“Cthylla” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder

They already have your money. And when the Goddess rises, everybody dies and none of this mattered. That’s just how it goes.
—Lucy A. Snyder, “Cthylla” in When the Black Stars Burn 81

But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money!
—George Carlin, You Are All Diseased (1999)

There is a popular conception that Lovecraft ignored economics in his Mythos stories. While he doesn’t deal with dollars and cents, and economic woes aren’t a major theme, this isn’t quite true. Money was largely a distraction in Lovecraft’s stories. When it was present at all, it was often in the form of gold, such as the ancient gold pieces spent by the Terrible Old Man, or the strange pale gold that came out of the refinery at Innsmouth, or that gold which was mixed with starborn Tulu metal in the caverns of K’n-yan in “The Mound.” The United States was still on the gold standard throughout Lovecraft’s lifetime; for a man that paid for his daily meals in dimes and quarters, gold was how he thought of wealth.

The cult of Cthulhu never needed gold. Why would they? Why would Cthulhu want your money?

Money and wealth weren’t major themes in Lovecraft’s work largely because the human emotions and narratives that wrapped around them—greed, desperation, economic stress—weren’t what he wanted to write about. His inheritances and legacies focus on different kinds of wealth: the ancient books of Wizard Whateley, preserved for his grandson’s use; the Innsmouth Look that can’t be bought or sold; the jade amulet pried from the corpse of a warlock, dug out of the grave. In that same sense, Lovecraft’s cults were not designed with the realities of religion in mind. We never hear of collection plates during the rites of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, or a building fun for a proper temple for the Cult of Cthulhu, or a bake sale or potluck for the Starry Wisdom.

Writers after Lovecraft have played with cults in any manner of ways, from Hollywood cultists with robes and wavy daggers in “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer or “Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek; to comedic farse in “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” (2015) by Valerie Valdes; to quasi-realistic cults of personality as in Agents of Dreamland (2017) by Caitlín R. Kiernan; to real-life cults in Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. There’s room in the Mythos for a multiplicity of takes on cults, because cults have become tropes and stereotypes…everything from a coven to a new religious movement to a criminal syndicate to a multi-level marketing scheme could be described as a “cult.” The particulars depend on the tone the author wants to strike, the use they have for them, the narrative they want to tell.

Lucy A. Snyder’s “Cthylla” is essentially a cyberpunk narrative, even though it’s set in a contemporary period and there isn’t any real science fiction or overt fantasy elements. Maybe some other label would be more fitting, but “cyberpunk” fits in terms of the themes more than the thematic trappings. Cyber because it is ultimately about computers and human connections, punk because it is a narrative of personal alienation, transformation, and ultimately rebellion against the status quo.

Real-life has shifted the technological and socio-political bases that cyberpunk of the 1980s was built on, but the themes remain relevant. Human augmentation and space travel were tropes of an older style of science fiction, adapted and explored with aplomb and style, but they didn’t really foresee the internet or smartphones, nor did they try to; the break-up of global superpowers and the rise of megacorporations never quite happened as they predicted, the environmental disasters and plagues foreseen have rolled out generally slower…but the point of science fiction is not to accurately predict the future. The point was to present a certain setting of high tech and low life, a background dystopia against which to tell stories where technology and society had reached a point of individual alienation and transformation. You can set a cyberpunk story in today’s world, without cyberware. We’ve arrived at the future, just not quite the one we imagined.

Yet the stars are not yet quite right.

The Temple of the Deep Mother needs your money because it is the megacorp of the setting. Technologically and legally savvy, its tentacles are everywhere, and it exists to squash individual interests and identities to conform to its self-serving goal. The megacorp doesn’t care about its employees; they are literally to be sacrificed, products made to be consumed, costs already factored into a cosmic balance sheet, and to fuel their continued growth and achieve their final goal they need to make movies, build and operate spiritual retreats, pay employees…everything costs money. Probably there’s a big spreadsheet with a bottom line pinpointing the exact cost to raise the Goddess from the deep.

There’s a certain banality to it all; that is to be expected when you pull the curtain back and think about how a cult would actually work in a world with smartphones and an internet. The Temple of the Deep Mother might be a bit more sinister than Raëlism or the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, but if it popped up today it would likely be hard to distinguish outwardly from other new religious movements. In the context of the story, Snyder makes that work. The ultimate result they aim for is mystical and nihilistic… “everybody died and none of this mattered.”

One thing didn’t fit into the program or prophecy: you can’t buy love, and you can do ever so much with computers these days. What if somebody did matter? What if you could make them matter? It is a very human response to rise up against a system that seeks to devalue humanity…and “Cthylla” is a very human story. The lesbian relationship that is developed, the brief interludes of loving someone that suffers from mental illness and attempts suicide, are poignant. They have to be, because they are the backbone of the story. One lives her corporate life, born to die; the other finds in her lover a reason to live and rise above herself.

There’s a certain symmetry between “Cthylla” and “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn—both of them feature a comparable ugliness in a cult that will literally sacrifice its future, its children, in pursuit of its goals, but they get there through different routes. “Take Your Daughters To Work” is industrially-focused, steampunk, visible machines and progress; “Cthylla” is more postmodern. Both may involve tallying lives and dollars, but there’s no way to judge progress for the millenarian project in “Cthylla.” There is a very punk aesthetic to the idea of being raised in a system where you very expressly have no future, except instead of nuclear war the promised apocalypse is some cosmic horror raised from the depths, and if Llewellyn’s story is about the horror of acceptance, Snyder’s story is about what happens if, just maybe, someone fights back.

“Cthylla” by Lucy A. Snyder was first published in The Library of the Dead (2015), and is also included in her collection While the Black Stars Burn (2015).


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.

“Two Fungi From Yuggoth” (1977) by Alice Briley

Sonnets, it seems to me, are preëminently the medium for complete ideas—in short, for a poetry as nearly intellectual as poetry can be without ceasing to be poetry. There is something inherently reflective and analytical about the very form of the sonnet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 25 Feb 1924, SL1.317

The Fungi from Yuggoth is a sonnet-cycle by H. P. Lovecraft which has become, post-mortem, his most-remembered and celebrated work of poetry. As David E. Schultz deftly traces in “Dim Essences: The Origins of The Fungi from Yuggoth” in The Fungi from Yuggoth: An Annotated Edition, most of the sonnets were composed in a forty-day burst from December 1929-January 1930, but their numbering and publication proved complicated during Lovecraft’s lifetime, with various sonnets appearing in different amateur journals and Weird Tales, sometimes labeled as part of the cycle and sometimes not, often with different numbering. Never published as whole during his lifetime, the full sonnet cycle was finally compiled in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House), and has been reprinted in whole and in part many times in the decades since, as well as analyzed, illustrated, set to music, and even adapted to comics.

More than that, “The Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets have inspired generations of writers and artists. One somewhat infamous project was Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, a novel of short pieces inspired by Lovecraft’s sonnets. Most of that work was lost, but of the ones that survive “The Courtyard” was adapted to comics and launched a body of related works, notably its sequels Neonomicon and ProvidenceOther works were in a more poetical vein, such as the anthology More Fungi from Yuggoth (2000), and Starry Wizdom’s “Night Gaunts, Too (On reading sonnet XX in H.P. Lovecraft’s *Fungi from Yuggoth* cycle)” from Walk on the Weird Side (2017).

Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth” (“in the manner of H. P. Lovecraft”) are a little more obscure. How and why she was inspired to write them isn’t clear. Briley was a noted poet associated with both state-level and national-level poetry organizations, and was no doubt at least aware of August Derleth through his poetry publications: in addition to publishing fantastic poetry through its regular imprint, Arkham House had a poetry-only imprint titled Hawk & Whipporwill. She could have read Lovecraft’s Fungi in the Arkham House Collected Poems of H. P. Lovecraft (1960), or the Ballantine paperback Fungi from Yuggoth & Other Poems (1971).

Whatever the case, in 1977 two sonnets labeled “Fungi from Yuggoth” appeared in her collection From A Weaver’s Shuttle. Newspaper accounts in ’77 and ’78 show Briley won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, possibly for that volume; the August Derleth Society Newsletter (vol. 4, no. 3, 1981), which reprinted the two Fungi claimed the poems won the August Derleth Memorial Award—unfortunately, the newspapers failed to list what awards that Briley won, and there are no lists of awardees for the NFSPS that far back currently available online, so it is hard to give specifics. The last publication of Briley’s Fungi I have been able to find is in a small pamphlet titled Weird Sonnets (1981, Owl Creek Press), which is described by one review as not a sequel to Lovecraft’s Fungi, but a collection of works that “belongs to the same loose tradition.”

Which is as accurate a description of Alice Briley’s Fungi as anything.

Her sonnets consist of “I. The Elder One” and “II. Arkham Hill.” They follow the form of Lovecraft’s Fungi, being 14 lines each; they are technically correct in terms of rhyme and meter, but probably aren’t the more beautiful lines she ever produced. The last lines to “The Elder One” for example are a bit clunky:

A feathered thing that bore a human face
Came swooping toward me in a wild descent,
and clutch me tightly in a foul embrace.
Not heaven’s herald, but from its fetid breath,
An Elder One more primative [sic] than death.

“More primitive than death” is an odd image. The rhyme works, but one wonders what exactly she was thinking of, since the “Elder One” reads more like a harpy or some fallen angel than most of Lovecraft’s creations.

“Arkham Hill” is a bit more promising, in that at least it establishes a stronger narrative and an effort at an original creation with ties to Lovecraft’s setting. The witch Eliza Pruitt lived by Arkham Hill, and many sought her until:

Until that fearful twilight when she found
Those mushrooms she had never seen before,
At dawn, they found her writhing on the ground
“Fungi from Yuggoth!” she screamed. Then said no more.

Again, not a great deal of familiarity is shown with Lovecraft’s fiction; at least, nothing to show that she had read anything beyond The Fungi from Yuggoth. Yet even that little exposure appears to have stirred her imagination, and she sought to expand on Lovecraft’s horrors in her own way. Yuggoth spores that took root in a fertile imagination and sprouted, however briefly, some fruiting bodies.

Given the decades since their last publication and Alice Briley’s demise, whether these particular Fungi will spread once again is unclear. Under current U.S. law, the work is almost certainly protected by copyright…but they are possible orphan works where determining who owns those copyrights and getting permission may be difficult and more costly than it is worth. This is an ongoing issues with many minor Mythos works, akin to some of the issues involved with fanfiction—and there is a danger that such works may be forgotten or lost with time before they can enter the public domain. Even digital archiving can be difficult without the proper permission from the copyright owners.

Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth,” then, represents both the fecundity and the fragility of the Cthulhu Mythos: while Mythos works are in no immediate danger of dying out, who knows what works have already been lost, crumbling away in some forgotten fanzine? 


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.

“SCP-5389” (2021) by Agisuru

The more these synthetic daemons are mutually writtne up by different authors, the better they become as general background-material! I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, ES 1.353
What has become known as the Cthulhu Mythos began as a kind of literary game. Writers at Weird Tales, inspired by each other’s artificial horrors, began to borrow or insert references to each other’s creations in their stories. The practice can be traced back earlier—Robert W. Chambers famously borrowed a few odd names from Ambrose Bierce for his stories in The King in Yellow—but H. P. Lovecraft and his friends took the game to another level.
About the Necronomicon—I like to have other authors in the gang allude to it, for it helps work up a background of evil verisimilitude.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 14 Aug 1931, LJS 35

The purpose of the sharing, of the Necronomicon appearing in both Lovecraft’s “The Hound” (1922) and Frank Belknap Long’s “The Were-Snake” (1925) was verisimilitude. The use of the same names by different authors reinforced the idea of a reality and consistency between the stories, that these writers were drawing from a shared background of genuine mythology…and it worked. Readers wanted to know more, they wrote to H. P. Lovecraft and other writers asking about where they could find out more about Cthulhu and Tsathoggua, and where they could get copies of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

It was the beginning of a shared universe and viral marketing, though neither term had been invented yet. Because the instantiation of the idea preceded its formal definition or codification, there have been a few quirks and hiccups. There was no concept of “canon” in the early Mythos stories: Lovecraft placed no restrictions on the use of his creations by other authors, and while there are a few references in his letters to attempting to keep things consistent between authors, he himself did not have or attempt to exercise any authority over the creativity of others. Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei, and Henry Kuttner continued to write their own stories, in their own styles. The Mythos was a connective tissue, and it was left to fans to try and codify, extrapolate, and gloss the bits of lore.

August Derleth was both an original author of the Mythos, contemporary and equal with Lovecraft and the others, and the first great codifier and pasticheur. Derleth had the great advantage that, as co-founder of Arkham House, he entered into agreements with Lovecraft’s surviving aunt Annie Gamwell and literary executor R. H. Barlow to publish Lovecraft’s fiction, and often acted to promulgate, define, and defend Lovecraft’s Mythos.

In his desire to see Lovecraft’s legacy continue in print, Derleth succeeded. However, in the process he had stifled creative use of the Mythos. His interpretations (or misinterpretations, as Richard L. Tierney would argue in “The Derleth Mythos”) had constrained the definition of both what the Mythos was and could be; his pastiches like The Lurker at the Threshold had devolved into being about the Mythos rather than using the Mythos as a common background with which to tell stories, and he had squashed the efforts of would-be Mythos writers like C. Hall Thompson. While the Mythos field was not stagnant—Derleth encouraged the work of writers like Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Colin Wilson—it was largely constrained by Derleth’s own tastes and desire to maintain control on Lovecraft’s legacy.

With the death of August Derleth and the relaxation of this central authority, the Mythos has blossomed. Would-be codifiers and glossators have had to face up to the impossibility of applying a single “canon” to the Mythos. There are too many stories, too many different voices, any number of different interpretations or ideas, often contradicting one another…which is not a bad thing. Lovecraft’s own mythology is often inconsistent, as real-world mythology is. Derleth succeeded in keeping the Mythos alive in the decades after Lovecraft’s death; now it is up to everyone else to reinterpret and reinvent the Mythos, to keep it fresh and relevant for new generations to enjoy and play with.

My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. […] My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoaxweaver.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, DS 244

For all of its success, the Cthulhu Mythos as it exists today is not without its flaws. While Lovecraft encouraged other writers to use his creations and borrowed those of his friends, copyright remains a dominant influence on any shared literary enterprise. While pretty much everything Lovecraft wrote is in the public domain in the United States, the same is not true for Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, and other contemporary authors—not to mention authors of later generations such as Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, W. H. Pugmire, and Caitlín R. Kiernan. While many of these later authors are generous in allowing others to utilize their contributions to the Mythos in their own stories, issues of copyright and permissions add a layer of complexity that can serve as a potential energy barrier to new Mythos fiction.

Or, to put it another way: it’s easier to use the Mythos material you know is in the public domain and won’t be sued over. A good bit of the attraction of the Mythos is that unlike the shared universes of Marvel and DC, they are largely free to use. This is why people continue to utilize Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, and to revisit the plot and characters of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” more often than they do Tsathoggua and the Book of Eibon, or Gol-goroth and Unaussprechlichen Kulten. The Mythos was not conceived as a shared universe from the first, so these legal tripwires remain and sometimes hamper ideas.

So imagine a Cthulhu Mythos for the 21st century. A collective literary endeavor, eminently flexible just conceived in such a way as to maximize both participation and sharing, to avoid legal hassles and deliberately avoid stagnation by encouraging a multiplicity of canons—to embrace change and growth, rather than be locked in to a single limited conception dominated by a few great authors.

That is essentially what the SCP Wiki is and aims to be.

The literary roots go all the way back to the pulps: when H. P. Lovecraft had the federal government move in to Secure Innsmouth, Contain its populace, and Protect the wider world from the awful truth of what actually happened there, he was at the forefront of a mixture of fiction and popular conspiracy theory where secret agencies work to maintain normalcy and contain the anomalous. Steps along the way include the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990), Delta Green, GURPS Warehouse 23 (1999), the comic book The Men in Black (1990) and its 1997 film adaptation, The X-Files (1993-2002), Millennium (1996), and even internet-based fanfiction like “The Fluff At The Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber.

In 2007, a post on 4chan pitched the basic idea in the form of SCP-173. A secret agency (the SCP Foundation) works to contain the anomalous, from artifacts to creatures to ideas and concepts. The idea gained steam from there: a wiki was established, formats agreed upon, and everything published was done so under a Creative Commons license. The early SCP wiki was very different from how the SCP wiki stands today—many of the popular concepts like Sarkism and the Church of the Broken God took time to develop, and are still being developed. New concepts like the Ethics Committee and thaumiel class came into existence, and the existence and treatment of “D-Class” have been argued and reimagined—my personal favorite embellishment for the latter being SCP-1851-EX, which shows how well the SCP format can be used to address complex and emotionally charged subjects like historical racism.

The SCP wiki has also spread out to include video games, Japanese doujinshi, tchotchkes and cosplay, even novels like There Is No Antimemetics Division (2021) by qntm—and long-time readers of the wiki may well wonder if the project hasn’t jumped the shark. There are joke SCPs, badly written tales, erasures and lacunae, political and ideological squabbles that have found their way into the pages. Not every SCP is equally creative or equally well-written; some represent weeks of writing and artwork, others read like they were whipped off during a lunch break; some involve baroque and abstruse concepts normally the domain of doctors of philosophy and religion, and some are little more than random artifacts fit for a Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game campaign. Many are effectively little more than short fiction more suited for a Creepypasta. Not only is there no single “canon,” but many of the SCPs are written in such a way that they directly contradict one another (as with the various “proposals” for SCP-001). Even what you thought you knew might be upended by some new SCP, or an older entry being removed.

In a wiki with few constants, one consistent element is the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. This is very rarely an effort to actually squeeze the Mythos into the shared universe of the SCP Foundation, though you occasionally see references to Miskatonic University (e.g. SCP-6027). More often it is a metafictional take on the ideas and tropes of the Mythos, often as presented not in Lovecraft’s original stories but through the pop-culture milieu of Derlethian pastiche and the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. SCP-2662 and SCP-3883 are cases in point, as somewhat tongue-in-cheek takes on sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, and the very idea of a “cognitohazard” owes something to Sanity Points as a mechanic; but there are more serious takes. The King in Yellow was definitely an inspiration for The Hanged King’s Tragedy (SCP-701); Lovecraft’s life served as an inspiration for SCP-4315.

One of the more interesting and clever entries that take inspiration from Lovecraft’s Mythos is SCP-5389, written in 2021 by user Agisuru. Like many good SCPs, 5389 doesn’t skimp on the containment procedures; the dry prelude to the actual description provides the reader with an idea of the efforts made to contain the anomalous issue, and sometimes a foreshadowing of the actual threat (if any) posed. The description itself is relatively straightforward, almost dry: long-time SCP wiki readers probably will gloss over another anomalous animal. The addendum and interview material is where the real narrative develops, and as the reader opens one section after another the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper—a good mystery is often the heart of a good SCP as well as a good Mythos story.

The twist at the end is almost inevitable, but the real fun in the entry is in the names of the protocols and agents involved: Ib-e, Orne, Olmstead, Zadok Allen, Marsh—names borrowed from “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” SCP-5389 is not, to be clear, a kind of contemporary re-telling of either of those stories, but they are Easter eggs for Lovecraft aficionados…and perhaps an invitation. This isn’t exactly another new take on an old story in the vein of “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton and “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, it’s a remix of some of the fundamental Lovecraftian ideas in a new form and format.

The Cthulhu Mythos is in its own way as infectious a meme as anything fought by the antimemetics division, and inextricable from the noosphere and oneiric collective of humanity. It may never die, just as Arthurian legend and Greek and Roman myths have continued to influence us for centuries and millennia. We are, as Terry Pratchett put it in The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, “Pans narrans”—storytelling apes. We like a good story, and SCP-5389 is a part of one: the story of the Cthulhu Mythos and how it continues to develop, to evolve…and we may look forward to how it continues to do so for a long time to come.

If you liked SCP-5389, Agisuru has posted two other SCPs with a similar dynamic as of this writing: SCP-6918 and SCP-6919.


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.

“Werewoman” (1938) by C. L. Moore

To your boundless amazement I shall now take typewriter in hand and write you a letter. Still further to shock you, I am enclosing the story you so kindly inquired about, and also—did I or didn’t I send you WEREWOMAN? This burning question has haunted me all day, ever since I delved industriously into the stack of boxes and bales which I laughingly term my files and produced every story I ever wrote with the exception of the famous WW. I am probably being even more hen-brained than usual, but will enclos the carbon of WW which I have somewhere around, tho lurking in the back of my subconscious is a suspicion that I have already sent you the original. If so, pay no attention. Surely you have sufficient aplomb to withstand a sudden deluge of werewomen.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow, 20 Aug 1935, LCM 56

In the summer of 1935, H. P. Lovecraft was staying with R. H. Barlow and his family in DeLand, Florida. At Barlow’s urging, Lovecraft and C. L. Moore had begun their correspondence (Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore), with Lovecraft full of praise for stories like “Shambleau” (1933) and “Black God’s Kiss” (1934). Barlow, as was typical, asked her for manuscripts and drawings…and in 1934 received an unusual reply:

I’m having rather a set-back in my attempts to illustrate my own stories. The one Mr. Wright liked so well was a drawing for the story, which, as you know, he returned. WERE-WOMAN. The drawing was pretty good, but the story, I must admit, rather terrible. It’s heartening to know that the more established writers get things back too, but I can’t pretend that the fault was anybody’s but my own in this case, and I really expected it back when I sent it. It was a grand idea, I still think, but somehow it just wouldn’t jell. Mr. Wright has inquired about it several times and has asked me to re-write it, but my mind is a perfect vacuum whenever I try.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 1 Jun 1934, MSS. John Hay Library

It isn’t clear when exactly Moore wrote “Werewoman” (sometimes spelled “Were-Woman”)—in later interviews, she claimed it was her second Northwest Smith story after “Shambleau,” and the first to be rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, but her memory issues later in life make such claims somewhat questionable; the 1934 date of this letter suggests “Werewoman” may have been written and submitted somewhat later. At some point, Moore sent the “Werewoman” typescript to Barlow, who presumably showed it to Lovecraft during his visit…along with another rejected story:

Well, have just received my first flat rejection from Wright. A harmless little tale about a sorcerer king of antediluvian time, his mysterious witch-queen and a time-traveler with a startling resemblance to a certain Mr. Smith whom I may have mentioned once or twice before, tho no names were named in the story. Ah well, life is full of disappointments.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 31 May 1935, MSS. John Hay Library

This story appears to be lost, but Moore apparently also sent this story to Barlow, who forwarded it to Lovecraft, who had finally taken his leave of Florida. We know this because of Lovecraft’s answering letter:

Well—anyhow, I’ve read the enclosed story, & think it distinctly good in places—though the rather conventional dialogue & general layout put it below “The Were Woman”. I presume the interepid [sic] & leather-clad time-traveller is none other than our old friend Northwest Smith. The other-wordly suggestion & description of vague, non-human forms are excellently managed—despite a slight sense of disappointment in the climax. It beats most recent Mooreiana, though scarcely attaining the “Shambleau”-”Black Thirst”-”Were-Woman” level. Most distinctly does it bear the impress of pulp influence. However—both stories are good, & I can unhesitatingly praise them in writing the author.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 Aug 1935, OFF 286

In another letter, we find out where and when Lovecraft must have read “Werewoman”: shortly after leaving the Barlows, in St. Augustine:

Aunt just forwarded “Werewoman”, for which abundant thanks. Glad you’re getting the decent text before the thing is pulpised. I recall reading it on a bench in San Agustin—in the Plaza de la Constitutción.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 2 Jan 1936, OFF 313

R. H. Barlow had convinced C. L. Moore to allow him to publish “Werewoman,” which he eventually did in his amateur journal Leaves #2 (Winter 1938). He also separately printed and bound a small edition, one copy of which is listed in The Book Sail 16th Anniversary Catalogue:

493. MOORE, C[athereine] L[ucille]. Werewoman. 1934. Privately prepared, typewritten ribbon copy on the rectors of [iii] 29 [ii] pages, 8 ½” x 11″. Inscribed by Moore and bound in half morocco and heavy paper-covered boards, with an additional inscription on an adhesive label affixed to the front fly. A notation appears on the final leaf, indicating that this is one of three copies.

The literary afterlife of “Werewoman” after its initial printing is a messy affair; pulp scholar Sam Moskowitz had noted that the story was in the public domain and republished it without seeking Moore’s permission, which rather soured Moore on Moskowitz (and in turn, Moskowitz on Moore) in a dispute that went on for decades, with Moskowitz getting the final word after Moore’s death. Dave Goudsward tracks the accusations and animosity in his article “A Tale of Two Stories” in Pulp Adventures #36 (2020), which also reprints “Werewoman.”

Lovecraft never wrote anything more about the story; he might have written about it to Moore and his letter lost, but as the story had not seen print during his lifetime he could scarcely write about it to anyone else. Despite Moore’s own low opinion of the tale, he ranked it among her better ones…and while “Werewoman” might not be the best of the Northwest Smith tales, it is undoubtedly among the weirdest.

C. L. Moore never spoke of the inspiration for this story; though the term “were-woman” or “werewoman” had cropped up rarely in Weird Tales before then, notably in Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” (WT Nov 1932), and the werewoman inviting Northwest Smith as her mate recalls the interaction Bêlit and Conan in “The Queen of the Black Coast” (WT May 1934). It eschews any direct connection to the other Northwest Smith stories, and is hard to place in any kind of chronology. Ironically, that probably made it easier when Roy Thomas adapted the story for Conan the Barbarian in Savage Sword of Conan #221 (1994).

While space opera had few absolute conventions in the early 1930s, “Werewoman” defies most of them: on an unknown planet, Northwest Smith encounters werewolves and ancient alien sorcery. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that Moore mixed superscience with the supernatural, but there is absolutely no hesitancy or winking at the audience. The division between fantasy and science fiction as distinct sub-genres was already beginning to be established, but weird tales could and did mix and mingle both.

Lovecraft no doubt loved the rich description, the absolute weirdness of the conception and execution of the story. If a reader can suspend their disbelief about the incongruence of settings, there is much to enjoy in the story. Once again, outer space outlaw Northwest Smith has stumbled into an ancient mystery, one that involves a beautiful woman and a danger to body and soul alike. In terms of tone, the presentation of Smith as an “adventurer,” the story is closer to the kind of sword & sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, Jr. than the space operas of E. E. “Doc” Smith or Edmond Hamilton.

Moore’s werewoman is different than that of most of the other werewolves Lovecraft had encountered written by women. She is not solitary, but the leader of a pack; more than a killer, she shows admiration and acceptance for Northwest Smith. Like White Fell in The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman, she seems to embrace her nature, but rather than defy gender roles she seems to embrace and embody her position as the leader of the pack. No wailing or gnashing of teeth over her fate, no men fighting over her: she likes being a wolf, and chooses whom to love. The result is a sympathetic portrayal of a strong woman that goes for what she wants—not unlike Moore’s heroine Jirel of Joiry.

“Werewoman” has been reprinted many times over the decades, but the confusion about its copyright status appears to have largely prevented the text from being widely available online. The text in Pulp Adventures #36 is a true and accurate copy of the original 1938 printing from Leaves. Being a mimeographed publication, Leaves does not scan well, but anyone that wants to strain their eyes can attempt to make their way through this scan. A full reprint of Leaves and Barlow’s other amateur journal The Dragon-Fly was published by S. T. Joshi and can be found here.


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 Devil’s Pool” (1932) by Greye La Spina

It is really very hard to work with a superstition as well-known & conventionalised as those of the vampire & werewolf. Some day I may idly try my hand, but so far I have found original synthetic horrors much more tractable.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, DS 262

By the 1930s, werewolf stories were already an established genre. While many of the tropes that we associate with pop culture lycanthropy today were not yet standard—silver bullets, the infectious bite, the influence of the moon on the transformation, the werewolf as a sympathetic character or power fantasy—they already existed, both in myth and legend and in dozens of stories and novels, from The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman and The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams to any number of stories in Weird Tales from leading authors like Seabury Quinn, H. Warner Munn, and Greye La Spina. Pulp writers worked many variations of the werewolf tale, most of which today are rather old-fashioned…and even when first published, as Lovecraft noted, sometimes the premise and rules were just a little too familiar. What fear of the unknown can there be, when dealing with the known quantity of a werewolf?

Yet for all that, werewolves were a perennial favorite, for both weird fiction fans and authors. There were endless variations on the theme to explore, and many of the tropes had not quite been codified yet, which added to the possibilities.

Greye La Spina knew a thing or two about werewolves. Though they never corresponded, La Spina was one of Lovecraft’s foremost women contemporaries at Weird Tales during the 1920s and 30s, and in terms of sheer published output she was much more successful than the Old Gent from Providence, publishing over a hundred short stories, novelettes, and serials in a dozen pulps. She had dealt with werewolves previously in “Wolf of the Steppes” (The Thrill Book, Mar 1919) and Invaders from the Dark (Weird Tales, Apr-May-Jun 1925), and in 1932 she returned to the theme again with a story titled “The Devil’s Pool” (Weird Tales June 1932).

The story earned the cover illustration for the issue, but there was little praise for it—especially from Lovecraft:

The La Spina novelette somehow drags along very dully—with triteness & triviality sapping at what might be suspensefully horrible.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 May 1932, DS 367

Klarkash-Ton appears to advantage, but the La Spina thing left me cold even though I recognised a fine chance for horrific atmosphere in the wanderings of the hero around the forbidden wing of the accursed farmhouse.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 May 1932, ES 2.477

In fairness to La Spina, the “triteness & triviality” that Lovecraft noticed is not the result of any sort of formula plot. There are some vivid and effective images in the story, which is no doubt part of what earned it that cover illustration. The story is notably reminiscent of what would become Manly Wade Wellman’s most notable type of weird tale, with supernatural horror overtaking relatively simple but forthright people in a largely secluded rural setting, and “The Devil’s Pool” would not be out of place in an anthology alongside some of his southern mountain stories.

Nor was La Spina simply repeating the same werewolf lore that had characterized “Wolf of the Steppes” and Invaders from the Dark, but followed a different vein of lore:

The writer of Perigord tells how at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was believed in this district that at each full moon certain lads, particularly the sons of priests, are compelled to become werewolves. They go forth at night when the impulse is upon them, strip off their clothes and plunge naked into a certain pool. As they emerge they find a number of wolf-pelts, furnished by the demon, which they don and thus scour the countryside. Before dawn they return to the same pool, cast off their skins, and plung into the water again, whence emrging in human form they make their way home. […] Exorcism and, above all, the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar will disperse all glamour and objectively restore to human shape those upon whom an evil spell of fascination and metamorphosis has been cast.
—Montague Summers, The Werewolf (1933)

While Summers’ book on werewolves came out after La Spina’s story was published, she obviously drew on similar legends from some book of folklore—and improved on them with a few of her own twists, which had they been worked out a little more carefully would have made for a better story. As it stands, there’s some fairness to Lovecraft’s criticism: the story is drawn out and slow, the characterization is lacking, the inability of the characters to explain anything utterly frustrating, the action lacks punch, and the story is ultimately on the weaker end of Christian horror, with the evil vanquished by a handful of holy wafers.

Other aspects of the story have not aged well. One of the supporting characters is Harry Epstein, “a young Jewish fellow”—and while Harry’s religion has absolutely nothing to do with the story, La Spina makes his Jewishness the central and nearly constant aspect of his character. While the characterization is not explicitly a negative stereotype, it is constant and depicted in a manner reminiscent of many broad ethnic depictions. Phrases like “The dark, Hebraic face scowled.” only work if both the writer and audience have an idea in their head as to what a Jew looks like as distinct from anyone else. It’s good to get a little diversity into what is otherwise a cast of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but that’s very much a pulp formulation, with zero subtlety or purpose than to add a bit of color.

The fact that the 14-year-old Janie wants to marry Harry someday is a separate issue.

Janie Baumann is integrally tied with how the story addresses disability and ableness, which is one of the major themes. For most of the story, young Janie cannot walk and is confined to her bed, out of sight of the narrative—yet it is ultimately her condition, and the stresses placed on her aged grandfather as caregiver, which is the driving factor for the supernatural events of the story, and she is vital in their eventual resolution. In addition to physical mobility issues, she is also characterized with suggestions of mental disability: “Janie isn’t stupid, but she isn’t very…what I’d call bright.” Between the physical disability issues and suggestions of mental disability, Janie is presented as a pathetic figure, a subject of empathy for all of the adults around her—except for the villainous Lem Schwartz, who seeks to take advantage of the sympathy the other adults have for Janie.

Representations of disability in weird fiction during the early 20th century were often not great, as examined in A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith; characters with disabilities were often characterized as either pathetic or monstrous. In “The Devil’s Pool,” there’s a bit of both. Janie is, for most of the story, characterized as “a cripple”—though this physical disability is overcome by the end, and the mental disability is never as evident or depicted in the manner as initially described. The one bright spot for Janie in the story is that she never allows her disability to define her…it is the motivations and outlooks of other people as they act based on their ideas of her disability that lead to the events of “The Devil’s Pool.”

The monstrous depiction of disability is something that happens to the main character, who finds himself faced with his own difficulties walking. If La Spina had allowed a bit more room for introspection, this could have been an interesting as a depiction of how an individual comes to terms with such a sudden change in their ableness—but at this point in the story, the plot was finally getting to the “good” parts, and speeding along toward the climax. So although the setup would seem to call for the protagonist to gain some insight and deepened understanding for what Janie has been going through, and that she is not necessarily as helpless and needy as supposed, not as much is made of the disability as a theme as it could have been.

By the end of the story, all of the disabilities are miraculously resolved; no doubt Lovecraft would have rolled his eyes at the rather prosaic happy ending.

Mrs. La Spina is distinctly mediocre—full of clichés and cheap romantic devices. Two or three of her older stories weren’t bad, but her latest attempt was pitifully weak.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 22 Nov 1934, LRBO 197

References to Greye La Spina are few in Lovecraft’s letters; no doubt he read her stories as they appeared in Weird Tales, but like the work of Seabury Quinn, he rarely felt the need to comment, and when he did it was usually to make some remark lamenting her conventionality. He was right that La Spina gave the readers what they wanted—and that was why, no doubt, she was commercially more successful at it than Lovecraft. Unfortunately, that’s also why she has largely fallen into obscurity: “The Devil’s Pool” isn’t exactly a forgotten classic of the werewolf genre; it isn’t even her best werewolf story, and easily forgotten among the dozens of other lycanthrope stories in Weird Tales and other pulps.

“The Devil’s Pool” (Weird Tales June 1932) is in the public domain and can be read online.


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 Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman

Clemence Housman, in the brief novelette “The Were-wolf”, attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Clemence Housman was a British author, illustrator, and suffragette; The Were-wolf (1896) is her first novel. Lovecraft included Housman under chapter IX, “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”—marking out Housman alongside such weird luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and M. P. Shiel.

When and where Lovecraft first read Housman is unclear; she is not mentioned by Scarborough & Birkhead, nor does Lovecraft mention the book many times in his letters. Yet we know he must have read The Were-wolf before 1927 (when the first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, Housman reference included), and a rare discussion of the novel may give us another clue:

Also, I have a book by Clemence Housman, “The Werewolf”. which is probably as good as that kind of story can be. It failed to make much of an impression on me.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, DS 253

I have reead Clemence Housman’s “Werewolf”—George Kirk has it—& thought it rather good—though not so good a werewolf tale as Biss’s “Door of the Unreal”, which Cook, Munn, & Morton own.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, [7 Nov 1930], DS 259

George Kirk was a New York bookseller and a good friend of Lovecraft’s, a member of the Kalem Club which was Lovecraft’s literary circle. Probably, Kirk picked up a copy during his bookdealing, knew Lovecraft was researching weird fiction, and lent it to Lovecraft to read. As friends do.

Lovecraft’s description of The Were-wolf is accurate but bare-bones. Housman’s novel is set vaguely in Scandinavia, based mostly on inference, and without a set period. Since there are no references to modern inventions or events it could be set at any point from the 19th century to any time after the Christianization of the Nordic countries—because this is, without a doubt, a Christian horror story.

As a mode of fiction, Christian horror is not all homilies and pale hellfire; though there is plenty of pap for those who fall back on God as the ultimate power in the victory over every evil, where the recital of a Bible verse, waving of a cross, or a few drops of holy water defeats the vampire or exorcises the evil spirit. Christian horror stories tend to expand on the psychological framework of Christianity while exploring or developing a supernatural fringe beyond accepted dogma; sometimes incorporating elements of pre-Christian belief into the mix—and a happy outcome is not in any way guaranteed. So it is with The Were-wolf.

What Lovecraft leaves out of his description is the nature of the werewolf; for unlike The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams, this werewolf is female…or at least, femme:

She was a maiden, tall and very fair. The fashion of her dress was strange, half masculine, yet not unwomanly. A fine fur tunic, reaching but little below the knee, was all the skirt she wore; below were the cross-bound shoes and leggings that a hunter wears. A white fur cap was set low upon the brows, and from its edge strips of fur fell lappet-wise about her shoulders; two of these at her entrance had been drawn forward and crossed about her throat, but now, loosened and thrust back, left unhidden long plaits of fair hair that lay forward on shoulder and breast, down to the ivory-studded girdle where the axe gleamed.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf

Her name was White Fell, and metaphorically she is the literal serpent in this icy Scandinavian garden, who intrudes on the idyllic home life and sets brother against brother. Yet in some ways, White Fell represents something of the fierce freedom and independence that Clemence Housman campaigned for, the woman that could cross a hundred leagues of snow and ice hunting game, confident and independent and not constrained by either skirts or customs. Melissa Purdue in “Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf: A Cautionary Tale for the New Woman” argues convincingly that this is deliberate, and her detailed analysis is worth reading.

How much of this would Lovecraft have picked up on? We don’t know; gender dynamics in fiction were never his forte, and he discussed and played with such ideas very seldom. One interesting note is that Housman shifts in describing White Fell as a human woman to a “Thing”:

 The dreadful Thing in their midst, that was veiled from their knowledge by womanly beauty, was a centre of pleasant interest.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf

Compare this to how Lovecraft has a character describe Asenath Waite in “The Thing on the Door Step”:

[“]I’ll kill that entity . . . her, him, it . . . I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In both cases, Housman and Lovecraft are deliberately denying not just female identity, but basic humanity: White Fell and Asenath Waite are both cast as fiends in human shape. Whether Housman was an influence on Lovecraft in this regard, or whether both were expressing in their different ways the particular syntax of their era which struggled to define individuals who violated the known order as anything other than monsters or genderless (but not sexless) “things”—that might be splitting hairs. It is amusing that Edward Pickman Derby does describe Asenath as “that preying wolf in my body,” which might be taken as a metaphor, or might suggest a closer link in Lovecraft’s mind between Asenath and lycanthropy.

A final word on Lovecraft and Housman involves a bit of a flub:

Yes—I noted with regret the Housman misprint, which came in an eleventh-hour appendix sent in too late for proofreading. In such copies as I have personally distributed, I have made pen-&-ink correction.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Vincent Starrett, 6 Dec 1927, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 524

In that rare first printing of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the name Clemence had been erroneously printed as Clarence.

Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf is in the public domain, and may be read online.


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 Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams

In the autumn of 1924, J. C. Henneberger, owner of Weird Tales, owed H. P. Lovecraft some money. Unable to lay hands on the funds immediately, Henneberger instead transferred to Lovecraft his sizable credit at the prominent New York bookseller Scribner’s. Lovecraft hoped to convert this into cash, but unable to do this, he was left with $60 credit—so, Lovecraft and his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. decided to go on a buying spree, purchasing a number of books by Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and works of history. Lovecraft even picked up a book for his friend:

For Belknap (his own choice)

The Thing In the Woods (new horror novel)—Harper Williams

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.185

Before Lovecraft gave Long his gift, he read the whole novel himself. So it was less than a month later Lovecraft wrote to his aunt:

On this occasion I presented Belknap with the book which I got for him at Scribner’s a couple of months ago, but which I kept until I might have a chance to read it. It is an excellent horror story by someone I never heard of before—Harper Williams—entitled “The Thing in the Woods”, & dealing with the superstitious Pennsylvania countryside. There is more than a hint of obscure lycanthropy—but read it for yourself when you get here! On the flyleaf I wrote the following dedication to the Child:

BELKNAP, accept from Theobold’s ſpectral Claw
Theſe haunting Chapters of dæmoniack Awe;
Such nightmare Yarns we both have often writ,
With goblin Whiſpers, and an Hint of IT.
Till ſure, we’re like to think all Terror’s grown
A ſort of private Product of our own!
Leſt, then, our Pride our ſober Senſe miſlead,
And make us copyright each helliſh Deed,
‘Tis ours to ſee what ghastly Flames can blaze
From Spooks and Ghouls that other Wizards raiſe!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Nov 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.229

The poem is sometimes given or indexed under the title “[On The Thing In the Woods by Harper Williams].” Written more than half in jest, with its 18th-century style including the long s (ſ), it yet carries an important point: Lovecraft never saw himself (or he and his friends) as having any monopoly on weird fiction, and appreciated discovering new authors and new horrors.

The Thing In the Woods would disappear from Lovecraft’s writings after this; he did not keep a copy for himself, never mentions it or Harper Williams in any other letter, and would not even include it among other notable stories in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Yet there are two points of interest for this novel, above and beyond the story itself: the identity of the author, and the influence it may well have had on “The Dunwich Horror.”

“Harper Williams” was the pseudonym of Margery Winifred Williams Bianco; Harper had been her mother’s maiden name. She is best known today as the author of the classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), under the name Margery Williams, but before the Great War she wrote a handful of novels aimed at adults. The Thing In the Woods was her first horror novel, set in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where she spent a few childhood years, and was originally published in the United Kingdom in 1913 under her own name, while the 1924 edition that Lovecraft bought with his credit was the first American edition. Possibly the success of The Velveteen Rabbit encouraged her to use a pseudonym to avoid confusing her work with children with her work for adults.

In 1982, Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price wrote and published “The Pine Barrens Horror”—an essay which speculated that the fantabulous anatomy of Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror” might have been inspired in part by the Jersey Devil. Eminent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi managed to find a Lovecraft connection: the Jersey Devil was mentioned in the obscure and long-out of print novel The Thing In the Woods by Harper Williams. Price was able to secure a copy, which he eventually reprinted in the collection Tales Out of Dunwich:

It was not easy finding a copy (a library discard, still however possessed by the Mississippi Library Commission, which I secured through Interlibrary Loan at Drew University), but when I did, I plunged in. (10)

What has excited the interest of Lovecraft scholars is less the Jersey Devil references than the other similarities shared between Williams’ novel and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” Both works take a rural setting, and both center on a pair of twin brothers born out of wedlock—one of which is confined to a shed at times, and who has a dislike of dogs. It does not take much imagination to see how Lovecraft might have been inspired by such details in crafting his story, although in tone and style of telling they are very different.

When Lovecraft wrote “there is more than a hint of obscure lycanthropy,” he was spoiling the novel a bit. For most of the length of the book it is something of a rural thriller, closer to a weird crime novel than anything explicitly supernatural; while there are periodic mentions of beliefs in witches and the Jersey Devil, it is really only in the last chapter that the solution to the mystery is presented as something truly unnatural. That being said, that final chapter and the werewolf-lore in it would not be out of line with some of the werewolf stories that appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, like Greye La Spina’s novel Invaders from the Dark (Apr-May-Jun 1925) or Seabury Quinn’s “The Wolf of St. Bonnot” (Dec 1930).

This was long before Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) set in stone in the popular media some of the common conceptions about werewolves; before even Montague Summers’ The Werewolf (1933), which would become a sourcebook for weird writers. There is no infection from a bite, nor does the moon have any effect on the transformation. There is a silver bullet, but that might have come from Whittier’s “The Garrison of Cape Ann” (1857) or The Book of Were-Wolves (1865) by Sabine Baring-Gould, or any source after those. No doubt Lovecraft was less-interested in the werewolf theme than he was in Williams’ skillful handling of the narrative, the realism she achieved in the setting and characters, and how she built up to the culminating revelation—though not exactly as Lovecraft would do it.

The Lovecraft connection and the internet have, after a very long interval, rescued Williams’ novel from complete oblivion. In the 1980s, finding a copy of an obscure 1920s weird novel would have been a daunting task; today, The Thing In the Woods is in the public domain, and has been scanned and made available for everyone to read online at Google Books, Hathitrust, and there is a LibriVox audiobook on the Internet Archive.


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 Golem (1928) by Gustav Meyrink

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version),
Collected Essays 2.100

Gustav Meyrink was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian who had lived in Prague for twenty years as a banker. In the 1890s Meyrink developed an interest in the occult, and became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (and also, briefly, the Theosophical Society). In 1902 he was charged with fraud, which ended his banking career; Meyrink turned his focus to writing and translation, and became especially known for his German-language stories of the supernatural. While not Jewish himself, Meyrink’s close familiarity with Prague, including the Jewish quarter and the occult provided him the ingredients for his greatest novel.

Der Golem was serialized in the German magazine Die Weißen Blätter from December 1913 to August 1914; it was published as a standalone novel in 1915, to immense popularity. The book was eventually translated into English by Madge Pemberton, and The Golem was published in 1928. Of course, H. P. Lovecraft’s first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published in 1927…so how did he write about Meyrink’s novel?

He watched the film.

The one weird film I did see was “The Golem”, based on a mediaeval ghetto legend of an artificial giant. In this production the settings were semi-futuristic, some of the ancient gabled houses of Prague’s narrow streets being made to look like sinister old men with peaked hats.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56

You left out the “Golem” illustration mentioned, but I fancy you may send it later. I wish I could get hold of a copy of the book. I saw a cinema of it in 1923, but never had access to the Meyrink text–although I mentioned it in my article.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, c. 6 Dec 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 92

Der Golem (“The Golem”) was a silent film directed by and starring Paul Wegener with German intertitles released in 1915. The film is now believed to be lost, aside from some fragments. This film was followed by two more: Der Golem und die Tänzerin (“The Golem and the Dancing Girl”) in 1917, and Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“The Golem: How He Came Into The World”) in 1920, both of which were also directed by and starring Paul Wegener as the golem. So it isn’t clear which film Lovecraft actually saw. The 1920 film survives and is in the public domain.

Lovecraft claimed in most of his letters to have caught a showing of it in 1921, and like many an English student of the VHS era who needed to write a book report, he assumed somewhat erroneously that it was faithful to the plot of the book. However, despite being nominally based on Meyrink’s novel, the book and films share little in common save the Prague setting and the Golem legend—or at least, an interpretation of the original Jewish lore as filtered through several non-Jews. Meyrink’s novel recounts his version of the golem story in brief:

“The original story harks back, so they say, to the sixteenth century. Using long-lost formals from the Kabbala, a rabbi is said to have made an artificial man–the so-called Golem–to help rint the bells in the Synagogue and for all kinds of other menial work.

“But he hadn’t made a full man, and it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life. What life it had, too, so the story runs, was only derived from a magic charm placed behind its teeth each day, that drew down to itself what was known as the ‘free sidereal strength of the universe.’

“One evening, before evening prayers, the rabbi forgot to take the charm out of the Golem’s mouth, and it fell into a frenzy. It raged through the dark streets, smashing everything in its path, until the rabbi caught up with it, removed the charm, and destroyed it. Then the Golem collapsed, lifeless. All that was left of it was a small clay image, which you can still see in the Old Synagogue.”
—Gustav Meyrink, The Golem  (1985 ed.) 26

The German trilogy of films adapt a similar version of the golem story, in different times and contexts. The 1915 film has an antiques dealer discover the Golem of Prague and revives it to serve him; as in the original legend the Golem eventually goes on a rampage. The 1917 film is a comedy where a man makes himself up as the golem to win love. The 1920 film is essentially a retelling of the Golem of Prague legend, set in the medieval period. None of these make any effort to follow the original Jewish story very closely. Lovecraft, ignorant of Jewish lore as he was, probably had no idea how the film differed from the original Jewish story.

In Meyrink’s novel the Golem never plays an active role—it is a shadowy figure in a novel that is focused on the life of the mentally unstable Athanasius Pernath, as experienced by a nameless narrator; so that the story has something of an avant garde, experimental feel, with some chapters possibly being memories, delusions, or dreams and it is never quite clear what is the reality.

Lovecraft finally got a chance to read The Golem in 1935, when his young friend Robert H. Barlow loaned him a copy of the 1928 English translation. Having finally read it, Lovecraft’s acclaim was immediate:

Lately read Gustav Meyrink’s “The Golem”, lent me by young Barlow. The most magnificent weird thing I’ve struck in aeons! The cinema of the same title which I saw in 1921 was a mere substitute using the empty name—with nothing of the novel in it. What a study in subtle fear, brooding hints of elder magic, & vague driftings to & fro across the borderline betwixt dream & waking! There are no overt monsters or miracles—just symbols & suggestions. As a study in lurking, insidious regional horror it has scarcely a peer—doing for the ancient crumbling Prague ghetto what I have vainly tried to do for certain festering New England backwaters in some of my own laboured efforts. I had never read the novel before, but mentioned it in my article as a result of having seen the cinema. Now I perceive that I ought to have given it an even higher rating than I did.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 11 Apr 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 266-267

But—I’ve read “The Golem!” Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!!! That’s what I call a story! Nothing like the cinema—the latter was just a shocker capitalising the title—though it did have splendid architectural effects. How splendidly subtle the novel is—no overt monsters, but vague suggestions of inconceivable presences & influences! It captures the nebulous, brooding horror of the immemorial Prague ghetto as I have feebly sought to capture that of certain ancient & retrogressive backwaters of New England.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 251

Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the novel that he encouraged several of his correspondents to write to Barlow to have the loan of the book; so that over the next few months it was duly sent from Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, to Margaret Sylvester, Duane W. Rimel, Emil Petaja, F. Lee Baldwin, and Richard F. Searight, and offered it to Clark Ashton Smith as well. A few of their thoughts on the novel survive:

You were right about “The Golem”. Reading it in broad day was no insurance against the subtle assaults upon reality. “No actual monsters jump out of its pages”, but even tho I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a deckchair in the sunshine, it left me cold and chilly inside, and a bit glassy-eyed. I remember so vividly having wakened somewhere in grey night and seeing dusty moonlight falling thru bars on just such a littered floor as P. awakened to see in the Golem’s room. I can’t have, of course, but the book is so vivid I do remember it clearly. It was ugly. I haven’t quite finished, but will forward it to Miss Sylvester soon, as Barlow has requested.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 35-36

Thanks for Ar-Ech-Bei’s offer of The Golem. However, I read the book several years ago, when it was loaned to me, by a young friend in the Bay region. I agree with you that it is a most consummate and eerily haunting study in strange atmosphere; probably one of the best things of the kind ever written.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Jun 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 608

The others in the lending-list no doubt made their own appreciative comments. As with Lovecraft’s discovery of William Hope Hodgson around the same time, the reading of Meyrink’s novel prompted Lovecraft to read more of his work…but the Old Gent was stymied by the general lack of English translations.

Glad “The Golem” reached you at last. I was sure you’d appreciate it—for it is really a phenomenal triumph in its way. Few books indeed are capable of summoning up such a poignant & convincing pageant of mystical atmospheric impressions—& the absence of conventional “conflict” is all in its favour. I wish I owned it—but am told it is hard to get despite the relatively recent date (1928) of this translation. The original German novel, I believe, dates from the 1890’s. I wish I knew something of Meyrink, but I have found almost nothing about him. The only thing of his besides “The Golem” that I’ve read are som rather mediocre short stories—one of which appeared in W. T. I believe he is still living—but doubt if he has written or ever will write anything to compare with this early tour de force.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 19 Nov 1936, Letters to Price & Searight 431

Although Lovecraft didn’t know it, Meyrink had died in 1932. In his letters, Lovecraft says he had read “a story in the ‘Lock & Key Library'” (ES 2.691), which would be “The Man on the Bottle” (Lock & Key Library vol. 3, 1909), which Lovecraft later described as “a rather clever but essentially routine conte cruel” (OFF 259); “I recall “Bal Macabre” in Strange Tales—very effective, with genuine atmospheric tension” (OFF 259), “Bal Macabre” was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (Oct 1932); and finally “The Violet Death” ran in Weird Tales (Jul 1935)…and with that, Lovecraft had read basically all of Meyrink’s work that had been published in English during his lifetime.

It is easy to see why Lovecraft was so enamored of The Golem; in its style and elements it is almost a Lovecraftian novel, with is tenuous sanity, hinting horrors, the strange mystical book Ibbur, and other elements. While it would be interesting to ruminate on the influence The Golem had one Lovecraft’s own fiction—to draw parallels, perhaps, between the original Jewish legend of the artificial servitor run amok and the shoggoths of At the Mountaints of Madness—but by the time Lovecraft had read the novel he had relatively few works of original fiction left to write, and those works show little influence of the book or Meyrink’s style. Still, this novel if nothing else would have introduced Lovecraft to tarot cards,which are a recurring occult element.

There was, in fact, only one thing left to do: revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to rectify his earlier mistake.

I didn’t change as much as I expected—words here & there, a bad punctuation style where dates follow titles of stories, a boner regarding “The Golem”, & a bit of over-florid writing in the Poe chapter. To explain that Golem business I must confess that when I wrote the treatise I hadn’t read the novel. I had seen the cinema version, & thought it was faithful to the original—but when I came to read the book only a year ago…Holy Yuggoth! The film had nothing of the novel save the mere title & the Prague ghetto setting—indeed, in the book the Golem-monster never appeared at all, but merely lurked in the background as a shadowy symbol. That was one on the old man!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 31 Jan 1937, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 415

The revised portion of the essay now reads:

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, with its haunting shadowy suggestions of marvels and horrors just beyond reach, is laid in Prague, and describes with singular mastery that city’s ancient ghetto with its spectral, peaked gables. The name is derived from a fabulous artificial giant supposed to be made and animated by mediaeval rabbis according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produced in America in 1925, and more recently produced as an opera, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

While this passage shows how scanty was Lovecraft’s knowledge of Jewish religion, history, and lore—he once commented about The Golem, “There is nothing about the Chassidim in it—but the atmosphere is rich enough without ‘em.” (LPS 427), because after his encounter with The Dybbuk (1925) he associated Hassidic Jews with Jewish occultism—the episode as a whole shows that Lovecraft was able to digest and appreciate material from varied traditions, even if his understanding was incomplete. He never, for example, shows any awareness that Meyrink was not Jewish, or that Meyrink’s depiction of the golem legend was influenced by non-Jewish esoteric traditions. While it would be difficult to say that The Golem substantially influenced his fiction in any way, Lovecraft certainly seems to have though it enriched his life—and he made an effort to share that experience with the younger writers he associated with.

Thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing out that I should mention the 1917 and 1920 film.


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 Dybbuk (1925) by S. Ansky

up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169
—H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174

By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.

In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 4

Then the curtain rose.

Dybbuk_1

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.

Daily_News_Wed__Dec_16__1925_

Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.

It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.

In his letters home to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell in Providence, Lovecraft had taken to writing long, diary-like entries regarding his experiences in the Big Apple, which included such a scene:

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924,
Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:

In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week: 

May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless,
And primal gods impart thee happiness;
Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes,
And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514

The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100

Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:

Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416

“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.

The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.

Dybbuk_2

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

Rabbi Azriel. Did anyone ask the dybbuk who he is and why he’s possessing your daughter?
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 36

Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.

Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.

Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.

H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.


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.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

His daughter, the wife of Shelley, was much more successful; and her inimitable Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the horror-classics of all time. Composed in competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and Dr. John William Polidori in an effort to prove supremacy in horror-making, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the only one of the rival narratives to be brought to an elaborate completion; and criticism has failed to prove that the best parts are due to Shelley rather than to her. The novel, somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism, tells of the artificial human being moulded from charnel fragments by Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss medical student. Created by its designer “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, the monster possesses full intelligence but owns a hideously loathsome form. It is rejected by mankind, becomes embittered, and at length begins the successive murder of all whom young Frankenstein loves best, friends and family. It demands that Frankenstein create a wife for it; and when the student finally refuses in horror lest the world be populated with such monsters, it departs with a hideous threat ‘to be with him on his wedding night’. Upon that night the bride is strangled, and from that time on Frankenstein hunts down the monster, even into the wastes of the Arctic. In the end, whilst seeking shelter on the ship of the man who tells the story, Frankenstein himself is killed by the shocking object of his search and creation of his presumptuous pride. Some of the scenes in Frankenstein are unforgettable, as when the newly animated monster enters its creator’s room, parts the curtains of his bed, and gazes at him in the yellow moonlight with watery eyes—“if eyes they may be called”. Mrs. Shelley wrote other novels, including the fairly notable Last Man; but never duplicated the success of her first effort. It has the true touch of cosmic fear, no matter how much the movement may lag in places. Dr. Polidori developed his competing idea as a long short story, “The Vampyre”; in which we behold a suave villain of the true Gothic or Byronic type, and encounter some excellent passages of stark fright, including a terrible nocturnal experience in a shunned Grecian wood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)

We don’t know when H. P. Lovecraft first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it was sometime before 1920, and quite possibly was read as a child, from a copy found among the books in the family library. During his life, Lovecraft would perceive the growing influence of this critical work of science fiction and horror in pop-culture: the first film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, was released in 1931 and Lovecraft would see it in the theatre; and Weird Tales would serialize Shelley’s novel between May and December 1932 as part of its “Weird Reprints” series, and Lovecraft would read it then too. Various writers in the pulps, including Lovecraft himself, would show the influence of Shelley’s creation, and Lovecraft was sure to include her in his survey of weird fiction “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Lovecraft would not quite live to see Frankenstein’s Monster become the icon—and stereotype—that he turned into in the 1940s and 50s; for him, Shelley’s novel would always have precedence over other depictions.

The Book (1818)

By the way—my F. is a 9 ¼ x 5 ½ volume–2 columns & very thin. The date is missing, but from the typography I’d tend to place it in the 1830s. That would seem a bit late for the first Am. ed. of a  volume issued in 1818. My copy has been re-bound. On the title-page the author is very explanatorily listed as “Mrs. Mary W. Shelley, wife of Percy Busshe Shelley the Poet.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 238

There are two main editions of the text of Frankenstein: the original edition issued in 1818, which was revised in 1823; and then heavily revised again for the 1831 one-volume edition. The 1831 text has been the most popular version of the text, and the version that ran in Weird Tales. While Lovecraft dated his personal copy to the 1830s, the details he gives—an American edition in two columns and with that byline—point to the 1845 edition by H. G. Daggers of New York.

91487_0

Title page of the 1845 H. G. Daggers edition.

Of the novel itself, Lovecraft does not write much in his letters, so we are largely left to his notes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as to his thoughts on the work. Nor is there any real evidence that he read The Last Man (1826) or Shelley’s other novels. There is one interesting highlight however:

As for weird reprints—I agree that short items are best. “Frankenstein” undoubtedly drags in places, yet has its tense & terrible moments—especially when the monster first comes to watch its creator at night.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 31 Mar 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 28

It is notable that Lovecraft cites this very same scene in his entry for “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and, perhaps tellingly, this very scene is quoted in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft consulted before writing that essay. Which suggests either that either both Lovecraft and Scarborough were struck on the same passage…or that, perhaps, Lovecraft relied on Scarborough rather than re-reading the entire novel while composing his essay.

I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togheter. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. . . . The artist sleeps but he is awakened; and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, looking on him with watery, yellow yet speculative eyes!
—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
quoted in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction 14

If Lovecraft cribbed a little, it was not because he hadn’t read or didn’t appreciate Shelley’s masterwork—quite the opposite. For example, when his friend Elizabeth Toldridge used the name “Frankenstein” in a poem she was writing, Lovecraft wrote back with a correction that would be echoed by generations of horror nerds:

In the next line remember that Frankenstein (in the novel, a Swiss medical student, Victor Frankenstein) means the creator of a destroying monsternot the monster itself. If you have that intention, it’s all right. If you mean the monster itself, better change to hydra-shapes or some equivalent.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 257

The poem, which survives in manuscript, is titled (at Lovecraft’s suggestion) simply “Poetry”, and the line reads:

Come match your strength with steel, meassure your will with iron, your speed try out with the stars! For thine were Frankenstein hydra-shapes man-wrought foes to bear—

And powers of evil, loose in the world, shall reel and titter, in a giant juggler’s roust—

The Film (1931)

The success of Universal’s Dracula in early 1931 spurred the studio on to produce more horror films. Frankenstein was produced and hit theaters by December of the same year, with Boris Karloff in the iconic role—and the distinct heavy-lidded flat-top make-up—of the Monster. The film takes considerable liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel; Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein, and much of the original plot, atmosphere, and motivation is lost. Lovecraft saw the film within the first week of its opening on the East Cost, and wrote:

I haven’t been able to get around to any cinemas except “Frankenstein”—which vastly disappointed me. The book has been altered beyond recognition, & everything is toned down to an insufferable cheapness & relative tameness. I fear the cinema is no place to get horror-thrills!
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 9 Dec 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 85

Also saw “Frankenstein” last month & was vastly disappointed. The film absolutely ruins the book–which indeed it scarcely resembles!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Dec 1931, O Fortunate Floridian! 18

“Frankenstein” was the only cinema I attended during the autumn of 1931, & I was woefully disappointed. No attempt to follow the novel was made, & everything was cheap, artificial, & mechanical. I might have expected it, though—for “Dracula” (which I saw in Miami, Fla. last June) was just as bad.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Jan 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 344

Lovecraft was, like many science fiction and horror fans, a bit of a purist who regretted the changes made to the material in its translation from the page to the silver screen. Time did not really mollify this opinion:

I saw the cinema of “Frankenstein”, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story. However, there have been many worse films–& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Jul 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 33

As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920s–and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 Feb 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.28

Most radio and cinema versions of classics constitute a combination of high treason and murder in the first degree—I’ll never get over the cinematic mess that bore the name (about the only bond of kinship to the book!) of “Frankenstein”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 8 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.761

Keep in mind that Lovecraft lived before the home television and VCR revolution; his only experience of Frankenstein and other Universal horror films was if he could catch them in the theater—it was re-runs and rentals which cemented these as classic films, endlessly influential and copied. Lovecraft only caught the very beginnings of that…and, of course, he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Dream (1920)

I had a vivid dream a few nights ago–involving the possession of another distinct personality. The period was 1864, & the crux of the dream was a horror in a doctor’s secret laboratory. Think the dream-doctor was going to shew me an artificial man like M. Frankenstein’s uncomely creation, but premature waking robbed the dream of its climax. In this dream I was Dr. Eben Spencer; an army surgeon home on a furlough. The sinister experimenter was a colleague of mine, Dr. Chester. Some dream!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Jan 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 154

In 1920, Lovecraft was finally coming out of his seclusion through the auspices of amateur journalism, and had built up a fairly robust correspondence with some friends. Weird Tales was still three years away from its debut issue, but he was well into his first major period of fiction which included dream-inspired stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant May 1920). In addition to this brief recap of the dream to Kleiner, Lovecraft included a much fuller version of the dream to his correspondence circle The Gallomo (Alfred Galpin, H. P. Lovecraft, and James F. Morton):

Speaking of the “Carter” story, I hae lately had another odd dream—especially singular because in it I possessed another personality—a personality just as definite and vivid as the Lovecraft personality which characterises my waking hours.

My name was Dr. Eben Spencer, and I was dressing before a mirror in my own room, in the hosue where I was born in a small village (name missing) of northern New York State. It was the first time I had donned civilian clothes in three years, for I was an army surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieut. I seemed to be home on a furlough—slightly wounded. On the wall was a calendar reading “FRIDAY, JULY 8, 1864”. I was very glad to be in regular attire again, though my suit was not a new one, but one left over from 1861. After carefully tying my stock, I donned my coat and hat, took a cane from a rack downstairs, and sallied forth upon the village street.

Soon a very young man of my acquaintence came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother—my professional colleague Dr. Chester—whose actions were greatly alarming him. I, having been his best friend, might have some influence in getting him to speak freely—for surely he had much to tell. The doctor had for the past two years been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door…and odd sounds were at times not absent.

The doctor was aging rapidly; lines of care—and of something else—were creeping into his dark, thin face, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He would remain in that locked room for dangerously long intervals without food, and seemed uncannily saturnine. All questioning from the younger brother was met with scorn or rage—with perhaps a little uneasiness; so that the brother was much worried, and stopped me on the street for advice and aid. I went with him to the Chester house—a white structure of two stories and attic in a pretty yeard with a picket fence. It was in a quiet side street, where peace seemed to abide despite the trying nature of the times. In the darkened parlour, where I waited for some time, was a marble-topped table, much haircloth furniture, and several pleasing whatnots covered with pebbles, curios, and bric-a-brac. Soon Dr. Chester came down—and he had aged.

He greeted me with a saturnine smile, and I began to question him, as tactfully as I could, about his strange actions. At first he was rather defiant and insulting—he said with a sort of leer, “Better not ask, Spencer! Better not ask!” Then when I grew persistent (for by this time I was interested on my own account) he changed abruptly and snapped out, “Well, if you must know, come up!” Up two flights of stairs we plodded, and stood before the locked door. Dr. Chester opened it, and there was an odour.

I entered after him, young Chester bringing up the rear. The room was low but spacious in area, and had been divided into two parts by an oddly incongruous red plush portiere. In the half next the door was a dissecting table, many bookcases, and several imposing cabinets of chemical and surgical instruments. Young Chester and I remained here, whilst the doctor went behind the curtain. Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous, and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails.

“Well, Spencer”, said Dr. Chester sneeringly, “I suppose you’ve had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?” I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, “You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thin.” And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, “Not yet, Spencer, not yet!”

Then he disappeared again behind the portiere and emerged once more, bringing another and slightly larger arm. Both were left arms. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a great revelation, and awaited with impatience the tanalisingly deliberate motions of my sinister colleague. “This is only the beginning, Spencer,” he said as he went behind the curtain for the third time. “Watch the curtain!”

And now ends the fictionally available part of my dream, for the residue is grotesque anticlimax. I have said that I was in civilian clothes for the first time since ’61—and naturally I was rather self-conscious. As I waited for the final revelation I caught sight of my reflection in the glass door of an instrument case, and discovered that my very carefully tied stock was awry. Moving to a long mirror, I sought to adjust it, but the black bow proved hard to fashion artistically, and then the whole scene began to fade—and damn the luck! I awaked in the distressful year of 1920, with the personality of H. P. Lovecraft restored!

I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his younger brother, or that village, since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream! If that happened to Co [Edward H. Cole], he would be surely seeking a supernatural explanation; but I prefer actual analysis. The cause of the whole is clear—I had a few days before laid out Mrs. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” for re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 71-73
[The original lacks paragraph breaks; these were inserted for ease of reading.]

Lovecraft never fleshed out and finished this story. However, the next year, in the fall of 1921, Lovecraft would write another story that would involve two friends, doctors, with grisly experiments in reanimation which seemed strongly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the serial “Herbert West—Reanimator.”


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

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