I have never read the famous “Justine” of de Sade, or the equally famous “Venus in Furs” of von Masoch. Both are undoubtedly significant in the history of psychology, though perhaps less so as works of art. Probably they can be obtained at any time from dealers in so-called “curiosa” like the Falstaff Press or Esoterika Biblion of New York.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 12 Sep 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 353-354
The term BDSM (Bondage Domination Sadism Masochism) did not exist when Lovecraft was writing his Mythos, though he would have recognized parts of it from his cursory knowledge of psychology and sexology, and would have been familiar with aspects of its depiction in pulp magazines—Weird Tales among other pulps included vivid scenes of men and women being bound, whipped, and tortured, or forced into subservience, sometimes in a sexual manner (though never explicitly). Indeed, Robert E. Howard’s early Mythos fiction such as “The Black Stone” (1931) contain scenes of flagellation (for more on which, check out Charles Hoffmann’s “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard”).
This early influence of BDSM literature on Howard’s Mythos tales is part of a complicated collision of censorship, psychology, and economics. Sadomasochism and physical punishment were commonly understood as psychological deviations rather than sexual kinks, since the acts themselves were adjacent to sex, but didn’t necessarily include intercourse or masturbation. As such, works which presented themselves medical, legal, anthropological, or historical treatises could sometimes pass censors—Robert E. Howard had a small library of such volumes—and more importantly for pulp publishers, meant that they could be more freely advertised in magazines, and that dramatized aspects of these practices could add some sexual titillation to encourage sales. This in turn encouraged some pulp writers to work such elements into their stories; including Weird Tales favorites like Seabury Quinn and Robert E. Howard, who vied for cover art by Margaret Brundage for their stories.
These early BDSM-inflected pulp stories should be understood as fantasy, strongly influenced by erroneous understandings of sexuality, gender, and relationships, not a reflection of real-life practice. This can be clearly seen in, among other things, Robert E. Howard’s complicated depiction of lesbianism in his fiction. The whole stereotype of the “sadistic” villain may not owe itself to the pulps, but the pulps definitely helped build and promote such stereotypes. It would take considerable time for the “scene” to build up, and for knowledge and philosophy of BDSM as a safe, consensual adult activity to become more open, established, and move away from the stark depictions of utter depravity showcased in pulp fiction.
As understanding of sexual kinks has spread and grown in acceptance in society at large, that understanding has rarely fed back into Cthulhu Mythos fiction. While there are occasional characters that engage in obviously sadistic or masochistic practices, and bondage in various forms has never gone out of fashion, BDSM is rarely a key feature of Mythos fiction, especially BDSM of the consensual sexual activity between adults variety. For example, in the Delta Green roleplaying game (an offspring of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game), the Shan (Insects from Shaggai) that originated in the fiction of Ramsey Campbell display masochistic tendencies when they take a host. Another notable example is “Necrophallus” by Makino Osamu (牧野修), which focuses on the sadistic element and body horror as its primary theme—again, emphasizing the deliberate fantasy rather than consensual bloodplay or body modification play.
One of the most interesting overt uses of BDSM themes and imagery in a Lovecraftian work is the film adaptation of From Beyond (1986), which occupies an interesting middle ground between pulp sadism and consensual BDSM practice. BDSM equipment and imagery is used both to show the character’s increasing desire for more intense experiences, and the sado-masochistic depths that the villainous Dr. Pretorius had descended to in the search for some new sensation.
Weird as it might be to think about, erotic Mythos fiction and pornographic materials also rarely broach BDSM territory, especially consensual activity. While it is relatively common to have a sacrifice to Yog-Sothoth or Cthulhu tied up so that the Mythos entity can sexually assault them, it is much rarer to see ropeplay, or the “sacrifice” an elaborate sexual roleplaying scenario featuring consenting adults.
There are several reasons why might we don’t see more a more elaborate BDSM Mythos. For one, it’s kink-stacking; the subset of your audience that enjoys both BDSM and Lovecraftian erotica is likely going to be smaller than the audience that enjoys both separately. For another, the intensely personal relationships between the players in a BDSM scenario—especially a consensual one—can be difficult to square with the often very impersonal nature of Lovecraftian horrors. While Cthulhu might bind you with its mighty tentacles, it’s not clear that Cthulhu is getting off on the act. Yet there are a couple of stories which tread this rare territory and do interesting things with it.
“Sub-space,” said Machteld. “Pain is a key that can open doors. It begins with fear, followed by anger, resistance, resignation, and finally surrender. Deeper and deeper down into the warm red sea until you reach the core Down there are no desires, no thoughts, just the primal void. In that place the universe is waiting, a blank slate, ready to be filled with its latent destiny. And there the worthy will find the answers they seek.”
—Jaap Boekestein, “Under the Keeper of the Key” in Lovecraft after Dark 17
The idea of achieving a different state of consciousness is an old one in magical and religious practice. Some choose to use drugs, and drug-fiction is a staple of early fantasy and weird fiction, including H. P. Lovecraft’s “Ex Oblivione” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Hashish Eater.” Other methods might include fasting, chanting, drumming, and dancing; in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” Lovecraft wrote:
For the fright and fainting of his mother he expressed the keenest contrition, and explained that the conversation later heard was part of an elaborate symbolism designed to create a certain mental atmosphere.
There are parallels in Lovecraftian occultism too; Donald Tyson in Grimoire of the Necronomicon parrots Aleister Crowley’s rite of eroto-comatose lucidity, where the altered state of consciousness is achieved by excessive sexual activity:
On the day prior to the attempt to open the Gate of the East upon the path to the black throne, the follower of this way should rely on the aid of a partner to sustain his arousal without interruption continuously. This can be done with the aid of caresses, embraces, erotic art, sensual music, incense, sensual baths, and oils for the skin. If necessary, the aspirant may sustain his own arousal, but this is more difficult as it divides concentration. Always the image of Shub-Niggurath should be held in the imagination, but in a form of the goddess that is attractive and seductive to the aspirant for her favor. Female disciples will choose to conceive her in her masculine aspect, unless they favor the love of women. (148)
Richard Gavin in his entry for The Starry Wisdom Library outlined another such procedure:
The method employed to accomplish this was a ritual entitled “Alimenting the Ghul (or Ghoules).” In preparation for this ritual, the aspirant would neither sleep nor consume food for three days, all the while conducting a repetitive series of darkly meditative chants while sitting cross-legged within a “place of death,” presumably a mausoleum, a catacomb, or other large tomb. At the conclusion of the three-day preparation period, the aspirant’s naked body would be rubbed with various salves before he was wrapped in a funerary shroud and buried alive within a coffin made of oak. (127)
Scott R. Jones wrote in When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality:
The Black Gnosis may be triggered in the moment of orgasm, or at any moment during the sexual act (or indeed at any moment at all, sexual or otherwise) by allowing the Being-Strangeness of the act itself manifest fully in the consciousness. This awareness is brought forth through a meditation on fear. (108)
There are other examples, different paths. Different authors working at different purposes to express similar ideas: that there are different states of consciousness, that can be arrived at through various means (which may resemble magic, or sex), and which unlock…something for the individual. Sometimes a particular occult knowledge, in others a transformation of self. All of which has its clear parallels with BDSM as it is understood in the contemporary consciousness.
You don’t need to build a dungeon, elaborate set-pieces of torture devices, and a wardrobe of latex and leather gear to have a little bondage fun, or to engage in some hearty spanking. Domination is an attitude and game that need not be confined to a bedroom. While we often get fixated on the outward trappings of BDSM play, there is a deeper psychology at work. Sexual submissives in the BDSM scene are not psychologically stunted or damaged individuals who are dominated by more powerful personalities, they are fully conscious human beings who feel the need to submit, and derive something from the act—or ritual—of submission.
Which is not as easy as it sounds. Yet subspace is the essential bridge that Jaap Boekestein uses to connect BDSM to the Cthulhu Mythos. Where Robert E. Howard and the From Beyond film were using the striking imagery of flagellation, and BDSM’s props and costumes to titillate the reader or viewer, Boekestein goes into the psychology of the individual that would willing subject themselves to such rites as Robert E. Howard described in “The Black Stone”—and very specifically, why someone seeking out the Cthulhu Mythos might do this.
The whip hit the exact same spot. A groan escaped his lips, bright flames shot through his leg. Is this an initiation or sadistic torture? What has this to do with the secrets of the ancients?
She kept hitting Without mercy, Machteld thrashed him. He could not see anything but he felt her moving around, hitting his chest, his stomach, his cock. Burning strokes of pain as she hit him everywhere. Nothing was safe. Nothing was sacred.
—Jaap Boekestein, “Under the Keeper of the Key” in Lovecraft after Dark 21
It is a process that the reader themselves goes through with the protagonist. His questions are their questions, but in the end…well, a vicarious flagellation session will never equal the real experience. The result will be familiar to many readers of the Mythos; Lovecraft wrote about another protagonist who achieved the same state, albeit through a different path. Boekestein wrote about this:
What kind of people, I wondered, wouldn’t have much of a problem with the Mythos Universe? People who were different from the norm, was my conclusion. People who perceived reality differently. “Transformation is the key. Transformation of both the body and the mind.” If you live in a non-mundane world, you don’t feel mundane fears. The monsters might even welcome you in as one of their own.
—Jaap Boekestein, “Afterword” (trans. Graeme Phillips) in Cyäegha #8 (Spring 2013)
Many of the people that read and write the Cthulhu Mythos identify as outsiders. Weird fiction attracts weird people. Those with an interest or affinity in BDSM are outsiders too. While the communities are separate, there are individuals who have a foot in both worlds…and for those who have such an inclination, maybe they will be happy to know that they too can trace their roots back to the beginnings of the Mythos.
Jaap Boekestein is a Dutch writer who has written several Mythos stories, which have been published in English and Dutch, and editor of Waen Sinne and Wonderwaan. Some of his Mythos fiction appeared under the pseudonym Claudia van Arkel. “Under the Keeper of the Key” appeared in the erotic Cthulh Mythos anthology Lovecraft after Dark (2015).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).