-looking women or girls in a romantic or sexual context. Today the term lolicon (derived ultimately from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita) is often associated with pedophilia and pornography, particularly Japanese art and manga that depict underage girls in sexually suggestive, nude, or explicitly sexual contexts, which rather drives folks to imagine something much more salacious and taboo than the reality, even without taking into account Japanese censorship laws. “Fight! Iczer-1” and its adaptations and sequels are not child pornography by any stretch of the imagination, featuring no explicit depiction of genitalia and relatively little nudity during its runtime. The protagonist Kanō Nagisa is explicitly in high school at the time of the events, much as the main characters of Sailor Moon were, and is clearly an older teen rather than an adolescent.

While this is technically the first Lovecraftian animated work to feature a lesbian relationship, predating Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, 1999) by over a decade, the plot focuses more on the emotional side of the relationship rather than the sexual side of things. Iczer-One needs the emotional rapport with Nagisa to effectively fight the Cthulhu, but there is a barrier of understanding which complicates this relationship even getting off the ground. It may seem weird to claim a realistic depiction of relationship struggles in an anime where aliens eat their way out of Nagisa’s parents and a giant mecha is powered by lesbian love, but a lot of the emotional angst Nagisa goes through could have been eased up if Iczer-One had been open and communicative about her needs for this relationship/plan to save the planet.

Iczer-One: “I was created by the Cthulhu. I’m an android.”

Fight! Iczer-One

If all of this doesn’t sound very Lovecraft…well, it is not. Fight! Iczer-One is Mythos-In-Name-Only; the alien Cthulhu have no real connection to H. P. Lovecraft or the Mythos beyond the name. The use of the name is reminiscent of how in Armitage III (1995) the scriptwriter Konaka Chiaki (小中 千昭) borrowed the name “Armitage” from Dr. Henry Armitage in Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”: a reference, an inspiration, but not ultimately an effort to incorporate the story into any wider Mythos through the borrowing. This kind of tangential connection to the Mythos is more common than one might think; like the inclusion of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Evil Dead II, these are the outer ripples of Lovecraft’s influence on the pop cultural landscape.

It has to be emphasized: Fight! Iczer-One is fun. While the franchise was never huge in English and amounts to little more than a couple VHS tapes or DVDs and a handful of obscure comics, for those who remember anime of this vintage, the OVA is a good example of a lesser-known and often overlooked work from this period.

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

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

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon

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

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

Know, you scholars of the occult, that during the patriachal years of Hyborian Age the crazy and decadent kings established their totalitarian kingdoms under the sky: Nemedia, with its spurious and imprecise chronicles; Ophir; Brythunia; Zamoa, where young girls were forced to prostitute themselves in dark temples; Zingara and her presumed knights; Koth, who sold their daughters as slaves to the harems of Hirkania to be covered with silk and gold chains. But the greatest and most powerful was Aquilonia, the tarnished jewel of the West in the hands of conceited and incapable men.

And from Cimmeria came Collwen, a free and indomitable woman from the north, with black hair as the firmament, eyes as intense blue as the hottest flame and the animal profile of a wild mountain panther; sword in hand and ready to crush with her footsteps the arrogant patriarchs of the world.

Imagine that the ultimate hero of sword and sorcery, no matter how much the misogynist chronicles had distorted it, was a strong and indomitable woman. Imagine that a daughter of CImmeria would have been the protagonist of thousands of adventures as mercenary, pirate and chief of men; and that her inimitable feats, marked with the tip of her sword, deserved not to be forgotten again.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Most of Robert E. Howard’s heroes were men. A survey of the pulp magazines those characters appeared in during his life such as Weird Tales and Oriental Stories showed that this focus on male protagonists was common. It was unusual for there to be women protagonists in those pulps, and rare indeed to see a woman serial character such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who first saw life in “Black God’s Kiss” (1934).

When Jirel appeared, two years after Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian first took to the page in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” readers of Weird Tales hailed her as a veritable female Conanbut that wasn’t strictly accurate. Jirel was not an alternate-gender version of Howard’s most famous barbarian, nor were the stories of Jirel of Joiry the same kind of hardboiled fantasy rooted in historical adventure fiction that the Conan tales were. If there were any characters like that, they were in Howard’s own stories: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; Valeria of the Red Brotherhood; Red Sonia of Rogatino; and Dark Agnes de Chastillonthe latter of whom never saw print during Howard’s lifetime, but Moore would read her story and gush about it in her letters with Robert E. Howard.

The first pastiches of Howard’s particular style of fantasy did not see print until after his death. Weird Tales tried to fill the gap the pulpster had left in their pages with Clifford Ball’s fantasies “Duar the Accursed” (WT May 1937) and “The Thief of Forthe” (WT Jul 1937), and Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis in “Thunder in the Dawn” (WT May-Jun 1938), “Spawn of Dagon” (WT Jul 1938), “Beyond the Phoenix Gate” (WT Oct 1938), and “Dragon Moon” (WT Jan 1941). Very likely, the dismissal of Farnsworth Wright and the ascension of Dorothy McIlwraith as editor of Weird Tales signaled an editorial policy shift away from heroic fantasy, a field that was rapidly becoming competitive.

Musclebound barbarians of any gender were not the norm in fantasy fiction during the 40s and 50s, although male protagonists still dominated in fantasy fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The 1960s, with its paperback reprints of Howard’s Conan and other fantasies, saw a revival of interest with a new generation of writers. Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniboné with “The Dreaming City” (Science Fantasy No. 47, June 1961), and Joanna Russ created her swordswoman Alyx with “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (Orbit 2, 1967), among others.

Marvel Comics obtained a license from the Robert E. Howard estate, and in 1970 published Conan the Barbarian, which would run for decades and hundreds of issues, spawning many different series, graphic novels, and related works. In Conan the Barbarian #23 (1973), series writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith introduced the character of Red Sonjainspired by Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonja was created to be a female swordswoman in the Howardian mold, a female counterpart but not clone of their successful Cimmerian. Red Sonja would go on to have her own series, guest star in various comics, serve as the protagonist in six fantasy novels by David C. Smith and a 1985 film, and her adventures continue today.

Unlike Conan, Red Sonja had no single main writer, and because she is a licensed character, her continuity has seen a great deal more flux. Where most of the official Conan pastiches by writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Robert Jordan kept the Cimmerian firmly grounded in Howard’s Hyborian Age, Sonja’s career has been more varied. There is no single “Probable Outline of Red Sonja’s Career,” the way there is for Conan. While her comics often have long story arcs or reoccurring characters like the villainous wizard Kulan Gath, they do not exist in a single rational chronicle.

Many of these stories are little more than generic quasi-medieval European fantasies with a female swordswoman protagonist who happens to be Red Sonjaand various writers and artists have taken advantage of this fact by writing their own versions of the She-Devil. Marada the She-Wolf (1982) by Chris Claremont and John Bolton was originally planned as a Red Sonja story, but was changed because of licensing issues. Frank Thorne worked on Marvel’s Red Sonja stories, and when he left the book created his own, more explicitly erotic version of the character, Ghita of Alizarr in 1979.

There are many many more examples that could be cited. For instance, Jessica Amanda Salmanson’s Amazons! anthology in in 1979, which introduced the Sword & Soul character Dossouye, inspired by the real-life women warrior society of Dahomey; and Marion Zimmer Bradley began the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series in 1984. The point of this brief history is threefold:

  • There are plenty of women protagonists in heroic fantasy.
  • They are not just Conan the Cimmerian with the serial numbers filed off and a pair of breasts.
  • Their stories are not simply Robert E. Howard pastiches.

These are important points to keep in mind when considering Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019), because this is a work which exists in a specific context, and it has to be evaluated both for what it is, and what it is trying to be, as far as the author Matthew N. Sneedon has stated in his introduction.

Unlike Jirel, Red Sonja, Dossouye, etc., Collwen the Cimmerian is a deliberate and explicit gender-swapped version of Conan the Cimmerian. While their adventures are not identical, the basic descriptions, attitudes, and activities of the characters are substantially similar, and they are operating in the same milieu: Sneedon has set Collwen’s adventures in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, in the cities and countries from the Conan stories. In this respect Collwen the Cimmerian is perhaps a bit closer to fanfiction or The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez than any of the original heroic fantasy women about such as Jirel or Alyx.

There are two stories in Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One: “The She-Master of the Dark Conclave” and “The Offspring of the Depths.” Both are serviceable and straightforward pastiches; “The Offspring of the Depths” has some initial similarities to Howard’s Conan story “Gods of the North” but turns into something more Lovecraftian before the end. Collwen is a perfectly adequate female pastiche of Conan, played absolutely straight: there are no jokes, no sly asides about gender trope reversals like rescuing and bedding princes, and very little about Collwen’s sexuality at all. The one time it comes up in any substantial way is a single passage:

Collwen had left her homeland to travel the world on her two powerful legs, not on a palanquin. She did not wish to spend years lying on a couch surrounded by maidservants to fatten up and let a round merchant impregnate her with a dozen cubs. She was not motivated by gold or gems. She just wanted to make the most of life; to see all the forgotten corners and wonders of the world, from the western coasts of the Picts to the eastern jungles of Khitai; to eat, drink, love and, above all, fight. She had not board to Stygia to obtain a sack full of gold, but to relish the war that had seen her being born.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Robert E. Howard’s Conan never explicitly denied the desire to settle down with a wife and have a bunch of kids after a big score. He never had to: there were fewer social expectations for men in the 1930s to settle down and procreate compared with women. Most male protagonists in heroic fantasy don’t have to consciously address or even acknowledge the gender and sexual expectations of their period; by contrast, women fantasy protagonists like Jirel and Red Sonja have had to explicitly deal with these social norms and mores, and how these issues are brought up and dealt with has changed over time.

In her own series of Marvel comics, for example, Red Sonja was noted for an oath to maintain her virginity unless defeated in battlea point which allowed the series to titillate in her chainmail bikini but avoided the appearance of promiscuity that Red Sonja would have had if she had engaged in as many casual sexual liaisons as Conan did. Her oath of celibacy was essentially a hard-coded example of the double standard about sexual experience between men and women in the 20th century. Gail Simone’s 2013 soft reboot of Red Sonja discarded both the character’s celibacy and her heterosexuality, making Sonja both bisexual and removing the supernatural onus against casual sex; writers since have played with both ideas in their own interpretations of the character.

Sneedon doesn’t spend much time on this particular aspect of Collwen’s character, nor does he necessarily have to: having a female character doesn’t necessarily require talking about such issues any more than a male character might. However, in the context of the opening paragraphs to these two stories, it is interesting to note that Sneedon spends little time or effort to actually depict the patriarchal nature of the Hyborian Age. There are a few echoes of the casual sexism that punctuated Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (like calling a grown woman “girl” as a diminutive), but less sexual discrimination or efforts to violently enforce gender norms than perhaps might be expected given the explicit contrast apparently intended between Conan and Collwen’s sagas.

If the patriarchy that Collwen is supposed to rebel against isn’t well-defined, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One unfortunately fallen into one of the traps of pastiching fantasy fiction from the 1930s: racism in the setting. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was marked by a combination of contemporary racial attitudes and ahistorical social conventions. Slavery existed, and it was largely slavery as practiced in antiquity or Biblical timesnot restricted to a single race or by skin color, as was the chattel slavery of the South before the American Civil War. Yet when Howard speaks of that slavery he sometimes casts it in explicitly contemporary racial terms:

“Valerius does not protect his subjects against his allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have been sold to the Kothic slave-traders.”

Conan’s head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.

“Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan they will live out the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.[“]

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon

In the 1930s, Howard could get away with explicitly exporting contemporary racial attitudes into his mythical Hyborian Age simply because they were so utterly common and widely-held that few readers or editors would find fault with such sentiments; he would lean more heavily into such ideas in describing the racially segregated society in “Shadows in Zamboula,” and would be most explicit about the racial and sexual dynamics in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967).

Writers who choose to pastiche Howard thus face a challenge: how to be faithful to the spirit of the world Robert E. Howard created and maintain continuity with his stories without explicitly continuing or endorsing those same racial prejudices and attitudes in their own fiction. It can be a fine dance: it is appropriate in a historical story to have a character with historically accurate racial prejudices; it is not appropriate for that character’s prejudices to be portrayed by the narrative as true or accurate. The failure of writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to observe this distinction in their own Conan pastiches was specifically called out in “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011) by Charles R. Saunders.

Sneedon has not managed to find the correct balance. For example, one character states:

Ngozi is my servant. She was a real princess in her tribe, but here she’s worth less than nothing. We must fear nothing of her. She’s a brute and an ignoramus, incapable of understanding what we expect. But she does understand what would happen to her if she tried to betray me.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Having a character be racist toward another character is unpleasant, but can help to define a character as unsympathetic or evil, and the relationship between the characters can be defined by that tension of racial prejudice with its arrogance and potential violence. Yet at no point does Sneedon do anything with Ngozi to disprove this prejudice, or to develop this relationship along those lines. Ngozi has no agency, no real voice for her own perspective, no chance to defend herself or deny or defy the stereotypes. The betrayal never takes place, and perhaps was not even planned. It is an attitude that a Howardian villain might well have expressed in a Conan story, but it was written in the 2010s, not the 1930s…and that is terrible. Sneedon should have known better.

Whenever a reader or critic comes across a work like this one, which takes a familiar character and setting and then changes some fundamental aspect like the gender of the main characterquestions have to be asked: why Collween the Cimmerian? What is it about the Hyborian Age in particular that made it the correct setting for Collwen as a character? How is Collwen different from Conan, and how is that difference integral to the stories written about her? Is it just fanfiction, or is there any deeper purpose to these pastiches that serves as contrast to and comment on Robert E. Howard’s stories?

Unfortunately, answers aren’t very forthcoming.

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon is available on Amazon Kindle.

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