“La mano de la diosa” (2013) by Fátima Fernández & Paco Zarco

Lovecraftian horror appeals to a blind and sick cosmos where human beings are little more than ants. The abysses of the human soul that the tortured characters of Poe traversed, give way, in Lovecraft, to a struggle of inhuman powers, nightmarish deities that dispute the dominion of the living beings and that have, among us, their brotherhoods, their cults and their devotees.

Since the disappearance of the master, his fictions have gradually increased in popularity until they became, together with The Lord of the Rings, one of the most fascinating literary mythologies of our time. His influence on popular culture is still valid, demonstrating a surprising ability to adapt to the tastes and sensibilities of several generations.

The authors of CTHULHU magazine come together again to pay tribute and emotional tribute to what we can consider the father of modern horror and his pantheon of nightmare creatures and deities. A journey through 15 stories that demonstrate the variety and richness of a privileged imagination.
—Manuel Mota, Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas (2013), back cover copy
Translated from Spanish

Diábolo Ediciones of Madrid has been publishing Cthulhu, a Spanish-language anthology of comics and dark fiction, since 2007. Despite the name, the majority of the stories in any given issue aren’t necessarily explicitly devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos, although most issues have at least some Lovecraftian reference. The focus is on horror and dark fantasy, and the editors are not afraid for the works to be gory or involve nudity, if that’s what the story calls for, but they also contain moments of light-hearted ghoulish fun like the episodes of El Joven Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bart Torress. Special issues have been devoted to William Hope Hodgson and Robert E. Howard.

In 2013, Diábolo Ediciones published Lovecraft en los cómics. Un homenaje en 15 Historietas (Lovecraft in the Comics, An homage in 15 stories). The creators all presented diffrent styles and approaches, from a straight adaptation of “The Transition of Juan Romero” by Juan Aguilera to original works, every mood from ghoulish comedy and satire to visceral body horror, styles ranging from neatly inked black-and-white to digitally colored works. It is probably the first Mythos comic anthology to include former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton among its characters—which is to say, the book showcases not just the depth of talent that the editors of Cthulhu can draw upon, but the vast variety of approaches there are to the subject of the Mythos.

“La mano de la diosa” (“The Hand of the Goddess”) by writer Fátima Fernández & artist Paco Zarco is an original Cthulhu Mythos story, set in contemporary Spain, in a rather classical Cthulhu mode: a journalist after a story  finds themselves on the trail of something more than they expected.

No se trataba de seguir la logica, sino las pistas.
It was not about following the logic, but the clues.

The story is based on a real-life series of curious events. The Fuente de Cibeles (Fountain of Cybele) in Madrid includes a statue of the goddess Cybele—the Magna Mater of Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”—by sculptor Francisco Gutiérrez. In 1994 and 2002, the left hand of the statue was broken off. The events were seemingly unrelated, the statue was repaired…

…pero nunca se recupero la mano robada de la diosa.
…but they never recovered the stolen hand of the goddess.

As setups go, this is a solid premise for a Mythos story. Fernández conveys the minimal amount of information necessary in a few succinct captions, as if the reporter was giving the voice-over on a film, and Zarco captures the mood of the events in an economical and effective manner. The focus of the panels is drawn to the statue of Cybele, to the stump of the hand, to the trenchcoat-wrapped reporter who moves between shadows on cracked pavement. This could almost be a Kolchak story…or, if it had been cast in stark blacks and whites, a noir. Essentially an occult detective tale, with a protagonist that doesn’t yet know it’s an occult detective tale.

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Turn the page, and the dialogue begins. Human players also complicate the simplicity of one person’s narration; readers now have to deal with multiple points of view, conflicting motivations, weigh each word and sentence carefully to look for hidden meaning. Who do you trust now?

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Mi madre era une persona gentil y hermosa en todos los sentidos. Pero ambiciosa.
My mother was a gentle and beautiful woman in every way. But ambitious.

Lovecraft had made a study of the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and many of his Mythos tales follow a similar form of nested narrative. There is the story set in the now (here, the reporter investigating the missing hand of the statue), and there is the story in the past (the story being told to him); the story in the past is the nested narrative, like the manuscript uncovered in “The Mound” or Rose’s diary in “The Man of Stone.” The reader simultaneously is in the present, with the protagonist, but they are also looking over their shoulder and reading what they read. This narrative trick allowed Lovecraft to avoid the simple exposition of the narrator simply telling the reader (through some audience surrogate) what they have discovered, and takes the reader on the journey of discovery along with them. It also allows for a very effective reveal when the two layers of the narrative meet: past foreshadowing future.

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Paco Zarco’s artwork is competent, and he has an eye for panel layouts the emphasizes the repetition of key elements—portraits, eyes, hands—in a way the underlines the relatively sparse script. Considering relatively little is happening, this might seem like padding, but it feels more like pacing. At seven pages, “La mano de la diosa” doesn’t overstay its welcome or drag at all, but the Mythos twist, when it comes, is sudden.

In black and white, it might be much more effective; the digital coloring and shading, especially on the backgrounds, does little service to the linework and tends to emphasize the flatness of the faces rather than give them depth. That is a common issue with digital colorization, trying to achieve effects with the palette instead of the pen tends to catch the eye like a false note catches the ear.

Mi madra siempre me decía que las estatuas disponían de mucho tiempo para pensar y observar…
My mother always told me that the statues had a lot of time to think and observe …

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Zarco knows what he is doing when the actual supernatural element arrives onto the page; the clearly defined boxes of the panels give way to Dutch angles, ragged and uneven panel breaks and gutters. Like Jacen Burrows in Providence, this is visual rhetoric that informs the reader without telling them explicitly that they’ve entered a nightmare; like a horror movie when the killer’s motif begins to play, and the camera shifts from smooth movement to sudden and abrupt close-ups and shifts.

Algo mas fuerte que su ambicion se apoderaba de el.
Something stronger than his ambition took hold of him.

“La mano de la diosa” manages to evoke the Mythos without a single fhtagn, and very few tentacles; a particularly Lovecraftian figure makes an appearance in the final panels in a bit of a well-worn twist, for readers who have read enough Mythos stories to recognize similar endings. At seven pages it is neither too long or too short for the story it has to tell, getting the job done without rushing it or overstaying its welcome, and most of that is told not through the text, but by visual storytelling and unspoken hints. In the context of Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas, it is the most subtle, the most understated of the stories…and one which is set in Spain, and couldn’t really be set anywhere else.

Lovecraft un homenaje en 15 historietas has not yet been translated into English.


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

“O que dorme” (2016) by Bábara Garcia & Elias Aquino

“O que dorme” (“What sleeps”) by writer Bábara Garcia & artist Elias Aquino is the final entry in the comic anthology O Despertar de Cthulhu em Quadrinhos (“The Awakening of Cthulhu in Comics,” 2016) by Brazilian publisher Editora Draco. The book was edited by Raphael Fernandes, who introduces the volume on the inside cover flaps:

The cult work of H. P. Lovecraft is the main inspiration for this collection with eight comics that will transfer the imagination to the darkest side of the human mind, a cosmic horror in white and green.

[…] The Awakening of Cthulhu in Comics and the horror that cannot be uttered, get lost in images and stories that shouldn’t have been conceived. Now there’s no turning back for those involved by the tentacles of despair, it’s time to wake up to a decadent reality tinged with just two colors.

All of the comics, including “O que dorme” are done in black, white, and green—and the addition of the bright, almost sickly green against the otherwise stark noir black-and-whites significantly enhances both the effectiveness of the individual stories, and the uniformity of the overall book—readers might compare the glowing green Loc-Nar from the Heavy Metal (1981) film, or the sickly yellow in Frank Miller’s That Yellow Bastard (1996)—it’s not that the Mythos are color-coded, since any entities that appear on the page can be seen in black and white as well, but only that the splash of color is used by the artists to convey subtleties of mood and atmosphere. Like in the title page, where the green is a faint tinge against the night sky.

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The setting is contemporary. The sensibility is postmodern. Captions and word balloons, but no thought bubbles, no sound effects. A rural community in the mountains which produces coffee. A young woman named Greta who can’t sleep, but stays up all night reading Edgar Allan Poe, a Bauhaus poster on her wall…

I always planned to leave as soon as I had money or a place to stay. Time passed and neither happened.

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Here, the green frames figures and offers contrast. Varies in depth and intensity, fading into the shadows on the corners, but distinct. It gives texture to what would be a blank wall, but doesn’t bleed past the outlines. The atmosphere is aggressively normal, yet something’s off. People talk about the heat, a bad smell, it hasn’t rained, the panels darken as it shifts to nighttime…most of the storytelling is expressed in these little details, showing rather than telling. Ordinary scenes and remarks receive significance only because they are what are being shown to the reader, in the same way as a David Lynch film or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.

But the fact is that, little by little, everyone stopped sleeping. An entire city sleepless.

Things move quicker. The timeline grows uncertain, but within a panel the corpses appear, and things shift from uneasy to macabre. There is a Poe-like quality to the rapid downward spiral…but the reader knows there are pages left. How much worse can it get?

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The rain comes.

There’s nothing explicitly Mythos to any of this yet, no ancient tomes, not a whisper of alien entities or black stars. Everything that’s happened to this point, it could a disease, a toxic gas, simple madness as the heat and lack of sleep take their toll on frail human psyches. Then the rules change.

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The green in the story to this point had been balanced, contained, a highlight; this deep splash shows it as pervasive, all-encompassing…and a herald of what’s coming. Maybe it was always that.

The only ones who were saved were those who were lucky enough to be already dead.

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As narratives go, the twenty pages go by swiftly. This is a story all about mood and atmosphere, not explanations. No one is at fault, no one went poking about where they shouldn’t, or read the wrong spell and awakened the eldritch horror. There is no cult to worship the things that crawl down off the mountain. It isn’t a deep dive into the lore of the Mythos, though there is definitely some artistic influence from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game on the design of the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. This is almost the definition of the Mythos as uncaring, not even necessarily malevolent, but simply destroying humanity by its very presence, like a tiger in the jungle stepping on so many ants.

“O que dorme” showcases the universality of the Lovecraftian experience. The liminal spaces we know are out there, the things that creep in from outside.

O Despertar de Cthulhu em Quadrinhos has not yet been translated into English.


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

“R. H. B.” (1978) by Andreas and Rivière

 

À Suivre (“To Be Continued”, 1978-1997) was one of the major Franco-Belgian comic magazines of the period, publishing such great European comics creators as Alexandro Jodorowsky, Milo Manara, Mœbius (Jean Giraud), François Schuiten, and Guido Crepax, a contemporary of magazines like Métal hurlant and Pilote, focusing on comics for a more mature audience.

“R. H. B,” by Andreas (Andreas Martens) and Rivière (François Rivière) was published in À Suivre 6-7, the July-August double issue for 1978. The title stands for Robert Hayward Barlow, friend and literary executor to H. P. Lovecraft. This coincides with the increased enthusiasm for Lovecraft in France, particularly the publication of LETTRES, 1 (1914-1926), which was published May 1978—a translation of Lovecraft’s letters, taken from volume I and part of volume II of Arkham House’s five-volume Selected Letters series. By comparison, Métal hurlant‘s Lovecraft special issue was published in September 1978.

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H. P. Lovecraft received a fan letter from a 13-year-old R. H. Barlow in June 1931; Lovecraft was then 41 years old, and the two continued corresponding for six years, until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. The two met in May 1934, when Lovecraft took a trip down to Barlow’s family home in DeLand, Florida, a visit which lasted seven weeks; they met again briefly in New York during the winter of 1934-1935, where Lovecraft was in the habit of meeting friends for New Years Eve, and Lovecraft repeated his trip to visit the Barlows in Florida in 1935, where he spent ten weeks with his hosts, but begged off the invitation to stay all summer. Their next visit was when Barlow came to visit Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island, 28 July 1936, when the teenager stayed more than a month at the boarding house behind Lovecraft’s residence. It was the last time the two would meet; Lovecraft would die of cancer on 15 March 1937. Lovecraft’s “Instructions in Case of Decease,” dating from 1936, named Barlow his literary executor…and it is through Barlow’s efforts that many of Lovecraft’s papers, unpublished stories, and letters were preserved at the John Hay Library.

The comic proper is presaged by an introduction by editor Marc Voline:

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At the time the Ides et Autres (“Ides and Others”) fanzine published an unpublished poem by Lovecraft (3), (A Suivre) presents a comic strip approach of the great writer universe. “Biography of Robert H. Barlow and his relationship with HP Lovecraft” is the first of a five-part series, collected under the title Mythographies. Andreas and Rivière designed this as a kind of oblique exploration, referential and ironic, of sometimes poorly known literary universe. As for Lovecraft the famous “hermit of Providence,” we wanted—they say—to prove that the legend that he would, during his life, never leaves the perimeter of New England was all simply false. From the thick and rather indigestible biography of the author of La malediction d’Ansmouth (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) written by Lyon Sprague de Camp, we briefly identify with the existence of an endearing and terribly pathetic “fan” most assiduous without doubt Lovecraft. Robert Barlow well deserved homage …

Marc Voline

Most of the material in the comic would come from L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975); this would not be available in French until 1987 when Richard D. Nolane translated it as H. P. Lovecraft ; le Roman de sa Vie, so the creators of “R. H. B.” were working through some linguistic hurdles and miscommunications. As Lettres 1 doesn’t have any actual letters from Barlow, essentially all of the material for “R. H. B.” was drawn directly from de Camp’s book, with many phrases translated directly from the English edition.

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Small issues of translation aside, this is a starkly beautiful comic, with fantastic linework by Andreas, who obviously referenced what photos of Lovecraft were available. Translation of the French above:

Robert’s is not a happy family. There are frequent conflicts between him and his father, who suffers from depression (he is paranoid and continually fears the coming of improbable enemies.) Bernice, the wife of the colonel, spoiled the only son and quarreled with his father.

In spring 1934, Robert makes a profit of the absence of his father to invite Lovecraft to De Land. In April this year, HPL makes this journey. Lovecraft, in contact with the hot climate of Florida, is in an unusual state. He presents himself to Barlow with hatless and coatless.

His first stay in the house of his admirer is as a dream thanks to Bobby, he will see for the first and last time in his life a river full of alligators, at Silver Springs!

By comparison, this is how de Camp described this encounter:

The family home was at De Land, Florida, seventeen miles inland from Daytona Beach. Barlow’s father, Everett D. Barlow, was a retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel and something of a mental case. Subject to moods of intense depression, he suffered from delusions of having to defend his home against the attacks of a mysterious Them. He was cracked on religion and on sex.

Robert Barlow got on badly with his father. At this time, he told his friends that he hated the colonel; although later, after his parents had been divorced, he carried on a friendly correspondence with him. Robert Barlow’s mother, Bernice Barlow, spoiled and pampered her son (somewhat as Lovecraft’s mother had done with him) and quarreled with her husband over the boy’s upbringing.

In the spring of 1934, Barlow and his mother were at De Land while the father, in the North, recuperated with relatives from one of his attacks. In January, Robert Barlow began urging Lovecraft to come for a visit to Florida. By April, Lovecraft had planned the trip. […] At the Barlows’, the heat stimulated Lovecraft. In high spirits he went hatless and coatless and boasted of the tan he was working up. His one disappointment was in not being able to go on to Havana. He was consoled by a trip with the Barlows to Silver Springs. There he had his first view of a jungle-shaded tropical river and even glimpsed wild alligators.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography 393-394

There are some errors in de Camp’s portrayal, which were repeated by Rivière. Lt. Col. Everett D. Barlow had seen action during World War I, and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; Lovecraft was aware of the elder Barlow’s mental illness and was notably more sympathetic than de Camp:

I surely am sorry that your father remains under the weather psychologically. These depressed states may be troublesome to others, & may seem exasperating when coupled with good physical health, yet they are really every inch as painful & unavoidable as any other form of illness. The victim can’t help himself any more than a victim of indigestion or cardiac trouble can. The more we know of psychology, the less distinction we are able to make betwixt the functional disorders known as “mental” and “physical.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 April 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 125

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The narrative is, like most biographies, not some action-and-romance-packed account. Artist and writer manage to convey a sense time passing with the arrangement of the panels, particularly an extended shot of a kitten falling through perfect blackness that stretches out over several pages. While Lovecraft is the principal focus of the story because of the narrative, he dies in 1937…and Barlow’s story goes on, to his university education in Kansas, California, and then Mexico.

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He unfortunately suffers the cruel intolerance due to his particular sexuality, at present known to all. It is the subject of an odious blackmail as a result of links with a Mexican youth. On 2 January 1951, it takes a large amount of sedatives and falls asleep forever. He is 33 years of age.

There are large parts of Barlow’s life that are not included in this brief but poignant bio-comic, because de Camp was more focused on those parts of Barlow’s life that concerned Lovecraft. We don’t read much about his career as a poet or writer of fiction; the issue of his sexuality and how de Camp came to publicize it was touched on in “The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, and here we see an example of how information spreads.

Notably absent from “R. H. B.” is an accurate depiction of R. H. Barlow himself. De Camp didn’t include any photographs in his biography for Andreas to base his depictions on, and few photos of Barlow at that point had been published.

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Left to right: H. P. Lovecraft, R. H. Barlow, Bernice Barlow, unknown cat, Wayne Barlow

“R. H. B.” stands as an artistic achievement, and one of (if not the first) graphic adaptations of Lovecraft’s life to feature R. H. Barlow, who did so much to preserve his legacy. Others appear in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s graphic novel Providence (2015-2017); Henrik Möller & Lars Krantz’s Vägan Till NecronomiconCreation of the Necronomicon (2017); Sam Gafford & Jason Eckhardt’s Some Notes on a Nonentity (2017); and especially in Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aón, & Lara Lee’s H. P. Lovecraft: He Who Wrote in the Darkness: A Graphic Novel (2018), which showcases Lovecraft’s first encounter with Barlow in 1934…and all of these showcase how Barlow’s story has assumed its own mythical proportion, entwined with Lovecraft’s own.

While it was not uncommon for works in À Suivre to be reprinted, other than the publication in À Suivre, the only other publication of “R. H. B.”  that I have been able to confirm is in The Cosmical Horror of H. P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Anthology (1991), a tri-lingual guide to Lovecraft comics published up to that point, which reproduces six of the eight pages of “R. H. B.” and Révélations posthumes (1980), a collection of Rivière and Andreas’ biographical comics from À Suivre.


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

Agents of Dreamland (2017) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Truth Is Out There
—X Files, “Pilot,” 10 September 1993

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908, when H. P. Lovecraft was eighteen years old. In his youth, he had formed a detective agency with his friends, inspired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and similar private companies. The Secret Service was the arm of the U. S. Treasury department, set up to crack counterfeiting rings and protect the president; the Black Chamber, forerunner of the National Security Agency, wouldn’t be formed until 1919.

Lovecraft had grown up in a world without G-men. With the passage of the Volstead Act and Prohibition, that would change. Hardboiled pulp crime magazines demanded more than just Sherlock Holmes-style consulting detectives, police detectives, Texas Rangers, federal marshals, or Pinkertons, though all of those characters had their place in the pages of magazines like Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett cut his teeth with The Continental Op, who worked for a fictional Continental Detective Agency modeled after the Pinkertons that Hammett himself would work for. Yet it was the rise of organized crime that came with Prohibition, and the personage of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the new Bureau of Investigation, that put their stamp on the idea of government agents in pulp fiction.

Which is why the opening to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” starts off as it does:

During the winter of 1927–28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting—under suitable precautions—of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.

H. P. Lovecraft didn’t invent the idea that governments conceal certain things from the public; the Great War impressed on the whole nation the importance of some things remaining secret. Yet it is important to place “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in that context of the rise of the G-men, of government agencies concerned with finding secrets and keeping them…and to understand that the roots of spy fiction in the Mythos, the whole cloak-and-tentacle business in Bruce Sterling’s “The Unthinkable” (1991), Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” (1994), Delta Green (1997), Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” (2000) and The Atrocity Archives (2004), “The Star that is Not a Star” (2016) by Lucy Brady—they’re all part of a continuing tradition, born out of changes in the United States government, world affairs, and the semiotic impact on an American culture that knows that its government is hiding things from it.

Which leads also to flavors and trends in spy fiction. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is flashy, emotionally damaged, fighting secret wars against terrorists with next-generation gadgetry; Len Deighton’s unnamed protagonist of The IPCRESS FILE is faced with something no less fantastic, but the syntax is different—James Bond doesn’t deal with paperwork and bureaucracy. Spy fiction tends to vacillate between the glamorous fantasy and the grungy reality. The staid George Smiley of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the psychologically damaged one-man-army of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, but they’re two sides of the same fictional coin, different iterations of the concept of the government agent, the finders and keepers of secrets.

Which is all background to set Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland in it’s proper context: the here-and-now of 2015, with a hazy secret history that extends out of knowing into past and future alike. The post-Cold War zeitgeist married the pre-war concept of G-men with the burgeoning fields of Ufology, the Shaver Mystery, Men in Black and Black Helicopters, and the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pulp fiction jumped the semiotic shark when conspiracy fantasies like Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum became more or less indistinguishable from the actual conspiracy theories being peddled in Fate Magazine. When The X-Files hit in 1993, based on the 70s journalistic exploits of Kolchak, the Night Stalker, it was a spike driven straight into the vein of the American collective unconscious.

People want to believe the truth really is out there…and that the government knows and is hiding it.

Post-X Files fiction in this vein is rife, everything from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Paul (2011) to graphic novels like Groom Lake (2009). Some are played straight, others for laughs—the bigger the cover-up, the more people and resources at play, the more it stretches the suspension of disbelief that any government agency can keep a lid on anything for any period of time.

Yet at the same time, everyone accepts that governments do successfully cover up things all the time. Documents are unclassified over time and reveal the details of events that happened in the shadows…and we know there are files still sealed. Secret histories under lock and seal. Anything might be in there—and that’s the attraction of the government conspiracy mindset. The imagination can populate those locked binders with any secrets—never mind that most of them are probably mundane things, like the sexual escapades of past presidents now safely dead, or the schematics for encryption machines rusting away in some government warehouse.

While his parents sleep, the boy is treated to Ray Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, and, finally, English director James Whale’s little-known and once-believed-lost The Star Maiden (1934).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland (2017), 48

Agents of Dreamland is the first in her Tinfoil Dossier series, which will probably be compared to Charles Stross’s Laundry series by default: both involve the Men-in-Black end of a government cover up, agencies working behind the scenes to investigate and contain the Mythos. The two bodies of work are distinctly different beasts, however. Kiernan’s point-of-view character the Signalman is on the ragged end of a career out on the edge of the spook world, a veteran of too many horrors. Not the smartest or the most clever, no Jason Bourne-style action scenes, just a bone-weary tiredness and a looming sense of desperation hovering over all.

That’s the mood. This is a war that can’t be won, because the people fighting it don’t realize it is a war yet.

The lore is stripped down; this isn’t a roleplaying game supplement about the Men in Black and their valiant secret war against the Cthulhu Mythos. This is grungier, grittier, more homely and with an air of inevitability. There are scenes and themes reminiscent of Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Lovecraft, for all that he created, was working within a late-19th/early-20th century frame of scientific understanding—and science has dug up some much stranger things since 1937.

Kiernan doles out the information from the black dossier in measured doses, switching point of view and time between chapters, balancing exposition and description. The idea isn’t to give the reader too much at once, to let the reader form their own connections, to feel the people that are in these places at these times. It’s a spy story written like a Cthulhu Mythos story, and by the time the reader finds out the truth about The Star Maiden, puts the pieces together and think they have a clue about where this is going…

The truth is weirder than you think.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017) is the first in the Tinfoil Dossier series, and is followed by Black Helicopters (2018) and The Tindalos Asset (2020).


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

“The Child of Dark Mania” (1996) by W. H. Pugmire

This story appeals to me more than most of the things I’ve written this past decade. I am fond of the image of the woman with her weird masked face, and was delighted when two pictorial renditions of that image were included in my first American collection, one by my editor and publisher, Jeffrey Thomas, and the other gracing the superb cover illustration by Earl Grier. There is a lot of peculiar passion in this story, and it gets me, deliciously. I was delighted to be able to write it in memory to HPL’s great buddy and fellow weird author, Frank Long. “The Child of Dark Mania” originally appeared in The Pnakotic Series.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Afterword” in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 113

Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s “The Horror from the Hills” (Weird Tales Jan, Feb-Mar 1931) is one of his most famous additions to the Cthulhu Mythos—mostly because the novella incorporates a lengthy sequence borrowed from one of Lovecraft’s letters (with permission), describing a Roman dream in ancient Iberia. The main antagonist of the novella is Chaugnar Faugn, which in turn was inspired by a small statuette of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha that Long’s aunt Cassie Symmes had gifted him.

Long is busy on a horror tentatively called “The Elephant God of Leng”—based on a curiously carved idol his aunt lately brought him from Europe, plus a suggestion or two of mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 2 Feb 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 204

The appropriation of an Indian religious icon was not uncommon in Weird Tales during the period. Readers might compare the elephant-headed Yog-Kosha from Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” (Weird Tales Mar 1933), or the eponymous idol in Seabury Quinn’s “The Green God’s Ring” (Weird Tales Jan 1945). Inspiration comes where it does, and the “Exotic East” was an important inspiration for many pulp writers, and a draw for many pulp readers—and we can perhaps be grateful that Long drew a distinction between the benevolent Ganesha and the malevolent Chaugnar Faugn.

While “The Horror in the Hills” has been long recognized as a part of the Mythos, there has never quite been a distinct “Chaugnar Faugn Cycle.” Lovecraft would include Chaugnar Faugn among the deities in “The Horror in the Museum” (1933), and Long would revisit the character in his poem “When Chaugnar Wakes” (Weird Tales Sep 1932), and a few others have tried their hand at it, notably Robert Bloch with “Death is an Elephant” (Weird Tales Feb 1939), Joseph Pulver, Sr.’s untitled poem that begins “Elephant Lord, Chaugnar Faugn,…” (Cthulhu Cultus #12, 1998), Robert M. Price’s “The Elephant God of Leng” (Black Book #1, 2002), and W. H. Pugmire’s “The Child of Dark Mania” (1996).

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As with “An Imp of Aether” (1997), “The Child of Dark Mania” is one of a series of stories that Pugmire wrote in the 1990s in homage to various weird authors that had come before; and as with “Imp” this one has been revised in its various publications, so that while the basic elements of the story remain, the details shift a bit depending on whether you read it in the original Pnakotic Fragments (1996) fanzine, the Tales of Sesqua Valley (1997) chapbook, or paperback publication in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts (2008) or An Imp of Aether (2019).

Most of these changes are minimal—the consolidation of paragraphs, another word or sentence of description, etc. One notable change is the name of the protagonist, a writer of horror fiction who in the original is Frank or Franklyn, and in the 2019 version is “Sonny” or Francis—no doubt to more closely associate the writer with “Sonny” Belknap, as Lovecraft used to call his friend.

She went to a stand and unwrapped a piece of plastic, from which she removed a cone of incense. This she placed next to me on the bed, along with an incense burner shaped as an Eastern deity, an elephant god whose name I could not recall.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Child of Dark Mania” in An Imp of Aether 169

In keeping with his usual style, Pugmire is not so unsubtle as to name Chaugnar Faugn directly. The story is all the more effective for not being another gushing bit of fanfiction that tries to dump a vast chunk of Mythos lore on the reader. Nor does Pugmire try for anything grandiose; this is a quieter tale than “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff, somewhat closer to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” in scope—and Melissa is perhaps a close cousin to Helen Vaughn as portrayed in Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz.

Instead, it is a very slight, intimate story, content to communicate the plot by image and intimation, and leave the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. One of the most distinct such images is worth going into a little more deeply:

I tired but found it impossible not to study the grotesque cloth mask, and the bizarre shape that moved beneath it. I had known that Melissa had been born with birth defects, and we had assumed that this had been the result of Diane’s consumption of foreign opiates. (ibid. 168)

Savvy readers might draw any number of references: the masked high priest not to be described in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, perhaps—but also Joseph Merrick, the Victorian performer billed as “The Elephant Man,” who would wear a hood or mask to help conceal his features when in public.

There is that sense of empathy for Diane, the wild child who had “journeyed with a gang of lesbian witches” and returned pregnant, disapproved of by her family, and forced to raise her daughter alone…and now might lose her, as Melissa comes of age—which is the only odd part of the changes between editions. In the earlier versions of the text, Diane gave birth eighteen years before the start of the story, in the 2019 text this is shortened to eight. Whether this is an error or meant to invoke the quick growth of Wilbur Whateley is not clear, and doesn’t effect the final story much.

In conception, Pugmire’s Chaugnar Faugn is more intriguing than Long’s. Here, the deity has an aspect reminiscent of Pan, Bacchus, or Dionysus, who might attract very Lovecraftian maenads, drunk on the cosmic wonder of it all…and dance.

My blood froze as she bent low and kissed the shadow of the rigid god, and I inwardly cringed when that blasphemous silhouette began to blur and bend. (ibid. 171)

Why did Diane flee to Sesqua Valley? Perhaps because that was Pugmire’s corner of Lovecraft Country, and he wished to draw to himself those dark, shining jewels of the Mythos he prized. There is a jealous tendency to the valley, magnetic and sympathetic, like calling to like. The Child of Dark Mania fits in well among those shadowy residents.

The latest version of the text, titled “Child of Dark Mania,” can be read in An Imp of Aether (2019).


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

“The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft

 For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)

From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”

A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.

Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:

Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748

Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:

Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californianshows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213

As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:

That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.

“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.

Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190

As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Dead mentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:

Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411

This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:

I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)

It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:

All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432

This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.

Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:

Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.

It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.

Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:

The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.

“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft may be read for free online here.


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

“The Were-Snake” (1925) by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

My contributions to the Mythos were of assorted shapes and sizes, ranging from the tiny, flesh-devouring Doels, who inhabited an alien dimension shrouded in night and chaos, to the monstrous Chaugnar Faugn, whom only the suicidally inclined would have mistaken for a pachyderm. I also contributed one scenic vista, the mysterious, perpetually mist-shrouded Plateau of Leng, and one forbidden book, John Dee’s English translation of The Necronomicon, which I placed at the head of The Space Eaters when that story first appeared in Weird Tales […]
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 23-24

To hear Long tell it, his first contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos—and the first stories written as part of the Mythos, outside of Lovecraft’s own pen—were “The Space Eaters” (Weird Tales July 1928) and “The Hounds of Tindalos” (Weird Tales March 1929). These stories have been enshrined in canon as much as anything written by anyone other than H. P. Lovecraft himself, and predate anything written specifically incorporating references to the Mythos by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, or others.

What most compilers of Mythos stories seem to forget is that the first published story with a Mythos connection by Long was actually his third story professionally published: “The Were-Snake” (Weird Tales September 1925). Looking at Long’s memoirs, and the collections of his fiction, one gets the impression that perhaps Long wished it would be forgotten. Although reprinted twice during his lifetime in anthologies, like “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch this story has never been published in any Cthulhu Mythos collection, and remains absent from Long’s The Early Long and Arkham House anthologies.

Normally, when looking into such matters, Lovecraft’s letters are a great asset. However, in this case most of his letters to Long have not been published, and the references to the story in Lovecraft’s published correspondence is minimal:

Next month my “Temple” & Belknap’s “Were-Snake” will appear.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.306

Hope your friend will get some vignette & tailpiece jobs—you might tell Wright it’s about time he stopped using Brosnatch’s ancient designs for Belknap’s “Desert Lich” & “Were-Snake” & Seabury Quinn’s “Servants of Satan” in this capacity!”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Jan 1932, Essential Solitude 2.444

Andrew Brosnatch was the artist that did the header-pieces for Frank Belknap Long’s stories; the art was re-used periodically in Weird Tales as filler for years afterward. Other than that, there is nothing much in Lovecraft’s correspondence: 1925 was before most of his pulp friends began to correspond with him, and if Lovecraft and Long discussed the story, those letters haven’t come to light yet. What we know of this story’s genesis, then, is mostly down to inference.

Shortly after Weird Tales hit the stands in 1923, H. P. Lovecraft wrote to the editor Edwin Baird—and was soon enmeshed in correspondence with both Baird and the pulp magazine’s owner, J. C. Henneberger. Several submissions from Lovecraft had been accepted at Weird Tales, and in 1924 Lovecraft encouraged his young friend in amateur journalism to submit his own stories to the magazine:

Now, Child, send Grandpa that horror story! If you will be good and write lots and lots of terrible things, I believe you may have a chance to land them in Weird Tales, for as you will see when I send you the Henneberger letter, they are desperately in need of material which is basically unconventional. Pray picture to yourself the curiosity of a fiend-loving Old Gentleman, and delay no longer in making Grandpa your nameless monstrosity! About the Ashton Smith reference in my Hound—I omitted that myself, on advice of Eddy (not Poe but my local protege C. M. Eddy), who said that the editor would object to such exploitation of an artist-poet whose work I am trying to push with Weird Tales. Now that I see how solidly I stand with both Baird and Henneberger, I am sorry I took the advice—but what’s done is done. Another time I may do some free advertising for Smith and Sonny Belknap and Mortonius and everybody!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.292-293

“The Hound” was published in the February 1924 issue of Weird Tales; the surviving typescript shows Lovecraft made a few alterations from the original which appear in the published text:

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held the unknown and unnamable drawings of Clark Ashton Smith.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (original text)

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings which it was rumoured Goya had perpetrated but dared not acknowledge.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (as published)

This would have been, if published, one of Lovecraft’s first literary in-jokes—Lovecraft was already in correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith at the time—and together with Lovecraft’s urge that Long write and submit his stuff to Weird Tales for publication is probably what led, ultimately, to “The Were-Snake.”

Long’s first stories published in Weird Tales were “The Desert Lich” (WT Nov 1924) and “Death-Waters” (WT Dec 1924); both tales can be said to be typical of his very early professional efforts, dealing with white people in exotic settings and stumbling across something dangerous and uncanny. Later Long would grow as a writer with more complex plots and characterization, but these short pieces were in good company for the early issues of Weird Tales, which was still feeling its way after the editorial shakeup that had seen Baird (and Henneberger) ousted and Farnsworth Wright in the editorial chair.

By the time “Death-Waters” was published, Lovecraft had come down to New York City, married Sonia H. Greene, and taken up residence; he was seeing a good deal of Long and the rest of the gang in the Kalem Club. Long’s third story in Weird Tales was “The Were-Snake” (WT Nov 1925)—published nearly a year after his last one. Why the long delay? Rejection, possibly, or backlog; even if Long wrote it in the spring of 1925, it likely wouldn’t be published until winter…and there are reasons to suspect it might have been written in the spring of 1925.

“The nethermost caverns,” wrote the mad Arab, “are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

I sat and dozed, or stared drowzily into the darkness, and thought of the charnel worms which the mad Arab Alhazred bred in the bellies of slain camels.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake”

That is the sole line that connects “The Were-Snake” with the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” was first published in Weird Tales January 1925 issue; if Long read it there…and he might have read it in manuscript, for all we know, before that due to his close association with Lovecraft during that period…it might make sense that “The Were-Snake” with its reference to Alhazred and worms was written later, sometime during early 1925, and submitted to Wright at Weird Tales. Nothing can be said for certain, until and unless more evidence comes to light, but the sequence of events makes sense.

As to the story itself… “The Were-Snake” is very similar to “The Desert Lich” and “Death-Waters.” American tourists in the Near East; more than a touch of exoticism and rather casual racial prejudice and sexism which is sometimes played for laughs:

Our consul has red hair, and he beats his wife and he judges men by the color of their skin
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake

It’s a stilted joke, since the courageous American archaeologist sleeping in the haunted ruins is trying to bluff and bluster at what he thinks are a group of indigenous people playing a trick on himthere are some parallels in this story with Helena Blavatsky’s “A Witch’s Den” (1892), which had been published in Best Psychic Stories (1920), a book that we know Long had read and lent to Lovecraft. But whereas Blavatsky’s apparition was a group of clever natives pulling a ruse, Long’s were-snake is very real…

Robert E. Howard is not known for certain to have read this story; he apparently missed several early issues of Weird Tales. Yet it is notable that one of his early Conan stories, “The God in the Bowl,” was rejected by Farnsworth Wright, includes a man-headed serpent with hypnotic powers and deific connections—was Howard at all aware of “The Were-Snake” when he wrote “The God in the Bowl?” Did Wright reject the story because that element was similar to Long’s story? The latter seems unlikely; but it’s curious that both stories have such similar monsters. There is also a reference at the beginning to Dr. John Dee, which is notable only in that it was Long who attributed to Dee an English translation of the Necronomicon in “The Space Eaters.”

For the most part, however, it’s easy to see why Long might have wished to forget about “The Were-Snake.” The central protagonist and his fiance (?) Miss Beardsley are not terribly compelling. The descriptive material in the encounters in the dark ruins are interesting, but the final revelations lack punch, and little explanation is given as to the nature of the were-snake and her siren-like charms and habits.

The reference to Abdul Alhazred seems a little absurd in hindsight—but in context? Lovecraft hadn’t really established the cosmic scope of his Mythos yet, and the Necronomicon had appeared only in “The Festival” and “The Hound” in print. Long’s usage of Alhazred was no more than a literary in-joke at this point, and not out of keeping with the uses that Lovecraft had already made of the character. That’s how the Cthulhu Mythos started in many ways, with little throwaway references that slowly built up into something else. There were no rules, no planning, little effort to standardize and a great deal of encouragement to experiment.

In hindsight, it’s hard to see where “The Were-Snake” would have “fit” into the growing Mythos, especially after Lovecraft’s death when folks like Francis T. Laney and August Derleth were making an effort to codify the Mythos. Where would the were-snake have fit in their system? Nowadays, of course, fans might say that the were-snake was of the same species as Howard’s “God in the Bowl,” or perhaps a child of Yig, but those are both concepts that came up after Long had conceived and written his piece, and there is no evidence that either Howard or Lovecraft intended any such connection to this early work by Long.

Virtually all myth cycles, fictional or otherwise, include these “fringe-level” borrowings, which but to a minor extent enter into the main body of the cycle. The contributions of other writers did not diminish the genius-inspired originality of the Cthulhu Mythos; in its major aspects it remains entirely Lovecraftian.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 24

For those who like a bit of trivia, it’s worth noting that the first Mythos entity created by someone other than Lovecraft (and one of the first Mythos entities period) was indisputably female. Whatever else she might have been—god or human, witch or monster—Long’s were-snake was a woman.

Frank Belknap Long, Jr.s’ “The Were-Snake” may be read free online here.


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

The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough & The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead

W. Paul Cook wants an article from me on the element of terror & weirdness in literature, but I shall take my time about preparing it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19 Nov 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.492

In November 1925, while living alone at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, H. P. Lovecraft was asked to write for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal, The Recluse. Up to this point, Lovecraft had been a fan of weird fiction and read many of the major works in the field, and a reader and contributor to Weird Tales for the last two years, but had never undertaken a systemic course of reading on weird fiction. Now without a wife or regular employment, he had an excuse to do so—as well as the resources of the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library to draw on.

A significant chunk of this reading, and the initial chapters of what would become “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was completed by May 1926; in April of that year, he moved back to Providence, Rhode Island. The final sketching and typing of the long essay was delayed by further discoveries at the Providence Public Library, and Lovecraft continued to make last-minute alterations up until 1927; the essay was finally published in The Recluse in August 1927.

I want to get down to the publick library & read that Timothy Dexter book, (of which Tryout has just sent me another fine review) as well as Gemmill’s new work on the Salem witch trials, & a volume of two or three years ago on the tale of terror.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 19 Nov 1925, LFF 1.493

[…] went out to the Bklyn. Library, got Birkhead’s history of “The Tale of Terror”, came home & read it through, & retired 7 a.m.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 25 Nov 1925, LFF 1.495

Chapters III & IV of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” are devoted to Gothic literature, and while Lovecraft did peruse the Gothics, one of his major acknowledged sources for these early chapters was The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) by Edith Birkhead, an assistant lecturer in English literature at the University of Bristol. Birkhead’s study was pioneering in many ways, but as David Punter points out in The Literature of Terror, not only was it a very readable and accessible volume, but it was free of the defensive attitude toward genre fiction that characterized many other works on supernatural and Gothic fiction.

Even in the 1920s, there was something a little trashy and disreputable about such literary fare; penny dreadfuls and purple prose. Folks today still make fun of a novel starting “It was a dark and stormy night…” but that was the actual opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s neo-Gothic novel Paul Clifford (1830), which Birkhead mentions in passing. Even Lovecraft was not above taking a shot at such works, referring in his essay to:

[…] the dreary plethora of trash like Marquis von Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), Mrs. Roche’s Children of the Abbey (1796), Miss Dacre’s Zofloya; or, The Moor (1806), and the poet Shelley’s schoolboy effusions Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811) (both imitations of Zofloya) […]

While Lovecraft did read several Gothic novels in the course of his research, the ones listed above are not books which Lovecraft tracked down and read for himself: he was distilling Birkhead’s more detailed history of Gothic literature for his own purposes. No doubt Lovecraft also appreciated that Birkhead did not stint on attention to American Gothic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in her chapter on “American Tales of Terror,” and her description of Poe in particular has many echoes with Lovecraft’s own stylistic efforts:

But Poe’s psychology went deeper than that of the writers of romance. His art was much subtler, finer, and more self-conscious than theirs. He was a penetrating critic of his own work, and was deeply interested in craftsmanship. No doubt he analysed the structure of his tales as closely as that of his poem, The Raven, and studied constantly their precise effect on the mind of the reader. In his best tales we feel that he knows from the first sentence exactly what the end is to be. In choosing his subject, he intentionally shuns the normal and turns to the odd, the exceptional and the bizarre. He watches for the airy, gossamer filaments of sensation that float unrealised through most men’s minds and transfers them to his stories. He imagines obscure feelings as intensely as he imagines actual scenes. It seems as if he had brooded so long over his story and become so completely absorbed into its atmosphere that the fine shades of emotion are as real to him as the background he has conceived as a setting. He does not aim at depicting character. The people in his tales are little more than algebraical symbols. he prefers to follow the twists and turns of a brain working under some abnormal influence. His not interested in healthy human minds or hearts. […] His pictures are sometimes so vivid that they make the senses ache. Like Maturin, he even resorts to italics to enforce his effect. He crashes down heavily on a chord which would resound at a touch. […] While he was writing, Poe did not for a moment let his imagination run riot. the outline of the story was so distinctly conceived, its atmosphere so familiar to him, that he had leisure to choose his words accurately, and to dispose his sentences harmoniously, with the final effect ever steadily in view. the impression that he swiftly flashes across our minds is deep and enduring.
—Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror 219-220

Lovecraft’s opinion on Birkhead’s book was mixed. While he did not hesitate to recommend it to his friends and correspondents, notably August Derleth (who would write his thesis on “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890) and Donald Wandrei (who was taking an honors course in Gothic fiction at university), to Wandrei he admitted:

I read the Birkhead book on “The Tale of Terror”, but found it exceedingly ill-proportioned & imaginatively unappreciative.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Dec 1926, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 22

No doubt, this was due to the relative narrowness of the scope of The Tale of Terror, and because Lovecraft’s own tastes—reflected in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—were focused on the uncanny and supernatural, more than the merely terrible or gruesome phases of literature, and because Birkhead’s remit ran out before she tackled contemporary weird fiction or writers such as Arthur Machen or M. R. James. In other places, Lovecraft was more effusive in his praise:

Do you know Railo’s “The Gothic Castle” & Birkhead’s “The Tale of Terror”? Both are excellent exposition of the earlier phases of horror-fiction in English—the Walpole-Radcliffe-Lewis-Maturin type. I could lend you the Birkhead book.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 22 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 92

Eino Railo was a Finnish scholar whose treatise The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism was published in English in 1927. Lovecraft would count his work along with Birkhead as one of the default textbooks on Gothic fiction, although he read it too late to incorporate into the first publication of his own article:

Speaking of Gothic source material—Cook has just lent me a brand new book by one Eino Railo (never heard of him before) which for thoroughness throws Birkhead altogether into the shade—although its scope is even narrower.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 22 Oct 1927, LWP 171

Lovecraft did not cease collecting material after “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, but continued to collect notes with an eye toward a revised version of the text, incorporating more material he subsequently found on important authors like William Hope Hodgson. In this, Wandrei was very useful in pointing Lovecraft toward some other sources:

By the way, in looking through the bookstacks of the University library the other [day], I came across “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough; it does not seem to be especially good as a monograph but it mentions a great many books and tales which I do not know. I have also discovered at the U. a professor whose speciality is the eighteenth century and who is fond of Gothic literature. He says a French book on the subject has just been issued, under the title, I think, “Le Roman de Terreur”. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I’ll find it out. The book apparently has not come into the library as yet; hence I can’t say how good it is.
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 28 Feb 1927, LWP 59-60

Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., was an English instructor at Columbia University, and her work The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) is an extensive survey of the entire field of supernatural works in English, though even with this vast scope and a bibliography of some three thousand titles, she admits in her preface that it isn’t possible to mention every title, the field is simply too vast. Still, her volume represents one of, if not the, first major assay of the field of supernatural fiction in English. Her general expertise on ghost stories was acknowledged in several collections, notably The Best Psychic Stories (1920), Humorous Ghost Stories (1921), and Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921)

The other work Wandrei mentions is Le roman “terrifiant”: ou, Roman noir de Walpole à Anne Radeliffe et son influence sur la littérature française jusqu’en 1840 (The ‘Terror’ Story, or the Black Novel from from Walpole to Anne Radeliffe and its influence on French literature until 1840,” 1923) by Alice M. Killen, a revision of her 1920 thesis. This is a strictly French-language work on the Gothic novel in much the same vein as Railo and Birkhead, although again with a narrower focus. Lovecraft didn’t read French and never saw Killen’s book, though he continued to cite her as an expert in the field—but he did read Scarborough.

Thanks tremendously for the Scarborough book, which I read with keen interest & am going to return the first moment I can get to a post office. It was certainly kind of you to send it. The material is really of great value, & I am immensely glad I had a chance to go through it. As you say, the weakest parts are those dealing with later work. The author does not mention M. R. James, & her prim distaste for Machen’s macabre suggestions is rather amusing. Likewise, her efforts to be continually jocose & flippant become a little strained as one reads on. There is no conflict with my article, because the scope & method of the work are entirely different. This book covers not only horror but all forms of the supernatural, & includes the comic & the lightly whimsical as well as the grotesque & the terrible. Also, its plan of development & system of emphasis is entirely different. What I am trying to do is give a  list of especially notable works containing supernatural horror; listing them by periods & authors & allotting them notice on the basis of their strength & merit in the given field. Dr. Scarborough, on the other hand, is trying to trace certain types of subject-matter through literature in a less critical way—being interested in the mere mention of a certain superstition by an author, & listing items simply because they deal with such-&-such—not because they have a special power to influence the emotions. This system involves a radically different form of outline, as you see. Instead of going ahead chronologically & treating the most powerful books of each period, Scarborough follows first one stream of subdivided subject-matter & then another—i.e., ghosts, devil, vampire, werewolf, wandering Jew, metempsychosis, alchemy, folklore, science, &c. &c. In the course of this scheme she lists many things so pallid & inane that one can hardly think of their deserving a place except from the standpoint of academic scholarship. And yet, for all that it’s a valuable book. It certainly brings out many essential facts & tendencies amazingly well, & will bear comparison with anything else on this theme ever written. The separate & perhaps encyclopaedic bibliography edited by Dr. S. must be another item of great importance. Let me know any time you want to see the Birkhead book. […] I obtained several hints from Scarborough, & also copied two tributes to the weird as a genre from the introduction—Lafcadio Hearn’s & the author’s own. Whether I’ll ever get around to preparing a second & amended edition of my article, I’m sure I don’t know.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 31 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 95

As it happened, Lovecraft did get that chance. Charles D. Hornig, the editor of The Fantasy Fan fanzine, serialized the revised essay in parts from 1933-1935…at which point the series ended, having only published up to the revised chapter VIII. The full revised text was not published until two years after Lovecraft’s death, in The Outsider and Others (1939, Arkham House).

The influence that Scarborough had on Lovecraft’s revised version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is hard to measure. A comparison of the original 1927 text and the 1939 text show some substantial revisions, some of which might be due to additional authors and insights provided by Scarborough, but others which concern contemporary authors that Scarborough’s book doesn’t touch upon. Yet for the rest of his life, Lovecraft generally acknowledged the authority of Birkhead and Scarborough in passages like:

Weird elements have permeated literature since prehistoric times—flourishing in Elizabethan drama & forming a distinct school since the middle of the eighteenth century. (cf. “The Tale of Terror” by Edith Birkhead; “The Haunted Castle”, by Eino Railo; “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough—all presumably obtainable at the public library […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 12 Apr 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 30

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lovecraft’s acknowledgement of the expertise of these two women is how unremarkable it is. Lovecraft at no point makes any issue of their gender, and while he does not agree with them in all particulars, he also does not associate the source of that disagreement with their being women. He acknowledged their expertise and scholastic efforts, at least in their letters. While “Supernatural Horror in Literature” only credits Birkhead and not Scarborough, that is no doubt because he leaned much more heavily on Birkhead’s scholarship in the early chapters on the Gothics.

Since his death, Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” has probably become his most influential essay, a survey and definition of the field of weird fiction which, while not as exhaustive as that of Birkhead, Railo, Killen, and Scarborough, is more focused on what we think of as the “weird tale” today. Like Roger Bacon, if Lovecraft saw a little further than other weird talers during his lifetime, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants like Birkhead and Scarborough, and all those who cite his essay are in turn being influenced by these great women scholars of the weird.

Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance may be read for free online here.

Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction may be read for free online here.


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

“Shambleau” (1933) by C. L. Moore

[…] it was a rainy afternoon in the middle of the Depression, I had nothing to do—but I really should’ve looked busy because jobs were hard to get! I didn’t want to appear that I wasn’t earning my daily keep! To take up time, I was practicing things on the typewriter to improve my speed—things like ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” That got boring, so I began to write bits of poetry I remembered from my college courses…in particular, I was quoting a poem called “The Haystack in the Flood.” […] The poem was about a woman in 13th century France who is being pursued by enemies of some kind…she was running across a field and these men were after her. I had misquoted a line in my mind, as well as on the typewriter, and referred to a “Red, running figure.” […] At the time I thought, “Ha! A red, running figure! Why is she running? Who is she running from and where is she running to? What’s going to happen to her? Strangely enough, I just swung from that line of poetry into the opening of “Shambleau.”
⁠—”Interview: C. L. Moore Talks To Chacal” in Chacal #1 (1976), 26

Red running lions dismally
Grinn’d from his pennon, under which,
In one straight line along the ditch,
They counted thirty heads.
—William Morris, “The Haystack in the Floods”

Then into his range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street. It was a girl — a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933

Catherine Lucille Moore was was 22 years old in 1933, and engaged to be married. The Great Depression had nixed her short-lived effort to go to college, and she had gotten a job as a typist at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis—where her fiance also worked. In her spare time, she read pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding, and Weird Tales—and began to write and submit stories to them.

“Shambleau” was the first tale of Northwest Smith to hit print; the protagonist was inspired by a depositor at her company, who signed their letters as “N. W. Smith.” (“C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner” in Science Fiction Writers 161-167), and originally was meant for an entirely different genre:

I have remotest glimmers of memory about a wild, wild Western that never went beyond the idea that there ought to be a One-Eyed Jack, (possibly of hearts) and a Northwest Smith on a ranch called the Bar-Nothing. Thence the name, but whence the character no one knows, least of all myself. When I first began to consider him as a space-ranger, I was guilty of a saga which started out,

Northwest Smith was a hard-boiled guy
With an iron fist and a roving eye—

of which the less is said the better.
—C. L. Moore, Echoes of Valor II, 37

Northwest Smith would not be quite a space cowboy, but the literary genesis makes sense. The Martian town presented is the spaceport equivalent of a little town out west, maybe up by the Canadian border or down south near Mexicothe kind of place that attracts lean, hungry operators who reach for the heat-gun on their hips as easily as a shootist might reach for the big iron on their hip. Other details of the story were more prosaic; for instance, Moore maintained that the name “Yarol” had derived from the Royal typewriter she was using to type the story (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 10 Sep-9 Oct 1934).

The manuscript for the story ended up on the desk of Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales:

The peak was reached in 1933, when he handed me something by one C. L. Moore.

“Read this!” he commanded, the moment I stepped into the new editorial rooms at 840 North Michigan Avenue, in Chicago.

I obeyed. The story commanded my attention. There was no escape. I forgot that I needed food and drink—I’d driven a long way. […] The stranger’s narrative prevailed until, finally, I drew a deep breath, exhaled, flipped the last sheet to the back of the pack, and looked again at the by-line. Never heard of it before.

“For Christ’s sweet sake, who and what is this C. L. Moore?”

He wagged his head, gave me an I-told-you-so-grimace.

We declared C. L. Moore day. I’d met Northwest Smith, and Shambleau.
—E. Hoffmann Price, Book of the Dead 16

The story was ~11,000 words. Farnsworth Wright wrote to Moore and offered $100; a cent-per-word, payable on publication, was the average for a Weird Tales story.

[…] after I sent it off to WT, I more or less forgot about it. One day I came home from work and there was a long letter on the hall table for me. I opened it up and it said that they were going to pay me a hundred dollars. And that was like TEN THOUSAND dollars at that time. I screamed at the top of my voice! My father came charging downstairs thinking that I had been murdered or something (laughter) and nobody believed it until they read the letter. Then joy was completely unconfined—everyone was so happy about it.
⁠—”Interview: C. L. Moore Talks To Chacal” in Chacal #1 (1976), 27

It wasn’t her first publication, because Moore had a few things published during her brief time at college, but it was her first professional sale…but she couldn’t quit her dayjob just yet.

I used the initials “C. L.” simply because I didn’t want it to be known at the bank that I had an extra source of income. I wrote “Shambleau” in the midst of the Depression.  The bank was a very paternalistic organization. If was always firing those people whose services weren’t really needed. I had the feeling they might have fired me had they known I was earning extra income. Using my initials was simply a means of obscuring my identity.
Pulp Voices; or Science Fiction Voices #6 47

“Shambleau” saw print in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales. Competition in the issue was stiff: regulars and fan favorites like Edmond Hamilton, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith filled the issue…yet it was “Shambleau” and C. L. Moore which garnered the most attention, the most praise. For the sixteen years that Farnsworth Wright edited Weird Tales, he kept a tally of the most popular stories of all time—and not only was “Shambleau” the most popular story of the issue—it was the most popular story of 1933, and the second-most popular story to ever run in the magazine, beating out “The Outsider” by H. P. Lovecraft (3rd place), and second only to A. Merritt’s “The Woman of the Wood” (Weird Tales Aug 1926).

It was the most impressive arrival that any writer ever had at Weird Tales…and it’s easy to see why.

Shambleau! Vaguely of French origin, it must be. And strange enough to hear it from the lips of Venusians and Martian drylanders, but it was their use of it that puzzled him more. “We never let those things live,” the ex-Patrolman had said. It reminded him dimly of something … an ancient line from some writing in his own tongue . . .  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” He smiled to himself at the similarity, and simultaneously was aware of the girl at his elbow.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933

The world is rich, lived-in, and perhaps a little like the Martian stories that Clark Ashton Smith had begun to write, such as “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales May 1932) and “The Dweller in the Gulf” (Wonder Stories March 1933). Aliens, Medusa, and Mars were all familiar to readers of weird fiction in the 1930s, and even the tentacle’d horror was no stranger to Weird Tales, though rarely in so sexually suggestive a manner; Robert E. Howard had beaten her to the punch with “The Slithering Shadow” (Weird Tales September 1933) just a couple months before, but both offered the readers suggestions of new and thrilling sins:

A dark tentacle-like member slid about her body, and she screamed at the touch of it on her naked flesh. It was neither warm nor cold, rough nor smooth; it was like nothing that had ever touched her before, and at its caress she knew such fear and shame as she had never dreamed of. All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to down her in seas of cosmic filth.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Slithering Shadow” in Weird Tales September 1933

And something . . . some nameless, unthinkable thing . . . was coiled about his throat . . . something like a soft snake, wet and warm. It lay loose and light about his neck . . . and it was moving gently, very gently, with a soft, caressive pressure that sent little thrills of delight through every nerve and fiber of him, a perilous delight—beyond physical pleasure, deeper than joy of the mind. That warm softness was caressing the very roots of his soul with a terrible intimacy. The ecstasy of it left him weak, and yet he knew—in a flash of knowledge born of this impossible dream—that the soul should not be handled. . . .  And with that knowledge a horror broke upon him, turning the pleasure into a rapture of revulsion, hateful, horrible—but still most foully sweet.
—C. L. Moore, “Shambleau” in Weird Tales November 1933

There were few hard lines between science fiction and fantasy in the 1930s, and C. L. Moore didn’t give a damn for any such distinctions; her Northwest Smith stories often involve encounters with alien gods, sorcerers, and other supernatural elements. Her characters are often driven to terrible experiences that tax and imperil the mind and spirit as much the physical body, seek to describe such states of mingled ecstasy in horror with fantastic, poetic language. In one letter she wrote:

I know now why my fiance looked at me in that peculiar way after he’d read “Shambleau”—the first and only one of my stories he was ever persuaded to read. I know now what he was thinking. What kind of a person is this who can think of such things?
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 12 Nov 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 73

H. P. Lovecraft read the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales, and his initial reaction to the story was modest:

There is a germ of originality, despite much commonplaceness, in “Shambleau” […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Nov 1933, Essential Solitude 2.613

The argument over “commonplaceness” probably has much to do with the general setting with its humanoid aliens and inhabitable planets; Lovecraft’s essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” poo-pooed many of the tropes of Space Opera and Sword & Planet fiction which feature in “Shambleau.” However, to the editor of Weird Tales he offered effusive praise:

Shambleau is great stuff, too. It begins magnificently, on just the right note of terror, and with black intimations of the unknown. The subtle evil of the Entity, as suggested by the unexplained horror of the people, is extremely powerful—and the description of the Thing itself when unmasked is no letdown. Like “The House of the Worm”, it has real atmosphere and tension—rare thing amidst the pulp traditions of brisk, cheerful, staccato prose and lifeless stock characters and images. The one major fault is the conventional interplanetary setting. That weakens and dilutes the effect of both by introducing a parallel or rival wonder and by removing it from reality. Of course a very remote setting had to be chosen for so unknown  marvel—but some place like India, Africa, or the Amazon jungle might have been used…with the horror made more local. I trust your revisions may make Mrs. Moore’s second story as striking and interesting as this one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 21 Nov 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.38-39

Wright published an excerpt from this letter in the Jan 1934 issue of Weird Tales, along with other praise for “Shambleau.” The editor of Weird Tales  wrote to Moore requesting more of her work. By March 1934, she had sold two more stories (“Black Thirst” and “Scarlet Dream”) to Wright, and she had gotten in touch with her first fan—Robert H. Barlow. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 8 Mar 1934)

Barlow was a friend and correspondent of Weird Tales writer H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, and in the early 1930s had begun writing to authors like Robert E. Howard requesting copies of the manuscripts for their stories. Boldly, he asked her for the draft of “Shambleau,” but Moore told him the draft had been destroyed. (C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 28 Mar 1934) Instead, she sent him a drawing she had made of Shambleau:

Shambleau original art

Lovecraft commented on this as well:

Yes—C. L. Moore is certainly the most powerful & genuinely weird new writer secured by W.T. in many years. She is indeed of the feminine gender, the C. standing for Catherine. It is her wish, however, not to have this widely known—since she hopes to conceal the fact of her writing from her regular employers. She has a secretarial job with some corporation in Indianapolis, & fears she will be fired if it is known that she has another source of income. Miss Moore is also an artist of ability—last month she sent Barlow a drawing of Shambleau which displays phenomenal power.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 17 June 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 184-185

As to Miss Moore’s drawings—“Shambleau” is extremely well done, though not as subtly horrible & richly potent as Howard Wandrei would have made it. It is pen & ink, & so far as I know all her other drawings are. She most certainly has great & enviable talents.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 23 July 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 195

Ar E’ch Bei shewed me the “Shambleau” sketch, which certainly displays vast cleverness even if it lacks the indefinable menace & cosmic remoteness that you or Howard Wandrei would put into it. As a writer, Miss Moore is certainly the discovery of the last few years. No other newcomers is even in the running.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Sep 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 571-572

Lovecraft’s admiration was by all accounts sincere, and he held “Shambleau” among the best stories Moore had written until the end of his life. In time they would collaborate on the round-robin “The Challenge From Beyond” (1935), and they would correspond briefly (see Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore). He would comfort her after the death of her fiance in 1936, and introduce her to her future husband Henry Kuttner; she would inform him of the death of Robert E. Howard, create the Sword & Sorcery character Jirel of Joiry, inspire Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), and go on to a writing career that would last decades…and all, perhaps, because of this story, “Shambleau” and its singular reception.

It is interesting to compare this tale with Lovecraft’s revision “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop. “Medusa’s Coil” is often considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories and “Shambleau” one of Moore’s best, so a comparison of the prose tells us little, but it’s interesting to see how develops their themes. Neither story makes any effort to lift straight from the the ancient Greek myth, except by visual inspiration: a woman with deadly hair. This sets these tales apart from stories like Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Gorgon” (Weird Tales Apr 1932). Both Lovecraft and Moore explore what makes these women dangerous, and yet attractive. They suffer prejudice, for different reasons, and we get only limited hints of the female characters’ viewpoints because the perspective comes from men…and mostly their victims relay what little we know of their words and character.

Like Lovecraft’s, Moore’s story is not a moral tale in any strict sense. Northwest Smith’s action in saving the persecuted Shambleau was heroic; his efforts to care for her without taking advantage of the situation sexually is, if not commendable, at least shows Smith as not the worst of criminals…but the purpose of the story is not to show that Smith should have let the mob have the alien woman, though some readers may take that away from the ending. The “no good deed goes unpunished” interpretation of the narrative is a rather weak “I told you so,” and it doesn’t stop Smith from getting into other troublesome situations in later stories. Likewise, the “transgression” of marrying Marceline Bedard is not the focus of “Medusa’s Coil”—it’s just how the Medusa-character is brought into the story.

The difference is, at the end of “Medusa’s Coil,” nobody is alive to marry the Medusa-character again. The act cannot be repeated. With “Shambleau,” the horror is not Shambleau’s alien appendages or strange appetites, but the addiction to her terrible feeding. What Northwest Smith knows and fears is that he has become a junkie, and if the opportunity comes again—he might embrace it. That is rare territory for a weird tale, especially with the feeding so explicitly pseudo-sexual in nature—and shows something of the different approach both brought to their respective works. With Lovecraft, the horror rises from the grave, but with Moore, it might dash through the next Martian alley, a red, running figure…and Northwest Smith unable to stop himself as it plays out again.

C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” can be read for free online here.


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

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof

It is, unquestionably, the product of the lost dinosaur’s egg that has somehow, somewhere, mysteriously hatched itself. We believed them to be petrified in the rock, yet in some miraculous way the germ of life was not destroyed.
—Katherine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After” in Weird Tales November 1930

It was her only story in Weird Tales, though she wrote for other magazines; and had books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. H. P. Lovecraft might have run across her work before, in Ghost Stories or the Argosy All-Story, though if he did he never mentioned it. Yet what brought her to Lovecraft’s attention, and the reason why he wrote about Katharine Metcalf Roof at all in his letters, is because of this tale—which earned the cover illustration in this issue—and that ties in to events that had occurred long years before, and some of the most important discoveries in the history of early paleontology.

It begins with one of H. P. Lovecraft’s first trips to New York in 1922, where he visited with his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr:

Monday Long & I explored the American Museum of Natural History—examining it in far greater detail than did Kleiner & I a couple of weeks ago. Long appreciates science & nature more than Kleiner does—he is a marvellous kid, far above the average “amateur journalist” type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.63-64

While innocuous, it was apparently during this trip that Long or Lovecraft conceived of a story…one that would germinate for some years without being written. Lovecraft would chide his friend:

Grandpa thought he’d write and tell you that he hath just perused Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories! Magnificent plots, but how prosaically handled when one compares them to Machen’s work! I do not think Aepyornis Island anticipates your dinosaur egg story, and advise you to write the latter. Think of the difference—the dinosaur belongs to aeons immemorially remote and unconnected with anything in human experience, whilst the museum-cellar hatching can be handled with a creepiness wholly alien to anything in wells. Your idea is far the stronger, and Grandpa will spank you if you don’t write your story like a nice boy!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 26 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.287

The Æpyornis maximus was a large flightless bird native to Madagascar; in “Æpyornis Island” (1895) by H. G. Wells, a fossil hunter collecting some of the eggs of the supposedly extinct animal is surprised when it hatches. Such “living fossil” stories sometimes caught the imagination, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), and dinosaurs in a variety of settings were far from strangers in the pages of Weird Tales.

Yet dinosaur eggs were cutting edge news at the time. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews carried out the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, including fossil-hunting in the until-then largely inaccessible Gobi desert of Mongolia. In 1923 he discovered the first dinosaur eggs and nests, which in time were shipped back to the museum in New York…there to whet the imaginations of H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long.

Sunday we answered advertisements and hoped for the best, but Monday we decided to have some fun whilst life might last, so went to the American Museum of Natural History. Here we lingered over the illuminated bird displays […] and noted in passing the famous dinosaur eggs discovered by the museum’s Mongolian expedition. The latter were not impressive—being the eggs of a very small dinosaur, the ancestor of the later massive species.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.147

Lovecraft encouraged his friend to write the story, but Long did not, whether from lack of interest or fear of plagiarizing Wells’ plot is unknown. The idea sat, unused. In 1928, another visit is recorded:

I rose at noon & went up to Sonny’s to meet our client Mrs. Reed, who was in town Sun. & Mon. She seems quite prepossessing & intelligent. After her departure Sonny & I went to the Nat. Hist. Museum, where we both bought 25¢ dinosaur paperweights.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 May 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 676

Perhaps this visit encouraged Lovecraft to think of writing the story himself. In 1928 he recorded in his Commonplace Book, where he jotted down many story ideas: “What hatches from primordial egg.” (36)

Yet Lovecraft & Long did not write the story. Ultimately, Katharine Metcalf Roof did.

This vexed Lovecraft to no end.

The dinosaur’s egg story was simply a minus quantity—but it made me curse, because I thought of that same plot just eight years ago (before any real dinosaurs’ eggs were discovered) & urged kid Belknap to develop it in connexion with his beloved American Museum, within walking distance of which he’s lived all his young life. I went so far as to make inquiries of a sub-curator as to whether dinosaurs probably laid real eggs, or whether they were semi-viviparous like some other reptilia. On being told that they were probably truly oviparous, I renewed my urging that Belknap write the tale, but just about that time he read Wells’ “Æpyornis Island”, & thought that any prehistoric-egg story would just constitute a plagiarism. I told him that such an idea was nonsense—& just then the news came of the finding of the first actual dinosaur eggs by an expedition from Belknap’s own pet museum! Afterward I thought of writing the tale myself, though I always shelved the idea in favour of others. And now comes the miserable hash—so poor that nothing but its idea could possibly have won it first place & cover-design. If only Belknap or I had gone ahead & written a real story on the theme! Heaven knows—I may yet, for the idea is none the less mine because of this independent use—or abuse—of it. But if I do use the primordial egg idea, I may introduce variants. Perhaps it won’t bring forth a dinosaur at all, but instead, a hellish half-man of the pre-human Tsathogguan period!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 245-246

But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur’s egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn’t Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn’t he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn’t a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he’d read H. G. Wells’ Æpyornis Island? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial, It’s the development which makes a tale one’s own or not one’s own. Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 17 Oct 1930, Selected Letters 3.186-187

Nor was Lovecraft entirely alone in this opinion of Roof’s tale:

The “dinosaur egg” was truly rotten;—and I don’t blame you for cursing. I, too, would go ahead and use the idea, which could certainly be developed to great advantage by a good writer.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 255

Was all of this opprobrium appropriate? Did Roof deserve the ruing of Lovecraft & co.? It is hardly unusual for two writers to run across the same basic idea; Lovecraft would run into a similar situation with the revision tale “Winged Death” (1934).

There is some fairness to the criticism. Roof’s story is told with a certain disarming prosaic quality; the thieves speak like characters that wandered in from Black Mask or some other hardboiled pulp, the Irish-American moonshiners have a certain rusticity and more than a touch of ethnic stereotype to them. The story is not at all long, and the mystery is scarcely that, for even though Roof refrains from calling it a dinosaur until near the end, there seems little else that the giant reptile could be—and even if there was, the cover is a bit of a dead giveaway. The entire mechanism by which the egg managed to hatch is left unexplained; the critter remains undiscovered and grows to prodigious size within months. It’s final death by a chance bullet—and its remains destroyed by another chance—are almost deus ex machina. Even the title is a bit of a misnomer—although in this case, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright often changed titles on authors and might have been responsible for that.

If you compare “A Million Years After” with “The Dunwich Horror”—another story which features a large, dangerous, and exotic entity encountering a rural community—some of the reasons the story fails to resonate become apparent. There’s little sense of horror conveyed by the dinosaur, for all that the rural folks are scare of it; the description is at once both too much and insufficient. We never get a clear idea of what species of dinosaur it even is: the creature is reptilian and dwells in a swamp; has a huge body, a snake-like neck with a small head, claws on its feat, spotted skin instead of scales, and…most oddly…runs on its hind legs! While the cover depicts a sauropod, especially the early depictions of such creatures, the combination of features doesn’t quite line up.

The best that could be said about the story is that the bones of a good idea are there. The idea of a living dinosaur of titanic size, extinct for millions of years, has serious legs…as was proved in the film The Lost World (1925), and would be proved again by King Kong (1933), inaugurating a number of monster movies and creature features. Lovecraft himself saw both films, and was impressed by the stop-motion animation that brought the dinosaurs and giant ape to life:

I shall, I think, see “The Lost World” two weeks hence, for it is coming to the Strand at fairly popular prices. This palaeontological phantasy charmed me as a story some fifteen or more years ago, & I have wanted to see it ever since it was presented as a cinema. What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of spirit-mediums! Lost worlds have always been a favourite theme of mine, & I shall treat them more than once before I lay down my fictional pen for ever. The novelette I have mapped out, & which will probably be the next thing I shall write, deals largely with strange vestiges of a past primordial & horrible beyond expression. To me there is no one subject in literature so fascinating as chronological disarrangement—the conquest of time & Nature, & the momentary bringing together of two ages infinities apart.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 23 Sep 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.410

Yes—I shall see “The Lost World” this week, & know I shall enjoy it. Those of our gang who saw it are still marvelling over the impressive cleverness of the mechanical effects.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.436

I may do likewise with “King Kong” if its prehistoric life scenes are as good as those in “The Lost World”—which I say in 1925.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 134

Since last writing you I have seen “King Kong” (good mechanical effects) & “Madchen in Uniform.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 Jul 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 141

“A Million Years After” has never been reprinted, except in facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. The story’s author Katharine Metcalf Roof remains mostly unknown today, and there are no collections of her pulp fiction. It might well be claimed that she had little impact on weird fiction, and is basically forgotten.

Except…in early 1931, only a couple months after “A Millions Years After” came out, H. P. Lovecraft did begin to write a story that involved a strange survival from hundreds of millions of years in the past, that was awakened by a group of scientists after a long hibernation. There was no egg, and it wasn’t a dinosaur, but as he said to Clark Ashton Smith, it was an utterly alien form of life…

The story was At the Mountains of Madness.

While “A Million Years After” surely isn’t the only inspiration for the story, the timing is such that maybe—just maybe—it was Roof’s handling of the idea of the ancient survival that gave Lovecraft the impetus to put his ideas on paper.

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof can be read for free online here.


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