“Red Stars/White Snow/Black Metal” (2018) by Fiona Maeve Geist

The comments frequently contain the cryptic couplet:

The wallowing darkness of rutting pigs
Suckling at the teat of a stillborn goddess

—Fiona Maeve Geist, “Red Stars/White Snow/Black Metal” in Ashes and Entropy 133

The weft of the story is built on the bones of Cyclonopedia: Complicity With Anonymous Materials and Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal UndergroundThere are threads of Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson in the warp, though nothing so garish as a direct callout to “The Rats in the Walls” or “The Hog.” Mostly, it is dense ideas fired at machine-gun speed but with great precision, perforating the paper targets of a pretty fundamental premise:

  • What if Black Metal got into something properly Lovecraftian?

Which is not to say that metal hasn’t already gotten pretty Lovecraftian at times, with everyone from Arkham Witch to Innzmouth, Morbid Angel to Nox Arcana getting in on the act. Bands have named themselves after Shub-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth, and the Lovecraftian influence spreads across genres, from the 70s psychedelic band H. P. Lovecraft to the punkish Rudimentary Peni to the rocking Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. All that really binds them together is Lovecraft.

Black metal, though, has a certain appeal. While getting a little long in the tooth, it has always been a subculture that sought certain extremes, reveled in rebellion, wrestled with the consequences. Which is probably why Geist wisely doesn’t look to name-drop actual Lovecraftian metal bands, instead building a new mythology and symbolism for her protagonist to pursue. One that marks itself with ouroboros of twined maggots and the face of a corpulent sow.

Geist’s protagonist Kelsey is a journalist in the way Arturo Perez Reverte’s Lucas Corso from The Club Dumas is a book detective. Someone puts them on assignment, gives them money and tells them to sniff it out like a good truffle-hunter. It’s a classic plotline which has worked for everyone from William Gibson on down, and Geist makes good use of it. In the words of one famous journalist:

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt 530

So much for the “Black Metal” of the title; the “Red Stars” gets into the Marxist connections of the Brotherhood of the Black, Corpulent Sow, the weird connections that metal music has had with politics over in Europe. This is closer to Cyclonopedia or Charles Stross’ Laundry Files than most anything else in the Lovecraftian milieu; old conspiracy theories, shades of cyberpunk, the occult underground of the Cold War gently unraveling in the present day.

This isn’t a mystery that you need a key to, although at least a passing familiarity to the bones of what the characters are referring to and experiencing certainly help. As prose goes it’s fairly dense, but there’s a texture to it. New flesh on old bones; the ending isn’t particularly surprising, but neither is it unsatisfying. Mythos readers often like works like this, spiritual heirs of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the search for something leads to a personal transformation or transfiguration.

“Red Stars/White Snow/Black Metal” was published in Ashes and Entropy (2018), it has not yet been reprinted. With Sadie Shurberg she wrote the essay “Correlating the Contents of Lovecraft’s Closet” in Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 3 (2019).


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

 

Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Some of the trustees were still unhappy, but Christine’s stunning find of the tomb of the Black Pharoah Nephren-ka had commanded headlines across the globe.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 14

1897. Somewhere between Boston and Providence lies the small city of Widdershins, a quiet place where a man can start over…at least until the Liber Arcanorum drops into the lap of a closeted translator of dead languages and the bodies start piling up. Nothing like an unexpected mystery to bring two people together.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins (2013) is an historical paranormal romance with two little twists: the world is set in the same country as Lovecraft’s Mythos (Dr. Whyborne even went to college at Arkham), and the protagonists are two homosexual men. It may, in fact, be the first homosexual Mythos romance novel—somewhat of a weird distinction to make, but previous Mythos romance novels like Margaret L. Carter’s The Windwalker’s Mate (2008) and Robin Wolfe’s Arkham Dreams (2011) were focused on heterosexual relationships, and homosexual characters and relationships remain rather rare in the Mythos by comparison. The closest comparable work in the field is probably “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman.

The depictions of the men and the challenges they face are sympathetic; the construction of the setting is very competent. Hawk does their research:

A: But the research into the period!! How much did you actually do to capture the period as well as the paranormal element?

JLH: As much as I can! I have a replica Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 so I could figure out what sorts of goods and furnishings an average person in the period would have in their home. And I managed to find plans for middle class homes and hotels of the era online, which was a major boon.

My biggest problems research-wise actually came from the American setting. Casually glancing over the history section, you’d think America in the 1800s was nothing but the Civil War, followed up by the western expansion. At times it wasn’t easy to find out about the day to day life of people living in the northeast, especially if I needed something really specific. Most of the “daily life” books of the period center on Victorian England rather than Gilded Age America, and although there is some overlap, there are a lot of differences beyond drinking coffee versus tea.
Author Interview: Jordan L. Hawk

The Mythos elements are also rather refreshingly grounded: Arkham and the Necronomicon and all exist, but to the majority of the world (and the two protagonists), they are but part of the setting. The protagonists only discover gradually that there are secret cults about and some brands of paranormal science actually work, if you know how to pronounce the Aklo. Once that is established, given an expert in dead languages and a genuine grimoire, progress is fairly rapid.

The tone established falls somewhere between Cthulhu by Gaslight and Lois H. Gresh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions (2017); magic exists, there’s a mystery afoot, and by chapter 7 the two principals have met and teamed up to solve it. As they continue through the adventure, the two grow closer; the common goal, trials, and tribulations provide the crisis for both men to open up, commiserate, empathize, and grow fond of one another.

“Damn it, Griffin, fuck me,” I growled.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 152

There is a sex scene. Not a weird one; no naughty tentacles or atypical anatomies. It is no more or less than the same kind of scene that would appear, without comment, in any number of other novels; only the genders of the particulars are different. That in itself is almost exemplary of the attitude of the novel as a whole: the book is not a homosexual pornographic novel. There is more hanging between Whyborne & Griffin that Victorian reticence, personal and social boundaries that have to be overcome and guards let down; readers who just want to see the two get together have to wait for it.

Then there’s the small matter of saving the world.

While not written in a pulp style, there’s a pulpish appeal to Widdershins. The stakes rise like something in an Indiana Jones film, the protagonists have to take into account all the possibilities that magic and the Mythos bring to their setting, and there’s an action scene at least every couple of chapters to keep the pace up. The characters, even beyond the two protagonists, have their own motivations and hangups. The best supporting character is Dr. Christine Putnam, an archaeologist that has fought an uphill battle her entire professional life because of her gender—and succeeded. Her desire to retain her hard-won reputation almost gets her killed, but that’s all the more endearing.

Searchers after horror will have to haunt stranger places than Widdershins to find what they’re looking for, but it is a well-written novel in its own mode of historical paranormal romance. It never descends into any attempt to ape Lovecraft’s style like a bad pastiche, nor does it hold slavishly to the tropes of a roleplaying game. Hawk refers to Lovecraft’s setting, but she makes few direct references to any particular story so the story is fairly accessible to the lay reader—which is also rather rare for a Mythos novel.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins is the first in the Whyborne & Griffin series, which as of 2018 includes a total of 13 novels and novellas.


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

 

“H. P. Lovecraft” (1937) by Elizabeth Toldridge

He calls us not (as modern craftsmen do)

To scenes attained, where sin’s hideous scars

On human souls are gilded—no—but to

The far, pure, foamy glaxies of stars!

Terrors he brings and things not known before

From lone and dismal haunts of old dead suns.

Yet are our spirits outward-drawn—to soar

Through vastnesses where a stainless Wonder runs!

—”H. P. Lovecraft” by Elizabeth Toldridge, Leaves #1 (Summer 1937)

Elizabeth Augusta Toldridge was a poet, who had worked as a clerk for the U. S. government, and the author of two books of poetry: The Soul of Love (1910) and Mother’s Love Songs (1911). She sold fiction and poetry, sometimes under her own name and sometimes under the name of her father, Barnet Toldridge. (Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 8)

In the letters of H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Catherine Lucille Moore was sometimes “sister Kate”—and Elizabeth Toldridge was “Aunt Lizzy.” (O Fortunate Floridian! 360) And to Toldridge herself, Lovecraft was “Judge.” Lovecraft had first encountered Toldridge’s verse in 1924 when he was enlisted as a judge for a poetry contest, in which she was an entrant. They finally began a correspondence when Toldridge wrote to Lovecraft about the contest in 1928, and they would continue to write to one another until 1937 and Lovecraft’s death. (LETAR 7) Barlow, who would be named Lovecraft’s literary executor, visited Toldridge in her home in Washington, D.C. in 1934 and 1936, and she received copies of his amateur publications such as the Dragon-Fly.

Lovecraft and Barlow encouraged Toldridge to submit her poetry for publication, and to join the National Amateur Press Association, of which they were both members. Some of her poetry was published in the same amateur journals where Barlow and Lovecraft’s work was published. In 1934, she proposed a collection of poetry for publication to Alfred A. Knopf with the title Winnings, with Lovecraft’s support, but it did not come to fruition.

In late 1936, Barlow commenced gathering material for a new amateur periodical titled Leaves, which consisted of material from Lovecraft and his circle of friends and correspondents: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, etc. Most of these were incidentals: unsold manuscripts from the pulps, bits of poetry or prose, some of them taken from Lovecraft’s letters. The first issue, published after Lovecraft’s death, contained two poems by Elizabeth Toldridge: “Ephemera” and “H. P. Lovecraft.”

Nothing is known about the writing of “H. P. Lovecraft.” Given the subject and the date of publication, it is likely a memorial piece written in the event of Lovecraft’s death, but it is also possible that Toldridge intended it as a living tribute to her dear friend and correspondent of nine years. She had already written one such work “Divinity,” which she had sent to Lovecraft in 1929. (LETAR 78, 396)

“H. P. Lovecraft” is certainly a tribute to the “cosmic horror” which Lovecraft championed in their letters and his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It also touches on one of the great effects that Toldridge had on Lovecraft:

[…] it is clear that his correspondence with Toldridge strongly influenced his atempts to avoid artificial diction and to cultivate greater expression of imagery and emotion, all while loosening his former draconian strictures of versification.
—S. T. Joshi, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 8

While it may be too much to say that without Toldridge there would be no “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet-cycle, it is apparent that the correspondence was a broadening influence for both of them: Lovecraft to focus more on content than form, and Toldridge opened to the world of weird fiction. As an homage, “H. P. Lovecraft” definitely showcases that admiration and appreciation for the weird imagination.

“H. P. Lovecraft” was first published in Leaves #1 (Summer 1937), and republished in Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw (Hippocampus Press, 2014).


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