“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).

“The Sin-Eater” (1895) by Fiona Macleod

Now, we are a scattered band. The Breton’s eyes are slowly turning from the sea, and slowly his ears are forgetting the whisper of the wind around Menhir and Dolmen. The Cornishman has lost his language, and there is now no bond between him and his ancient kin. The Manxman has ever been the mere yeoman of the Celtic chivalry; but even his rude dialect perishes year by year. In Wales, a great tradition survives; in Ireland, a supreme tradition fades through sunset-hued horizons to the edge o’ dark; in Celtic Scotland, a passionate regret, a despairing love and longing, narrows yearly before a bastard utilitarianism which is almost as great a curse to our despoiled land as Calvinistic theology has been and is.
—Fiona Macleod, “From Iona” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), 11-12

It was called alternately the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Revival. The languages and cultures of the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the British Isles was rapidly fading in response to the events of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century; spreading industrialization, transportation and emigration, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, accelerated the decline of the Gaelic languages in favor of English, which had become the language of government, literature, and trade in the United Kingdom—and, before the breakup of the British Empire, throughout the world.

Against this decline rose varied movements; some aimed to preserve and promulgate the declining language and customs, such as the gorsedds in Wales, while the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th/early 20th century sought to raise awareness of Irish literature and writers. Common cause was made between Gaelic speakers based on mutual interest in languages, lore, and preservation of rapidly-disappearing ways of life. The Celtic Revival filtered across the Atlantic to the United States in many forms; W. B. Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), reprints of James Macpherson’s Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scot, the fantasies of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, the weird tales of Arthur Machen…and, though often forgotten today, the weird works of Scottish writer William Sharp, who also wrote as Fiona Macleod.

Sharp was already a relatively successful author whose books of poetry and realistic novels in the 1880s had progressed to the point where by 1890-1891 he could support himself full-time as a writer and editor. He and his wife went on a trip to Italy, where he found a muse in the form of Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder (Alaya 125), and the inspiration for a new literary persona.

Anyone might than have observed something different about Sharp. His creative voice was stronger, all his work more passionate and vital. And those who knew him intimately knew also that it was in the years immediately following his return from Italy that Sharp began, quietly but steadfastly, to produce the work later to be attributed to the pen of Fiona Macleod.
—Flavia Alaya, William Sharp—”Fiona Macleod” 1855-1905 (1970), 97

Sharp had previously tried on other literary voices, H. P. Siwaärmill, W. H. Brooks, and COuntess Ilse von Jaromar, but works under these names failed to gather attention. Fiona Macleod was created not just as a female voice for Sharp’s fiction, but a distinctly Scottish one; Sharp was at this point becoming more aware of himself as a Scot, and of the importance of Scottish Gaelic and folklore. It also provided an outlet for Sharp’s more occult leanings; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and an associate of Wiliam Butler Yeats on the “Celtic Mysteries” project, which involved trance workings (Talking to the Gods, 23, 36), and “second sight” and prophecy would find their way into Macleod’s work (Alaya 190).

The degree to which Sharp identified with Fiona Macleod has been a point among his biographers, up to and including his wife, who quoted from one of his letters:

…I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity…

This rape sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. … My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way.
William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) A Memoir (1910) 227

The ruse was more than skin-deep; from 1894 onwards he maintained two simultaneous and distinct writing careers, one as Sharp and the other as Macleod, answering letters “in character,” having his sister write out manuscripts in a woman’s handwriting, mailing letters to himself from “Fiona Macleod,” careful that he and his wife would always talk about “Fiona” as if she was a separate entity to avoid a slip, etc. The stress of the dual existence increased during his later years; Sharp forbore applying for a civil list pension because it would require revealing his authorship…and there may have been additional reasons.

Terry L. Meyers in The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp (1996), traces some of the subtle issues of gender identity and sexuality that Sharp expressed in his letters and fiction. A fierce advocate for gender equality, Meyers also traces themes of possible homosexual and transgender thought in his work and affiliations with other Victorian writers. Full expression or exploration of these feelings would have been difficult or impossible; Oscar Wilde being a prime example of the consequences of being found out. It is perhaps notable that in 1898 Sharp served on the Free Press Defence Committee formed to defend Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion from prosecution for obscenity (Meyers 18).

While it is impossible at this remove to say definitely whether Sharp was homosexual, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, or somewhere else on the spectrum, the combination of a strong feminine voice and a focus on authentic Scottish Gaelicisms came together to acclaim in the novels Pharais (1894), The Mountain Lovers (1895), and Green Fire (1896) to positive critical appraisal—sometimes eclipsing that of Sharp under his own name. Yet for all of Macleod’s literary output, the collection of short stories The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), particularly the title story, has come to be the most impactful—albeit in a way that Sharp/Macleod could not have foreseen, unless they really did have the Sight.

Alaya describes The Sin-Eater stories as “semi-autobiographical tales”; and there is in them a combination of authentic folklore, realistic portrayals of the lives of the Scottish people (warts and all), and perhaps above all a strong focus on Scottish Gaelic language. Macleod captures not just the somewhat stereotypical cadence of a way of thought and speaking, but makes knowledge of Gaelic a point of identity. Many phrases and a few special passages are in Gaelic, often with translation but some left au natural with only the context to guide the English reader. Yet it is telling when it is written:

The man had used the English when first he spoke, but as though mechanically. Supposing that he had not been understood, he repeated his question in the Gaelic.

After a minute’s silence the old woman answered him in the native tongue, but only to put a question in return.

“I am thinking it is a long time since you have been in Iona?”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater” in The Best Psychic Stories (1920), 127

Frank Belknap Long gifted a copy of The Best Psychic Stories to H. P. Lovecraft c.1923; the editor was Joseph Lewis French, an industrious editor and anthologist developed a reputation for weird anthologies beginning with Great Ghost Stories (1918) and The Best Ghost Stories (1919), and would go on to edit several more anthologies in that vein in the 1920s. The introduction was by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., author of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). French doesn’t mention Fiona Macleod’s alter ego, although the secret had been out a decade or so at that point; Scarborough doesn’t mention it in her brief introduction either, although her 1917 opus refers to Macleod as “Sharp’s other literary self” (65).

It isn’t clear if Lovecraft himself knew that Sharp was Macleod at that point—but it had apparently crossed his radar at a particularly good time for a little story he was working on titled “The Rats in the Walls:”

That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the “ungl”. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtica bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod [sic], in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you’d note that at once—but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as—with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Nov 1923, Selected Letters 1.258

Scottish and Irish Gaelic are Goidelic (Q-Celtic) languages; Welsh (Cymric) is P-Celtic. Different branches of the same linguistic family tree, but not mutually comprehensible. Lovecraft had borrowed a Scottish Gaelic phrase and put it where a Welsh phrase should be. As it happened, Lovecraft was correct. No one noticed the slip when the story was published in Weird Tales in March 1924. However, when the story was reprinted in the June 1930 issue, it came under the eye of a Celtophile who had made some effort to learn Irish Gaelic—Robert E. Howard of Texas. As Lovecraft later told the story:

As for the languages represented in the atavistic passage—I don’t recall including Sanscrit [sic], though I did lift a sentence of Celtic (of which I know not a single word) from another story, “The Sin-Eater”, by “Fiona McLeod” (William Sharp). This sentence, incidentally, was what brought me into correspondence with Robert E. Howard. It was—since I swiped it from a Scottish story—a Gaelic specimen, whereas of course the Celtic language of southern Britain was Cymric. R.E.H.—as an expert Celtic antiquarian—noticed the discrepancy, & thought I had adopted a minor theory that a Gaelic wave had preceded the coming of the Cymri to Britannia. He wrote Wright on the subject, & Wright forwarded the letter to me—whereupon I felt obliged to drop a line to the mighty Conan exposing my own ignorance & confessing to my rather inept borrowing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 2 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 47

Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year her read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I had lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright] a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different.
—H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 5 Jul 1936, Selected Letters 5.277

Howard’s letters show that in 1929 and early 1930 his reading was turning increasingly to Irish history, with long letters to Harold Preece and Tevis Clyde Smith on Celtic history and language. It was perhaps this focus which made Howard so sensitive to Lovecraft’s use of language in “The Rats in the Walls”—as given in his letter to Wright:

As to the climax, the maunderings of the maddened victim is like a sweep of horror down the eons, dwindling back and back to be finally lost in those grisly mists of world-birth where the mind of man refuses to follow. And I note from the fact that Mr. Lovecraft has his character speaking Gaelic instead of Cymric, in denoting the Age of the Druids, that he holds to Lhuyd’s theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts.

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. Baxter, the highly learned author of Glossario Antiquae Britanniae upholds this theory on the grounds that the Brigantes, supposed to be the first Celtic settlers in Britain, were unacquainted with the “p” sound, which was not used in Britain until the advent of the Brythonic or Cymric peoples. According to this, the Brigantes were a Goidhelic tribe, and Lhuyd’s point seems proven.

Personally, I hold to the theory of Cymric precedence, and believe that Brythonic tribes inhabited, not only Britain and Scotland before the coming of the Gaels, but Ireland as well. The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time.
—Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Collected Letters 2.42-43

Howard’s specific source for this argument appears to be O’Donovan and O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary (1864 ed.). We know Howard had this volume, as he cites in a subsequent letter to Lovecraft (CL2.70), and it seems to be the source for some of his Irish language comments in prior letters (cf. CL2.7, 20-21, 22-23). This passage in particular jives with the content of Howard’s letter:

Mr. Baxter (in Glossario Antiquæ Birtanniæ, p. 90) remarks, that the oldest Brigantes, whom he esteems the first inhabitants of Britain, never used in their language the sound of the letter p, which was afterwards introduced by the Belgic Britains. If the old Brigantes were really of the first inhabitants of Britain, it would follow, that they were a part of the Guidelian, or Gaulish colony, which went over to Ireland, and whom Mr. Lhuyd evidently proves to have been the first inhabitants of all that part of Great Britain which now comprehends England and Wales.
“Remarks on the Letter P” in An Irish-English Dictionary 399-400)

Lovecraft’s response is now lost, but that exchange began a correspondence that would last until Robert E. Howard took his own life in 1936; Lovecraft would still mourn his Texas friend until his own death in 1937. It is notable that while the first couple of letters are lost their collected correspondence, A Means to Freedom begins with both men deep into British Celtic history, and their wide-ranging letters spin out from there—but this period would always inform Lovecraft’s image of Robert E. Howard as a scholar and enthusiast for Gaelic language and culture. It is possible that Lovecraft’s high opinion of Howard helped overcome Lovecraft’s lingering prejudices regarding the Irish and “Celtic peoples,” who in the early 20th century still faced racial and ethnic discrimination.

No where in the surviving letters do Howard and Lovecraft discuss William Sharp or Fiona Macleod. The first time that Lovecraft acknowledges Sharp and Macleod as the same individual is in 1929:

The lines of William Sharp (who, by the way, has written some remarkable weird material under the pseudonym of “Fiona MacLeod” [sic]) are highly potent despite their simplicity. I have followed the draining of Lacus Nemorensis with great interest, though without much hope that anything valuable will be discovered on Caligula’s galleys.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 57

Lovecraft refers to “The Lake of Nemi” in Sharp’s volume of poetry Sospiri di Roma (1891)—which is, coincidentally, a product of the same trip to Italy in which Fiona Macleod was born in Sharp’s mind. Benito Mussolini had begun a project to drain Lake Nemi (Lacus Nemorensis), which Sharp had visited. So sometime between 1923 and 1929, Lovecraft discovered that Fiona Macleod was William Sharp…and had read enough of Macleod’s fiction to praise it, if only briefly. It is a pity that Lovecraft doesn’t expand on the subject at any length in his letters; he doesn’t even mention Macleod or Sharp in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and Lovecraft could scarcely have faulted Sharp for using Macleod as a pseudonym, considering Lovecraft had written under the name Elizabeth Berkeley himself.

It may be worthwhile to look at the infamous borrowing in context:

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? … Magna Mater! Magna Mater! … Atys … Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodaun … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! … Ungl … ungl … rrrlh … chchch ….
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”

“But, Andrew Blair, I will say this: when you fair abroad, Droch caoidh ort! and when you go upon the water, Gaoth gun direadh ort! Ay, ay, Anndra-mhic-Adam, Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!”†

† Droch caoidh ort! “May a fatal accident happen to you” (lit. “bad moan on you”). Gaoth gun direadh ort! “May you drift to your drowning” (lit. “wind without direction on you”). Dia ad aghaidh, etc., “God against thee and in thy face … and may a death of woe be yours … Evil and sorrow to the and thine!”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” The Best Psychic Stories 146

Delapore’s speech devolves from contemporary English (“Curse you, Thornton”) to Elizabethan English (“‘Sblood, thou stinkard”) to Old English (“wolde ye swynke” i.e. “would you belabor me like this?”) to Latin (“Magna Mater!” i.e “Great Mother”) to Gaelic (“Dia ad aghaidh”) and finally prehuman speech (“Ungl.”) As Lovecraft had no knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, he accidentally copied the spelling error (“aodaun” for “aodann”) in The Best Psychic Stories version of the text.

In Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” the speech is given not so much as a curse but as a deliberate insult by the eponymous Sin-Eater Neil Ross who is already, though he knows it not, doomed. There is something of a parallel to the two speeches in that regard: both men who speak it are destined to be consumed by madness, driven to their fate by old family sins and quite literal consumption. While it is probably too much to say that “The Sin-Eater” inspired “The Rats in the Walls,” it is likely that Lovecraft might have been struck by the parallels…and the bit of luck that put such an appropriate choice of phrase in his way.

The phrase and the story can only exist in the wider context of the Celtic Twilight, and of Sharp’s assumption of the literary identity of Fiona Macleod; the very focus on Celtic languages and culture which was the focus of Sharp’s purpose in writing and publishing as Macleod in turn directly led to Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert E. Howard, based on his awareness of and interest in Celtic languages and history.

An odd legacy for Fiona Macleod—yet perhaps oddly appropriate.

“The Sin-Eater” by Fiona Macleod can be read online for free here.


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

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist, humanist, social reformer, lecturer and writer. She was born in Connecticut, and spent much of her early life in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft’s home town. Like Lovecraft she had limited formal education, but was a prodigious autodidact. As with many of the more famous writers of his day, Lovecraft’s brush with Gilman was one-sided: his letters attest to an awareness of her work and as an individual, but her letters and diaries do not mention Lovecraft. His work, limited mostly to the pulps and the amateur press, either did not rise to her notice or did not merit comment.

At one point, however, there might have been a stronger connection:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is the sole fictional effort of the feminist & social worker Charlotte Perkins Gilman—whom, by the way, my mother knew in youth. It is a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness, & was included by William Dean Howells in his anthology of American Short Story masterpieces.
H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Jan 1927, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 31

My mother knew her well-since as plain Charlotte Perkins she used to be governess in the home of some friends of ours. Later her first husband was the Providence artist Stetson. She always had an affected, eccentric streak of self-conscious intellectuality.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

In 1883, Charlotte Anna Perkins was living in Providence, Rhode Island. She had been working as a teacher or tutor, and recounts:

I gave drawing lessons to a boy and a girl, the girl died, and the lonely little brother begged to have me come and stay with him. So I tried governessing, for ten weeks, and learned more about the servant question in that time than most of us ever find out.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 69

According to her letters, the clients were Dr. and Mrs. Jackson of Providence; the boy was Eddie. The 1880 census lists a Walter Marsh Jackson, physician; wife, Amelia (Amy) Jackson, daughter Isabel Jackson (died 1883, age 13), and son Edward P. Jackson. The Jacksons are buried in Swan Point Cemetery, where H. P. Lovecraft and the Phillips family are also buried.

Charlotte Perkins’ ten weeks as governess of Eddie began on 16 July 1883, and part of it was spent in Maine. Sarah Susan Phillips (1857-1921) in 1881 was living at the family home, 194 Angell St. The Jacksons are the most likely candidates for a mutual acquaintance with the future Mrs. Lovecraft, but Gilman’s letters of the period do not reference a Mrs. Phillips or her sisters—so the connection is tenuous. It is interesting to note that there are two surviving letters sent by Gilman from 207 Angell St., which is less 100 yards from the Phillips’ home, so it is not impossible that the then Charlotte Perkins and Susie Lovecraft might have met on the street, or had other acquaintances in common at the time.

Their lives diverged. In May 1884, Charlotte Perkins married her first husband, the Providence artist Charles Stetson. Their daughter Katharine Stetson was born eleven months later in 1885. Her periodic depressions deepened after the birth, and in April 1887 she broke down. Women’s medicine at the time was dominated by sexist attitudes; she submitted for a period to the “rest cure” of neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, but…well, as she puts it so elegantly:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long a I lived.” This was in 1897.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

I then, using the remnant of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work againwork, the normal life of every human being; work , in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was actually written in 1890, and finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and there is a degree of myth-making in some of Gilman’s later claims about the story, as explored by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow-Wallpaper” (2010), but that is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that by the time Lovecraft first mentions the story in his letters in 1926, “The Yellow Wallpaper” had already been established as a story of note.

Your plan for a weird bibliography is splendid, & I hope to see it carried into effect. Such a thing ought to include not only books but isolated tales in magazines as well; since some veritable masterpieces have never got beyond that form. Single tales in anthologies, also, (like Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in Howells’ collection) merit citation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Dec 1926, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 26

It’s not clear when Lovecraft first read the story, but starting in 1925 he began an intensive course of reading weird fiction to write his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), so it is possible he read it during that period. The anthology he mentions is The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (1920), edited by William Dean Howells. In his introduction, Howells writes of Gilman’s story:

It wanted at least two generations to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman’s story of The Yellow Wall Paper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire it was, I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed. (vii)

Lovecraft’s response is withering:

Am surprised that Howells was concerned in a venture like this, since ordinarily he was old-womanishly opposed to the really gruesome & terrible. He made an absurd apology for including Mrs. Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in an anthology he edited.
H. L. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1927, Essential Solitude 1.37

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft is generally positive about “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”. […]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in “The Yellow Wall Paper”, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.

Lovecraft’s interpretation is fair, but curious. Many readings, especially today, focus more on the “rest cure” aspect, and the suggestion of postpartum depression. The women’s horrors, as it were. Lovecraft’s reading focuses on the subtle suggestions that Gilman never makes explicit: why has this colonial manse gone untenanted so long? Who is the woman she sees in the wallpaper?—and comes to his own conclusion. He stops short of suggesting a haunting, and it seems he was aware that the focus was on the slowly devolving mindset of the protagonist, the creeping psychological horror—and writing to August Derleth a few years later, when Derleth was working on his thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a great tale, but to me it lacks just that final touch of “outsideness” necessary to make the top grade […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.265

My stand on cosmic outsideness, however, is likely to remain unchanged; for I feel that this element is eminently necessary to produce a macabre thrill of the very first water. “The Yellow Wall Paper” & “Shadows on the Wall” are excellent of their kind, but the sensation they produce is a tame & secondary one as compared with that produced by “The Willows”, “The White People”, “The House of Sounds”, or even (in my estimation, at least) “The Yellow Sign.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.268

Derleth differed:

The weird tale can, I believe, be divided into two rough classes—those hinting of cosmic evil and horror—and those only vaguely suggesting something beyond, something beyond the surface, the appearance, and range all the way from vague fright to utmost horror. You prefer the former group, to which we would according to this grouping, parcel such tales as The Yellow Sign, your Cthulhu et al[.] tales, the White People, etc.; I prefer the latter group, in which fall Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s tales, your own Rats in the Walls, Strange High House, my Panelled Room, etc., The Monkey’s Paw, The Yellow Wall Paper. And so on. The vast majority of the first-raters belong in this latter class.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 2.402

However, Derleth did take Lovecraft’s reading to heart:

The Yellow Wall Paper is the story of a woman who goes mad from the effect of hideously yellow wall paper in the room where she is convalescing, and where a mad-woman was once confined. The narrator, who is being urged to fight off the delusion that there is a woman trying to escape from behind the wall paper, enters gradually and subtly into the character of the imagined person; in reality this character, composed of forces left behind by the late madwoman, enters into her. Her husband does not realize the effect of the wall paper, nor does he regard the recent presence of the madwoman as significant. The story rises to a climax with startling subtlety, and the delineation of the approaching madness is classic. […]

There is something shudderingly horrible in the thought of this woman chronicling day by day her approaching madness, and remaining stolidly unaware of it all the time. Horror lies between the lines here, and the reader must read it in to get the full force of the story. […]

There is a suggestion of the “outside” [in The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers”], which neither The Yellow Wall Paper nor The Upper Berth [by F. Marion Crawford] carried […]
—August Derleth, “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890” in The Ghost (1945) 8-9

Neither Lovecraft nor Derleth denied the importance or the efficacy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a weird tale; Derleth himself borrowed heavily from Gilman when he wrote “The Panelled Room” (written 1930, published 1933). Both counted it an important tale worth mentioning in their respective overviews of weird fiction—and in this they were perhaps a little ahead of the game; while some classify “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic story, Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) does not list it; neither does Dorothy Scarborough in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). Both those women focused on supernatural horror, and as Lovecraft pointed out—”The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t quite that. The horror is more vague, indeterminate, and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in the narrator’s mind.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is weird. So what influence did it have on Lovecraft?

In terms of direct influence, it’s hard to say. There are definitely elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that jive with Lovecraft’s pet themes: the question of sanity, the descent into madness, the particular focus on angles—“The Dreams in the Witch-House” might owe at least a little debt to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Lovecraft himself, however, never offers any insights in this line. Savvy readers might point out that Gilman’s hotel in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Walter Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” which could be glancing references, but aside from the obvious pun in the case of Innsmouth, “Gilman” is also an old established New England name—Lovecraft might have been inspired by her, or not. He is silent on the matter.

Gilman’s novel Herland was not published until long after both their deaths, so from Lovecraft’s perspective, she had only a single weird tale to her credit:

In the case of general authors who have produced a little weird material, one has to use one’s own judgment. I would, in such cases, ask (a) how typical of this author is his weird stuff, & (b) all apart from this, how important is this weird material? […] I’d admit Mrs. Gilman for her one weird tale—”The Yellow Wall Paper”—because of its great importance, though it is wholly non-typical of her.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 396

There is little left to say. Lovecraft’s final word on Gilman concerns notice of her death. Suffering from breast cancer, she chose to take her own life with chloroform.

Too bad Mrs. Gilman bumped herself off—I was told of it in N Y, though I haven’t reached Aug. 17 as yet in my reading-up of back newspapers. […] Well—may she rest in peace!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

There are few enough women mentioned in Supernatural Horror in Literature; whether this reflected Lovecraft’s particular reading or any unspoken sexism on his part is unclear. Yet he went out of his way more than once in both that public essay and in his private letters to champion Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her weird tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”…and who can say that Gilman’s depiction of creeping madness did not strike a chord in Lovecraft, if the memory of the story stayed with him all those years?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read for free online here.

Thanks to Donovan Loucks and Dave Goudsward for their help.


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

“The Tulu Jar” (2000) by Ann K. Schwader

Of one thing I am really glad, and that is that I could not then identify the squatting octopus-headed thing which dominated most of the ornate cartouches, and which the manuscript called “Tulu”. Recently I have associated it, and the legends in the manuscript connected with it, with some new-found folklore of monstrous and unmentioned Cthulhu, a horror which seeped down from the stars while the young earth was still half-formed; and had I known of the connexion then, I could not have stayed in the same room with the thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

In “Winged Death” it is Clulu; in “Medusa’s Coil” it is “Marse Clooloo”; in “The Electric Executioner” it is “Cthulhutl”—and in “The Mound” it is “Tulu.” Different names for the same concept, the same entity. Variations on a theme. One of humanity’s great gifts is pattern recognition, and one of Lovecraft’s great insights in writing those first Mythos stories was to recognize the tendency of weird fiction fans to correlate the contents. This was part of the game that Lovecraft played with his readers: giving them the pieces of the puzzle and letting them put it together.

Despite the variations on the same name, Lovecraft never wrote a full comparison of how different cultures perceived Cthulhu. The names alone suggest a signal-to-noise ratio; the oral tradition like a long game of telephone down the ages, bits of lore garbled, misunderstood, mistranslated, subject to reinterpretation. However, they also represent possibility. Maybe there isn’t just one canon, one truth. Maybe there are a lot of different ways to look at Cthulhu…and absent the original article, who is to say which is more correct than any other?

“The Tulu Jar” by Ann K. Schwader plays on misunderstandings & mistranslations. The audience knows who or what Tulu is, and thus has a bit more of an inkling of what is going on than the characters in the story. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward, the effectiveness is measured in how the revelations build and develop. There are things the reader never finds out, mysteries that are not explained—because they don’t need to be.

The name is the only thing that connects “The Tulu Jar” to “The Mound,” the only tie between Schwader’s story and Yig Country. In all other respects, “The Tulu Jar” could just as easily have been “The Cthulhu Jar” and stood next to works like “Something in Wood” (1948) by August Derleth, or as an appendix to Lin Carter’s Xothic Legend Cycle. One more horror in clay, one more work of Mythos artwork to sit alongside the masterpieces of Pickmans and Wilcoxes.

So why Tulu?

In part perhaps because it implies mistranslation, incompleteness, something different. Cthulhu makes no appearance in the story; Miskatonic University and Arkham are mentioned but far-off, and no one consults the Necronomicon. Using “Tulu” instead of “Cthulhu” tells the reader that those involved do not know what they’re dealing with. Quite literally dabbling with forces they don’t understand…and that works, in the context of the story.

Speaking of which…there is an anecdote about this story that bears repeating:

By the way, there really is a Tulu jar! Ann and her husband bought an art object at a Denver scifi con entitled Cthulhu Scroll Case. They bought it before the actual art sale, but then the lid was vandalized while the piece was still on display. She tells me that the artist offered to make it right by making another lid, which he subsequently did, but Ann was understandably upset nonetheless. As she put it, “a little literary justice seemed in order”, and the result was this story. The sculpture still holds a place of honor on a shelf in her office. Ann describes it as “wonderfully nasty-looking”, but in reality it looks nothing like the jar in the story.
—Kevin O’Brien, Strange Stars & Alien Shadows 1

“The Tulu Jar” was first published in Chronicles of the Cthulhu Codex #17 (2000) and subsequently republished in The Black Book #3 (2003), and Strange Stars & Alien Shadows: The Dark Fiction of Ann K. Schwader (2003).


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

Her Letters to Lovecraft: Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom

In 1934, H. P. Lovecraft traveled down the Eastern seaboard of the United States by bus to Florida, where he visited with R. H. Barlow and his family in DeLand for some weeks. While on this trip, Lovecraft sent out dozens of postcards to familiar correspondents like his aunt Annie Gamwell, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Farnsworth Wright, Zealia Bishop, and Natalie H. Wooley—we have a list in the Collected Essays, “[List of Correspondents to Whom Postcards Have Been Sent]” identifying who got cards from where—and near the bottom of the list, receiving postcards from St. Augustine, DeLand, and Nantucket, is “Blossom.” (Collected Essays 5.267) In Lovecraft’s 1937 diary, a “J E C Blossom, 117 Church St., Rutland, Vt” is given among the list of addresses; Lovecraft scholar Ken Faig identifies this individual:

Josephine E. Crane Blossom was born 17 July 1861, Mayatta KS, and died 4 January 1952, Rutland VT. In the 1900 U.S. census, she was recorded in Shrewsbury, Rutland Count, VT in the household of her husband William R. Blossom, born April 1854 VT of VT-born parents, a physician. THey had then been married twenty-one years and Josephine was the mother of seven children, of whom five were then living all of them in the paternal household: Elsie C. (b. August 1885 VT), Ethel C. (b. March 1889 VT), Fay E. (b. August 1890 KS), Franklin O. (b. August 1890 KS), and Wilhelmina J. (b. August 1896 VT). Josephine Blossom was active as a poet in amateur journalism. (Lovecraft Annual #6 165)

No letters or cards from J. E. C. Blossom/H. P. Lovecraft correspondence are known to survive, so Lovecraft’s list is the only remaining evidence that testifies that they were in touch by mail; Blossom’s activity in amateur journalism is the one suggestion for why they might be in touch. The rest of Lovecraft’s published letters do not mention a Josephine Blossom directly…however, this is one letter in 1934 which may have bearing on their relationship:

Nor do I grudge old Ma Blossom of Vermont (a professional client) the newspaper praise of “her” verse which is giving zest to her sunset days.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 179-180

This is the only direct mention of Blossom as one of Lovecraft’s revision clients; although S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz believe this is the individual alluded to in W. Paul Cook’s memoir of Lovecraft during one anecdote of Lovecraft’s efforts at revising the poetry of others:

A woman, very earnest, very soulful, writing by the yard but unable to achieve anything printable. All of a sudden, in a fair eruption of glory, she began to get into print here, there, and everywhere. Editors, instead of rejection slips, returned requests for more. I was puzzled. This stuff was too good for her to do. One day, in a purely incidental manner and in connection with something else, the secret slipped out. She commenced to suffer from enlargement of the ego, vulgarly called “Swelled head.” Why should she pay a revisionist when she was some poet all by herself. Accordingly, she dropped Lovecraft, neglecting, if not refusing, to pay his last fee. No more of her work appeared in print. In time something or other penetrated her consciousness, and it was in a state of considerable deflation that she sent Howard what she owed him together with a mass of manuscript. The manuscript came back, unrevised, with a note to the effect that Mr. Lovecraft was so busy, and would be for the next nine months, that he was unable to advise about her work. The deflation continues to all this day. So far as I know, she never published another poem. How do I know all this? Not from Lovecraft, although he later conceded enough to furnish proof.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 75

Cook is not always the most reliable of reporters, and in this anecdote he frankly admits that he’s working to a degree from speculation and inference—but there are some interesting facts that might support part of his anecdote. In November 1931, Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom began to have her poems published in the Rutland Daily Herald, and the poems received lavish praise including from Lovecraft’s friend Walter J. Coates, an amateur journalist who published The Driftwind, which included some of Lovecraft’s own work. The article of 9 November 1931 would end:

We can say, in addition, that Mrs. Blossom, who is now 70 years old, is still composing verse and we have before us another contribution in her own handwriting, which shows many characteristics of the foregoing “Autumn,” which is, as our experts have said, something of a masterpiece.

Have we, by chance, been living along side of a real genius?

It really looks that way.

In 1932, Blossom’s poetry becomes much more scarce in the newspaper, and the praise dries up—although Cook appears to be wrong, and she was published again, periodically. Did Lovecraft revise her poetry? If so, one of the pieces he may have had a hand in is “Dream World,” published 23 Nov 1931:

Dream World

Through dust and quiet comes the dawn-like glow
Of visioned vistas gay with roseate light;
Gardens more beautiful than we can ever know,
With fadeless flowers and golden fruitage bright.

Across dim twilight seas of fragrant dreams
A white ship bears us soundless to that shore,
Moved by the wordless music-hinting streams
Of soft, still winds that purple skies outpour.

Green banks expand with calm, Hesperian grace
And latent wonder beckons and revives;
Here may we shed the last encumbering trace
Of pains and cares that weight our waking lives.

The sunlit fields are starred with asphodels;
The forests echo to an endless song
Beyond the plains a violet mountain swells,
While in bright valleys brooklets wind along.

A world unspoiled, that shapes us all anew
As down its leaf-lined path our spirits stray:
How longs the heart to hold it clear in view.
And glean the joys of its eternal day!

Interested readers might compare this prose with Blossom’s later published work, such as “The Last Act” in the Rutland Daily Herald for 22 Sep 1943. Lovecraft himself downplayed the extant or quality of his poetry revision work:

Really, of course, the boost given to these old souls is very trivial. After all, one merely makes their jingles technically acceptable. The basic inanity remains, & no really exactly critic takes the doggerel seriously even when it is revised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 180

If it is the case that Lovecraft revised J. E. C. Blossom’s poetry, then their lost correspondence must have included at least discussion on that issue, and possibly something more on amateur affairs. Sadly, we don’t know how that impacted her…seventy years of age, homemaker and mother and wife, getting her poetry published in the newspapers along with rather lavish praise…and here in the mail comes postcards from Florida and Nantucket from her friend H. P. Lovecraft to brighten her day. That he continued to send her cards in itself suggests that it was still a friendship, whether or not there was a business end to it.

Thanks to Dave Goudsward for his help and assistance on the elusive Mrs. Blossom.


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

“Taste of the Snake’s Honey” (2005) by Rio Matsudono (松殿理央)

“Taste of the Snake’s Honey” (2005) by Rio Matsudono (松殿理央) was published in the second volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 novella 蛇蜜 (Hebi Mitsu); the translator was Erin S. Brodhead.

Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of Yig. In “The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, this nature is implicit: the curse of Yig is that Aubrey Davis bears children with snake-like characteristics. While at least one critic claimed this was a story of maternal impression, the impression usually given was that Yig raped her, presaging to some degree the connection between Yog-Sothoth and Lavinia Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror.” The aspect of Yig as a sexual deity was affirmed in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft as “the principle of life symbolised as the Father of all Serpents.”

In writing that, Lovecraft might have been inspired by contemporary ideas that ancient serpent deities represented phallic cults, as discussed in O. A. Wall’s Sex and Sex Worship (1922); this was a book that Robert E. Howard owned, and Howard mentioned phallic worship in at least one letter to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.87). A few later authors have taken the general idea of the Father of Serpents as a masculine deity of virility and run with it; occultists like Kenneth Grant have incorporated Yig into their system as an aspect of masculine sexual power, representing the “Ophidian Current” in his Typhonian Trilogies.

Sex presents certain difficulties for translation; the language of sex is usually either dryly technical (penis, vagina, anus, etc.) or extremely idiomatic or euphemistic (rod, Johnson, 69, French letter, salad tossing, etc.), and sexual slang varies by region, language, culture, and period—compare the language in The Merry Order of St. Bridget (1857) to something like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, and it’s easy to see that while it covers some of the same thematic ground, the language and cultural syntax have shifted drastically. Trying to write period-appropriate sexual language is tricky enough, translating it in such a way that it retains the essence of its meaning for an audience doubly so…and that’s before you try to work the Mythos into it.

This is all necessary ground to cover because “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” is one of the relatively scarce Mythos works which contains a great deal of sexual matter, but isn’t really erotic in any significant sense. The best comparable work is probably Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” (1989), which follows a young libertine seeking admission into a Mythos cult through increasingly deviant sexual acts, but both that story and this one are ultimately a more explicit version of the decadent pleasure-seekers in Lovecraft’s “The Hound”—the idea being that libido sciendi, the desire to know, the quest for forbidden knowledge applies equally well to sexual knowledge as it does to, say, advanced mathematics and occultism (cf. “The Dreams in the Witch-House”).

Sometimes this is very explicitly the case, such as in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein, but in the case of Rio Matsudono, it’s more of a barometer to let readers know that the ambient sexual morality of the tale is falling fast, and as the Lovecraftian protagonist slides from receiving fellatio from women who had had all their teeth removed to necrophilia, the novella is really just getting started.

Which is all on purpose: the acts given are almost dry in their description, which might be a translation issue (see above; imagine trying to write 1930s-period sexual decadence to a 2000s-contemporary Japanese audience, and then imagine trying to translate that into English for a completely different audience) but likely also because the purpose of the acts is not to titillate or tantalize but to transgress, to provoke a degree of rejection and outrage at the breaking of taboos. The actual acts themselves aren’t dwelt on until we get to the literal climax of the story, because the author isn’t trying to get you off, or go into horrorporn territory with microscopic detail a la Edward Lee’s Hardcore Lovecraft novels like Going Monstering.

For “The Taste of the Snake’s Honey,” sex isn’t the revelation, it’s the initiation.

What the reader and the protagonist are initiated into is another question. Rio Matsudono’s novella is a direct expansion on the lore of Yig, and the straightforward lore dumps are maybe at the expense of the story itself. Like with The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), there’s an effort to at least draw parallels between an aspect of Lovecraft’s Mythos with Chinese folklore…and the parallels work fine; the exposition is a little heavy at points, but that’s pretty common in Lovecraftian pastiches. What the story lacks, aside from a certain prosody, is a direct explanation for what drove the sexual decadence of the protagonist in the first place…unless you understand and appreciate Yig’s role as a fundamentally sexual entity to begin with.

So much of this novella is stated bluntly or outright that some of the subtextual implications and assumptions can be easily lost. The protagonist’s sexual activities aren’t portrayed as mental illness or learned practices; they’re the result of natural inclinations—or, maybe, supernatural ones. Nature winning out over nurture. At the same time those sexual desires and activities appear to have nothing to do with the final resolution of the plot: they led the narrator protagonist to the point of revelation, but aside from plot fiat there was no reason that these specific revelations had to happen in this way. A surface read of this story might suggest that Rio Matsudono wanted to deliberately shock the reader, but the apparent conflict can be resolved by thinking of Yig and his children as driven by inhuman appetites.

He was not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children, the serpents; but in the autumn he became abnormally ravenous, and had to be driven away by means of suitable rites.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig”

Suppose these appetites are analogous to the strange hankerings of a pregnant woman? Suppose the hungers for strange flesh, and blood, and wild venturings way over the borders of sane sexuality are a reaching out for ultramundane fare, the pickles and ice cream of the alien soul coming to birth within the confines of a human life that is only a womb for that which gestates inside, increasingly making its presence known?
—introduction to “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” in Inverted Kingdom 113-114

The introduction to “The Taste of Snake’s Honey” spotlights the issue for reader, although like all good warnings to the curious, the full implications aren’t necessarily clear until after the novella is finished. Then the story can be seen in the theme of “Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan—a changeling or puberty story, where the old self is shed to make way for the new, adult form.

If read from this angle, the sexual deviations from the beginning of the story are not just there to shock the reader, but as deliberate steps in a process of development. The sexual pleasures being sought are increasingly strange and terrible by human standards because what the protagonist is being prepared to mate with is nothing human. It’s a rationalization which resolves some of the apparent conflicts in the story, such as why the narrator feels their behaviors are different from those of decadent humans who engage in the same or similar practices like teratophilia or necrophilia.

A point of view which potentially has interesting implications if applied to some of the other entities in the Cthulhu Mythos, especially those that pass for human, or whose cults engage in proscribed sexual practices.


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

“The Head of T’la-yub” (2015) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas

We came to the Mictlán, the place of the dead, which the ancient people called Xinaián […]
—”The Head of T’la-yub” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, trans. Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Most of “The Mound” is given as a story-within-a-story: the English translation of the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, gentleman, of Luarca in Asturias, Concerning the Subterranean World of Xinaián, A. D. 1545. Few of the Aztec codices have survived the flames and floods, the mold and wear of centuries of hands; we today often read about the peoples and places they encountered through accounts like Zamacona’s…who being their own skewed, flawed interpretation of what they see and witnessed of ways of life and belief of which they knew little, and could only understand through the lens of their own religion, politics, philosophy, and experience.

Which is a long way to say: no one has tried to tell the story from T’la-yub’s point of view.

In Lovecraft’s narrative via Zamacona, T’la-yub is a tragic figure. She dared to love, dared to dream of a monogamous union, and the subject of her affections determined only to put her aside as soon as convenient. For her transgressions in the name of romance, she is doomed to mutilation, death, and then undeath. T’la-yub is one of the ghosts of the mound, the dead woman who holds her head, facing eternal punishment for a momentary infraction.

There’s something very Christian about that interpretation, isn’t there? Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas flips the script. What if Zamacona didn’t understand what was happening? What if he misconstrued his place and importance in the sequence of events?

As with her other stories “Tloque Nahuaque” (2011)“Ahuizotl” (2011), and “In Xochitl in Cuicatl in Shub-Niggurath” (2014), “The Head of T’la-yub” mixes elements of the Mythos was Aztec mythology. Instead of the more Pellucidar-esque elements of Lovecraft’s alien civilization beneath the earth, the focus is on T’la-yub’s personal spiritual and physical journey, here modeled on the descent of the dead to Mictlán, the growth of her understanding as to what she has become and what her role is. The result is brief, but novel: a new way to look at this aspect of the “Mesoamerican Mythos,” taking Lovecraft not at face value, but as one interpretation of events told through a very European lens.

Which doesn’t mean that Lovecraft was wrong and García-Rosas is right; the point of the story is not to disprove Lovecraft or point out sources of error, but to provide a new viewpoint that suggests that the picture is much more richly complex than Lovecraft himself gives it. Where works like Winter Tide (2017) by Ruthanna Emrys takes “The Mound” at more or less face value, or The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健) that takes the basic ideas but moves in its own direction, “The Head of T’la-yub” is essentially an alternative narrative of “The Mound”—and readers can put on their scholar’s caps, read up on Aztec mythology, and decide for themselves where the balance of truth lies.

“The Head of T’la-yub” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas was translated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and was first published in She Walks in Shadows (2015); it was republished in the paperback edition Cthulhu’s Daughters (2016).


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